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A new month and the start of a new personal decade. A time for new beginnings and a time for letting go of old habits. A time for looking forward and believing that much more lies ahead. A time to dare to be bold and seize the moment. A time to value upwards those things in life that make a positive difference. A time for bringing together all that has been achieved to date and building upon it in the sure knowledge that only by facing the future with an open heart and an open heart will life itself deliver.
They say that youth is wasted on the young. Maybe; maybe not. I think thereís a lot to be said for youthful naivety and the illusion that life will go on forever. More pertinently I believe that cynicism is the lazy cop-out of the middle aged. Sitting today with my 95 year old mother it occurred to me that at 50, in some eyes I am still little more than a young upstart. Iím fit, healthy and I still have so much more ahead of me. Youth is, amongst other things, a state of mind I donít wish to forego.
She sits in her room so quietly and still. When I smile and take her gnarled, frail hand in mine she gazes absently back. When I suggest she smile the faintest hint of one flickers briefly across her face, only to fade again as she forgets why sheís smiling. Thereís no sadness anymore, no sense of raging against the injustice of it all. It just is. She sits, hour upon hour, gazing up into thin air. Where she is in her own internal world, who can fathom? Itís like sheís looking at something, but it isnít anything visible to me.
Her name is Ruby and sheís in the room next to Mum. Every year Iíve come back sheís a little frailer yet her extraordinary beauty remains. Her husband George tells me with a sad, accepting air that she has very little time left. As I hold her shaking hand she gazes up at me, recognizing my face and clearly appreciative of my presence. I smile back at her and tell her that she is as beautiful as ever. She tries to articulate words but that skill has pretty much deserted her now. So we simply hold hands and smile knowingly.
Mum was 90 when I was 45. At the time we mused at how she was exactly twice my age. She still had all her faculties back then and we marvelled at how well sheíd fared to have reached such an exalted age. True, there were tell-tale signs of dementia even then but they were minor enough not to warrant undue focus. We were still able to reminisce on the past and talk about things in a shared and intelligible manner. I think thatís what scares us most about getting very old, the loss of ability for shared human interaction.
I left Adelaide at the end of 1990 and for many years thereafter used to feel like I was putting on an old outworn jacket whenever I went back. In recent years my opinion of the city has changed somewhat. The very things I used to hold against it are the things I now identify as its charm. Itís a small but elegant city cradled between the hills and the sea. It has a Mediterranean climate, a thriving arts community and a small but sophisticated population. All in all, it wasnít such a bad place to have grown up in.
I have four sisters, one of whom Iíd not seen for 21 years until we met up in Adelaide this week. It seems strange perhaps to think that so much time could go by without seeing each other but given that she lives in North Queensland, some 2,000 miles from Melbourne and 12,000 miles from London, from an Australian perspective itís not too difficult to fathom. And yet in many ways it seems like only yesterday. Time is a strange phenomenon that can sometimes irreversibly change relationships in unforeseen ways while leaving others relatively unchanged, as it was for us.
Saying goodbye to my mother was surprisingly angst free and devoid of sadness. There are only so many times you can say farewell with the sure knowledge that it may be your last before you become immune to the sadness. The fact of the matter is the woman who was my mother departed long ago leaving a frail shell of the person she once was. If that sounds cold it isnít meant to. I smiled, stroked her face and kissed her. I said Iíd call her soon. I said goodbye for now and she replied in kind. Such is life.
Time can really change things. Wandering around St. Kilda this afternoon I found myself trying to reconnect to a place that used to mean so much to me. It was a pleasant enough day but I realised itís going to take a while to recover that special bond I once felt for this city when we return to live here for good. To be sure, there is still a real fondness for the place but my trips back each year have prompted a range of conflicting responses that illustrate the way our lives and priorities shift and change over time.
If Iím honest with myself, left to my own devices I wouldnít be moving back to Melbourne, which is no reflection on Melbourne. By any measure itís a great city. Itís just that my life is in London now and the thought of leaving it to come back here is a complicated one. Itís complicated because in a relationship one cannot make unilateral decisions about such things as what country one chooses to live in. It has to be a shared one. The irony is I felt the same way about coming to London, yet Iím so glad we did.
