The art of lists and adulthood

So far, I have always kind of fallen into things. I work hard at things and try to be a good person and, in doing so, I trust that the universe will always work out as she’s meant to.

I have never ever been a list-writing, planning sort of person. In my head, the two have to go together. You write lists as part of a plan to make sure everything works out.


Until now.


In starting a new job in a new country, flying back and forth from Australia, I have started writing lists with gusto and making plans for the future. The notes app on my phone has never been used in such a systematic way before.

I’m using every section in my diary. Also – I’m using a diary.


It’s a little frightening in a way.

One of the reasons I’ve struggled with the idea of planning is that life can be deeply wonky. Things don’t turn out as you expected, for better or worse, and plans fall to the wayside. So why make them if you’ll just discard them when something unexpected happens? Why not just let life happen? I’ve watched other people become frozen in their planning, unable to move when things didn’t work as they expected. They’ve railed against it all and stuck to their plans as though that would change anything – they’ve just been yelling at the wind and the world has kept on turning. I’ve never wanted to be stuck like that.

But I’ve realized lately that my plans won’t necessarily be like that because I am not a person like that.

This discovery felt like a moment of proper grownup-ness.

This year, my lists and plans (because my lists are the stepping stones I need for my plans to make any sense) keep me focused on my goals. However, my lists and plans have been reshaped and even discarded depending on what has happened so far this year but it hasn’t meant my goals of changed or that I’m any less further away from achieving them – in fact, I’ve already achieved one goal a good month early. Lists and plans haven’t meant I’ve been less open to the universe but more ready in some ways to take leaps of faith.


In some ways, the universe seems to be encouraging me in my lists and plans.

My life in general requires significant organisation now that I move between two countries. There are lists for what to take back to Australia, and what needs to be done, just as there are equivalent lists for Nauru.

And working in Nauru gives me space to think outside the usual academic sphere. There is a little more time to sit with the articles I’m working on and think about them, rather than writing them in a mad rush during in-between space. This feels precious and a fear of wasting this time has also led to lists and plans of what to write and when, adding new ideas and pieces as they come in. In doing this, I’ve found that, all of a sudden, I have writing routines for different days. It hasn’t always worked beautifully, but I’ve still managed to sit with something most days and at least keep the work in my mind rather than have it under a pile of other papers forgotten for weeks at a time.

I’ve taken Elizabeth Gilbert’s advice of showing up to my desk and laptop and trusting that my creative genius will eventually show up as well. And in doing this, I’ve finished the first draft of my first fictional book. I’ve never followed an idea from beginning to end like that before so it feels exciting – and a relief to have actually done it. And I’m not sure it would have happened without making plans this year – it made me feel accountable to myself.


And given my previous fear of lists and plans, that’s the nicest things I’ve actually discovered so far this year. I don’t get stuck in plans so much as I’ve used them to leapfrog from one idea to another. It’s not about being perfect (that would frighten me and make me feel frozen anyway) but about becoming better – practicing writing as a serious craft, learning more and more how to be a better teacher, and giving myself the time and the space to have days where things don’t work and I feel deeply wonky. There is a deep satisfaction in crossing things off my list and listening to the universe (and my mentors) for what to do next.

Where my heart lives and beats

I’ve never been very good at geography or where I actually am at any given point in time. I’m the girl who points left when she means right and names directions in a more whimsical (as opposed to accurate) sense.

I had no idea where Armidale was when I first moved there for work. It never seemed important to find out the where more than the why or the what. And it was the same when I took a job in Nauru this year. I know that, right now, I am typing this on a little island somewhere in the Pacific – maybe halfway between Australia and Hawaii although, lord knows, I’ve been wrong about where I am before. More things seem more important than where I am – the progress of students, how my family and friends are travelling, what I’m writing.


Any new place is always an adventure, no matter.

I’m learning a new course, a new home, a new routine.

I’m learning how to sprout.

These last six weeks have been hectic with the learning, and it’s been eye-opening in so many ways because it challenges me to be adaptable, to not get into habits that might feel to precious to be broken. It challenges me to live without the things I thought I would struggle to be without – my little cat particularly – and in that I’ve had to find new ways to deal with any anxiety. And it teaches me to not give into excuses. I can’t exercise here in the same ways I did in Australia so I’ve adapted rather than stopped and am now becoming quite the expert in exercises you can do on a mat with a mini-band, and a skipping rope under the stairs of where I live.

These feel like important things.


