2017: Good byes and fresh starts, books, and parenting

It’s a warm Thursday afternoon in the middle of the summer school holidays. The sun is shining, the cicadas are chirping, and I’m listening to classical music.

The kids are playing video games and, as always, conveniently ‘not hearing’ my repeated admonitions to switch off their games and give their eyes a rest from the screens. I don’t want to be a tyrant, but I am a big believer in the need for balance in life. To clarify: video games are great. I have a few favourite games I regularly play, like Age of Empires, the addictive iOS game Townsmen and recently I took up Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3, part of the Command & Conquer series I used to play as a teenager. However, back then, if I wanted to play video games I had to get on my bike and ride uphill for a kilometre or two to get to my grandparents’ house. It was necessarily time-limited – I couldn’t hog Grandad’s computer all day, and I had to get back home in time for tea. Not to unnecessarily romanticise it, but in the dark ages of the mid-to-late 1990s, to be able to play a video game I had to put in some effort and I got some much-needed exercise in the process. Now, with the easy access to games in the house, it would be all too easy for the kids and I to just roll out of bed and stare at screens for hours on end. As convenient as it would be for me to have them distracted for the whole day so I could do what I want and not be interrupted by their repeated requests for food and sighs of boredom, it’s just not a healthy way for any of us to live. So yeah, basically that’s a convoluted way of saying that I’m the ‘mean’ kind of parent who demands limits to their kids’ engagement with video games, online content, and just screens in general, because as much as I also love and enjoy video gaming, it is way too easy for it to consume one’s life and use it as a way to disconnect from reality.

As it is the holidays, I have to remind myself of the day of the week: the last several weeks have been a blur. If it weren’t for my phone and my computer reminding me of the time and date, I would be lost. Since The Husband returned to work after a sorely-needed break, things are starting to get back into a routine. But for all the busyness of school and extra-curricular activities, I have barely been able to keep track of the days. We’ve had beach trips and art gallery trips, visited the family farm and a number of relatives and friends, made some sad farewells, too, and gone bike riding, and raided the library and just generally tried to make the most of the summer.

At the end of every year I compile photo albums as gifts for the grandparents and great-grandparents. The 2016 photo albums left me with the distinct sense that last year was lived far too much in a flurry of stress, having too many commitments that didn’t bring us joy or peace, stresses that were escalated by being evicted from our home and the uncertainty of finding a new home, and far too little time spent enjoying the good things in life. I stayed out of photos, essentially writing myself out of my family’s pictorial memories, because I was so depressed and self-conscious about my weight gain in recent years, that it’s almost as if I didn’t exist. And I got wondering about how maybe, at some far point in the future, if my own children are looking for photos of that era of our lives, they’re not going to have any record of me. I suspect that they probably won’t care, at that time, if I was a bit overweight – what they’ll probably want is to see the fun we had together. On top of that, 2016 was the year I formally quit the church that had defined my existence for some 13 years, a choice that I had to make knowing full-well it would leave me isolated. I wasn’t wrong: without my church-based volunteering, and without weekly attendance, I suddenly had very few friends. This very helpful act of reflective photo album-making (which I do using Blurb‘s book wright software and printing service, if anyone is interested) really challenged me to think of ways to make the most of 2017. I don’t want another year of my life to just rush by in a blur of stress, disappointment and isolation. Even if all it takes is a few extra coffee catch-ups with friends, a few more paintings, a few more stories, a few more books, and more time spent enjoying nature, I want to take those opportunities while I can.

I think that I blog something like this every January, but I can’t believe I haven’t posted since last November – as if it were a surprise that, once again, the post-NaNoWriMo period is so exhausting and busy that it’s all I can do to get out of bed each day – let alone write. December was tough – but then, December often is. It marks the end of the school year, with all the end-of-year events that come along with it: dance concerts, awards ceremonies, school Christmas carols events. It’s also the beginning of summer, and while the heat and sunshine propels me towards the beach, important life commitments mean the beach is a rare luxury (a sad thing for someone who grew up a mere 15-20 minutes from the beautiful Bass Coast region of Australia). Christmas brings with it an absurd amount of family dramas. It doesn’t matter how much I try to distance myself from other people’s conflict, sometimes they insist on bringing that conflict to oneself, with no chance of escape.

