Breathing

My 13 year old has thus far avoided the Facebook trap, but she has been utterly hooked on Instagram for some months now. Like an obedient parent, when she got Instagram I did too, so that I knew what she was dealing with. One thing regular readers may have noticed about me is that I am not a visual person. I was given a beautiful illustrated copy of the Da Vinci code once and I barely looked at the pictures. I am obsessed with text. I compulsively read text when it is in front of me. I can’t help myself. And while I can objectively appreciate a beautiful image, I’ve never thought of myself as being able to create them.

I was going to say “I can’t draw” but that’s a lie, much like people saying “I can’t code”. It would be more accurate to say “I never learnt to draw”. The visual medium is never going to be my way of reaching people.

But somehow Instagram began to draw me in and influence the way I see the world. When I see a Spring flower, or a beautiful sunrise, I want to capture it and share it. With a decent camera on my smartphone, I’ve got the means in my pocket all the time, so stopping to take a photo is easier than it ever was before. And it turns out that people like to see these snapshots of life.

IMG_4175

But what has been really interesting about this newfound passion for pictures is that it draws me outside in the mornings.

Whether it’s the sunshine causing the fence to steam after a wet nightDSCF2931

Or a beautiful fungus on a treeIMG_4176(1)

the world is drawing me outside in the mornings. And that’s having an unexpected impact on my mental health.

I’ve always felt that outside has some indefinable quality that inside, however attractive and comfortable, can’t possibly match. There’s a feeling to the air. There’s a sense of peace, of freedom. It feels as though the cleaner, fresher air of the outside is bringing energy into my lungs and washing the stress out. I walk out hunched and crumpled by the stresses of life, and I am suddenly able to stretch and straighten in the light.

I don’t know why this should be. Perhaps there’s a scientific explanation involving quality of light and components of the air, or perhaps it’s entirely psychological. But either way, being outside watching the birds and breathing the air is good for me in a way that nothing else can match. And there’s a particular bliss to be found in the early morning air that transcends all else.

I struggle to manage mindful meditation. I just can’t seem to commit to sitting still and focusing on a regular basis, even though I know that it helps. But outside in the early morning I am mindful in an entirely new way. I am thinking only of the things I can see, smell, and feel. Although my phone is in my pocket in case there’s something to photograph, I’m not on Facebook or checking my email. I’m in the moment. Breathing the air. Inhaling the peace.

People are always saying that social media is not real life. That the internet stands between us and the real world. But social media has drawn me outside and grounded me firmly in the real world. It has reminded me to breathe, to watch, and to be still. So now that I’ve shared that thought, I’m going back outside to breathe.

 

 

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Speed limited

Over two months ago I was rushing into the study and missed. I kicked the door frame so hard I was pretty sure I had broken my toe. Fortunately it was not nearly as sore as I expected the next morning, so I ignored it and continued hurtling about. Around the same time I was suffering from a heat rash caused by the intense summer heat and a lack of air conditioning in my workplace, so I reluctantly put both the running and the cycling on hold for a while.

During the Easter holidays I attempted to start running again and discovered that my toe was distinctly unimpressed with the idea. Once term 2 began I resumed riding to work and taking the kids to school in our beloved Christiania bike, which together with all the standing and rushing about I do at work, began to take its toll. My foot began to get increasingly sore, and a little poking and prodding indicated that it wasn’t so much the toe as the second metatarsal – the bone in the foot that connects directly to the toe. And it hurt.

Nonetheless, I kept telling myself that there wasn’t much to be done about a foot – that it would simply take its time to heal, and I didn’t have time to see a physiotherapist anyway. During the holidays a friend gave me a hard time about not getting it checked out, and as the pain grew to the point where it was beginning to impact on both my temper and my day, I decided it was time to seek professional advice.

Today I finally saw a physio, who poked and prodded the foot until it was howling in protest (I managed to contain my howls, but I have been appallingly sooky ever since), and said if it didn’t respond to her prodding by Saturday I would need an x-ray. Her opinion was that it is probably a hairline fracture, and I may need crutches for a while, in order to keep the pressure off the toe.

Slow down, you crazy child
you’re so ambitious for a juvenile
but then if you’re so smart, tell me why are you still so afraid?
Where’s the fire? What’s the hurry about?
You’d better cool it off before you burn it out.
You’ve got so much to do and only so many hours in the day, hey hey.
Vienna, Billy Joel
 

Suddenly my hurtling is under threat. Even this afternoon, pre x-ray and sans crutches, my foot has been sore enough that I have been choosing to sit still more and dash about less. I am trying to picture my working day – typically characterised by a fair bit of rushing around classrooms, a lot of leaping up and down stairs, and a whole heap of zooming about – curtailed by crutches. For starters, I don’t see how I’m going to manage getting my essential cup of tea into my classrooms. I think I’ll have to get my students to design some kind of anti-gravity tea carrying device. Perhaps I can use the same device to attach my crutches to the side of my bike while I ride to work.

