Tell her about it

Big events tend to prompt us to tell people how we feel about them. There is something about a significant birthday, a wedding, or perhaps leaving a workplace, that prompts us to open up and express our appreciation. Some people become eloquent in Christmas cards. Others prefer to maintain a stoic, dignified silence. Some show their feelings with hugs, others keep a safe, self-contained distance.

Tell her about it
Tell her all your crazy dreams
Let her know you need her
Let her know how much she means

I tend to the expressive side (some would argue excessively so), yet when my cousin, Chris, died earlier this year, I found myself wondering whether he really knew what he meant to me. Yesterday I cleared his immense book collection out of his house and on my uncle’s instructions I donated it to the school I work at. It’s an incredible, eclectic collection, and I fiercely regret the opportunity to give him a hard time about some of it, and to share and revel in other sections with him. I’ve learnt a lot about him that I didn’t know, and been reminded of how much we had in common.

Chris and I tended to express ourselves in hugs, but we left the words largely unsaid. Sometimes long established relationships are the hardest to change. His death has reminded me how important it is to get our feelings out into the open. To push past our natural shyness and reticence, and whether face to face or in writing, to express our appreciation and affection for the people around us. Waiting for the big events can leave us deprived of the opportunity.

Telling someone that they are important to you, that you care about them, or how much their support has meant to you, can feel like a risk sometimes. What if they don’t feel the same way? What if they laugh, or are embarrassed, or if it makes things uncomfortable? I won’t pretend I haven’t got it wrong sometimes – being expressive can alarm people when they’re not ready for it, not used to it, or don’t reciprocate – but mostly it is a profound act of love and gratitude that reinforces and deepens relationships.

From family to workmates, we often take each other for granted in the frantic race that we seem to run every day. Stopping to appreciate someone can create a small, precious breathing space for both of you, where warmth and friendship have time to bloom, sheltered from the tornado of life.

Listen boy
It’s good information from a man
Who’s made mistakes

Just a word or two that she gets from you
Could be the difference that it makes

Billy Joel – Tell Her About It

Recently I stepped down from the child care committee that I have served on for the last 8 years. My youngest child is going to school, and our involvement with the centre finishes tomorrow. At my last meeting the committee touched me deeply by expressing their appreciation of my work most eloquently. I carry their words and gestures with me every day, and their particular choice of words will always make me smile. There is nothing quite like being appreciated to keep you warm inside. We can make a profound difference to someone’s life by telling them how we feel.

Who have you appreciated lately?

What shall we do, boys and girls?

Last week a request came around my workplace for people to help moving tables and chairs. The request included the line “preferably at least 2 boys”.  There are around 45 staff, and the gender balance may not be even, but it must be pretty close. The thing that really struck me is this: I know of several people who could not be involved in moving furniture, due to injury or illness, but none whose gender would be the deciding factor. Indeed, there are girls on staff who could probably easily win an arm wrestle with just about any other member of staff.

We like to think of ourselves as enlightened and inclusive. We don’t like to think that we still reek of prejudice. Yet statements like the one above show up our assumptions and prejudices, warts and all. Girls aren’t good at moving furniture. We’re probably not good at maths & science, either. We’re certainly not good with computers. There are probably few people, aside from Andrew Bolt, who would be willing to stand up in public and say we belong bare foot and pregnant in the kitchen, but I do wonder how far we have actually come, in the privacy of our own minds.

If I showed you a picture of a man, and one of a woman, and asked you to choose someone to help you with your furniture moving, which would you choose?

What if I showed you the same pictures and asked you to pick which one was the nurse, and which the engineer?

Primary school teacher?


Stay at home parent?

Psychologist? Psychiatrist?

When I tell you I’ve just been to the doctor, will you ask what he said?

A friend of mine once told me that girls could cook, but they were not competent chefs. The friend was highly educated, extremely intelligent, and perfectly serious. Our cooking skills were fine, but for serious, gourmet food creation you needed a boy. Apparently the high culinary arts are located on the Y chromosome. Years later he offered to marry me for my pavlova, but it was too little, too late.

If my young daughters were to draw pictures of the above professions, I’d like to think there would be no signs of gender bias, but I’m sure there would be. On the bright side, I don’t think they consider themselves barred from any profession by reason of gender – but they do seem to be drawn more towards traditionally female roles, and repelled by traditional male ones. My 4 year old refused to wear her blue slippers yesterday, because “they make me feel boyish”.

