Tag Archives: looking back

Family Barometer

Some weeks ago there was a link on Facebook via The Guardian.com to an advice column written by Molly Ringwald– an actress who I associate mainly with the early 90s given that the only movie of hers I can name is The Breakfast Club, which was my best friend at school’s favourite movie (I was never entirely sure why but anyway).

I wondered what an ex (?forgive me Molly if you are still acting) actress might have to say in an advice column- so I idly followed the link to find out. She actually seemed to give quite sensible advice, the problem in question was posed by an adult (man or woman not specified, age over 30 but also not specified) who felt their family (mainly siblings) were becoming increasingly distant and disinterested in them. The details of the situation aren’t important but Molly made a point which I thought was quite well put, in saying “The true barometer for family is showing up, telling the truth and treating those we love with dignity and respect.”

My recent revelation to my sister that I don’t think her partner is a good choice for her (compounded by a couple of other fundamentally different opinions on various issues) has been playing on my mind a lot. Things came to a bit of a head over the Easter weekend when she announced their engagement, of which I was informed by text message. Still no attempt to address or even acknowledge my concerns. Neither has there been an invitation to the wedding, nor an express statement that I am not invited. They are getting married later this month, which for me, currently 38 weeks pregnant, makes it pretty much impossible to go (given that we are living in different countries). In fact, her only reference to me going or not was to say “I realise it’ll be impossible for you to come”. What makes me more angry than being invited or not invited is her (to my mind) evident cowardice in hiding behind my baby as a reason to avoid the issue of inviting me or not, not just with me but with other people who will no doubt all just assume (and if they don’t I imagine she’ll tell them) the reason I’m not going is because I’ll have just had a baby. Maybe I’m just being overly suspicious, but it all seems a bit too convenient. I had the decency to tell the truth, she replied with nothing remotely resembling dignity or respect, and now won’t even show up to the discussion.

It’s not the first time I’ve thought about my family, not just my sister, but also my parents, the way our relationship has turned out, the way we deal with (or, more commonly, avoid) issues as a family, and why things have turned out the way they have. Of course, it’s easy to aspire to the cheesey, convenient TV family set-up with its (usually mildly flawed but) functional relationships and thick layer of warm and fuzzies, but I’ve never been under any illusion that that was us. Thinking about some of my friends, (somewhat depressingly) none of them seem to have what I’d class as an ideal relationship with their parents, or their siblings for the most part. Mr L probably comes the closest with his parents, which seems to pretty much fit Molly’s definition to a tee.

My relationship with my parents is harmonious enough, but at times superficial and lacking in depth or honesty. The other thing I really feel is missing is an active interest in my life (and perhaps mine in theirs too). I mean, they ask how things are, how are the kids, how’s work etc but occasionally it becomes painfully evident that my parents have no idea what I do on a day-to-day basis. As was perfectly demonstrated when I passed my second big set of post-graduate exams, marking the “end” of my vocational training and thus signifying I’d “made it” in my chosen career. I even invited them to Melbourne for the graduation ceremony (which they attended). My Mum then told me some weeks later that my grandmother had asked what I’d “become” now that I’d passed these major exams and she hadn’t been sure what to tell her. I’d devoted over 1000 hours of study to these exams, travelled interstate and overseas to train for and sit them, and my own mother couldn’t actually tell anyone the significance of them to my career, what they “meant” to me.

It’s slipped out before that she really has no idea what I do at work, and I very much doubt if she’d be able to tell you much else about my life in detail, like how many marathons I’ve run (two) let alone where they were (the Gold Coast and Auckland). In fact, she probably wouldn’t confidently be able to tell you I’d actually run a marathon at all. In contrast, Mr L’s parents (who admittedly we do speak with more often but I think that’s a result of their interest rather than the cause) will know if I’m doing even a 10km local fun run and will wish me good luck as well as ask how I went afterwards.

At times I’ve felt close(ish) to my sister. It’s usually been when she’s been at a time of change or uncertainty in her life, such as when she left her first husband. I’ve always thought is was quite telling that I didn’t ask her to be a bridesmaid at my wedding. This was partly because we had a very small wedding and having too large a wedding party would have been silly, but also because I felt absolutely no genuine desire to have her standing beside me as I got married, I didn’t think too hard about why not, I simply felt it would have been a bit token and meaningless. And that was 6 months after she’d left her husband, so based on what I’ve just said, that’s when I thought we were closer than usual!

