Small floods

  There are words enough, at last.

I have come to think of this last year, 2015, as the year I lost to grief. 

Grief appeared at strange moments. Unexpected, it bubbled up from somewhere inside and filled me up. Sometimes it leaked, and wet my eyelashes, matting them together in shiny triangles at the edges of my eyes. Sometimes it seethed then raged, like the ocean withdrawing from the shore and the tidal wave that follows. There were days when the grief burned my cheeks with its saltiness. 

This grief is old. It’s been waiting a decade or more for me to give it space. In that time, it’s trickled into spaces all through my body, looking for somewhere it can rest, leaving its mark along the way, like flood marks on a wall. It hasn’t found a home, in all that time. Nowhere to settle, just restlessness and the scars of constant movement.

When I started giving it space, I began dreaming more than I had in years. About loss, about continuing despite loss. Maybe because of it. Starting again, not from scratch, but from where I am. Something we all need to do.

The grief came to rest in my chest; the space that air from outside creates and then deflates inside my lungs. And I wonder now if this is where it wanted me to allow it to go, all this time, so I could breathe it out, let it go. Have I kept it trapped all these years, thinking all the while that it was me who was the prisoner?

Words travel on the exhale when a person speaks, but for much of last year this old grief of mine was only air and water, draughts and leaks. 

Sounds, movement, silence. 

The only words I could use to explain it were nebulous, vague. 

Shapeless. Air and water. 

Mine alone to hold and then release back into the world, to be unmade and remade, the way we all are; to become something else.

It is a very strange and somewhat distressing state of affairs to be someone who has called themselves a writer and to find that there are no words, or that there are only words that make no sense to anyone else, and to feel that you cannot really understand the words other people are using. 

The year I lost to grief wasn’t completely lost, of course. I travelled, I worked, I loved. I made changes. I made new connections with people, more fully realised the depth of many old ones. I found that these people carried for me when I couldn’t a faith in me that I would find with time. I found, too, an immense gratitude, which I’m not sure there will ever be words enough to express, for this faith in me—especially because some of that faith came from people who didn’t have much beyond a hunch to go on. 

These are words enough now for the grief though. 

There is space where the grief once flooded everything else out. Space for joy and kindness and courage and playfulness. Space for all the things I thought I’d lost, but that had, in fact, just been learning how to swim. 

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Conversations with children

IMG_0444.JPG“Did you name it?” he asks me.

We’re taking about the snowman I made the day before when it snowed down in the ski village where I’m staying, and the front yard of the lodge was covered in a cold, fluffy, magical white blanket. 

“You know, I didn’t think of that,” I say. “I should have named it.”

“You’ll have to next time you make one,” he says, and I’m pleased that he has assumed I will make another at some point. “And did yours have a nose?”

“It did,” I say. “I made it out of a stone. But I didn’t give him eyes or a mouth because I couldn’t find enough stones.”

“Next time you should poke a hole for the eyes and draw a mouth on with your finger. And use a carrot for the nose. What about arms?”

“Yes, I used two small sticks,” I say.

IMG_0446.JPGHe is about five. I have just met him because he’s doing a group skiing lesson on the slope I’m also skiing, and the instructors send some of the kids up with other adults on the chair lift. This little boy happened to come into the line next to me. He has on a giant helmet, and the chin strap is between his lips and his nose, rather than under his chin. He’s playing with it with his lips and little mittened hands as we talk. He’s swinging his legs and tiny skis as we roll along, many metres above the slope.

“Did you give him gloves?” 

“No, I didn’t think of that. Next time I’ll have to.”

“Yes, in case it gets cold,” he says, and grins at me. 

“And maybe a scarf and hat,” I say. He smiles.

