By Damien Porter
What do you do?
What do you do when the clean clear lines of your life path become overgrown? With a garden path we pull out our shears and secateurs, our trimmers and hatchets and we maintain the lines. In life, though, to keep our path clear our tools might be things such as discipline and commitment, effort and persistence, time and sacrifice.
Sacrifice. Yep, this is a big one.
The trick is knowing whether you’re giving something up for another thing of perceived greater value, or whether you’re giving it away at a loss. Too often, in today’s big cities, it’s the latter and we are so preoccupied with keeping our heads above water, in our jobs and home life, we don’t even realise.
So, this “loss”, what is it? It might be money, property, career or status. It might be dreams and aspirations. Worse, it might family or friends, even all of the above. But what it always is, always; is some of yourself. If the gains are as great or greater than the sacrifice, all is good. I don’t need to explain what happens if you sacrifice too much of yourself at a loss.
After 40-odd years of a somewhat challenging family and personal life, 16 years as a police officer, and the pressures of being a father and main financial provider in Sydney, I found I had done just that. I had given away too much of myself. Ha! I say that as if I just woke up one day and it popped into my head. It did not. It took years of ignorance, then years of denial. It took the somewhat third-party viewing of my marriage and family life slowly unravelling. It took 16 years of stressful and distressing work situations. It took years of poor health. It took a “should-have-been-fatal” car crash. It took the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression before it finally dawned on me something really had to change.
We had been going to Cooma for years. It began as somewhere we could take the kids and the dogs and play it by ear – snowfun in winter, farmstays, long walks along creeks and rivers, or a wander around the shops in town and a pub meal. But it became more. Both my wife and I loved the bustling nature of Cooma, so much movement. Everyone we met seemed so relaxed and happy. The town had an effect on us; calming, soothing. We would feel the oppressive Sydney-squeeze relinquishing. We found that each time we passed through the vulnerable, stubborn landscape on our way into town, it was more than a nostalgic holiday tickle harking to paintings and poems of quintessential Australia, it called to our hearts. It made our collective spirits soar on thermals of possibility and belonging. We got it. Those masters, the ones who crafted those paintings and poems, they knew; this is Australia.
Again, I speak as if this was all immediately apparent. Well, the effect on our hearts was swift and (as we were to eventually discover) enduring, but that good old Sydney-squeeze ensured the path to our brains was always overgrown. “We should move here,” one of us would say. “Wouldn’t that be awesome?” the other would reply. Remember, my landscaping tools were failing, and, watching me suffer, so too were my wife’s.
Enter the forestry mulcher of necessity.
Okay, so I’ll be honest, earlier I referred to my realisation of my life and work pressures, the car crash etc. Well, truth is it took even a little more than that to really correct my life-status short-sightedness. What really did it was my doctor telling me I needed to leave my job or the chances of it ending badly were … significant. These were pretty much the words, but what the body language, tone, and disrobing gaze conveyed was far more confronting. “It” meant my life, “badly” meant completely, and “significant” meant almost certain. @#$%! I knew it was true. So taking the advice, I left my job and the only means I had of being able to pay our mortgage and support my family financially.
What now? This wasn’t in the plan. Did we even have a plan? Not really, but this wasn’t part of whatever we had. We looked at many options. Every way to stay. The thorny tendrils of that overgrown path ever binding us to the treadmill of our “life” as we knew it. But it was not feasible. The last thing I wanted was to take the chance of spending five years (I’d almost be 50 then) establishing myself in a new career I then discover I hate as much as the last, just so I can pay a bill. And there it was. If we stayed in Sydney, I knew that’s what would happen because my new career choice would need to be based on a dollar figure not any desire or dream of mine. When I really thought about it, I had no idea what my dreams or desires were anymore. They had all but died years ago, frozen in time. When asked, this broken recording of my dreams crackled from my speaker. It was a speech. Nothing more. We needed to leave Sydney. I needed somewhere I could hear myself and start recording new songs.
As much as we loved Cooma, we were determined to approach such a huge decision with all the caution responsible adults would display (we all know some). We looked at towns far and wide, we read tree-change articles, we looked at top ten lists and property prices and projections. This, of course, was on top of the huge project to get a house ready for sale in Sydney. After much research, we narrowed our list and hit the road. I won’t name the other towns we looked at (all in NSW), suffice is to say, due to isolation issues and in some cases a palpable taste of impending death, we just kept coming back to bustling, humble, cosy Cooma.
Fast forward a year or so and we had done it. Cooma. We jumped right in. Remember those responsible adults? Yep, not us. Now, I don’t want to sound like a real estate ad, but we bought an eight-year-old, four-bedroom brick home on two acres, two minutes from town for $435K. I know, right? I mean, our back drop is a flipping sheep farm, our frontage a dirt road, another two-acre property, creek, and huge dog park. We moved in July (yep winter!), but we like the cold. That said, our fully insulated home, with its fireplace, air-conditioning and gas points, is warmer than our Sydney home ever was. After spring hit, and after repeated jeers from friends that my lawn needed some water, the naked landscape seemed to turn prudish one night, the next day donning a full-body suit of vibrant chromatic splendour. What I never knew was how chic she was. I tell you, sitting on our wrap-around verandah watching, smelling, listening to nature fight for its progeny has been hard to take. The accompanying gin and tonic even moreso!
