Sunday, 16 December 2018

30 years of living

I have been thinking all day about what to say on this day.
Today marks 30 years since we arrived in Australia.
I feel like everything has already been said before, the opportunities that this country has provided, how grateful I am, and so on.
One of the things I did wish to say is what I think my life would be like if we had stayed in Chile.
I am the only one in my family who has never gone back to Chile since we left all those years ago.
While I think it’s a beautiful country, I honestly think that if we had stayed, I would no longer be alive.
The political and social unrest was something that as a 14 year old wore heavy on my mind. Seeing the poor, hearing awful stories of mistreatment and injustice was a huge contributor to my darkness and hopelessness. I think I would have died as a political prisoner, or shot by police, or something. Or simply would have eventually succumbed to the darkness. Lost, to myself.
Healthcare is still crap compared to what Australia boasts, education is good if you’re not already earning a crust by the time you’re 12. And if you can afford it, you can live pretty well, as long as you are prepared to close your eyes when you walk outside your door.
And people can be so judgemental!! I am sure that’s a human thing, but Chilean people are very fond of gossip and very quick to judge others for their choices , sexual preference, relationship status, piercings, hair length, body type, etc.
I am proud of my eccentricities and my way of living. I am glad to be alive still at 44. I have not only survived this world, but lived well in it.
The more time passes, the less I desire to travel back to my homeland. Maybe as a tourist when it is unrecognisable to me and the emotional scars that still linger have long faded. Maybe when I have made sense of the wounds I am still examining.
The wounds are bathed daily by my dogs, and cats, and various other animals, by the smiles of friends, by music and wealth of life that I enjoy, those kids who are only possible because of the journey I have taken.
I didn’t think I’d ever say it as we left the only place we knew those 30 years ago: I am so glad to be Australian, I am so glad we left. I am alive.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Lessons from a blue fish

I cry at the movies. I sob, in fact. I am not one of those quiet criers or those people who pretend they have something in their eye; I cry outright. Usually it's the tender moments, the death of a relative, or a dog dying, or the breakup after a long romance. The usual stuff.
So imagine my surprise, as well as my toddlers', when I started sobbing in the middle of 'Finding Nemo'. And not at the beginning when the eggs all get eaten along with their mother, but right in the middle, when Dory yells out to Marlin to 'just let go'.

Allow me to elaborate.                           

I was brought up in a strict South American household. My father was the head of the family, and the boss of us all. His word was law, and unfortunately he was an extremely anxious man who believed that the world would do us great harm, and kill us. If we stepped out the door, we would die.
So I grew up believing that. I never went to any school excursions, or camps, or parties. I had one friend who lived across the road, and the only reason I ever saw him was that he would ride his bike to my house.
i did however go to one school excursion. Within minutes of arriving, I went exploring with my friend down to the creek, and my 7 year old little sister followed. Sandra was obviously much more experienced than me at climbing anything or balancing, or walking on level ground. So she balanced her way across the creek on a large wooden plank that had been placed across it. Above it, hung a thin guide-wire. I followed, and managed to get to the other side with great difficulty.
Then my little sister followed. There was a gap of about 2 metres to the creek bed. There was not much water, but there were large river rocks.
Before I had a chance to tell her that I would come to help her, she had already stepped onto the plank, lost her balance, and fell heavily on her back, as she tried to hold on to the wire and it snapped.
Her head hit a large river rock, and she started crying. I slid down the river bank, and helped her up, dusted her off and consoled her. And told her that under no circumstances was she to tell on me. I knew I'd be in trouble.
Within metres of where all the adults were congregated (this being the only reason I was allowed to go on the excursion, the presence of parents), Tati started to cry. Dad demanded to know what had happened, and as I was 4 years older than her, I was responsible for her welfare, and therefore bore the brunt of the disaster. The 45 minute drive home was punctuated by yelling, guilt and being told that my sister 'could have died'. 'What were you thinking? How could you? You irresponsible, useless...etc'. Thus ended my first and only experience of a school excursion.

