It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times

December 30: 2020 24 hours to go (almost).


This year is the first year we’ve begun and ended in our own home, and that’s probably one of the things I’m most grateful for.

Our house is something that’s brought me joy all year.

It’s a thing I never thought would be real for me, and we’ve done better: we’re not just in a solid place, we’re ahead on the mortgage.

It feels like so many things are possible now for our family long-term.


At the other end of the spectrum, I went to three funerals this year, which is not something I would like to repeat soon.

Two were older family members and while I feel those losses, they seem somehow like the natural order of things.

The other, I’m still deciding when to smoke the Romeo y Julieta I took from his final stash, and I tear up when I think about it.

It’s sitting on my bookshelf.

I figure I’ll know, when I know.


COVID has been a strange and constant companion, not all bad: I like not being crowded into lifts.

I like more space on trains.

I’m quite happy to sanitise my hands and I don’t even mind wearing masks when I need to.

I’ve really enjoyed sewing masks for friends and colleagues who didn’t have them.

Part of me wonders why we didn’t do these things before.

People are gross, right?


During lockdown I bought an electric guitar and started guitar lessons – after 30+ years of playing acoustic.

(That first question from the guitar school was fun to answer: have you played guitar at all before?)

Learning to play better and differently has been really fun and it’s made me a better musician in other ways – surprisingly, especially on saxophone.

I started lessons via Skype, so my first in person lesson was super weird and I was anxious about it, but it turned out my teacher is magnificently nerdy so we hit it off just fine.

I’d like to thank him for the Diablo III tips, which have entirely changed the course of my holiday gaming.


Lockdown was hard and isolating, but the increased pace of my job was harder.

April was 6am starts and 8pm finishes (not because I was done, but because I drew a line), answering questions from scared and angry people all day on the internet.

Going back to work after lockdown was an added complication.

I found myself incredibly, stay awake at night anxious – not out of fear of the virus, but social anxiety.

I’d forgotten how much people frighten me, but I managed that okay in the end.


Like most kinds of anxiety I deal with, diving back in and just dealing with it was the most effective way to deal with it.

They call it exposure therapy.

Exposure therapy is the most effective kind of anxiety therapy for me.

I also started seeing my psychologist again and that too was helpful.Hit me up if you need a referral, because he’s awesome.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy sounds kinda woo-woo, but getting back into it meant I re-learned the value of intention: of doing what you mean to do because it matters to you.

Many things are easier if you have conviction.

Choice is power.


Speaking of health professionals, I sacked my rheumatologist this year, which was a relief.

She is perfectly competent and actually probably bloody good really, but I have always felt her judgement.

After sticking with her for 5 years I reckon I’ve given the relationship a decent chance, and I’m tired of feeling on the defensive every appointment.

I have a 15 year plus relationship with my psychiatrist, and she challenges me but doesn’t make me feel like shit when she does it.

So you know what?

I realised it’s not me that’s the problem.

And I realised there are plenty of other competent rheumatologists out there.

So I have an appointment with a different one in a few weeks.

I’m told she’s kind.


This year I also became the mother of a teenager.

Which sounds a bit like I just adopted one from somewhere, but actually the kid I already have turned 13.

He’s huge, incidentally.

He’s a monumental dickhead at times but I love him more than he’ll ever really understand.


I changed my job in February.

Still in government, but moved into digital media.

I like my job, and more importantly, I like the people I work with.

I’m less keen on my job security being tied to the election cycle and I’m even less keen to go through an election campaign again.

So I don’t plan to.I’m kinda done with politics.


In October I applied to study a Bachelor of Nursing.

I’m now enrolled in two units, and I start in February.

I already have my student card.


I feel like the pace of this year – with coronavirus, and the election – hasn’t given me a lot of time to process all the big events.

If I pause to reflect, there are a lot of feelings there and I kinda tear up a bit.

I think I might be processing some of these things into 2021.

But that’s okay.


The most important part of this year has been my partner.

He’s kind and resilient and he has beautiful hair.

And he’s here for me whenever I need him.

He’s my touchstone.

My rock.

My anchor.


