Panic on the dance floor

It’s time to solicit some crucial advice from the combined wisdom of readers.

The question is – should I go to my 30 year school reunion?

Yes, 30 years! Apparently that’s how long it’s been since I was lying around languidly in an asphalt courtyard at lunchtimes, discussing boys, or INXS, (specifically Michael Hutchence) or teachers, or who was at the nightclub last Saturday night and who’s going this Saturday.

When the time came for the 10 year reunion, I didn’t go – not through any deliberate desire to avoid it, but because I had an exhibition opening the same evening, if you don’t mind. Why yes, those were the days when I was a twenty-something artist.

When the next one (20 years) came around, I didn’t go because, well, I hadn’t been to the 10 year reunion, and by the 20 year mark I’d basically fallen out of contact with every single person I’d been friends with at high school. I’ve written about this before, but it seems that I haven’t tended to retain friends for a lifetime as some people do. Instead it seems that by mutual agreement in some cases, or not in others, I lose contact with people and move on and make new friends so that I end up having a past series of friends who are associated with specific periods of my life. This has worked ok so far, but I do hope I’ll start retaining friends for longer, because I can see that opportunities to make new friends become less as you get older.

Anyway, when the 20-year reunion came along, I was a 30-something, working in the arts. Working in the arts sounds less glamorous than being an artist, but in the end it suits me better to be doing practical tasks that contribute towards the creation of art (theatre) by a company, and for that reason, I feel satisfied. Sure I’m creative, and, oh boy, do I love ideas! – why, I can ramble on about them for hours, as this blog proves! – but it turns out I’m not very good at self promotion, or at staying focussed and motivated when left to drive myself along to develop abstract concepts into physical works of art. I’m easily overwhelmed by broad, undefined goals.  “Continue to develop a body of ideas and work that may end up being exhibited, or may simply be research and development towards your whole oeuvre” was a little too vague to help me decide what to do from day to day as I attempted to produce work in my studio.

But back to the looming 30-year reunion. This is happening in the near future, a time when I’m a 40-something, still working in the arts. (At least there has been some consolidation on the career front then.) I am still not in touch with anyone from school apart from two people that I am now Facebook Friends with. Of those two, I’ve caught up once, in person, with one of those people.

So basically, attending the reunion means attending an event where I don’t know anyone very well, but sort of know everyone just a little bit. In my opinion, for a shy, introverted extrovert (that is a self-diagnosis), this is far worse than attending an event where everyone is a complete stranger. And finally, even worse again, some are people I used to be close friends with, who dropped out of contact about 20 years ago.

Now, if you are not a massive extrovert, it’s actually hard to socialise with people you know just a little bit. An event full of strangers is preferable. If everyone is a stranger, you can wander around on your own, making it obvious that you are alone and don’t know anyone, and hope that some of those strangers will notice your plight, and converse with you out of courtesy, or pity. (As they are strangers, it doesn’t really matter which.) And, if they don’t, you can cut your losses and leave without any real loss of dignity or hurt to your feelings.

At an event where everyone knows who you are, but you are not close chums with anyone, you sidle around the outskirts of chatting groups of people, smiling and hoping someone you’ve met before will take pity on you and make eye contact so that you feel welcome to edge your way into their little group, and pretend to take an immediate and passionate interest in whatever topic they are discussing, even if it’s the renovation they are doing to the ensuite in their holiday house.

And if no-one makes any attempt to give you an opening, then you’ll probably slink away early and – YEAH YOU BET your feelings will be hurt and your dignity will sink to a new low!

(As a self-diagnosed “introverted extrovert,” by the way, I’m not a totally hopeless case socially. My self esteem in general is quite ok – certainly a hundred times healthier than when I was a high school student – and I LIKE socialising with friends – but it’s easily trampled on in a situation like this.)

Ok, it’s pretty obvious that I’m wavering on the side of not going.

But let’s get down to the real issue here. Surely the only question that matters is – will the music be good?

Because I do love dancing, as I think we’ve covered in previous posts.

