Heart strings

Grief never leaves you. Whether lapping gently at your feet or lifting you up and dumping you hard on the rocks, the waves of grief become a constant in a frighteningly inconstant world.

Sometimes I run from them, investing heavily in life in a bid to drown out the roar of death in my ears.

Sometimes I seek them out, obsessively reading about the grief of others, hoping to find the pieces of my broken heart in the words of strangers.

Sometimes they leap out at me from inside what seemed like a safe and lighthearted distraction.

There’s a lot going on in my life right now, and I am… somewhat vulnerable. So I took refuge in some timeout with William McInnes’ sweet and quirky new book, ‘Holidays’. Which was an excellent move right up until the last four pages, which picked me up and slammed me onto the rocks of grief before I knew they were even there. And then they hugged me, smoothed down my ruffled feathers and placed me gently back into my seat, where I sat, slightly stunned, with tears pouring down my cheeks.

In hindsight they were tears that have been hovering for weeks now. Tears of grief, of fear, of stress. Tears of love, of laughter, and of exhaustion. I knew they were there, but I wasn’t planning to let them out.

Caged tears, though, are as corrosive as flowing tears are cathartic. Far better to have a devious author sneak inside my heart and break open the cage without my consent than to keep trying to pretend the cage wasn’t even there.

There is a kind of camaraderie among the grieving. In McInnes’ book an acquaintance saw his grief and hugged him. I imagine it’s quite likely that this acquaintance has griefs of his own. He knew what he was seeing.

Once, when comforting friends in desperate grief, a fellow comforter looked into my eyes and said “this isn’t new to you, is it?” Grief marks you. It’s a club you never wanted to belong to but can’t possibly leave. But there’s an obscure comfort in knowing, once you’re in it, that it’s not a club of one. That others have been there, are there, and can recognise and even console your haunted heart.

I don’t know how to contact William McInnes, which is a shame, because I would like to be able to thank him. There will be other tears, and other cages, but his book spoke to me today, and they were words I needed to hear.

You know how I feel

A dear friend recently gave me a Christmas present, saying “I was going to write on this, but you know how I feel.”

This particular friend has been incredibly supportive through some very tough times, so I certainly know that he cares, otherwise he would be taking the sensible option of running like hell in the opposite direction.

But that offhand comment has started me thinking. Do we truly know how others feel about us? How often do we assume that people know what they mean to us and neglect to tell them?

Tell her about it
Tell her everything you feel
Give her every reason to accept
That you’re for real

Tell her about it
Tell her all your crazy dreams
Let her know you need her
Let her know how much she means

Tell Her About It – Billy Joel

In 1996 my best friend died suddenly in a car accident. Of the many traumatic impacts of her death, the one thing I could never reproach myself with was the idea that she didn’t know how I felt. We told each other eloquently and often. We wrote long and heartfelt cards for every possible occasion. We never let anything go unsaid. That’s a great comfort to me now.

Of course,  all this eloquence is easy for those of us who are expressive, extroverted, and very comfortable (perhaps even a little too comfortable) with words. For others, making those feelings explicit can be a task as arduous as removing your own appendix without anaesthetic – and roughly as attractive an option.

Yet telling someone else how you feel about them, and especially why, is a hugely powerful act that can change lives, including your own. It can build and strengthen your relationships, and teach you a lot about what you find important in the people around you, simply because you have to think about it in order to express it. It can change the way others see you, and let them know how you see them. It’s an act of love, and of selflessness, to take the time to tell someone what you truly value about them.

Telling someone how much you value their honesty might make them rethink what they see as a personal liability. The other day I asked my husband if he thought I was a difficult person, and having very wisely ducked the question a few times, eventually he turned around and said “is that necessarily a bad thing?” Which sparked a whole conversation around what it means to care passionately about important things, and to want to put right all that is wrong in the world. It flipped my view of myself right around, and made me reconsider some of what I had thought were my worst traits.

When I ran for election in 2010 I received ringing endorsements from people who I didn’t realise had ever thought twice about me. Again, it caused a shift in my world view. When I left a long-term job in 2006, the comments people wrote on my card caused a similar mental shake up. We often wait for life-changing events to express how we feel. We say things in eulogies that we never managed to say in person. We tell people things when we are saying goodbye that we should have said soon after we said hello. Sometimes we never say them at all.

