On love, loss, and the warmth of words

2016 was a year of love, of loss, and of fear. For me there was the sheer joy of discovering kindred spirits, and the devastation of seeing the brightest of lights snuffed out – both very public, and deeply private. It ended with elation, but also despair.

The summer holidays tend to be an emotionally complex time for me. I need time to recharge, but I miss the intense people contact that my work brings me. I would happily trade a long summer break for a longer but less frenetic school year, but that’s a whole different story. I hate Christmas – a hangover from too many Christmas traumas growing up. And I don’t thrive without a lot of people around me. I am the extreme end of the extrovert scale. The quiet end of the summer holidays can be a struggle, unless I manage it carefully, and I am often too tired to do so.

So I wound up a little feral. A touch self-destructive. And very difficult to live with. I was reading the news a little obsessively – not a life enhancing move at the best of times, and these are far from the best of times. I was not seeing enough people or getting enough exercise, having injured myself with a few over-enthusiastic attempts to ramp up my exercise routine.

At times like this I have to consciously seek out ways to lift myself up, or I become quite impossible. So I stopped reading so much news, and started focusing on the positives in my life. I stopped thinking so much about the fraught relationships in my life and started focusing on the people who know me through and through, and who love and support me even at my most foul. I even made a montage of the faces that mean the most to me, and set it as the home screen on my phone, so that every time I pick up my phone I see the people who make me who I am, and who pick me up when I stumble.

I love to read but had run out of the kind of uplifting, easy books I need at a time like this, so I trawled a bookshop looking for things to feed my soul. When I saw a new William McInnes book, “Full Bore,” I dived on it, then hesitated briefly because the blurb described it as “ramblings on sport, pop culture and life”, and my relationship with Aussie sport can best be described as distant, verging on cold. But his writing has reliably lifted me from the depths before, so I took a punt (hah! A sporting metaphor! Perhaps I’m not a total loss as an Aussie.) and took it home with me.

And, you know what? Sport did make an appearance, but this is not a book about sport. It’s not about pop culture. It’s about people, and love, and connections. It meanders through life having random conversations with shop assistants, passersby, neighbours, and friends, and weaving them all into a soft and loving tapestry of kindness and warmth that wraps around you and reconnects you with the world. Above all it’s about love. It’s the book equivalent of a big hug. I’ve never met William McInnes, more’s the pity, but he writes directly to my heart.

It’s about taking the time to look people in the eyes and hear their stories. It’s about reaching out to strangers in the night, and neighbours in distress. It’s about treading lightly, even with big feet, but not being afraid to walk in. Everybody has a story, and everybody has a heart. Sometimes we forget to really see the people around us.

 

 

The I in TEAM

I had the incredible opportunity last week to work with some of the most amazing people I have ever met. I was able to gather them together in a room and we had the most fabulous time solving some really significant problems. Eventually I’ll post more about that on my Computing Education blog. But that meeting was able to come about because while I was away over the winter break I had a startling realization. A lot of the problems I have been trying to solve have been driving me insane, and I couldn’t see how to fix things.

And then it dawned on me. I was trying to fix them alone.

Fixing things alone is not my superpower. Bringing people together? That I can do. So that’s what I’ve spent the last 6 months doing, and now things are changing for me, and for the problems I am trying to solve, in fairly spectacular ways.

One of the great side effects of that meetings was that we talked fiction over lunch, and I got to collect a list of recommended reads from people I really admire. So I started reading one of them – “The Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss – this week. It’s well written and a gripping read. An excellent way to start my summer holidays. But there’s an aspect of it that is really getting up my nose. It’s the same reason I struggle to read the Harry Potter books. A lot of the plot hinges on the fact that the protagonist refuses to ask for help.

Now look. I get this. I do. Asking for help is not my thing. Not until I am too close to breaking – possibly a little past. Ok, maybe a lot past. It’s perfectly plausible. But the older I get the more I realise my strength resides in the intensity, and number, of my relationships. In the people who come when I call, and even more in the people who come before I call, knowing that the calling itself is hard for me.

