The voices are back!

Just before Christmas, we had three nights away in a little rural town up the coast. Dairy, rainforest, mountains. Also, artists, craftspeople, artisanal cheese. We stayed in an elevated house with white everything, no clutter, no dust, air conditioning, and a view. Bliss.

And unlike every other holiday, I announced that I was having one, too. We ate takeout and you know what I did? I sat on my backside, on the sofa, plotting my next book.

I’d written quite a lot, you see, and although I knew exactly where we were going, I wasn’t sure how we were going to get there. With all these distractions, it’s easy to write round Robin Hood’s barn. Which, while entertaining for me, is probably less so for readers, and not a terribly efficient process. I need a map so that whenever I find a scrap of writing time, I know exactly where I am and what to do. By the time we came home, I had it: a breakdown of everything that has to happen in each chapter, and the first five chapters, trimmed and shaped. Ready to go!

But, ah jeez. 2021.

This week, our GP sent Mr Pixel to a dietitian who thinks his chronic health problems are down to a long-undiagnosed food intolerance and has ordered him to quit dairy. Clearly she’s never met a teenage boy before, let alone a neurodiverse one, and has no inkling what it will take to separate him from his cheese. Once I get him out of Fort Not Gonna, that is.

In the same week, Mum began reporting severe headaches, and can I just say this is NOT what you want to hear from an 85yo who has already had two small strokes?

Fortunately, it’s not her brain, it’s just diabetes. (!) Complicating matters – because why would anything be straight? – Mum is on a strict low-fibre diet. Do my sister and I have the knowledge and headspace to figure out a diet for diabetes + low fibre + dementia + congenital stubbornness? DO WE HELL. We can manage half that, but we need help. Cue much research, because even finding someone to be a useful part of the team takes a hella lot of work.

And this is after February, which was after January, both of which seem, bizarrely, to still be happening.

Wanna guess how much fiction writing I’ve done this year?

Zip.

Turns out that therapeutic as writing is, you need a certain amount of freeboard to do it, and I didn’t have it.

All I have is implosions and explosions, coaxing, cajoling, coaching, guiding, reminding, feeding, and reading. So much reading. Apparently 2021 is the parenting Olympics here and I’m in every goddamn event. Can’t hear the voices when you’re racing to the next meltdown.

But a wonderful thing happened. I reached out to a friend. One of those miraculous friends who lives in my computer and yet somehow gets it, all of it, every last speck, one of the unalloyed blessings of this chaotic age. She was in a similar pit, so we raised virtual martinis to the crap, and then we started constructing our ladders. Two things, she said, that we can do for ourselves, for a week. Three days, I said; I didn’t think I had a week in me. Deal, she said.

My things were doing my physio exercises, and making sure I showered.

Yep. That’s where the bar was.

But the saving grace of being in a pit is that any step, no matter how small, takes you in the right direction.

As it happens, I didn’t manage to do my exercises and shower for three days.

But I did enough to feel better, both physically and morale-wise. When my friend said she could go another three days, I signed up. Did a bit more. Felt a bit better. Got up the next day and did that all again. Had a sweeter interaction with my kid, chipped a notch off his anxiety. Slipped back a step. Gritted my teeth, had a shower. Did it again. Found I had the energy to start making salads.

And suddenly, the voices were back. My characters talked themselves through the impasse; the chapter was done in about two days. So that’s six in the can; 21 to go. Chapter 7 is one that’s already written and just needs the front end trimmed, chapter 8 … well, let’s not get too excited.

It won’t be straight up from here, of course. It never is. But at 51 I’m still surprised by how little it takes, to give yourself some leverage. Every time you take that first step, it gets a little easier. And every time you keep going, that bit gets easier, too.

Especially if you have a friend doing it with you, even from the other side of the planet.

Garden therapy

My first canna lily, a Christmas present ©careerusinterruptus

I grew up in the northern hemisphere. In spring a robin lay blue eggs in the Douglas fir by the garage, in summer we played under the sprinkler, in autumn we raked elm and oak leaves, in winter we tobogganed down the street and had all-in neighbourhood snowball fights.

