how to be seen

On the occasional blue moon throughout my childhood, our mother would appear unannounced on the door step. Possessed by a sudden wave of bashfulness, we’d stand staring out at her from the hall, with no words to draw her across the threshold. Then, grinning like a Cheshire cat, she’d break the shocked silence with a gregarious gesture and in an instant a silly excitement would sweep through the house. Regardless of how long she’d been gone, we were always devastatingly pleased to see her. After all, she was our mother.

Never one for answering uncomfortable questions, she’d coat us with her sticky charm in order to avoid having to admit how long she planned to stay. So we’d hang on her every word, for fear it was her last, and furtively cancel our plans, knowing from experience that it would be while we were away that she’d surreptitiously take her leave. Of course we couldn’t avoid school, so after a few days we’d inevitably arrive home to learn that she was gone. Flattened with disappointment, we’d grieve our loss anew. She never stayed long, but knowing that did nothing to ease the sorrow.

As a result of her sporadic and unpredictable pattern of visitation, I developed an agonizing obsession of imagining every car turning into our street was hers, and I spent my early adolescence sneaking shameful glances down the road. It was all I could do to disguise this secret longing for someone I knew would never come. The painful truth was that as hard as I tried to will her to me, she and I were never connected.

For me, our mother’s visits were both glorious and wretched. While my siblings would willingly open their hearts like well worn books to the page on which she’d last written, I would covet mine in bitter defiance. I was angry that she could come and go as she pleased while I remained here, needing her. I’d learned the hard way that like a wild wind she’d no sooner arrive than she’d be gone again, and I couldn’t bear it. So during these rare and short lasting visits I kept her at arm’s length. I thought I was protecting myself from further hurt, but regardless of how detached I appeared the pain when she left was no less raw.

Since the earliest days of my childhood I’ve struggled with feeling vulnerable. What initially stemmed from a combination of pride and self preservation with regards to my mother is now an integral part of who I am. Perceiving emotional dependence as a brand of personal betrayal, I learnt to greedily guard my weakness. Now I’m wondering whether, had I been more like my siblings, who gladly offered theirs like a gift in open palms, I might possess more peace and contentment.

On Saturday I was at my weekly writing group in the city. A broad spectrum of individuals who write for both pleasure and profession, we meet weekly to discuss what we’ve been working on, offering suggestions and constructive criticism to one another. After having completed a five minute warm up writing activity, we’d commenced moving around the table and sharing what we’d written. Before long everyone’s eyes were on me. I didn’t want to share; what if they thought I was dumb? But I choked down the foul tasting fear and the words of decline that were dancing on my tongue and I began to read my work. Against my instincts, I permitted myself to connect. It felt good.

I’m realising that if I’m ever going to experience freedom in all its brilliance, I’m going to have to allow myself to be fragile. I know I can do it; I’m courageous. I just have to let go of the fear.

I think of how my mother looked as she stood on our front step, giddy with cheerfulness. I couldn’t understand how, after twenty five months of absence, she could show up and act so exuberant. But now I recognise that performance for what it was; a facade behind which she was sheltering her own vulnerability. While standing alone on the other side of the door, a part of her must have worried whether this time she’d be turned away. And she couldn’t bear to let us see how much that would sting. For all those years, I was incensed by her superficiality, but only now do I understand what was happening behind the veil. My mother, like me, was afraid to be truly seen.

I’ll close with an offering of wisdom spoken by Brene Brown, a lady who’s spent years researching the subject of vulnerability and whose uplifting and informative presentation I have included for your pleasure. It’s worth a watch; she’s quite the funny one.

There’s another way. We need to let ourselves be seen; deeply seen, vulnerably seen. We need to love with our whole heart, even though there’s no guarantee. We need to practice gratitude and joy in moments of complete terror and to just be grateful; feeling vulnerable means we’re alive. And we need to believe we’re enough. When we work from that place, we stop screaming and start listening. We are kinder and gentler to the people around us and we’re kinder and gentler to ourselves.

 

 

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letting the light in

‘There’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.’ Leonard Cohen

 

I like spending time with my sister; her easy happiness and inexhaustible passion are good for me. I’ve heard it said that beauty attracts beauty, and this goes a long way to explaining my sister. Her life hasn’t been a carnival; not by a long shot. Yet she tackles every day with daring and boundless optimism, which curiously, draws success and opportunity to her like a moth to flame. Knowing my sister has taught me that when you’re brave enough to release your hopes into the universe, you’ll often be rewarded by having them granted. It’s almost as if the very energies that combine to form this crazy world are backing you, desperate to give you what you want, if only you can be bold enough to ask.

