Where’s your village?

“Year 12 farewell assembly. The tradition is they walk up the middle stairs while staff form a kind of honour guard. One student was hanging back and I wasn’t sure why. Then his friend arrived who has a knee injury and can’t handle stairs. He was waiting for her, and he piggy backed her all the way up. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my school!”

On average my facebook posts probably gather 5 likes each. Even the cute pictures of sugar gliders get maybe 10 or so likes. But this post, by the end of a single day, had 44 likes. This story resonates. People go “awww! That’s beautiful!” There is something about people looking out for each other, going a little further to help each other out, and quietly being there for each other, that speaks directly to our hearts.

Do you know why? I think it’s because we know it’s missing from our lives most of the time. In general we live incredibly isolated lives. It’s not that we don’t have friends – most of us do. But we don’t see them every day. We don’t necessarily notice if we don’t speak to them for a few weeks running.  Huge upheavals can happen in their lives without us ever knowing, even though we love them very much.

I don’t believe we do any less, care any less, or love any less. We have friends, we have work, we have busy, busy lives. But what we really don’t have, most of us, is community. Many of my closest friends live 10, 20, or even thousands of kilometers away. We are pretty good at keeping in touch. We call. We email. We facebook. But we don’t live next door. We don’t always notice the pauses in the conversation that might mean something has gone badly wrong, because we are all so busy that pauses happen all the time. Packed into those pauses might be the death of a parent, an episode of depression, even an ambulance trip to the emergency room, and we might never even know.

If you ever find yourself stuck in the middle of the sea
I’ll sail the world to find you
If you ever find yourself lost in the dark and you can’t see
I’ll be the light to guide you

Find out what we’re made of
When we are called to help our friends in need
You can count on me like 1, 2, 3
I’ll be there
And I know when I need it
I can count on you like 4, 3, 2
You’ll be there
‘Cause that’s what friends are supposed to do, oh yeah

Count on me – Bruno Mars.

We don’t know our neighbours beyond a cordial chat when we happen to be getting into our cars at the same time. We certainly don’t drop by to borrow the proverbial cup of sugar. We don’t walk to school and get to know all the families on the way. We don’t shop at the local shops and know the shopkeepers’ children. We live in huge cities and commute from one side to the other for work. We shop at massive shopping centers surrounded by strangers.

George Monbiot argues that this is killing us. In our busy striving for individualism and wealth, we are losing contact with the very things that bring us the deepest satisfaction and contentment. I’m really lucky, I find many of these things at my school, with both staff and students. There is a sense of community there, beautifully exemplified by the piggy back, that fills a vast hole in my life. I can’t imagine leaving, and it breaks my heart a little each time we say goodbye to the next crop of year 12s.

But not everyone can work or study at my school. Not everyone will find their community in their workplace. And whoever we are, however introverted, however independent, we need community. We need that sense of people looking out for us, and that meaning and fulfillment that comes from looking out for others.

I think what we’ve failed to recognise is that friends are not the same as community. Community is, of necessity, a local thing. If you start to feel depressed and can’t bring yourself to call anyone, people who see you every day might notice and have the chance to help. But if your friends are all remote, they’re not likely to notice until the time between phone calls becomes obvious, which could be weeks, or even months. If you break your leg, have a sick child, or a sick parent, and you don’t call for help, community has the chance to notice because of the change in your routine.

The problem is that our cities are built in ways that actively discourage community. Our houses are getting bigger and our fences higher. Our local shopping strips are dying, to be replaced by huge, impersonal shopping centers miles away that we have to drive to. Our public transport, which at least allows us to walk through our neighbourhood on the way to and from our very remote jobs, is slow, erratic, and expensive. Everything about our town planning encourages us out of our neighbourhoods, into our cars, and away from any potential community we might otherwise build.

And the trouble is I think it takes a community to fix it.

