“But Mummy, The Emperor has no clothes on!”

By the end of childhood, if we’ve grown up well and successfully, most of us seem to end up with two lessons firmly instilled in our minds:

  1. Be honest.
  2. 2. Be nice.

And, if we’re honest with ourselves, the subtle message that we’re given is that 2 overrides 1. So don’t be honest if it means being not nice.

Eh? I, for one, am beginning to notice the flaws in this.

I was chatting with a friend last night and she said some powerful words: Not Telling All The Truth is the Same As Lying.

It’s a funny boundary. I’m not sure what I think of this statement right now. I understand that sometimes there’s just too much truth to tell, and because it’s understood implicitly we don’t need to state it. My friend doesn’t walk into my house and say “wow this place is messy and what’s that funny smell coming from the corner?” (possibly because it’s usually in some degree of mess, although as soon as I figure out what that funny smell is coming from it will be gone!) although to do so would be an expression of truth, and she’s not lying because she didn’t say anything.

If, on the other hand, before she got up on stage before a large audience she asked me “Do I look fat in this?” and I said “No!” (truthfully) but neglected to tell her that the back of her dress was caught up in her undies, then that’s kind of what she means.

Sometimes we need to say the hard stuff.

Being the first person to say it will always be hard. You will always feel stupid, or wrong, or maligned or ashamed for doing so.Sometimes though, if things need to change, being honest is the only thing to do.

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Guns and memories

This is from my personal “archives”, so I apologise to those who have read it before. I had another article to write this morning, and I didn’t have time for two. I think it’s appropriate to share here though because it’s the reason I struggle with anxiety over my trip to the US. It’s what I was thinking when I wrote last Wednesday’s blog. 

Tasmania lost its innocence on April 28th 1996.

I don’t think about it much, but I’ve got friends now who weren’t there, and friends who were barely children themselves when it happened, and although it seems like a very long time ago, today the memories seem unusually fresh. Maybe it’s time to remember.

 

   I was in the kitchen over near the fireplace, and Tony and his mate Matt were sitting at the table when he told us. That was the first I knew, and that felt weird because with something that big you’d presume you’d know already, not second or third hand like that. You’d presumed that in a place this small, in a place like Tassie that you’d hear the helicopters, and that would make it feel real. And you’d presume that Matt would have told us as soon as he came in, not half an hour later as if he’d forgotten. Maybe he wasn’t sure of the truth of it either.

   But Matt told us. He said it in that edge-of-your-seat kind of voice; that awed voice of “we see this in movies, but this is our thing, our very own Tassie thing”, even though it was never something to be proud of.

   “You know what? I heard this guy pulled a gun at Port Arthur, and he’s shot about twenty people”.

   We’d presumed the report was an exaggeration. They always are. Twenty people dead is too many, and this is Tassie. Nothing happens in Tassie. Nothing like that.

   But it did. We heard later about how the helicopters kept coming and coming, not enough to get everyone to hospital in time, and people kept dying.

   Twenty became an understatement, not an exaggeration.

   I wasn’t there, of course, at the hospital. I can only imagine the fear and the confusion and the blood and the stench of death and dirt. I can only imagine the fear at the site, and having to pick up the bodies, of waiting for the phone calls from family members who’d been out for the day and not come home. I can only imagine the grief.

   By the time we went down it was some three weeks afterwards, after the memorial services and the news reports had burned the images into our brains; after those poor little children and their Mum had been found and buried along with all the rest of them, people whose names were becoming as familiar to us as our own.

   The drive felt normal, fun. We sat in the back of the car and chatted about the weather and about church and about life and haircuts and bread and things, until there on the road we saw first bunches of flowers and then the police tape over the driveway where the first victims had fallen, and we fell silent together.

   As soon as we entered the Port Arthur historic site we felt the grief. It hung over the place like a cloud, even though the day was barely overcast. I didn’t know before that day that emotions could cling to the sides of a place like mist to the valley. I didn’t know that I’d walk into a place I’d been to numerous times before, and just by being there I’d want to cry.