There were positives to December 2016: my birthday – though I must admit that it was accompanied with an ensuing existential crisis of reaching an age where I can no longer pretend to be a young person and feeling like I ought to have accomplished something with my life right now as I see all my peers buying their first – or second – homes, working in careers they love, and just generally looking like they’re a lot more successful at life than I am. I am working a summer job for a friend minding her pets and checking in on her house while her family travels overseas to visit their relatives, which paid me enough to buy a heap of books I’d wanted and some much-needed new clothes that actually fit me and looked nice, and an outdoor table setting that I’ve wanted for about three years since my last outdoor table setting broke. And I had a positive time catching up with some old friends and long-unseen family over the Christmas season.

As a December highlight I’d been counting down the days to the new Star Wars film, the standalone story Rogue One (Episode 3.5?) and we saw it on the second day it was out and I loved it and it made me cry actual tears and as of yesterday I own a copy of the novelisation of the film. This week the kids and I have been watching the original Star Wars trilogy and seeing Episode IV A New Hope I can appreciate that the makers of Rogue One did a fantastic job linking their film to the original trilogy. The joy at a new Star Wars film was tempered by the terribly sad news of Carrie Fisher passing away. 2016 was a shocking year for a lot of people around my generation as we saw so many of our beloved celebrities and role models pass away, at the same time we saw some disturbing political shifts that quite frankly make the future look really sad and bleak and hopeless. How will we get through the turbulence of the coming years without our heroes and heroines to give us hope?

In December, Child No.2 finished her last day of primary school. For my overseas readers, the Australian education system is broadly divided into Preschool, Primary (approximately ages 5-12 years old), Secondary (12 to 18 years old) and the optional Tertiary (University) system (18+).

It’s the end of an era for our family as both children will now be in Secondary. Primary school was a difficult journey for us. When I was a young mum I looked forward to my children’s Primary school stage. While my own childhood wasn’t perfect, I have predominantly positive memories of my Primary and Secondary school years in two wonderful rural Australian Catholic schools. I had hoped for the same for my own children. What I didn’t know was that our journey would be one of a financially crippling private Christian school that claimed to be non-denominational but was very much an Americanised, fundamentalist-Pentecostal, politically conservative school, and rather mono-cultural (the vast majority of students there were from wealthy middle-class conservative Christian Chinese-ethnicity families, which skewed the school’s social ethos in the direction of being a very high-pressure environment where children had to be ‘gifted’ or they would not fit the mould – I hasten to add that not all the Chinese parents were ‘Tiger mums,’ while some of the European heritage families most definitely were, but overall there was a strong push in the school for children to have more homework and private tutors and high-level accomplishments in science and performing arts). The school had its origins in the ACE brand of schooling, and while they no longer followed that system, it was still very much a major part of the ethos of the older teachers and staff, especially in their approach to science education.

When our journey there came to a horrible, but necessary end, as I had to take action in light of rampant bullying and victim-blaming, we homeschooled for a year. Homeschooling was a positive step that freed us to not only leave the oppressive Christian private schooling environment, but to move to a neighbourhood that was healthier than the one we’d suffered through for the previous nine years with hostile neighbours and a nearby stinking rubbish tip (garbage dump) wafting its stenches through the air and a run-down house with landlords who happily took our money for nine years while never repairing anything unless we threatened legal action.

