Expectation management

I’ve been thinking a lot about political tactics of late. Tactics that make people shrug and go “oh well, it’s just the way things are done now”. Politicians say things they know to be outright lies, and we go “oh well, what did you expect? That’s politics.”

Gay candidates have whisper campaigns run against them in conservative communities – which seems to me to be unspeakably foul – and we say “well, it works, so of course they will try it.”

I think it’s time we stopped shrugging. I think it’s time we valued decency. I think it’s time we told each and every candidate that negative campaigning sickens us. That we want to know what they will do, and what they believe, not how much they hate their opponents.

A few weeks ago the new Labor candidate for the federal seat of Bruce, Julian Hill, was outside my daughter’s school when I arrived to pick her up. Seeing an opportunity to grill him on asylum seekers and climate change (two of the most urgent and compellingly moral issues Australia faces right now, in my opinion), I went to talk to him, much to the disgust of my kids. (“OMG! Mum, he’s a politician! Gross!”)

I was intending to go in hard, because I am bitterly disappointed by both of our major parties on most issues, and on these two issues I am enraged. I was taken aback, therefore, when Julian proved himself to be thoughtful, considered, and compassionate. I didn’t agree with everything he said, but I could not help but respect the fact that he had thought things through and didn’t just spout a series of pre-prepared slogans, which seems to be the standard political response these days.

I went away and researched some of the things he said and emailed him about them, and he replied immediately. Again he was thoughtful, rational, and decent. I found myself, a Greens member of long standing, contemplating voting for this man. You may think that decency is a pretty low bar to set, but it’s one I think a lot of our politicians would struggle to clear. Decent people rather stand out.

What really struck me about my interactions with Julian is that through talking to him and grilling him on his attitudes to various things, I became much more engaged with the political process. I am surrounded, for the most part, by people I agree with. That’s pretty normal – we tend to seek out people we have a lot in common with – but it does mean that my views aren’t challenged as often as they could be. That, in turn, means that my views aren’t always well thought out (shocking, I know).

I found myself responding to Julian with a lot of “I think”s, so I then went home and set about changing them to “I know”s, or “I was wrong”s by checking my facts. This is another thing there’s not enough of in our current politics. (Incidentally one of the things that impresses me, again unexpectedly, about Ricky Muir – he is quite prepared to find stuff out and be persuaded by evidence. How novel!).

Sometimes when I’m tired and grumpy I don’t like people challenging my views. But I always, always learn from it. (Sometimes what I learn is not to hit the “send” button late at night…)

Whatever your politics and whatever your usual voting pattern, it’s worth engaging with your local candidates to find out, as much as you can, who they are and what they believe in. At worst you might only get chapter and verse of the party line, but that in itself is quite revealing.  If you despise a party’s policies, but then find that your local candidate for that party  has more moderate views, a vote for them can influence the path of the whole party. Even parties who typically vote in lockstep have members with differing opinions who might just be worth supporting.

At best you might learn something about your local politicians. You might even reconsider your own voting patterns – maybe to confirm them, or maybe to change them. It’s a way to ensure that you are voting for the candidate who best represents your personal values.

Best of all it’s a way to make yourself think about what is important to you. And that’s worth voting for.

 

 

 

Our Fearless Leaders

Everybody wants to be fearless, don’t they?  We prize fearlessness, and seem to admire it greatly. But I wonder why? Fearless, it seems to me, is another word for stupid. If you are fearless you either don’t see the danger, or don’t care about it. This is the kind of behaviour that gets you killed. If you are a leader, it is the kind of behaviour that gets your team killed, or kills your business.

Fear saves your life. It gets you running from the moment you hear the deep throated growl in the bushes. It stops you from going too close to the edge of the cliff. It makes sure you don’t go too fast down that hill. Fearless people do all that stuff without thought of the consequences.

Of course, you don’t want to let fear stop you doing everything, which is where the real gold is to be found: Bravery. I want brave leaders, not fearless ones. Brave leaders are aware of the risks, they plan for them, but they take those scary steps anyway, when the rewards are worth it. Brave people listen to their fear, learn what they can from it, and step forward carefully.

