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Drop the balls, Stay on the tightrope

https://www.flickr.com/photos/nicolopaternoster/3933549608

Photo by Flickr user Nicolò Paternoster

Like most of us, my life is a constant juggling act. I’m a writer, mother, teacher, worker bee, friend, sister, daughter, confidante, mentor, community member, and probably a whole host of other titles that don’t immediately spring to mind. I have a lot of balls in the air, and I keep them there through sheer force of will — and a willingness to forego sleep when necessary.

That’s normal. That’s life. We all do it.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last six weeks — particularly over the last week — it’s that sometimes you need to let all the balls fall and focus on staying on the tightrope.

We’re all walking one of those, too. Sometimes it feels like rolling hills. Sometimes it feels like you’re on the razor edge, barely keeping your balance.

That’s where I’ve found myself over the last six weeks.

Six weeks ago, my dog died. Her name was Ninja, and she was a good girl. I loved her dearly. And I had to make the difficult and heart-breaking decision to end her life. It wasn’t an easy decision. In the end, it wasn’t a decision at all. It was just something that had to be done. But I’m the one who did it. That decision, and the aftermath of helping my boys through their grief, felt soul-destroying. Grief vied with guilt. Sadness vied with shame. I carefully put down a couple of balls, put a tearful smile on my face, and took another step forward on the tightrope of life.

Five weeks ago, all three of us succumbed to a terrible bout of Influenza B. I’d like to think that it was just “one of those things”, but it’s hard not to feel that, without the added shadow of grief hanging over all of us, we would have avoided it. Or, at the very least, shaken it off more easily. As it was, Master Eight had a mid-level fever for eight days straight. Master Four had one for five days. And I was shaking and shivering for four.

By the time we finally recovered from the worst of it, we were all wrung out and exhausted. Fortunately, some of the wonderful members of my community provided cooked meals for us each night for a week. Otherwise, I don’t think I would have had the strength to prepare food.

Three and a half weeks ago, both boys had recovered and returned to their normal lives — albeit with a bit less spring in their step than usual. But I hadn’t recovered. My fever had gone, but I was still exhausted and pale. I developed tremors in my hands, and a wracking cough. My throat was swollen and sore, my arms and legs ached. I was pretty sure I was dying. Okay, not really. But that’s how I felt in my more melodramatic moments. My doctor diagnosed tonsilitis, and prescribed antibiotics. They made me so sick I could barely get out of bed. But I just dropped a few more balls, plastered an unconvincing smile on my face, and took another shaky step forward on that damn tightrope.

Three weeks ago, after a series of tests, I was diagnosed with glandular fever, aka mono. There is no treatment for glandular fever, save bedrest and stress avoidance. I dropped quite a few more balls, taking the doctor’s advice to do the bare minimum required in every aspect of my life. I started getting B12 shots weekly to boost my energy — or, at the very least, take the edge off the extreme mental and physical exhaustion I was feeling — and bunkered down to wait it out.

One and a bit weeks ago, things got worse.

It was Saturday morning. Master Eight went to pour himself a drink. But when he touched the fridge door, he got an electric shock. It was strong enough to make his hand hurt, and leave him feeling tingly all over, and “a bit weird” for quite a while. And it freaked me right the fuck out.

Thinking I’d play it safe until I worked out the problem, I went to turn our power off at the main power board. Since we were living in a caravan on a block of land, that meant going to the house next door to access the main power. I grabbed the handle of the cupboard housing the power board, and got an electric shock. Strong enough that I felt my heart jump, and I had trouble breathing. Strong enough to really scare me.

And so I packed up the boys and we left. We drove away from our home — a home that had suddenly turned dangerous — and went to a hotel until an electrician could fix the problem. I tried to make it seem like a fun adventure for the boys, but I was scared and uncertain, and it didn’t take them long to pick up on it. I forced myself to smile, to downplay the fear I’d felt in what should have been our sanctuary, and hoped it wouldn’t take long before we could go home.

The next morning, my landlord contacted me to let me know that all electricity to the property had been disconnected pending a large and costly repair. With the electricity off, that left me not only without power, but also without water. And while camping without power or water may be fun for a short time period, it’s no way to live. It’s no way to raise children.

