Building community

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This is the Art Creative Space on Thursdays. Libby makes the room look better than I do.

Today’s blog is a bit late because I had a coffee with the amazing author, Katherine Scholes. She writes beautiful novels, many set in the African continent. I just read one called The Perfect Wife, and if you read it and you get as angry with the husband as I did, just hang in there (no spoilers).

While we were chatting, (and I tell you, I’m so grateful to her for giving me the time) we also said hello to the editor of a magazine, and had a chat to another author I know. I felt like I was so much a part of the writer community.

Being part of community is one of the things I love about living in Tasmania. Katherine and I were meeting for the first time today, but I know her parents and her sister, and she knows my parents too and can remember seeing Mum sing at St David’s Cathedral when she was a child.

Being married to a teacher in such a small community means that as we go to the shops, the beach, or the gym, we are constantly interrupted by calls of, ‘Hello Mr A’. And having worked at a university, I have friends in almost every restaurant and café in town working their way through uni in the hospitality industry.

Sometimes, I admit, I would like to be invisible. To be able to have a bad hair day without seeing someone I know. But most of the time I’m grateful for the people that know me. For those who know me well enough to give me a smile, for those I stop and have a quick chat to, and for those who are closer friends who I can meet with for coffee, dump on, and be a shoulder for them to cry on in return. I love being part of a community.

I got a little hooked on the Lego Masters TV show recently. I thought again that it was a wonderful example of a community. The different participants encouraged each other, and rejoiced in each other’s creativity and accomplishments at the end of each challenge. Yes, there had to be one winning team, but each person who left the show (that I saw) was just so happy to have been a part of that community. To have spent time with like-minded people.

Actually, I’m sitting and writing this as part of another creative community. I have started a little project called Creative Spaces in a local church near me. We provide the space, the tea and coffee, and the nibbles, and the people who come along bring their own writing or art pursuit and we all get creative together.

I am part of the writing space, and another friend, Libby, is taking the art space. We’re hoping that this place can become a hub where people are able to come, do their own project, but have conversation and make community with like-minded people.

Writing is a weird thing to share. At the moment we are all sitting quietly in the hall, typing or scribbling away. But in a few moments my timer will go off and we’ll make drinks and chat about what we’re doing. Then we’ll all sit quietly and write again.

Yes, it seems strange for an introvert like me to be harping on so much about getting together with people in real life and making community. But I’m starting to think that this is one of the most important things we can do to combat the loneliness and isolation that is all around us. I am trying to build community online using this blog and my podcast. But I am also prepared to get out of my own comfortable study and meet with people to make real life community happen.

I wonder if there is a community that you could start to build around you? It doesn’t need to be an official thing, but maybe you could find others that enjoy cooking and have a shared dinner party once a month. Or find others whose kids are totally into Lego like yours and start your own informal building parties. Or just say hello to your neighbours and maybe take the time to find out a little bit about them.

It will be a bit of a stretch, but I’m thinking it’s worth it. You might change the world for one other person, and isn’t that enough?

If you’re interested in hearing more about the Creative Space, feel free to drop me a line, I’d love to share it with you.

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Take the time

I know that much has been said on this subject before, but to be honest, I have a gripe and I want to let it out.

I went to the supermarket the other day and the check-out chick (sorry, the register operator?) was a nice enough girl, she was trying to do the right thing I’m sure, but she wasn’t. She was asking all the right questions, but she wasn’t listening to my answers.

‘How has your day been?’ she asked. And I started to tell her. I had quite a funny story to tell, that would have made her day, brightened her afternoon. I wanted to tell her that I’d gone into work, despite it being a public holiday, and I’d given an online tutorial. And all the way through the tutorial I’d said things like ‘for those watching the recording…’ or ‘I’ll go through this quickly, it will be on the recording’ and right at the end of the hour, I realised as I said goodbye to the students, that I hadn’t pressed record. There was no recording.

As I started to tell my highly amusing (ok, mildly amusing) anecdote, I looked at the girl, her eyes had glazed over. She was no longer listening. I think I stopped talking after telling her I’d gone into work.

So we were quiet, and she tried again.

‘Doing anything special for Australia Day?’

