Love letter from the universe

Yesterday was emotional. I had an intense and somewhat disturbing dream to begin with.  In the dream I was in my late teens and I was on some kind of field trip.  During the field trip, I was persuaded by an attractive young man to get naked and shower with him.  I felt terribly shy but excited, and later in the dream I was devastated to find that he didn’t consider the event significant at all.  He was just being opportunistic and had no intention of pursuing a relationship after the field trip ended.  So far it’s quite an ordinary kind of dream, perhaps only moderately upsetting.  It was when I changed perspective in the dream that I got really upset.  In the dream I became aware of a man, someone who was in charge of the operation surrounding me.  I realise that it is all a grand manipulation.  This man’s job is to make sure that the younger me doesn’t wake up, doesn’t realise that her reality is being manipulated.  I am incensed, and I try to understand the purpose of this story, but I can’t.

My dream ‘guru’, Robert Moss, suggests that the first clue to a dream’s meaning is in the feelings it evokes. I felt angry, deceived, betrayed, hurt.  This is what started the crying.  I took myself out for a walk soon after breakfast, in the hope that nature would be soothing.  It worked.  While admiring the colours of tree bark, I had the a-ha moment of recognition about the dream, head and body together.  ‘Well der’, I said to the trees, ‘of course I know what it’s like to live a false life.  I’m adopted.’

It’s extremely hard to explain to people who aren’t adopted how much being adopted affects you. You spend all your life with the knowledge that there was an alternative reality.  An alternative life that could very easily have been your life.  Instead, you’re in the life you are in, which society has told you and continues to tell you is fine and tries to prevent you from questioning your reality.  So when I say ‘false life’, what I really mean is the collusion of silence that accompanied adoption practices in the era that I was born in.  Adopted children weren’t encouraged to talk about their feelings, or to ask questions, or explore what adoption meant.

I finished my walk, got a coffee and sat in the children’s playground that is at the end of my street, enjoying the soft fall of rain. They echoed my tears.  I am gradually getting better at letting these feelings rise and fall in me.  I’ve spent my life being trained not to feel my feelings; my anger, my confusion, my pain.  Also, I’ve realised that that training also means I don’t feel positive feelings very much either.  I feel like renter’s beige most of the time.

A child is a love letter from the universe, or it should be. I’ve never felt like the universe is a kind and welcoming place, and that’s probably because my first experiences of it weren’t particularly kind and welcoming.  It was that thought that sent me off on my afternoon’s activities.  The (paraphrased) saying that other people’s karma is what they do to you, but yours is how you react has been attributed to Wayne Dyer.  If I were to be a good historian I’d go and check the source, but that would detract from the story.  The point is that I spent the afternoon trying to live it.  I may not feel like I’ve received enough love in my life, but that doesn’t prevent me from giving it.  Here’s what I did.  I went home, kissed the Iron Paw, and had a cleansing shower.  I pulled out my box of collected stationary and with my loveliest pen, I wrote a letter to a perfect stranger.

It began ‘Hello stranger, This is a love letter from the universe’. It went on to remind the reader that he or she was perfect whole and complete as they were, that they didn’t need anything to fix them because they weren’t broken to begin with, and reminding them to breathe, to relax, to be kind to themselves.  It ended with a whole hearted wish for their peace and I signed it with a big heart from the universe.  I sealed the letter and took myself off to my nearest major shopping centre.  Feeling surreptitious, I pretended to browse its bookshops, whereupon I slipped the letter inside the cover of some appropriate book.  Then I went and had a coffee and went home back to bed.  Job done.

