Indistractable

Photo by Jazzy Jazz

I am the queen of distraction. Any excuse will do. A ding on my phone? A dog barking? Stomach rumble? I’m up for it! Literally. I will get up to investigate, check the phone, open the fridge door…

Recently, I decided to spend more time in the office. Even with all the distractions there, I get more work done. Sure, I may have a chat to a colleague and make myself the odd cup of tea but somehow, I am more focused because I know this is the place for work and not play.

About a year ago I listened to Nir Eyal’s book Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. I felt motivated for about a week and then, slowly at first before accelerating with a vengeance, my old habits resurfaced. I didn’t want to be boxed in by time blocks, or make public commitments about my goals, I was happy to coast along, chop and change as my want and hit the panic button when deadlines emerged. After all, I work best under pressure. Doesn’t everyone?

Last week, London Writers’ Salon interviewed Nir Eyal. As I’m a bit of a self-help nerd, I decided to listen. I’m so glad I did. He explained my resistance, which is far from unique. There’s a psychological term for it. It is called reactance. ‘…when people feel coerced into a certain behavior, they will react against the coercion, often by demonstrating an increased preference for the behavior that is restrained, and may perform the behavior opposite to that desired (APA Dictionary of Psychology).’

This describes me perfectly. Even if I’m the one who sets the expectation, I will fight tooth and nail against it. Just knowing that I can name this pesky trait really helps. Now when I hear that voice saying, ‘I don’t want to do it that way, I prefer to do it my way,’ I can say, ‘hello reactance, I know what tricks you’re up to!’

Nir also had a great idea for people who get distracted by their children when working from home. His solution is to buy a cheap crown to wear when working. His kids were told that when he was wearing the crown, he was indistractable. They could only interrupt if it involved blood or vomit. I have used a similar tactic when teaching. I’d say to my class that I was in a bubble with my reading group. Only the people inside the bubble were allowed to talk to me. Surprisingly, kids really respected the bubble. If they ignored the rule I drew an invisible bubble with my arms, and they would walk away. It worked like a charm. At least until an enterprising young chap walked up to my invisible bubble with an invisible pin and pricked it.

I really like Nir’s idea of wearing a crown. I will go out and buy a tiara (much more elegant) and wear it to remind that naughty distracting child within me that I have work to do. If nothing else, I will at least look stylish when I raid the fridge.  

The smoking ceremony

A smoking ceremony is an ancient Aboriginal custom performed at rites of passage. Nowadays, it is also carried out by elders when they conduct a Welcome to Country. There is a reciprocity to being welcomed onto country. We ask for permission to enter and the elder in turn welcomes us with a ritual in which the history of the land and people is shared. A Welcome to Country, especially one with a smoking ceremony, is always a rich and moving experience.

Last Friday, I attended a workshop at Rylstone Public School with several teachers, principals and a special Canadian guest, Lyn Sharratt. Out in the playground, Local Elder Peter Swain welcomed us onto the land. He explained the importance of the matriarchal lineage to Aboriginal people, through which there is a deep connection to Mother Earth. A coolamon beside him contained white ochre paint and the women were invited to paint their forearms along their veins. We were asked to think of our ancestors whose lifeblood still flows within us and whose protection and strength we sought through this ritual. I found the symbolism deeply moving and felt a strong connection to my parents and grandparents who have departed long ago.

After this part of the ceremony, a coolamon was used for the smoking ceremony. There were leaves from various endemic plants including the bottle brush, which is used to wake up the brain. This was just what I needed so I kept crushing and smelling the leaves before I added them to the coolamon to burn. We also used eucalyptus leaves and other plants which have different healing and spiritual qualities. Peter then blew under the leaves to ensure there was enough of a fire to create the smoke.

We stood in a circle, and he brought the smoke to each of us, purifying our feet, our hearts, and our heads. It reminded me of Western religious ceremonies where frankincense is used in a similar way. Incense is also used in Eastern traditions for purification. This just highlights the deep spiritual connection that all cultures have to one another.

I am forever grateful for the generosity of Indigenous Australians who continue to welcome us onto their land despite the colonial history of the past 230 years. It is therefore in the spirit of profound respect that I acknowledge that I live, work, and write my stories on Wiradjuri land. I acknowledge elders past, present and those emerging who hold the hopes and dreams of Aboriginal Australia. I also acknowledge that this land was stolen and that it is, was and always will be Aboriginal land.