IMG_0447.JPGI’ve spent a lot of time having conversations with children this week. Answering the questions they seem to have about everything; talking about the important things in their lives, like puppies and finding animals in the snow and playing tricks on ski instructors and whether or not they like their teacher and what the book “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” is about. They’ve asked me a little about mine—about whether I live with my parents, have a dog, am allowed to drink beer. These conversations have been quiet and patient and curious. Full of questions. From both parties. And each time it’s struck me how wonderful it is to be this open to another person without trying to prove anything about yourself or an issue you have an opinion about; curious about them and their experience of life, willing to share something of yourself with them, even if just for a few minutes. 

IMG_0445.JPGWe reach the top of the chairlift and ski off, him to the left to join his group, me to the right to join my family. 

“Bye!” he yells out to me, waving. 

“Have fun,” I yell, and wave back. 

“Thank you.”

And he is gone, disappearing into his group lesson, a sea of little skis and big helmets.

Walking and talking: on bicycles, training wheels, motorbikes and change

20140320-204423.jpgA little girl on her bike rides slowly around the park several times with her father walking by her side. Her bike is pink, it has training wheels that take turns in taking her weight as the bike wobbles from side to side, and pink shimmery streamers flowing from its handlebars. Her helmet, pink with blue flowers, is fastened firmly on her head.

“I think I’ve seen you riding on your motorbike to work,” she is telling her father. “With your helmet.”

I do not hear his reply from my spot lying on the grass with a book; they are too far away. But I hear more on their next round of the park, five or ten minutes later. 

“A motorbike isn’t exercise, is it?” she says. 

“No,” says her father. “The motor does all the work.”

And then they are gone again.

I wonder if they have been talking about motorbikes this whole time. Perhaps she has been asking him all sorts of detailed questions about his motorbike. Perhaps she will continue this fascination as she grows up. I imagine her as an adult, riding a motorbike. 

Watching them move slowly around the park, I remember the period when I first started school, when my Dad would walk me there from home each morning. I don’t remember our conversations, but I do remember how much I valued that time. I remember how I’d have to walk a few steps, then run a few to keep up with his pace. Just me and Dad, possibly talking about motorbikes. Or tractors. Or school. Or my favourite doll, Jessica.

I still walk and talk with my Dad sometimes. I do so with other members of my family too, and with good friends. There’s something in the walking. So many of those conversations I’ve had while walking, at least past the age of about ten, I still remember parts of; their significance somehow etched into my memory through their link to the physical act of walking. Perhaps too I’ve walked and talked when I’ve needed to talk things out—or when my walking companion has. The conversations so often have led to shifts in my thinking that have in some way shaped how I’ve moved forward with my life.

Things are changing in my life just now. Lots of things. In ways that are significant, though perhaps not big. I don’t know yet, really, because they’re still happening and I haven’t had a chance to reflect on how they fit into the greater pattern of my life. I need to take more walks. 

The little girl and her father do a few more slow rounds of the park, and then they leave. I can hear her still chattering, though I cannot hear her words. I imagine them returning to the park when she rides without the training wheels for the first time, wonder what their conversation will be. And I wonder how and if that walk will alter her life. Will it be one of many?

Conversations about bodies I wish I’d had with my grandmother

Feet in sandI am sitting on the sand, hair in a sopping wet lump of a braid down my back, face tingling from the cold water and the thin veneer of salt that has lingered on my skin all week. The sand is warm. It is gritty between my toes. The sun too is warm on the bare skin of my upper back; I can feel it drying the swimming costume that covers my lower back. I am on holidays. I am, unsurprisingly, feeling rather content. 

Gazing towards the waves, I spot an old woman walking very carefully out of the shallows, on the arm of a middle-aged woman I assume is her daughter. The uneven surfaces and the small waves are difficult for the old woman. Perhaps she will not be able to come to the beach for much longer. 

