Reclaiming ordinary

My mum saw a blackboard outside a café once (I think that’s what it was) that made her mad. If it were me, a misplaced or missing apostrophe is what would get my goat. But mum? Mum was mad that the hand written sign was imploring her to live an extraordinary life.

‘What’s wrong with an ordinary life?’ she huffed.

I’ve grown up surrounded by messages to be extraordinary, so I think I’m a bit immune. Is this a recent thing? I feel like once upon a time, there was maybe more value placed on just living an ordinary, good life. Apart from the fact there was no internet to make you think there was something wrong with your life, I suspect most people just couldn’t afford to imagine anything much different to working and raising a family – and that’s if you were lucky. There were also different social norms that came with certain expectations around what was considered “normal”, which was not necessarily a good thing. I might be romanticising the past, of course. Readers older than me (uncle John) please feel free to set me right.

I’m talking about messages like: Do one thing each day that scares you. A life lived in fear is a life half lived. Do something you love and never work a day in your life. Every single meme in my Facebook feed. Sunrises and seascapes and triumphant people wearing expensive hiking clothes standing on clifftops with their arms in the air, all encouraging me to be extraordinary, to live my dreams, to hope, to believe. The signs on the walls at Emma’s gymbaroo class, imploring me to feel joy, every moment of every day of my beautiful life. Girls at the gym wearing singlets telling me to run faster, jump higher, dance like nobody’s watching. Entire sections of the bookshop dedicated to living a life less ordinary, to taking the road less travelled, to feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Inspiring articles everywhere I look about people who left the corporate rat race to sell jewellery or make natural cleaning products or grow their own kale. Yoga teachers who spend the meditation telling me I’m amazing and haven’t yet discovered my own potential, when they don’t even know me or my potential. Tony Robbins and all the people like him – an industry that’s popped up encouraging us to want to be extraordinary, a whole industry, an actual job called motivational speaker. I barely notice it anymore. The whole (Western) world is one big pep talk.

But mum’s right, of course, as she almost always is. There’s nothing wrong with an ordinary life, and thank goodness for that, because it’s what most of us end up living. We might have glimpses of the extraordinary – even mum’s been 4WD-ing in East Timor, after all – but wherever we are, whatever we do with our days, whoever we spend them with, most of it is utterly, relatively ordinary. And I think it’s time to reclaim that. To see the dignity and value in it. It’s enough to be good enough, to be a good enough partner and parent and friend and colleague. It’s enough to work – in fact for most of us, “doing what we love” is a privilege we can’t afford or just don’t have. It’s enough to have a hobby that everyone else has (cycling if you’re a man aged over 30) or no one else has (yes I’m still enjoying jazzercise classes), and to spend time with people you like, and to have the occasional holiday. It’s enough to feel sad some days, and joyful other days, and to take your family and health for granted sometimes, and be overcome with gratitude other times. It’s enough to eat good food sometimes, and crap food other times, and watch good TV sometimes, and crap TV other times, and read the books you want to read even though you know they’re also crap. It’s all enough, and we should never feel that it isn’t. Indeed, if this is your life, you are already incredibly privileged and to think there should be any more than that – or else there is something wrong with you, or the life you are living – is almost perverse.

I have friends who live by inspiring Facebook memes and I love those friends. I love how they approach life and I come away from our conversations feeling inspired and interested in everything, which is exactly how friends should make you feel. And I would never want people who naturally gravitate towards this sort of philosophy – or who want to – to rein it in. I want them to keep posting sunsets and cute baby gorillas and inspiring quotes from historical figures in fancy font. All I’m doing – for myself, for my sanity – is reclaiming the word ‘ordinary’. And if your Facebook feed and all the blackboards outside cafes are making you feel like the ordinary life you’re pretty happy with is actually something you should be ashamed of – something that needs fixing – then feel free to join me. Because it’s not. You, in your ordinariness, are perfectly fine. Ordinary is a perfectly valid lifestyle choice if it’s what you want. Even if it will never spawn an aspirational lifestyle website a la Gwyneth or earn you a book deal. I hope to enjoy a long, healthy life as a decent human being and if I can achieve that, that’s extraordinary enough for me.

Life lessons from Alison the midwife

Sometimes in life you meet someone very briefly and yet something about them stays with you forever. You remember their scarf, their joke, their voice, even just the way they walked. But you remember it, long after you’ve forgotten all other details of the encounter. And so it is, with me and Alison the midwife at Queanbeyan hospital. Alison was one of those people – she came along at exactly the right time, saying exactly the right things, and changed my life in the process.

