Processing grief

I’ve not visited my home town in a long time. When I do visit, I feel assaulted by memories. It’s not a holiday or a sweet catch-up with friends and family, although there are plenty of things to enjoy about where I grew up. There’s plenty of nature, for instance. I was lucky that way. Bandicoots, egrets, parrots galore, fruit bats, I could go on ad nauseam. I was lucky. It’s a big reason, if not THE reason why I turned out to be so nature-obsessed. And yet revisiting home is fraught. 

There are ghosts back there; my younger sibling, for one. I dreamed of her, last night. I also dreamed I met up with a face from social media. Someone who had lost a family member to suicide and had worked hard to improve the mental health system, to improve care for those at risk of suicide. They were courageous and persistent and so feisty, it was great to meet them. I woke up crying.

My cat likes to interrupt my typing and I’m going to try to ignore her as I type this. She’ll thank me later, as I’ll be in a better mood. 

So I was back in my home town, visiting this social media celebrity who had fought to improve the mental health system, with the face of their deceased family member on a banner. There was this huge banner and a sculpture and people standing around in a yard and if I hadn’t woken crying, I’d know more. I can guess at the significance though. I’ve always thought that turning my grief into something more socially useful would be a great way to memorialise my sister. And it would be, if I were able to do so. But it’s more of a ‘should’ than a ‘want to’ and I’m not keen on adding more shoulds to my own shoulders.

And yet I can see the social benefits. Of course. I mean, I was crying with relief that others knew what that grief was like, and that they cared for their lost relatives despite all the BS that is spoken about people who suicide. Heck, despite all the BS that gets said about people with mental illness, and despite the ridiculously inadequate mental health care system. The government is currently spruiking the importance of subsidising trades apprentices, while leaving the aged care system in a shambles and making only token contributions to mental health care. I won’t bother you with my view their overall competence, but I do feel a visceral contempt for their priorities. 

I’m so angry and I hadn’t even been aware of it. I knew I was feeling ‘off’ last night, and that I was reactive. I made sure I didn’t lash out. If the waiting time to see a shrink wasn’t weeks to months, I’d have booked an appointment by now. But by the time the appointment comes around, I’ll be ok and wondering what the heck to talk about. I know this from experience. That’s how useful the mental health system is for me, right now. It’s far more useful to call an actual on-call trained listener like someone at Mensline or Griefline or QLife, to let some steam out, then write. 

I was telling someone today about the two social media posts that kept knocking at my brain last night. One was about men (including trans men) not reaching out for help as much as women (including trans women) do. The person who posted this was non-binary and queer, among other things, so I assumed, rightly or wrongly, that they had some insights. However it bothered me. I kept thinking of all the people in my secret support groups and how common it is for trans and gender diverse and queer people in general to feel stressed to the point of suicidal ideation. I’ve seen so many trans men reach out to each other and ask for contact details of suitable mental health supports. And when I say suitable, I include those who don’t need to be trained by their client about what trans even means, before they can even work with them. We’re often fussy that way when we have alternatives. When we don’t have alternatives, as was my own situation a few years back, we train our own therapists. How much progress do you think we make with our own sh*t? That’s right, not enough. But when we have suitable support people, we make darn good use of them. So I have to wonder at this person’s blanket assertion about men reaching out. I was going to ask my groups. First, I wanted to make sure I was approaching it from a good mental space. 

The other post that opened a Pandora’s box in my brain was about rock art in my own town. Rock art was commonplace and precious, and related memories open me in ways that feel both beautiful and frighteningly vulnerable. One memory is from the period when my younger sibling and I were trying to help each other through our respective depressions. She had been in bed for days. I had cycled to a place that we’d previously only visited by car, as a family. It was peaceful, bushland, and full of rock art. I was so buoyed by my achievement and excited about sharing it, that I encouraged her to join me for another ride. Ten minutes in, she turned back. I knew what that was like, to be so down, and yet that memory makes me cry because it’s one of my last. I went travelling again soon after that and she died while I was away. There’s guilt and a swag of ‘what if’ and just raw grief. 

