Buckets of Shit

Today is the first anniversary of my mother’s death. Some people believe that everything happens for a reason. I call bullshit on this. If everything happens for a reason I’d like to speak to who ever is in charge because I’ve been short changed. Whoever is in charge either doesn’t like me or has singled me out for some pretty shitty events. I’m yet to find the reason for both my parents dying before my 35th birthday. I prefer to believe that we live in a world of chaos. Each of us are responsible for our own bucket of shit. Our buckets contain different amounts and type of shit but in the end it’s all the same.

In the age of social media, it’s easy to get distracted by what others were given in their buckets.  When engaging with high light reels from other people’s lives, it’s difficult to remember that they also have shit that stinks. It can be inconsistent with the individual’s brand to reveal what real life looks like. They may work hard, have taken advantage of some fantastic opportunities and learnt a skill or lived a life that many of us dream of but at the end of the day once the make up is removed and the lights are off they’re humans just like we are.

I’m not playing the victim here. It would almost be justified if I did. I grew up in a household with domestic violence, spent my early twenties recovering and then in my thirties started to get my life together when within five years of each other both my parents were taken out by cancer. After my father died I struggled with a mountain of unresolved issues. I had the kind of daddy issues that made me crazy more then sexy. After dealing with that and feeling like my life was on the up we were informed of my mother’s diagnosis. After everything I’d already been through it didn’t feel fair. To top it all off I have a brain that is prone to depressive episodes. Life can feel like a hostile jungle, anytime I relax a predator appears. Now you know what some of the shit in my bucket looks like.

Life is still good despite all the stuff that’s been dumped on me. To quote Matt Smith’s Doctor Who- ‘the bad things don’t always spoil the good things and make them unimportant’. In other words, the bad doesn’t make the good any less good. The two can successfully coexist. I’ve had great coffee and conversations on days that I’m dying inside. Emotions aren’t absolute. One moment does not have to ruin a whole day. My point is don’t let the horrible shit override the good, useable shit. Examine what you have, acknowledge the bad and appreciate the good. Not everything happens for a reason. If it does it’s often because you or someone else made a decision that produced a consequence you may or may not want to deal with. It’s up to each of us all to decide what we do with our buckets of shit. As for me, I’m going to try to turn my bucket into a masterpiece, even if it doesn’t turn out the way I hoped at least I can say I tried.

The Importance of Rituals

I’ve been thinking about going to church. It’s been about six years since I attended. After my father died my faith was reduced to the barest of foundations. Moving to a new town I struggled to find a group of people that were able to accept and explore the overwhelming doubt I was feeling towards institutionalised religion. Fortunately, just recently, I’ve found a kindred soul in a mummy friend. Our discussions are crammed into the rare moments our children are playing independently. When I told her that I was thinking about going to church in the morning she asked me if I was looking for comfort. She knows this time of year is tough for me. Within six weeks there’s my father’s birthday and the separate anniversaries of my parents’ deaths. I knew that wasn’t it. Then she asked if I missed the ritual of going to church.

She went on to tell me that as a child every Sunday morning her family went to church followed by a lunch of cheese and baked beans toasted sandwiches. My family didn’t have a ritual like that. There was a portion of my wardrobe that were my ‘Sunday clothes’. God forbid I wear them any other time of the week unless it was a super special occasion. Dad moved jobs every couple of years, each time it meant a new town and new church. Every church ran a similar program; songs, tithing, communion, announcements, sermon finished off with a prayer and a song. It was like clockwork. My childhood Sundays were filled with this pattern.  

Rituals are relaxing as they’re predictable patterns of behaviours that give life a sense of stability. It doesn’t matter what’s coming after because in that moment you know exactly what you’re supposed to do. The experience can be ethereal. That’s why many religions are based on ritualistic ceremonies. Repetitive behaviours allow the mind to relax, there is no confusion as to what is coming next. People can embrace the moment and focus solely on the experience. This openness to experience is the core of mindfulness, aka, being present in the moment.

 These days the only ceremony I religiously attend to is my morning coffee. Getting up before my daughter to make and enjoy my coffee is grounding. In these early morning moments, I know what to expect. From the time it takes to boil the kettle, the sounds and smell of the beans grinding to the moment I get to spend a moment to enjoy the result. Every morning I perform this small ritual and my soul benefits.  

I don’t know if I’m going to go back to church in the future. While I miss the structure and community, I’m yet to find a church compatible with my faith. Maybe going to church isn’t the answer. Maybe it’s building a life around these small routines. To be present in the moment and practice gratitude for the community I have. Maybe instead of church I could have my own service, with my friends, at our local coffee shop. Sunday brunch with friends, now that’s the type of ritual I could really get on board with.

Grief. Chapter 6. April 8th

April the 8th is my father’s birthday. That’s tomorrow. He would’ve been 63. In six weeks, it’ll be six years since he died. No matter how many times I say it, it still feels strange to say that my Dad is dead. Normally when people asked me about my family I talk about my Mum and siblings. Most people do not register the fact I haven’t mentioned my father, or they choose to ignore it. I preferred it that way. It helps avoid the awkwardness of people trying to find an appropriate way to react. But now that my Mum is dead it’s harder to be so dismissive. People notice when you don’t mention either parent.

I don’t mind others knowing my parents have died. What I hate is the compensating I feel I must do once someone hears the news. The awkwardness is painful. Sometimes the other person reaches out to comfit me, often they stammer through saying something that comes out as half-hearted and jumbled. Coming face to face with someone else’s pain can be confronting. I know this. It’s not an easy task to see into another’s grief. It’s even harder to find an appropriate response. I guess that’s the thing, there is no need to come up with the right response. The best thing to do is to be genuine.

