You’re only human

You’re having a hard time and lately you don’t feel so good
You’re getting a bad reputation in your neighborhood
It’s alright, it’s alright, sometimes that’s what it takes
You’re only human, you’re allowed to make your share of mistakes

Billy Joel – You’re Only Human

Lately I’ve been learning some painful lessons about cutting myself some slack. I have worked hard to teach myself to cut other people quite a lot of slack. I believe quite passionately that everyone makes mistakes, nobody’s perfect, and that people are allowed to have an off day. What I am very bad at doing is allowing that I might be human. I might have an off day, or even an off week. That I am allowed to make mistakes. Somehow all that generosity of spirit and compassionate understanding runs out before I can apply it to myself.

On Wednesday I was really struggling with life. Things were getting on top of me and pummelling my resilience until it seemed in danger of vaporising. And then I got an extra.  For those who are not familiar with teacher-speak, an extra is a class you take when another teacher is away. It’s often a subject you’re completely unfamiliar with, in which case you have to hope that the kids have some work to be going on with, or that it’s a team teaching environment, so the other teacher will know what to do. In this particular case I wound up far from my familiar domain of IT, and found myself teaching English.

As a writer, and a former teacher of communication skills, it turned out that the subject matter was well within my scope, so I actually taught the lesson, and I had an absolutely wonderful time. After they stopped looking at me as though I had 3 heads, (“What on earth is ‘That IT Teacher Chick’ doing teaching English???) the kids and I really got into the subject matter. With the adrenalin rush of finding myself unexpectedly “on stage”, I hammed it up and played around with the language analysis we were doing. I loved it, and the class was very responsive. Several kids came up to me during the course of the day and told me how much they’d enjoyed it.

It was a buzz of magnificent proportions, and left me feeling good all day.  That really got me thinking: What was it about that class that left me feeling as though I was flying? How could I incorporate more of the things that make me feel that way into my every day life?

It’s not always easy to be living in this world of pain
You’re gonna be crashing into stone walls again and again
It’s alright, it’s alright, though you feel your heart break
You’re only human, you’re gonna have to deal with heartache

It’s really easy to get caught up in the chaos, drama and trauma of life and forget to take proper care of yourself. It’s even easier to be so focused on taking care of other people, whether it’s friends, children, or people at work, that your own needs become invisible. I am fortunate in my friends, and there are several who don’t hesitate to wield the frying pan of enlightenment in my general direction. ‘Wham! Look after yourself, ok? Wham!’ And yet sometimes it’s hard to know exactly how to do that.

I think the answer lies in those things that make you feel as though you’re flying. I won’t always get the same buzz out of an English lesson that I got on Wednesday. Maybe next time I’ll be flying in choir, or playing the piano, or out on my bike. I might be flying at a party (due solely to the pleasure of the company, I assure you), or flying with a new book (come on Terry Pratchett/Kerry Greenwood, surely it’s time???). Or it might be discovering tadpoles in our pond. Sometimes opportunities to fly fall in your lap, but often you need to hunt them down, and that means knowing how to recognise them.

We’re going to make mistakes. We’re going to hit those stone walls. But that’s ok. It’s learning how to get up again that’s key. After all, we’re only human.

Making connections

When your day is long
And the night
The night is yours alone
When you’re sure you’ve had enough of this life
Well hang on

Don’t let yourself go
Cause everybody cries
And everybody hurts

How many times a day does someone ask “how are you?”  Probably quite a lot, depending on how much time you spend out of the house and in public places. Now here’s a more challenging question. How many times a day do you answer that question honestly?

I’ll admit I am more open than most – some may describe me as pathologically open (especially regular readers of this blog!). But often I feel as though it throws a real spanner into the conversation when you answer “How are you?” with anything other than “Fine thanks.”  It can be shocking to respond accurately, particularly if you’re not having a good day. “I’m exhausted.” or “I’m in a lot of pain, actually.” or “I’m really upset, because my daughter is sick.” Sometimes people seem taken aback by a genuine answer.

Yet more often than not, an honest answer can trigger a moment of human connection, even somewhere as disconnected as a supermarket checkout. People relate to your feelings, and feel enabled to respond with feelings of their own. “Exhausted” for example, frequently gets a “know the feeling,” followed by a priceless moment of empathy. But that’s only after the initial shock of finding a human being rewriting the play. For a little harmless sport with unsolicited phone calls, try answering honestly, and then asking telemarketers how they are in return. It’s not in the script. It throws to a human moment that they are often immensely startled by.

