Ganging up

Once a week I start work at the start of the school day, rather than part way through, because my husband takes our kids to school. For weeks I have been trying to get to work extra early on that day so that I can make it to a mindfulness session that runs in the mornings, and until today I have never quite made it. This morning I was running on schedule for a change, and made it out the door in plenty of time to ride to work, park my bike and unpack my gear… except that as I stepped out the door I heard a rather raucous creaking noise from above, and I looked up into the large white cedar in our front yard and saw three gang gangs perched in the tree, happily munching on the remains of last year’s berries.

Gang gang

Male Gang gang eating last year’s White Cedar fruit

For a moment I hesitated. I could stay and admire the Gang gangs, who are infrequent visitors to our neighbourhood. They have always been particular favourites of mine for their dusty black plumage and the spectacular red crest of the boys. Or I could leap onto my bike and rush to make it in to work in time for the mindfulness session for a change. Then it dawned on me – there is nothing more mindful than pausing to admire birds in your own garden. This was a ready made, wing-delivered mindfulness session of my very own.

I called my family out to see, and we lingered for a while, watching them manoeuvre their way around the tree, sometimes flipping upside down to get to the best of the berries. It was a start to the day that left me smiling and peaceful. When I rode off around 10 minutes later, I figured I wasn’t going to make it to the session, so I resolved to be particularly mindful along the way. I concentrated on being aware of the traffic around me (always a wise idea!), and on feeling my feet on the pedals. I could feel the wind on my face and my hands on the handlebars. When the path around me was clear I noticed the birds and the cloud formations.

Rather than riding hard to get to work in a hurry, I cruised along simply enjoying the moment. Several pedestrians I passed going the other way smiled and said hello, which doesn’t often happen. I figured it was an indicator of my more relaxed and open attitude. And then something odd happened. As I neared work I looked at my watch and discovered that I had just ridden the fastest ride to work I’ve done in ages, and that I was in plenty of time to attend the mindfulness session.

Once I got to school I checked my watch against my phone, convinced it must have stopped. I couldn’t work out the logic of it. I wasn’t riding hard. I was more relaxed. And I got to work faster than usual. The phone confirmed the watch, and a look through my fitness tracking data showed that yes, this was the fastest ride in some time.

I think those Gang gangs served to teach me a valuable lesson. That stopping to enjoy the moment on offer, and relaxing into whatever you are doing, is far more effective than scrunching up both body and mind into a tangle of tension in an attempt to bulldoze your way through the day. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, with my coffee and my stress. I’ve been bulldozing and bludgeoning my body into getting through the day.

This morning I got my tense and wired mind out of my own way, and it was magic.

What do Gang gangs have to teach you?

Who do you want to be?

In a few weeks I will turn 42. I can’t help but feel this means I should be attaining the answer. The ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything. While I’m waiting for that, though, I am coming to the conclusion that the best thing I can do in life is to be true to the things I believe are important.

I’m not perfect.  I make mistakes every day. But I am developing a really clear picture of who I want to be, and what is important to me. Everything I do, I try to view through that lens. Is this who I want to be?

I want to be compassionate. The kind of person who automatically extends a hand to people in need. What I have, I choose to share.

I want to be ethical. To me that means being honest with myself and others about my own motivations. It means examining the evidence and doing the right thing whether it is in my own best interests or not. It means taking action where it’s needed even when it’s hard, or painful, or unpleasant. And it means taking responsibility for my mistakes.

I want to live sustainably. Ultimately that means having a zero carbon footprint. Riding or walking rather than driving. Reducing our energy use at home. Growing our own food where possible. Eating seasonal produce and choosing sustainably grown/harvested food. I have a long way to go with this one, but I’m working on it.

I want to keep reaching higher. I will always be a work in progress. There will always be days when I don’t do the right thing, or don’t achieve my best. I want to use them as opportunities to learn and grow, not as excuses for not trying.

I want to leave the world better than I found it. I don’t want to take what I can get, I’d rather give what I can.

