Shooting the Breeze – Part 6 – In the Family Way

BabyBecoming a parent can be one of the most exciting and terrifying times in your life. Just getting your head around being responsible for such a small, helpless soul is an immense task in itself. Add to that the pressure of ‘not stuffing your child up’ and you can be in a tizz before the child has even arrived. You quickly discover that there are myriad methods of raising your child and everyone has an opinion on how this should be done.

The real adventure begins once you’ve had the child. Trying to decipher apparently differing cries, dodging projectile poos and juggling child, nappy bag and shopping trolley at once is a feat in itself.

I can see now that my thoughts and understanding of parenting before having children fell much shorter than the reality of the day to day living with my pint-sized ball of energy. I was seduced into the belief that babies did what you wanted them to do as long as you read the warning signs and carefully orchestrated their routine.

Little did I know, their personalities were largely formed well before they took their first breath. My steely sense of persistence and determination was obliterated within days of meeting my first bundle of joy as he was resolved to live life on his terms.

Clearly, different people have different experiences with their children. At least that’s what I’m telling myself when I see parents with truckloads of children in tow. Two children and it’s game over for me. Battles over sleeping were just the beginning and it quickly occurred to me that the best ‘parents’ in the world were those that didn’t have children. If only I could remember all the solutions I had for parenting dilemmas before venturing into parenthood.

I met Pia soon after having my first child, we had shared similar experiences with our pregnancies and births, which was the beginning of our friendship. Pia was the type of person that I would have clicked with regardless of whether we had children born at the same time. We savour any opportunity to swap thoughts on books and similar interests, hungrily gobbling the latest news and opinions. Like teenage girls gossiping about boys they like, we have progressed onto more ‘grown-up’ conversations!

Pia’s take on parenthood, prior to taking the plunge into the offspring journey, was far removed from mine. As a Children’s Court Lawyer, she often witnessed the ugly side of parent-child relationships. It wasn’t unusual for parents to oppose their child’s bail and she was often left to inform the child that their parents wouldn’t be coming to collect them. The police would then be left to play babysitter, frequently for minor crimes.

In her nurturing tones, she explained that these experiences revealed that there was nothing more important for a parent than to give their child unlimited and unconditional love and there was no such thing as loving your child too much.

On more than one occasion Pia would have taken the child home with her, if only to show them what it was to be loved. The reality of their situation was inescapable if she was presented with CCTV footage unmistakably showing their criminal behaviour. This could be compounded in the courtroom where a victim was added to the equation and her compassion was torn in another direction.

As we sit chatting on a sunny winter’s afternoon with our children playing around us, I find it fascinating to observe that Pia has struck an enviable balance in her parenting style. She hasn’t gone too far in the other direction. While she is a wonderfully loving mother who has no end of time and patience for her children she is also firm in guiding their young lives.

Pia is relishing being a full-time mum to her two small children. However, she has decided that if she chooses to resume her career it will be in a different capacity. She would like to continue in the children’s court in the position of a Duty Lawyer, dealing with lesser crimes.

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Shooting the Breeze – Part 5 – Perfect Imperfection

SwallowI’m accident prone, there’s no two ways about it. And it’s not just physical accidents that accompany me on my journey through life. It is also silly little accidents that happen along the way like accidentally getting into the wrong car in the shopping car park as my husband waited in the next row. I thought these were perfectly normal mishaps until I was in a group situation casually talking about such misdemeanours when the conversation stopped and all eyes were drawn to me. I quickly discovered that these little calamities were the source of much entertainment and humour.

There was a time when I could associate each major event in my life with a mini-cataclysm. I had become so notorious for such occurrences that my primary school class would often try to pre-empt my next move on the chessboard of misfortune. I bore a scar from most misadventures and while they were usually only noticeable to me I wore them with pride. These scars were like a photo taken to record a precious memory. Only these were permanently etched into my skin, not just in an album gathering dust.

Anything from falling off bunk beds, skidding across bitumen, running into door frames and crashing into an aquarium – full of just water, fortunately, not fish – I had it covered.

Occasionally these incidents took on more alluvion like proportions and there was no mistaking my misfortune. My olive complexion afforded me the unenviable ability to exchange my wounds for keloid scarring. While the red protuberances, moonlighting as scar tissue were a shock to the eye or a stray hand brushing past, they too were eventually welcomed into the fold of disfigurements on the dermal landscape.

