A word to the wise

I give my kids lots of good advice.

“Don’t worry about other people’s behaviour,” I say. “You can’t change that. Think about your own behaviour instead. Try to remember that other people’s actions are not your responsibility. A sense of justice is a fine thing, but you need to strike a balance between wanting everyone to do the right thing and interfering in other people’s business.”

“That’s really tough,” I tell them. “It can be hard to find the right balance, and sometimes you will get it wrong. Sometimes you’ll do the wrong thing, or upset people (and not achieve what you wanted anyway), and you’ll really regret what you did. It’s really important to do your best to make amends, but it’s also really important not to beat yourself up over it. You’re human. You’ll make mistakes. Sometimes you’ll hurt people. Do your best to fix it, but accept that you made a mistake. Learn from it and try to move on.”

“If you keep beating yourself up over the mistakes that you make,” I say, “it’s really hard to learn from them and avoid them next time. You just wind up on a downwards guilt spiral that makes life miserable for you and everyone around you.”

“Try to stop and take a deep breath when things are overwhelming you,” I advise them. “It’s really hard to do, but it will save you a whole lot of trauma in the long run. It takes practice, and sometimes you won’t manage it. When you don’t take that deep breath and instead go off like a fire cracker, try to cut yourself some slack. Make amends as best you can, and try to learn from it.”

“Sometimes taking deep breaths when you don’t need to is just as important as taking them when you do,” I suggest to them. “Make some space for stillness in your lives. Take the time to watch the wind in the trees, or listen to the lorikeets squawking in the trees.”

“Above all, remember that you are a good person, you are well loved, and you are trying really hard,” I say. “Don’t forget that you’ll never be perfect, but you are awesome the way you are. Believe in yourself, because you’re amazing.”

I give my kids a lot of good advice. If only I could follow it.

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Dare to be still

Last year I wrote about stillness. I have been trying very hard to conquer my stress with meditation, which requires taking the time out to be still. To find a peaceful place where my soul can unravel from the tight spiral I tend to be in by the end of each day. It’s very effective, but it does require a conscious effort to make the time, find the space, and breathe deeply. Some days life overtakes me and I just don’t manage it.

I am beginning to crave stillness more and more, but not just of a physical kind. I see stillness of all varieties as essential ingredients for grounded, connected living. The ability to be still with friends – to spend time with each other for no particular purpose, with no particular aim in mind but to be together, and be aware of each other. The ability to be still with our families – to be in the present moment, listening to each other, without one ear cocked for an sms arriving, or an email demanding attention.

We are often uncomfortable with silence. It takes a close friendship indeed to be comfortable sitting together without talking. These days life is planned, structured and organised to extremes, and a day spent doing nothing much is viewed as wasted time. Yet I think our relationships, our stress levels, our children and our lives all suffer from this perpetual motion.

Any physicist will tell you that perpetual motion is the Philosopher’s stone of Physics. It’s about as plausible as an attempt to turn lead into gold. Like a machine kept running beyond its limits, I suspect a brain that never gets downtime begins to wear out. Significant parts go ping! into the corners of the room, and pretty soon the wheels fall off altogether.

I find stillness easiest to achieve after I have written something. Whether it’s a long email to a friend, an entry for this blog, or an article for a magazine, writing is little like spring cleaning. It gets things out into the fresh air, and allows you to see patches of floor and bits of furniture that you had forgotten were buried in there. There’s a sense of achievement, afterwards. Writing helps my buzzing brain to settle, and lets me see events and feelings much more clearly.

After I have finished this post I will go out and have some pond time – sitting by our pond, listening to the local birdlife, watching the ripples on the water, and feeling my breathing slow down as the stress leaks out of my body. There is a power tool operating somewhere nearby, but it need not be a problem. I can still feel my breathing and watch the reflections on the water, and notice the patterns in the floating plants.

I have more energy, more patience, and more resilience when I build stillness into my life, but the quality of the stillness is all important. Slumped in front of my laptop clicking mindlessly on links merely makes the buzzing louder. I need to switch off my nagging devices and immerse myself in the world, rather than the world wide web. I need to reconnect with my environment, feel the air on my face, and become aware of the ground beneath my feet.

Stillness helps me work out who I really am, what’s important to me, and why I react the way I do. Stillness brings solutions, perspective, and calm.