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What I’ve learnt from my students

Monday night was our valedictory dinner – a chance to say farewell and “keep in touch or else” to our amazing year 12 students. There were speeches, and dancing, and crazy selfies, but most of all, for me, it was a chance to reflect on the incredible impact these people have had on my life (and to promise not to cry – a promise I expect to break on their last day).

My job is to teach, and to do that I need to learn so much. Fortunately I have had the most amazing teachers.

They have taught me that first, second, and even third impressions can still leave you with no idea of what lies beneath. Sometimes all you have to do is provide the opportunities and stand well clear. When you give someone the chance to fly, rather than clipping their wings, that’s when you find out who they really are. Sometimes, without meaning to, teachers wind up nailing their students to the perch. Remove the nails, open the cage door, and the most unexpected students are capable of spectacular flight.

I have learned that teenagers get really bad press, but they are intensely generous and selfless. They care enormously about the world around them, and they change it for the better every single day.

I have learned that a sense of humour is far more important in a classroom than a carefully prepared powerpoint presentation. I have also learned that chocolate trumps both.

I have learned that while we are watching, caring for, and helping our students, our students are watching, caring for, and helping us.

I have learned about mindfulness and self control.

I have learned about leadership and teamwork.

I have learned that one of the most important things you can do for your students is connect with them and learn who they really are (and give them chocolate).

I have learned that one of the most important things you can do for yourself is connect with your students and show them who you really are (but they don’t give me chocolate very often).

I have learned that the spaces outside the classroom can often be the places where magic happens. The shared TED talks. The photos. The desperate waiting for the new series of Dr Who. The heart-stopping moments of shared panic (you know who you are). Those precious moments of human connection.

I have learned that my students have far more to contribute to my classes than I ever will. I have learned to follow where they lead, and be amazed by their insight.

I have learned that my worst and toughest days can be turned around by a conversation, a bottle-neck dolphin, a funny exam answer, or even a carrot. I’ve learned a lot about carrots.

I’ve learned that every group of students I teach changes my life.

Above all I’ve learned that my students may only be on my roll for a year, but they are in my heart forever. They will go forth and change the world, and I am, and will always be, proud to say “They are my students. They taught me so much.”

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Behind closed doors

Astute readers may have noticed my posts have been more negative than usual lately. It’s not purely because Australian politics is so depressing that I would rather stab myself repeatedly in the eye with a fork than read the news. It’s not solely because the Australian media would rather write about Kim Kardashian than Elizabeth Blackburn. It’s not only because climate change is the most urgent and terrifying threat the world has ever faced, and we are largely ignoring it in the face of our desire to own newer phones, bigger tvs, and spa baths.

I am just too tired to be positive right now. Imagine dragging yourself through the day having had no sleep the night before. Now imagine feeling that way every single day when you’re getting a solid 10 hours sleep a night.

That’s where I am right now. In July I had a virus. It didn’t seem particularly severe at the time, but it left me with a mild heart condition and constant, dragging exhaustion. The heart condition is not life-threatening, and should resolve in time, and really there are many, many people with a lot more to fuss about than I have. But I am struggling.

Had I injured my foot, I’d have posted about it by now. Had I broken my arm, I’d have been telling people left right and center. But I have persisted in an uneasy silence that feels counterfeit. Saying “Fine, thanks” and turning the conversation to others when people ask me how I am. I’m not entirely sure why. I guess I hoped I would get better much faster than I had. I didn’t want to cause a fuss by saying “I have a heart condition.” And in my early 20s I was chronically unwell for several years, and I didn’t want to think I was going back there.

But I have to say no to lots of things. I have to sit still, to save my strength, to keep my precious, tiny energy reserves for just getting through each day intact. And I am starting to feel that by constantly saying “I’m fine” when I’m really not, I am distancing myself from the world around me, and particularly from my friends. I’m not very comfortable with deceit. I’m more a “shout it from the rooftops” kind of girl (surprise!).

It’s been worse since we got back from holidays, as I have come back relaxed and tanned, so everyone is saying “oh, you look so well!”

