When life hits back

On Friday morning I was excited to be heading to Geelong for a workshop on Diversity in Computing, as part of the Australasian Computing in Education Conference. I have dear friends in the Computing Education Research field, so stealing away from work to brainstorm how to increase awareness of, and interest in, Computer Science was great in itself – especially because I had huge respect for the stars running the workshop – but I was also going to catch up with friends. I was all set for a great day.

I’m not a fan of driving, for the most part. It’s a necessary evil, it seems to me, but since we got a hybrid driving has been much more fun, so I wasn’t even worried about the relatively tedious drive down the Geelong road. But as I cruised over the Westgate, having left early to make sure I beat the peak hour traffic, I suddenly realised that this was my first trip to Geelong since the day my Dad died, over four years ago.

God knows my dad and I had a complex relationship. By the time he died I would go so far as to say it was quite dysfunctional. His death was mingled relief and pain: relief that he was no longer suffering (his long deterioration from cancer had already been traumatic for years), pain that so much went unsaid. The day he died was pure shock.

My sister and I picked Mum up from Ocean Grove, where they had been when he died. He had gone for a walk and died in the street. Mum, who doesn’t drive, was stranded. So we gathered ourselves together, faced the practicalities, and raced towards her, where she sat comforted by a generous and kindly neighbour. I remember Tina Arena, Songs of Love and Loss, coincidentally on the car stereo as we drove down. I remember stopping for coffee at a really odd little drive-through coffee booth near Geelong station. I had chai tea, thinking I had had enough caffeine that day. I remember tears. Worries about the future, especially Mum’s future, and shock. So much shock. I don’t really remember much about arriving at Ocean Grove. I’m pretty sure we didn’t stay long, although I had packed an overnight bag just in case. In truth “packed” suggests a level of thought and planning that wasn’t possible. I had thrown some things into a bag that may or may not have been adequate.

I haven’t been to Ocean Grove since that day. I haven’t even been through Geelong. And even though much has changed – Geelong seems to have grown up somewhat, it is shinier, and more glamorous than I remembered – being there was a shock that I was completely unprepared for.

The morning was fine. I was catching up with friends, talking about work, brainstorming projects. A dear friend who, it turns out, believes in revenge gifting, gave me two very fine bottles of wine to take home with me. I was planning lunch with other friends, before a really great workshop.

But after lunch I felt ill. I thought maybe I had been glutened, but it was different somehow. I went to the workshop and halfway through felt an unbearable urge to burst into tears. For a moment there I was lost. I messaged a friend, scraped myself together, and it was ok.

But it was weird. I haven’t cried for my dad in years. In many ways the trauma of his passing was eclipsed by the trauma of the year before his death, which was truly horrendous. I cried for him. I miss him. But in many ways I miss the father I wished he could have been, rather than the father he actually was.

After the workshop I dropped two friends at the station, and in the middle of light and happy conversation we drove past that coffee place. By this time I was wise to what my confused brain was doing to me, so I was ok. But it was still a shock.

I was in the present, but I was unexpectedly back in that dreadful day at the same time. It’s probably just as well my car didn’t choose to play me any Tina Arena on the way home, or I’d likely have had to pull over and cry. I’m crying now.

Grief has a way of leaping out at you at unexpected moments. I try to be kind to myself when it happens, but the middle of a workshop isn’t really the right time. Sometimes it’s necessary to suck it up, and then write about it the next day with a divine glass of wine, as a form of therapy.

These are scary times. The scariest I can remember. But life goes on. And sometimes it gives you an unexpected beating. But there are workshops, passionate and dedicated people, and good friends with divine wine. There are people to hold you when you fall, and people who will come looking for you if you fall silent. There is hope all around, even when grief seems to be taking you down.

Some days life pushes us over, but we always have the option of pushing back. Push back. Hug your friends. And be kind to yourselves.

 

***this has been posted unedited, not even proof read, as a stream of consciousness grief reaction. It is as real as it can be. I hope it speaks to you. It helped me. You helped me, by being along for the ride.

Ask me no questions

One of the first things I do in my new classes each year is ask them if they trust me. If they believe me. They are lovely, polite kids, and they usually say yes. And I tell them not to. I tell them to question me. I tell them I can be wrong, misguided, or foolish.