I met Alison around the 35 week mark. I’d dropped Emma off at childcare after a difficult morning during which we fought over every detail. Breakfast. Brushing teeth. Clothes. Getting in the car. Saying goodbye. I was exhausted and pretty over the whole parenting thing – not a great feeling when you’re about to start all over again with another baby. At the hospital I sat in the consult room making small talk with Alison while she got her things ready.

Then she said, “And how’s Emma?”

And I burst into tears. Between sobs I managed to get out something about “rough morning” and “threenagers”. Alison tut tutted sympathetically and got me a tissue.

“I bet you feel like you’ve been a terrible mother!” she exclaimed.

“I have! I can’t believe I’m about to do it all again,” I said. “I’m going to mess up two children, not just one!” I really was genuinely worried about this at this point.

“This is very normal,” she assured me. “The more pregnant you get, the more you will start turning inward. You are starting to focus on your new baby, and the birth process, and what’s coming up. You don’t mean to, but you are – you have to. Emma will be picking up on that, and she knows there’s changes coming. So between the two of you, this is very normal. Give yourself a break.”

It was honestly like a gap in the heavens opened up, and sunlight poured down on me, and Alison and all the angels were singing in beautiful harmony about how me being a horrible mother was a natural part of life right now. And Emma and I would both survive. The relief was enormous. Alison had more to say about that, based on her interest in evolutionary psychology, but you get the general gist.

Once I’d recovered from that teary moment we talked about other things and she asked how my husband was going preparing for a second baby. I said something about Toby being an only child, and not sure how this whole two children caper was going to work.

“Oh, only children always feel that way,” Alison said. “They wonder how you can possibly love two children.” I distinctly remember she starting washing her hands at this point. “They don’t realise, you just get more love.”

It was so simple. So obvious. After all, I’d been wondering the same thing – and I’m not an only child, it was just hard to imagine. And yet since Finn has been born, her words keep coming back to me. There is always enough love to go around – you just get more of it.

But Alison wasn’t done in doling out words of wisdom. She got me up on the bed and I lifted up my shirt so she could measure my belly.

“What lovely skin!” she said. Which is what every woman wants to hear, all the time, no matter what the situation. I had miraculously escaped my genetic fate and gotten to this point without any stretch marks at all, from either pregnancy. “Do you eat a lot of good fats?”

“Um, yes.” What an odd question. But as a vegetarian and the mother of a peanut butter obsessed toddler who thinks avocado is a vegetable, I guess I do? I hadn’t equated it to my skin though; mostly I was assuming it was this nutrimetics cream which I’d been using religiously.

Alison nodded knowingly. “That would be it.”

[I did get one stretch mark in the end, around the 38 week mark, when my cream ran out and I decided not to replace it. After all, how much bigger was I going to get? LOL. But also, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest; I actually feel a sense of pride towards it. I carried two kids in there, and then got them out here, and the mark is a part of that story.]

And so my appointment with Alison came to an end, having just changed my life – or at least, how I was feeling about my life. I wasn’t a terrible mother. I was going to get more love for the new baby. And I should keep eating good fats if I want to have nice skin. I was in love with Alison.

At my next appointment the midwife commented on my lovely skin. “The last midwife said it was because I eat good fats,” I said.

“Was it Alison? She’s always going on about good fats.” LOL.

Alison was on duty when I was in labour with Finn and I got really excited to see her friendly face but she didn’t end up being with me (which was fine).

The last time I saw Alison was a few days after Finn was born, when I had to take him back to the hospital to have his hearing test. She gave an appropriate comment about how lovely he was and then asked how Emma was.

“She loves him,” I said. “But she hasn’t forgiven us.”

Alison nodded wisely. “That’s very normal,” she assured me, making me feel 100 times better with just three words before rushing off again.

So thank you Alison. I hope you don’t mind I’ve shared your wisdom here for the benefit of others – who knows how many lives you might change.

 

 

 

‘What about me?!’: The whole problem with society

I abhor the Shannon Noll song that shares this title, which may be better translated as ‘Woe is me’. It represents everything that is wrong with our society. It is whingey and self-centred and it lacks compassion and empathy. It is ignorant and small-minded and selfish. We all know that if everyone put all their problems in a big pile and you were allowed to choose whatever problems you wanted, you would more than likely take your own back in a flash if you saw everyone else’s. So I hate the song, and I hate the attitude it reflects, which seems to be contagious and growing like a sickly grey fungus, poisoning minds and hearts and destroying what it means to be a human in a community of humans.