I remember a conversation I had with my paternal grandmother years ago—I’m not sure how many, but long before she died—where she told me how much it saddened her when she realised she could no longer walk safely on the sand. When she had to give up on going to the beach. I think too of the many hours I spent on a beach as a child with her, the story—well known in our family—about the time as a young woman that my grandmother ran into the surf with her glasses on, such was her joy at being on the beach, only realising she’d done so when she came out of the water later, noticed she couldn’t see and realised she’d been able to when she went in. I think too of her feet. Of the olive skin and scrunched toes. Of her troubles with bunions. My grandmother’s feet in the sand. 

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about feet and knees for the blog of the yoga business I teach corporate yoga through. About how to look after them so they work well for longer. Remembering my grandmother’s feet, it doesn’t surprise me that she found that she lacked stability on the beach. But it saddens me. And the full meaning of that conversation with her all those years ago—although I must have guessed at the strength of her sadness at the time or perhaps I’d have forgotten the conversation—sits with me suddenly here on the beach. And I miss her. Immensely. 

I miss her because I am watching another old woman who may one day soon say something similar to her own granddaughter. And the old woman probably knows this now. I hope so much that the knowledge doesn’t mean she is frustrated or sad, I hope it means she is enjoying this time on the beach now. 

This is the difficulty of bodies. They break down, they slow down, they fall apart. They waste away. And when they do it’s painful, it’s confronting, and sometimes it’s heartbreaking. My own body has fallen apart in its own way at times. The most significant so far was in a big and lasting way, when I was just a teenager. I used to feel hardly done by about this—angry, resentful, ashamed even—but now I feel grateful. Yes. Grateful. Because this happens to everyone, in some way, eventually, and that it happened for me in my teens was shock enough at an age when I was old enough to be pushed into finding out more about this thing I get around in. Actually, this thing that is me, just as much as my mind is. 

On the beach, my own feet are covered in sand, stuck out in front of me here, off the towel. I am suddenly hugely grateful for them. I have my own issues with stability (baby-sized, perhaps, compared to so many elderly and not-so-elderly folk), and my earlier run-in with bodily dysfunction has left its mark, but even so, this body is incredible. The processes that happen under this skin, the things that keep me breathing and eating and moving around, really are amazing. 

I just wish I’d been able to talk about these things with my grandmother, that I’d known how to respond when she talked about the challenges of ageing. I wish this was a conversation more people knew how to engage in meaningfully and compassionately—about the challenges of having/being a body. Because not talking about these things means we feel isolated when things go wrong. I see it again and again in my yoga teaching work. Or perhaps I’m just projecting my own response to a lack of these kind of conversations. 

More than anything, in this moment in the sunshine on the beach, I miss my grandmother intensely and wish she could be sitting here with me on the sand now, water dripping from her hair and dribbling down her spine. Watching the waves come in.
~
The post on knees and feet I wrote can be read here.

Stories and objects: a lost bracelet

Watch locketWe are talking about the frying pan I’m about to buy when the woman behind the counter notices my necklace, a locket.

That’s lovely, she says. Is there anything in it?

I open it to show her the watch inside. My parents gave it to me some years ago, I tell her.

Her face softens immediately. Oh, it’s lovely. I bet you love it. Gifts like that are special, aren’t they?

She begins to tell me about gifts, of jewellery in particular, her now deceased parents gave her. She is one of those women who have worked in a department store for twenty years or more: immaculate blonde hair, just a little too much foundation, long manicured fingernails, rings with big stones on at least two fingers on each hand, just the right amount of some age-appropriate fashionable perfume. As she talks, I notice suddenly how small she is—she comes up to my chest, at most.

She tells me the story of her falling on the way home from the train station one day and losing a beloved bracelet her parents had given her.

Half way through the story, just at the part where she injured herself falling over and walked the twenty minutes home only to discover the bracelet was gone, she starts laughing at herself failing the necessary steps to put my frying pan transaction through because she is distracted by her storytelling.

Hang on, let me put this through first, she says. I laugh too. We finish the transaction and fiddle about sticking receipts to boxes and deciding about whether I need a bag. I am about to leave when she remembers—

Wait, let me tell you the rest of my story. Please do, I say.

