On How To Fill a Life

I see the same small group of elderly Italian men every time I go to the shops. They gather mid-morning at the terrible café in the heart of Northcote plaza and sit, clustered around a wobbly table with laughably small cups of coffee. I’m unsure whether the size of the cup is an attempt to squeeze more orders out of them, or whether the coffee is so remarkably strong that one thimble sized shot is enough to keep the conversation rolling. One of the men is noticeably older than the others. Happily tucked into a wheelchair, he slumps back, head rolling as people pass. The other men do little to include him in the conversation, but he is there every day, so someone must be making the daily effort to roll him out of bed, slip him into an oversize jacket and wheel him into the middle of Northcote plaza.

Some days I see two of these men, walking the street out the front of my house. They stroll nonchalantly, hands clasped behind their backs, beginning at the final house on the block, where I often find one of the men sitting on the trampoline nestled in the front yard. They step step step down the street, no conversation, just small steps beside each other. They reach the end of the street and turn and walk back. I stand by the letterbox, sorting a pile of glossy junk mail, election pamphlets and letters addressed to previous tenants. The elderly men stride pass in silence with a brief nod. Is this what old age has to offer?

I’m in a lull. A little period in between when I was last very busy (last week) and will again be very busy (July).

It’s an odd experience. I’ve been frantically pushing pushing pushing for what feels like the last fifteen years of my life. There’s been periods of intense ardour, Sisyphusian struggle up-hill against a million rocks of my own making, and there’s been slightly less intense times: days where the need to achieve rumbles quietly in the background as I attempt to laze away with re-runs of Seinfeld and an over-percolated strong black.

I find it so hard to give myself down time. Even on my down days I write a to-do list, the little note-book on my desk leers over me with scrawled reminders of things I thought important when I woke (washing, email, invoice, gtr) and things I failed to achieve yesterday. My to-do list becomes predictable, the same set of five to seven things appearing every day, so I mark them into columns and switch the orders daily, convincing myself that putting ‘reading’ below ‘drumming’ will bring order to my day. Invariably it all falls in a heap and I binge watch Seinfeld while half-heartedly reading a book on copyright reform.

The next six weeks are remarkably quiet. I generally book myself out three months in advance (as I write this I’m planning my August-September tour), so for me to have some down-time means I slacked off three months ago and didn’t book any shows. But that’s ok. I generally schedule my down time around my up time, and a ‘day off to read a book’ usually means I’m catching a flight interstate for a show and I can’t actually achieve anything in the air. The fact that I’ve got two whole weekends coming up with no actual plans is remarkable. Somewhere in the vicinity of man discovering the earth revolves around the sun.

So what do I do with down time? How do I fill the precious remnants of my time on earth?

When I was at uni I obsessed over music. I had an expanding selection of CDs, bought new from JB, bought second-hand from eBay, borrowed from friends, inherited from ex-housemates. I could listen to jazz and identify modern drummers based on drum sound (Bill Stewart’s ride cymbal click from the way he chokes his thumb high up on the stick, Jorge Rossy’s laziness, more straight quarters than a ding-a-ding feel, Antonio Sanchez’s swing eighths that border on straight, presumably borrowed from a love of latin music). I’ve successfully extinguished at least two romantic relationships due to extended hours spent in the practice room.

When it was last week I obsessed over politics. I had tabs saved across multiple devices. Opinion pieces harking to a sure left wing. Stats and opinion polls pointing to the amount of money the far right spent on scare campaigns, and indeed an open tab dedicated to the bookies and their thoughts on the upcoming election. Every conversation in the near past verged on political and it plied its sneaky ways into my world through advertising slogans, shareable online content and oversized yellow billboards placed surreptitiously in green heartland.

Today I went for a walk around the block.

Final thought from Geneen Roth via Anne Lamott’s beautiful book ‘Bird by Bird’:

“Awareness is learning to keep yourself company. And then learn to be more compassionate company, as if you were somebody you are fond of and wish to encourage.”


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