I tell them that if I say something that doesn’t sound right to them they should call me on it. That if they’re not convinced by what I say they should ask for proof. And seek proof – or proof to the contrary – for themselves. The best classes happen when I am forced to reconsider some dogmatic statement. When someone proves something can be done that I said was impossible. Or when someone comes up with evidence that shows I am wrong. I love that. And I reward it.

I’ve known teachers who weren’t up for that. Who consider themselves autocratic, godlike figures who hold truth and wisdom in their own hands. Who take a challenge to their words as a sword to their heart, and must crush dissent with chilling ferocity, simply to protect themselves and their power.

But with everything that is happening in politics today – both in Australia and abroad – I have come to realise that there is nothing more important that I can teach my students than to question. To ask for proof. And to dissect that proof meticulously.

The people who will hold the line against evil, who will challenge accepted “wisdom”, and who will ultimately change the world, are the people who ask questions. The questions that no-one else is asking. The questions that we are told are unacceptable. The questions that other people don’t want to hear.

Those are the questions that need to be asked most of all. Those are the questions that will save lives. That will hold the line of compassion, of reason, and of justice.

If you have students, teach them to challenge you. If you have children, make sure they know that no-one – not even you – is inviolate. That no-one is perfect. That asking questions can be a difficult, even dangerous road at times, but that there is nothing more important for our growth – for our survival – than this.

I’ve worried about how to respond to what’s happening in the world, but it has become ever clearer that it is our immense gullibility that is the greatest threat. My work year starts today, and this has to be at the forefront of everything I do. The truth may be out there, but we won’t find it without asking a lot of tough questions.

Ask me no questions, and you will believe all my lies.

 

 

On love, loss, and the warmth of words

2016 was a year of love, of loss, and of fear. For me there was the sheer joy of discovering kindred spirits, and the devastation of seeing the brightest of lights snuffed out – both very public, and deeply private. It ended with elation, but also despair.

The summer holidays tend to be an emotionally complex time for me. I need time to recharge, but I miss the intense people contact that my work brings me. I would happily trade a long summer break for a longer but less frenetic school year, but that’s a whole different story. I hate Christmas – a hangover from too many Christmas traumas growing up. And I don’t thrive without a lot of people around me. I am the extreme end of the extrovert scale. The quiet end of the summer holidays can be a struggle, unless I manage it carefully, and I am often too tired to do so.

So I wound up a little feral. A touch self-destructive. And very difficult to live with. I was reading the news a little obsessively – not a life enhancing move at the best of times, and these are far from the best of times. I was not seeing enough people or getting enough exercise, having injured myself with a few over-enthusiastic attempts to ramp up my exercise routine.

At times like this I have to consciously seek out ways to lift myself up, or I become quite impossible. So I stopped reading so much news, and started focusing on the positives in my life. I stopped thinking so much about the fraught relationships in my life and started focusing on the people who know me through and through, and who love and support me even at my most foul. I even made a montage of the faces that mean the most to me, and set it as the home screen on my phone, so that every time I pick up my phone I see the people who make me who I am, and who pick me up when I stumble.

I love to read but had run out of the kind of uplifting, easy books I need at a time like this, so I trawled a bookshop looking for things to feed my soul. When I saw a new William McInnes book, “Full Bore,” I dived on it, then hesitated briefly because the blurb described it as “ramblings on sport, pop culture and life”, and my relationship with Aussie sport can best be described as distant, verging on cold. But his writing has reliably lifted me from the depths before, so I took a punt (hah! A sporting metaphor! Perhaps I’m not a total loss as an Aussie.) and took it home with me.

And, you know what? Sport did make an appearance, but this is not a book about sport. It’s not about pop culture. It’s about people, and love, and connections. It meanders through life having random conversations with shop assistants, passersby, neighbours, and friends, and weaving them all into a soft and loving tapestry of kindness and warmth that wraps around you and reconnects you with the world. Above all it’s about love. It’s the book equivalent of a big hug. I’ve never met William McInnes, more’s the pity, but he writes directly to my heart.

It’s about taking the time to look people in the eyes and hear their stories. It’s about reaching out to strangers in the night, and neighbours in distress. It’s about treading lightly, even with big feet, but not being afraid to walk in. Everybody has a story, and everybody has a heart. Sometimes we forget to really see the people around us.