Of course not all ‘imperfections’ are the result of gawky behaviour. They often impinge on people’s lives much more greatly than simply being an annoying blemish.

I met Mandy when we were working towards the publication of a book she was writing. Upon our first introduction via email, I was met with a sunny personality through the often impersonal cyber sphere. As it turned out, I was grateful I could meet her online. This was before her disability was revealed to me in the physical world and distracted me from her true self.

I couldn’t say that I knew Mandy well, however I felt so comfortable around her that on a whim I asked if she would be happy to talk to me about her disability. Fortunately she didn’t recoil as if I had invaded her private space. She was quite open to sharing her experiences. It must be noted that the labels ‘imperfect’ and ‘disabled’ don’t sit comfortably with me, especially when Mandy’s approach to life is not defined by her disability.

While spina bifida may have robbed her of the use of her legs, it hadn’t robbed her of an incredible spirit. What have you got left to lose when you’ve been given a night, a week, a month or a year to live and you continue to outlive the expectations? Now at 40, Mandy is possibly the sixth oldest female living with spina bifida in Western Australia. Being such a trailblazer is exciting as well as terrifying.

The death of a close friend when she was in her early 20s, also a person with spina bifida was devastating and knocked her mettle for a substantial period of time. Once she was able to cope with the loss, Mandy’s life continued to blossom.

Of course, there are frustrations and limitations at times. When I talk to Mandy about these, she treats them as any person may treat a minor annoyance, such as not being able to get a piece of technology to work. It’s irritating at the time, but there is no dwelling on it, you just move on.

I asked if she associated with many other spina bifida sufferers. While she does, she avoids big groups of people with similar disabilities, because then it becomes, “more about the disability than the person.” You only need to meet someone like this once to watch all your worries drift off into the sunset.

Mandy, it seemed had been blessed with the same extraordinary attitude to her spina bifida as her parents. Having been told that Mandy would struggle with numeracy and literacy, her parents omitted this little titbit from their daughter’s need-to-know information for sometime. It was only after completing Business and Psychology degrees that it was revealed.

For more than 12 years, Mandy not only used her psychology experience and qualifications, but her sincere compassion to work and volunteer for a suicide prevention not-for-profit organisation. She is an incredible example of what can be achieved when the odds are stacked against you. Our world is so much richer with her contribution to it.

Shooting the Breeze – Part 4 – Life in the Red Light

Red lightSuzie is an incredibly vivacious and engaging person, with an enviable zest for life. She was proffered to me in a package of three childhood friends when I was in my early 20s and I still view this trio as a treasured gift.

Upon meeting Suz you can’t help but be absorbed by her wonderful enthusiasm for whatever the topic of conversation may be. Let her loose at any kind of gathering and Suz will soon be amassing a cult following hanging onto each of her energised accounts.

People like Suz create interesting lives for themselves and her career choice of a social worker is a clear indication of this. Her early career involved working inside the walls of maximum security prisons with sex offenders. Turning the idea of putting the fox in the hen house on its head, as a young woman fitting the profile of the victim of many of these offenders, this role cut close to the bone and she realised it was time to move on.

Never shy of a challenge, Suz’s work later took her to the streets of Sydney’s Kings Cross as an ethnographer, mixing with the likes of drug addicts, sex workers and drug addicted sex workers as she conducted research for her PhD.

Beneath the sleaze of arguably Australia’s best known red-light district she found that many of these people shared a sense of community. It was a place where people could fraternise and it certainly beat the dull alternative of staying at home. While we might be quick to judge others on their life choices, we are all fundamentally the same and crave acceptance, understanding and love.

When I think about Suz and the ease at which she mingles in a social setting, it makes complete sense to me that she could approach a stranger on the street and ask them if they would be willing to share their often confronting stories for the purpose of research.

With this realisation, I felt slightly foolish that I asked her how she stopped herself from judging these people as she spoke to them. This is straightforward to me now, she would simply absorb herself in the moment as she would in any other circumstance. In Suz’s words, it is a matter of staying focused on the courage it has taken for them to sit with a complete stranger and share intimate stories and often painful truths. “If you stay with them in that space then judgement doesn’t come into it,” she explained.

