Panic on the dance floor

It’s time to solicit some crucial advice from the combined wisdom of readers.

The question is – should I go to my 30 year school reunion?

Yes, 30 years! Apparently that’s how long it’s been since I was lying around languidly in an asphalt courtyard at lunchtimes, discussing boys, or INXS, (specifically Michael Hutchence) or teachers, or who was at the nightclub last Saturday night and who’s going this Saturday.

When the time came for the 10 year reunion, I didn’t go – not through any deliberate desire to avoid it, but because I had an exhibition opening the same evening, if you don’t mind. Why yes, those were the days when I was a twenty-something artist.

When the next one (20 years) came around, I didn’t go because, well, I hadn’t been to the 10 year reunion, and by the 20 year mark I’d basically fallen out of contact with every single person I’d been friends with at high school. I’ve written about this before, but it seems that I haven’t tended to retain friends for a lifetime as some people do. Instead it seems that by mutual agreement in some cases, or not in others, I lose contact with people and move on and make new friends so that I end up having a past series of friends who are associated with specific periods of my life. This has worked ok so far, but I do hope I’ll start retaining friends for longer, because I can see that opportunities to make new friends become less as you get older.

Anyway, when the 20-year reunion came along, I was a 30-something, working in the arts. Working in the arts sounds less glamorous than being an artist, but in the end it suits me better to be doing practical tasks that contribute towards the creation of art (theatre) by a company, and for that reason, I feel satisfied. Sure I’m creative, and, oh boy, do I love ideas! – why, I can ramble on about them for hours, as this blog proves! – but it turns out I’m not very good at self promotion, or at staying focussed and motivated when left to drive myself along to develop abstract concepts into physical works of art. I’m easily overwhelmed by broad, undefined goals.  “Continue to develop a body of ideas and work that may end up being exhibited, or may simply be research and development towards your whole oeuvre” was a little too vague to help me decide what to do from day to day as I attempted to produce work in my studio.

But back to the looming 30-year reunion. This is happening in the near future, a time when I’m a 40-something, still working in the arts. (At least there has been some consolidation on the career front then.) I am still not in touch with anyone from school apart from two people that I am now Facebook Friends with. Of those two, I’ve caught up once, in person, with one of those people.

So basically, attending the reunion means attending an event where I don’t know anyone very well, but sort of know everyone just a little bit. In my opinion, for a shy, introverted extrovert (that is a self-diagnosis), this is far worse than attending an event where everyone is a complete stranger. And finally, even worse again, some are people I used to be close friends with, who dropped out of contact about 20 years ago.

Now, if you are not a massive extrovert, it’s actually hard to socialise with people you know just a little bit. An event full of strangers is preferable. If everyone is a stranger, you can wander around on your own, making it obvious that you are alone and don’t know anyone, and hope that some of those strangers will notice your plight, and converse with you out of courtesy, or pity. (As they are strangers, it doesn’t really matter which.) And, if they don’t, you can cut your losses and leave without any real loss of dignity or hurt to your feelings.

At an event where everyone knows who you are, but you are not close chums with anyone, you sidle around the outskirts of chatting groups of people, smiling and hoping someone you’ve met before will take pity on you and make eye contact so that you feel welcome to edge your way into their little group, and pretend to take an immediate and passionate interest in whatever topic they are discussing, even if it’s the renovation they are doing to the ensuite in their holiday house.

And if no-one makes any attempt to give you an opening, then you’ll probably slink away early and – YEAH YOU BET your feelings will be hurt and your dignity will sink to a new low!

(As a self-diagnosed “introverted extrovert,” by the way, I’m not a totally hopeless case socially. My self esteem in general is quite ok – certainly a hundred times healthier than when I was a high school student – and I LIKE socialising with friends – but it’s easily trampled on in a situation like this.)

Ok, it’s pretty obvious that I’m wavering on the side of not going.

But let’s get down to the real issue here. Surely the only question that matters is – will the music be good?

Because I do love dancing, as I think we’ve covered in previous posts.

So much so that, despite fear of not being able to make small-talk, and the possible humiliation of scuttling around the edges of the function room on my own all night, the possibility of dancing could, in itself, be a temptation to go! In the unlikely event that the music was good, if it turned out to be the worst case scenario where I was milling around with no-one to talk to –  I could just join the dance floor!

(That is, of course, only if at least 12 other people were already dancing, as I am too self-conscious to jump up alone, or when there are only two extraverts doing the bumpsy-daisy together out there.) But if there’s enough people dancing for me to blend somewhere into the middle of the crowd, then I can lose that self-consciousness and dance the night away, or at least until Working Class Man* comes on.

But sadly, it seems unlikely that the music would be good. I say this because my generation’s musical taste has forever, and quite erroneously, been labelled as Seventies disco in some kind of timewarp that wasn’t accurate. Although we were indeed alive in days of 1970s disco, we were in nappies, and then pre-school, and then the early years of primary school for most of that decade and were therefore more interested in what was playing on the Looney Tunes cartoon hour on TV than what was playing at Studio 54. I have never even seen Saturday Night Fever. Maybe this explains a lot about me, but to put it bluntly, I have no emotional connection with Seventies disco, which was the music most frequently played at school fundraising events I attended as a parent at my daughter’s school.

