Sweet and Sour

This post is a collection of somewhat disjointed ideas which starts with the over-sharing of lady business and will probably contain Feelings and Rants. 

I was overdue for a smear and had some questions about increasingly recurrent thrush so I took myself to the doctor for a down-below two-fer. My robust good health, general stoicism, and dislike of scrutiny meant that I was not a frequent visitor to her office and, therefore, she took the opportunity to check for all the things while she had me captive.

It turns out my good health is not quite as robust as I had thought. While I was trotting around with no noticeable symptoms, my pancreas was giving up on the whole insulin producing business and I had developed type two diabetes. It’s not a hugely surprising diagnosis as there is family history and I had (fairly borderline) gestational diabetes in one of my pregnancies, however, learning you have a chronic condition which will affect most aspects of your life for as long as you live is still a bit of a shock.

In practical terms I’m doing ok. I’ve mostly got my head around my new diet, I remember to take my metformin, I exercise every fucking day, even if I’m sick. My blood sugars are slowly but surely coming down. But the emotional consequences are significant. At first I was burn-the-world angry with frequent excursions into despair and it felt like my diagnosis was the only thing there was. I’m moving closer to acceptance now but there are still times when I am brought up short by the unfairness of it all.

We hold diabetes up as a threat – it’s the consequence of “letting” oneself become too fat, or of not eating enough kale, something that can, invariably, be prevented by ticking enough healthy lifestyle boxes. Almost all the people involved in my care (With the notable exception of one nurse who seemed to believe I existed solely on cream-puffs) have been very careful to remind me of the huge genetic component of my condition and to avoid placing the blame on me, but that earlier message is persistent.  I find it quite hard to see myself as worthy of help or kindness when the thoughts whispering in my head are telling me it’s all my fault and I frequently have to stop and remind myself that the state of my health does not represent a moral failure.

When you are diagnosed with diabetes you are told to make three lifestyle changes: change your diet, exercise more, and lose weight. This last perplexes me a little – weight loss is a likely outcome of the first two changes and any other method of weightloss is likely to have some negative health consequences (I could get really thin by taking up cigarettes and cocaine but I doubt I’d be any weller.) Anyhow, I have been losing weight and my feelings around this are, predictably, complex. I wasn’t going to get hung up on my weight but, given I’m not doing daily blood sugar checks, it is the most easily observable sign of change. I find myself simultaneously celebrating each step closer to a conventionally acceptable figure and mourning the loss of the body I fought so hard to love. I am learning that self-acceptance must encompass change  but it is a surprisingly hard lesson. 

Our family meals haven’t had too radical a change – a shift in the proportions on my plate, more whole grains, and a distressing lack of chips notwithstanding, but other aspects of eating have become a struggle. I’m vegetarian so I’m well used to shared food and eating out being a bit fraught but the diabetes takes it to a whole new level. Lots of the strategies I used to use, like filling up on chips and garlic bread, just aren’t cutting it any more. On a recent holiday I found myself getting tired and weepy in the afternoons. I realised I had been leaving the bits of my meals that didn’t fit my diet plan and not replacing them with anything. We have now learned to make sure Jamie and I order different meals and swap components until I have enough suitable food.

This all brings it home how much food is about belonging. When someone brings a cake in to work for morning tea, or buys chips to share at drinks, I find the feeling of being excluded (no matter how much I know that’s noone’s intention) so much harder to bear than missing out on a treat and I fear that being difficult-to-feed will lead to social isolation.

Another phenomenon I am finding interesting is people’s reaction to the fact that I am taking medication as well as changing my lifestyle. It is oddly similar to the attitudes I’ve seen about antidepressant use. People like the idea that I could control my condition through willpower alone so needing metformin must be a bit disappointing. However, given the amount of effort managing my condition with medication requires, I am more than happy to let my pills do some of the heavy lifting.

I’m hoping to live for a long time and I’m hoping to live well in that time. Diabetes is always going to present challenges but I am also hoping that things will keep getting easier.

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But What About The Boys?

Every day my Facebook feed is full of great ideas for empowering girls. There are lists of books with strong female protagonists, biographies of women who have changed the world (usually by succeeding in a traditionally male enterprise), specially designed engineering toys, inspirational images, girls only science and coding classes where girls can learn without boys’ voices dominating….Some of these things are great but I think we are in danger of targeting the wrong audience.

The thing is, unless societal change happens a lot faster than it currently is, today’s boy are, through no act of malice, going to ride to manhood on a wave of gender privilege and may find themselves in the position of keeping the gates that their female counterparts wish to enter through. What will make a difference at that point is rather less how the woman sees herself and rather more about what roles the man at the gate can picture her in.

It’s our boys who need those stories of powerful women and capable girls (not to mention nurturing men and gentle boys) so they grow up with a vision of a world in which gender does not determine which role anyone is suited for. They need to play alongside girls, with toys designed to be inclusive, so they always see that boys and girls can work together on the same team. They need to learn to listen as much as they talk, to ensure that no one is overlooked and no single voice dominates discussion.

