The days are long but the years are short

I have a string of brown prayer beads I wear on my wrist a lot of days. They were given to me by a Buddhist monk I began chatting with while hopelessly lost wandering about in Montreal.

My ability to get hopelessly lost in any given place really is a spectacular talent.

We talked about Buddhism and the mindfulness in being lost when you allow yourself to just be in the place where you are – as well as directions back to the place I was meant to be.

He gave me the beads as a reminder to be present wherever I am.

 

And they do give me moments of mindfulness (when I remember to take a second and breathe) – to the point where the string is on its last legs. Poor beads.

 

Having moments to be mindful this week feel important. So much is going on around me, so much I don’t know, so I’m being mindful about being mindful. I’m trying to focus on the good others are doing, the small good I can help with, and how it can be made better and stronger.

 

In all of this, I came back reading ‘The Happiness Project’. I read this last year but it resonates differently now, as any book does on a re-reading. And right now this is playing in my head:

 

‘The days are long but the years are short.’

 

But I’m wondering how much that statement is privilege though. Not that the writer meant it to be – in her context it made perfect sense. In mine, it is also a relevant mantra, albeit for different reasons.

But I think it’s relevant for me for reasons of privilege.

 

The luck I’ve had.

The support I’ve had.

The teaching I’ve had.

I know that the days that might feel long now will pass. I’ll have more days that pass by without my thinking deeply about them or whizz by in glorious technicolour.

So many things that have very little to do with me but rather the opportunities that have come my way. I may have had my eyes and heart open to them but there’s been a lot of luck involved.

 

The more work I do in this field – the older I get – the more I think that our ability to cope with obstacles and challenges that, at times, can feel completely insurmountable isn’t created out of a mystical ether. It’s grounded in our past, impacted by our present, nurtured in our hope for the future. I have a tremendous family, incredible friends, amazing mentors. The mistakes I’ve made, I’ve been able to learn from. I’ve often been given room to pull myself out of darkness, time to heal. Sometimes I’ve had to fight for it. Sometimes it has seemed impossible. But the people I have learned to trust now, I know I can trust with everything.

 

Not everyone is so lucky. Not everyone is given help when they ask. Not everyone is given the opportunity to talk about their long days. Not everyone’s long days ate treated seriously.

I’ve been really lucky. My long days have still meant short years.

 

And so the string of brown beads around my wrist keeps me grounded in gratitude for all the good things in my life. All the beautiful people in my life. All my luck.

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.

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.

 

 

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?

A pirate, a question, and feet

Apart from sky-diving, I am usually pretty open to trying new things.

(I have friends who adore sky-diving but I can’t understand it at a fundamental level – it’s scary enough to get on a plane in the first place, I am not jumping out of one.)

So, earlier this week, on a recommendation from a friend, I started some biodynamic craniosacral therapy sessions. Essentially, the recommendation was: “this guy holds your feet and it’s really intense but you feel amazing afterwards”.

How could I not try that?

If you want to know what this therapy is, have a look here:

http://www.balancedintegration.com.au/biodynamic-craniosacral-therapy.html

My paraphrase would probably get a bit too tongue-twisted if I tried.

So I went there for the first time this week and told my usual story of anxiety (hello researcher), and digestion issues (hello anxiety, hello researcher). It’s not an uncommon story, certainly among my peers. I have written more food diaries than actual life-story diaries; take all sorts of supplements; have given up loads of different ‘trigger’ foods at different times to see if that made a difference.

For those of you who’ve done this food journey, you’ll know how boring it can get – trying to replace and reintroduce; wondering why you feel awful after a meal that only included ‘safe’ food; searching for ingredients you can barely pronounce, let alone spell.

I can bake a dairy- and gluten-free brownie with the best of them now, but it’s been a journey.

So, why not try the foot-holding guy?

And, I totally understand why I was given the explanation above. I can’t explain it much more than that – although, he does more than hold your feet. It’s just that I’m not concentrating on that; I focus on my breathing with a visualisation and lose myself in that.