But, the past few weeks, a friend has become seriously ill. It was a sudden thing, a shocking thing.

And all of a sudden where I am feels desperately to matter because I am so very far away. I have incredible friends who send me updates depending on which technology works best at which particular time. When she was undergoing her first operation, we decided to light candles together for her. The shop here was candle-free and so, in desperation, I sent a call out to Catholic friends who went to their churches and lit candles for my friend. And so, via Skype and Viber and email, we talk about how she’s going and what is happening, and what it means when the universe does something like this. What happens when the universe doesn’t seem to make any real sense because sudden and shocking illness shouldn’t happen to the people in your life. All the circular arguments you go through because terrible things happen to good people all the time and it becomes sometimes about how you make sure the people in your life know how special they are, that you make sure you never leave things unsaid.

You become a walking cliché trying to figure things out, but maybe that’s the point as well. Maybe the clichés are the words that help you get through the shock of something – they give you time to process properly (and sometimes slowly) and find the words you really want to say.

I don’t know, At the moment, I still feel like I’m clutching at clichés in a desperate hope that she’ll end up being OK.


But in all of this, I feel very far away.


I know that my being there wouldn’t make a difference in any real sense. It is just my sense of wanting to be able to help if needed, to help in any way I could. And here, a million miles away, all I can do is pray and ask people to light candles. It is something that feels both hopeful and hopeless at the same time. I tell myself that any positive energy sent her way can only be a good thing but still, I feel very far away.


In a time where we can potentially have access to anyone at any time through all sorts of social media, it feel sobering to sit here with much of that at my fingertips (depending on how the storms affect the internet of late) and it not feel quite enough. And while very much heightened with my friend’s illness, it feels important for everyone in my life. To enjoy every chance I’m with them, and to not lose touch when I am not. Where I live will change but potentially I will always be far away from different people in my life. The more we move around, the more people we have in different parts of the globe. I will always be closer to some than to others, although this is arguably the most remote I’ve been.


I may not know where I am in any kind of practical, physical sense but I know where my heart beats, and for whom, and that feels more important than any map.

I always brake for puppies

Almost two weeks ago, I stepped on the first of three planes with two suitcases and six laptops and started my journey to teach in Nauru.
I took a deep breath – a very deep breath – and stepped on the plane.

And then spent a significant part of the journey terrified of losing six laptops and being aware of all the luggage.

And now – almost two weeks later – here I am. Sitting in my little apartment, typing away in a dressing gown. All of which is not too dissimilar to what I was doing in Australia – minus a small cat who would be typing with me too and is now being loved by a friend and his dog and cat while I am here.

When I last wrote, I wondered about making new rhythms to my days. Then I had no idea of what Nauru would look like or what my life could look like. Pictures and other people’s stories aren’t always the same. They’re not always quite real. But now that I’m here, it’s a real world. Nauru is my real world now and it is all sorts of fascinating and challenging. This change is a good thing.

So, in moving overseas and starting new rhythms to my days, I have discovered a few things about myself:

I really will happily, willingly, without question pay extraordinary sums of money for fresh fruit and veggies if the alternative is to go without. The cashiers in the shop now laugh at me as I arrive with a basketful of veggies and a wallet full of cash.
If I run out of the peanut butter left in my fridge by a friend and discover that there is no peanut butter in the shops, my heart does break a little, and I begin to plot how more peanut butter might come into my life.
This is also the same with Kewpie mayonnaise, which people either worship or have never tried. A friend told me I should pack more but I had run out of space. Next time, I am packing more.
(The obsession with food is admittedly not at all a surprise or even a vaguely new discovery.)

I have also discovered the art of the List. Lists ground my life now. Lists for what to do in class. Lists for what needs to be done outside class. Lists for weekly reports. Lists of what I need to bring with me next time (mostly food-related if the earlier passages hadn’t hinted that). Lists of ideas for where I want some writing to go. My phone resembles little more than an electronic post-it note of reminders – some practical and pragmatic (‘Remember to finish slide 6’), others more ethereal where I struggle to remember what on earth I was thinking (‘She shouldn’t walk through the door’).

Yesterday though, as I was driving home from a meeting, I discovered that I will always brake for puppies. Not that that’s a surprise in itself – I am a sucker for strays, always have been. Dogs wander about the place all through the island but they tend to be deeply road sensible. This one, however, had found something in the middle of the road that needed to be sniffed and eaten without any disruption. So I braked to see what the dog was going to do so I could pass it without harm. I braked early and clearly, this wasn’t a screeching halt – these are hard to do anyway when no one drives more than 50k an hour. But the car behind me potentially did not feel the same way about braking for puppies and so overtook me, almost hitting the dog, which thankfully used its road sense to get out of the way. When I got home and told my cleaning lady, who is teaching me all about Nauruan culture, she laughed and said that I was “a very Australian girl”. Apparently, we brake for puppies.