In the people who leap at ideas I have for teamwork. In the people who say “hell yes, I’m far too busy for this, but let’s do it anyway!” In the people who can lift me when I’m down, keep me grounded when I’m up, and wield the frying pan of enlightenment, gently, but firmly, where it’s needed.

This isn’t just my greatest strength. This is where humanity shines, when it’s not tearing itself down. This very needing each other, this ability to create astonishing synergy, and build a remarkable whole out of disparate parts. This is humanity’s crowning achievement. This is how we build great walls, Snowy River Hydro systems, and supportive societies.

I see it in my daughter’s primary school, which has the most extraordinary community, sparked by a quite remarkable Principal. I see it in my own workplace, where people push themselves beyond reasonable limits, but always have something extra to give when a student, or colleague, needs it.

I even see it on Facebook, where a post about a problem brings any number of supportive responses, and even tangible help. Where people offer solutions, hugs, and understanding.

Sometimes we focus on our differences, and on all that’s wrong with the world. Goodness knows there’s plenty of fodder for that. And we wonder what we can do about it.

Alone? Not much, really.

But together? Together we can move mountains.

This is why I get a little frustrated by books where the protagonist has a great support network but refuses to call on it. We have this unthinking adulation of independence that is seriously counterproductive. We admire the hero who goes it alone, when we’d be far better off idolizing the hero who builds a team that saves the world together.

It’s teamwork, ultimately, that can save us. Not the Bruce Willis style hero who grumpily saves the world without help. Not the Rambo rampaging alone through the forest. It will be the teams of scientists who share the credit to solve big problems. The politicians who cross the floor to vote for something they believe in. The people who can rally others to their cause.

It will be our ability to come together and outshine the sun, not our ability to burn out alone, that determines our future. Maybe it’s time we celebrated that.

 

Failing to succeed

It’s nearly that time of year again, when year 12 results come out (or have already come out, or came out and went back in again, if you got caught up in the glitch!). As usual there’s a lot of talk of of defining moments. Of deciding your fate. Of doors opening or slamming in your face, depending on the outcome.

Earlier this year in a school assembly, I was inspired to out myself. Here I am, passionate (verging on obsessive) Computer Science teacher, researcher, and writer. Absolutely where I want to be, doing what I love, and feeling as though I can make a difference. There is nowhere I would rather be.

But my first preference was medicine.

So was my second.

I didn’t get in.

I failed.

Oh, I didn’t fail my VCE, but I failed to get the score I needed to do medicine.

A better thing could not have happened to me. I drifted into a science degree intending, in a vague and fairly uninspired way, to study Genetics. I took Computer Science as a fill in subject because I had always liked machines that go “Bing!”

By third year I was studying nothing but Computer Science. I was never going to do honours. Certainly never going to do a PhD, and no way would I ever become a lecturer. All of these things inevitably came to pass. Quite quickly, really.

I suck at predicting my future.

I’ve always been faintly astounded by people who have 5 year plans and the like. My planning mostly consists of noticing an open door and flinging myself through it.

Occasionally I have to dynamite the door to make sure it’s open.

The point is that I thought I knew what I wanted, but not getting it turned out to be the best thing that could possibly have happened. It took a while, but now I am right where I want to be, doing something I love with a slightly obsessive passion (I may be lying about the slightly part). I’ve taken a strange and winding path to get here, but every step of that road helped to give me skills and attributes I would not have had any other way. I doubt I would be this happy, or this useful if I hadn’t failed to get into medicine.

Tonight my year 12s graduate at our school’s presentation night. (I know, I don’t teach year 12, but they are still MY YEAR 12s. Hush.) It will be a minor miracle if I don’t cry, because every single one of them has performed amazing feats just to get where they are.

So if you’re waiting on your final school results, remember this: there is nothing defining about these numbers. You are so much more than a number could ever express. Whatever happens, your future is in your hands, and you have extraordinary potential. Go get ’em, Tiger.