After the first session, I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. My throat had felt constricted – I’d been holding my breath for too long so was given the breathing visualisation to calm it down. I felt hot, like I had a temperature. Walking home was a slow progress – I felt fragile and entirely spent. I got home, had a shower, and was in bed by 7:15pm. I slept almost straight through until my alarm rang the next morning, and I felt better. Lighter.

He’d made another appointment for Friday. I was afraid this was because I was completely wonky (see: anxiety).

But last night….

Last night, was completely different. There was a drumming music on when I arrived and my heart raced to its beat. Usually a racing heart is an anxiety thing, but not this time. It didn’t feel the same way. My throat felt different but not constricted, and my whole body tingled just under my skin, like a current was racing through it. I felt like a friendlier, less scary Frankenstein monster. Life via electricity.

And I felt amazing afterwards; my body moved more easily. I felt – if not peaceful, at ease with things.

He told me to take care of my throat: my voice would begin to come back this week.

And I got home and sang while I made dinner – much to the sadness of my small cat who went and hid in the bathroom, paws over her ears. I talked with a friend – one of those fantastic conversations that swing around with ideas, and highlight just how much the universe really can have a big stick to get you to realise things.

I realised just how much anxiety can exist in holding your breath; how much you hold your breath when you’re anxious. And how much, at least for me, those two things are very much chicken-or-egg. I know when I became anxious; I can’t remember when I started holding my breath but, in beginning to unleash it now, I know I’ve been doing it for far too long.

And this now opens my eyes far wider to what can be, and what could be. What exists in my life that makes me swallow my breath, and what exists that brings out the music.

And it’s the music that makes everything brighter, even on a cloudy day, reminds me the sun always comes out. It’s not that this is a magic cure, or that I’m seeking one. Rather, it gives me a new way of seeing things, and a new peace in which to see them. And that is something quite precious.

Connected to this – the universe and her big stick and all – is Amanda Palmer’s new book ‘The Art of Asking’ which has been inspiring me this past week or so as well. That there is bravery not only in asking, but bravery in being OK with the answer as well. Even if the answer is not 42, even if the answer feels wonky, it’s always better to ask, rather than silence the question, rather than hold your breath.

So, I am asking things of people now. Not necessarily asking them for things, but asking how they feel, and what they want – and whether they want to write with me. And sometimes the answers have been disappointing. But, other times, the answers have just been interesting and wonderful and made me feel connected to the people I love and adore in my life.

Sometimes, the answer has been yes as well. Because yes always appears eventually, and always when the time is right.

So, right at this very moment, I am thinking of a pirate called Tadhg, and all the adventures he could have with a kitten on his shoulder and flowers in his hands….

Inspired by research on childlessness

My grandmother died giving birth to my mother, who herself struggled for life in her early days. In her mid-60s, and in the midst of grieving her daughter, my great-grandmother was handed this tiny babe to care for and mother. Her world must have unrecognisably shifted in those days and weeks.

Pregnancy was not kind to my mother before I was born either. Living in remote Goulburn Island, in Arnhem Land, my mother was hospitalised for the month before giving birth to me. We struggled for life, she and I, but survived this seemingly dangerous time.

So, I never grew up with romantic pregnancy or childbirth stories – I never knew there was potentially a ‘glow’ until years later reading other women’s stories.

I barely knew any of the family stories until I was old enough to ask what had happened to my mother’s family. That is the beauty of childhood in a way – although ‘beauty’ may not be the right word – you normalise everything around you as what life ‘is’ until you’re old enough to realise that your family (and your life) is not the only one in existence.

I have learnt that, in my family, the first girl pregnancies can be tricky, and potentially deadly.

And I also carry a little grief as well for what my mother missed, the stories she has never known, and the stories she may only ever partly know. My great-grandmother sounds amazing – feminist, strong, and big-hearted – but she was of a different generation, where exclamations of love were not so freely and easily and exuberantly expressed. My mother never knew the type of family she created for me and – as I’ve remembered more as an adult, understood more, and not just accepted as a child – I’ve realised just how much creating this type of family was a learning for her. And how much she surrounded us in love, just in case something happened, that we always knew she loved us.

