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The magic of 'sea bathing'

‘A little sea bathing would set me up forever,’ declares the indomitable Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice.

‘The sea air and sea bathing together were nearly infallible, one or other of them being a match for every disorder.’ This from Mr Parker, in Jane Austen’s last, posthumously completed novel, Sanditon.

Having just had my annual summer sojourn at the beach, I can only concur. A fortnight at Anglesea sets me up for the rest of the year, and a lot of that is thanks to the healing powers of ‘sea bathing’.

What is it about immersing oneself in the ocean? I’m not a strong swimmer and I don’t surf. To the amusement (scorn might be more accurate) of my family, I seldom venture more than waist deep, while they, more adventurous souls, swim way out of their depth and body surf – crashing and foaming in on giant, frothy breakers.

So, if I don’t swim and don’t surf, why do I find it so exhilarating? Mainly, because being in the ocean makes me feel like a kid again. In the turbulent, salty water I lose my inhibitions. Life often fills me with so much delight I’d like to holler and dance; the sea is the only public place where I can get away with such behaviour. Once I’ve plunged in and dived through my first wave, something irresistible bubbles up inside me. I gambol and frolic, cavort and spin. I giggle and shriek.

There is something cleansing, invigorating, therapeutic, almost spiritual about being in waves. It’s connecting with the elemental. It’s like being immersed in champagne, in one’s very own massive washing machine.

There’s magic in the look of it: when the sun shines the water is golden green and utterly transparent; on cloudy days it’s a creamy greeney-grey. Both are beautiful. There’s enchantment in the sensation of it; bracing at first; soon feeling like silk as my body becomes accustomed to the temperature. Nothing on earth is quite so buoyant. When I like back and float in the sea, any tension is simply borne away.

Swimming is one of the things I never regret doing, whatever the weather. Lolling on a shady verandah with a novel, I often feel too lazy to trek to the beach, but I usually do, because I always feel better afterwards.

Of course it’s partly the holiday thing – I’m more relaxed, I’m sleeping better, I’m with the ones I love the most. It’s partly the sun and sand thing too. And the walking along shore lines– the endless vistas, the long horizons, the softness of the colours, the reflections in the wet sand.

The solitude. Which doesn’t appear to be high on the agenda of most beach goers, who flock to popular stretches of sand along our coastline like a bunch of sheep. Me, I prefer my beaches empty. And in this country, it’s not hard to find such places, even at the height of summer.

Around the corner from Anglesea main beach, a mere couple of hundred metres away from the throngs of beautiful people, the long stretch of magnificent sand and soaring cliffs that extend to Point Roadknight is almost empty, even in January. Apart from the occasional dog walkers, there are often only a dozen other people there, and I am regularly the only one in the water. From there I look across to the main beach and see the crowds, looking like hundreds and thousands.

Like so many of life’s most satisfying pleasures – ‘sea bathing’ is simple and it’s free. Every summer I have these two weeks where, no matter what else is happening in the rest of my life, I can park my cares and be a kid again several times a day. Like Mrs Bennett, a couple of weeks at the beach sets me up for the whole year to come.


The joys of ageing

‘TESTOSTERONE’ blares the headline – letters heavy and red and three centimetres high. It’s a full-page advertisement in the Sunday Age, mostly addressing problems associated with ‘male menopause’.

Okay, this isn’t going to be a rant asking why we have Viagra and still no safe, reliable drug to treat morning sickness or PMT. I am quite capable of such rants, but gazing at this ginormous ad last weekend made me reflect, instead, on ageing.

These days, there are a plethora of articles, books, lectures and clinics aimed at retirees. Glamorous grey haired couples walk along the beach holding hands in ads about everything from low testosterone to retirement funds. The aged, it seems, are no longer content to disappear into unsexy support roles. They want to live life to the full, and entire industries have developed to help them do so.

I’ve been thinking about ageing partly because health-wise, I’ve found the last 12 months confronting. Apart from regular, ferocious headaches, my body has seldom let me down. Through 35 years of adulthood and four babies, it has remained fit, well and pretty much the same size and shape.

Over the last year, however, things have changed. Symptoms that would have been cheerfully ignored in years long gone are investigated exhaustively. ‘Hmm, you’re at that age when it just might be cancer…’ the doctors say.

And things are starting the wear out. A knee injury that stubbornly refuses to heal (and in my fifties, I find things heal really really slowly) has meant eliminating the long daily walks that keep me not just fit but also comparatively balanced, sane. Eight weeks with precious little exercise and the consequent weight gain make me feel, well, middle aged. Not quite me.

The bits that are wearing out fastest, it seems, are the ones I rely upon most for my daily exercise routine. Not only my knees but also my feet are demanding attention. Plantar fasciitis, the painful inflammation of the tendons on the soles of the foot, can be excruciating. I feel like the little mermaid in the story who was condemned to suffer the sensation of walking on knives for the rest of her life.

