34: Lessons from losing my hair

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I once was a girl, small and fragile. On the days we went to town, my mom would hold my hand so tightly, pulling me close, protecting me. I would sit on the bus with my curious big, brown eyes taking in everything. I would watch big people and dream about how and when I was going to be like them- a self written in the stars, bulletproof and perfect. Read More

Scripting courage

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Take a walk in my shoes.

They are small and black.

They make invisble prints on the concrete floors.

Walking through paths I never would have chosen for myself. Wild places full of untamed things that claw and bite. Wet places full of moisture and tears. Read More

This post is brought to you by Robin Williams

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I don’t write about celebrities…their lives are often strangely clad in veneers of gold sequins that probably hide so much than we could ever imagine. But today is different. This one is different.

And I’m not really certain why but somehow the news of Robin Williams’ death imapcted my movement across the time and space of my life. I’m reaching for my cup of tea slower than usual, contemplating on the magic that makes the honey melt into the heat of the water. And where tea gets its unique flavour. It is not coffee nor is it cocoa or hot chocolate.

I’m staying longer on my knees, saying little to my God but feeling ripped apart by emotion. I’m starring fully at people, meeting their eyes and wondering if their world is bright and peaceful.

Robin Williams’ death has made me pause and reflect on the irony of life and death and the strangeness of this moment in time in our world. The situation we find ourselves in where some are pulling at life desperate to hold on it their fingernails clammering and clutching while others would do anything to make the pain they feel go away, even to stop being alive. Im not sure about you but my brain stops processing right about there.

I, too, watched Mrs. Doubtfire as a kid. It was a family event. An affair of laughter, family bonding and enjoyment. It wasn’t my favourite movie in the whole world  but it was just good to know that Robin Williams existed in the world.

I don’t know the man, and yet I know him enough to feel a sense of loss at his death. A heaviness in my chest. He seemed happy. He really did. How could he seem happy when he was dying inside?

There is something wrong in the world. Something wrong with our culture if we are walking around carrying daggers in our hearts, that we are secretly stabbing ourselves as we lie on our beds in the dark. Am I the only one who thinks there is something wrong with this picture?

Apparently 16 million Americans suffered from depression in 2012. Here in Australia, at least 6 people die from suicide every day. These are staggering figures. But even more disturbing is the realisation that there are real people behind those statistics. It is easy to distance myself by seeing them just as numbers but it always hits home when we undress those numbers and are left with hearts, minds and limbs just like our own.

So what can we do? What can I do?

I wish we could all hold hands and sing kumbaya till our voices get husky. I wish that very much. But that is a fantasy. The reality is that this issue is real and it is here. It is requiring courage and compassion. So much compassion.

Maybe there is little we can do. But if we know someone who is sitting in the dark somewhere tethering on the edge, all we can do is love them. Love them senseless. We can try.

Jim Norton says “one of the most important attributes humans don’t have is the ability to see themselves the way others do.”

I agree. And maybe one of our greatest failings is that we don’t say. We hide our voices and shroud them in silence; that we don’t tell these humans just how wonderful they are, that we hold back thinking surely they must know.

I’m not saying compliments will save people’s lives. But love can. At least we must give it a chance.

I don’t know when this heaviness I feel will lift. When I will no longer be plagued with the shock of Robin Williams’ death. My only antidote is the jealousy I feel for human life. The love I so unashamedly hold for every soul out there. I will rest my heart in that.

Friday shot: tenderness

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The world is at war with itself.

This is the only explanation for the dreadful news coming in day and night.

I never quite know what to do with the events that trickle in from every corner of the world.

I want to find words, sentences that can string meaning together. But there are none.

We are not gods. We are not invincible. Our bodies get mangled. And we die. Yet we live as though this is not true.

My neighbour’s flag flies at half-mast today. For the 27 Australians who died. And for every person on flight MH17.

But then there is Gaza, and Syria and all the nameless nooks and crannies of the earth that are falling apart.

