Pandemic Survival 4: Good Karma

Do you believe in karma?

I like to do things for other people. It’s not because I’m saving up brownie points to get into heaven. It’s not because I think it will allow me to come back as something better. It’s not because I’m hoping I’ll get something in return. I do it because…. well, because it’s just who I am.

In my last post, I wrote about my way of coping with losing a job I love by making resources for others to use in my own time. I didn’t do it to show off or to look good. I did it because I saw a need and I like helping people. Well, okay, and I also like making things and this seemed like a good use of my time.

I’ve also written about losing my job and how it wasn’t about the money.

As a casual relief teacher in an environment where students are now studying from home, I knew there would not be opportunities to teach until schools fully reopen so I found a way to fulfil the joy I have for teaching in other ways. It felt good.

Do you believe in karma?

Today I did my first of three days of work at my school.

I know.

I still can’t believe it.

For some reason, they were short on teaching staff and a member of staff I had chatted to recently on one of my runs around the river mentioned how crushed I’d been to lose my job and how much I would miss the kids.

So they called me and offered me three days work with a possibility of more in the future.

I don’t know if I believe in karma in the full religious understanding of it but after the events of this week, I have to believe that what you put into the world will come back to you.

Be kind.

Do good things.

Give what you can.

It will come back to you.

 

Kindness

Pandemic Survival 3: Finding a Way Through

The announcement finally came. It was predictable and I was expecting it but it still hit hard.

On April 7, our state government announced that students would continue to learn at home for Term 2, due to start after Easter. So another three months of unemployment for me.

But, as a dear friend said to me, “You can take the person out of the teaching but you can’t take the teaching out of the person.”

I’ve been finding a way through.

I have you wonderful people in this amazing blogging community to thank for the first step. When I first wrote about losing a job I love, many people asked if there was a way to communicate with the students online. Being a casual teacher, I don’t have access to those platforms at my school but then Dan mentioned recording videos and a germ of an idea sprung up in this still fertile mind (it’s all that bullcrap I store in there).

My ‘thing’ when teaching is music. I get a lot of jokes about moving out of home when I’m working because I walk in and out with an enormous suitcase and a guitar on my back. The suitcase holds a collection of instruments and song props – my own ‘bag of tricks’ as all good CRTs carry. I’ve previously mentioned that a favourite song is “When You’re Happy and You Know It” done with all sorts of different emotions and different actions to match.

So, I took a deep breath and I videoed myself singing this song, doing eight different emotions. (Trust me, this was huge. I am not a fan of being on camera.) I then split them up into different videos and edited them to include the PCS (Pictorial Communication System) card for that emotion before and after the song.

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Sample of PCS cards for feelings

The videos are not flashy. They are just me singing and playing the guitar with no great video effects. It’s because I wanted it to accurately replicate what it would be like for the kids at school. Truly. It’s not at all because I honestly couldn’t be bothered doing that much editing. Besides, there’s a plethora of flashy songs on the interwebs for the kids to access. How often will they get to see ME this term?

I also tried to keep the file size as small as I could while trying to keep a reasonable standard because some of our kids won’t have access to great internet.

Here is where I want to thank my lovely friend Naomi who has been my cheerleader through this process. She was the one I sent them to first because I knew I could trust her to tell me honestly if they were okay.

Fortunately she thought they were more than okay.

The next step was to send them to a suitable focus group. Luckily I am great friends with a number of preschoolers (even related to a few) so I sent the videos off to this treasured cohort and received a very positive response.

Last step – send them to the music specialist teacher at my school. I needed a gin and tonic before I could hit that send button despite all the previous positive feedback. Sharing your own creation with others is like sharing some deep uncertain part of yourself.

To my enormous relief, my work was received with great enthusiasm and gratitude.

Phew.

The videos are on YouTube but marked as Unlisted so you won’t find them without a direct link. While I wanted them easily shared, I didn’t particularly feel like making myself available to the world’s troll network.*

However, in the spirit of community and doing new things, I’ve included one of the videos here for you to have a squizz at what you helped create. I chose Sad because this is the one the kids always find hilarious at school and the great-nephew also declared it his favourite, with a giggle.

 

My other task to keep the sadness away has been to build activity boxes for a couple of three-year-old coffee buddies I know. I knew their parents would appreciate a bit of help keeping these bright and active little boys occupied over the coming weeks. Along with my colleagues Fellowes and Carl, I’ve been madly producing resources over the past week to box up and deliver as an Easter surprise.

If I were to list activities that help my mental health, I would definitely include laminating with rotary cutting close behind. I’m also a big fan of Velcro. So making these resources was like being in my happy place.

I knew I well and truly had my teacher hat on when I found myself with fifty gazillion tabs open in my browser from eleventy hundred different education websites and blogs looking for ideas and resources. If you think I’m exaggerating, you’ve obviously never done lesson planning.

