Coming to you in 2022

ID: my back yard, mostly smothered under wildly overgrown cucurbit vine ©careerusinterruptus.com

Self-care is one of those topics you should just never get me started on. It presses a HEAP of my scholarly and social justice buttons as well as the cranky tired parent ones, and boy does that combo make for a ranty old rant.

But, it was GHF’s theme in November, so, I got started.

I wrote and chopped, wrote and chopped, all through October. And November.

Aaaand, December, before the usual implosion (remember for us, that month brings the end of the school year along with everything else).

And then, during an utterly exhausting and otherwise disappointing family “holiday”, I heard some podcasts that parted the clouds like rays from God. I’m not being facetious; I’m pretty thoroughly anti-religion, but the idea of God itself – pure love, in all its incomprehensible, everyday might? Totally here for that.

Those pods were lightning bolts to the half-formed ideas thickening in my head. They whipped through millennia of phylogeny in a couple of hours and lo, not only do they walk, they were sparky and appealing. They bumped together and begat more ideas, and those ideas ran around like feral children, tipping things over and swinging from my mental chandeliers. Man, I was excited, for a while there.

But, January has carried on like a pork chop, as my sister says. I’ve no idea what it means, but if it’s something like, “constant frolicking right on the brink of disaster”, then that sums things up pretty well. COVID has finally arrived in Queensland along with the first proper rainy season in years, so we’re watching the numbers skyrocket and the food chains collapse, you can’t buy masks or RATs anywhere, and care for Mum has become muuuuuch more challenging. There’s flooding and a plague of lawn grubs eating everything except that vine, which is growing 15-20cms a DAY. Then there’s completely unrelated, extra shenanigans inside my house, because THAT’S HOW IT WORKS. The TL;DR version is that, we are all – for now – mostly well, though sister and I both look and feel like we’ve been in the ring with the Hulk.

Still, all that really focused my mind on the idea of self-care. I’ve considered it while coaxing Mr Pixel out of bed in the mornings (just), waiting for Telehealth appointments, driving to and from Mum’s, walking her, sitting with her, sitting with yet another poorly hen, cruising empty supermarket aisles, coaxing both kids outdoors, coaxing both kids to eat, coaxing Mr Pixel into sleep (aiming for the same day as he woke; generally failing), sitting with anxious kids at one or two or three a.m. Yep, plenty of time to THINK about it.

So 2022 starts with a four-parter. First I need to unpack why self care bugs me so. Then I want to explore a couple cranky different ways of thinking about self care, and finally I’ll develop that into some themes for the year. It’s kinda what I’ve been doing all along, but, I dunno. Benefit of a short attention span and no medium-term memory, I guess; it feels fresh.

(I know, ermahgerd, a PLAN! Whatever next, punctuality? Remembering where I put things?!)

Anyway. That’s coming. Right now, here, it’s 12:30 and I have a kid who still hasn’t eaten breakfast; their synapses have shut so far down I’m not sure they can eat. Excuse me while I go try to reanimate them using only very limited supermarket staples and Mum power.

Going splat, getting back up again

ID: someone has used a high-pressure hose to etch the word ‘hello’, and a smiley face, on a sidewalk ©careerusinterruptus

Well, THAT was predictable: the boulder got us.

Three boulders, in fact: a huge one for Mum, another for Mr Pixel, and one – at 10:30pm on Friday night – for CraftyFish.

Of course, their boulders are their business. My head, my heart, my time, and my sleep, as I support them and scramble for strategies, are just collateral damage.

Then there’s the emotional-recovery week where everyone realises they’re okay after all. Just dazed, disoriented in our own lives.

On Saturday morning, though, a cool thing happened, that IS all mine to share:

A little while ago on facebook, I bumped into the author of an excellent book I’d read a few years ago. Squee! And – ooh! – turns out she’s running in the next Federal election. She commented that we need more ‘cranky, older women’ in politics, to fix this mess. Yes, ma’am!

She’s got to be… well, older than me, at least, since she was working before I started university. And the book – the title’s unforgettable but the content takes a minute – ah, yes. It was about the trade-offs between parenting and workand how that turns children into a commodity rather than people we, you know, love. … what IS her expertise? I google, and wow! A professor of economics, a field famous for its misogyny! (As if academia itself wasn’t bad enough.)

So, a woman who really knows her stuff, who’s spent thirty years caring for her children and parents while battling the patriarchy on two fronts at work, and who is FED. UP? Stuff the Senate – make her Prime Minister, IMMEDIATELY.

And she’s running with… not the political party I would have expected, based on her age and politics. Now that is intriguing.