So, while I grew up surrounded by the social presumption that girls became women who then became wives and mothers (as most little girls do), it never felt very relevant to me and my life. I would grow up absolutely but motherhood seemed like a foreign country, which has safety warnings attached. A place I heard about, but somewhere I never made any active plans to visit. Other women went there.

They felt braver than me.

And it seemed like a very foreign land for many, many years. I knew of ‘motherhood’ but it never entered my thoughts in anything but a fleeting way and always about someone else.

I only started thinking about it as something to do with me a little while ago, and only when a man I was dating, who was already a father, started talking about a family with me. This was the first time it didn’t make me nervous or wake up in a cold sweat. Or wonder whether he secretly wished me dead – goodness, how a fear can linger ghost-like at the shadows ready to submerge you at crucial times. The relationship didn’t work out but the sense that I could actually be a mother – that it’s not an entirely ridiculous notion – has remained. Not overtly, not as something that ticks or screams – but something simply there sitting at the edges, along with other hopes and wants and desires attached to life. I think about motherhood in the way that I think about one day becoming a ‘proper’ writer or opening a cake and whiskey shop or moving to a windswept cottage in Ireland – something that will be an amazing adventure and full of baking (everything is always going to be full of baking) but something that, if I didn’t, would be OK as well because life happens in odd and mysterious ways. Everything is an adventure.

Except, sometimes, it doesn’t feel that easy. As I creep towards an age where motherhood may no longer be an option, I’m beginning to think about making sure I’m OK with never being a mother. Because, unlike a cake and whiskey shop or an Irish windswept cottage, motherhood still seems to be attached to female worth and those who are childless are judged negatively – just as those who are mothers but who aren’t perceived to be doing a good enough job are also judged negatively. Women never seem to win, no matter what, when it comes to social disapproval about the use of our reproductive organs.

And I will be OK. And I almost went on to justify why I would but then having to justify my worth if I end up being childless feeds into the whole problem.

I will be OK and I will have a wonderful life – with child or without.

And normally it’s so easy, I don’t have to think about being OK about it; is just is. It’s like before. A foreign land I’ve not yet visited, but I’ve now looked at a brochure.

Yet sometimes, just sometimes, it’s harder because I feel forced to justify. Tiny things said by people, tiny implications – larger ones said by media and government, larger implications.

Sometimes it feels as though being childless signals that I must be too ambitious – too choosy (about the father) – too career-driven. That being childless means I lack compassion, selflessness, and love. I’m either too much or too less. An adult-sized Goldilocks, I am never ‘just right’.

And if I am too ambitious and career-driven, then exactly how magnificent must my work appear in order to be perceived worth being childless? In a world of Instagram-filters, it’s amazing what my world can look like from behind a screen. Everything is as pretty as we paint it.

Sometimes it feels as though I am painted as an intruder in a family space, because where do I fit? And in this liminality, I become the aunt/godmother favoured in department stores and boutiques because I will buy the expensive organic clothes and the hand-carved toy animals – or the deeply inappropriate toy that makes noise just as the baby has fallen asleep. Here I am frivolous because everyone knows actual parents buy practical and serviceable things – my lack of knowledge is highlighted.

Mostly though it’s because I don’t like the strict pink/blue gender divide, and refuse to buy into it exclusively until the child in question is old enough to ask for pink/blue specifically. It’s always easier to buy non-strictly-gendered things from more expensive brands. I am my god-daughter’s feminist god-mother, which is quite fun actually.

Sometimes it feels as though I am pitied for the too much and the too less and my frivolous lack of fit. I have always had love in my life – in this way, I have always been blessed – yet sometimes it feels as though all this love is worth less than the love connected to motherhood. I refuse to believe though that there is a hierarchy of love – any love is a beautiful thing, worthy of being treasured.

