Things We Leave Behind

I’m doing some writing prompts by Ann Dee Ellis – eight minutes, unprompted and unrehearsed. I skipped the last two because they just weren’t working for me. So here’s today’s effort, about losing things:

When I was a kid, my aunt bought me a gold signet ring with a tiny sapphire (my birthstone) and the letter J engraved on it. I think it’s kind of a rite of passage for most girls to get one of these rings; I was totally thrilled to have a piece of ‘real’ jewelry. Then on one of our trips back to Australia, I lost it somewhere along the way. When I realized it was gone, we tore the cabin apart, checked under every mattress, in between the sofa cushions, everywhere. We even pulled open the vacuum cleaner bag to check if it was there. But it was gone and we never found it.

Nowadays, I’m a little paranoid about leaving things behind in hotel rooms. Every time I check out of somewhere, my mind is swarming with all the things that I could have possibly left behind. Even when I get on the plane, a part of me is still fretting about whether I have my phone charger and constantly checking to see if my engagement ring is on my finger.

But it’s not just material possessions. I’m losing time as well. Facebook memories are strange things, because I will see posts from less than a decade ago with comments (really meaningful, friendly comments) from people whose names and faces I don’t even recognize. There are big chunks of my life that have either slipped from all memory, or I’ve blocked them out on purpose. It’s scary, because it often feels like memories are the common thread between who we are at 6 and who we are at 36… and now there are big gaps in that narrative.

These days, I keep a diary. I have to find a better way of organizing it, but it’s just a Word document. Some days I come up with the most dreamy reflections, sometimes huge thoughts about the universe and the human psyche, other days it’s a total Burn Book where I basically character assassinate people until I feel better. I can count on one hand the number of times I have skipped back to read over past entries, but it’s comforting that they are there and I’m not going to lose them.

Birthdays

I’m doing some writing prompts by Ann Dee Ellis. Eight minutes, unrehearsed or edited. Today’s theme is birthdays – and I actually did this one twice, about two mostly unrelated things:

Nathan has this story that he loves to tell the dogs, about the days that they were born. Apparently we were there when they were born, they came out of my tummy and we brought them home from the hospital wrapped in blankets. He cradles Rupert like a baby and tells him this story over and over in a voice full of interesting pitches – the dogs love it. They will listen intently, tilting their heads with curiosity every time they hear unusual words or phrases that sound like things they already know.

It does make me a little sad that we weren’t there for their birth days. Posie would have looked like a little naked pink baby rat. Who knows what Rupert would have looked like – he is so obviously the runt of the litter, with his weirdly disproportionate paws and his health issues.

I’ve written about it before, but their birthdays each year are filling me with dread these days. One year closer to the finish line, one more year has slipped away, never to return, reminding me of how few years we will get to spend together in the narrative of my whole life. We will never own dogs like these ones again. There might be other great dogs in our future, but nobody will be Posie or Rupert, ever again. It makes me so sad to know that I will have to go on and live the rest of my life without them, but I should feel so lucky that I got to have them at all – out of all the dogs, we got the perfect ones for us.

They really are the best dogs.

*****

Nathan and I share a birthday. Four years apart. What are the odds? 1/365 if all dates are given equal weighting, which they shouldn’t be (more babies are born in September, more babies are born on certain days of the week, etc). So, depending on various factors, it’s probably a less than 1/365 chance. But it still blows people’s minds. It really amazes me how many people don’t even have a basic understanding of statistical probability. For example, did you know that a pregnant woman only has a 3.99% chance of spontaneously going into labour on her due date but she has a 50% chance of already having delivered by that point? These are the statistics that drive people mad, because if it deviates from their anecdotal experience (or those of people they know) even slightly or they can’t wrap their head around the numbers for whatever reason, they will insist that the whole study is wrong.

This really has nothing to do with birthdays, does it? 🙂

Finish

I’m doing some writing prompts by Ann Dee Ellis. Eight minutes, unrehearsed or edited. Today, the theme is ‘finish’:

My best friend Sarah and I used to be (and still are, a bit) obsessed with The Sims. As teenagers, we would make ourselves as a couple of cool twenty-somethings with awesome jobs and cute boyfriends, sharing a god awful apartment with fish tanks and zebra print sofas in every room. Really it was just daydreaming out loud about how brilliant we imagined it would be to be a grown-up. Then we got more ambitious and started building mega mansions (thank you rosebud cheat!). I discovered user created content, like gothic skin tones and Shania Twain hairstyles – it was great, but I do wonder how many total hours I wasted playing the game rather than actually living my real life. I would always make a Sim who was the most beautiful, the most intelligent, the most creative; then I would build her an ultimate dream house, paying attention to every single detail.

