Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Not quite drowning


At last, the heat has broken and a gale from the south has charged through the house, sweeping out the stale air before it. Now I sit, well rested after the first cool night in weeks, and wonder why I don't feel fresh, too. Instead, I feel stale and dried out, with nothing much to say.

But the sort of writing I do needs great swathes of silence; incompatible with a seven week school break and three girls screeching around the house. Next week, though, school begins again. My two older girls will go back; and the third will start kinder, which I can only think of as six hours each week of silence. We are also starting a child swap: in return for looking after a delightful four year old one day a fortnight, on alternate weeks my youngest will be at her house and I will have a whole day alone.

Since I had my first child eight and a half years ago, I've rarely had a full day to call my own. We chose not to use professional childcare, and our combined commitments mean that days to myself are very rare indeed. I've been happy enough with regular half days, but suddenly today, with a week to go, I'm hanging out to be alone for hours on end. I'm looking forward to a time when writing isn't at the expense of everything else. Having enough time to do more of other things – exercise, read, listen to the wind – feels spacious, luxurious, a great privilege; who knows what will unfold?

In the meantime, though, I wait, up to my ankles in paper snowflakes and French knitting and marbles and jigsaw puzzles and all the other things that have drifted to the floor; up to my waist in Charlie & Lola and The Muddleheaded Wombat and A Necklace of Raindrops and all the other books I am required to read aloud; up to my elbows in Cluedo and crazy eights and ship o' fools and ludo and all the games that require my participation; up to my ears in kids' music and play dates and the horrible sounds of squabbling sisters...

In a sea of young children I wait, not quite drowning, one arm raised to next week.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Caffeine hits and sugar spikes

More than a year ago now, I wrote about how much I needed wine in the evening. I didn’t drink half a bottle, just a glass to settle my jangled nerves while the kids squabbled and I cooked. It was either that or shouting everyone to table and bed. I felt bad about the dependency, but there it was.

Nine months later, I was placed on a very restrictive diet: no sugar, gluten, dairy, fruit, alcohol, or caffeine. I was worried about how I’d manage without that glass of wine at the end of the day, but my health problems were sufficiently severe that I adopted the diet almost immediately.

To my surprise, I coped just fine. There’s been no real yelling, in fact less than usual, and, while I missed the social aspect of wine with friends – not to mention toast with butter and jam – I didn’t miss the daily glass one bit.

Had my personality suddenly changed from wound up spring to positively yogic? Or had I been deluded all this time into thinking that my jangled nerves couldn’t get through a full day without a glass? Well, neither, really.

Four months into the diet, it came time to reintroduce or experiment with the restricted foods. Like the good girl that I am, I started not with fresh fruit (it blows me up like a balloon), but alcohol. Last Thursday, an old friend came for dinner and, in for a penny in for a pound, I drank two thirds of a bottle of wine. I was on top of the world, and the next day felt fit as a fiddle. It was wonderful. And while I don’t intend to start drinking every night, it seems I can enjoy wine with friends from time to time – and I will. Wine restores me to my rightful place as the storyteller at the dinner table, a role that I don’t fill to the utmost when I am stone cold sober.

Next I tried caffeine. Within minutes my body filled with adrenalin, my heart started to race, my hands grew sweaty and I became highly anxious. A sense of foreboding swelled and bobbed like a threatening grey balloon just above my head; my chest constricted in fear. I wandered around for a few hours waiting for the axe to fall, but it never did. Instead, the caffeine gradually cleared out of my system and all was right with the world again. Hmm, not so good.

I had always assumed that being anxious and highly strung was just part of my neurotic and irritating personality – but was it since I started drinking coffee? I certainly had a lot to be anxious about at that time. I had recently moved countries; my mother was very ill; and a lot was going on. Perhaps the coffee only exacerbated how I was already feeling, back then. Now, however, there is little to be anxious about, yet my high levels of anxiety had faded away only when I went on the exclusion diet.

A few days later, I tried sugar: pure candy, which I never usually eat, and with nothing to slow its effects. Within fifteen minutes, I was screaming like a banshee at a child who had left her shoes in the hallway. When I had calmed down I apologised, and had a think.

I had previously suspected sugar to have a volcanic effect on my temper, which is why I rarely eat much of it. Having completely eliminated all sugar for four months and, during that time, never shouted unduly at the kids; and then, having eaten three test candies and positively erupted, this was proof enough for me.

