Passions and solitude

These days we are told of the many things we can do to postpone or avoid the dreaded Big A – Alzheimer’s disease. Crosswords, sudoku, gardening, exercise, learning a language – and others – have all been touted as the answer. I have heard that it really comes down to having a passion. So when someone asked me recently “what are you passionate about?” I had to stop and think.

I retired early – frustrated by spending more time on paperwork than on helping “clients” in the health care system. For much of the last fifteen years I have been caring for my husband or my daughter – sometimes both – as they moved through various phases of different illnesses.

But this year they have both been well, and I have had more time to explore how I want to spend the next 20 years or so. Providing I keep the Big A away.

I took up Bridge. I loved it at first, but playing in a crowded room of chattering older-borns is not as enticing as playing in the quieter surrounds of lessons. And my competitive instinct can take the fun away when I don’t play as well as I’d like. At school, I would infuriate my Latin teacher by making silly mistakes while getting the harder things right. Sadly, the pattern has carried though to Bridge.  I will persevere, but Bridge is not my passion.

I volunteer at one of Sydney’s museums. It’s a great opportunity to meet people and tell them about our fabulous city and its Indigenous and Colonial histories. But the days can be very long when visitor numbers are down. And despite wonderful volunteer events, it’s not my passion.

I tried volunteer dog walking. But the dog didn’t like me, and remembered the first time I caught his skin in his harness. He refused let me put his lead on, causing difficulty for his frail, vision-impaired owner.  So when she had a fall and the dog was cared for by relatives, I gave it away.

Volunteer gardening was the next attempt. This one I really love. The gardeners are a great group of people, many of whom have been helping for years, and it’s good to have my hands in the soil. It’s wonderful to see bedraggled, overgrown gardens come to life after we weed, prune and mulch. But somehow, other things get in the way, and my attendance has become erratic. So, it’s not a passion.

I really enjoy yoga, and walking – especially in the bush, and I do both regularly, but although they keep me fit, they aren’t passions.

So what am I passionate about?

Many years ago, when I was deciding on a career, I wanted to do an arts degree. The wisdom of the time (late 60s) was that an arts degree would lead nowhere and I would get depressed if I did social work. A science degree was the obvious answer. Not. From the sheltered world of an all female private school (from the age of 4) to the world of lecture theatres and laboratories of hundreds of students from all backgrounds, I experienced extreme culture-shock. These days, I’d have done a gap year first and become more worldly-wise before those three years of confusion and emotional turmoil. But science did provide a pathway to Nutrition and Dietetics, which wasn’t widely known about or practised then. I was fortunate to enjoy a career as a dietitian for over 30 years. But I always swore I’d do the arts degree one day.

When I retired, there was nothing stopping me. I completed the paperwork, waited along with the HSC students, and was offered a place at Sydney University, not long after my son had graduated. I planned to study English literature and philosophy, but soon found that in-depth analysis of novels spoiled my enjoyment of reading, and Philosophy tutorials were full of angry young men with huge egos. But when I sat in those old lecture theatres, where thousands – including a grandfather I never knew – had sat before, listening to and being challenged by new ideas, I felt that I had come home. I had been searching for this place for almost 60 years.

My son advised me to try Studies in Religion. I’d had a couple of religious phases in my life, but this was not theology or comparative religion, but about religion in people’s lives.  I learned a bit about major religions, New Religious Movements and resurrected and reinterpreted older practices. Can surfing be a religion? Or following a football team? And what is religion anyway? It was a mix of sociology, philosophy, art and more. A true classical education. The young students accepted and befriended me, the lecturers were erudite and taught well, and the subject matter was fascinating.

I had hoped to do honours, but my husband’s health, the cost, and the desire to spend some time travelling, all combined to  lead me to finish after my undergraduate degree. But if the heady days of the 70s with free education were to return, I’d be back in flash. Because what I am passionate about is learning, and sharing knowledge.  I remember in primary school, when other kids were fantasising about ponies and dolls, I longed for a sound-proof box so that I could get on with my classwork without distraction.

I love writing essays, refining ideas and tweaking words and sentences until they read and sound right. I love the light globe moment when a new idea is revealed, or a difficult argument becomes clear. I love the research when one paper leads to another, and then another in an endless chain of ideas. And I love the cut and thrust of argument in tutorials.

At the museum recently, when I was telling a visitor about some of the practices of out First Nations People’s, supporting the information with images from an iPad, he commented that I was an academic. I replied that I’d spent my career in the health system, not the Academy. “But you are an academic.” What a compliment!

So I have identified my passion. I lack the self-discipline to study alone without the deadlines of tutorial presentations and essays, so my challenge now is I have to find the best way to put my passion into practice, not just to avoid the Big A but to enjoy life.





What’s in a name?