The problem is that whenever I finished these dream houses, I could never bring myself to actually play. It felt like my work was done, that I had set up this perfect life for this perfect girl, and everything after that was going to be broken sinks, burglars, and romantic failures. When I look back now, I guess The Sims was just an extension of something I used to do when I was even younger – I would spend hours drawing out detailed maps of my dream bedroom. Hot pink and orange silks hung from the ceiling, a retro egg chair, a perfectly round bed covered in fake fur cushions and teddies, inflatable bubble armchairs, a rotating Clueless wardrobe full of platform boots and mini skirts, a television that doubled as a fish tank (I really liked fish tanks as a kid for some reason), every wall a bookshelf to the ceiling, personal Tamagotchi nurse for when I was sleeping or at school, and an antechamber full of cushions that would be ‘the puppy room’ where my imaginary Pomeranian called Spunky would lounge around all day. It was going to be awesome. And my friends and I would each be assigned a particular colour that matched our personality (I was always pink) and I would have matching satin pajamas ready for us whenever they came for sleepovers.

Like my Sims mansions, I would slave over the details until everything was perfect. But as soon as it was finished, I lost interest. It was like I had exhausted myself on that particular daydream and it was time to move on to something new.

Luckily for Nathan, my taste has changed a bit in the last twenty years, which is something I never could have predicted as a nine year old. I suppose most people are so settled in whatever shape their personality takes at a particular moment that they can’t comprehend the core of themselves changing radically in the future. But there is no ‘finished’, for anybody, and I’m glad – what a drag it would be to get everything perfect, finished and nailed down, and then lose interest in the messy, constantly evolving act of living in the real world.

Games

I’m doing some writing prompts by Ann Dee Ellis. Eight minutes, unrehearsed or edited. Today it’s about games. Photo is from happier times in the same year.

When we came back from Taiwan, my parents gave me the option of going straight into Year 7 at a brand new high school or slotting back into Year 6 at the same primary school, with the same kids, that I had gone to before we left. In hindsight, I think I made the wrong choice because I was bored out of my brain, but I was so blinded by the idea of being “with all my friends” that I went backwards. Note: only one of them turned out to be my friend.

At the end of each day, the classroom would play some sort of group game as a reward for concentrating. One of them was called “Murder in the Dark”, I can’t remember the other ones. They would just launch into the game without any explanation, because all the rest of them had been together, in the same class, for seven years. They knew the rules. I was so confused, I didn’t know what to do. I would squeak out an “excuse me, can somebody please tell me how to play?” but they never listened. They just got frustrated that I was slowing them down. I asked the teacher, who never had much patience for a dreamy, inattentive kid in desperate need of extension work. She told me to ask the other students. I asked them, they mostly rolled their eyes at me or offered explanations like “look, you just play the game, okay?” or “don’t be stupid, everybody knows how to play the game”.

What ended up happening was that I would dread the end of every day. I would get more and more anxious, and I started asking to go to the bathroom but really just going for a panicked walk around the playground, hoping it would be over by the time I got back. It never was. They all knew exactly what to do. I would open or close my eyes at the wrong times and ruin the game, or not know what to do when somebody tapped me on the shoulder or gave me a piece of paper or winked at me. When I got it wrong, everybody would groan and kids would call me stupid or angrily blame me for wrecking the game “on purpose”. I picked up some of the games over time by sneakily opening my eyes to see how it all worked, but some remained mysteries. And I was always in a state of panic that they would choose one of the ones that I didn’t understand.

It was awful. It’s kind of no surprise that I had terrible culture shock, or that this was the first year that I could really pinpoint being seriously depressed. I’m always surprised that my teacher didn’t notice me tensing up and trying not to cry every afternoon when she announced we were going to play a game. Or maybe she did.

