Kids don’t know they can’t dance

A few nights ago there was an event at my daughters’ primary school. A bush band came to play, the kids danced and sang all day, and then put on a performance for the parents at night. It was one of those events where the parents were dragged up to dance periodically, in a hall that was far too small for any such shenanigans, and it was a wonderful, joyful night.

For each song a handful of kids had a chance in front of the microphone. One child in particular stood in front of that microphone, incandescent with pride and radiant with joy, and she belted out that song as though her life depended on it. It was loud, it was ecstatic, and it was completely tuneless. When she was done she was wildly applauded, and I have no doubt that girl went to bed exhausted but happy at the end of the night.

No-one had told her that she can’t sing. So she sang. And she loved it. And the audience applauded, most of them smiling, and the night went on all the better for her enthusiasm.

I’m not sure why, but as we get older many of us become aware that we can’t sing, we can’t dance, and we become embarrassed and ashamed. I’m lucky enough (or perhaps deluded enough) to believe that I can still sing, but I am quite convinced that I can’t dance. Which is a shame, because I love music, and I can’t help bopping to it. I love to dance, but I am painfully aware that I am clumsy, uncoordinated, and unconventional on the dance floor (as I am elsewhere, come to think of it).

So anywhere there is dancing I go armed with my shield. “I don’t dance,”, I state, as though it’s an incontrovertible law of physics. “You go on. Have fun. I’ll watch.” And I sit there, unobtrusively bopping in my seat, and try not to wish I was up there dancing with everyone else.

I don’t mind ballroom dancing quite so much, given a strong and patient partner who will show me what to do, and guide my body effectively, although a youth of being unusually tall at dancing classes where there were never enough boys has left me with a regrettable tendency to lead. But dancing to modern music – the music that I love, whose rhythms I can’t help moving to – terrifies me, lest I reveal my gaucheness to the world.

Because I believe I can’t dance. I love that saying that does the rounds of facebook periodically – “Dance like nobody’s watching” – but I can’t bring myself to do it. Because I believe I can’t dance.

I could make all kinds of excuses – I was teased as a child, I am naturally clumsy, I never learnt how to dance – all of which are true, none of which are good reasons for not dancing. But I believe I can’t dance.

Which is a real shame. Because I love to dance.


These demented days

I spend the morning winding my way through labyrinthine bureaucratic processes, trying to change her mailing address with various businesses. Each time they need to talk to her and verify her identity. Each time she becomes more agitated, and more distressed. “Why are they asking me all these questions? I haven’t done anything wrong, have I?”

Each time I soothe her, explain that it is all routine, and calm her down until the next question strikes her, like a blow. “I don’t understand what’s going on! Why do we suddenly have to go through all this? It’s all settled, isn’t it?? What’s going on???” As her agitation grows, so does her fear. I have to tread carefully, not using the “d” word, as that would send her right over the edge. I explain that it’s all just paperwork, so that I can do her tax for her. I speak calmly and use small words. I agree when she asserts that, of course, she could do all this, but it’s awfully nice of me to do it for her.

She is bewildered, and becomes more so each time a document arrives in the mail – which they do with alarming frequency, even though we have the mail redirected. She is anxious that she doesn’t know what’s going on. She is terrified that she will fail to hide the fact that this is all beyond her.

She battles to hide the unhide-able. To pretend that, really, she is fine. She refuses to see a doctor, knowing full well that a doctor would see what she can’t bear to face.

I used to believe that when a person had dementia, it was traumatic but simple. You get them diagnosed, you get them treated, and you take care of what needs to be taken care of. But “step 1: diagnosis” is impossible without her consent. And she will never consent.

So we wonder why her gas bill is so high. It might be because she has the central heating permanently on, battling it out on hot days with the air conditioning. But the water bill is also high – could she be leaving taps on? We check the taps every time we visit. We turn the heater off, but it always comes back on.

I check for leaks, while she follows me around the house, becoming increasingly frantic. “I haven’t done anything stupid, you know! I wouldn’t have had the heater on in summer!”

“I know, but the thermostat is set to come on at 20, and your air conditioner is set to 18. I think they’ve been battling it out. You have to leave the heater off.”

“Of course I don’t have the heater on in summer. What’s high, did you say? The electricity?”

“No, it’s the gas.”

“I haven’t done anything stupid, you know. I’m not crazy!”

“Of course you’re not, it’s probably a leak. But you have to leave the heater off.”

“Of course the heater is off, it’s summer. I’m not stupid!”

“Of course you’re not.”

Next time we visit, on a very hot day, the heater is on and the gas bill continues to skyrocket.

So we try to find subtle ways to solve the insoluble. The stream of trauma flows steadily, and periodically builds to a flood. We dam one flow and, if we are very lucky, peace reigns for a week or two, before the next crisis bursts the banks and we frantically pile more sandbags. All the while knowing full well that every sandbag is temporary, and the stream is growing to a raging torrent.

I spend hours with her, holding my tongue, answering the same questions over and over again. I breathe deeply, but I can’t help absorbing her fear and distress. I feel myself becoming tense, until mosquitoes must bounce off my skin with broken noses if they try to bite. And then I go home and try to be patient with my children, when my every nerve is twanging wildly. I go to work and behave with professional propriety, when I want to scream and shout and cry at the injustice of it all, or curl up in a ball and pretend it’s not happening.

And then I go back to visit her, and turn her heater off.

What’s your bigger picture?

