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

I’ve escaped to my she-shed. I have The Sound of Music* on my laptop, a glass of Four Pillars Shiraz Gin and tonic to hand, also a (large) packet of sweet potato chips and there are pretty candles inside and out and the city lights twinkling away.

Sometimes a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do to survive unemployment and a house full of men in the Age of Lockdown.

*Yes, tragically I am quoting whole tracts of dialogue and singing all the songs. It’s my own special Isolation Sound of Music Singalong.

How are you surviving the close quarters with your loved ones?

Not About The Money

I lost my job yesterday. I work as a casual relief (substitute) teacher in a special education school. On Sunday, our state government announced that schools would be closed from Tuesday. It made sense. We were due to finish for two weeks of school holidays at the end of the week anyway so it’s only an extra four days. And I’d be happy to view it as that except that in the current environment, nobody actually knows how long this will last. Three weeks, six weeks, six months? It’s the unknown that gets to you.

Permanent and contracted staff will continue to be paid. Casual staff will not. I was booked in to replace a teacher for the whole week but that’s now ended. Should schools remain closed after the holidays, teachers will revert to the online provision of a program. How that works with high needs special education, I don’t know but what I do know is that online teaching will not require casual replacement teachers so there will be no work until the schools open again.

I’m luckier than others. I know that eventually, when this crisis is over, schools will reopen and my work will return. Others will not be so lucky as extended lockdowns send businesses to the wall. We’re also in a pretty solid financial position so we will survive the loss of income. I know I shouldn’t complain.

But here’s the thing – it’s not about the money.

I love my job. Work is my happy place. My students fill my heart and soul with joy and satisfaction. It’s the loss of this that has me feeling weighted down and my heart aching.

What will I miss?

I’ll miss

  • the utter joy on faces as I play my guitar and we bop along to I’m A Believer or Down On The Corner
  • the hysterical giggles when I sing all the funny voices for the different emotions in If You’re Happy and You Know it (angry and sad are favourites – that my students find my singing a song while crying as hilariously funny is slightly disturbing)
  • the literal tears of pride when a student achieves a learning goal for the first time
  • the cheeky and mischievous grins
  • finding that new way of doing something that means a student has a better day
  • the cheerful greetings as I walk around the school – as a CRT, all the kids know me and I know the name of every single one of them
  • working as a team with my Education Support co-workers, the true rockstars of special education
  • singing made up songs while pushing a swing to give a student with difficult behaviours a happy play time
  • all the feels – when my students are happy, sad, angry, upset, proud, unwell – they touch my heart so deeply

And I worry. I worry for the students for whom school is their safe space, the only place they receive what we call ‘unconditional regard’ and are nourished in body, mind and soul. I worry for the parents forced to give up work to care for their child every day and the financial impact of that and the lack of respite they will receive from the intensity it takes to care for a special needs child.

I know I am luckier than so many others but sometimes you just have to acknowledge that pain in your heart and what is causing it. I am grieving and the only thing that will fix it is a return to the job I love. It will come but it’s likely to be a long and challenging journey to get there.

How are you bearing up under the conditions imposed to combat COVID-19?

Stephen King quote on change

You Say You Want a Resolution

Well, you know, we all want to change the world…

(Apologies to Lennon and McCartney)

As the year ends and another begins, it behoves me to check in with my resolutions for the year and see what progress was made.

Hang on.

Just gotta go back and look up what they were…

Oh, that’s right.

1. Decline to take photos of other people when asked

Result: Failed

It’s hard to say no when someone asks you take a photo of them standing in the snow with the Himalayas behind them. (Apology: I never posted about this trip. Life got busy and complicated and I never quite got around to it. It’s still in the pipeline so keep an eye out in the coming weeks.)

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Obviously the photo I took is on their camera but here’s where we were at the time

2. Answer a question with another question to avoid talking about myself

Result: Failed

I do not possess this skill. Guess I’ll never be a politician. Sometimes failure has benefits.

3. Write all emails and messages in 25 words or less

Result: Mixed

I started out well on this resolution and was becoming quite adept at not only limiting my words to 25 words or less but managing to hit 25 words exactly on many occasions. It became something of a challenge. But some people were unhappy with my restricted words and once you make one exception, it’s hard to remember the rule as you go on. I still think it’s a worthy goal and may re-institute it for 2020.

4. Limit my consumption of American late night talk show monologues to once a week

Result: Passed

I pretty much stopped watching them altogether. Too depressing.

