Tis the season

Christmas can be a tough time of year. If you are lonely, depressed or bereaved, or if life is a struggle for a myriad of reasons, this relentlessly festive and compulsorily cheery season can be about as welcome as a reindeer in your eye.
My Dad’s birthday is the 23rd of December, and this first birthday and Christmas without him have been unexpectedly painful. Relieved though I am that he is no longer suffering, his absence now hurts more than I anticipated. It triggers all the other losses in my life and has left me with an inclination to hide in the bush being morose and unsociable – which is not my usual style, to put it mildly.
It would be easy to wallow in my grief and unresolved anger, and to focus on all the ways in which my life is really ^%$#@!ing me off right now, so I have decided it is time for a Christmas Thankful Thing. Being an atheist the religious significance of this time of year leaves me feeling more than a touch scroogey. I don’t like all the social pressure around Christmas, and I object to compulsory gift-giving – I’d much rather give people the perfect gift whenever I find it than feel compelled to find something exactly right on a particular day of the year – but what I do appreciate about Christmas is the trigger to tell people what they mean to me.
I don’t want to cruise through life taking people for granted. I tend to the effusive side, yet I don’t always tell people how important they are. So here goes.
To my incredible husband, Andrew, who is always there keeping me going, making me laugh, and picking up the pieces: I am the luckiest woman in the world. I love you.
To my amazing teaching mentor, Cal, who never failed to say the right thing when I was on the brink of screaming catastrophe, always responding to my deranged emails and texts: I don’t know how I would have survived my first two years in teaching without you. Thank you.
To my desk-mate Cath: I am so grateful for your love, support, your thorough devotion to Purple, and your willingness to wield the frying pan of perspective. You keep me in one piece (if slightly bruised).
To all my fantastic work colleagues: You rock. Your kindness, community, support and incredibly nerdy humour has kept me going throughout the last two years. I am so lucky to be a part of this school.
To my astonishing and fabulous students: I walk out of every class feeling uplifted by your enthusiasm, your energy, and your incredible abilities. Each and every one of you is a joy and a privilege to work with.
To Elaine: You’ve been in the country less than a year and you immediately became an integral part of our community. Your kindness, compassion and generosity have been a beacon of hope in a bleak year.
To Tim: For ever present understanding and empathy, for dinners, walks, train rides, yoga, and never forgetting the compulsory coffee and cake.
To Davids 1 & 2: It’s funny how I had to stop working with you in order to start working with you and get to know you properly. It’s been a great delight working with you both.
To my fabulous yoga teacher, Roman: I never fail to walk out of a yoga class taller, straighter and smiling. I don’t know if you are aware of the glow of happiness that spreads outward from you – it’s like a cloud of bliss that follows wherever you go. You are amazing.
To Peter and Ana: for your unfailing love and support. We are so blessed to have you in our lives.
To Joe: for always engaging with what I write, and frequently showing me a different perspective.
To my gorgeous girls: I am so proud of you. I love you both with every fibre of my being.
There are those I have not mentioned, for various reasons, but they are nonetheless important and valued in our lives.
To every one who has loved and supported us over the last year – thank you. You are totally awesome.

Very cross contamination

In the middle of my “Wow, life is awesome, so many things and people to be thankful for” festive spirit, I have been glutened for the third time in as many weeks. The first time was a serious glutening the like of which I haven’t experienced since diagnosis (thank goodness) that left me miserably ill for the worst part of a week. The latter two were simple cross contaminations, but this last one has left me feeling very flat and really quite cranky.

I had planned to spend this week writing positive, uplifting things about finding my calling and what I am thankful for, but I can’t leave this unsaid. You should not be able to get a food handling certificate, or be employed to work in any place that serves food, until you understand cross contamination. Because here’s the thing: cross contamination can make a person with coeliac disease or other serious food intolerances very miserable (and cross, in fact!), but for people with severe allergies, it can kill.

So what the heck is cross contamination? It’s when food that is free of a particular substance – such as gluten, dairy, egg or nuts, which are some of the common allergens – comes into contact with food, or even traces of food, that is not free of that substance. That food is now contaminated with the allergen, and is no longer safe for people with serious allergies to eat.

So, for example, if you pick up a slice of gluten free cake with the same tongs you just used to pick up a slice of cake made with wheat flour, that cake is no longer gluten free. If you store the “gluten free cookies” in the same basket as those made from wheat, rye, oats or barley, those cookies are no longer gluten free, and should not be sold as such.

If you deep fry potato chips in the same oil in which you deep fry, say, fish in batter made from wheat flour, or chicken nuggets with bread crumbs, then those chips are not gluten free. Any BBQ which is not used exclusively for gluten free food is not gluten free unless it is cleaned back to shining metal before use. The standard “heat it up, slather it with oil and then scrape it off” technique does not leave the BBQ gluten free. Most BBQs are contaminated from sausages (many of which contain wheat flour), or marinades, almost all of which contain gluten in some form. Many BBQs are also contaminated with peanuts, from satays or marinades containing peanut oil.