So much so that, despite fear of not being able to make small-talk, and the possible humiliation of scuttling around the edges of the function room on my own all night, the possibility of dancing could, in itself, be a temptation to go! In the unlikely event that the music was good, if it turned out to be the worst case scenario where I was milling around with no-one to talk to –  I could just join the dance floor!

(That is, of course, only if at least 12 other people were already dancing, as I am too self-conscious to jump up alone, or when there are only two extraverts doing the bumpsy-daisy together out there.) But if there’s enough people dancing for me to blend somewhere into the middle of the crowd, then I can lose that self-consciousness and dance the night away, or at least until Working Class Man* comes on.

But sadly, it seems unlikely that the music would be good. I say this because my generation’s musical taste has forever, and quite erroneously, been labelled as Seventies disco in some kind of timewarp that wasn’t accurate. Although we were indeed alive in days of 1970s disco, we were in nappies, and then pre-school, and then the early years of primary school for most of that decade and were therefore more interested in what was playing on the Looney Tunes cartoon hour on TV than what was playing at Studio 54. I have never even seen Saturday Night Fever. Maybe this explains a lot about me, but to put it bluntly, I have no emotional connection with Seventies disco, which was the music most frequently played at school fundraising events I attended as a parent at my daughter’s school.

At an event where a selection of music is to be played for my personal entertainment, ideally I would request a good dose of music from the 80s, 90s, 2000s, and 2010s (or whatever the current era is known as). Anyone taking notes at home may include music from the Seventies too, by all means, but please make it punk, or folk, or rock, or Motown, just not that over-played Seventies disco.

Despite the stereotyped notion of parents as a particular breed of adults whose musical taste stays rooted in the nostalgic past, I have always enjoyed discovering new music. That includes discovering music from the past that I hadn’t listened to at the time. But official events of any sort usually opt for safe choices with music, on the premise of pleasing the majority, and safe, for my generation, seems to be to play the music that was playing on the dance floors when we were learning our multiplication tables and how to write in cursive.

Of course we all think our own musical taste is superior to everyone else’s, don’t we?**

In the end, I should thank you for your input, dear readers, because as I’ve been writing this post, I’ve come to the only conclusion that seems obvious, and will avoid the need to make small talk AND ensure the music will be good.

I won’t attend my school’s 30-year reunion unless I can DJ.

*

 

*Working Class Man is a song by well known Australian Band Cold Chisel. I’m clearly a bit of a snobby purist when it comes to what music I am willing to dance to, and it’s my personal opinion that this song should never come anywhere near a dance floor, but when I was growing up in the country, the djs were less picky, and it usually did come on at about 3am, signalling to me that it was cattle-call time at the meat market, and a good time to go home.

**(Or is that just me?)

***Update: thanks to those who said I must go and then write about it here. I didn’t see you offering to accompany me and pretend to be someone everyone else had forgotten. If only I’d thought of that earlier. Airline tickets could have been arranged.

Anyway, the reunion happened, I didn’t attend, and I don’t think there was ANY music at all. It was a daytime tour of the school that so many of us were thrilled to leave at the time, and then a luncheon. How alarmingly sedate. And how demanding of small talk!! I think I made the right choice, so I thank you all again.

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Because I could not stop for death

There has been a gap in transmission.

It’s because everything I tried to write in the past fortnight was awful. The reason is that after the death of a woman I knew, I tried to write something reflective, but failed miserably. As it turns out, all I’ve been capable of writing about is my own anxieties.

*

I’ve been to two funerals in the last 7 days. In both cases, death was not unexpected, but I suppose death always arrives suddenly in the end, even when it is expected. Even when you think you are prepared for a loved one to die, the irrevocability of death after that last breath falters and fades away must take one by surprise, or so I imagine.

It’s always a sombre occasion when someone’s life ends, but if we actually measured and compared levels of sadness, then one of the deaths last week was immensely sadder than the other. My elderly aunt passed away, and the mother of my daughter’s friend died of cancer. The death of my aunt was not a shock. She was put into a high dependency unit about 4 years ago, after a very sudden and rapid decline into dementia that seemed to occur almost overnight. Her health had been steadily worsening since then. I heard that in the last few weeks of her life she was either asleep or totally zonked on morphine, and I think for her daughters, my cousins, there was relief mixed with their sadness. I don’t mean relief from a burden, but relief for their mother, because her suffering is over.