Of course, my brain wasn’t letting go of intriguing. Not in the good week where I did all the things, not in the week where I ran the usual 9,456 errands plus extra care for Mum keeping me out til 8pm, not in the week where both kids got splatted, and not in the exhausted aftermath.

So on Saturday, when I finally had a break from scraping everyone out of the mud, I messaged this woman, re-introduced myself, and asked if I could interview her. Within an hour she’d said yes! (The magic of social media.)

I’m a bit terrified – last time I interviewed anyone I used a tape recorder, for goodness’ sake – but also THRILLED at the chance to talk big ideas, and to write something that will lift her, me, and the big women’s political group I’ve been helping nurture.

In some ways, that’s a little boulder of my own.

Certainly it’s knocked everything else I had to do, for six. Who cares about the swamp of chores that accumulated last week or whatever I was doing before we got smooshed? Now I have exciting interview research to do, remote recording software to learn, and scary commitments to make, involving dates and times. FARK!

And then on Monday, driving between care duties, I heard this podcast, about women being pushed out of STEM because the university sector is so broken, 90% of grants don’t get funded, and you can lose a 27-year job over one knock-back.

It resonated hard; I left academia 15 years ago because despite my passion, financial investment, hours, and successes, there was, as these women have learned more recently, zero employment security. Last year Australia’s academic sector cut nearly 20,000, or 1 in 5 jobs.

These women, though, realised that their passions (creating knowledge and improving public health) could be done equally well in an office, writing policy or polishing grant applications, as in a lab, running experiments. Minus pipette work, the skills were exactly the same, they just had to be phrased differently for a different audience.

I realised, that’s what I’m doing, too. My passion is and always has been, to use words to make the world a better place. I love connecting people, thinking big ideas, and communication. I’m good at that stuff, even if I’ve never done it this particular way before. With that realisation, the murk disappeared, and presto! There was my mountain.

So that’s the moral for this week: don’t forget to keep looking for your mountain. Boulders are inevitable. Soon as you can pick yourself up, wipe the mud from your eyes, look around. It’ll be there, showing you which way to go next.

Running just as fast as I can

Bright blue sky full of hmm, I think altocumulus-cirrostratus clouds. ©careerusinterruptus.com

The past couple of weeks have seen an extended visit from the Executive Function Fairy and miracle of miracles, suddenly I am doing ALL THE THINGS!

I have attended appointments on time and cancelled others *before* they happened; I’ve got the kids to all their activities and kept them emotionally afloat; I’ve returned calls; I’ve paid bills before the due date; I’ve bought things I wanted for the garden AND put them in the ground; I’ve done a bit more keeping kids afloat; I’ve been taking brisk walks with the Skeptic – People, I have had three showers in the past week! THREE!

I think I know what’s done it, too, and I’m sorry to say it’s that simple magic thing you already know: eating better.

See, couple weeks back while medicating chickens, I had to step on the scales. You likely heard the scream. But it isn’t about the number, nor about appearance: It’s about how I FEEL, which for the past century has been tired and unmotivated and tired and a bit depressed and tired and a lot overwhelmed and did I mention the tired? Well, this time, quantifying that proved to be just the right prod to action. Dunno why; don’t care – it’s a gift. Thank you, Executive Function Fairy.

So I’ve made spinach- and sweet potato- laden frittatas to ensure I have healthy, thought- and effort- less breakfasts, I’ve made salads for lunch, and some nights I’ve even made low-carb dinners for me and the Skeptic, who is also feeling his age and his waistline and wondering what the hell happened. We aren’t counting calories or steps or setting any goals other than, “choose veg”.

It might not even be the biochemistry of eating better. It might just be that doing one thing, created enough of a charge to get the ball rolling. Whatever.

It’s working.

It’s terrifying.

I feel like Indy, running for his life ahead of that boulder. I’m doing it! I’m doing it!! HOLY SHIT DON’T STOP!!!

Scene from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, via 810WHB.com

Of course, the house still looks like that boulder’s gone through each and every room, the aftermath of the long years when I DID stop, when I simply could not figure out what to do or how to make myself do it in a timely manner. Suddenly both those capacities have switched back on.

Rather wonderfully, it seems to be contagious: The Skeptic, noticing that I’m doing more, has been doling out kudos and butt-kicks gentle reminders, and miraculously, getting off his own butt more, too.

Which is awesome, sure, but UPS THE STAKES.

A few years ago I heard a woman talk about starting her own business while working part-time and raising three kids. She’d talked about it for years, before finally realising that the biggest obstacle was fear. We got that, but what scared her was surprising: it was success. If she pulled it off – quit her job, committed to building it, took the opportunities that arose – everything would change. She’d have to rethink childcare, her housekeeping routines, how she exercised, when she got to spend time with her husband, what she said at parties. Everything. And she didn’t know how that would all look.

