Perhaps it’s no coincidence that my first novel was titled Not Always To Plan because that’s certainly the way life feels at the moment. This time last year we told people that we were moving to Cloverdale for six months to do some work on it. We weren’t sure what would happen after that but we were happy to go with the flow. Going with the flow isn’t difficult for me given that, in Chinese astrology, I’m a Strong Water person. That means my mind can be rather like trying to hold water in your hands: I can go all over the place and I’m susceptible to overthink everything, drowning in thoughts. But just like water, I am also quite amenable to others shaping the journey, hence my surprising migration to Australia, shaped by love. One of the things people with excess Water need is the energy of Wood, which is to say being surrounded by greenery, creativity and the uplift of a good social life. Well hello, Byron hinterland. Some days I feel as though I’m living inside an emerald.
When we arrived here at the end of March, we planned to get on with renovations as quickly as possible. The house had other plans. Or, at least, we discovered that trying to do anything in the middle of a pandemic, when everyone else was also focussing on their home, meant that getting anyone to do anything was virtually impossible. Add the quaint and occasionally frustrating habit of some tradespeople saying they’d come and do work and then not turning up, not even calling, and we’ve been left with a house that is virtually unchanged since we arrived. So far it’s been all tweaks.
The truth is that I don’t really mind because – my uncontainable Water to the fore – I keep changing my mind about what we need to do. For a while, for instance, I was adamant that we would create a marvellous master suite out of two bedrooms and the enclosed veranda they lead out onto. How glorious, I thought, to have a bathroom the size of a sitting room! Except one morning I realised it was totally the wrong thing to do, and within a matter of hours I couldn’t believe I had even considered it.
It’s great having an emotional response to everything but my experience is that it needs to be balanced by rational consideration – the harmony of yin and yang, Heaven and Earth, emotion and logic. Pure emotion can be simply too emotional and has you haring off in one direction before the wisdom of your experience kicks in and you realise you might have done better to give it a little more thought.
And so we’ve been granted a stay of execution, so to speak. The kitchen will change and there’ll be an ensuite for the guest room, of that I’m certain, but we won’t be ripping down walls and tearing out windows with the same abandon we might have some months back. The bathroom is horrible, as are the kitchen fittings, but apart from that, mostly it’s a matter of general maintenance, getting wonky windows repaired, walls repainted, and replacing some dodgy timber. In these past months, I have realised that this house needs to be updated, not radically changed.
I am a great believer in the home being a symbol of self, and so all this speaks to me on a personal level. In other words, I realise that, like the house, I have been in need of some tweaking but not a full-on revamp. Living here has already provided plenty of that. I’ve written before about the enormous pleasure I derive from the abundance of nature all around me, watching the antics of the birds, fascinated by the snakes. As I said to Anthony the other morning, I’ve already seen so many marvellous things and it’s not even nine o’clock. My daily feed on Instagram is rapidly turning into a sub-Attenborough adventure.
For years, even on fleeting visits, I had a sense of being held by this place, not just the house but the land itself. Connecting, some might call it. The more I submit to it, the more empowered I feel about life in general. There is so much that is out of our hands and sometimes all we can do is whatever comes next – keeping on keeping on, as Alan Bennett memorably named a collection of his writings. As I accept a new rhythm of life, I find myself less inclined to rush to conclusions. Often a frustration can become a gift. In stopping myself from thinking of all the things we must do, I am beginning to allow them to happen in their own time. (Perhaps this is the lesson learned by everyone who makes a tree-change, moving from the city to the country, although I feel a bit of a fraud saying that, given my coastal suburban life in Sydney was hardly manic.)
In my radio pieces I have mentioned many, many times Mies van der Rohe’s famous dictum that ‘less is more’. Post-modernist architect Robert Venturi countered that by saying that ‘less is a bore’, which was witty regarding architecture but misses the point in other respects. Simplicity is key to so much. For me, the less that gets done to this house, the better it will be. And the less that I worry about things not going to plan and not knowing where it is leading, the more pleasure I get from simply being here. In Taoism, the mountain represents wisdom – sitting still, doing nothing. Absorbing life’s lessons. And when you reach a state of stillness then life will always spring into lively action, as those who meditate regularly might attest. The apparent lack of progress here in recent months has in fact been transformational. We are living in exceptional times and it seems wise to match that by living with exceptionality. And that is certainly not a bore.
Have you adjusted to a new rhythm in your life?