As is always the case, it started out as a tiny idea that probably would have fit into a standard envelope that then morphed into a major undertaking for which I had to buy a packing box for delivery.

But boy, did I have fun? You bet your last dollar. Or my last dollar. In light of my current situation, I probably shouldn’t have been wandering the virtual aisles of the local office supplies store and hitting that Buy button quite so regularly but it’s always been way more fun to spend money on other people than on myself so really from a mental health perspective it’s money very well spent. Cheaper than therapy anyway.

And this little episode during a video chat with one of my little friends after he opened his box made my day:

A: Thank you for my box of things just for me! It’s awful!

A’s Mum: Awesome. You mean awesome.

My little teacher soul has been fed and will feel able to carry on for a little while.

I’m finding a way through.

How about you?

*If you really want to see the full playlist because you’d love to see all the videos or you can think of some little person in your life who would enjoy them, you can email me at mosyet42@gmail.com and I’ll send you the link.

Pandemic Survival 2: You Will Be Found

One of my survival methods in those times when I’m feeling overwhelmed by thoughts of what may lay ahead in these Lockdown Days (and those waves rise up several times a day) has been to take myself out of myself (if you get what I mean) and reach out to others to find out how they are faring.

The act of caring for others brings a surge of positive energy and helps keep the feelings of isolation at bay. One of the most important things we can do in this crisis is try and maintain a sense of community and mutual care.

Taking ourselves out of our own heads for a while and listening to someone else can help put our own problems into perspective. As challenging as our own issues may be, we need to put our heads up once in a while and check on the other people in our lives.

So, when I saw this clip from James Corden recorded at the end of the At Home version of his Late Show, his words resonated with what I have been experiencing.

“Reaching out to somebody else who you think might be struggling too is pretty much the best thing we can all do right now because we absolutely will get through this.” – James Corden 31.03.20

And then he finished with a performance of the song “You Will Be Found” by the cast of the musical Dear Evan Hansen via social distancing rules of course. (Yes, there is something of a consistency of musicals in my coping mechanisms…)

Watch it. It will lift you up. It may also make you cry but in a good way. And then go and check in with someone you know. You’ll help them and you’ll help yourself.

Stay safe.

 

Even when the dark comes crashing through
When you need a friend to carry you
And when you’re broken on the ground
You will be found

A World Gone Quiet

One of my favourite books is Quiet by Susan Cain. It’s one of those books that made me go, “Oh. So it’s not just me then.” It describes all the great things about introverts even though it’s a struggle to get that known because we live in a world designed for extroverts.

The subtitle of her book is “The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”. Well, the world has just gone a little quieter.

Containment measures are being implemented across the world to try and stop the spread of COVID-19. People are being asked to stay in their homes and only go out for essentials. Non-essential activities have been cancelled.

The Australian Football League has just suspended the season. My son messaged me with the news and Messenger gave me the option to reply with “Yay!” It’s a little worrying that my phone knows me so well…

Of course, introverts around the world have responded to these extreme measures with “You mean I have to stay at home, limit contact with people and avoid crowds? Sweeeet!”

 

But what does it mean for the extroverts of the world? Well, dear extroverts, you get to walk in our shoes for a while. It’s uncomfortable, isn’t it? It feels unnatural and way outside your comfort zone, doesn’t it? It has sucked all the energy out of you, hasn’t it? Yeah, tell me about it. I live it every day.

Do not fear, extroverts. Help is at hand. I have long advocated for extroverts to make friends with at least one introvert. Introverts make deeply thoughtful, compassionate and loyal friends. We may not be good at chitchat but we’ll give serious thought to a request for advice. We’re unlikely to want to go to a party with you but we’ll come around and help you with a task whenever you ask. We won’t be the ones making the speeches but we’ll make sure the dishes are washed and the chairs are put away.

But now, we really come into our own because we know how to spend vast amounts of time alone.

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This will be good for you, I promise. You’ll have more time for reflection, for new activities, for careful thought and consideration.

It doesn’t have to mean hours in front of the television. Read a book, do a jigsaw puzzle, make some art. Lie outside on the grass or sit on your balcony and just watch the clouds go by or contemplate the stars. But do it slowly and deliberately. It’s not a thing to be completed as soon as possible, it’s something to spend time on and as much time as you have (which is likely to be lots, let’s face it).

If you’re craving physical contact, go outside and hug a tree.

If you’re allowed to leave the house, find a remote natural area and spend time in the nature. I promise it’s just as rejuvenating as a boisterous crowd if you allow your mind to settle in it.

Trees

Since contact with others has to be so limited and deliberate, utilising various virtual arrangements, take the opportunity of one-on-one contact to really talk to someone. And, more importantly, listen. Really listen. Who knows what you may discover about a friend that you never knew about them?