Little (Big) Things

Inspired by C. Jane Kendrick, I’m doing some writing prompts by Ann Dee Ellis. Eight minutes, unrehearsed or edited. Today it’s all about little things. I’m a little scattered today, so here’s a list of the littlest things that are sometimes the biggest things:

Getting the butter-to-vegemite ratio perfect on your toast (dark rye bread, please).
Suddenly realizing how quiet is and looking around the house to find two happily snoozing dogs.
A package arriving, containing a new dress.
Making eggs for somebody you love even though the smell makes you gag.
A wilting plant magically reviving itself after watering at the end of a hot day.
Fresh bed linen, bonus points if it dried on the clothesline in the sunshine.
Apricots so ripe that their juice dribbles down your chin.
Text messages that say “Just landed, see you soon Chicolina”.
Plain cotton Bonds quarter crew socks, nothing else will do.
The satisfaction of writing or reading or hearing a well-crafted, melodious sentence.
Ticking off a big To Do list.
Little clusters of gorgeous roses still blooming, here and there.
Being in possession of a ticket to see B*witched in a few weeks.
The coffee table stacked high with folded laundry, ready to be put away.
The effort-reward equation of slow cooking (so worth it).
Sending photos to my grandma so she can see what I’ve been up to.
Posie training us to give her lots of pats by following us around and giving us tiny love-licks on the back of our calves.
Letting somebody else make you a healthy dinner when you are exhausted and would otherwise eat junk.
Owning a particular book and remembering that you bought it secondhand at a book fair in Taipei 20 years ago.
Really, really, really wanting a cheeseburger but preferring the pleasure of my clothes getting looser each day.
Crunchy saltwater hair and sandy feet.
Planting a tree in the garden and seeing it grow before your eyes.
Discovering brilliant new-to-me songs that were actually recorded decades before I was born.
My super prolific phalaenopsis orchids that just won’t quit with the new blooms.
The video of David Bowie performing Starman on Countdown.
Stealing Nathan’s t-shirt at the end of every day, to sleep in it.
Really, really, really good licorice tea.
When flocks of peachy pink galahs gather on the oval across from my house at dawn or dusk.
Rupert’s popcorn barks, especially when he’s trying to mount an argument that your dinner actually belongs to him.
Having a man willing to massage my right foot for over an hour if that’s what it takes to get rid of a migraine.
Finally owning a DVD copy of the Japanese The Little Mermaid with the real ending.
Lighting tealight candles, just because it’s nice.
Realizing you have about seven months of your twenties left.
Seeing great sales on flights and restraining myself because we have a plan to stick to, but still researching the hell out of places for next year.
Tasting all the wines we are going to serve at our wedding party and realizing it’s real.
Pineapple and watermelon, in all their glorious forms.
Returning to yoga after a break and feeling my spine unfold like a concertina.
Being able to say “I’m writing my first novel” because it’s true and it’s really happening.

Depths and Peaks

scuba nath

Inspired by the incredible C. Jane Kendrick, I’m doing some writing prompts by Ann Dee Ellis. Eight minutes, unrehearsed or edited. Photo is Nathan after scuba diving! Here’s today and it’s about adventure:

“I must be a mermaid. I have no fear of depths, and a great fear of shallow living” – Anaïs Nin.

I like this quote, not just because I have a lifelong affinity with mermaids. But mainly because I could have said it myself.

When I was about ten years old, I wanted to be an explorer. We were learning about Magellan and Columbus at school and I was convinced that there was another continent somewhere in the oceans that I would be the one to discover. I saw antique maps on the internet that were absolutely certain about huge bodies of land in the middle of the Pacific or the Indian Ocean. I would sail the ship or fly my own plane like Amelia Earhart to this secret place, map its borders, find out about its people and animals. This idea fell apart when I realized that satellite images of the earth would have shown this hidden continent if it existed.

The next plan was to be a professional traveller. I didn’t know what was really involved, but I would probably be on television, eat weird food and get my face painted like a Chinese opera performer. Then after that, I wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to be the first person to travel through a black hole. Then a mountaineer, to be the youngest girl to climb Everest.

Lots of plans. Obviously, none of them are coming true. I’m a lot more cautious and scared than I used to be, but the desire for adventure never goes away. I suppose that’s why I put myself through such terrifying experiences, on purpose, knowing how much it will scare me. I know people who are so afraid of flying that they literally never go anywhere, ever. I am afraid enough to need prescription medication for days in advance just to get myself to the airport, but I still do it. I went scuba diving despite all my fears of drowning and sharks – I did it because I would regret it forever if I didn’t do something simply because I was too scared. And because the alternative is so unfathomable, to let my whole life be so limited by all my fears, to live a life so bereft of adventure.