Rain

It has been raining steadily for days. The sodden earth is unable to absorb any more water and the ground is boggy underfoot. Paddocks have turned into lakes and livestock are moving to higher ground. Canola fields blaze yellow; the wheat has shot up. It looks like a bountiful season. Yet, I wonder if all this abundance could turn into a mirage should farmers be unable to harvest their crops.

Whole towns have been inundated with water this year. Months later, people are still without homes, some living in tents. There’s a housing crisis in these communities and still the rain keeps coming. Mould has stealthily invaded houses and everything feels damp to touch. Roads have become impassable. There is a feeling of despondency.

Yesterday, as I was driving through a cloudburst with my windscreen wipers working overtime, I saw flashes of a rainbow through the momentary clear screen, only to be blurred a second later. But it was enough. I kept my eye on that rainbow, remembering the covenant made between Noah and God, that never again will the whole world be flooded.

Then I see photos of droughts in England and America with lakes that have turned to dustbowls, and I am thankful for the life-giving water we have in plenitude. I remember too the last long drought we had in Australia from 2001 to 2009. Children were born and raised on farms where they had never seen rain in all their lives. Water had to be trucked into towns and plenty of farmers walked off the land. There were suicides too. At the time, it felt as if we would never see rain again.

Due to climate change, our weather is becoming increasingly unpredictable. We can’t count on seasons doing what they have always done. It will take a gargantuan effort for mother earth to keep providing for us. We all have our part to play in how things will turn out for humanity. Not one of us is free of blame for the state of the world.

I accept the challenge to change what I can: be less wasteful, want less and recycle more of our precious resources. I cannot give in to despair. Hope still springs eternal. And as I watch the rain, I think about the story of that ancient covenant and look for the rainbow ahead.

Potholes

Rain has washed away whole sections of country roads. Wherever I look there are potholes, thoroughfares which are no longer passable and ‘rough surface’ signs to alert drivers to the obvious. I recently punctured a tyre as I plunged into a hole much deeper than anticipated and last Thursday, a loose rock hit my windscreen leaving it with a sizable crack.

I have had ample opportunity to ponder the pothole, both real and figurative, as I white-knuckle clench the steering wheel. There have certainly been some rough rides. Last week as I drove along a dark country highway, trying to avoid both kangaroos and potholes, I suddenly found myself going over a flooded roadway. I could hear the safety ads loud and clear, ‘Do not enter floodwaters’ but it was too late. I was already deep in the water and accelerating out. The sun had dropped behind the horizon, and I was left to navigate unfamiliar, rugged roads at night.

While potholes are perilous for travellers, I find solace in the fact that we haven’t been able to bend nature to our will altogether. In the great battle between the elements and bitumen, the elements win every time.

And as I navigate the great and small potholes in my life, I draw some lessons from driving along country roads. If I am lucky to see the pothole ahead, I can always move over to the other side, as long as there is no oncoming traffic. There are often ways to mitigate the great and small disasters in life by course correcting.

Potholes make me slow down. Instead of rushing from A to B, I need to be measured and disciplined to get there safely. This is a lesson I need to learn over and over. When confronted with overwhelm, it is best to slow down and approach tasks with a well-considered plan rather than plough ahead at full speed.

Then there is the detour. At times it is well worth obeying the sign. It may take longer to get wherever I’m going but there’s a reason for the diversion. These roads are often scenic and may lead to unexpected pleasures along the way. A detour whether forced or voluntary can provide insights which otherwise could easily be missed.

I am learning to approach potholes as moments to pause and reflect. They may be an unwanted disruption, but they teach me that I can’t control everything. And ever so slowly, I am learning to accept the things I cannot change.

Winter

Winter

Winter is a magical season of rest and withdrawal. It is a time when I seek comfort and warmth, rich foods, and good company to while away the long evenings. It is also a time when my garden looks barren, and any small flowers are welcome to break the monotony of bare trees and dull lawns.

After weeks of monochrome grey skies, days of rain, sleet and hail, the sun broke through for short periods today. There were patches of blue sky and the occasional glimmer of sunshine. That was all I needed to feel alive and thankful for this day, as much as I love winter. I made a cup of tea and headed outside to sit next to a rosemary bush. Closing my eyes, I listened to a bee make its way towards the tiny blue flowers. A doleful bird repeated the same two-tone motif in the distance. Then, the screech of a parrot joined the fray, a crimson rosella and finally, a blackbird offering a pretty melody as a counterpoint to the Australian native birds.