If I am lucky I won’t actually need the crutches, and the foot will sort itself out given time. But perhaps there is something to be learned from my visions of life in foot-protection mode. I’ve spent a lot of this year moving at such high speed that I have failed to notice the world around me. On the bright side that doesn’t give me time to fret about things outside my control, but it also leaves me rather breathless and permanently stressed, with a worse memory even than the string bag I pretended was a mind when I was pregnant.

Ironically, one of the ways I have tried to combat this is using the mindfulness technique of “feeling your feet”, whereby you concentrate on feeling the sensations of your feet and toes as they press against your shoes. How Fate must be laughing. But despite the pain in my foot, feeling my feet is still a good idea. Living in the moment, and such skills as breathing and sitting still, have never been my strengths, but perhaps my foot can remind me that it’s worth slowing down a little to smell the roses from time to time. Or at least to miss the doorway.

A life less serious

I noticed years ago that kids respond better to humour than almost anything else. The question “Why are there two pairs of shoes under the kitchen table?” irrespective of tone, is generally greeted with defensive excuses, often with some whining thrown in. The same sentence with a touch of humour, eg “Why are there two pairs of shoes under the kitchen table? Do we have half an Octopus visiting for dinner?” generally gets giggles and prompt action to rectify the problem. Complete absence of defensiveness and irritation on all sides. Hard to remember to do when I am tired and grumpy, but definitely worth the attempt.

I’ve also noticed that my favourite people are the ones who can make me laugh on the blackest days. The ones who can take trauma and make me laugh at it are the ones who make it possible for me to survive. Inappropriate humour can be a magical trick. My husband, Andrew, is my primary laugh-giver. This is the man who, when I was struck by sudden explosive morning sickness for the first time said “would you like your toast now, or shall I flush it straight down the loo?”

After listening to a radio program about dementia, I was contemplating the way dementia seems to leave people distilled to the essence of their fundamental character traits. A relative of mine who suffered from Alzheimers remained a perfect gentleman, while all memories and cognitive skills leaked away. He was always a kind and amiable man, and simply became more so as his brain deteriorated. Thinking about this I became somewhat morose and said somewhat bleakly “I wonder what will be left when I become demented?”

Moroseness was blown sky high when Andrew responded “Sheer pedantry. Nothing but red pen.”

I don’t know what my essential character traits are, but I did recognise a profound truth in that moment (once I had recovered from snorting my coffee through my nose). It’s not just kids who respond to humour. Life is easier for all of us if we don’t take ourselves too seriously. If we can take the worst life has to dish out and raise a laugh, or enlist a skilled supporter to raise a laugh for us, then we’ve got a good chance of surviving.

You may be right
I may be crazy
But it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for
turn out the light
don’t try to save me
you may be wrong, for all I know, but you may be right.

Billy Joel, You May Be Right.

I take many things far too seriously. As a parent I often get wound up ludicrously tightly over things that simply don’t matter. As a teacher I beat myself up over every class that doesn’t go as planned, and every assignment that doesn’t work the way I intended. As a friend I take on my friends’ problems and sometimes have to be forcibly restrained from making myself responsible for fixing everything for everybody. (I admit it’s possible there’s just a touch of OCD in my family. Not in me of course. But definitely in everyone else.) This isn’t terribly good for maintaining sanity, or balance, or indeed friends.

A couple of years ago I shaved my head on a whim, and it amazed me how seriously some people took it. Some almost cried at the loss of my long blond hair. Some backed away, trying very hard not to make eye contact, and disappeared into the ether –  unwilling to risk friendship with such a loose cannon. Still others got very excited, and raved about how brave I had been, and how wonderful it was to do something so different. Throughout it all I often said “it’s just hair, people. It’ll grow back.”

You know what? Life is a lot like that. It’s just life, people. It’ll spring back into shape. It might not be the same shape, but it does tend to bounce back, if you give it a chance, and laughter has an exceptionally good bounce-factor. So next time I’m struggling, I’m going to find someone to make me laugh. I don’t think I’m going to have to look very far.

A word to the wise

I give my kids lots of good advice.