That’s what I’m feeling now. Partly, it’s the sheer amount of chaos I’ve got to clean up. Granted, it would be lovely if my back patio wasn’t a vista of old clothes, dead seedlings, and a towering stack of empty boxes topped with an old guitar, but if it was tidy – and if every other room was also an orderly, useable space – what would I do with that? Who would I be? I’ve been a disorganised ditz for so long, now, I can scarcely imagine functioning properly. That’d be the easy out.

The challenge is to keep going, without a map. Because the one thing you can guarantee, with these kids, is that sooner or later the boulder’s gonna catch up and knock us for six for at least a week or maybe a decade. Then that’ll pass, and you can get up and run again. So as long as you can, you’ve just gotta keep putting one foot in front of the other, even if you can’t quite see the light at the end of the tunnel. Sooner or later it will appear. Keep your eye on the mountain, even if it’s just a faint outline in the mist. Keep going. Be ready.

Why I won’t quit social media

Dried-up bright pink paint in a black container, because I like weird abstract organic looking stuff. ©careerusinterruptus

Look, I know better than most, that Facebook is fundamentally toxic.

Early in 2020 I read most of Democracy Hacked (Moore, 2018), an academic crossover book about the forces aligned against democracy; Facebook, Twitter, and Google each got their own chapters. (I stopped reading two-thirds of the way through, when COVID hit, because honestly Moore’s analysis was dire enough without a pandemic to ramp up all the processes he’d identified. It’s a terrifying read; highly recommend.) And given the site’s misogynistic origins, recent revelations that management refused to change its ways, despite knowing that it increases self harm and suicidal ideation in girls, is hardly surprising.

That said, I’m not prepared to abandon it, for a few reasons.

First, I’ve been lucky enough to find some terrific community groups. My G/2e parenting and homeschool groups are wonderful, deeply valued sources of support and information. I cannot imagine the kids or I would have survived, without that.

In fact, I’ve learned HEAPS about allsorts, which really suits my jill-of-all-trades brain. I belong to groups for raising mealworms, neurodiversity, chickens, gardening, preserving, astronomy, writing, electrical efficiency in the home, and homeschooling; I can ask a question and get specific, local answers far faster – and with less clutter – than if I had a book for each issue. Sure, sometimes the information is wrong, but the nice thing about a group is that incorrect info is usually corrected by other members, pretty speedily, and people often link to articles I couldn’t have found myself.

Thirdly, I value the friends I’ve made. I found a cousin (yes, really), made connections around Australia and in several other countries, and also maintained some friendships that would have otherwise fallen away. In my first year in the UK (1999) I taught two students who have since married, moved to Norway, and had children; recently the mum approached me about their parenting challenges because things I’ve posted demonstrated that I understood. I could share what I’ve learned and bring her into my communities; in turn, I’ve learned about wiring issues I hadn’t previously encountered as well as about the Norwegian system. Win, win!

Fourthly and, for me, crucially, facebook provides an ideal space for online activism that I can fit in around my other responsibilities. For a couple years now I’ve been an active member of the international I Am Here movement, which aims to make social media a safer space by providing compassionate, nuanced, fact-based commentary on news posts that attract hate. It’s a proven, effective strategy that can ‘turn’ comments on a post from horrible to tolerable, but even when that doesn’t happen, it demonstrates to others that there ARE decent folks in the world, folks who will stand up to bullies and who can disagree without resorting to ad-hominem attacks. The fact that I can do that standing in Kmart while the kids assess this season’s Lego offerings, is nothing short of miraculous.

I also engage in climate activism, political groups, and regular prodding of my Federal MP, who really needs to up her game, not only to retain her seat but more importantly, to make a difference in the world. I can donate, fundraise, raise awareness, and share a bad pun, over breakfast or while cooking dinner. I freaking LOVE THAT.

So here’s the thing: if we step away, we abandon social media platforms to the bullies and the corrupting forces that are quite actively seeking to destroy liberal democracy. That would be a shame, since the very things that make facebook such a stew of hate and disinformation, can also be used to make the world a better place.

No criticism for anyone who has ever stepped away because social media was damaging their mental health, or to avoid the time-suck. That’s just smart. Kudos to you for recognising it and looking after yourself. It is certainly possible to land in the quicksand, and we know that the algorithms will shove you in that direction. But with care and judgement, they can also bring you towards expertise, beauty, joy, community, and friends.