So often I have spent my days stumbling around wishing the universe would send me a sign. Some completely incontrovertible sign of being meant to be here, or of reassurance, hope, or guidance.  I’ve written a little bit about this before, the day I met Aristotle on the front lawn.  I can’t believe I’m the only one stumbling around in some kind of deep fog wondering why the heck I’m here and desperately needing an extremely large neon sign.  So my quiet, in-the-rain moment of revelation was this.  Start a trend.  I imagined love letters from the universe lurking in all sorts of places, taped to the door of public toilets, randomly dropped in mailboxes, or tucked under the windscreen wiper or random cars.  A better find than a parking ticket wouldn’t you say?  I imagined people who were scared, or lonely, or lost receiving a message of love and support just when they needed it.

So, what do you think of my attempt to live out that quote? Hopefully, the person who finds my letter will pass it on.  Or write their own.  And hopefully, one day one will find its way back to me.    Perhaps you will start the trend in your own city.  If you do, the only thing to keep in mind is that it has to be applicable to anyone, regardless of age, gender, creed and faith.  Keep it short, keep it simple.  And please, let me know if you do.



The armadillo and the equinox

It’s the equinox today, and also the first anniversary of the national apology to those affected by the practice of forced adoption.  This day last year, I was in the Great Hall of Parliament, bawling my eyes out.  As ‘years’ go, it has been tumultuous, marked by the theme of balance.  However I only realise this retrospectively, because I have been so unbalanced. 

What is balance anyway?  Taking nature as the guide, taking today as the guide, its when opposing forces are equal to each other.  Day and night are equivalent to each other in length.  One does not dominate the other.  We can look at the qualities of each and appreciate their complementarity.  Day and night are meaningless without each other. 

When I grew up, we did not observe days like these.  We observed (as opposed to celebrate) the customs of Christmas and Easter, New Year and Anzac Day.  That was about it.  So I have come to my appreciation of these solar points of the year as an adult.  And I’ve especially come to love the equinoxes, precisely because of the imagery of balance.  Everyone’s idea of balance is different, and I can only speak with authority on my own experience of it. 

In this year, that experience has been slender.  Firstly there was the apology, itself an offering of balance as the government, on behalf of the people, apologised to me the impacts of discriminatory attitudes.  Bits of my armour fell off, a good but deeply disturbing experience.  I came to understand a little bit more how much of an armadillo I have learnt to be.  Maybe an echidna.  Either way, some animal that is heavily armoured on the outside. 

Secondly, I reached breaking point at work and resigned.  No plan, no job to go to.  Just an explosion that had been building for a long time.  The wreckage has been substantial, but I was so overwhelmed with relief that I didn’t initially notice.  I was anticipating my first trip to Europe, something I’d been anticipating since I was about seventeen.  Anxiety, fear and money had stood in my way till then.  It was the highlight of the year.  An excursion into wonder.  So wondrous that returning to a Canberra winter felt like suffocation.

I was also free, for the first time in my life.  Free of deadlines, obligations, rules, expectations.  I had absolutely no idea what to do with myself.  We are not raised for freedom.  We’re raised like cage hens, our lives tightly regimented and associating only with other cage hens.  So that when it comes, I hovered at the doorway of the barn, daunted by the loss of all I had known.  I have not coped at all well.  Instead of fun and freedom, I’ve been romancing my shadow.

I’ve lived this last year, and indeed my whole life, like I am trapped between the solstices.  Summer one day, winter the next.  It’s been the solstice pingpong championships, and I’m exhausted.  I crave a balanced life and it seems as elusive as a natural blue rose.  I don’t want an all or nothing life any more.  When I live like that, I’m not very nice.  I’m self absorbed and selfish, angry and inflexible.  I’m not so available to my friends and family.  I’m less interested in the broader environment.  I don’t think this is healthy in the long run, either for me or for the planet.  In short, when I am being all or nothing, I am less kind, less creative and I can’t see the beauty.  This is not how I want to proceed through the adventure of the world.  Right now I am unclear on how to change this deeply ingrained habit of a lifetime.  In the meanwhile, it’s a calm, clear autumn day.  I’m going to get up appreciate it.

What is a PhD good for?

I am beginning to think that doing a PhD was possibly the worst career decision of my life. 