The other funeral was also for a mother, but in this case, her daughter is a teenage girl who has just started Year 10 at high school. That death created a lot of sadness around the local community and was constantly on my mind for the week between hearing about it and attending her funeral.

Now I know it seems as if we always speak well of the dead – but it’s true that this woman was a vibrant, joyous person with a warm, friendly manner, always ready for fun. We were not close friends, but when I did chat with her I felt as though we had a good rapport. I guess a lot of people felt like that around her, as she had a knack of making you feel as though whatever you said would be interesting and amusing.

That leads me to why I couldn’t write last week. It’s because writing revealed that my reasons for being sad about this woman’s death were not all selfless. I felt awfully sad about her death, and yet, when I tried to write about her death, it seemed as if my thoughts continually took a path that ended up at a very self-absorbed destination that was largely about myself.

I got sick of hearing myself feel sorry for myself when someone else had just died. I didn’t like where my writing led me, which was, repeatedly, to more thoughts about me, me, me. After a few days of this, it felt necessary to clear away those self-absorbed thoughts, and complete silence on the writing front seemed a necessary measure.

After all, to write, one needs to think. What a vicious circle it is.

Trees with moon and star from window

Pic: © Blathering About Nothing

Because it’s true. When I thought about this woman’s death, some of my sadness was for myself. In the course of the week I learned that mutual friends knew a lot more than I had, about her illness and how serious it was, and that confirmed what I already suspected: that I ended up on the outer peripheries of the adult friendships that were made through the time that my daughter was at primary school. That one friendship I will never have the chance to develop highlighted that I missed a lot of opportunities to make new friends while my daughter was at primary school, and those opportunities are gone now.

7 years – it’s a long time. When you are a kid, it’s enough time to make life-long friends. Lots of kids do that in primary school, and again in high school. But I don’t maintain regular contact with any friends from primary school or high school, unless you count being friends on Facebook. (I don’t).

This is how I am in friendships it seems: when the other person doesn’t make an effort, I do take it personally. So friendships from school days, including those I thought were lifelong friendships, dropped off along the way, usually when I realised I was the one keeping it going and decided to leave it to the other person to call me next time – and they just simply never did.

I’m always able to read a lack of follow-up as outright rejection.

Being thrown into some intense experience together – ie, school, university, work – is the ideal circumstance for making new friends. As a parent, you get another go at this when your child starts school, because – assuming you don’t move houses or change schools – you are about to have 7 years of regular contact with the same group of other adults. That’s 7 years of attending information nights, waiting outside classrooms, facilitating play-dates and attending kids birthday parties together. It’s only natural to hope and expect to make some new friends along the way – isn’t it?

I certainly hoped to make some new friends when my daughter started school, but as it happened, for a large part of my daughter’s primary school years, my work life, and new friendships formed in a new job, took up a lot of my attention. As a result, it seems as though I made it through 7 years of being a primary-school parent, and emerged with only one person in the local community that I contact frequently enough to consider a friend, in the real-life, non-Facebook sense of the word.

And now I feel a sense of sadness about that. After the death of this woman, I feel very aware of lost opportunities, because there were other parents who I really liked but never developed a friendship with. Invariably, I feel that it must be due to some lack on my part – either a lack of effort, or a lack of any quality that would interest someone else enough to make an effort.

Perhaps it was circumstance – I’d meet parents I liked and then our kids were never again in the same class, or schedules changed and we never crossed paths doing drop-offs and pick ups, or our kids stopped hanging around together, or their kids were boys, and my daughter stopped playing with those particular creatures from about grade 2 onwards so opportunities to get together with their parents dried up. As a parent, you are at the mercy of all these variables, over which you have no control.

But I’m left feel slightly depressed, fearing that maybe I can’t blame circumstances. I worry that it indicates there is something deeply unlikeable about me. All those conversations outside school rooms, at school concerts, at parent information nights, while walking kids to the car after school, at birthday parties, at various houses when picking my daughter up – but no roots put down; nothing to show for it all after 7 years.