When I was trying to imagine what living here would be like, I didn’t imagine some of this – I didn’t imagine being very Australian in a way that’s not so much recognized back home. But, as I find my way around this new home – and recognise my new rhythms and undertake adventures like going into different shops – remaining a sucker for strays feels deeply OK.

In just under four days time

In a little less than four days, I’ll be on my way to Nauru to start a new job teaching a community health diploma (both job and diploma have far fancier names in the contract). I’m equal parts excited and nervous about the new job. It means not having a permanent home in Australia this year as I’ll spend 36 weeks on-island – and a move from Armidale to Brisbane as a base in a few weeks time. It means foster-homes for my little cat while I’m away and I’m deeply blessed to have two amazing friends who will take her into their homes (and hearts) during the year. It means big changes and big learnings and big adventure – and who could say no to that? There’s a chance to make a real difference so why not dive in to the opportunity – especially when Laks will be cared for while I’m away.


But leaping in to this opportunity has meant moving and packing.

And more packing because I think I may own all the stuff in the world. Stuff seems to just appear in unexpected places that I didn’t realise existed in the cottage or in places I swore I checked yesterday.

There is just so much stuff.

But – no permanent home this year means I can no longer keep all of it. So I have read Marie Kondo, and I have piled clothes and books and things onto my dining room floor to hold individually and discard if it didn’t make me feel a spark of joy. While deeply cathartic, it also made me realise how much stuff I had that didn’t spark – not that I actively didn’t like them but just that they weren’t so valuable.

And I discovered that I will get rid of almost half my wardrobe but can’t part with any of the artworks I’ve collected over the years.

Books too were far harder to get rid of – and far harder still to not take with me. I’m packing 8 books (somehow) to take with me to Nauru because they’re the ones I read and re-read – they’re the ones that will make me feel brave and safe on the days when I may not feel either.


But, the thing is, as I’ve been packing and discarding – and boxing up my life into 9 not-so-large boxes, 4 bags, 3 suitcases, and 1 small cat – I’ve been realizing more and more how much change can be the Boggart in the wardrobe. Staying at a friend’s place to get Laks settled, I’ve watched this little cat adapt to a new house more quickly than I did – she found her comfy spaces within an hour. Admittedly, I’ve made friends with the other dog and cat but that’s because I don’t think I need to be boss of everyone. What Laks lacks in size, she makes up for with a personality and survival skills.

But within a day or so, she made her new routines and, in truth, so did I. I wake up to feed three animals following the politics of the morning. A kind-hearted dog the size of a horse comes with me on my morning walk that now goes through the Lookout. I water the garden, and feed the fish. I walk up and down an enormous hill (which feels especially enormous coming back up when I resemble a hunch-backed red-faced and huffing wreck of a person) to get to work.

I have a new rhythm to my days.

And I’ll make a new rhythm again in just under four days time.

The fear that change can bring may – at least for me – be a fear of how to fill your days again and what those days will look like. It’s a fear that looms large in the days before a change (like right now, with just under four days to go) but it’s also a fear that will disappear a week or so from now. When I have the rhythm to my teaching and my days.

Practising my resolutions

Sometimes my resolution eyes have been bigger than my resolution tummy.


I have promised more than I could possibly achieve in a lifetime, let alone a year. I have promised things that I could do in a year if things like needing to work in order to live didn’t get in the way. I have promised things that I could do if I were an entirely different person who actually possessed the coordination to knit or do other crafty things.


(I seemed to always veer into Etsy and fitspo territory with a lot of my resolutions of the past. You should have seen how I was going to change the world one green juice in a knitted drink holder at a time.)


But last year, I sat with my little cat and made resolutions that felt calming and positive – and that required little else of me other than to continue being me (and required nothing of Laks because cats are too sensible to get themselves caught up in resolutions).

I resolved to write as bravely as I could and still press ‘publish’, even if I closed my eyes doing it. I resolved to be open to new experiences, and new people. And I resolved to be mindful of, and grateful for, the beauties in my life. And, apart from a few bumps here and there when life got a bit tricky, I kept to them.