Oddly enough playing ball with my kids also counts as stillness. Or riding bikes with them, tickling them, or pointing out passing parrots. It’s easy for my stillness to get hijacked by the todo lists screaming from every corner of my brain. Do this! Do that! Finish this! You forgot that! Those lists can be difficult to stifle, but it gets easier with practice. None of those deadlines will go away, but they will be easier to meet with my brain whole, rather than in lots of tiny pieces frantically shoved back into my skull after each crashing crisis.

When were you last still?

Swimming champions

Our girls both take swimming lessons at the local pool. We’ve been very lucky with some wonderful teachers but last term our eldest, Chloe, had a teacher she wasn’t impressed with. She had gone up a level and moved to a new class, leaving her old teacher, Kai, behind. She adores Kai with good reason – he is gentle, patient and tremendously encouraging. I thought her new teacher was merely suffering by comparison, until Chloe split her chin open on the bottom of the pool, doing dolphin kick.

That was the start of a rapid deterioration in Chloe’s relationship both with her teacher and the water.  She became increasingly phobic, getting stomach aches in the lead up to each class. Finally, when her class went into the big pool (as they did for the last 5 minutes of each class), Chloe refused to get in at all. Kai, who was taking a class in the next lane, did his best to encourage her, but even that was no good. There was no way she was going back into the water.

Meanwhile our youngest, JB, was happily ensconced in a class with Simon – one of the best swimming teachers I have ever seen. He creates an instant rapport with every child in his class, spends every lesson wreathed in smiles and getting the best out of all of his students. I’ve seen Simon teach varying age groups and handle a wide range of challenging behaviours, and he is a natural teacher of immense talent. I find myself drawn to watch his classes even when he’s not teaching my kids, taking delight in the sheer magic of his teaching style.

I didn’t want to move JB, and I really didn’t want to have to attend two different swimming lessons in an already crowded week, but it was very clear that we had to move Chloe out of the class she was in. Fortunately the swim school manager was supportive. She switched Chloe to a different day and time so that she could go back into class with Kai. She even found another class for JB – sadly not with Simon, but with another wonderful teacher by the name of Jacinta. I was thrilled with Jacinta, but JB was even happier because Jacinta’s bathers were pink (these things are important!).

Kai was amazing. Almost immediately Chloe was happily doing dolphin kick again, having completely regained her confidence and composure. For the rest of the term Chloe worked blissfully with Kai, in whom she had complete trust. Any time her confidence wobbled we talked about how Kai would look after her, and she was fine.

Then came the challenge – the girls passed all their tests, which meant they were ready to move up to the next level. This meant new teachers for both of them. While JB was relaxed about it,  Chloe worked herself into an anxious state, and when we met the new teachers my heart sank – Chloe’s new teacher, Michael, seemed very solemn. I couldn’t imagine my fun-loving girl building that crucial rapport without lots of smiles. I had been secretly hoping for another Kai or Simon, both of whom smile a lot, splash a lot, and keep the lessons both light hearted and productive. Chloe had been incredibly anxious about going into the big pool, and in this new class she had to get straight in, without any preparation time in the shallower waters.

To my surprise, Chloe got into the big pool quite happily with Michael, and as I watched carefully throughout the lesson, I could see that she was happy and confident about the very things she had spent the week developing intense anxiety about. She was diving to the bottom of the pool, swimming away from the guide ropes, and generally splashing her stuff with confidence and ease, as though there had never been a problem. There is an air of safety about Michael – a sense that, smiles or no, he holds every student in the palm of his hand. He watches them carefully, and never lets them founder. He is quick with praise – delivered solemnly, and sincerely – and his students hang on his words.

In a strange way, Michael reminds me a lot of Simon, but with less clowning about. With both of them there is a strong sense that they are the guardian angels of their group. They exude confidence and a comforting strength that seems to rub off on their students. At the end of the class Chloe came bouncing up to me raving about how wonderful Michael had been, and how awesome it was to be in the big pool.

I learnt an important lesson, watching Michael and Chloe in the pool. Smiles are cheering and reassuring, but you don’t have to be wreathed in smiles to connect with kids. They are quick to sense sincerity, and someone who cares scores major points every time. After her third lesson with Michael she is, if anything, even more impressed with him. Naturally I didn’t waste a teachable moment, and pointed out how unnecessary all that anxiety had been, and how everything had turned out well. After all, isn’t Michael amazing?