This is only sometimes – most days, my brain is too busy thinking about the grants and articles I’m writing, the students I’m teaching, and the books I’m reading. Wondering that Laks really wants to eat her body-weight in beef every night, and whether there is something to watch on the ABC.

And having media and government narratives that valorise motherhood help no one, just as narratives that valorise childlessness help no one. Neither offers an infallible path to happiness. Both can be tricky to navigate and subject to the judgement of others; both at times are perceived to require justification. All of us share the risk of judgement for simply being who we are. Mothers may have a more consistently overt narrative but fathers are not so far behind in being judged for their performance. All of us then share the risk of not being good enough people, which makes the narratives then, the norms, seem all the more pointless? Why continue doggedly along a path that does no one any good?

I started this blog as a space in which to write that was different to my writing as a researcher. A way to think through thoughts and put them put into the universe to do as they will. For this reason, I write these posts often as a stream of consciousness – hence typos and rambling tangents – to write bravely and boldly from a resolution made at the beginning of the year inspired by the Edu Flaneuse, inspired always by The Space In Between. This feels a more naked piece to write but all the more reason to build my wings as I fall, close my eyes and submit. There’s no perfect solution to this, no right decision – just a peacefulness in whatever adventure brings, whatever the universe offers.

What do you think?

My Ma and 50 Shades of Grey

I never watch the Oscars. It’s far too long, even if I am just sitting in my pyjamas with a cup of tea and the ability to fall asleep at any moment, usually right before a major award is announced. But I have a deeply frivolous side so, on Tuesday morning, I read all the gossipy bits and looked at some very pretty dresses, particularly Keira Knightley’s Valentino.

But in all this silliness, I felt deeply sorry for Dakota Johnson, who plays Anastasia in 50 Shades of Grey.

http://www.laineygossip.com/Dakota-Johnson-Melanie-Griffith-awkward-at-2015-Oscars/37701

This may not be terribly shocking but I am not a fan of 50 Shades of Grey. I’ve written about the Twilight series and the dangerous stories it tells about love and goodness and suicidality. For those of you living in blessed ignorance, 50 Shades was written as a Twilight fanfic – Edward and Bella in bondage – the same stalking-equals-love, the same colourless lesser and needy female character to the male character where every possible positive adjective was used in his description. I’m coding 50 Shades for an upcoming chapter and it’s leeching the colour from my soul just a smidge.

I’m struggling to understand how a book that is said to empower women and embrace their sexuality describes a penis in more detail than the lead female character. That feels a somewhat odd sentence to write; odder that it’s true.

It feels ridiculous to have to say that bruises should never be badges of love.

To me, 50 Shades of Grey is deeply disheartening…

But this is not the point. Apparently the movie is better, or at least not as terrible as the book, although reviews have tended not to be overwhelming in their positivity. But – Anastasia apparently becomes an actual character, rather than simply a blank slate for Christian’s desires. Sam Taylor-Wood is an amazing artist so maybe her eye for detail won through. I’m hoping that, when I see the movie, I’ll see something character-driven rather than oh-my-god-Christian-Grey-is-just-a-perfect-man-driven. Mostly I’m hoping that Christian’s penis becomes a less important character than Anastasia.

(Writing this is making me realise just which bits of the book have upset me, not just as a feminist but as a lover of writing too. A few of us were discussing the books the other week and wept with laughter (laughed as we wept?) at some of the more well-used phrases – ‘oh my’ and ‘shattered into a million pieces’ came to mind. A book about sex that seems afraid of the word ‘vagina’. The coding really is as fun as it sounds.)