I have hope for 2021.

I hope you do too.

We already know it’s going to start out strange, but I believe there are better things ahead.

On the telephone line I am anyone

An elderly woman rang the office today to offer some tinned goods for donation. We talked for a little while, about her cockatiel and his love of baked beans and celery, and her husband of 62 years who’d gone into respite care that day because he has dementia.

He will never come home, because his dementia is the kind that caused him to become violent towards his wife. He was especially angry this morning, and went after her with a broom.

And I don’t know that we resolved anything really, though I suggested setting jelly inside drinking straws for her cockatiel to nibble at. And we couldn’t pick up the tins of food she wanted to donate, so she will need to find someone else to take them, or else throw them out. She doesn’t have family nearby who could drop them off to us, or to help her manage her husband’s condition.

I hope that one day, when I’m an old lady and something kind of big happens, that the person on the other end of the phone will take a minute to talk to me.

Requiem

Senescent, wasting, her breath rakes across hospital linen.

Tonight, a whispered invitation floats toward her hospital bed: the ferryman has saved her a seat on the prow and they shall set sail by dawn. Her hair will once more fly in the breeze.

She refused chemotherapy and cut off her breasts.
Her children are pulled ever to her bosom,
faces pressed relentlessly into bitter scars,
airless.

Under the sheet, she is still.

Iron butterflies

A barbell loded with 2 20kg platesI spent some time thinking while I was deadlifting this evening, as you do.

In conversation a few nights ago I was asked if lifting is like aikido, and at the time I said ‘no, not really’. On reflection I think the truth is a little more nuanced than that.

When I lift, I know exactly where the bar is before I start. I move the bar into position – when I deadlift, I roll the bar gently toward my shins to set it ready for the upward pull. Before I lift, I put tension on the bar – it’s not quite a lift before it becomes a lift, but I get the feel of it first before I pull. I have heard it described as if when I am lifting a hundred kilograms, I need to be consciously lifting at least ninety-nine before I try to break contact with the floor.

Moving the bar into position is a little like blending with an opponent – it’s finding my opponent’s centre and moving it to where I can apply force. Applying tension before actually lifting is reminiscent of finding an opponent’s balance point before I throw. The movements are slower, more deliberate, and I am always in control; but I think there are some parallels.

It’s different though, significantly enough that I find cross-disciplinary translations confusing. Lifting is a calculated process, thought out before a lift begins. I approach the bar with intent, like I move with intent in aikido, but unlike aikido I more or less have a fully formed plan to work with and I can follow it to its conclusion.

When I lift, tension is key. As in anything, unnecessary tension is counterproductive, but a successful lift requires muscle groups to be set in position and held firmly. For a deadlift, that’s a held breath, a rock hard torso, shoulders set back and gluteal muscles engaged. Deviation from a set motor pattern means a failed lift – or injury. My commitment to a lift requires a full body response, and I do not begin until I have connected with every muscle I will need.

Aikido Kokikai badge on a dogi sleeveAikido seems a polar opposite. When in doubt, relax. If the technique isn’t working, use less strength – feel for the tipping point, gently, gently. The more muscle tension I hold in my body, the less able I am to feel where I need to be and how to join with my opponent. I impose my will on the barbell, but I need to blend with my partner’s will in aikido – and I find myself having to completely relearn physical responses that I have worked hard to build in a weightlifting context. Aikido feels completely counterintuitive, where weightlifting seemed to fall naturally into place.

O Sensei said, ‘one should be prepared to receive ninety-nine percent of an enemy’s attack and stare death right in the face’.

I lift weights which could permanently disable me if I slip. It’s not melodramatic to suggest that some of those weights could even kill me, given a sufficiently unfortunate accident. Were I to fall underneath the weight of a loaded barbell across my shoulders, the consequences would be distinctly non-trivial.

When I approach a significantly heavy weight, at the same time that I am preparing to take hold of the bar I also want nothing to do with it at all – because I know my opponent, and it is powerful. To take the weight, I prepare for the force it will exert on my body: I know that it will tax me, perhaps to my limits; I know often it will hurt. Bruises are a regular take-home from the gym. Although I take precautions to prevent accidents – safety rails, or help from a ‘spotter’ – I take that danger and absorb it. It becomes mine, and I commit to the lift.