We have become very good at privacy. For all our banal facebook status updates and overly detailed tweets, nonetheless the stiff upper lip seems to be the dominant theme in our society. We don’t tell people things. We don’t mention miscarriages, grief or bereavement. We don’t talk about money woes, crises at work, relationship problems, or the really challenging moments of parenting.

If you think you’ve had too much of this life
Well hang on
Cause everybody hurts
Take comfort in your friends
Everybody hurts sometimes

REM – Everybody Hurts

We are out there with fixed smiles pasted onto our faces and make up hiding the dark circles under our eyes.  All the cracks in our personalities are covered over, and stress is something we must not admit to.  I don’t quite know what we think we are risking if we let the world know that some days are harder than others. That some years contain more than their fair share of grief and trauma. That sometimes the challenges pile up to a height that is utterly beyond us.

Perhaps we are afraid of being judged – that somehow our feelings are excessive, that our ability to cope is sub-standard, and that everyone else truly is doing it easily, while we are struggling to get out of bed in the mornings. Yet in my experience the very act of talking about feelings, of giving genuine, open answers to “how are you?” leads to closer connections, and frequent confessions of “good grief yes, me too!”, or “oh that’s awful, that happened to me last year”, or “hey, I’ve been there, and it sucks, but I found this, that and the other really helpful, maybe you will too.” Knowing that others struggle, too, is one of the best ways of knowing you’re not alone.

Sometimes people tell me they’re fine, yet when I respond with “that wasn’t very convincing”, the floodgates open, and they are relieved to be able to talk about what’s really going on. It’s as though they are waiting for proof that I’m really interested before risking an honest answer. And who can blame them? These days shop assistants are required to ask how you are at the start of any transaction.  People passing in the street greet you with “how are ya?” but are out of earshot before you have time to reply. It has become a meaningless, surface level question. Never meant to be answered.

The strength of humanity lies wholly in our social groups. Close knit social groups can achieve far more than individuals. Community is a powerful tool. It seems tragic to me that we are busily editing community out of our lives, and building higher and higher fences, both physical and emotional, between ourselves and the outside world.

Next time someone asks you how you are, take down the walls a little and tell them the truth. And if someone gives you an unconvincing answer, call them on it. I’m not saying you should challenge them to a truth-telling duel. But a gentle “are you sure?” can work minor miracles surprisingly often.

Everybody hurts, sometimes.

Perfect Harmony

Yesterday we started a new song in choir. It is a magnificent arrangement of “I’m a believer” (which the students all recognised as “The Shrek Song” – a true sign of the times!). It’s bright, boppy and beautiful, but I was initially disappointed to see that the Alto part was mostly the same note – middle c – repeated in various rhythms.

I’ve spent most of my life happily singing Soprano. Sopranos nearly always get to sing the melody. It’s a bit of a sinecure – you just pick out the top line of any harmony, and run with it. We tend to be a little on the smug and superior side, because we sing the parts of songs that everybody knows. Take away the Soprano part and the song usually becomes unrecognisable. In truth, though, the lower parts are much more interesting. Finding a note in the middle of the mix is much more challenging, which is why I decided to switch to the Alto part for a while. I thought it would stretch me, and develop some new skills.

With such a well known song, I was quite disappointed not to be singing that beautiful melody, and as we practised our parts I seriously considered jumping ship and becoming a Soprano again. But then we put it all together – Sopranos, Altos and Tenors. Suddenly magic happened. That boring, repetitive middle C became the firm base on which a soaring, magnificent harmony was built. The song became a living entity, and the individual parts became cells that made a fabulous whole. The precise notes we were singing didn’t matter. The parts were indivisible. The song lived and flew, and so did we.

This flame that burns inside of me
I’m hearing secret harmonies
It’s a kind of magic
The bell that rings inside your mind
Is challenging the doors of time
It’s a kind of magic

Queen – It’s a Kind of Magic

That’s a wonderful life lesson, if you think about it. Our work places, our families, our whole lives are harmonies built out of disparate parts. Some of the parts seem boring, but all of them are essential to the synergistic whole, and the complete entity is greater than the sum of its parts.

