Progress report 1/21. Or, staying sane when the brown stuff flies

My golly goodness it’s been a shit of a time, hasn’t it?

I am, as always, struggling to keep a lid on the global despair, but instead find I keep having to move it to ever-bigger pots. Happy your state elected its most diverse cabinet ever? Discover they’re allowing hundreds more coal-seam gas wellson the site of our worst environmental disaster – which that same company caused. Coping with the pandemic? Fine, have a coup as well! Thankful the coup failed and we’ve reinstalled a degree of intelligence in the White House? Read about how thoroughly and justifiably unimpressed First Nations folx are. All that before Jan.26, Australia’s annual celebration of racism.

Even just within our house, the brown stuff’s been flying thick and fast and all over the shop. I don’t even want to think about the details. Let’s just say that the month has featured blood-stained pet diarrhoea, pet lice, kid anxiety, back/nerve pain, employment uncertainty, tears, broken sleep, broken appliances, and – as a result of all that – a parade of big, fat, unexpected bills. Most of it, more than twice. That time I got sprayed with baked-bean juice was just another sigh moment in a month full of them. (I’ll let you imagine the circumstances that led to baked-bean juice being sprayed. Whatever you come up with is probably saner than what actually happened, which involved a chicken.)

Rodrigo the bean-juice-spraying chicken

So, I’ve been concentrating (for a given value of ‘concentrate’) on the stuff I can do. I’ve cleaned out the shed so the bikes actually fit inside, I ordered printer cartridges, I painted the bird-bath, I booked the dishwasher repair dude, I paid some of last-term’s overdue bills, I returned a ton of overdue library books, I found a vacuum-cleaner repair dude, we can now escape out the fire door without breaking our necks on ancient ride-on toys and chicken wire. I’ve showered, like, at least twelve times.

And there’s been progress – if not completion – on a few other projects, as well. As of yesterday, I finished putting six months’ worth of expenditures into the spreadsheet, I’ve seen the exercise physiologist twice, I’ve worked out a schedule for doing weekly housework, I’ve, uh, moved some big landscaping rocks, I handed Mr Pixel the crowbar and pointed him at the old pavers…

I mean, sure, I still have to take the vacuum across town to the repairer, and crunch the expenditures data into a budget, and do my damn exercises, and level the soil before we can re-lay pavers, and wade through the inevitable pre-housework tears – every frelling week. And fine, okay, I haven’t even touched on any of the Big Stuff.

But you know, people, VISIBLE PROGRESS. In this month’s avalanche of bad news, I’m taking any minute where I’m not driving, or doing emotional support, to go outside and look at the hacked-up dirt, and breathe. It’s a small patch, maybe only a metre square, but it represents progress. Tiny, visible progress. I’ll take it.

Sensitivity is brutal

When I was about 23, a friend cast me in his university revue – The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse Go Camping – as War.

It hurt my feelings.

I mean, I was an anxious, dreamy gal, wanting nothing more than to read every book ever printed and, thus informed, bring about world peace. I couldn’t even handle a horror film, let alone—I mean, War? Me?!

Nevertheless, everyone in our circle agreed it was perfect casting.

Hmph.

Fast forward twenty years, and someone gives me Elaine Aron’s The Highly Sensitive Child because she thought it fit my kids.

Sure enough, they ticked some HSC boxes, but damned if I saw us in those pages. Aron writes of mothers so averse to loud noises they commit to never calling their child from another room; she writes about sock-seams; she writes about kids who only eat bland food, who get stress stomach-aches, and who ‘cry easily’ over small injuries, animals, or art.

Who were these delicate beings?! Not us!

So long as they were with me, my kids loved new experiences. (Although they were less keen if the new experience involved other kids.) They tried any new food they were offered, they adored restaurants and Avengers movies and rough-housing, they are hugely, inappropriately, funny, they loathe museums/art galleries, complaining bitterly whenever we go. Wet’n’Wild, though? AWESOME. Outside school, they only ever melted down in public once each.

But at home? The screaming. I may have mentioned it once or twice.

They screamed in frustration, they screamed in disappointment, they screamed in panic, they screamed because it was funny. If I yelled, they screamed back twice as long. They did not scream for any sensory issue, ever, and I never thought of what they were doing as ‘a tantrum’. They just took things badly. So badly that a neighbour – the lavishly tattooed, grey-haired Serb from across the road – once nervously mentioned it. The guy with a kid the same age, that we never ever heard.

Sensitive, my kids? Pfft. They were the Brute Squad, making up in volume what they lacked in size and strength.

Another pointless parenting book. I lent it out.

However.

In my quest for Clues, I had also joined a group for parents of HSCs, and one day a baffled mama asked the magically-worded question that finally tricked my laggard brain into assembling all the pieces. I forget how she phrased it, now. But my answer went something like this:

Stimulus (physical, emotional, or intellectual) slams into our consciousness like a bullet. (If we were off in our thoughts, it’s more like a meteorite.) All the consequences appear instantaneously, like cracks shooting across a windscreen, so we respond, with shock, to a lot of information. As a result, our responses come out fast and hard. BAM! POW!

