Potential Space

by Alexandra Guhde, PsyD

Oysters, here in Australia, are delicious. Whether you choose the native Ostrea Angasi; the abundant, spiky Pacific Oyster; or the petite, flinty Sydney Rock Oysters, eating these shellfish is an antipodean holiday tradition. 
Seafood shops stay open late into the night on Christmas Eve, so people can bring the freshest possible oysters to Christmas lunch. Indeed, one of my favorite rituals, since arriving in Australia, is eating oysters in the sunshine on December 25th. There is something about the sensuousness of the experience that makes the holiday feel especially relaxed and especially Australian -- earthly, and embodied. Life, here, is meant to be lived and enjoyed through the senses. 
Australian holiday feasts include all the typical yuletide traditions: turkey, ham, mashed sweet potatoes, stuffing, casseroles, pies and custards, and lots and lots of wine. Only the oysters -- well, and the prawns -- gesture toward the reality that Christmastime in the Southern Hemisphere falls just after the summer solstice. Winter is long gone. The days, now, are bright, and hot.  
Deprived of its seasonal, pagan underpinnings, Christmas in Australia feels strangely unmoored. People buy potted Norfolk pines for their balconies, and Christmas crackers to tug apart at family gatherings. The shop windows are festooned with tinsel and powdery fake snow. People take their children to see The Nutcracker, or to sing at church. "Silent Night" and "Little Drummer Boy" play in the background in air-conditioned department stores. But, the psychological experience is almost entirely different. 
I do miss the quiet of the snowfall, and the Northern way of turning inward -- toward the inner darkness, and that celestial, poignant spark of firelight -- and the reflecting back on what was, and has passed. But, gazing outward, onto the dazzle of diamonds skipping across the cobalt blue of the harbor, it is easy to focus on what might yet be, or what is becoming. The new year, arriving as it does, in high summer, is filled with sunny possibility. Beginnings, here, are more palpable than the endings. 
My partner's grandma, Shirley, who is in her mid-90s, adores oysters. Last year, for Christmas lunch, my partner brought an extra dozen -- just for her -- and she polished them off with ease. Sadly, 2017 has been a year of decline for Shirley, as she slowly succumbs to dementia. She recently lost the use of her legs; her body simply cannot remember how to move them. She loses names and words, and often confuses the hospital with her childhood home. She has lost interest in meals -- but not in oysters. 
So, her family brings her three dozen a week, minimum. And, like the Walrus and the Carpenter, she eats them gleefully, every last one. Her memories are slipping away, but today, she looks forward to the physical pleasure of eating oysters. This, she remembers. 
In Irvin Yalom's recent book, Creatures of a day: And other tales of psychotherapy (2015) -- which is no less affecting than it is gentle -- he quotes a passage by Marcus Aurelius, "All of us are creatures of a day; the rememberer and the remembered alike." 
It's a freeing thought.

Enjoy this holiday season, and these final days of 2017. And, eat some oysters.