It’s my other sibling’s birthday this week and she’s unavailable by phone. She often changes her number to evade a stalker ex-partner, so I can’t keep up with her at the best of times, but not even our parents have current contact details. It doesn’t help that she’s still grossly unwell and thus vague AF about ev-er-y-thing. What do you do when you want to wish someone well under those circumstances? Ordinarily I’d send a gift via snail mail, as she doesn’t internet. This time I’m not. I have my reasons. Instead, while I don’t pray as such, I will meditate later and hold her in my mind’s eye, surrounded with all the love in the known universe.

***

I would like to thank the photographer of the free image I chose from Pexels.

The latest stage

There’s light at the end of the lockdown tunnel, or perhaps it’s just the smell of jasmine that’s enlivening. The peach blossom’s full of bees, the native elderberry’s forming flower buds and I keep telling the birds to stop frightening the horses. For so long I haven’t really wanted to read or write much at all. It was all COVID, all the time, and I couldn’t work out what to say about that… and whether ignoring it (or at least not directly addressing it) was ok. I still don’t know what to say, except that I’m fascinated by how differently we’re all dealing with it.

I personally had a resentful, angry stage, a chocolate stage, an online retail therapy stage, even a booze stage. I don’t usually drink, and didn’t go overboard. It just surprised me to want to drink booze at all. Then there was the early Spring, acacia blossom stage, where I stood in my tiny garden at all hours of day and night, in all weathers, admiring the first signs of spring and holding onto that feeling of growth. Hope.

I’ve been following only a fraction of my usual suite of bloggers, and admiring how they’ve handled themselves. We’re still in lockdown here, which shouldn’t be too arduous for an agoraphobe (me), and I can say that I have NOT been overly productive or disciplined in ways I can display. The fact that some people have navigated fire, flood, violence and financial uncertainty on top of the usual things, then managed to be productive AND to blog about it, that boggles my mind. That anyone can speak compassionately of others’ incomprehensible (to me) behaviour, that’s humbling. I’m thankful to be part of this blogging community.

Exploring my relationship with food

Trigger warnings abound.

My sister isn’t eating at all, at the moment. It’s another bout of anorexia, rather than a hipster version of dieting. Nobody seems to know what to do to help, least of all myself, and we’re all riding it out together. In the past it’s become so dire that she’s been resuscitated by paramedics. Her organs have started to shut down. Or she’s self harmed. It’s a long story.

Today, while watching Annabel Crabb’s fabulous TV show, Back In Time for Dinner, I was BUSTING to write. However, it was a glorious day and I told myself it could wait. Today’s episode was about how a middle class Italian Australian nuclear family of today navigated a trip back to the 90s. Their home was redecorated 90s-style, their wardrobes and kitchen restocked accordingly, and recipes provided. I kept telling the TV that it was nothing like my own experience of the 90s, and thought I may as well write about it here.

I didn’t have a TV for much of the 90s, although I certainly made the most of times that I did. Nor did I have a computer, or at least one that functioned. For a year or two I persisted with a lumbering jackass of an Apple Mac that spent most of its time and my money being serviced for mysterious ailments, then there was nothing until 2000. So there were no computer games, no coding, no dial-up. Nor did I have a brick of a phone. My first mobile was reluctantly purchased in 2002, while living in a rural district where landlines were frequently brought undone by weather or unfortunate wildlife.

What’s all that got to do with food? Nothing. I’m having a nostalgic moment, bear with… Ok, so we’re in my 90s kitchen and there’s no microwave oven, no bread maker, no appliances to speak of at all, barring a basic blender and a juicer I bought in the 80s when juices were the fad of the moment. I drew the line at wheatgrass juice though, just saying.

I moved around a fair bit in the 90s but the homes were all similar – retro, if not outright rustic. A basic refrigerator, a basic oven and stove top, and a sink. There was one old farmhouse with a coal stove, but even at my most frostbitten, my greenie conscience wouldn’t allow me to accept coal from a generous neighbour. I baked bread, grew and ate salads and for dinner, made a one pot wonder. Vegetarian. A bemused omnivorous friend who begged for dinner one night later described this meal as “warming and nourishing”. Which it was, as it needed to be, with flavour being considered frippery at that time. My partner and I were poor, living on absolute basics, and untalented in the culinary department. But it suited us. We made do. As you do.