In his essay ‘The Iron‘ Henry Rollins reflects on the lessons he learned from lifting. He sees lifting as a journey of self-discovery, an anchor to reality and a form of meditation. Rollins’s essay resonates with me deeply: lifting is a solitary meditation, a teacher which leads me to insights about myself, the world, and my place in it. It calms and centres me, and leaves me better equipped to respond to others thoughtfully and kindly.

Aikido is less solitary, but there’s something about landing repeatedly on the floor that also offers insights into who I am and where I belong. There aren’t so many meditative moments – at least not while I’m on the mat – but perhaps that will come in time. The one point I access with my hands on a barbell seems elusive on the tatami, which frustrates me, but once I find it consistently perhaps I will find more overlap between disciplines.

Rollins said, ‘Muscle mass does not always equal strength. Strength is kindness and sensitivity. Strength is understanding that your power is both physical and emotional. That it comes from the body and the mind. And the heart.’

And in this, I find the same mind in both lifting and aikido.

The kindness of strangers

old couple outside bar in Auckland

December in Auckland can be surprisingly cold for a Brisbane native, and I found myself escaping the wind inside a pub in Durham Street East with a secondhand book and an India pale ale.

I perched on a stool at the pub’s front window overlooking the tables outside and opened my book. It was warm enough inside that I could take off my windbreaker, so I took the chance to settle in comfortably for a while.

To my right were a man in his twenties and a woman I think he was hoping to impress, and outside were an elderly husband and wife. I sipped my beer and turned pages, half-reading and half-listening to the people around me.

A waitress went to the outside table to take down their order, and the husband chose three dishes from their tapas menu. He asked the waitress how he should pay for their food – would she bring a bill, or should he go inside and pay at the bar?

The waitress said, ‘He’s already paid for your food,’ gesturing upwards to the man to my right.

I lost interest in my book, then, as the confused man asked the waitress to clarify. She repeated: the man sitting beside me had paid for the old couple’s meal.

Initially hesitant to accept her explanation, he looked up to the window and asked, ‘But why?’

My neighbour shrugged. ‘I just wanted to. Enjoy your evening.’

His wife had said nothing throughout, and I looked at her more closely. She seemed tired, perhaps; her eyes appeared to wander, and she seemed to forget she had a glass of wine in front of her. Her husband would remind her now and then by moving her hand to the glass, at which she’d focus her attention and lift it to her lips.

If a relationship could leave visible traces, theirs would be a series of trails drawn from hand to shoulder, fingertips to mouth. He seemed always to be touching her solicitously:  reaching across to gently dab the corner of her mouth with a napkin, or guiding her hand to a plate.

The young man seated beside me moved outside then to smoke a cigarette, and he and the husband began to talk. The conversation began with the older man offering to buy the younger a beer, and moved into an exchange of stories: who they were, why they were here.

The older couple were tourists in the city, like me. But instead of travelling on a whim, they had come to visit their daughter on this part of a longer journey.

He said he had retired from working to care for his wife, who had dementia. They were travelling now, for as long as they could – for as long as she could enjoy visiting new places, and for as long as he could continue to care for her.

The wind had cooled further, and she changed seats to sit beside her husband. She pressed in close to him, and he put his arm around her. She seemed a little more anxious, so he leaned in to murmur in her ear – and she burst out laughing.

Their daughter arrived then, and she ordered more wine. I could see though that her mother was uneasy: she was cold, and her eyes darted about anxiously. She stood several times, and each time her husband held her hand and spoke some soothing words so that she would sit down again.

Her daughter reached in to her gym bag and pulled out a towel, which she placed on her mother’s lap in an attempt to capture a little warmth. I could see that she and her father wanted to stay a little longer, but it seemed they would soon need to leave. Their glasses were close to full, and their conversations only just begun.

I looked at my jacket, and considered things. The next day, I would fly back to an oppressively hot Brisbane summer. I rather liked my jacket, but it was inexpensive and could easily be replaced before the following winter.

