The worst part

The worst part is, or rather one of the worst parts, for there are many, this*: guilt.

Everyone I talk to is feeling so, so guilty right now.

Guilty for not being more productive in lockdown.

Guilty for not providing better support to their friends.

Guilty for not being more patient with their kids.

Guilty for not making better sourdough. Guilty for not making sourdough at all. Guilty for making other people feel bad about their sourdough.

Guilty for putting on weight. Guilty for not exercising more. Guilty for drinking too much.

Guilty for buying too many coffees. Guilty for not buying coffees and supporting local businesses.

Guilty for not getting this health issue checked. Or that health issue. Or one of the long, long list of other ones that have just been too hard to think about.

Guilty for not going to the dentist.

Guilty for going out and risking exposure.

Guilty for not going out because you’re afraid of risking exposure.

Guilty for badgering friends with too many messages. Guilty for not sending enough messages to your friends.

The guilt is everywhere. I have an overactive guilt gland at the best of times, but right now the guilt level is beyond overwhelming.

I bought some flowering tulips, still on the bulb, to cheer myself up. They made me happy for a few days, and then I felt guilty for not taking better care of them and changing the water regularly.

A collection of red and yellow tulips on a messy table

I suspect the immense uncertainty and lack of control we are dealing with in every area of our lives right now – both covid related and not – are piling up in such a way that we simply can’t live the lives we feel like we should. We can’t do a lot of the things we feel we should do. We can’t be the people we want to be. And so we’re building up a kind of guilt-debt. A failure mountain of ways we can’t measure up.

I don’t think we’ve updated our internal image of how we should behave and what our lives should be like to account for the impact of the pandemic. All along, we’ve told ourselves that things will “soon” be back to normal, without ever really defining “soon”. Sadly, “soon” keeps receding into the distance like a mirage. With every lockdown, every vaccine rollout screw up, it gets a little more out of reach. A little more demoralising.

So life yoyos between tantalising glimpses of almost normal and lockdown, and it’s never entirely clear which is more terrifying. Meanwhile we keep failing to live up to our ideals, because those ideals are out of reach until we can claw our way out the other side of this thing. Assuming we can.

In my professional life I am all about data and evidence (check out Raising Heretics: Teaching Kids to Change the World to see more), and I think it might be time to apply the data and the evidence to our own lives. To be kinder to ourselves. To recognise all the extra burdens we are carrying, and to understand that when you’re working under the weight of a pandemic, you’re going to be working slower, and that’s ok.

This thing isn’t easy. And it’s not going to be easy anytime soon. We really have to cut ourselves some slack, and try to slay the guilt monster. Everything else can wait.

* apologies to Douglas Adams

This is all still really hard

I had coffee with a friend this morning. Though he’s years younger than me, we’re both feeling old and tired. The bounce has definitely gone out of our respective bungies. (You have to say that in Wallace’s voice – from Wallace and Gromit – to make it work properly.)

I am tired and low. Though there are happy moments, they don’t lift me the way they should. I feel like I’m bumping along the bottom of my life, lacking the strength to climb to the top, where once I would have soared. Not every day. No-one can soar every day. But I used to at least soar sometimes.

Some days I wrestle with that. I feel guilty and bewildered that I don’t feel better. After all, I can see people now. I can have people over to my house. There are hugs, and cafes, and restaurants. I’ve even been lucky enough to travel to see some of my loved ones. Yet this isn’t over. It’s all still really hard. Many people seem to feel life is back to normal, but I still can’t see normal with a telescope.

My friend and I talked this morning about the uncertainty – not knowing if or when another lockdown would hit. And this afternoon, lo and behold, it turns out there’s a new case in Melbourne. We’re not in lockdown yet, but who knows what will happen over the next few days?

It’s also the constant heightened risk. Have we checked in? Are we too close to the people at the next table? Is the ventilation good enough in this building? Should we sit outside even though it’s cold? Have we used enough hand sanitiser? Will the skin on my hands survive this much hand sanitiser? What is the list of exposure sites? Have I been there? Has anyone I love been there? Why is that guy wearing his mask under his nose? (I have never wanted to use the term “dicknose” so often in my life…) Why are all those high school kids not wearing masks on the train? Have I become the mask police? Can I go into the office? Is it safe to be on the train? Is this a cold, or could it be covid? I should get a test. Who might I have infected if it is covid? Will I be the “New case detected in Melbourne” in all of the papers? Should I not have hugged the dear friend I saw yesterday who I hadn’t seen in over a year? If it is covid, have I given it to my family? Have I been careful enough? What if I have spread covid to all of my friends? Will they hate me forever? Oh thank god, it’s not covid! But I still feel awful. What if the test returned a false negative? Is this new sniffle the old cold, or allergies, or do I need a new covid test?

