Touch and Go

Last week I went to New Zealand for the weekend (as you do). I’m not normally prone to this kind of crazy travel, but I had the opportunity to attend Kiwi Foo, which is a most extraordinary meeting of crazy, passionate, richly varied, and intensely motivated people who want to change the world in some way. An invitation to Kiwi Foo is not something to be turned down.

I am in the middle of starting up a new and incredibly important enterprise, which I will blog more about shortly, but it means my days have been a whirl of intensely stimulating and slightly terrifying meetings, hideous paperwork, administrative complexity and delicate negotiations. I am loving it, but also way out of my comfort zone and hence emotionally stretched.

So in this state I headed off for Kiwi Foo, which I knew to be important both for me and my fledgling organisation, and where I knew no-one at all.

I was excited to the point of utterly wired, and just a smidge nervous (I am only admitting to the smidge. You may interpolate as you will. I’m not going there.). I arrived late at night and suffered some hiccups trying to get to my motel, but I managed in the end – somewhat rain soaked, and less than impressed with the rather dodgy motel, but I slept all the same. The next morning I met a bunch of strangers at the airport with whom I had arranged to share a car, and they were lovely.

Then we got to the conference where I registered with more lovely people, availed myself of coffee and started a range of conversations with fascinating, entertaining, and very lovely people. There was a whole lot of loveliness. Oh, and I checked into a lovely Airbnb with a stunning view, and the walk to the conference venue from my airbnb was (wait for it) lovely. Vertical. But lovely.

Did I mention, though, that I was already emotionally stretched? Friday night was awesome, and newcomers like myself could not have been more effectively & generously inducted into the ways of Kiwi Foo. I was made to feel welcome and valued and all good things. By the time I got back to my accommodation I was buzzing, and also feeling so emotionally stretched I was twanging. I really could have used a hug at this point – touch is very grounding for me – but I didn’t know anyone well enough to ask. So I continued to twang.

Saturday started well with a lovely breakfast and real coffee. (This is more important to me than it should be.)  The second session in the morning was a fascinating discussion about the ethics of AI, and there was such a large group we split into three smaller groups to talk it through. When the groups got back together to share our thoughts, I spoke for our group, on the condition that the others promise correct me or add to my comments if I missed anything. I covered the conversation in a fair bit of detail (brevity never having been my modus operandi), and then asked the group if I had missed anything?

To my surprise they gave me a round of applause, and then something magical happened. The guy standing next to me, who I had talked with a bit but barely knew, put his hand on my shoulder and said “You did great.”

It was such a small thing, and so fleeting. Just a brief hand on my shoulder. Just a hearty “nice work” with accompanying shoulder pat.

But we don’t usually do that anymore. We are afraid to touch. As a teacher, I was told emphatically I must never touch my students, lest it be taken the wrong way. We have pathologised touch. Rather than teaching about welcome and unwelcome touch, we have rewritten society’s rules to make almost all touch unwelcome, except between family or lovers.

That touch, though, stilled the twanging and made me feel wholly a part of the group. It grounded me and allowed me to relax into the conference and make the most of what was a truly extraordinary time. I doubt that kindly soul had any idea of the impact of a fleeting moment of contact, but it made a vast difference to me that weekend.

We are so busy guarding against inappropriate touch that we forget that touch is fundamentally important to our health and wellbeing.


All the feels

I’ve been pushing myself pretty hard lately. We’re packing up Mum’s things and selling her house, and the family holiday home. That hits pretty hard. I’m starting a wild and crazy new not for profit enterprise that I’m not quite ready to launch yet but will be soon. It’s a huge deal and there are lots of parts of it that are waaaay outside my comfort zone, but it’s already getting a lot of support and it’s an idea whose time has come. So yay. But also OMG!