Yet the 50 Shades movie is making money and Dakota Johnson went to the Oscars, a rising star in a beautiful dress. Yay her – and I really mean that sincerely. Yet, if you watched the clip above, I wonder if you felt sorry for her as well? Her mother, the actress Melanie Griffith, who couldn’t hide her disdain for a movie that brought her to the Oscars too. Would she have been invited if not for her daughter? For the length of a televised interview, she couldn’t say she was proud of her daughter without deep reservations. And it seemed to upset her daughter, which is not surprising. What could have been a nice moment – if moments televised to the entire world during what is essentially a work event can be nice – was dented in front of millions of people.

Right then, I felt deeply relieved to have my mother. Admittedly, I’m always deeply relieved to have my Ma – she is one of the most calming people I know. Ma is one of the very few people in the entire world who has actually read my thesis and that is a true act of love. And she has always stood up for me, even when my decisions have made her shake her head in bemusement. ‘Are you sure you want to move to China in six days?’ ‘Are you sure you want to start a PhD?’ ‘You adopted a cat this afternoon?’ ‘Why are you coding that terrible book, darling? Why don’t you code a better one?’ No matter my decisions, and no matter how unhappy they may have made me while I’ve worked out other ones, I have always been sure that Ma was (and is) proud of me.

And on Tuesday morning, as deeply saccharine as this sounds, I felt far luckier than Dakota Johnson.

So, Ma, this is my thank you. x

I always find the long way home*

I was never been a natural at planning and structure – it’s something I’ve had to work hard at – the what ifs have always been the more interesting. Plans seemed like they might shut out serendipity and structure enclose people in a world of grey routine. And what happens when a plan goes awry, as plans often do – the more flexibility allowed the better it seems at times. This may be a smidge melodramatic but there’s always a small voice in the back of my mind saying ‘If you do this, can you still run away to the windswept cottage?’, even if the windswept cottage has still yet to appear in reality.

I like lists of things to do and to aspire to and love writing to be published, so that’s always helped, something very tangible to work towards. I’ve always trusted in the universe that things work out as they’re meant to, that as long as you work hard, put goodness out, and keep your eyes open then all will be well. The burning need for my work to be challenging, innovative, and positive for the people involved helps drive me in a good direction.

Apparently though, other people (most people?) have more structured strategies about life – and have made decisions in life based on clearer and less serendipitous ideas about where they want to be in the future. As I work on different grants at the moment, particularly Deczilla, I’m learning that not everyone else has fallen into their fields. Or maybe they just narrate their story more coherently than I do.

I had no idea what I wanted to do when I finished school. All the choice froze me. I knew I couldn’t do anything maths- or science-based but other than that – nothing…. I just wanted to go to uni and study something interesting. I had a Japanese class just before the absolute final due date for the forms to apply for university. My Japanese teacher was awesome so, in desperation, I asked her what she had studied. She had done Modern Asian Studies at Griffith University and had loved it – so that’s what I put on my form.

I too loved Modern Asian Studies but at the end of my first year, I was drinking coffee with two friends – Richie who’d started uni with me that same year and Carlos who was about to graduate. Carlos worried that his degree wasn’t enough to get a job, that he should have done law. Richie then worried about this and decided she should do a law degree – and that, it would be fun, we could do a law degree together. The next day, my paper work went in.

And I loved doing the law degree along with Asian Studies – it felt like I was reading people from so many disciplines. It felt like a proper education. But at the end of my third year, my brother died by suicide, my world turned completely askew, and I realised I didn’t want to be a lawyer. The theory inspired me more than the occupation and – in a moment of deep irony given I now work as an academic – I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in an office. Also, heels and suits and ironing aren’t my favourites.

So I had to decide what to do after the undergrad degrees. At the end of my final year, I was having coffee with a classmate who said I should do Honours – apparently coffee inspires life-altering decisions. With no idea of how my brother had died, he said that female suicide rates in China were really high and that why not investigate that – I’d done a lot of subjects on women and China. This felt far away enough from my brother to be doable. The forms were due that week and I started Honours the next year on female suicide in China and the power of ghost stories, gendered oppression, and tradition.