It’s exhausting. In fact, it redefines exhausting entirely. I thought I knew what it was to be exhausted in the beforetimes, but it was nothing on how exhausted I feel now. This is a bone deep, grinding, hopeless psychological exhaustion that has eaten my hope, my joy, and my optimism, and left me gutted on the floor. It’s physical, too. I get puffed just walking up stairs. Is that covid? Or is it the shameful deconditioning of barely leaving my house for a year? Why have I put on all of this weight? Why can’t I take it off? Why can’t I move on? Why can’t I fix it all? Why can’t I feel better?

The last two paragraphs accidentally poured my internal monologue onto the page, I suspect, but perhaps that constant, frightened gibbering that passes for my train of thought these days explains the exhaustion somewhat. This isn’t over. There’s a long way to go. We’re trapped in endless stress cycles, raised cortisol levels, risk calculations, and pining for our way of life, our far flung loved ones, our joy.

We’ll get through this. Things are getting better. But we’re a long way from where we used to be. This is all still really hard. It’s ok to be struggling. Be kind to yourself.

Ripple Effects

A few weeks ago my 14 year old non binary child, Sol, went to a new doctor for the first time. The doctor was an older lady who clearly had not (knowingly) met a non binary person before, so she asked a lot of questions about identity, before getting stuck, as many do, on the pronouns. Sol’s pronouns are they/them, and the doctor was struggling with it.

“We really need a new word, don’t we? Because “they” is plural…”

With a small internal sigh, I launched into my “here’s one we prepared earlier” spiel about singular “they”.

“Actually, we use singular ‘they’ all the time. For example ‘oh, someone left their book on the train. I hope they get it back.'”

The doctor’s eyes widened as she took this in, and she paused for a moment before exclaiming how much sense it all made, and then we went on with the consultation.

Yesterday, we had a followup visit via telehealth, and the first thing she said, after the obligatory apology for being late, was “I have to thank you!”

Which was not where we were expecting this consultation to go, but she quickly explained herself.

“What you said about how we already use ‘they’ as singular made so much sense to me, and it immediately got rid of my whole discomfort with it. It wasn’t a problem anymore. Then I caught up with a teacher friend of mine who was really struggling with it, and I told her what you told me. She thought it was absolutely brilliant and she’s now telling everyone…”

This is a neat story, and I’m happy that it made sense to that doctor, but what it really slammed home for me is the power of the ripple effect. Every time you explain something in a way that makes sense to someone, you’re not just explaining it to them. You are potentially explaining it to everyone that person ever meets. And that everyone they explain it to potentially explains it to everyone they meet… And you don’t need to watch my video explainer on exponential growth to understand that the ripples of that explanation can spread a long way remarkably quickly.

So even though some explanations inevitably fall on deaf ears, who knows how many ripple effects there will be from every other time you take a deep breath and try to explain. And ripples can quietly change the world.

In other news, the Australian Ally Schools Network has been launched as a Facebook group, as a support for schools wanting to become better allies to their LGBTQI+ students. Schools can share best practice & resources, as well as talk about their challenges and find support for making progress. Searching for the name of the group should find it, but feel free to email contact@adsei.org if you need help.

Trans issues are everyone’s issues

A lot of cis het people feel like they can’t comment on issues involving queer people. It’s an anxious space, trying not to say the wrong thing, trying not to misrepresent the experience of a significantly marginalised and often harassed group, trying to be supportive and understanding, while desperately, desperately trying not to offend anyone.

For a public figure, that must be even more terrifying – to put your words, and your ignorance, out on full display, to tread in a sensitive area and not cause pain, with SO many people watching. Not to mention a hostile, conflict-loving media always waiting to pounce.