*

I thought all of this before and after the funeral of the younger woman. At the funeral itself I just felt heart-broken for the loss of this woman, for her family and most of all for the weeping 15 year old girl following the coffin out of the service.

5 days later, I attended the funeral of my aunt. Her funeral was in the middle of the week and was very small, with probably only about 50 people in attendance, mostly in-laws, nephews and nieces and their children. Her husband, and most of her siblings have passed away; friends are too frail to travel. One of her three children passed away about 15 years earlier. (when he was about 30, in a tragic house fire.)

My aunt’s funeral seemed to highlight what I’d been thinking that week about losing friends and failing to make new ones. It’s the first time I realised that my own family and close friends could die before me, and I could be left with very few people to care about whether I’m around in my eighties or not. As one of my own younger brothers has already tragically died in his 30s, I know too well that you can’t just expect everyone else will be around when I die. I realise that actually, it’s likely that at least some (more) of my siblings will die before I expect them to, and leave me behind to grieve for them.

Thinking about this, and comparing these two funerals, I realise that the one compensation for those left behind when someone dies young is that, although their early death causes so much more pain and grief, at least that outpouring of grief from a large network of family, friends and workmates is a huge comfort to witness.

Wouldn’t we all like to think that our own funeral service would be packed to the rafters, as this woman’s was, and that the wake would take the entire afternoon because people felt so emotionally bonded to one another by their sadness that they didn’t want to leave, but preferred to mill around the very crowded band room, having another drink and listening to family and friends perform live music and reminisce about the departed, in a party-like atmosphere. We were at her wake for about 4 hours, leaving at 5pm, and it was still going strong.

As opposed to the quiet funeral and wake for my aunt, where, by the time I left after about an hour, at 1pm, there were about 25 people left.

*

So I’ve thought a lot, in a pathetic manner, about myself, but I have also thought a lot about a mother who 13 months ago received a diagnosis of terminal cancer. I’ve thought about her partner and child. I tried to imagine being in her place, and how I would approach the remaining time I had left; what I’d say to my daughter if I knew I’d be leaving her forever in about a year. I tried to work out who I felt more sadness for – the young daughter facing the prospect of losing her mum, or the mother who knew she would leave her daughter motherless way too soon.

I thought that perhaps the leave-taking is saddest for the adult, because the adult has a better chance of understanding that death is real and final. I can’t imagine how a 15 year old could comprehend how it will be when her mother dies.

But then, of course, I think of afterwards, and wonder how a 15 year old copes with the death of her mum after it has occurred. The only heartbreaking death I’ve had to deal with so far was unexpected and therefore shocking, but even with 12 months to prepare I’m not sure that anything could prepare you for that sudden and complete absence when someone is gone. That immense gap, when you see everyone else weeping, and them not there to be part of that sadness. How utterly final it is. How, despite all logic, it repeatedly comes as a shock that you can’t even tell the person that you miss them.

And I think it must be very hard to prepare for the fact that this person you love so much is no longer a presence in the world. Even if their death was expected.

*

 

‘I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual’ – Virginia Woolf’s diary, 17 Feb 1922

Farewell to a friend forever.

I had a gorgeous friend. She died last week.

I have to repeat that to myself occasionally, like a lesson I’m having trouble learning, because I can’t comprehend the finality of it. She died.

She’d been rushed to hospital – out of the blue as far as I knew – in a critical condition, and about 10 days later had undergone surgery. I was worried, and the possibility that she might die had crossed my mind, but I did not allow myself to entertain that thought. Naively, I been talking to another friend about visiting her in hospital, the day before she died.

I never understood before  – how can you, until it happens?  – how it feels to be hit with this news. I discovered that we have strange defence mechanisms, that kick in to deal with intensely painful emotions and allow our brains to start processing what is so impossible to comprehend.

When I was told that my friend had died, it felt as if my brain stopped working properly. For a second,  the words did not make sense. Surely it was some horrible mistake. Put together, her name and the words “passed away this morning” were nonsensical  and meaningless. Surely they referred to some small, sickly person, not my energetic, feisty friend. After a beat, I registered their meaning, but was unable to accept that it was real. Then my brain played another trick on me – time slowed down to a grinding halt, and the rest of that day felt like some long, awful dream I hoped I would wake up from. Thus, by evening, I had a surreal sense that weeks had passed since I had received the news. I couldn’t believe it was still the same day on which, when it had dawned, my friend had been alive.