Friends that have sat with me in silence have given me more comfort then those that have scrambled to find words. People who have been vulnerable enough to acknowledge that they have no idea what to say or do are comforting. Because I don’t know what to say or do either. All I know is that there is a physical pain in my chest, it’s like these emotions are tearing me apart inside.

It’s not always like this. Today I’ve had some emotional moments but I’ve also had some wonderful ones. My grief was once all consuming. Now it’s like a song that has gotten stuck in my head. The tune is always in the back ground, but I don’t have to sing the words if I don’t want to.

So, this is where I am. My father is dead. My mother is also dead. I have a beautiful daughter, a job that allows me to live the life that I have and the most incredible friends a person could ask for. Life has been harsh but that does not take away from any of life’s goodness. I have things to look forward to and goals to achieve. As for tomorrow I think I’m going to see how things go. All I ask of you, of anyone, is to be authentic. Don’t fake it until you make it. If you’re not sure, ask. If you’ve got no idea what to say, don’t say anything. Show up, be present and be kind. Not just to me, do it for everyone. After all, we’re in in this together.

Death and all his friends

I think a lot about death. Mainly about how it happens. Not the physiology, more the spiritual side of things.  Do we realise our bodies are losing consciousness? If we have a soul is there distinct separation as we float off into the spiritual world? Is there a light we walk into? Is death a being which comes to greet us? Or are there different spirit guides depending on our chosen religion? Do we just wake up in heaven or hell?  Or do we cease to exist the moment we lose conscious connection with our body?

As a child I would have told you that when you died you woke up in heaven or hell. It’s what my parents and Sunday school taught. I would not have told you that I had a fear of being buried alive, that one day I’d wake up dead and buried but still present in my body. I spent hours wondering about what happened when you died. Even more trying to figure out who created God because if God created the universe, who created him? At the age of about six my church ran movie nights showing a series of apocalyptic movies. The plot centred around people that had been left behind from the rapture. It freaked me out. Quiet moments would cause me to panic and run to find someone else, anyone that I was convinced was a good person. Someone that God wouldn’t leave behind to suffer with the rest of us.

By my late twenties I was questioning the beliefs I had been indoctrinated in as a child. It wasn’t easy examining beliefs I had unconsciously adopted. It was like tearing apart the foundation of a building while everything else tried to stay intact. As a child I was willing to believe that the world was a simple place. Sinners went to hell while Christians went to heaven. I’m not so sure anymore. I’m not even sure if there’s a hell. There’s too much contradiction in the idea that a God who is the personification of love, would create humans, give them free will and let them live out complex lives which would determine whether they would be eternally rewarded or made to suffer infinitely. As I have grown, the world which was once so black and white is now all shades of grey. There’s a handful of truths that I still cling to, but I've let go of most of the theology from my childhood.

It is at the point of death that religion hands out the ultimate reward. Christians go to heaven, Muslims find themselves in paradise, Hindus are reincarnated into something better, the atheists disappear and everyone else suffers as the eternally damned. That is very generalised but the only way of knowing whose religion is right is to die. I’m not willing to lay my life on the line to find out the truth. Therefore, my musings remain a shallow exercise in philosophy. Even if the truth was confirmed I’m not sure there would be much comfort because death is still an ending. A separation from the ones you loved and a life you know. Maybe the only comfort that can be found in death is the knowledge that you have lived well, embraced your truth and loved to the best of your ability.

A Change of Weather

 

Years ago, at the end of my first serious bout of depression I remember waking up one morning feeling fine. I gingerly explored all corners of my mind to see where the heaviness was hiding. I couldn’t find it. After several weeks of rock bottom, I found myself not trusting this new state of being. There was nothing to fight, no darkness to push through before I could go about my day. When you’ve been fighting for so long, waking to find the enemy has disappeared during the night is disorientating.

The last several years have been heavy. After Mum was diagnosed it felt like every phone call was a threat. There was the constant awareness that things were going to get worse. Even the good moments were overshadowed by what was to come. Even though it was a relief when she died, it marked a new phase of sadness. The sleepless nights that come with raising a child added to the precariousness of my mental health. It was quite a surprise last week when I realised that for the first time in a long time I felt completely fine. I searched for any residue of sadness, but it wasn’t there.

Although I can’t say exactly why I’m feeling better, I can take a guess. I’ve let go of friendships that were doing more harm then good. That was hard. But as the saying goes, don’t hold onto a mistake just because you’ve spent a long time making it. It’s hard to recognise when someone you love isn’t good for you. It’s almost impossible to untangle and let go. I’m started actively putting time aside for creativity. I’m standing up for myself and asking for what I want, when I don’t get it immediately I’m learning to negotiate to get the best outcome I can. I’m taking the time to exercise and eat healthy. I’m reading some fantastic novels and listening to podcasts full of interesting ideas. My brain is getting fed. I’ve started pursuing some ideas that have been simmering away for some time. I’m being proactive with my emotional, mental and physical health. I know the storm clouds are likely to reappear. But I’m going to do everything in my power to make the most of this sunshine.

Grief. Chapter Five. Christmas.

Driving home in the rain tonight, it felt like things were exactly how they should be. I like driving in the rain at night. I like the way the water reflects the lights from the traffic like a kaleidoscope. I think it’s beautiful. There’s a cosiness to this rain. It’s not like some of the violent storms that have passed by lately. Tonight’s weather mirrors my mood. It’s a fortnight until Christmas and I can’t help but reflect on the year that has been and what is to come.

