I first met George Gittoes in Beijing in 1998. He had an artist's residency. I was the resident correspondent. He wanted to paint people and life. He disappeared for a little while. Then the day before he left, he turned up looking like a pizza delivery guy. Like a waiter, he held two small oil paintings up near his shoulders. They were my farewell gift and they had been freshly painted. as a gift.
This one is the Journey:
This is the little Chinese Gymnast.
George and I drifted apart. I was doing my war reporting in relative safety. He was living life large in the most dangerous places you could nominate.
Then his name popped up when he won the 2015 Sydney Peace Prize.
I discovered he'd been making documentaries and taking incredible photos to add to his incredible body of artwork.
Then in May, I interviewed him at the South Coast home he shares with his partner musician Hellen Rose (and their dogs).
He is delighted to see the little oil paintings he gave me once again and he offers to clean them.
But it was his notebooks that captured my imagination.
They are the works of art that the public isn't likely to see, yet they imprint the essence of his travels. They lasso his emotions and thoughts that then bleed into his grander canvases.
For six months a year, the beach is mine. This is how it looks when it belongs to me; just like this.
The hoards are gone. They mistakenly populate the beach at the least nice time of the year and vacate at the very best time of the year. But perhaps I won’t mention it to the hoards who don't know this.
I was about to enter a stupidly expensive ‘Delicatessen’ when a woman in a tracksuit, sitting on a bench outside, spoke to.
“Can I have some money to buy a coffee at Gusto’s?” she asked.
My brain was misfiring with the following dot-points:
The woman in the tracksuit knows the coffee shop well enough to name it
She did not look like a drug abuser, although that is impossible to tell these days
I do not like giving people on the street money except The Big Issue sellers, the Friday charity days or a few private causes, because I worry the money will be spent on drugs.
The lady in the tracksuit was very polite and I liked her
I said, “No, sorry.” That’s what I usually say.
But I really did want her to have a coffee at Gusto’s so I found $5 in coins and went outside again.
“This is for coffee,” I said smiling sternly, “not for anything else.”
“Oh don’t you worry, that’s what I’m going to get. Thank-you so much darling.”
I went into the stupidly expensive Delicatessen and bought one tin of beetroot, two raw carrots and three bread rolls.
When I came out, the woman in the tracksuit was still there. I looked surprised.
“Don’t worry Miss, I’m going to get a coffee over at Gusto’s, but if I get another $6 I can get a bagel as well!”
I smiled. She’s just wants everyone else to pay for her breakfast.
“I don’t drink and I don’t smoke. I gave up smoking a month and a half ago,” she said.
I wanted to say, “What about drugs?” but I didn’t. She didn’t seem like a drug abuser, although as I’ve said it’s impossible to tell these days. People might think that about me.
I headed home past my beach, thinking about Lily Brett. I met her this week. I got to interview her and spoke with her afterwards about writing.
She thinks journalists can be very hard on themselves when it comes to writing. She was never trained as a journalist. She just started to write.
So I am going home to write and think about Lily Brett.
I took a bunch of old stuff to the Salvo's the other day.
As usual, the store was overflowing. There were bags of old stuff literally spilling out of the shop. One of the volunteers tried to move some of the goods out of the rain which had just started. She looked down at my offering and quick as a flash said:
We don't take encyclopedias.
"No worries," I replied cheerily, lugging the basket of all but one of the 24 volume Mammals of the New Illustrated Animal Kingdom back to the car.
Last week, my Dad was told something similar. Someone came to his house and gave him $40 to take away 20 books. But the book dealer shook his head at the offer of a complete set of 1986 Encyclopedia Britannica's.
The only place for those is in the bin, he said.
For anyone who grew up in the era of printed books, there is something almost sacred about a set of bound books acquired gradually until you have the complete. Books were, quite simply, knowledge.
For people like Olympic Diver Matthew Mitcham, encyclopaedia's were a lifeline.
He told me once that as a kid, he read them on the toilet because it was a silent past-time that wouldn't disturb his Mum, who suffered from chronic fatigue.