5. Go to the gym more regularly but not talk about it on social media

Result: Gold Star

Okay, so the actual gym attendance side gets a ‘Mixed’ result because I did drop off in the middle of the year but as I’d been diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism in May, all my exercise goals kind of took a nosedive. I did make up for it later in the year, going every day, but as it was part of getting caught in a dieting trap, that’s possibly not good either. However, I get a gold star for the social media thing. I did not post about it at all. How good is that? Okay, so it’s because I quit social media but it still counts. I ditched Facebook, Instagram and Twitter in April and have never regretted it. I wish I could say it means I spend less time on my phone but I’ve just switched to reading the news and doing brain puzzles (currently addicted to Picture Cross puzzles). I may be wasting time but at least my brain is getting a workout.

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Picture Cross puzzle – Maths and Art in one puzzle!

So it would appear that my New Year Resolutions took the way of most resolutions and landed in the ‘seemed like a good idea at the time but who can be bothered’ basket.

I’m not making any resolutions for 2020. The year ahead already has enough challenges in it and I’ll be too busy navigating those to set myself up with additional goals.

A very Happy New Year to you and I wish you the bestest of all things in the year ahead.*

Have you made any resolutions for 2020 or are you just going to wing it?

 

* I will not be wishing you luck for the next decade. My congratulations on completing another decade will be made at the end of 2020. Honestly, when did people stop being able to count to 10??

And in case, like me, my post title put a certain earworm in your head, here’s the full song. It’s gonna be all right.

A Very MOSY Christmas

So, what do you do when it’s two days before Christmas and you’ve been too busy to go out and buy a tree? When you’ve been so busy, you quite frankly can’t be bothered going out and buying a tree?

You could use the cheap plastic tree you bought once for an interstate Christmas and now gets relegated to being the classroom tree at work. You could, but it would undoubtedly send out work vibes and who wants that at Christmas?

You could just skip the tree altogether. After all, the children are all adults now. Would they really care? I care. It’s just not Christmas without a tree.

What do you do?

Well, when you’re a Jack of All Trades and a holder of things that ‘might come in useful’, you make one out of the pile of fence palings that have been languishing in a spot in the backyard for five years.

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I knew it would come in handy. Take that Marie Kondo.

Of course I planned carefully, measuring the distance between each paling to ensure uniform placement, using a protractor to ensure an accurate right angle so the palings were straight, trimming the ends to ensure a perfect Christmas tree shape.

Pfft.

I’m a Jack of All Trades. I ain’t got time for that. Just whack it together and see what happens is how it works in the MOSY workshop.

I put it together and then I wondered, “How do you hang the ornaments on it?” I don’t know what the official answer is but my solution was to bang small tacks into the palings in random places from which to hang the ornaments. I resisted the urge to place them in patterns. Actually, I was feeling too lazy to bother and just put them in wherever.

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Tiny tacks shorter than the width of your finger plus a hammer leads to banged fingers.

I’m pretty pleased really. I feel like some influencing sustainability lifestyle blogger on Instabook or something.

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Looks like a Christmas tree to me

I went out and bought a nice metal bucket to put it in and the boys (as is tradition) decorated it.

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It may a look a little out of place but the Weeping Angel on the top of the tree is now a family tradition.

And now we have a tree.

You know, in the spirit of the eco-conscious, it could be used for firewood afterwards. If it was winter which it isn’t. And we had a woodfire which we don’t.

MOSY Christmas everyone!

However you celebrate this time of year I wish you peace, happiness and love and all the best things for 2020.

 

Creating Myself Endlessly

“To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.” ~ Henri Bergson

PUBLIC NOTICE

Dear Readers,

This post is going to talk about menopause. Well, more specifically about perimenopause, the period leading up to the point at which a woman’s menstrual cycle ceases permanently. Now, just hang on and read this notice before you decide to move on to another post about funny cats.

Women going through or having gone through perimenopause: Read on. I know you’ll relate.

Women yet to go through perimenopause (yes, you will): Read on or at least bookmark this post. One day you will want to know that you’re not the only one feeling the way you do.

Men: Please read. Please understand what this is like for the women in your life (there must be at least one, even if it’s the barista in your coffee shop). Be as awe-inspired and sensitive as Dylan Moran.

Hahaha, I was kidding. But I do love his acknowledgement that a woman’s body is just a bit more complicated than a man’s.

 

I’ve been trying to write this post for months. I add a bit, change a bit and then leave it in drafts. Do people really want to know about this stuff? Other than those of us currently going through it, that is.