The trouble is, if queer people are the only people who ever advocate for queer people… well. It’s exhausting. To fight the bathroom fight every single day (what the heck is it with bathrooms, anyway??? geez). To get told to pick a side. To get told you’re unnatural. An abomination. Possessed by Satan. (These are all things my non binary child has had said to them.)

That’s why it was so glorious when we went to see Adam Hills last night. He used his privileged cis het voice to talk about trans issues, and he did it beautifully – because he admitted his ignorance. I’ve known and worked with a lot of people who feel like admitting ignorance is showing weakness, something we must never do. But exposing your own ignorance can be a phenomenally powerful thing.

I won’t appropriate Adam’s jokes (they were hilarious), but his central point deserves being shouted from the rooftops. Adam pointed out that he’s old (though I could take issue with him on that, because he’s only a year older than me!), and that there’s a lot of stuff he doesn’t get.

But here’s the thing, his central point: You don’t have to get it, in order to respect it.

That’s it. That’s the point. If someone tells you what they need, you don’t turn around and say “You don’t need that.” You try to help them get what they need.

And trans people just need respect. We all just need respect. But trans and other queer people have to fight every day just to be treated with basic human respect. It’s exhausting. It’s demoralising. It’s actively dehumanising.

So for Adam to turn up, stand up, stand proud, and say “I don’t get it. But here are a few things I’ve had explained to me, and I reckon we could all be nicer to each other.” was an immensely powerful thing. Especially when he relayed trans comedian Anna Piper Scott’s comment that the one thing she wanted was for people to know that trans people were never going to molest them in the bathroom. That all trans people want is to be able to use the bathroom in peace. I mean. Talk about basic human rights, eh?

Adam has a profile, a platform, and hordes of adoring fans. And he chose to use that platform to take a risk, to expose his ignorance, and in doing so, to advocate for trans people. That means a lot to me, and to my family.

And here’s the thing, which I tend to forget, and I needed a friend to point out to me: This is not a trans issue. Just as domestic violence is not a womens’ problem. Trans people are not the problem. This is society’s problem. It’s not trans people who need to change. It’s us. This about taking “us and them,” and making it all about us. All of us.

Love, vulnerability, and the Aussie man

If there’s one thing that has become clear in these bizarre pandemic times, it’s that love is essential to keep us alive and functional. And also that love is a larger, more complex beast than our language can possible allow for.

I’ve just finished reading Rick Morton’s immensely powerful and eloquent treatise on love, “My Year of Living Vulnerably,” and, gosh! It sparked some intense reflections in this pandemic-addled brain of mine. The impact of isolation, the long, long shadow of childhood trauma and all of the ways we don’t recognise its effect… and the overwhelming need for connection. I probably need to read it again to make proper sense of it because, honestly, I kept having to put it down to go “oh my god, that’s why I …” which was quite distracting at the time, though extraordinarily useful. But it also poked some extremely raw nerves about love.

I love intensely. It’s hard to measure that against how intensely others love, because I can’t see the inside of anyone else’s head (dammit). But I’ve watched my kids, and when they love, they love with their whole beings. Every fibre of themselves. And they don’t back down from that easily. And… let’s just say… they probably get that from me.

But I have issues with telling men (other than my husband) that I love them. I don’t think they’re my issues. I think they belong to an awful lot of Australian men, to be honest. Some of my male friends flinch a little, or look edgy, or just plain uncomfortable when I do tell them I love them. They’ll change the subject, or make a joke, or just pretend it never happened. With some of my closest male friends I often try not to tell them I love them, because I’m quite confident it would make them uncomfortable. But I do, oh! I do. I love them with my whole heart.

My closest female friends are fine with it. We speak our love with gay abandon (so to speak), and say “I love you” all the time. And it’s a glorious thing. But it’s different where men are concerned.

Though I’m frightened by the word,
Think it’s time I made it heard.
No more empty self possession,
Visions swept under the mat.
It’s no New Years resolution,
It’s more than that.

Message to My Girl, Split Enz

So what’s with the men? I think there are two problems here. One is that Australian men are trained in a quite visceral and emphatic way not to have emotions, and certainly not to express them. Since the former is obviously impossible, many men go all in on the latter, in an attempt to pretend that they are successfully being actual robots. If they can’t stop having emotions, then preventing them from showing is surely the next best thing, right?