Take the time to be less task-oriented and just BE.

Extroverts, you can do this. After all, introverts have survived in an outgoing world for millennia. Surely you can survive a few months?

And remember, if it is all getting too much, your introvert friend will always be there for you. Because that’s what we do.

Just don’t expect it all the time. We’ll be enjoying the lockdown.

Beer Pong…Er…Song

There’s been a recent phenomenon in community activity known as the “pub choir”. People gather in a pub at a prearranged time, learn a song, sing it together and share a drink (or two).

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It’s funny that it’s seen as a recent phenomenon. Singing in alcohol-selling establishments dates back centuries. A singalong in the local tavern was a common sight in days gone by.

But then came records and movies and tv and Celebrities. And people began to believe that singing was the domain of only the supremely talented.

Community singing groups have done an admirable job in recent decades to try and disprove that view but if conversations I had the other evening are any indication, they can still tend to be seen by some as only for ‘singers’. If one does not see oneself as a singer, it’s easy to be scared off by an official singing group no matter how welcoming.

The pub choir, on the other hand, seems open to anyone who wants to just have a crack at singing a song. Perhaps it’s the beer hall vibe where raucous and imperfect singing is seen as acceptable. Perhaps it’s the attraction of being able to lubricate any nerves with a glass or two of an adult beverage. Perhaps it’s just that video footage of such events always makes it look like a whole lot of fun.

The other night I attended my first pub choir event. And I’m sold on the concept. It’s a simple set up, with a well known song chosen (and, it appears, one that just cries out for enthusiastic singing), easy-to-learn harmonies divided into high, middle and low and words and simple guidelines projected on a screen. Accompaniment on this night was a keyboard and drums.

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The whole process only lasts a couple of hours with time for breaks factored in (for further lubrication if required). I went alone which was a challenge for me but before long I was singing along with newfound friends having a wonderful time.

And we well and truly built this city on rock and roll.

 

Have you ever attended a pub choir? What was it like?

Triple Threat

Have you ever heard of the term triple threat?

No, not that triple layered chocolate mousse cake with the ganache icing and chocolate biscuit base.

No, not the punishment your parents declared they’d unleash if you did that thing you really weren’t supposed to do.

No, not living under a local/state/federal government all of one political persuasion that you don’t support.

I mean the one in theatrical terms. A triple threat is someone who can act, sing and dance. Think Hugh Jackman.

Mmm… Hugh Jackman…

(The #1 pick in this list is also one of my favourite clips. Definitely worth finding to watch the whole thing.)

The musical movies of the 1940s and 1950s were obviously full of triple threats – Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds (yes, okay, so my favourite musical film is ‘Singing in the Rain’), Judy Garland, Doris Day, Fred Astaire. (Did you know Fred Astaire’s first screen test report read “Can’t sing, can’t act, can dance a little”?)

Just imagine being able to do all three of those things.

Imagine having to audition for a musical by doing all three of those things.

I don’t need to imagine it. I did it.

Correction: I tried to do it. I am not a triple threat.

If the reactions of the production crew are anything to go by, I think I can act and I can sing (I have a piece of paper to prove it) but I most definitely cannot dance (and I knew that going into this exercise).

Back in the dim dark ages when I used to do musicals, you didn’t have to be a triple threat. If you were happy to plonk yourself in the chorus, you didn’t even have to audition. As long as you could sing in tune and move about a bit, you got the gig. You only had to audition if you wanted a part. And you only had to dance if you wanted to be one of the dancers.

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HMS Pinafore with my sister and brother-in-law in 1984. No dancing required.

Sometime in the last thirty years, things got more competitive and now most of our local theatre companies require you to audition with the triple layer horror cake of acting a monologue, singing a song and demonstrating some dance moves even if you just want to be in the ensemble.

I don’t know why I do these things to myself.

Really, I just wanted to go back to theatre so I could hang out with a group of great creative people again after a three year absence. I could have just volunteered to work backstage and skipped the humiliation.

But being a Jack of All Trades has always meant having a crack at almost anything so that’s what I did. I had a crack.

And cracked the egg all over my face.

Side Show title

I didn’t get in. Unsurprising really. Unlike poor acting or a weak voice, bad dancing can’t be hidden even in the chorus.

So I have two choices. Wait for a musical that doesn’t require dancing (perhaps an ensemble in wheelchairs) or move on to trying out for straight plays and think about other ways to push my voice.

Either way, there are boundaries to be pushed and comfort zones to be breached and this Jack of All Trades will always be ready to have a crack at something.

With a cloth handy to clean up the egg.

 

Listening For The Answer

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Last Thursday was R U OK? Day in Australia. Founded by Gavin Larkin after the suicide of his father, it is a day to remind us to check in with our fellow travellers through life starting with the simple question “Are you okay?”

