My Real Name

Collage inspired by riffing on My Real Name - and finding all those Philippa Brennan name tags from the 1970s...

It was the third time he’d approached me in two hours. I was scratchy-eyed and still unclaimed, waiting at Thessaloniki airport from three o’clock in the morning. A particularly charmless airport in Greece’s second-biggest city, six hours north of Athens. He was yet to find the person he’d been tasked to meet, or so I gathered through our pantomime interaction. I had reached, then surpassed my thirtieth year without finding the right man in my life, and it seemed sensible to throw in a good job in the museum sector and try my hand at English Language teaching.

So here I was after six years, yet another Australian in London, moving to Greece, with perhaps two words of the language under my belt. I’d finished a month-long teacher training course the week before. Mortgage payments pressed in on me from the flat I’d left behind in London – there was no time to delay, another job must be found. Greece was willing to take me with my thin credentials, so here I was. Apartment included. 

The red-eye flight had been paid for by the tin-pot private English school I’d be working for, a fitting start to the quest (or ordeal?) that was ahead. I was due to be picked up at 5.30am by the school owner’s daughter, Katerina, and just had to while away the intervening 2.5 hours, longing for bed and repeatedly repulsing any efforts of this strange man to cart me off. I shook my head again at him, not realising that a different head gesture was called for to convince him of my denial. I was yet to understand that indisputable Greek no that looks like a gesture of disdain. I needed to thrust my head and eyes upwards, making a single “tsk” sound. Then he would have been in no doubt. But I shook my head with cultural ineptitude, and he kept returning.

The clock crept forward to 5.30 am and finally Katerina appeared, a young, dark-haired woman accompanied by a tall, blond and fleshy consort, the boyfriend. Kristos I think, the name wafted away before I could catch it. Meanwhile, he took the handle of my suitcase from me and we marched behind him to the car.

It was noticeably warmer than London, once outside the airport. In the car, I struggled to get a sense of this new home as we travelled the ring road around the city. The street signs showed destination names first in Greek – large lettering- then in English spelling, smaller – a necessary if reluctant concession. None of the names meant anything as they loomed up then fell behind the car. I knew little of this ancient city, founded in 315 BC and perhaps most famous for Paul’s Letters to the Thessalonians. Once its skyline boasted minarets galore, but once the city returned to Greek hands, most remaining minarets were demolished and silenced.

The conversation had the stilted formality of strangers jammed into a car together. Katerina’s English was heavily accented but fluent, Kristos (we shall call him then) threw out some words of English, harder to understand as they were more caught up in an impenetrable accent, and he clearly didn’t have her proficiency.

We turned off the ring road and the city began to reveal itself bit by bit. Perhaps too many trips to Italy had led me to expect something gracious in the buildings – not this endless expanse of almost identical concrete apartment blocks, with their ugly awnings and charmless street-level shop fronts. I mean endless concrete. Its sparse ancient ruins were lost within this sea of concrete, just flashing out here and there with sudden grace. A city wall, a remnant of an old church and then it was gone, sucked into the Greece Anywhere vortex of Soviet-style apartments.

Kristos suddenly halted his car at one of the incomprehensible shops and proudly announced that without delay I was to sample Thessaoloniki’s finest bougatsa – pie. He especially recommended cream pie, which at 5.30 in the morning was the last thing I wanted to face. I longed for a shower and some solitude from the press of politeness, and perhaps a cup of Earl Grey tea and milk.

Our conversation grew if possible even more stilted, as Kristos, released from the chore of driving could turn his attention to murdering the English language more thoroughly. Eventually, having satisfied his substantial pastry cravings (I nibbled at a spinach pastry while he wolfed down endless triangles of oily pastry with a sliver of cream sandwiched between the crusts) we returned to the car.

We passed street after street, all an identical and disorientating blur until the car stopped again, but this time Kristos announced we were at the school. I murmured admiration, listened carefully to Katerina’s instructions on how to walk from the school to the apartment, and reiterated them as we drove the same route to the apartment. Finally, finally we made it there. I sounded as confident as I could about the directions, knowing I would have to strew breadcrumbs all the way in order to find my way home again at the end of the working day.

Katerina opened the door to the apartment complex and Kristos lugged my suitcase up the two flights of stairs despite my weak protests. A wooden door swung open to reveal a surprisingly light and pleasant interior, perfectly camouflaged by its concrete exterior. Perhaps a good landing spot after all? 

She advised me my flatmate, who had arrived the day before, was still asleep. She gestured to my room, gave me my copy of the keys and they vanished into Sunday.

In the silence that followed I crept like a burglar to the kitchen, opening the fridge door gingerly, spying items I didn’t quite understand. I couldn’t know then how I would discover the glorious, thick Greek yoghurt, how well it blended with nuts and honey. How good the tomatoes at the corner shop would be, and fresh flat-leaf parsley I would at first mistake for coriander.

But now I was prowling around, waiting to meet my new flatmate and feeling much too old for house-sharing with strangers. It had been some years since I had consented to live with someone I didn’t know, and I was far from sure that this would be a trend worth breaking. I unpacked, washed, lay down and read.