Outside, I saw a family who were running out of time. They had perhaps an hour at most to sit outside the pub in the falling cold; but more than that, they were inexorably losing a wife and mother.

‘Hey, excuse me,’ I said. The daughter looked up, and I held out my jacket.

‘Here. She’s cold. She can wear this.’

The daughter thanked me, and began to fuss over her mother. ‘Here, put this on. No, here, let me help. There you go.’

I gave them a few minutes, then quietly put my book in my bag and slid off my stool. Wearing my jacket, the old woman was calmly leaning in to her husband, tucked comfortably under his arm. He and their daughter were laughing, and I walked quickly to and through the door and out into the street.

I didn’t look over my shoulder as I strode away – I didn’t want to catch the daughter’s eye, because if she’d realised I was leaving she’d have tried to return my jacket. I could not have explained my reasons to her clearly, but I had been in the presence of a relentless love that evening, and a jacket was trivial.

I clutched my arms to my chest as I hurried back to my hostel.

Mrs McFly

I used to dread aging. When I was in my teens, I joked that I didn’t really want to live beyond thirty-five or so. Old age (or even middle age) seemed like a life sentence: I’m not sure what I thought my mind would be like in my later years, but I remember thinking my body would be tired and breaking down. Aging seemed to me to be a drawn out unpleasantness of increasing degree.

At thirty-seven (already two years past my use by date, if my teenage self is to be believed), I look forward to becoming older. I’m just old enough to feel the beginnings of the physical breakdown I so feared: I have early osteoarthritis in my spine, and mild arthritis in some of my finger and toe joints. My hair is almost entirely grey, though I don’t mind that. I don’t mind wrinkles either; but function matters to me a great deal and there are some tiny, cumulative griefs in my joints already.

Having spent the last eighteen months or so morphing into a recreational athlete, I have become much more invested in my long term wellbeing. I’ve begun to learn that although some change in function is inevitable, there’s also an argument to be made that the human body doesn’t stop working due to age – as long as you keep moving.

One of the yudansha in my dojo is an older woman, and she is older in the best way possible. She’s bright and articulate and lively, and I love watching her roll and breakfall and throw other students. I watch her and see a world of possibility: I want to reach retirement age and be able to throw students to the mat, and leap over an obstacle into a quick-sure forward roll.

That I feel strong and well contributes to this desire for a long and active life: it feels possible in a way that is new and exhilarating to me. I have come to realise though that there is another, maybe even more significant reason that I have aspirations and goals for my sixties and seventies and eighties and beyond.

The link between physical health and mental health is a complex link and not one we understand well on a conscious level, but on a more visceral level the connection is very clear. The effect that physical health has on my affect is clear and immediate: if I spend enough time in each week training for strength, I am calm and resilient, and my day to day existence is smooth enough that I can move through it confidently.

More profound though is the realisation that I now think about the future at all. I think about times a long way ahead of me, and my contented place in them. And this, this is something. I spent many years looking no further forward than a week or a day.

There were times when the black dog placed his heavy paws on my chest, and breathed hot and claustrophobic over my shoulder, and then life was a matter of minutes: just one, then another, then another. But those are not the times I’m thinking of: I’m thinking of the expanse of years, the decade or even two where I forgot how to dream. Life wasn’t bad or even particularly sad: it just didn’t have a permanent sort of texture, and I didn’t grip it firmly enough to climb.

This is what excites me about getting old: that I care enough to want it. I see a long and vibrant future, and I am there in every moment.

I’m coming around to Christmas

I think I’m getting better at Christmas. For many years, it’s felt so bleak.

I know I’m not alone in this. For every person who loves this time of year, there’s another person for whom the festive season is filled with holes: gaps where people should be. Despite the breadth of this shared experience, it’s a strangely isolating feeling. About ten years ago, I spent a Christmas entirely alone, because that hurt least. I think I had gin and television, and a couple of people dropped by to check in on me anyway.