I will never forget the woman I saw on TV one night when she was an audience member for an episode of Q&A starring our then-PM Julia Gillard. The woman described how she and her husband had worked really hard their whole lives, sent their kids to school, paid off their house, always paid their bills on time – and yet, had never received a government handout. The woman was almost in tears. ‘Where is our reward?’ she asked. ‘So much hand work, and we’ve never gotten a cent.’

I felt like throwing something at the TV. I couldn’t believe Julia managed to keep her cool in the face of such ridiculousness. What I would have said to the woman, if I could, was this: THAT is your reward. Being employed. Living in a house you’ve paid off. Children who are educated. No debts. Never having to line up in a Centrelink office, never having to be in that system. Those are your rewards.

My mind boggles that she didn’t see this. She was an incredibly privileged woman. Sure, I don’t know the ins and outs of her life – I don’t know what struggles she’s had, because no life is perfect. But based on her question to the Prime Minister, which is all the information she thought was relevant, she got exactly what she deserved from all her hard work. And yet she wasn’t celebrating. She wasn’t even quietly content. She thought it warranted asking the actual Prime Minister for an actual reward.

People think it’s only Gen X (or is it the one after that? I can’t keep up and I’m not sure which one I am) who have this enormous sense of entitlement, but it’s not. That woman was in her forties. Today at work we got an email to the Prime Minister from an Aged Pensioner. The writer was complaining that victims of the Bali bombings were being given compensation by the government, when pensioners “like me, who have done so much for this country, can barely put food on the table”.  The letter writer did not provide details of their sizeable contribution to Australian society and felt the need to point out that at least the bombing victims “could afford a holiday”. You couldn’t make this up. And yes, they will receive a response. Any nut job with an email address can now write to the Prime Minister about their terrible life and how much worse it is than that other poor bastard, and get a response.

This either/or mentality – that by giving something to someone we are necessarily taking something away from someone else – seems pervasive, and so dangerous. It drives some of the debate about marriage equality – that somehow marriage equality will make existing marriages less equal. (It goes without saying that I do not understand this argument, and that in a world where cousins, serial killers on death row and people who have known each other a matter of hours can get married, it is bullshit.) There is enough in this world – of food, money and love – to go around. We’re not always good at figuring out how to make it go around, but there is enough. If you as an individual don’t have enough, it’s not because the person next door has too much. The problem is bigger than you, and bigger than them. Taking it away from them will not lead to you having more.

The lack of empathy also astounds me, as does the lack of awareness as to how lucky most of us really are. I know the Age Pension isn’t much money. I know it’s hard work to pay off your mortgage and educate your kids and keep it all afloat. I know it’s easy to look at the single parent down the road who doesn’t have a job but doesn’t seem to live on the actual poverty line, and feel hard done by as you slog away in your paid job for what seems like not much more money. But I don’t understand why people don’t consider themselves blessed to live in a country that has an Age Pension that they are eligible to receive. I don’t know why they think that if someone can afford to go on a holiday to Bali, they deserve zero assistance if they encounter a traumatic event while they’re there. I don’t know why you wouldn’t look back at your life of being employed and educated and with a roof over your head, and think, ‘It’s not always been easy but I’m so lucky.’ I don’t know why you would want to be subject to the whims of the government, which can change or take away your single parent payment any time they want, can demand the most personal of details be revealed and scrutinised, and will certainly not give you any kind of career trajectory, pay rises or simple self esteem like you would get in an actual job.

Say what you want about Oprah, and many do, and her sentimentality and other traits it’s easy to be cynical about. But the idea she used to advocate, of being grateful, of even going so far as to keep a gratitude journal – in which you write every day one thing you are grateful for – seems more and more like a healthy habit to get into. I would hate to become so bitter about my ordinary life that I despised other people for their worse ones. I would hate to forget that I’m blessed. It seems to me you lose something important of yourself, when you are angry at the world, when you feel owed something, when you resent so much what others have.

So – notes to self. Get a gratitude journal. Take a moment, occasionally, to reflect on your less-than-perfect life and see all its perfections. Think back to any periods of unemployment in your life and how much it totally sucked, once the novelty of sleep-ins and daytime trips to the pub wore off. Revel in your physical abilities, your beating heart, your working limbs, your breathing lungs. Remember the best parties, kisses, jokes, burgers, sunsets. Give of yourself in a way to make the world a better place, even if it seems so small as to be insignificant: it will matter. And if all that fails, email the Prime Minister.

