Just a bit discombobulated!

If ever there was a time to use the word discombobulated, this is it. It’s been a long and unsettling summer but just as the air clears from the ravaging bush fires and Autumn touches her umber paint brush to the leaves on the trees, we find ourselves, yet again, in a surreal world for which we have no experience.

Life has changed dramatically, but also looks remarkably the same. The sun still shines, the grass is still green, buildings stand and there are people and busses and work to be done and bills to be paid. And yet, we suddenly find ourselves in a world where an invisible foe has thrown our daily rhythms and patterns into complete disarray. 

Perhaps most starkly, we are being asked to forego something that is intrinsic to our nature – social contact.  Jazz hands have replaced handshakes for now but perhaps we might soon find ourselves confined to onscreen conversations and WhatsApp Wine time. Social distancing is difficult because it is foreign, and as a result uncomfortable. We like gathering in groups – park runs, church services, footy games, the theatre and on and on. So much of our life is built around connecting to others, and so much of our wellbeing comes from being in community with others. To have this disrupted leaves us confused and clearly in a state of panic.

I think a lot of (my) anxiety comes from endlessly anticipating possible outcomes. Will someone in my family get sick, will we run out of toilet paper, will we go into lock down, will the schools close? We have so much access to information, but it’s hard to separate out the facts from the fear and general nonsense – and we tend to trust anecdotes and advice from friends and family more than our leaders. This pandemic situation is inherently uncertain. The lack of control, and perhaps general distrust in the system, creates a sense panic. Panic takes on a life of its own, seemingly unstoppable, as the nation gears up for an anticipated “lock down” (that has yet to be flagged as appropriate). Social contagion and mob behaviour interest me but being in the middle of all those empty shelves is scary.

Lock down? Even that phrase sounds ridiculous. As if we’ve been thrust into a dystopian novel. Just watching Years and Years was unsettling, and this has some of the same feels. Perhaps that is the thing – we’ve only really experienced this type of thing vicariously, on the screen or in history books. It feels familiar, but only at a safe distance – one you can leave behind and head into a coffee shop to recalibrate from.  

But of course this is not a dystopia. It is a situation that requires an unprecedented response, one of which we are capable. For once, the enemy is not our fellow humans, but one that we can jointly fight together. We have a strong health care system, largely intelligent leaders and a plan of attack. We are a stoic nation of fair minded people, most of whom will call for calm and kindness, and not resort to violence over toilet paper. The sun will come up tomorrow, and at some point, life will return to some semblance of the ordinary.

I lurch towards anxiety in the daily course of normal life. In an effort to maintain some sanity and keep my mind still, I am practicing being present: being in the moment and interrogating it for joy. I am tending to the garden of my own mind, and trying to clear it of the weeds of fear that could so easily take hold.

Yesterday I bought a plant, admired the beauty of the setting sun and enjoyed sparring with my kids over the dinner table. Today I walked the dog in the silver dewy stillness of morning and listened to the birdsong that continues unabated in the blue sky of today. This crisis will pass but focusing all our energy on hanging in there and just waiting for it to end also feels like a waste of precious time. Life goes on, whether the road is in shadow or the light.

Perhaps this is a lesson for life in general?  Although we feel most comfortable moving purposefully forward, meaning is found in the moments we have and the perspective we take within them. Despite the upheaval of our best laid plans, there is still beauty in the world to bask in, avenues for our curiosity and space for reflecting. Perhaps the gift of these torrid times is a reminder to slow down and enjoy what we have, when we have it, rather than always focussing so intently on the future.

The Lion and the Buck

It’s the eyes you notice – yellow intense slits that look right through you and pin you to the spot as surely as a butterfly laid out before a lepidopterist. Even though we are technically safe in our land rover, it’s an open plan version with no glass windows and only air separates us from the wild animals. A belief that the lion sees us as one with the land rover – an elephant sized, not very tasty rock-like-thing – contributes to this sense of security. But still, we are wary. If it had a mind to, the lion could kill us all without breaking a sweat.  Fortunately, he is more interested in lovemaking this fine spring day. The female of his affections lies not far away, and we infer a close intimacy between them, a sense of partnership and care.

We see a lot of the lion this trip. Two males, two females, and they are majestic. Lithesome and fluid in a way that only felines are.  Early one morning we come across one of the lionesses, lying alone under a tree. She is surrounded by several hyena. The hyena are considering an attack. Gathering in groups, calling to each other, casting sly glances in her direction, they skitter about the dry plains unsure as to the best course of action. The lioness feigns indifference, an epitome of stillness, but she is alert, keeping an eye on them and her escape route. For reasons known only to themselves, the hyenas give up the idea and move on, a rambling pack of rangy chattering carnivores, not as pretty or as powerful as a lion, but an essential part of the ecosystem. 

