The Stories We Live By

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the stories we tell ourselves.

Specifically, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. 

I’ve listened to a lot of friends’ and family members’ stories recently, and it’s got me thinking about the power of the narratives we build about ourselves in our own minds. Those stories can turn almost anything into the truth, because we live the life we believe to be true about ourselves.

That’s a lot of power to give a story.

I’ve seen that power at work in my own life. There have been times when I’ve spun a narrative about myself in my head that was true, but depressing. It’s easy to find those sorts of stories to tell ourselves, because of course, bad things have happened to all of us, we’ve all made bad decisions, we’ve all experienced loss. 

But by focusing on the victim/fool/bereaved narratives in our lives, we give power to those stories. Those stories become who we are. 

As a survivor of multiple sexual assaults whose career has been derailed over and over by the classic forces of gender bias in our society, I could narrate a bitter and dissatisfied story for myself. Sometimes I’ve fallen into that trap, and it has led only to anger, depression and despair. It has given immense power to those negative experiences of the past.

It is better by far to narrate a story of resilience, support, love, and surprising opportunities. Because those things have been a part of my life too, and they make a much better story to live in. By building a positive story in my mind, I wrest power away from the negative. I actually increase my happiness and my strength by reminding myself that it’s always been there, even at the worst of times. My internal narrative can include those bad things, but focus on how they helped me grow, how I used the negative as inspiration for change, how the negative highlights the positive in life.

It’s not that I believe we shouldn’t tell those stories of injustice or pain in our own lives. As a society, we can’t shove that stuff under the rug and not address it. We can’t pretend it doesn’t happen.

But as an individual, I can acknowledge all the shit of life and still build a positive narrative to tell myself about myself. 

Is it easy? No, not always. But it’s easier if I focus on the present. It’s easier if I look to the future. It’s easier if I focus on the things that are within my scope of influence. It’s easier if I refuse to label myself in any way—labels so often come with negativity or expectations that we may or may not want to meet. Labels encourage defeatism—oh, I’m just X, so there’s nothing I can do about it.

So in my story about myself, I am not a middle-aged woman. I am not a mother. I am not a wife. I am not a writer. I am instead, a person with certain skills, likes and dislikes who engages in many different activities which bring me joy. I am a person who is still learning and growing, and my story focuses on my core values and how I live them. 

And every morning I get up and live my story.

What story do you tell yourself about yourself?

Crisis and Creativity

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, but I contend that actually it’s crisis that’s the real mother of invention.

Lately I feel like I’ve hit one crisis after another—getting Covid during the busiest season in the garden, having book sales completely tank in the lead-up to Christmas, having a critical component of a week-long science lesson be unavailable anywhere last week …

In the garden, I cut corners, laying compost on top of the soil rather than incorporating it as I usually do, in order to save time and limited physical energy. It’s something I hoped to be able to start doing, but figured I still had years of breaking up clay before it would work. Surprisingly, while the soil is a little harder than I’d like it to be for planting, it’s not terrible. If the plants do okay, I may have just changed my garden routine for good, saving me lots of work.

For my books, I’ve taken a step back from the ‘usual’ marketing techniques that have been costing me more than they’ve been bringing in. I’ve analysed what I’m good at, what I enjoy doing, and how I can incorporate those things into my marketing strategy, rather than banging my head against marketing strategies I’m no good at and hate doing. It will take a while to implement my new plan, and even longer to know if it works, but I’m having a great time working on marketing at the moment, rather than dreading every second of it as I usually do.

In the classroom, with less than 24 hours until my science lesson, I launched into preparations for plan B—activities I hadn’t run in 30 years. I felt completely unprepared, and kept realising things I’d forgotten to prepare or forgotten to do—each time I looked around at the resources to hand and got creative. The result was a set of fabulous lessons that didn’t look at all like I’d planned, but which worked well and were fun for everyone.

I really hope next week isn’t as full of crisis as the past several have been, but if they are, I’m pretty sure that as long as I keep moving forward, creativity will blossom and I’ll end up in better shape than before.