It was through reading an encyclopedia that he first heard of 'aversion therapy'. He was ten and thought about boys rather than girls. After that, he kept a rubber band around his wrist and every time he had a gay thought, he snapped the rubber band against his wrist to associate pain with that thought.
Thankfully, aversion therapy didn't work.
And now it seems, neither do encyclopedias.
Mammals Of the New Illustrated Animal Kingdom was published in the fifties and sixties in the United States. There were twenty-four volumes of which I have twenty-three, picked up from a neighbour's front yard (I must add, with permission) during a clean-up. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Something for my daughter for when she got a bit older.
And there's the problem. So much of what we call knowledge, changes. Even to find out about the origin of the Mammals series, I went to Google. When in doubt, ask Google. Google isn't always right, but these days we're prepared to sacrifice accuracy for speed, because it's there at our fingertips. And does anyone really want to search through twenty-four volumes of animal facts? Perhaps a budding vet.
So now I have plenty of old books about animals and there are nice drawings in them too. I cannot bring myself to put them in the recycle bin. So I'm trying to turn them into something; wrapping paper, greetings cards, bookmarks, craft... I'm open to ideas.
Once, ripping up an old book would have seemed like desecration. Now, it's about preservation.
The drawings really would look pretty on cards. You're welcome to take a couple. Go on, how about a few more?
Do you know people who need help yet are afraid of asking?
Last weekend, I asked for help. Actually, I didn't just asked for help, I yelled for help at the top of my voice.
I was part way through my fourth ocean swimming session since beginning a personal challenge this year; to question my fear of the ocean and have the courage to swim in the surf.
The previous session was so good. Bondi Beach had been 'like a bath' as one of the other participants put it, barely any surf, just the way I like it, and an excellent confidence booster.
Then Saturday arrived and with it a whole new set of conditions. Rolling clouds gathering since morning yawned out their contents and by the time the session began at 11.30 am there was steady rain, squally winds and a churning sea. Huge sets of swells and white-topped waves broke onto the shore. I counted only five surfers in the water. On the beach, lifeguards outnumbered beach-goers. I would never have chosen to swim in such conditions. But the instructor waved me over. The swim was going ahead.
As we huddling, dripping in a cabana, the instructor talked about the types of waves we might encounter. I tried to think of how I would approach getting through the surf to the calmer water behind the breaking waves. I tried to focus on the exhilaration I'd felt after the session because I would have broken through a new barrier.
When it was time to leave the shelter and jog onto the beach (still raining) the scene was even more fearsome. I kept my goggled eyes trained directly in front of me, but not too far into the distance. Before I knew it, we were into the waves.
Andre was the lead instructor. There were two other instructors accompanying us. All of them held rescue tubes, a kind of flotation device. Andre directed us to swim further out, warning us to keep left because of a strong current. It was really tough. So much was energy expended on trying to swim in a straight line. I kept looking out for flatter water ahead, but there wasn't any. Instead, I was diving deep under wave followed by another wave. It was the only way not to get submerged and you couldn't simply float or tread water or you would end up on the rocks. It was just exhausting.
After maybe 10 minutes of this - it wasn't a long time but I was well and truly out of breath - I realised that the oncoming waves weren't going to stop or flatten or give me a break in any way. And I had no more energy to dive. If another wave was to submerge me, I wouldn't have enough breath left to hold.
Suddenly I felt the panic rise. It was about having absolutely no control. I calmly thought, I am going to die out here in the waves of North Bondi. No-one will even know. I am going to run out of breath and at that point a double wave is going to wash over me. I didn't have the stamina to get back to shore and reaching to the rocks was out of the question. I would be smashed to pieces.
At that moment I had two choices: to be brave (which is what the personal challenge was all about) or to ask for help. I chose life.
I said it quietly the first time. Help. Nobody heard.
So I yelled. I ...NEED... HELP!
Two women from the group appeared next to me and asked me what I needed. I was exhausted, I told them. No more energy. I needed the instructor or the rescue tube. And moments later, J one of the instructors, swam over with the missile-shaped tube which was attached by a cord to her ankle. Now I knew I would just pop up over the waves instead of being dragged under.
Back on the beach, everyone who had heard me yell was very sympathetic. I discovered that many of the swimmers had felt out of their depth and it wasn't just me.
