I'm just taking a career break. I may be some time.
I have a PhD in communication and have taught in universities in Australia and the UK. I'm the author of articles on animation, play and performances of adventure; for several years I served on the editing committees for the scholarly journals Intensities and Social Semiotics.
Writing time for me is two hours on a Sunday morning. I call it my ‘time off for good behaviour’; it’s often the only time I get to myself in the week.
I’ve been coming to the local library regularly for a good few years now. The women at the cafe know me and what I usually order; they ask after my kids and catch me up on important news in their families.
Then there are the other regulars. The elderly mob who are super friendly and cheerful, who always ask after my Mum.
The big nerdy English chap, whose studies have been interrupted by his stroke, who always comes and says hello.
Most weeks I’m very good at saying, “hello, how’s things, right now go away and let me write”, but this week a new friend finally moved past the ‘friendly nod’ stage. She sat down for a natter and whoops that’s half my writing time gone, just like that. Or more, because after discovering just how fascinating and delightful this new friend is, it takes me a little while to wrestle my brain back into harness. I have to relax, to remember that we have time. Time to ask those questions, unearth those stories, share those laughs. Friendship time is unlimited; writing time is not.
I’m not sorry, though. I am thrilled. The first library friend I made was literally a ten-minute chat before we both turned back to our respective screens. We only connected properly five months later when she turned out to be my son’s new kindy teacher. And over the years she’s become so much more than that: she’s a model of how I want to parent and woman and teach; she’s taught me about chooks and gardens and sewing; she’s started a community project bringing people together to sew cloth bags instead of plastic. I’ve helped her with university papers and childcare and chicken soup when she was sick. Not only are we richer for our friendship but so are our children, who have made friends with each other and gained a safe-house in the process.
We might’ve eventually figured it out during that chaotic kindy year, but with the library encounter under our belts we already knew we were onto something.
That something is rarely what you think it is. We’re not polished, perfect individuals. Every one of us has been shaken: failure, divorce, anxiety, illness, just plain feeling that we don’t fit in. Sharing it with a stranger in the library is really a great strength. It’s how we connect, by being vulnerable.
It’s taken me a long time of being out of academia to get – to remember – that connection is the whole point of this life. Connection is joy, connection is support, connection is power. It is the source of all our strength. We forget that at our peril.
You know that whole 17-day, 3000km road trip was organised around this, right? The CSIRO radio telescope at Parkes. Very first time I sat down to consider possibilities, I looked it up and it turned out, they were having a rare open weekend to mark the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. They would do tours! Well, there was no way I was missing out on that.
We got there 45 minutes early, I was so scared of missing out – and given that we had a 1.5hr drive to get there, that’s really saying something in our slow-starting household. I can’t remember the last time I was so excited. Quite possibly, never.
I will not pretend the kids gave a damn. The boys stayed on the ground while CraftyFish came on the tour, pulled along somewhat bemusedly by my excitement. And I was completely, ridiculously, viscerally, excited. Nearly a month later and I still thrill to think of it, to see these pictures. It is like an A-list celebrity encounter, multiplied a couple of orders of magnitude. I would’ve gone on the tour three or four times, if they’d let me, except I did also want to share it. With EVERYBODY.
It is not just that I think it is stunningly beautiful. The epic parabolas, the lacework against the sky. It is not just that it’s a hub of brilliant minds from around the world. They had an “Ask the Experts Marquee”, where I would’ve quite happily stayed all day talking to people about gravitational waves and pulsars and the temperatures of merging galaxies and the Square Kilometre Array, except that I was actually a bit too excited to stand there and talk to any one person for more than about ten minutes.
It is not just the stonking engineering: the 1000-ton dish, unattached to its base, still in its sixth decade at the forefront of the science, leading a global network ever forward technologically. It is not just the way this magnet for the curious rises out of the surrounding kilometres of flat red dirt like a massive sunflower, always turning, always searching. Listening.
It is not even the mind-emptying scope of what they do there, probing the farthest reaches of our universe for the birth of the cosmos. It is all of this, all at once, that fires my rockets. It’s like every crevice of my entire brain is being thoroughly, running-round-in-circles gasping-for-breath tickled. Think about all those big ideas for a moment. The hugeness of them. The implications. The burning questions still to come. Can you feel it? Even an inkling? Yeah? Welcome to inside my head.
A listy post today, I think, because I’m in danger of overwhelming myself with everything I want to think and say and do.