Into the scene wander some kudu, slowly munching on the available leaves in the parched landscape as they make their way to the water hole. The lioness is instantly alert, moving like water she pads across to a copse of trees, lowers herself below their eye line. Will they come this way? She lies in wait… and we too wait in breathless anticipation with her. The air is still. A vulture circles way up high.  In the end, something alerts the buck and they scramble away, snorting warnings to others in ear shot. The lioness shrugs, takes a long drink and ambles away, passing not a meter from us, with barely a backward glance.

Nature at work. It’s a privilege to witness it first hand, and we can imagine the dulcet tones of David Attenborough narrating our experience.

I think a lot about the order of things on this trip to the African bush. What luck to be born a lion, what poor luck to be born an Impala, to live in constant wariness of hungry passing carnivores. But, of course, neither the impala nor the lion has the capacity for self-reflection in this way. This is a uniquely human trait, a result of the evolution of awareness of self (which we share with some animals – the other primates, dolphins, elephants, some birds) combined with expressive language and episodic memory that gives flight to imagined alternative realities.  It is this that has led human animals to create gods, cities, Nikon cameras, pop-tarts and machine guns. And, more positively, being able to imagine someone else’s lot has led to the development of universal health care, the abolishment of slavery and a charter of human rights.

Is awareness a gift or a curse? The impala may be skittish but is probably content with its lot – not knowing any different. Not subject to ruminations or worry, which seems to be the downside of it all. Of course everything fights for its survival. Even as we watch on a night drive, a leopard fights off a hyena to protect its hard-fought-for prey. But conscious awareness, this seemingly rare capability, feels precious. More precious than humans grant it, most often blunt to its suggestive power and harnessing only what is required to blindly justify cognitive biases and the intuitions implanted by ignorant ancestors. The Buddha extols an Impala-esk mentality as a way towards inner peace. To practice acceptance in the face of life’s inevitable unfairness is the only way, apparently, to mitigate suffering. But I think there must be something in balancing the gift of awareness to shape a world where the luck is more evenly distributed, with accepting that we live in a world of self-interest, and that we can only do our bit.

There are other lessons to be found in this largely unspoilt landscape of eat or be eaten. Balance is another concept I reflect on during our travels. Balance is everywhere – central to life, its primary operating system. But despite our human desire to assign agency to everything there is no mind sitting behind the desk keeping tabs and tallying columns in this nature-driven accounting system. Life is just balance in action.  When things are out of balance, life flails. Too many elephants leads to overgrazing and too little food, which leads to starvation and death, which allows the food to regrow and elephants to recover.

I reflect to on compassion and cruelty. These also seem to be quite specific human traits, although perhaps not entirely. We fear the lion, but the lion won’t kill for pleasure, and the impala are safe from a frenzied attack by a narcissistic lion with a fragile ego. We ourselves are safe from that lion because there is abundant buck for the lion to chase, and he is not hungry nor sees us as food. It is humans who are the wild card, who can’t be trusted in matters of cruelty. Why is this so? It is depressing to think on it. Perhaps this is where it is best to take heed of the Buddha’s advice not to dwell in the mental landscape of things you cannot change. But it would seem to me that there is much we can learn from watching the animals, our distant brethren, out on the African savannah, if only we would apply our conscious awareness to do so.

On death done well.

I reflect on my dad, as always, as we approach the anniversary of his death.  How is it seven years have passed already?  I had to look it up. It seems impossible, but time is relentless. It moves us away from things and blurs them in our memory. I have the sense of him often in my life, but I have made it a ritual to actively remember my dad at this time. Each year I deliberately and determinedly relight this metaphorical candle in my mind, to keep his memory alive in the expanding experience of my life.

As another family friend finds himself in the same place, I reflect on how well my dad died and the value his dying time gave to his life, and to all of ours as well.

My dad had a good death, in the end, when the struggle and fear had run its course and acceptance had sunk in.  Sometimes I think he lived more presently in those last few months than ever before. In this sense, cancer gave my dad a gift. Given time to die, he had time to come to terms with the battles of self-doubt that had left ravaged scars across his mind since he was a young, abandoned child.

I have many wonderful memories of my dad from his dying time. Making light of things at a family dinner, crooning into a corona bottle-turned-microphone, and turning our teary dread into laughter and smiles. He threw himself an “I’m dying” party and looked on with utter surprise at how the lounge room overflowed with people. Free from the ego focus of achievement and concerns with what others thought of him, he was able to see how connected he was into his community. With an end date clearly on the horizon, he had time to know with utter clarity that he was loved – wholly and completely, exactly as he was.  