At the cafe that poisoned me today, I asked for a piece of gluten free cake. Because the waitress had just pointed to a bunch of cookies in a basket and said that half of the cookies in that basket were gluten free, I specifically asked her to make sure the tongs used on the cake were clean, as otherwise the cake would not be gluten free. I pointed to the cookies and said “they are not gluten free, because they are now contaminated.”

She said of course she would, but looked at me as though I was a nutter – just another difficult customer, probably with OCD. Another staff member meanwhile served the cake, and sadly I was not paranoid enough to ask about the tongs again. I do get tired of making life difficult for people – I know what a pain it is trying to avoid cross contamination.

However, the price I pay for this lack of paranoia is severe stomach pains, feeling like I want to throw up, and running to the toilet every 20 minutes. Also feeling miserably exhausted and wanting to curl up and die. From a minor poisoning like this one I will probably feel ok tomorrow, just drained. From a more severe poisoning it could be a week of extreme unpleasantness. But I am merely intolerant, not allergic. If those crumbs had been nut crumbs and my allergy was a severe nut allergy, I could be dead because that waitress did not understand cross contamination.

Yes, I could simply not eat out, but that is incredibly socially limiting. I try to give my kids (who also suffer from food intolerances) a normal life, and a normal social life. So we occasionally pay the price with cross contamination. But if we had a life threatening food allergy in the family, I don’t think we could take that chance. I understand that people make mistakes, and sometimes cross contamination happens even in my own kitchen, despite my best efforts. But to have no clue what cross contamination is, or the consequences for people with serious food allergies – I think that’s inexcusable for someone working in the restaurant/cafe industry.


Putting things Write

The very best outcome of my blog is when I can show someone how awesome they are in the eyes of others. I’ve done this a few times now – first with my sparkly people post, other times about workmates, my daughters’ school, or whoever inspires me to write. Then I shyly share the article with the people concerned and wait with baited breath for a response.

A week or so ago I gave a copy of the article I wrote about my girls’ swimming teachers to one of the teachers involved. He was teaching at the time, so he put it with his towel to read later. The next time I saw him, a week later, he was almost overwhelmed with awe and gratitude – he couldn’t believe that I had taken the time to write such nice things about him. I got the feeling I had made his day.

It’s easy to be quick with criticism. Few of us take the time to write letters of praise when we are really impressed with someone. More of us write letters of complaint when we’re annoyed, but even then it’s easier just to let things slide. We can easily wind up drifting through life without really connecting with people, simply because we don’t voice what’s in our heads.

It would be very easy for a blog to become an outpouring of venom, frustration and anger. I do sometimes write about things that are bugging me, because I tend to write about the things that are spilling out of my heart. When I am overflowing with emotion I let it fall out onto my keyboard and it becomes magically more manageable.

Writing helps me sort through my emotions and work out how I am feeling, but more than that it allows me to document a few of the amazing people in my life. It’s one thing to tell someone they are wonderful, but quite another to write it down and publish it. There is something potent about the written word that can cut to the heart of things. The written feedback I’ve received from my year 12s gives me a huge lift every time I read it. The best cards I got for my 40th birthday are now in a frame so I can read them when I need a boost. We don’t all have blogs, but there are other ways we can document our appreciation.

I’ve never been a fan of Christmas cards of the “Dear X, Merry Christmas, Love Y” variety. They seem like a pointless waste of effort and resources. But Christmas cards are a fabulous opportunity to write down how we feel about people. To tell, for example, swimming teachers that they have made a palpable difference in the lives of their students. To tell co-workers what they mean to you. To take your feelings and put them down on paper, to lift someone’s spirits every time they read it.

It’s a busy time of year, and the opportunity can slip by under the pressure of everything we need to get done, but ask yourself this: is there someone in your life who has really made a difference to you? Could write it down and make their year?

Hidden spaces

This morning I woke up and immediately began to stress about the day’s schedule. Where did I have to be? How soon? What needed to be done?

With a sense of considerable shock I realised that there was nowhere I had to be. Nothing is planned for today. Nothing is scheduled. There are no expectations and no crises to avert. No deadlines to meet or obligations to fulfil. For a moment my world wobbled on its axis a little, and then I found my feet and went back to bed for an hour.