So that’s home. But we’ve been here almost a year now, so what about schools, lifestyle, community? In a word – brilliant. On the school front, there are three principals breathing fresh, progressive learning into the main primary options. Oh, and we’ve discovered where all missing male teachers from Sydney are … here! For mostly practical reasons, we chose to send our children to St Patrick’s Parish School. We have been nothing but pleased thus far and our children have settled in with little problem. The school community is active and welcoming, the class sizes brilliant, and the teachers are relaxed, knowledgeable, and communicative.
Lifestyle? Most might know Cooma as “that last place you stop before Jindabyne”, and that’s a great point – it’s an excellent place to stop on the way to “Jindy”. There are great restaurants, cafes, pubs, the Snowy Hydro, and some beautiful 1850s architecture. But, did you know Cooma is not only 45 minutes from Jindy, but also little more than an hour from Canberra, the Sapphire Coast, and only 20 minutes from beautiful lakes, waterways and mountain trails, not to mention kilometres of winding roads with little traffic. Skiing, surfing, cycling, kayaking, fishing, hiking, camping, boating – lifestyle ecstasy! Obviously, there are all the usual options such as rugby union and league, Aussie rules, soccer, netball, cricket, and others such as judo, gymnastics, yoga etc. However, this isn’t the best thing about Cooma.
Cooma’s real power is its people.
The one piece of advice I received consistently from friends who grew up in country areas was to get involved with the community. Despite my personal issues, this was something I was intent on doing, as I’m nothing if not a social being at heart. A good friend put me in contact with his cousin (who lived in Cooma) and through her I was afforded a great opportunity before we even arrived. Through discussing the pros and cons of life in the town, I was told there was a need for gymnastics coaches. Bing! I’m a former gymnast and coach. Well, that kinda says meant to be, doesn’t it? At that time, however, I was in the middle of home renovations in Sydney and the thick of my mental malaise. My confidence was low. Actually, that doesn’t begin to describe it. Lower than a miner’s boot soles, a nudist’s inhibitions, Barry White’s belch, a Cooma cold-snap – you get the picture! The thought of working with children and the implicit responsibility kind of terrified me.
Some of you may be asking by now – what about this bloke’s wife? – and thinking boy, he’s a little me, me, me, I, I, I, did she get a say in all this? I probably should have clarified it before now, but hey, I’m on a stream of consciousness here, so don’t bash me too much. Yes, of course my beautiful wife, Kath, got a say. If anything, she wanted all this more than I did. And, when it became apparent she was going to have to dust off the corporate wear and become the main financial earner, she simply told me she was going to get a job at Birdsnest (a local powerhouse business), and she did just that. She had the job before we had even arrived. That’s the thing about Kath. There are times (generally when something is really at stake) she gets this look in her eye, and this posture and tone that says I’m doing it, I dare you to tell me I can’t. It both drives me crazy and fills me with fizzy sherbet love. She gets it from her mother and I hope my daughter does too. Anyway, I digress. How does this relate to the people of Cooma? Well, everyone knows someone who works at Birdsnest. With over 100 employees, community engagement is in full swing. Put it this way, before I had set foot inside Cooma Gymnastics Club people there were reaching out to Birdsnest to put in a good word for the wife of the potential new male gymnastics coach, and, from what I’ve heard there was a minor fervour regarding the new male gymnastics coach among some of the “birds”. I’m sure the main thrust of the buzz was to ensure the young lads of Cooma had a male option should they wish to learn how to handstand. Nevertheless, I imagine the mental picture of this male gymnastics coach, for some, has turned out somewhat disparate from the physical reality of me! Still, it’s nice there was so much positivity.
Ah yes, so I took the gymnastics job. Fortunately for me, a fantastic coach had arrived in Cooma prior to us and had started getting the club into shape. I couldn’t have asked for someone to handle my situation better. I was afforded all the space I needed to find my feet, along with confidence-building reassurance that I had half a clue. What really clenched things was the reaction and support from the children and parents. The people of Cooma. There were few who didn’t offer at least a smile and many who commented how great it was to have me around and how the club was improving with the new management. Almost a year later the numbers at the club have almost tripled. It’s now almost impossible for me to go shopping, or to the movies, or to an event at the kids’ school and not see a student or parent I know from gymnastics and it’s so warming.
The other thing I did shortly after getting to town was join a cricket team. Sport is the life-blood of social happiness and well-being in a country town and Cooma is no different. After placing a call to the first club I found on social media – The Aussie Hotel Cricket Club – it took all of three minutes before I was contacted by the captain. From the first training session I was made to feel welcome. I hadn’t even bowled or faced a ball! After playing a season with these brilliant blokes I feel like I’ve been part of the team for years. What’s more I’ve made other connections through opposition and have been blown away by the support all clubs give to the youth who occasionally make up the numbers. It’s clear the game and what it does for the towns is bigger than ensuring a win by bowling bouncers at a rubber-kneed 12year-old. Our sponsor is the Aussie Hotel, a humble little pub right in the centre of town, and it was there I witnessed one of the most endearing moments I had seen in years. We have an Indian lad in our team and we were having our last post-match drink before he was heading back to India to be married. One of the Aussie Hotel regulars, her face a stark story of her life, approached Harry that evening with a card and a small gift and said, “Harry, you’ve come here from India, you’ve given things a go. You play cricket and you have a beer and as far as I’m concerned you’re as Aussie as any of us!” The people of Cooma.
So that’s my story so far. Almost a year down the road and despite missing my family and friends a tad, I had not a single thought of missing Sydney; not once. My personal wellbeing and that of my family and marriage is the best it has been since I can remember. What I want to say to anyone looking to make a change is find that place that calls to your heart and do it. If you’re having trouble, come to Cooma. You won’t be sorry.