I rarely sit in the garden in winter. It is too cold, rainy, or windy. Instead, I observe it from my kitchen window. Today, however, the temperature was perfect. Suddenly, I felt a yearning for those easy spring days when the jumpers come off, insects emerge, and birds return to entertain with new songs. Bulbs are due to bloom soon and we are only weeks away from a riot of colour that will grace the garden once more.

I am lucky to live in a place with distinct seasons. Winters in the Central West of New South Wales can be bitterly cold with icy winds that take your breath away. Morning frosts blanket gardens in a soft white sheet and the fog settles into valleys until mid-morning transporting me into a landscapes of fairy tales. At times I drive above the fog and see an ocean of white below me. I descend like a diver into its depth and can’t help but be overcome with the beauty all around me.

Evenings are still cold, but they have lost their bite. I no longer light the fire; a mohair throw is enough to keep me cosy. The days are getting longer too. Soon, I will be arriving home in daylight and taking the dog for distant walks. We have travelled around the sun once more and the season is set to change.

Plumwood

I caress a first edition, limited print run of a book of photographs. The cover, green and black, is the pattern of a crocodile’s skin. Nothing else suggests what the book is about. I am intrigued.

An A5 insert explains the genesis of the book. The author, Rory King, a talented young photographer, has long been fascinated with Val Plumwood, a trailblazing Eco-feminist who lived on Plumwood Mountain in a hand-hewn bush retreat. Her ground-breaking work on anthropocentrism has influenced the way ecology is viewed – humans as part of the web of life and not at the very centre of it.

King’s photographs of Plumwood’s cottage and the rainforest in which it stands, are intimate, matte black and white images that play with light and shade. Some are fleeting moments, fragmentary, a blink of the eye. Others capture the lush growth of the forest floor. King also includes photographs of the East Alligator lagoon situated in Kakadu National Park, where he followed Plumwood’s footsteps to the exact location where she was savagely attacked by a saltwater crocodile. I find these photographs the most evocative in the book, in part because of my own memories of a trip to East Arnhem Land and in part because crocodiles take me back to my childhood, when I listened to Seppi, the crocodile hunter, tell stories of pursuing crocodiles along the Nile.

Not only is the book evocative and visually luminous, it also has a tactile allure. The recycled paper has an ecological appeal, befitting Plumwood’s philosophy. I have an urge not only to view but to touch and feel the images on the page. There are so many details to explore – the stacked books in front of Plumwood’s fireplace, baskets and trinkets, a banjo on a divan. Then there are shimmering individual leaves, reflections in water, a build-up of silt along a riverbed. My fingers trace the branches of a tree, the back of a crocodile floating in the water…

Plumwood is published by Tall Poppy Press and is available at www.tallpoppypress.xyz

What’s left of a lifetime

Across the road stands an empty and neglected house. The curtains in the main bedroom are torn and I have never known otherwise. The gutters at the front lean towards the left and can no longer hold the downpour of rain. A large tin shed stands at the back of the property, its swinging doors wide open and bent, revealing a dark cavern with nothing inside. There is no light, no life, no love left in this house.

On the nature strip are the vestiges of a shared lifetime: a 1970s kitchen table with three fawn vinyl seats, a striped folding beach chair, an occasional chair, a plastic bin, an esky and a milkcrate filled with the detritus of a meagre life. They have been left for the annual council clean up and after this, there will be no sign left of the lives lived there.

When I moved to the village six years ago, I occasionally saw the old couple sitting on the veranda of the house. The husband mowed the lawn, took the bins out and did a little gardening here and there. He still drove his small car to town, although plenty of people were worried about his fast-declining driving skills. His wife, however, mainly spent her days indoors. From my study, I would see her get undressed for bed at 9pm sharp.

The couple were private. They had lived in the village all their lives and had a couple of trusted neighbours who would look in on them. Otherwise, they kept to themselves. It didn’t help that the old man was deaf and cut off from world. I would nod or wave from across the road but that was my only interaction with them.

