Friday, July 16, 2010

Gathering Your Real Treasures

Gathering Real Wealth.

If you were lucky enough to live to seventy or eighty years of age and, during your last night on Earth, an angel came to give you one last quiet hour to reflect on the greatest treasures of your life, what would you think of in that hour? Looking back over your years, what memories would stand out as the diamonds and sapphires on the chain that has been your life? What has been so important that you would want to spend some of that last hour cherishing those memories?

Of course, this is just hypothetical nonsense, but these little games are fun to play – sometimes profound revelations come from such mind games. I wonder how busy you have been over the past years or decades working hard to build financial wealth: working long hours, investing, playing with the stock market, stressing over home loans and investment loans and rental income and minimising tax.

So many of us are dedicated to the accumulation of wealth and the attainment of financial security because we blindly accept that it is the right path to follow. But, in that last hour, will you dwell on precious memories of your rental properties, stocks, shares, luxury car and financial security?

I’ll play the game first and tell you some of the things I would like to remember as important. Some of the memories are just like small photos that are hazy at the edges, some are like short video clips that captured a few moments of time and feeling, others are great spheres of emotion and images fill my mind like iridescent bubbles.

When I was three I walked along the rock wall at Myrtle Bank, our guest house in the Grampians – I looked down at my older brother playing war games with ants’ nests and then looked up at a pair of eagles circling above the valley. I think that is my earliest real memory rather than one prompted by a photograph.

At nine I had the best dog in the world and he loved me absolutely; for years he was my best friend and he made me feel so loved. At some time in early childhood I held a bird in my hand and then set it free and it felt wonderful. My horses – one after another they canter through my memory, shining like gems. Brief flashes of meeting heroes like Olympians Bill Roycroft, Ernie Barker and Kevin Bacon.

In my teenage years I loved my friends. Every night for year after year I would recite, “And bless Lynette and Janet, Karen and Nicki, Di and Wendy, Gina and Shirley, Peter and Cheryl and Sandra,” and there is an enormous bubble of images of my friends that sits in my mind and heart like a fabulous treasure. Sitting listening to Lynette play the piano. Solving the problems of the world with Karen. Janet’s laugh. Sitting by Peter’s piano and being awed by his ability to play. Hearing Peter and Cheryl sing at our high school concert and then hearing them decades later as world renowned opera singers Peter Coleman-Wright and Cheryl Barker. Ah, my school friends – there is a wealth of memories worth time in that last hour.

Then there is university and falling in love for the first time. The star-walks of love and the fiery pits of rejection. Emotions that roared and faltered like at no other time in my life. Walking with friends on moonlit nights through the Great Court at Qld Uni. Driving from Brisbane to the Gold Coast at midnight because study drove us nuts and we wanted to see the sea. Waltzing at a ball. Crying alone, so alone. Hearing Hot August Night play back to back for a whole year as Steven in the room below lived through his Neil Diamond obsession. New Year’s Eve at Surfers with college friends and standing safe beside them as we stared up at the fireworks. The warm feeling of keeping a distant watch on these friends as the years go by and seeing them become respected, well known, lawyers, surgeons, government officials and so on, and always wishing them well.

My outback years. My horses. The stars that blazed so remarkably. A night at Kooroorinya picnic races when I stood in the blackness and gazed back at the pocket of light that contained some of the best people I could ever hope to know. The smell of death in the drought and the cries of hundreds of lambs abandoned by starving mothers across thousands of brown acres. The rising hope of hearing a voice on the radio talk about ‘storms away in the west’ and the overwhelming, pure joy and thankfulness of watching drought breaking rain, hearing it rattle the iron roof, seeing it pour off the bare earth and start the creeks running. Wildflowers. Storms. Friends. Polocrosse.

And my children. For most of that last hour I would want to remember them. Such beautiful babies. Such amazing young people. I would hold those memories of hugs and smiles and achievements and marvel at their value. Here are the greatest treasures of my life: the words, the looks, the laughter, the tears, the joy, watching them walk and run and play, seeing them learn about life, sitting in a chair with a child asleep in my arms as I breathed in the delicious smell of my baby’s hair, checking on them at night and gazing at sleeping faces, watching them laugh with friends as they collected treasures of their own.

