The devastating bushfires of this summer have changed everything. There’s a whole new context for our lives in Australia - and everywhere. The planet is crying out for our help and people the world over can no longer deny it or think weather disasters won’t happen to them.
I used to love summer. Long warm days and evenings, light clothes - the fewer the better - and bare feet. In the depths of winter I longed for summer, its carefree holidays, simple salads on the deck watching birds flitting around our garden.
We live at a semi-rural beach in South Australia, the blue waters of the gulf St Vincent visible from our front windows and 300 hectares of natural bushland 100 meters to the east.
Living near a Conservation Park, while it offers enviable opportunities for nature walks and wildlife spotting (yes, kangaroos and echidnas wander into our garden), also poses risks. We never go away in summer because of the fire danger. Why would we? Where could we possibly go at this time of the year that would offer us more pleasure than being at home?
Last summer, after watching out-of-control bushfires elsewhere in the world in 2018, we invited an education officer from the Country Fire Service to address a neighbourhood meeting about fire risk. When she asked about our bushfire survival plans, many neighbours thought they would ‘just go to the beach’. She explained the danger of ember attacks and radiant heat and suggested other safer, more practical options, such as decamping to fire-safe places, carrying woollen blankets and water in our cars and having valuables packed and ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Since then, as the global effects of climate change have become indisputable and the risks of bushfires heightened, we’ve added more essentials to the case we packed sixteen years ago when we moved here. We’ve updated our home and contents insurance, set up a local iphone bushfire alert group, borrowed keys to friends’ homes in fire-safe zones and, at considerable expense, erected a 22,000 litre water tank linked to a sprinkler system on our roof. We’ve done all we can to reduce the risk of losing our home and prepare to leave. I even reverse the car into our carport, ready for a quick getaway.
So I expected to sleep more easily this summer. Then Australia caught fire.
So far, we have been spared the devastation of fires threatening us but we have watched in horror as regions of our state and the rest of Australia have burnt. Lightning strikes in drought-stricken grazing or bush land, sparks from machinery, arsonists could just as easily show up in our back yard.
As the full devastation of this summer’s bushfires in Australia unfolds, with it comes the awful realisation that this is the new normal. Or worse, that this is just a taste of what summers will now mean. I’ve been lying awake, listening for sirens, with the phone nearby in case of an alert, and keeping an eagle eye on the local fire alert app. Gentle rain on our roof last week sounded like the heavens crying. When the temperature dropped 20 degrees overnight to a cold grey day, I felt relieved - a reprieve before more catastrophic fire danger days and sleepless nights ahead.
I lost my mojo. I lost my love of summer.
As I gazed at the scrub, I saw not a beautiful nature park but a massive fire hazard filled with innocent animals and rare species of flora, fodder for a greedy bushfire when our luck runs out. It used to feel like ‘if’; now I think of it as ‘when’.
I'm anguished by the hostile dependence evident in our blaming and expecting government to fix everything.
Then I read a galvanising quote from Albert Camus:
“In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me lay an invincible summer.”
That's when I realised it’s up to me.
I can choose a response that will lift my mood and my energy by focusing on the needs of others. I make another donation. I list all the things I will do to minimise my carbon footprint, to play my part in reducing emissions. I get started. There’s not a moment to lose. I feel better.
I choose to love summer again.
In the new summer, we are all vigilant, fire-safe, we discuss our bushfire plans, support each other and the people responsible for managing our environment and continue to coalesce and engage as communities to help and sustain each other.
Because out of the ashes, compassion and generosity have become the new normal too.
Having discovered my inner novelist in Tropical North Queensland in August, I’ve rediscovered another voice this year - my singing voice.
Spurred on by a desire to optimise life and maintain good brain and general health, I joined a local choir early this year, the Gospel Groove at Willunga. We first heard them singing at a concert last Christmas and were spell-bound by their glorious sound. I was also taken by the diversity of the large group of choristers and even more by the enthusiasm with which they embraced the music. When one of the choristers invited me to join in, I eagerly accepted.
I hadn’t sung much since childhood where I was part of my local school and Sunday School choirs. My parents and I often harmonised on long car trips and I loved that. But a few years of smoking in my twenties took the edge off my voice and I lost confidence in singing, even favourite hymns at weddings, something I once relished.