We – his children and his wife – never left him alone in those weeks and months.  Not even in hospitals or the hospice, not even overnight.  Not while he slept, and most certainly not while he was awake.  We juggled schedules and long-haul flights and stood vigil with him as his body slowly decayed. He was surrounded, always, by his family – the thing he valued most in life. In private we wept – oh, how I cried in the dark on that kitchen floor – while he had long overdue conversations with his brother, his friends, his family. How he would have loved the funeral – with every seat filled, his sons and those he considered the same, weeping while they carried his casket. With so much to reflect on, so much people wanted to say, he almost missed his own cremation. The irony of that would have made him rumble with laughter. He was late for everything.

I don’t believe in fairy tales. I know that the bits of matter that made up the pattern of consciousness that was my dad have been re-absorbed into the universe, perhaps already recycled into other lifeforms. But I move my arms through the air, through the universe itself and know that everything that made him is still here, somewhere, scattered through the fabric of existence. And it is a comforting feeling, a connecting feeling to know that we are all part of this same fabric, regardless of our origins, our rituals or our stories. We are connected through time and space to everything that is, or was, or will be.

All of us, everything from newts to mountains, from dolphins to dinosaurs, from the leaves on the trees and the sand on the beach will one day find ourselves, again, in the belly of a star.  But before then we have this gift of consciousness with which to love, to think, to question, to laugh, to hug, to cry, to explore, to be kind, to learn, to grow, to appreciate, to create.  Just this moment, a minuscule millisecond of the universe’s heartbeat, in which to live with awareness.  May we all live more, and fear less.

On doing, rather than being…

6AC368C3-A67B-4729-A13B-98D5C4EDAEAC.jpegThe thing I am not very good at is sitting.  Being still.  Waiting, contemplating. I tend to jump right onto things, without thinking too much about why. I am restless, I suppose.  I rearrange the furniture a lot.

I believe I am a person who likes an action plan. I like to know where I am going, when I will get there and how many steps are involved. Which is ironic really,  since I feel like much of my life has proceeded without alsuch rigour.  As such I seem to spend a lot of time meandering around in  circles, looking for the door to the next level.

I have spent all my life wondering what to be when I grow up, and now, in the firm grip of middle age, when one should surely feel accomplished and grown up and settled, I am more confused than ever. How can I feel so old on one hand (gravity is not my friend), and so lacking in authority and gravitas on the other?  I do not feel grown up at all, but the face in the mirror says different.  

This feeling of inadequacy, of limited expertise, is a narrow view restricted to new things of course,  not the vast expertise gathered  in a career I never really intended and never have felt particularly zingy about.  In continually seeking something fresh to be, I feel like I have spent all my life hovering around the starter blocks, endlessly dabbling.

As I gear up for my first exam in over two decades tomorrow, two things occur to me 

  1.  I should really be running through my notes rather than pontificating on the meaning of life, and
  2. Maybe I don’t know where I am going, or why I’ve take up a degree in brain science at this point (except that it is fascinating stuff), but what I have come to realize is that it’s not about being something. It is not about some potential endgame.  It’s just the thrill of doing.

I really should know this about myself by now and be more accepting of the way I engage with the world. I enjoy doing new things, experiencing things, expanding my mind and engaging as fully as I can in the possibilities of this one precious conscious life I am lucky enough to have.  And the very nature of seeking new, means one very seldom gets to be an expert in them.   Maybe if I took time out to think about it, one day it might sink in! 

Life lessons from the Mud

There was mud, a lot of it.  Stinky, sticky, slurpy mud that sucked off people’s shoes and clung with a desperation of an addict to legs and feet and knees if you happened to sink that far into it.  There were heights – tyres and ropes and walls to be scaled.  There were small spaces to crawl under, things to jump over, bars to swing upon and slides that offered a free sinus rinse if you landed with your nose close enough to the water.  Yes, after three years of wine-inspired, slurred statements promising “next time, count me in”, I finally got up the courage to do one of these Army Reservist style challenges.    And you know what, it was okay enough for me to say, sober and still wrangling with mud in my undies, “I’ll do it again next year.”

Worry is a funny thing isn’t it?  I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of my one precious life worrying about things.  I’d been anxiously gnawing at fingernails about this for weeks, creating narratives in my head about how hard it would be and how much of a disaster I was going to be doing it.  On the morning of the great event, I was in that hyped-up space I fall into when I fly – all nervous energy ricocheting around in high pitched tones, stupid jokes and shallow breathing.