Sleep had overtaken me when at about 10am I heard stirrings and got up to greet my housemate. A fresh-faced, youthful blond woman emerged from her room, a good decade my junior.

“I’m Emma,” she greeted me. 

“Lovely to meet you. I’m Pip.”

We launched into the inanity of first conversations and by the end of half an hour I allowed myself a hint of relief that this seemed doable. Sure, I felt old, I was old for this kind of venture. But I was here, I needed to make the best of it and my flatmate seemed a good sort.

Lured by the unknown, we ventured out together into the incomprehensible streets – her school was just across the road, whereas mine was further away, down the street. I surprised and delighted myself by being able to find the school again and we walked past it.

Emma knew all sorts of things I didn’t, including that there was another pair of English teachers living closer to the centre, and we continued walking past the school, down the steep hill to find their house. One of them, Sarah, had lived at our apartment, taught at the school Emma was about to start in. The other, Bec, had lived in a small Greek village with her lover, but they had split, and she had retreated to the relative safety of Thessaloniki.

They welcomed us in and shared tales of the school Emma would be teaching in – not encouraging – and warnings about Katerina’s mother, Kiria Sonia who ran the school where I would be teaching. A cold hand clutched at my will, squeezing out all the juice, courage and vigour of my career change adventure.

All four of us went to the nearest taverna for a 3pm lunch and I promptly fell in love with the wonders of Greek cooking. All garlic and olive oil, what was not to like? Bec and Sarah warned us that food would come out in any order, and that all plates were shared. We had forks to dip into the shared plates of goodness. The reticence of six years in London was sloughing off more and more with the intimacy of this eating style. We washed down the heavenly food with retsina, like cheap white wine laced with pine household cleaner. I was advised it was slightly better with a dash of coke. Ewww. But it was, kind of.

We four women were outnumbered by the old men that sat about the taverna, twiddling their worry beads, clicking at backgammon, talking loudly to each other. Bec was awash with indignity about the selfish cruelty of (all) Greek men, savouring her release from the village and doomed relationship.

Bec’s timely warning would not have the desired effect of preventing Emma and me from having skirmishes with Greek men, as alas, most of us cannot heed the warnings that would save us.

But that first night of innocence and novelty, as Emma and I wobbled back up the hill home, the glory of Thessaloniki revealed itself in mountains on the horizon, backlit by a beautiful sunset. We stopped and admired several times.

Plus, we couldn’t believe how easy it was to access cheap cigarettes and alcohol around the clock at the kiosk-style peripteros, and we bought just a few beers to finish off the evening as it was off to work the next day.

There was something special about being dressed for a day’s work, satchel swinging jauntily in hand as I headed down the hill. To be in a country where you had no idea where you were, could not even have the simplest conversation, and yet to be gainfully employed, what an exciting privilege. So superior to being a tourist.

As I approached the school building I saw Katerina waving at me through the window, then heard a piercing voice calling out Katerina’s name. She smiled at me briefly, indicated the seat I could wait in before scuttling in to hear her mother, Kiria Sonia’s commands.

Her mother’s seat of power was a glass office that allowed for everything to be monitored. 

“My mother is ready to see you now,” Katerina re-emerged from Kiria Sonia’s lair, motioned for me to enter. 

A woman with cold green eyes, a large, light-brown bouffant hairstyle, chunky jewellery, an arresting patterned, shoulder-padded business suit, and significant amounts of makeup sat in a chair behind the desk. A pampered pooch also eyed me coldly, a threatening growl emitting from its miniature body.  

She held a cigarette holder in her right hand, the cigarette smoke spiralling from its end. Her eyes never left mine as she drew it to her mouth, inhaled fully, then exhaled an impressive cloud into the smallish office. There was absolutely no hint of a smile. She finally spoke.

“Whhelcome.” The word whirred out of her in a Greek flourish. Nothing in her tone or her eyes indicated any sincerity in the sentiment.

“Hello,” I answered with manufactured bravado and a smile, just in case it worked. It didn’t. She drew on her cigarette again, still fixing me in her stare, weighing me up, finding me wanting. A pause, another exhale.

“What is your name?”

“Pip,” I answered. Then in the pause, said “Pippa” as this is sometimes easier for people to understand.

If anything, the look hardened as she drew yet again on her cigarette. Perhaps this cloud of smoke was even bigger than any other emitted as she asked, “Do you hhhave real name?”

“Philippa.” How I hate this full name, only used in my childhood by my parents when I was in trouble. I have always been known as Pip. She continued to fix her green stare on me, inhaled again. On the exhale, the small room by now having more carbon than oxygen, she announced;

“We will call you Philippa.”

I agreed immediately, I could not imagine any course of action other than complete submission. I endured further questioning about my credentials, then Katerina was brusquely summoned to fetch me for my orientation.