This is who I want to be. And I want my politicians – the leaders of my country – to be people I can look up to. People I want to emulate. Right now they are mostly people I am appalled by. And that’s why I’m voting Green. Like me, they’re not perfect. But they know what matters. They know that compassion matters. They know that equality matters. They know that evidence matters. They know that the environment matters. They know that the poor, the vulnerable, and the sick matter.

Next time you vote, ask yourself whether you are voting for someone who lives up to your standards. Who will leave the world better than they found it.


Disclaimer: I joined The Australian Greens some years ago when I read through their policies on their website and discovered that there was a political party in Australia that was making sense. I’ve been a member ever since.

When are you getting your first aid training?

There was a car accident outside my kids’ school yesterday. As I drove past the school to our usual stopping point, we saw one squished car, one car across the road and at right angles to the parked cars, and one person on the road. At first glance it looked as though she was actually under the car – fortunately she wasn’t, she had just been knocked over and couldn’t get up at first.

There seemed to be a crowd around, and I didn’t want to get in the way, so I continued in to the school with my girls, but I became more and more uneasy, and decided to go down and check whether my first aid skills were needed. It was a good lesson in not making assumptions, because although there were indeed people standing round, and one person doing a great job of comforting the injured lady on the road, no-one at the scene had first aid training, and most were too shocked to be thinking straight. The patient was wearing quite thin trousers and rapidly getting cold, so after working out that there was no blood and that she was talking and able to move a little, I covered her with my coat to keep her warm.

There wasn’t much else to be done. There were three people involved in the accident – two drivers and the pedestrian who got hit – and everyone was pretty shaken. I knew enough from my level 2 first aid course to know that the drivers were at risk of shock, so I kept an eye on them as well as the patient, and pretty soon the police arrived, followed shortly by an ambulance. The ambos took great care of the patient, and it was soon apparent that she was ok, and even able to stand on her own two feet, although they did take her to the hospital just to be on the safe side. They also checked one of the drivers for shock, and generally proved themselves to be kind, empathic and highly competent professionals.

I was profoundly grateful that my first aid skills were largely redundant in this case, but at the same time it strengthened my resolve to keep up my training, to make sure that I know what to do in these kinds of situations. If the patient was bleeding, or had a broken arm or leg, or was going into shock, I’d have known what to do. Despite the letters before my name, I’m not a medical doctor and I’m certainly no substitute for trained paramedics, but having first aid training and being able to stem bleeding or start CPR could be the difference between life and death for someone one day. Maybe a random stranger on the street. Maybe a member of my own family.

Accidents happen with shocking suddenness in the most mundane of circumstances. In the home. Dropping the kids off at school. Shopping. At work.  A slip with the lid of a tuna can (I’ve seen this one). A sudden heart attack or stroke (seen this one, too). A car accident (and this). A bad fall (done this one myself). A slip with a kitchen knife or a pair of scissors (done these, too).

A normal day can turn into a life or death situation without any warning at all. First aid training could prepare you to prolong someone’s life, or their sight, or the use of their legs, long enough for an ambulance to arrive.

What are you waiting for? Get trained, or update your training. It could be the difference between watching someone die and seeing them go home to their families.

Giant Yellow Duck 1, Weather Gods 0

Today was a long day. After a late night last night and an early start today, we had parent-teacher interviews from 4 until 7pm. This process fascinates me. I have 5 minutes to see each set of parents, usually with the student present. Sometimes I have a series of scattered bookings and time to talk more deeply. Sometimes, as tonight, I have bookings every five minutes for long, long stretches, and emerge from the process utterly spent.

As the night went on I used my short breaks to keep an anxious eye on the weather bureau’s radar page, watching the rain arrive and settle in for a protracted stay. As it became clear I was going to get wet on my ride home, I briefly contemplated cadging a lift. It was a toss up between staying warm and dry and chatting in my friend’s car on the way home, and getting cold and wet but shedding the day’s tension and stress with every pedal stroke.

