An open let­ter …

On liv­ing com­mu­nally

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - MEGAN NICOL REED - Do write. megan­ni­col­reed@gmail.com

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

rec­i­proc­ity.

FOL­LOW­ING ON

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.”

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