This will be the first Christmas without Mum. The first time there’ll be no handmade present under the tree from her. There’ll be no phone calls or photos shared. I miss her but I’m not sad. I’m grateful for the Christmas we had last year. I’ve still got the wall hanging she embroidered her Christmas pudding recipe on. I’ve tried for several years to make that recipe like she did. I’m yet to nail it, I’m not sure if I ever will. But at least I will always have the recipe to try again if I want to.

My Christmas decorations are sitting in a single reusable shopping bag on the kitchen table. Normally by the first of December my house looks like an elf vomited on it. At the beginning of this year I gave away all my decorations and my fake Christmas tree. My ex brought me that tree and I got the decorations for the house we lived in together. They were happy memories, but not ones that I want to hang onto. I haven’t found the energy to put up the small collection of decorations I’ve got left. I don’t know if I want to put them up.

Last Christmas was a good one. I’m glad I made the effort to travel up North for it. I knew it was possibly our last together. There was hope she’d make it another year. But that wouldn’t have been enough. I’d always be greedy for just one more Christmas. I guess that’s all any of us really want. Just one more moment of happiness.

The Black Dog

I don’t like saying that I have depression. I prefer to say that I’ve battled depression or that I struggle with depression. To me, saying that I have depression implies ownership. The last thing I want is to encourage it to stay. It’s not mine, I didn’t ask for it and I would very much like it to go back to where it came from. I’ve tried medication and therapy, but the black dog still comes back to haunt me. 

Sometimes it’s arrival is sudden. I’ll wake up in the morning with it in bed with me. Before I had Lucy I would know it was going to be a tough day when during my morning ride the dominant voice in my head would be screaming about what a failure I was. It would tell me that I couldn’t make it up the hill. That I was too fat to be out there on a bike. To turn around and go home. On those days I knew that I had to make it to the top of where ever I was going. Because if I could beat the voice and make it up the hill I could get through the day with minimal damage.

Other times I can feel it coming. It’s like there’s a long shadow that falls and turns the atmosphere ice cold. I know what’s coming. If I exercise, socialise, read and maintain a level of miscellaneous activity I can delay the arrival. This happened over the weekend. I felt it coming. I almost cancelled my regular Sunday dinner arrangements, but I’d already promised to take dessert and I couldn’t think of an acceptable reason to bail. Dinner was great. I was quiet. I couldn’t think of anything much to say. We ended up walking around the neighbourhood looking for Christmas lights. Even though I love Christmas lights, it all just felt bleh. I walked in silence surrounded by other people’s chatter. After I left I got a text.

‘What’s going on?’

Telling people that I’m not ok but I’m ok is hard. Sadness is not a bad thing. Hermits used to be people who got depressed, disappeared from society and then reappeared when they were better. That’s a romanticised version anyway. The truth is I can function with the black cloud over my soul. It’s not pleasant and there’s no fun in it but I can do it. It’s difficult for other people to watch but I’ve spent years learning my boundaries. Knowing when it’s just sad and then when it’s time to haul myself to the GP for some external assistance.

The hardest thing now is trying to figure out when it’s grief over depression. They are very close cousins. But grief has a purpose. It’s something that I need to walk through. Engaging with the sadness of grief can bring healing. If I entertain the activities of depression it gets worse. It’s a delicate balance that I’m yet to work out. I’m not sure if I ever will. But until I do I’m going to do all the things I know are good for me. I’m going to go for walks with friends, socialise, read good books, dance around my kitchen to music that I’d be embarrassed to otherwise own. I’m going to look after myself. Because as much as other people care, when everything is said and done I’m left standing by myself. My tribe is always behind me but I’m the one that must face this ugly black thing. I’m determined not to let it win.

Passion

I do not believe that everything happens for a reason. There’s too much undeserved pain in this world for that to be the truth. Even though I’m still working on what my faith looks like I do know that life is not an orchestrated event. Things just happen. Good things, bad things and all the mediocre things in between. But every so often there’ll be a phrase, words or events that repeat over a very short period of time. It’s as though my attention is being drawn to something that’s important. There’s a life lesson I need to complete before I can level up. This past week’s life lesson was about passion.

It started Thursday last week when I met with a guy and talked over dinner. It was fantastic conversation. One of those nights that you leave with a full heart. At one point in the conversation he uttered the phrase ‘I’m passionate about…’. It took every ounce of concentration not to roll my eyes back into my head. In the minute that followed I struggled to take him seriously. Nobody talks about being passionate anymore. Didn’t he know it was a requirement of adulthood to be a disillusioned cynic? Thankfully the conversation moved on and I didn’t have to suffer through more silly talk about being passionate.   

A few days later a girlfriend sent me a motivational video. This youtuber promised that by embracing his program I would create ‘flow’ resulting in a more successful life. My little judgey heart was on fire. Firstly, flow cannot be forced. It’s a soul thing, it either happens or it doesn’t. Secondly, there was that word again. Passion. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard it since dinner guy. It’d been popping up over my morning coffee, conversations overheard from passing strangers in public and in my study. My attention was being drawn to it. I decided it was time to re-evaluate my judgemental attitudes.

As a teenager and twenty-something, I spent most of my time attending Pentecostal churches. It is one of the reasons I was allergic to the word ‘passion’. Years of being encouraged to find what it was that I was passionate about so that I could change the world wore me down. The expectation to be significantly magnificent was exhausting. I wanted to change the world so badly. Instead I struggled away at dead end jobs just to pay the bills. My reality was so different from the dream being promoted at youth group

Unconsciously I decided that being passionate was for the hipsters, wannabes and those that had been blessed by genetics. The Gang of Youths song Preserve sums it up perfectly;

I used to want to be important but now I want to be alive and without fear. You got to preserve.