My current workplace is an ever-changing, melodious song. Some days it’s a boppy, happy tune, others we verge into hard rock territory. There are, of course, occasional discordant notes. Our ability to stay in tune with each other naturally varies with the level of stress in our lives, and the pressure of the school year. But within the melodious whole there are essential, foundational parts in the harmony. The parts on which the melody rests, that bring all the other parts back into tune in times of crisis.

We are exceptionally fortunate that our school has many of these foundational parts, but today the song veered into the blues as one of those fundamental harmonies spent her last day with us, before moving on to an entirely different genre (to stretch a metaphor beyond its limits).

Darce is a rare and precious strand of the melody, in that she is both self-aware and exquisitely attuned to those around her. With a word or a look she can bring harmony back to discordant chaos. She will no doubt grace her new workplace with the same invaluable talent for conflict resolution and team building that we so value, and she leaves our school all the richer for her too-short stay.

Her self-awareness has led her to take the bold and brave step of seeking a different kind of job, tuning her own personal melody to be the best it can be. I think a successful life is a constant process of tuning, and I admire Darce for her courage in seeking to make her vision of the perfect melody come true.

Our tune will be melancholy for a while, as we rearrange ourselves around her absence. But that’s the strength of a melody made of so many parts – it is a strong, flexible creature that grows and changes with its environment. We won’t replace Darce (how could we?), but we will make a new song, and it will be a beautiful thing to be a part of, even for those of us repeating middle C.

The age of content

I recently tried to explain to my 8 year old why a lady might not want to reveal her age. I didn’t get very far before I got bogged down in extreme silliness.

“Um… she might not want people to think she’s getting older… not that it’s possible to hide it… but she might be embarrassed by how old she is.”

“But why?”

“Er… well she might… um… maybe she wants to… erm… it’s possible she… uh… Do you know, I’ve got absolutely no idea.”

I am about to turn 40. (Pfft! That was the sound of some of my air of mystery evaporating in a puff of smoke. Damn.) For some years now I’ve been having “I’m still not 40” parties, because the frenzy that surrounds the completely arbitrary presence of a zero at the end of one’s age in years has always seemed pretty funny to me. Many people thought I was denying my real age, so when I actually turn 40 it is probably going to be very puzzling for them.  (“What? You’re turning 40? But I thought you were denying turning 40 last year???” “well yes, that’s because I wasn’t turning 40 last year.” “But why deny it if it wasn’t true?”)

This is the time to remember
‘Cause it will not last forever
These are the days
To hold on to
‘Cause we won’t
Although we’ll want to
This is the time
But time is gonna change
You’ve given me the best of you
And now I need the rest of you

Billy Joel – This is the Time

I know that people can get very upset about the age thing, but in truth I feel a little bit vulcan in my complete inability to understand it. It seems to be another of those instances where I am not entirely in tune with the human race. It is said that you should always be a little bit foreign, to appear mysterious and attractive. This is, perhaps, the one thing I still have going for me in the air of mystery department. I am good at foreign. Pretty good at incomprehensible, too.

So… ageing. We do so love to deny it, hide from it, fight it and try with ever increasing desperation to avoid it. And yet it has upsides. You know what? I know stuff now. Oh, believe me, I have so much to learn that I can’t even begin to list it, but I know so much more than I did in my 20s. In particular I know how much I don’t know. I know about shades of grey. And I think the biggest gain has been in my emotional intelligence. Don’t get me wrong, the times when I forget to apply it are legion, but if I truly think about things, I can generally handle them in an emotionally sensible way. You couldn’t pay me enough to go back 10 years or so to when I couldn’t do that. These days when I start to drive myself right up the wall, I can eventually wrest the wheel away from myself and drive back down again. (I say emotionally intelligent, you say certifiable. Potay-to/Potah-to.)

Today I visited the computer history museum at Monash University’s Caulfield campus. I showed my students machines that looked like the museum relics they are, and said “I used one of those. Oh, and that one, too. And I worked with that guy – he was amazing.” And I didn’t feel old, although the expressions on their faces were pretty funny.

Sure, my body is getting a touch rebellious. I have more trouble with my knees than I used to, and I have to stretch after riding, or I pay for it. But in actual fact I’m probably fitter overall than I was 10 years ago, as well.

Maybe as I get older I will reach an age that I am embarrassed to admit to. Perhaps then I’ll be able to explain why age should be a burden and an embarrassment, rather than a swag of intellectual riches to look forward to. But I hope not.