1. The road trip was awesome. So awesome, I can’t even think of distilling it down to a single post, or even several. It’s still just a kaleidescope of images and feels. Ideally of course I would have posted as we went, but I decided to give myself a break – as much as that’s possible when you’re covering 3000kms in 17 days with the fam. I did a lot of art and read crappy novels, and bought clever books, and took hundreds of photos, from sweeping landscape vistas to the minute art of nature to my kids doing and seeing stuff they haven’t seen or done and it was thoroughly thrilling and thoroughly exhausting. So, basically perfect. Pictures will trickle onto the instagram page eventually.
2. Some writing opportunities have come my way!
First, I’ve found a blog-hop to join. I’m slightly terrified – I’m going to have to out myself as a writer – but only slightly; it feels like the right time and I’m ready to jump. Watch this space.
Second, the amazing woman who teaches my kids literacy has set up a little writing club. I went, I pestered her for reminders about plot, I remembered just how much of a pantser I am, I solved some problems, and I can see the next novel bubbling up. Huh. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure whether I want to start working on it – I think I’d rather have a go flogging the finished MS first, but … occasional Thursdays, writing, in addition to Sunday’s time off for good behaviour; yes, I think I’m ready for that.
3. Ohhh the garden! It’s coming along in stops and giant bursts. A huge back step while we were away – 17 days, no water, oops – but we are back now and it’s full-speed ahead.
4. Except, of course, when we are homeschooling. CraftyFish had a wobble where she thought she wanted to go back to school. I was okay with that; our school was lovely, it worked well for her at first, the troubling elements are resolved; I’m confident we could make it work well for her again. Then she considered what she’d be missing and wobbled back towards home, which led to a discussion about how we might make home learning better for her. I think we can do that – she’s already written a couple of stories and done some math, in direct response to that. Then she woke up with a sore throat, poor kid, so it’s all up in the air again.
5. I’ve officially given up my plans to run the Bridge to Brisbane this year. I have gotten a bit better – and backslid – and better still – and backslid – and got to where I could run about 1.5kms – and then went away, which really was an epic backslide. It was always going to be a huge ask, that goal, and while part of me is sorry to miss it, I’m glad I set a goal ambitious enough to make me keep working towards it throughout the year. I shall keep going, until summer hits, and I backslide again, because every time you restart it gets a little easier.
Oh and that’s it – time’s up. One of those mornings where it doesn’t look or feel like much, but setting up for next time is always a good thing. Now I’m going home to make chicken soup and chocolate chip cookies for people who don’t feel well, and do some art, and some housework, and dream, and plan.
Wanna play a fun game? It’s called, “spot the curriculum checkbox”.
I’m strongly of the go-with-the-flow homeschooling ilk, mainly because whenever I’ve tried to lead there’s been such an almighty blow-back that we all have to lie down with cold gins compresses for two hours afterwards and nothing gets done at all. See my other posts on teh stubborn.
Then, too, part of my reasoning is that my kids will have days like this:
CraftyFish decides to write a song about how rich she is. (Literacy)
It’s kind of going all over the place so we discuss beats, rhythm and syllables. Then, dredging up a forty-year-old memory, I talk her through the AB AB C AB structure. (Music theory)
We edit and rewrite. CraftyFish is so ecstatic at her own wit that she decides she must make a music video to go with the song.
She gets out paper, pencils, ruler, scissors, and starts making fake money. (Art, but also math because she’s measuring and dividing and ruling)
Then she searches up some logos which she prints to make herself some bling accessories. By now Mr Pixel has caught her enthusiasm and joins in. I don’t even try to keep up with their discussions on branding but I do chip in on wealth, performance of identity, costume, and ‘flexing’. (Social studies)
As they work CraftyFish describes the video to Mr Pixel (this is verbal storyboarding; art again I guess or maybe literacy?) One scene involves her minion walking ahead of her, strewing money out of a basket for her to walk on. But our box of foreign change (Geography, history; because yes, we discuss where coins are from and the switches from sterling to decimal; francs and marks to euros) is old and manky, so we start trying to clean it.
Toothpaste doesn’t work so we ask the internet and learn about salt and vinegar. Only the first recipe doesn’t work fast enough for CraftyFish, so she fiddles around with it. Mr Pixel comes in to see what we are doing. He wonders which way is better, mine or CraftyFish’s – so he decides to set up separate boxes with, you know, actual measurements, and compare the results after a set time. (Science!)