At the age of 27 I found one of my biggest life’s passions by taking a job as a youth worker. However, I didn’t use the word passion. But ask me about how the system has screwed over so many young people and you’ll see me passionate. Let me talk about the ways in which I believe our education institutions need to change in order to better help our young men. Give me some good coffee. Talk to me about food or better yet, let me cook for you. You’ll see exactly how passionate I can get. The amount of energy I spend on these topics is incredible. There’s a lot of things that excite me, very few light me up. I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Passion like flow, is not something that can be manufactured. You can fake excitement, but you can’t fake passion.

In the last several years my soul has been wounded. I’ve found myself on a path I did not expect to be on. Currently my life feels like a never-ending cycle of housework and sleep.  I’m not living a passionate existence.  However, as I’ve thought about this topic over the last week I’ve learnt that passion doesn’t die. It may need to hibernate for a season, but it doesn’t die. It’s still there. I suspect that this the starting point of a new season in my life. Before I start I needed to be reminded of who I am. Because what are passions except the most authentic desires of our hearts?

Ask The Question

 

I grew up in a house with domestic violence. My willingness to speak when everyone else was ducking their heads painted a target on my back. Throughout the years I have been shocked to learn how many people knew about the situation. Neighbours heard my father’s shouting rants but never reached out to see if we were ok. Church members knew of the violence and offered their prayers. Family members suspected what was happening but did nothing. My inner child still wants to know why? For years I was lost and hurting. After years of trying to fit into my father’s expectations, in my early twenties I made the painful decision to stand apart from my family. It took even longer to untangle myself from the emotionally controlling web my father had created. During my twenties I had a conversation with my dad where he confessed he had sort help for his violent behaviour. The help he found turned out to empty promises or tokenistic in nature.

A few years ago, White Ribbon had the ‘Real men don’t hit women’ campaign. Even after being on the receiving end of countless physical blows, I hated these advertisements.  It is hard enough for men to seek help, why are we heaping shame onto the already steaming pile of dung that is domestic violence? While I’m not an expert on this issue I have lived through it and I have an alarming number of friends that have also survived the chaos.

I will never forget the day my friend arrived at work with a cloud hanging over her. Our desks were positioned so that while we sat side by side, when we faced our computers I could only see her side profile. From her body language I could tell she was upset. After asking if she was ok, she turned to face me. Her face was a watercolour of purples, blues and blacks. Her cheeks were marked with tears. This was a broken woman. She had been able to walk across the office floor with a face like that and no one had stopped her to ask if she was ok.

One night I was out with a different friend. Some of her work mates had joined us. One of the partners started gossiping about their mutual friend who was choosing to remain in a violent relationship. I asked if they had talked to her about it. I wanted to know if she knew that they knew about her situation. The bloke doing all the talking got mad at me and shut me down. He said something along the lines that it was her choice and he didn’t want to intervene. I left early that night in a rage. My argument was caring without actions is not really caring, it’s voyeurism.

Another friend was in an abusive relationship when I met her. She told me that I was the first person to tell her that her relationship was not normal. Screaming matches in public isn’t a sign of passion, it’s emotional dysfunction. Emotional manipulation and control is not love, it’s abuse. People knew the relationship she was in was unhealthy. No one said it to her face. Abusive relationships are manipulative by nature. They’re not easy to be in and they’re even harder to leave. But the person needs to know that they’re not crazy. That their feelings are valid and rational. Even if they do decide to stay. You’ve got to say something.

It’s great that we’ve had all these public campaigns. Social awareness has been raised. But now it’s time to get our hands dirty. There’s people in our lives that need us to take an active interest and ask the hard questions. This isn’t just about domestic violence situations. Those that are suicidal, lonely, hurting or just kind of weird all need to be noticed. Let people know that you care. Social media isn’t an entirely bad thing. The internet has helped many people find connection. But nothing compares to a real connection with a real person. Life can be busy. But we’ve got to make room for what’s important. People are important. Your social media feed is not.

Chapter Four. Happy Birthday Mum.

Today is my mother’s birthday. It would’ve been her sixty first. We didn’t do anything big to celebrate her sixtieth because we weren’t sure she would be up for it. As Mum dealt with complications associated with the chemo and the colostomy bag she preferred to not have people around. The milestone went by quietly. Today was another quiet day. There’s been no celebrations, just reflections on a life that was.

Death is so confronting in its finality. There’s no gentle distinction between being alive and being dead. Even when a person is unconscious, the presence of their body gives some comfort. To be able to touch them, sit and talk to them even if they are unable to respond. Just to be in their physical presence may be heartbreaking but it’s better than the absolute absence that comes with dying. It is difficult to process the fact that the physical remains of my mother are contained in a small space behind a plaque on a brick wall.

Even though her physical body is gone, there are so many ways in which she is still present. My habits and interests were strongly influenced by my Mum. I like making things with my hands and giving handmade gifts. Things that Mum made are scatted around my house. A lot of my favourite recipes came from her. There’s the memories and the photos as well. There's so many other things but my brain has shut down for the night.

No matter how much I wish my Mum was still here, she is gone. She will never age past sixty. I won’t pretend our relationship was perfect. We were as much the same as we were different. I’ve been told many times that we had the same personality. The most important factor was that we loved each other fiercely. My only wish is that we had more time to work things out. Who knows what could have been?

