Jane Carstens
18 Jul

Disconnected connections

I recently completed a seven-day camel trek in the beautiful Flinders Ranges in South Australia. It was a women’s only adventure group, with the only male being our cameleer Ryan.

It was the sort of trip that meant you were disconnected from the world, but at the same time more connected to the world. Social media and the news cycle were replaced with connection, conversation and companionship. Sitting around a campfire at night was an almost spiritual experience as the fire not only provided us with warmth, but also heat to cook our food. It also offered the perfect setting for honest and raw conversations that only a group of women could have!

Walking each day beside the camels that carried our gear was also meditative. We had to peel back our lives to the basics because we had to be mindful of how much a camel can carry. Food, water and warm bedding took precedence over personal items. It brought home how few items we really need.

I have camped out many times, but this journey had a different flavour to it. I felt connected to my female forebears who had gone on trips like this before me out of necessity. Their mode of transportation may have been horses or donkeys, and their purpose was not a ‘holiday’ but often a search for a better life. How frightening that must have been, and how exposed and exhausted they must have felt.

I was decked out in modern hiking gear and had just a small backpack to carry each day. My forebears completed their journeys that lasted much longer than seven days in button up boots and cumbersome long dresses. My own grandmother made a long trek up a range that took many weeks when she was a baby. Her parents placed her in a basket strapped onto a horse, and I can’t imagine caring for an infant in those conditions.

The interesting part of it all for me was that when we reached the edge of the town from where we started, the mobile phones of my fellow trekkers started pinging all around me. I had mine on flight-mode to preserve the battery for the trip, but I found myself not wanting to turn it. I wanted to stay connected through being disconnected and I wasn’t sure why. I’m sure if granny and great granny and those before them had access to this technology, they would have embraced it.

I think my hesitation was about wanting to stay connected to these amazing women who had no choice but to keep going each day in search of a better life. There wasn’t a cosy hotel waiting for them at the end with a hot shower and a three-course meal, but rather an unknown place where they would build their new life which meant more hard work. My journey was not the same as theirs, but it gave me a tiny glimpse into how truly remarkable they all were. I feel privileged to have had that peek into their lives, if only for one wonderful week.

17 May

Caution: Rough road ahead. Slow down

I saw a sign when I was driving last week that resonated. I’d seen this sign many times over the years, but this time it seemed to have a higher meaning. It read: Caution. Rough road ahead. Slow down. And you know what happened? All of the motorists slowed down. ALL. OF. THEM. And it was a rough road. If we went too fast the car would have been damaged and we wouldn’t want that.

Why then do we continue to go at full speed when we hit rough roads in our own life? Why don’t we slow down and navigate the road ahead cautiously with a view to coming out the other side unscathed?

It’s something I’ve been pondering lately. I’ve faced my own mental health struggles over the years, and when they used to hit I’d go even faster in a senseless attempt to outrun them. If I stopped they’d catch up and I’d have to face them.

I know now that I should have slowed down, practiced self-care, and re-joined the world when I felt physically and mentally stronger. It didn’t mean I didn’t stop the necessary daily practices such as cooking etc. It meant ditching the non-essential stuff, telling people around me I was struggling, and that I am just slowing down for a bit. That doesn’t sound hard at all? Except it often is.

The world we live in is fast. Instant. Aggressive. We’re bombarded everyday with images of perfect lives in perfect places, and if you want to ‘succeed’ then you’d better hurry up or you’ll miss out. FOMO is a thing!

I’ve learned now I’m happy to miss out and stop and smell the roses, or in my case, sit by my fishpond and watch my fishy gang swim around. Or take my dog for a walk. Or sit with my cat on my lap. (Animals are my happy place.)

So next time you see a road sign that says slow down, think about it. Does it apply to you as well?

05 May

Mother’s Day

This Sunday in Australia is Mother’s Day. A day when mothers are celebrated, and retailers market the day aggressively with the subliminal passive aggressive message; if you love your mum you will buy her a (preferably expensive) gift/s.