The second problem is that, for my generation at least, men and women are still not supposed to be friends. I used to go to parties where the men went to one room and the women to another, and it did my head in, because I typically felt much more comfortable hanging out with the men. Now I just don’t go to those kinds of parties. But there’s still this perceived divide. That men get men, and women get women, and friendships that cross the divide are impossible without sex getting in the way (except for the gay male bestie. That’s allowed.)… it still seems like that’s taken as a fundamental truth, despite being terribly, terribly damaging and divisive.

I have a close gay male friend who I share “I love you”s with, but I also have a dear gay male friend who would, I suspect, be hugely uncomfortable with that, so it’s not just the potential-attraction dynamic. Now, maybe this is me presuming things that aren’t true, or maybe I am correctly picking up on a vibe, but there’s no doubt that saying “I love you” can be tricky between the sexes. It seems like younger generations are more sensible about this. I’ll be 50 this year, and it’s still the exception rather than the norm, when I look around, for women my age to have male best friends, but my kids and their friends often seem to cross the divide without even knowing it was ever there.

But this time of isolation, of being cut off from so many loved ones, of having our level of people contact, hugging, and casual affection drastically cut down, has had a far reaching impact. As one friend said to me recently, “they’ll be writing PhDs about this for decades”. And for me, at least, it has made me profoundly, painfully aware of my love, and desperate to express it. And when the internet is all we have, and hugs mostly off the table still, how can we express the intensity of our feelings in this moment without saying I love you?

At all times, but especially in these times, we could all use more love, and more expressions of love. Forget flowers and chocolates. Tell your friends you love them. When someone I love tells me that they love me, it’s like a wave of joy that lifts me over the rough road of every day life. It’s like a heated blanket on a cold day. It’s the closest we can get to a hug without actually hugging. And I love that. Don’t you?

How schools can be better allies

I have this habit of being loud and insistent about everything I am passionate about, which often leads to me being asked to talk to all kinds of people about those things. This week I am in Perth, and wound up talking to a friend’s school about their efforts to support queer kids. They are doing great work, but feeling a little as though they are working blind, because this stuff is so new for many of us. There was certainly nothing in my teaching degree about supporting queer kids (which is outrageous, because queer kids did not magically start appearing recently!). It got me thinking on a number of fronts, so I am being even louder and even more insistent, and presenting to you this list of what schools can do to be better allies.

I am not an expert. This has grown out of my own experience and that of my family, together with my observations of schools I am connected with. If you have other things schools should do, please add them in the comments. Absolutely every school should start by reading this wonderful resource on supporting trans and gender diverse kiddos from the extraordinary folks at Transcend.

Step 1: Both students and staff need active education every year on what it means to be LGBTQI+, and how to support the queer people around them. This helps create a culture where diversity is respected and slurs and bigotry are unacceptable. It empowers straight, cis kids to call it out when people use f*ggot or gay as a slur, and makes it so that queer kids are not constantly bearing the burden of their own protection. You’re not going to stop the homophobes being homophobic, or the transphobes being transphobic, but you can make it not ok for them to do it aloud. That’s a really important step. Denormalising bigotry goes a long way towards removing it.

Step 2: (and this is super important) Your efforts need constant evaluation and monitoring. How are we doing? What else do we need to do? Are the kids safe? What are they experiencing? You need to be asking kids for feedback and issues regularly (ALL kids, not just queer ones), with an anonymous channel of feedback to make sure they feel safe to raise it. Never assume you’re done and everything is fine. Stuff is going to go wrong even in the most inclusive and supportive of cultures.

Step 3: Make a queer support group to bring queer kids AND ALLIES together in a safe space. Make sure this is school supported and not left to the running power and enthusiasm of a few great kids who will inevitably get busy, tired, or leave the school, potentially killing the group. Support this group, champion it, offer it regular chocolate or whatever you can use to encourage kids to come and hang out. Include allies, in part to make it cool to be an ally, and in part so that kids do not have to out themselves in order to join in.

Step 4: Clearly identify your staff as allies. Rainbow stickers on laptops, rainbow lanyards, rainbow pins, trans flags everywhere. Identify yourself as safe and supportive in every way you can think of. There cannot be too many rainbows. Normalise putting your pronouns in your bios and email signatures.