But, once we were underway, and reality took the place of the stories I had created, when the what ifs that run rampant around my head were replaced with the actual doing, everything changed.  Yes, we were still running but I was keeping up.  Well, I most certainly wasn’t last and those echoes from childhood memories of cross-country races and being charmingly referred to as running like a LEMAC (that’s a camel going backwards – thanks Dad) weren’t a reality.   And yes, we were still going over heights that made me think WTF am I doing here, but over I went, slowly, surely and successfully. And boy, did it feel good to toss up the idea of circumventing the obstacle, slip on some brave pants and do it regardless, and land safely on the other side.  Dopamine rush.  Or something.

Self-help coaches by the dozen tell you to face your fears, as a pathway to overcoming them.  And it sounds trite, but it really isn’t.  When you walk into your fears and succeed in spite of them, your sense of capability grows and your fear of failure (death, pain, looking like an idiot and so on… you know, failure) shrink.  At least, that is what I discovered about myself on this energy intensive expedition out in the mud-splattered paddock.   And I suspect then, that the fears we have at an intellectual or emotional level – about taking creative risks, for example – would suffer the same fate if we were just prepared to put on some brave pants and give it a go.

The thing that made it all possible and worthwhile and fun, though, was being part of a super duper cool team of wonderful people.  Together works better than alone, when you are a human (also true for most animals).  Being helped, encouraged, physically lifted, checked in on – all the actions of meaningful teamwork and friendship – gave me such a buzz.   Together not only works better, it feels better.  It feels good to be part of a group of people who care about each other, who watch out for each other and who seek to achieve something together.

And that’s the thing I would go back for.  Not the mud or the heights or showing off upper body strength (#wishfulthinking).  The thing that would draw me to it again is the shared experience.  The feeling of togetherness and friendship.  The laughter in the recounting of the tale over red wine and chocolate, and the memories the mud created.

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Snowy lessons in Christmas.

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Christmas Day dawns quite unceremoniously in Cervinia, nestled in the outstretched arms of the Italian Alps.  While this quaint ski-town is bedecked with sparking white lights, and the odd decorative reindeer, the shops will be open today and people shall go about their business with, apparently, scant regard to the occasion.

This was the first year the kids have openly acknowledged us as Santa 1 and Santa 2.  But, they still wanted stockings (which we told them they weren’t getting for reasons of logistics) and a sense of seasonal specialness. The kids went to bed last night with a little less wide-eyed wonder, remarking that it doesn’t feel like Christmas. Happier this morning, waking up to the surprise of secretly packed stockings at the end of their beds.

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It is a lesson about the value of rituals, and the feelings of well-being they give us.  Rituals matter far more than beliefs in creating a sense of place and a sense of belonging.  In my pursuit of intellectual honesty, it is perhaps worth remembering that.

Still, here we are in this beautiful place, doing beautiful things.  The scenery is spectacular.  The village is covered in snow, which made arriving in our heavy cars without snow chains a somewhat farcical event.  The kids are caught in wonder, and immediately launch into snowball fights and snow cave making.  The food is, as one would expect, simply gorgeous.  We eat “typical products” (like cheese and smoked meats) by the bucketful.  For dinner one night we try a fondue specialist.  Yes, even with the dairy allergic son.  He gets to cook his own steak on a sizzler, declares this his favourite restaurant.  Excellent it was too.

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To get to the ski-fields, we have to take a gondola up out of the village, over the first range of peaks and onto the mountain itself, where sunlight dances off the freshly ploughed, brilliantly white snow.  Above us, the backside of the Matterhorn, Toblerone triangular all the same, rises into the bluest of skies, and just across the saddle of sharp peaks criss-crossed with ski lifts lies Switzerland.  All across the horizon, a sea of mountain peaks shimmer in the haze.  It is unbelievably picturesque.

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I am most definitely a beginner skier, and it is only on day three when I finally get the hang of it enough that a glimmer of pleasure overtakes the abject terror.  This is, of course, the moment I take a spectacularly inelegant tumble off a ski lift and twist my knee in a direction it definitely wasn’t designed for.  And that’s me, done for the moment, three days into a ten-day holiday in the snow.  So much for improving my rather shaky skills.  On the upside, I got attended to by the Italian Red Cross, and got a ride on a skidoo down the mountain – siren going all the way.

Today, Christmas Day, we are having lunch at a restaurant that is only accessible if I ski in.  It is going to be interesting.  Let’s hope the over-priced knee brace works, and I haven’t forgotten how to turn.  Snow ploughing down the mountain is going to be a painful endeavour to say the least.