Yelling for help or even just asking for help doesn't come easily to me. I'm not alone.
Not long ago during a conversation with author (and 2015 Senior Australian of the Year) Jackie French, she told me how she had only recently learned to ask for help.
"It was actually a big thing," she said.
"It was an enormous turning point. Whether it's asking for help about big things or whether it's time when someone in the family is ill and suddenly you are realising, 'I don't want to face this alone', I will actually ring a friend and say, 'Please, I don't want to be alone. Please come and sit with me."
And what got her to that point?
"Old-age and wisdom," she laughted. "I think human beings are essentially co-operative beings and it is better to do it together."
I read a book over summer on the drive between Sydney and the Gold Coast. It was called The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer. It's a memoir where she spelled out the stages of a hard-won performing career that began as a street statue and culminated in a supremely successful Kickstarter campaign. She crowdfunded over a million US dollars to fund her music productions.
Although extremely illuminating, not all of Amanda's story is relevant here. However my two big takeaways were that asking is not only a solution, it's a win-win because the giver gets something in too; they feel good. The other takeaway was that we often focus on outcomes, rather than the process. The end goal rather than the joy of how it's achieved. That's probably why I went on to book more sessions of ocean swimming after the first one; because it wasn't enough to say 'I've done the course.'
Half-way through Tumultuous Saturday, the rain finally halted and the beach began to fill with sun-seekers, swimmers and surfers. The image I had in my head of being stuck in the grey swell dissolved. In shallow water, we practised reading the waves, learning when to dive under to grab-the-sand (which I spoke about in the last blog post) and when to catch a wave and body surf back to the beach.
The ocean is still a mystery to me. There will be many days when I am not tempted to go into the water. But now I think about the ocean pretty much all the time. The sea is now an even greater source of comfort, beauty and curiousity.
As I finally managed to body surf in to the beach without the feeling that I was about to die, it felt good to be just a little scared after years, no decades of avoidance. It was even more liberating to finally call for help.
(Thank-you to the swimmers who helped me and to Andre and the team at OceanFit for keeping us safe. You can see the response to this post on FB here:)
I enjoy collecting quotations, but trying to find a decent one about fear is enough to weaken my resolve.
Some of them are so cheesy. You are always urged to fight, conquer, beat fear. Does it have to be so?
This one came close:
Courage is about perseverance, not bravery.
Be courageous despite the fear.
except we have all persevered with things that don’t necessarily make us courageous.
Last weekend I began an ocean challenge, attempting to conquer my fear of the sea by joining a beginner’s ocean swimming clinic: learning how to read the surf conditions and finally, plunge into the surf, swim out 50 - 100 metres out and back to Bondi Beach. That was level one.
I felt euphoric after completing (and surviving) the clinic as I explained in my previous post.
I was so psyched, I booked another clinic. I didn’t stop there; I committed to a weekly ocean session for the next six weeks.
But the fear crept back. Sometimes it's as easy as seeing a story like this. If that could happen to an experienced swimmer like Matt Kelly, what were the odds it could happen to me? It played into my dislike of what I can't control and my resolve unravelled just as I was about to get back in the water.
One spectacular morning, dawn washed over Bondi and our class assembled.
Into the surf! Yelled the instructor,
Use the rip to take you out.
"I can’t," said the voice in my head.
“How will I get back? The waves will always defeat me."
You can do this!
The instructor urged.
But I could only focus on a vision of being slapped down by a wave. I shook my head at the instructor.
The swim class headed into the surf and I stood between the flags waiting for their return.
Shame trickled down me, like a warm ocean spray.
Eventually, the group came back and the instructors called us around to demonstrate the next skill. They wanted us to enter the surf, dive into the shallow water and grab the sand.
Grab the sand.
Anchor yourself against the force of the wave.
The idea seemed beautiful and outrageously impossible at the same time.
Nevertheless, I followed the instructor into the foamy surf until the sea was thigh-deep. Don't think. Don't think. Don't think.
Now, dive down and grab the sand, she urged.
And so I dived under the wave - stretched out like Superman - and grabbed hold of the sand.