Down the Dementia Rabbit Hole

I don’t always write about my visits to Mum. There’s always something new, but often there’s no new emotion left to deal with it. Nothing left to say. Nothing new to feel.

Today was pretty normal at first, as far as dementia allows for any definition of normal.

Mum asked me where my parents live. “Only in my head, honey. Only in my head.”

Of course I didn’t say that, just answered lightly and steered the conversation to safer topics. But I’m used to that one now. Then she said I was her sister. That was new. She’s an only child. But she hasn’t reliably known me for months. I’m not greatly disturbed by who she thinks I am.

We went out to lunch. She was a little odd – differently odd, even for her – but nothing particularly radical. We walked back to her house, and I waited to see her inside before leaving. She fumbled with her keys and couldn’t get the gate unlocked. This is pretty normal for Mum these days, so I waited a bit in the hope she would sort it out, and then I got out my keys and tried the lock.

It was stuck.

I had the right key – I had opened the gate with it when I arrived – but it wouldn’t turn in the lock. The lock is a deadlock and the gate is one of those spiky ornamental ones. The house is really quite a fortress, so being unable to unlock the gate makes getting in a significant challenge.

Mum immediately started to panic. Her key chain is festooned with broken keys, and she was getting more and more stressed about trying to unlock the gate. I was worried she would break her key off in the lock and then we’d have no hope. To top it off it was getting late and I needed to get home to pick up my kids.

I tried to get Mum to stop wrestling with the lock while I figured out what to do. I couldn’t open the garage, as the batteries seemed to be flat on the keypad. There is no easy place to scale the fence. I tried my key in the lock again, to no avail – it was definitely the right key, but the lock just wouldn’t move. Meanwhile Mum was becoming increasingly agitated, saying it had never happened before and she never had any trouble with the locks, why was it happening now, what were we going to do, why was it happening now… her stress levels were sky rocketing and it was impossible to isolate myself from her panic. It was infectious.

I called my husband to see if he had any suggestions, which at least calmed me a little, and I worked out that if I put my foot in the letterbox slot I could get myself up and over the gate (lucky I’ve been doing all that weights work recently is all I can say!). I had to sit on the spiky gate to get my other leg over which was no picnic, but I managed it.

I jumped down the other side to find that the lock was indeed jammed. But it was jammed outside the latch-hole. If we had tried the other handle, the gate would have opened.

This is the rabbit hole of dementia. I’ve felt for years that visits to Mum took my brain and ripped it into tiny pieces. I’ve long suspected that I didn’t ever manage to collect up all the bits, and that with every visit I, myself, become less complete. Less coherent. It’s impossible to be around that level of dysfunction without becoming somewhat dysfunctional yourself. But today I failed to open a gate that was, in fact, not locked.

I saw Mum safely inside. She became calm as soon as she was inside the house, fortunately. But her panic, her terror, her anxiety? I took them home with me. I pulled over on the side of the road halfway home and sobbed. Over a gate. Yet not over a gate at all. Over the mess that this damned disease has made of my mother, and is making of me.

I don’t want to play this game anymore.

 

Nerds don’t make good teachers, eh?

“Nerds don’t make good teachers, Catholic schools warn” screamed a bucket load of headlines yesterday, in response to the Government’s proposal to increase the minimum ATAR for teaching to 70.

Now, I have some reservations about this proposal. I would rather see conditions improved – especially workload – than impose a mandatory minimum score. This feels to me like a cheap and easy approach with quite uncertain outcomes, rather than a genuine attempt to improve our education system.

But it’s the comment from the Executive Director of Catholic Education Melbourne that gets so far up my nose I’m going to need surgery to extract it. To be fair, the headlines were cheap clickbait, and the actual quote is “Nerds don’t necessarily make good teachers.” Which is hard to argue with. I mean, take any group of people, even teachers, and they don’t necessarily make good teachers. There is no completely homogeneous group of people on earth. You can’t point to a race, a personality type, a socio economic group, of any kind and say “they will all make fabulous teachers”. Or train drivers. Or Executive Directors of the Catholic Education System.