When I had children, I was exquisitely aware of the difficulties that never being allowed to do anything creates in a person. I knew that I needed to make different parenting decisions for my children, and this involved the 'Letting go' exercise.
My daughter was in kindy, and I knew that later in the term, a bus excursion was planned to the museum. My instinctive brain was telling me that she would die. Plain and simple. There were no degrees, just certain death. And it would be my fault for giving permission.
I had already learnt that children sometimes need to fall over in order to realise that they will get hurt, and that natural consequences are the best teacher. But I didn't see the need to see her die simply to show her that excursions kill.

And then Dory stepped in. My hero.
'Let go!' She said.
And Marlin answered that how did she know that nothing bad would happen.
'If you never let go, you will never have anything at all happen'.
Followed by sobbing.
I realised that by depriving my children of experiences, I was not allowing anything at all to happen to them. For them to experience joy, and achievement, and all the good things that life brings, they needed to do things.

However, for someone with such deeply ingrained guilt and anxiety, “letting go” was not a passive act. I wouldn't just open my hand and allow my child to drift away. For me, the act of letting go was that of prying my fingers away from their grasp one by one, telling myself that nothing would happen. Their teachers actually cared for my child's welfare, the likelihood of anything happening was infitessimal, the opportunities for growth were endless (mainly for me); and finally, if they did die, it would be a tragedy, but it shouldn't change my decision to allow them to experience the world.

I stood at the bus with the other parents on excursion day, my heart pounding in my mouth as I told my daughter that she would have a fantastic time and how exciting her day would be. I smiled as the bus pulled out and waved enthusiastically as she waved back. And when she was out of sight, I bawled my eyes out and told myself that this was the right thing to do as a parent, that I would be ok.

And I was. The opportunities to “let go” multiply as children get older. The first day of school, the first time they have to do a test and fail, the first time they have to tackle a problem on their own. Recently my daughter started University. She asked me if I could come with her to 'O week', the orientation week. My instinctive brain pounced at the chance. My mother's voice laughed: “Sure, except you'd be the only person in the whole University to bring their mummy with them. I don't mind, but you might get a bit embarrassed. I'll be right on the other end of the phone if you need anything”.

And she went, she thrived, she conquered. She grew. She experienced.

I survived.

This has been one of the most important lessons I have needed to learn as a parent. My children know now that I am a “worry wort”, and they make fun of me, and reassure me. But I pride myself in never depriving them of life experiences. They have grown up well rounded and aware. And really, really brave. I have even noticed that the process of letting go has become more automatic, and more passive.

Allow your children to spread their wings, it's good for you. And if you haven't seen the film, do!