I haven’t had the heart to break it to them that sun-tan and energy levels are not correlated.

So here I am, dragging myself from one day to the next. I’m back to riding to work, so I must have more energy than I had last term. I’m hoping that riding regularly and eating better will help me climb back up to something approximating normal (at least for energy levels – can’t make any promises on behaviour). And I’m saying “No, sorry, I really can’t right now” to more and more things, and trying not to feel guilty about them. I’m trying to accept that my usual mission to be all things to all people is on hold for the moment.

But perhaps it’s worth considering my story next time you are grumpy with someone for not being there for you. For always turning down your invitations, or for not looking like they’re enjoying the dinner they finally did show up for. Maybe they just can’t. You never really know what’s going on in someone else’s life.

 

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Snap goes my heart

I got home tonight to messages on my answering machine. Sad, tearful messages. She had left the hose on. She thought it might have been on for days. She hoped it wouldn’t cost too much. She was so sorry for causing trouble. She really didn’t know how it had happened. She never meant to cause any trouble. She would pay for it, it was all her fault. She never meant for it to happen. She was utterly distraught. We listened to the message, open mouthed at the confused and distressed child in her 70s, for whom the world was just too much. Whose tsunami of confusion and horror was breaking over her head every moment of the day. It shattered my heart into a thousand pieces.

The next message was calmer, matter of factly saying that the hose had been left on, she was very sorry, and there might be a large bill, because she thought it had been on for a few days.

By the time I called her back, only a couple of hours after the messages, the whole thing was forgotten, but she was lonely and tearful. We had the same conversation we have every time, where she told me I work too hard, and I need to cut down. Where she told me she wanted to see me but didn’t want to be a nuisance. Where she said she wanted to go to the beach, because she hadn’t been for ages, although she was there only a week or so ago. Where she asked when she would see me, and when I told her Monday, said it had been ages since she had seen me – when could we get together?

When I suggest she see a doctor, her fear and confusion turn to intense aggression. She is so afraid of doctors, of finding out that there is something wrong with her, that it turns her confusion into anger that can cause volcanic scale eruptions for days, so I don’t suggest that anymore.

Her fear and sadness clutch at my heart and make me breathless and tearful. I hold her and tell her it will be ok, but I know it won’t. I know that there will be ups and downs, but that the inexorable downward slide is gathering speed, dragging us all down into a morass of grief and trauma, with no way out, no escape for any of us in any direction I can see.

I want to tell my kids that it will be fine, but I can’t explain away the evil claws that clutch my heart when the phone rings. I protect her as best I can, but I have to protect myself and my family too. I distance myself to stay sane and functional, and I try to pretend that my foundations are not being eaten away by the corrosive demon that is dementia.

I forget things and ice stabs into my brain, whispering “it’s inherited, you know.” At 43 I know that changes may already be visible in my brain, and I don’t look for fear of what I might find. The research suggests staying mentally active is the best defence, so I push myself to the limit every day, desperate to build a seawall between myself and the imaginary rising tide that threatens to sweep my family away.

I want to protect her. I want to escape her. I want to help her. And I am as helpless as that confused and ageing child.

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How could you, Mr Abbott?

I spent the holidays with my family having the most wonderful holiday I can remember. We went to Heron Island, where not only were our myriad food issues just brilliantly catered for, we made breathtakingly wonderful new friends, and relaxed properly for the first time in years.

The reason we were so relaxed, apart from bonding with fabulous people, was the Great Barrier Reef. We snorkeled for hours every day, and without fail we saw new and wondrous things every time. We didn’t have to leave the island, we just stepped off the beach, put our masks in the water and were overcome with the incredible biodiversity all around us.