In that final hour, I would not remember rental properties, pay rises, a new car, finances, security, an investment portfolio or anything else that had to do with money. I would dwell on the real wealth of my life: memories of the people I have loved, the animals I’ve been blessed with, memories of the places I’ve seen, the emotions I’ve lived, moments of laughter, times of sadness, the events that moved my heart… this is the wealth of my life.

I’ve played this game with friends and every single one came up with a list of wonderful memories ranging from childhood pets to the good feeling of helping a stranger. These same friends spend more time in the pursuit of financial wealth than they do in amassing these true treasures, but they do come up with arguments to defend their financial blind faith.

They believe that if they didn’t work hard to get the financial security of owning their own house and then increasing that financial wealth with investments, they wouldn’t be able to enjoy their children, friends and country. Wrong. I know people who own nothing apart from a car and some clothes – they work on stations and live in station homes owned by the property owner and they enjoy their children, their picnics, their sports, their friends and everything else that could be considered ‘real wealth’ in that final hour. They did not need to build financial wealth and security in order to have a wonderful life and amass the treasures of life that we will recognise in that final hour.

In your final hour, what treasures will you find in your life?

Dusty the Jinker Pony Becomes a Chariot Horse


In 1970, when I was 11 years old, we had a tank of a taffy pony called Dusty. We had our show horses and jumpers and polocrosse horses, but Dusty was the ultimate kids play pony. I have photos of Dusty with three of us and a dog on his back – we’d ride him (sans helmets) beside the highway to the local shop for ice creams and back again, wouldn’t we be aghast at children doing such a thing today! My fellow passengers included boys who grew up to be a doctor, a lawyer, a script writer and the heir to the some woollen mills, so our foolhardy riding didn’t hurt us…thank goodness!

Dusty also pulled our jinker – just a little two wheeled cart with seating for two. Dusty was incredibly lazy: it took a lot of coaxing to get him to trot with the jinker, he much preferred a slow walk that allowed him to graze as he meandered along the tracks. Then along came an expert: a man who was a self professed horse genius. He had trotters. He knew how to make a horse move properly in harness. My grandmother and aunt didn’t want him to go near Dusty, but he just blustered his way over them because he was going to teach that lazy pony a lesson and get him moving.

We stood near the gate of the four acre paddock as the expert climbed into the jinker and took the reins. He raised his whip and – before we could tell him that Dusty really didn’t like whips – he cracked it over Dusty’s broad butt and roared at him with some, “Get up there!” nonsense. Dusty’s eyes just about popped out of his head and for a full second he stood head up, stunned and still. Then he bolted.

My goodness, that little tank of a pony was fast. We always knew he had no mouth at all. When we politely asked him to slow or halt, he’d politely agree to do so, but if anyone who rode him hauled at his mouth he could just lock his iron jaw on the bit, arch his rock solid neck and go wherever he wanted to at whatever pace he desired with a helpless rider on board dragging uselessly at the reins. He appreciated good manners and I never had a problem with his mouth – softly and politely always had results with Dusty and I found him perfectly safe with a butter soft mouth. Cracking a whip over his bum and yelling abuse at him was neither soft nor polite. So once Dusty hit a flat gallop and the expert began dragging on the reins, he also began to discover than not only was the pony faster than he thought, he was a lot harder to stop.

Like a demented chariot driver, the trotting expert stood in the jinker yelling, “Whoa, Dusty, whoa!” as Dusty charged headlong around the paddock, taking corners like a barrel racer with the jinker on one wheel and the expert throwing his weight about like a man on a little yacht desperately trying to keep his craft upright. Round and round they went. The man applying all his strength to the reins but he was no match for the little tank of a horse who locked that jaw onto the bit and galloped on. We shouldn’t have done it, but we just couldn’t help laughing. Every time Dusty roared past us with his determined expression and the expert with his pale, terrified expression, we just laughed more. Finally, Nan picked up a bucket and shook it as Dusty approached for his umpteenth circuit of the paddock and he hit the brakes, putting his head into the bucket with an angelic expression of delight at the thought of food.