Today, I was watching the Amazon Prime series Fleabag. (I know, I have ethical problems with being signed up to Amazon but I wasn’t prepared to wait for the dvd release of Good Omens (based on one of my favourite books by my favourite author (Terry Pratchett) and another author I love (Neil Gaiman) ) and then I got predictably sucked in by the cheap annual price. It was worth it for Fleabag alone.) And (I had to start a new sentence because the parenthesis discussion got a bit unwieldy) there was a fabulous speech by Kristin Scott Thomas’ character in an episode I watched today that I just had to include in this post. So, I’m sending the whole post out into the blogosphere with some tweaks here and there. Finally.

Here’s the speech from KST:

(To be honest, it’s worth watching the whole KST scene. You can find that here.)

And here’s the rest of the work-in-progress-now-hesitantly-posted post:

Here We Go

About a decade or more ago, I went to see Menopause – The Musical. I laughed because it was funny and I understood most of the references from my general understanding of menopause but I couldn’t empathise. It was a bit too early for all that.

Here I am now, however, at a far more advanced age and not only facing but experiencing The Change. It may be time to revisit the musical.

The thing is, what I most remember of the show is the jokes about the physical symptoms of perimenopause such as hot flushes. While I get the occasional warm moment during the night, I’ve not experienced them to any great extent.

What perimenopause did do to me is turn me into a lunatic. Well, you know, more of a lunatic than usual.

It took me a while to realise that I was going just a bit more crazy than usual at certain points of the month.

Psycho Me was taking hold of the wheel and in the back seat was a chorus of disapproving voices who liked to point out all my deficiencies and how much better the world would be without me.

Now, I’ve always suffered from the psychological effects of PMS but this seemed different. I felt a bit more unhinged than normal.

After a particularly troubling event in which I transitioned from making jokes on Facebook to writing and sending some pathetic poem about what a lousy friend I am in a matter of minutes with no apparent cause, I consulted Doctor Google.

I learned that those women who have suffered from PMS in the past will find those symptoms exacerbated by perimenopause. Oh joy.

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Then I read this line: “The average length of perimenopause is 4 years, but for some women this stage may last only a few months or continue for 10 years.”

I burst into tears. I seriously didn’t think that I would make it four years let alone ten. I would have no friends left by then, turned away by my insanity. That was assuming I’d even live that long. Those negative voices could be nasty and I was finding myself in some dark places.

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The next day I made an appointment to see my GP. I knew that I was going to need pharmacological help to get through this and I wanted to see my youngest finish school and to see all of my boys become independent productive citizens of the world.

I was about to head overseas to Nepal and since I didn’t really want to be starting new medication when I was hours away from a hospital, I made the appointment for after my return. It did mean that while I was away I had a weird day with inexplicable tears at dinner and rage eating half a block of chocolate and a bag of snacks in my tent but I had a friend by my side so I made it through intact.

At the appointment with my GP after I returned from Nepal, I was prescribed a half-dose of an anti-depressant which I was to try and take only for the 7 days prior to my next period, the time it was presumed I would be most crazy. There was a problem with this plan. I was trying to predict a cycle that was becoming increasingly unpredictable.

But I followed the plan and kept notes on when I started and stopped medication and cycles and when the Mad Days came.

And the Mad Days were most certainly mad. On one occasion, I drove home from my singing group planning to email the leader and resign from the group because I was convinced everybody in the group hated me.

On the scariest day, I was carrying such an undercurrent of intense rage, I had to fight against the urge to floor the accelerator in the car and slam it into a tree. Even scarier, I didn’t even know what I was angry about.

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The most interesting discovery was that the Mad Days came not at a consistent ‘before’ date but at a consistent ‘after’ date – nearly always exactly two weeks after my period.

At my next check up with the GP, this was all discussed and it was agreed that I should take the medication every day. Once I had made my way through menopause, we would work at taking me off the medication.

At a final follow up two months later, the GP was astonished to learn that I had not had a psychotic incident since our last appointment. “But you’re on such a tiny dose!” he said. “It’s amazing that it’s had that much effect.” I could see him mentally filing away the information for the next patient that came in with similar symptoms. Lucky woman.

I’m not saying that my life is smooth and uneventful. I still struggle some days. But I no longer feel like some psycho has control of me.

I’ve reflected this week, in the wake of the arrival of a period that was some six weeks in the making, that in all likelihood my mad episode of dieting was probably hormonally influenced. Still a bit crazy then.

So. I travel on, creating myself over with each step of the journey and looking very much forward to that post-menopause stage of life when I can be a new, but probably still crazy, me.

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Escape From The Diet

I’ve never been a fan of diets. Breathless discussion of the latest fad by shiny-eyed converts over dinner makes me want to stab my ear drums.

Admittedly, I’ve never really needed to purposely diet, having been born with suitable genes to keep me reasonably thin. Not that I can eat what I want and never put on weight but a moderate approach to food and exercise seems to work.