I’ve sometimes blamed the 4 year age gap or the fact that she’s devoutly religious, and I really hoped that as we went further into adulthood and the relative age gap narrowed that we’d maybe have a bit more in common. Then when her marriage broke up and she left her (loser) first husband, I thought and hoped that maybe a bit of her personality had returned, she’d move away from the hypocrisy that so much of religion is and that she might become more “normal” and our relationship more functional or at least meaningful in turn. But sadly, husband-to-be number 2 is even more of a loser than number 1, and the way things are at the moment, the chances of ever being functional are slim…

In many ways, I feel it’s too late to fundamentally change the relationship I have with either my parents or my sister. I think the reasons we’ve ended up the way we have mainly include personality (that’s just the way they/we are), habit (that’s the way things have always been) and communication style (avoidant and minimalist) but the main reason it bothers me is that I don’t want my kids to be saying similar things about me one day. I can’t do a lot to change my personality but I can certainly show up and communicate better than my family has with me and avoid letting apathy and complacency become a habit.

“Showing up, telling the truth and treating those we love with dignity and respect”: food for thought.

 

 

No Place Like Home

And so, we have moved.

The change has happened, the page has turned, it’s done. It was fluttering in the breeze for weeks, if not months, before we left. Yet I could somehow delude myself it was reversible until the removalists arrived, took our stuff and suddenly… our house no longer felt like home…. Or didn’t it?

Strangely, the most emotional I felt leaving our house was walking around it empty, the morning after the furniture had gone, checking all the rooms, picking up the rake lying on the back lawn, looking back at the cubby house, the empty chicken coop, walking up the steps that Mr L built last year so Master L could toddle up and down the back garden more easily. His preschool teacher had suggested we say goodbye by lighting a candle and going through each room, recounting a memory we had from that room. This was a ridiculously impractical suggestion, apart from the fact that at age 2, Master L has little concept of time as well as a limited number of memories, it would have been incredibly time-consuming and I would have essentially been talking to myself and thus felt stupid. And light a candle with a toddler??? Are you serious?? Just as well it was a stupid idea, I don’t think my fragile emotional state could have withstood such an indulgence of sentiment. It was bad enough watching Mr L tear down the jungle sticker frieze from Master L’s wall that we’d carefully chosen and mounted in the months before his birth.

And so we camped out in limbo for a few weeks, sleeping on an inflatable bed in the rented house that had seemed so fabulous with a full complement of (another family’s) furniture. It’s hard to feel at home sitting in a camping chair and eating out of plastic takeaway containers in an empty, echoey dining room, but I consoled myself with the fact that if I thought I felt strange in this (lovely) empty house, how downright awful it would have been in any of the less lovely (ie totally grim) houses we looked at.

And when our belongings and furniture arrived, I thought “Hooray, now it will feel like home!!” Unwrapping our plates and cups, our bedding, our pictures, our DVDs and books, the familiarity and comfort rating soared…

So is it “stuff” that makes a house a home? Before we left I would have said no, it wouldn’t matter if our house burnt down (I mean it would, but not that much) because our stuff is just stuff and we are more than that. So when all this “stuff” arrived and I felt the excitement that came with it I thought maybe I’d been wrong, maybe home is where your belongings are, after all, not for what they are, so much as what they represent and the memories they hold with them.

But less than a week later, all (well ok almost all) unpacked and our stuff squeezed into our lovely rental house, this place does not feel like home. I have felt more homesick this last week than ever, yet when I try and figure out what it is I miss, all I can come up with it the very thing that motivated me to come on this adventure in the first place- the familiarity. The old cliché says familiarity breeds contempt and I didn’t want to end up feeling that. But there’s a lot to be said for routine, familiarity, comfort. The big things like work & friends, I never expected leaving them to be easy, and even the silly little things, like which supermarket you decide to go to depending on what else you need (you want a coffee as well? Go to supermarket [a]. Need a bakery? Supermarket [b]. Side-trip to the playground? [c]), I wondered if familiarity with details like this made a place feel like home. Well, I have sampled approximately 10 supermarkets in the last month and still it doesn’t feel like home.

Some languages have a word for a feeling that’s kind of like fond, happy memories of home or times gone by. In English we don’t really have a single word that I’m aware of that translates… I think nostalgia is probably the closest. I knew as we made the decision to leave that we were closing the chapter on several happy years and saying goodbye to our home. And so, as we try and establish ourselves in this new place and turn an adventure into a lifestyle, I know that we will gradually start writing our new chapter and filling it with fond memories. Eventually, it will be less about homesickness and more about that foreign concept approximated by nostalgia.