While it is a mostly joyful day for many people, it is also a day that those who have lost their mothers (motherless daughters or MDs) dread. As a member of the Facebook group Motherless Daughters Australia, I am privy to the outpouring of grief that this day brings. Post after post is a deluge of how to survive the day, how much they miss their mothers, and how hard the lead up to this day is for many. Most seem to be avoiding the shops because of all the reminders and are planning to spend the day honouring their mother quietly with a walk, or a picnic, or a visit to her grave.

However, many MDs simply cannot avoid the commercial aspects of it all, no matter how much they want to. One post that struck a chord with me was the MD who is a florist. She wrote that Mother’s Day is the second biggest day of the year for her business. She said she has to take the orders for the flowers and write the messages on the cards that go with them. She said she is holding it together during the day, but at night she is breaking down and crying. That is tough.

While mothers should be celebrated, and as my own mum used to say, it should be every day of the year, it is interesting to note that Mother’s Day was started by an MD in 1907.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica reminds us that Anna Jarvis from Philadelphia started it all.

Anna Jarvis, of Philadelphia, whose mother had organized women’s groups to promote friendship and health, originated Mother’s Day. On May 12, 1907, she held a memorial service at her late mother’s church in Grafton, West Virginia. Within five years virtually every state was observing the day, and in 1914 U.S. Pres. Woodrow Wilson made it a national holiday. Although Jarvis had promoted the wearing of a white carnation as a tribute to one’s mother, the custom developed of wearing a red or pink carnation to represent a living mother or a white carnation for a mother who was deceased. … What had originally been primarily a day of honour became associated with the sending of cards and the giving of gifts, however, and, in protest against its commercialization, Jarvis spent the last years of her life trying to abolish the holiday she had brought into being.

Clearly Anna didn’t succeed in abolishing the day, so we all need to make the best of it. Buy the card, ring her up, take her to lunch, and spoil your mum if she is alive (it doesn’t have to be with a present), and know that nothing lasts forever: including mothers. The day was started by a MD who knew the pain of losing her mother, and love or hate the day, at the very least I hope it serves as a reminder of how precious, yet fleeting, mothers can be.

Happy Mother’s Day Mum – my 23rd one without you. I love you.

20 Apr

Sunflowers

When the sun is out sunflowers bask in its warmth, but when the sky turns grey, they turn to each and share their energy. That is what people need to do as well.

We can learn a lot from nature, including from the humble yet magnificent sunflower. When grey skies come into people’s lives, too many become insular and don’t reach out. They might fear being judged, or feel shame, or just not know who they can reach out to. They may have been rebuffed when they have reached out in the past, and therefore not risk rejection again.

You could say that for millions of people, the skies in their life are perpetually grey. They are living in poverty, or with a mental illness, or in a war zone, or as a refugee. They may be experiencing domestic violence, or a family breakdown, or unbearable grief.

In Australia we have organisations that people can reach out to, such as Lifeline or Beyond Blue. These offer a vital service, but I think people also need a personal line of unconditional and non-judgemental support. Life is tough, and we need to share our energy with each other. We need to be open and giving and loving and kind. We need our own circle of sunflowers to help us through the tough times because in the end, we are all just walking each other home.

02 Jun

How can I help?

You find out a lot about yourself and the people around you when life turns to custard. They are the ones that stick around when the going gets tougher and the crowds go home. This extract from the book What Happened To You?; Conversations on trauma, resilience and healing by Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey, about other people’s reactions to trauma and grief and is spot on.