These are all tragedies. Lost opportunities to connect, to change a life, and to love.

Look at it this way – you have the chance to prevent a tragedy today, by telling someone exactly what they mean to you.

If this is love, love is easy

Growing up I bought into the Disney version of love. It was all flowers, jewellery and grand romantic gestures. It was chocolates and candlelit dinners, glittery ball gowns and roses on valentines’ day.

We’ve been having a tough time lately. There’s a whole lot of stuff going on that I can’t write about. The stress has been pretty intense. For some months the brightest spot on the horizon has been an impending visit from old friends. Friends who live on the other side of the world, who we hadn’t seen for 11 years.

That visit was last week. It lasted just 6 short, hectic days. Their girls, 2.5 and 5 years old, had never met our girls, 6 and 10. Not so much as a skype session had passed between us. Yet the moment they arrived the two families became one.

Perhaps because we have talked so fondly of them, our girls loved them before they even arrived. I suspect the same was true for them. The very day they arrived our 6 year old and their 5 year old were wrapped around each other, though they had only a handful of words in common. By the end of the week we spoke a lot more French, and their girls a lot more English, but it was not words that cemented the friendship. There were copious tears when they left.

If this is love, then love is easy

it’s the easiest thing to do

if this is love, love completes me

‘cos it feels like I’ve been missing you

a simple equation with no complications to leave you confused

if this is love, love, love, it’s the easiest thing to do.


People were surprised that we had stayed in contact for 11 years, but it never occurred to me that we could lose touch. Emails were sporadic, but they never stopped.

For 6 days our house was full and hugs were plentiful. The week left me with an overwhelming feeling of being loved, and a pretty clear idea of what love is.

Love isn’t flowers and jewellery (although I am pretty sure it is chocolate).

Love is travelling half way around the world to spend time with friends.

Love is someone who knows why you are crying even before you do.

Love is making you laugh on the darkest days.

Love is knowing that your email will always be read, your feelings understood, and your heart safely held.

Love is hugs when you need them, and drawings just for you.

Love is watching a swimming lesson or going to a concert.

Love is even a wonky but passionate icing heart on a birthday cake.

Love is revelling in someone else’s triumph, and feeling their pain.

Sometimes love is even fixing your computer.

I have so much love in my life, even though some of it is scattered all over the globe. And none of it is carrying flowers or jewellery.

Real romance

Valentines Day brings out my inner curmudgeon. It’s a huge, huge con. Today I was buying fruit and veg when a man came to the counter next to me bearing a box full of gorgeous orchids. “That should make you popular,” I joked.

“It’ll just about get me back to square 1,” he snorted. “You know what it’s like.”

Valentines Day is nothing but a marketing technique designed to sell a large number of roses, a vast amount of chocolate and a forest full of greeting cards. Oh, and things that sparkle, naturally. It bugs me because of the expectation. Buying flowers, chocolates or diamonds for your beloved because you know you will catch hell if you don’t is not romance. It’s pure pavlovian behaviour. Woof.

In the spirit of positivity, then, let me tell you what romance is, rather than what it’s not, and put my inner curmudgeon back where she belongs.

Romance is your husband shaving your legs for you when you’re pregnant and can no longer reach them yourself.

Romance is your partner calling up a friend you’ve been fighting with and handing you the phone, telling you to sort it out before you break the friendship.

Romance is cooking you your favourite dinner when you’ve had a rough day.

It’s letting you sleep in when you’re tired.

It’s getting creative in the kitchen to find ways to make your favourite dishes minus the things you’re allergic to.

It’s knowing you better than you know yourself.

It’s encouraging you to do the things you don’t want to do, that he knows will make you feel better (like exercising).

It’s managing your paperwork for you, when organisation is not your strong suit.

It’s knowing when you need food, a hug, or a good tickle, and supplying them in liberal quantities.

It’s building an aviary to implement your mad plan to have a sugar glider as a pet, and then extending the aviary when you decide to get two.

Romance is buying you a book you didn’t know existed that you now can’t put down because it speaks directly to your soul.

Romance is knowing exactly who you are, and giving you everything you need to be the best and happiest person you can be. Diamonds and roses don’t even come close.

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.

What do teenagers know about love?

I mean, really, what do teenagers know about love??

I was amazed to hear a man in his 30s ask this question recently, in a most dismissive tone. It was pretty clear that he thought teenagers were entirely ignorant on the subject of love, and thus should not attempt to be heard on the topic.