So many questions emerge from this: does it work differently on different currencies? (Yes! Because different metals) Why is that one black coin there fizzing like an alka-seltzer? (No idea!) What is that green stuff called? (Malachite, apparently.) Does leaving it in longer get it cleaner? (Only up to about ten minutes.) What is the chemical reaction that is occurring? (Umm…. let’s see. I grab pencil and paper. Salt is NaCl + vinegar which is CH3COOH gives sodium hydroxide NaOH and water H2O, but the copper’s clearly reacting too so… um… kids? Hello?)
Kids have taken my phone and are shooting gangsta-style “publicity shots”. (Photography. Also, we talk Goldie – no, child, you cannot have gold caps on your teeth) – and rap culture and ‘bling’, so more music history/pop culture studiels. Also: God help me.) They send some shots to a friend with a similar sense of humor. His mum messages back, suggesting that we get them together for an afternoon of filming. This sends my kids into a frenzy of coin-cleaning, costume-constructing, and cash-creating.
But it’s lunchtime and the sizzling energy in the air is in danger of leaving everyone scorched (and starving) if it burns out of control, so I order everyone to sit down for an hour’s quiet time and food. (Health studies)
Their friend arrives. He teaches them all he knows about iMovie and they spend the next five hours making movies, talking cars, chickens, Lego …
Do you see? Do you see how one idea can lead to an entire rabbit-warren of learning for these kids? Can you see how they ended up literally exhausted, by the end of it? Because let me tell you, we were all exhausted, that day.
Yes, I would dearly love more order and predictability. I would love love love to direct their learning. What I am coming to realise, though, is that my job is to make their learning possible: finding and creating opportunities, chase them out of ruts and habits, facilitate looking-up and getting in supplies. Anything else is just ,,, yeah. Throwing marshmallows at their heads.
30 days to go and we have a plan! (I love having a plan.) I had a plan two weeks ago, in fact, and everything was booked.
Then I found out that one of the places I’d considered and abandoned does get snow after all, and the Skeptic had booked two extra days’ leave, so … the obvious thing was to insert another leg right into the middle of the plan. Miraculously, all four of the hosts booked for after that leg agreed to move our reservations back two days, so I pulled it off. (I think. Ink’s not dry yet.)
The trip is built around CSIRO’s radio telescope at Parkes, which is having an open day to mark the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. On the way we will visit the Artesian springs at Moree, visit Dubbo zoo and stargaze under Coonabarabran’s Dark Sky. On the way home, we’ll see the Jenolan Caves and the Australian Army’s Infantry Museum, go to a koala hospital, try our hand gold-panning, stay on a hobby farm, and stand on Australia’s most easterly point at Byron Bay. There are open-cut gold mines and fossil huts, plains, mountains, volcanic rainforest and beaches. And of course, the hope of snow, which the kids have never seen. I’m so excited!
Except right now I’m the early stress stage. Experience teaches that none of us likes sleeping all together, so the biggest part of a trip like this is finding accommodation. All eight venues must be spacious, aesthetically appealing (I know, but it’s essential for us), and budget-friendly; needless to say this part has been quite hard work. When not glued to the computer I’ve been buying cold-weather clothes, making lists, more lists, and sub-lists, racking my brains for what we will listen to on the road, trying to get the house and yard to a state acceptable for a house-sitter to live in without breaking a leg tripping on The Stuff.
Of course, CraftyFish will start having meltdowns in a couple of weeks’ time, as departure looms and she starts facing all the unknowns. She will cry her little heart out and beg to not go. Mr Pixel, meanwhile, remains unimpressed by my enthusiasm; he doesn’t want to learn to crack a whip or do the lamp-work bead-making class I found. He will complain about the caves (cold) and the museum (boring) and the Minecraft-deprivation (life-threatening, apparently). Everyone is wondering what we’ll listen to on the road. (Suggestions welcome.)
Harsh words will be uttered, more than once, probably, as keeping three introverts and one flaming extrovert, all over-endowed with opinions and determination, in each other’s close company for two weeks is plenty challenge, never mind introducing those same twitchy people to new beds every second night. They’ll all carry on like they’re being asked to sleep with tigers.
In a way, though, that – far more than the activities themselves – is where the learning is. We’ll be hundreds of kilometres outside our bubble, and that’s a good thing. Despite the anxiety, we all crave novelty, nature and beauty, which the second half of the trip at least offers in abundance. Everyone will be stretched in multiple ways; the experiences will resonate for years.