I’m attempting to write a job application for a historian’s position at a well known local council.  Despite my PhD, I find that out of the ten essential criteria and the five desirable criteria, I can make a valid response to perhaps five, and the majority of those were the generic ones.  You know, wanting you to prove that you can hold a civil conversation with a stranger. 

It seems to me that the actual historical content knowledge required is rather slim.  Mostly what they want is project or program development, collection management, and digital media knowledge.  None of which is actually part of post graduate historical studies.  Certainly not at my alma mater…

So what did I spend seven years of my precious life for?  What did getting a PhD do for me?

It does demonstrate my ability to find, read, understand, classify, dispute and synthetise knowledge.  However, having run large planning projects before, this wasn’t a new skill.  Merely a reproving.

It demonstrates that I can work on my own.

It demonstrates that I can continue to work on my own despite illness, pain, despair and basic hatred for the project.  This is quite a useful skill in general with work, but again, something I had demonstrated to myself already.

Looking back I feel cheated by a system whose primary goal is to reproduce itself and get money.  It doesn’t care about you.  No one sits you down and says gently but firmly, why do you want to do this?  They don’t explain that you will be stressed, miserable, poor, and cost yourself wages and superannuation which, if you are lucky enough to get a job after, will not recompense you for that.  You will drive your friends and family nuts as your life gets taken over.  If my thesis had been an intimate partner, my family would have taken a restraining order out against it.  So your reason for doing this has to be platinum strong to withstand all that.

It is not good enough to answer any of the following.  Because I’m trying to escape where I am.  Because I can’t make up my mind so I’ll just stick with study.  Because it seems like a good idea and I’ve got no other sources of inspiration for what I should do with my life.

There is only one reason, and one reason only, to do a PhD.  It’s because you want to be an academic.  You are prepared to sign up for fairly poorly pay, uncertain tenures, constant pressure, and constant mobility because you love the pursuit of knowledge and understanding that much.  If you can’t say a big whole hearted yes to that, I seriously suggest that you are about to commit a massive unkindness to yourself.    

Universities get paid for having PhD students.  They are, as one well known historian once said to me, ‘cash cows’.  While your individual supervisor may be a kind intelligent person who cares about students, fundamentally you are there to provide cash for the institution.  No one will ever try to talk you out of doing a PhD because of that fact.  I didn’t know this when I first signed up.  I consider this to be unethical. 

The university will do their damndest to get you and keep you, regardless of whether a PhD is right for you or what you want in life.  For me, in retrospect, I needed a fairy godmother to whisper in my ear that I should enrol in the now defunct Certificate IV in library and museum studies.  If I’d done that I’d have had a job years ago and would be able to confidently answer every item on this current job application.  If that same fairy godmother had also whispered to me what need are you trying to fill here? my circumstances might be very different.  If I’d been able to ask that question, and then think more creatively about how I might meet that, a PhD would have been ruled out fairly early. 

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do a PhD.  I am saying that it is a gruelling and costly process, and that you should be clear on your motivations.  You need some other things too.  Be as clear as early as you can about your question.  Put off your application until you know it.  It saves valuable time, especially if you have to fund yourself after your scholarship runs out.  Many do.  You need a good relationship with your supervisor.  When I say need, I mean you need a good relationship with your supervisor in the same way you need air.  The only reason why I survived and submitted was because my second supervisor is a truly wonderful human being in addition to being brilliant.  My first supervisor went through students like Kleenex.  If you have a clear idea of what you want to do and why, have emergency funding, supportive friends and family, and the right academic team, you can have a reasonably good experience. 

As for me, what is a PhD good for?  For years I had a list of reasons to complete on my computer.  The first was the hope that a PhD will open doors I can’t see yet.  I still can’t see any doors, but I keep on hoping.   