Writing the entire experience off wholesale as irredeemably ‘bad’, is just as foolish as those who write off all of science because of the atom bomb, or thalidomide. Yes, so far, they’ve both been tools of the patriarchy, but they are just tools, and ultimately their use is down to people. Us. They can be used badly or well; avoiding them not only doesn’t make it go away, it makes things worse for the people left behind. But the more of us who participate consciously, kindly, and respectfully, the better the experience is for everyone. Just like everything else in life.

Placeholder

Snapshot of a page from Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic. Under that header the text reads,
“All of which is to say: You do not need a permission slip from the principal’s office to live a creative life.
“Or if you do worry that you need a permission slip – THERE, I just gave it to you.
“I just wrote it on the back of an old shipping list.
“Consider yourself fully accredited.
“Now go make something.”
The page has the shadow of a cat’s ear across it as well as whiskers across the top.

Good morning! It’s blog day, and if you want word from the land of teh gifted, too bad, I’m totally piking out.

My head is full of a conversation I’ve been trying to pin down for months now. Last night I finally heard the characters talking again, and the universe sent me a sign via Liz Gilbert, so I’m going to fiction before I kitchen and garden.

May you, also, get dirt, flour, wood, wool, or words under your nails today.

Yeeting CBT

Close up of timber grain ©careerusinterruptus.com

Ugh, anxiety. It’s such a tentacled THING. And rather embarrassingly, my experience of it only partly overlaps with what the books say. But this week a friend shared a long article accurately describing the other part, and I’m so vindicated, I’m inspired to share.

Everyone I’m related to is a jittery ball of nerves, okay? Partially, we’re just HSPs. At three months of age when Mum first took me to the supermarket, we learned that too much stimulation made me projectile vomit. (Quite happily, Mum reports.) By six I’d spewed so spectacularly in so many places, the paediatrician ordered a barium X-ray to check it wasn’t structural. Nope, just excitement – ‘positive’ or ‘negative’, same result. By adolescence I’d outgrown it, thankfully, though I have on occasion lost 10kgs to nervous nausea.

Mum couldn’t help. She had a traumatic, repressed upbringing which led to anxious, authoritarian parenting. “One mistake can ruin your whole life,” she’d say, and no that’s not a helpful thing to say to bright, sensitive kids. You bet we developed unhelpful thinking styles.

To me, though, that was always separate from the panic, which seemed to arrive in my psyche fully detonated. It never felt as though it followed the unhelpful thoughts. Quite the reverse: I’d feel sick and then, freaking out, the unhelpful thought processes kick in. Which sure, makes things worse, but didn’t come first. (A psychologist/friend once insisted, “Yes they do, they’re just too fast for you to notice”. We’re no longer friends.)

Sadly for me, this is the age of cognitive hegemony. Thus, as a kid in the 70s, they told me to “just think about something else,” rather than the fact I felt like puking, to “make it go away”.

By the late 80s/early 90s, psychologists had elaborated that into “cognitive behavioural therapy” (CBT). Back then, this was promoted as replacing anxiety’s habitual spiral by choosing ‘positive’ thoughts that would, theoretically and with enough practice, build new neural networks.

Neat, huh?

Except this not only didn’t work for me, it projected me faster into the pit. Inside my head speedily became a chaotic game of whack-a-mole: trying to catch all eight tracks of thought, stop them, and replace their blunders with something more useful, while they raced around, whacking back: Why should I believe this thought over that one? Where’s the evidence?? WHO AM I TRYING TO KID???

Then shame boosted the anxiety: “What the fuck is wrong with me that I cannot master this?!” In 1998 a psychologist finally told me, they knew CBT didn’t work for highly analytical people. (Alas, no reference, though I’ve since found this useful summary.) Phew. True, it left me with no tools for a couple decades, but it was better than persisting with something guaranteed to make things worse:

Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute. Fyodor DostoevskyWinter Notes on Summer Impressions, 1863

I mean, seriously. Anxiety makes you hyper-vigilant, so trying to police unhelpful thoughts is, firstly, pouring more energy into a behaviour that’s already causing trouble.

Secondly, we now know how unbalanced anxious brains are: the primitive limbic system fires up, shutting down the more recently developed frontal lobe. So whereas Broca’s area (responsible for speech, including inner speech) does help regulate emotion when we’re calm, when we’re anxious the amygdala drop-kicks it back to the stone age. If words form, they’re gibberish, and trying to force some sort of coherence only adds struggle to struggle.

Thirdly – and most importantly, IMHO – cognitivist approaches put the cart before the horse; they do not address the whole person. Was it unhelpful thought patterns that had me barfing in the produce aisle at Raley’s, age three months? OF COURSE IT BLOODY WASN’T.

It was a trigger-happy nervous system, simple as that.