Step 5: Clearly identify your school as an ally school. Put rainbow stickers on your doors and your website. Put up posters about diversity and inclusion. Actively celebrate Transgender Day of Visibility, IDAHOBIT day, Wear it Purple day, all of the days. Celebrate Pride Month really loudly.

Make sure the stories you tell include queer families in many forms. Make sure the books you read have queer representation in many forms. Use Grace Petrie’s Black Tie as the morning bell song (ok, it does have the F word, but there are many many options). Change your policies and public messaging to make sure they don’t use “Mums and Dads” or “girls and boys” everywhere (or, indeed, anywhere!). Make your uniform gender neutral. This doesn’t mean you have to do away with dresses, but it does mean that kids get to choose the uniform they wear, and it should not be described as “boys’ uniform” and “girls’ uniform” – just summer options, winter options, and sport.

Step 6: Make sure you have gender neutral toilets and change cubicles. Don’t wait until you know you have a non binary student (hot tip: you almost certainly have several already at your school, whether you know it or not), be proactive. This clearly signals that the school is ready for non binary kids, is supportive of them, and has thought about accommodating them.

Step 7: Desegregate your sport – there is no need for boy categories and girl categories. Desegregate all classroom activities. Never separate the class by gender for any reason.

Steps 8-Infinity: Above all, remember that you are never done. As long as our wider culture discriminates against queer people, kids will bring those attitudes to school. And so will teachers, sadly. Which means you need to keep educating, keep advocating, and keep supporting our kids.

You won’t be able to do all of this tomorrow, or even this year. Some steps might be really hard for your particular school context. But every new thing you do to support queer kids is progress, and everything we can do to educate both kids and adults on how to be better allies is making this a better world.

PS. I see a lot of schools feeling lost as to where to start, casting about for help, and reinventing the wheel, so I am working on establishing an Australia-wide Ally Schools Network so that schools can support each other, share what works and what doesn’t work, and figure out where to start and how to keep going. The group is now live on Facebook, if you search for Australian Ally Schools Network you should find it, or email contact@adsei.org for help.

Finding hope

This has been a week, in Australia at least, where hope has been in short supply. Realistically, we have long known that members of our government can be corrupt, unfeeling, and sometimes outright evil without apparent consequence. Indeed, we knew all of that before the last election and nonetheless these people were returned to power, despite having attacked the vulnerable illegally and without cause in a hundred different ways – most notably but in no way confined to the indefinite and ever-escalating cruelty of mandatory detention of refugees, and the brazen outrageousness of robodebt.

Occasionally if they felt under too much pressure they would toss someone overboard – usually a woman (witness Bridget McKenzie taking the fall for sports rorts despite clear evidence of culpability from the office of the PM) – but they clearly felt that they could happily line their pockets and those of their mates, and treat everyone else with vicious cruelty without any consequences at all. And they appeared to be right.

In recent days several things have come to light. One is that the extraordinarily courageous and remarkable Brittany Higgins has gone public with a horrific account of rape followed by the utter failure of her workplace and colleagues to support her or deal with the very clear implications that their system does not merely victimise women, but actively consumes them and then brutally punishes them when they complain.

Another, of course, is the historical accusation of rape against our Attorney General – nominally the senior officer of the law in Australia, a position which surely demands a person of unimpeachable integrity, honesty, and yes, compassion. The accusation was never even put to the AG. Our Prime Minister did not even feel it necessary to read it, but he was nonetheless confident to throw his entire support behind an alleged rapist.

Not to mention that a man felt quite entitled to repeatedly throw horrific slurs at a woman in her place of work, our national parliament, and a room largely full of men completely failed to call him out for it.

In the context of a world where a man who boasted of grabbing women by the pussy was elected President of the United States. Where women bear the brunt of the economic impact of covid. Where a horrific number of women are assaulted, harassed, overworked, and underpaid as a matter of course, and where it is surprisingly difficult to persuade the men in charge that a problem even exists, let alone that it is their responsibility to fix it… Where International Women’s Day is simply another event that women do unpaid work for, give unpaid speeches for, and that enables rich white men to then take the credit for “putting on an IWD event and supporting women”… Perhaps, in this context, the Australian situation is not surprising.

It would be nice to think that the time of reckoning has come, but there is a significant chance that this government will nonetheless win the next election, for reasons I can’t even begin to fathom.