My baby (please don’t tell her I called her that) is starting year 7. My husband is travelling a lot for work. Next week I’m going to Science Meets Parliament. I am trying to be a good Mum, a good daughter, a good friend, a good Executive Director. All the things to all of the people. And sometimes it feels a little bit overwhelming. (Other times it feels massively overwhelming, but let’s not think too hard about those times!)

Recently I visited my former school’s swim carnival and got mildly mobbed by my students. (Hush. They are still my students. They always will be.) It was lovely to see them, and to catch up with my former colleagues. I won’t, as it turns out, be working a long way away, so I can still drop by, and not entirely be a stranger, but gosh, it hurt tearing myself away from them. And I only managed to catch up with a handful of them.

I love teaching. And I get such a buzz from hanging out with those amazing kids. Who are actually not kids but grownups with more poise, resilience, and potential than I can even imagine.

Some of my former year 11s are presenting their Computational Science Projects from last year at Lorne Genome next week, and they are justifiably stoked at the chance to present their work to this eminent audience. Their work is incredible. They have totally earned this opportunity.

It’s making me a little sad, though. I left all that. I left it because I believe with all my heart in what I have set out to do. But it still broke my heart when one of my students looked at me today and said plaintively “Why did you leave?”

I wish I could do all the things. Be everything to all the people. And keep working with these extraordinary young people who will go on, I tell you now, to utterly transform the world for the better.

Sometimes when you’re busy putting one foot in front of the other, you forget how far you’ve come, and how hard you’re working. And how much you’ve achieved.


Trying to give away my past

We are packing up Mum’s things so we can sell her house. I have no particular attachment to that house. She moved there with Dad long after I left the family home. It was never mine. But her things… oh… her things. Look, I’m not into stuff. I get a little sentimental from time to time, but I’m not particularly interested in things, or even places. For me it’s always been about people.

So it has come as something of a shock to realise that things sometimes contain echoes of people. That memories can hide as easily in the smell of a camphorwood chest as in the face of a loved one.

I thought about keeping some of Mum’s jewellery, but there was too much sadness and anger wrapped up in each piece, so I turned my back.

I want to keep it all, and I want to burn it.

I want to hug the blankets that were kept in that chest, that smell of my past, and I want to shred them and scatter them on the wind.

I want to scour the house clean of the pain and anger that dwelt there for so long, and I want to preserve it as it is – a snapshot of history. An instant in time.

I sometimes wish I had kept my family surname, having since developed a relationship with my relatives that my Mum, in her pain and confusion, taught me was permanently out of reach. But I still want to reject my history with a visceral strength I can’t explain.

I thought this packing up, this moving on, was a mere technicality. An effort, certainly, but without emotional cost.

I know better now. Pain and rage are ties as strong as love, and harder to process. And these things from my past contain echoes of the pain, but also of the smiles – because, of course, there were smiles. Few lives are wholly bleak. Few families entirely traumatic. Although I can’t always reach it behind the drama, there was happiness. There was love.

And taken as a whole it made me who I am. Quick to anger, hard to fathom, but also overwhelmed by love and compassion. I fix things. I help people. That’s who I want to be. But I don’t know how to fix my memory, or my heart.

Things I didn’t know could go wrong with Aged Care

Regular readers may be wondering about the extended silence about my Mum. Last I wrote she was in a nursing home and there was hope, however faint. Well. That went downhill really fast. I will fill you in, but I want, first, to give you an overview of the process of actually finding a place.

First of all, we were looking for a place in a dementia unit. But all of the patients I saw when we toured dementia units seemed much worse than Mum. I saw some places that made my skin crawl. They stank. They were miserable. I could not have put my mum in a place like that with a gun at my head. And although it sometimes felt as though there was, in fact, a gun at my head, I had to draw the line somewhere.

So we found a dementia place in a very lovely nursing home. It was expensive, but lovely, and we are lucky that Mum could afford it. There was one free bed. It was perfect. I filled out all the paperwork, filled with hope, and then the clinical care coordinator rang me to say “We can’t offer your Mum a place. We can’t look after her.” This, bear in mind, was a dementia ward. If they couldn’t look after her, who could? I didn’t even know this was a class of thing that could happen: that a patient could be too demented for a dementia ward. It threw me into a spin.