Here’s to crisis and creativity!

Welcome to the Light

We have now officially tipped over to the light half of the year. All green and growing things know it, as do the birds and the farmers and gardeners.

And for this first day in which the day is longer than the night, Canterbury’s weather has decided to celebrate—clear skies and warm sunshine with a hint of a cool breeze to remind us where we’ve come from.

A bumble bee drones by as I sit on the porch eating lunch in the sunshine. A guttural croak overhead draws my eye to a white-faced heron gliding like a modern-day pterodactyl to its nest. A jumping spider lurches across the warm pavers at my feet, leaving behind a glittering silk thread that marks her passage. Flies swirl in jerky spirals, describing their micro-territories within a cloud of lekking insects.

Days like today remind me to slow down and feel the motion of the earth.

I pluck a fresh mint leaf and chew on it. The flavour brings back summer memories of Mrs Cassel’s mint tea, sipped from frosty glasses clinking with ice. 

A bellbird whistles from somewhere in the neighbourhood. Enjoying the nectar of someone’s flowering kōwhai, no doubt. I close my eyes and remember the sound of the dawn chorus in Westland National Park.

Days like today remind me that the most memorable things in life never involve the daily grind, but only happen when we step off the treadmill and into the world.

Sitting on the porch of a tramping hut while a weka tries to steal my socks.

Fording an icy river, turquoise from glacial runoff.

Watching jumping spiders’ strange semaphore dance on the windowsill.

Biting into the first tomato of summer, warm from the garden.

Following a starfish’s slow glide across the bottom of a tide pool.

Reaching the top of a mountain to find rank upon rank of peaks stretching out ahead, begging to be summited, drawing you on to new adventures.

So, welcome to the light. Step into the world and enjoy the sunshine.

Do Something Scary

Do one thing every day that scares you.

Paper! Never needs a new operating system.

I heard this bit of advice years ago, and while I wouldn’t say I do something scary every day, I do try to push myself out of my comfort zone when I have an opportunity.

Yesterday, I did something that for me was scary.

I updated my computer system.

I know that sounds pathetic, but I’d put off any updates for years, because I had a host of expensive software that would be rendered useless if I upgraded. The software worked well for me—why would I upgrade and have to spend thousands of dollars to replace it? 

The reason why came to a head as I tried to publish Fatewalker last week. My software was no longer supported by the upload algorithms at Amazon, which meant my e-book wasn’t uploading properly. It was the last straw in an increasingly frustrating game of eking out my old software for as long as possible.

So I spent some time over the last week searching out alternatives to my expensive old software and emotionally preparing myself for the inevitable frustration of a new operating system and new software, which may or may not be able to read files created by the old software. 

Yesterday morning I made two complete backups of my computer.

Then I clicked on the dreaded button to install the latest operating system.

My computer flashed up warning after warning, asking me if I was sure I wanted to do this. 

Yes, I said. I’m ready. 

The screen went black.

A progress bar told me it would be about four million years until it was finished.

I spent my afternoon trying not to glance at the still-black screen, writing a short story in a notebook, enjoying the beauty of analog writing.

I brainstormed titles for my current work in progress, revelling in the scratch of pencil on paper while ignoring the whine of my computer’s cooling fan.

I took a long break with a cup of tea.

Finally, light returned to my screen. I was relieved to see the update had been successful. None of my software worked, but all my files were there. 

I pulled out the credit card and bought new software. I purged the old, useless software from my applications folder. On a whim, I downloaded some free software that looked useful (software I couldn’t have run before). 

The process was almost fun, in a nail-biting sort of way.

There will be a learning curve, of course (and no doubt some swearing involved). I have lots of new systems to master. But I uploaded a fully functional version of Fatewalker today to replace the cobbled-together one I uploaded last week—not a single warning or error message to be seen. And I played around with some new software, just to see how it worked, and was pleasantly surprised at how intuitive it was. Then I got down to work, and added over 3000 words to my work in progress. 

It was a good day. Scary thing conquered.