She proudly showed me the new textbooks I would be teaching all year and I looked at their amateur drawings and clunky exercises with dismay. Here it was, the dislocation that comes to those fresh from study and theory to reality. The textbooks were completely different from the pedagogically recommended kind, the classrooms had bolted down chairs and desks, making it impossible to undertake the many different interactive language learning activities I was trained to facilitate. But then, it had been a four-week course on how to teach adults English as a Foreign Language, and here I was, facing 7 to 16-year-old Greek children, with zero parenting or crowd control techniques. What could possibly go wrong?

Katerina advised me that there were in fact two small schools, and I would move between the two to teach my classes. My timetable was produced, and here was an incredible stroke of luck. There were just 12 contact hours of classes due to low enrolments, but my contract was for 20 hours. I would make up the time with whatever was required – marking, administration, anything. I was permitted to prep for my lessons as well in this time after everything else was done. As such a greenhorn teacher, it took me several hours to prep for each one-hour lesson, so I was indeed a very lucky person. Like a sort of cosmic trade-off for having scored the school with Kiria Sonia at the helm.

Katerina took me to the second school building, a humbler one with no Queen Bee office or fancy reception area, just a simple desk. She introduced me to the Secretary, Anna, and left me with a pile of tasks to complete. Anna began to ask me questions in the space that Katerina’s departure created.

“Hhow old you are?” Anna asked.

“32” –I never dissembled about my age, but truth be told, I was smarting from my lack of marital and maternal status.

“And whhere is your hhusband?” 

At such a direct invasion of my privacy, there was nothing left to do but look behind me to the left, to the right, and then say, “He was here a minute ago Anna, but he seems to have disappeared.” We laughed and I clung to this little piece of kindness and informality. We would have many cozy chats over the coming year when others weren’t listening. She was not so unfortunate to be boyfriend-less, and together we dissected and analysed many an interaction with Babbis. He sounded like a pill. Anna’s life was given meaning by George Michael, still very much alive at that time. She was not at all dissuaded by his stated preference for men. When she met him, he would finally understand what sex was all about.

Emma and I compared our first day at our respective schools and I could answer with some honesty that it hadn’t been too bad, apart from being renamed Philippa. Emma was incredulous at my lucky break of just 12 contact hours, her dance card being completely full – 20 contact hours.

Life became a series of baffling encounters, like the lung X-ray all new teachers needed to have taken, as we were Aliens in Greece. Kiria Sonia’s son took me on the back of his moped to an appointment at a hospital at a very inconvenient distance away from the school. He barely deigned to talk to me, being five years younger and having a just-so Jesus beard to mirror his mother’s views of his perfection. But he was a competent translator, and eventually, we sat in the waiting room of the physician who was perusing my lung X-ray, looking for alien diseases. He barked at us to enter the room, and casually smoked his cigarette as he gave me the all-clear for my lungs. I had known that Greeks smoke everywhere, I just didn’t think they would smoke everywhere. Clearly even the medical establishment thought the links to cancer were spurious.

The school opposite our apartment had a very loud loudspeaker, and the children would chant something every day. Many months later I found out it was the Lord’s Prayer – it had a jaunty, repetitive cadence in Greek.

But perhaps the most baffling encounter of all was my very first Parent Night at the school. There I was, very uncertainly having to talk to parents about their little darlings, using strings of inanities and grappling for some kind of meat to put on the bones of my sparse summaries of their children’s stumbling English. I then had the humiliation of standing by while a poor colleague translated my inanities into Greek. I could only hope she added in something more useful than whatever I had said. Kiria Sonia looked on at us all from her glass throne room to complete my discomfiture.

While I wasn’t sure of the exact issue – best guess was a student accused of cheating – and the indignant mother entered Kiria’s throne room and began shouting. Kiria Sonia leapt from her chair, also shouting. The two carried on their din, moving into the foyer where we teachers and parents milled. There was no privacy or shame in this display of mutual rage. Instead of placating the indignant mother quietly and containing and dismissing her, as would have happened in England, here it was a Greek slug-it-out shouting match for all to see. My colleague was now having the put her lips right up against the mother’s ears as she translated my nonsense. The show had to somehow go on. The indignant mother suddenly retreated, and the cyclonic storm ceased. I held together my shredded nerves for the rest of the Parent Night, seemingly alone in my perturbation.

Such displays fuelled my fear of Kiria Sonia, and I was always eager to escape to the second school building where she couldn’t see what was going on. I had dubbed Kiria Sonia The Gorgon. The unsmiling, stone-inducing green eyes had not softened at all towards me, no matter how I toiled at my lessons and marked endless exercise books.

Meanwhile, after hours, Emma and I had found the ex-pat community and the right bars (such as the subtly named Boozer) and tavernas, familiarised ourselves with the main streets and waterfront walkway. We made the best of the beautiful ugly city that is Thessaloniki. Entertainment out of home was a must, as Greek television was almost universally bad. If you liked either subtitled or, even better, dubbed Chuck Norris or Bruce Lee movies, you were in luck. Soaps were also very popular, the kind where the set really does look like it will wobble and fall if any of the coiffured stars venture too close. Often there were long airings of obscure gymnastic competitions where station owner Kostas’ daughter twirled and stumbled across the mattresses. Soft porn was there too, just to mix things up, but mainly it was American movies and sit-coms with Greek subtitles. English and inanity constantly poured out of Greek television sets.