At an event where a selection of music is to be played for my personal entertainment, ideally I would request a good dose of music from the 80s, 90s, 2000s, and 2010s (or whatever the current era is known as). Anyone taking notes at home may include music from the Seventies too, by all means, but please make it punk, or folk, or rock, or Motown, just not that over-played Seventies disco.

Despite the stereotyped notion of parents as a particular breed of adults whose musical taste stays rooted in the nostalgic past, I have always enjoyed discovering new music. That includes discovering music from the past that I hadn’t listened to at the time. But official events of any sort usually opt for safe choices with music, on the premise of pleasing the majority, and safe, for my generation, seems to be to play the music that was playing on the dance floors when we were learning our multiplication tables and how to write in cursive.

Of course we all think our own musical taste is superior to everyone else’s, don’t we?**

In the end, I should thank you for your input, dear readers, because as I’ve been writing this post, I’ve come to the only conclusion that seems obvious, and will avoid the need to make small talk AND ensure the music will be good.

I won’t attend my school’s 30-year reunion unless I can DJ.

*

 

*Working Class Man is a song by well known Australian Band Cold Chisel. I’m clearly a bit of a snobby purist when it comes to what music I am willing to dance to, and it’s my personal opinion that this song should never come anywhere near a dance floor, but when I was growing up in the country, the djs were less picky, and it usually did come on at about 3am, signalling to me that it was cattle-call time at the meat market, and a good time to go home.

**(Or is that just me?)

***Update: thanks to those who said I must go and then write about it here. I didn’t see you offering to accompany me and pretend to be someone everyone else had forgotten. If only I’d thought of that earlier. Airline tickets could have been arranged.

Anyway, the reunion happened, I didn’t attend, and I don’t think there was ANY music at all. It was a daytime tour of the school that so many of us were thrilled to leave at the time, and then a luncheon. How alarmingly sedate. And how demanding of small talk!! I think I made the right choice, so I thank you all again.

Who Are You This Time?

If I felt like it, I could neatly sum myself up, in bland, statistical data, the sort of stuff that can be filled out into neat boxes on a beige-colored form. I could sum you up, too, with information like your date of birth, Tax File number, and middle name, if you have one. Such information is used by organisations like the Bureau of Statistics, the Tax Department, the Government and the National Criminal Check Authority to create a file that is used to identify us, but they are not the things that make us who we are.

The jobs of staff who do the data entry, (I’m pretending for a moment that it’s not done by robots) or file those forms, could be so much more interesting if the forms included questions that really asked us to reveal something about ourselves. What songs make you cry? Do you have any friends that you’ve known since primary school? What was the last book you read that you simply had to tell someone else about? Sadly, these are not things that the ATO or Centrelink are interested in keeping on file.

What constitutes a unique identity? Ask a forensic scientist, and they would say it’s the DNA that they analyse from samples of human blood, hair, saliva, semen, and skin. Ask the police, they’d say it’s our fingerprints. Ask a bank – they will accept our Drivers Licence and a utilities bill showing our current address.

But these are not the things that make us who we are. What are the defining traits that make us who we are, a completely unique human being, living in a world currently populated by nearly 7.5 billion humans at time of writing?

Each of us will probably have a different answer to that question – our opinion about that is part of what makes us who we are.

Each of us places value on certain aspects of ourselves, the things that we use to define ourselves. Some people are very definite about how they see themselves, while others – and I count myself in this lot – are not as clear about our defining traits.

Two compliments I’ve received that I remember most fondly are: that I’m good at bringing people together (this, or something to this effect, was said in the context of keeping conversation going between two or three parties who did not know one another at a social event), and that I use people’s names a lot and thus make them feel at ease. What it says about me that I value those more than any other compliments I’ve received, I’m not sure. (Actually, to be honest, there is a third, which was that I am a fantastic dancer! I was pretty chuffed with that, since this was only about 5 years ago and was passed on by my daughter, from a mum who’d been at a social event with me on the weekend!)

Perhaps those compliments pleased me most because they surprised me, and revealed something about myself that I did naturally, without any conscious effort. In contrast, I received a compliment just this past weekend, from a woman who laughed quite genuinely when I casually remarked that I wasn’t cool enough to drink in a certain bar, and told me that I was totally wrong. Her assessment had to be based solely on my appearance since we’d only met about 15 minutes earlier. That was nice, but I processed her compliment differently, because I am aware that looking cool is something I consciously aim for (within reason – I’m old enough to know what would just look silly and what is “not me”). So I received that compliment by thinking it was nice she thought that, not as confirmation that what she said was correct on any empirical level. (After all, as we know, what is cool is a relative judgement.)