Since I became aware of this condition, I keep meeting other women who can barely walk when they get out of bed each morning. One I met recently agreed with me that apart from the aches and pains, everything else was better. We felt wiser, calmer, happier, enjoying our grown children, our mellower husbands, the unexpected turns our careers had taken.

‘When you think about it,’ I said, mulling it over, ‘our bodies probably aren’t meant to last this long. Until the last hundred years or so, we would most likely be dead by now.’ I could have added that in some places we still would be, but that’s another issue.

Maybe the hyper-awareness of menopause (male or otherwise) and the burgeoning literature on how to cope is a new phenomenon because until recently, not many people managed to live long enough to experience it.

So, whenever I feel like complaining about my aching feet and semi-functioning knee, next time my GP sighs and signs me up for another uncomfortable and expensive batch of tests because I’m ‘at that age’, I’ll try and remind myself that I’m lucky to be old enough to have things start to go wrong. Basically, things still work pretty well. And coping with the sore bits is better than the alternative.


Shaggy dog story

The two dogs disappeared the same afternoon.

Fiona, our youngest, had a sweet fantasy that they had decided, last time they were visiting, to meet for some girl time. They arranged a date and a meeting place, half way between Beechworth and Brunswick. But Fifi only made it to the end of our street before being picked up by a kindly stranger and deposited in the Lost Dogs’ Home. Nutmeg lolloped all the way to Benalla as arranged, and was still waiting at the side of the road, wondering when her buddy was going to turn up.

We had less than 24 hours of anxiety for our nuggety little Jack Russell. On the dot of nine the morning after she went missing, I had a call from the Lost Dogs’ Home saying they had Fifi safe and well and could I come and get her please.  She and I wandered home over busy Racecourse Road in a daze of relief to be together again. Just one day in a dogless house was enough for me. Every part of my night and morning ritual had reminded me she was missing.

Nutmeg’s story was longer and a lot more dramatic. A skinny, tan kelpie-heeler cross, she is only two, and one of those bouncy dogs that can run all day. She ran into the State Forest next to our daughter Tess’ place, as she did from time to time, and didn’t come back.

For several unhappy days, Tess and her Will combed the thick bush behind their property outside Beechworth. It was needle in haystack stuff. The country up there is full of mine shafts and snakes waking up cranky from their long winter sleep. There is probably bait for feral dogs.

Neville, their older dog, was morose and bewildered. Tess and Will were losing hope. I had never seen them so subdued.

Late at night, five full days after Nutmeg’s disappearance, Tess was outside and heard a dog bark in a direction they were planning to search the following day. They raced out with head torches, thrashed around calling, calling. Well after midnight I was woken by Tess, almost incoherent with joy, saying they had found her, in pitch dark, down the bottom of a mineshaft, alive and apparently in one piece.

There had recently been heavy rain; water, pooled at the bottom of the hole, had kept her alive. Tess stayed shaft-side while Will raced home to get dog food and a bucket and rope to lower it down. Also Nutmeg’s bed and blanket, so that she could rest for the first time in five days.

The sides of the shaft were smooth and vertical. In the morning, the SES came with their orange jump suits and their six and a half metre ladder that was only just long enough. They gathered her up in a sling and a pair of burly arms and brought her gently gently into the light and life and her owners’ tearful embrace.

What do dogs think about when they are alone down a hole in the cold for five famished days and miserable nights? Doubtless they would fret, but I’m guessing, hoping, they wouldn’t be as desperately fearful as a human being. At some level, do they prepare themselves for death? And what shape does that experience take in her mind now that she has been home for a few days and is once more well fed and full of bounce? Is there a dark shadow there that still gives her nightmares?

I prayed a lot those few days. For solace for our kids and courage for Nutmeg, wherever she was. Not so much for her to be found, not really, because I don’t believe it works that way. If it did, we would all just pray like crazy for everything bad happening – the miners trapped in Chile and the abused kids and the wars and the excesses that bleed our world towards the edge of oblivion.

Life is full of small heartaches and big tragedies. There isn’t some magical intervention for some and not for others. Our small drama this week happened to end well. In both households – city and country – we look at our dear, faithful, funny hounds with even more affection than usual. And are grateful for the things in life that, against the odds, have a happy ending.


Love actually

Our Hamish is a fairly understated kind of guy, but even so, he looked a little surprised to see his mother in a wheel chair when he emerged from airport customs after nine months away.

It’s been a big week at our place. Eleven pm Thursday night saw us at the airport farewelling our youngest, 18-year-old Fi, travelling on her own for the first time, off to the UK for a month. To say she was excited would have been an understatement. I was too – waving her off on a trip that she has worked for herself, imagining her with her brother and grandfather, discovering London, Paris, Edinburgh, Glasgow.

Seven hours, and not a lot of sleep later we were back again to pick up 21-year-old Hamish. It’s a strange thing, having much-loved adult offspring spreading their wings and heading off. There is very little sadness in it for me. I am proud and grateful and excited. Skype and email and cheap phone calls mean that I barely feel out of touch.