Tony Abbott was so fearless that he didn’t believe he was going to lose the leadership right up until the moment he did, even though the rest of the country knew he was down for the count for months beforehand. He was blind, stupid, and utterly fearless, and he was intent on throwing the whole country over his personal cliff. Fearlessness is just dumb.

We see our own fear horribly clearly, but we often can’t see the fear in others. So we assume that people who do the things that we find terrifying are fearless, and we admire them for it. But I don’t admire fearlessness at all. I admire the people who are terrified, and try anyway.  These are the brave ones.

I see bravery every day. I see it in the student who is terrified of public speaking, so she takes opportunities to practice and get better. She is scared, but she does it anyway. I see it in the student who is afraid to fail but who tries things that he has never done before. I see it in the teacher who teaches something he has never taught before, who is scared of getting it wrong but gives it his best shot.

I see bravery in the parents who let their kids stretch their wings when every parental instinct says to hold them close and keep them safe.

I see bravery in the politicians who make decisions that they know will not be popular initially, but that are the right thing to do – like Malcolm Fraser dismantling the White Australia policy and welcoming refugees. We don’t see this bravery very often these days, but it does still happen.

I see bravery in the people who leave their jobs to start a business.

I see bravery in the people who change career and leave their comfort zone.

I see bravery in the people who try, knowing that failure is, indeed, an option.

I see bravery in the people who stand up for what is right, while shaking in their shoes.

We need to make space for bravery, not fearlessness. Lots of things in life are scary. I’m ok with being afraid, as long as it doesn’t always stop me. How about you?

The illusion of control

I am, it must be said, a terrible control freak. Or, if you take the positive view, I am a truly excellent control freak. I am very, very good at it. I like things locked in, nailed down, and spelt out in lists. I have lists of things to buy, broken down by where we need to go to buy them.  I have lists of things to do at work and things to do at home. I have lists of possible gifts for people, and lists of questions I need to ask my boss. All neatly laid out. Nailed to the perch with seriously heavy duty nails.

I have deadlines, external and self-imposed. I have classes to teach, assignments to mark, lesson planning to do, curriculum to innovate, my daughter’s primary school events to be at, yoga classes to attend, and friends to catch up with. All calendarised, listed, and planned.

And I have a virus. It started as a sniffle – annoying, but manageable. I pushed through it. I had things to do. I was a woman with a plan.

It may not surprise you at this point to learn that my virus also had a plan, which involved intensifying into the mother and father of all sinus headaches, and ripping my plan right out from under me.

So here I am, home on sick leave, watching sulfur crested cockatoos career raucously through my local skies. I can’t control the cockies, any more than I can control my virus. There is no magic pill I can take to make it all go away. I can’t schedule a fixed amount of rest time and get better. I just have to rest and wait, and hope it won’t take too long. These things do happen, after all.

Yet it sometimes feels as though we rely on them not happening. We make these plans that have no space built into them for life taking place. We drive ourselves from one busy day to the next, and exclaim that we don’t have time to have lunch,  exercise, take a slower but more pleasant route to work, or have coffee with a friend, because there is too much to do.

We have all these labour saving devices and no time to appreciate them. We are constantly berating ourselves for not doing more, for not achieving more, and for wasting time. We are too busy to be sick. Too busy to allow life to happen.

A friend of mine recently had her hand broken by a stray ball when she was watching her son play soccer. I randomly broke my toe last year running past a couch (they’re dangerous, I tell you!). Viruses, car accidents, heart attacks, injuries, family crises. They happen. And when they do, we handle them.

Because it turns out that we do have time when we really need it. My workplace won’t crumble without me (magnificently indispensable though I like to believe I am). The grass won’t mount an armed takeover if we don’t mow it this weekend. (Although it’s possible there’s an advanced civilization developing under the trampoline – we’re hoping they are a peaceful species.) My students won’t die if their work gets marked a little later, or if the feedback takes an extra day or two to arrive.