 

Edit to add: Here is a slightly different take on a “What about me” essay that’s been in the news in the States the past few weeks. http://www.slate.com/articles/business/moneybox/2013/12/poverty_thoughts_viral_essay_how_do_we_really_define_the_meaning_of_poor.html

32 things

I turned 32 last week. Turning 30 felt odd so turning 32 feels downright wrong. My 20s felt like they lasted longer than they did, but at the same time they were over in a heartbeat. Wasn’t I just 16 a month ago, celebrating my 21st last week? I think part of me thought I’d be a 20-something forever. And yet here I am, an age I remember my parents being (although that says more about how young they are, than how old I am). I am a 30-something. And in celebration of that, here are 32 things I know, now that I’m 32.

  1. Babies are great. If you think you might want to have one, you totally should.
  2. Babies are really hard work. If you think you probably don’t want to have one, then don’t.
  3. Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much. (This is stolen from Michael Pollan. I don’t follow it. But I should.)
  4. When it comes to work, don’t be loyal to your business or team or boss before you’re loyal to yourself. No one else is going to look after you and your career, so you have to do it yourself.
  5. Forgiveness is really important (for your sanity as much as anything else). But it doesn’t mean being a doormat.
  6. It’s just stuff.
  7. It’s just money.
  8. Friends are precious and are worth a bit of effort.
  9. Don’t take it personally if someone doesn’t want to eat the cake. They might just not want to eat cake.
  10. The day I realised I no longer cared about being cool was liberating. I sent Andy a text to tell him I’d listened to ABBA on my iPod while sitting in the very front seat of the bus – the seat we used to joke was reserved for the crazy homeless person. ‘And I didn’t even care!’ I said to Andy. I was thrilled to realise I had grown up. Life is so much easier when you don’t care about being cool.
  11. My life is also better since I stopped reading trashy magazines. I even take the newspaper to the hairdresser now. Seriously, try it.
  12. It’s good to try something at least once, even if you’re not sure about it. And then you never have to try it again.
  13. I now make a conscious effort to to not spend time with people who don’t make me feel good. If you feel drained every single time, they are not people you need in your life, at least for now.
  14. Say sorry.
  15. If all else fails, there is always toast.
  16. I try to assume the best of people, until proven otherwise. I think it’s safest.
  17. Cheese. That is all.
  18. You don’t have to work with the lepers to make a difference in people’s lives.
  19. It’s good to buy flowers or jewellery or wine for yourself, just because.
  20. Go places.
  21. Stretch.
  22. Don’t worry too much about asking yourself if you are happy. Work, play, rest, love. If you’re busy doing those things you’ll be just fine.
  23. It’s okay to feel sad, with or without a reason. It’s okay to feel really sad. Let it happen – it won’t kill you. It just sucks.
  24. It gets better. Especially once high school is over. You really don’t want to peak in high school, it leaves you nowhere else to go.
  25. Relish your private guilty pleasures, and don’t feel guilty about them, unless the guilt is part of the pleasure.
  26. Do things because you genuinely get something out of them, not because you probably should since all the other men/mums/public servants/students/dog owners/artists/cousins do it.
  27. Don’t hoard. Have things in your house that are beautiful or useful – you don’t need anything else. (Another one I don’t follow. I blame the toddler.)
  28. Be with someone who will look after you. Not in the financial sense (although that is nice) but find someone who will bring you a cup of tea when you’re tired or rub your back while you throw up. And make sure you do the same.
  29. As well as not caring if I am cool, the acceptance of myself has also been liberating as I get older. This goes for my body as well as my personal flaws (I prefer the word quirks). I assume this will just get better as I get older, which is a nice feeling.
  30. Actions have consequences. This is impossible to appreciate when you’re young and everything seems fun and anyone who tries to tell you not to have fun is totally lame and doesn’t understand. They do understand. That’s why they’re trying to tell you – actions have consequences
  31. Don’t have sex with your ex. Oh, you already did? Well just once, okay? They’re an ex for a reason.
  32. I’m not sure if you realised – I didn’t – but Halloween is a Thing now. An Australian Thing. I know.

Wives, mothers and daughters – or people?

This post was linked in the comments to a different blog, and I found it fascinating. I had never seen an argument like this before. I’ve only read a handful of the 1000+ comments (!!), some of which mirrored my thoughts. Others were agreeing with the post and trying to explain why, but none of those helped me agree. The general gist is that when talking to men about sexual assault, you shouldn’t use phrases like “They are our wives, daughters, mothers,” to explain why violence against women is bad, because women have value as humans, not because they are related to men.