“Of course he is, Mum. He’s Simon’s brother.”

Partly working

Ever since I first went part time, returning to work when my baby bear was 11 months old, I have joked that being part time is a mug’s game. In many ways that’s not a joke. Even in these enlightened days most companies don’t handle part time workers very well. Promotions, bonuses, and achievements tend to be calculated based on a full time load. Occasionally it’s possible to get them recalculated to take working hours into account, but you have to fight for it every time. Workloads tend to err on the generous side – generous to your employer, that is. I once had a boss who tried to argue that my workload should be the same, even though I was officially half time.

Meetings are scheduled without regard to working hours. Urgent emails get sent on your “day off” (and you are fully expected to read and respond, day off or no). Work gets more difficult as you try to schedule things into a compressed format. Many workplaces aren’t good at calculating part time workloads, and it can wind up a constant struggle to draw lines around your home life. You have to fight simply to maintain your on-site working hours, never mind the expectations that you will work at home, answer calls and emails, and generally pretend to be working 24/7.

It’s not easy to calculate a fraction of full time work when these days so much full time work flows outside working hours anyway. The 38 hour week is a laughable myth. My full time teacher friends work hard on weekends and in the evenings. They start early, leave late, and work at home, including during those oh-so-generous holidays. What is 0.6 of “always”??

Somedays won’t end ever and somedays pass on by,
I’ll be working here forever, at least until I die.
Dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t
I’m supposed to get a raise week, you know damn well I won’t.

Huey Lewis and the News – Workin’ for a living

Sometimes I wonder whether working is actually worth it. I have to admit, being a stay at home mum did not work for me. As an extreme extrovert, there simply wasn’t enough company or mental stimulation in being home with the kids, much as I adore them. I love my job. It is a vocation, with all the passion and intensity that implies. I am incredibly privileged to work in a place that is chock full of people who are passionate about what they do – and the price I pay for that is to work in a place that is chock full of people who are passionate about what they do. It’s a thrilling and stimulating environment but it can, at times, be a roller coaster ride that’s a little short on balance.

Having a vocation is a dangerous thing. If I give myself to it entirely, my family suffers. It can make me a difficult workmate, as I struggle to compromise on what I believe is important – sometimes, I admit, losing perspective in the process. Add being part time and I find myself feeling guilty about working, and guilty about not working. I feel I should be doing more work out of hours, and I feel guilty about time spent working at home when I should be with my family. It’s a tough balance to strike, and on days when I used up all my patience at work and wind up shouting at my girls, I wonder whether I am doing the right thing.

I carefully divide my time between my job and my family, and sometimes I am so busy making sure that no-one gets shortchanged that I leave myself bankrupt. Being part time is a mug’s game. But as my husband said to me last night: “Can you think of anything better?”

Are you ok?

Last year, during a fairly traumatic time in my personal life, I wound up sitting next to a friend at work. A few chance sighs and pointed comments on both sides during the staff meeting led us to realise that we were both struggling. They were wildly different traumas, but nonetheless it helped to feel as though someone understood. After the meeting we lingered to chat, and she confided her struggles to me. Even after my friend had been open and honest about her own situation, my first instinct was to shrug off my own difficulties and “not burden” her with them. I wanted to support her, but I didn’t feel right dropping my own troubles in her lap. Fortunately she wasn’t about to take that sort of nonsense, and in short order I found myself telling her what was bothering me.

That turned out to be an exceptionally good move, as we have been supporting each other ever since. And yet last week when she asked me how I was, I managed to choke out “bad question” and turn away. My friend apologized for asking, saying she should have known better and went away without another word, casting anxious looks in my direction. I struggled through that day – as through many lately – without talking to anyone about how I was feeling, and went home feeling very alone.

I don’t know why it should be so difficult to say out loud “I’m struggling”, or “I need help” or even just “I need a hug”, and yet the more difficult life gets, the harder it is for me to speak up – even to trusted friends. I start to feel as though I am a constant drain on resources – an incessant source of trauma – and I try to hide it behind a cheery smile and a “business as usual” front.

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 sometimes

Everybody hurts, REM

The truth is, of course, that everybody has times when life gets too much, and even though we invest so heavily in our independence, we all need support during those times. I have so many dear, close friends who I could ask for help, who would not hesitate to reach out to me if they knew what I was going through, and yet I curl in on myself and try to go it alone.