We swam with turtles, who were magnificently unconcerned with our presence.

green turtle

We discovered sea beds carpeted with cow tail rays, shovel headed rays, and white spotted eagle rays, so camouflaged against the sand that we often didn’t notice until we swam right over the top of them.

sting rays

We saw fish and coral of astounding colours and variation, and learnt bizarre and wondrous things about the lives and behaviour of a myriad of weird creatures – like the sea cucumber who can squirt out its internal organs at you when it feels threatened (I do feel that “Stop, or I’ll throw my kidneys at you!” doesn’t sound like the most frightening of threats), the sea star who can casually drop off one of its legs and feast on it if it feels like a snack, or the beautiful reef sharks who are harmless to humans, despite their clear and slightly creepy resemblance to their larger brethren.

While walking among the coral at low tide we had an Epaulette shark swim right up to us and pose, helpfully, for photos.

Epaulette SharkAnd we saw brilliantly coloured sea stars just hanging out on the rocks. Sometimes literally, as they eject their stomachs in order to digest large food.

Blue Linkia Sea StarI could rave on for pages and pages about the astonishing and wonderful things that we saw, but overlaying the trip was an overwhelming, desperate sadness. This richly biodiverse environment is under catastrophic threat, and our politicians seem to be actively hastening its demise.

They do things like ignore the overwhelmingly strong evidence that human driven climate change will spell the end of this kind of environment in an alarmingly short time, doing away with an effective carbon tax and subsidizing coal and fossil fuels to an absurdly uneconomic degree. They approve coal ports in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef. They decide that this stunning environment and all its creatures would be the perfect place to dump dredging spoil.

They are trashing our environment, our world, and our future, for reasons I cannot possibly begin to fathom. They may not be  playing dice with the universe, but they are playing God in an all too tangible and destructive fashion, and we don’t have long to stop them before this exceptional place is gone for good. And that will be just the start of our woes.

Fish and coral at Heron Reef

What right do we have to wantonly and irrevocably destroy this most remarkable place for a fistful of dollars? And how do we stop it??

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Dying to talk about it

When my best friend, Di, died I felt a subtle pressure to stop talking about her as soon as possible. It wasn’t that anyone told me I should get over it, or asked me not to mention her. It was that talking about death made people visibly uncomfortable. We were young – she didn’t make it to her 25th birthday – and most of us had never faced death before. Never been struck across the face with it, never felt its shockingly cold breath on the back of our necks.

This stark evidence that death could swoop down out of clear skies was something nobody wanted to remember. But grieving silently – hell, doing anything silently – is just not me. So I write about her. Talk about her with the patient few who let me bare my soul to them. And hold her close in my heart every day.

And still we pretend that death comes at the end of a long and busy life, a blessed relief when strength has dwindled. That we are immortal, right up to that final moment. That we will never lose the ones we love. And I think this is a terrible mistake.

Three years ago my cousin, Chris, died – another death that struck like an atom bomb on a sunny day. No warning. No farewells. One day full of life and love. The next a gaping hole in our lives. Last week I saw him in a dream, and I hugged him and cried – knowing even in the dream that he wasn’t real, but so grateful to see him, to have the chance to hold him again.

But seeing as this was about death, I didn’t tell anyone about that dream. I hugged it to myself, and buried the melancholy memory deep, so as not to make anyone uncomfortable. My daughter was 8 when Chris died, and she loved him dearly. His death ripped her foundations out from under her, as she confronted the shocking awareness that death could strike at random and rip her world apart without warning. Much the same way Di’s death did to me when I was 25.

I wonder, sometimes, whether we would both have coped better if death was something we were allowed to talk about, rather than a deeply uncomfortable taboo. If we retained the matter-of-fact honesty of childhood, talking easily about our feelings and our grief.

Years ago I had a miscarriage, and because I was open about it I found that tales of grief and loss, of miscarriage and infertility, began falling around me like petals from a tired rose. So many of my friends had borne their grief in silence, because that is what we think we are supposed to do. We don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. We don’t want to go on grieving longer than we think we should. We don’t want to bring everybody down.

But maybe talking about death could actually bring everybody up. What if all that honest and raw emotion could provide comfort to others coping with feelings they never see anyone else show? What if that real and current experience of death could provide just a little cushion, as people see that death does strike without warning, but that kindness, compassion, and time make it possible for the rest of us to go on living even so.