That’s not to say that there is only adventure in big things. I’m currently growing garlic in my garden. Did you know that you can eat the shoots that come out of the ground, or that garlic forms as one big fat bulb that separates into cloves very late in its development? Did you know you have to pick it, clean it, dry it and keep it in a dark place for ages to let it mellow and sweeten? It’s such a small thing, but I’ve never done this before and I’m learning all the time. It’s tiny, but there can be adventures everywhere if you look for them.

Billboards

Inspired by the incredible C. Jane Kendrick, I’m doing some writing prompts by Ann Dee Ellis. Eight minutes, unrehearsed or edited. Photo of Rupert has nothing to do with anything, he just looked extra adorable on the weekend. Here’s today and it’s about billboards:

rupert

Sometimes things are so obvious, but you will dance around them forever rather than admit that things could be so straightforward. It could be written on billboards wherever you go, but you will still miss it, because it would seem too simple to be true.

When I was in high school, we did careers counselling sessions in Year Nine. For the record, I do not recommend. I strongly do not recommend. I think it’s a heavy thing to put on a fifteen year old – what they should be, for the rest of their life. Especially when the person running the show has such a limited view of what ‘jobs’ and ‘careers’ can actually be.

I said I wanted to be a writer. She said: “that’s not a job, that’s a hobby, try again”. I knew I wanted to go to university, but I didn’t know you could go all the way and end up teaching at university. And it never occurred to me that you could end up building a career that blended different things, a life where you could wear many different hats.

My talent and passion were both pointed straight at literary studies and creative writing, but I had been told there was no career in that. I went through VCE doing the subjects that interested me, rather than trying to game the system like some of my friends did, doing subjects that had nothing to do with their interests or aspirations just to get the highest score. I went to University of Melbourne – too soon, it turns out, but you couldn’t defer with a scholarship.

At some point along the way, I got it into my head (i.e. people pressured me) that I had to be sensible about things and study something that led to a definite job. I started studying primary school teaching. It was utterly miserable. I hated it so much, I hated the people I was surrounded with, I hated having to put faith in teaching styles that would have been downright harmful to a kid like me. I still have massive reservations about the education system, based on what I saw in that semester.

It took a long time, but I’m back where I started – last year, I finished an arts degree in literary studies and creative writing (sub-major in children’s literature too, which was interesting). I’m doing honours now, and although there is no absolute job at the end of this road, it’s where I was always meant to be. I’ve been driving down this road since high school with the same billboard lighting up over and over, but I ignored it. It seemed too obvious, there had to be a hidden trap in it. But there wasn’t – I’m still figuring out how this is actually going to be my career, but it’s clear that it’s where I was always meant to be.

Morals of the story, messages to my teenage self: don’t listen to high school careers counselors whose career experience consists of decades in the same job. Don’t ignore what is at the heart of you in order to live up to other people’s expectations. Don’t pin your hopes on the jobs market being the same place when you are fifteen as when you are twenty-five. Don’t be sensible – you have the rest of your life to have things like mortgages and families and health issues and sensibility. Find the intersection of your talents and passions, and go for it. If there is no job there, make one.

Typical Attack

Inspired by the incredible C. Jane Kendrick, I’m doing some writing prompts by Ann Dee Ellis. Eight minutes, unrehearsed or edited (though it was more like fifteen minutes this time). Here’s today:

in bed with rupert boy

 

I don’t remember what a typical TN attack (as opposed to the atypical ones) feels like, until I’m in the middle of one. You know how you can recall emotions or sensations years after the fact, and even will yourself to feel it just from memory? I can’t do that for TN, and that scares me. It’s terrifying that it is so extreme that my memory can’t even process that level of pain. I can recall moments of intense grief or heartbreak or disappointment with as much clarity and tangibility that it feels like they are happening all over again, or even things like the pain of spraining my ankle, but trying to remember a TN attack is suddenly a theoretical exercise – I can remember on an intellectual level what happens, where it hurts, how it starts, but I can’t remember how it feels.

Maybe it’s some kind of subconscious self-protective measure, or maybe it’s just that the worst pain that you could ever experience really is more than your memory can handle.