It’s no way to avoid stress and recover from glandular fever.

And that’s how I found myself homeless.

I could have raged at the heavens, screaming that it wasn’t fair. But I didn’t. I could have felt afraid, or angry, or resentful, or distraught. But I didn’t. What I felt was ashamed.

There’s a whole lot of stigma attached to the word “homeless”, and even though I found myself in that position through not fault of my own, I was filled with shame. There I was, a strong, independent woman of 38, the mother of two children, completely and utterly powerless to provide a place for my children to live, play, and sleep.

I had money in the bank, and friends who wanted to help. I had people offering to put me up for the night — for as long as it took me to find a place to live. But as much as I appreciated it (And I did. A lot.), there was a part of me — and not a small part — that took every offer of help and seamlessly translated it into a feeling of helplessness. I felt incompetent. Incapable. Unable to provide for my children.

 

The shame made it hard to think; hard to plan; hard to breathe. I couldn’t move without doubting myself. I threw myself on the mercy of the community, reaching out to everyone I knew, because it was my only option. But every time I explained that my children and I had nowhere to live, I knew I was being judged. And I cried rivers.

The boys sensed what I was feeling, and they suffered. More because of my emotional uncertainty than because of the circumstances, I think. Master Eight was weepy and anxious. Master Four reverted to talking in baby talk and needing to held all the time. They argued constantly. They clung to me. And every time I hear the word “Mummy”, I cringed. I hate that I felt that way, but it’s the truth. It was so hard, so very, very hard, to keep putting one foot in front of the other on the razor-thin tightrope, keeping those last few balls spinning and spinning while I tried and failed to pretend I was smiling.

I had to let the balls fall and focus on the tightrope.

On Wednesday afternoon, I sent the boys to their Dad’s house. I stopped pretending I was in any state to teach anyone anything. I made a conscious decision to avoid social media (although I hadn’t updated anything since the Saturday when my life fell apart). I withdrew from all social contact except the few friends who stayed so close I couldn’t avoid their offers of assistance. I dropped all the balls.

And a miracle happened.

Through the magic of social media, someone I didn’t know told me about a cottage that was for rent. Wednesday afternoon, I contacted the real estate agent looking after the property. An hour later, I met her at the cottage. It was perfect.

Absolutely perfect.

If I’d sat down and written an itemised list of everything I wanted in a house, this cottage would have met every single bullet point.

Two hours later, the agent called me to say my application had been approved, and I could pick the keys up in the morning.

I had a home.

I was no longer homeless.

Relief washed over me. It tasted like hot apple pie and new beginnings.

I was only homeless for five days.

It felt like an eternity.

And it gave me a great deal of empathy for anyone who finds themselves in that situation. Through a series of fortuitous events, and the benefit of living in a highly supportive community, I found a home for my family. But when I was in it for those few days, it felt inescapable. It felt hopeless. It felt like failure.

So I’ve made a vow — one which I am putting in writing right here and now, so I can’t forget it. Once I’ve finished moving in to his new house, and when I’ve once again picked up all those balls I juggle, I’m going to find a way to make a difference — even if only a small one — to other people who find themselves in a similar situation. I don’t know how, or what, or where. I just know why.

And, in the meantime, I’m going to get my children settled into their new home, I’m going to try to get some bedrest and avoid stress and recover from this illness, and I’m going to count my blessings. And while I do that, I’ll keep singing the refrain that has been stuck in my head for a week and a bit.

“Closing Time. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
— Semisonic (Closing Time)

 

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Filed under Opinion, Random Stuff

The Thin Rainbow Line

Boys and DollsMy boys love cars and trucks. They dig in the dirt. They run around the house having sword fights and defeating zombie invasions. They like both pirates and ninjas. They also have a play kitchen, with a tea set and play food. They have fluffy toys and dolls and play at looking after babies. Last year, Big Brother spent weeks and weeks building The Ultimate Dollhouse out of shoe boxes, and then decorating it with matchstick furniture, frilly curtains, and artwork on the walls.

Both boys like trying on make-up and wearing my high heels. They also like making fart-noises at the dinner table.

Big Brother’s favourite colour has always been pink. He likes frills and sparkles and fairies. He likes having his nails painted. His ideal Treat Day is shoe shopping and a hair cut.