While the average person may view sex workers as inferior human beings, Suz points out that one of the main misconceptions is that they don’t have the same dreams and desires as everyone else. She also made it clear that they are not completely irrational and “when you sit down and explore it, the decisions they make are perfectly logical in the context they find themselves,” she said.

She continued that not all sex workers are victims, some are engaged with supportive workplaces and enjoy the work they do. However, the women she came to know in Kings Cross were drug users first before accessing sex work as a means of survival, which was quite a different experience.

She is frank when I moot the possibility that anyone could find themselves in this situation. She has no doubt that given a certain set of circumstances we can make mistakes and that when explored, all decisions make sense in their own context, even if they are ultimately damaging.

Suz is not one to spend time pondering the ‘what ifs’, particularly when it comes to her own family. While she may contemplate the possibility that her children could make decisions that could be harmful, she tends to focus on the strengths they demonstrate and how these make them resilient, rather than worry about something that hasn’t happened yet. “I don’t think that I can control what they choose to do in their life ultimately, but I can provide them with love, security and boundaries, which everyone needs.”

While this research may provide interesting fodder for the likes of me, Suz’s work has also enhanced her enjoyment of life. “I have never felt too weighed down by the stories of others and generally have hope and optimism about the ability of other people to change if they want to. My work has made me a better person, friend, partner and mother,” she reflected.

Shooting the Breeze – Part 3 – Behind the Mask

MasksI recall an incident as an 18-year-old when my sister phoned me at home to pick her up from the pub. It was a Sunday evening so it wasn’t late and I was happy to keep my end of a deal we’d made to give each other a lift when we needed it. The pub was nearby so I didn’t bother getting changed into more sophisticated attire as I was only going to resume my spot in front of the television when I returned 20 minutes later.

What she failed to tell me was that I wasn’t going to be bringing her home, I would be dropping her and three male friends to another venue. Suddenly my oversized t-shirt, stripy leggings and knee-high uggboats didn’t seem like such a good idea after all. If I thought I could hide behind the steering wheel I was sadly mistaken, my outfit hadn’t gone unnoticed. When she rang again a few hours later for another lift for her and her friends I decided to leave my clothing unchanged. I thought it was too late to redeem myself anyway and I was at risk of appearing superficial.

Although I laugh every time I think about that situation, superficial is what I feel now as I read those words and think about my friend Angela who sat in her car terrified to reveal herself as a transgender person in public for the first time. This wasn’t simply a bloke stepping out in a frock, it was her introduction to the world as the person she always knew she was. Despite decades of rehearsing and mastering her female identity and living as a woman in the privacy of her own home, it still felt too soon to bring her into the public domain. Fortunately Angela’s first outing went smoothly, though it came after years of ridicule and inner turmoil.

I worked with Angela for three years, it was probably not until halfway through this tenure that I really came to know her. It’s not everyday that you come across a transgender person so I wasn’t exactly sure how things would be. When I saw the ease with who she was I realised that she just wanted to be treated as though she had always been a woman. I loved that she would refer to herself as an ‘old girl’ or if she was being really harsh on herself, a ‘bitch’.

It’s not hard to imagine how difficult life would be finding yourself with a female mind in a male body. It took me some time to summon up the courage to ask Angela if she was willing to speak about it. I needn’t have worried. Angela was so open to the opportunity to share her experiences she was already preparing her own account of them.

On the day we met I wasn’t only keen to hear about her experiences and take on life, this was the first time we had met away from our workplace so I was interested to see how people reacted to her in public. Angela explained to me that she had used people’s reactions to her over the years to gauge how her transformation into a woman was going.

Hormonal treatment had led to muscle loss and subsequently a change in gait. But she had also needed to perfect the female walking style, taking smaller steps while walking in a straight line. I was quite surprised that on this occasion, people didn’t really seem to notice Angela as a transgender person, a loud round of applause played in my head – her ultimate outcome had been achieved.

Walking wasn’t the extent of it, her facial expressions had also needed to be refined. I imagined her sitting in front of a mirror practicing raising her eyebrows and pursing her lips all the while as she developed the pitch of her voice.