 

   I felt like an intruder at someone else’s funeral. I didn’t know anybody who had died, although in months to come I’d meet people who’d known them, and I’d meet people who’d been there only the day before, or were meant to be there except for an illness or a broken-down car that maybe saved their lives.

   We all wanted to cry, but if we did we looked away and wiped our eyes so nobody saw us, because it felt wrong to feel a grief that wasn’t ours, and nobody knew how to act.

   There were kids with us too, and their natural curiosity and questions mirrored our own unspoken ones. We followed them to the sea of plastic-wrapped flowers outside the café, and we laid our own tributes as well. The first flowers were decaying now, and went all the way up to the police tape, but the sea of them went for twenty metres or more. There were flowers upon flowers upon flowers, and cards, and teddy bears for the little ones, an outpouring of grief from a community who didn’t know anything else to do, or any other way to feel. People like us, who traveled a hundred kilometers or so because that day we were all part of the same community.

   Maybe we should have allowed ourselves to feel it more than we did, but at the time we didn’t know. Nobody tells you how you’re supposed to feel when 35 people are murdered for no reason in a place you’ve always considered safe. We felt relieved that we were safe, and guilty for crying when we had nothing really to cry about. We were alive, after all, and our families were safe. And we felt guilty for that as well. We wanted to come and feel with people who felt, and mourn with those who mourned, but beyond our pointless presence and our prayers there was nothing we could do.

   Nothing could prepare us.

   We prayed for the families of those who’d been killed, and for the people still in hospital. We prayed for the people who would always have to live with the memories of what they saw that day, and we prayed for those in the hospitals where there weren’t enough beds, and for the people who had to fly those helicopters that carried the survivors home.

   We drove home with thoughts unspoken simply because there were no words for what had happened on that day. A place of so much suffering in history had again become a place of so much suffering. There was only one thing we knew for sure: On the 28th April 1996, God cried.

The Port Arthur massacre was the catalyst for massive gun law reform in Australia. There was an amnesty on all automatic and semi-automatic weapons after this. Handguns are banned, although I’m not sure if it was because of this or not. It’s such a different reaction to the US, where people seem to respond to mass-shootings by arming themselves.

I can’t say whether either country’s response to guns is right or wrong, but I do understand that this is where my fear of guns comes from, and why it’s taken me a while to really believe that I won’t be shot dead at LA airport the minute I get off the plane. Memories – and feelings – are funny things.

So what you think about guns, about unexplained fears that resurface when you thought you were over them, about feelings you’re never quite sure why you have? Talk to me. I’d love to listen.

On the art of nothing to say

Earsick. Antibiotic sick. Headstuffed. Codeined. Did I boil the kettle? Am I awake or dreaming now?

“MUMMY HOW WILL KATIE BE ON HER BIRTHDAY?”

Her birthday is in six weeks. She’ll be nine. I tell him that.

“NOT HOW OLD WILL SHE BE; HOW WILL SHE BE?”

Head swims back from inside itself. I’m lost there on a dreamless ocean.

What?

This small person is reaching to me, looking for answers.

“CAN I HAVE A MILK NOT A GREEN CUP THOUGH BECAUSE I DON’T WANT A GREEN CUP CAN I HAVE A MILK IN A THOMAS CUP PLEASE BECAUSE THOMAS CUPS ARE MY FAVOURITE CUPS”

Thomas cup. Yes. Milk.

Steady thrum like a drone now. A rich red sea. Small light breaks in at the window.

“TOMORROW I WET MY PANTS WHEN I WAS ON THE COMPUTER BUT I DIDN’T MAKE A PUDDLE AND THEN I TOOK THEM OFF BECAUSE THEY WERE WET AND I PUT THEM ON THE DIRTY WASHING…MUUMMMYYY”

He wants me.