Now I had all sorts of interesting things to say about that. I could have discussed the conversation that was happening among my Facebook friends about whether there was a reason to celebrate Australia Day or not. I could have talked about the fact that we’d just come back from Adelaide a couple of days before and how the public holiday meant that I only had a two-day work week. But once again, she wasn’t listening. I gave up. I am not that much a fan of my own voice.

I don’t mind quiet at the register. I think I would have preferred quietness over this almost conversation.

She brightened up a bit when the supervisor told her she could close the register. I asked ‘is that it for you?’ ‘No,’ she said ‘I’m going until 530pm’ it was the most conversation we’d had. We were almost connecting there for a minute.

I had the same thing happen at a conference once. The professor had asked a question at the end of a presentation, and it pertained to my field of research. Stupidly, I thought he’d asked the question because he wanted to know the answer, so I sought him out in the break to further elucidate the quick answer that had been given by the student giving the presentation. But he didn’t want to know. He shared in-jokes with the man standing with us, rather than listen to what I had to say.

I must admit, I like being heard, and like most people, I hate being overlooked. And so I am as guilty of not listening as the next person. I usually want to be listened to, not to take the time to listen to others.

I think that listening, truly listening, is one of the greatest gifts we can give one another. Listening to understand – not listening to build our own argument, or rehearsing our own story while waiting for a chance to get a word in, or making conversation on automatic. Everybody has a story to tell, and you’ll be amazed at what you’ll find when you take the time to listen.

The same 24 hours, but…

Have you ever been told by someone, probably someone on the great interweb, that we all have the same 24 hours in the day and that if you just woke up an hour earlier, or went to bed an hour later, or somehow jigged your life so that you weren’t wasting precious minutes, you could actually achieve your dreams?

I remember watching a video to that effect, it pictured a guy practicing piano in his basement at night when he could otherwise have been watching TV or sleeping or something, and in the end he had all his friends over for a little concert and it was a delightful scene.

I watch these things and I get all excited and I want to change my life to fit more of my dream in. I become determined to just squeeze a little more into life, to sleep a little less or to somehow rearrange things so I can fit more in. But I have decided lately that the whole premise  is not true. We don’t all have the same 24 hours. It’s a lie. Or maybe a half-truth.

I’ve been in a strange place lately, one that I’ve never been in before. I’ve had days when I’m energetic and days when I’m totally beat. Maybe because one day the thyroid medications are working at the correct level and the next they are not. I’ve had days when dragging myself up the stairs to my office feels like climbing Mt Everest and other days when I can run up the stairs with barely a second thought.

One day I’ll be feeling amazing, and the next, I’m lying on the couch unable to think.

Now I’m no stranger to having low energy levels. And I think I can remember some other times in my life when I’ve had great energy – like when I was doing weight training twice a week and walking for an hour every other day. Or the time when I decided to take up baking as a hobby, deliberately messing up the kitchen and then cleaning it again. But I’ve never had the energy available to me change this quickly before and it’s given me new insight.

Let’s go back.

When I was diagnosed with my thyroid disorder I was living a normal life. I was teaching and researching at uni three days a week, tutoring on a fourth, writing (or trying to write) on the fifth. I wasn’t doing anything extreme but I was tired. So tired. And I wasn’t sure why. I was trying to exercise but failing. I was trying to eat well but failing. I was trying to follow my writing dream and I was managing that some of the time. But I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t fit much into my days. Why cooking a nourishing meal just was too difficult to fit in. Why it was so hard for me to get even half an hour’s writing in.

But none of these problems were my fault. It wasn’t that I was eating badly or not looking after myself, my energy levels were low because I was sick. Not because I was unfit, or not trying hard enough, or not believing in myself enough. No. I was struggling because there was something wrong and I needed to find out what it was.

Once I started taking the blessed and wonderful tablets my world changed. Suddenly I could fit a whole heap more into my day. It was not that I stayed up later or got up earlier, though occasionally I did, but that I could do more with the hours I was awake. I would think,‘Maybe I’ll make muffins’ and then I’d make muffins. I would think ‘If I just whipped around the bathroom it would look so much cleaner and I’ll be less frustrated’ and then I’d pull out the cleaning equipment and ten minutes later the bathroom would be clean. It was amazing!