“Don’t worry about other people’s behaviour,” I say. “You can’t change that. Think about your own behaviour instead. Try to remember that other people’s actions are not your responsibility. A sense of justice is a fine thing, but you need to strike a balance between wanting everyone to do the right thing and interfering in other people’s business.”

“That’s really tough,” I tell them. “It can be hard to find the right balance, and sometimes you will get it wrong. Sometimes you’ll do the wrong thing, or upset people (and not achieve what you wanted anyway), and you’ll really regret what you did. It’s really important to do your best to make amends, but it’s also really important not to beat yourself up over it. You’re human. You’ll make mistakes. Sometimes you’ll hurt people. Do your best to fix it, but accept that you made a mistake. Learn from it and try to move on.”

“If you keep beating yourself up over the mistakes that you make,” I say, “it’s really hard to learn from them and avoid them next time. You just wind up on a downwards guilt spiral that makes life miserable for you and everyone around you.”

“Try to stop and take a deep breath when things are overwhelming you,” I advise them. “It’s really hard to do, but it will save you a whole lot of trauma in the long run. It takes practice, and sometimes you won’t manage it. When you don’t take that deep breath and instead go off like a fire cracker, try to cut yourself some slack. Make amends as best you can, and try to learn from it.”

“Sometimes taking deep breaths when you don’t need to is just as important as taking them when you do,” I suggest to them. “Make some space for stillness in your lives. Take the time to watch the wind in the trees, or listen to the lorikeets squawking in the trees.”

“Above all, remember that you are a good person, you are well loved, and you are trying really hard,” I say. “Don’t forget that you’ll never be perfect, but you are awesome the way you are. Believe in yourself, because you’re amazing.”

I give my kids a lot of good advice. If only I could follow it.

Active Movements

Last week I had an excruciatingly sore knee. It had been bothering me for a few days and escalating in intensity when I arrived, with some misgivings, at my regular Saturday morning yoga class. I went straight to my instructor, Roman, before the class and explained the problem. I showed him the stretch I did to try to relieve it and he was horrified. He remonstrated that I should never, ever do what I had just done. I explained that my physio had recommended that particular stretch, so it was ok.

“No, no,” he said. “It’s not the stretch, it’s the way you did it. You have to make it an active movement. Raise your leg slowly, start the stretch, and then use your hand to assist very gently.”

Thinking about it, I realised I had tossed my foot up, caught it with my hand, and initiated the stretch with my hand, rather than my leg. I had more or less collapsed into the stretch, leaving my knee unprotected.

Roman assured me that all I needed to do yoga was a pulse, and he showed me how to modify the postures to protect my knee. At the core of every movement was conscious, active control. By the end of the session my knee felt much better, and the next day the pain was gone and a light had gone on in my brain: I spend a lot of my time collapsing.

When I sit down, I fling myself into the chair as though I have no strength left. When I crouch, I fall into it, rather than controlling my descent. And when I go to bed, I hit the mattress like a dead thing. (Sadly I don’t sleep that way – I am an inveterate doona thief and an extremely active sleeper. I have been known to play volleyball in my sleep – my husband is quite wary of my serve.)

Slow down, you move too fast.
You got to make the morning last.
Just kicking down the cobble stones.
Looking for fun and feelin’ groovy.

Simon & Garfunkel – The 59th Bridge St Song (Feelin’ Groovy)

I’ve been reading about positive psychology recently, and it fascinates me how we can reinforce positive pathways in the brain with the simplest of tricks. Like a ball rolling downhill, the negative stuff can be easier to believe. When we dwell on it, we score a groove in our brains that makes the ball roll downhill faster the next time. By forcing ourselves to think about the positive, we can lift the ball back up and create different pathways – alternatives to that downhill slide. In essence, we tend to collapse emotionally, but we can use active movements to lift ourselves back up.

We have been building some of these emotionally active movements into our daily lives, in the form of the thankful thing, meditation, and affirmation.  Of course when it’s most needed meditation can be hard to achieve. In the middle of a frantically stressful day, the last thing I want to do is stop and be alone with my thoughts. We have managed to keep the thankful thing going under extreme provocation, but meditation is a little harder to maintain. I keep trying though, and each time I do it meditation deepens the positive grooves in my brain, and makes me less likely to collapse into the negative.

Like my knee, my brain needs conscious protection. Rather than accepting that life is a bastard and making me miserable, I am choosing to try to train my brain to use active movements to protect itself. It doesn’t always work. We all have days when we want to kick a hole in the wall. But it is something to work towards, and it gives me a little control over where I am heading.