What scary thing have you done recently?

Cauliflower Power

head of cauliflower

A while back, I was searching online for something new to do with cauliflower for dinner. I found plenty of recipes, and nearly every one of them went on and on about how few carbs or calories cauliflower has.

Some of the photos looked delicious, and I’m sure most of the recipes are. But I was so turned off by the low calorie/low carb drumbeat, I lost my appetite.

I love cauliflower. But I love it for its sweet, nutty flavour. I love it for its crunch and the way it breaks into pretty little florets. I love it for its ability to grow year-round here and provide fresh, local produce even in the depths of winter. 

I don’t love it for its lack of carbs and low calorie count. Eating it for those reasons diminishes its value, reduces it to the sum of what it lacks. Here in Aotearoa, you might say it reduces its mana—its spiritual power or strength.

That’s no way to treat food.

I grow vegetables and purchase foods on the basis of what they are, not what they aren’t. Flavour, texture, nutrient content, protein content, and yes, those wonderful starches as well. Even colour is important. My family eats a glorious mix of richly flavoured and textured foods that nourish and satisfy. We celebrate what we eat, because food is what gives us life.

Maybe I’m prejudiced against the relentless messages telling us we must count calories and watch our weight. Raising an anorexic child will do that to you. But my discomfort runs deeper than that, because the focus on calories and carbs speaks to a real disconnect between people and the plants that sustain them. And I can’t help but think that disconnect exacerbates the growing incidence of obesity in modern society.

Counting calories and carbs reduces food to fuel—pump it in, make sure you don’t overfill the tank.

But food is part of our social network, our cultural history, our daily routines. It’s a way to show love and to care for one another. It is part of who we are as humans. And when we acknowledge that, we find ourselves not wolfing down some prepackaged insta-meal while scrolling on our phones, but taking time to make a meal and share it with others. We find ourselves gravitating to foods that make us feel good—foods that nourish our emotions as well as our bodies. We find ourselves reaching back to our ancestors for foods that define who we are.

And we forget about carbs and calories and learn instead to love food for what it provides, not what it withholds.

Christchurch Quake, 10 years on

My 9 and 10-year-old students filed into the room today. 

“Where’s William?” one asked.

“He’s gone to the earthquake memorial,” I answered.

“What earthquake?”

I explained about the series of quakes Canterbury had endured, starting in September 2010 and including the one on 22 February 2011 that killed 185 people. These children had been babies at the time, or not even born yet.

“People died?” Fear shone in the girl’s eyes.

“Was it scary?” asked another child.

I paused, the memory of that day and the days after it playing through my mind.

“Yes. It was scary.”

“Even more scary than Covid? More scary than lockdown?”

Well … different.

These children were born into a quake-damaged city. A broken Christchurch is all they’ve ever known. They do not understand the ‘before’ and ‘after’ we adults do. They grew up in a landscape slowly settling into quiescence, and don’t know the sudden rupture of the solid foundation of life beneath them.

Or perhaps they do. Covid has shaken their world as much as the Canterbury quakes shook ours ten years ago. Perhaps they are not as physically rattled as we were, but their lives are disrupted, and life as they knew it is gone.

Ten years on from the quakes, the city’s scars are still visible. Empty lots remain where buildings once stood; the cathedral stands half-collapsed; in some places, shipping containers still protect passersby from the risk of building collapse.

But the quakes gave us opportunities to rethink the city. We now have more green space along the river. We have a spectacular central library that serves as a community hub. We have the Margaret Mahy playground, the High Street eateries, pocket parks, art and community spaces that didn’t exist pre-quake. We’ve got the Dance-O-Mat!

Covid hasn’t brought down our physical structures, but it has devastated social structures worldwide. It has shone a light on our ‘essential’ workers, highlighting that many are the most underpaid and overexploited people in society. It has emphasised the critical roles played by schools and preschools, whose staff are historically underpaid and poorly supported. It has highlighted the importance of local communities, science-based decision making, and disaster planning. It has reminded us painfully of the imbalance in gender roles and expectations in our society.