Someone remind me of this one day: this is what it must feel like to be dying. Not the pain, I could never cheapen such a hallowed experience with the momentary hassle of my ear infection, but the lostness. Or, perhaps, the centeredness.

Deep within myself, at times like this, is the only place to be. And all I want is the periphery – the milk and the birthdays and the Thomas cup and the dirty laundry – to disappear, and for the people around me to be here with nothing but themselves to clothe them.

In a few days when my small and temporary pain is gone I’m sure I will forget all this, and I will be the one again who bustles into someone’s pain with unsure words of birthdays and milk and dirty laundry because I don’t know again what not to say.

Pain, it seems, is nakedising. I hope that the act of writing will help me remember this.

How do you feel?

Nobody ever really tells you how you’re meant to feel about things. This is a good thing, I guess, but sometimes I wish they would. I think that there would be many, many people who’d jump at a book that explained to them that slightly numb feeling of comforting a crying child while flushing their bloated goldfish down the toilet, or how to tell your nine year old daughter that yes, one day she will have periods. For forty years.

Okay, maybe not how you’re MEANT to feel, but how other people DO feel. The this-is-normal type things. They did it with grief, and with trauma. They have counselors who refer people to glossy leaflets and say things like “you might feel this. This is perfectly normal, and many people go through this”. Wouldn’t it be nice if those glossy leaflets were there for everything?

Seriously, wouldn’t it be great if we could just call up the Emotion Help Line, and have sent to us a colour-coded series of fold out brochures on How You Should Be Feeling When: Red for angry feeling, green for jealous feelings, blue for sad, the usual stuff. The obvious ones, you know. Or maybe we can genetically modify ourselves so our little fingers turn the right colour to express those emotions too. That’d be so helpful with babies, particularly…although green fingers on a two-week-old might be difficult to understand.

Okay, I guess some things we just need words for, and people to listen to them.

I think the problem starts in childhood, with well-meaning parents (ouch…like yours truly) who pick up a screaming toddler from the concrete and brush them down and say perhaps-not-so-helpful things such as “you’re all right now”, and “up you get, you’re not hurt!” I’ve always considered such phrases useful, helping build children who are resilient and able to pick themselves up from the falls of life…although sometimes, if the truth be told, we say them because we’re tired beyond belief and can’t deal with another small-person drama for absolutely no good reason.

The trouble comes though when we get to big, complex, hard-to-get-to-the-other-side-of emotions. Aside from sympathy, some empathy, fear and “survivor guilt”, how do you deal with the deep and personal feelings that come up when you find an acquaintance has a child with a terminal illness, or a birth defect? How did the people feel who went to see batman movie in completely different cinemas in Denver on that fateful night when so many lost their lives? Do they have people around them telling them “you’re okay, you’re still alive, aren’t you? You didn’t hear the gunshots”.

The trouble comes when, not knowing how we’re meant to feel, we end up feeling nothing. That in itself is a problem. I wish there was a book for those people. I’d read it.

350 Million Americans Can’t Be Wrong…

When I was a very, very little girl, so little that my mind was super-malleable and everything that I was told I believed, and so little that I still though that the half-hour break in TV programming between Sesame Street and Playschool was endlessly long, something happened to shape my thinking forever.

It wasn’t a bad thing, this isn’t some kind of true-confessional “this-happened-to-me” time, just…a thing. A thing that, because I was so little and my mind so malleable I can’t shake.

Some people came to visit.

I don’t remember their names, and as they’ve never visited since I don’t think I’ll bother dredging them up. There weren’t small children for me to play with so they didn’t interest me too greatly, and if there was a man he in my memory he’s dissolved into the background. There was a woman though, and because I remember looking at the photo in the family album for many years after their non-eventful visit I remember that she had black hair and a blue dress and glasses, and looked a little like a friend of ours, but she wasn’t.

But I remember the accent. Oh the accent! She spoke in a voice that was rich and beautiful, a voice I’d only ever heard on TV before, and because of that voice I wanted to sit on her knee and fall into her and listen to everything she said, because she was obviously famous and wonderful and exciting, and her sheer presence in my house made me, by default, famous, wonderful and exciting as well.