So I sit here alone on the night of her birthday. I wanted to do something to celebrate but I had no idea what to do. The weight of missing her sits heavy with me tonight. I know there is nothing I can do to bring her back. I can only remember the good times we had together. How happy she was to be a grandmother. Because even though we were robbed of the future, the past cannot be changed.

 

Let's Go!

On Monday we arrived home after spending five days in Melbourne. It was 1am by the time I pulled into the driveway. Searching for my house keys while Lucy was in the back being sad was stressful. Taking the last flight home used to be a way of ensuring every moment was squeezed out of the day. These days I question the sanity of that decision. The keys were found after a text message from my travelling buddy. They were in the back seat with Lucy. We had used them as a distraction after she grew tired of all the other toys in the car. Nothing is sacred when travelling with a toddler. All resources can and should be utilised to maintain everyone’s sanity.

My first real trip with Lucy was to Bali when she was four months old. It was my third trip there. I find a level of comfort returning to familiar places. The first time I went I didn’t expect to love it. It was just cheaper than the Gold Coast for a friend’s belated 30th.  This trip was a designated girl’s trip with my gluten intolerant friend. The food intolerance was an important factor in deciding where to go. Dining with a coeliac limits dining options. Thankfully Bali, especially Canggu, has unlimited choices for those with food intolerances. That’s one of the fabulous things about hipsters, they do great food and because most of them have food intolerances, there’s options for everyone. We ate our way through our holiday while adhering to the napping schedule of my infant. It was glorious.

The only downside of travelling with such a young baby in Bali was the amount of attention it attracted from locals. They couldn’t get enough of her. Part of this was because Balinese babies do not leave home before six months. They also don’t touch the ground of the first three months of their lives. Lucy on the other hand was an international traveller who ate dirt for breakfast. The fascination with Lucy was a blessing and a curse. She invited real conversations with locals and travellers alike. But sometimes I just wanted to explore in silence. The time we spent in Ubud was particularly intense.

It was in Bali that I realised how much I loved Lucy. The day I took Lucy home from hospital was the scariest day of my life. Here was this little human that I was solely responsible for. Going through the pregnancy this was the thing that scared me more than the expectation of giving birth. The first three months I was in survival mode. Other new mothers were posting gushy feelings across their social media. I felt more like a lioness. There were no great moments of overwhelming love. Just a deep feeling of protection. God save anyone that does anything to hurt or even inconvenience my baby. Being away from the requirements of normal life showed me how much I enjoyed Lucy’s company. Which is weird since she wasn’t talking, eating, moving about or any of those interesting things. One day it just hit me how magical she was and how much I truly loved her.

The second international trip we took was to New Zealand. This time it was just us. Lucy had just turned one, had discovered how good real food is and was a confident explorer.  We concentrated our time between driving, hiking and trying as many different types of ice creams as we could. Side note, food is a huge part of my travel. Sightseeing is what you do to kill time between eating.  

Taking a trip that was just us meant I could be selfish. There was no need to share her with anyone else.  I wasn’t distracted by everyday routines, chores or the other things that can take our attention away. Coming back home I’ve brought us a double swag so that we can escape camping on the nights when I want to get away but don’t have to cash or time to go somewhere more glamourous. I figure it’s a shame to explore other countries without making the effort to check out our own backyard as well.

 

    .

This Too Shall Pass

During the school holidays I babysat a friend’s kid for a day. I’d already booked Lucy into the gym creche so I could get a workout in. It was easy enough to add the eight-year-old to the booking. However he wasn’t eight. He was a very offended ten-year-old. It’s funny how age makes up such a big part of your identity as a kid but these days as a thirty something I often struggle to remember how old I am. My birthday is in two days and I think I’ll be 35. I’m not actually sure.

Life hasn’t turned out how I expected it to. In my early twenties most of my friends got married. That’s quite normal in the church crowd. I waited patiently for my prince charming, he either never showed or I scared him off when he did show up. Of the four girls I was bridesmaid for, only two are still married. While I still want the fairy tale, I have a much better understanding of what makesup a desirable relationship. Dating in your thirties is scary. It feels like I’m fishing in a very shallow pond.

My romantic life aside, there’s so many other things that I expected to be different when I reached my mid-thirties. It was never a clear expectation, just this vague feeling. I was hoping to go on and complete post grad studies after my psychology degree. But losing one parent and having the other be diagnosed with a terminal illness was a major distraction to my studies. My grades were not reflective of my potential and it took a lot longer to finish the degree then I would’ve preferred. My career is kind of in a no man’s land right now. I’ve got a job that’s great for what I need, but I’m not entirely sure what the next step is. There’s so many other things about my life that aren’t what I thought they would be.

I used to wonder what my life would’ve been like if I was raised in an environment without domestic violence. As I’ve grown up it’s become clear to me that depression is a common trait in my extended family. Combine the genetic predisposition with emotional and physical violence, my poor brain didn’t have a chance.  Even with years of therapy, there are still days I wake in a dark cloud of depression. Thankfully, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become better equipped to deal with the cloud when it turns up.

The psychologist that introduced me to Acceptance and Commitment therapy (ACT) will always have my thanks. ACT encourages patients to be present in their world without investing in the emotions. It’s so much more than that, so google it. There’s heaps of free resources. Anyway, back to the psychologist.