And no matter how much brain power I threw at it, thoughts were never, ever, going to fix that, any more than you can use them to put out a fire, because mind over matter is ableist, patriarchal bullshit (lecture redacted). Instead I have learned to see unhelpful thought styles not as the cause but as symptoms of anxiety. Soon as I hear them in my head, I know I need to address what’s out of kilter:

Too much work, not enough sun?

Too much caring, not enough writing?

Too much caffeine, not enough sleep?

Too much company, not enough solitude?

Too many carbs, not enough greens? (Turns out, this one’s really important. Like, HUGE. Who knew?!)

If that stuff is off, your thoughts will be off, too. (And certainly not up to the job of self-repair.) Conversely, fix that and your brain chemistry will – well, possibly not right itself, but certainly do better. THEN you can start with the mental work. As one wise friend put it, “Biology before psychology, always.”

Of course, that all becomes much more difficult, if not impossible, when you’re already swamped – but then, so does CBT. I’m not discounting CBT altogether; it’s clearly effective for quite a lot of people, and some of the new versions seem potentially, far more useful.

But for me the main takeaway has been a kind of gentle, absent-minded mindfulness: I eavesdrop on the tracks every once in a while, while spending some time every day watering the garden, hanging out with the chooks and making sure I don’t go too long without looking at the sea or down from a mountain. Anywhere with a different perspective, off the hamster wheel. All that does far, FAR more to keep my head from going off-piste, than any mental practice would ever do. The trick is to let other systems drive for a while.

And now, finally, psychology is catching up. Cool, eh?

From little things

Acacia tree in our local park, bent over and forked. Yes it’s as weird as it sounds. ©careerusinterruptus

I’ve been working on two posts for aaaages now, and they’re taking forever because they’re chunky topics and I keep getting bogged, dammit.

Okay and they might also be taking forever because my brain’s been even more AWOL than usual: ask me about the chicken medicine I drove an hour to buy, left in the shop, drove back to collect, successfully brought home and … put in a safe place. And – oh, shit – ask me how thinking about that made me think, maybe they’re still in the boot, which made me remember that the bag of compostables I picked up yesterday is definitely still in the boot, seeping in the heat. Excuse me a minute.

Of course it’s probably not helping that Mr Pixel’s anxiety is heading skywards again, which means I’m using functioning neurones to try and find a useful doctor to replace the one we’ve just lost, and sent me back down the rabbit hole of WHAT IS UP WITH THIS KID.

And because the IPCC report energised me in a weird way to try and get my house in order, when it’s chaos from top to bottom with a vast, vast list of Important Stuff I Still Haven’t Done. We never finished the Great Garage Clearout so that’s in my sights now – temps starting to hit the high 20s provide excellent motivation – we need to clarify our insurance, we need water tanks installed, and I’m desperately trying to squeeze in some gardening before the heat hits and I have to lie down for three months.

The leaves are going great guns and the peas are starting, but I’ve also started eyeing some horrible suburban dead patches: along the front fenceline, the front weedfest lawn, the east fence which has one lousy tree. So much space for planting, so much need for trees and other habitat. Thinking about natives, particularly bush tucker… Tomorrow I’m collecting an old bath which I plan to sink into a bed and fill with pond plants; I’ve been chasing down citronella geraniums to plant around the chook house to deter the mosquitoes that swarm in at night. And I finally actioned a plan I’ve been simmering for a while now, to start a food swap.

Essentially it is what it says on the tin: people who grow their own come together to share. Produce, eggs, seeds, cuttings, preserves – whatever you’ve got in excess at the moment, swapped for something you haven’t got and can use.

No description available.
Spinach, snow peas, red amaranth, mulberries, and a jar of basil seeds. That’s all it took to get started. @careerusinterruptus

Of course, it’s also much more profound than that: it’s about the sustainable development goals of more responsible consumption and building communities. All I did was ask half a dozen people – some I know, some I’d met but don’t know – if they’d be interested. Volunteered my patio, picked a time, made scones, put out two dozen eggs and a wodge of spinach and chard. Only two people turned up, but that’s okay. We have a big social net to build and that won’t happen overnight. Now two people with common interests know each other, who didn’t previously, and I have tomatoes to go in my salads and loofah vine seeds to plant, for chook food and to share in the future.

Start small, connect, grow. 

Our road to homeschooling

close view of an uneven crack in concrete, surrounded by red sand excavated by the ants who live in there ©careerusinterruptus.com

We never planned to. The Skeptic and I were great at school, and I’d been deeply committed to my career before stepping away to have kids, so we – quite reasonably – expected I’d find new work once they settled at school.

They never did.

That’s not the school’s fault. It was straight-up AWESOME.