And it felt amazing for two reasons. Firstly, because I didn’t feel like I’d failed at anything, which is always a positive place to exist. And, secondly, because those things made me feel amazing – they were things I could easily and naturally do, and enjoyed doing.

Writing makes me happy. New people and their ways are endlessly fascinating. Looking for beauty means you’ll always find it somewhere, even if it was just Laks snoring on my lap after a yuck day.


And so this year – facing a new job in a remote location – challenging and exciting but just a little bit scary as well – the need for resolutions that again feel calming and positive (and practical for living in a remote location while undertaking a new job) feels all the more important. There is so much to do already – so much to plan where every decision at the moment requires meetings and discussions and more decisions – that adding anything more that isn’t intrinsically part of me would be too overwhelming. The adage of doing the things that make you scared can be an inspiring thing but it’s not always a bad thing to also want to do the things that don’t twist your tummy either. The big things this year are big enough without adding more drama to them for the sake of making a cooler inspirational quote.


So – this year – some of my resolutions will stay the same as last year. Bolder and braver. Beauty and inspiration.

New people and new places are coming regardless so embracing them is not only positive, but also deeply sensible.

But new resolutions too.

To forgive myself when I stumble, and to be peaceful with myself when I feel anxious about all the changes. To trust that I’m better at breathing and stopping now – and seeing the beauty – which makes all of that other negative stuff disappear more easily.

That it’s OK to not always be brave and that there will be days when I disappear into a good book or the Buffy series or my own writing – another resolution is to actually finish writing a book. To let myself have those less-brave days in order to be brave on all the other days.


There is something exciting and powerful when change comes rushing at you – change is always a good thing, no matter. So my resolutions this year let me meet the changes with clear eyes and a full heart, and this can never be a bad thing.

Why the perfect red lip matters

2015-11-26 08.05.25So until this past Sunday, I had never really worn red lipstick properly before. Flirted with it just a little, tried red tints, but nothing that was boldly, unashamedly, absolutely red.

Red felt too much. My lips would all of a sudden be ‘HELLO!’ like a slightly drunken aunt in heels she can’t walk in after too much gin on a hot summer afternoon. While that is absolutely my future ambition for when I turn 70 – I will wear kaftans, and dye my hair pink again, it will be brilliant – it’s not quite right for where I am now.

And then I met the very lovely Mel at Mecca Cosmetica in the Myer Centre in the middle of Sydney. This reads like an unabashed plug but she really was brilliant (and very very patient) given I wandered in akin to a small duckling with a vague sense of wanting to try red lipstick and holding a fear of becoming a drunken aunt. Mel tried different textures and intensities of colours and ranges of red from berry to blue-based to hints. And after trying a whole bunch of lipsticks where my lips were stained with the remnants (which actually made a pretty fantastic colour), I chose the first one.

A matte, creamy, grown-up, unabashed, blue-based red.

It’s called Rita which just feels magnificent. Rita would absolutely wear a kaftan.

And I know the perfect red lip – in the grandest scheme of things – isn’t important. Unless you stretched your long bow to ‘self esteem’, it doesn’t factor into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. There are many far more important things to be concerned about, and to think about, and to write about. And I am and I do. I can easily, happily live without red lipstick.

The thing is though – I don’t really care about those arguments. Sometimes you need silly and frivolous and a lipstick named Rita. A little while ago, the beauty writer Sali Hughes talked about how beauty products, and the rituals around them, can be these small beauties when life becomes decidedly less beautiful.

And there is something very powerful in that in terms of identity and wellbeing.

The mornings where I’ve taken the time to do the new lipstick properly, I’ve walked out the door differently, even though nothing else is different. Like a good dress with pockets and properly-brushed hair, Rita has been added to my armoury of things that make me feel confident and capable and happy. These are things that no one else will notice – and far more often than not could care less about – but can make an enormous difference to how I feel presenting, or participating in a workshop, or waiting for my flight home at the airport lounge scribbling down ideas for a paper. It can be hard enough sometimes to find your voice, and make in loud enough to heard, in such a big and hectic world – why not embrace the things that help?

These are small beauties and they work in small ways, but if I only waited for the big beauties and the big changes, what opportunities would I miss? It extends the idea of embracing yes to always being open-eyed to what’s out there and not assuming that something has to be ‘important’ for it to make a positive difference in my life.



Embracing Yes

Shonda Rhimes is a bit of a hero for me; her writing, her vulnerability and fearlessness in speaking out and challenging norms, and her way of seeing a long-term narrative into being.