Then I had to have some surgery. Nothing big, but it required a general anaesthetic. And suddenly I was back at square one again. I still went to work, cooked, tidied, washed, did everything that I had to do. But there was no margin in my energy. I would be more likely to sit on the couch for just that little bit longer, to surf Facebook just that little bit more. I couldn’t think enough to write, I had to let myself recover.

I’m starting to feel better now, it’s been over three weeks since the surgery and I’m healing, I think. I hesitate to suggest that I’m better, even to myself, maybe I’ll relapse again tomorrow, or do too much, and it will be ‘tired, so tired’ again. I’m definitely not at those high levels of energy yet.

And these fluctuating energy levels have taught me something. We might all have the same 24 hours in the day, but we don’t all have the same amount of energy, and therefore we don’t have the same amount of useful time. When I am energetic, the amount I can get done in a day increases dramatically. My dreams are within my reach. I can put in ‘just a little bit more’ and I can accomplish so much. But when I am tired and my body is unwell I can’t perform in the same way. Everything I do takes just that little bit longer and I take longer to recover from any exertion.

Therefore, I contend that we don’t all have the same 24 hours. We cannot judge ourselves by what someone else accomplishes each day. That person might be one blessed with huge amounts of energy and they will be able to achieve heaps. But we must not call ourselves lazy or undisciplined just because we achieve less in the same amount of time. There may be a reason (like thyroid disorders, depression, glandular fever, or the horrible CFS) for your tiredness, but I also think that everyone is just made differently and each of us has different energy reserves. A bit like spoon theory I guess, spoon theory even for people not struggling with a chronic illness. (Can I say that?)

Many of us want to achieve our goals and are working towards them as best we can. We’re not going to get further faster by beating ourselves up because we’re not as far along as Betty-Sue or Gregory. Maybe we all need to accept ourselves and each other just a little bit more. Stop calling ourselves lazy and start giving ourselves a break.

Remember you’re a human being, not a human doing. You are valuable just because of who you are. Rest in that and enjoy doing what you can. And I’ll try to do that too and be patient with myself as I heal.

Behind the scenes

In this novel that I am writing, one of the main characters owns and runs a cafe. I didn’t think she was going to be that important when I started but now that I am getting to know the characters better I find that she is pretty essential to my main character’s well-being, to the plot, to the whole thing, really! She might even be more important than the murder in my murder mystery. She’s a great person – I hope you love her when you finally get to read the book.

Anyway, DH suggested that maybe if I’m going to write about owning and running a cafe, I should learn something about the process. Just to make sure I wasn’t making any mistakes. I thought that was sensible advice so I took it. We have an friend that we know through church who used to own a cafe and I asked her if she would mind having a chat so that I could learn what it was like. She was very accommodating (I find that people generally like helping me out with this book thing, although it might just be that I have awesome and generous friends.) and we met today for coffee and a chat.

You know what? I found out that I know nothing at all about running a cafe! I hadn’t thought about rosters, about debtors and creditors, and ordering in food. I hadn’t thought at all about having cooks working in the kitchen – heaven’s knows where I thought the food would come from! Perhaps I thought it just cooked itself! I hadn’t thought about much beyond what you see as a customer in the cafe and there is so much going on behind the scenes.

She told me a story about a lady who came into her cafe with her daughter. My friend asked the daughter what she would like to be when she grew up. The little girl said that she would like to work in a cafe. Her mother said, ‘well, I think you’re too smart for that!’ Apart from that being terribly insulting to my friend, the other thing is that this woman really didn’t understand the layers of complexity involved in running one’s own business. The health and safety regulations, the superannuation, the budgeting. There is so much involved and so much brain required.

It’s like that for many of the businesses we see – we only see the smooth sailing of the duck on the top of the water – we don’t see the paddling like crazy that happens underneath. We often don’t appreciate the amount of work that is going into giving us a reasonable customer experience.

And as we talked I realised that I knew nothing at all about what was going on behind the scenes in my friend’s life. I didn’t know (until today) anything about her struggles, her family, her ups and downs. All I knew was that she was a stylish, friendly and generous lady. I knew the smile, but I didn’t know the pain behind it. I would never have got to know without taking the time to have coffee and a chat but I’m so glad I took the time. Now this woman is one of my heroes. She has gone through so much and come up smiling and she deserves so much respect for that.