For instance, if I postpone a trip to the library because we’re all tired, it isn’t ‘just’ disappointment over the missed outing. The missed outing is itself a constellation of disappointments: fun car-ride! Fun place! Adults who enjoy talking to book-loving kids! Fun at the playground afterwards! Fun eating a snack out! Fun using a strange toilet! With strange soap! And strange taps! ALL GONE! Adding insult to injury, this adventure has been curtailed for tiresome old REST, at boring old HOME?! They HATE resting!

And beyond all that, the rich promise of a shelf full of new books, obliterated. And beyond that, what if something happens and we NEVER get to the library?! Can you see the crescendoing crisis, here?

Cue much, loud protest. And then, as Mama remains unmoved, more ramifications unfold: Perhaps I do not understand just how much they want to go to the library and how PROFOUNDLY DISAPPOINTED they are at missing out. Perhaps I – gasp! – do not care. (If I did, I’d change my stance, right, to save them this suffering?) Perhaps they need to express themselves more vehemently.

Ah.

Now that I put it like that, I can see how we might come across as a bit, um, forceful.

Martial, even.

Of course, the kids could never have articulated it like that, and at the time I probably couldn’t have unpacked it like that myself. I would have been too busy dealing with the screaming.

Unfortunately, as a parent with the exact same wiring, I may have dealt with some of it by – yep – screaming. Sometimes literally, sometimes not: it scarcely matters. Their brains and ears are so finely attuned to every nuance of information, so hyper-alert to any perceived threat, that my plain-old, everyday certainty (formed exactly as fast and hard as theirs) sounds like a bomber roaring over their heads. When our brains have raced, laser-fast, to different conclusions? Obviously, it’s war. God help us if anyone digs in.

So the trick turns out to be pulling back from those distant conclusions. Dialling down my conviction, even when (I think) I know exactly what’s going on and what is unequivocally The Right Answer. Nodding thoughtfully buys time to apply a mental fire-extinguisher, creating a gap between the first answer smashing into my brain and the words erupting out of my mouth. I am learning to brake my speech, softening my fast-and-hard reaction with pauses and questions. “I wonder…” is hands-down the best parenting tool ever. I use it about as well a goat with a screwdriver, but eh, I’m learning.

Eventually, the friend returned Aron’s book, and this time, I slowed down enough to recognise us. After all, it’s sensitivity that brings so much information so fast to our brains, even if it’s the gifted that races away and sounds the air-raid siren.

Here we go again

In honour of #HurrahForGin’s classic cartoon (and if you don’t want to marry her, what is WRONG with you?!) I’m dubbing the time between Christmas and New Year’s, “Cheese Week”.

I mean, I’m perpetually confused; I only know what day of the week it is in term and even that’s hardly reliable. And it’s probably fair to say I’m usually more full of cheese than I should be.

But during Cheese Week? Phew.

The house is trashed, full of boxes and packaging and proudly-displayed new Lego builds; we’ve been out too much for me to have time to tidy any of it up and where will the new stuff even go? Everyone’s sleep has gone to shit in various ways. And nobody knows what we’re doing at any given time but it always seems to involve crisps, friends we haven’t seen for ages, and board games, so everyone’s constantly either over-excited, over-tired, bored, elated, hungry, disappointed, or all of them at once.

It’s hard to imagine a worse time to try and get one’s shit together.

And yet, you can’t help it, can you?

I mean, it’s a New Year, and all that crap.

Even I cannot resist. Sure, resolutions are just setting yourself up for failure, and yes, I still come over all snarky around motivational words.

Nevertheless, I’ve spent large chunks of the week unravelling our finances in the hopes of finally figuring out where the reins are and grasping them. In between I was reading “writer’s life” type articles, pondering writing and financial goals. With nothing in the calendar and hubby home to keep on top of the laundry, I determined that *this* year, dammit, I would DEFINITELY start with A Plan.

Needless to say, that didn’t work out.

Instead, a beloved pet became very ill and I spent three solid days finding help, supporting the kids, and then dealing with all the grief once she’d passed away. I forgot we had the pest control guy booked and dear friends we rarely see found an unexpected opening in their diary. The week cost us damn near a thousand bucks.

So we’ve arrived in 2021 our usual way: tired, papers all over the table, my screen open to my novel, dirty dishes in the sink, and I can’t find my glasses.

And yet, I’m okay with that – it’s just life, after all. Of course nothing changes on New Year’s Day.

The trick, as Neil Gaiman put it so beautifully, is to just keep walking towards your mountain.

Gaiman’s genius – unlike SMART goals, five-year plans or any of that protestant-capitalist bullshit – is acknowledging that we don’t have control. Because the universe unfolds according to its own, profoundly unknowable plan, we cannot see the whole road ahead. Bulldozing one will likely end up in the Fire Swamp.

Ditching a set route lets you respond to opportunities as they arise, rather than fighting to stick to the path, despite them.

Ditching the time limit allows you to slow down for fellow travellers, or because it’s dark. It allows you to stop and smell the flowers. It acknowledges that despite the best-laid plans, sometimes the Fire Swamp opens up right there under your feet.

By keeping the mountain centred in your field of vision, you can still find your way.

We may have left 2020 behind, but we are still in the Fire Swamp, and the R.O.U.Ses are still in charge. All we can ask of ourselves is to keep fit – eat salad, exercise, ablute, sleep – and keep walking.

Anything else is a bonus. Be grateful.