Tuesday, April 23, 2013

On Friendship

This morning I received a message on Facebook (edited slightly to remove identifying factors):

Hey there Jenny
Thinking of you. You always light up my facebooking with your wonderful little posts and amusing updates.
I'm just coming out of a week long depressive episode. It's not always as linear as that, as yesterday was pretty crap. HOWEVER, today is a new day.
Sometimes feel incredibly close to you -- it's a little strange I know, considering I haven't seen you for years. Take Care x

It could not have come at a better time. That generous vulnerability warmed my heart and echoed with understanding.

I have 920 Facebook friends, and a lot of the time I feel alone in the world and wanting more. I've been turning this notion of friendship over in my head for a few weeks now, taking stock after the loss of Rel. Yesterday was one month since she passed away and it's getting easier and harder all at once. It's not a shock to remember on waking anymore, but settling in for the long haul of loss sends that chilled, dull ache to my gut. When you water the plants in the garden you also water the weeds, and they have deep roots going back years that are impossible to disentangle from the now, the fresh grief raises up the old and it is somewhat crushing on the harder days.

I wonder, truly, how humans deal. Death is a part of life, and with love comes loss, that's a given. But how do people move about in the world and keep on truckin' when those blows just keep coming?

This has led me to deeply consider the role of friends in my life. Do I have enough, do I want more, do I expect too much, what do I deserve, how do friendships change as you go through life, and so on and so forth.

I have a love in my life who is my best friend. Her smile lights up my world and her depth of understanding and wisdom quite frankly takes me aback. We talk a lot about friendship and the challenges and loveliness of experiencing and maintaining meaningful friendships over years and decades. We both place high value on having adventures separately outside of the relationship - and it's wonderful to have stories to tell each other after the fact.

Most people can say they've moved on from friendships that turned out to be too dramatic, cumbersome, draining or that didn't change and grow as the parties included in it did. I've moved on from my fair share when the time was right and never regretted it for a minute. I've missed who people used to be to me and felt loss, which is a very different thing to regret.

Sometimes friendships are location dependent - when you live or work closely with someone, these friendships are easy and flow beautifully, but when circumstances change and someone doesn't happen to be in your field of vision that commitment can become a task that falls short of our daily to-do lists.

Look what we've done - moved an hour away from many people we love. Now interactions involve diaries and planning and time and energy, and with that change comes a bit of awkwardness. I think many friends wait for an invitation to come visit, as we wait for people to say they want to come and see us, and we all wait and time moves on and the space between seeing one another grows bigger and bigger.

Don't even get me started on the old "we must catch up" with no follow through chestnut. Lord! 

Life is full and so many of us are pulled in multiple directions. We all do our best - and our experience of that level of 'best' range from fulfilling to disappointing.

Last week I'd stayed in town overnight after teaching as I had an appointment on Tuesday morning in town, and had a spur of the moment breakfast with an old friend. An old lover in fact, from years ago. It was experiencing that light and intimacy over eggy bread and a decaf that I realised how much I'd been missing those interactions - how much it feeds your soul to sit with someone who knows you so well, that you can say "I can't bear to talk about myself, I'm sad today can you please just keep telling me about what's happening in your life?" and they happily do and you both have a lovely time. What a gift!

On Sunday I went to a family BBQ (Tracey's brother and sister in law had turned 31 and were having a shindig) and then we went our separate ways as I traveled into town for a solo night out. I was so close to just going home because I felt like a loser (I'd sent tentative, last-minute messages to about three different friends asking if they wanted to join me, all were busy) but something in me knew that being afraid of being lonely was fine, acting out of that fear was something else altogether. I could become a hermit! The horror. (Perhaps I already am?) Leaving from the BBQ had shaved about 20 minutes off my travel time in to town, and so I was propelled into the great bustling metropolis of Melbourne town.

Good golly, I had a fabulous time. First stop was Temple of Music at Chalice in Northcote. I'd interviewed Kirsty about this on PBS earlier that week and was thoroughly intrigued about the church experience minus the Jesus stuff, and including music and discussion and philosophy and a bit of old-fashioned chanting and Leunig and George Harrison and an egg shaker. Brilliant. I thoroughly recommend getting along to the next one if that sounds like your bag (Sunday May 19 at 5 pm, Northcote).

Next I drove over to Trades Hall and saw Catherine Deveny in her last show at the comedy festival, and the first and only thing I managed to get to this year. Fabulous. Outrageous. Cacked myself til my sides hurt. (Side note - I wholeheartedly say YES to trampolines without fences around them). She even made a cancer joke (from the perspective of a survivor) and it didn't make me curl up in a ball and wail, so that was a bit of a personal milestone.

