Remembering Jacky

I went to a lot of conferences last year, and made a surprising number of friends who have changed my life. But one conference really stands out. At eResearch Australasia my friend Sam asked me to host a panel. He introduced me, among other things, as a good friend and a massive nerd, which I owned with pride. But on that panel were two people who went on to become deeply important to me amazingly fast.

The panel was on the Wednesday, so Tuesday night I showed up to the drinks reception hoping to meet all of my panellists and plan out the way the conversation would go the next day. Two of them proved elusive, but I found Jacky almost immediately. We started talking and basically didn’t stop for the next 7 months. Until the day she died.

I remember being struck by Jacky’s robust, evidence-based approach to diversity in STEM, and to her profoundly human-centred focus on matters of technology.

The next day Jacky delivered a keynote for the conference where she included me in her slides as an example of someone working to improve diversity in STEM. She introduced me as “My new best friend, Linda McIver,” but even then I didn’t realise how true that was going to be.

Screenshot 2019-05-28 at 1.20.57 pm

Jacky found me on WhatsApp and we started chatting. Intrigued by my description of my kids, Jacky soon established a WhatsApp group for all of us, together with her partner, Rachel, and these two people my kids have never actually met in person became incredibly important supports for us.

It’s not uncommon for me to bond fast with a new friend, but it’s not so common for the new friend to bond back just as intensely. Jacky was not one to waste a moment. Her ability to connect with people was phenomenal, and she devoted much of her energy to supporting everyone around her. When Jacky decided she valued someone, there was no doubt, no grey area. She gave so generously to her loved ones.

Screenshot 2019-05-28 at 1.13.29 pm

She wasn’t shy about wielding the frying pan of enlightenment where necessary though. I was going back through our messages yesterday and couldn’t help noticing the high proportion of them that were either telling me I’m awesome or berating me for not valuing myself highly enough.

She was a huge advocate for my work, and she pushed me hard to charge more for my time, and to make sure I never undersold myself or my talents. Which is a little bit ironic because I don’t think she ever really recognised how precious and amazing she was herself, despite us telling her on a regular basis.

Last Thursday night I was busy typing a message to Jacky telling her, again, how amazing she was, when I got a message from Rachel that stopped my heart. Out of nowhere Jacky had suffered a massive brain haemorrhage. She was gone.

My kids and I are devastated. Jacky’s constant, calm, supportive, funny, loving presence in our lives became integral so fast, and even faster it has been snatched away. I go through waves of tears, bursts of rage, and periods of an unnatural calm, but I can’t come to grips with the idea that she is gone. That she never even met my people face to face, but they loved her so deeply, is a testament to Jacky’s intense ability to love and connect.

We talked about visiting, both here and there. We talked about the things we would do, the sights we would show each other. The experiences we’d share. We had plans for the future that, unaccountably, failed to take into account that there might not be one.

Jacky leaves behind a vast collection of people who love and appreciate her. Reading back through our messages I can tell we made it clear to her how important she was to us. I hope she knew how important she was to the world, because her loss leaves a gaping hole that simply can’t be filled.


Grieving together

Grief and I are not strangers, but what nobody tells you is that each fresh grief builds on the ones before. It’s painful, and cumulative. It comes in waves. Sometimes you feel almost normal and then you collapse under the latest tsunami of tears.

Dealing with each fresh grief brings every previous grief closer to the surface. Every scar opens a little. Every wound bleeds afresh. Each new love makes your heart grow, and each new grief makes the surface of that heart a little more raw, the nerves a little more sensitive.

I’ve seen grief described as an amputation, because you never get over it. You can’t just grow another limb, but you learn to live without it. Always aware of the loss, but getting on with life and learning to deal with it. But I think it’s more like a wound that never heals. Sometimes it’s not actively bleeding, but it’s always open. If something touches it, it will always hurt. You just get used to the pain and work around it, until something causes it to bleed again. Sometimes just a trickle, sometimes a flood of pain that it doesn’t seem possible to live through.

Too often we hide away and try not to cry in public. But all that does it make it harder for everyone else who grieves. There’s no shame in grief, no shame in tears. They show the depth of our love, and that’s something to be celebrated.

This time I’m crying in public. The day after I found out I met a friend in a cafe, and my grief was so raw that a waiter came up to me with a small packet of tissues. “I couldn’t help it, I thought you might need these.” Which, of course, made me cry more, but also in a weird way made me feel better – complete strangers can be a fountain of compassion when you need it.

A packet of tissues on a cafe table
Tangible compassion

I’m also posting more on social media. I crowd sourced a sad playlist, asking my friends to recommend their favourite sad songs, because I can’t face anything happy and bounce right now. This, too, brought me connection and solace.