One of the greatest things she ever said to me was ‘motivation is a falsehood. Don’t wait until you’re happy to do something. Do it sad if you need to. But just do it’. That changed my life. I’ve learnt that while depression can turn the world grey it doesn’t have to stop me from doing stuff. Doing stuff won’t cure depression. It’s a ghastly beast to battle. But at least my washing gets done or bills paid, life is a little less messy then if I had submitted to the black dog.  

Another strategy I employ on the bad days is the strategy of the non-negotiables. A good friend shared this with me, it’s what he used on his bad days. What he did was to pick three things that set the standard for a ‘good’ day. No matter what else happened as long as those three tasks were complete he could spend the rest of the day hiding from the world because it was a good day. At first it seemed too simple.  But then I started doing it and it worked. My three things are leaving the house, do some form of exercise and to talk to a friend. From experience I know that if I stay at home on a sad day my emotions are just going to spiral downward. I also know that I always feel better after exercise and talking to someone. Remaining immobile and hibernating in my head is a recipe for disaster.  

I hope I’m not coming across as though I have the answers. There is so much pretentious and tokenistic advice out there. I know that continuing to hope for a better day is hard when you’re deep in the darkness. Sometimes it’s a long and lonely fight just to feel ok.  But please, do what you can to hold on. Because it will pass and you will be ok.  

Chapter Three The Power of Vulnerability.

I spent the first week of July driving around the incredible country that is north of Auckland. It was a holiday for just Lucy and I.  All the research I had done told me that it was a beautiful part of New Zealand. It’s so cliched but I have to say it. Nothing prepared me for how beautiful it was. Hiring a motorhome meant no strict itineraries. Being able to make plans up as I went along was exactly what I needed after the crazy that has been this year.

On the second morning I was making breakfast. The previous night we stayed in a caravan park I found by surprise. It was off the main highway going north, down a twisty steep descent which ended at a grassy area between a cove and a small beach covered in black shiny rocks. I had parked the motorhome with the back window facing the small cove. It was beautiful. That morning while cooking breakfast, the new album from Florence and the Machine was blasting through the speakers. During the second song Florence sings ‘we all have a hunger’. I was dancing around like an idiot in the tiny space between the stove top and the bathroom door. Lucy was on the floor laughing that baby laugh. There was so much happiness in such a small space.  And then the tears started.

I cried and kept crying throughout that trip. On the way to Cape Reinga I cried while driving down tiny roads surrounded by chicken farms. At night when Lucy had gone to sleep in the back, I sat at the front and cried in the dark. In the country that my mother was born and left before she was a teenager, I found it possible to start grieving her death. I also found the ability to really enjoy my daughter’s presence again. I found the power of vulnerability. To honestly sit with my emotions and just let them be.

In the last few weeks things started getting hard again. I was already struggling to deal with the weight of everything when we hit a period of teething followed by the flu. The lack of sleep made it next to impossible for me to regulate my emotions. I felt sadness waiting to engulf me like a tidal wave. I tuned out. I was tired, I was numb, and barely functioning. But then a small moment broke the dam wall. Something Lucy did made me laugh and the tears came as a relief. I started engaging with the world again instead of just going through the motions.

The thing with emotions is that you can’t just numb the ones you don’t like. I know because I’ve tried (and if we’re being honest, I’ll try again in the future just to double check). Shutting out the sadness meant shutting out joy. The world went from being full of vivid emotions to a watered down, grey colour. And that was fine for a while because I had some tough times to get through. Planning a funeral and telling people of your mother’s death requires a great deal of resilience. I’ve used the strategy of shutting down so many times in my life. This dysfunctional emotional regulation resulted in years of dysfunctional relationships. I needed a way off of the merry-go-round of dysfunction so that I can be a positive influence to my daughter. The last thing I want is for this crazy to be passed onto another generation.

The only way out is vulnerability. Sitting with and acknowledging emotions. Not necessarily buying into or investing in each emotion, but seeing their worth as they exist in the moment. Vulnerability is hard. It’s near impossible to keep up at all times. But if there’s a choice between actively engaging in life and shutting down, I know what I’m choosing.

Don't send the flowers. Send Love.

It was a Tuesday afternoon when I received the phone call that Dad had died. It came as a shock. He had been in palliative care for several months, but it had begun to feel like he was never going to die. That night I crashed at a friend’s place. The following week I completed the ten-hour drive to Mum’s for the funeral.  

When I arrived at Mum’s house it felt like there were flowers everywhere. With a strange pride she gave me a grand tour of who sent what. Each day as new flowers arrived, another tour would be conducted. Statements of people’s condolences were written on the small cards. It made Mum happy to know that people cared.

After Mum died flowers started arriving. It was lovely that people thought of doing something nice. After one particularly large delivery I found myself getting annoyed. It wasn’t that I dislike flowers. I love flowers. As a little girl I was the horror child stealing them from people’s gardens. Now I’ve got a garden bed of my own  planted with colour. It doesn’t matter how beautiful a floral arrangement is. It does little to help reprieve the hurting during a time of grief.

When I got home from helping sort out Mum’s estate, one of my friends arranged to have a cleaner come to my house to help sort out the mess it had become. Another regularly babysits so that I can have some alone time to grieve. I’ve had friends cook for me and bring me coffee. All these practical things left me feeling loved and helped with the healing process. All the flowers did was die and leave a mess.

Don’t send flowers. Send love. Engage you brain. Use your imagination. Figure out a gift that will help.