Changing Country

All Good Things Sarah Turnbull- a review

 I’ve almost finished reading All Good Things at the moment, by Sarah Turnbull. She’s also the author of Almost French, which I read at uni (almost 20 years ago) where, as a late twenty-something Australian woman, she moves to Paris and describes her experience of trying to adapt and live alongside “les Parisiens”. When I discovered she had a new book, I resolved to re-read Almost French and remind myself of her experiences and her writing style, but I was caught by surprise when All Good Things popped up in the Sony reader store on special, and I was too impatient to go and source a copy of her earlier work first.

All Good Things has taken me a long time to read. As with everything nowadays, some of that can be blamed on situational factors (too tired, too busy, the kids, conflicting electronic demands (ie too much time on the internet) but I can’t help but feel that for a really compelling read I’d put these things aside. I didn’t really know what to expect of the book, I knew that Sarah and her French husband leave Paris to move to Tahiti and that was it. If I’d thought about it, I suppose I’d have realised that a personal memoir of life on Mo’orea was probably not going to be particularly fast-paced.

 But overall I’ve enjoyed reading it. There are several aspects of her story that I was able to identify with- her experience of Polynesia, her journey to becoming a mother, even her scuba-diving adventures are all things I can relate to although perhaps in rather different ways to her.

 However there are two things that really appeal to me. The first is her writing style. Much of what I’ve read over the last few years has been, quite frankly, trash. Predictable, formulaic, albeit page-turning chick-lit. In some ways I’m a bit of a literary wannabe. I like to appreciate good writing, I enjoy thinking about themes and imagery and all that stuff, but I don’t want to have to think too hard about it. I want it to be there for me to appreciate without having to expend too much mental energy. And All Good Things allows me just that. Sarah Turnbull writes beautifully. Admittedly her subject matter (mostly the history and natural environment of Tahiti) lends itself to vibrant prose and imagery but her descriptive passages are so… vivid (fortunately she has a far broader vocabulary than mine) and her command of adjectives (although the excerpt below isn’t actually great example of adjectives per se) is astounding.

“Waves pounded the reef, sending white caps scudding across the lagoon and vibrations travelling through the air. Ferns shimmied and shook, coconut palms tossed their heads like impatient ponies, the rubbery papaya tree arched acrobatically. When the rain fell the power of it was thrilling. Water rolled down our iron roof, falling over the eaves in fat glass ropes that glittered under the bright garden lights. The percussive din was so load we had to shout to be heard.”

My English teacher, Mrs Wade, would have been in heaven with all this imagery, albeit a rather frustrated one due my inability to understand the difference between a simile and a metaphor.

While reading passages such as this and in particular her descriptions of her lagoon and ocean forays (swimming and scuba diving), I often wondered how Sarah translated her observations to paper. Did she take notes as she was pottering around the island (surely she must have)? Sitting on a beach with a notebook I can easily imagine, but scribbling notes straight after a scuba dive, all sandy and salty and dripping water on the paper? Did she ponder for hours searching for the perfect adjective or did they all just pop into her head? (Actually an early passage describing some of the writing drills she attempted to overcome her writer’s block would suggest there wasn’t a lot of popping. Nevertheless, I was impressed!)

The other angle that seems particularly pertinent to my own experience is her perspective on moving countries. She describes perfectly (I cannot find the passage at this point- annoying e-reader) how she felt on a brief visit to Australia after some time living in France, how she somehow expected everything to be the same and felt quite indignant that, in her absence, people had dared to move on. I clearly remember having the same feelings during my first trip back to England after we had emigrated to Australia. It was 4 years before we returned which, in anyone’s book, is quite a long time, but in the crucial years of adolescence, may as well be a lifetime. I remember naïvely expecting the comfortable niche I’d left as a 12 year old to be there when I returned at 16 and all my friends just sitting around missing me, as I had missed them since I’d left. Realising they hadn’t been doing that at all and that my niche had been solidly filled in for some time generated such feelings of sadness and loss that I found my visit really difficult in some ways. (Actually it was also exactly what I needed to realise where home really was now and get on with life instead of wallowing in sentimental thoughts of where I’d be now if we hadn’t moved).