Being open to the dreams and aspirations of another is one of lifeís great pleasures, not to mention adventures. There are days when I imagine what it would be like to be single again with all the freedom and choice that I would then have. I could live where I want, do what I want, be who I want. And yet, in the fifteen plus years that I have been hitched I have been more adventurous, more confident and more out there than I ever was when I was single precisely because itís been a shared rather than solitary journey.
For as far back as I can recall I never wanted to be single. Thatís not to say Iíve wanted to submerge myself in the identity of another or that I necessarily felt something lacking in myself. I am very comfortable in my own skin and with my own company. I actively seek time alone where I can be with my own thoughts and if I wasnít able to do that Iíd literally go nuts. But Iím also the kind of person who needs to be in relationship with a significant other and I didnít rest until Iíd found it.
The older I get the more in awe I am of how we all tread the same path. We were all once children. We all have dreams and aspirations. We all pass through our teenage years and emerge into adulthood. When I was much younger I imagined that once youíd reached a certain age youíd somehow arrived, fully formed into the world of grownups. I hadnít reckoned on the various stages of adulthood: the young adults who aspire to greatness, the old adults who look back on all that was, and the likes of me stuck here in the middle.
People say they never want to get old. Not that we have much choice in the matter: a visit to any local nursing home provides confirmation enough of that. Perhaps what we mean is we donít want to become irrelevant, which speaks of our need as to feel related to others and to the world in general. And while we sometimes speak of wanting to run away and leave it all behind us, perhaps when we do weíre a bit like kids who run on ahead of their parents, only to turn around to check that theyíre still in sight.
Iíve spent the last couple of days in rural Victoria where for the first time in a while Iím reconnecting with the idea of moving back here. Iíve always felt a connection with the Australian countryside, both the gentler farming areas and the more rugged outback regions. Thereís something exhilarating about being where thereís so much open space and so few people. The very air itself feels free of all the psychic noise of the thronging masses of the city and one has room to think in a way that is quite different to sitting in a cafť in London.
Itís so quiet in the countryside. There are no taxis, and no double-decker buses rumbling past the bedroom window; no wailing sirens or faulty burglar alarms piercing the evening air; no drunken altercations taking place on the street below. What there is, apart from the occasional scraping of a possum on the roof, is peace and quiet. It can be a little unnerving if youíre not used to it. Thereís a tendency to cough or make a sound of some sort just to reassure yourself you havenít gone deaf. Best of all, the quality of uninterrupted sleep is absolutely divine.
Getting around Melbourne without a car can be challenging, especially when one is based way out in Chelsea. I read recently that Melbourne is the eighth most sprawling city in the world. Exactly what that means Iím not sure but it certainly suggests how far it spreads. If you live in the inner city itís not such an issue but trying to get around to visit architects and then trek back and forth to see examples of their work is proving to be demanding in terms of the time spent on public transport.
Maybe I should have hired a car.
With little more than 24 hours to go until I leave Iím really hanging out for London. For all that itís been a demanding few weeks itís been good to reconnect with friends and family again. Such relationships are really important to me. Nonetheless I find myself yearning for our little flat, our own bed and the company of my partner. I feel the pull of the city I have come to call home for the last few years with its parks, its gracious architecture and the life I have made there. In short, Iím hanging out to go home.
ďHello Mr. Abraham!"
Iím in the departure lounge of Tullamarine Airport and an attractive young woman is smiling broadly at me. I recognise the face immediately, though I need a little help with the name. Itís an old student of mine from Melbourne. She herself is a teacher now, heading back by way of Singapore to Dubai where she has been based for the past two years. Itís a chance encounter that puts a huge smile on my face and reminds me of how we pass through lifeís many stages, emerging as new people in new roles with new capacities.
I have arrived back in London with an atrocious head cold and a weariness I couldnít have foreseen this time yesterday. Itís as though my body has just made it over the finishing line and is now determined to shut up shop for a while. All I want to do is crawl into bed and remain there for the next two weeks while the rest of the world goes about its business without me. The irony is I found myself laughing at a few hapless souls I saw wearing face masks at Changi Airport.
Did they know something I didnít?
I spent the day in bed today. Not our comfortable shared bed, but the one in the spare room. I figured thereís no point in passing such misery on. My head aches, my ears are blocked, my nose is a tap and now itís moving into my throat. Only the absence of a temperature convinces me I havenít contracted Swine Flu, although the body aches might suggest otherwise. I know I was looking forward to some restful down time but I hadnít quite bargained on this.
