Bittersweet anniversary

 Di and me20 years ago tomorrow she woke with me at 5am so we could get our hair done. Laughing at the stories my sister told, we were at the hairdresser’s by 5:30, home again by 6:30, giggling over makeup, lingerie and flowers.

I vividly remember one photo in the back garden, under a huge deciduous tree, sunlight filtering in through the dense canopy. 3 bridesmaids in gorgeous purple dresses, two page boys with matching purple bow ties and cummerbunds, and one blissed out bride, surrounded with love and laughter.

Di spent much of the day rearranging my dress, making sure I was where I needed to be, taking care that I didn’t trip over myself or fall in the lake when the sunlight hit my veil and sparkled with blinding intensity. She was my stability, my sanity, and my laughter.

When we arrived at the zoo she was there to help me out of the car. She gave me everything she had that day, and though I was there to marry my fiance, I also felt intensely bonded to Di. She was integral to my wedding, and to my life.

Just over two years later, she was gone.

My mum wanted me to have one of my sisters as Maid of honour. “Friends come and go,” she said. “Your sisters will always be there for you.” And to be sure, Di and I had our ups and downs. When the flame burns with aching intensity, it’s bound to flare from time to time. But the hole left in my heart when she died makes it crystal clear that our friendship was built to last.

There is so much she should have done. So many things we should have shared. So much she should have been.

Her death left me broken, but perhaps also more empathic, more compassionate, and more vividly aware of the fragility of life. 20 years on, our wedding anniversary is bittersweet without her here to share it with us.

My oldest daughter’s middle name is Dianne. Recently a friend asked her who Dianne was, and it reminded me of the day Di died, when I stumbled over to my husband’s office, too distraught to see, speak, or think clearly. After I choked out the words “Di is dead,” his office mate said “Who’s Di?”

Who is Di? Di is my heart.

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Connections

“Studies have shown that inducing fear about the way things are, without simultaneously giving people a sense of purpose, can actually suppress their immune system – it will make them unwell.”

John-Paul Flintoff in “How to Change the World

Climate Change is a perfect storm of this kind of fear – it feels too large for us to have any impact, so it is depressing and demoralising.  But imagine if you rode to work a few times a week, or started walking to the local shops rather than driving. And imagine if that small act inspired one or two other people to try the same. And they inspired others. Suddenly you could have exponential growth in people using feet rather than cars – huge change, not just in your own network, but spreading out into the world. All from the example you set by changing your habits in a public, visible way.

In “How to Change the World,” the School of Life‘s John-Paul Flintoff points out that our every action, or inaction, does change the world. He argues convincingly that those of us who are no Gandhi or Martin Luther King nonetheless have an impact with everything we do. Sometimes we make things seem possible by showing that they can be done. Sometimes we teach people things, whether we meant to or not. Sometimes we inadvertently show people what not to do.

Perhaps, rather than being pure threat, climate change is an opportunity. Perhaps some of those things we need to do to tackle climate change – use less fossil fuels, grow more of our own food, learn ways of living more sustainably – are actually opportunities to build local communities?

I have noticed that walking to the local shops leads to lots of small conversations with local people – those tending their gardens, or checking their mail, or even getting in and out of their cars. When you are speeding through a neighbourhood doing 50kph in a big metal box, not only are conversations with people on the footpath impossible, you are most unlikely even to catch someone’s eye. On my bike, I have got to know the runner near my kids’ school. The guy who spends a lot of time in his driveway, working on his car. The gardener around the corner. The girl with a skateboard down the road. A couple of teenage boys at the local high school who like the look of our box bike. And countless others.

I don’t necessarily know their names, but they are tangible connections in an increasingly disconnected world.

One of my long held gripes with my suburban lifestyle is the lack of community. So often we step from our houses directly into our garages and then into our cars, sacrificing any opportunity to feel connected to our neighbourhood. We pick up the kids from school by driving up to the gate (or as close as we can get) and honking the horn. We are too busy and too stressed to arrange playdates for our kids, and when we do we frequently drop the kids and run, taking the opportunity to be busy, busy, busy – terribly productive, and terribly disconnected.