 

 

The I in TEAM

I had the incredible opportunity last week to work with some of the most amazing people I have ever met. I was able to gather them together in a room and we had the most fabulous time solving some really significant problems. Eventually I’ll post more about that on my Computing Education blog. But that meeting was able to come about because while I was away over the winter break I had a startling realization. A lot of the problems I have been trying to solve have been driving me insane, and I couldn’t see how to fix things.

And then it dawned on me. I was trying to fix them alone.

Fixing things alone is not my superpower. Bringing people together? That I can do. So that’s what I’ve spent the last 6 months doing, and now things are changing for me, and for the problems I am trying to solve, in fairly spectacular ways.

One of the great side effects of that meetings was that we talked fiction over lunch, and I got to collect a list of recommended reads from people I really admire. So I started reading one of them – “The Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss – this week. It’s well written and a gripping read. An excellent way to start my summer holidays. But there’s an aspect of it that is really getting up my nose. It’s the same reason I struggle to read the Harry Potter books. A lot of the plot hinges on the fact that the protagonist refuses to ask for help.

Now look. I get this. I do. Asking for help is not my thing. Not until I am too close to breaking – possibly a little past. Ok, maybe a lot past. It’s perfectly plausible. But the older I get the more I realise my strength resides in the intensity, and number, of my relationships. In the people who come when I call, and even more in the people who come before I call, knowing that the calling itself is hard for me.

In the people who leap at ideas I have for teamwork. In the people who say “hell yes, I’m far too busy for this, but let’s do it anyway!” In the people who can lift me when I’m down, keep me grounded when I’m up, and wield the frying pan of enlightenment, gently, but firmly, where it’s needed.

This isn’t just my greatest strength. This is where humanity shines, when it’s not tearing itself down. This very needing each other, this ability to create astonishing synergy, and build a remarkable whole out of disparate parts. This is humanity’s crowning achievement. This is how we build great walls, Snowy River Hydro systems, and supportive societies.

I see it in my daughter’s primary school, which has the most extraordinary community, sparked by a quite remarkable Principal. I see it in my own workplace, where people push themselves beyond reasonable limits, but always have something extra to give when a student, or colleague, needs it.

I even see it on Facebook, where a post about a problem brings any number of supportive responses, and even tangible help. Where people offer solutions, hugs, and understanding.

Sometimes we focus on our differences, and on all that’s wrong with the world. Goodness knows there’s plenty of fodder for that. And we wonder what we can do about it.

Alone? Not much, really.

But together? Together we can move mountains.

This is why I get a little frustrated by books where the protagonist has a great support network but refuses to call on it. We have this unthinking adulation of independence that is seriously counterproductive. We admire the hero who goes it alone, when we’d be far better off idolizing the hero who builds a team that saves the world together.

It’s teamwork, ultimately, that can save us. Not the Bruce Willis style hero who grumpily saves the world without help. Not the Rambo rampaging alone through the forest. It will be the teams of scientists who share the credit to solve big problems. The politicians who cross the floor to vote for something they believe in. The people who can rally others to their cause.

It will be our ability to come together and outshine the sun, not our ability to burn out alone, that determines our future. Maybe it’s time we celebrated that.

 

Failing to succeed

It’s nearly that time of year again, when year 12 results come out (or have already come out, or came out and went back in again, if you got caught up in the glitch!). As usual there’s a lot of talk of of defining moments. Of deciding your fate. Of doors opening or slamming in your face, depending on the outcome.

Earlier this year in a school assembly, I was inspired to out myself. Here I am, passionate (verging on obsessive) Computer Science teacher, researcher, and writer. Absolutely where I want to be, doing what I love, and feeling as though I can make a difference. There is nowhere I would rather be.

But my first preference was medicine.

So was my second.

I didn’t get in.

I failed.

Oh, I didn’t fail my VCE, but I failed to get the score I needed to do medicine.

A better thing could not have happened to me. I drifted into a science degree intending, in a vague and fairly uninspired way, to study Genetics. I took Computer Science as a fill in subject because I had always liked machines that go “Bing!”