I think Iím going to become very familiar with this bed over the weekend.
I canít recall the last time I spent the day in bed because of illness. Actually, thatís not entirely true. I do remember having the measles as a boy. I must have been around six or seven. Andy Williamsís ĎWatch the Girls Go Byí was in the charts because it was constantly on the radio. I remember looking at my face all covered in spots in the mirror and grinning before being promptly consigned the bed. I spent hours gazing up at the model aeroplanes I had hanging from the ceiling and wishing I could take them out to fly.
Iím not really accustomed to doing absolutely nothing for long periods of time. Itís not a familiar state for me. So today, despite the fact Iím still feeling like crap, I dug out the biggest board I could find and made a start on one of the many jigsaws Iíve bought for a rainy day and made a start on it. For all that I love doing them I rarely allow myself the luxury of doing jigsaws. Itís as though I canít justify the time. Right now however itís just what the doctor ordered Ė that and listening to BBC Radio 4.
Thereís nothing like a prolonged period of feeling really crap to help one appreciate feeling really well again. After days of being largely bedridden Iím feeing a renewed sense of enthusiasm and zest for life. I even ventured over to the Tate Britain today to see the Eva Rothschild installation, an extraordinary metallic structure that snakes its way through the central thoroughfare of this gracious late nineteenth century building, contrasting and complimenting the space in equal measure. Walking back along the river it occurred to me again just how much Iím going to miss this extraordinary city when we leave.
There are times when the idea of leaving London becomes a grievous one. When you spend a long time in one particular place you form strong bonds that you pretty much take for granted. Walking these streets now, in the sure knowledge that my days here are numbered, I canít help but feel a sense of looming loss. True, I can come back and visit, as no doubt I will, but itís the difference between being an observer and participant. What I will miss most about this city is the experience of living here and being a part of it.
Itís been said that the person who is bored of London is bored of life itself. While Iím sure that could be said of may cities the sentiment is not lost on me. The irony is itís so easy to take it all for granted. In the years that I have lived here it feels as though Iíve barely scraped the surface of what this city has to offer. The challenge is to do otherwise. And if this is going to be my last year of living here then I think Iím going to have to scratch a little harder.
The Tate Modern is a revelation early in the morning. So few people, so much space! I spent the morning with the Futurists, had lunch by the river with my better half and then spent the afternoon exploring new American art at the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea. Chelsea in London is about as far removed as one can get from Chelsea in Melbourne.
Iíve been having one of my ĎI love Londoní days Ė glorious sunshine, smiling faces and a sense of wellbeing that makes one glad to be alive. London really is at its best at this time of the year.
Jigsaw puzzles are not only addictive they seem to occupy a part of the brain that releases feel good endorphins. Time slows down; the eye wanders over hundreds of unplaced pieces and somehow manages to hone in on the smallest of details and settle upon the very piece you were looking for. Itís also very conducive to listening to the radio, which is something of an overlooked technology, often consigned to the background rather than appreciated through active listening. The two activities are both complimentary and pleasurable, not to mention informative and a great way to while away the hours.
Of all the parks I have spent time in here in London, by far my favourite one is Battersea Park. Stretched out along the Thames it offers a satisfying mix of beautiful river frontage, grassy open fields, placid lakes and tree-lined avenues along which to stroll as well as other lesser known features such as its sleepy old English walled garden and its very own meadow. Itís a place to go and relax; a place to wander lost in thought while all around the city quietly hums its never ending soundtrack of seven million other souls going about their business.
I didnít realise it at first but since turning 50 Iíve noticed a subtle change, a kind of attitudinal shift with regard to how I perceive myself in relation to others. It occurs to me that Iím now of an age where my own convictions and assessments carry an authority that Iíve not really allowed myself to feel before. That might sound a little absurd to some but I have had a lifelong tendency to place authority outside of myself, whereas now it feels as though something within me has assumed a level of quiet confidence that wasnít there before.
These past few days have provided a much needed lull between the hectic pace of my time in Australia and the coming 12 month period, which will no doubt be very full, very challenging and very demanding. Not that Iíve been completely inactive. Iíve done some long distance Skyping with various architects and there are some weighty decisions to be made in the coming weeks ahead. But Iíve had the luxury of some down time and that is the main thing. Now, however, I need to crank things up a little.
Like they say, thereís no rest for the wicked.
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