International Women’s Day

It’s International Women’s Day and all I’m hearing in my head is lots of no’s.  No you can’t.  Not you won’t.  Oh you couldn’t and heavens above, what are you thinking?  Now where, I ask, did I learn this?  My finger inevitably drifts in the direction of my mother, and my grandmother, but not necessarily accusingly.

Pointing fingers is generally considered rude, but it happens a lot.  I don’t like it while wearing my social history hat, because you’re supposed to see and understand people in the context of their own times.

Their times were tough. My mother was born during the Depression, a hair’s whisker on the side of legitimacy.  A wedding night conception.  My grandmother’s ambitions to be a music teacher had been crushed by a manipulative father who allowed her to train, but not to do country service.  As that was essential to graduating, she was stymied.  She ended up teaching privately at business college.  The box of her sheet music that I have is a testimony to a murdered dream.

Fairly soon in marriage and family life, he got bone cancer.  One of the few photos of him with Mum, who is about seven or eight.  They are posed formally, out the back, him on one leg and crutches, she is a sweet white dress and curls.  A child embroiled in a personal tragedy embroiled again in a world tearing itself apart in global war.  I can confidently say she never recovered.

By the time I showed up, delivered by the government, the feminist revolvition was in full swing.  Despite owning a copy of Betty Friedan, it seemed to pass my mother by.  Indeed, it seemed to pass all the women of my comfortable middle class suburb by.  Of course this is probably not true.  I don’t know how they negotiated their lives, their marriages or how they treated their sons and daughters.  But I can safely say I never saw any of them do or say anything remotely different or feminist.  Only one went into business, for herself, and that wasn’t until the mid-1980s.

These memories of growing up have resurfaced in the context of exploring my own passivity recently.  I find it ironic that my attempts to move forward are constantly hampered by the past, and that I am a ‘past’ professional.  I have a doctorate in history.  Six generations ago, the women who left Cornwall and landed in Adelaide was illiterate and remained so until she died in Bendigo in the 1890s.  A feminist victory, of sorts.

PS: Although…spell checker is sexist.  I left the ‘r’ off her.  It defaulted to ‘his’.  No feminist victories then.

The archaeology of ‘something nasty’

Anyone who has been following me, and who hasn’t been repulsed by my descent into ‘something nasty’, knows that I’m not finding being alive to be remotely fun at the moment. I made a post in early February called Changing the Sky, which described the onset of this ‘something nasty’. It brings to mind those appalling images of tidal waves we have seen in recent years. A relentless force of debris filled water crashing across the psyche. That’s how I’ve felt, like I’m trapped in that surge of negativity and that I might well die in the attempt to find higher ground.

I’m still there, but this post is an experiment in something I’m going to dub ‘slivers of KCB; kindness, creativity and beauty’. Giving credit where credit is due, the idea comes from G Lynn Nelson, who wrote one of my favourite writing books called ‘Writing and Being’. It’s about finding a way out of the crashing depression, one tiny moment at a time. So today I’m trying to write about slips of time that were good, to refute my catastrophizing and my negativity. It’s a deliberate attempt to dwell in the good.

One. Today is my sister’s birthday. As I was thinking about trust this week, I asked myself who have I been absolutely able to trust without question. She is on that very short list. I wish her love and kindness for all her days.
Two: The rose garden and its majestic perimeter trees, enveloping me in scent and coolness on Tuesday morning while I cried.
Three: The almost total stranger who offered to read a manuscript excerpt, because she knows a publisher who might be interested.
Four: Being able to say something supportive to my friend who had just received her adoption file, and found some very unhappy reading in it. I know she will be reading this post, so I am again taking the moment to say to her how much I admire her for her strength and courage and compassion.
Five: Being appreciative that it is not a heatwave. Enjoying the shapes and colours of the clouds.
Six: Appreciating the goodness and skill of my Pilates instructor on Thursday. Pilates irons out my physical kinks and gives me a permitted space to focus on doing something kind and useful for myself.

It would be nice to try and make it seven but I won’t push it.