So I kept looking. Since Mum didn’t actually seem bad enough to need a dementia ward we tried for an ordinary place. I was very up front with them about the fact that Mum refused to see a doctor, and hadn’t been fully assessed. Their clinical care coordinator, Kate, met us for coffee in Mum’s favourite cafe, so as not to alarm her. Mum was delighted to see her and invited Kate to stay at our holiday home. Kate took it gracefully. And the next day we moved Mum in.

It was a disaster. They were calling us every day telling us they couldn’t cope, that she was literally climbing the walls (or at least the fences) and trying to escape. They tried to get us to take her home, but there was no way we could take Mum home knowing now, fully, how impaired she was.

So we frantically searched for another place. In desperation we called an advocacy service that a friend had recommended to me, Signpost Aged Care, and they practically saved my life.  The advocate we worked with, Margaret, made it very clear what our rights, and the nursing home’s responsibilities were. She took careful note of our wishes and found us a list of places with a bed free in a dementia ward who she was confident could handle Mum. My sister checked them out and chose one. We were ready to move.

But: before we could move, the first nursing home held a fire drill. They took the residents outside. Knowing Mum was trying to escape, they did not monitor her. So of course she scarpered. It took them a couple of hours to even notice she was gone.

Eventually the police found her a couple of suburbs away and an ambulance brought her back. The next day she was in her new home, which was amazing. The main nurse in the dementia unit, Marie, is a beautiful soul and she manages Mum incredibly well. Mum is now as close to content as she is capable of being, I think. She still gets aggressive – ironically now it’s because she is so well settled she wants to know why these other people are in her home. She won’t let anyone clean her room, and is happiest when the staff let her vacuum the hallways – which they do frequently.

When I visit she thinks I am an old school friend, or a former staff member, or who knows what else. When I took my girls there she thought they were my grandchildren. In truth, I always feel I age at least 30 years when I visit, so maybe it makes sense.

It’s still surreal. But she is safe. She is cared for. And now that we are cleaning out her house I am finding diaries with the saddest, most paranoid and distressed notes in them that make it very clear she has not been truly happy for a long time. I think we have to accept that this is the best we can do now.

It makes me sad.

And clearing out her house makes me sad. Because it is further evidence of how impaired she has been, and for how long. It is a mess. And things there are bizarre. But we’re getting there.

So she is as close to settled as she can be. And we pack up her things and ready her house for sale, and try to farewell her through her possessions, and little slices of our family history, in a way we can no longer do face to face. Because she is no more present in her body, these days, than she is in her house.

She hasn’t even gone back to her childhood the way many dementia patients do. She is adrift in a sea of incomprehension and fear. She asks for her parents, but doesn’t seem to remember them. The staff at the nursing home give her as much comfort as they can, and she manages, but this is no sort of life.

I tell you this: I don’t want this to happen to me. I don’t want to be looking for my mind like a lost set of keys. I don’t want to know, on some level, that my own self is leaking away, and that I can’t possibly stop it. It is a cruel and torturous death, and I don’t want it. I will not have it.

So don’t tell me palliative care is enough, and that euthanasia is unethical. I have the right to choose, and I WILL NOT GO THERE. Maybe I’ll be lucky, in spite of the family history, and it will never be an issue for me. But if it comes, I tell you clearly, I will not be taken. I will die on that threshold, by my own hand, before I will let this happen to me.


Spreading my wings

Seven years ago I leapt out into the great unknown that was High School teaching. I’ve had a fabulous time. It’s been the most incredible privilege to work with these amazing young people.

I’ve developed Computational Science projects that have enabled my year 11s to make real and ongoing contributions to cancer research, neuroscience, marine biology, conservation, and more.