This year’s R U OK? Day took on particular poignancy in the wake of the death a few days before of a well-known Australian footballer and coach in a single vehicle crash that investigations seem to indicate was deliberate.

We can never really know the pain another is carrying so it’s important to start a conversation that may save a life.

But before you ask the question “Are you okay?” here’s a couple of things to think about:

1. Be prepared to listen to the answer

This is no “How are you?” automatic piece of politeness. If you’re going to ask someone if they are okay, you need to be prepared to listen to the answer. And don’t take any preconceived ideas into the conversation about what you think may be wrong. If the answer doesn’t match your preconceptions, you run the risk of dismissing the answer or ending the conversation because it’s not as bad as you thought or you don’t think it’s something worth talking about. Which brings me to the next point.

2. The experience of pain is unique to each person

The “Orchid Hypothesis” put forward by David Dobbs supposes that some children are more strongly affected by both positive and negative experiences in their lives while ‘dandelions’ thrive in whatever life throws at them. In a similar vein, Jerome Kagan researched the effect new experiences had on a group of 4-month-old babies and predicted (correctly) that those who reacted strongly by loud cries and rapid movement were the ones most likely to grow up to be introverts while those who remained quieter and calmer would likely be extroverts. He introduced the terms “high-reactive” and “low-reactive” to describe those who are deeply affected by new experiences and those who are less so. And this has a physiological basis. High-reactive people have a more reactive amygdala, the part of the brain that controls many of our basic emotions such as fear.*

All this sciencey stuff is just to say that people have different pain thresholds for mental and emotional pain just as they do for physical pain. So, when you ask “Are you okay?”, the other person may describe an experience that has made them not okay that may seem trivial to you. But the pain to that person is real and deserves as much care and attention as any other experience.

It’s also worth noting that high-reactive people are often aware that their reaction to an event may seem minor to others and may use words such as “It’s nothing”, “It’s stupid” or “It’s really nothing worth talking about”. They need to be told that it is something, it’s not stupid and you do want to listen if they want to talk about it.

3. Empathy not sympathy

In responding to a person’s answer, it’s important to respond with empathy not sympathy. I could explain the difference but I think this video does it in a much clearer and more entertaining way:

 

So, take the time to look around you, notice the people in your life and find out if they’re okay. The R U OK? website has some fantastic resources for having these conversations.

I’m not going to expect you to answer “Are you okay?” in the public forum of the comments on this blog but I do ask you that question and hope you can find someone you trust to talk to if your answer is “No.” There are also trusted services such as Lifeline you can call.

Blessings.

*Reference: Quiet – The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.

PS I’m also not going to answer the question in this public forum. I will admit to some mental health struggles in recent times which has prompted this post but I am receiving good support and assistance and while the seas are still a bit choppy, I am no longer feeling swamped. Thanks for asking. 🙂

 

Fighting the Fear and Finding ‘I am’

I joined the school choir in Grade 2 when I was seven. I was a part of the choir at three different schools throughout my schooling. That’s eleven years of school choirs. In my final year of school I was in both the main choir and the twelve-member madrigal choir and I played the Scarecrow in the school production of the Wizard of Oz. This performance garnered me a scholarship from a local theatre company (of which I was a member) for a year of singing lessons.

I was a member of a church singing group for more years than I can be bothered going back to figure out.

I spent eight years performing musical theatre with a local amateur group.

I’ve been a member of community singing groups for the past twelve years.

And yet, you won’t hear the phrase “I am a singer” come out of my mouth.

(Yes, those of you who have been following this blog long enough may think this sounds familiar. I had similar issues with calling myself a runner until I successfully completed my first marathon. What can I say? My psyche is not built for self-confidence.)

I had piano lessons as a child/teenager and I can, to varying basic levels, also play guitar, ukulele and banjo. At various points in my life I have picked up and then discarded the flute and harmonica. (I also learned to play the recorder at school but everybody does that so it doesn’t deserve a mention.)

Not just a Jack of All Trades but a Jack of All Players.

But I’ve never sat a music exam. Ever.

Why not?

Good question and one I’ve had to ask myself a bit over the past several months.

And?

And it comes down to fear as these things usually do. For me, a fear of judgement and not living up to expectations.

My mother informs me it has always been this way for me since childhood.

Sometimes the genetic lottery gives you a messed up hand of life-cards.

My fear and dislike of judgement is so deep, I have to walk out of the room during those TV talent shows when the judges make their comments. I can’t even bear it for a total stranger.

So how was it that on Friday 21st June, I found myself standing in front of an examiner about to try and prove myself in a Grade 5 Modern Singing exam?

Another very good question.

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How did I get here?