We need to allow Covid to change us as much as the earthquakes did. We need to let it drive us to rethink our values, our society, our expectations. Encourage us to find new ways to live our lives, to reflect upon those things we should be valuing more.

In the days and weeks after the February quake, help poured into Christchurch, much of it grassroots efforts by individuals or small groups. As a community, we remembered what we had perhaps forgotten in our daily rush and bustle. What is the most important thing in the world? He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata! The people, the people, the people.

Disaster allows us to rise again, remade. Let us remember the lessons of the past as we move forward and envision a post-Covid world in which we remember what is most important. 

When Everything is a Gift

My stunted yellow corn.

I never expected much from this year’s vegetable garden. The soil test revealed a virtually sterile substrate, nutrient-free, stripped by decades of conventional agriculture and then scraped by the developer’s bulldozers. It will take years to improve the soil to the levels of my old garden. In the first year, I figured I’d be lucky to coax a few meals out of the garden.

There’s no question the vegetables I planted are suffering. The plants are half the size they should be, and many are yellow and senescing early for lack of nutrients.

But the compost, manure, and other organic fertiliser I’ve incorporated into the soil have done some good. We have plenty of onions, cucumbers, carrots, herbs and green beans. We are overwhelmed with zucchini. The soy beans and dry beans will all give harvests. Pumpkins swell on their vines. We’ve even eaten a few melons.

Every fruit feels like a gift.

I could be dismayed at the state of the garden—corn only waist high, tomatoes ripening at golf ball size, potatoes decimated by disease … but I know what the plants are up against. I know how hard they’re working to produce anything. I admire their effort and determination.

So, in spite of how pathetic the garden is, I am pleased. I feel blessed at every meal, and I look forward to an even better year next year.

It’s Okay to Wilt

Last week, the temperature hit 38ºC (100ºF) two days in a row. Working at home those days, I sat on the polished concrete floor, because it remained a few degrees cooler than the air, which was blowing hot and dry from the northwest. My phone and computer kept overheating, and eventually I shut them down and switched to pen and paper.

At some point, I commented to my husband about the sad state of the vegetables in the garden. Every leaf was wilted, and the plants looked like they were only barely alive, in spite of the watering I’d done the previous day.

“Yes,” he remarked. “But remember, they’re supposed to do that.”

He’s right—wilting is part of a plant’s way of coping with heat. Wilted leaves expose less surface directly to the sun, conserving water and keeping temperatures within the leaf cooler. A wilted plant can’t grow or photosynthesise—permanent wilting is fatal—but it can allow the plant to survive while conditions are harsh so it can continue to thrive when conditions improve.

It strikes me that wilting is a lesson we could all learn from plants: ease up when times are tough.

How many of us have expected to keep going at our usual pace through all of life’s struggles—illness, children, death of loved ones, earthquakes, pandemic … I know I’ve been irritated with myself, pushed harder, forced myself through difficulties at full pace, only to find I didn’t actually move at the speed I wanted, or I messed things up and had to do them a second time, or I simply made my eventual collapse worse.

How much better would I have done if I’d allowed myself to wilt before the point of collapse? Maybe I could have asked for help, or lowered my standards, or simply given myself permission to relax for fifteen minutes, an hour, an afternoon.

I’ve gotten better at wilting—the wisdom of 50 years of life—but I could still improve. I just need to remember the garden during a summer heat wave.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Christmas day dinner–no cooking required.

Much of the world has entered the holiday season under the threat of Covid. Holiday gatherings, a highlight for many, are necessarily smaller or cancelled altogether.

For some, a Christmas without parties and large family gatherings will seem … well, not like Christmas at all. 

I’ve been thinking about this as I talk to my family about their holiday plans, and there’s a lot of similarity in what they are going through to what my husband and I have gone through as expats. We’re used to holidays far from parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. We know how the ghosts of family-filled Christmases past haunt the table set for two on Christmas eve. We’ve learned how to fill the holidays with meaning even if we can’t fill them with loved ones. I imagine most other expats have done the same.

