An open letter …
On living communally
We come together in summer in irregular ways. Hot, tipsy, temporarily unchained from work and duty, we make for the seaside, where we shed our everyday skins and bake in the same vast oven tray. We come together in great tribes, wider family, friend of that friend, roaming between beach and bach, stoking the barbecue, seeking supplies, pickled in cider, soused with lemonade, awash in salt-andvinegar chips and boysenberry double scoops. And in the act of living communally, we are revealed to each other.
You assume you know a cousin because you’ve seen him recast from buck-toothed menace to suave charmer, or a colleague because you’ve observed her compulsively scanning Trade Me for ragdoll kittens when she should be processing invoices, but it’s not until the many intimacies of being together and away, of sharing accommodation, meals, childcare, it’s not until all that collaboration and compromise is thrust upon us that we can properly know one another.
During New Year, we camped on an island, three families of four. Then in early January, my husband, kids and I descended upon friends both kind enough to have us and lucky enough to have houses in one of those sleepy, coastal towns that decuples in size at summer’s height. And as we temporarily lived among and alongside each other, I marvelled at all the rules we self-impose, the many small and odd rituals that guide the way each of us moves through this world.
Quite possibly those who camped with me already had their suspicions as to my controlling tendencies. But after I planned the menu, did the shopping, and guarded our limited supplies with an iron fist, they would have been left in no doubt.
Though they know me to be an active relaxer, I imagine they were still surprised by my inability to sit, to stop pottering, always finding new chores, thinking ahead to the next meal. They learned that I never take milk with my muesli and like my bread buttered to the edges. I thought they might have been impressed by my systemising of the chilly bin so that nothing goes to waste, at my eking out of a block of cheese in order to feed many, but I fear they were more perplexed.
The walls were made of more than canvas on our second trip away, but we were seven kids and five adults in a smallish house, and they would have been quick to note that while I am perfectly chipper in the mornings, I usually look a fright. I sleep deeply and vigorously, throwing myself about, and by morning hair is scruffy and nesty, and cleavage deeply creased. Perhaps, regretfully, they even heard my snores. When you live in close proximity you see how others parent, loose on some stuff, not on others. You see how a couple’s relationship rolls, how the holder of the upper hand is fluid, and all the small tendernesses that tape them together. You discover your super-fit friend’s daily vice of early-morning honey toast and milky tea, and this small anomaly charms you. You learn from a friend more laidback than you could ever dream of, that an unpeeled carrot is not so bitter after all. And you realise life is made more meaningful through kinship and
Gloria found last week’s column on culling timely. “I have a large drawer full of scarves … 99 per cent of which I haven’t worn for many years. When I suggested to my daughter today I was going to send the entire contents to the Sallies, she threw up her hands in horror and protested loudly. But my resolve is firm; I will upend that drawer and become scarfless by nightfall.” Recently June, 78, has been binning photos. “Who are these people? Rubbish. Where were these photos taken? Rubbish. What about these blurry ones or the ones too ugly of me? Rubbish. I have got rid of 500 and there are 1000 to go. I am not taking any more photos. They will have to put up with the ones I have selected at my funeral.”