Even without skiing, we are here with friends who are almost family, catching up on years of distance, sharing old memories and making new ones.  The kids form vibrant friendships, with giggles that overtake restaurants and dare my kids down slopes bigger and faster than they could have imagined possible.  And to me, this is what the spirit of Christmas is really all about – making time in our busy lives for family, friends and the small rituals that anchor us in our worlds.

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Merry Christmas, everyone.

Growing up – the both of us

Something’s happening in my house, and I’m not sure I like it.     I am becoming increasingly irrelevant to my tweeny-child.  Irrelevant is perhaps not the right word, but it’s hard to think of one that better captures my feelings. She turns her nose up at suggested activities that were once a mainstay of together time – like baking, or playing a board game, watching TV or going for a walk.  She’ll leave a room if I settle down in it.

She’s perceptive enough to know something is afoot, even if she can’t quite understand it herself.  When she gets up to leave, she’ll throw some sort of excuse over her shoulder.  Something like “Oh, it is too hot in here” or “Mhh, I wonder where my book is?”  I recognise that in that action she knows she might be hurting my feelings, and cares, but still would rather be somewhere else.

This is happening quite a bit, and to be honest, my feelings are quite bruised.  I feel a bit like a bad smell, and it’s rather unpleasant.  I’ve started down a well-worn path of taking it personally, thinking things like “After all I sacrificed…” or “What have I done wrong…?” or “What’s wrong with me…?”.  And judgemental crap like that.  It’s nonsense, and I know it’s nonsense.  But rationality doesn’t stop those thoughts from at least having a jiggle around my head.

Because, deep in my heart I worry that it’s because I am not the fun parent.  I don’t know when I stopped being fun.  I think it was during labour.  I am the parent that says no to donuts, fizzy drinks and questions their desire to eat sugar for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  I am the parent that yanks them off their devices and deprives them, apparently, from the source of all joy.   I am the parent that makes them do their homework, and calls them out on it, and gets them out of bed and yells at them when they are late for school.  I am the worrier parent (oh, how I wish that was the warrior parent, but, at least in this telling, I am not) who tells them to look out for stranger-danger and reminds them, every single time they venture to leave the house, to look both ways when they cross the road and not to be drawn in by strange people peddling puppies.  I am the one that  asks them where their Epipens are, and whether they have checked whatever they are eating for nuts.

I don’t mean to imply the other parent doesn’t do his share of un-fun parenting.  He does, but as the one who has been there for most of the hours of their days, and is slightly more neurotic, I have more un-fun facetime with them.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, thinking your kids would want to be with you more if you were more fun to be around.  It’s easy to blame yourself (we are mothers with guilt overload after all) and wonder where you went wrong.  But it’s a dangerous game of ego that, and has nothing to do with reality.   Of course, I suspect I’ve done lots wrong but that’s just parenting 101.  No need to get knickers in knots about it.

I realise, perhaps more than anything else, these feelings relate to my role as mother and how it has formed a central part of my identity over the past decade.  As the designated primary care giver, being fundamental to their lives has largely defined who I am for so long.  And now that things are changing, that role is becoming less relevant.  I am not irrelevant, the role is changing. 

Because this is nature taking its course.  It’s the drift, right?  The growing up, pulling away, becoming an adult thing that is supposed to happen.  I should be patting myself on the back, congratulating myself for making it this far.  It’s not got anything to do with what I’ve done right or wrong in the parenting department.  It’s about change.  It’s a new phase, a new stage and I suspect it is time for me to look at what new parenting skills I need to redefine and forge a stronger and improved relationship with my soon-to-be teen.

Like appreciating her need for space, and acknowledging that it means I too can have space.  And finding things that matter to her, in her new world to connect around.

It’s parenting at the next level, and it comes with some perks.  For instance, I know when she connects with me, she really wants to.  Sometimes she pulls me into a hug at bedtime, a fierce hug where I almost feel the child within her still residing, and we lie on her bed and discuss the thoughts going through her head.  My constant admonishment to myself is:  listen, make her feel heard and try very hard not to offer unsolicited advice.

And there are the flashes of the adult she will become.  Her passionate outrage at the mistreatment of animals and the inherent cruelty of human beings, her desire to know more about things that are now within her intellectual reach (like how stuff works and the origins of the universe) and the types of outdoor interests she now pursues.

But more than my relationship with her, there is the space for me to refine my own identity.  Space to work, space to write, space to eat in great restaurants, space to travel and time for theatre, museums and artistic adventures.  Space and time to dedicate to things that interest me, as a human individual, not just as a mum.  Space to grow into a bigger, better, more complex version of myself.

She’s not the only one growing up.  I am discovering that if you let them, your kids help you grow up yourself.