I am not one of those people who feels called to homeschool – it was an act of desperation more than a permanent solution – and so after that year the kids entered the mainstream public (government) school system. Oh, what a wonderful and blessed relief it is to see how they have grown in their happiness and confidence and learning in the two years of public schooling. The diverse, high-standard education they have received, the lower-pressure homework expectations but higher quality learning, the reduced financial burden after years of barely being able to afford enough food…

But because we started public schooling so late, Child No.2 only had two years of public schooling, a fact that made her and I both feel quite sad because her education to that point felt like a few wasted years on a sub-standard school with bullies for teachers and students, and she often expressed how sad she was that her early childhood was filled with so many unhappy memories. Her penultimate year at Primary was the only time I have ever seen her leaping out of bed ready for school every morning, eager to attend, excited about learning, and just generally enjoying life. Unfortunately in her final year of Primary she ended up with a very old-fashioned teacher who sucked the joy out of it for her, but everything else about her school experience there was happy.

And yet, for all those dramas spanning eight years from Preschool to the final day of Primary, as we took a last walk across the open, sunny schoolyard lined with beautiful old gum trees on her final day, it was very hard to say goodbye. She was holding my hand and I encouraged her to take one last look at the school. That’s when she cried… and then I cried. (I cried a lot through December 2016… as an ISTP, it was weird for me to be so teary and in such a public context…) She cried so much that the assistant principal came over to comfort her and remind her that if she ever wants to visit the school in the future, she’d be most welcome.

It wasn’t just saying farewell to the only school she’d ever been happy in, as she put it, it was a farewell to that era of our lives. One in which we had more sad and angry moments than we experienced moments of joy. An era I had so hoped would be happy was instead full of memories of mistakes, foolish choices, listening to bad advice from people who ought to have known better, giving into church and family pressure to go to a toxic private school on the assertion that it would ensure our kids grow up Christian, as if conforming to a specific religious worldview should ever take precedence over a quality education that teaches a love of learning and the capacity for critical thinking. I had so wanted my kids to be happy in Primary school. And yes, they had their happy moments, thank God, but these were largely obscured by clouds of disappointment.

It was also the last time we would likely ever be in that neighbourhood. I related all this in a previous post about how we had lived there some 2 ½ years when our landlords very unexpectedly kicked us out, on the dubious claim that they wanted to move back in. That house was close to Child No.2’s public Primary school and so it meant that after we moved house, and for the duration of her final term there, I was having to drive an almost hour-long round-trip every morning across four suburbs to take her there, and the same again to pick her up every afternoon.

It was so sad to see her schooling marked by teachers that too often valued extraversion and loudness over her quietly creative INFJ personality. Though her school reports consistently noted that she was above average in a number of academic subjects, not to mention her success in extra-curricular areas like piano and classical ballet, far too often her social context pushed a view that somehow loudness and brashness are marks of value. Despite trying to explain to one teacher the very basic (so I thought) notion that humans tend to be on a spectrum of introvert to extrovert, with no point on that spectrum being inherently more-or-less moral, it seemed to go over the teacher’s head and she got defensive about her years of experience, insisting that her methods worked and that it was the quiet little introvert’s task to comply with the extraverted classroom environment.

Leaving behind Primary school was sad, a time of grieving and yet, at the same time, it was a genuine relief. Child No.2 will be joining her older brother at his public Secondary school, a space we have found to be incredibly positive, with flexible teachers who understand that children have different learning needs, and an excellent school counselling centre staffed by actual qualified psychologists and counsellors, and a diverse range of subject areas that mean that whether a child is aiming towards university, sports, arts, or a trade apprenticeship, they will be supported in their post-high school ambitions. Even better, when we moved house we managed to get a house just behind that school which means that this year I will not be doing two hours of driving in peak hour traffic every day. I have every reasonable hope that our daughter – indeed, our family – will find 2017 to be the beginning of a better life for us after what feels like years of struggle that have encompassed our entire existence since we first moved to the suburbs, against my own better judgment, back in 2005.

As for me, I am looking forward to having extra time and space in my day in 2017 to work on my art, my writing, my fitness, my mental health, and – hopefully – in being a more balanced, organised human being. In an ideal world, there would be a sea of job vacancies going at one of the local shopping centres to help me productively use my time, but in the absence of these opportunities I am going to focus on creating my own opportunities.