Then I came home, triumphant that I'd broadened my horizons and had stories to tell.

The next day I had work (radio show and taught a class) where I get to see all sorts of lovely people and do creative things. Mondays are so great because I get to do these things that mean I connect with other people. The down side is that all the driving wreaks havoc with my back and my arms and my neck, and Tuesdays are often spent not feeling so great and needing to be still. Is it worth it? One hundred per cent yes.

It's a shame though, that with happiness and fulfillment comes physical pain. I never get used to that and overcommit myself, having to cancel things often and being too embarrassed to explain myself properly (or sometimes I do but people don't really understand - how could they?) then I'm the piker pariah from Loserville.

Who would think that being around people three days in a row would mean overcommitting myself? But there it is. So my solution is being an extremely active Facebooker. If something makes me happy, I like it. If I think other people will like it, I share it. It keeps me connecting and interacting with people and smashes isolation to smithereens. That's the intention anyway.

Tracey once told me about a time when I was off doing something else and she had been spending time with three of our friends, and they decided to work out a chart of my Facebook activity (bestill my nerdy chart-loving heart) and there was definite correlation with what I know as my lay-low days and markedly increased traffic. The days I'm gathering strength to get amongst it again I am rarely without my smartphone in my hand, checking in on what's happening in the rest of the world. I have massive reading lists of websites and blogs that I'll get back to when my levels of concentration will let me take it all in.

I print out amazing things that have rocked my world - I have no idea where to put them but I know I want to keep them and somehow hold on to the feeling of being moved.

Back to the start and the message I got through Facebook this morning - I was delighted to hear that the closeness and connection I feel goes both ways in some instances. Don't you love it when people tell you that you've been on their mind, when they've been on yours?

Today I'm driving about an hour down the road (further from town) to see a new friend I met through the BHB conference just over a month ago. There's a cinnamon tea cake baking in the oven and I can't wait to go have an adventure out in the world and hear about how she's doing and see some beautiful beachy goodness.

Looking forward - I'd love some friends close by - drop in for a cup of tea kind of friends. Easy friends. I wonder where they are? I'm looking forward to seeing more friends in town, as always, and having visitors when the time suits everyone.

One thing's for sure, when your energy is limited you definitely make every bit count.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

After a friend dies - a handy grief how-to

Over the past three years three of my friends have died. Two very suddenly and unexpectedly, and one from cancer (although it was still a huge shock, it felt slightly different in that I had attempted to prepare myself). So I have a bit of experience up my sleeve and some things to share. I'm not going to go into the whole stages of grief thing, there's millions of pages about that, so go forth and google if that's your thing.

Here are some things that I didn't know before, but are handy to understand now.  Obviously we are all different, maybe you'll relate to this and maybe you won't - but if you are reading this and you're feeling this kind of loss I really hope you'll be ok and I genuinely care about you. We are officially Bro's in Loss.

When someone I love dies, I will be out of my mind for a while and that's ok

When your body is processing such a massive concept as the death of someone you love, you're going to have about ten percent of your awareness and energy. This means it's super important to do things like look both ways when you're crossing the road, don't drive if you're not up to it, ask for help from friends or family if you just can't cope with cooking (eat your veggies - you need your strength to get through this). Basic survival things can easily fall by the wayside when all of your physical and mental resources are focusing in on other areas.

The first time someone I loved died who wasn't at the end of a long life, I happened to have an acupuncture appointment booked in on the morning of his funeral. Addam was a dear friend, co-worker and mentor. He was like an older brother figure and I was out of my freaking mind when he died suddenly. My acupuncturist Helen told me something very scary that I thought was awful at the time, but with hindsight has been very helpful. When someone is taken out of our lives who we will miss, every single cell is screaming out for them. The physical body grieves and will do so for the rest of our lives, in varying intensities. 

Geez! Thanks a LOT!... I thought to myself. But when I realised that this felt so true, that my body ached so much and I felt such sadness I didn't feasibly think it was possible to come back from, it enabled some compassion and care to enter into the equation, and things got so much better from there.

Recognise your things as your things

When Addam died, I watched a lot of Gilmore Girls. Episode after episode, hour after hour. When I'd had enough, I'd have a warm bath and stare into space, then watch more. When Jordan died, it was Glee. When Rel died a few weeks ago, it was (and still is) Grey's Anatomy.

Visual valium and coocooning are some of my things. Pizza is also one of my things. On the way home from Rel's funeral yesterday, my partner and I went through not one, but two McDonalds drive-throughs (we hadn't eaten a thing all day, but still. Gross) and spent approximately $60. We had feelings to eat, and boy did we eat them.