The wild inaccuracy of the assumption took my breath away.

We are born knowing about love. Watch a baby look into its parents’ eyes, and you will read everything that was ever written about love. To see a heartbroken 9 year old girl when her best friend moves away is to sample the eloquence of Shakespeare at his most tragic.

Kids know everything there is to know about love. Teenagers feel with an intensity that is both thrilling and a little terrifying to an onlooker. A broken heart at 15 is no less shattering and formative than at 35. What we learn as we age is not how to love, but how to recover from loss (if we ever learn that at all).

Experience teaches us more ways to be hurt, and how to recover. It teaches us how best to express our love, and how to care for others. It may even teach us how to recognize love, but it does not teach us how to love.

Psychologists used to believe in the tabula rasa – the blank slate. That children were born empty, without feelings or personality. Doctors used to operate on newborns without anaesthetic, utterly convinced that babies did not feel. The sheer breathtaking horror of such stupidity is hard to fathom.

We now know that babies recognise their parents’ voices in the womb. Their distinct personalities make themselves felt from before birth. They know who they are – they are simply limited in the ways they can show us their true selves. Nonetheless they are eloquent and expressive to those prepared to look. I watched a baby today playing a tickle game with an adult. She proffered her foot, snatched it away when the tickling got too much, and then proffered it again. When she tired of the game she grabbed a foot in either hand and clutched them to her chest, saying wordlessly, but nonetheless incredibly clearly “MINE!”

You don’t need a gameboy to tell you when it’s game over.

Babies love with every fibre of their beings. Teenagers do, too. It’s as we age that we become scarred, and if we are unlucky we learn to keep a part of ourselves separate and “safe”, closing ourselves off from the ability to give our whole heart to another.

It’s possible that teenagers know more about love than we do.

Romance is Red

romance is red
diamonds are blue
if you think that’s what love is
then more fool you!

This morning on my way to work I passed a young guy standing at the bus stop, holding a large teddy bear and a bunch of red roses. I had to smile – it was a beautiful sight, but completely alien to my experience.

You could argue that it’s largely due to my bad habit of dating engineers (I stopped at 2, but that second engineer was awfully hard to give up – 21 years later I still haven’t managed it). As a group, they are not known for their romantic, sentimental sides. But whatever the reason bunches of flowers have not featured greatly in my life. In fact I could count on one hand, with multiple finger amputations, the number of bouquets my husband has given me since we first met.

When I was young and naive (as opposed to older and now ludicrously naive), I used to think that the lack of flowers, diamonds and chocolates in my dating life indicated a lack of romance. I am embarrassed to admit that I used to give my beloved a hard time about it. Most of the year it didn’t bother me, but valentine’s day was a real struggle. Tales of flowers and grand romantic gestures abounded on all sides, and I was jealous. I even wondered if an absence of romance meant an absence of love.

It took me a long time to wake up to the romance that is integral to the fabric of our relationship – the kind of romance that lasts a lot longer than an expensive, wilting rose, that you can’t lose the way you can a diamond. Nor does it go to your hips like a box of chocolates.

rainbow lorrikeets cuddling

The romance in my life is in the way my husband spots something I am allergic to and steers me away from it before I have even noticed. It is in the way he can put his finger on exactly what is bothering me when I have dissolved into tears and can’t articulate why. Romance is even in the way he turned to me after my first sudden and shocking attack of morning sickness and said “Would you like your toast now, or shall I flush it straight down the toilet?” (No doubt that wouldn’t have worked for some, but in a moment where I was so shocked I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, it left me giggling helplessly for some time.)

Romance is not glamorous or showy. It’s in the passions that we share and the ideals we both care about. It’s in the way we support each other when things get rough, instead of making things rougher by turning on each other.

Valentine’s day is a festival of commercial glamour, dressed up and pretending to be love. It’s capitalism hiding behind an intense pressure to perform – to demonstrate your love with grand, expensive gestures. But that’s not love. Love isn’t measured by the size of your bouquet, or the carats in your diamond. It’s not measured by the depth of your wallet or the category of restaurant you choose.

Love is someone holding your soul safely in their hands, giving it warmth, and light, and room to grow. Love is knowing someone inside and out, and making their happiness your business. I’ll take that over a bunch of roses any day.