Meanwhile, I gave myself one – merely one – New Year’s resolution as we enter into 2017. It has given rise to a second blog, and you can read more about it here. I want to read more books. More precisely, I want to finish reading more books, because I am great at borrowing books from the library and buying books and borrowing friends’ books, I am good at starting them, and I am terrible at finishing them. So I will be blogging my 2017 book reading journey at ‘Fiona Kat: Art & Words.’ I hope that my readers will join me there, too!

The fact is, when I look at world politics, with Australian society as my particular vantage point, and I think about how hard the last several years of my life have been, and how tired I am of feeling like I’m always treading water, I need an antidote. And I think that antidote is, for me, to be found in books, art and music (and in Formula One racing and Star Wars fandom, too). I sunk myself into organised religion for years, searching for the answer, only to come out of that far more burned and broken than I could’ve anticipated from a system ostensibly set up to help people grow in their faith and love. And for all the craziness of the world at the moment, as the last gasps (I hope) of an angry money-obsessed ideology makes its petulant stand against the reality that this world is changing and people are reaching out across traditional tribal boundaries in order to connect with “others,” as my own culture treats humans as mere numbers on an economic spreadsheet and sees refugees as less than dirt and targets religions outside of Christianity and seems to be descending back into a cave of self-imposed ignorance, there is hope in books.

I find hope in good novels, reading classic literature, reading good non-fiction about science and sociology and Jesus and history. Reading good books develops empathy and imagination. People who are busy reading books are informing their own minds and becoming educated and learning to see life from others’ perspectives.

I think of a line from famous Australian author Paul Jennings’ book The Reading Bug:…and how you can help your child to catch it (2003), “a child lost in a book will always find their way home.” (Page 213.) The same is true for adults. And hopefully, by the time you come out of the book and get home, you’ll have changed somehow. You might see things more clearly, you might have new knowledge or more empathy, you might have walked a mile in someone else’s shoes, you might just be a happier human who enjoyed a good laugh.

Whatever it is, I can’t help but think that as it seems like the world is falling to pieces, if we can cling to the books and arts that give us a reason to press on – the wisdom of Gandalf; the courage of Harry Potter; the cleverness of Hermione Granger; the vast expanses of a Galaxy Far, Far Away where Jyn Erso reminds us to resist evil and cling madly to hope – if not for ourselves, then for the people who will come after us; even the Gospels where we hear Jesus’s call to live a life of mercy and generosity, with a particular heart for the poor and marginalised; whoever it is, whether fictional or historical figure, whether it is a science book that lifts our mind to the stars and the awe-inspiring complexity of the Universe, an art book that enlivens us with timeless paintings, a soul-lifting piece of sheet music that we attempt to pick out on our instruments, or perhaps a script (the last one I read was Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) get reading.

While I don’t have a set rule for what types of books I read, I find that this Bible verse gives me a general guiding principle: “In conclusion, my friends, fill your minds with those things that are good and that deserve praise: things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and honorable.” [Philippians 4:8 GNT]*

Now let’s be clear, when I think of that verse I don’t then mean, “Only read stuff that is saccharine and insipid and upholds the status quo and uncritically accepts a homogenised form of socio-political and religious viewpoints.” In the category of true and noble and right I personally include texts that are challenging, texts that may even be upsetting if they confront my own privilege and remind me to care for my fellow humans regardless of their social status. I include texts that seek out scientific understanding of how the Universe operates, not just the intellectually easy path of palming off all explanations onto an invisible God who just did things the way they are and assuming that’s answer enough the boundless energies and enthusiasm of human curiosity. I include texts that are written from points of view that may be quite different to my own, even if I don’t always 100% agree with them, because I want to learn and grow in understanding and never assume that somehow I’ve got all the answers.

So there it is.

2017, what have you got waiting for us?


*Source: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Philippians+4%3A8&version=GNT, accessed 12 January 2017.