Most weekends their grown-up children would visit with grandchildren in tow. They began to take over the mowing and one day I noticed that the old car was driven away. The son could see that old man was dangerous on the road. Everyone on the street breathed a sigh of relief. Then, I noticed other changes too – home help arrived a couple of times a week and after a while, nurses.

The first time an ambulance came, I feared the worst. I found out from neighbours that George (I finally learned his name) had a ‘turn’ during the night. I was wondering how his wife would cope but at 9pm I saw her getting ready for bed as usual. A day or so later, George was brought home and life resumed more or less as normal.

The ambulance began to arrive regularly to take George away. I saw less of him in the garden and he rarely sat out the front anymore. Neighbours who had known them for decades began to rally. Some took out and brought in the bins, other did some shopping or dropped off meals. The chemist brought their medicines and nurses visited routinely now. I was beginning to wonder how long this could last.

The last time that the ambulance arrived seemed no different to all the other times. But George never came home. The doctors decided it was time for geriatric care management, a euphemism for moving to a nursing home. The family arrived at the house and things began to move rather quickly. Neighbours informed me that a place had been found for them at a residential aged care facility on the NSW Central Coast, a long way from where they had lived all their lives.

One day I noticed that no lights came on at 9pm and the house stayed dark. Family began to arrive at odd times to clear out the house and garage, removing anything salvageable in their cars. Finally, all that was left was were the few items on the footpath.

I look at these forlorn leftovers and feel downcast. Is this what awaits us all? Cherished memories sitting at the kitchen table wiped away with a wet cloth and put out for council collection? It is almost too much to bear.

I wonder how the old couple is now and whether I will ever hear news about them again. I know they never wanted to leave this pretty little village that was home to them for over 90 years. Perhaps they are stronger than I think. I hope so. And I hope they can sit side by side for as long as they have left with one another as they once did on their front veranda.

Stationery obsessions

I used to think I was the only one who couldn’t resist Milligram, Larry Post or Bespoke Letterpress. It turns out I was wrong.

I have often joked that I could keep a whole village supplied in stationery for six months if not a year. However, visiting my friend J. in Sydney made me realise that my obsession is small fry.

I may have enough ink cartridges to last a few years for my two fountain pens, but he has ink cartridges in a variety of colours for his ten stylographic pens. He opens toolboxes filled with nibs in various thicknesses, mechanical pencils and leads and unopened packets of Rollerball pens to show me.  He wins. It’s a laydown misère in a competition I never expected to enter.

It makes me wonder about my compulsion to buy yet another writing pad; I drafted this post on a newly purchased Japanese jotter. It is gridded, not lined, and has a small diagonal cut on the bottom left corner. I wrote in violet, using the same-coloured pen that my late uncle loved. Each of these items feels gratifying to admire and hold. Yet when placed with all the other stationery supplies vying for attention in drawers or shelves, they become part of the overwhelm of ‘too much stuff.’

‘Can I offer you a pen, some ink, or a nib perhaps?’ J. asks with exasperation in his voice. He is frustrated by his own inability to say ‘no’ to his stationery obsession. I look at him with compassion because I know that temptation to buy one more item only too well. I don’t submit to it with clothes, make-up, or jewellery but I can’t resist stationery or books. It takes every bit of my willpower to walk past a bookshop and I try so hard to avert my eyes when I come across boutique stationers.

What is it about a beautiful pen or good quality paper? I am a highly tactile person and get much pleasure from feeling the way a pen sits in the crook of my hand and how it glides effortlessly across quality paper. I enjoy looking at parchment which is easy on the eye. If I had my way, all notebooks would be buff rather than glaring white.

Then there are the evocative smells. You may prefer the scent of Chanel No 5, but for me there is nothing quite like the aroma of a newly opened ink bottle or the smell of an old notebook. It turns out I am a stationery geek. And friends, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Gratefulness

Portrait of Saint Dominic (Meister Eckhart), 1515. Fine Art Images / Getty Images

“If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.”
― Meister Eckhart

Walk into any newsagent and you are likely to find a ‘Gratefulness Journal’, to record what you are grateful for each day. This might be feeling thankful for the important relationships in your life or the small, often overlooked, details such as noticing a bee land on a flower. It is a centering practice to help us focus on the beauty of life rather than fixate on our tribulations.

While it may look as if this is a fad which has come to us from the positive psychology movement, there is a far longer and much deeper history to consider. Gratefulness has been a religious practice for eons and not just in the Christian faith. It is present in Buddhism, in Judaism and Islam.