My sister is light. I am much heavier. I have this way of approaching life like an obligation; something I’m committed to seeing through until the end. In the past, I’ve clung to convention and responsibility as if they were beacons, crucial for providing direction and constancy on a voyage which would otherwise seem rough and bewildering to me. But knowing someone like my sister acts as a constant reminder that there’s a better way of relating to the world; that if you can find the courage to throw yourself at it with open arms, it will shower you with grace.

On Saturday evening I enjoyed dinner with my sister and a couple of her friends. After a satisfyingly drawn out meal we meandered up the street toward her apartment. It was a deliciously balmy night and the footpaths were alive with energy as people spilled out of bars and cafes. My sister was in the arms of her lovely partner, her friends strolled a little way behind, hand in hand, and I was completely comfortable with the knowledge that I was alone. Later, as I commenced the twenty minute bike ride across town, I was surprised to realise that the prospect of returning to an empty room and an empty bed didn’t upset me, either.

Saturday was a pivotal moment in my personal history, as it marked the conclusion of my first month in my studio apartment. For the first time in my life I live entirely on my own and I’m not at all bothered by the solitude. Even more fascinating, I’ve been shocked to discover that I’m actually not lonely. For me, this is certainly cause for celebration.

Truth be told, in the back of my mind since ever I can remember, I’ve craved the companionship and comfort of a partner. Sure, I’ve spent time over the years happily single, but in one way or another, I’ve always been waiting for a man to come along and rescue me; someone who’ll protect me from the world and silence and myself. To be comfortably alone is an amazing and all together new experience for me.

Sometimes I wonder how I must appear to my more balanced friends; the ones who approach life with such an easy calm that the business of living seems simple. After all, I’m getting to that age where the majority of people I know are either having kids or getting married, yet I’m still trying to figure out who I am. Regular as clock work, just as I think I may have figured it out, the earth gives out beneath me and I’m floored once more. My life has been littered with a confusion of little crises, yet these friends of mine govern theirs with absolute purpose and a clear sense of direction. What prevents me from managing that which comes so easily to them? My instability makes me worry I’m becoming their token dysfunctional cot case. I don’t want to be that friend; the one who’s too high maintenance to invite to a dinner party, for fear they might say something awkward and emotional.

This week I’ve grown to realise that, in throwing in my job and moving away, I have unknowingly gifted myself something wonderful; the permission to take the time to figure out who I am and aspire towards making that person happy. I think that alone, without the constant pressure to move forward, I might be able to focus on orienting myself, and finally figure out which direction I need to walk to find where I’m heading.

Until now, any stability I’ve managed to muster has relied on avoiding the awful imperfections that undermine the integrity of my authentic self. But if Cohen is right (and he usually is), to see that light and enjoy its warmth, I may need to not only acknowledge the cracks, but move a little closer to them. I think I’m almost bold enough to do it. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that actually, I haven’t quit my life, at all; I’m in the process of discovering it.

 

the benefits of quitting

When we were kids we delivered junk mail twice weekly; dad figured it would be an ideal way to foster in us those wholesome qualities parents want for their children; a healthy work ethic, a sense of responsibility and so on. Lured by the prospect of having a couple of bucks to spend at the school canteen, my siblings and I willing consented, however by the time the novelty had worn off, the pamphlet run had established itself as an integral part of our weekly routine. In no time, catalogue distribution had simply become something we did. No exceptions. In hindsight, I suppose distributing advertising material did teach us accountability, though more significantly, we quickly learned the fundamental rules of survival; how to dodge a well aimed rock, for instance. The strength that lies in numbers. To never take the precious hour of twilight for granted. Needless to say, being the neighbourhood catalogue kids was tough.

Unsurprisingly, to varying degrees we resented the pamphlets, and as the years progressed, my sisters and brother slowly resigned, trading rubber bands and ink stained finger tips for the bright lights and heady delights of the hospitality industry. But although I’d harped on with the best of them, enraged at having my weekends interrupted by an ever growing mountain of advertising material, I found it difficult to give the job away. So while I accepted a position at the local fast food restaurant, commenced a full time university degree and willingly agreed to a regular babysitting commitment, I was hesitant to throw in the pamphlets; I didn’t want to let anyone down. Besides, at some point over the years I’d acquired an unhealthy degree of satisfaction from the speed and precision through which I could fill a street of letterboxes with my quota of commercial garbage. After a decade’s service there was no obstacle that could break my stride. My efficiency was without equal. I pumped out that junk like nobody’s business.

Despite how much it irritated me, throughout my youth and into adulthood, I excelled at keeping busy. It’s not that I enjoyed the constant demands imposed by my numerous obligations. In fact, my tendency to continue with something despite my disinterest and discontentment was a source of constant inner turmoil. But my reluctance to disappoint and my belief that quitting was a brand of failure had me resigning my autonomy and accepting a fate for which I felt I had no control. Time and time again.