Last year, when the opportunity was offered via email from the leader of my singing group to sign up for preparing for an exam in March this year, I declined the offer on the basis that I would be away at that time. Devastated, I was. [cough]

Then, one night I messaged to confirm my participation in a singing technique workshop the next day only to find out that my booking had been misplaced and the workshop had in fact been cancelled with only one other participant having signed up. I was informed that, however, there was the first workshop for the Grade 3 exam candidates. Maybe I’d like to come? I could always do the exam at a later date if I was going to be away. Or, I suggested, maybe I could come with the agreement that I didn’t have to actually do the exam.

This is my ideal situation – a chance to learn but no commitment to prove it.

It was agreed.

But you did the exam. What happened?

To be honest, I’m still trying to figure that out. My singing leader, also a dear friend, is a champion button pusher and she knows exactly which buttons to push and when. At some point – I think when I was in the middle of solving a problem on her laptop – she suggested that really I could do the Grade 5 exam.

Firstly, it turned out the exam would actually be in May or June, it was just the deadline to sign up was in March. So I didn’t have my absence as an excuse.

Secondly, I am both pathologically obsessed with knowing everything about a situation and chronically dedicated to ‘doing the right thing’. So, about to head overseas and out of reach of any sort of contact, I was aware from my research that the closing date for exam applications would come while I was in the Himalayas of Nepal. Of course it was tempting to disappear overseas and then return to the online world with a ‘oh shucks, sorry’ but my need to always do the right thing meant that I pointed out before I left that I would need to answer the question of doing the exam before I left.

Okay, so my other failing is a weakness for pushing myself outside my comfort zone.

In the way of the universe, this quote had also floated across my online vision a few days before:

Neil Gaiman quote

 

“Are you happy for me to enrol you while you are away?” I was asked.

“Do it,” I replied. Then I flew away to Nepal.

Did I wonder what I was thinking? You bet.

Even more so when I got back and headed straight into final training for Oxfam Trailwalker and after that the Great Ocean Road Marathon. Seriously, what was I thinking? Did I plan to permanently live outside my comfort zone??

Of course, the addition of a blood clot in my lung that made breathing painful (let alone the deep breaths needed for some of my singing exercises) was a complication I didn’t expect. I suppose I was grateful that when the exam date came it was some weeks afterwards when I was on the mend but my preparation was definitely compromised.

I prepared as best I could. On days I was stressed, I would undertake more ‘academic’ work – I would write out all my general knowledge answers or research all the musical terms in my sheet music for my songs. It was calming for me.

Exam day came. My exam wasn’t until 3.20pm which was somewhat painful. Then, when I arrived, they were running late and so I had to wait even longer. Here’s me trying to be cool about it (while a jelly of nerves inside).

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If you’re thinking the person I’m talking to looks calm that’s because she’s already done her exam. Lucky duck.

 

I think I should point out that this exam was like a Sara Lee dessert of all the worst things for me – layer upon layer upon layer. I had to:

  1. be the centre of attention
  2. sing solo
  3. sing solo to a total stranger
  4. be judged on that singing

I thought the worst thing was having to sing to a stranger but in fact, I found it easier. I wrapped myself in my invisible theatre cloak and put on the act. And, somehow, pulled it off. My singing leader/teacher/friend came in to accompany me for my last song (the previous three songs being performed to a backing track) and gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up as she came in.

Even now, with the results in my hand, I can’t believe I did what I did.

And? What were the results??

It was an anxious wait for the results but not as fraught as you might think. In order to help me try and stay calm in the lead up to the exam, I had decided to put it into marathon terms. I was, I decided, happy to just cross the finish line. For the exam, this meant just completing the exam to the best of my ability. After all, I’d never done a music exam. Just going through the process was an achievement of which to be proud. A ‘respectable time’ or in this case, a pass was just a bonus. A PB was an unimaginable flight of fancy.

And after the exam that’s how I felt. I was proud of myself for going through the exam and completing it to the best of my ability. Obviously, a pass would be appreciated but I had no ambitions beyond that.

Oh, for Pete’s sake! What was the result?!?

Okay. Okay.

I achieved Honours. A score of 89%. (Embarrassingly, I will confess that the over-achiever in me was a bit annoyed I didn’t crack the 90. Some people are hopeless….)

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It was interesting to note in the report that most marks were lost because of tension in my chest, neck and jaw. Well, let’s see. I am in the process of recovering from a pulmonary embolism and I was undertaking my first ever music exam. Imagine what I could have achieved without those….

And so there you have it. I not only undertook a challenge I had not intended to entertain but achieved a grade unimaginable.

Will I do another?

Not on your life.

However.

As part of preparing for my exam, I did some music theory study. I found it fascinating and helpful in so many ways. So that is my next challenge. I’d like to tackle a music theory exam. How’s the weather out there in that Uncomfortable Zone?

Some people are hopeless…

Addendum

The wash-up from this exam – not only for me but for the other six candidates – has left me thinking about the value of external validation. To be honest, some of the impetus for signing up for the exam was yearning for proof that I can sing. I guess I got that. I guess that maybe I can start rehearsing the line “I am a singer”.