She is sadly missed by many people. Anyone in Melbourne who works in performing arts probably worked with her at some point in her long history in community arts, circus, and festivals.  Just a few of the things people said about her at her memorial service yesterday included:

hardworking, fun-loving, generous, playful, cheeky – a big kid

enquiring, scientific/technical mind

had a sense of being part of a larger community – was always giving her time and/or her equipment for use

a tiny superhero

if you had worked with her at some time, you were probably also her friend

gave the best hugs

All of the above was true, and there were probably many other things said, but  something I think was missed (I was not brave enough to stand up in front of so many people and say it) was this: she was non-judgemental. I observed with admiration, that she didn’t pigeonhole people into “types”, or make judgements about people based on their appearance, what they did, or what they had done. Never fear, she was no saint: she had her own system of categorising people after getting to know them: they were either intelligent or stupid. She was too quick witted to have any patience for “stupid people”.

I feel lucky to have worked with her, and considering how many people she knew and the many friends she had for decades, I feel grateful to have been considered by her as a friend for even a short time.

It’s been on my mind since her death, that we had often talked about death and grieving, because in the 4 years I knew her she’d had to deal with the death of (from memory) a work colleague, 2 good friends, a relative, and her beloved dog Dodge. In contrast, I had not yet experienced the deaths of anyone I was close enough to really grieve for. She knew how it felt. I didn’t.

I wonder now if there is some reason why someone comes into your life, and, if so, whether one of the lessons she was supposed to impart to me was preparation for grieving.

On the other hand, I can’t see how those chats about grieving are helping me now.

It was a surprise to me that we became friends, because in many ways we couldn’t have been more different. But we had a mutual delight in witty, absurd and just plain silly written communication, that led to a regular email correspondence, dreaming up and elaborating on fanciful, ridiculous “projects”, and, more recently, encouraging one other to write a blog. She was one of the very few people who showed her support when I started writing a blog, reading and commenting frequently. I will miss those open, cheerful responses.

She started her own blog, and after her beloved dog died a few months ago, she wrote a post musing about life and death that seems very poignant now. And her last comment on my blog, only 3 weeks ago – the last she will ever make –  was on my post about musician Roland S Howard, who died at the age of 50. She was only 47.

So it’s hard trying to understand that she is not out there any longer, that she won’t read this post, or comment, or ever send me another silly email, or catch up for coffee and greet me with one of her (famous) warm hugs. Indeed, I know even as I write that sentence, that I have not yet grasped the reality of what I’ve just said.

In her last ever email to me, (after a suggested catch up for coffee didn’t eventuate) she said, “I missed our coffee!”

I miss it too, Dori.

x

I got by, with a little help from my friend

My best friend from childhood? Her name was Jane.

We met at kindergarten, although we probably weren’t even friends there, since I was a timid and anxious child, while she was brazen and fearless. At kinder, she once stapled her own thumb and didn’t cry. (I don’t actually recall the incident, I can only recall being told about it later – probably at the time I fainted).

Kinder photo

After kinder, we went to the small, local Catholic primary school together. (The other girls all went to the state school and became sworn enemies from that time until high school.) After a shaky start in prep – basically a tumultuous year of fighting between the 3 prep girls –  Jane and I eventually became “best buddies”. We were both academically smart, and usually rivalled one another for the top grades, but I guess what cemented the friendship was a shared a sense of humour.

Over the next few years we spent a lot of time at each other’s houses, and a lot of time laughing! While everyone likes to think they have a “quirky” sense of humour, it was clear that ours was a little left-of-field for some of our peers, since it was inadvertently the catalyst for a huge fight when we were in grade 5. For some reason – I guess just because we thought it would be funny – we wrote out the lyrics to a nonsensical song we’d that was in our “Let’s Sing” song books at school, and put them into the letterbox of another girl in our grade. It went something like: “Flea. Flea fly. Flea fly flo. Vista. Coomala, coomala, coomala vista…” (I think we actually showed a sophisticated sense of delight in lyrics and rhythms and just enjoyed the jivey, jazzy, “beat” or “scat” feel of those crazy lyrics.)