She is deeply awesome.

(Plus Scandal has the best coat porn of any show ever.)

It’s a bit over one year today that the Thesis Whisperer blog, run by the wonderful Inger Mewburn, published a piece I wrote about the struggles about being an early career researcher in an uncertain role. I felt so scared – so naked – publishing that piece but met some amazing friends on Twitter through it – with their own fantastic blogs, see here, here, and here for just a few. That vulnerability was worth it. In it, I wondered about the practice of always saying ‘yes’ and how many yes-es could be balanced at any one time without being dropped.

And in her new book ‘The Year of Yes’, Shonda Rhimes talks about what she experienced in a year of saying yes – new experiences, new ways of being and doing, a wholeness of life uncovered.

And in the year since the Thesis Whisperer piece, I’ve also begun to truly believe in the power of saying yes.

I have this fear of losing myself in work sometimes where I get stuck in how I do something – too comfortable, too tunnel-visioned. That one day the words ‘but that’s how I’ve always done it’ will come out of my mouth when faced with a new, maybe better, way of doing something.

In saying yes, I feel less at risk of that, simply because I’m always around people who do things differently to me and so always explaining why I want to do something a particular way – and then smooshing both ways together to create something new and workable.

In saying yes, I work with extraordinary people who do work vastly different (and sometimes really similar) to my own but who are also fascinated in seeing the world just slightly differently to how they saw it before.

In saying yes, I am writing this in a university space in a small country town a few hours away from where I live, working on a project where I have learned about Aboriginal history, community-embedded art studios, and the politics of playgrounds. And seen more art deco architecture than I was ever expecting here.

Saying yes has been pretty brilliant.

But its brilliance has also been brighter because I have also discovered the power of saying ‘yes but…’

Yes but can I have another week to do the analysis so I can finish marking assignments…

Yes but if we start the analysis this way, it will be easier to pull together for a paper…

Yes but if I go adventuring to small country towns, coffee is vital.

Thankfully, I have yet to meet someone for whom coffee (or at least a cup of tea) has not been vital.

And in this way, ‘but’ has brought a balance to the excitement and inspiration of ‘yes’. Passion alone is sometimes not enough when you’re tired – it doesn’t get you through every challenge. What passion does do though – when you balance it with ‘but’ – is allow the colour to stay in everything – allows you to work through the night when there’s a deadline, to balance what needs to be balanced when there seems to be quite a number of balls in the air.

Passion nourishes you in ways that pragmatism could never do, but pragmatism keeps your feet on the ground, reminds you to eat, and keeps your iron levels from dropping.

Passion gives you the courage to try something completely new – even if it doesn’t work – just to know that you’ve tried it. And – as fellow academic nerds will also know – when something new works, it’s the best high.

Saying yes has made me more creative, bolder, and braver in my work. It hasn’t always led to success but I’ve felt proud of everything I’ve submitted this year and attempted to do.

And that nourishes in both a passionate and pragmatic way.

Pink hair and the zen of blah

This is always a rough time of year. Anniversaries of people I’ve lost, deadlines, marking, and end-of-year existential lala all seem to come together in October.

This week particularly has just been blah.

And it’s not that I don’t know how to self-care. I’m much better at it than I used to be, and I’m much better at recognising when I need to take more care than usual. Slowly, slowly stumbling my way towards grace as always with that one.

I run. Walk. Bake. Write. Sit in the sunshine with my small cat. Do breathing exercises.  Go to the foot man. Read books (in the sunshine if possible). Coffee (and skype) with friends as we dissect the world, and The Bachelorette. Sing loudly in the shower.

Occasionally sing loudly out of the shower.

Write some more.

Acknowledge my blessings, because there is no question of that. Remember that there are small beauties and small loves, great beauties and great loves, everywhere. Be present with the sunrise.

Get my hair cut/coloured (my hair may be more pink than ever before right now). Get something pierced, or cry in public at art exhibitions in Derry (hypothetically speaking)

You know, all the things.

I’m not sure there’s an article on stress or wellbeing that I’ve not read, just to make sure there’s not something I’m missing in the quest to keep on being well and happy. To make sure I am as OK as can be, as productive and as creative as possible.

I know I’m not the only one reading everything that comes their way on this.

But sometimes, it all feels a bit blahblahblah. That cogs are turning, and things are whirring, but that nothing actually shifts or changes. Movement and motion, but no action. All of Shakespeare’s sound and fury still signifying nothing.