Monday, 23 July 2018

An uncomfortable story I am comfortable with

Today I am going to tell you a story.
It begins on the summer of 2001, with a 16 day heat wave. The thermometer soared above 26 degrees day and night, and I groaned as I turned on a mattress plopped in the middle of our lounge room, the only room where there was air conditioning. 36 weeks pregnant, and having just finished work, I prepared for another 4 weeks of pregnancy, as this was my second. The first had been induced at 41 +weeks. I didn’t think I would deliver any time soon.
Our child would be called Amy Laura. At the 20 week ultrasound, we were told that there was 80% certainty that the baby was a girl. They weren’t sure, as she was coy and hid from the ultrasound probe, rolling away from it as they chased to find out just what gender she was. Because of the uncertainty, we had the reserve name of Daniel; just in case.
I started having regular 10 minutely contractions a week later, and because I didn’t trust my body to be ready, I put myself to bed with pain relief and a sleeping tablet; only to be rudely interrupted by a popping sensation and my waters all over the bed and the bedroom carpet as I stood up in shock.
37 weeks pregnant, and she was good to go.
The labour was quick after that, and at 6.33am, my beautiful daughter was born, screaming angrily and with a mop of jet black hair. She was handed to her father and I asked: “Is she still a girl?” as I quickly checked her genitalia. And she was, as far as I was concerned, another little girl for us. A perfect little girl.
She was vigorous, and seemed to know what she wanted. She screamed for a feed and after being fed, screamed for another 30 minutes later and then slept for 12 hours.
She was a quiet baby, who didn’t smile until 3 months at people. She would lie quietly watching her teddies on her mobile go round and round. She smiled at her sister, but when I tried to make her smile by making silly sounds and making faces, she would look at me critically, as if to say that I was ill qualified to be called her parent. She had a tiny face. Her eyes, mouth and nose were really close together, and her little lips were full and heart shaped. She was hairy all over, and her eyes were as dark as I remember my sister’s being- like two shiny olives staring out at me. She was an angel.
Despite my concerns, my love for her did not take any away from her sister, who was a 20 month toddler at the time, and very confused, as well as happy to have a little sister.
I changed nappies for months in a row, I didn’t sleep a wink for many years, but watching those two little peas in a pod growing up has been the most enriching experience in my life. I have learnt about love, tolerance, and most of all, myself.
Amy was a very different child from her sister Phoebe. She was easy going. A polar opposite to her sister’s intensity and fire. She would let go of a toy even when she was a baby and barely sitting up, just so her sister would stop having a tantrum. She was so easy going, that she didn’t even swallow properly until she was about 3 years old, and was constantly choking, and had to be watched like a hawk.
She was always very serious when exploring her world, and it soon became very obvious to me and her father that she was a very old soul, a complex human. Opinionated, but quietly expressive. And adorably affectionate. A lover of cuddles and kisses, and always carrying around her frayed “cocoon”, a cotton rug that she would rub on her face and take to bed.
And she was funny. Almost as soon as she could talk, she would make funny faces and be a bit of a clown. In primary school, she started drawing and adding cartoons to the margins of her work. And the witty phrases would make me and all her teachers laugh.
She was a defender of the weak, and got in trouble numerous times for pushing kids over who were looking through someone else’s backpack, or who were teasing others. She was not afraid to punch first, and ask questions later. This I could never understand, for there was no such thing as physical punishment in our household. She had a few friends, but struggled at times with limits. She had opinions, and when someone had different ideas as to how things should go, she would simply cross her arms and refuse to do as she was told. I didn’t want to break that spark. It seemed to me that that determination would serve her well as she grew older.
She loved Spiderman, and so I bought Spiderman toys. She loved Sylvanian families, so I bought them too. Phoebe and Amy played beautifully for hours, usually with the dolls’ house.
Amy was always reserved, and didn’t take many risks. Unlike Phoebe, who was up a tree if there was one around, and in the water if there was water around. More nervous, she would stand back and watch her sister first. She was a sweet child who when asked if she wanted to choose a sideshow game at the Adelaide Show, chose the bobbing ducks instead of Phoebe’s roller coaster, and cried when she saw her sister on it in case she got very scared.
So to try to help her become braver, and to help Phoebe take safer risks, they joined Cubs, and later Scouts.
They both thrived in that environment. There was never an expectation in our household that they would behave in any specific way nor wear “good clothes”. My children grew up making choices about themselves and encouraged to have opinions. As long as the core rules of the household (no hitting, no name calling, take care of your property, no back chatting) were adhered to, the rest was negotiable.
So, Amy bought her clothes from the boy’s section most of the time, because she wanted to wear camo patterns, and black, and skulls, and marvel characters. And as soon as she was old enough, she was in charge of her own hair styles. When she would buck at authority, I taught her about “small acts of rebellion”. My kind of rebellion, the wearing of odd earrings, or a symbol around her neck. And yet still conform to society’s rules in the knowledge that your own opinions and morals are being upheld in private.
When she went to High school, I sensed a major change. Not just the normal teen behaviours that we all encounter, but a darkness and unhappiness that seemed beyond the norm. When she started going through puberty, she seemed to struggle with it a lot more than her sister had. I used the same parenting methods on her, we talked about being a woman, and the changes she was experiencing, and periods. Unlike Phoebe, she didn’t read the books I gave her, and in the end I discovered that the best outlet for her was art, and music. So I encouraged that. She played the clarinet and spent hours drawing caricatures and characters, and monsters.
And yet, that did not seem enough. By the time she was 13, she started cutting. At first, it was superficial. I had seen a scratch on her wrist when she was still in primary school, but she insisted that the cat was responsible and that it was not self- inflicted.
But as the wounds multiplied, so did my concern. The cuts got deeper and started to leave scars. She would not talk about why she was doing it, so I took her to see a therapist. We went through 2 or 3 before we found one she felt comfortable talking to. And then at about 14, started medication for depression. She seemed anxious, and she would buck at authority more than usual. Her rebellions got more insistent, and she would refuse to take any sports gear to school, started refusing to go to school, and missed 30 or 40 days of school in Year 9. I had heard that Year 9 was the most difficult year for teens, and so I assumed this was her digging her heels in, becoming an adult.
It seemed rather a bumpy ride, however. She seemed much better when she was on school holidays, and her mood would improve a lot, but then darken again when she was back at school. Her hair was undercut at that stage, and very short. A boy’s haircut, and teasing was inevitable when she was the only girl with short hair, let alone that short. ‘Tranny’ and ‘Lezzo’ were names she heard on a daily basis. When I offered to go and speak to the school, she told me that she had sorted it out and that it had stopped.
Then in July of her year 9 year, a friend of hers took her own life.
Her moods got darker, and I feared for my Amy’s life. I was scared that she would take her own life too, that the deep cuts were rehearsals. I worried, and blamed myself. ‘What am I doing wrong?’ ‘What else can I do?’ ‘Was it the divorce?’ ‘Does she need a male role model in her life?’
The children decided that they wanted to spend more time with their dad at that stage, and after 9 years of near full time sole parenting, I welcomed some time to myself, but worried that this wouldn’t help at all, just make them feel less secure. But the arrangements were made for them to have a week-about arrangement from then on.
Then, in December, 6 months after not cutting at all, a deep gash decorated Amy’s left arm and needed to be bandaged, as it bled a lot, and by the time I discovered it, it was starting to heal, but probably could have done with some sutures.
Defeated, I sat on her bed and cried. I confessed I didn’t know what else to do. That I was only human, and that I didn’t know what else to do to stop her hurting herself. I begged for her to tell me what was wrong. Why the school refusal, and the darkness, and the pain. Could she just tell me so that I could help her.  For the first time in a long time, I suspected there was something else she wasn’t telling me.  There was something that had been going around in my head for a while, but that I did not wish to voice, because I didn’t want to put new thoughts into her head. Maybe I didn’t want it to be real. She cried as well, and said; ‘No, it’s too big, I can’t tell you’.
I knew I was close.
‘What is it? C’mon, I have heard everything and seen everything in my career. I have worked in a prison, for fuck’s sakes. Just tell me, Amy, please, what’s wrong?’
‘No, I can’t, it’s too big’
‘What is it?’ and then, the push: ‘Are you a boy?’
The recognition in her voice was instant. ‘Yes!’
The relief, and the sobs that followed. And she held me and asked me if I still loved her.
What a question! ‘How could I ever stop loving you? You could be a fox, or purple. I don’t care, you’re my baby!’
So then we discussed what we would do next, and I learnt about pronouns, and finally understood the last few years.
Puberty was hard, he suddenly realised that his body was betraying him. He would look in the mirror and see the wrong person. Not the boy he always knew he was, but some voluptuous young woman who was growing breasts, and having periods. Expected to change with the girls at school, he conveniently forgot his gear so he didn’t have to change. The first cuts were to his breasts, and the hatred for his body grew from there. The taunts of “tranny” hurt most of all, because, in his own words, ‘it was true, I was in drag, every day. Having to wear a dress to school, every day’.
She confessed that she was known as Dan by her friends, after the reserve name we had for her, in case she was a boy. And as a middle name, she wanted Lee; in honour of the nickname I had for her “Amylee”. So, Dan Lee.
My boy.
He moved schools, he started binding, he became Dan in private and in public.