I got nothing, today. I’ve got ideas that drift away before I can take their measure; I wrote a post that contradicted in the end what it started off saying – but that’s fine because I somehow deleted the whole thing before I published. So instead of a post, here’s a picture of CraftyFish, running out into a huge empty park at dusk, full of joy for being out with me, for the kookaburras we saw in the carpark, for running, for the park, for dusk. May you experience any fraction of her joy.
As a reader, I thought I had a reasonable grasp of what dementia was like. Besides pretty much every magazine article I’ve ever come across, I’d read Pauline McLynn’s novel Missing You Already, Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant, and Sarah Leavitt’s Tangles: I had an idea, at least, of what was in store, when Mum was diagnosed.
Dealing with it is a whole other story.
For a start, obviously, it’s Mum. Fifty years of history. So much emotional baggage. Whatever your feelings are about a parent, if you’re there when they start needing help, it’s unspeakably hard to reverse those lifelong roles. If they don’t know – don’t believe (because they can no longer assimilate events) – they need help, it’s that much harder, and if they vaguely suspect that they might need it but don’t like what that implies – well, that’s just a minefield of misery for all concerned.
Multiply that by an order of magnitude in our case because everyone involved is emotionally over-excitable off the bloody scale, another because teh stubborn is genetic, and then another because we’re all also empaths, our emotions chronically bound up with everyone else’s – add a measure of family dysfunction, because who doesn’t? – and I’m not sure the words exist to fully render this picture in all its knotted, technicolour heartache.
And yet it’s so simple, according to the doctors. We’ve had many, most of them phenomenally unhelpful. Some have been blunt or downright callous, one was arrogant beyond belief, one properly negligent, one cannot make eye contact and seems to be trying to get us out of her office in record time. Not one, in the eighteen months since diagnosis, has explained the process of caring for someone with dementia. The government agent who came in January said Mum wouldn’t qualify for the government’s care plan; the most recent doctor snorted and rolled his eyes. Then he spelled out, in terms precise as knives, who we had to call in what order, what our options are and all their consequences. None of it is pretty. None of it is what Mum would want.
A thing I didn’t expect to be excruciatingly difficult is writing about it. Logic dictates that I don’t need to protect Mum from internet exposure in the same way I do the kids, say. I can write about her freely because there’s no chance of it impacting on her, not least because she won’t be around for much longer. And writing is my therapy, which god knows you need when you’re dealing with this stuff, not to mention the chance that my humble post might one day be the very thing that helps someone else feel understood, or find their way through the maze. That’s all stuff I live for. You’d think I’d be blogging my arse off.
But no. I keep coming up to the topic and balking. I write and delete, write and delete. I can’t decide whether the block is the desire to protect Mum, so strongly induced by the look in her eye – the animal look of not understanding, knowing she doesn’t understand, pain that she’s not understanding, terror of not understanding, fear of being patronised – or whether it’s just plain bloody overwhelm. Every dimension – legal, medical, ethical, emotional – is complex, fraught with implication, riddled with second, third, and fourth guesses, overlaid with our short, intense histories.
So as much as I would love nothing more than to be able to write about this in the calm, practical terms I sometimes hear in my head, I just can’t. It’s a painful bloody mess, start to finish, and there’s no getting away from it. Dementia sucks.
This is a gratitude post, because the climate and Mum and the Federal election and the climate and Alabama and the climate and Murdoch and the climate and no sleep and oh, dear God, I cannot even bear to think about it. So.
1. Last night, my lovely sister took the kids out for dinner so the Skeptic and I could go celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary. There have been many, many times in the past seven or eight years where I wasn’t sure our marriage would last another day, but fortunately we’d been together so long already that I was pretty confident it was just a phase. A long, crappy phase, to be sure, but a phase nonetheless, and I’m glad neither of us have quit trying to get back to how we were. That we both still want a future together. That is no small thing and it keeps me going.
2. I am grateful for the hours the Skeptic and I put in out back yesterday. Now that I’ve built the gate to keep the vandals out, he spent a couple of hours cleaning poop, feed and feathers off the patio and I could finally plant: kale, spinach, rocket, peas. Oat grass in portable beds for the girls. Dirt under the fingernails: best therapy there is.
3. I am grateful for the girls at the cafe where I write on a Sunday morning. They know my order; they always have a smile and a chat.