As much as running is fantastic for relieving stress in the moment and it seems to be the best time for ideas to pop into my head (as an aside, why do ideas only appear best formed during a run or a shower?), all the running in the world won’t make my heart break any less for the anniversaries.

No matter all my insight and self-care and learning, this time of year is always hard. And I was talking to friends yesterday that it’s not that I miss the people I’ve lost in a way – they stay frozen in death whereas I’ve changed. I had to – I grew older. The person I miss isn’t the person they’d be now so that feels a false emotion for me in a way. What I grieve and miss – what breaks my heart – is the loss of that potential. We lost who they could have become, and what they could have been in the world. That I will never know who they could have become, for better or for worse or for all those in-betweens. And that breaks my heart every year.

And I realized yesterday that nothing can make that heartbreak better because how can you fix that loss of potential? There’s nothing that will bring them back.

But, strange as it sounds, yesterday’s realization gave me a freedom I’d never explored properly before. I sat in that rubble and mourned my loss. I had made myself a jam-packed day so did interviews and meetings and things. But I let myself grieve and feel heartbroken. And today I feel lighter for it; this morning I woke up lighter for it. Quiet still, but lighter. Almost as though giving myself over to heartbreak fully yesterday (and these last few days) was enough of a penance – not a penance for sin but one in memory, so maybe that’s not quite the right word – and this morning I could breathe with the weight that has shifted if not entirely gone.

I wonder sometimes though – in our quest to frame everything positively and to retell mantras – that we’re losing our ability to be OK with the blah. That maybe sometimes we need to sit in the rubble with our heartbreak and just be. Be present with our ghosts and make peace with them, because not all of them are scary. Some are just sad. That giving ourselves over to grief, just for a moment, allows us to then cleanse ourselves of it a little more. One week out of a year rather than a whole year. A week to feel the pain, and acknowledge its presence, rather than carrying the load all year in silence, hiding a broken heart.

I could out-PollyAnna a lot of people but, more and more, I wonder whether we strengthen our positivity and our resilience by feeling the hurt – and shouting out to the world that it bloody hurts – rather than coating it in inspirational sayings, rather than giving ourselves a narrative that we would be better if only we did this one extra thing or tried hard enough or read one more article. Maybe we can be OK almost all the time, and still sometimes be sad. Maybe being OK also involves being sad as well….? Maybe some times are just blah and you trust (and you know) that these blah times will pass.

I’m trying to figure this out and so far this is as articulate as I can be about it. I have pink hair as a result of trying to sit with my feelings and make myself feel better so this is certainly a grace I’m stumbling towards. Certainly there’s a line between sitting in the rubble and being drowned by it, just as there’s a line between one week turning into many more. But I think as well, when you travel with your trauma every day, you can also allow yourself to learn its ways as well. I know to surround myself with people I trust on the anniversaries. I know that I will be quieter and there will be some work I struggle to do in that week. So I make allowances and am kind to myself because – as long as everything gets done – what does the order matter?  I arrange this week so I can grieve and function all at once – a whole of life.

I’m not sure whether this will work all the time but it’s a process that I know now works for me after a long time now. I take all the bits that work and make a tapestry to protect myself and my inner PollyAnna, because she knows that everything will always be alright in the end.

Buffy, the invisible girl, and the importance of being seen

Back in the day, a million years ago, I did a law degree, and was taught by a professor who inspires me still. He was tremendously charismatic: this brilliant mind able to both race in front of you but look back to make sure you were at least still running to catch up with him. He was one of the most well and widely read people I had ever met, and still know.

We all adored him. And distrusted any other student who didn’t get him.

I had never watched a single episode of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ until I took one of his classes – because obviously this is where you expected the story to go.

He argued that Buffy was the post-modern Antigone, and this way of thinking completely opened my eyes. I’d never properly realized that you could pull all these different sorts of cultures together and unpack them. Outside of obvious remakes, I’d never looked at something so modern and pulled the narratives across to something both so much older and seemingly so different. Reading Sophocles felt like reading another world, whereas I wore similar clothes to Buffy. Well – similar-ish. It was amazing.

So, while I have never practiced law, yay my law degree for giving me Buffy and a whole world of textual analysis.

So, this afternoon, snuggled up with my small cat and lots of cups of tea, I indulged in way-back-when first season Buffy and the ‘Out of Mind, Out of Sight, episode struck me. In this episode, the ‘bad guy’ isn’t a vampire but a girl who’s become invisible as a reaction to never being seen at school. It’s more than being labeled an outcast – you have to be noticed to be other-ed. It’s less active in a way. You are simply never seen, never noticed; conversations happen around you but never with you. You may be there but you don’t figure in anyone else’s world.