So I rarely bothered the television. Except for one night, about three months after my arrival, I found myself watching a ubiquitous American movie with Greek sub-titles. I had elected to stay home while Emma was out for another punishing night at Boozer. Surely the TV wasn’t that bad? I found a watchable American movie and entertained myself by trying to practice my fledgling Greek to read the subtitles. While they often lagged a little, it was unmistakable. The American actor had used the word “blow job” and there it was, the Greek word for blow job. Pippa.

Sure, The Gorgon was not friendly by any stretch of the imagination, but if it was not for her, I could have walked into a classroom of 14-15 years (eventually known as Bastard Class) and gaily announced: “Good morning, I’m Miss Blow Job and I’m your teacher for the year.”

London 2019

Life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards. Soren Keikegardd

Going to London in 1979 from suburban Perth was literally like going to the moon and looking back at the earth. I was 14 years old, and from then on I knew I would return and live in London. The 1979 photos are strangely red and capture both the hideousness and the wonder of London. I had never seen anything as foul as the Thames at low tide. I had never seen anything as magnificent the Thames at high tide, the statuary on every lampost, the Houses of Parliament in real life, not the 3D cut-out in a book that I had pored over as a child.

London 1979

I did return to London, but not until 1990 when I was 25 and professionally qualified. I was on the hunt for a job in the museum sector, no less, and dreamed of making London my home at least for a little while. Through great good fortune I did get a job at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, but in its far-flung satellite site in Woolwich. This was me, living in Plumstead, working in Woolwich, not quite sure if I had really achieved my goal of living and working in London. Greater London, yes. The trendy inner part absolutely not. I lived in London until 1996, eventually purchasing a flat in the lesser known and newly gentrified suburb of New Cross. By then I worked in the main building in Greenwich. While much better, it still was a very out of the way London experience. Most Londoners had no idea they could catch a train from Waterloo East and be there in a quarter of an hour. They all thought they had to spend hours on a boat getting there. But it was a very far cry from the Kangaroo Valley Earls Court experience, and that is what I prided myself on at the time.

Pip at 27, living in Plumstead, working in Woolwich

When I left London for Thessaloniki in 1996, I realised what many people come to know – that six years in London counts for nothing, you will be expelled as a stranger as if you had never arrived. On other London trips I have scurried through as a not-quite tourist but certainly not a resident – to farewell friends in 1998, when I was pregnant unexpectedly, about to fly back to Australia. The exodus through London on the way through from Thessaloniki in 2000 with my 15 month-old daughter when I abandoned any hope of trying to make it work with her father. Racked with guilt, knowing only that I couldn’t stay. The redemption of the glorious 2009 trip with my ten-year-old daughter as we touristed through all the major attractions together, having found a way through to remain in touch with her Greek family but not sacrifice every ounce of enjoyment in my own life.

Me and darling daughter in the UK

How I love the privilege of travel. The mystery of having your body back into the same place, but there you are, changed beyond recognition. For me now, with no dependents and more disposable income then I’ve ever had, London trips are about staying in places I could never possibly afford. Familiar and foreign London, with old friends to catch up with and streets and favourite places to revisit. I know I will forever be someone who passes through London, not quite tourist, not quite resident. I have settled on calling London a beloved place to return to. And in 2019 I decided that any of my snobbery about staying in Earls Court was overcome by the convenience of getting to and from Heathrow.

Earls Court 2019

For my 2019 trip to London, I was all on my glorious own – just me and The Muse. I couldn’t work on the novel as it was out for comment, but I could keep on with my back-up writing project – typing up old journals. I deliberately did not read them first, I was typing and wondering what might happen next. I pondered many times about who different people might be, as only a first name was offered and I scrambled through my memory, often failing to return with the correct person linked to the diary entry. Sometimes they were just gone, gone, gone. I batted back and forth between 1990 and 2003, dislocating myself across the decades, warping time and watching it fold back on itself as the same life challenges were tackled. It was not until I went back through these journals that I realised how consistent my quest for creative pursuits was. It’s a golden, unbroken thread.

Typing up journals, Earls Court

I left the cafe at Earls Court, jumped in the tube to Embankment and emerged, fancying a coffee by the Thames. London, however, had other ideas – the cafes were either not open or non-existent. I walked along, Facetime-calling my daughter and it was almost as good as having her there to walk alongside with me. I had to stop to take random photos such as the man’s face in the dolphin lamposts at London Pier. Because I was back in London, the same human, the same buildings, but I was completely transformed. I was back to claim my author self, lost in the pages of the journals.