We take time when we are forced to, but I can’t help wondering if we’d need less time if we took more time. Maybe this virus wouldn’t have hit me so hard if I made time to be kinder to myself. If my day off, from time to time, was actually a day off, rather than simply a day working at home instead of at school. If my weekends involved more leisurely coffees on the balcony and less hurtling.

Maybe, just maybe, time could be our friend, if we only let it. Maybe we could make it our ally, instead of trying to make it our slave – and winding up slaves ourselves. I’ll think about it. When I have time.

Lonely in a crowd

Locals have left tributes for murdered West Heidelberg toddler Sanaya. There are outpourings of grief and rage, and messages to Sanaya from people she never met. While I understand how crisis brings people together, and sometimes it takes a shock to draw attention, it saddens me that Sanaya’s mum, now accused of also being her murderer, was described in the media today as having 1000 Facebook friends, but no-one in Melbourne she could really talk to.

It feels to me as though we are very good, these days, at signing petitions, attending vigils, and leaving offerings at the scene of crimes. But we’re not so great at drawing isolated people into our community.

We drive to and from huge, impersonal shopping centres without seeing a familiar face. We drive to and from work. We don’t know our neighbours. All too frequently we don’t even socialise with our work colleagues. We’re too busy to put down roots, to know our community, and to see the loneliness on the faces around us – in fact we’re often too busy to see the faces at all.

And some of those faces are struggling. Lonely, isolated, or even trapped in abusive relationships, we give them total privacy, when what they need is a hand stretched out.

My students will tell you I’m not a fan of the Facebook attitude to privacy, but sometimes I wonder if it would be better if Mark Zuckerberg was right and privacy really was dead. I think we venerate it too much. I think we are so concerned with each other’s privacy that we sometimes fail to reach out.

We build fences, create higher walls, and plant screening hedges so that no-one can breach our defences, but maybe it’s our defences that are killing us.

I’m really lucky. I have an incredible collection of friends. We catch up with each other, but frequently need to schedule catch ups weeks or months in advance, because life is so busy. Just dropping in is a luxury we can’t afford – often because we don’t live close to each other. Community is no longer the people around you. That means we can choose our friends, and it’s easier to stay connected with the people we love even when they live on another continent. But it also means that the people we walk past every day are often not people we connect with.

It means when you’re having a rougher day than usual the people around you won’t necessarily notice or care. And it means that when you’re like Sanaya’s mum – struggling and lonely – there may be no-one around you who will smile and reach out a hand. It turns out that we were great at giving her privacy, but not so great at giving her community.

I worry about our future. Online communities can be wonderful, but they don’t see you walking past. I get a lot of support from my Facebook friends, but they can’t pick me up if I fall down in the street. If I couldn’t post for some reason, I doubt my Facebook presence would be missed for quite some time. Reaching out, whether on Facebook or on the phone, is really hard when you are feeling raw and vulnerable. Sometimes you need the people around you to notice.

Of course, it’s not easy to reach out to total strangers, and I don’t know what Sanaya’s mum’s story is. Maybe people did reach out. But I do know that I don’t reach out enough to the people in my own life. There are so many small ways we can keep each other from falling, and I think I could do more.

To check in with friends at work who have been absent for a while, to see if they’re ok. To stop when I see someone is upset, and ask if there’s anything I can do. To arrange more coffees. To send more emails – or better yet, make more phone calls. To really listen when I ask someone how they are, and not just take a quiet “ok” for an answer. To put a flower, a chocolate frog, or a cup of coffee on a friend’s desk when they’re struggling. To take the time to be really appreciative when someone does something nice. Even to admire a new haircut. Just to connect.

Sometimes we all fall through the cracks. Some land harder than others. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all do a little more catching?

 

Mortality

Today’s soundtrack consisted of quite a lot of “I can’t do this“. “This is too hard.” and “Make it stop.” Despite far too intimate acquaintance, I still find death impossible to comprehend. That someone can be a part of your life and then simply gone. Not estranged. Not moved away. Irrevocably removed from the world, on some kind of cosmic whim. I just can’t process that.