I’ve developed an innovative Data Science curriculum for year 10s that gives my students experience with real data sets, data visualisation, and meaningful projects.

I’ve worked with some extraordinary students, some incredibly supportive academics, and some truly fabulous teachers, especially this year.

But for some time it has been bothering me that the problem with Computer Science – with teaching technology in general – is not solved in my classes.

It starts right back in Primary School.

It starts with the lack of teachers trained in the area.

It starts with teachers, parents, and kids who are scared of code.

It’s a problem I think I can fix.

I have the place to stand.

I just need to find the lever.

So I am leaving John Monash Science School. It makes me sad. There have already been tears. There will be many more.

But I am excited. It’s time to take what I do to a much larger audience. I’m going to spend some time figuring out the best ways to do that, but there are a few projects I am already committed to that I’ll talk about more when the time is right.

Stay with me. Talk to me. Engage with me on this journey. Kids with better tech skills will change the course of our future. Let’s make it happen.

Top of the list

I have had a lot of decisions to make lately. There’s been a huge amount going on. I’ve been finding it hard to sleep, and causing myself quite a lot of stress. There’s been a lot of guilt. A lot of second guessing other people’s reactions.

I was unloading this on the other half of my brain yesterday via messenger, and she was asleep at the time. Which turned out quite well, because I switched on my “What would she say?” filter, and had a revelation: almost all of my stress was around the impact of my decisions on other people, and fear of the way they would react.

But it’s my life.

For a long time now, my happiness has barely made my list of priorities at all. It certainly hasn’t been at the top.

And because I haven’t valued my own happiness, I’ve become increasingly toxic to the people around me. I’ve been grumpy. I’ve been disorganised. I’ve been letting people down.

I’ve been trying to be all things to all people, and nothing to myself.

I’ve had severe plantar fasciitis in my right heel since June. In July I was referred to a sports doctor with the promise that it was fixable. In all that time I have not made an appointment to see the doctor. I just didn’t have the time or the headspace. I’ve been so busy worrying about everything else, and trying to fix everything else, that I’ve been putting up with quite intense pain rather than make some time to get myself sorted. And if you’ve never had plantar fasciitis, count yourself lucky, because the pain is truly astounding.

And it has made everything worse. Because I’ve been in pain. I’ve been grumpy. I’ve been over the edge stressed. And nothing I’ve done – at work or at home – has been as good as it could have been if I had made the time for some self care.

We are taught to be selfless. We are taught to look after other people. We are taught that selfishness is bad. But we do need to practice a little selfishness to stay functional. It’s like fitting your own oxygen mask before you help others. If you have passed out from lack of oxygen, you can’t help anyone else. And if you have broken from lack of self care, you’re no help to anyone around you.

So today, rather than head into work early as I had planned, I have stayed home. I have finished my tax and done some paperwork. I have made an appointment to see the doctor tomorrow and get this heel thing sorted. I am determined to make the time to do the necessary exercises to put it right. And now I’m going to go and have a coffee and breathe for a bit, before heading in to work on time.

And maybe, just maybe, I can put myself back together if I do a bit of this every day. Because thinking about what’s best for me means I can be at my best for other people, too.



Making that move

On Thursday I put my mum into a nursing home. It did not go well.

The human mind is a strange beast. Even in the absence of dementia (and I don’t think I qualify for a diagnosis just yet, although sometimes it certainly feels as though I do) , the brain tends to paper over the cracks of reality and try to shoehorn the world into something that makes sense.

So even though my mother doesn’t know who I am… even though she talks about how she lives with her parents (who have been dead for over 30 years)… even though she says we went to school together… even though she had 3 raw sausages and a handful of strawberries in the microwave and was calling them dinner… even though she forgets that my dad is dead… even though she says the same things a hundred times in one 10 minute conversation – each time thinking it’s the first… I thought she was in some way still… her. Still… I don’t know… normal, for some twisted and barely comprehensible meaning of the word.