Dolphin Lamposts – there across time

Refugee Week Reflections

This photo is not from that walk – but as so often, there is no photographic evidence of this day, so a photo from this era will have to suffice. My smile in this image belies the desperate unhappiness I felt in my relationship with my daughter’s father at the time…

It was a beautiful day for a walk, from Greece to Bulgaria. My daughter was under one and I carried her in a sling. I walked along to our destination, the check point between the two countries. Perhaps it was the walking, the baby in a sling, but it put me in mind of the walks that people do, when they’ve run out of options, when they have to get somewhere, anywhere other than where they are.

From age 25 through to 34 I lived in Europe. The walk above was in the last years of this time. You would say that I was an Ex-Pat, not an immigrant even, and a long way from a Refugee. This week – Refugee Week has brought up some keen memories of the positive discrimination I experienced in that time.

In that decade, there are three things I remember – opening a bank account when I arrived in London, getting my passport stamped when I lived in Greece as a teacher, and this walk.

As a fresh-faced 25-year old, I went into Abbey National building society with a gold coin, just like my Australian friends had advised me to do. I got myself a bank account so I would be able to get paid in whatever temporary work I could find. You could practically smell Heathrow fumes, I was such a new arrival. I put down my coin, went through the formalities, produced my magical Australian passport with its miraculous “UK Grandparent Stamp” on it, and left the counter with the important money receiving mechanism, aka a bank account to add to my repertoire.

Behind me in the queue were two men from an African country, I couldn’t tell which. They too had all the traces of a recent journey. But unlike me, when they reached the counter, put down their gold coin and produced their passports, they were turned away. I was still fussing with my bag and so witnessed them having to do the walk of shame out of the branch. I stood there, mutely, knowing that the accident of my place of birth was giving me an advanced place in the queue.

Six years later, I moved to Greece to teach English as a Foreign Language. There were a range of administrative tasks required of me and my new fellow teachers, and the Alien Police were our reluctant hosts. We required an interpreter for language, and were taken to the passport office to have our passports stamped. The room was full of people, presumably from neighbouring countries such as Albania, Bulgaria, perhaps further afield. We were bustled past each and every one of them, and as a slightly older person, this time I said “Sorry” to each one of them as I was unfairly advanced in the queue. We were gone in a matter of minutes, while they would have remained there no doubt for hours.

And this final time, the walk across the border. I had by now stayed longer in Greece than my passport allowed, and a border crossing was required to refresh the passport with more months of time.

So, while the beauty of the day was apparent, the reality was that this was not a walk we were choosing to do – this was a walk we had to do.

But such a simple thing – a walk to a check point. A stamp on a passport. A taxi ride back across the border (the agreement was I would carry our daughter one way, and he would carry her back. But suddenly a taxi was available when we reached the other side.) I might imagine I had a little glimpse into the horror of being a refugee, but I know that this is a pitiful, meagre example of what people have been through, are going through.

And I have been thinking about this during the week, watching the Refugee Week posts come up, seeing the stories, knowing how different Australia has become in terms of welcoming refugees. And it really is all just an accident of birth – where you’re born and what passport you can legally claim, it is absolutely nothing to do with inherent merit or worth.

#WithRefugees

No makes way for yes?

So this week at work, when I turned up for an event the day after it had occurred, I contemplated yet again my inability to say no and to manage my diary. To be fair, I had given myself a lovely quiet morning in a cafe right next to this event, working on something that had needed quiet time and concentration. But should I have even said yes to this in the first place, on whatever day it was? Probably not.

Now, I have watched the incomparable Marie Forleo talking about getting on the No train in various videos for several years now, and yet still, my diary fills with events that may or may not be working towards the change I hope to see. I know that Warren Buffet says that “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” And that the late Steve Jobs said “Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” And still, I baulk at boarding the No Train.

I tell myself it is easier to say no when the profit margin is your metric. My day job is running my state’s patient advocacy organisation. We provide individual advocacy support as well as systemic advocacy support through engagement activities and contributing in a myriad of ways to policy developments.

We measure outputs (easy enough) and outcomes (harder, but we at least try to show that there is change created through what we do) and we are very good at not making a profit. But what exactly is your metric in the not for profit sector? There is no single metric for success. Measuring the good we do is a slippery and elusive art.

While we aim to set our own priorities, the reality is that the health sector churns with policies and models of care and so on that need reviewing, either because their time has come or real change is actually being attempted. When I say no to being part of this change or attempted change, am I saying for example, that prison health is not something that should be prioritised?

Once, we got excited at my work by the introduction of a triage tool for new projects. At last, we would be able to board the No Train with a systematic framework to guide us! But our initial excitement waned when it seemed like pretty much every project would make it through the triage tool and land, writhing for space and air in our diaries and schedules.

And so, while I have every intention of saying no I pretty continuously say yes to everything. ANd the current resistance seems to be the non-profit organisation excuse. The path to real change is very slippery and circuitous…

Germaine Greer, I have something to say

Please be aware that this post deals with sexual assault and rape. Please take care of yourself and if you find this subject triggering, please scroll on.