Perhaps this, too, is an opportunity. Perhaps I’m not the only person seeking a local community. Perhaps I’m not the only person worried about climate change and trying to live more sustainably. Perhaps I can find ways to build my own local network. Perhaps you can, too.

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Who is under the makeup?

I’m disturbed by the “no make up selfies” method of raising awareness of breast cancer. There’s a vibe about the whole thing that these selfies are somehow brave, different, and radical. Really? Exposing your real face is brave? What is so scary about your actual skin?

Who have we become, that make up is not a fun way of glamming up for a night out, like a formal dress and sparkly earrings, but an essential part of our day to day routine? Why do we tell ourselves, each other, and our daughters that their faces must be hidden behind a thick layer of goo in order to be acceptable out in public?

“Oh my gosh, I ran to the shops without make up, just to get milk, and wouldn’t you know it? I ran into someone I knew. So embarrassing!”

Here’s my confession: I don’t wear make up anymore.

At all.

Not ever.

I used to wear the occasional bit of eyeliner and mascara, but the truth is it always seemed like a lot of work for a pretty small return. I certainly couldn’t be bothered plastering goo all over my face. I don’t even do it for formal occasions.

And you know what? I’m not ashamed of my face.

I don’t have any problem with people choosing to wear make up, and I do understand that it can be fun. Indeed, I like to use purple hair chalk and paint my arms with henna from time to time, when I want to look a little different.

What bothers me is the assumption that make up is compulsory. That being seen without a layer of paint is almost as embarrassing as being seen naked. I understand the desire to cover up spots and blemishes, but really? Everyone gets them. It’s just skin. These days when I get a spot I don’t give it a second thought. I’m not interested in being judged on my face anyway. My best features are my heart and brain – judge me on those by all means. My face is not who I am.

I’m often struck when I’m walking or riding around my local area by the way I am suddenly part of the world, rather than shielded from it by a car. In a car you are separate, just passing through. On a bike or on foot you are in the world, experiencing it in all its messy glory.

I wonder if make up is a little like a car – it’s a shield. Armour against the world. A barrier between our insecurities and anyone who might judge us.

When I first stopped wearing make up I was a little self-conscious. What if people judged me? But these days I don’t even think about it. This is me, spots and all. But then I started seeing all these no make up selfies going around. And they worry me. This is bravery now? This is radical? To show the world your real face?

How did we get here? How on earth did we arrive at a place where showing your own face unadorned is an act of radical bravery? And how do we get back?

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The time to be happy

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years thinking “Once X is over, I can be happy,” for varying values of X. Once my kids are a little older and more independent. Once I get rid of my chronic pain. Once my Mum’s dementia is diagnosed and managed. Once my Dad’s cancer is under control. Once this term is over. Once I get this marking done. Once the weather is better. Once my allergies sort themselves out. Once I finish this latest onerous task in a long list of onerous tasks.

It has finally dawned on me that I am indefinitely postponing my happiness, and making a lifetime habit of stress. Today on facebook I saw a friend’s newly created “meditation space”. In it, she had framed this quote: “The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now.” It struck me how incredibly apt that was, so I googled the quote and found the full version:

“Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so.” Robert Green Ingersoll.

It doesn’t roll quite so trippingly off the tongue, but in its entirety it is profoundly poignant. Here and now is all we can be sure of. Five minutes from now anything could have happened, but right here, right now, we are alive. We have friends. We have loved ones. And whatever frustration and trauma we are experiencing, or more often predicting and hence dreading, we are here. Alive, vibrant, loved, and loving.

It’s so easy to get caught up in a state of perpetual stress and panic. Too much to do, things moving too fast, and, especially pointless, too much to fear. Things that might happen. Traumas that tomorrow might bring. People who might give us trouble. Pain that might result from our actions.

So often, these things don’t come to pass, yet a roaring river of moments rushes by unnoticed, because we are so busy being churned up by our expectations of things that never happen.

Mindfulness is a great way to pull yourself back to the present moment, but sometimes mindfulness is pretty difficult to access. Even when you know it’s worthwhile. Even when you know how much it helps you. Sometimes you just don’t feel like there is time or energy for it.

That’s where the last part of the quote is almost miraculous. “The way to be happy is to make others so.”

I know of no better way to get your head out of your own… troubles… than to focus on alleviating someone else’s. To care about someone else. To make the time to wonder how someone else is doing, and how you might improve their day.