My mother made do, when I was little, and we ate healthily. I had healthy meals drummed into me, philosophically, with (rare) tuck shop lunches being salad sandwiches rather than pies, lollies and chips. It became a point of pride for me to eat ‘properly’ and it was only later that I went overboard a bit. During the most perfectionist period of my teens, I worried myself sick about eating perfectly – perfectly organic, fresh, with perfect food combining. I would literally retch involuntarily when trying to make myself eat something ‘imperfect’ to please someone else. At some point I read something by a spiritual leader that helped put things back into perspective. They said something along the lines of, “Excessive worry about food purity undoes the benefits of a good diet”.

I’m thankful now for finding that statement, as I could have so easily become more obsessed.

There was a period during my teens when all three of us kids were stressing out about various things and the dinner table became a place of psychological warfare. Dad was dealing with serious issues in his own business and extended family, and Mum, running her own home-based business, was lonely, overextended and in need of support we could not even fathom, let alone provide. Perhaps my discovery of vegetarianism was the last straw. In any case, I felt like a sitting duck at the dinner table and increasingly escaped to my bedroom to eat there, with my back against the door.

Providing food to others still feels dangerous to me. I’m overly worried about whether they’ll like it, eat it, abuse me or be sick. It’s a lot easier to share a table at a restaurant, where everyone chooses their own meals. It’s funny that I say that, because there was that time when my parents took me and a friend to a vegetarian restaurant for my birthday. Mum complained the whole time about the lack of meat in the menu.

When living in communities, I’ve been forced to confront those food fears. In the vegetarian commune I asked to work as part of a team, instead of alone, when I was on the dinner roster. When working in residential care, I somehow managed to regularly cook for up to fifteen people a night. I think it helped in those situations that there were dietary guidelines that had been agreed to prior. Nobody kicked up a stink about quality, only quantity when they were on involuntary diets.

Diets. Ugh. Friends tried Weight Watchers and their equivalents. The closest I came was choosing to substitute a mango for a lunchtime meal, for a short period of time. I’d been travelling and a filter-free neighbour had felt obliged to offer her observations on my appearance. The mango felt more like a treat than an exercise in deprivation, so I was happy with the short term fix.

Other than that I don’t recall anything but maintaining well balanced vegetarian meals until I was almost forty, when I realised that I was no longer feeling satisfied or sustained by that diet. I wanted meat. Although it horrified me on some level, my partner was surprisingly easy going about it and the transition was painless. When we split up, my perfectionist self kicked in again and I sourced free range, organic meat, and started eating kangaroo. It surprised me when some friends tried to talk me out of meat altogether, disregarding my bodily experience of feeling better for it, but I could relate to the philosophical dissonance. For decades I’d thought vegetarianism to be THE ethical choice, and had tried veganism multiple times. I couldn’t blame them for their thoughts, just their browbeating.

Food is such a personal choice, and personal experience. I’ve said just about everything I’d planned to, bar the bit about my nemesis: sugar. It can wait for another date.

Mixed bag of lollies

Remember when you used to be able to go to the lolly shop and ask for ten cents’ worth? Or stand there and say, “Five of those, and two of those, and three of those, please.” I know, this dates me. It’s Old Person talk.

I’m overexcited about something I don’t want to talk about, and bored with being at home, and frustrated with my inability to focus. Then there’s my frustration with my own frustration regarding tech stuff. My desktop computer screen is cluttered with photos… and now I spy the one I was searching for, to share on RedBubble, Thank you for helping me find that! I wanted to make one of my photos – the one with the honeybee on an apricot coloured rose – available as a mask design. Now that’s ticked off and we can all get some sleep.

Do you remember the Aussie TV advertisement that ended with that phrase? I think it was for Claytons, the drink you have when you’re not having a drink. YouTube didn’t have the Jack Thompson version I was after, so who knows whether I’m correct? But Claytons has been on my mind rather a lot lately, since this latest Stage 3 Lockdown. Although not allowed to visit each other in our own homes, we can visit restaurants and cafes together, provided we keep our masks on and stay distanced until seated.