And so, because she is never in anyone else’s thoughts, she is overtaken by invisibility. Here, a name as signifier isn’t enough – the girl has a name – rather the argument here is we don’t see what we don’t remember exists.

And I wondered, in the aftermath of WSPD and RUOK (a sea of acronyms), how many people are never seen, how many people we don’t remember exist. Study after study demonstrates how important connection and belonging are to not only living well, but staying alive. We need to be seen in order to live, in order to remain visible. We need to have conversations with people and interactions with them that are real and whole. Not that every conversation with every person has to change the world, or that we have to interact with everyone. But that we really look at every person we interact with, look in their eyes, and connect with them – even when it’s just smiling and saying thank you to the person at the check out.

I wonder sometimes when so much effort is put into grand gestures, that we’ve forgotten just how important the small, everyday ones are. That words aren’t always necessary; sometimes just being able to sit in the quiet is all that is needed. But we need to be able to follow through with what is needed, and not be frightened about more words or about silence (whichever it is that frightens us the most at that particular moment).

It’s a brave thing, a vulnerable thing, to see people and allow ourselves to be seen. To talk to people and smile at them, make real eye contact. And it’s an easy thing to not do now. I’m hopeless at it sometimes – I’m reading blogs and catching up on emails on my phone the second I hop on a bus now, while I do my grocery shopping, while I’m waiting in a queue, wherever. But I wave and say hello to fellow runners on my morning run; a camaraderie there that feels old-school and special.

Huffing and puffing though I may be, and wishing desperately to lie down on the grass because running is hard, this is still a space in which I see people, and am seen. And there’s a preciousness in that.

So have a I deeply over-thought Buffy?

Safe Spaces and World Suicide Prevention Day

September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day. I was asked to give a talk this morning (as a researcher) for a community event. I wrote something more personal -decided to be a whole person, and not just a ‘researcher’. This talk went through several iterations as it felt increasingly necessary to be fully human with it. Practicing in the early morning with a tremendous human being half way around the world made me remember that we don’t change things by half-speaking. Sometimes we can only make change – and be truly heard – when we let ourselves be vulnerable and trust that our story can find its place in the world.

So, below, is my talk:

This has been a tricky talk to write.

Not because I’m not used to talking about suicide – I am. I’ve been a researcher in suicide prevention for a few years now.

This talk was tricky to write because, this morning, I’m also talking as a sister and as a friend. I was 16 when I lost a close friend; 21 when I lost my brother. I can tell you the exact moments I found out about their deaths because these were the exact moments my life shattered. I’ve re-built a life since then – re-built a great life – but a life without these two men I loved. And it’s a journey I still work on even more than half my life later. Mark and Michael still exist in every heartbeat, and they always will.

So I didn’t want to give a talk full of rates and numbers because, if suicide has touched your life – whether it’s because you work in the field, or are bereaved, or have been suicidal, or all of those things –  whether you’re used to talking about suicide or if you’ve never told your story before – if suicide has touched your life, you know rates and numbers don’t matter. Not really.

Because one preventable suicide is too many – the deaths that you’ve experienced are too many – the grief that you’ve experienced too much. In focusing on rates and numbers, I’m afraid that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that every suicide statistic was a person, and every person has left someone grieving. That every person who dies by suicide had a story, and every person left behind has a story too.  We need to start talking about suicide where we focus on its human-ness because that’s what really matters in the end.

So this morning – speaking as a researcher, a sister, and a friend – I want to ask two questions.

First, do we actually talk about suicide enough? Do we talk about suicide openly?

I work in the field; I talk about it all the time now. But I’m also asked about it all the time now because I’m recognised as someone safe as soon as I mention my job – I’ve had conversations on planes, in pubs, almost anywhere where a conversation can be started, where people have told stories of their suicidality, sometimes for the very first time.

But it took me a good 12 years to talk really openly about my brother. I was well into my PhD by then. I could find the words to describe other people’s experiences, but not my own. I could listen to other people’s stories but didn’t feel I could find the words to tell mine. No words seemed enough. I’ve foiund them – found some – but it took a long time.