Somehow, what we thought was absurd and halarious, was interpreted by our imaginative schoolmate as a declaration of hostility. To our complete astonishment, we arrived at school the next day to discover that none of the grade 5 OR grade 6 girls (probably about 15 girls in total!) were talking to us! I recall feeling dismayed as I walked the gauntlet – or, up the side of the Catholic Church towards the tennis courts – with grade 5 and 6 girls standing around in small groups looking at me but no-one speaking. (I’m not sure where Jane was, maybe she had gone home for lunch.)

Primary school can be a perplexing time.

I hold Jane responsible for my love of music, so that is something I’ll always be grateful to her for. (Well actually my parents probably passed on a love of music, but she adeptly facilitated my gaining access to music that I was actually able to love, rather than Slim Dusty’s Greatest Hits, which didn’t appeal at the time.) I’d go to her house to watch Countdown! because I wasn’t allowed to watch it at home. With her, I attended my first rock concert – The Divinyls – at the tender age of 15. When her family moved to Melbourne in year 10, I began spending a lot of time in Melbourne, at all the appropriate places (any pubs and nightclubs that accepted V-line student concession cards for ID.)

When you spend many, many days and evenings with the same person from kindergarten right through to the end of your high school years, there are a lot of funny memories. Perhaps it’s particularly a teenage girl thing, but you end up developing an intimate shorthand so that you only need to give the other person a pointed look and you can both crack up laughing, at something that someone else may not find funny at all.

Once, at the National Gallery in our mid-teens, it occurred to our juvenile senses of humour, how halarious it would be to hijack a wheelchair and wheel one girl around as if she was unable to walk. We did so, crying with laughter the entire time. Another time, we somehow ended up being the only two passengers left, at night, on a suburban train, that shunted into a railyard and switched off all its lights. Luckily we were able to open the doors and exit the train, despite being doubled over with laughter. And once, we both glanced out the window of the school bus just as a small sports car took a corner too fast, causing the door to swing open. We cried with laughter the whole half-hour journey home.

Train at night

Being shunted into a railyard at night – just like being in your very own Famous Five adventure!

I will always be grateful to Jane for making it possible for me, when I finished year 12, to achieve my life’s goal: to get the hell out of my home town and move to Melbourne. She convinced her parents that I could board with her family. I think she understood my need to get out of the country town we’d grown up in, and she knew that I couldn’t afford to any other way. She probably also knew it would be good for me to go.

For my first year in Melbourne, I paid board to her mum, and lived with her and her family, out in the south eastern suburbs. They were generous to give me that opportunity for an affordable transition. 12 months later I was renting in the inner suburbs and I guess I’ve never looked back.

Despite that great act of generosity, by the time we got into our mid-twenties, we reached the anti-climax that many friendships fade out on: we simply drifted apart. By that time, we had few friends in common – hers were all studying commerce or law, mine were all at art school –  so we got together less and less, socialising instead in our circles of separate friends. Then there came a time when I noticed that it was always me who called to suggest a get together, so I thought I’d wait for her to call next time, just to see how long it took.

In my mid-twenties I thought I was being very mature by deciding that I wasn’t going to be the one trying to continue a friendship where the other person had so little interest. At that time, when socialising was a full time occupation, it seemed quite clear to me that if 6 whole months could go by without contact, then you are not really friends. (Funnily enough, now that I’m about twenty years older, 6 months is nothing, and I have a number of friends with whom I only catch up once or twice in a year – we’re all busy! But in your twenties, I think it’s still true that someone you don’t make contact with for 6 months is not a close friend.)

We’ve bumped into one another since, and had friendly chats, and I wish her well. Like siblings, we have a shared history and knowledge of each other’s family life when we were kids, and that’s a connection that can’t be taken away. I will always be grateful to her, and also to her family, for the role they had in my life. But as often happens, our personal lives have moved on in separate directions.

Still, she was a big part of my childhood, and we had some great times.

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