While it is easy to be grateful for the wonderful things we come across in life, it requires a much deeper practice to be grateful for our trials. When tragedy strikes or when things simply don’t go our way, it is difficult to see what to be grateful for. How can you be grateful for the death of a loved one or bushfires burning out of control? These are questions which have plagued humanity from time immemorial.

This is where I turn to people like Viktor Frankl and Etty Hillesum who have gone through the most horrific ordeals and could still be thankful for the small joys in their life. Viktor Frankl survived Hitler’s concentration camps, but Etty Hillesum didn’t.

My lived experience has been so much easier than theirs, but I too have had my share of grief and sorrow, as no doubt you have too. I look to Viktor and Etty and to people such as Brother David Steindl-Rast for spiritual guidance. I admire their resilience and depth of practice in difficult times. If Etty could be grateful for the beauty of life whilst in a concentration camp, I can be grateful for the small irritations that assail me daily.

This morning, late for work, I found I had a flat tyre. My first instinct was to curse and be annoyed. I drove to the local mechanic who kindly pumped it up so I could get to the next town where there was a tyre shop. Once there, I couldn’t be helped until much later in the day but I had to get to work. I took my chances and drove the 100km on what I thought was a dodgy tyre. I then left my car at a tyre shop expecting to get a whopping bill that I couldn’t afford. Instead, I was told that the problem was simply a valve, and it had been fixed when it was inflated by the mechanic. No charge.

Looking back, was I feeling stressed this morning? Of course I was! Did I get to work late? Yes! Was I grateful for all the people who helped me? Absolutely! I wanted nothing more but to say a heartfelt thank you to my colleague who was willing to cover for me, to the mechanic in my village who pumped up the tyre, to the salespeople in Cowra who wouldn’t charge me for their inspection. From what I perceived to be a miserable start to my day, I can only look back with gratitude to friends and strangers who have helped me along the way.

I strive to be thankful for each day and for whatever it may bring. I am grateful for my existence, that chance event that has bought me into this world. I know my life is but a brief flicker in the expanse of time and I am ever so grateful to have been given the opportunity to shine for that briefest moment that is mine.

https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/hillesum-etty

https://history.howstuffworks.com/historical-figures/viktor-frankl.htm

https://gratefulness.org/

Tap dancing

I’m always up for something crazy. When my friend Kellie asked me to join her in tap dancing lessons, I decided to play Cinderella. She had bought a pair of tap shoes that were too small for her.

‘If your shoes fit me, I’ll come,’ I said.

They fitted perfectly.

I went along to the first lesson trying to work out my left from right, and when I did, the others were already five steps ahead. I did my best attempting to imitate the shuffle, scuff and ball-change, often on the wrong foot, in the wrong tempo and in the wrong direction. Still, it was fun. At least until I attempted a brush and step on the highly polished wooden floor. I fell backwards, landing on my rear end before the force of acceleration did the rest. My head hit the floor with a thump. While everyone around me ran to my aid, I was on the floor in fits of laughter – my usual reaction to embarrassment and pain. The following week, I bought rubber grips which I fitted behind the alloy taps. Much better!

As each week went past, I remembered more of the steps. While I still need to watch the teacher like a hawk, I am getting better. At least I understand the instructions now, even if I can’t yet follow them with much precision. But I am learning, and the electrical impulses in my brain are venturing into regions they haven’t explored in decades. As a teacher, it is good to be reminded of the cognitive overload students can experience when presented with considerable amounts of new information.

Our dance instructor, Jaz, is a petite powerhouse who teaches ballet, tap, Jazz and for all I know, could just as easily teach breakdancing. She segues from one dance style to another without missing a beat and her mission is to ensure that her classes are accessible to all students. Is it any wonder that she won the prestigious award of Dance Australia’s Regional Hero?

‘I can find a work around for almost anything,’ is her motto. By this she means that she can modify dance steps so that everyone can participate. She is passionate about dance, teaching and inclusion and never turns anyone away.

Will I ever become really good at tap dancing? I doubt it. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Every Tuesday night, I head up to the local hall, spend time with my friend, get some exercise and improve my balance. I learn a few dance routines which I will probably never ‘perform’ and as a bonus, I get to have the best belly laughs when my feet take off from under me.

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