Being true to herself had paid off. Gone were the days of hiding under the cover of darkness as she nicked outside for a cigarette at night, taking care not to be discovered dressed as a woman by sitting between the bushes.Masks 2

Doctors had marveled at her progress as she transformed into a woman. The transition defied medical explanation as her eyes became more rounded and cheekbones higher over the course of 18 months. It could only be put down to this being her true self.

If medicine was ready to make the change and accept her situation, society was not so obliging. Although there may have been a shift in thinking and acceptance of homosexual people, from Angela’s perspective, transgender people were still viewed as ‘freaks’.

Legal requirements to change from a man to a woman meant hours poring over paperwork and telephone calls which often led to frustration and despair. So there was immense jubilation when she finally decided to apply for a passport and the process was met with relative ease. So straightforward was the process she questioned why.

According to the voice at the other end of the phone, it had become apparent that transgender people should be recognised as the sex they had changed to on their passport and this could be done without great rigmarole.

Angela’s passport did not only represent a means to travel abroad freely, her country recognised her as a woman – another great mission accomplished.

Shooting the Breeze – Part 2 – Keeping the Faith

CrossMy childhood was based on a healthy mix of stability, support, love and faith. Particularly as a very young child there was no question of having the ability to do anything I set my mind to. It is only as an adult observing my own children that I can see this was not just an environmental influence, it was deeply inherent. There were few limitations put on me as I savoured every opportunity to try something new.

As an adult, I often hear people say that children are too scheduled and are hurried from one thing to another. I recognise that I continue to live this way as an adult as I did as a child. Yet changing that in my life as a child or an adult would be like severing my oxygen supply. It is how I draw energy and motivate myself to learn, discover and understand how the world and myself work.

Obviously not everyone needs or wants this sometimes maniacal level of stimulation to find satisfaction within themselves and solace in the world. Many find this through faith and I find that an enviable way to exist.

Faith is not a question for my parents. It just is. It’s something that gives them perspective on the world and is a reminder that they are each just one part of a bigger picture.

As I discuss my thoughts with my parents, Dad recalls a quote attributed to St Ignatius Loyola and hammered into him during school days, “What doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul?” (Matthew 16:26). The fact that he can reel it off decades later reflects that it was a none too subtle way to command that life was not about fame, celebrity or recognition. He bandies around terms like ‘sinners’ and ‘redemption’ that were once spoken about on a daily basis, they are now words of another era.

Mum talks about a ‘false certainty’ that faith created for them. It was easier and widely accepted to play by someone else’s rules than create your own and define your own boundaries. I ask if the control of their faith ever created resentment towards it, my mum scoffs – she has never entertained the thought.

I find it almost incomprehensible that their lives are not measured by self-satisfaction, rather by service. Despite reaching the latter stages of their largely fortunate and fulfilling lives, there is no room for complacency.

Although this is an impromptu discussion, it plays out like well-rehearsed theatre. There is no script, yet the dialogue flawless, the message irrefutable. Even as I scamper around after my youngster, the conversation continues to flow. Although two people are speaking, it could be the thoughts of one person as their words perform a ballet of unity and synchronicity.

It could be that my parents are products of their childhoods or that 40 years of marriage has melded their ideals. Whatever the reason I am left in awe at their ease with the places they take in the world.

They jokingly liken themselves to the 1960s television series Dr Kildare. My paternal grandfather once described my surgeon father as a ‘poor man’s Dr Kildare’ – in his eyes not reaching the charisma or success of the TV persona. Dad’s relaxed smile indicates he is content knowing that he surpassed his parents’ expectations. My mum has her Dr Kildare and she has been living the dream.

I once referred to my parents as the ‘50s couple’, dad would work and mum would take care of the home. A family friend recalled her first impression of us, a family you might see in a magazine with bright smiles and impeccable outfits, lovingly assembled by my mum.

These traditional family roles never featured in my own family ambitions. However I have come to understand their appeal. Mum and Dad were completely comfortable in their assumed roles, it was what they were best at and they formed a perfectly complementary partnership.

It’s easy to see how they view their lives as rich and fulfilling. They didn’t grow up with luxuries now viewed as staples, like television. In the early years my mum’s family in rural Australia lived without today’s basic western necessities of electricity and water in the house. How could you not appreciate the spiritual dividend that hard work, faith and a little luck would pay later in life?