It has now been nearly two years since he came out. In that time, he has taught me even more about myself. I have understood that I was trans phobic. But not because I have a problem with trans gender people, but simply because I had no real understanding of what it feels like to be trans. I have understood that people have hatred for things they do not understand, and that my own mother is a giant in her heart. The acceptance has been overwhelming from friends and family, and no formal announcements have ever been made. I am a lot more vocal about the LGBTIQ+ community, and have a much broader understanding of what it is like for Dan and people like him. I have an insight into how he feels, and what he needs. But my love for him has not diminished, it has continued to grow at the rate that I have seen it grow since he was a hairy little baby boy. Because no matter what those genitals said, we still got it wrong. We assigned the wrong gender, because we didn’t know better.
And all those people who are reading this and think I am making allowances that are unnecessary or that this ‘trend that these young people are going through’ will end, I say this: ‘You are entitled to your opinion, but do not dare criticise me or what is happening in my life until you can honestly say you have walked in my shoes. This is my invitation to do so’.
Ask questions, get to know people who are queer. They don’t mind honest questions. Ask them what pronoun to use, what does it feel like to straddle two genders, how are they treated differently now that the world can see their true gender. What is their sexuality? What do they need in order to feel comfortable? Don’t assume you know the answers. And really, everyone is an individual and will need different things.