I never planned on doing a PhD but it seemed the natural progression after a year in China wondering what to do with the rest of my life – why not do all the uni I could possibly do? And as much as this story sounds like the old lady who swallowed a fly, this is the field in which I’ve stayed. For all the serendipity and twisty roads, I’ve found the long way home to a place which constantly inspires and challenges – in making me want to be a better researcher, a better person. It makes me want to write new lists and eke out more minutes within the maelstrom to write more words.

*With obvious thanks to the very wonderful Tom Waites

Regret, adulthood, and goose tongue

I used to be fearless.

I used to be spontaneous.

Do you need to be one in order to be the other?

The year I turned 26, I moved to a small-ish mountain city in eastern China – well, small for China. I’d finished my Honours and had no idea what to do with myself, as has often been the case after finishing something ‘big’. Late one night, randomly browsing the internet in an anywhere-but-here mood, I came across stories of people who’d taught English in China.

It sounded adventurous. It definitely sounded anywhere-but-here. I applied to two agencies. I got a response from one on a Friday, asking me if I was prepared to arrive in China the following Thursday.

I was.

After giving an ultimatum to my then-partner (who decided to come with me), I left a job, packed a house, flew to northern Queensland to give my two cats to my parents, and boarded a plane for a city I’d never heard of before.

I moved to China in six days, only able to say ‘hello’ in Mandarin (badly), and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

The small-ish mountain city was Linhai, in Zhejiang province. If you’ve ever seen ancient Chinese paintings of bamboo and mountains, this was the area in which many were painted. It could be heart-stoppingly beautiful. There was the Southern Great Wall, East Lake, markets, seemingly lots of brothels, and the most amazing side streets. I can never resist a side street in a foreign country. I spent a lot of time hopelessly lost, and entirely fascinated by everything.

I was put in a primary school and so taught very small and deeply adorable children stories about foxes and grapes, colours and pronouns, and, most importantly of all, the hokey-pokey. At one stage, I was hokey-pokey-ing for about 16 hours a week. My ability to stand on one leg while waiting for an entire classroom of distractible 6-year-olds to also stand on one leg remains an impressive skill and one that is desperately overlooked by ARC grant reviewers.

I did so many things that year that I had never done before.

I was thinking about this the other day, as a new year started and I had found myself back in my office, having slid into the same routine, piles of marking and grants and papers, and never-ending to-do lists. Do our workdays sometimes blur together as we get lost in a theory, or an equation, or the paragraph that just isn’t quite right yet? Does spontaneity and fearlessness disappear just a little when responsibilities become slightly more adult and playing anywhere-but-here may not be the practical solution to ‘What do I do now?’

Can you still be properly adult and be spontaneous and fearless, or is it more about choosing what to be spontaneous and fearless about? Is being properly adult actually something to aspire to anyway?

As someone who would happily eat avocado toast, and wear pyjamas, all the time if I could get away with it, maybe I’m not the best judge of what ‘properly adult’ can be….

Is it more about reconceptualising adventures, and spontaneity, and fearlessness? Taking a day either side of a conference in a foreign city in which to get hopelessly lost down side streets? Make a concerted effort to do something not-routine every so often, no matter how small it is, or silly it feels. Being fearless in whatever makes your heart beat – putting yourself out there to be heard, no matter how many people hear?

I think maybe, in all of this, my greatest fear is regret. If I fall so easily into work routines, am I missing the beauty of the day? Am I not grasping every opportunity because I’m not open to seeing them?

In the end, I would always rather regret something I’ve done than wish after something I didn’t do. There’s a line in ‘Possession’ (sorry, it’s still very much in my head at the moment) which says exactly that:

“We must come to grief and regret anyway – and I for one would rather regret the reality than its phantasm, knowledge than hope, the deed than the hesitation, true life and not mere sickly potentialities”

Maybe then even the small things can make a difference here because they’re done at least, and not imagined.

The quote makes me think back to China. I know what goose tongue tastes like now. I never have to regret that I didn’t try it or wonder what it tastes like. Which is a great thing, and makes me very happy to vegetarian again.