I was burning through regional Victoria with M: a social change consultant-entrepreneur, friend and some-time colleague, our sedan bound for Shepparton, a two-hour straight shot north-west of Melbourne through scorched expanse, wilted gums, and that eerie empty loneliness of the Victorian bush.
We’d been up at the crack of dawn each morning that week, bee-lining for a different regional hub. M ran focus groups for health sector clients, gleaning pithy info from cross sections of sample participants for a range of different projects. I was on board as resident wordsmith: distilling notes, collating reports, listening for ‘take home messages’. Our sessions delved into topics as far and wide as ocular health, and the efficacy of green organics waste infrastructure. A writer’s job is a mixed bag; you often strike inspiration in the most unlikely of places.
We arrived to Greater Shepparton in good time, anticipating the arrival of the first groups in the fluorescent carte blanche of the town’s civic community centre. Shepparton, home of the SPC cannery, Campbell’s soup, and one of the largest ‘Savers’ stores in the state. So too, an aging population, a high level of smokers, a large Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, and high prevalence of diabetes – risk factors associated with vision loss, the topic of the day’s interest.
I parked in the corner of the room at my timekeeper’s table and kept watch in the shadows, noodling away at another day’s proceedings. But today’s sessions held a different tenor, and one group in particular stuck out. When the ‘over 60s’ group shuffled in, what began as a standard round table on health and wellbeing became an inadvertent consultation on time’s fragile passage – an impromptu commentary on the realness of life, and what, in the middle of it all, was important.
The dynamics of the session had a classroom feel about it, and in the introductory moments, each participant offered,however relevant to the day’s brief, a sweeping confessional of their life and times.
There was Barbara, 81, bonafide knitter, mum of 14, town resident since secondary school.
Don, recently retrenched from the cannery: “Me wife keeps me busy with a half hectare. She clips, and I tidy. Good combo.”
We met Diane; Helen; Elizabeth, all lovely grandmothers in their own right, with rich lives and mixed bags of tales of love and loss.
89-year-old Ray bruised our hearts: “Lost me good wife four years ago. From now on, it’s a bugger of a life.”
And with little complaint other that a worn out left knee, Kevin – grandad of five, farmer of sheep, crops and dairy – bombshelled the room by casually dropping his age (95, and looking 80 at best, prompting understated disbelief, and a swift “You’re jokin’” from Don).
It wasn’t until we got around to Morris, sitting pensively by his good wife, Dawn – married for 58 years – that we unveiled some real pith. With head of hair and beard whiter than Colonel Sanders, 83-year-old Morris riffed on his existence: childhood in a sugarcane town, leaving school at 12, cutting cane at 15 (“20 tonne per day”), enlisting in the army for the better part of a decade.
When the sugarcane gig dried up, Morris hitched across to the frontier west, getting lost in the unforgiving enormity of the unchartered Australian countryside. He professed a love of reading and writing, and had, evidentially, developed a keen passion for poetics and philosophy in his wanderings.
At this point, M was querying the group as to what sort of messages the public might respond best to, in order to help boost the importance of looking after their eyesight. She went around the room. Most offered common sense angles (“a good TV ad, I reckon: like the one with that John Clarke and Brian Dawe”). Morris, looking every bit the contemporary of Plato and Epicurus in the gardens of Ancient Greece, held court and offered an alternative take:
“The greatest disease facing the human race today is lack of contentment. The greatest sin is desire for possession. All of us suffer from anxiety state. We worry, we’re full of fear. Fear is only temporary; regret is forever. And if we don’t look after ourselves, we’ve got five senses, and sight is one of the most valuable.
The room fell silent (barring Don, who muttered “yep…,” nodding like he was about to give the same answer).
Morris, milking the stage, sustained his measured, script-perfect oratory, quoted Gibran and carried on the treatise:
“A wise man once said ‘Are you troubled by the many baits that mankind professes? Are you lost in the valley of conflicting beliefs? Do you believe that freedom of heresy is less burdensome than the yoke of submission, or liberty of dissent safer than the stronghold of acquiescence? If this be the case, then make beauty your religion and worship your goddess, for she is the visible manifest and perfect work of god.”
Perhaps Morris prophesied that his long-hungered moment in the spotlight would at last come to pass at the Shepparton civic centre that morning. Whether prepared verbatim, or off the cuff, it was a tidy performance. Without eye health, we can’t experience beauty, the abundance of which surrounds us every millisecond we dance on this runaway rock in the middle of cosmic nowhere. Little more reason for an ocular appraisal than that.
M and I drove home through the dusking haunt of the twilight bush that night, back to our city lives. We contemplated the take home messages of the day. Morris’s words didn’t make the client’s report, but they lingered like an itch.
Fear is only temporary; regret is forever.
The rural philosopher, flying high a mile above the bush, as we all fuss and fan about in the blind thick of the trees.