Did you ever have one of those moments when you suddenly become aware of your life, and can’t work out how you got here?

I had one today. I went to my grade 6 daughter’s school assembly this morning, to watch her receive her badge as the inaugural Sustainability Captain for her school. My tall, long haired, brilliant, gorgeous 10 year old, proudly wearing her badge and resolving to be the greatest Sustainability Captain she could possibly be. Her amazing 7 year old sister spoke up confidently in the same assembly.

My daughters.

Then I went to visit some friends I used to work with, proudly showed them the work of some of my students, and raved about how much I love my job. I picked up some historic computing artifacts with which to amaze my students, and grinned as I pictured their reactions.

My students. My job.

I’ve been letting the meditation slip lately, and today I forced myself to start again. I did a lot of meditation over the holidays, and like most things practice helps a lot, so I picked it up again relatively easily today, even in the face of distractions. One of the interesting side effects of mindfulness is that it seems to allow me to step outside my life for a moment and observe it from a distance.

What I saw took my breath away. Day to day I get easily caught up in the little dramas – the kids squabbling, the weather being toooooooooo hot (if you don’t live in Melbourne, please forgive the extra “o”s, and take my word for it that they have been more than justified of late), me being too tired, work being too busy, all the things I wasn’t perfect at, and all the things I can’t do, all the stress I can’t avoid. Meditation allows me to step away from all of those little demons jumping up and down and demanding my attention, and lets me see the bigger picture. It turns out that, regardless of the dramas of the day, I’m in a pretty amazing place right now.

One of my friends recently told me that in dealing with people with dementia, one of the most important lessons to learn is that everything is a phase. Phases shift, and change, and end. Whatever drama you are in the middle of, it’s temporary. That’s hard to see when you are lost and fighting in the trenches. Sometimes the best thing I can do for myself is see the bigger picture, and remember that tomorrow is another day. We can plan, and scheme, and twist ourselves inside out trying to prepare for a future that is entirely unpredictable, or we can be in the moment, enjoying today and letting tomorrow take care of itself.

Can you see your bigger picture? What do you do to get yourself past the day’s tensions and dramas, and see your life as it is truly unfolding?

Taken over by the fear

This morning I went snorkelling for the first time in years. I was a little anxious about it, because when I put on a snorkel and try to breathe through it, I usually get panicky and start to thrash about, which causes water to come in the top of the snorkel, which causes more panic, until I rip the damn thing out and vow I won’t do anything nearly so stupid as snorkel ever again.

This time, though, I had incentive. We were swimming with seals with Polperro Dolphin Swims. I was determined not to miss a moment of it, and that meant coming to terms with the snorkel. When it came to the splash, I had the usually panicky feelings as I started to breathe through that very strange device, but I forced myself to breathe slowly and deeply, and managed to keep my face in the water until I was distracted by a playful seal. From that point on I was so focused on the wonder of what I was seeing that the whole breathing business became a non-issue. Eventually I was distracted enough that I got water in the snorkel, and I simply tipped it out again, laughed at myself, and went straight back to gazing into the very large eyes of a passing fur seal.

We snorkeled twice more, sometimes hanging onto ropes attached to the back of the boat, and sometimes swimming free, and even when my mask filled with water it didn’t worry me. I had swum away from my fear and left it sinking to the bottom of the Bay.

Later that day we went kayaking in our little 1 person kayak. My 10 year old wanted to sit on the back and kick with her flippers while I paddled, which was not the most stable arrangement. Every time she wriggled (which was, in fact, more or less continuously), the kayak would give an almighty lurch, and so would my heart. The funny thing was that we were kayaking in shallow water, on the flattest of flat seas, and the worst that could have happened if we capsized is that we’d have got wet. Given that it was a 35 degree day, this was also the best that could have happened.

Unfortunately my fear wasn’t having any of this logical argument, and I tensed up every time we lurched, drastically over corrected and very nearly tipped us out, repeatedly. My fear was actually self-instantiating – it was making itself come true, like the most evil of wishes.

I have the same problem when I am riding my bike with my 7 year old on a tag along. When she wobbles, the whole setup lurches from side to side, causing me to develop a death grip on the handle bars, which in turn causes me to over steer, which makes us wobble more… you can probably spot the problem here.

Most of us spend a lot of time in fear. We fear the outcome of certain conversations. We fear change. We fear looking stupid. We fear falling over, making mistakes, or losing friendships. But like me on the bike and the kayak, when we get taken over by the fear, we risk bringing about the very fate that terrifies us. When we fear how a conversation will go, we approach it tense and defensive, and see attacks where none were intended, making things go downhill fast. When we fear looking stupid we scrutinize every possible word or act so hard that we wind up thoroughly tongue tied and paralyzed, and, yes, rather stupid.

I think hell is something you carry around with you. Not somewhere you go.”― Neil Gaiman, The Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists

Fear is an important emotion – it protects us from all kinds of catastrophes, like walking out into heavy traffic when the gap isn’t big enough to let us cross safely, jumping off buildings, and dropping our babies. But it’s all too easy to wind up being ruled by your fear, and this is a kind of hell. A self-fulfilling prophecy.

Sometimes the worst that could happen is pretty bad, but if you live your life trying to hide from every potential catastrophe, you can end up barely living. Instead you wait for the crisis, and completely miss out on the joy.

Sometimes we have to focus on the seal, in order to forget the snorkel. After all, what’s the worst that could happen?