The expert merely stepped gracefully down from his chariot, dropped the reins and humphed something about women and horses, then drove away, never again to show his face at our farm. Dusty looked very smug. I still laugh when I remember the look on the poor man’s face as he rattled past out of control with the pony that he was going to fix up for us. Some ponies don’t need fixing, they just need good manners.

The Sad Story of Barney & the Shetland

Barney and His Mate

In 1983, I was working on a station outside in outback Queensland. A local musterer – we’ll call him Joe here - had a few score of horses on the station where I worked, though his cattle camps were shutting down so he had little use for them. One of the horses was a big Clydie cross gelding called Barney. He’d worked in the camps for a good twenty years – pulling the cook’s wagon and working under saddle dragging the roped cattle up to the branding fire. Joe had pointed Barney and his Shetland sidekick out to me in the distance (the paddocks were about 4 to 6 thousand acres, so horses were usually in the distance) and told me this and that about him, what a great horse he’d been, how strong he was, how hard he worked, how much he owed a horse like that.

Barney was blind. Totally blind. If the other horses left him, he was lost and alone in a very big paddock with a long way to water. And there lies one little miracle of horses: for some reason, the Shetland had made himself Barney’s eyes and never left him. Whenever I saw Barney, there would be the Shetland under his nose, leading him to water or grazing by his forelegs. If the rest of the herd went for a mad gallop, the Shettie would stay with Barney and the pair of them would follow at Barney’s trot, the big horse holding his nose on the Shettie’s back. Apparently they’d been like that for years, I was only witnessing the friendship in its final days.

Then Joe decided that he didn’t need the horses any longer. He mustered them into one of the sets of yards and began drafting them up – left to the doggers, right going back to the paddock. I was at the homestead when the owner’s wife came back in tears – Barney had been drafted left and his Shettie, too small to be of dog meat value, was going back to the paddock. She said Barney was standing head down and shaking and was calling and calling out in terror without his companion - she’d come back to get the money to buy him so that he could go back in the paddock with his mate. She said she couldn’t believe what Joe had done, but he said Barney would be going to the knackery with the others unless he had cash in his hand for him. Joe didn’t trust people, he consider anything sold until the cash was in his pocket, so he wouldn’t keep Barney off the trucks unless he was paid first.

When we got back to the yards, a good twenty minutes from the homestead, it was too late. Barney was standing in a yard quivering, covered in dirt and blood, one foreleg broken, his spirit completely gone. The Shettie was outside the yards calling to him, but all he could do was snuffle softly as there was too much blood coming out his nostrils. Joe had sent him up the ramp onto the truck with the other horses and the old boy had been terrified beyond reason – the jackaroo said he’d gone insane trying to get back to his Shettie and climbed out of the top deck of the truck and fallen to the ground, breaking his leg. Joe didn’t have a gun with him but we had one in the Toyota – standard equipment in a station vehicle because you often needed a gun - so he used it to shoot Barney then dragged his body out of the yards. The Shetland never stopped calling for him.

I can’t think of that horse and his little sidekick without crying – the tears are coming thick and fast now as I’m writing this – to this day I can picture him so clearly, winding his way at a trot between the mimosa bushes with his nose on the Shetland’s back. The way the Shetland looked after him amazed me – still does. The Shetland didn’t really get anything out of the arrangement, he could have had the company of other horses, but he chose to help his friend. To think of Barney in those yards, separated from his ‘eyes’ and lost in fear is just awful. He deserved to live out his days with his friend in the paddocks where they roamed together – but perhaps he could have died a sad and lonely and slower death if something had happened to his sidekick first. It was just the way he died, well, it makes me respect horses a whole lot more and think less of people.