Once I got up I got some breakfast, made my obligatory coffee (hmm, there was one obligation, as it turns out), and sat down to finish the latest Phryne Fisher book – always a heartening and profoundly satisfying experience. And now I am writing while I look out on my pond and the sunshine dappling through our rainforest trees. Although we are deep in suburbia, we have created a refreshing green space in our small front garden, and the trees create a blissful canopy.  Pretty soon I think it will be pond time, although I should probably make sure my kids have breakfast first.

green garden

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a day where I didn’t have what felt like a million things to do, a million places to be and a significant dose of stress. I’m going to do some gardening, play with the kids, maybe do some of the mending that’s been waiting for months (some of it, let’s be honest, for years), but only if I’m feeling really keen. I’m definitely going to have more coffee, and a little morning tea party with my girls and the tira misu and chocolate eclairs that arrived yesterday from the magnificent Glutenfree4U bakery in Moorabbin. (If you’re GF, I highly recommend these guys. Real pastry, real bread, real pies! And fructose friendly, too. Heaven.)

I have always been a fan of unstructured time, yet even in my life there are times when things get chaotic and over planned. Of course the festive season tends to be the biggest culprit, coinciding as it does with all manner of school formalities as well, both at work and for my kids. None of these events are ones I could bring myself to miss, and they all contribute to my well being in different ways.

Yet the lack of space in my life sometimes causes my edges to unravel and fray. And, in truth, my biggest regret is that when there are spaces in my life, there don’t seem to be people to share them with, because everyone else seems to be rushing all the time. This may be perception more than reality. As a popular meme on facebook says, we tend to compare our own behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlights reel. Yet I have a vision in my head of a utopia where kids run in and out of each other’s houses, friends drop in unannounced, and we know our way around each other’s kitchens.

Maybe there isn’t room for this kind of world any more. Maybe it never really existed. It’s certainly not something I’ve ever experienced. I guess what I’m looking for is a village, and I am well aware that villages weren’t necessarily comfortable places for those who don’t quite fit the mold. I think this vision requires unstructured time in which to flourish, and we all have things to do. Dancing classes, swimming lessons, jobs. Making time to stop and smell the coffee, and nurture our communities, isn’t usually high in our priorities.

So ask yourself these two questions today: When was the last time there was a whole day free on your calendar?  And who is your community?

Soul mates

On Wednesday I went to a play reading at a local theatre. The play was written by a friend and colleague of mine, and it was fantastic. I had no idea he was a playwright, so to go from finding this out to hearing the first reading of his play in the space of a couple of days was awesome. I was really glad to be there that night… and yet..

Going back to that theatre was an emotional experience. The last time I was there was over 5 years ago, for the funeral of my dear friend, James, who had been ill for years. He had been close to the brink so many times, and his quality of life was eroded to the point where he was finally ready to let go.

James was living in Brisbane at the time, to be closer to his grandchildren, and we said goodbye over the phone, in one of the most bittersweet conversations I will ever live to have. I can still hear his voice. I toyed with the idea of flying up to say goodbye in person, but in the end I decided not to bundle my 6 week old baby and I onto a plane, when he would likely not live to see me arrive. In the end this proved to be a good choice.

When I say “my dear friend”, most people automatically picture someone the same age and gender as me, yet James was in his 70s when he died. I was 35. He was a friend of the family for as long as I can remember and I had always liked him, but that was the extent of it until one day in my teens we looked at each other and there was an almost tangible flash of recognition. I think he suddenly realised I had grown into an interesting person, and I suddenly realised that we could connect as equals.

From then on he gave me a robustly hard time, which I tried hard to return, but I was never in the same league. James had a stinging tongue on him, and the measure of his affection was how hard he used it. If he was polite to me I knew something was seriously wrong. He loved to spar with my boyfriend, Andrew (who subsequently became my husband), who he persisted to the end in calling “whatshisname”.

James was an actor (hence the funeral in a theatre), and true to the stereotype he was a witty and entertaining conversationalist. I knew that inviting him to a party guaranteed that people would finish the night smiling.

Age was never an issue between us. He didn’t treat me like a child, and I didn’t see him as old, even when he was weak, emaciated and forgetful from his illness. He knew me from almost the moment of birth, but what really counted was that he knew me inside and out, and I him. We shared so much, laughed so hard, and hugged so fiercely. He gave me hell for being a perpetual student, yet when I finally graduated with my PhD he flew down from Brisbane specially for the ceremony, though money was tight, so that he could give me hell about the silly hat.

James gave me a lot of good advice over the years, and he never hesitated to wield the frying pan of perspective if he thought I needed it (which I usually did). It’s been a real roller coaster of a year, which might be part of the reason being back in that theatre has hit me so hard. These are precisely the times I’d have called him for advice and comfort, and he always knew what to say to bring me back from the brink.

Friends aren’t determined by birth date or gender. Friendship can materialize in an instant or grow from seed, but it is not measured, made or calculated. It is spontaneous and organic, and never subject to rules. Tennyson had it exactly right:

I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.