I was seventeen when I began drinking coffee, which means I’ve had nineteen years of two to four coffees a day, sometimes more, with a small sweet treat to pick me up in the late afternoon.

Nineteen years of jangled nerves and pounding heart, with a sugar spike just before dinner time.

Add children to the mix and it’s no wonder I self-medicated with alcohol. Take away the caffeine and sugar, and dinnertime is fine; no wine required. I realised that it wasn’t the kids who were the problem at six o’clock; it was me and my bad habits.

It’s shocking to think that I have razzed myself up daily for almost twenty years and never really noticed. I wrote myself off as an anxious person who doesn’t cope with stress when, in fact, the things I don’t cope with are caffeine and sugar. In other words, all this time I have been causing the majority of my stress through the things I have chosen to eat and drink.

I don’t know whether to be frustrated that we have endured so many years of my carefully reined in bad temper, a temper that now appears not to be an intrinsic part of my personality, or just deeply relieved that I have found the key to letting the temper fade away. Mostly, however, I feel glad for my kids that I have found a way to be calm. I no longer have to use all my tricks – counting to ten, leaving the room, or transforming the shouting into an operatic aria – as I now rarely feel the surge of rage that leads to the urge to shout.

I also feel sad for my own history. My mother was far more highly strung than me. A wrong word could set off an explosion, and I was the expert in wrong words. Our relationship was always fiery, never calm. Now I wonder if she, too, was winding herself up every day with her dozen cups of tea and a sweet biscuit in the afternoon. Meanwhile, she tried to fit in a lot more than me, combining child rearing with demanding work. She was always tired, and always felt guilty because she never had enough time to do everything she wanted. If she was feeling as physically wound up and anxious as I have been feeling, then, combined with the stresses she placed on herself, it is no wonder that she exploded regularly; we just couldn’t seem to get along.

I have a fantasy that we could meet each other again, no caffeine, no sugar, no work pressures. No shouting, no surges of aggression, no adrenalin spikes, just two women on odd diets but otherwise quite ordinary going for a stroll along a riverbank. In quietness, we could listen to the water tumbling by. We never knew each other calm, but I wonder whether, in such a space, we might find a gentle peace.

Monday, January 9, 2012

On Silence

This piece appeared in The Sunday Age Faith column yesterday. The church is the South Yarra Community Baptist Church, but if you come looking for a blogger with three young daughters, beware, there are two of us in our tiny congregation!


On Silence

When I was a child in church, prayer was long and wordy. Responsive prayers dragged on for hours; extemporaneous prayers were worse. Forests grew and glaciers melted in the time it took some to say their piece. I would shift in the hard pew, trying to get comfortable, and wiggle my toes in their Sunday shoes dangling above the floor.

Encouraged to pray publicly from an early age, I could think of nothing to say. God didn’t need me to point out what was wrong with the world; I was pretty sure God had a handle on it all. On the other hand, I was reluctant to raise personal matters out loud, so I kept quiet in the stiff silence of disapproval. At home alone, I couldn’t pray either. When I tried, I felt awkward and fake. My words rose no further than ceiling, there to rebound and fall heavily to the floor.

For a decade or more, I didn’t pray at all. The words didn’t work; I didn’t know why. I stumbled in and out of churches, wondering, until by God’s grace I found myself at a church which taught the beauty and wonder of silence. Like most churches, we sing some prayers and say others – but then, together on a Sunday and separately during the week, we make time to sit quietly and let God in.

In silence, no words are necessary. I learned that I don’t need to say anything; instead, I just listen. Listen to the voices and the chatter in my head. Listen to the errands I am planning, listen to the worries that spin around, listen to my self-condemnation that I can’t make silence. I remind myself that it takes practice, practice and gentleness...

And as I practice, and identify the voices, and let all the noise float away, gradually I become aware of a cool sea breeze, sweeping in like a southerly and driving out the stale air; and that’s when I begin to trust.

With it may come a sense of calm, forgiveness, or hope. Other times, it’s accompanied by an image. Green tendrils, burgeoning new life, throw out joyful shoots. Arms flung wide welcome me in. Laughing children run into the sky. A universe of stars rumbles with laughter. An old typewriter waits just for me.

From such an experience may arise a new understanding, or a direction, or an affirmation. Other times, it offers only mystery, to be held gently and pondered; or solace when it is needed most.

Whatever is there is always surprising, always a gift. From silence, I surface, restored. Quietly, I stretch and take a deep breath; and quietly I get back to work.

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