S, Old English fancy text

Now that I’m sixty-something, I’ve come to accept my name. But it has not been without angst over the decades. I’m told that my parents argued for three days over what to call me. Having finally settled on the unusual (for the early fifties) name of Sally, they decided that there was no need to choose a middle name. So I was Sally-no-middle-name-Kennedy.

This may have something to do with their own unusual middle names. Dad was Charles Maitland – the Maitland after the surname of a colleague of his father. At some stage, he discarded the Charles and was know to everyone by the homophone of that great Australian leveller – “mate”. Or in his case “Mait”. Many people were unaware of the spelling, so he became a sort of nameless entity even though his personality was larger than life.

Mum, on the other hand, always told us  that she was named after a house. A superficial bit of family research indicates that the name Hendelah – which she loathed – appears in older branches of the family before one of the Australian Waleys (sent to the colonies for fraternising with a shop girl) decide to use it as a title for their residence.  For my mother, already feeling she was  in the shadow of her talented older sister, it must have been an added blow that she bore the name of a house while her sister had their mother’s first name.

As a child, I was often asked if Sally was short for Sarah. It wasn’t. But recently a Catholic friend told me that she was warned against making friends with anyone called Sally as they were likely to be either Salvationists or Jews. I can claim some Jewish heritage, but buying a “War Cry” magazine from the Salvos at the pub was the closest anyone in our family came to the Salvation Army or any other religion.

Despite my parents’ satisfaction with the rarity of “Sally Kennedy”, the only other Sally at my all-girls school shared the same surname. She was far enough ahead of me to avoid confusion, but, in the days when the results of the Leaving Certificate were published in the papers for everyone to see, Dad did receive at least one congratulatory phone call while I was still in the early years of High school.

Like most teenagers, I played with my name as I forged my identity. Salli – with a daisy for the dot at the top of the i – seemed incredibly cool when I was fifteen. Fortunately, the i, and the daisy, soon disappeared. Years later, when a friend and I were talking about names for our children, she said she thought that Sally was a great name for a child but not for an adult. Would anyone ever take me seriously?

I didn’t think about keeping my family name when we got married. Sally Kennedy had been such a mouthful – easily contracted to “Salady” when I was nervous – that I was glad to move on to the simplicity of Sally James. Until I realised how common it is. From yoga teachers to dentists, my records have been confused with those of someone else. The worst was when someone in a similar profession started publishing recipes. I was frequently told that friends and neighbours had cooked “my” recipe the previous evening. Sometimes I told them the truth, but it was often easier to accept the accolades. I started using the middle initial of my previous family name to make the distinction.

When it came to naming our daughter, we settled on Helen. Helen James. Easy to remember, unlikely to be shortened. But in the eighties, most of the Helens were my age and most of the Sallys were hers, so we were frequently called by the other’s name.  As a parent, you soon disappear, becoming  “Helen’s Mum”, so being Helen herself didn’t really matter in the scheme of things.

Now I’m content with “Sally James”. It fits me like a pair of worn slippers or an old jumper. I reflect on the periods when I hated my name, and in comparison with the other ups and downs of life, it’s a pretty minor irritation. But every so often I wonder how different my life would have been if I had been named Scarlet, or Sabrina, or even Isadora. But I’m very grateful  I wasn’t Hendelah.

Neighbours and friends

My mother always said she never needed a psychiatrist because she always had good neighbours. Of course in those days, we didn’t know much about mental illness, and I doubt  that she ever seriously considered psychiatry, but it is an indication of how important the ladies next door were in her life.

Our first next door neighbour was Mrs Sheen, a kindly, but slightly intimidating New Zealander. Her bald husband bore a striking resemblance to the animated figure who encouraged housewives to “wax and polish as you dust” with the product bearing his name.  There was a gap in the fence between the two houses and I remember slipping   through and helping Mrs Sheen fold washing, and then being given cordial and cake. In retrospect she was helping Mum deal with my “difficult” younger brother and perhaps filling her own day while her own children were at school.

In my teens we moved house, and Mum was lucky to have another good neighbour in Joan Barnes. Much of their conversation was carried out over the side fence, as they shared tales of difficult husbands – both drinkers – and teenage children.  Gradually they moved on to share cups of tea in one house or the other, and by the time both men had died and we children had left home, it was often a brandy before dinner.

They both had their own circle of friends who only mixed occasionally. But when Joan decided it was time to swap her three story house for a level apartment, which she bought off the plan, Mum soon followed.  She said it was because she found herself doing the ironing instead of gardening – not the other way round as had been her practice – but it was also a recognition of how important the friendship was to her. The pre-dinner brandies  and cups of tea continued, and when Mum uncharacteristically wasn’t answering her phone one morning,  I rang Joan, who found her body and sat with her until my brother and I could get there.

With women spending less time at home, and many other options available for forming friendships, I wonder how many people form close and lasting friendships over the back fence.