It occurred to me that the lessons we’ve learnt are applicable to those stuck at home due to Covid. So here are some musings on how we’ve navigated (and come to love) solo holidays.

  • Treat yourself the way you’d treat guests. Do you usually make a special dinner Christmas Day? Cook it for your household, even if that’s only two people. Do you stay up late partying to ring in the new year? Well, put on the stereo and dance, no matter how few you are.
  • If the previous idea raises too many ghosts for you, create new ‘traditions’ instead. Throw out the holiday rulebook. Instead of a party, go for a hike with your household. Instead of buying a live tree, get creative and make one with your immediate family out of whatever’s lying around the house. Instead of a formal meal in the dining room, have pizza and popcorn while watching a movie on the couch. The more different the new tradition, the less likely those Christmas ghosts will show up. Just make the new plan as much of a treat as the old (not simply your usual routine). 
  • Dress up. Staying home? Put your party clothes on anyway. It will make the day feel special, even if all you do is lie around reading books.
  • Share with family and friends far away. This is so much easier today than it was 27 years ago when my husband and I had our first Christmas overseas. Then, I wrote letters describing our Christmas punch and mailed photos of our tiny Christmas tree. These days, we share via telephone, Skype, Zoom and FaceTime. It’s not the same as being there, I know, but I am thankful for the opportunities we have to be ‘together’ for the holidays.
  • Focus on what you can gain, not what you’re losing. Quiet time with your partner and/or children. Time alone to do what you want, not what the whole gang wants. Freedom from the intense cooking, cleaning and planning that go into hosting holiday events. A chance to re-think your holiday traditions. A reprieve from that loud uncle who always drinks too much and starts talking politics … I’m sure there are plenty of things you’ll happily miss out on this year.

No question about it, this year’s holiday is going to be different from normal for most people. But that doesn’t mean it has to be bad. Make the most of the opportunities to try something different this year. Who knows? Maybe something you do this year will become part of your holiday traditions for years to come.

Combating Seasonal Exhaustion

The days are long now, and our summer has officially begun. Weeds crowd crops in the garden, and the harvest of spring fruits and vegetables is in full swing.

End of the school year events crowd people’s schedules, and children are restive and eager for the upcoming summer holidays.

Retailers remind us there are only so many shopping days until Christmas. The house still lacks decorations.

The 2020 goals list dares me to get just a few more tasks ticked off, and everyone wants things done and dusted in the next two weeks.

There’s hardly a moment to sleep, and the long summer days encourage us to stay up late and get up early to accomplish our ever-lengthening to-do list.

Add the stress of a year of chaos, disruption and fear, and everyone is suffering from seasonal exhaustion.

I sit down to compose a blog post, and am distracted by an incoming e-mail with an urgent request. I write the day’s to-do list, and promptly lose it in the shuffle of random items cluttering my desk. I have to set alarms on my phone so I don’t forget meetings. I try to do a little editing, and can hardly keep my eyes open.

I see fatigue in the eyes of coworkers and students, of friends and family. I hear it in e-mails from colleagues. We’re all suffering from seasonal exhaustion compounded by a dumpster-fire of a year.

We all need kindness and understanding right now.

Which is why I’ve decided to go on a pay-it-forward spree until Christmas. I’m sure that in the next few weeks at work, I’m going to visit the cafe next door more frequently than usual for a pick-me-up coffee. I’ve decided that every time I get a coffee for myself, I’ll buy one for the next person in line. Hopefully, it will make them smile. Maybe it will inspire them to do the same. Maybe a whole string of exhausted coffee-drinkers will get more than a caffeine hit, but a lift to their spirits as well, as they both receive a gift from the person before them and give one in return. 

And with smiles on their faces, maybe they’ll say a kind word to someone, and that person will pass on the kindness to someone else, who will in turn pass it on to another person.

And maybe I’m being overly optimistic about the impact of giving a cup of coffee to a stranger.

But maybe I’m not.

I’m willing to take that risk and do my best to spread kindness. We could all use it right now.