They did everything right. No – better than right, because they taught me everything about understanding howbehaviour communicates needs, about the diversity of needs and behaviours, about teaching and modelling emotional regulation and non-violent conflict resolution.

I know! Not what you’d expect from a school, but then, this place was truly special. Their democratic, play-based approach to learning informed everything, and it was so small, it worked. As a community school, families and former students were always welcome, so there was plenty of help when things got messy – which was often. For several years, that extra pair of hands was mine. I logged a lot of observational hours, I cleaned up all sorts of … stuff, and I learned HEAPS.

My kids, not so much.

Mr Pixel, of course, came with significant challenges: chronic ill health, anxiety, perfectionism, SAF, and a brain teeming with Big Questions. He had no idea what to make of kids who just wanted to run round yelling and throwing leaves at each other, nor of work that focussed on tiny little concepts like words and sums. He didn’t participate much and was terribly anxious about everything he did do, so, although he was well liked, easily accomplished any work he did attempt, and even had a teacher who specialised in giftedness devise work tailored to his interests, it’s fair to say he never saw the point. Therefore he bitterly resented my making him go, and he sure as hell wasn’t staying without me. (Did I mention the SAF?) He was able – so able – but school for him was war.

CraftyFish, on the other hand, slotted straight into being the fastest runner throwing the most leaves as she led a small posse of girls through 900 activities a day. She’d race in, belt out her work in two minutes flat (almost illegible but 100% correct), and race back out to add another layer of monkey-bar blisters to her hands.

For two years, this was fine. Her wonderful teacher let CraftyFish work at her own pace and level (wherever that might be on any given day) and handled her emotional outbursts with a skill and sensitivity I’m still trying to emulate. But instead of allowing CraftyFish to write stories and then work on corrections, for instance, her next teacher insisted that story-writing came after mastering /ee/ spellings. Way to slam the brakes on, lady!

Meanwhile, the social side was also fraying, as some in her posse began excluding her. Unfortunately this teacher’s skills didn’t extend beyond, “Our rule is kindness, okay? So be kind, please, girls,” which was even less effective than it sounds. (She was new and not adapting well.)

When CraftyFish developed visual migraines from the stress and anxiety, age seven, the writing was on the wall. We battled through another two years (!) because CraftyFish wanted to win back her crown, because I had chronic fatigue and was still desperately hoping they’d go to school so I could get a freaking rest, and because, sigh, my kids’ SAF didn’t come from nowhere.

But when, after five years of solid struggle, I found myself sobbing all the way to the first day of year six, even I had to admit defeat.

That was hard, you know? Really fucking painful. Parents are told, we’re responsible for everything our kids do or don’t do (and when they do it). We’re supposed to control our own destinies, too: set goals, work hard, persist, success, right? I’d been quite good at that, pre-kids. Now I was finally accepting that I couldn’t even get my kids to do the most basic thing (it seemed) every other kid managed – enjoyed – rocked!

And my kids knew it. Having emotional OE up the wazoo meant that by the time we quit, all three of us were pulpy with misery, anxiety, shame, failure, frustration, and whatever the word is for, “what on earth is WRONG with us?!” The Skeptic, who is far more institutionalised than I am, was baffled and frankly terrified as we finally staggered off-piste.

So I’m sorry to say, we didn’t come to homeschooling via lofty principals, cool appraisal, and/or a thoughtful response to our kids’ needs. It was more like one of those old cartoons where the jalopy’s wheels pop off one by one, the chassis ploughs into the mud, springs and bolts fly every which way, and once it’s finally ground to a halt, the doors and bumpers drop off as well. It was pretty much exactly what you don’t want for your family.

Why am I sharing this?

Well, rumour has it that when, after months trapped in the ice, Endurance finally sank in Antarctic waters, Ernest Shackleton said, “Ship and stores are gone, boys, so now we’ll go home.”

That was the chance I had. All that time I’d been learning about our wiring, and about the parent I wanted to be, while still bombing down the same road. Wrecked, we had to spend time repairing our health, our emotions, and our relationships, and reevaluating our values, needs, and goals.

Since then, we have—well, this side of adolescence I won’t risk saying “we’re home”, because any second now the kids will start up heir own jalopies and they’re bound to head down a few wrong roads themselves.

Point is, sometimes we have to crash and burn, to get our own attention. It’s awful and painful, but it is survivable. Modelling self-forgiveness, the process of grief and recovery, learning to change course according to your needs – those are absolutely essential life skills, especially for out-of-the-box kids growing into a world of increasing uncertainty – and crashing out makes you do it. That’s not ‘silver-lining’ BS, btw. It’s your lifeline: kindness and compassion for yourself and your kids is how you survive.