Thursday September 13th is R U Ok? day. Checking in with your friends to see if they are really ok is important – but sometimes just asking “Are you ok?” isn’t enough. I know my glib answer – “I’m fine” – generally leaps out of my mouth before I have even had time to think about it. And you know what?

I’m not ok.

I will be, eventually. And I could probably cope on my own if I had to, but it would be so much easier if I could ask for help. Sometimes we have to ask a second time, or take a close look at someone’s face to see what’s really there. Sometimes all it takes is “are you sure?” Sometimes it takes something a little more open-ended like “that wasn’t very convincing…”

Questions that seek a “yes or no” answer are terribly easy to dodge. Sometimes you need to give people more space to open their hearts. And sometimes you need to open yours first. We’ve all got hard stuff in our lives. We’ve all got burdens. They are so much easier to manage when they’re shared, but sometimes we need more than a little encouragement to lay down the load.

Not everyone wants to share their trauma. But sometimes people just don’t know how. So ask yourself – are you ok? And then share the answer with someone close to you.

Active Movements

Last week I had an excruciatingly sore knee. It had been bothering me for a few days and escalating in intensity when I arrived, with some misgivings, at my regular Saturday morning yoga class. I went straight to my instructor, Roman, before the class and explained the problem. I showed him the stretch I did to try to relieve it and he was horrified. He remonstrated that I should never, ever do what I had just done. I explained that my physio had recommended that particular stretch, so it was ok.

“No, no,” he said. “It’s not the stretch, it’s the way you did it. You have to make it an active movement. Raise your leg slowly, start the stretch, and then use your hand to assist very gently.”

Thinking about it, I realised I had tossed my foot up, caught it with my hand, and initiated the stretch with my hand, rather than my leg. I had more or less collapsed into the stretch, leaving my knee unprotected.

Roman assured me that all I needed to do yoga was a pulse, and he showed me how to modify the postures to protect my knee. At the core of every movement was conscious, active control. By the end of the session my knee felt much better, and the next day the pain was gone and a light had gone on in my brain: I spend a lot of my time collapsing.

When I sit down, I fling myself into the chair as though I have no strength left. When I crouch, I fall into it, rather than controlling my descent. And when I go to bed, I hit the mattress like a dead thing. (Sadly I don’t sleep that way – I am an inveterate doona thief and an extremely active sleeper. I have been known to play volleyball in my sleep – my husband is quite wary of my serve.)

Slow down, you move too fast.
You got to make the morning last.
Just kicking down the cobble stones.
Looking for fun and feelin’ groovy.

Simon & Garfunkel – The 59th Bridge St Song (Feelin’ Groovy)

I’ve been reading about positive psychology recently, and it fascinates me how we can reinforce positive pathways in the brain with the simplest of tricks. Like a ball rolling downhill, the negative stuff can be easier to believe. When we dwell on it, we score a groove in our brains that makes the ball roll downhill faster the next time. By forcing ourselves to think about the positive, we can lift the ball back up and create different pathways – alternatives to that downhill slide. In essence, we tend to collapse emotionally, but we can use active movements to lift ourselves back up.

We have been building some of these emotionally active movements into our daily lives, in the form of the thankful thing, meditation, and affirmation.  Of course when it’s most needed meditation can be hard to achieve. In the middle of a frantically stressful day, the last thing I want to do is stop and be alone with my thoughts. We have managed to keep the thankful thing going under extreme provocation, but meditation is a little harder to maintain. I keep trying though, and each time I do it meditation deepens the positive grooves in my brain, and makes me less likely to collapse into the negative.

Like my knee, my brain needs conscious protection. Rather than accepting that life is a bastard and making me miserable, I am choosing to try to train my brain to use active movements to protect itself. It doesn’t always work. We all have days when we want to kick a hole in the wall. But it is something to work towards, and it gives me a little control over where I am heading.

Even when life gets me down on the ground and is kicking me where it hurts, I don’t have to be a passive victim. I can train myself to focus on the positive and remember the good stuff. Sometimes Feelin’ Groovy is hard work, but it’s got to be worth a try.

I’ve got no deeds to do,
No promises to keep.
I’m dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep.
Let the morning time drop all its petals on me.
Life, I love you,
All is groovy.