We see this process play out when an individual is impacted by trauma or grief; often their family, friends, and coworkers begin to orbit a little further out, afraid of the powerful gravitational pull of traumatic pain. As the “check-ins” get fewer, conversations get more superficial, interactions get briefer, and other people “move on” with their lives, the grieving or traumatized person feels increasingly isolated and alone. The emotional bottom does not come in the first weeks following the traumatic event. In those early weeks, family, friends, and community generally mobilize to provide emotional support. Your own physical and mental reserves also help, often through the power of dissociation. But while each person’s experience is different, after about six months, you start hitting bottom. And then you drift along the bottom, rising and falling with anniversary reactions, evocative cues, and opportunities to heal. Some people will keep rising; others will drown. None will ever be the same.

Based on the fact that reactions to people’s grief and pain are fairly universal, I thought some tips on how to support someone who is in pain, while also maintaining your own boundaries, might be useful.

  1. Invite them to social functions. Even if they are a wet blanket, even if they say no, even if they leave early. These invitations are what they need to feel connected, wanted and hopeful.
  2. Check in on them months after the funeral This is actually the most vulnerable time after the death itself, because the world does (rightfully) move on but they are left with their altered life. Checking in can take many forms. It can be a phone call, a visit, an online message, or a snail mail card. All of these say to the person I am thinking of you, and that’s more powerful than you think.
  3. Bring them food so they don’t have to think about it, even months after the event. I had two parents die and three small children to care for (I don’t remember what happened food wise when my brother Peter died), and only ONE casserole made it to my fridge. SINGULAR. People left me alone. They thought I was OK. They thought I was coping. I wasn’t. And that’s the message. The public smile and bravado might mask private pain.
  4. Be kind, even if they are prickly. People who are hurt protect themselves with invisible barriers. As it says in the quote above: Your own physical and mental reserves also help, often through the power of dissociation. This is a key point. I’m not advocating putting up with abuse, but if they are quiet and distant, don’t assume it’s because they are being rude or because they are bitter. It might be because they are hurting and don’t feel like they are a welcome part of your circle, or they feel safer in their own bubble or safer being detached from life in general. If you don’t invest, you can’t be hurt. Kindness will burst that bubble.
  5. Don’t throw cliches at them. “Time heals all wounds”; “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle”; “They were too good for this world” blah blah blah. They are not helpful. Instead, let them know you are there for them. Don’t avoid talking about the person who died. Be authentic. For example, my mother died just before my first child was born. It would have been OK to say something like: “That’s a tough situation” or “Life just isn’t fair sometimes” or “Let me know how I can help you” (I would have said cook me some meals!).

The last word goes to the comedian and lovely soul Robin Williams who rightly said: “All it takes is a beautiful fake smile to hide an injured soul”. This is a quote (and a person) worth remembering.

10 Nov

Stuff it

“Everyone thinks of changing the world,  but no one thinks of changing himself [or herself].” — Leo Tolstoy

The year 2020 is almost behind us, and it’s been historic. We all had to stop as a global community and come together – while staying apart! – to battle Covid 19. This year will be studied for ages to come, and will be one of those landmark times in history. One day we will say: “I lived through 2020.”

The year 2020 also brought out the best and the worst in people. Government handouts were received gratefully by some, and rorted by others. People who made hard decisions about the livelihoods of others often did so from a secure job themselves. Some businesses succeeded, others failed. Some families flourished, others imploded. Some individuals soared, others didn’t.

Change is never easy, especially when it is forced. But change can initiate reflection and provide an opportunity to break patterns of behaviour. The good news is the chance to do this is only a matter of weeks away.

Every year Australian’s spend about $25 billion on Christmas. That’s a heck of a lot of stuff. Australians have already thrown out a lot of stuff during lockdown, and charity shops enjoyed a surge in donations this year (yay). A lot of people discovered they had too much stuff, and felt lighter when they discarded it. What was important couldn’t actually be bought. But if Christmases past are any guide, more stuff is on the way to most households in Australia. Soon.

So perhaps we should all just say stuff it this year to more stuff, and focus on being truly present for each other instead. Being more loving, more forgiving, more tolerant, less judgemental, and thankful for what we have instead of longing for what we haven’t got. This isn’t a new idea, but it feels like a pandemic year is the perfect time to put our good intentions and what we’ve discovered we’d like to change about our life and ourselves into practice so it’s not a total write off. Here’s to a kinder 2021 towards others and towards ourselves, with more connection and less stuff.