   

One for the Farmers

I’m getting frustrated by the current fundraising for farmers. Everywhere I go someone is asking me to donate money. Work had a morning tea, dress up day and a raffle. My bank kept asking if I wanted to donate every time I logged into the app. Going to the shops they ask for a donation. There’s a flood of fundraising efforts all over my social media feeds. This fundraising is great in a way. We need to be more aware and actively supportive of our farmers. Right now, there’s a lot that are doing it tough. However, I fail to see how buying a bale and dressing up to give five for a farmer is going to help in the long run.

Why isn’t everyone switching to buying local? Let’s all find ways to buy food that ensure that the producers are the ones making the most profits, not multinational companies. Thanks to the rise of hipster and alternative lifestyles, these days it’s much easier to source local products. Farmers markets, independent grocers, local butchers or at the very least independently owned supermarkets are all fantastic places to find local products. Sure, they’re not always as convenient as popping down to your major super market. But what is convenient for you is incredibly inconvenient for our farmers. Just ask the dairy farmers about that one.

Buying a bale isn’t a bad thing. Spending money on a sausage sizzle that’s donating the proceeds to people in need is fabulous. You get fed, and they get support. The reason I’m grumpy about all of this is that it’s not sustainable. We need to change our long-term actions if there’s going to be a permanent positive change. Buying local isn’t going to break the drought. But it has the potential to make our farmers more financially resilient so that when the hard times hit there’s no need for five for a farmer.

Chapter Two. The Stuff that's left behind.

This morning at work there was a bit of commotion. One of my colleagues was recently diagnosed with stage four cancer. Stage four cancer isn’t something people come back from. Especially if it’s in the liver. Someone had decided that it was time to pack up her desk and that caused a small commotion.

The desks at work aren’t anything special. They’re standard office desks with a half-arsed partition resulting in a hybrid of cubicles and an open plan layout. People do what they can to decorate the sterile environment. Most bring in trinkets, photos, special pens or whatever to add life to their little space. I’m in the minority. My desk has a pen and a few notepads. But that’s beside the point. Watching someone's belongings be sorted and packed brought up memories.

When I was in my early twenties I attended my paternal grandma’s funeral. It was strange saying good bye to a woman that I had only spoken to a few times in my life. She had Parkinson’s and spent her final years in hospital. After the funeral we were taken over to her house. There were rooms and rooms of porcelain collectables along with other things older generations collect. I was told to pick out a few things. It felt weird. I didn’t know the woman who had collected these things. Why would I want to take her stuff home with me?

It was completely different when I had to sort through my mother’s things. It still amazes me the amount of stuff that came out of her craft room. The materials, unfinished projects, scrap booking stuff, it was amazing. What was once useful and had purpose was now confusing and symbolic. Some of her craft gadgets are still shrouded in mystery despite family conferences and  asking google. Regardless, the mysterious items were sorted between my siblings to be packed away. The boxes I brought home with me remain untouched in my hallway. It feels weird that it’s in my house. In my mind it’s still my mum’s stuff. A constant reminder that she is no longer here.

Terminal illness and death have the power to add significance to the ordinary. The desk that was ignored by most people is now empty. A reminder of a colleague’s battle. The sewing machine in my hallway isn’t just an expensive piece of machinery. It’s the tool my mother used to sew quilts, clothing and countless other projects. Using her talents, she turned her love into something tangible. Into things that have outlasted her. All these things I would trade to have her back again.

 

Chapter One. Grief.

It’s an awful feeling having to return to life after something traumatic has happened. The lack of fanfare following the death of someone you love is unsettling. Walking from a room containing the body of a loved one into the sunshine feels so wrong. It feels like the world should pause for a minute. That there should at least be some clouds or weather that reflects your great sadness. Something significant should occur to acknowledge the loss you have just experienced.

But it’s not like that. Life keeps going. Beautiful days happen. Friends fall in love. There’s a new boss at work. A new season of the Bachelor starts. Life just keeps going, steamrolling over the top of the grief.

A week after my Mum had died we had the funeral. After that we sorted out the house as much as possible. Two weeks later I was back home. Then I was back at work. People around me were aware of my pain, but they were not a part of it. I felt isolated in my grief. Even my siblings who I shared this loss with were not part of my pain. We are connected by our grief, but we all must walk through the shadows alone.

There have been days I sat at my work desk and quietly cried for my Mum. There’s been no obvious trigger, just this unexpected sadness that washes over me. I’ve also had it while driving, shopping and just doing the mundane. Having a one-year old means that it’s easy to remain distracted. But even then, there are times while playing with my daughter the sadness comes.

That’s why I’ve been silent on here. It’s easier to sit in silence and ignore what is happening in my head. Rather than engage with the feelings I shut them out. I can get on with life that way. Behave in a way that puts others at ease. The quickest way to alienate people is to show them your pain. Almost no one knows what to do with it. 

For me, writing requires vulnerability and bravery.  Vulnerability to write something honest. Bravery to share that with people. It's hard to be vulnerable when I'm hurting, and it's almost impossible to be brave when all my energy has been spent on getting through the day. 

 After my father’s death I fell apart. I shut down. By pushing the emotions under I prolonged the time it took to heal. This time I want it to be different. I need it to be different. I can't go through that again. So as scary as it is I'm going to do my best to be vulnerable and engage with my emotions.  I’m going to muster the energy needed to be brave. I'm going to write about this so that at least for a moment there will be acknowledgement that something significant has happened, that my world changed forever back on that day in May. 

 

For my Mum

Tuesday morning we said goodbye to my mum and Lucy’s grandma. As far as I’m concerned the day came too quick. While I’m grieving for the mother and grandmother that we have lost, I’m also grateful for the time we were able to spend together.