When she realised she had lost the bracelet—which she never usually wore to work, but this one day, of course—she called her Dad in tears. At this time her mother was in a nursing home, but her Dad still lived in their home. Her Dad listened and soothed her distress with all the appropriate words. The next day when she could walk okay again she went back to the spot she had fallen, but the bracelet, predictably, was gone.

Some time later, she went to visit her father at his home—I still get teary thinking about this now, she tells me—and at the end of her visit her father remembered suddenly, and disappeared to his bedroom. When he came back, he had a small jewellery bag. In it was a replacement bracelet. Not the same kind, nothing like it, she tells me—he probably wasn’t involved in buying the first one, even. But this one, this one was even more special than the first, and she would never wear it to work.

Oh, Dad, I say to her, touched.

I know, she says. I miss my Dad. He was the kind of man who’d be thinking about whose birthday was coming up in the next month or two, so he could be sure they’d have a gift. He loved giving gifts. She gazes out past my shoulder. But I should let you go, she says.

And I do go, but I thank her for sharing the story with me, feeling that what she shared was so much more than a story about a lost bracelet. What she showed me, a complete stranger, was grief. Not the kind we usually think of—sobbing, distressed, wild—but an everyday kind. The kind where a person is suddenly reminded of a hole that’s been left.

Walking back through the department store with my frying pan under my arm, on my way back to work, I am, for a few moments at least, a little less overwhelmed and irritated by department stores and shopping centres and crowded places where people seem to forget that other people are moving in those places too. Instead, I am aware, in a way that makes my skin tingle, of what it is that all these people might carry around with them that stops them from seeing other people, and I am reminded of this speech by David Foster Wallace about the world and people and changing our attitude to others. And this reminder, perhaps, more than the story itself, lovely though it was, is why I will remember that small blonde woman’s story, and the image I have of her elderly father holding out for her a small velvet bag containing a bracelet.

Am I falling? On fear and failure and the shame of bodies

It’s not until my skis touch the ground at the top of the chair lift and it sinks in that I have to stand up and ski away from the lift that I realise how terrified I am. Down the tiny slope that leads away from the lift, I pick up more speed than I am ready for and do exactly what you’re not supposed to: crouch down. I fall. I haven’t got my gloves on yet, and I graze several of my fingers in the icy snow. It stings. But more than anything, I’m embarrassed. I haven’t even actually done any skiing yet and I’ve already fallen over.

20130829-180042.jpg The slope — a beginners’ slope — brings more frustration and shame. I am most definitely the least experienced skier in my lesson group. This is not surprising: I haven’t skied since I was a teenager, and I was a novice then. The teacher is trying to show us how to execute turns. I just fall over every time. We get just a third of the way down the slope, and I have fallen over about eight times. Then I slide backwards across the mountain, off the snow and into the grass. The whole lesson group is watching me. I cry. Just a little; the hot tears of frustration and shame. I remember this feeling about skiing from when I was five and ran into a fence in my ski lesson. I cannot do something that everybody else can. They have all watched me fail miserably.

This moment, where I have to ask the ski instructor just to give me a minute to collect myself, makes me think of my beginners’ yoga students. It reminds me that it’s possible they feel this shame and frustration when they can’t do something I’m asking them to; that it’s important I always remember to approach a student’s difficulty with the compassion the ski instructor is showing me now.

~

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about falling. For the last few weeks, I’ve started my day by rolling out of bed and standing on my head for a short while. In the lamplight of my bedroom, I rest my weight on my elbows, forearms and a fist I’ve made with my hands. The top of my head touches the floor lightly, and I walk my toes closer to my face so my torso is perpendicular to the floor, hips up in the air. I lift one leg, then the other. Often I wobble and my feet touch the wall behind my head. As I hold myself there, reaching my feet towards the ceiling, I play, slowly, with my balance. What happens if I tilt my pelvis so my lower back lengthens a little? What happens if I tilt it the other way? Some days I really notice the comparative weakness in my left shoulder, and my legs and feet sway a little from left to right. Some days I am steady, and this usually surprises me, because most days I’m wobbly. As I wobble around upside down, I ask myself: am I falling?