Maybe we are becoming hardened, building sheaths around the things that make us tender. To protect ourselves. To not have to deal with a world that is unfurling at its seams because it just doesn’t seem to stop.

But when we stand afar off and only point with our fingers we cannot know the things that hide behind tears. The things that words cannot express. The things contained in loss and pain. For these things, and for a world that is hurting, we should find some tenderness. These are the things we should take a moment and be silent for.

And hopefully they take us back to the beginning of things: to the understanding that life is a gift, and everyone’s life is precious.

The right way to make assumptions about other people

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Is to not do it. Don’t go there. Just don’t.

There is this thing we human beings do. And we do it well – we assume we know people better than they know themselves. Not being the other person does come with a privilege – we can stand across them and see their blind spots much more vividly than they can. This, however, does not make us experts on who they are.

People are not blank pages that we arrive to write on with our fluffy fountain pens. They come with a lot of intricate stories tied to their past. They come with their own bags of experiences and awareness of the muddy paths they have trod. People come with themselves. And this is what they offer to us.

But in its organic form it is quite perplexing for us mostly because where on earth do we fit these people who are so different from us and so imperfect? Which cupboard in our mind could we shelve them?

It is sometimes uncomfortable to find spaces within us for people to occupy just as they are. And so we pick up hammers and start chipping away at the self they present to us until we can shave off all the excess bits that don’t agree with us. And so we construct our own version of who and why they are and the reasons they act the way they do.

There are different kinds of assumptions. There is the kind we do when we have never met the person before but because of all the whispers we have heard in the hallways we come to a conclusion about this person. Then there is the kind we do with people we know where instead of clarifying facts with them we simply find it easier to fill in the blanks ourselves.

Both types are hideous. The latter perhaps is more dangerous in the big and small squeezes of poisons it brings into our relationships.

Assumptions give us the power to hurt others by constructing them in a way that may not be entirely accurate or true. They can cause pain and misunderstandings because to assume something about someone is essentially to impute motives particularly to what they do and what they are. It is saying I know who you are regardless of what you say to me. It is at the core, misrepresenting and twisting a person’s self.

Assumptions reveal a failing in how we listen. Are we truly listening to what the other person is saying or are we hearing what we want to hear? Are we asking for clarification when we don’t understand or are we going to seek that clarity by talking to someone else about that person?

Make no mistake, our minds will make short cuts that help us make judgements about situations in life; and we are built to discern people and the fruits they produce. Making assumptions is different. It is an active speculation which sometimes involves sitting around a table with coffee and dissecting other human beings. I know this can’t be a lovely thing because I get a sickening feeling at the thought of being a subject for discussion on the table when I am not there to speak on my own behalf.

It’s easy to make assumptions, I know. We seem to come hard wired for it. Doing the opposite is much harder. It demands that we be brave and ask people the deep stuff; it is looking someone in the eye and asking that question that may fill the gap in our perception of them. It means we listen to what they have to say for themselves, holding the pieces of themselves they offer to us with grace and compassion. It requires us to embrace a kind of raw, crazy love that looks for the good in people first and wraps their brokenness in tender swaddles that heal not bruise.

I think we can align ourselves in the path of this kind of love. To become hard wired for it.

While it is true that what other people think of us is none of our business, it is also true that what we think of others has the power to harm their reputation, their integrity and their core. Perhaps it starts here, with the intention and commitment to do right by each other in our thoughts and in our attitudes.

                                                                                  

Slaying dragons

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Every morning when I get onto the train, I like to watch people.

Beings perfectly put together at the start of a new day. Clothes prim and properly tucked in all the right places. Bodies occupying their assigned space on the carriage seats, making sure nothing touches anything else. Everyone is quiet. I think it is an unspoken rule. Much like the one that takes hold of us when we step into a lift. Head down or eyes fixed straight ahead on imaginary things in space. No talking. This seems to work for most of us. Never mind that sometimes we are bubbling to say good morning to the old man who hobbles in on his brown woody cane, or to compliment that beautiful woman in her green silk scarf.