By third year I was studying nothing but Computer Science. I was never going to do honours. Certainly never going to do a PhD, and no way would I ever become a lecturer. All of these things inevitably came to pass. Quite quickly, really.

I suck at predicting my future.

I’ve always been faintly astounded by people who have 5 year plans and the like. My planning mostly consists of noticing an open door and flinging myself through it.

Occasionally I have to dynamite the door to make sure it’s open.

The point is that I thought I knew what I wanted, but not getting it turned out to be the best thing that could possibly have happened. It took a while, but now I am right where I want to be, doing something I love with a slightly obsessive passion (I may be lying about the slightly part). I’ve taken a strange and winding path to get here, but every step of that road helped to give me skills and attributes I would not have had any other way. I doubt I would be this happy, or this useful if I hadn’t failed to get into medicine.

Tonight my year 12s graduate at our school’s presentation night. (I know, I don’t teach year 12, but they are still MY YEAR 12s. Hush.) It will be a minor miracle if I don’t cry, because every single one of them has performed amazing feats just to get where they are.

So if you’re waiting on your final school results, remember this: there is nothing defining about these numbers. You are so much more than a number could ever express. Whatever happens, your future is in your hands, and you have extraordinary potential. Go get ’em, Tiger.

Down the Dementia Rabbit Hole

I don’t always write about my visits to Mum. There’s always something new, but often there’s no new emotion left to deal with it. Nothing left to say. Nothing new to feel.

Today was pretty normal at first, as far as dementia allows for any definition of normal.

Mum asked me where my parents live. “Only in my head, honey. Only in my head.”

Of course I didn’t say that, just answered lightly and steered the conversation to safer topics. But I’m used to that one now. Then she said I was her sister. That was new. She’s an only child. But she hasn’t reliably known me for months. I’m not greatly disturbed by who she thinks I am.

We went out to lunch. She was a little odd – differently odd, even for her – but nothing particularly radical. We walked back to her house, and I waited to see her inside before leaving. She fumbled with her keys and couldn’t get the gate unlocked. This is pretty normal for Mum these days, so I waited a bit in the hope she would sort it out, and then I got out my keys and tried the lock.

It was stuck.

I had the right key – I had opened the gate with it when I arrived – but it wouldn’t turn in the lock. The lock is a deadlock and the gate is one of those spiky ornamental ones. The house is really quite a fortress, so being unable to unlock the gate makes getting in a significant challenge.

Mum immediately started to panic. Her key chain is festooned with broken keys, and she was getting more and more stressed about trying to unlock the gate. I was worried she would break her key off in the lock and then we’d have no hope. To top it off it was getting late and I needed to get home to pick up my kids.

I tried to get Mum to stop wrestling with the lock while I figured out what to do. I couldn’t open the garage, as the batteries seemed to be flat on the keypad. There is no easy place to scale the fence. I tried my key in the lock again, to no avail – it was definitely the right key, but the lock just wouldn’t move. Meanwhile Mum was becoming increasingly agitated, saying it had never happened before and she never had any trouble with the locks, why was it happening now, what were we going to do, why was it happening now… her stress levels were sky rocketing and it was impossible to isolate myself from her panic. It was infectious.

I called my husband to see if he had any suggestions, which at least calmed me a little, and I worked out that if I put my foot in the letterbox slot I could get myself up and over the gate (lucky I’ve been doing all that weights work recently is all I can say!). I had to sit on the spiky gate to get my other leg over which was no picnic, but I managed it.

I jumped down the other side to find that the lock was indeed jammed. But it was jammed outside the latch-hole. If we had tried the other handle, the gate would have opened.

This is the rabbit hole of dementia. I’ve felt for years that visits to Mum took my brain and ripped it into tiny pieces. I’ve long suspected that I didn’t ever manage to collect up all the bits, and that with every visit I, myself, become less complete. Less coherent. It’s impossible to be around that level of dysfunction without becoming somewhat dysfunctional yourself. But today I failed to open a gate that was, in fact, not locked.

I saw Mum safely inside. She became calm as soon as she was inside the house, fortunately. But her panic, her terror, her anxiety? I took them home with me. I pulled over on the side of the road halfway home and sobbed. Over a gate. Yet not over a gate at all. Over the mess that this damned disease has made of my mother, and is making of me.

I don’t want to play this game anymore.