Or it was.

Because now he’s at school, everything’s changed.

His favourite colour isn’t pink anymore. Because “pink is a girl’s colour”.

He doesn’t like some of the music we used to listen to. Because “it’s girl’s music”.

He doesn’t want to hear stories about fairies and unicorns. Because they’re “girl stuff”.

He fights himself over his choice of clothes and activities. I can see it in his eyes and I can feel the tension in his body and the pain in his heart. And I can’t make it better.

I can tell him that boys can do whatever they want to do.

I can tell him that there’s no such thing as “boy stuff” and “girl stuff”.

But then he goes to school, and he argues with his friends, and he comes home feeling even worse than he did to start with.

“Mummy,” he said last month. “We were having a wedding in the sandpit today — not a real one, just a pretend one — and Schoolboy said that boys have to marry girls, and boys aren’t allowed to marry boys. And I said he was lying. And he said he wasn’t. But he was lying, wasn’t he?”

Because he’s six. And there’s no shades of gray when you’re six.

It’s not the legal concept of marriage he’s talking about. It’s the wedding that happens at the end of every fairy tale, the wedding that means Love. With a capital L. So I said, “Well, most of the time boys fall in love with girls, and girls fall in love with boys. But sometimes boys  fall in love with boys, and girls fall in love with girls. The important thing isn’t if they’re boys or girls. The important thing is the Love.”

“But Schoolboy’s parents said boys can’t marry boys.”

And then I’m stuck. Because I don’t want to tell my son that his friend’s parents are wrong. Or… anything else that will undoubtedly make its way back through the classroom to the parents in question. So instead I say, “Maybe his parents just don’t know any boys who love boys.”

And then he’s distracted by asking me about the boys I know who love boys, and the conversation trails off into me telling him stories of working in exciting places. Like retail stores.

And I don’t mind having those conversations. I expect to have many, many more conversations about love and sexuality over the coming years. Those conversations don’t make my heart ache.

My heartache is about gender roles.

It’s about my little boy feeling suddenly uncomfortable telling his friends he does ballet.

It’s about my little boy feeling ashamed for doing what he loves and being who he is.

It’s about my little boy coming to me a couple of days ago and saying, “Mummy, can I tell you something funny? Can you imagine (giggle) a boy wearing lipstick!”

And me not even realising why that’s supposed to be funny, and answering, “Yes.” And then waiting for the funny part.

But it wasn’t funny.

It wasn’t funny when I had to explain that boys are allowed to wear lipstick if they like it, and girls don’t have to.

I don’t like this sudden shift. I don’t like seeing my child having a great time playing with a toy, and then see him suddenly stop, put it down, and mutter that it’s a girl’s toy. I don’t like sending him out into the world and watching him struggle.

I don’t like it at all.

I wish I could wrap him up in love and paint his toenails bright rainbow colours and give him a ribbon for his hair and pink ballet shoes for his feet, and then let him run through the mud and build a city full of dinosaurs with lasers on their heads to fight the horde of brain-eating zombies about to attack.

I wish I could protect him from the gender-bias of the world. But I can’t. Not completely.

So I do what I can.

But I feel like I’m swimming against the tide.

No.

I feel like I’m using an umbrella to protect him from a tsunami, while walking on a tightrope above shark-infested lava.

But, you know what?

I’m going to keep walking that line, holding my umbrella in front of us, until my boys are strong enough to walk it on their own.

Because no matter how hard it is, my boys are worth it.

Worth It

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Filed under Life With Kids, Opinion

R.I.P. Giant Spider: You’ll be Remembered

I didn’t know the spider long. Only a couple of weeks. Not really enough time to even get around to giving it a name; we just called it The Giant Spider. But it certainly made an impression.

It was just after 5:00am when I saw it the first time. I awoke to the familiar sound of 9-month-old Baby calling for his bottle, and opened my eyes blearily. I’d had a late night, and didn’t want to climb out of so early. I rolled over and woke my husband gently.

“Sweetie? Can you feed Baby this morning? Wow. Look at the size of that spider.”