So when I get onto trains I look for faces. I watch for the glimpses of emotions and string of thoughts that pass across them like a flashlight, moment to moment.

I see misery. Yes, it is etched in the furrows of the forehead down to the corners of the mouth. Every face with a line or two. The etchings run so deep, touching the surface of the skin and into the deep tissue, right to the heart that sits behind the face.

Sometimes there is a gift given. When I notice the eyes quietly light up into a smile from across rows and rows of faces. I secretly smile to myself curious about the images behind the silent smile. But without questions asked I take this gift and tuck it in.

But this is not the norm. Most mornings I am not gifted with glimpses of happiness. Instead, they are heavy with faces that are steeped in a kind of gloom.

I marvel at the faces. I am voracious in my noticing – the different sizes, shapes, how each takes up its space in the world jutting forward, a mirror into the person. I marvel at the collective sadness of them. It fills the train. Maybe everyone is simply unhappy about another workday in jobs they may not like very much. My mind travels back and forth in thought, searching.

Then I realise that everyone is probably slaying dragons. Behind the scenes, behind those carefully put together faces is another world that is not completely supressed…because it seeps through.

I wonder about the dragons behind each face. Insecurities, inadequacy, a meaningless job, heartbreak, trauma, loss, health trouble, infidelity.

As people sit there, they are also somewhere else doing battle. We forget that these things show on our faces. And maybe this is a good thing. It is life reminding us that it cannot be contained, pressed down into a vessel that we seal and put away. Secure somewhere else. It cannot be sanitized, reduced to perfect moments of pleasure and success. A perfect existence.

Life is much more that that. It will be raw and it will be beautiful.

We live in societies where slaying dragons is a thing of shame, something you do behind closed doors of your house. And maybe there is time for that but we forget that we don’t leave our hearts at home when we leave the house in the morning. And wherever the heart goes, the dragons will be there, for as long as we are human.

My morning train rides remind me that people are not as perfectly put together as they appear. It is easy to assume this when I walk the open streets and my public face collides into other public faces. There is an illusion of order in the world that slips away when they sit on train seats and have nothing but the time to really see their dragons. There is often nowhere to run.

I hope one day there will be less shame about struggling with life. I hope we will become comfortable with discomfort, our own and that of others. That instead of stopping our ears, covering our eyes or turning the other way, we will look these dragons straight in the face so we can see where the blade should touch their necks.

And we will be mindful too, that we are not in this alone, everyone is slaying some form of dragon.

I will keep watching people. They will never know I’m there, embracing them in my mind and loving them through their battles. I will stand at my post, slaying my dragons, too.

Sometimes normal days

lonely on benchAs I’m writing this, I’m sitting here. Here on the edge of my bed. Listening to the tree outside my window rumbling. Branches beating into each other, waving frantically in the boisterous wind. It’s a familiar sound. It tells me in vivid ways that my tree is alive. And that I, too, am still here on this brand new morning.

This noise, this rumbling, it mirrors the one unfolding inside of me. Un-settled, un-quiet, un-still. When I woke up, my feet sank into the same carpeted floor they touch every other morning. I smiled at something silly my mind said. I had my usual morning banter with God. I bemoaned the state of my kitchen and of the world as I scurried through the cold, empty corridor of my flat. It was a perfect morning and I was perfectly…well, I was perfectly Sunshine. Then there was that moment when the wind outside was all I could hear. It drowned out everything else. I thought it whispered something about uncertainty.

The whispers caught on my skin like leftover snowflakes and soon they were pouring right into my bones. And this, this is the simple explanation to why I’m sitting here with the churning wind inside of me. The longer explanation requires me to tell you what it means to be human, because sometimes normal days are like that.

You wake up with every intention to rock life’s socks off. You are a rock star afterall. You can do this. You got this. But these become just words that filter through your fingers like black burnt ash. One or two steps later, you are on the ground, not quite sure which thought or emotion took you down.