4. I am profoundly grateful for U2. Yes, I know: wankers. But they always, always make me feel better, especially when overwhelmed by global despair. I also appreciate, more than you can imagine, the technology allowing me to bluetooth music from my computer directly into my hearing aids while I work.
5. I am grateful for the homeschool group where my kids and I have absolutely found our tribe, the teachers and their kids being absolutely cut from the same crazy cloth. Wise, wry women and weird, wonderful children. It feels good knowing I’ll see them on Tuesday.
6. Last, but far from least, I have the best friends. I’ve rewritten this paragraph twice because the more I thought about it the more I had to appreciate: from Abbie letting me bounce bonkers business ideas off her (“So crazy it just might work!”) to Andrew lending me Factfulness (which promises to save me from the global despair) to Belinda volunteering so much for the Greens, to her son Sebastian doing so much painting, to Kirsty coming to help clean, to Sharon starting a group to make Boomerang Bags to Jo and Suz and the acceptance and encouragement they’ve offered with parenting, writing, homeschooling – my friends are everything you could possibly wish them to be and then more. Considerably more. They don’t just keep me going, they show me the way, and for that I am more grateful than words can ever say.
Oh, lord, it’s SO SLOW. When I’m lying awake at night (far more often than not) I sometimes feel like the changes occurring in my house could teach glaciers a thing or two about slowing down. The universe unfolds faster than the projects in my house.
This does not, of course, accurately reflect reality. It is just the horrible yawning mismatch between where I want to be and where I am; between what I want to do and what, realistically, I can do in any given 24-hour period. I feed the kids, I drive them around; I talk to Mum and get her, sometimes, to appointments; I feed the kids some more; I support their projects and their meltdowns and their social lives; I research and try to solve problems; I clean the cat litter and feed the chooks and oh, look – it’s time to feed the kids again and then begin the 47-hour circus that is bedtime so that I can lie awake chewing it all over. I get distracted, too, and spend an inordinate amount of time looking for my own stuff that I’ve put down and wandered away from sixty times a day.
So what tortures me in the small hours is the Great Undone. If you ask, I’ll tell you: I’ve dropped all my balls and then some. It’s not the stuff I didn’t cross off the list today, it’s the stuff that didn’t even make it on to the list. And then there are the dreams… Aw, hell. All of that, and more.
So this is a reality-check post. Evidence, to me, that progress is, in fact, being made, however infinitesimally.
Exhibit A: Mr Pixel’s room. Not yet liveable; right now, though, let’s focus on what’s different from the last snap. The walls have been painted, the tall bookshelf bought and assembled, the small shelves painted. The bed, oh the bed! Or as I’m trying to remember to call it, the Lego Station. Completely sanded, painted (two different colours). Shelves built on the left-hand side (barely visible in this picture). Right-hand shelves trimmed and new legs built to accommodate feet on the ladder end. Backboard shelves built and attached, corkboard bought and attached. Quite a bit of paint spatter has been scraped off the floor, an ENORMOUS amount of outgrown-treasures have been redistributed, more than a few childish artworks have been recycled. (For us, with all the emotions, this is probably the biggest step; it represents not just project progress but personal growth as well). Options for lights over the workspace have been researched. Most of his Important Treasures have been found homes on the shelves or in the cupboard. Still quite a bit to do, but progress. Yes, definitely progress.
In the back yard, these two veggie beds have been built and painted. The pond (white blob in the back corner) has been filled and fish introduced; they haven’t died yet. Progress here is slower, less visible, as the vandals chooks still have the run of the place. Optimistically I bought plants to go around the pond, but they’ve all been dug up. Repeatedly.
In the front yard, the fence has been mostly constructed and painted; I still have to get someone in to build the front gate; there is still fence-levelling to do and a few pieces that need to be added on the side yard.
We have a plan for the road trip; most of the accommodation has been identified, so as soon as I find some sit-down energy I will start booking. I guess it doesn’t sound like a lot; for me, balancing destinations (far apart) against driving tolerances (short) and budget against comfort (specifically, not putting us all in one room too often, as it just makes the introverts cranky) – that took a lot of brain power and a lot of time.
In this period, too, we’ve got through both kids’ birthdays and both their parties; we bought a wood-burning kit that the three of us are learning to use; we set up CraftyFish’s fish tank (so easy to say! so hard to get right!); we have been letter-boxing for the local candidate in the upcoming federal election. It is not like I’ve been sitting on my arse, no matter how it feels at three in the morning. I just needed to remind myself of that.