There’s a saying that the most complex fictional character is less complex than the simplest of real people. Each one of us have lives that may look simple on the surface but are so much more complex underneath. Each of us has our own battles to face, our own struggles to learn through, our own difficult people to work with.

I guess I’ve just been reminded today that I can only see the surface and that you can’t judge by the surface. We don’t really have a clue what’s going on underneath and we might just be horrified if we did. Maybe we should treat each other with grace, kindness and respect at all times, just in case!

Online quizzes

I have a theory. It’s based on a very little research and a testing base of one but I like it and it’s my blog after all so I’m going to put it out there…

But first, have you heard about the Five Love Languages? It’s a great concept developed by Gary Chapman. There are whole books written on the subject. There is a book for couples, one for kids, one for teens. And they are worth reading.

My pocket version of the concept is this: each of us understands love best when it is shown to us in a particular way. There are five broad categories for love languages. You have one or two primary languages and then the others are lower on the list for you. You will need the lower love categories filled occasionally but you really need your top one spoken regularly in order to feel loved.

The five categories are:

  • Touch
  • Words of encouragement
  • Gifts
  • Quality time
  • Acts of service

So some people feel loved if you go to their house and do the dishes for them and they show you love by coming to your house and doing your dishes (I think my MIL is in this category – she did a wonderful job of my dishes the other night, I am so grateful!)

Others feel loved if you give them a hug, or just touch them on the shoulder on the way past.

Others need a gift – not necessarily an expensive gift but if something is given to them as a gift they feel loved, valued and cared for.

For others, the major way of filling their love tank is to spend lots of time. Take them on a coffee date, go for a walk with them, play a card game, spend TIME.

And finally, words of encouragement. It has taken me years but I have come to realise that this is my primary love language.

Here’s an example: I felt dissatisfied about my birthday for years. I had no idea what I really wanted. I would pine for gifts and then realise I didn’t actually want what was given. I would organise big parties that would just leave me stressed and exhausted. (I’m an introvert! I didn’t need to be surrounded by vast quantities of people all day! Why did I bring this on myself?!) Every year I would look back on the day feeling like the celebration, while lovely and appreciated, didn’t quite hit the spot.

And then one year I realised, I didn’t need the party, I didn’t need the gift, all I needed was the birthday card. The card with the loving words written inside. In fact, I love birthdays now that I’m on Facebook because I get so many loving messages from so many people and it totally fills my love tank. My family have come on board and give me one card each and sometimes two per person!

I also remember feeling totally safe when I saw the lovely cards my Dad gave (and still gives) to my Mum on special occasions. They are great with words.

I am a words of encouragement person.

And this brings me to the online quizzes. Have you done any? I’ve done heaps!

  • How many years have you been a teacher? (Let the quiz guess)
  • How old is your soul?
  • What one word totally describes you?
  • What is your song from the 80s?

And so on, and so on.

You answer such important questions as ‘which dog would you choose?’ ‘What colour suits you?’ ‘Which slang term do you like best?’ ‘where would you prefer to live’ and then, (here’s the really important part) the quiz gives you (you guessed it) words of encouragement.

‘You have been teaching for 5-10 years. You have a beautiful soul and are loving to those around you. You are sometimes taken advantage of but you are generous and kind hearted and forgiving. You speak into the lives of those around you and will be teaching for many years to come.’

You see? How do they know that about me? Because I chose a sausage dog, the colour blue and the slang term Y.O.L.O.!

But I love to read it! It lifts my spirits!

One time I did a ‘what colour is your soul?’ quiz and this was the answer it gave: yellow. That’s it. Just one word. I felt totally ripped off! Where were my nice words that told me that yellow meant I was a nice person who cared for others and blah blah blah.? Nope. Just ‘yellow’.

Anyway, I am an Australian, and words of encouragement do not come easily to us. We are much better at the friendly insult, the gentle ribbing, the sarcastic comment and the witty put down. I don’t really want that to change – it’s an important part of our culture, but perhaps we could also share encouragement with those around us. Tell them something we like about them, so they can hear it from someone they know, not just an impersonal online quiz. I think people love it, need it, because that’s why the quizzes are so popular. We are all desperate to hear those words of encouragement (well, if you are built like me you are anyway). That’s my theory.

Are you a sucker for the quizzes? What is your love language experience?