Put a 4 year old girl next to a 4 year old boy and you will probably correctly pick the one who is into fairies and the one who is obsessed with trucks. 4 year olds pick up very accurately on our expectations. But the one who is into fairies might be playing with a bulldozer while wearing her fair wings, and the one who loves trucks might also be keen on drawing and flowers.

Kids learn most from what we do, not from what we say. This year there are 7 girls out of 26 kids in my year 11 information technology class. Last year there were 2. I can’t be sure, but I suspect that having a female IT teacher may have triggered a few attitude changes in the students. When we get to a 50-50 ratio I can retire. When we make assumptions based on gender, we are unwittingly educating our kids. What do you teach the young people around you?

I would be the last to argue that there are no differences between the genders. Certainly there are statistical differences overall – on average men find it easier to build muscle than women. But we tend to forget that statistics are useless in the specific case. Put me next to a man and statistics won’t tell you which of us is physically stronger. Despite our assumptions, there are very few jobs that a woman can do and a man can’t. And there are very few jobs that a man can do and a woman can’t.  Shifting furniture may be impossible if you have an injured back, or a broken arm. But it’s no problem if you have a vagina.

Challenge your assumptions!

Working with the elephant

Yesterday I played the piano again for the first time in months. I haven’t played regularly in many years, and even the pieces I used to know by heart are desperately rusty. I can’t play any of them without following the sheet music pretty closely. It was interesting, though, to find that there were large swathes of each song that my fingers were producing without much intervention from my conscious brain. My mind insisted that it was in control, but it really wasn’t paying attention. I had not actually read those notes and deliberately translated them into finger movements, as I had to do when I first learnt the piece. The sheet music was acting as a sort of prompt to an algorithm buried deep in my sub-conscious, and perfectly capable of operating without my intervention.

And if I don’t have this all worked out
Still I’m getting closer, getting closer
I still have far to go no doubt
But I’m getting closer, getting closer

It’s a little spooky to realise that your sub-conscious is up and about while you’re not paying attention. Sometimes I half expect to come home and find postcards from myself. There are numerous tales of people who have driven home and arrived safely, only to wonder who was actually driving their car – they have little or no recollection of the mechanics of the journey. We love to think of ourselves as powerful intellects, in control of our actions and our beliefs, but we are really just riding that ol’ sub-conscious elephant, twitching the reigns occasionally in a rather futile attempt to prove that we know what we’re doing.

If I see it as experience
It hasn’t gone to waste
Lately all the missing pieces
Have been falling into place

I spend a lot of time trying to work out what drives my elephant. It’s useful to understand what sends it stampeding off into the undergrowth, as well as what enrages it and sets it charging in an uncontrolled explosion. Understanding is the first step to defusing those switches, although it is almost certainly the first step on a long and painful road.

I’ve always been fascinated by people who have 5 year plans, together with in depth time lines and implementation details. I’ve always found life far too chaotic and unpredictable for plans. (Two years ago, for example, I would not have been able to predict that I would be sitting here utterly exhausted, having completed my first year of high school teaching.) For a control freak, I am making relatively good progress at accepting that life will bounce me from one event to another, and one crisis to the next, and there’s not much I can do about it – but again they are small steps on a long road.

Though there have been sins
I will regret
Still I’m getting close, getting closer
I don’t have all the answers yet
But I’m getting closer, getting closer

One thing I still struggle with is my anxious attempts to predict the future. I want to be prepared. I want to know what’s going to happen so that I can brace myself for the impact. Yet wise people keep pointing out to me that we can’t predict the future. Stressing about things that might not happen must be the ultimate in foolish energy wastage.

And although you will say
I am still too naive
But I have not lost faith
In the things I believe

Getting Closer, Billy Joel

I can’t prepare for an unknowable future. What I can do is learn to cope better with the present. I can invest my energy in all those things that increase my resilience. In sitting by the pond watching for tadpoles (two froglets and a young tadpole spotted this afternoon). In rediscovering the piano. In singing in the choir, or even just in the shower. In reading books (but only the ones that make me feel good). In spending half an hour in the hallway with my family, swatting a ball of scrunched up paper back and forth (that’s Christmas sorted, then!).

None of this puts me in control of the elephant, of course. But it does soothe the elephant, and makes it harder to spook.

What soothes your elephant?