It’s hard to know how to treat someone who is lost in their grief. They are so raw, in so much pain, that it can feel as though just touching them might hurt them. It can feel safer, more respectful to keep your distance and not intrude.

But grief is a terribly lonely feeling. My normal MO is to tell everyone everything. I reach out and connect compulsively. But grief tends to shrink me inside myself. It’s as though it severs the strings that connect me to the world. I curl up and disconnect, even while I crave connection and desperately need to be hugged.

So my advice is to reach out. Text. Make a playlist. Send an email. Do things that don’t demand a response, but that leave the door open to one. I’ve received emails, and messages just checking in. Letting me know people care. And it’s only day two, but I know my community has me in their hearts. It’s those messages that are keeping me afloat. I’m going to need those hearts close to me for some time yet.

I hope she knew how important she was to us. Irrationally, I worry that maybe she didn’t understand what she meant to us – as though that really matters now – but we loved her so much, relied on her so much, and I truly hope she knew.

A glass of champagne in front of a garden
To love, loss, and remembrance

It’s too late now to fret about things we should have said or done. All we can do is hug our loved ones and make sure they know how important they are to us. To reach out. To connect. And to remember.

Things we can do!

Like many Australians (though apparently not enough) I was sick at heart as the election results rolled in last night. This morning I woke feeling alternately hopeless and angry. This government has trashed human rights, gutted welfare, locked up vulnerable people in concentration camps, and absolutely gunned for the poor and vulnerable in every direction, while protecting and enriching the rich and powerful. And here they are, returned to government for reasons I can’t explain.

This morning I texted a dear friend, asking to see her, because I need to focus on the people who give me life and hope, and not the people who suck life and hope from our country.

Fortunately, a mutual friend was organising a commiserative picnic. I went, eager for hugs, and looking for a ray of light, but not really expecting to find one.

At the same time another friend responded to my facebook post (“I’m going to be sick. For three years.”) with “I don’t know what the way forward is from here…”

On a slack channel yet another friend was asking what to do. How to make a difference. Because clearly what we’ve been doing isn’t enough. Greed has won out over hope.

On twitter the same conversation was playing out.

What can we do?

How can we save the future? How can we actually have a future?

And so, when I got to the picnic with a lot of smart, well read, thoughtful people, I asked the same question. What do we do? How do we go forward from here?  We bounced a lot of ideas around. In despair some of us could see the sense of the Thanos solution (see Infinity War, but only if you’re feeling emotionally robust) – there are simply too many of us, and we are wrecking things. But the overall mood was surprisingly optimistic, and two of us, Jen and I, got really stuck into the topic of what we can actually do.

It turns out Jen had read a lot more about it than I have. I tend to rush in and just do things. Jen’s actually thought it through. I left feeling far more hopeful, so I want to share some hope with you in the form of 3 actions you can take.

Number 1: Find an organisation that’s already working on things you care about and throw your weight behind them. Volunteer, donate, give your time, skills, and energy to people who already have a plan. We are stronger together than alone. Whether it’s refugees (consider the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre), climate change (Extinction Rebellion or many others),  or political action (The Greens), consider pitching in to join people with your goals and values who already have a movement, an organisation, and a plan. It’s a great way to increase your impact, and also to find others who care about the same things.

Number 2: Talk. Write. Speak. Take every opportunity to let your voice be heard. Recently I was watching a friend’s thread on Facebook about the devastatingly terrifying abortion laws in some states in the USA, which effectively criminalise miscarriage. Someone commented that these threads were not welcoming spaces for women, as there were a couple of men stomping and fuming about the evils of abortion, making it difficult for women – the ones directly impacted by the laws – to speak.

It occurred to me that there was actually value in adding my voice to the thread, and explaining my experience. Having had two miscarriages I had a perspective on that law that those men could never personally experience, and might not have thought of. Too many of us are silent – perhaps afraid, perhaps despairing – and that suits the rich and powerful just fine. We need to speak up, whether it’s lunchtime conversations, twitter, letters to the editor, articles in news media, blog posts, or facebook rants.

Some years ago my friend Kaye spoke up in a raw and courageous way about this government’s proposal to add a medicare co-payment, which Joe Hockey callously explained away as irrelevant – just “the cost of a beer”. That post went viral, Kaye wound up on TV, and she had a real impact on the way that proposal was received. You never know who is listening, so speak up, speak loudly, and speak often! Recently my 16 year old was told that women were too loud, too aggressive, and should be quieter and more polite. Well she and I both believe we are not loud enough! Not assertive enough! Perhaps it’s time for some aggression. It’s certainly time to speak up.