He woke up much quicker than usual, and I stared at the Huntsman sitting on the wall opposite our bedroom door. It was big. How big? Look at your right hand. Now, splay the fingers out as though they were legs on a spider. That’s how big. I watched it for a few minutes, sure that it was watching me back with its eight black eyes. Then it ran and spider-jumped away, the way Huntsmen do, and secreted itself somewhere safe for the day.

Huntsmen are not your typical spider. In fact, they’re quite handy to have around the place. (Which is good, because there’s no possible way you’d ever rid your house or yard of them in this part of Australia.) And although they may look a bit like a tarantula to the untrained eye, they’re really quite different.

Adult Huntsmen don’t spin webs. They eat by doing exactly what their name suggests — hunting prey. During the day, they flatten their bodies and hide under rocks, or behind bark, or in various hidey-holes around sheds or homes. At night, they emerge to hunt down insects, invertebrates and small lizards through the use of an extremely sensitive sense of smell.

They rarely bite people (preferring to run and hide) unless it’s a female protecting her eggs, or you pick one up by mistake. And even then, their bite isn’t particularly toxic. So there’s no real harm to having them around the place. Plus, they keep the cockroach population under control.

My general stance is to make a deal with any Huntsmen I see. If they stay out of my way, I’ll stay out of theres. Bedrooms are off-limits (if I see them there), but other than that they’re free to roam the house and eat insects at will. If they do wander into a bedroom or I find them in odd places, I’ll carefully trap them in a plastic container and transport them outside.

You can’t blame a spider for being a spider.

But in all the time I’ve lived here, and all the deals I’ve made, I’d never seen a Huntsmen as big as the Giant Spider.

That didn’t stop me rolling over and going back to sleep, though. My husband nobly got out of bed (apparently the adrenalin had woken him up anyway) and fed the baby. The Giant Spider was nowhere to be seen.

It was a few days before I saw it again. It was late evening, and my husband and I were in the office. He asked if I’d like a cup of tea, and wandered out towards the kitchen to boil some water. He was back a couple of seconds later, a little freaked out that he’d nearly stood on the Giant Spider. I looked out the door, and there it was: sitting in the middle of the hallway floor, staring back up at me.

We locked gaze. My four eyes against its eight. And then it scuttled away from us, under the linen cupboard door. “How about that tea?” I asked.

A few days later, 4-year-old Big Brother came wandering out of his playroom to find me. “Mum,” he said. “There’s a spider. I’m a very good boy. I didn’t touch it, I just came straight to tell you.”

By the time I made it to the playroom, the Giant Spider was just secreting itself behind a bookcase. “The spider’s behind the bookcase. You keep playing in here, just don’t stick anything behind there. Especially your hands. Okay?”

“Okay.”

And that was that.

Almost a week passed with the Giant Spider showing up again. I was starting to wonder if it had moved on; found another home. Then, last night, the unthinkable happened.

It was late. It was hot and humid. I  went into the bedroom to turn on the air-con in preparation for going to bed. I pressed the ‘on’ button, and had only had time to take a couple of steps back when the front louvres of the air-con started to open.

There was an odd crunching sound.

I looked up to see small pieces of …something… come flying out of the unit, barely missing my face. I took another couple of hurried steps back in case it was a cockroach. (I hate cockroaches.)

It wasn’t a roach.

It was the Giant Spider. And three of Giant Spider’s legs, now detached from its body.

It landed hard, but then scuttled behind the bedside table.

(Look at your splayed right hand again. That’s exactly what the spider looked like now.)

Now I had a problem. (1) The Giant Spider was next to my bed. (2) He was wounded. (3) I had a voiceover in my head: “This time, the humans had gone too far. This time, it was personal.”

There was no choice for it. I couldn’t catch the Giant Spider where he was. I was going to have to kill it.

I sprayed it with Bug Spray, but that just slowed it down. It kept moving. Towards me now. I apologised. Profusely. “I’m sorry, Giant Spider. I really didn’t want to have to do this. I’m really sorry. I’m really, really sorry.”

Then I bashed it over the head with my husband’s shoe and vacuumed up the pieces with the dust-buster.

R.I.P. Giant Spider. I hope your next life is filled with slow cockroaches and fat, juicy lizards.

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Filed under Random Stuff, The Inner Geek