So here is the end of my story. Last week, I received confirmation that Dan’s new birth certificate was in the mail. One more step in the right direction for him. So when I found it in the letterbox, I woke him up with it: ‘Happy Birthday, Daniel’.
We cried in each other’s arms, as he was born again, my little Dan. A part of my heart keeps the little baby girl I gave birth to, and we display the baby photos. Dan doesn’t mind. He is learning that love has no gender. I hope you all do too. 

'How is life in Adelaide a source of inspiration for your writing.'

Inspiration is the “process of being mentally stimulated to do something”. But, it also means to draw breath, to inhale.
I think this is very appropriate. That is always what inspiration has felt like to me: like breathing! Why do I write? Because I have to in order to survive, basically.
So, how has this city we live in inspired me in my writing?
That’s easy. Adelaide is home.
I write about people, and emotion, and experiences I have had in my life, and about home. 
I am a displaced person, I have lived in 3 different countries and this is the place where I belong.
I arrived in Adelaide as a 15 year old foreigner who barely spoke English, and have remained here ever since.
You could say that Adelaide has been my nest, or the ground where I have grown roots.
My children were born here, this is where I found love, and went to University. Adelaide has a belt of trees that breathe air into the city. The lungs of the city. When I go for a walk just down the road I can see it, and feel it, and smell it and there is breathtaking beauty that not only inspires me, but feeds my soul, and reminds me of the hills I left behind in Concepcion, so far away now.
Adelaide has similar climate to my home town, and the geography is similar, down to the river and the proximity to the ocean. Having been part of Gondwana land so long ago, the southern tip of Chile even has similar fauna, and when I walk our national parks, I am transported back to my childhood and the summers spent hiking in the hills and collecting red earth to make models; and smelling the eucalyptus sap that hung in the air when the heat of the day steamed it out of the leaves.
How can I not be inspired should be the question.
Every day I am inspired by my surroundings and the people, and the colours and flavours, the markets, the festivals, my children who are made of Adelaide soil and air; honed by the sun and the river and the water that flows in this beautiful black fertile soil. I would not be who I am without this city, I feel like I have earned a key to it, that has opened up my entire world and given me an education, a job, and people to call my own. Comfort, and love, and happiness beyond measure that continues every day.
It is a refuge away from the begging and the pain that I witnessed in Chile, and a comfort in the knowledge that I will be looked after and those I love will be looked after, and cared for and will receive the comforts that seemed so uncertain when I was a teenager growing up in the third world.
Chile is beautiful, and I will always miss the snow topped mountains, and the Spanish language flowing through my veins; but while Chile is my infancy and my kindergarten, Adelaide is my youth, my present and my future. How can I undo a life of learning and security that this place has given me? I am inspired every day to be a good person, good doctor and a good mother.
So, this is the air I breathe. Adelaide is my muse. I will continue to breathe/write here.  