Number 3: Build community. I’ve started a monthly conversation group called Chatting for Change and it is a glorious thing. Modelled on the salons in 18th century Paris, we are building a community of people with shared values but diverse perspectives who talk about ways we can change the world. At the very least, it’s a way to feel connected and inspired. At its best it may be the birth of ideas with serious impact.  I was inspired to do this by Jessica Kerr’s 2018 YOW! talk on the Origins of Opera and the Future of Programming (I highly recommend watching) where she talked, among other things, about how salons (and similar organisations) can actually create change, and why it works.

We’ve had 4 chats so far and they have been amazing. The last one came up with an idea with the potential to create real change. It gives us hope, connection, and inspiration. And that’s something everyone could use!

Why not start a salon of your own! Join an effective organisation! Lift your voice!

These are all things we can do, and they all have impact. As individuals we can feel powerless, but we all have voices, we all have connections, and we all need each other. It’s time.

Supporting a non-binary child

At a conference dinner recently I was talking about my kids, as I am wont to do. Somewhat incessantly, to be honest.

Anyway, I mentioned that my 12 year old is non-binary and a couple of parents with much younger kids were intrigued. “How do you go about supporting a child who is non-binary??” they wanted to know.

I found it quite difficult to answer, perhaps because I’ve never really thought about it before. We tend to just lurch from day to day, fighting the inevitable family, parenting, and life related spot fires that break out. We’re all just trying to survive until the next weekend, sometimes!

But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that supporting a non-binary child is no different to supporting any other child, and it comes down to the bedrock of human rights: Recognising and respecting a person for who they are.

It’s terribly easy sometimes, as a parent, to try to make your child be someone else. Someone neater. Someone who eats healthy food. Someone who plays your favourite sport. Someone who wants a better career. Someone, sometimes, more like you. Or less like you. Someone thinner, stronger, with shorter or longer hair. Someone who wears longer skirts or less black or less colours. Someone more conservative, more rebellious, more acceptable.

Someone who believes something different, loves someone different, is someone different.

As I grew up and stretched my mental wings it became more and more obvious that my own parents had no idea who I was. Could not even begin to make sense of what I did, what I valued, and why I behaved the way I did. It hurt. They wanted me to be someone else, and couldn’t make sense of why I was myself. That, among other things, drove a wedge between us that we never recovered from.

And when I became a parent I automatically started doing the same thing. I tried to tell my baby girl when to sleep, what to eat, and how to behave. And my baby girl was having none of it. It nearly broke me. I vividly remember pushing her to childcare on one of those little trikes with a handle, and wrestling desperately to turn in one spot when she wanted to turn in another. We fought constantly.

Our relationship continued on that track for years until I realised, with the gentle but firm intervention of a friend, that trying to force her in my own direction was not only failing miserably, it was breaking our relationship. So I took a deep breath, stepped back, and gave her the gift of self-determinism.

And she flourished.

And our relationship flourished.

I won’t say we don’t still butt heads occasionally.  Of course we do. But for the most part we now find ourselves in vastly happier place. What’s more, my baby (who will no doubt eviscerate me for publicly calling her my baby – wait for the Death Stare!) has become a fiercely capable, independent, strong minded individual who fights her own battles and sets her own course through life.

So when J came out to us as non-binary it never occurred to us to try to deny it. To try to persuade them they were someone else. To push them onto a path of our own choosing. It would be like lopping off a limb to try to make them fit some imaginary pattern we had in our own heads. Completely nonsensical.

It turns out that when you start from a position of respect and recognition, everything else pretty much falls into place naturally. We supported them to tell their school, to come out to friends and family. To find their place in the world.

We have been lucky that, through my work, we have met some fabulous queer and non-binary folk who have been intensely supportive. We looked for ways to connect J to other non-binary people. We sought out communities and film and literature that would speak to them and help them navigate a world that is much tougher on non-binary and trans people than it is on those of us who are unthinkingly cisgender.

When you’re non-binary being unthinking is not an option, because the world is constantly fighting you, making you pick a side, whether it’s by gender sorting clothing, bathrooms, or social groups. Telling you not to be yourself. Telling you that you’re not ok. That you’re not you.

It’s harder, being non-binary. Not because you’re non-binary, but because society is just plain dumb about it. So as parents we have to try to work a bit harder to try to offset that. To find support, and balance.

But ultimately, with any child, recognising and supporting them to be who they are seems to me to be the fundamental bedrock of parenting. If you start there, everything else will follow.