In the end, however, the judgement of someone’s singing ability is subjective. It sits in narrow parameters and disallows the additional factors that make a singer’s contribution to the world that represents true musicality and impact.

I now possess a piece of paper that says I can pass a Grade 5 Modern Singing exam but does it show that I can work as a team member of a group and support my fellow singers to produce the most pleasing sound? Does it really represent the emotion – the joy, the sorrow, the frustration, the confusion – that I can experience in the act of singing? Does a piece of paper truly represent the hurdles that each of us has had to overcome? More importantly, does the lack of a piece of paper dictate the lack of value of a singer?

No, it does not.

I am incredibly blessed to be tutored by some immensely talented and generous singers. Would a professional organisation value the skill and love these singers impart to we lesser mortals to the extent they deserve? No, they wouldn’t. The reality is that exams are a narrow qualification of skill and talent. For me, the selfless sharing of talent, knowledge, care and support is unassessable. Someone out there ought to create a qualification that evaluates the impact someone has in terms of fostering a love of singing, especially in those who have been told for too many years that they should not sing. There are beautiful singers out there just waiting to be discovered by the right spirit. It’s an incredible gift to give the world and too unappreciated by the ‘powers that be’. I have personally witnessed the awakening of amazing singers who have hidden away since being told as a shy twelve-year-old to just ‘mime the words’. I have also witnessed the encouragement of an incredible teacher reveal those reluctant singers to be powerhouses of talent.

I would not be where I am without those incredible people. They are talented and knowledgeable singers but more importantly, generous sharers of that talent and knowledge.

I am a singer.

But only because I have been blessed by knowing such talented people as my singing teacher friends. You people rock and are the rock of my singing life.

 

Walking The Walk

How long do you think it would take you to walk 100 kilometres? Could you do it in 36 hours? 24? Less than 20? (Ultra-marathoners need not apply – you people are freaks.)

Each year, around the world, international charity organisation Oxfam gives you the opportunity to answer that question and to raise money for their work to eliminate poverty worldwide.

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Oxfam Trailwalker “was established in 1981 by Brigadier Mervyn Lee in Hong Kong as a training exercise by the Queen’s Gurkha Signals, part of the Brigade of Gurkhas of the British Army, which was at the time based in the British colony. In 1986, teams of civilians were allowed to take part and Oxfam Hong Kong was invited to co-organise the event.

In 1997, with the handover of Hong Kong to China, the Gurkha regiments were relocated to the United Kingdom. The Trailwalker event followed the Gurkhas’ relocation and was organised over the South Downs in Sussex, with Oxfam in the UK acting as partner since 2002, alongside the Gurkha Welfare Trust. Oxfam Hong Kong continued to organise the original event without the Gurkhas and the event has grown with 17 events now taking place across 10 countries worldwide.” [Wikipedia]

This year, Oxfam Australia celebrated 20 years of Trailwalker, the Sydney event starting in 1999 with Melbourne not long after in 2003. A Brisbane event was established in 2011 and one in Perth in 2013 (although it was decided not to run this event this year).

Trailwalker involves a team of four completing a 100 kilometre trail within a set time. The time varies across events but ranges from 30 to 48 hours. This year the Melbourne event hosted a brand new trail and reduced the previous 48 hour cut off to 36 hours.

If this is sounding all very familiar and you’re thinking, “Hang on. Haven’t you done this event before?”, you are correct. I did the Melbourne event in 2014 (read about it here) after previously participating in 2012. Despite both times having sworn I’d never do it again (usually about 80km in at 3 o’clock in the morning when everything is aching and you think you’ll never see the sun again), I signed up again this year. Hey, it was a new trail. And being the 20th Anniversary, there was BLING!

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The first challenge when you decide to take on Trailwalker is to find a team. It always made me laugh when I’d start telling someone about it and they’d sound keen until they realised it wasn’t a relay event. “No, you don’t walk 25km each. You have to walk the whole 100km.” Often I then had to move on to finding another victim candidate.

The key to selecting a team is not so much about physical fitness (although, obviously a good level of fitness is necessary) but about mental toughness. It’s a gruelling event, particularly for your mind and you need people who can push through when your body is screaming for you to stop. Obviously, given you’re going to be together for many hours, it’s a good idea if you also get along well.

For this year’s team, I managed to rope in my brother who completed the event with me in 2014 and my marathon-running friend from my 2012 team. The fourth member was a friend from work who is a bushwalker and has walked the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea.

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The Captains on the Trail

What is also crucial is an excellent support crew. I’ve been lucky to have two friends who have volunteered for this role for each of my Trailwalker attempts. They are the champions of support crews and I am grateful beyond suitable words for their willingness to repeatedly participate in this role.