It’s not quite true that kids make Christmas, but they do offer a different perspective on things. My son is excited about Christmas, and his joy is infectious. The ghosts take their seats quietly in the corner of the room instead of pulling up a chair at the table. I can still see their shadows out of the corner of my eye, but if I blink and look back at the festivities they fade away for a while.

Now and then I turn to face the shadows, and it can feel a little overwhelming. There are so many of them. People who never age. People who would have spent Christmas with us, playing on the floor with my son and telling terrible jokes from Christmas crackers just to make him laugh. People who he will never know except through stories – their shadows are paler for him, so thin as to be almost invisible.

There are other shadows, too: people who are celebrating Christmases this year, somewhere else. Families which are not really families any more. I’m not even sure what I miss there, any more: perhaps it’s a sense of how things could have been different, had people been less wounded or unbending.

But this year, we have a Christmas tree in our house. It’s an actual tree, not a compromise. There is a steadily growing pile of presents beneath it: some wrapped in simple paper, labelled with spidery calligraphy; some wrapped in bright colours with hot pink gift cards and felt tip scrawl. Hot pink is not a colour I’d usually associate with Christmas, but its incongruity tickles me. There is a delicate ornament hanging from the tree: a dove, given to me to remember my brother. My chest tightened as I hung it on my tree; but then I hung a red bauble above it. The red bauble has messy glitter designs glued to it, and my son gravely told me I should put it at the top of the tree, because he is my only child.

He is indeed, and so I laughed and hung the bauble (oversized and completely at odds with the smaller silver and gold ornaments placed so uniformly across the branches) up near the very peak of the tree, just underneath the glowing star.

We are spending Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with family. Not all of our family, but enough. It will be warm and festive, and there will be mangoes and punch. I’m looking forward to it at the same time as I am looking back to Christmases past. It feels like a good end to a good year.

Halfway up the stairs

I think my favourite place is the back steps. Almost everywhere I’ve lived has had a set of steps at the back door, and those steps have for some reason always been my special place.

When I was a kid, growing up in Roma, the back steps were one of the coolest places to sit during the long hot summers. They were four or five open wooden steps, old and repainted many times, so that the wood grain was wide and picked out in different colours where feet had worn through the paint. I’d sometimes hold the garden hose and water my feet while I sat there. When I was sad, I’d sit on those steps, because they were not inside the house, but I was still somewhere that felt like home. The cat and her kittens would troop past me, up and down the stairs. When I was a little older and I had menstrual cramps – I had a hard time with those as a teenager – I’d sit on the steps with my knees tucked up, waiting for the pain relief to kick in.

When I was first at university, I lived in a residential college in Toowoomba. I’d catch the bus down to Brisbane reasonably often to stay with my aunt and uncle and cousins. For a while there, their house was my second home. I spent a lot of time on their back steps, just hanging out and talking with my cousin. Those steps were two storeys high, and there was almost always a huge orb weaver spider next to the top landing hanging a web at eye height. I love heights, and I love spiders. I spent a lot of time staring out at those orb weavers, leaning out into midair to see them up close. When Emma, Rebecca, and Catherine’s car careened off the highway, I was at my aunt and uncle’s house. I spent a long time sitting on those back steps, listening to Tracey Chapman, sobbing quietly.

I moved out into a flat eventually, with Rachel. We spent a lot of time on our back steps, smoking cigarettes and drinking Dolcetto. We tried to quit smoking by making a rule that we could only smoke outside the house in winter. Neither of us quit, but we were often very, very cold.

I lived in a flat at Taringa about ten years ago. There were no back steps, and I tried sitting in the back doorway. It wasn’t quite right. That flat never really felt like home to me. It was a two storey townhouse, and I tried sitting on the internal stairs. They weren’t right either. I moved out of that flat into a dodgy old house in Highgate Hill with my girlfriend. I’d sit on the back steps when we fought, to clear my head. I sat on those steps and cried when she broke up with me, and I sat there to avoid her in the weeks afterward, before she moved out. Those three stairs were at the side of the house, next to the kitchen, and feral pumpkin vines curled around them.