Intimate partners who don’t live together are excepted from the home visitation rule, so those of us who are single are either increasingly lonely or rushing to find parters. And who even defines ‘partner’? Who are the Partner Police and what are their definitions? Is it someone you picked up online last night and brought home for fun? Someone you’ve known and loved forever and can’t share a home with for practical reasons? Or could it be someone who is basically your best friend and looks out for you, does your shopping and ensures your mood doesn’t sink too low? Are asexual partners included, that’s what I want to know. Because I have a Claytons partner. My days aren’t ok until we’ve spent time together, although neither of us wants to live with the other or make out. I don’t know what I’d do without them and although we were once lovers, that’s not where we’re at now. What exactly would I tell the cops if they knocked while I was visiting?

Like a dick pic that runs out of the room

(This is a repost of one I shared on 15 March, 2020.)

How’s that for click bait (or aversion therapy)? Read on, or not. I understand. Obvious CW apply.

My mate and I were sharing sexual awakening stories, as ya do. Well, I don’t, usually, and I felt vaguely horrified and mentally exposed. I kept saying, but do you want to hear the most disgusting part? Knowing full well that he is germ phobic these days, despite (or perhaps because of) all the revolting things he got up to as a lad. I kept looking over at his screwed up face and laughing, then telling him more, and feeling exactly the way his face looked. 

Finally I couldn’t take it any more, and we changed the subject. Relief all round. Talked about food instead. And that bloomin’ virus, as ya do. 

The first penis I saw was at a neighbour’s house, when my now-deceased friend jumped out of the wardrobe, dropped the towel from his waist and waved everything at me, before running away. We were around nine years old and I had never experienced such a bewildering performance before. I couldn’t grasp his motivation, let alone what he expected of me. But I was there to play, so I found someone else to play with and we never spoke of it. 

When I heard of his death, this was the first thing I remembered, and I didn’t tell a soul. It was him to a T, but I tried to come up with something more dignified to share in the memory book. There was the time we crawled around together on the lawn, pretending to be cows, grazing the grass. The time he told me my house had burned down in the bushfires, during lunch break at school (it hadn’t). Beyond that I had nothing, so said nothing, while the memory of his penis exposure played on a loop, like a dick pic that runs out of the room. 

That’s not what I was telling my mate about though. Oh no. Those stories are not being told again. And I don’t want to give him more ideas for ways to make me laugh during tv commercial breaks. But I took your mind off current events for a minute or two, hey? Distraction’s a useful tool. As was my now-deceased friend, it has to be said. RIP, you ratbag.

Looking back to see a future

When I left Australia at twenty-one, I didn’t intend to return. I needed a clean break and the opportunity to discover what I wanted from life, free of others’ judgement and interference. Home held too much grief. While overseas, looking only to the future, I gradually noticed that in ignoring my past I was denying much of my identity. Suppressing my emotions wasn’t helping either.

I couldn’t pretend that I’d landed fully formed on the shores of another country, sans a personal history. This was brought home to me, so to speak, when homesickness started. The smell of Eucalypts, the laughs of kookaburras, the Aussie accent that my new friends enjoyed mocking – it was all precious to me, its absence a physical ache.

When introducing ourselves at Marae, we Pakeha learned to identify and include our people, our mountains, our rivers. I noted that I missed the Sydney sandstone, Aboriginal rock art, and blue-green foliage. I even admitted to missing aspects of mainstream Aussie culture, our idiosyncratic humour, and the ability to share memories with those who knew me when.

Instead of returning home, I researched our family history. Believing myself to be a cuckoo raised in a nest of finches, I searched for ancestors to belong to. To identify with. To claim.

I found a great-grand-aunt who was considered a black sheep for being an unmarried dancer. Then there was the great-grandfather who had travelled alone from England to New Zealand, working his passage on a ship at the age of fifteen. He was known to be vegan, a Theosophist and an animal-lover. That was a good start.

I visited a distant cousin who shared her own research and egged me on. There were many travellers in the mix, which I found comforting. I wasn’t the only restless soul, or the only one with unusual interests and hobbies. Gradually I assembled a cast of supportive family members.

Like the writer character from Andrea Carlisle’s Riverhouse Stories, I placed their images on my wall as mentors.

There are often times when I feel stuck and end up rooting around in my past for inspiration. When my circumstances change abruptly, I tend to gasp like a stranded fish. Looking back for clues to past joy, and using them to create present and future joy, allows me to experience a sense of continuity.