Please visit the other writers who have taken part in this blog chain


Saturday, 5 May 2018

SQUISHY, MUSHY STUFF and all that matters

What exactly does love mean in our society? It is not the first time I have asked myself this. I am not sure if it a very useful question but I think it is worth asking, for herein hinges all of the ins and outs of life, and in my opinion, the meaning of human living.
Love starts quite suddenly, like a lightning flash. Sure, it builds from affection and caring in some cases. But when you know you love someone, it strikes you with the power of hormones. Our natural instinct says that we must love. I assume other species do too, and this is the glue that binds generations together, the stuff that ensures that our species and every other manages to subsist and reproduce. Call it survival instinct, or maintenance of one’s genetic material. I call it love. The knowledge that one must do something (or do nothing) for someone else in order to ensure their happiness and therefore secure our own.
After 43 years of living, I have come to the conclusion that this is my purpose. It is the only thing that has kept me from doing unthinkable things to myself, to give up when the pain of life was too great. It is what I have chosen to do as a career. I am good at it, at nurturing, and loving our earth, all its inhabitants, including humans, to a fault.
I do not profess to be an expert, but I plan to perfect the act of love in this lifetime.
I get up every day and do my job. I often question what the point is, and I know now that the point of it is to love.
Not wishing for anything in return, or expect to collect later, but simply to love. The more I do it, the more it replenishes, like a never-ending supply. My heart has expanded rather than shrunk. It fills with compassion for disadvantaged people, for people who do dumb things, and working on loving the cruel and unjust.
But does love mean giving only? When we think about loving people, we think about giving of ourselves, giving patience, tolerance, hugs, kisses, time, conversation. And this is generally seen as very noble and compassionate and it feels good, right?
But what about receiving? Are we necessarily taught to receive love?
To ask for love?
I don’t mean the pathetic “love me” asking. But the love that we give has more meaning if it includes a bit of selfishness. It is somehow complete then.
By this I mean, do we ever ask ourselves what the other person can give us? My job is very much one sided. I give, and in return I receive monetary rewards, as I have to eat and all that stuff. But I mean, what does the love that I give my fellow people give me, my soul?
The answer is, that as a doctor, very little.
I have to actively look for the rewards. Often it’s the warm thank you I get at the door, or someone telling me what a lovely doctor I am, or how nice I am.
It is “nice” to be appreciated that way.
But that is not love.
It is a demand, an expectation. I am “supposed” to be nice. Right?
Not that this is a bad thing, it's just my job, which I enjoy doing, but it is not love. 
So in my personal life I expect different love, the love we all seek deep down inside.
The love that says: “Hey, I do not in any way expect anything from you in return. I am giving this love to you willingly, without demands, without boundaries, and without resentment. I am giving this to you because it feels good to do so.” When two people can do this for each other, then love is clear, and simple, and unhindered by time, space and age, and all the other crap that gets in the way in this world.
I know I probably sound like some birthday card message right now, but I think realizing this has been one of the most liberating things in my life.
I don’t need to expect anything in return, but boy, when I get it, it feels so good.
And that I do, in small ways, from my family and friends, and my animals. We have so much to learn from them. They love us regardless of anything bad we do to them, and when we love them without expectation or demand, they reward us with insane loyalty and admiration that doesn’t go away just because we left a plate unwashed or forgot to replenish their water bowl one day….
If we just take the time to listen, and understand, then people reward us in the same way, and people often comment on the harmony between my animals in my home, and our ability to communicate in interspecies bonds.
And I think that is what love is.
No matter what, I will continue to look for that love in my life. Whether I ever achieve it with one person is so far debatable. But it’s worth searching for until I die.

The purpose

  Love is so complicated. But it is also so easy. I find loving people and animals one of the easiest things to do. Especially as I have...