How would I define myself? I struggle with these kinds of questions, for example when they are asked in job interviews, although obviously I try to plan answers in advance. What are my strengths, what are my weaknesses? And more interestingly, though never asked in job interviews, what has led me to being the person I am today?

Some may say (as I believe Dumbledore did in one of the Harry Potter books) that we are an accumulation of each choice we make as we go through life. I think this is close to my thoughts on how our identity is formed.

What makes us unique is a complex blend of our lived experience with our perspective on that experience, and the meaning we make from it. It’s a concoction that will never be the same for any two people. For example, on the surface it might appear as if my siblings and I had very similar childhoods, but we each experienced the very same events with an autonomous consciousness, making our own meaning from what went on around us.

When our mother had her first nervous breakdown, and was hospitalised for a few weeks, for example, I was about six, and my siblings were approximately 4, 3, and newly born. My brother F, the newborn, couldn’t have had any conscious thoughts about what was happening at the time, but will have been affected by the event in a very different way than I was because we were at different stages of our lives. Conversely, when each of us were at a particular age, there were differences in the environment and people around us. When I was a teenager, for example, I’d incite the wrath of both parents, resulting in hitting, shouting and heated tension that permeated throughout the whole house, if I dared to try and watch an afternoon  TV show as innocuous as Young Talent Time, but by the time the sixth child was a teen, my parents would say goodnight to him as he sat up watching TV into the night, and leave him to watch whatever he wanted. All of those moments and our individual experiences of them, contribute to the large and complex picture of who each of us are today.

Outside of beige paperwork, in the real world it’s those other aspects of people that we find most interesting. It’s those things that draw us to them, often without even knowing it. I have friends I’ve known for decades without knowing their middle name. There are very few for whom I would know their birthday, until Facebook reminds me. In most cases, I don’t even know my friend’s addresses although I might know how to get to their house – I’ve just never needed to register what number it is in the street.

The sorts of things I’ll probably know about my friends is whether they are someone who is decisive or someone who mulls things over, or someone dealing with so many difficult things going on in their life that I have to be patient because their decision-making is dependent on a whole lot of other unpredictable people. I’ll know if they are someone who is naturally compassionate to others, or someone who is lacking in real empathy. I’ll know if they are funny, fun-loving, easy going, or perhaps intense, and only fun in small doses. I’ll know if they are the overly confident type that likes to sit in the front row at a theatre show advertising “audience interaction” or whether, on seeing that notice, they, like me, skuttle quickly up to the middle of the back row and cower in their seat, hoping to blend into the crowd.

Those are things that I register, and file away, about people I know.

Because I could not stop for death

There has been a gap in transmission.

It’s because everything I tried to write in the past fortnight was awful. The reason is that after the death of a woman I knew, I tried to write something reflective, but failed miserably. As it turns out, all I’ve been capable of writing about is my own anxieties.

*

I’ve been to two funerals in the last 7 days. In both cases, death was not unexpected, but I suppose death always arrives suddenly in the end, even when it is expected. Even when you think you are prepared for a loved one to die, the irrevocability of death after that last breath falters and fades away must take one by surprise, or so I imagine.

It’s always a sombre occasion when someone’s life ends, but if we actually measured and compared levels of sadness, then one of the deaths last week was immensely sadder than the other. My elderly aunt passed away, and the mother of my daughter’s friend died of cancer. The death of my aunt was not a shock. She was put into a high dependency unit about 4 years ago, after a very sudden and rapid decline into dementia that seemed to occur almost overnight. Her health had been steadily worsening since then. I heard that in the last few weeks of her life she was either asleep or totally zonked on morphine, and I think for her daughters, my cousins, there was relief mixed with their sadness. I don’t mean relief from a burden, but relief for their mother, because her suffering is over.

The other funeral was also for a mother, but in this case, her daughter is a teenage girl who has just started Year 10 at high school. That death created a lot of sadness around the local community and was constantly on my mind for the week between hearing about it and attending her funeral.

Now I know it seems as if we always speak well of the dead – but it’s true that this woman was a vibrant, joyous person with a warm, friendly manner, always ready for fun. We were not close friends, but when I did chat with her I felt as though we had a good rapport. I guess a lot of people felt like that around her, as she had a knack of making you feel as though whatever you said would be interesting and amusing.

That leads me to why I couldn’t write last week. It’s because writing revealed that my reasons for being sad about this woman’s death were not all selfless. I felt awfully sad about her death, and yet, when I tried to write about her death, it seemed as if my thoughts continually took a path that ended up at a very self-absorbed destination that was largely about myself.

I got sick of hearing myself feel sorry for myself when someone else had just died. I didn’t like where my writing led me, which was, repeatedly, to more thoughts about me, me, me. After a few days of this, it felt necessary to clear away those self-absorbed thoughts, and complete silence on the writing front seemed a necessary measure.

After all, to write, one needs to think. What a vicious circle it is.