Because talking about suicide is not easy. Suicide can be a scary thing to talk about. It’s a big thing to talk about. In order to talk about suicide, we have to admit that sometimes people feel such pain that they can see no other way to end it; that people can experience this type of emotional pain every day of their lives, no matter how much help they seek. That the life that works for us may not work for everyone – and we can so easily walk past someone every day and not know how they feel. I think for my family, and for me, the hardest thing we had to make peace with, the most confronting thing, was that we weren’t enough to save my brother. Over the years, in different ways, we’ve made peace with this.

But it’s been a confronting thing.

But just as we may struggle to find the words to talk about suicide, so too do people who are suicidal. In studies that have included people who have attempted suicide – and these are only just beginning – people have talked about how they struggled to find the words to describe their pain. That suicide was a selfless act for them because they thought they were too much a burden. And when they did find the words, they weren’t always heard or taken seriously. That it wasn’t always enough to be told ‘not to worry, that things would get better’ – sometimes people needed their pain to be truly recognised and acknowledged – they needed to be seen – and this could make people feel uncomfortable.

But discomfort isn’t enough of a reason to not talk about suicide. Discomfort silences not only the person trying to tell their story or ask for help – but it also silences us as a community. It’s so much harder to hear what we are scared to listen to. When we still face stigma about suicide – where people who die by suicide are still sometimes described as mad or bad or selfish – where there is stil, a perception that suicide doesn’t happen in ‘good’ families – silence only makes stigma worse. We need to start talking about this discomfort in a way that lets us make peace with it– where we can sit in the rubble with someone, and not feel the need to talk over them, but rather let them tell their story in their own words and at their own pace. Where we can sit in the rubble with someone and let them find a peace amidst all the uncertainty – their new normal – without having to say anything. Sometimes being quiet but present with someone is enough.

Which brings me to my second question, how do we make a safe space for someone to talk about suicide? A holding space to talk about the things that matter – so people feel supported, to ensure people feel safe rather than judged, and to help them heal?

Here maybe, we need to start looking at the small things. The small kindnesses that make a big difference when someone is hurting, when they need to be seen. In the same studies with people who had attempted suicide, they talked about being brought proper coffee while they were in hospital, a change of clothes, someone who just sat quietly with them to keep them company. They did not talk about being brought all the answers by a program, or a magic pill that solved all their sadness. There were no easy solutions. Rather, the people in these studies talked about finding people who got them – whether they were family or friends, or a health professional or someone else with lived experience – who understood that there would be good and bad days, who helped them find ways to better deal with the issues that made them vulnerable – whether it was counseling, or medication, or exercise, or art and writing, or mantras, or tattoos, or (most commonly) a mixture of all these things.  And different mixtures for different times, depending on what the person needed at the time. This was never an easy or straight-forward journey.

They talked about someone not only asking whether they were OK on a bad day but acting on the answer – spending time with them on days when they were not OK. And not just waiting until a person was not OK before doing something as well.

But also – and importantly – not presuming they knew all the answers. In areas like this, I think sometimes we are afraid to admit we don’t know all the answers. I will never know all the answers to my questions as to why I lost Michael and Mark. But this humility makes us better listeners, better health professionals, better researchers. We can make meaning out of uncertainty and shades of grey and spaces in-between – we can find peace with this – and admitting that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions also means that we acknowledge that people experience suicidality and bereavement differently. They will all tell their stories differently and take different journeys of healing. And these stories will be messy and raw and full of emotion. And acknowledging this makes a safe space for people to tell their stories. We have to trust sometimes that just listening to someone – being there for someone – without doing all the talking – is enough to make someone feel better. A might even be enough to save a life.

This can be a tricky day emotionally for some of us – it can be a tricky day for me emotionally too. World Suicide Prevention Day makes us realise how global suicide is – the experiences we share with millions and millions of people around the world regardless of culture and geography and everything else that is usually used to distinguish people. Far too many of us share stories of suicide bereavement and grief and suicidality. The person next to you, behind you, in front of you. Far too many of us are trying to tell stories that can feel unspeakable at times. It took me 12 years to find my words and I can still feel them in the pit of my stomach. In our stories of bereavement, we are all trying to explain the person we loved long ago, to someone who will never know them. Our lost person is a mystery to anyone else who doesn’t weave the same tapestry of memories. But it is important to keep trying to tell these stories in the hope that they might help someone else.

So today, we need to be kind to ourselves, and kind to others around us, as we honour those we have lost, those who still struggle with suicidality, and those who are bereaved. Days like today are important in remembering that we need to talk about suicide and we need to make sure that we are always safe spaces for people who want to share their stories.