05 May

Everything I need to know about social isolating I learned from my cat

I have nearly always worked from home, but I still feel the effects of not being able to move around the community as I used to in these pandemic times. While pondering how to manage this, I realised my cat was a pro at social isolation and that I could learn something from her.

Kimchi is 14 years old, and we only adopted her last year from the RSPCA. She has been a wonderful addition to our family, and her world revolves around the confines of our house and yard, and her family of humans and one dog (sound familiar?).

Kimchi starts the day with a stretching routine that is very thorough, and takes her sweet time with it. She then does some basic grooming before heading to the kitchen for breakfast.

Her day is then divided between sitting on any available lap, sitting on a desk where people are working, sleeping in her favourite spots around the house, grooming, and perhaps some daytime exploring of the yard (she is very timid outdoors and, to our delight, terrified of birds!). It’s then time for dinner, more snuggling on laps, and choosing a bed to snuggle in for the night.  

While I need to be a bit more productive than Kimchi, it’s clear she’s a pro when it comes to social isolating self-care. And self-care is important for mental and physical health.

Kimchi doesn’t feel guilty for lying on a couch in the sun for the afternoon, or sleeping when she’s tired, or for having alone time. She is also willing to protect her personal boundaries.

When the world reboots again, let’s hope we remember that we don’t have to revert to old habits that may have harmed our physical and/or mental health. We have been given the gift of time and stillness to work out a simpler and kinder way to live. It’s OK to slow down and take care of ourselves. That’s not selfish behaviour. It’s healthy behaviour.

20 Feb

It should always have been OK not to be OK

When I was growing up mental health wasn’t a topic that was openly discussed, if at all. There was also a strong stigma associated with mental illness (stronger than today). I recall the attitude that having a mental illness was viewed as a sign of weakness, something to be ashamed of, and people who were ‘afflicted’ were hidden away in asylums or institutions. The refrain ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going’ was a like a war cry that we rallied around.

Those types of attitudes probably meant that a lot of people who were struggling with their mental health did so alone. There were help lines that we could call, but we mostly smiled through emotional pain. Broken arm. No worries. We will fix that. Broken mind. You’re on your own kiddo. Man up! 

Mental health is finally receiving the attention it always deserved, but I still believe there is an older generation or two (including mine) who believed they had to ‘manup’ or ‘suck it up princess’ no matter what. I know I did. These are the generations who need to acknowledge that it’s OK not to be OK. Let’s face it, life is tough and curve balls keep coming no matter who you are or how old you are. It doesn’t help that in the background we now have social media depicting ‘perfect lives’, many of which are probably illusions. 

Let’s adopt the mantra that ‘it’s always been OK not to be OK’. It’s also OK to ask for, and receive, help when we’re not OK. It’s also OK to tell other people when we’re not OK. We don’t have to smile through emotional pain. We don’t have hide away. We don’t have to go it alone. We are all in this together, and it gets messy sometimes. But it gets messier when we feel ashamed and don’t think we have a right to ask for help because we think it means we’re ‘weak’. There is no ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ dichotomy here. Just the understanding that it’s OK to not be OK.

Oprah Winfrey is from the generation I am referring to, and this is what she had to say about mental health: http://www.oprah.com/inspiration/what-oprah-knows-for-sure-about-mental-illness

Let the conversation begin and keep on going, away from the shadows of shame and into the bright light of day.

29 Nov

Sand Raking

Today is the 15th anniversary of my father’s death. I try not to dwell on these anniversaries too much, but 2019 has been a particularly tough year and I could have used his gentle, wise counsel, and the safety of his embrace. Reflecting on dad and what he would have said to me, I remembered this speech he gave to his old school in Charters Towers. I think it captures the essence of dad and his philosophy on life. Today therefore seems an appropriate day share it with you.