When I decided last year that I needed to walk away from my life and begin anew, I had reached breaking point. I was terribly unhappy. I felt betrayed by a society that encourages us to embrace uniformity and behave conservatively. I was terrified of challenging the status quo; I was afraid I would fail. After identifying these feelings, I saw only one solution; quit it all, so that I might finally experience the liberty of standing on a shaky limb and leaping off.

Unfortunately, rather than approaching the experience with the grace and poise implied by the afore mentioned imagery, the reality has seen me dangling shamefully from the spindly branch, willing my raw fingers to loosen their grip so that I might begin the bumpy descent. It’s been more than a little scary.

I’ve quickly come to realise that behaving unconventionally is hard. It’s also virtually synonymous with being utterly broke. In my old life I had a job which provided a reliable source of income, savings that offered constant security and the assurance that I could make the rent and pay the bills each fortnight. It’s true that I was often miserable, but no matter how bad things became, I knew I could always pep myself up with life’s little luxuries; eating out, frequenting the cinema, purchasing pretty things. Those days are officially over.

This week saw me sitting for a little over two hours at the local Centrelink office, where I successfully registered for a fortnightly allowance. While I waited, an inner dialogue ensued in which I attempted to persuade myself it’s all about perspective; a lack of personal income is all part of the adventure, a sort of levelling exercise. The sceptic in me was unconvinced. It’s true I’d come armed with a book to keep me occupied through what I’d predicted would be an arduous wait, but if I’m honest, was it really my way of informing the room that I was above all this? After all, I wasn’t your standard dole bludger; I was the intellectual variety.

The changes are certainly radical when you exchange your conventional lifestyle for a spendable income of around ten dollars a day. Once you’ve covered the weekly groceries, you’ve about thirty bucks with which to play. This week I spent the majority of that on a second hand arm chair and a little adaptor that lets you plug your modem into the old style telecom phone socket.

Yet in spite of my new found relative poverty, I’m strangely content. I may not have money, but I have a library card, a cupboard full of Mi Goreng noodles and the wondrous internet; I think I’m going to be okay. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that a simple life can be both cheap and very rich.

From the vantage point of my spindly branch, I’m grappling with a new truth. Perhaps bailing doesn’t have to be the indicator of failure that I’ve always believed. I’m beginning to sense that quitting may have its benefits; not all of which require a two hour stint in a Centrelink waiting room.

 

 

on love bites and loneliness

When I was midway through the second grade, I was enrolled in what was to be my fourth new school in half as many years. On our first day, my siblings and I were escorted to the library where all the students were assembled. A wiry woman with pursed lips led us to various class groups and instructed us to sit down. Abandoned amongst a sea of strangers, I began to sink beneath the weight of my despair. Blinking back a sting of tears I somehow made it to recess when I was smacked with another shock; I wouldn’t be able to sit with my sister, as primary and infant students had separate playgrounds. I’d had enough. Desperate to go home, I gave myself a hickey on the inside of my arm and informed the nurse I’d been bitten by something big and deadly. With raised eyebrows, she phoned my dad. I stayed home with him for a week before he relented and re enrolled us in the school across town. It meant a thirty minute drive every morning, but it proved an instant cure for my stomach cramps.

Sometimes when we were kids, we’d go to our nanna’s place for the weekend; a prospect which delighted me to no end. I’d have a terrific time until the end of the first day, when the idea of sleeping in a strange bed after having eaten my evening meal from someone else’s dinner service became too overwhelming. Dad would get a phone call, and an hour later I’d be bundled into the car, where the relief of the familiar washed away my unease almost instantly. For the remainder of the weekend, I’d wander the house aimlessly, while the others phoned to relay excited stories of cinemas and trips for ice cream.

I’ve always been a little anxious.

The onslaught of change and uncertainty has devoured me this week. Once more I’m that lonely little girl with an ill feeling in the pit of my stomach, a shortness of breath, a lack of mental clarity. My instincts are to retreat. But gone are the days when a harmless love bite might herald a rescue party or offer refuge. I’m a grown up now, I know the secret; we are all alone.

Yet in the midst of attempting to quiet the raging cacophony banging away in my mind, and while doing what I can to ease the insistent churning of my gut, I’ve somehow managed to find myself a home; despite my attempts at self sabotage.