Against my instincts, I attended your session at the Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival On Rape. I was going to ask a question and during the session began scribbling on an envelope to see if I could come up with just one question out of the many that clamoured for attention as I listened to you. I almost felt obliged to speak into the space and add a countering view to some of those you expressed. I looked at my envelope with its scrawl, saw the microphone too far away, tasted the stress chemicals from the creeping anxiety that comes when contemplating asking a question in a public session, and then the session ended.

Impact

It is now a week later, and exactly 17 years to the day since I survived a home invasion and sexual assault. I wrote a memoir about the experience of recovery as well as trying (and failing) to make the victim services system better. I called it Not My Story because I am a complex and varied human being and this is just one experience I have had. As Sohaila Abdulali said in her excellent book:

rape doesn’t have to define you…it is terrible but survivable…you can go on to have a joyous life

What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, p. 10

You declare that healing from rape is a must – a sort of requirement of a good feminist. You puzzled over the discrepancy between the number of war veterans who suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) compared to rape survivors.

I still remember the moment when I learned that women who had been victims of childhood sexual assault are much more likely to go on to be raped as adults. Doesn’t that account for at least some of the discrepancy?

Or is it just important that we remember that rape is a horrendous thing to endure? Back to Soulali Abdulali:

I have one terrible fear about this book…that, in my hopes of contributing to the conversation in a level-headed manner, I will appear to be saying that rape is no big deal. It’s the fear that in saying it does not have to be the end of hope and light, I will appear flippant and not honor rape victims’ terrible suffering and trauma.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape p. 95

Rape and Justice

There were some key parts missing from the discussion on the justice system. The justice system embodies the status quo and lags well behind changing social mores. I found it puzzling that you thought sentence lengths were too long. I know someone who was repeatedly assaulted by her father from before she could remember until after she reached adulthood. Four years he got. Four years.

The section in your essay when you say “an elbow, a thumb even, can do you more harm that a penis” bleeps over the reality that the United Nations recognises rape as a weapon of war. Tell a woman raising a child who is the product of a rape that it would have been just as bad as if she’d been elbowed in the eye.

Healing

Someone in the audience asked you how you heal from rape, and you acknowledged that you didn’t really know. You acknowledged that to this day, if someone even lightly touches your face, tears can spring from your eyes. In other words, its still there. That, right there, is post-traumatic stress.

I spend quite a bit of my memoir talking about healing, and I am convinced in the importance of the body – it holds traumas, and it can release traumas.

I describe a moment not long after the rape when I found myself in a similar physical position – in the dark, scrabbling to open a door, my daughter on my hip. This time, I was quite safe, in a suburban cafe with one of those old toilets in the garden, and I had just mis-timed turning off the light and plunged myself too soon in darkness. I was able to consciously unplug the trigger (darkness, trying to open a door, daughter on hip) from danger. Bringing conscious thought to the incident was like magic, and I was able to do that over again with other triggers. I moved out of the place where it had happened, in order to tame those triggers, and I taught myself to sleep again.

I also used the nurturing touch of trusted practitioners – masseurs, energy workers, acupuncturists to name a few. I could feel the trauma being massaged out, the safe touch laying down new memories in my body. The first time I was massaged, I cried a lot. The second time, a little, the third time, not at all.

I’m going to finish with a vision to celebrate this, my seventeenth year of surviving and thriving since the assault. Imagine if we nurtured survivors of gender-based violence much like people who have a breast cancer diagnosis. We could offer a range of natural therapies and offered them a lovingly crafted quilt as a comfort measure and a strong sign from our society that we see the suffering and offer support and healing.

Wouldn’t that be something?

Seeing Mrs Aylward

It’s a lifetime now since Mrs Aylward taught my then pre-primary aged child. Her green eyes are just the same, overflowing with kindness and empathy.

That pre-primary year was the first time I realised my daughter was going to be socially ostracised by her peer group. She didn’t know it yet, but it was so horribly obvious to me, a pain worse than a broken heart.

I did actually have a broken heart in my own right at the time too, because the man I had fallen for, hadn’t fallen for me. Yet.

And then there was the small matter of the person who had broken into my home nearly a year and a half earlier had finally been apprehended, and the frightening juggernaut of the legal system had suddenly kicked into gear. I was dodging in and around court commitments with school pick-ups.

And there was Mrs Aylward. I could tell her what was really going on and get her kind, wise tips on how to minimise the impact of all the drama on my girl. I could hope for the best that things would resolve with the school (they didn’t) and just try to put one foot in front of the other knowing that my girl had such a compassionate guardian for the hours she was away from me.

All of that is now long gone. Eventually, how I wish I had done it sooner, but eventually, I moved schools, and it changed everything. Sometimes there is just a year that doesn’t quite work for your child, and you need to find them a new year group.

The object of my affections eventually realised the error of his ways and we have been partnered for many years.

The perpetrator was sent to prison, and I didn’t even have to testify in the end because thank God, he changed his plea.

And there, this Easter weekend, was Mrs Aylward. All these years later, when I have crossed the river to a kinder, milder time with a well-adjusted adult daughter and a happy home.