You don’t have to do much psychology (or philosophy, or ethics, or anthropology, or sociology, etc etc) to understand just how important the ‘us’ and ‘them’ is to humans. There are people like us, and there are people who aren’t like us. The first group gets most of our empathy and understanding. The second group gets a variety of other reactions – misunderstanding at the least, fear, hatred, exclusion, active oppression at the most. Of course, who you personally place into these groups depends on who you are in the first place. But for those of us in the majority, the ‘other’ is necessarily the minority – groups already marginalised and usually disadvantaged in some (or many) ways. The more you see a person as being ‘other’, the less they will matter (although this might show itself in a very active oppression or other reaction on your part, rather than just ignoring them). The closer a person is to your in group – whether it’s real or perceived closeness – the more they will matter, the more of your empathy they’ll get.

It’s pretty basic and we see it all the time.

Sometimes it can lead to good things – for example this is why a Republican senator might change his vote on marriage equality once he learns his son is gay. People can change their minds for the better on all sorts of issues once a person or group becomes less ‘them’ and more ‘us’, which is why public figures are generally applauded when they speak about their depression, for example – it’s breaking some of the stigma. Programs like those that link up police officers with local young’uns – for boxing lessons or something – are based on same idea of familiarity. Breast cancer awareness is off the charts, partly in thanks to the number of high profile women and men affected by it who can then talk about it in the public arena or even establish things like the Jane McGrath foundation.

But obviously the same phenomenon leads to pretty much all the bad stuff in the world, ever. Once people are ‘them’ and not ‘us’ it is very easy to dehumanise them, to deny their rights or their very existence. Hello genocide, slavery, colonisation, asylum seeker policy, abortion laws or same-sex marriage.

The post that has had me thinking about this the last couple of weeks was talking about this in the context of Steubenville and other cases like that, cases where women have been assaulted and people who are sympathising more with their attackers are told to imagine that the woman is their ‘wife, sister or mother’. The writer claims that this reduces women’s value to their relationship to men. This is a problem for two reasons. Firstly, women also have wives, sisters and mothers. Secondly, using phrases like this is acknowledging the fact that people naturally divide others into ‘us’ and ‘them’, and one of the ways to better understand a situation is to imagine it is affecting ‘us’ rather than ‘them’.

When I find myself speeding through a road work zone with actual people working on it (as opposed to an empty one), I slow down and remind myself that if that was Toby working on the road I wouldn’t want people zipping past him at 60 km/h. When I hear of a cyclist or motorcyclist in an accident, my stomach clenches as I imagine it’s my dad or Toby being hit and say a quick thankyou that it’s not them. I imagine the families of pilots or skydivers or fishing enthusiasts do the same when they hear of a plane crash or a landing gone wrong or a freak wave. When we hear of terrible things happening overseas in familiar places – bombings in Bali, London or Boston- we think of the people we know who live there, or were just visiting a week ago. When the old Canberra hospital was disastrously imploded and killed a 12 year old girl, grandma rang mum just to make sure it wasn’t my sister, who was 12 at the time. Anyone who’s had a child would surely agree with me that while hearing stories of babies or children being hurt is never easy, once you have your own it becomes gut wrenchingly awful. There is just something in us that makes our ears prick up when a story affects people we know, or it could.

This doesn’t make us bad people. It doesn’t mean the lives of our loved ones are intrinsically more valuable than anyone else’s and it doesn’t mean we don’t care about anyone except our very nearest and dearest. It doesn’t mean that if a bombing happens in a place we’ve never heard of, to people not like us, that would never affect someone we know, that we don’t care. We do care, but at the same time if we let ourselves feel everything for everyone, we would never get out of bed. We need to have a circle of care, getting less intense the further out you look, because that is the only way we can function. And between all of us and our different circles, we can care about almost everything and everyone. The problem of course is when a person or group of people doesn’t feature in anyone’s circle, because then they are likely to be forgotten – and no one will slow down in the road works.

All this is to say, I don’t think using the ‘wives, sisters, mothers’ argument reduces women as victims of violence. It is attempting to do the opposite. Part of the problem with rape culture is that it assumes that some women, on some level, deserve to be raped or otherwise treated as objects for others’ amusement or pleasure – these women belong to ‘them’. And other women – those who are like ‘us’ – don’t. People who believe this to be true would never include the deserving women in their circle. But the girl who was raped at a party no more deserved to be raped than your sister or wife or mother would deserve it, drunk or sober or anything else the media and courts somehow see fit to include in their descriptions of a crime. That is the point people are trying to make, to imagine that your teenage daughter got drunk at a party with her friends, people she knew well, and imagine she is attacked – maybe while conscious, maybe not – and then imagine it’s her fault. Can’t imagine it? Exactly.