Having heard that the rental market in Melbourne is ridiculously competitive at this time of year, I figured it would be best to apply for absolutely everything. I dutifully attended approximately one billion inspections and filled in what felt like a trillion applications. While it was exhausting, it made me feel industrious and good. In hindsight, I really shouldn’t have been surprised when I began to get calls congratulating me on my successful submissions. As it turns out, I was less than ready. A stammering mess, I hastily declined several perfectly acceptable offers before ardently attempting to proffer why each was unacceptable. However, while my friends and family empathised with my bout of bad luck, the reason in me was growing sceptical. The apartments were fine, it scoffed. The problem was me; I was being a noncommittal pansy. I had to toughen up.

Without allowing myself too much thought on the matter, I held my breath and said yes to the next offer. I’m now in possession of an inordinately pokey and ridiculously overpriced studio apartment. On the up side, it’s light and airy and very cute, and it’s near enough that I might feed off the life of the city; a feature which may prove essential once the money runs out.

From past experience, it’s unlikely that my nerves will abate until I establish some kind of normalcy. I need to do it soon; my instincts are urging me to retire, my long neglected creative side is growing impatient. But I’m still worried. While I’ve signed a lease and am ready to commit to a life of part time seclusion for the sake of my writing and self discovery, what if I discover I can’t sustain it?

So many of us seem stuck in a vicious cycle of having passions we want to pursue, but realising that to maintain a certain standard of lifestyle we need to work, leaving us no time to explore the potential of our whims. I suppose that’s why they call them struggling artists; when you choose your craft over comfort, the sacrifices are significant. And I’m not sure if an anxious creature like me has what it takes to handle the bumps. After all, behaving unconventionally is scary.

I keep thinking back to that little girl pottering absently through vacant rooms, desperately awaiting her siblings’ return from their holiday. She was young and had been through a lot for her age; her need for comfort was understandable. But even she could see that if only she’d had the courage to see out the night, things would probably have seemed better in the morning. Even she recognised the fun she might have enjoyed, had she only acted a little braver.

I suppose it’s time I waited out the dawn.

 

the legacy of the last to leave

I’ve always been a little conservative. Growing up in a family with four children, this was particularly evident. I was the child who put herself to bed while the others were lodging their cases regarding whether they’d eaten enough of their dinner to warrant dessert, or bickering over who should get the next turn on the Nintendo. Since ever I can remember I was self appointed dish rinser and bath runner, ate fruit because it was good for me and it never had to be asked; I had always done my homework.

In view of my prudent and level headed nature, it was taken for granted as we grew older that I would attend university once I’d finished school and that the only serious change I would experience during my adolescence would be evolving from a sensible child into a sensible adult.

Meanwhile, time lapsed and my siblings slowly but surely began to leave the nest. A spirited creature, my younger sister was unsurprisingly the first to fly, baited by the freedom of independence. My older sister was drawn south after having fallen together with a man whose life was already established elsewhere. Our brother ventured interstate to spend the weekend with a friend some four years ago and is yet to return, having found a much sought after brotherhood some place far off.

And so it came to pass that I became the daughter who didn’t move away. Having secured reliable employment within an hour of our family dwelling, while I moved out and even travelled overseas a couple of times, I was never far from home. If I’m honest, I suppose I liked it that way. I’m a terrible sook; I’ve only recently conquered my fear of the dark and letting go of things has always left me feeling overwhelming nostalgic and pathetically tearful. So it’s fair to say I enjoyed the safety net provided by my dad and the familiar. I wasn’t ready to wander off alone.

Call me naive, but until now it hadn’t occurred to me that it might be difficult to be the last to leave. It is. And complicated. Because just as I have grown used to the security of having family close by, so too has my father. And while I have decided it’s time for me to venture further afield and go it alone for a spell, he is dealing with the culture shock of having this decision thrust upon him. I empathise; I’m sure it’s less than easy.

The inevitable guilt of my decision dropped like a dead weight earlier this week and quickly became tangible. What does one do when she’s the last to go? The unexpected pressure has resulted in an onslaught of heated discussions amongst the numerous and all too opinionated voices in my head. The pessimists among them are incessantly claiming that I’m making a massive mistake and that my behaviours are clearly those of a selfish narcissist with an inflated sense of self worth. Mercifully, the majority remain faithfully on my side. Despite my many doubts, they assure me I’m doing the right thing. The truth is I’ve wanted this for years. I’ve simply lacked the courage.

So there’s been nothing for it but to lug the feelings of doubt and disloyalty with me, all the way to Melbourne. Despite what has become a full time search, I haven’t found a place yet, but I’m hoping when I do it will be big enough to contain the mountains of guilt I’ve had to haul along with me. In view of my budget, this is unlikely.

 

So this week is my dedication to all the kids out there who were the last to leave. Guys, I’m feeling you. To their siblings, spare a thought; remember the way their mere presence inadvertently assuaged your guilt when you knew it was your time to roll out. And to their parents, know that the guilt of the child is only marginally outweighed by their desperate desire to grow.