Now, I will be the first to admit – no, to exclaim with pride! – that I am a nerd. So perhaps I am a little biased on this topic. But I am so very, very sick of the lazy, tired stereotype that nerds are pasty people with no social skills who never go out in the sunlight.

I work with nerds. I teach nerds. I have taught some of the smartest people I’ve ever met over the last 6 years, and there are some extraordinary teachers, communicators, and empaths among them. Sure, they’re not all like that. It’s true that smart people aren’t all the best communicators. But there is no group of people that you can say are all the best communicators.

Some of my nerds are amazing at sport. Some of them are extraordinary debaters. Some of them are the most talented musicians I have ever met. Some of them are incredible empaths. They are a rich and diverse group of people, with no two ever totally alike, but here’s what they have in common:

Nerds are intelligent and focused, especially when something engages their passion.

Nerds are passionate and often want to change the world.

Nerds are talented, often in many different areas at once.

Nerds think outside the box, and ask “why?” about problems the rest of the world takes for granted.

Nerds are creative.

Nerds are problem solvers.

Nerds made the iphone and write all the apps. They designed your tablet computer and create new drugs to treat disease. They invented wifi, the microwave, and the Airbus A380. They gave you google maps and email, hybrid cars and solar power. They can give you life saving surgery and remote controlled lights.

Just like the ASAP Science boys sing:

See I heard (oh) 
That you been out and about making fun of nerds 
Making fun of nerds 
See that's simply a mistake, know why? 
Soon they'll innovate and change our lives 
And be remembered for all of time

Most of the teachers at my school would happily, and accurately, wear the nerd label, and they are some of the most dedicated, talented, and amazing teachers I have ever known. They are brilliant communicators, passionate about their work, and would do just about anything for the students they teach. A startling number of them have PhDs – they are pretty much the definition of uber nerds – and they are fabulous.

So next time you are tempted to run with that tired old nerd stereotype, ask yourself what you’re really trying to say. And whether it’s true.

 

Holding on tightly

Andrew just left to go to Perth for our friend David’s funeral. I only met David a few times, but we bonded over teaching, and of course over Andrew. Andrew, David, and David’s brother Mike, grew up together. They were brothers in all but DNA. After David and his family moved to Perth in his teens, they were only sporadically in contact but they remained inescapably connected.

And now he’s gone. Andrew packed his things for the flight in my cousin Chris’s backpack, which we inherited when Chris died. Tonight we’ll eat dinner in some bowls that also belonged to Chris. We might serve the veggies with the silver spoon my beloved friend James gave me before he died, so that I would have something to remember him by. I didn’t need the spoon, James has a permanent and dedicated room in my heart.

If Marg hadn’t died a few weeks ago I would call her to touch base around now. I’m wearing the earrings I bought when raiding Vic market with Di way back in first year uni, some years before a car accident robbed her of a future and me of the other half of my brain.

Together, and with many others, they made me who I am. I am built on the foundations of all the people I have ever loved. There are pieces of them embedded in my heart, but they take pieces of me with them when they die. I am broken afresh by each new death, and rebuilt by every friendship.

Each new loss is a body blow, knocking me off balance and off course.

Look down,
The ground below is crumbling.
Look up,
The stars are all exploding.
Hey yeah, hey yeah oh oh
Hey yeah, hey yeah
It’s the last, day on earth,
In my dreams, in my dreams,
It’s the end, of the world,
And you’ve come back, to me.
In my dreams.
Kate Miller-Heidke, Last Day on Earth

Last night in my dreams I was having an argument with my Dad. I woke to find him still gone, and it was equal parts relief and regret. That’s a long story.

Every death interrupts a million stories. But it does not sever those connections. As Pratchett, himself now an echo, wrote: ‘No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away…’

Memories remain. Love remains. Even as sadness is overwhelming. My Dad used to say that life was a chronic and ultimately fatal disease. Experience has taught me that the prognosis is acutely uncertain.

So gather your loved ones to you. Take that chance. Make that stand. Give life everything you’ve got. It’s uncertain, and precious, and capricious in the extreme. Grab it with both hands.