You’ve got to understand, you see, that I’d never heard people talk like that down here in Tasmania. Down here everybody used the same slightly nasally whine and flat, nasally vowels that I’d heard every day, the same stretched-out voice that I had. Not the Blue-dress lady though. She was beautiful. She was from the Television!

I was four. You have to forgive me when I say I was incredibly disappointed when my Mum told me that she wasn’t from the Television at all. She didn’t live on Sesame Street. Sesame Street wasn’t real. The Blue-dress lady was from Canada.

Not America. Canada.

Sesame Street Isn’t Real.

Ten years or more happened before I ever heard that accent again in real life, and by that time I’d got pretty solid on the truth: Sesame Street Isn’t Real. Not America. Canada.

Okay, here’s the true-confessions part. Please don’t laugh. Oh, okay, but laugh quietly, all right?

It was only a couple of years ago that I realized that America-Isn’t-Real-Not-Sesame-Street-Canada had taken root in my brain for more people than just the Blue-dress lady. I’d somehow started applying it to everyone I met with a TV accent. They couldn’t be American. TV isn’t real. I worked for a year with a lovely “Canadian” lady, and…ouch-this-hurts-to-admit…it wasn’t until I reconnected with her via Facebook and read her blog that I realized she wasn’t Canadian at all.

Nor were the nice people who came to the Wednesday night meetings. Nor are the lovely harpist girl and her family, or Susie Finkbeiner.

America IS real. I KNOW this. I am an intelligent woman. I read books. I study history. I watch documentaries, and I do know enough about the US of A to know that yes, it DOES exist. Except…

Except sometimes old thoughts are hard to break, especially when they happen when you’re very young, or particularly vulnerable.

I’m butting up against a few thoughts at the moment, more serious cases when I’ve believed something that someone’s said and then applied it to every area of my life. So here’s my thought of the day:

Not Everything You Believe Is Necessarily True. Sometimes you need other people to help you get some perspective. After all, 350 million Americans can’t all be wrong…

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Chipping away the darkness

Hello! First thing I want to say is thank you all so much for being so overwhelmingly supportive of my Great Adventure to the US after I blogged about it on Wednesday. Reading all your comments was so lovely and so touching. I feel like I’ve got a cheer squad behind me! It was good reading in the comments too that I’m not the only one dealing with self-sabotage, and that so many of us are afraid of stepping into the thing we desire the most. We’re a funny bunch, us humans.

I’m a bit reluctant to write today’s post, because it’s extremely personal, and I’ll either a) say too much and regret it or b) (more likely) say not enough to make it make sense, and leave you scratching your head and saying “huh?” Oh well. There’s nothing else on my mind right now, so I’ll give it a try. It’s very, very much related to Wednesday, in fact it’s kind of Exactly The Same Thing.

I have a dream. This one is a small one, a personal one, a little dream so little and sweet that if I told you you’d say “awww, that’s lovely! You should do that.” It’s not hard. I don’t need to buy a ticket for it, and it won’t cost me much at all. It’s not a dream I think about much though because it’s buried so deep inside me that it’s hard to find, and it’s so small that often it gets overlooked. I think we all have dreams like that.

So anyway, on Wednesday after I’d blogged all about stepping into my dream of travel and visiting the US for the first time I had lunch with a friend, my oldest and dearest friend. We bought chicken sandwiches and walked to the park and sat in the sunshine and chatted and laughed and shared the way we’ve been doing for years. The conversation went deep, and then suddenly my friend offered up a truth so sharp that it wedged its way deep into my gut and pushed that tiny dream up and out of my mouth for the first time in years. It made me cry over my chicken sandwich, even if we were in the park and in the sunshine.

And then she said this: “You should do it.”

She’s right. And not only is she right, I’d blogged that very and self-same morning about the rightness of what she said. I Should Do It.