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I work on the dieting theory that if my clothes start to feel a bit tight, I cut back on the naughty foods and exercise more until my clothes fit properly again. Then I go back to what I was doing.

I do occasionally undergo what I call the Stress Diet. Whenever life gets really challenging I tend to stop eating. The worse things are, the more weight I lose. After the deaths of my sister and niece my weight dropped to 52kg (115lb). I’m 173cm (5’8″) tall. Not healthy.

I think my main objection to diets, particularly those that target a particular food type such as carbs or sugar, is that they tend to demonise food. If you eat the ‘wrong’ food, it’s supposed to make you feel bad. Food is there for nutrition, yes, but it’s also there for enjoyment. And oddly enough, diets that are highly restrictive are shown to be ineffective in the long term. Hardly surprising. I mean, who wants to live without beautiful bread or delicious chocolate for the rest of their lives?

So then, how was it that I found myself recently counting and recording calories and obsessing about whether I could afford to eat that slice of freshly baked sourdough bread? Why was there an app on my phone adding up every little thing I ate and sending me messages if I forgot to input what I ate for lunch?

I told myself it was a motivation tool for exercise. After all, if I exercise, I burn calories and thus I earn extra ‘credit’. Maybe I could have that piece of chocolate?

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Making those 2km on the rowing machine worth it

I told myself, why not lose a little weight now that I didn’t have to keep my weight over a certain value so I could donate more plasma at the Blood Bank since I can’t donate for a year because of my pulmonary embolism?

To be honest, my original intention was to lose a lot of weight. I was hurting. Not physically but mentally and emotionally. But mental injuries don’t show and it’s hard to convince people that you’re in pain. I thought if I could suddenly lose a lot of weight maybe it would be a physical signal to people that I was not okay.

So I signed up to an app and I set a strict weight goal and I started counting calories.

Of course, as part of this I started exercising more regularly and I started to feel better within myself. But by then, the Diet Cult had me in its grip.

I cut out breakfast and lunch and tried to minimise what I ate in the afternoon when I got home from work. I switched from my favoured flat white coffee to an espresso. I went to the gym and worked hard despite pain in my left foot. I started researching low calorie meals I could cook for dinner to help keep my calorie count low despite the fact that the men in my family all actually need extra calories in their diets.

But it was when I found myself drinking black tea – which I loathe – and going to bed hungry and sad that I realised that I had in fact fallen into exactly the traps I don’t like about diets. I was paranoid about what I ate. I felt guilty about every extra little treat I recorded in the app. I got depressed when my weight didn’t go down as fast as I wanted.

I deleted the app from my phone and I broke the diet. Oh boy, did I break it!

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And in the weird way the internet has of tapping into your psyche, just as I was coming to the realisation, on a YouTube session on the TV I stumbled across this hilarious piece from Michael McIntyre. It was like a sign. I laughed until tears rolled down my cheeks and I knew it was time to ditch the diet and go back to my usual plan – Everything In Moderation. Or, Run Marathons So I Can Eat As Much Chocolate As I Want.

 

Have you tried any diets? Did they work for you?

 

 

 

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. 🙂

 

Disappearing Bit by Bit

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Photo: Photofunia.com

I didn’t really know him very well but his death hit me hard.

Why?

Because, although I wasn’t really a part of his life now, he had been a significant part of mine when I was fifteen. Because, as I get older and as life moves on and changes, I’m coming to realise that there is a decreasing number of people in my life who knew me Before.

Before I bore the name I do now. Before I was seen in the context of my spouse, my children or my occupation. Before my dreams of becoming an author or an astrophysicist became just that. Before sorrow, loss, responsibility and struggle left their scars. Before my life was so defined.

Time is relentless and as it passes bits of who we were disappear. Places we lived, studied, worked, played. People with whom we shared laughter, tears, stories, dreams. The ideals we held for who we thought we’d be.

The tapestry of our life in the past becomes increasingly threadbare as the threads are pulled one by one.

I wrap that tapestry around my shoulders, shelter in it and hold fast to the memories while I can.

In memory of Noel.

 

Parenting Postscript: The title for this post comes courtesy of my 17-year-old youngest son. Sharing our usual “How was your day?” conversation in the car on the way home from school, he asked me if the person whose funeral I had attended was someone close to me. As I explained the connection and why I was so sad, he said “It feels like your past is disappearing bit by bit.” He understood. As a mother of three sons, the responsibility to raise good men falls heavily. It is moments like this that make me feel proud and more than a little relieved that I must be doing something right.

 

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.

Exam 3 cropped

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).

Exam 2 cropped

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.