 

SAND RAKING

 

An address given at his former school’s Speech Day, 1983

by Don Roderick

 

During the period that I was a student at this school, we were sometimes given lectures on what could be described as ‘the philosophy of sport’. We were told by some earnest teacher that sport could teach us many attitudes that would help us to make a success of our lives. We were promised that being a member of a team would teach us the value of teamwork and we were assured that sport would teach us how to be ‘gracious winners’ and ‘good losers’. Football would teach us tactics, teamwork, how to cope with physical pain, and would also teach us valuable skills in how to gouge out eyeballs and break a few selected limbs, should that need ever arise.

These lectures were all grand stuff, but they never went far enough. They invariably left out one of the most useful of all sports, the ancient sport of ‘Sand Raking’.

‘Sand Raking’ is a subject on which I can speak with authority; I was a member of the All Souls’ Sand Raking Squad for four years. Over those four years I am sure that I learnt far more about attitudes to life than those who were the champions of the more conventional sports.

Let me share with you something of the magic of this marvelous sport and tell you a little of its history, its techniques, and the valuable lessons that can be learnt from participation in such a noble pursuit.

The history of Sand Raking is far from clear. Its origins are shrouded in mystery; but it is believed by some eminent Egyptian scholars that it was developed in the Sahara Desert by the troops of ‘Ramesis the Neat’. This particular gentleman had a mania for tidiness and kept his troops busy raking the Sahara into a neat and tidy condition.

By 1850 Sand Raking was included in the sports programme of all major schools. At this date, schools would assemble a pile of sand for the Sand Rakers to rake into a neat and tidy mound. As soon as they had the pile in the desired neat state, people called ‘Fat Jumpers’ would jump on the heap, forcing the Sand Rakers to start all over again.

The sport as practiced today has been considerably modified from these humble beginnings. The sand is now placed in a neat rectangular pit and the jumpers are no longer called ‘Fat-Jumpers’. As a consequence of the Anti-Fat Discrimination Act of 1862′ the adjective ‘fat’ was no longer allowed in official titles. For a short period the name was changed to ‘Wide Jumpers’, but as a result of strong pressures from the ‘Wide is Wonderful’ movement, which swept the world in 1865, the name was again changed to ‘Broad Jumpers’. This name is still in use. The other major development has been the introduction of time limitations for the allowable Raking period. The modern ‘Sand Raker is required to be both fast and neat.

A very subtle method has been developed for the imposition of these time limitations. This involves the selection of a teacher who uses the public address system in such a way that nobody can understand one word that is said. Thus, when the Sand Raking event is announced, total confusion reigns for a long enough period to put the event under severe time pressures. The lost time must be made up to enable the programme to be completed on time. When all is sorted out and it is established that the next event is in fact the Sand Raking, the Broad Jumpers assemble some distance from the sand pit. They then waste further time by performing the Broad Jumpers Ritual Dance. While they claim that this is a ‘warning up’ operation, every Sand Raker knows that it is really an attempt to intimidate and terrify the Raker. The experienced Sand Raker knows how to cope with this sort of behaviour – look them straight in the eye and let them see your rake. Show them that you are ready for them and not at all concerned.

On the completion of the Ritual Dance, down they come. One after the other they jump in your sand and they don’t all jump in the same place; they manage to jump in every part of the sand. Not one grain of sand in your pit will remain in its original neat and tidy condition. As each Jumper tears your sand heap to shreds, the mark that he has made is measured as a distance from a white board located at one end of the sand heap. The reasons for taking this measurement are not clear, but it is believed to be a ‘lucky number’ competition conducted by the jumpers. After this measurement is made the Sand Raker must work with maximum speed to get the sand in a condition for yet another Jumper. While the Raker works with feverish haste, a teacher at the pit repeats endlessly, ‘Hurry up there, we have to get through this event quickly’. This teacher has obviously been pre-programmed to use just this one phrase to put continuous pressure on the Raker.