Where do you find hope against such a backdrop? When powerful men can literally rape and pillage with impunity. When ethics is not a requirement for election, for promotion, or for anything at all. How do we move on from that? Where do we even start? What is even the point?

And praise will come to those whose kindness leaves you without debt

and bends the shape of things to come that haven’t happened yet

Neil Finn, Faster Than Light

It’s clear that now, more than ever, we need to protect ourselves. And to me, that looks like surrounding ourselves with people who not only love and support us, but who make us more than we would otherwise be, Who challenge us to think better, to do better, and to be better. And who see us for exactly who we are.

I’ve been incredibly lucky to spend the last few days, both in person and online, with people who do just that. Who radiate love and support in all directions. Who are always looking for opportunities to lift other people up. Who leave every part of the world that they touch better, cleaner, and more loving. These people don’t make the headlines. They’re not interviewed on the news nor lauded in print. But they are the people who give me hope. Who reinforce the idea that how you treat people matters, and that you can become successful, and even powerful, by working hard to make the world a better place. By taking care of people. By building supportive relationships and emphasising compassion over greed.

This is the time to look away from the news, breathe deeply, and look into the eyes of the people who we can trust to make things better. Instead of asking “why are all the powerful men so evil?” perhaps it’s time we turned our faces to the people we trust.

The people I trust are male, female, non-binary, and gender diverse. They are queer, trans, straight, cis, neuro-diverse and neuro-typical. It’s important to remember that there is no single category of human being that is safe, and no-one is perfect. But I surround myself with people who are trying to make a difference, and it’s their efforts that need amplifying. If we can rally around the people who are making this world a better place, perhaps we can drown out the noise from the people who do not.

Look around you. Who is worth amplifying? Who can you support? Which charities need cash? Which people need a hug? Which voices need to be raised up? It is so very demoralising to focus on the people who are taking us down. Let’s look to the future, raise a glass to hope, and give thanks, hugs, and funding to the people who are making a difference.

Bearing Up

These deranged times have, among many other things, been an object lesson in powerlessness. So many things we can’t control. So many policy decisions – directly impacting our daily lives, and our safety – entirely out of our hands. So much trauma. So much anxiety. Normal life, whatever that looked like, has been off the table for far too long already, and it’s not coming back anytime soon. Loves ones have been out of reach, and will continue to be for who knows how long?

Covid laughs at plans. It scoffs at calendar entries, sneers at plane tickets, and wreaks havoc on relationships and mental health. It is more than we can reasonably expect to bear, yet bear it we must. And that’s without even considering the normal dramas of life that don’t take pity on us, just because there’s a pandemic.

Years ago I went to a talk by Bob Brown where I was struck by his central message: We can’t achieve anything from a position of pessimism. To make progress, to fix things, to get anything done, we must have hope. Optimism can change the world, pessimism can only mourn its passing.

Yet optimism is in desperately short supply right now. Everywhere we look, there is a barrage of relentless devastation. Bushfires. Attempted Coups. Climate Change. Conspiracy theorists. People who vote for people who are MANIFESTLY incapable of the jobs they are being voted into (not an exclusively American phenomenon, I have to say). Covid numbers out of control. Joblessness and homelessness on the rise. Domestic violence. Continued unconscionable cruelty to refugees whose only crime was to ask us for help.

The urge to go back to bed, pull the covers over ourselves, and sing Lily Allen’s Fuck You as loudly as possible is overwhelming on even the best days.

And some days staying in bed is, indeed, the best we can do. But we must find hope. And that takes work – right when more work feels like the last thing we have the energy for. Fortunately, it’s work that pays immediate dividends. This is my list of concrete actions I take to find hope. Some days they work well. Some days I still struggle. Some days I can’t even bring myself to do them. But they help.