Of course, with our imminent move to NZ, this theme becomes relevant again. At the end of the book, Sarah moves back to Australia with her husband and son, and in the final few chapters she describes the physical steps that contribute to such a life-change:

“Changing country requires commitment and energy. Finding or starting work, making friends, developing new rituals, locating favourite restaurants and pastimes- the process of settling in, or “blending in”, as my mother used to say, takes time and energy. Finally, if you’ve been diligent and your efforts prove fruitful, you end up with precisely what you left behind: routines and a regular life.”

As an adult, fortunately, these steps are easier. Not just because they are conscious but because you feel more in control of them than when you are dumped in a foreign country at the age of 12. The fact that you’re the one choosing to move in the first place probably has a lot to do with it as well. So does the fact that you feel much more confident in who you are and all these new discoveries are accessories to your life rather than the definition of it.

So I’m sorry it took me so long to get through the book. Whilst I can’t help but feel a little disappointed that I wasn’t compelled to read it faster, I think the fault was largely mine rather than the author’s. I’d be keen to go back and visit Almost French again. It did spend many years sitting on my bookshelf, only to be discarded in a fit of de-cluttering. But hey, that’s what a library is for, right?

Past imperfect

I never did read that “Letters to my 16 year old self” book, although I did read a few snippets that were published in weekend newspapers and the like. However, I do occasionally indulge in an idle fantasy where I am asked to speak at some kind of assembly/speech day/welcome to students of my old school and I think about what I would say. This fantasy is often triggered by a school reunion, or running into someone from school, or another such reminder, not just of how far I’ve come in the last 20-odd years, but (somewhat narcissistically) how much I’d love to show off about it to all the cool people at school who never gave me a second thought. I wonder if I’d been like I am now, when I was at school, how different my high-school experience would have been.

Now that I have my own daughter I do spend quite a bit of time wondering and thinking and hoping that she becomes a slightly more functional teenager than I was myself (I’m conveniently assuming Master L will be a carbon copy of the highly-functioning teenager his father was, in marked contrast to his mother). More to the point, I hope I can at least set a decent example, if not guide Miss L, in areas where I feel I’d do things differently second time round (which, to be fair, I think is most areas!) I know it’s often said that parents want for their children what they never had themselves, or got to be, as if they want to live vicariously through their kids. I think it’s less selfish than that though, you just want to try and spare them the hassle of the hard stuff and the time-wasters and show them the best that life has to offer, which you often don’t realise yourself until after the fact.

I’ve often regretted how much time I wasted at school agonising and having attitude over things that a) didn’t matter or b) did matter but I should have bloody well just got on with it instead of bitching and moaning the entire time. I know part of growing up is figuring these things out for yourself, but I do think of all the other things I could have been doing if I’d known this all along!

So, if I am ever invited to give that speech or write a chapter for that book, here’s what I’d say:

1)    Do what you enjoy even if you think you aren’t the best at it. The main thing that comes to mind is sport. You like running (and you are quite good at it, you know that). Do more of it, work on it, find out how to get better at it. Not so you can win, but so that you get a sense of achievement from it.

2)    Be to other people how you’d like them to be to you. You want people to chat to you, be interested in you, ask you about things, invite you places. Maybe you should make the effort too instead of waiting for them to do everything. Just say hi, how are you, what did you do on the weekend? Keep an open mind, they might be a nice person. And if you find out you don’t click, move on, that’s ok, not everyone does click. But get over this obsession that no one really likes you. For a start, they’d like you better if you did (get over it)!

3)    On a similar note, you don’t have to have a “best friend”. Friends come in many different guises and pop up in all walks of life. Things that you have in common with one friend, you will not have with another. That’s what makes them interesting. Friends come and go through different phases of your life. Being comfortable with lots of different people is much more useful than trying to force one person into a “best” friend mould.

4)    Your time will come, be patient. Not everyone needs to be kissed by the time they’re 16, be going out drinking in Year 11 or have a boyfriend in Year 12. There is plenty of time for all this and it’s just making you miserable comparing yourself to girls in your year who’ve got there first. You’ve got other places they haven’t, so make the most of those places, there’s all the time in the world for boys and all the rest of it.

5)    You’re right to worry about your weight, NOT because of the way you look, but because of how you feel and your health. It’s not about being super-skinny and you can’t really change the basic body-type you’re meant to have, but carrying excess weight is bad for you, mentally and physically. Eat healthier food, and less of it, savour the delicious things in small amounts regularly, and busy-up your life so you don’t have time to sit around and obsess about eating. I don’t know how to spare you a 20 year obsession with food and chaotic, unhealthy eating behaviours, but it doesn’t need to be so hard, it really doesn’t.