Faith hasn’t been so straightforward for me. It has created more questions than it has answered. The most perplexing being the wedge it can drive between people and the intense emotions of anger, fear and isolation it can stir.

CandlesIn a complete paradox, I have also seen the unification faith can bring. It has been particularly evident to me in times of grief as people grapple to come to terms with the loss of a loved one. Believing that their soul will endure beyond the physical world can be an immense comfort to the living.

From my experience outside my family, faith is not something readily discussed by believers but is hastily condemned by non-believers. I admire those who are not inhibited to speak about their faith.

Some don’t need to speak about their beliefs, they just convey them through their actions in their daily lives. I cannot help but think of some of the sisters who educated me as a child. Their faith has never faltered nor discriminated. Despite their convictions, they go on undeterred, they do not judge others, instead they dedicate their lives to helping them.

Shooting the Breeze – Part 1

Conversations About Life

Camping

Note to the reader:

I began writing what was intended to be a little book more than three years ago. However, for various reasons the book was never completed. Due to the passage of time, I have struggled to pick up where I left off. Rather than let what I had written go to waste, I have decided to package it into short blog posts.

I have edited and removed some sections so that they make sense, however some may still appear incomplete. The people who have shared their stories with me are all dear family and friends, who have enriched my life greatly. I can’t thank them enough for sharing their wisdom and insights into the world.

So this is the first post of eight nine. I’ll post two each week – one on a Friday and one on a Tuesday.   I’d love to hear your feedback on any of them.

Thanks for reading x

PART 1

Introduction

When I was eight years old I declared to my dad that I was either going to become a saint or live to be the oldest person in the world. His wry response was, ‘One of those options isn’t bad’. I’ve never known which one he was referring to, although considering I was the youngest of three lively children, I can hazard a guess.

Either way neither of those aspirations is likely to eventuate unless I literally have some miracles occur in my life. It doesn’t matter though, I have well and truly moved on from those dreams and countless others have joined them on the scrap heap.

bubbleFor a long time I lived in a kind of dream bubble. If I rewind some years I find myself as a small child living in a big world, waiting expectantly for what would come next. Opportunities were seemingly endless and herein lay the premise that dreams could in fact become reality and I could do or be anything I liked.

bubbleThis mantra treated me well throughout childhood, good fortune came my way fairly liberally and I relished the challenge of new opportunities. It’s not as though things have taken a devastating turn, rather my salubrious bubble now exists more like an agitated vesicle waiting to explode with the pinprick of reality.

bubble1

While I probably wont be able to reincarnate the former idealistic majesty of my bubble, what remains still holds prospects of hope and possibility – who knows, it may some day regain its mousseux qualities. Like that sparkling wine punctuated with effervescence, it could be that some of my dreams are only meant to provide a fleeting moment of delirium before popping back into the abyss. I simply can’t do or be anything I want to.

So for now my endeavours of bringing the environment back from the brink of disaster, finding cures for debilitating illnesses and gaining a sense of equality throughout the world will have to wait.

My thoughts may appear trivial and to some I may be perceived as a spoilt child – I have been fortunate, there’s no doubt about it. So how do we find fulfilment from the dreams we haven’t realised? I clearly don’t have the answer so I am hoping to find some understanding through other people’s experiences. What have they done when life hasn’t followed the script? And more importantly, how have they come to accept themselves in an often unforgiving world?

As I embark on this investigation or possible self-inflicted vexation, I have no direction as to where this may take me or what I may discover. I am only armed with an unfailing sense of inquisitiveness and a life long compulsion to ask questions.

Another year over…

Happy flowerThank you to everyone for encouraging and supporting my little blog over the last few months.

I’ve really enjoyed getting back into some ‘fun’ writing,  even though time hasn’t been on my side these last few weeks.

My plan for next year is to post the book I referred to in the first post Why I Write, in installments. Unfortunately I have too many competing projects to finish it, but at least what I’ve done will see the light of day.

I’ve been working away on another passion, a little business called Little Thingz and we have grand plans for the New Year. I’d love to connect with you through there too, so please sign up to our website at http://www.littlethingz.com.au

Wishing you a wonderful Christmas and New Year – here’s to a beautiful year ahead.

Best wishes,
Liz x