What if people saw each other suffering, and grieving, and struggling, and knew that they weren’t alone?

What if we actually talked about death?

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Fitting your own oxygen mask

I read a beautiful thing on another blog today. Titled “Today I lived,” it is a poetic tribute to all the times we want to turn away, to scream, to hide inside ourselves, but we don’t. We want to scream at our kids, but we don’t. We want to slam the door, but we don’t. We want to shut the world out, but we don’t.

The trouble with that lovely tribute is that some days all I can see is all the times I have screamed. The students I couldn’t reach. The problems my kids had that I wasn’t sympathetic about. The doors I did slam, and the actions I regret.

When we do the Successful Thing in the evenings to remind ourselves of what we have achieved lately, I try very hard to give myself credit, even for the little things. To remind myself that however bad the day felt, I did stuff. I got up and went to work when I wanted to stay in bed. I solved a tricky programming problem. I helped someone. I used the stairs instead of the lift – or, when I’m sick, I remembered to use the lift instead of the stairs and actually ended the day still functional. That’s a score, in my book! Yet some days it’s really hard to come up with even a small success.

Have you ever listened to the safety briefing on a plane and actually thought about those oxygen masks? “Be sure to fit your own mask before helping others,” is the standard line. Which makes sense, because you can’t fit the oxygen mask on your toddler if you have passed out from lack of oxygen yourself. I think those days when I can’t find anything to write for the Successful Thing are the days when I haven’t fitted my own oxygen mask.

Recently I offered to run a short mindfulness session at work, before school, once a week. Part of the reason I offered was that I knew that this way I would at least get one mindfulness session in per week. Mindfulness is really hard for me to maintain on my own. I know it’s incredibly good for me. I know I am happier and calmer when I do it regularly. Yet it’s the first thing to go when I get busy or stressed – even though it’s most important at those times! But if I have promised to do it for someone else, I will do it. I’ll prioritise fitting someone else’s oxygen mask, but not my own. When I set it down in text like that, it sounds really crazy. But it is who I am.

I was talking to a friend the other day about how hard he is on himself, and I was dispensing sage advice by the handful. “Don’t beat yourself up when you feel like didn’t measure up on a day,” I said. “Work out what you can learn from it, and try again tomorrow. And above all give yourself credit for the stuff you did achieve today.” This, I think, is a form of mindfulness. This is being aware of your whole day, not just the bits that hurt. And this is being kind to yourself. This is also advice I am very bad at taking myself.

It’s really easy to get caught up in what your kids need. In your responsibilities at work. In making time and putting in effort for everyone but yourself. Especially if you are unwell, as I’ve been over the last few months, and your energy and time are so constrained that there just isn’t enough for everyone who needs it. It’s really easy to put yourself last. To not fit your own oxygen mask. To wind up slamming doors, screaming at the kids, and losing it at work. So far over the edge that you can’t even see it with a telescope.

For me, at least, the way I often respond to these events is to beat myself up for not being the parent I want to be. The friend I want to be. Or the teacher I want to be. And this is an ingrained habit that is hard to break. But I am starting to realise that it’s easier to replace a habit than to break one. Focusing on not doing something is like trying not to smile – more difficult the harder you try. So I am planning to try focusing on doing something instead. I’m going to work on fitting my own oxygen mask. I’m going to try to take those days as a warning – like an alarm that goes off when the plane begins to depressurize – instead of taking them as failure.

Today I’m going to go for a walk, and meet a friend. Tonight I’m going out to my favourite restaurant in all the world, and tomorrow I’m going to get some marking done, but I’m also going to spend some time lying in the sunshine with a few back copies of Cosmos magazine. And I’m going to breathe. Deeply. And maybe that way tomorrow will be better than yesterday, and I will remember to fit my own oxygen mask next time, before the doors slam and the screaming starts.

 

 

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