Taking us back up

Today I accidentally read some of the comments on an article about what I hope will be the demise of Trump. I have scrubbed and scrubbed and I still feel filthy. They make me angry. They make me despair. They are misogynistic, racist, xenophobic. They are a snapshot of the worst that humanity can be.

And that, right there, is what is killing us. Politicians like Tony Abbott, Pauline Hanson, and Donald Trump take us down. They foment all of the worst that we are, and brew it up into a sick and feverish storm of hatred and misery. Which often works. It got Abbott elected. I hope with all my heart it won’t get Trump elected, but at least until a few days ago it was looking all too plausible. I want to believe the chances have dropped, but he’s bloody good (by which I mean evil) at what he does.

There are too many ways in which we allow the world to take us down now. To reduce us to the lowest common denominator. The fear of otherness is whipped up into demands that Muslims should be locked out of our country for our own protection – notwithstanding the ones who were born here, and who are in fact in more danger because of all this fear than we “normal” “safe” Caucasians. No, Muslims are different, and therefore a threat.

Speaking as someone who has always been a little different, one way or another, I find that chilling.

So instead of reading about Trump, and Hanson, and others of their evil, demoralising ilk, I am increasingly turning to the people who inspire others, just by being themselves. They, too, are different, and that is immensely heartening.

I have a close friend who is vegan, because she wants to reduce her impact on the planet. She doesn’t talk about it much, and certainly doesn’t impose her beliefs on others. Where vegan food isn’t available she will go vegetarian without fuss. But she is busily making thoughtful, ethical decisions. She inspires me to think more about the impact of everything I do.

I have another friend who would be exceedingly cross with me for writing about him, so I shall endeavour to be vague enough that he remains safely anonymous. But he is an extraordinary inspiration. His work, his friendships, and much of his play are all focused on making the world a better place. He tries to think about the impact of everything he does. Wherever possible he chooses the companies he deals with by considering the ethics of their behaviour. If he sees a situation that needs fixing he damned well fixes it, if he possibly can. More often than not if he can’t do it alone he will mobilise the rest of the world to get it sorted. If he sees someone who needs help, he helps them. He feels a deep need to give back to the world. And the beauty of this is not just in the immediate impact of what he does. It’s in the way his behaviour changes the people around him. The ripples of his actions spread across the world. I am a better person for knowing him.

I have another friend who fosters guide dog puppies. She cares for them, loves them, bonds with them for a year, and then has to say goodbye. It’s brutal, but it’s crucial. How could guide dogs be provided to the blind if someone didn’t love them and care for them while they were puppies? We’re all pretty good at leaving things like that to “someone else”. This friend has stepped up to be that someone. Plus she posts pictures of the puppies online, which is a whole wave of positive energy right there.

A student of mine thought I was a little down last week, so he bought me a sonic screwdriver necklace to cheer me up. What is Trump against that sort of kindness and empathy?

I’ve written about people like this before – they are the sparkly people who polish the souls of the rest of us just by being nearby. They catch us when we fall. They lift us higher than we could rise alone.  I could write about the good people in my life 24 hours a day 7 days a week and not be finished in a year.

I think we need to spend more time talking about people like this, and less time listening to Trump and his corrosive ilk. Because even in disagreeing with Trump, even in ranting about how foul he is, he is taking us down. We are focusing on foul, stinking hatred. And I think it’s time we focused on love. Research has shown that being thankful positively changes your brain chemistry – so what impact do you imagine hatred has?

So let’s write about people helping each other. Let’s talk about the people who love and support us. Let’s be thankful for the good things in our lives. Research has shown that being thankful positively changes your brain chemistry , and even your health – so what impact do you imagine hatred has?

Lately I’ve been posting my thankful things to Facebook every day. And maybe some people find it mawkish or overly sentimental. I post political stuff too. I certainly get angry a lot – about injustice and cruelty, mostly. But there’s a lot of good in the world, too. I think maybe it’s time we started paying more attention to all the love.