Even when life gets me down on the ground and is kicking me where it hurts, I don’t have to be a passive victim. I can train myself to focus on the positive and remember the good stuff. Sometimes Feelin’ Groovy is hard work, but it’s got to be worth a try.

I’ve got no deeds to do,
No promises to keep.
I’m dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep.
Let the morning time drop all its petals on me.
Life, I love you,
All is groovy.

It’s only natural

We have a pond near our front door. Constructed from scratch using a big hole, concrete and some plastic pond liner, it is deeper than most of the pre-fab ponds you can buy from a hardware store. A nice deep pond is essential if you want to be able to have deep water plants and a range of aquatic life – especially if you want to attract natives of the type who go “bok” and munch on mozzies and flies for you.

pond

Although the pond surrounds are rectangular slate tiles (reused leftovers from a friend’s renovation), and hence fairly regular, the pond itself quickly became a messy, organic and entirely living system in its own right.

The garden beds around the pond have been filled with plants that droop and dangle, which should trail over the edges of the pond once they have grown a little more. This provides excellent habitat for creatures who go “bok”, and indeed we have tadpoles playing hide and seek in there even as I type.

The whole family has been enthralled by the pond project from the beginning – there was much enthusiastic flinging of dirt in the digging stages – but the advent of beasties in the pond has sparked a whole new level of fascination. Our own kids, together with every small person who visits, are captivated by the tadpoles. Watching them appear from under lily pads, and spotting a wiggling tail peeking out from under a rock, has become our most popular game.

tadpole

An announcement of “I’m just going out to look for taddies” always creates a stampede at the front door. It has been amazing watching them grow from tiny fish-like beings to big guys with legs visibly frog kicking. This week they have suddenly become very shy, but an occasional leaf rising above the surface of the water suggests that perhaps they have started to breathe. There is something incredibly magical about metamorphosis – the idea that creatures can grow into something entirely unlike their present selves is, I think, as close to true magic as we ever come.

But it’s not just the metamorphosis, or the enduring appeal of frogs, that is fascinating about the pond. I can sit and stare into it for hours, even without the tadpoles. There are a host of insects, plants and other wildlife that have colonised it, with very little intervention or control on our part. We have water snails, water boatmen, and of course mozzie wrigglers (although there seem to be far less of those since the taddies arrived – Go get ’em, guys!!). Like the tadpoles, I suspect that many of our guests arrived as stowaways on the various water plants we bought, but since the plants are all natives, I’m perfectly happy with that arrangement.

Staring into the depths of the pond brings a tranquillity that is hard to find in a chaotic working & parenting life. It’s easy to get caught up in the woes of tantrums, school pickups and work stresses. Midnight Oil’s “curse of big cities. Traffic, tolls and deadlines” can really make life a struggle. But there is something about connecting with nature – whether by staring into a pond or walking through a bit of bushland – that speaks directly to a primal part of my soul.

It was over 200 years ago that William Blake wrote:

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.”

Kids get it. Every day when we do the school pickup the rainbow & musk lorrikeets fly by, screeching loquaciously, and every day all the kids stop, point and exclaim over how beautiful they are. Show them a gecko, or a possum, and they will be enthralled. Let a dog come strolling by and they will clamour to be allowed to pat it, adore it, and generally worship it with heartfelt enthusiasm.

I suspect the entire school would spontaneously combust if anything more exotic should appear on the grounds, like a horse, or perhaps a kangaroo. The day a possum was spotted resting on the roof of one of the playground shelters, the kids could barely be prised off the windows with a crowbar all day. It was just sitting there. Not doing anything interesting. But they were riveted by the chance to see it up close. A pair of Tawny Frogmouths roosting in the park had the same effect.

Tawny Frogmouths

David Suzuki recently commented that environmentalists had made a mistake, describing the environment as a separate thing. He intuitively understands, as children do, that we are fundamentally a part of the world we live in. We are animals, utterly dependent on earth, air and water, as much as any other creature in the world.

We are surrounded by bizarre and magnificent creatures, even in cities. Yet we spend our whole lives insulating ourselves from the world. We build climate controlled claustrospheres and pretend that we have control over our world. Our work buildings don’t even have windows we can open. Our houses are growing bigger and bigger, with less and less garden around them. Our cars have automatic climate control, and we park inside our garages and go straight inside, without ever having to acknowledge the world we are trying to hard to be separate from.

On some primitive level, though, we do understand that the natural world is fundamental to us. That thrill we get from flowing water, from wild animals, and from the flight of colourful birds reconnects us to the world, and hence to ourselves.  Do yourself a favour and ogle a tadpole today. You’ll be amazed how good it makes you feel.