Not perfectly, but enough so that the surge of the wave rippled above me, like a giant caress.
The mighty wave didn't destroy me or roll me. In grabbing an anchor that could hold me for just long enough, I emerged intact - and once again euphoric.
Later, C, one of my classmates confided,
I was like you, she said. It's taken me three years to get here. Just don’t give up.
So I'm still in. And while I await the next class, here's a quotation about fear and courage that I came up with:
Despite fear, courage is about stepping forward,
grabbing the sand to anchor yourself
and trying again even when a wave gets the better of you.
(With gratitude to my patient instructors and classmates :) And see the incredibly generous response from my FB community here)
One day when I was a child of about ten visiting London with my family, my Mum's cousin (we called her Aunt Gracie), introduced us to a strange woman who had come for tea. She had long, sandy-coloured hair and a manic laugh. Her name was Margaret. She laughed and screamed like a naughty child and after drinking some tea that was too hot, she laughed and screamed at the same time.
Margaret was Aunt Gracie's daughter-in-law. My Mum told us later that she lived in a home, like a hospital, where people took care of her day and night.
"Where is her husband?" I wanted to know.
And Mum told me and my brothers that Margaret's husband, Billy; Aunt Gracie's son, had died in an accident.
Margaret and Billy hadn't been married long when Billy was sent by his company to Sydney in the late 1960's. The young couple were filled with excitement at this adventure. They had been in Sydney for no more than a few days when they did what many tourists do. They went for a refreshing dip at Maroubra Beach.
While they were in the surf, they got caught in a rip.
Life-savers resched Margaret. She had been under water for some time and as a result, her brain had been irreparably damaged. In the space of a few short minutes she had gone from being a wife to a child again, never to return to her old self.
Billy's body was never found.
On Saturday, I thought about Margaret and Billy for the first time in years.
Inspired after speaking with marine ecologist Professor Emma Johnston about the wonders of Sydney's coast, I booked an ocean swimming workshop at Bondi Beach.
And after I booked it, I got really nervous.
The sea has always been part of me. I was born and grew up on an island in the South China Sea where many summers were spent on boats or in the ocean. My ancestors travelled all the way from the Outer Hebrides in Scotland to China by ship. These days I live five minutes walk from a beach. And I love being in the water, as long as it's a pool or something resembling a lagoon.
In recent years, the ocean for me became something to fear. Somehow, hesitation became reticence and reticence became avoidance.
I thought it was about sharks.
After a family holiday to the Great Barrier Reef when I was a child, I saw for the first time just how much was going on underneath the swimmers. That's okay. It is their domain.
But in Saturday's ocean swim class, as we were instructed to observe the surf, the instructor began to talk about knowing your terrain, the swell and sandbars and depth ...and rips. The body of flat water running in the opposite direction to the incoming waves, I finally understood to be a rip. And out there somewhere, floundering in the surf of my imagination, were Margaret and Billy.
Tentatively, I approached the water's edge along with the others and tried to block out Margaret and Billy.
The water was surprisely brisk and I dived under to immerse myself. I felt like my body had slipped into a giant aquarium, gliding over rocks and seaweed. Delightfully there were fish, maybe 20 or 30 centimetres long.
We remained in the water fifty metres out from the shore for around forty minutes. I got a cramp in my foot and wanted to borrow the instructor's board, but I managed to stretch out the cramp and stay afloat. After learning how to spot waves and landmarks and practise diving under the water, it was time to return to the beach.
We were told to swim back in between the surfers bobbing on their boards as they waited for a wave. Suddenly, a big wave crested over the top of me. I felt powerless. Water went up my nose but still I swam haltingly towards the shore. Gradually I became aware of different sounds. I could hear kids' laughter at the water's edge. My legs were shaking. My feet finally touched the sand.
I was safe.
I didn't drown in the ocean. In fact I felt foolishly euphoric. It was liberating and intensely joyful; I keep getting flashbacks of the calmness of being in an acquarium...
And when I got home, I booked in for Level 2, to see if I can stare down my fear one more time.
(Photo courtesy of Andre Slade, OceanFit Facebook page. If you'd like to view the response from FB, please click here)