Mostly, the answer is no. I sway a little, I adjust. I sway a little, I adjust. The balance takes focus. If I wander off in my mind, I lose it. I need to bring my feet down or they’ll fall down.

It’s the same on the ski slopes. That shifting of balance. The focus. Lean away from the slope, put your weight in the outside foot, or in the toes if you’re facing downhill. Lean the way you don’t want to fall.

It fascinates me: balance, falling. The fear. When I’m skiing, I’m afraid I’ll fall and get my skis caught up in one another and twist my ankle or knee or hip. I’m afraid I’ll wobble my already unstable hips out of alignment, because I know how easy it seems to be for me to do that just in regular life. I’m afraid of the pain, I guess. Which is a fairly reasonable fear, except that it so often means I focus on that when I should be noticing where my weight is, adjusting where necessary and thereby avoiding a fall.

Slowly, I get better at skiing. I fall less and less. And when I do fall, it’s mostly strategic, because I’m aware of the limits of my skills and would prefer to fall myself than plough down a small child. I get better at noticing the minute changes I need to make in the direction of my skis and the weight in my hips and legs to turn a certain way. I notice how much more difficult it is for me to get my left side to hold my weight than my right; how much more difficult again this is when I start to get tired. Or if I let my mind wander too much. Being present just in that moment is immensely useful for balance.

I am not, by any means, a good skier, but I do okay. And that’s enough.

For about the same amount of time that I’ve been doing headstands each morning, I’ve also been reading Illness, by Havi Carel. I will, at some point, write more here about this book and its ideas, because it’s having a profound effect on how I view my own chronic illness, and the periods of greater or lesser health within that, but for now I want only to mention one idea that returned to me as I alternately fell and skied down the slopes. Carel writes about how a serious illness — chronic or otherwise — can bring with it a sense that one’s body has failed them, betrayed them. That because of this failing in this one part of myself, I am somehow not enough. This is certainly how I’ve felt about my own body because of illness at various points. And I wonder if, on a different scale, that is part of what I was ashamed of when I kept falling and falling and falling that first time down the slope. Whether that is part of what any person might be ashamed of when they’re asked to do something with their physical body that proves difficult or impossible.

Because, to a certain degree, we are our physical bodies and their capabilities and limits. We are our illnesses, our falls, our tears of shame. We are also that steady headstand that comes along every now and then, that brilliantly executed turn on the skis.

Of course, we’re also not any of those things. We both are and are not our dys/functionality. This is something I have to remind myself on a regular basis. It’s all about perspective.

And so it is about perspective with falling. Perhaps when I’m standing on my head I am actually falling most of the time; it’s just that I catch myself. And when I’m skiing, I am, of course, actually falling down a hill the whole time, even if I’m not falling over. It’s a sort-of-controlled falling, or at least it’s a falling I’m sort-of-almost comfortable with most of the time.

~

20130829-180017.jpg Several days into our week away, on a day where the snow is too slushy to ski, my brother and I go for a long walk. We talk, among other things, about falling. About how falling is not so bad anyway. Yes, sometimes you hurt yourself when you fall over, but mostly the physical injury is minor; the injury to the ego is greater. It’s embarrassing. We talk about how facing a fear of falling can teach you so much. About how falling can teach you so much.

This is something I think about often with physical activity, that it so often brings up questions about self and identity and capability and worth. I can stand on my head, and that makes me feel capable and strong. But I am at best a novice skier, and that makes me feel small. There’s something to learn from each feeling, if I’m up to looking at it a little closer.

