Tuesday, November 26, 2013

How preparing PowerPoint slides triggered a brief existential crisis

Caution: Digging out pictures like this can lead to fear of death. Happily, the people in this photograph are still alive and kicking.

As part of my studies, I need to give a presentation to a group of my peers. There I will summarise what I have learned so far and sketch what I plan to do next. The university requires a PowerPoint presentation and so, like an obedient student, I am preparing one.

But a series of zooming bullet points is the surest way to put me to sleep. I can't bear to present like that, nor to talk about my project in such dry terms. I'm studying cross-age relationships, and operating in a narrative framework, which is a fancy way of saying that I get to collect a heap of stories about friendships between kids and adults, and write about them. In drafting my talk I've begun with a story about a cross-age friendship; it will hardly be enhanced by bullet points.

Therefore, I decided to illustrate the themes of the talk with photographs. For example, when talking about mentors and apprentices, or chosen aunties, I will show people engaging in those very relationships.

So I started going through the family albums. I was skimming the pages, thinking about the themes and looking for particular images, when it suddenly struck me just how many people I love have died. Obviously, my mother, my grandparents, and assorted older relatives have passed away – but so many others, too: Barbara, Roy, Keith, Wal, Lance, Soula. Page after page I turned, seeing the father in his thirties who died of cancer; the dad in his forties who collapsed with a heart attack; the mum in her fifties who got septicaemia; the friend who died in a car crash, leaving her daughter an orphan. Page after page after page after page: Michael, Eddie, David, Ross: death was staring me in the face.

There was I, toddler on an earth ball, and the man who supported me, dead. There was I, little girl at a campsite, and the camper next to me, dead. There was I, buck-toothed at the table, and my fellow diners, dead. There was I, inquisitive teenager, and the professor patiently answering my questions, dead.

Just a moment ago I was a child, held and loved by a great crowd. When did I become the adult with children of my own? And how quickly will I too die, and my children, and my children's children?

In the blink of an eye, that's when.

Completely overwhelmed, I closed the albums and hid them away. It was the middle of the day, but I took to my bed, and curled up in a foetal position under the covers. Death shall have no more dominion over us, I muttered, the words of the Christian declaration mocking my fear.

Yeah, right.


I lay there for almost an hour, totally panicked even as the rational part of my mind reproved me for being silly. It took me that long to remember the point which, as I understand it, is not that I'm going to die (which I am), but that I'm alive right now. And there are things to do that won't get done while I'm hiding paralysed under the covers.

Then I remembered what my five-year-old said a little while back: if everyone in the world lived forever, we wouldn't have enough beds. Reflecting on her words and the images they evoked, I almost smiled. Then I stretched out in my bed, gave thanks for five-year-olds, got up, and went back to work.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Where's your jacket?


My seven-year-old was getting ready for school. It was 16 degrees. She was going on an excursion to Queenscliff, a picturesque seaside town where the wind blows in from Antarctica. ‘It’ll be freezing,’ I said, ‘wear your ski jacket.’ ‘Ok,’ she said.

In the maelstrom of getting kids out of the house, I didn’t look at her closely. We arrived at school. She was wearing a hoodie. The wind cut through her like a knife, and she started jiggling up and down with her arms wrapped around herself. ‘Where’s your ski jacket?’ I asked. She looked at me blankly. Of course, she hadn’t worn it. Nor had she worn her other warm coat; and it quickly transpired that she had taken her raincoat out of her bag some time ago and had never put it back.

‘I’m wearing my bathers,’ she said helpfully, pulling up her top to show me her tankini.


Mostly, I’m a great believer in natural consequences. A kid won’t wear a jacket? Fine, she’ll be cold. But she was heading off on a full day’s excursion, and she was going to catch pneumonia. Worse, the bus was leaving right after the bell; I had no chance to rush home, grab a jacket, and save her.

I berated my daughter, then beat myself up for not double checking and not communicating clearly. Angrily I asked myself what sort of mother doesn’t look at her children properly before they head out the door.

Then, tears of frustration and shame in my eyes, I went and stood with the other parents to wave the kids off on their big adventure.

And there I found the answer to my question: a normal mum. I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t enforced jacket and gloves. One mum was grumbling that her son had snuck out wearing only a light long sleeved top – she only noticed when he lined up, teeth chattering. A couple of kids were in t-shirts; a few were wearing shorts. I was regaled with half a dozen stories of children in inadequate clothing as I watched the ragtag bunch get onto the bus, some dressed for the tropics and others for the snow. I told the story of my daughter and the tankini and everyone laughed, and I felt much better.

I don’t know why I was so angry with myself that day. But I am grateful, so grateful, that my daughter is in a class with a bunch of ragamuffins, the children of parents who are just as scatty as me as they race out the door every morning.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

My wolf, my warning bell

When I was a child, we lived in a house with a big backyard. At the end of the yard stood an old metal slide; the slide ended in a sandpit. To one side was a liquidambar; I could only climb into the first branch. To the other, a small jacaranda; I could climb a few branches higher.

But I was afraid. Sent out to play, I would run from the back door to the slide, scramble up the steps, then sit at the top and watch carefully. I was terrified of the wolf. I could picture its mangy fur, its sinuous muscles, its powerful jaw. It moved like wreathing mist, slinking around the corner of the house. I knew what it looked like, I knew it was coming for me, and I was terrified. So there I sat, waiting, scanning the garden, mouth dry with fear.

I lived in Australia. There are no wolves in Australia. I knew this, but the fear was not rational.

I would tell myself there is no wolf, there is no wolf, even as I watched. Finally, the tension would become unbearable. I’d gather my few shreds of courage, then shoot down the slide, sprint back to the house, slamming the door behind me in what I knew was the wolf’s gaping maw, ready to rip me to pieces. Another near miss.

More than thirty years later, there are still times when I see the wolf run past my peripheral vision. When I see it, I realise that I am feeling threatened, and that I need to stop, take a breath, and reflect on what is going on.

Who would have thought that a middle European mythic symbol could so thoroughly enter the psyche of a little Australian girl, who grew up under wide blue skies and white bright sun? Who would have known that it would continue to intimate danger to that girl thirty years later? And who would have guessed that, in its very threat, the girl now receives it as a gift, and takes it as an invitation to reflection?

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