Being in bed a lot of the time, or on the couch, with many blankets and fluffy doonas in both settings, is one of my things. I understand now that I become physically exhausted. I remember when Addam died, I had made my way into the city about three weeks later to do some podcasting at the station we worked at together and I was walking along Exhibition Street and there was a hotel I had never noticed before. I gave serious thought to walking in there, handing over my credit card and taking the worlds longest nap. I fantasised about big fluffy hotel doonas and hiding underneath them and just letting my mind go blank. In the end I remembered how broke I was, went and did the podcasting and did the same thing at home. 

After awhile, for me it moves on to obsessively listening to the saddest music I can find, and especially music the person loved. I've made an example playlist on YouTube here but they can be kind of annoying because all of a sudden in the middle of a good wallow you'll hear an ad about toothpaste and be all wtf? Whatever your chosen playlist medium, I recommend you keep it. Because sometimes it's nice to listen to those songs down the track.

Another thing I tend to do is assume I will die the same way as the person I love died. Addam had chronic migraines, hey presto - so do I and I'm convinced that they will kill me. Jordan died in a car accident - I'm terrified of driving or being in cars at all for a while. Rel had cancer - I start making plans in my head because my life will undoubtedly be cut short in the same unfair way. This fades after a time, and it's a weird way of being close and having affinity with your person.

Other people will understand

After a few weeks or a month sometimes I get an intensely short fuse, where things that are only slightly annoying before will make me want to slap a person silly, or kick them in the shin. This is another one of those 'physical and mental resources' things. All of your energies are ticking away underneath the surface, helping you to process grief and loss, so there's none left to stop you wanting to commit actual bodily harm to someone who is popping their gum or whatever. Apparently this is really common. I recommend walking away, or explaining to whoever is annoying you (if you absolutely must be around them - i.e. a work colleague) that you're sorry you're such a cranky pants, but you're having a bit of a rough time because your pal is gone and you're finding life hard to deal with. So if you could do me a favour and not pop your gum for a few weeks I'd really appreciate it and I promise I'll be back to my old self soon.

I've found that if you genuinely explain where you're coming from, people are ace and really kind. 

Be kind

Speaking of being kind - be kind to yourself. Seriously. Remember that compassion and care mentioned earlier? It really, really helps. Do not beat yourself up for not being able to be the same as you were before. You have been changed by this, and being changed by other people and your love for them is an amazing part of life. Sometimes it hurts like the Billy-o. Sometimes it lifts us up and fills us with strength.

If you need to sleep, sleep. If you need to watch their favourite movie over and over again, watch it. If you need to yell, or eat pizza, or smash plates, or be alone, or be around people, then do it.

I actually asked my GP about four months after Addam died if it was normal to still feel like total crap and want to sleep all the time, and she said yes it's fine and normal but let me know if you start gambling or sleeping with a lot of people who you don't know. Okey dokey then.

I have also learned to not listen to 774 or watch the news if every sad piece of information about loss in the world makes you want to curl up and howl for a week. Just take a break, the world will go on without you, and you can rejoin the fight for justice when you're strong again. You will be strong again, but only if you're kind to yourself and let yourself feel all the things that need to be felt.

When you have to go to work/look after kids/function in energetic ways you don't feel like

This is a tricky one. When Addam died I was working on air in breakfast radio, and there were weeks where I literally did not remember anything about that morning's program when 9 am came along and I would go home to bed. I realised this was going on and called my boss to ask if I sounded like a zombie on air, and he said to take the rest of the week off. I was lucky to get that time and understanding, but I was able to work on autopilot and apparently it didn't sound any different. Weird.

Ask for help when you need it. Delegate and just put things on hold where you can.

I don't have children so I'm not really sure what advice to share here - but from what I understand, it's good to be real with kids so they will learn to be honest with themselves and their own needs. They might enjoy snuggling up with you to watch DVDs, and entertain themselves while you're having down time. Keep them updated. Tell them you're feeling sad, or you're feeling a bit better today so let's go to the park.


Yesterday morning when I woke up on the day of Rel's funeral it struck me as so odd that the word funeral starts with 'fun'. I had this strange mood yesterday morning, I was actually pumped about going. I was excited about seeing people who understand and love Rel, and I think ultimately pleased to be doing something positive in the grief journey. Funerals are there to be healing and help us feel what we need to feel.

Every funeral is different. Yesterday was the first religious funeral I had been to since my crazy and super old Grandma died in the 80s. I wasn't raised Catholic, but my partner was, and she found it really therapeutic to be in something so old and sacred, to say the parts in the mass that everyone mumbles along with, to be a part of a ritual that was comforting and familiar.

I found it really interesting and appreciated how inclusive the priest was - he encouraged everyone to not feel self conscious if they didn't know what to say in response to the prayers, and let us know there would be a lot of sitting down and standing up and kneeling if we wanted to, and to just participate in the bits we felt comfortable to.