Trees with moon and star from window

Pic: © Blathering About Nothing

Because it’s true. When I thought about this woman’s death, some of my sadness was for myself. In the course of the week I learned that mutual friends knew a lot more than I had, about her illness and how serious it was, and that confirmed what I already suspected: that I ended up on the outer peripheries of the adult friendships that were made through the time that my daughter was at primary school. That one friendship I will never have the chance to develop highlighted that I missed a lot of opportunities to make new friends while my daughter was at primary school, and those opportunities are gone now.

7 years – it’s a long time. When you are a kid, it’s enough time to make life-long friends. Lots of kids do that in primary school, and again in high school. But I don’t maintain regular contact with any friends from primary school or high school, unless you count being friends on Facebook. (I don’t).

This is how I am in friendships it seems: when the other person doesn’t make an effort, I do take it personally. So friendships from school days, including those I thought were lifelong friendships, dropped off along the way, usually when I realised I was the one keeping it going and decided to leave it to the other person to call me next time – and they just simply never did.

I’m always able to read a lack of follow-up as outright rejection.

Being thrown into some intense experience together – ie, school, university, work – is the ideal circumstance for making new friends. As a parent, you get another go at this when your child starts school, because – assuming you don’t move houses or change schools – you are about to have 7 years of regular contact with the same group of other adults. That’s 7 years of attending information nights, waiting outside classrooms, facilitating play-dates and attending kids birthday parties together. It’s only natural to hope and expect to make some new friends along the way – isn’t it?

I certainly hoped to make some new friends when my daughter started school, but as it happened, for a large part of my daughter’s primary school years, my work life, and new friendships formed in a new job, took up a lot of my attention. As a result, it seems as though I made it through 7 years of being a primary-school parent, and emerged with only one person in the local community that I contact frequently enough to consider a friend, in the real-life, non-Facebook sense of the word.

And now I feel a sense of sadness about that. After the death of this woman, I feel very aware of lost opportunities, because there were other parents who I really liked but never developed a friendship with. Invariably, I feel that it must be due to some lack on my part – either a lack of effort, or a lack of any quality that would interest someone else enough to make an effort.

Perhaps it was circumstance – I’d meet parents I liked and then our kids were never again in the same class, or schedules changed and we never crossed paths doing drop-offs and pick ups, or our kids stopped hanging around together, or their kids were boys, and my daughter stopped playing with those particular creatures from about grade 2 onwards so opportunities to get together with their parents dried up. As a parent, you are at the mercy of all these variables, over which you have no control.

But I’m left feel slightly depressed, fearing that maybe I can’t blame circumstances. I worry that it indicates there is something deeply unlikeable about me. All those conversations outside school rooms, at school concerts, at parent information nights, while walking kids to the car after school, at birthday parties, at various houses when picking my daughter up – but no roots put down; nothing to show for it all after 7 years.

*

I thought all of this before and after the funeral of the younger woman. At the funeral itself I just felt heart-broken for the loss of this woman, for her family and most of all for the weeping 15 year old girl following the coffin out of the service.

5 days later, I attended the funeral of my aunt. Her funeral was in the middle of the week and was very small, with probably only about 50 people in attendance, mostly in-laws, nephews and nieces and their children. Her husband, and most of her siblings have passed away; friends are too frail to travel. One of her three children passed away about 15 years earlier. (when he was about 30, in a tragic house fire.)

My aunt’s funeral seemed to highlight what I’d been thinking that week about losing friends and failing to make new ones. It’s the first time I realised that my own family and close friends could die before me, and I could be left with very few people to care about whether I’m around in my eighties or not. As one of my own younger brothers has already tragically died in his 30s, I know too well that you can’t just expect everyone else will be around when I die. I realise that actually, it’s likely that at least some (more) of my siblings will die before I expect them to, and leave me behind to grieve for them.

Thinking about this, and comparing these two funerals, I realise that the one compensation for those left behind when someone dies young is that, although their early death causes so much more pain and grief, at least that outpouring of grief from a large network of family, friends and workmates is a huge comfort to witness.

Wouldn’t we all like to think that our own funeral service would be packed to the rafters, as this woman’s was, and that the wake would take the entire afternoon because people felt so emotionally bonded to one another by their sadness that they didn’t want to leave, but preferred to mill around the very crowded band room, having another drink and listening to family and friends perform live music and reminisce about the departed, in a party-like atmosphere. We were at her wake for about 4 hours, leaving at 5pm, and it was still going strong.

As opposed to the quiet funeral and wake for my aunt, where, by the time I left after about an hour, at 1pm, there were about 25 people left.

*

So I’ve thought a lot, in a pathetic manner, about myself, but I have also thought a lot about a mother who 13 months ago received a diagnosis of terminal cancer. I’ve thought about her partner and child. I tried to imagine being in her place, and how I would approach the remaining time I had left; what I’d say to my daughter if I knew I’d be leaving her forever in about a year. I tried to work out who I felt more sadness for – the young daughter facing the prospect of losing her mum, or the mother who knew she would leave her daughter motherless way too soon.