And then I cried some more, because even though that dream is little it’s the most precious and covered over of all dreams. It hasn’t seen the daylight for many, many years, and I was scared that if it did, then…I don’t know. I don’t know why it’s scary stepping into dreams. Perhaps the darkness that covered it is the fear that if it ever happened I would do something to stuff it up.

That’s it. That’s the truth. I would Do Something to Stuff It Up. Except the thing I’m realizing at the moment that that “truth” is a lie.

It’s only taken 20-something years.

It’s not going to cost me anything, to do this. Just a bit of time, and a bucketful of tears that I can well afford.

I’m going to do it.

It’s going to hurt. Chipping away at darkness always does.

It’s worth it.

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Fear and Dreaming

Three months, that’s all. That’s all that’s left between me and the fulfillment of my oldest and dearest dream, between me and a promise I made to myself when I was very, very young, between me and the first time ever that I see a world beyond the Wide Brown Land that I was born in.

I’m going overseas for the very first time. I can’t wait! I’m going to America!

Now, to fully appreciate the enormity of this you’ve got to know a few things about me, and about the thinking that happens down here. First of all is this: I’m from Tasmania. Know where that is? It’s a little island off the coast of Mainland Australia. Yes, it exists (I know this because I live there). It’s very pretty, it’s rather small, and pretty much everyone who’s born here, at least for a season, thinks/dreams/talks about what it’ll be like when they leave.

I was a lucky kid, because back in the 80s when airline travel was hugely expensive I still got to go to the mainland once every couple of years or so. I kept all my boarding passes, airline refresher towelettes, napkins, you name it, if it had the airline logo on it I brought it home. I adored traveling. When I was old enough to get an atlas for school I pored over it, looking at all the countries that, when I was old enough, I would go to, and wondered how big my collection of airline paraphernalia would get, and I’d plot with a ruler how far north I’d been each time.

Not very far. North became my god, my dream, my ultimate. I’m from Tasmania. Check that out on a map. Now look up about five centimeters to the very bottom of mainland Australia. Not very far north at all, really. I kept dreaming.

Life happened, as it does, and by the time I was at the age when all my friends packed up for their big overseas adventures I stayed home and stewed in silent jealousy and practiced my best fake smile when well-meaning people told me “your time will come!”.

My time has come. Three months. Twelve weeks is all, and I’m sure that by the end I’ll be so sick of airline paraphernalia that I’ll never want to travel again.

But…

Yesterday I decided for the third time that it wasn’t a good idea to go, that it was just not safe, that things would happen that I’d have no control over and I’d be stuck and lost and foreign in a place where people say words like “trash can” and “root beer” and they wouldn’t understand me when I tell them how desperate I’m feeling. This has happened before. Not the lost and foreign and desperate (well, unless you count my visit to Canberra), but the I-can’t-go. The first time it was transport. Too hard. Wrong side of the road. Ditch the whole idea. The second time it was guns, and the third time it was tarantulas (or, if you like, trianchulas)Image).

Now, here’s the other thing you need to know about me: I’m fearless. Nothing scares me. I’ll try anything, and most things I have, and sometimes more than once. Throwing caution to the wind and stepping out and doing it anyway is one of the things I’m best at in life, for better or worse. Except, it seems, when it comes to staying with friends in English-speaking countries in comfortable houses in the suburbs. Why, tell me, is this scaring me so much?

I don’t think it’s just me (Not the America thing, there are a few hundred million Americans who think America is the most normal place on earth, even when they do say “trash can” and “root beer”). I think that deep inside all of us is a fear of stepping into our deepest dreams. I don’t know why.

The only person who’s trying to sabotage my dreaming is me. I think it’s time to stop. And, in three months, it will be time to go. There will be guns, and possibly even spiders. I will see trash cans and drink root beer and be misunderstood and overtired, and probably cry more than I want to, and on the whole, it will be everything I ever dreamed, and then I’ll come home and never be the same again. Dreams do that to you, don’t they?