On the conclusion of the event, the Raker can relax and await the results. The Raker has done all the work – but who gets the prize?

Now I put it to you that ‘Sand Raking’ is the perfect preparation for life – it has far more to teach us about life than any of the more conventional sports.

First it teaches us persistence. It teaches us that in this world we will spend much of our energy in ‘fixing things up’. It doesn’t matter what plans you make in your future life – they will never go smoothly – people will be jumping in your symbolic sand pit for the rest of your life.

Secondly, it teaches us that for all this effort, there isn’t going to be a prize. In this life there is no prize for a job well done – it is what the world demands of us.

As a further bonus it teaches us that time is always at a premium – we will always be expected to work under the pressures of time.

But most of all it teaches us the most valuable of all lessons. It teaches us that the most valuable asset we will ever take into this world is a sense of humour.

 

Thanks dad.

20 Sep

When is it the last time?

When is it the last time?

At some point, what you have said or done will be your last words or action. I am not sure if this is a melancholic or philosophical thought, perhaps a bit of both, but it is one that deserves reflection.

I recounted in my book “Unstuck” that my last conversation with my brother Peter was rushed. I hurried to get off the phone that night, not knowing that he would die the next night in a car accident. Not knowing it was the last time we would speak. It was a ‘routine’ call, but I’m pretty sure my last words to him were ‘I love you Pete’.

I often contrast this with an incident I witnessed about four years before Peter died. I was a student nurse in the recovery unit of a major hospital, and a dead teenager (he was 19 years old – the same age as me at that time) was brought out from the operating theatres to this unit. He had suffered devastating injuries from a car accident, and the surgical staff had been trying to save his life. Unfortunately his injuries were too extensive and they could not save him. What happened next has stayed with me to this day.

I was preparing this young man’s body to go to the morgue when the lift doors opened. Two distraught men emerged along with a nurse from the emergency department. These men turned out to be the young man’s father and brother. They stood over their dead son and brother, held his hand, hugged him, kissed his forehead, and through their sobs kept repeating the words ‘I’m so sorry, we didn’t mean it, please forgive us’. It turns out they had been arguing earlier that night, and the young man had left the house in anger, got into his car, drove away in a distressed state, and was soon involved in what would be a fatal car accident. They did not know that their angry words would be the last communication they would all have. The dead teenager did not know that driving off that night in anger would be his last action.

Since that night, I have often been mindful of last words and actions. For me, they do not have to be related to the finality of death. There are ‘routine’ tasks that come to an end one day, and you don’t know when. For example, when was it the last time that I read a storybook to my children? When was it the last time that I tied their shoelaces? When was it the last time that I bathed them? When was it the last time that I picked them up and held them in my arms? These types of once daily tasks come with no warning that ‘this is the last time’. The door just quietly closes and never opens again.

I think about the last time moments with my parents too. My mother slowly lost her ability to walk and talk. When was it our last walk together? When was it our last conversation? When mum and then dad needed to be admitted to hospital at the later stage of their illness, I was the person who drove them there. We did not know on both occasions that the journey we were taking was one way. That they would never return to their home again. That it was the last time they would be there. If we did know, then perhaps we would have done things differently. Taken time to look around the house, talk about memories we had made there, and we would also have felt the gravity of the journey we were about to take. But we didn’t know it was going to be the last time. We just left the house as we had done so many times before in a routine way.

I have pondered what lessons can be learned from not knowing when it is the last time. Is it to be more mindful? To make every moment count? To accept the inevitability of change? To resolve conflict quickly? To tell the most important people in your life that you love them more often? To be careful with your words and actions because you don’t know if they will be your last? I think the answer is a collective ‘yes’ to all of these. It’s not only the big moments that count either. It’s life smaller moments that silently fall away over time too. And you don’t realise the door has closed behind them until you find yourself wondering, when was it the last time?

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