I thought that perhaps the leave-taking is saddest for the adult, because the adult has a better chance of understanding that death is real and final. I can’t imagine how a 15 year old could comprehend how it will be when her mother dies.

But then, of course, I think of afterwards, and wonder how a 15 year old copes with the death of her mum after it has occurred. The only heartbreaking death I’ve had to deal with so far was unexpected and therefore shocking, but even with 12 months to prepare I’m not sure that anything could prepare you for that sudden and complete absence when someone is gone. That immense gap, when you see everyone else weeping, and them not there to be part of that sadness. How utterly final it is. How, despite all logic, it repeatedly comes as a shock that you can’t even tell the person that you miss them.

And I think it must be very hard to prepare for the fact that this person you love so much is no longer a presence in the world. Even if their death was expected.

*

 

‘I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual’ – Virginia Woolf’s diary, 17 Feb 1922

I say, you say, weren’t you listening?

One summer, when I was 18, and feeling awfully adult, I took a train, and then a bus, to a small beach town where a friend of mine was staying with her family, expecting that, as we’d arranged, she would meet me when I got off the bus in town.

Porpoise Spit. An exquisite little beach town somewhere in Australia.

Porpoise Spit. An exquisite little beach town somewhere in Australia.

Pic: Some Space To Breathe

To my surprise, she was not there. I didn’t panic, at first. I waited around the bus stop, thinking that she must be running late, then waited a bit longer, thinking perhaps she had the time wrong.

After maybe an hour or more, I started to feel worried, so I went to a phone box. (For those playing at home, a phone box was a large receptacle that one could step into, and, by means of dropping coins into a large clunky telephone, and dialling or pressing buttons, make phone calls on a landline. They were also sometimes used by superheroes as handy, if not exactly private, places to change into their superhero costume).

I had no idea if my friend was staying in a house, caravan, or tent, and all the information I had was, on a scrap of paper, a phone number that my friend had given me. It was a strange looking phone number, as, at that time, local numbers had 6 digits in country areas or 7 in the city, and an area code that started with a “0” was only required if you were calling from outside a specific zone. This number had 10 digits, and started with a 0.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I dialled, but it certainly wasn’t to be greeted with an automated voice recording saying that the number I had called was “out of range,” and to try again later. I had never heard that terminology before, and did not know what it meant. My slight worry suddenly became panic, as it dawned on me that the phone number I was carrying was incorrect, or at least unreliable, and I had no other details about where my friend was staying.

That was the beginning of a very long and tiring day. I spent that entire afternoon, from about midday until 6pm, utilising every detective skill I could muster to try and locate my friend’s family. I visited the post office, and checked through phone books to look for listings under their last name. I scrutinised maps of the town to work out where those addresses were, drew myself a copy of the streets as best I could, marked off where those residences were, and then traipsed across town to locate them, only to be disappointed each time. I visited real estate agents to ask for holiday listings, to no avail.

During these investigations, I interacted with adults who were kind enough to attempt to help me. A sympathetic real estate agent took pity on my predicament and said if I hadn’t located my friend’s family by nightfall I could stay with her.  I explained to someone at the post office that the number I was dialling was “out of range”, hoping she might know what that meant, and she asked to see the number. When I gave it to her, she was as perplexed as me, and said “I think that’s the area code for Queensland.”

04 IS the area code to call Queensland from another state in Australia, but as it happens, 04 is also the standard two numbers at the beginning of the standard 10 digits that make up mobile phone numbers in Australia. But this story took place back in 1988, and mobile phones were still advanced technology, probably only utilised by people who worked in the industry, such as my friend’s father, who was a salesman of telecommunications products, for Telecom, the National (and only) phone line and service provider. Clearly when it came to the layperson, at least 2 people – myself and the helpful person at the post office – had never come across the concept of a mobile phone before, aside from Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone.

Hello, 99...Hello? Damn this shoe phone - it's out of range!

Hello, 99…Hello? Damn shoe phone – it’s out of range!

Pic: The Examiner

I didn’t know what being “out of range” meant back then, and all I could do was cling to the hope that at some stage during the day the phone would be “within range”. Throughout the entire day, as I criss-crossed town in my attempt to locate my friend’s holiday residence, I stopped at every phone box I came to and tried the number, only to have my heart sink each time when I heard the same Out Of Range message start up again.

Finally, at around 6pm, I was back in the centre of town again and figuring that I would have to go back and see my new friend the real estate agent before she closed up. I thought I would try phoning one last time. To my astonishment, this time my friend’s mother answered the phone.

I can still remember the uncharacteristic haste with which I bypassed the usual polite niceties and just blurted out who I was and where I was. I guessed there was a possibility that the phone could go “out of range” at any moment, and I needed the crucial details to be conveyed before that happened. My friend’s mother, in turn, was outraged that I’d been left to wander around town all afternoon with no-one knowing I was there, and sent family members on a rescue mission immediately. Soon after I was sitting in comfort, in their caravan at the caravan park.