  1. Virtual Co-working. I have a virtual co-working video chat that I keep open when I’m working alone in my office. I share it with a few social media groups I am part of. Some days no-one shows up, sometimes lots of people do. There have been some wonderful conversations, some surprising connections formed, and some fabulous reconnections. Some days I haven’t got the energy to do it, though it doesn’t take much, but it’s always worth pushing through that feeling and firing up the chat.
  2. Make more phone calls. This one is weirdly hard these days – why call, when we can text, email, or message? It’s so personal! But that’s exactly why we should do it. Because it’s more personal. Because it’s easier to share your feelings when you can hear someone’s voice, and feel like you’re sharing a space. Private video chats are great, too, but need more setup. Phone calls can be spontaneous. I don’t do this enough, but I’m working on it!
  3. Stop reading/watching the news. It seems to be the media’s role, these days, to make people as upset as possible. To insist that horrifying and portentous things are afoot, whether they are or not. Stop reading it. Check the headlines once per day if you must, but stop doom scrolling and obsessively refreshing. You will still hear about important things. I find that the less I read the news, the less I get caught up in the hysteria of it. “But, it was a funny thing: every day something happened that was important enough to be on the front page of the newspaper. She’d never bought it and seen a little sign that said ‘Not much happened yesterday, sorry about that’.” Terry Pratchett, Unseen Academicals.
  4. Curate your social media. Mute, block, or otherwise avoid the negativity. On Twitter I have made a list I call “Priorities”, and I read that list instead of my full feed. The only people on that list are people who share mostly positive things, and people I am close to whose tweets I definitely want to see. And “Unsolicited Dik-diks”, “raccoon every hour”, and other cute animal feeds. Sometimes even my Priorities list has too many people sharing trauma, in which case I avoid twitter for a while. On Facebook I have designated a small handful of people “see first”, and those are, again, people I trust with my mental health. I often don’t read the rest of it at all.
  5. Read or watch positive, uplifting things. My reading this year has largely been Young Adult fiction, cheerful romance, and optimistic non fiction such as Rutger Bregman’s “Humankind: A hopeful history.” On TV we’re currently enjoying Lucifer as a family – because it mostly leaves us entertained and amused, rather than demoralised and traumatised. This is no time for Buffy: Season 3, or anything emotionally challenging.
  6. Pat a (consenting) furry animal. Of course, if your furry animal of choice is a cat, consent may be withdrawn unexpectedly at any time, so keep your wits about you. But engaging with animals is emotionally rewarding and clinically proven to alleviate stress.
  7. Get out into nature. Whether it’s a spot of light gardening, a bushwalk, or staring out to sea, engaging with nature is another proven way of relieving stress and seeing the upside of life.

These are some of the things that work for me. I want to change the world, and to do that I have to be able to lift my head and see the horizon. Some days my head is heavy, so I need a little help. What do you do to lift yourself up?

Covid Abnormal

This evening my husband was playing with our cat, Emmie, and a ping pong ball, when he accidentally shifted the rug she was standing on. Suddenly Emmie didn’t care about the ping pong ball anymore, but she was desperately concerned about the rug’s newfound ability to move.

Half an hour later, she is still regarding the rug with intense suspicion, and looking for the invisible demon that tried to pull her world out from under her.

Em, kiddo, I know how you feel. Invisible demons are all the rage these days.

Melbourne is, nominally, back to nearly normal. We are cautious, still wearing masks in supermarkets, shopping centres, health clinics and the like. But there is a certain amount of surreptitious hugging. Some cautious venturing out to dinner in restaurants. Even the odd party. My daughter and I actually took a road trip to Sydney a couple of weeks ago and stayed with friends. It was weird though. We were cautious. Anxious, even. Taking public transport was unnerving, as few people in Sydney wore masks – public exhortations to do the right thing are clearly not very effective – and we were constantly alert to risk. Some close friends were wisely avoiding hugging, which was understandable, but intensely painful at the same time.

But, as NSW is currently showing us with painful clarity, this thing isn’t over. Even once a vaccine hits our shores it will be months, if not years, before there is enough vaccine to innoculate everyone. And applied over an entire population, the initial efficacy (demonstrated over small test groups) might not be quite as good as we’d like it to be. I don’t think covid19 is going away anytime soon.

Our world has changed. We now know how many people can, in fact, work from home effectively, having been told by their bosses for years that they couldn’t be trusted. And we know how many can’t, with children climbing over them, no privacy for meetings, insufficient internet, and a desperate lack of social contact.

But we are also facing the aftermath (and ongoing impact) of a year that has gleefully stomped on all of our plans and expectations, trashed our calendars, and deprived many of us of the physical and emotional support we need to sustain sanity, if not life.

Even if we could snap back to normal tomorrow, covid19 has carved itself deep into our lives. We have no idea what the world will look like when we come out the other side. We have no clear picture of the damage that has been done.