So with some trepidation, I joined the Gospel Groove in February. It has been a wonderful experience. There’s something about people who sing; they are warm and friendly and from the first night, I was welcomed with big smiles and genuine interest as to whether I was enjoying myself. A couple of weeks later my husband joined me, having not really sung since he was a choir-boy in Bristol - an added bonus, having something we enjoy doing together. Our choir leader is clever, warm and generous. His contagious love of singing combined with his skill enables us to learn complicated harmonies which sound wondrous in a very short space of time and he’s lighthearted and fun to spend a couple of hours with each week. He doesn’t seem to mind if we don’t always stay in tune - he’s more interested in us enjoying ourselves and we do, without fail.
Learning new things as we grow older is an important part of keeping our brains healthy. (I was disappointed to learn that doing samurai sudokus every day doesn’t cut it; it only improves my ability to do samurai sudokus). Singing in a choir challenges us to learn new lyrics, new tunes and often co-ordinate those with movements such as rhythmic steps and clapping, which look easy and are surprisingly difficult to synchronise. Above all, connecting and sharing this experience with others is great for our brains as well as our hearts and souls.
Last week my resident fellow chorister and I took our newfound singing voices to another level. We joined a group of fifty or more people from all over the world to form ‘The Ephemeral Choir’ for a week of immersive singing in the Blue Mountains. Led by three world-renowned choir leaders, Tony Backhouse, Anders Nyberg and Sue Johnson, we simply had the time of our lives.
The grand old Carrington Hotel in the heart of Katoomba was our home for the week. We took over the ballroom for daily singing sessions, starting the minute we arrived before lunch on the first Sunday. After an impromptu warmup with Sue, which had me in tears in the first ten minutes when we sounded so beautiful, we separated into sopranos, altos, tenors and basses and began learning new songs. Each day our brains had a gigantic workout as we practiced and learnt more songs and worked on remembering our fellow singers’ names. Slowly new friendships blossomed as our confidence and our voices began to soar together. Pure joy!
One evening, we were entertained by members of the Melbourne Georgian Choir who came for the express purpose of singing for us and, the next morning, teaching us to sing in their distinctive polyphonic style. We learned some of the history of Georgian music from prominent ethnomusicologists, Dr Joseph Jordanian and Dr Nino Tsitsishvili and, to our surprise, made a reasonable fist of singing one of their songs.
The whole tour was organised by a charismatic and creative genius, Raymond Hawkins of Soundtracks Travel, who herded us good-naturedly in and out of the ballroom each day, on and off buses to scenic places in the Blue Mountains where we gathered and sang on mountain tops, at lookouts, at hotels to thank the staff for their food and service and, a highlight, at the Cathedral cave at Jenolan Caves. Raymond loves surprises and arranged one night for us to have our own screening of Anders’ Oscar nominated Swedish film “As it is in Heaven” in the tiny cinema at Mount Victoria. On our final night we sang our hearts out for an audience of local choirs in the garden of the Norman Lindsay Gallery.
On our final morning, we gathered in the ballroom one last time to listen to a magical recording of our voices in the cathedral cave. Finally, we linked arms in a large circle to sing ‘All I ask of you is forever to remember me as loving you’. Unforgettable.
I have learned some surprising things this year from singing in choirs. First, it’s not about your voice. It’s all about connecting - connecting with others to make astoundingly beautiful music together, connecting with and trusting in the skills of choir leaders as well as in the wisdom of the choir (when you can’t remember a single word let alone the first note of the song you’re about to sing). Most importantly, I’ve learnt about connecting with oneself and with the joy that has been there all along just waiting to be unleashed.
There’s a line in one of the songs we learnt in the Ephemeral Choir “Don’t postpone joy, start singing now, right now, right now.” Be warned though - once you let that genie out of the bottle, it’s hard to contain it. So we’re not even trying. Fellow local chorister Moira Were and I are bringing the wonderful Sue Johnson to Adelaide for a singing workshop on Sunday 8th December, to spread the joy.
Come along! Tickets and details: https://events.humanitix.com.au/come-to-the-music-singing-workshop-with-sue-johnson
I began this year, 2019, with an exciting new idea. I would develop and run workshops for women to reinvent growing older. Having reinvented myself a number of times during my life and career, I knew I could teach others to do this and a new business, ’The Best Yet To Come’ was born. Little did I know then that I was also about to reinvent myself!