 

Obviously, serious training goes into such an event. We walked increasingly longer lengths of the trail, including one memorable 47km leg on a 37°C day. The last big walk was two weeks before the event when we walked two 40km efforts, one on Saturday afternoon, the second on Sunday morning. Of course, despite the aching legs and blistered feet, who could complain about the chance to walk in beautiful settings with people you like?

 

This was my third crack at Trailwalker but you never stop learning. We’ve taken lessons away from each of the events I’ve completed from how a team should respond to a team member becoming very slow to never underestimating the importance of foot care. Also, nothing beats an egg and bacon roll for breakfast after walking all night. (Or egg and cheese for the vegetarians. I don’t know what vegans should do.)

This year also taught me just how much the event is a psychological challenge more than a physical one. It’s not just pushing yourself past your limits but it’s the fact you’re also trying to push three other people to the finish line. So when a team member struggles at a difficult section and you have to wait for them to push through, you need to pull on every bit of patience you can find in yourself. When a team member slows down in the later sections, you’ve got to find words of encouragement when your brain just wants to shut down. Perhaps because I’ve been the one to put the team together (and therefore designated ‘Team Leader’), I’ve felt a higher level of responsibility for everyone in the team, worrying if they’re okay, if they’re happy, talking through frustrations, willing everyone to the finish line.

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Gripe: The team running in the middle finished in 15 hours. The three other teams who lined up at the front finished in 28-30 hours. And this was their target time. Why do people put themselves at the front when they know large numbers are going to have to get past them? (© Kris Smythe)

This year we had a target time of 24 hours. Having completed the 2012 and 2014 events in 26:15 and 25:35 respectively, and the new trail seeming a bit less challenging it was a target that seemed achievable.

Until things fell apart in the second section of the trail. The newbie member of the team suddenly found the going tough when we encountered the first serious hills only 12.5km into the trail. We hadn’t walked this section in training as it was a last minute change to the course due to protests from local walking groups about one of the original sections. My brother and I had walked it before as it had been part of the 2014 trail but it was new for this member. As the going got slower and slower, we could see that we were not going to remain on track. By the time we reached the checkpoint we were nearly 2 hours behind schedule.

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The Lyrebird Track – such a pretty name for a most definitely unpretty hill.

This meant an adjustment to our plan and we had to shift dinner and breakfast stops. But here’s the interesting thing: in many ways the change worked out better than the original plan.

Firstly we were able to combine a warm clothes change stop and our dinner stop into one thus saving 30 minutes. Not long after we sat down under cover for dinner, the rain came pouring down. Had we been on the original plan, we’d have been out in it.

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Please stop before we have to walk again. (© Kris Smythe)

Dinner was at a more convenient time for our support crew members to get to and settle into their accommodation before needing to meet us for breakfast.

The night leg is always the hardest. Many teams choose to sleep but I can’t imagine trying to get my legs to start moving again after lying down for a few hours. I’ve always found it best to just push through.

We left our support crew after dinner at 9pm and didn’t see them again until breakfast at 5.30am but they are always on call if we need them. Even if it’s just to vent via messages about another team member. (Hey, siblings are allowed to get pissed off about each other.) It’s a long and tiring leg and there may have been tears.

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All you can do is watch the bobbing circle from your head torch and keep putting one foot in front of the other.

After the challenges of section 2, everyone seemed to find their walking groove overnight and we made good progress but we were still an hour and a half behind schedule by the time we stopped for breakfast one checkpoint earlier than planned. This also turned out to be for the best as it had more and closer parking than the next checkpoint.

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I look remarkably perky for 5.30am and 81km, 19.5 hours completed. (© Kris Smythe)

Egg and bacon rolls were consumed, coffee was drunk, water supplies were replenished, naps were taken and feet attended to. For the first time in my Trailwalker history, I had to take painkillers.

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I still had to cover 19km on this foot. (© Kris Smythe)

Every time I’ve done Trailwalker, the shift in mood after the breakfast stop is amazing. There’s something about a hot breakfast and the sun coming up that gives you new vigour and returns a smile to your face.

And it must have all worked because despite my planning including extra time for the last two sections on the assumption that we would be tired and therefore slower, we in fact did not slow down and in some miraculous way made up time. And this despite the rain coming down in earnest about 10km from the finish line.

Anyone who has completed Trailwalker will tell you that crossing that finish line is huge. It’s hard to describe the sense of achievement and relief but just check out those smiles. (© Kris Smythe)

 

 

We crossed that line (and got to the sign in tent – your finish time isn’t registered until you check in) in 24 hours and 2 minutes. It was a mysterious result given early indications but I’ll take it.