6)    You know who around you has got it right. Think about what it is that they do. They have it figured out already. They’re smart, busy girls, they fit a lot in. They play sport and do well in class, yet they have no more hours in the day than you do. They talk to all sorts of people without demonstrating the hang-ups you have. These hang-ups are purely mental, but you need to physically push them out of the way sometimes- i.e. get out there and just get on with it!

7)    Make the most of opportunities that come your way. You never know where they might lead. And even if they lead nowhere, at least you aren’t left wondering what would have happened if you’d tried something new.

8)    Keep dreaming your dreams. You will become the person you want to be and you’ll learn a lot along the way. You pretty much can do anything you put your mind to (ok maybe professional ballet is out, but most other stuff!)

9)    Your parents know a lot but they don’t know everything. Don’t model your way of life on them. They could be busier, more active, more positive, more sociable, more adventurous. So could you.

10) Smile. It’ll make everything easier.

xx

Future Perfect

What we use to talk about the past in the future, eg “By this time next month, several changes will have come about.”

I get the feeling there’s a shift happening at the moment. You know, when things in your life change, subtly or not-so-subtly and you feel like you’re entering a new phase and that life’s moved on.

More often than not it’s because there are several small shifts that coincide. I guess for this to happen at the start of a New Year is not that unusual. In Australia, as well as the calendar year flipping over on January 1st, so does the academic year. Most people have a break from work over the Christmas and New Year period and so have a small rentrée even if their return is essentially to the same routine.

For me, this year, the change that’s brought about solely by a new calendar year has been magnified by several other small (and medium-sized) changes. Mr L’s parents were visiting for 10 days over New Year and left today to return to the UK, and so we are feeling that strange post-holiday feeling of going back to real life. Mr L returns to work in 2 days and faces some probable big changes this month and this year, of the exciting but also challenging kind. Master L starts preschool in 2 weeks, which his mother’s really excited about even if he’s not really that bothered about it. And then I go back to work after 8 months’ maternity leave to face all the challenges that go along with time away from the workplace: being out of the loop and then trying to rejoin that loop when my other life (as a mother of two) is what preoccupies me most of the time.  And on top of all that, Miss L cut her first tooth on January 2nd, just a reminder that her life is charging rapidly on too.

This unique feeling always makes me stop and take stock. It’s a combination of excitement and trepidation, a product of new plans and partly-answered questions. I’ve always been a planner and a goal-setter, which I suppose explains my previous attitude to resolutions (in short, I’m a fan but for a more in-depth discussion, follow that link). At the same time I’m a sentimentalist at heart, I cherish my past and hold dear memories of things I’ve done and people I’ve known. I’m not sure how the two go together, this love of looking to the future but also remembering the past….

I know it’s very in vogue to live in the moment and the popular quote which goes something along the lines of “The past is already gone, the future is not yet here. There’s only one moment for you to live, and that is the present.” seems to be what the pop-psychologists tout. I think there is a certain amount to be said for that. I’ve often been nostalgic for times gone past and those are often the times I haven’t appreciated as they were happening. Possibly a case of looking back with rose-coloured glasses, but maybe if we put those glasses on to look at the present and appreciated the moment as it’s happening, we’d prevent a lot of the regret that comes with looking back and realising how good you had it. However, what I don’t think is realistic is to feel you have to cherish EVERY moment. All those Mummy blogs that tell you not to wish it away because in the blink of an eye it’s gone- yep, some things, sure, but there are moments (hours and days even) of drudgery, boredom, tedium and even unpleasantness where you just kind of hang in there. I think trying to make people feel they are squandering their lives (or, rather, their children’s lives, which is the usual implication) for not “living in” all of these moments is a bit unfair.

I wonder as well, how you are meant to get the most out of life if you don’t spend at least some of your time thinking about the future? I don’t see how you can achieve much at all if you don’t make plans, think about how they’re going to come to fruition and what’s more, be motivated by the anticipation of making them come about.

And so I like this feeling of shift, it’s exciting. It reminds me that things are moving on and so I take a moment to notice how things are now because they won’t be this way again. Then when I do look back I can say, without regret “Yes that was a happy time but now I’ve moved on to more happiness”.

As JFK said, “For time and the world do not stand still. Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.”