There are times when we mirror our external world – the ugly things people say to us, the doubts about us they whisper into the air, and the inadequacies they sew onto our sleeves. These become things we see in ourselves. Not that they are true but because they are reflected back to us. We are taught early on that mirror reflections cannot lie. But what they don’t tell us is that mirrors cannot capture the whole of us.

So sometimes normal days are made up of sorting out the dross reflections from the gold. Sitting with the rumbling inside and listening to what it is saying. And, yes, it is always saying something. Rumblings tell us where the insecurity hides, where the fear is, where we need most work.

I saw a woman seated on a bench, her big collared coffee-brown polyester jacket holding her body tight. She had this gorgeous red hair that made me look twice. Her gaze was stretched out across the Yarra River, far, far away. A dry autumn leaf sat in-between her fingers and she twirled it round and round and round. Her world seemed frozen in that moment. She oozed a sadness that was defined and complete. I could reach out and touch it. My heart went out to her and caught hers.

I haven’t been able to forget her.

As I walked away I thought about her. And I thought about myself. And of the thing we held in common in that instant my life grazed hers – the churning within.

I saw it in the noise of ordinary life that filled every corner of the city. There was a rhythm in the commotion. I fell right in step with it, with the beating of my heart and the noise inside on which it swung. But to catch the pulse required me to listen to the noise.

Sometimes normal days are not quiet. They force you to sit on the edge of your bed or on a lonely bench cupping yourself. But if you listen to the sounds of your own disquiet, you will notice the flow. The up and down, rise and fall of the moments that make us who we are.

We can feel these moments and not be paralysed or disintegrated. We can be in the rumbling and still hope for the quiet that comes after the storm. And we do this by staying. Noticing. Breathing. And breathing again. If you stay within yourself long enough, you will realise that there is nowhere else to go. And that you owe it to yourself to love you through the boisterous moments. And that some normal days come to test the muscles of your human spirit.

Staying put and reaching out for another hand is the victory of what it means to be human. When, as Ellen Bass poetizes “….you can hold life like a face between your palms, a plain face, no charming smile, no violet eyes, and you say, yes, I will take you. I will love you, again”

 

 

 

Secrets & passive aggressions

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I am not a psychologist nor am I a therapist.

Yes, I am doing a PhD but it is not in attachment theory. I am still an expert though. I know the secret places of my mind, the dark and illuminated crevices where no one else goes but me. I trace the lines of my every unfolding back to its core, cracking open the things that hide in corners.

I am an observer of people and life. I watch and listen and tie things together. I tuck them in. Here, there. Sometimes closely and tightly. And at other times, loosely so they can find their way back to where they need to be.

The other day I came face to face with something in me I had never named before. Little actions that can be easy to dismiss. Little actions that can be huge in the ripples they create.

There are moments, dear friends, when I can be passive aggressive.

At first this hit me like a tonne of bricks. Me? How? Where? When? I had to sit down for it. When I did sit down with this fact and allowed it to press against my chest, the swelled questions flooded in. I rode them to the end, and at the end there was nothing but quiet. I didn’t need to hurl insults at myself. I just needed to understand as understanding made herself visible. And she does.

I found myself sitting on that chair with the secret parts of me open in my hands that particular day because my best friend had to work. But when her work slid into the spaces of time when I needed her to be there for us to talk and connect, I became angry. Yet it seemed so silly and childish to be angry, and so I took a heavy-duty plunger and pushed the emotion down, down to the pit of my being. I thought it would never bother anyone there and I would be okay. Until she arrived in our space and I found it difficult to lovingly respond to her. There was something heavy sitting in my belly. I was avoiding her questions, evading and not initiating conversation. I was sulking and resisting the connection she was offering.

Later I realised that I was hiding. I was withholding myself from her as punishment for her absence. My unacknowledged and unexpressed anger was finding other ways to self-manifest.

Passive aggressiveness is often supressed anger seeping out in subtle verbal and non-verbal ways. It includes the bubbling to the surface of the uncomfortable feelings we try to push down into the bowels of our being where they will not see the light of day either because we are shamed of feeling them or we think they should not be expressed.