Since trialling the workshop that my colleague Dr Ali Wallis and I developed, I have found my own mindset about growing older has shifted dramatically. At the tender age of 72 I have not only started a new business, I have also just completed my first novel. I’ve reinvented myself as a novelist!
After launching The Best Is Yet To Come and running our first two workshops, I read a book called ‘The Happiness Project’. It came highly recommended so I bought it, even though the title didn’t really appeal. As I was packing for a holiday in Tropical North Queensland, I noticed its light, bright cover on my bookshelf and threw it in at the last minute. It turned out to be perfect holiday reading.
In one chapter the author, Gretchen Rubin, explores her passion. She’d like to be passionate about art and music but she’s just not. She realises her real passion is writing and making books. I felt a jolt of recognition. Rubin discovers a book called ‘No Plot? No Problem!’ by Chris Baty who masterminded a thirty day novel writing challenge in the US called National Novel Writing Month each November. She bought Baty’s book and accepted his challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in a month. Achieving this definitely made her happier.
I was intrigued and inspired enough to download and read Baty’s easy and fun book. I wondered if I could actually write 1667 words a day, every day for a month and if so, what on earth would I write about? But Baty urges his readers not to worry about the content; once we started, he advises, we’d realise that we had already been writing this book in our heads. The characters and plot would emerge.
Baty suggests that, no matter when you begin, pscyhologically it’s best to aim to complete your 50,000 words at the end of a calendar month. If I was serious about taking up this challenge, I had to get started straight away - I only had three weeks of the month, and of my holiday, left.
I started on 9th August, the day after I finished Baty’s book. Before I knew it, I had written more than 3,000 words on the first day. The next day, I easily wrote more than 2,000. It struck me then that, not having to squeeze in my novel-writing around work, social and family commitments, I could actually finish it by the end of the month. I bravely adjusted the daily 1667 word count to 2,500 words to allow me to finish in the three available weeks.
My cheerleader husband completed a giant 1000 piece jigsaw of Central Park while I wrote for two or three hours each morning. We fell into a routine of going out for coffee, lunch or a walk in the Botanic Gardens after I hit my word count each day. This was something I looked forward to after sitting, hunched over a computer. Doing some yoga and stretching mid-writing sessions also helped. Our outings became my daily rewards, which worked well for me as incentives. One day I changed this routine to fit in a morning yoga class and completed my daily writing in the afternoon, but it felt like hard work. It took longer, I was distracted and reverted to my morning schedule for the remainder of the challenge.
I finished writing 50,210 words on August 28th. To celebrate we took ourselves to our favourite restaurant for lunch, Nu Nu’s at Palm Cove. I’m over the moon. I can now relax. It’s written. Baty urges us to avoid rereading anything we’ve written the previous day, avoid editing as we write, don’t tell a soul what the novel is about, avoid reading the finished book for two weeks and certainly don’t let anyone else read it. He also suggests setting aside a year to edit it. Getting it published doesn’t interest me at present. What I’ve loved most about this challenge is by focusing only on the word count and trusting that the words will come, my inner critic has been silenced. I’ve finally learned how to get myself out of the way!
One writing ritual he recommends is wearing something fun such as a hat (I chose a pair of long orange earrings) when you are actually writing. The ritual of putting on my earrings definitely helped. Second, he urges us to use a one-liner such as “I’m a writing dynamo’ and ‘I’m a Badass Novelist’ to help power us along. This worked, too. I had also invited a small group of friends to be my cheer squad and sent them updated word counts periodically. They were generous with their encouragement; one even sent a digital fireworks display when I finished! Their support was gold.
Who’d have thought I would actually write the book I’ve always dreamed of writing in just twenty days? Certainly not me! But who’d have thought, back in January, that by September I’d have reinvented myself as a kickass novelist?
I’ve come to realise, as I’ve been pondering this business of reinvention, particularly as we age, that time is all there is to consider. While there’s time, anything is possible. And reinventing yourself doesn’t mean throwing away other things you enjoy being. It may just mean adding another string to your harp!