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Happy Little Trailwalkers (© Kris Smythe)

Of course, it’s not just about the walk. It’s about supporting Oxfam and helping people you’ve never met. At the close of fundraising, we had raised a total of $3,428. And that’s where this is more than a team of four event or even a team and support crew event. It’s about the people around you that support, encourage and contribute to all your efforts that makes the experience all the more worthwhile. There’s something about Oxfam Trailwalker that extends beyond just an ultra-distance event. It’s knowing you’re making the world just a little bit better at the same time. That’s worth any number of blisters.

Oh, and that 3am promise that I’ll never do it again? Didn’t happen. I’ve got my sights set on becoming a Trailwalker ‘Legend’ which means I need two more events under my belt.

So. How long do you think it would take you to walk 100km?

 

 

Postscript: Someone asked me how I reconcile supporting Oxfam in light of the recent sex scandal. My response is that in a large international organisation there will always be those who do the wrong thing and in fact, in the wake of the Oxfam revelations, other aid organisations including International Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières, Save the Children and Plan International have been implicated in similar allegations. As this article explains better than I can, I believe that punishing an NGO by withdrawing support only ends up hurting the ones who can afford it least and risks pushing the behaviour even more underground. Providing the organisation has shown action in the wake of allegations to fix the problem, I believe they still deserve support to do the work they do that is so desperately needed around the world.

 

 

Unbound from the ‘book

I joined Facebook in early 2007. It opened to anyone with an email address (as opposed to being limited to educational institutions) in September 2006. So I’ve been on Facebook for most of its public life. That’s quite a long time for an old person. The young whippersnappers are quite gobsmacked when they ask if I’m on Facebook and I tell them “Sonny, I was on Facebook before you were born.”

(Okay, I may be exaggerating a bit. Also, I was lying. Real young whippersnappers aren’t on Facebook anymore.)

Facebook is one of those plus and minus things in your life. I won’t elaborate. Anyone on Facebook knows what I’m talking about. Anyone not on Facebook by now doesn’t want to know the pluses anyway.

I’ve found it useful at times. The year I was training for my first marathon, I would put updates on my page titled “Diary of a Mad Wannabe Marathon Woman”. It made me accountable and got me out training when I didn’t feel like it. And it gave me something to think about as I ran.

I’ve also discovered some pretty cool running opportunities that have popped up in my Facebook newsfeed. (It’s odd. If you post a lot of stuff about running, Facebook puts running ads in your feed. How do they know to do that?? 🙄 )

About a year ago, I deactivated my account. It wasn’t in response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Anyone shocked by what came out about all that, clearly doesn’t understand you don’t get something free for nothing.

In my case, I got out after I posted one too many “a trouble shared is a trouble halved” posts in a time of stress which broke a couple of rules and I got in trouble at work. I’m not a fan of getting in trouble. So my response was to deactivate my account.

After two weeks, I reactivated it because I had an attack of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). It wasn’t that I was missing what people were eating when they went out for dinner or photographs of their feet at a beach or pool in some exotic location. I had a fear of missing out on photographs and stories of some special little people in my life that I don’t get to see in person very often. Also, some of the wackiest and most exhilarating running events I’ve participated in have come about because an ad about it popped up in my feed. I didn’t want to miss out on the next exciting night run or crazy cosplay race. There were also a couple of pages that were informational and I was worried about missing out on things I wanted to do because I wouldn’t know about them.

I returned to Facebook under new conditions. I reduced my ‘friends’ by about two thirds, narrowed the pages I was following to just the ones from which I really wanted information and ramped up my privacy settings to maximum level. It at least felt a little safer.

However, I’ve just deactivated my account again and this time I mean it. The only reason I’ve chosen deactivation over total deletion is that I need to maintain a Messenger presence for family reasons. I’m also, for now, hanging onto the Facebook page for my blog so in some ways, I still have a presence there but without all the extra….er…stuff.

So why now? And what happened to FOMO?

The thing is, photos of little people I love will never make up for in-person cuddles and giggles. There are other places I can look up running events I might wish to participate in (and maybe missing a few and not cramming my life so full is a good thing.) I’m hoping friends holding music gigs or workshops will keep me in mind and spread the news beyond Facebook.

Life changes and sometimes parts of your life that have been important come to an end either by choice or unexpectedly. Facebook can have an unfortunate tendency to keep those parts of your life in your face. If the ending was not your choice, it can be painful to be reminded of what you have lost. Photos from outings to which you’re no longer invited, glowing posts about events that you know you will never be involved in again. De-friending or un-following is not always the easy answer.

Maybe it’s also a chance to increase opportunities for real world interactions and sharing beyond just a click on Like or leaving a passing comment.

So I’m choosing to care for me, cutting myself some slack and unbinding from the ‘book.

And the big plus side? In my need for human connection, I’ll come looking for it in the blogosphere. Look out, MOSY is back!

What’s your relationship with Facebook? Avid fan, necessary user or full anti-Zuckerberg?

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Guilty.