When they come back, however, there is a quiet, blissful sense of remembered completeness. It’s as though there was a vital part of me missing that I’d become perfectly accustomed to doing without, but when it comes back and slots itself in, I feel whole again.

There’s the lovely feeling of time and space when they are back and I am on a day off, followed by a weekend, so we can have a second cup of tea and talk a bit and let them put a wash on and have a nap and then let the stories dribble slowly out over the day and evening. Eventually there will be photos to see, and more stories will emerge.

Will it all seem drab and parochial after months on the spectacular Isle of Mull and weeks picking oranges and olives in the South of Spain? Probably. That’s fine. That’s part of the function of home – to be there to come back to after the adventuring: safe and predictable and always welcoming. There’s usually an element of relief at no longer living out of a back pack, not to mention the delights of rediscovering your CD stash and catching up with mates.

 As for the wheelchair, it was a bit of a fraud. I sprained my knee painfully and dramatically early in the week and have been on crutches since. My husband, with characteristic thoughtfulness, resourcefulness and cheek, disappeared while I was wearily leaning on said crutches at the international arrivals lounge and reappeared five minutes later with a commodious wheelchair.

(The relief! I have never appreciated how tiring crutches are. Not since I was pregnant have I felt so incoherent with weariness at the end of each day from the combination of hauling myself around using muscles I didn’t know I had - aching tummy muscles were unexpected - doing everything at a snail’s pace, and having to ask endlessly patient family and colleagues to help with things as basic as carrying my mug of tea from the kitchen to my desk.)

From the wheelchair I had a clear, child’s eye view of those recently refurbished but so familiar sliding doors disgorging tantalising dribbles of people. First the pilots and flight attendants in their snappy gear and their world-weary seen-it-all gaze and then real people, exhausted and emotional, being met by laughing, weeping families, and a new baby being handed over the barrier to a Nonna, wordless with joy.

I got so caught up in the dramas of everybody else’s arrivals (especially from the comfort of my chair) that I almost forgot why we were there and that I needed to have my eyes peeled for the emergence of our son, who looks quite different from when we waved him off early this year.

He emerged quietly and it was a few seconds before we realised it was him. There he was - short haired and bearded, his jumper the only utterly familiar thing about him, and all his belongings for nine months in one modest backpack.

He’s home. We returned the wheelchair and I hobbled slowly and happily back to the car. And was woken in the wee hours by a call from Fi saying she had met safely up with the London contingent of the family. ‘I’ve had no sleep, I watched ten movies, and I’m heading for the tube,’ she said airily. ‘Now you can go back to sleep.’



Topping the 100

Had a faith piece in The Age this weekend. This caused me to go back to my scrap books since 1999 when I was first published there and count how many articles I've had in the paper. I was excited because I thought it might be 99, but each time I counted, I got a different answer. (I can write but I cannot count to save my life). So I got my daughter to count them with me, and hey, the total is 103. Yee ha!

So here's the latest:


In the church’s calendar, the four week period leading up to Christmas is called Advent; traditionally a time of preparation and waiting.

We all know it’s difficult to wait. It’s probably harder now than it’s ever been, thanks to affluence and technology. So many of us have the kind of money that if we want a CD, we go out and buy it. Ditto a new pair of boots. All the knowledge we could ever want is literally at the tips of our fingers, which can unearth any information in the world simply by touching a few buttons.

I appreciate google as much as the next middle-aged person, but in this climate we need to be reminded that there are many things that cannot be hurried, no matter how hard we work, how rich we are, or what sophisticated gadgets we carry around in our pockets.

I have understood this better in middle age, because I have had time to see evidence of it inside and around me. The best things take time. A slow-cooked stew. A hand-knitted jumper. Home grown vegies. A novel that has taken a dozen years to write.

The growing of a new human being that will not, even in the 21st century, take less than forty weeks. What comes after: the year in, year out parenting of a child and teenager until, despite your bumbling efforts, they become young adults you love to be with.

I am so glad I have been married for more than 30 years because despite the continuing rough edges, in the last decade my husband and I have experienced a deep acceptance of each other that helps us grow into what we are meant to be.  This only comes with time.

I will be a work in progress till the day I die, but in my fifties I am less easily threatened, competitive and judgmental. I take myself less seriously. I notice beautiful, everyday things that I missed before because I was in too much of a hurry.

But getting to this point has taken, well, 50 years. It has taken a lifetime of corporate worship and private prayer, painful inner work, the raising of children, the give and take of marriage, the tussles between friends, the turning up to work, day after day.

A colleague of mine taught me a profound prayer by Teilhard de Chardin that can be said in rhythm with the breath. ‘Trust in’ (said on the in breath), ‘the slow work of God’ (said on the out). The work of God is slow and steady, and usually imperceptible except over a very long time. As we wait for the birth of the Christ child at Christmas, Advent reminds us of this.