PS Don’t tell anyone I told you, but my novel just might be about reinvention too
Kay Hannaford is a kickass novelist and an irregular blogger on this and her other website, kayhannaford.com where she has published Insights about leadership for many years. In her spare time, she is an organisational coach, facilitator and mentor to leaders. She takes dozens of photos most days and publishes a few on Instagram @kayhannaford and @thebestisyettocome101. She is passionate about eulogising growing older and stamping out ageism.
In May, a diverse group of twenty adventurous women met for a weekend to test-run our first ‘The Best Is Yet To Come’ workshop. Two flew in from Brisbane, one from Melbourne, one from Tumby Bay on Eyre Peninsular and one from Kangaroo Island. The remainder came from Adelaide and surrounds. This pilot was supported by COTA SA (Council on the Ageing) and held in their boardroom in Adelaide.
COTA SA CEO Jane Mussared set the scene brilliantly on the first morning:
“Kay came to see me a few months ago..Kay (and her colleague, Ali) had a workshop they wanted to try. They wanted to create a format for older women to lift one another up, kick one another’s butts, challenge one another, cherish one another and collectively dump the images, myths and stereotypes we have of our ageing.
They reckoned that those myths and stereotypes, particularly about older women, just might be unbalanced, outdated and, dare I say it, man-made.
Time for us to challenge them and get rid of them.
At that meeting with Kay...I felt the aura of a kindred spirit, a fellow traveller, a fellow revolutionary, a sister of change.
So before she asked, I said yes. I still do.
COTA SA is an organisation run for, by and with older people. We make it our business to create a modern view of ageing that won’t cramp our style, overwhelm our sense of self and waste our lives by sitting us on the sidelines.
And when we think about modern ageing we particularly want to redress the inequality which means that older women are especially either invisible or, perhaps worse, visible but only in ways that none of us want a bar of.
Inequality comes home to roost as we age – economic inequality, gender inequality – and indeed every other inequality. If old is bad then old woman is a double whammy bad in our popular culture. And we all wear that.
We have got to change that and this group has put up our hands to have a go.
I am 59 and I want to celebrate my advancing age, to challenge myself to be courageous and bold and to connect with a sisterhood of explorers and adventurers.
I want to define a new ageing – to invent a style, a love of my body, a share of confidence and to give myself freedom to be me.
I am not sure what your bodies have been doing for the last 50, 60, 70, 80 years. Mine has had 4 kids, taken a back seat to work and home priorities, survived horrific fashion fads, doubted itself, wished to be skinny while eating more cake, waxed and waned between fat and less fat and looked longingly on air brushed images in women’s magazines for years and years.
But I feel incredibly free now. I look in my mirror and I worship this workhorse body of mine, and its soul within, cut it some slack and wrap my arms around it.
Our bodies and minds are craving to express themselves, itching to break out our own style, bursting with a strong sense of “me” and longing to care less about others and give ourselves permission to have a go.
It’s not selfish – it is a chance to ride a wave of social revolution and create spectacular roles and purpose for ourselves and others that at the moment are so hard to grasp.
And I love the idea that the best just may be yet to come!”
That certainly had us all paying attention!
The weekend was a wild ride and it was immediately obvious that this group of women would never be quite the same afterwards. Strong bonds were formed as experiences were shared, differences aired, inspiring stories told, eyes shone, tears flowed, we laughed, we practiced mindfulness, we discussed our libidos, new models for taking care of each other when we’re really old and we even danced! Who knew one woman with the surname Dance would actually entice us all to dance? And it was beautiful, joyous and extraordinary.
I can’t promise any of these things in future workshops, it will depend on the interests, passions and talents of the women in the room, but I can promise one thing. We will join a tribe of women world-wide who are marching into older age to the beat of our own drums and banging them loudly in support of each other.
Beginning as the kernel of an exciting idea on a walk along Aldinga Beach in January, The Best is Yet to Come is now taking on a life of its own. Its website is now live, the first blog published and the Instagram account @thebestisyettocome101 is about to track our progress.
The next weekend workshop will be held at co-working space, Intersect, in Adelaide on 13/14 July and we are open to the idea of conducting these and other similar conversations with older women anywhere! We have no idea where it will go from here but we have open minds and hearts and look forward to seeing how it evolves and taking those next steps.
Will you join us?
Let us know your ideas, what you’d like. We’d love to hear from you....