At the closing of this saga, let it be noted that I was not even annoyed at my friend (who was always a sweet but slightly vague girl, who had simply got the day of our arrangement wrong) because I was so utterly relieved to finally be settled for the evening. Mostly, I think I was intrigued to meet the creature that had caused me such angst.

A mobile phone in 1988

A mobile phone in 1988

Pic: Talk Talk

It looked something like the one I’ve located in the picture above:  the battery component was about the size of a small suitcase, or a large hard-drive, with a phone attachment on top. It charged in the car, but was used in the caravan – on the odd occasion when it was in range. In 1988, mobile networks were not what they are today.

*

Regular readers may be aware that often, though not always, the titles of my posts are titles, or lyrics, from songs. Sometimes I use titles, or lyrics, from Australian songs, and I realise these may not be more widely known, which may hinder some readers from gleaning that there is any ongoing “game” to the titles of my posts. So I just thought I’d clue you in that the title of this post is a lyric from a 1980’s big-hair band called Pseudo Echo. This song sounds a lot like something by Blancmange, if you happen to remember them!

 

No alarms and no surprises

A few years ago I was having a conversation with a friend at work about the gulf that exists between how we see ourselves and how others see us.

This woman, (I’ll call her Katrina although that is not her real name) is about 7 years younger than me, and at that time was probably in her early thirties. I would have described Katrina then, and now, as an attractive, petite, single woman with a vibrant personality and sharp wits, who is competent and capable at event management and directing casual staff.  Katrina doesn’t see herself that way, however. Unlike me, she is not a shy person, however she was, and is still, full of self-doubt, and anxieties, particularly, I think, because she is single, a fact that every second television show, movie and advertisement tells us that being single is a lesser state of being. At that time, too, she was also full of doubts and anxieties about her lack of any formal training or certifications in the field she was working in and her prospects with moving on in her career.

After berating her for not acknowledging her strengths in her professional role, I laughingly commented that it just shows how we look at other people and think that they are full of confidence in themselves. I said, We think they know who they are, what they are doing, where they are going, and what they plan to do with their lives. To my surprise, given that we were friends and I was frequently honest about my own flaws and shortcomings, Katrina responded by saying that I looked like I knew who I was, what I was doing, where I was going, and what I was trying to do with my life!

I was both amused and surprised when my friend said this, and wondered if it was just because I was a few years older than her that she saw me this way. Surely I’d had enough conversations with her where I expressed my own lack of confidence in certain aspects of my job and myself in general? Surely she was aware of my many unsuccessful attempts to apply for other jobs, with no particular career path in mind! Yet still her comment seemed to indicate that she thought I was on top of everything and heading contentedly along a pre-planned path towards achieving all my personal goals.

Nowadays I’m working somewhere new, and sometimes I recall her comment and wonder if I’m managing to fool my new colleagues. Do they think I know who I am, what I’m doing, where I’m going and where this new job fits into my long-term career plans?

The reality is this.

Do I know who I am?

Actually, to this question I’d answer a tentative yes. I feel as if I do know myself, and who I am – or at least, I’m far better aquainted with myself than I was 10 years ago. Dear younger readers, it IS true what you hear about being in your 40s – if there is no other consolation, at least I’m comfortable with who I am, and not concerned any longer with trying to be something that I’m not.

10 years ago, when I was in my early thirties with a young baby, I would shop for clothes, needing my clothes to make some kind of statement about myself. I guess I was trying to tell myself, and the rest of the world, that being in my thirties, and a parent, and having moved to the suburbs in order to take out a mortgage, all amounted to a very small transition from being a childless twenty-something, not the huge leap into a foreign country and middle-aged lifestyle choice that it sometimes felt like. I chose clothes on the basis of wanting to still seem young and “cool”, and as a result, I feel sure that at least in some cases, the statement my clothes were making was “I’m still grasping onto my twenties for dear life.”

Feeling comfortable with who you are does not mean being totally satisfied with who you are, of course. In terms of trying to project an image to the rest of the world, when I shop for clothes now my goal is to find clothes I like, that are flattering. As simple as that. Like most women, I don’t always like the body I see in the change-room mirror. But these days, my perception of myself is in tune with the clothes I select to try on, so I don’t experience too much angst in the change rooms, because I’m not trying to match an abstract ideal.

Feeling comfortable with yourself also does not exclude you from wanting to improve. In a professional sense, there are areas where I feel competent and capable, and areas where I feel as if I am bluffing my way through (hopefully). In my personal life, I’m aware of many flaws – impatience, sarcasm, unkindness – that I need to continue to work on. I suppose I hope that some of my good qualities – sense of humor, loyalty, recognition of others’ hard work, sense of fairness – balance out the flaws. I think I know myself, but I’d also like to think that self can continue to improve.

Do I know what I’m doing?