Now I live in the sub-tropics. Palm trees waft, gekkoes scamper, you can grow tomatoes all year round, and if the temperature drops below 23C the kids moan that they’re “freezing”. Summer is hot and very humid (73% today!), and winter means you might wear a jumper part of the day.

This creates some challenging issues in the garden. Winter is dry and while summers are supposed to be wet, they’re not, really, any more. Frost is never a thing; drought and bugs are always a thing. Turn your back for five minutes and this can happen.

sweet potatoes, beans, and compost-sprouted squash going nuts in the veggie patch last year ©careerusinterruptus

Gardens here are all about water conservation and soil improvement. Since the previous caretakers did nothing but apply tree-bark mulch, our beds consist of deep, fine dust on a layer of clay. Compost is my best tool.

Alas, I recently killed the compost. (Free tip: if someone leaves the lid off so rain gets into the chicken feed, do NOT tip all 15kgs of spoiled grain into the compost at once. People, the smell. Oh, dear god, the SMELL.) It has to go. So I’m scraping back the dust before before using a pickaxe to hack into the clay in the empty beds, then burying ruined compost, one small barrow-full at a time.

It reeks, you see. Have I already mentioned that? Soon as I open the little hatch, flies begin arriving from neighbouring suburbs. Soon children also appear, t-shirts pulled up over their faces, demanding to know what died before fleeing inside, followed by the sound of windows slamming. Then, holding my breath, I trundle round to the trench, where the barrow is hastily dumped and the contents deeply buried. I only do a bit each day because the noxious miasma lingers.

I’m annoyed with myself for the goof – 15kgs of grain at once! What was I thinking! – and not really enjoying working in the middle of summer, but I’m also kind of excited. The rotten compost is forcing me to progress a couple of ideas I’ve had simmering for years.

This bed used to have a Tibouchina, until some silky-oak seedlings strangled it. Sadly they were too close to the house so they had to go. Meanwhile, my young avocado tree needs a new home. Transplanted here, it will shade the house without growing so tall as to be dangerous. And as it can’t be moved in summer, I have three more months to dig manure, straw, and compost into this bed and prepare a good, rich soil.

garden bed against a wall, empty apart from more compost-sprouted squash and melons ©careerusinterruptus

This bed faces east. In summer it gets eight hours of morning sun. I want a full-height trellis for a deciduous, native climber to protect those rooms in summer while letting them warm up in winter. The last breeder we bought a chook from gave me some arrowroot (Canna edulis, I think), which is not only excellent chook forage, it’s also tall and attractive – just what I didn’t know I needed. It’s just a matter of enriching the soil and planting it out with some other forage plants to create a shade-giving, chook-feeding oasis.

another empty garden bed, up against a house ©careerusinterruptus

(Chook forage is so appealing. I threw a couple handfuls of the spoiled grain into this bed and it sprouted into … I dunno what. There were some sunflowery kind of things and one of those stalks has an ear of corn. The chooks couldn’t care less. Seems they only want to forage my plants. Nevertheless, I cling to my dream: their beds, and my beds.)

a raised bed, lined with old pool cover, with random assorted grain plants ©careerusinterruptus

There. Doesn’t that all sound lovely and real? It’s strategic, you know. Luring the kids outdoors is a bonus, but really it’s about making myself get out there when all I want to do is hide from the world. Hunching over a screen, under a fan, when I’m not actually writing, does me no favours, especially when inside is still a shitfest. Shovelling stanky rotten compost is better. (Nothing more grounding than the smell of stanky rotten compost, lemme tellya.)

Getting an eyeful of green and sun, looking at things further than three metres away, big-muscle movements, listening to the chooks’ commentary, dirt under my fingernails, putting time and effort into the future, though? That’s good for all of me: head, heart, and body. Highly recommend.

Has anyone seen the goalposts?