Of course, if you read this as a cautionary tale and change course before the wheels start flying? That’s even better.

What we learned on the road

Wollumbin / Mt Warning, NSW ©careerusinterruptus.com

The Skeptic and I both came from families that not only moved countries regularly, but also determinedly exploredwherever we were, so it was perhaps inevitable that as soon as we read this delightful book about a family’s three month round-Australia camping trip, I’d begin planning. Look at that gorgeous Mum, smiling as they shared the experience of a lifetime. I could do that! I figured, when the kids were 6 and 8 – old enough to remember it, wouldn’t miss much school. Perfect. 

Bless my starry-eyed sleep-deprived socks.

I clearly hadn’t yet twigged that the non-stop-talking-and-moving was going to be a permanent feature, one that ramps up if you put a seat-belt on it for any length of time. So while I did know about Crazy Hour, I hadn’t quite realised what that looks like after four hours in a car. I definitely had no inkling just how recalcitrant self-directed my little learners would turn out to be.

Nonetheless we took our first trip just past their 7th and 9th birthdays, driving 3000 kilometres over a fortnight. A masterpiece of planning if I do say so myself, our five destinations through south-east and central Queensland took in the Granite belt, cattle country, coal-mining country, and the coast. We visited sites important to Aboriginal Peoples and a Bushranger’s hideout; we toured an old sapphire mine; saw wild emu, echidna, and platypus (kangaroos and wallabies too common to mention), went whale-watching and gem fossicking. Apart from the unsurprising lesson that we do not do well staying in one room – let alone a tent, my god, what was I thinking?! – the whole thing was undeniably marvellous, start to finish.

Oh, fine, there’s a joey for you, and a humpback whale and yes that’s a real live echidna and an emu running away through long grass. ©careerusinterruptus.com

So when my feet started itching again three years later, we mapped a similar trip in the opposite direction, through northern and central New South Wales. This trip coincided with the 50th moon landing anniversary, so we visited three of Australia’s biggest telescopes and spent an evening at a private observatory where we saw Saturn’s rings. We bathed in a hot spring at night, visited the Western Plains Zoo, a private geological museum, a koala hospital, a settler’s homestead, a ruined colonial prison, and looked out at the Three Sisters, one of Australia’s most iconic vistas.

Australia Telescope Compact Array at Narrabri; the Australian Astronomical telescope, and the Dish. ©careerusinterruptus.com

And there were so many activities we couldn’t fit in – we didn’t pan for gold at Port Macquarie, for instance, or pick cotton near Moree, or go on the scenic railway at Katoomba, nor into the caves at Jenolan – partly because I was trying to be more relaxed (ha). And partly because, sigh, recalcitrant learners let you know when they’re relentlessly refusing to be impressed. (“You’re making me look at rocks. Again. Yay.”)

Meeni, Wimlah, and Gunnedoo – the Three Sisters, Katoomba NSW ©careerusinterruptus.com

I wouldn’t call it road-schooling, exactly, because while the kids now know the gist of land and industry, I doubt they retained a single ‘fact’. We listened to James Herriott, Terry Pratchett, Roald Dahl, we did no “work”, and nobody’s interest in history or big science was remotely piqued. (“Now you’re making me look at buildings. Again. Yay.”)

What we gained was far less tangible: Enduring regular 40-minute waits where lanes were blocked for repairs on the Newell Highway, with views that mostly looked like this.

scenes from the Newell Highway, NSW. ©careerusinterruptus.com

Discovering that we can sleep three nights in a shipping container with a frog in the toilet and no TV. Or in a tent, with the toilet built into a water tank next door, and overnight temperatures around 5ºC. Sitting in the car by the highway, in rain so hard you can’t see the end of the bonnet, listening to that roar, feeling the car shake as trucks thunder recklessly past. Surviving snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef in winter. (Not the same as your winter, true, but still cold enough to make you wonder why on earth we did it.) Watching Mr Pixel’s water bottle bounce and tumble the 200 metres we’d just climbed up Bald Rock, visiting towns with populations smaller than our local high school, being outdoors under a VAST night sky, steering a yacht. Even better, watching the yacht’s captain simply ignore his cut foot bleeding all over the deck while he navigated away from shore (my goodness that blew their minds). We saw the drought up close and listened to third-generation cattle farmers talk about it. Five months later when the disdained landscape was burning, it meant something to them.

Of course, similar experiences could be had from home. We’re ideally positioned here between the Great Dividing Range and a bay full of islands, with rock pools and rainforest, bush and beach, all within an hour. We could and should get out into it, far more than we do.