Once death has left its mark on you, each subsequent encounter is burdened by your response to all that has gone before. Genuine grief for the current loss can be all but eclipsed by the rampaging onslaught of every other grief that ever carved a hole in your heart, plus all the griefs you fear are coming.

It can leave you shaken and afraid, shying from future possibilities like a startled rabbit. It can make you painfully aware of the ephemeral nature of human existence. It can make you desperate to do everything, to be everything, and to experience everything, before it’s too late.

It can make you afraid of getting too attached, or it can make attachments even fiercer, in desperate defiance of an inevitability you hardly know how to face.

It can leave you curled up inside your own head, avoiding the world, unwilling to look reality in the eye.

It can make you knock down doors and rip up forests in a fever to make a difference, to feel alive, and to be noticed.

It can make you wonder if your own passing would leave a hole.

Death can rip up your foundations and nail you to the floor, all in the same moment.

It can make you desperate for human contact and yet unable to lift the phone to make a call.

We all experience it. We all have to face it many times over. Yet it remains impossible to understand. It is brutal, and shocking. It’s devastating. And it’s a normal part of life.

I’ll never get used to it. I don’t want to get used to it. But I’m not sure how many tears I can shed in one lifetime.

 

Teaching myself not to burn

Tomorrow I start work at 8:20am, teach solidly all day, including over lunchtime, hurtle home from work to pick up my kids, drop one to drama, scoff some dinner and then hurtle back for parent student teacher conferences until 9pm. Being part-time my interviews only run from 5:45 until 9, over which time I will conduct 30 interviews with students and their families. I will likely finish later than 9 – oddly enough,5 minutes is just too short for some conversations – at which point I get to stagger out to my car and try very hard not to crash it on the way home. We are two days away from the end of a term that has been, for various reasons, one of the hardest in my teaching career.

The thing is, I think I have said that about every term since I started – except for the first couple which were, since my teaching career was at that point quite short, the hardest in my life. I don’t remember a term where I finished bright-eyed, bush tailed, and full of energy and ideas for the next term.

And it’s probably true that every new teacher reaches the point where they realise that they simply do not have the resources, either within themselves or within their school, to teach the way they would really like to. There is not time to prepare. There is not funding for resources. We don’t have the time or the energy to give the care and attention to every individual student that they need and deserve.

It is true that I am absurdly passionate about my job. I give it everything I have, which is probably unwise. My boss last year described teaching as akin to fly-in-fly-out work – we work chaotically hard for 10 weeks, and then collapse for two weeks and do it all again. It’s not a healthy work model.

At some point it becomes necessary to pull back and rationalise resources. To slow down. To say no to some opportunities, even though you would love to make them happen for your students, because it would take more than you have to give.

And that’s terribly easy advice to give, but remarkably difficult to apply. “How much is too much?” is a question akin to Piet Hein’s famous grook:

There’s an art of knowing when,
never try to guess.
Toast until it smokes and then
twenty seconds less.

I think last year I toasted until I smoked. And I’m still wandering round dazed and rather singed. I’m trying very hard to adhere to the “20 seconds less” this year, but unfortunately it’s a measure that tends to only become obvious as the smell of smoke fills your nostrils.

This, sadly, is the school model we have built. We are burning our teachers. And every year the government demands productivity improvements in exchange for wage rises. And that sounds great. I’d like to see some productivity improvements. I’d like to see less teachers burnt out. I’d like to see less kids fall through the cracks because their teachers are simply too overworked to see them clearly. I’d like to see teachers ending the term with the energy to plan for the next one.

I’d like to feel as though I have the time to do my job properly, rather than having to settle for second best because it’s all I can manage. The system is so broken that I’m not sure I’m making a difference anymore. I’m ending the term in pieces – again – and I still have tomorrow’s insanity to go. Tell me again how I can be more productive?