Halfway on the drive there I was practicing my bible reading that I was doing in the funeral (side note on that, I was so privileged to be able to play a part in yesterdays funeral, I know Rel had a LOT of friends who she loved and who love her so it was really, really amazing to be able to speak) and there was a bit about how Jesus suffered and I lost it and my bubble of high and stokedness just popped as I thought of the suffering my beautiful friend went through. I let out the sadness, and then stabilised a bit around a dim happiness to be in a group of people who understood.

I laughed a lot in the funeral at photos and the amazing eulogies spoken by Rel's gorgeous sister Mich and her BFF Dans, and felt such peace to be sitting close to her coffin. It was nice to be close to my friend again. Other funerals I haven't been able to bring myself to look at the coffin. You just gotta roll with it hey. 

I found I held it together until after I read the thing I was reading, then I cried big sad gulpy tears and that was ok because a lot of other people were too. A lady sitting in front of me turned around and held my hand and her baby stared at me and gurgled and I thought I could see Rel staring out at me through the baby.

Anyway, it was a big day, exhausting and uplifting and sad and peaceful and loud and everyone I spoke to had a massive headache by the end of it all. It was wonderful to come home and put on my jammies and curl up on the couch with dogs and Grey's Anatomy and have a big sleep and I woke up this morning feeling like I had angel arms curled around me. My bones and musces and cells all felt fizzy and lively and loved.

I'm not sure what I believe, but I feel that in this instance Rel is an angel for all of us and I'm very fortunate to have her in my corner. She's like Santa - she can be in a million places at once, wherever she's needed. If you need your friend who is gone - just talk to them. Out loud or in your head. Chances are you'll know what they would have said in response, and that's a pretty amazing gift for a friend to leave behind.

I'm going to watch Anchorman and have some porridge now, because Rel loved jazz flute and being in a glass case of emotion and putting cinnamon on things. I'm also going to not answer my phone because I feel like being quiet.

How are you going?

Monday, April 1, 2013


In 2005 I was up in the hills at Ruby's seeing some live music with a bunch of friends. Vika and Linda Bull were performing, amongst other people. I was twenty-four years old and very much in the midst of a 'what does it all mean' splash of time.

When those ladies hit the stage everyone was completely captivated. I felt a lightning bolt going into my chest and out my fingertips and buzzing around in my head. This is what it all means. To do what you love will turn you into an astonishingly beautiful person, and then you will be visible. Then you will make your life and everyone else's life better.

It's like seeing a really great teacher in action, or an artist in the thick of creating a great work, or a wonderful parent loving their child. There's a transference of great joy that seems miraculous.

I think of that night often and keep wondering where that magic will happen in my life. There have been glimmers but I'm still searching.

My earliest memory is from when I was three or four years old and everything is hazy and magic in a brilliant pink sunset, or was it sunrise? I recall that it was very early or the very end of the day, and someone in my family took me outside to the paddock to see a foal being born. I understood then that when baby horses come into the world, everything is pink. Everything is dreamy.

Last year a very talented photographer I know through PBS shared this image and I was instantly transported to that sleepy memory where everything was dazzling.


(Photograph by Eleanor Butt)

I'm saving up to purchase a print of this so I can put it in a lovely frame and hang it in our study. It reminds me that memories can be dreams and dreams can be memories.

This morning I asked a few friends what springs to mind when I ask them to describe a beautiful memory.

Tracey told me about going to India a few years ago for the first time, and when they made it off the beaten track and stayed in a village with a family in their home and were shown how to get to a place to sit on the roof around sunrise. She sat on the roof in a comfy spot with a shawl around her and every now and then someone from the family would come up and say hello, have a brief chat and then leave again. That balance between being in company and left to her own devices to be fully present and experience that amazing sunrise, watching a peacock soaring across the skyline, and learning that was the national bird of India, was one of those time stopping still moments in life.

Jed said:  a beautiful memory for me is my grandma and me jumping on our beds playing tennis with balloons.

Caitlin said: walking into the square in front of the cathedral in Santiago Spain, and the energy of the place...running into people I had walked with along the Camino to Santiago....800kms to get there and a long walking meditative experience. Another was when my then partner bought me a guitar for Christmas...I felt supremely seen and known by him.

Kerry said: this one time when Irene and I were first dating and I went to her house she had recreated a starry night inside - fairy lights all over the ceiling and a picnic laid out on the floor. It was perfect.

So it seems that everyone's story involved generosity in some way, being understood, being visible. Life being a bit richer and sweeter in ways we weren't expecting.

What do you think of when you think of Beautiful?