Grump

There’s an appointment I’m both looking forward to and dreading. It’s today. Each time I notice my dread, I remind myself that I will feel better afterwards. The nurse is friendly. The GP is an unknown quantity, substituted at the last minute. If he gives me grief I can at the very least write about it.

My mood tanked last week. It took me by surprise, having been relatively buoyant for months. I’m feeling thin skinned, irritable, morose, even dwelling on things that don’t benefit from prolonged study. Like I said, it’s taken me by surprise.

If there hadn’t already been a few contributing factors this week, I would attribute it solely to hormone levels. Many trans guys and others who take testosterone report low mood when their next dose is due.

In the past, non-trans doctors and others have expressed surprise, even disbelief, regarding testosterone’s mood lifting benefits, and have indulged their own theories in my presence. Anecdotal evidence is not scientific, they say. The lived experience of others is inconveniently undocumented and difficult for them to believe. My records of my own experience of moods influenced by affection/bullying, poverty, sugar intake, vigorous activity and hormonal levels are good enough for me. But it’s been months since my mood required detailed scrutiny.

In the immortal words of Pauline Hanson, I don’t like it. I want my joy back.

Later…

I like the sound of that word, grump. Grumpet, crumpet, trumpet. Which naturally leads to the word, cassowary. I know not why. Cassowary, though, great word.

I wore a mask to the clinic and the waiting room was empty. The nurse used a finer needle than last time and I barely felt it. If I hadn’t felt the rush in my blood that reminds me of strong coffee, I would not have believed I’d been stuck.

Waiting now for the joy germs to circulate.

Journalism, horses and eyeballs

When I tell friends I’m reading a book about a trans man, it is usually only the trans friends who know which subset of humanity I am referring to. The others might ask, “is that a man who thinks they are a woman, or?” or refer to the author with the incorrect pronoun. Startled, I realise they have the wrong end of the stick.

“Someone like me,” is what I usually end up saying, as a short-hand. In my surprised disappointment I lose track of what I’d intended to share.

Wider understanding of appropriate language still needs work. It’s understandable that people initially falter, and I have been understanding, but after this long it’s tiresome. I’m no educator. Overwhelmed by the extent of public misunderstanding, I welcome every effort of others to illuminate.

A Trans Journalists Association has been formed to help reporters (and therefore the wider population).

https://www.them.us/story/trans-journalists-association-op-ed

I’m aware that I’m impatient, despite trying hard to be otherwise. My friends are trying, I’m trying, it’s all very trying. Happily, self-isolation has given me breathing space from most of it. On a daily basis the misgendering by loved ones is blessedly minimal and counterbalanced nicely by validation by strangers encountered on the street during exercise breaks.

I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to be seen by strangers. Whereas it continues to crack my heart a little each time a loved one doesn’t. Or when they think it’s “nice” of a stranger to refer to me as “he”, as though they are doing me a favour. “They’re just using their effing eyes,” is what I want to say, and instead swallow for the sake of niceness. I was socialised to keep the peace, and unlearning that crap takes time.

Have you ever tried to tell someone a story, only to have them correct your grammar? You’re trying to get your point across and all this person focuses on is your language? “You know what I’m saying though,” is what I end up saying in those situations. And they do. They might even enjoy the story, but their fixation on the correct use of language takes precedence and ruins the interaction for me.

I don’t want to be someone like that. And I don’t think Trans educators are, because using correct language for trans people actually prevents misunderstanding. It ensures we are on the same page and facilitates enjoyable storytelling for all.

Of course you can lead a proverbial horse to water but if they don’t think it necessary or interesting, what then? What else motivates learning?

Perhaps the shrink was right and I need to calmly correct people each and every time they misgender me. It sounds like dog training. It sounds like a job for a patient person, and that horse has long bolted. Where’s the fun in it? I could go all passive aggressive and misgender them in turn, but that’s not really me. Instead, why not poke them in their metaphorical eyeballs with each mistake, and reward them with treats for each success? Maybe just until the win/fail stats are in my favour.

I slipped up recently and ‘deadnamed’ myself on two occasions. Hadn’t slept well… slipped into another dimension and introduced myself by my birth name, to my utter mortification. If I can do that twice, my loved ones deserve at least two free passes each. Don’t they? What if they have done it twice already this week?