But it seems to be easier to step outside your comfort zone, when you’re already outside it. Basic physics, I suppose. When your backside is comfortably nestled into its sofa indent, moving it requires an enormous input of energy, and it’s a fact that sofa indents exert a unique gravity. You have to go pretty far to escape its pull.

When your backside indent is 1700kms away, however, you might as well climb the escarpment, even if you’ve never done anything like that before, it’s intimidating, and your shoes rub so much you have to walk almost all three kilometres barefoot. You may as well get on that boat, or in that water, or walk through a gate warning of snakes. You argue less about getting out of bed when it’s not your bed, and you’re more invested in keeping track of your stuff if you know you’ll never see that town again.

For kids who’d prefer never to challenge themselves and never to be uncomfortable, those lessons are truly priceless. It says everything that, last time I was planning a trip I asked my friends to sedate me if I ever thought of doing it again, but two years later here I am, tapping my toes, looking at maps, wondering when the government will figure out this virus business enough to open up borders between the States, and where we’ll go when we do. My eye is on Tasmania.

We resume our regular programming

tap tap, Hey, is this thing on? Can you hear me?

SQUEEERRAANNNGGGG!!!!

Yikes! Sorry! Guess it’s working again, heh. Sorry about that.

Well, much as I’d love to report that this month’s silence was down to us finally winning the lottery and fulfilling our lifelong dream of living on room service in the penthouse suite of a five-star hotel while the house is renovated to include a second storey entirely committed to hobby space, the truth is of course more mundane.

I had to move the website to a new host, and even with help that process exceeded both my skillset and my attention span. In the end it was solved through a quick exchange with the host’s marvellous help people, but for most of the past month that was an adulting too far.

It’s “winter” – if you can call it that when we still have mid-20s daytime temps – which means I want to spend all my time out getting dirt under my nails. People more organised than I are already harvesting their autumn planting. But the timber borders were all laying at about 30 degrees from horizontal, so after tearing out cubic meterage of hyacinth bean and sweet potato, we did the whole, digging-holes-and-concreting-in-posts thing and then I spent several happy days laying down manure and lucerne, transferring good sexy compost into garden beds. The avocado tree didn’t survive its transplant although the lime tree, which is only a foot high, started flowering immediately it was moved. I’ve finally got chard and spinach in, plus some optimistic peas, and the chook forage patch is growing: arrowroot, comfrey and Brazilian spinach (Alternanthera sissoo). We are getting 3-4 eggs a day, perfect miracles. I’ve been walking, too, mapping routes up and down all the hills in the neighbourhood, trying to counteract all the hours I seem to be spending behind the wheel at the moment, driving from the centre of Brisbane to its farthest northern reaches on various errands.

Indoors the usual circus continues: the oven joined the list of this year’s deceased appliances, prompting another wild round of over-thinking and spreadsheeting, and I replaced my HP laptop with a Mac so nothing works how I expect – hence the lack of photos for this post. We satisfied Mr Pixel’ yearning for a 3-D printer and all of a sudden my recalcitrant learner is teaching himself TinkerCad, slicing software and a lot of blah blah blah. CraftyFish’s new laptop has choked a few times which hasn’t suited us AT ALL, because she’s started school – there will have to be a whole ‘nother post or three about that – and someone asked exactly the right question leading me to rewrite two key conversations in the fiction MS I thought was finished. I’m really happy about that and very much hope I get my mojo back to, y’know, actually DO the writing.

Instead I have been jamming – a massive batch of sweet chilli sauce, a smaller one of lime and gin marmalade (limes from the neighbour’s prolific tree), and strawberry that hasn’t set and so will be all tipped back in the pot for a bit more boiling this afternoon. The other day I took Mum for a slow walk up the street, and when I gently took her arm because it looked like she was veering into a parked car, she pulled away, deliberately rubbed her cardiganed arm along the length of it, gleefully declared, “I’m dusting it for them!” and then laughed, so, yeah, she’s FINE. (Though Mr Pixel, who accompanied us, may never recover.)

And I’ve been doing an absolute ton of social stuff, both IRL and online, where I’m feeling my way into using my powers for good with a fabulous new friend who lives in Switzerland. (Isn’t that GREAT? Isn’t it AWESOME that we can make these connections and chat in real time with someone 16000kms away, whilst eating dinner and watching back episodes of Would I Lie To You?) (Oh and if you have never watched that show, give it a whirl. If David Mitchell doesn’t remind you of your kid, Lee Mack will.)

Ooh that reminds me, while I was looking for that episode I saw something that reminded me, I bought some gorgeous fabric in an op-shop that I want to make into trousers.

… Poor new friend. She thinks I’m like this because we’re in lockdown. Ah, well. She’ll learn.