Recently I had cause to wander through the city of Melbourne with my two gorgeous girls, one at a time, a week apart. The first time was with my newly minted 11 year old, who saw a vendor of The Big Issue and insisted I stop to buy a copy. I commented that I had wondered whether to wait until I saw my usual vendor, Gordon, and she said “Just buy one while you see it, Mum!”  The time to be happy is now, indeed. This particular vendor could not speak clearly, not manipulate his copies of the magazine with his fingers. I asked him for change and he gestured towards his money bag. I hesitated, not wanting to take liberties, and it was my daughter who knew what to do, who quietly took charge and sorted the situation.

A week later, as I walked past a different vendor with my 7 year old I noticed that it was a new issue of the magazine, just as my 7 year old nudged me expectantly, and pointed towards the vendor. It was clear to her that it was time to buy a Big Issue, because she knows that’s what you do. The place to be happy is here.

Today I was home with that same 7 year old, who was mildly unwell. She oscillated between being pretty miserable, and wanting to play. I spent the day half heartedly trying to work, while actually feeling pretty tired and miserable myself, until I gave in to her pleading, and we sat down and played Connect 4. I applied myself to trying very hard not to win too fast, and quickly found that she was far more astute than I gave her credit for. I actually needed to concentrate, and once, as I was smugly preparing a “learning experience” for her, she won before I realised I was under threat. We both spent much of the game laughing and complimenting each other’s sneakiness. There were giggles, high fives, and a great sense of companionship. I felt better than I had all day.

I hadn’t wanted to play Connect 4. I wanted to read, or work, or do other solitary but oh-so-virtuous pursuits. In making her happy, I wound up much happier myself.

Here and now I am alive. Loved. Loving. Fulfilled. And here and now is all there is. I must remember that, next time I am stressing about there and then.

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Work a week in my shoes

I’ve been struggling lately with the requirements of my job. I need to produce a whole lot of documentation – important, valuable documentation, without question, but for those very reasons, time consuming to do properly. I have a lot of marking to do, sections of my courses I want to rewrite, and upcoming lessons to prepare for. I have competitions to run, organisations to liaise with, and struggling students to help. I am feeling a little overwhelmed, so it was a shock when a friend recently said to me: “I didn’t think your job was particularly stressful.”

Since then I have spent considerable time trying to unpick my stress – is it me? Am I simply not coping with what, after all, is an easy and rewarding job? So I started to audit how I spend my time. And time is definitely the issue. But that probably doesn’t mean much to you if you’re not a teacher. So I want to explain to you what my working week looks like. Bear in mind that I am half time. On my days off I swan about drinking margaritas, watching television, and entertaining in my  palatial mansion, of course. After I have finished the work I couldn’t do in my working hours.

I am paid for a 19 hour week (half of the standard 38 hour week). That’s 1140 minutes. Of that time, I teach scheduled classes for 675 minutes. We have 75 minute classes, so I frequently teach for 150 minutes, then get a 50 minute lunch break, followed by another 75 minute class. (Bear in mind that I can’t leave to get a cup of tea or even go to the loo in class time, as I am on duty and required to maintain minimum staffing ratios in that room.)

For my 3 work days, I get 50 minutes lunch break  a day – 150 minutes in total. This is “my” time, so on Tuesdays I help with the choir, Thursdays and Fridays I meet with students who need extra help, as well as doing a 25 minute yard duty.  If you add those “free” times, together with the 25 minute tea breaks in the morning, also usually spent on yard duty or helping students, we’re up to 900 minutes. After school on Tuesdays I meet with my teaching team for up to an hour, planning curriculum, organizing competitions, planning excursions, and making sure we are all teaching the same things. Now we’re up to 960.

On Wednesdays we have professional learning in the afternoon, but I’m only there for 50 minutes of that once a fortnight, due to the way my hours have worked out this year, so let’s call it 25 per week. 985. Thursday afternoons I run an hour of extra programming help for my year 11 students, where they can ask questions, get help with particular problems they have, and go over some of the trickier stuff that they might not have fully understood in class. 1045. Not including those extra meetings that arise when excursions need to be organized, or extra activities run, like competitions, guest speakers, training sports teams, organizing school events etc. It also doesn’t include attendance at Parent teacher interviews (after hours), school formals, open nights, presentation night, valedictory dinner, etc. All of these events come out of my own personal family time. Oh, and school camps, which we are expected to attend, but of course there is no such thing as time in lieu for non-work hours spent at work.