In the end the stress relief won and I suited up for the ride home. I have a large yellow rain cape that makes me look like a giant yellow duck, and plenty of very bright lights, so I wasn’t worried about visibility in the traffic, and I stay fairly dry from the knees up.

As I left the building I took a moment to commune with a fellow cyclist – a rider far more intrepid than I, who averages about twice my speed and rides for almost 3 times as long. We shared rain avoidance tips, compared bikes (His: lean, fast and serious. Mine: an armchair on wheels.) swapped good wishes for the journey home and whooshed off into the night.

I started to sing my favourite boppy song (currently “Love is Easy” by McFly  – it’s very difficult to feel miserable in the presence of this song) and took my usual gentle approach to the ride, magnified slightly by the need to keep an eye out for particularly deep water and wheel-snatching mud holes. I safely navigated the building site where they have changed the footpath on an almost daily basis for last six months, wresting my back wheel free of the mud, and I scooted down a local side street, on the home stretch now but also hitting that point where water from my helmet was dripping down onto my nose in a most uncomfortable fashion. Also my legs were starting to get cold.

Then I saw it.

A shape on the fence I was passing turned to study me, as if wondering what strange manner of large yellow creature was disturbing the peace with splashing noises and flashing lights, and I was suddenly eye to eye with a large tawny frogmouth. It watched me impassively as I sloshed by, with a curiously contemplative air.

By the time I got home I was warm and tired on the inside, cold and wet on the outside, and energised by my chance encounter with this charmingly enigmatic bird.

In a car I would never even have known he was there.

Power Up!

We have long been considered a little odd where we live. Years ago we cut down (and up) a dead tree with handsaws, and fended off no fewer than 5 offers of chainsaws from our neighbours. The idea that we chose to do it under our own steam was perplexing. Never mind that the noise, stench and danger of petrol powered chainsaws was off-putting, it was actually quite satisfying to physically engage with our environment. Yet this was seen as quite peculiar in our little street.

Add to that our bizarre insistence on being a one car family, our strange propensity to mow our lawn with an ancient hand mower, our curious fascination with the bicycle as transport, our stubborn refusal to buy a large plasma TV, and our neighbours simply don’t know what to make of us.

My husband has been building a cubby house out of mostly recycled materials. Today I gave the floor a second coat of paint while working on my mindfulness. I could feel the cool breeze on my cheek, smell the violets and narcissus blooming nearby, and revel in the warmth of our unseasonal sunshine. When I came inside for a break I was browsing The Conversation when I found an article by Dr Alessandro Demaio, arguing that our physical health and the health of our environment are inextricably interlinked.

The article put into eloquent words something that I have always believed but never fully articulated – that we are a part of the world, not separate from it. That cars and big houses and plasma screen TVs serve to divorce us from the world, bit by bit. That being out in the world, using active methods of transport, growing your own food, and preserving our environment are fundamentally satisfying because they build the health of our world, our communities, and even ourselves.

I know this at a visceral level when I have been out on my bike. I feel it deep in my bones when I am weeding my veggie patch. I see it on the faces of the people I chat to as I ride around our local streets. Yet the pull of the car is strong. The urge, even on a bright sunny winter’s day like today, to collapse into the car and drive the 2.5km to school is strong.

The desire to eat junk, to buy more stuff, to build ever larger houses and consume ever more resources seems a little like an addiction to narcotics. We know it’s bad for us. We know the first buzz will be replaced by a gradual decline, that we’ll have to constantly up the dose to achieve the same high, that it is consuming our bodies and will very probably be fatal, yet we are inevitably drawn back to that road.

That’s why articles like Dr Demaio’s are so important. Before I was even halfway through it I was spurred to go outside and weed my garden. And I am about to ride to school to pick up my girls, with their scooters in my cargo bike so that they can scoot home with me.

Like a child faced with an endless supply of lollies, the temptation to eat myself sick is intense. But I know that the taste of fresh air is sweeter, in the end, than those bright red lollies could ever be. If I can show my kids the truth of that, then maybe, just maybe, the world will change. One bike ride at a time.