I wish I could express to others how it feels. To anybody who ever thinks it’s no big deal, that it couldn’t possibly hurt that much, that I’m faking it or being melodramatic about it. It would certainly be an illuminating experience for them to spend one second in my body during the worst of an attack. But I couldn’t wish that anybody.

But I can try to describe what happens – I can describe the details, but not the magnitude. It’s a hot and cold and stinging and bruising and pressing feeling, beginning with a bang, or sometimes ramping up over hours or days or what feels like somebody punched me repeatedly on the right side of my face and tried to rip my teeth out. It feels like three wires run through my face and they have suddenly become electrified. These wires branch off around my eye socket, through my cheek down into my teeth, and along the edge of my jaw. One tooth in particular always feels like it’s going to explode and leave a giant crater where my face was; when you’re in the midst of it, that possibility actually seems preferable to having to bear the full attack. The pain knocks you off your feet and makes you curl into a little ball, clawing at the furniture like an animal. Sometimes you cry – which makes it worse – but other times you can’t even make a sound. You have no thoughts, there is no room in your entire self for anything but the pain. Your lizard brain kicks in, but even that can’t manage to regulate your breathing. It’s shocking, it sucks all the air of out of your lungs, it makes you want to vomit and scream but both are impossible. You will grab at your face, wishing you could rip it off; you will bash your head against any hard object, trying to make it stop. And then it’s over.

Dramatic? Yes. I still feel terrible for Nathan and Mum for having watched, helplessly, as I went through those worst ones. I must have looked possessed.

Something else that I haven’t been able to remember until recently is how long the atypical side of this has been going on for. Facebook memories are proving to be very useful for tracking things over a historical perspective, as are old diaries and blogs. It has shocked me to find so many records of myself complaining of facial pain. Most of these mentions worry that it’s my wisdom teeth, or wonder if I’m about to get sinusitis. Always on the same side of my face.

It seems like I have been dealing with this since I was a teenager, without a clue, without an answer or any recognition that it was an ongoing narrative of pain in my life. At least now that I know what it is, there are things I can do about it.

When I first found out that this thing had a name and wasn’t a tooth or an infection or my imagination, it was a relief. Then google told me horror stories about a woman who had it so bad that every day was torture, and when she finally had the nerve severed, the pain came back and there was no further treatment. Wikipedia told me that it was historically referred to as “the suicide disease” because the pain would drive people literally to death. Not exactly encouraging stuff. My case is sporadic and a mix of typical/atypical, no cause has been identified yet. I haven’t had an extended typical attack since the first one, apart from some random attacks here and there, but the possibility – no, the certainty – that it will happen again, sometime in the future without any warning, haunts me.

Typhoon

Inspired by the incredible C. Jane Kendrick, I’m doing some writing prompts by Ann Dee Ellis. Eight minutes, unrehearsed or edited. Here’s today:

typhoon

I remember when we had our first typhoon, and it happened to be a huge one. It was 1996 and we were Taiwan newbies. We knew we had to stay indoors for a few days, but it wasn’t clear whether you closed all the windows or left one open just a little bit so that they all wouldn’t shatter – different people said different things. We didn’t have the internet to consult back then.

It was fine, for a while. I think it was close to Mum’s birthday or something, so she had a box of fancy chocolates. We watched the palm trees lean and their fronds all pull to one side, blown by such a strong and sustained effort that it looked like they were barely moving.

Then the water started coming in. We were on the fourth floor (four means death in Taiwan, so only foreigners live on the fourth floor), but it still came streaming in through the window frames. We dabbed it with towels, thinking it would be over soon. But soon it was pouring in, flooding the entire lounge room. We moved all the furniture and the rug, then mopped it up and got rid of the buckets to start all over again. Suddenly it seemed a bit scarier. I knew we were high up, but I couldn’t shake the idea that somehow there would be a flood that would reach so high that we would all drown.

Somewhere in the forested valley that we could see from our window there was an explosion. You could see this long cloud of brownish-grey dust form an arc, showing the direction of the wind. When it reached us, it smelled like burning rubber.

Days later when we finally got the newspaper again, I read about all the typhoon deaths. One was an eight year old girl, like me, who had been jumping on her bed with the window open at the height of the typhoon. She got sucked out the window. I remember thinking that she was so crazy, but feeling like that sounded like something I might have done too.