So that leaves me with 95 minutes of my working hours, per week. 95 minutes to plan 7 classes (2 of my face to face classes are covering for teachers who are away, so somebody else plans those), mark assignments for 78 students, track the progress of 78 students. Contact the parents of any students who are struggling. Meet with those parents to try to plan a way forward.  Meet with students who have particular issues. Catch up with students who are no longer in my classes but will always be my students, who come to me for advice. Keep up to date with advances in my field. Plan new classroom activities and learn about new ways to engage my students. Meeting the teachers I team teach with to make sure we are on the same page for upcoming classes. Writing progress reports and end of semester reports. Completing mandatory Education Department requirements, and doing enough professional learning to maintain my registration. And a hundred other activities I haven’t even got time to remember, much less complete.

Let’s cut that to the bare minimum, throw away all those extraneous activities, and assume that the 95 minutes is half marking, half planning. And we’ll round up, to be generous, and say 48 minutes for class planning. That’s 7 minutes planning per 75 minute class. As to marking, I have 78 students on my rolls. That’s around 37 seconds per assignment, assuming no toilet breaks or time to breathe. To be fair, that assumes that every student submits an assignment every week, which of course they don’t. But they all do work every week, which I need to check on to ensure that they are making progress. And those students who don’t submit their work need to be followed up on, to find out why, and put special measures in place to ensure that the work does come in eventually.

The result of all of this, of course, is that I spend far more hours than I am paid for, and still feel that I have not got time to do my job properly. I use my own computer, paid for by me, which I am required to have but which is not provided by my employer (unless you count the wonderful opportunity to pay for an education department computer out of my own pay – the generosity is overwhelming, isn’t it?).

Oh, sure, I could be spending my holidays planning classes, which leaves no room for taking individual students’ needs into account, and no possibility of coordinating with team teaching partners.  That would make that 95 minutes all marking time – just over a minute per assignment. Tonnes of time.

So let me ask you this, all you parents out there: Do you want your kids having 75 minute lessons that were planned in 7 minutes? Do you want their work marked in a minute?  Of course not. And that’s why teachers work far more hours than they are paid for, and collapse into the school holidays almost insensible with stress and exhaustion.

That’s also why, if you have friends who are teachers, you will barely see them during term time. Because taking time off for eating, breathing, and sleeping seems excessive. Having a life as well would be pure hedonism.

I love my job. Teaching is the most intense, most rewarding, and most under-appreciated thing I have ever done. But before you tell me it’s not stressful, and that I am so lucky to have those generous holidays, work a week in my shoes. Better make sure you get the soles reinforced beforehand, because they’re almost worn through.

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Something to Aspire to

On a recent trip to Canberra I took advantage of an unexpected gap in my schedule to visit Parliament House on the spur of the moment. From all around the city you catch glimpses of the spire, standing at the peak of the cityscape, waving the Australian flag from its tip.

Parliament House, Canberra

Parliament House, Canberra

It is a surprisingly impressive building. Disillusioned as I am with politics in general, and the current state of Australian politics in particular, I was somewhat taken aback to be awed by the building itself. It stands alone on the hill, surrounded by sweeping vistas, with a grand avenue approaching it from the front. The gardens around it are gorgeous, and largely native, and there is even peace to be found wandering the paths around the building.

Once you make it inside, there are more grand visions and awe inspiring halls. There are marble columns, gorgeous works of art, high ceilings and sweeping staircases. The whole building seems to stand for magnificence, vision, permanence, and integrity.

Foyer at Parliament House, Canberra

There is a small gift shop filled with fascinating books and Australian made goods, including a wide array of Fair Trade chocolate. There is much to be proud of, and I was inspired by the importance of the building, and everything it represents. I never expected to be – in general architecture is not my thing, and government is usually something to mutter over at best, and curse at worst – but here I was, impressed, abashed, and awed.