Four chickens in grey leaf litter, yard infrastructure in midground @careerusinterruptus.com

It is a neurodivergent parenting fact, that the minute you figure something out about what makes your kids tick, or how to help them overcome a particular challenge, they move the goalposts. Not just a few feet left or right, forward or back, but usually into a strange, new, dark dimension populated by angry hammers. An issue that you’ve been contorting yourself, trying to grasp and manage, disappear overnight, to be replaced by a new impossible that has never, ever, been an issue before and the first you know is when it whacks you upside the head.

The joys of asynchronous development. I may have mentioned it.

If you have more than one kid, they psychically coordinate so that every once in a while they all do it at the same time. (The rest of the time, only 7 of the goalposts are doing the time-warp.)

And if you’re really, REALLY lucky, you might find your own goalposts hoiking their skirts and heading for the hills at the same time.

This has been 2021 in our house, so far. Hammer, hammer, hammer.

One of the kids has taken a massive forward leap, gaining about eight years’ maturity in eight weeks. Suddenly issues that had previously produced nothing but screaming, are being calmly clarified and the kid wants both more responsibility and more autonomy for resolving them. That’s great – amazing! Wonderful! – although it does entail a lot of work for me, scrambling for opportunities and resources. (And, of course, figuring out how to manage the gap between their goals and their abilities, without sounding as though I lack faith.)

Simultaneously, anxiety has driven the other kid backwards almost as far. Every last scrap of independence has vanished. I’ve had to take over all decision-making (I mean all of it) and my presence is required every minute of the day and quite a few of the night. I am gritting my teeth and clinging to the knowledge that in the early years, wobbles this big usually often preceded a magnificent leap. Nevertheless, neither of us is enjoying the reprise.

(Coincidentally as I’m writing this I’m overhearing my son’s homeschool class on Wells’ The Time Machine, and I have to say, never mind the Jurassic, try going back to the preschool age.)

And – sigh – apparently, I’m really, REALLY lucky, because just before Christmas I discovered that I have a specific learning difficulty. I’m in the process of recalibrating everything I know about myself and my abilities. In fact I’m at a stage in my (erratic, eclectic) reading where I’m starting to wonder whether all four of us aren’t afflicted by a particular exceptionality—but that’s a story for another day.

This day all my energy’s going into taking care of myself and – between tethering the kid out in future space and holding a lifeline for the one in the past – trying to stay grounded in the now. And oh, man, that involves a lot of adult self-talk: A small cup of tea is okay; the bucket you’re tempted to drink will just burn through all your reserves by lunchtime. Skip it. Drink water. Eat salad. Order the groceries. Talk to that friend. Avocado for afternoon tea instead of cookies. Okay, and *a* cookie. Take some time to watch the chooks. (Chickens are an extremely under-rated therapy. Trust me.) Drink more water. Cook the dinner. Make the extra effort to do grain-free pasta for yourself. Spike the kids’ dinner with sedatives. Wait, not that one. Wash the dishes. Shower. Go to bed. Remind yourself that this too shall pass.

Because it does. It always, eventually, does.

The perfectionism is a @#$*!! post

out-of-focus picture of gum tree branches against sky
©careerusinterruptus

Ho, boy, perfectionism. THAT miserable disease. Too often the term’s bandied around like it belongs to high achievers: Strive for perfection, get straight As! Sure, sometimes they can be a little driven, but hey, on the whole, it’s a good thing, right? That tendency will get them far in life.

Bollocks.

Perfectionism in our house bolted the door and hamstrung the horse before it ever left the stall. Perfectionism is a caltrops, a shackle, a monstrous barrier to progress. Perfectionism is a severe learning difficulty.

Lemme tell you a story.

One day somewhere in his third year, Mr Pixel wrote me a note. I couldn’t read it, of course, because it was unformed pre-school scribbles, but I made valiant efforts to guess at the content.

He wasn’t fooled. He wanted me to READ it. When he realised I couldn’t, a look of pure disgust settled on his face, and that was it. He was done with writing. DONE.

Just how done, I had no idea.