Experts will tell you there are particular people who are textbook passive aggressors, complete with textbook characteristics. Here is my theory: anybody who is a human being can be passive aggressive. Even though some human beings may be more prone to passive aggressiveness that others, it is not a secret society group to which some are condemned. Rather, it is a consequence of the human failure to express and interact with emotion in a healthy manner. When we hide or suppress emotion that needs to be expressed, over time we create blockages in our communication channel, which in turn miss-feeds the harmony that chains body, mind and soul. Emotions will always find a way to self-manifest; this is why it is crucial that we learn to do the tango with them. Emotions are not a curse. They are the rain showers that make the gardens of our lives rich and decadent. But if left to control us, they become the floodwaters that carry us away.

This is a big space of a subject. And it can be overwhelming. But I want to make it simple, human to human:

Say it. Say the stuff that hurts. Say it. Say it to the one you love. Let them see your disappointment, your anger, your pain, your hurt, your confusion. Say it. But whatever you do, please say it with grace and integrity; with compassion for yourself and your loved one. Learn how to. And listen. Listen to the moment. Listen to the one you love. Listen to yourself. This is a two-way thing. It is not just about you. It is never just about you. As long as we are human, our potential to be passive aggressive will be one hundred percent. But we need not succumb. We can rise above this.

I had to apologise to my best friend. I told her I was being passive aggressive and that I was sorry. I said the words. Saying it made it real. It forced me out of hiding. And in that moment I knew that I can rise above this. I am committed to. I can cultivate a healthy and loving way of dancing with my emotions. No more secrets. This work begins today.

 

My skin is not my culture

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If my great, great grandfather, a man I didn’t know, knew that his great, great granddaughter’s skin would be a spectacle to the world, maybe he would have sort ways to smoothen the path for me. Maybe he would have written a manual for me – all his words of wisdom coming alive on pages that would act as my guide, saving me a little heartache.

But my great, great grandfather, a man I didn’t know, didn’t know that his great, great granddaughter would be a woman of the world – a lover of the earth & soil no matter where in the corner of the globe her little feet happen to step on it.

I tire of having to explain my intrinsic humanness – that it actually doesn’t reside in the shade of my skin. I die small, little deaths every single time I meet the question in the stares, the avoidance, the assumptions & the silent judgements.

I blame my parents.

For stitching together a soul that finds humanity in people. If they had told me the world is not ready for the likes of you dear daughter nor is it as lovely as the gardens you imagine in your head I would have better prepared; better prepared for the stares, the avoidance, the assumptions & the silent judgements; for the exhaustion that invades every sinew at the thought of having to explain again & again that my skin is not my culture.

But while I breathe out this blame, I breathe with it a gratitude that sits heavy into my bones. Because without my parents’ insistence that I afford every human being honour & respect, I wouldn’t be the beautiful human being I am today.

I accrued my own humanity by seeing it in other men. I am because you are. This is my culture. It’s got nothing to do with the wild jungles of Africa or the imaginary drums that beat all night or a small brain or ugliness. It’s got everything to do with lushness of spirit, beauty of the heart & character, family, friends, breathtaking connection.

There are no maps on my skin that will lead you to the land of inferiority. I don’t even know the way there. Those legacies are made up. There are no native inscriptions etched deep into my skin. The only etchings you’ll see are the scars I carry for being vulnerable & rolling in this thing called life.

I don’t wear big, coloured earrings because I’m from Africa. I wear big, coloured earrings because I like them. When I was a little girl I would rest my head atop my folded little hands & watch my Mom’s big earrings sashay from side to side as she talked. She was so beautiful. & I wanted to be just like her.

I am not intense & passionate because I am black. I just happen to be because I am. I watch eagles soar the sky. I hold my breath at a sight of a kiss. I cry for strangers. I pray for the broken hearted & lonely. I talk to butterflies. I feel the textures of the world between my fingers. I experience the world from a depth even I cannot name.