On a day-to-day level, in this new job, I find myself doing all sorts of things I’ve never had any training or experience in previously. I’m frequently doing things that are outside of my PD and therefore also outside of my skill set and comfort zone. Consequently, a lot of the time I have the nagging sense that someone else would do the same work with far more confidence and competence than I’m doing. If it looks to my colleagues or clients as though I know exactly what I’m doing, then there is at least one thing I’m doing right, and that is bluffing my way through.

Do I know where I’m going and what I want to do with my life?

When we are feeling vulnerable to self-doubt, tired of our jobs, upset by a recent argument, anxious about monetary worries, or in any other way shaken from a sense that all is well with our world, it’s possible to look at a stranger walking down the street, and imagine that this person is experiencing just one of a continual series of contented, self-assured, confident moments in their life. It’s possible to convince ourselves that each moment of this total stranger’s neatly unfolding life follows the next in the order that they more or less planned and expected it to and that their life is simple and easy, with no surprises, upsets or huge disappointments. Even though we know that no-one’s life unfolds that way.

Is that really how my friend Katrina thought my life was panning out? Neatly and according to plan?

It’s ironic if she did. It would be impossible for my life to match any plans I had made for it when I left high school, or at any other time, since one of the deep flaws in my personality is an inability to formulate any long-term plan for work, life or anything else.

When I left high school I had no career plan at all, and therefore began an arts degree, which I hoped would fill 3 years and give me time to come up with something. I soon dropped out because with no end goal, I found it very hard to be motivated to keep going. I didn’t have the ability to envision what I might be doing in 5 years time as many kids my age could do. Next, I enrolled in a Fine Art course, with the goal of becoming an artist. I graduated with a degree in Visual Art, which was a lot of fun, but a freelance career in a field where paid job opportunities barely existed was the wrong choice for me, as someone who really needed some structure to follow. I could eagerly envision being an artist and painting all day in my studio, but there were no entry-level jobs being advertised.

Perhaps luckily for me, there is some sense of a purpose, I guess, afforded by having a child, so in that sense I’ve had some underlying structure to my life since my daughter was born 14 years ago. It is foreseeable that at least until she is 18 and finished school, I will probably not make any sudden changes in my life that would involve quitting my job, moving across the country or living overseas. But in terms of the other things going on – my career, for example – I have no plans.

I wouldn’t even use the word career to describe my working life, because surely career means following a somewhat logical path through related fields of work. I feel as though I fell into the work I’m doing by chance. After spending all of my twenties working part-time in lowly customer service roles while I concentrated on trying to be an artist, and the first part of my thirties working part-time in lowly customer service roles while I tried to be a “stay-at-home (part time) mum,” I sometimes feel surprised that I’ve even made it into a lowly administrative role in an arts organisation. If a career means taking a job with some real responsibility and then moving from that job into related roles, I’m actually only about 7 years into my “career” at the ripe old age of 40-something. I’m not particularly ambitious, but I like to get some fulfilment out of my work, which is why I work in the arts.

So Katrina was wrong. I know who I am, but not what I’m doing, where I’m going, or what I plan to do with my life.

Maybe I’ll work those next parts out in my fifties.

It’s like that, and that’s the way it is.

I have tried, I promise. I’ve tried to write a new post without mentioning the recent death of my younger brother. But it still doesn’t feel right, yet.

But I miss writing, so sometimes I sit down at the computer with a vague notion that I’m going to write something unrelated to him. I imagine that I might write something interesting, thoughtful – even perhaps entertaining or witty – but I usually find myself staring at the computer for a few minutes and then quickly cutting the whole farce short by giving up and checking out other people’s blogs instead. I’m not ready.

Of course, every day I get through work, socialising, and the interactions I have to have with people all day long, without mentioning him, but blogging is a little bit like writing an – admittedly edited – diary, so I feel as though, if I can’t talk about John here, then I have nothing to say. In this particular forum, I don’t want to give anyone the mistaken impression that everything is fine and I’ve moved on. Despite it being an unpopular topic that is highly unlikely to get my blog featured on Freshly Pressed anytime soon, I’d rather indicate where I’m at, which is apparently that I’m not able to write an upbeat post designed to make the reader laugh and hit the “Like” button.

Hopefully I’ll get back there one day. And add a “Like” button.

So I thought maybe this was a good compromise; a way to slowly get back into writing about other things – by tying in a book I’m reading at the moment, however unrelated. As it happens, I’m reading A Visit To the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. I’m really enjoying it. It is about a group of people whose lives are intertwined, and it’s set in various localities in the U.S. Each chapter is not only told from the perspective of a different character, but also jumps around in history, from when they are teenagers in the seventies through to (so far) when they are in their 40’s in the early 2000’s. So at the start of each chapter it takes a few paragraphs usually to work out who is the narrator, and a few more to work out approximately where this part of the story fits into the larger picture. I felt a personal resonance in this line from a character called Scotty, who appears to be a bit of a loner:

“There’s a fine line between thinking about somebody and thinking about not thinking about somebody, but I have the patience and the self-control to walk that line for hours – days, if I have to.”