Clean slate for all? OK! This will be fun. Stay tuned for next week’s eyeball tally.

Delete, observe, save

Grand, or at least ambitious topics spring to mind when away from a keyboard or even a pen. When I finally sit, all that appear are complaints or superiority masquerading as humour. I’ll spare you that. It’s neither necessary nor kind.

A highlight of my week was watching a New Holland Honeyeater bathe in my garden pond at dusk. I stood motionless as it flitted from stake to stick to pond edge, then dipped impossibly briefly and emerged to wipe its beak on a stick. Tiny tongue darted and suddenly bathing resumed. Multiple dips later it was sodden and I wondered how it would dry before roosting. Perhaps my amusement became audible, as it flew off with a high pitched alarm call.

This species is probably the most commonly seen on the property, but I rarely get so close or watch a single bird for any length of time. They’re usually in raucous groups, up high.

This week I’ve also been watching Hinterland, a Welsh series that for some reason I believed to be Scottish. Shaking my head now, because how anyone could miss the Welsh dialogue, street signage or credits is beyond me, lol. I am enjoying the slow pace, the moody grey landscapes and frequent meaningful silences. For someone who has often been told that autistic people struggle to interpret facial expressions, I think I’m doing well. Interpretation is in fact one of my favourite activities. How curious.

I’ve also noticed how I experience the narrative style, which contrasts well with Sherlock, the previous binged series. It’s a structure I can easily internalise and use in my own writing. It feels familiar, like home. Even forbiddingly cold and bleak, Wales itself feels familiar. After reading about The Agoraphobic Traveller, I think I might even virtually visit Wales, and locate my ancestors’ addresses that are noted in old Census records. Then I could take screenshots to include with my family tree. Sounds like a plan.

Do you virtually visit when unable to physically travel? Perhaps you even astral travel?

Today’s mutterings

I’m watching ABC TV (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). Earlier today I noticed that the Landline program, which focuses on rural life, displays the name of the Indigenous tribal group relevant to each story. I was impressed by this, as it’s yet another way that this channel walks the talk. Acknowledging that Indigenous Australians occupied this vast country long before my ancestors and other white peoples invaded is an important step toward Reconciliation.

Now I’m watching a show about restoring the homes of early white settlers. Today the crew is in South Australia. Everyone’s waxing lyrical about history and historical buildings and preserving bits of history for the future. There is total erasure of Aboriginal people on this property. It’s absurd now to insist that 200 year old historical homes matter, without also mentioning the 60,000 years of prior occupation. To be fair, it’s a repeat of a repeat, not a recent show. I might write the presenter to suggest they include a statement at the beginning of future broadcasts. Some shows already warn Aboriginal and Torres Islander viewers that the broadcast may include images, names and voices of deceased people.

I’m just musing out loud here. I’m no expert, just a white Aussie who is trying to learn. I love the show and admire the presenter; there’s no ill will. Just found this link to editorial guidelines which might come in handy when I think it through properly later.

During lockdown I did a lot of work on my own family history, which I’d started exploring in the early 1990s. There’s still a lot to work out. There’s a lot to be said for using the bride’s maiden name as a child’s middle name. That tradition helped me a great deal. But crikey I need help tracking down other families, thanks to the tradition of women taking the husband’s surname. That’s always irritated me when trying to track down childhood friends, but it’s a tad harder when everyone’s long dead and the paperwork is in an old church on the other side of the globe.

That’s not what I meant to bang on about, though. All my ancestors are originally from Britain. All made their way Down Under on ships during the 1800s, and scattered themselves around the eastern states. I want to know who occupied and cared for the land in each location my ancestors settled. I want to know how my ancestors benefited from being white (eg land grants) and how they interacted with the Aboriginal landowners. If it were possible, I would like to talk with the descendants and hear their stories. I expect some stories to be horrific, as that’s what our nation is based on – dispossession and murder. But I want to know, and as far as possible I want to be a tiny part of the nation’s healing process. The phrase, “make reparation” keeps coming to mind, but I don’t know what that might mean here.

Next step: consulting a Map of Indigenous Australia and noting the tribal groups for each location.

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