As for me, I am shattered. Exhausted from an emotionally intense year that took far more than it gave, I am several hundred thousand hugs short of coping right now. I am pining for loved ones interstate and overseas. I crave all of the hugs, kisses, and casual physical affection that elbow bumping and zoom calls simply cannot replace. I need the long slow lunches, the quiet walks, the post conference dinners that go on forever. I need the privacy to have intensely personal conversations. I need the chance to rebuild my emotional reserves, my courage, and my confidence.

Some places are trending towards normal. Some places are going into new lockdowns and watching rising case numbers eroding their lifestyle and threatening their loved ones. But wherever you are, life has changed, and we have lost so much.

I am ending 2020 hanging in there, rather like a wind chime – there are too many pieces and they scream a lot whenever anything happens.

We’re lucky, here in Melbourne, because the lockdown worked. But there’s no certainty we’ll still be case free next month, next week, or even tomorrow, and even if we are, there’s trauma we can’t see. On our way to Sydney we drove through forests that were so badly burned in the fires last summer that they are not regenerating. Like those fires, covid19 is doing damage we can see, but also a lot of damage we don’t yet know about.

We have to hold on to each other, to look out for each other, to make sure we can regenerate.

It isn’t over til the vaccine sings

Melbourne is emerging from lockdown.

Slowly.

We’re a little hesitant. Blinking in the fierce glare of even an overcast day. Feeling our way forward. Afraid of a sickening return to crisis. Afraid we don’t know how to socialise anymore. Afraid of not being able to hug. Afraid of hugging. Afraid of not seeing enough people. Afraid of seeing too many people. Afraid of forgetting our masks, or hand sanitiser.

That’s been the leitmotif of 2020, really. Fear.

And while we thought the theme song of lockdown was “I Want to Break Free,” it turns out it was actually “Wild World.”

But if you wanna leave, take good care
I hope you have a lot of nice things to wear (that still fit you)
But then a lot of nice things turn bad out there

Mostly “Wild World”, Cat Stevens.

It’s particularly hard to get by just upon a smile when your smile is permanently hidden behind a mask.

I’ve been a bit sad this week, and it seems to have surprised some people. “It’s over, mate!” “Aren’t you happy now?” “Things are better! Buck up!”

And while I appreciate the need to live in the moment, to revel in the things we can do now in Melbourne that we couldn’t do before – visit each other at home, dine out in cafes and restaurants, go shopping for Christmas presents, travel a little further – I think it’s incredibly important to acknowledge that things are still tough.

Things are still scary. When will the next outbreak be? Are my loved ones safe? Is a vaccine even possible? Have I touched the wrong thing? Have I used enough hand sanitiser? Did that person cough near me???

Things are still constrained. No hugging. Masks on at all times, even in other people’s houses. No kissing. No touch. One visit per household per day. Long, long days working from home, seeing others by video call, if at all. No visits to or from loved ones interstate or overseas. No travel outside our 25km radius.

Throw in some big picture fear about things like the outcome of the US election, the parlous state of our own politics, climate change, our unconscionable treatment of refugees, and our callous disregard for the fate of the poor and the unemployed, and it feels like we are spending this year swimming through sad. It’s possible to get your head above the surface from time to time, but the weight of what we are going through is a constant downwards force. Some days not drowning is the best we can do.

There hasn’t been a lot of joy within reach, for a really long time now.

What there has been, though, is a huge amount of love. From care parcels from interstate (“Why do so many people send you things, Mum!?”) to online checkins. From surprisingly mysterious bottles of vodka and portable bamboo picnic tables to pictures of babies, loving texts, and crazy memes. We’re holding on to each other for dear life, even when we can’t actually touch.

I’ve been saying “I love you” more, and, from what I hear, it’s not just me. Sometimes it startles my friends, especially those who grew up with the toxic masculine “stiff upper lip” “feelings are for girls” and “men and women can’t be friends” ethos, but I can’t help it. It bursts out of me. The people I love the most are both the reasons I am sad and the reasons I am alive. Because so many of them are out of reach, yet still reaching out.

Even in places where life has been closer to normal for much longer, we’re all still living a pandemic, and things are still hard. It’s ok to be sad. It’s ok to be scared. Just keep holding on to each other. Keep reaching out. And know that you’re not alone.