One of the clearest childhood memories I have was laying on my Mum’s bed and laughing for hours. It was beyond the point that anything was funny, we were just having fun. There were also times when I was quite young, that I rode around on the back of her bike in one of those children’s bike seats. At the time I thought it was an exciting adventure. But now I suspect it was because they couldn’t afford to have the old brown car fixed.

I have no doubt that my mum loved me and was proud of me. Last year I graduated from university, Mum was there to cheer me on and take a thousand and one photos. That night at the celebratory BBQ she barely ate anything because she was too busy talking to everyone letting them know she was the mother of the graduate. She also spent a good amount of time interrogating everyone there. Who were they, how did they know me and if they were male, were they possibly single?

When I fell pregnant with Lucy Mum was so excited. Although she couldn’t be there with me, after every appointment there was a phone call. My brother’s wife was pregnant at the same time as me. Mum considered herself a bit of a soothsayer. She insisted that I was having a girl with curly hair and my brother was having a boy with ginger hair. So far we’re three out of four. Just waiting on the curly hair.

Speaking of curly hair, until I was in mid primary school I thought Mum’s hair was naturally curly. Getting old enough to learn about perms was a bit of a shock. As an adult she would ring me all excited about the new way which the hairdressers had done her hair. I could never tell the difference from one perm to the next so I just agreed until I could escape the conversation.

Mum was a very conservative, straight laced Christian lady. Growing up this meant dressing up for Sunday church, no drinking, swearing and no gambling. Until my friend Mia came along. IT was my older brother’s birthday last year. Handing out $1 coins Mia suggested it’d be a lot of fun if we all went and played the pokies. Mum’s reflex was to say no. Mia worked her magic and soon my little Christian mother was learning how to play the pokies. It was the first and only time mum played pokies. She was so chuffed to win ten dollars. Mum even insisted on paying Mia back her dollar. She was an honest woman after all.

Even though mum has been taken from us too soon, she left behind a strong legacy. Currently I’m sorting through a mountain of quilts, unfinished projects and a seemingly endless stash of material. We will never be cold. I also learnt to speak my mind, even if I look like a crazy lady.

The right to choose

Appearing on the SBS show Insight was amazing. What is even more amazing is the discussions that people have initiated with me since then. I’ve become the keeper of stories from women across several generations. Being open and authentic about my story has encouraged others to be open with me about their own experiences. I’ve heard about a war bride that was deceived, parents having affairs and women that got more than a date from internet dating. I feel like I’ve heard it all. Unplanned pregnancies are nothing new. What is new is that we’ve been through a sexual revolution. Society’s ideas about sex have evolved, so why hasn’t our perception of single parents?

Sex education is something that hopefully everyone has been through. Somehow, somewhere, we have been educated on the pleasures of sex and where babies come from. Hopefully the issue of contraception has also arisen. No matter what method is used, there is no complete guarantee that you will not contract a disease, infection or create a zygote. If it’s not surprising that the pleasure of sex is coupled with the risk of an unplanned pregnancy, why are we still judging those that fall pregnant while participating in casual sex?

Furthermore, where does the expectation come from that unplanned pregnancies must be automatically aborted? Especially those from casual relationships. Generally society is accepting of women choosing to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Pro-choice must mean that while women may terminate, the choice to follow the pregnancy through is also acceptable. You cannot have one without the other. If women are free to choose to have sex, by default, surely they’re free to choose what to do with the pregnancy.

In Australia we are blessed to have a government that is supportive of single parent families. I’ve heard the argument that women are choosing to fall pregnant to gain access to more money via the welfare system. This is a stupid argument. Let me explain why.

The money I get from the government for being a single parent is LESS then the minimum wage. I went back to work when my daughter was four months old. My employment income combined with the government support I receive is the same as what I was earning when I worked full time. The difference is that now I have a baby who is fully dependent on me. Having a baby is not an effective way of increasing disposable income. Babies and children in general have a wonderful talent of devouring any disposable income you thought you had.

Unplanned pregnancies and single parents have been consistently present within society for a very, very long time. Nether are failures. Surely as a society we can recognise that unplanned pregnancies happen and occasionally turn people into single parents. Next time, instead of judging why don’t you buy the single parent in your life a coffee? They probably need one.

Walking into the Arena

 

 ‘The only certain thing about the arena is that you’re going to get your ass kicked.’ Brene Brown

This week I told the story of how I conceived my little girl on national television. At the same time an opinion piece I wrote was published on several national news websites. My face was seen across social media promoting the program I was on. I did radio interviews. I started promoting this blog.  It was scary and exhilarating.

On top of sharing my story this week I’ve spent the week at a workshop in Cairns for the start of my masters. Even though it’s coursework I’m a little terrified. It’s scary. I have no idea if I’ll be able to do this. I’m already a single working mother dealing with the reality that my mother has cancer. Life is tough enough without the added pressure of post grad study. But I’m backing myself. Because if not now when?

There have been trolls. The majority are faceless social media profiles with insightful comments like ‘bimbo should’ve swallowed’ or something horrible about the way I look. At times I want to respond. But then I remember, they’re not in the arena with me.

On the flip side putting myself on the line has brought out the cheer squad. The girl gang group chat has been overly active. My phone has been flooded with messages of support and I’ve got coffee dates lined up with friends when I get back.

The point of this post is to say I’m here, I’ve entered the arena. I’m putting myself on the line. I’m so pleased you’ve found your way to my blog. I’ll also be posting on facebook and Instagram. Come say hi. Search for Haus of Treen and you’ll find me. I’ll post a link when I figure out how to do it.