When I spent some months housebound, because I was too anxious to go outside, I sat on the back stairs in my tiny old hobbit-hole flat. Those steps were cracked and they wobbled, but I could sit on the steps and be outdoors without panicking. I’d stare at the sky and the trees, or close my eyes and feel the breeze, and not feel quite so lonely.

I don’t often sit on my back stairs here. But when I do, they feel like home.

A Christmas Toast

I have a Christmas bauble with your name on it
but this year I did not have a tree.

Last year
grief was fresh, and small remembrances
were a communion of sorts. Remembering
brought you closer again
in short, sharp pangs.

An aching year has lain down between us, and now
remembering is a slow infirmity. I would
hang your bauble on a tree, but my heart is too heavy
to lift it by its slender string.

I reach for my glass, the wine drawing me
into the pools of Mnemosyne.
I swim with my eyes closed, arms outstretched.

To Christmas, my brother. Our family
is as it ever has been,
so near,
so far.

To Christmas.

It’s not like the movies

My first kiss was at a cadet camp. My child is never, ever going on a school camp, cadet camp, band camp, you name it. Ever. Not until he’s thirty.

But I digress.

I remember I was on a cadet camp at RAAF Amberley. I think it was one they called a ‘general interest’ camp. It meant we mostly spent our days marching around Amberley air base, doing a few lectures on things like aircraft recognition, and now and then marching over to the FA-18 hangars to look at them from a distance and murmur appreciatively.

To be honest, I really can’t remember what we did, aside from wear bulky uncomfortable Air Force overalls, and march around. And polish shoes. We polished shoes a lot.

His name was Chris. He was with 16 Flight, Air Training Corps. I remember he lived in Bauple, which is a little town outside of Maryborough. He was tall and skinny and freckled and had some of the reddest hair I’ve ever seen.

I’ve always had a bit of a thing for red hair. Maybe that’s why?

One of the issues staff had on cadet camps was keeping cadets busy in the evenings, after dinner. Because, obviously, that’s when cadets are most likely to get up to shennanigans. The staff we had came up with the most excellent plan for keeping cadets too busy to play around – they sent us to the base cinema.

That worked brilliantly, as you’d expect.

So somehow I ended up sitting next to Chris. And you know how it goes. You rest your arm on the shared armrest, starting out well over your side of the armrest so you’re not touching at all. A movie goes for an hour and a half or two hours, so you’ve got a while there to start casually sneaking your arm across the rest. You bump your neighbour once or twice, nonchalantly, just to gauge his reaction.

I think we were watching Top Gun. I remember that cadet camps recycled movies even vaguely related to aircraft ad infinitum. I’m sure it was about the third camp where I’d seen Top Gun. That movie is one of the most unintentionally camp movies I’ve ever seen, you know?

I think Chris put his hand on my knee at one point. I don’t remember properly, but that’s probably because the blood had rushed to my head and I was feeling kind of faint.

What I remember most about the kiss is how surprised I was. Surprised at the fact that it had happened at all, of course, but I think most surprised at how overwhelming it was. One moment, his face was near mine; the next, everything was technicolour and confusing and his tongue was frighteningly invasive. I’d had no idea.

So I’d already seen Top Gun several times, which kind of freed me up to ignore the screen. And I remember the lights coming up, but I don’t remember much about what happened next with Chris. He was much taller than me, so his position in marching formation was at one corner of the group, whereas I was somewhere in the middle. It meant that if we’d wanted to hold hands and walk back to barracks together, we couldn’t have, but I don’t know if we did.

I don’t remember having had a crush on him previously, and I don’t really remember having a crush on him afterwards. I did like him – there were a group of us who hung out together on that camp, mostly from Maryborough and Roma units. And Gympie, now that I think about it. But as far as I recall, we all sat together in the mess as we’d done before, and everything went on much as it had previously. I still sneaked biscuits out for everyone else in my cleavage (at 15, I was the only girl there who had room to pop half a dozen individually wrapped cookies down my shirt, hidden. But that’s another tale I guess).

I can’t say my first kiss was incredibly romantic, and I don’t know that it makes for a good story. You’d get more out of watching Top Gun, I suspect.

(You may borrow my copy, if you like).