Please don’t say you love me

Dear Mum,

We almost had such a good day today. You were unusually lucid – I think you might even have known me. We walked up to your local cafe for lunch. You won’t go there on your own, but we always go when I visit. The owners are so kind and welcoming, and endlessly patient when you repeat yourself, or when you can’t read the menu. They even prompt you, because they know what you like. They don’t need to be told that you have a long black, and that you like to have it after the meal. They bring me extra hollandaise with my eggs benedict.

Every time we visit that cafe I want to hug them, because they create such a safe and welcoming space. A little island of happiness amid the trauma of our relationship.

Today it was almost peaceful.

You asked about birthdays, always afraid of missing one, so I suggested you write a card for Jane and James, your daughter and grandson. You looked puzzled and stressed, but still it was a hammer blow to my gut when you said “do I know them? Do they know me? Will they know who the card is from?”

For the first time my tears came before leaving you, instead of after. I had to excuse myself and hide in the loo, leaning against the door and fighting to breathe, to suppress the tears and be able to come out again smiling.

The rest of my visit was a whirlwind of anxiety. You wanted to go to the bank, but you didn’t know why. You wanted to get money out, but you weren’t sure how much. You thought perhaps you had forgotten that you were meeting someone at lunch. When I took you home and took my leave, you wrapped your arms around me, told me you loved me, and that you were so lucky to have me.

But I don’t feel lucky.

Just please don’t say you love me
‘Cause I might not say it back
Doesn’t mean my heart stops skipping when you look at me like that
There’s no need to worry when you see just where we’re at
Just please don’t say you love me
‘Cause I might not say it back

Please don’t say you love me  – Gabrielle Aplin

I am lucky, I know I am. Because along with your memory, the dementia has taken away a lot of your fear, and most of your anger. Now that you don’t always know who I am, you no longer reject me for every perceived offence.

You don’t threaten me with legal action much anymore. Before the dementia took hold you used to do that if you thought I had committed any of a whole range of crimes, from talking to my uncle – or sometimes even my sister – to asking about Dad’s health.

I’m not even sure if I love you, to be honest. I feel desperately sorry for you, but in truth life is easier this way. You’re calmer now. Maybe life is easier for you, too, without all that rage.

You used to be so afraid. Afraid I wouldn’t do what I was told – you said you wanted us to be independent, but disagreeing with you was a hanging offence. Afraid I loved others more than I loved you – now there was a self-fulfilling prophesy if ever there was one. Afraid people would let you down, or reject you – so afraid that you invariably rejected them – us – first. Your fear made you lash out, and even though your viciousness was objectively ludicrous, it reduced me to rubble every time.

You used to try to bind me to you with guilt. “If you loved me, you’d…”

“If you really cared, you’d…”

“We were up all night because you were so cruel to us… if your father has an accident and dies on the way to work, it will be all your fault.” I can’t remember exactly what caused that one – it was either someone offering me some furniture, or someone inviting me over on Christmas day. Both triggered massive meltdowns, which of course were entirely my fault.

The meltdowns are different and less frequent now, and they never last because you forget so quickly. I visit more often than I can really handle, but not as often as I feel I should. I wonder if it really matters because 5 minutes after I’ve gone you don’t know I’ve been. Still I feel guilty, because guilt is our currency of choice. All my life you have ruled me with the iron fist of guilt.

I mourn deeply, but I’m not sure that I mourn you. I mourn the mother I dreamed of, who loved me unconditionally and would never disown me. I mourn the mother who knew me inside out and loved me outside in. I mourn the mother I could talk to about my fears, who would support me instead of judging me, and who was proud of me even when I struggled. The mother I wished I deserved.

I don’t mourn having to choose my words with care. I don’t mourn fearing that you might find out I’ve been spending time with someone else. I don’t mourn the long silences that meant an explosion was brewing. I don’t mourn the fear.

But each time I drive away from your house I feel sick. I can’t breathe. Perhaps forgetting who we are is one final rejection that comes and goes almost daily, along with your memory. Maybe this is a new way to lose and re-lose the Mum I never really had. Maybe  everything is still my fault.

I just wish you would stop saying you love me. Because I might not say it back.