Mrs Aylward’s eyes are exactly the same kind green. Nothing has changed, and we stop and chat. But to my surprise she wanted to talk about me, about my day-job, and what I have been working on. I would have been more than content to talk about my daughter. But it is somehow so special and affirming, that she is keen to talk about what’s going on for me.

Everyone needs at least one Mrs Aylward in their life.

Things that I realise, forget, then remember #1

This could become a very long list… How often does it happen that an insight you once really “got” – something that was so clear and right – somehow drifts away? And then, a reminder will suddenly come, and you once again know an insight’s truth, right down to your bones?

Back in January, I had a moment of inattention. Well, I have many of those, but at this particular moment, my hand was wet, and the plate pictured above slipped from my grasp, fell to the sink and smashed. This plate still very much sparked joy every time I used it. Boiled egg with soldier toast breakfasts for example. Feeling forlorn, I took a photo of the smashed plate and posted it on Facebook.

“I have a cup and saucer in that pattern,” said one. “It’s the last in the set.” My joy sparked for that cup and saucer too, possibly enlarging my sense of forlornness. See left for joy-sparking.

Another person said, “Turn it into a mosaic.”

Good idea, I thought, but it would be another six weeks before I took any action. And then, one Saturday in February I took to the remaining intact plate with a hammer and turned it into a spiral mosaic, pictured above right.

It wasn’t until I had finished the mosaic, that I recollected that I had put a picture of the mosaic on the front of my memoir Not My Story and explained why Please note, the subject matter of this memoir may be triggering.

To quote myself:

“The mosaic image that appears on the cover was inspired by an excellent radio program on Post-traumatic stress I happened to catch one day. The interviewee noted how important it is for trauma survivors not to think about putting the pieces of their lives back together, like a broken vase where the cracks and weakness are all too apparent. Far better to create something beautiful, special, strong but different – a mosaic that uses all the broken pieces but rearranges them in a sturdy, transformed, stunning new framework which is stronger, beautiful, and different from before.

Stronger, beautiful, and different from before. I’m almost glad I broke my favourite plate in order to have this reminder. Almost.

Complexity of doing good work…

This week, like many weeks at work, has got me thinking about the complexity of trying to do good work. Because nothing can be achieved without the combined effort of people, working together. If only it could be one person, striving valiantly in the arena as per this quote – but usually, the work that not for profit organisations do requires co-operative effort.

 

And that’s where it all goes wrong.

People have different ideas of what will work, and what’s important. And in the not for profit sector, often these ideas are dearly-held, they’re personal. Commitment to a cause often comes from experiencing something adverse, a permanent, life-altering consequence which could have been avoided. It can create an almost universal sense of T not wanting others to suffer as they have.

How and what you implement prevent tragedies is not usually simple. Many things can sound good on paper, and when you try to make them happen, it doesn’t translate well in the real world. You realise you have accidentally overlooked a key group’s ideas on the matter. People who will need to implement the change don’t share your perspective, and if they won’t or can’t change, then nothing gets better.

So, what to do? For me, I have finally understood that principle of working on yourself in order to create change in the world. Resisting other’s resistance to change just creates, well, more resistance. I have been reading plenty of Eckhart Tolle in the last few weeks, enjoying the debriefing of the book A New Earth on Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday podcast. I think that the saying below is provocative and true.

So I am practising the art of being absolutely OK with what is, and then seeing what happens. Sometimes, I can keep this up for minutes at a time…

In praise of yoga

Let’s start with praise for the idea of domino habits – one habit creates a chain reaction of better behaviours which lead to a better life. For me, it’s been yoga.

I was nearly 30 old before I ever did any kind of yoga. I was living in London at the time and was well and truly into an exercise-averse adulthood. I can’t remember now what it was that attracted me to the yoga studio – I walked past it every day on the way home from the train in one of the lesser known suburbs of South East London, Deptford, as it was being set up. The building was beautiful-that surely must have helped. When it opened its doors, I became one of the first students. The teacher was Glenys Shepherd, a strikingly attractive 50-year old who looked almost no older than I was at the time, and had begun Iyengar yoga with scoliosis that had initially made some poses almost impossible for her to get into. Yoga had transformed her body so she now had a straight spine and exuded wellbeing. To say she was an Iyengar enthusiast was a vast understatement. I learned all the poses so well, and that excellent foundational knowledge has stayed with me. Thanks to the internet, I can see that the yoga studio is still there although Glenys has finally given up teaching (although she is preserved for posterity on Vimeo!)

When I moved to Greece to teach English as a foreign language two years later, I took yoga with me, and it saved me from the horror that is an early teaching career. When another two years passed and I found myself back in Perth and pregnant,  pregnancy yoga provided the perfect foundation for a wonderful experience birthing my daughter.