So the morning I put her into the nursing home, I dropped by her house around 10am, and told her that we had bought her a treat. That we were taking her to a hotel for a few days, so that she could enjoy some luxury. And it was plausible, because the nursing home really looks like a hotel. Things have certainly changed in the aged care industry.

She was excited, and happily fussed about, trying to get ready, and wondering what to pack. “It’s so unexpected, I didn’t know this was coming, did I?” she would say, at least once a minute.  I’d reassure her it was a surprise, she’d shove something random into the back and then say “Gosh! You’ve thrown me. I didn’t forget, did I? I didn’t know this was coming?”

So far it was going better than I expected. “We’re just going to stop at a cafe, mum, until the room is ready.” “Oooh, lovely! Are we going to your place?” “No, we’re just going to a cafe, then to the hotel.” “Ah! Ok. Are we going to your place?” and so on, around the merry go round.

While we waited for our coffees, my husband, Andrew, took some key photos and personal things to the nursing home, to try to setup the room to look familiar.

“I’m a bit flustered. What’s going on? I didn’t know this was coming, did I?”

As Mum got more agitated, I texted Andrew. “Run for it, she’s getting anxious, we have to move.”

The home staff could not have been nicer. They got us a cup of tea, while Mum admired the decor and said how posh it looked. But when we got to her room, things started to go rapidly downhill.

“Why is there a single bed? Where will you be? I don’t want to stay here on my own!” the questions were coming thick and fast, and she was starting to get really freaked out.

“I want to go home! You can’t keep me here!! Take me home! My parents will come and get me!”

The staff came to try to help me settle her, and brought us another cup of tea. Typically, now the threats came. “I’m going to call the cops! I’m going to tell them you brought me here without my consent. WHICH IS A FACT! You can’t keep me here! I’m not sleeping in a single bed! I’ll fall out of it! THIS IS CRUEL. HOW COULD YOU LEAVE ME HERE ALONE? This is so cruel. How could you want to leave me here alone? I’m not nuts. I’m going to call the cops. You’d better take me home, or I’ll call the cops!”

And on it went.

A truly lovely staff member named Lea came and persuaded Mum to go to lunch before she came home. She settled at a table with a lovely old guy and was soon chatting happily, but every time she looked at me she got agitated and started shouting about how she wasn’t staying. I made an excuse to get up from the table and suggested to the staff that I should go. In a move worthy of a slapstick comedy, the staff sneaked me out while mum wasn’t looking, and I scuttled downstairs feeling like a criminal.

Lea looked at me as the tears started to flow and said “Don’t you worry.  This isn’t unusual. You might have to bring her in 5 or 6 times before it works.”

The horror of that vision nailed me to the floor. I had barely survived doing it once. No way could I do it again.

So let the light guide your way, yeah
Hold every memory as you go
And every road you take, will always lead you home, home
It’s been a long day without you, my friend
And I’ll tell you all about it when I see you again
We’ve come a long way from where we began
Oh, I’ll tell you all about it when I see you again
When I see you again
–Wiz Khalifa, See You Again


There followed days of screaming and trauma. I was craven – I didn’t go back. My sisters spent a lot of time there, and when someone is with her she is generally almost calm, but constantly asking when her parents will come to get her. Left to herself, though, she freaks out. Nights are the worst, but there’s no actual good time. I have to keep reminding myself that it’s only been a few days. It can take weeks for a new patient to settle. There’s hope.

But now I know how much my own brain has been papering over the cracks in my Mum’s behaviour. This frightened child – crying for her parents to come and rescue her, while she shouts about calling the cops – this is not my Mum. I knew she was impaired. I knew there wasn’t much left. But I really wasn’t prepared for the descent into madness that the unfamiliar surroundings would trigger.

She wasn’t safe in her own home. This is the best possible place for her now. But it feels as though the only thing left that was truly her was bound to the shell of her home. Taking her out of her home feels as though, in trying to save her, we have lost her completely.