20130829-180004.jpg As my brother and I talk about being afraid of falling, he jumps up onto a pole running along the side of a road, and walks along it, balancing. He talks about the relationship between balance and falling and play. We trudge through snow in inappropriate shoes, and I am conscious of the risk of slipping, but we go ahead anyway. We discover a small creek, we climb on rocks, we peer at plants. At one point we come across a snowman someone built earlier in the day. I take pictures of moss and rocks, he throws snowballs at me. It reminds me of adventures we had as children. Adventure, triumph, play, fear of falling, failure, and shame are all so tied up in one another. Shining in the midday winter sun, the snow crunches under our feet, a wonder and a danger all at once.

Having brothers

A few weeks ago, I went to stay with my family for a week in Canberra. I arrived the night before my parents were due back from a six-week overseas trip, and my two brothers picked me up at the airport. Every time I see them together now, I’m struck by how strange it is that my little bros are adult men. One of them has a beard, even. They’re both taller than I am, and I’m very aware that if I were ever to push at either of them, like I might have when we were kids, I would lose. (Actually, I tried this once, jokingly, a few years ago. I ended up falling into a bush when the inevitable playful shove back came.)

The next morning, I had several hours with just my two brothers before we were due to pick our travelling parents up from the airport, and I realised later that it was the first time in years the three of us had been alone together. One of the things I love most about my brothers is that we somehow seem to get the balance of seriousness and silliness just right when we spend time together. That morning, we stood together in my parents’ half-finished new kitchen drinking coffee and making breakfast, alternately talking about the big stuff in our lives and engaging in silly banter and giggling. (And I insisted on taking pictures of our feet.)

Kitchen feet

Somewhere in that time, we decided that it would be hysterically funny if we managed to get ourselves taken away by airport security just as Mum and Dad walked through the arrivals gate. The amusement came in some strange way from the idea that, as we were taken away, we’d be able to yell out at our parents: “Look what happens when you leave us alone!” Which, actually, was probably a weird way of us being able to talk about how much we’d all missed Mum and Dad, and how much we were looking forward to seeing them. Warped, I know.

So the car trip to the airport was spent discussing in great detail the different ways we could get the attention of airport security, and what we’d have to do to get them to take us into custody. There were plenty of options, but the one we seemed to keep coming back to was starting a fist fight. Which I was sure to lose, I now realise.

The night before, we’d been to the supermarket and picked up a couple of Mars Bars as a welcome home present for our parents (a family in-joke). When we got to the terminal, we realised we’d left them in the car. It became a matter of great importance that someone go back to the car to get the chocolate bars, but also a point of contention as to who that should be and whether it would mean that person would miss out on the all important moment of arrival/taking away. This could spell disaster for our plan. It had been a foggy morning, and it was likely that the plane would have been delayed, so the older of my two brothers decided he’d take a gamble and make a run for the car. The younger and I decided we’d go to the arrivals gate itself.

It turned out that the running had been completely unnecessary, because the flight had indeed been delayed. We waited near the arrivals gate, watching the sun rise higher in the sky. As we waited, we brainstormed the timing of our ridiculous welcome plan. How could we make sure that we were apprehended at precisely the right moment?

Airport feet

Waiting at the same gate for someone arriving on the same plane were three young men dressed in different animal suits, and we chastised ourselves for not acquiring a crocodile onesie each. Perhaps an animal suit would have been a more appropriate way of making a big deal out of our parents’ arrival.

When the plane finally landed, we stood by the windows watching to see if our parents would cross the tarmac, or use the aerobridge. We bickered vaguely about where we should stand when they came out at the gate. At the last minute, we abandoned all plans to get the attention of airport security, and hoped that the Mars Bars would be enough of a welcome.

Mum and Dad entered the airport at the same time as the friend of the three blokes in animal suits. Our parents noticed us first, of course, but the onesies and animal heads were hard to miss.

“Why didn’t you guys dress up like that?” Dad said.

“Why are they dressed up like that?” Mum said.

We handed them the Mars Bars.