And then, as with so many things that require spare cash and time, it fell by the wayside in the early parenting years. In fact, my daughter was well into high school before I took yoga up again in earnest. I had had one try at Iyengar again and knew it was not for me, when my niece recommended her vinyasa flow yoga class at Momentum Coaching and Yoga. I have featured a photo of my current yoga teacher Natalie Snooke who established this yoga studio. And no, Nat doesn’t know I’m writing this and there are zero kickbacks for me. I think it’s good to acknowledge those who have really helped us on our way to a better life.

What changed everything for me was doing the 21 Day Yoga Challenges that she offers. The first year I was a student, Nat posted it on Facebook and I clicked that I was going and she rather uncertainly private messaged me. My practice had been patchy at best, and I had to come clean and say it was a Facebook yes, not a real yes. The next year my practice was more consistent and I took the 21 Day Yoga Challenge in earnest. You commit to doing either a class (classes are unlimited for this period) or to practice at home -in which case you text that you have done your practice. You get a star on a chart that is displayed at the Yoga studio for every day’s practice. I will do almost anything for a gold star, and all of a sudden, I could make yoga classes which previously had been too hard to fit in with my demanding job. Having unlimited access to classes also removed the cost barrier and the challenge provided the impetus.

But what I learned from this, and the subsequent 21 Day Yoga Challenges that I’ve done, is that the actual purpose of the Challenge is for you to develop your home practice. And that is the domino habit that I think has changed everything for me as a human being. I use the Yoga Download site to practice at home, and I can take yoga anyway, so when I go away for work or holidays, I take my yoga mat and keep up the regular practice.

Once, I wanted to do Uttanasana with straight legs (the pose where you bend forward as per this image) I have very tight hamstrings. Now, I’ve abandoned that ambition. What’s much more important is turning up on the mat, day after day and giving yourself that wonderful experience of yoga, bent legs and all.

And every time you come back to yoga, it’s always there, waiting for you just like Glenys told me it would be.

2018 Reckoning…

So here it is – the end of 2018, almost. There isn’t really too much time left to scrabble in many last-minute achievements, so it’s time for The 2018 Reckoning.

This year was my fourth using The Desire Map technique and annual planners. Desire Mapping is a subtle but to me very useful method of thinking how you most want to feel, and then setting goals from that basis. So for example, if you think about how you want to feel once you land the job, or finish the dissertation, or move house or buy the dog…these feelings give you strong clues about what’s most important to you as a human. It also allows you to get creative about how to bring those feelings into now. These are called Core Desired Feelings.

My Core Desired Feelings

This is how my Core Desired Feelings have evolved over the years:

2015: Abundant, Creative, Focused, Free Joyous.

This was my first year Desire Mapping. I didn’t use my journal for work appointments, so it wasn’t quite “alive”. I started in March.

2016: Creative, Focused, Free, Joyous, Mindful.

This was my first full year Desire Mapping where I used the journal each and every day. On the left-hand column would go work appointments, on the right-hand column the to-dos for the day job. But the Core Desired Feelings always reminded me that my writerly ambitions always had space in my life, and weren’t forgotten.

2017: Congruent, Creative, Free, Joyous then Abundant, Congruent, Creative, Free, Joyous.

I figured half-way through the year that my finances needed a bit more of a kick, and that it was time to put Abundant back into the mix. During 2017, I did a Women in Leadership Circle with the fabulous Sue Rolinson. One of the many valuable things we did was create a Vision Statement for ourselves.Worth the course fee alone!! Mine is: 

I am a courageous, creative woman who compassionately disrupts the status quo.

2018: Abundantly Aligned, Courageously Creative, Joyously Free

After making that Vision Statement, I realised that Courage was missing, and I needed to add it! However, you’re encouraged to have no more than five Core Desired Feelings. With a bit of adjective/adverb collocation, I was able to sneak it in! Note that creative, joy and free are always, always there.

2018 Big wins

  • Having three overarching goals, with smaller steps clustered underneath
  • Getting my first novel manuscript ready enough for two competitions
  • Starting out the year at 75 kilos and finishing at 68, and incorporating the Five and Two/ Intermittent Fasting as just part of life
  • Putting together an awesome team at my workplace
  • Speaking at the March Stories from the Heart event

2018 Some important but not big wins

  • Sticking with the regular coaching
  • Reaching out for help with the manuscript, and getting it! So when I didn’t win either competition, I had somewhere to go next
  • Running Patient Experience Week events again, and adding in World Kindness Day events

Some areas for growth…

  • Weekly Artist Dates. They were not weekly, I think I did about three all year
  • I did not manage to manifest a Citizen’s Jury in 2018. I thought I was so close (I probably wasn’t) and was heartbroken when I realised it wasn’t going to happen.
  • Savings goals are still a work in progress. OK, so I am exactly where I started with one account, but $1,500 better off with another. So that’s something I suppose. And all debts are largely gone.

And now, for 2019…

I’m excited to be giving myself a mini-retreat to Nathaneal’s Rest to walk the labyrinth and think about 2019 Core Desired Feelings. I already have my juicy journal to get started with…

I hope that you have found some time in 2018 to think about what’s most important to you, and do the things that really light you up. And that you have fabulous stationery to help it all unfold! Happy New Year xxx