You see, Mr Pixel had decided that since he couldn’t, instantly, write intelligibly, then by god he wouldn’t write at all.

I didn’t know that, of course.

How could I?

He wasn’t even three, for goodness sake; I just figured, it would come.

So we gave him plenty of opportunities. Besides free painting and drawing, there was colouring-in, dot-to-dots, white-boards, and mazes – ways to practice writing-like movements more forgiving than forming letters. Mr Pixel wasn’t interested. (In retrospect, I should have twigged when he’d use his finger to trace a maze, but nothing that left a mark.*) We had fat crayons, markers, pencil grips. He ignored everything.

Perhaps he had fine- or maybe gross motor issues? We swam, we had Lego, play-dough, squeeze-balls, kinetic sand – anything to strengthen his muscles.

We tried an occupational therapist. Lovely young woman, sporty, full of giggles. Mr Pixel adored her – though not enough to do what she asked. “It’s my pencil and my hand, I’ll hold it how I want,” he said, barely five years old. (SAF. It’s frickin’ real.) $900 later we quit flogging that horse, because having refused to play any of the OT’s homework games with me, Mr Pixel had eventually quit engaging with her at all. He’d worked out what was really going on, and he wasn’t having a bar of it.

School didn’t push. They recognised that kids mature at different paces and were confident that he’d write when he was ready.

Which may well be shortly after hell freezes over. Five years later I’m pretty sure you could fit every mark he ever made at school onto one sheet of A4 with a nice wide margin for framing.

Yes, I know. Dysgraphia. But how can you tell? It’s a completely self-reinforcing cycle. Is he refusing to try because it’s difficult, or is it difficult because he refuses to try, or both? How do you help someone who has simply decided they Won’t? Hint: treating it as if it’s dysgraphia – offering to scribe, for instance, typing, or voice-to-text software – doesn’t work. All you get are dirty looks and a zipped lip.

Text-to-voice, on the other hand, worked brilliantly for about a fortnight, during which Mr Pixel typed reams of swear-words into my phone for my car to say while I was driving.** (Cheers, inventors of Bluetooth, bet you didn’t foresee that.) Then the novelty wore off and we were back to No Writing.

Not writing has one major benefit, you see. Most schoolwork requires writing, so a kid who won’t write has pretty effectively shielded themselves from ever have to risk being wrong, or making a mistake that others might see. This principle works right across the board: If there’s any chance an activity won’t be instantly mastered – which is pretty much everything – it’s off the agenda.

THAT is perfectionism, people.

It kills me and it breaks my heart.

I have no answers. It goes without saying that anything Mr Pixel does want to try is greenlit. As parents we talk frequently about our learning efforts in his hearing, emphasising the frequency and usefulness of mistakes. He watches educational videos and we talk ideas. And we keep providing opportunities, not just for writing but other, low-risk, open-ended activities like paint-pours or making fimo beads – our homeschool group is perfect for this, god bless those people.

Minecraft and Lego have both been great for trying and failing, without losing face. He’ll type texts for me if I’m driving and when his server crashed, he asked for help composing support messages to the host.

And after years of that, we are finally starting to see writing, in the sanctuary of our homeschool group, with a teacher who absolutely gets Mr Pixel (and a class full of others like him). With their encouragement – and their very broken-down, structured lessons – he’s begun producing stories and paragraphs that don’t just say ‘poo poo poo poo’. (Even that was only a one-off.) He’s getting there, having a go, learning what success feels like and more importantly, that mistakes are survivable. Which after all, is really the only way to break perfectionism’s paralysing grip.

* = I figured it out when CraftyFish – who owns many untouched workbooks, including The Gifted Kids’ Workbook, Create This Book, and The Big Life Journal – explained that she won’t write in them for fear of “ruining them”. At least she Wrecked This Journal; Mr Pixel wouldn’t even do that.

** = Yes, I let him, because HE WAS MAKING WORDS. Plus, the pair of them giggling their heads off was such a nice change from the screaming.

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.