But you will not know all this if you don’t look past my skin. There is nothing in this chocolate shade of mine that will tell you how fiercely I love. You have to meet me heart to heart for that, human to human.

There is no mystery here. There never was.

There is no code to crack.

My skin is not my culture. I’m afraid it is as simple as that.

Maybe it is the simplicity that scares people, the disbelief that we could all be… just flesh & blood with the same flaws of a nature & the same fate awaiting each of us – an accounting for that which you did & not what you looked like.

It scares some people to think of the possibility that I, with this skin, could be your sister, your friend, your doctor, your teacher, your nurse, your lifeline, your lover, your wife.

It stretches the imagination that I could be…well, human & that most times when it matters the most that is the only thing that matters.

If my great, great grandfather could see me now, he would quietly lean in & gently kiss this skin. He would tell me exactly what I have come to know; my skin is not my culture.

Things falling from heaven

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She stood by the window transfixed. Afraid to move. This was the longest she had tamed her nerves. Everything in her had welled into a strange calmness. It was a gift and she was going to take it, no questions asked. Relief from the fiery questions, doubts & fears that plagued her day in and day out. she sighed. The sky was a transparent blue. She could easily get lost in that blueness just as easily as she had lost herself in Noah’s blue eyes. He had taken her by the hand and promised her the world. Who wouldn’t believe him when he stared at her like she was the most beautiful woman in the world?

She shook her head sternly banishing the thoughts. She knew exactly where these thoughts would lead – curled up on the cold floor drowning in her tears.

Her fingers’ grasp on the thin draperies tightened. The trembling seemed to start from the inside of her. It made her knees weak & her senses fill with nausea.

How did this happen? How could she have been so mistaken?

“I’ve never met anyone who understands me the way you do” he had said a mixture of shyness & excitement traced in every line on his face as he tilted his head to look at her. He was the most beautiful man she had ever seen. And he was here, saying these soul-moving things to her. She knew the moment was monumental, she could feel the electricity in her body & on the surface of her skin. & she knew then that if he ever touched her, it would be too much.

“You tick every box of mine…and…and I don’t want to go” he finished. She stared at him with no words or breath, her small chest constricting into its own. He made her so happy it hurt. This was the day she had been waiting for – the man she had chosen had chosen her in return. This is what they called love.

She shut her eyes to stifle the memory. The tears were running down her face and she lifted her face to the sky, wishing the blueness would just swallow her up.

Please God, she prayed. I need to know. Give me a sign. Anything.

Nobody had warned her that sometimes love is not true enough to last forever. & that sometimes people mean something else when they speak words of intimacy.

She had given of herself to him. The fairytale had ended as quickly as it had begun. He offered no explanation except;

“You are not the one for me…”

What about the beautiful words we exchanged? What about the promises…what about what was growing between us, the chemistry, friendship, trust, hope…

“I didn’t promise you anything. I was simply tasting…”

And so it ended there & the journey of her broken heart had began. Her dreams had been smashed into a million pieces & her hands were too small to gather all the pieces back together.

The tears came faster. Unbridled & bitter. The world did not take kindly to women like her – weepy over a man who had given her the wrong impression. A man who had dangled hope in her face and then retracted it as if it was something dirty. There was no sanctuary for this kind of condition. She had to toughen up & get on with life. Her shoulders convulsed in protest as her finger nails cut into the draperies. The cloud around her heart was thick & heavy.

Please God, she prayed again. I need to know. Will I ever mean more to a man? Give me a sign. Anything.

She swabbed at her eyes & that is when she saw the things falling from heaven. One, two, three and soon it was raining hope. The cloud melted. Her heart welled up and the laughter that escaped her throat was from that place deep down that she thought had died.

This was the sign. God had heard her prayer & even more so, he had breathed into her insides grace & compassion. She was not forgotten. She was not alone. The pain would pass & she would learn salvation in the process. This story ended here & its home was to be revisited no more. Hope had returned.