A kind and helpful guide, who had clearly seen many visitors in this state, told me I could actually see Parliament in session – the Senate was voting, and the House of Representatives had ” a few people in there”. This fascinated me, so off I went. First I went into the senate, which I always feel has a slightly more solid, respectable feel than the House of Reps. Indeed, there was an extreme formality about the language, and as the session went on it was clear that nobody was particularly invested in these proceedings. Senators were chatting, focused on their mobile phones, or roaming the seats, while a few senators put motions that nobody seemed to care very much about. There was certainly no debate, but perhaps this was an off moment. The Greens were there, Labor seemed to put in a solid showing, and as far as I could tell the Coalition was represented by a couple of token watchdogs.

After a while I left the Senate to wander into the House of Representatives. There are layers of security to go through in order to get into either chamber, and they were courteous, polite, and good humored. I was ushered into the visitors gallery, where I sat to listen to the proceedings. There was a politician in full flight, but it only took a moment to realise this was neither debate, nor impassioned support for a cause. This was an opportunity to sink the boot solidly into the opposition. As I crashed back down to earth, I realised that this was a nutshell summary of the way our Parliament now behaves. Rational debate of issues, evidence based policy making, and vision for the country and its future have no place in our government. It is nothing more than a forum for bagging the other guys.

The tone was, pure and simple: “You guys suck!”

“Yeah? Well you suck worse! So nyer!”

As a child I believed that government was a matter of bold visions, protecting and enriching the land and all of its people. Of building a future we could be proud of. Of carefully considering the evidence and making compassionate and visionary policies for the benefit of current and future generations.

As I left, a flock of galahs gave raucous tongue, which summed up my feelings nicely.

We could be, would be, should be so much better than this.

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Dying for a conversation

Two years ago my Dad died of cancer. The last year of his life we watched him become incredibly frail. He rarely smiled, barely ate, and it became increasingly obvious that every movement was painful. Yet he was lucky. He died suddenly of a heart attack before things got really bad. This, too, was cancer related – the heart attack was triggered by profound anaemia, brought about by the cancer in his bones.
We were all dreading his downward spiral. He was so afraid of it he would not discuss it. He denied until the last that he was dying, even though it was writ large on his face. I have an email from the week before he died, loudly proclaiming his robust health and his expectation of a long future life.
Who knows what choice my Dad would have made, if he’d had the option of choosing a dignified death, and cutting short his suffering. Who knows whether it would have brought him comfort, or presented him with an insoluble dilemma. I have no idea.
I also don’t know what I would decide, if it were me. I am not afraid of pain, and right now my will to live is fierce, fuelled by my children, my husband, and my friends. What I do know, without doubt or hesitation, is that I want the choice.
Right now I am watching my Mum being consumed by the intolerable demon of dementia. It terrifies her, yet I don’t think she would choose to end her life, because that would require her to admit that she is sick.
But what would she have chosen, if she had had this conversation before dementia started to erode her brain?
The Victorian Government is creating a law to give people the power to write “advanced care plans” that specify their wishes in case of future illness, such as cancer or dementia. This stops far short of euthanasia, yet our current laws don’t allow us to specify our wishes for conditions we don’t yet have. It’s a big step forward, and the biggest step is that it encourages us to think about these things before they happen. Do I want to be resuscitated if my brain is severely damaged? if I have dementia and get pneumonia, do I want treatment, or do I want to be able to slip away relatively peacefully?
It is encouraging to see these choices made possible, but it saddens me that we can’t take it one step further. Facing terminal disease, would you rather die peacefully from, say, a morphine overdose, or suffer the long, painful, and traumatic failure of each internal organ, one by one?
Facing the unavoidable collapse of your power to think, feel, and remember, would you cling to life until the very last moment, or choose to control your death, and depart while you still know who you are? There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. The only certainty is that they need to be asked.
I know that I don’t want to live through dementia until the bitter end, abusing my children and lashing out at those who try to help me. I don’t want to be remembered that way.
My Mum watched her own father die of dementia. I think it fuels her fear. Who knows how she would feel if she had been able to say “I will go so far, and no further.” If she had the certainty of a peaceful death at a time of her own choosing. Perhaps it would comfort her, or perhaps not. But I know for sure that if I ever get dementia, it would comfort me.

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