I knew what Scotty meant about that fine line. What he hadn’t (yet) mentioned was that it takes a lot of energy walking that fine line. It looks easy, in fact it looks like you are not doing anything, but deep down inside while you talk to clients or friends or your plumber, you are thinking hard about not thinking about someone. I’m not as disciplined as Scotty – for me the energy used up by a stretch of not thinking about John usually gets balanced at some point, even inadverdently –  by the arrival of some really strong memory of him that makes me cry again. I am a Libran, after all, and we are supposed to need balance, so maybe that’s just how it works for me.

Scotty then goes on to say, of an old friend, whose picture he has just spotted in the paper, ” After one week of not thinking about Bennie – thinking so much about not thinking about Bennie that there was barely room left in my brain for thoughts of any other kind – I decided to write him a letter.”

Ah yes, see? The energy, or the space, taken up by not thinking about someone, needs release at some point.  So you write a letter. Or, as in my case, when there is nowhere that I can send any letter that John is ever going to receive, you look at a photo, or you relive a memory, and you cry. It still happens. It’s only natural, and that’s the way it is.

Farewell to a friend forever.

I had a gorgeous friend. She died last week.

I have to repeat that to myself occasionally, like a lesson I’m having trouble learning, because I can’t comprehend the finality of it. She died.

She’d been rushed to hospital – out of the blue as far as I knew – in a critical condition, and about 10 days later had undergone surgery. I was worried, and the possibility that she might die had crossed my mind, but I did not allow myself to entertain that thought. Naively, I been talking to another friend about visiting her in hospital, the day before she died.

I never understood before  – how can you, until it happens?  – how it feels to be hit with this news. I discovered that we have strange defence mechanisms, that kick in to deal with intensely painful emotions and allow our brains to start processing what is so impossible to comprehend.

When I was told that my friend had died, it felt as if my brain stopped working properly. For a second,  the words did not make sense. Surely it was some horrible mistake. Put together, her name and the words “passed away this morning” were nonsensical  and meaningless. Surely they referred to some small, sickly person, not my energetic, feisty friend. After a beat, I registered their meaning, but was unable to accept that it was real. Then my brain played another trick on me – time slowed down to a grinding halt, and the rest of that day felt like some long, awful dream I hoped I would wake up from. Thus, by evening, I had a surreal sense that weeks had passed since I had received the news. I couldn’t believe it was still the same day on which, when it had dawned, my friend had been alive.

She is sadly missed by many people. Anyone in Melbourne who works in performing arts probably worked with her at some point in her long history in community arts, circus, and festivals.  Just a few of the things people said about her at her memorial service yesterday included:

hardworking, fun-loving, generous, playful, cheeky – a big kid

enquiring, scientific/technical mind

had a sense of being part of a larger community – was always giving her time and/or her equipment for use

a tiny superhero

if you had worked with her at some time, you were probably also her friend

gave the best hugs

All of the above was true, and there were probably many other things said, but  something I think was missed (I was not brave enough to stand up in front of so many people and say it) was this: she was non-judgemental. I observed with admiration, that she didn’t pigeonhole people into “types”, or make judgements about people based on their appearance, what they did, or what they had done. Never fear, she was no saint: she had her own system of categorising people after getting to know them: they were either intelligent or stupid. She was too quick witted to have any patience for “stupid people”.

I feel lucky to have worked with her, and considering how many people she knew and the many friends she had for decades, I feel grateful to have been considered by her as a friend for even a short time.

It’s been on my mind since her death, that we had often talked about death and grieving, because in the 4 years I knew her she’d had to deal with the death of (from memory) a work colleague, 2 good friends, a relative, and her beloved dog Dodge. In contrast, I had not yet experienced the deaths of anyone I was close enough to really grieve for. She knew how it felt. I didn’t.

I wonder now if there is some reason why someone comes into your life, and, if so, whether one of the lessons she was supposed to impart to me was preparation for grieving.

On the other hand, I can’t see how those chats about grieving are helping me now.

It was a surprise to me that we became friends, because in many ways we couldn’t have been more different. But we had a mutual delight in witty, absurd and just plain silly written communication, that led to a regular email correspondence, dreaming up and elaborating on fanciful, ridiculous “projects”, and, more recently, encouraging one other to write a blog. She was one of the very few people who showed her support when I started writing a blog, reading and commenting frequently. I will miss those open, cheerful responses.

She started her own blog, and after her beloved dog died a few months ago, she wrote a post musing about life and death that seems very poignant now. And her last comment on my blog, only 3 weeks ago – the last she will ever make –  was on my post about musician Roland S Howard, who died at the age of 50. She was only 47.

So it’s hard trying to understand that she is not out there any longer, that she won’t read this post, or comment, or ever send me another silly email, or catch up for coffee and greet me with one of her (famous) warm hugs. Indeed, I know even as I write that sentence, that I have not yet grasped the reality of what I’ve just said.

In her last ever email to me, (after a suggested catch up for coffee didn’t eventuate) she said, “I missed our coffee!”

I miss it too, Dori.

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