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.

 

Seeking Asylum is a Human Right

The immigration department says that moralising on the issue of children being sent back to Nauru is “not helpful”.  They quibble about how old a rape victim was (not, apparently 5 years old – he was over 10. Oh. Well. I mean. That’s ok then, right?). They say we can’t possibly open our borders, we have no conception of the consequences of open borders.

Well, I see no-one in the #letthemstay protest talking about open borders. I see nothing in the Greens policy on asylum seekers that says “open the borders, let them all in – let’s have a giant free for all pot party!” (go read it! See where it says “open the borders”? Nope. Nor do I.)

It is a wholly false dichotomy to say the choice is between torturing asylum seekers with unfathomably horrific conditions and opening our borders willy nilly. There are worlds of options that don’t involve torture and also don’t involve letting the whole world come here. But even if there weren’t, if the choice were between letting the world in and choosing to torture people to persuade everyone else to stay away, I could never choose torture.

Ask yourself: could you?

This is, fundamentally, inherently, a moral issue. It is time for a whole lot of moralising.

I admit, I don’t have all the facts. If you want facts, go read anything Julian Burnside wrote.

But above all, before you believe anything said by the government, consider this: journalists are not allowed to visit Nauru or Manus, with one, very significant pro-LNP exception. What kind of activities are so nefarious that we can’t allow them to be openly scrutinized by the public?

What do we know?

We know that people independent of the government, of political parties, of anything they stand to gain, including doctors, have stated loudly and clearly that people are being horribly traumatised on Nauru and Manus, and indeed in our own on-shore detention centres.

We know that laws have been passed making the reporting of child abuse A CRIME – What the actual fuck? Not reporting child abuse of nice, white, middle class Australian children is a crime. But REPORTING CHILD ABUSE ON MANUS and NAURU is illegal and carries a jail term. And let’s not lose sight of the fact that both our major political parties collaborated to pass this utterly unconscionable piece of legislation.

We know that in many countries around the world, including Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, and Myanmar, people are being persecuted and escaping in an attempt to protect their families – to save their lives, to escape unending horror, to live in peace. And we are punishing these people and denying them all forms of humanity and human comfort – including, bizarrely, not allowing them mail. (Presumably because at all costs we must not allow them to think that anyone cares about them.)

What we are doing to these people makes me ill. They are people. Good people. Bad people. Children. Adults. Old people. Just people. People like you. People like me. People caught up in unending trauma. And we are treating them like vermin.

Look, I’m not saying that immigration policy is a simple thing, or easily fixed. I’m not saying we can help everyone in the world who is in need, although I would dearly love to.

But I am saying that what Australia is doing is NOT OK. It is NOT IN MY NAME. And it must stop. Just, please, make it stop.

#letthemstay

Holding Patterns

Today my sister was shocked when my Mum asked her if she had any brothers and sisters. Mum wondered whose birthday she could see on her calendar (it was her grandson). Last week she asked me if it was my parents who had a house at the beach. I wonder if she sometimes wonders why I haven’t introduced her to my Mum? I wish I could.

Dementia, for us, consists of thousands of these moments, interwoven with snatches of lucidity. Some things seem to stick better than others – she often seems to know I have kids, but has no idea how many, or what they are studying at University (they are 9 and 12 years old), or even their gender. But it’s clear she no longer identifies as my Mum – except when she does.

And it’s obvious she doesn’t know my husband’s name, although we’ve been married for over 20 years. Except when she does.

And she has certainly reached the point where she can’t read a menu. Except when she can.

There’s definitely no way she could find her way to the local shops and back anymore, except on the days when she does just that.

This, I think, is one of the deepest and most unexpected traumas of dementia, for those trying to wrap their lives around caring for the patient: The astonishing lack of certainty. It’s a disease with no fixed pattern. No identifiable time frame. Nothing you can rely on from one day to the next.

She could go on like this for years. Or she could die tomorrow. Of course, that’s true of all of us. Life is far less certain than we would like to believe. We hedge ourselves about with calendars, plans, and timetables in an attempt to pin some predictability onto our lives, even though it could all evaporate in a puff of smoke at any moment. But the human brain is very good at inhabiting its self-created patterns and not looking outside itself to the terrifying possibilities of tomorrow.

“How we envy you, envy you! Lucky humans, who can close your minds to the endless deeps of space! You have this thing you call… boredom? That is the rarest talent in the universe! We heard a song — it went ‘Twinkle twinkle little star….’ What power! What wondrous power! You can take a billion trillion tons of flaming matter, a furnace of unimaginable strength, and turn it into a little song for children! You build little worlds, little stories, little shells around your minds, and that keeps infinity at bay and allows you to wake up in the morning without screaming!”  

Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky.

Dementia forces those shells open, and breaks them into pieces. Dementia is the reason you wake up screaming. Dementia keeps dragging you back to ceaseless, merciless awareness that today, tomorrow, or next week could be a catastrophic crisis. A shocking new fall downwards. A crisis whose shape you can only guess at. A crisis that you can see coming but can’t possibly prepare for.

How do we look away from that crisis and go on with the day? How do we stop flinching every time the phone rings, and dreading what we will see when we open her door? How do we grieve for the loss of our mother while keeping her alive as best we can?

There are no answers here. Only questions we can’t bear to ask.