All this comes, I believe, with a corollary that we must be careful what we give value to. Just as it is important that we carve out a place for women in those traditionally male fields of science, business and government, it is also important to raise the status of those fields which are coded female. Time spent parenting should look as good on a CV as time in any other demanding job. Girls who want to make a career as a nurse should no more be told to raise their sights than boys who wish to become kindy teachers should be eyed with suspicion.

I am raising two sons and, like any parent, I wish nothing more than to see them grow into a world rich with opportunities, where they can fulfil all the glorious potential within them. But it is vital that they find a path to success that doesn’t rely on the oppression of others and that they learn to speak out against injustice even, perhaps especially, when that injustice is to their benefit.

In which I waffle about parenting stuff.

Yesterday evening we left the children (aged 9 & 13*) home alone while we drove a couple of blocks to a quiet bar to indulge in half an hour of desperately needed couple time. We’ve been working up to this for a while, and we’ve left them alone for longer once or twice in order to spare them from unpleasant errands, but this is the first time we’ve left them unattended purely to see to our own pleasure. It felt wonderfully decadent.

I guess you could call us free range parents – our children often come home from school on the city buses, take their snack to eat in the park round the corner, or walk to the shop to buy a bottle of milk – but I find it hard to align myself with a movement whose proponents often take a stance against the attachment parenting style that coloured our earlier years.

I find it perplexing how frequently free range and attachment parenting are placed in opposition to each other when, for me, the attraction to both comes from the same instinct to trust my child in his assessment of his own needs and abilities.

Any philosophy will attract rigid adherents, people brimming over with self satisfaction at being purer than the rest of us and parenting, being both high-stakes and low status, suffers from this more than most pursuits. What we do as parents does matter, and there is value in going about it in a thoughtful, informed manner. There is less value in setting up false dichotomies and straw parents to reassure ourselves about our chosen path.

My parenting has always been about trying to meet my children where they are at – whether that’s an infant who is only settled when pressed against an adult chest, a toddler who prefers to sleep in the big bed with mum and dad, an eight year old who wants to ride his scooter around the block solo, or a thirteen year old bussing to the movies – I try to start with their expressed need and fulfil it as much as I can without intruding too greatly on the needs of other family members. I don’t see any substantive difference in accommodating needs based on closeness or independence or rank one more highly than the other – while the balance shift as we grow, both are lifelong needs. None of this is radical parenting but I’ve been told “You mustn’t let the baby rule the roost”, and “I’d be far too worried to let my kid do that” enough times that I do wonder sometimes.

There are times when I do overrule my kids, when I’m tired and touched out, when my experience tells me something is important in ways that aren’t readily apparent to a child, when I’m just not comfortable with something. It’s important that the relationship between parent and child is a two way street and I am certainly not anyone’s martyr.

So my babies, who clung to me like velcro and were convinced the cot was made from snakes and lava, now actively look forward to having the house to themselves, and hug me when I get home. As they grow from children to young adults there will be new forms of independence to negotiate and new ways of expressing connection to discover, and some of it is going to be quite challenging, but I think we’re going to manage.

*The law in NZ States that children under 14 can’t be home alone without reasonable provision for their care. This law is open to a degree of interpretation and we believe we are fulfilling our responsibilities by making sure the children feel comfortable, always being contactable and able to return promptly, and by keeping our absences relatively brief.

Tanked

I tend to think of our ability to cope with what life throws at us as fuel in a tank. Some of us have bigger, or more leak-proof tanks than others, some people have more opportunities to refuel, and some are able to use their resources more economically. We fill our tanks with love and fun, with comforting traditions, with stable routines and breaks to keep the routines from becoming stale, when we look after ourselves and care for others and allow ourselves to be cared for. Having a full tank doesn’t stop us from being sad, or angry, or hurt but it helps us stay strong while we find our way back to OK.

My family is running on fumes.

Five and a half years ago, before Jamie’s sister, Juliet, died, we must have had very full tanks indeed. Losing Juliet was heartbreaking, I remember thinking that the pain was like bright, sharp knives. We were sad, and we were lost, but we clung together and stayed whole.

Since then we have lived through thousands of earthquakes, lost our home to flooding, had our flood house burgled twice, and taken three cats on that final trip to the vet. Several dear friends have moved away, my father has had several worrying health events, and Jamie’s dad has been diagnosed with cancer.

We have had times when we’ve been able to refuel a little, holidays, and outings, family and friends have helped immeasurably but, if I’m honest, we’ve been living in survival mode for far too long. Too often we eat the meal we can prepare quickly rather than the one which is delicious or nourishing. Far too frequently we give up on plans when the logistics get the slightest bit tricky (this is a large part of the reason why asking when the wedding is will win you no favour) . Don’t even think of asking how I’m doing with the housework and gardening.

Right now (though I hesitate to say it too loud) things seem to be getting better. We are settled into our new house, with two new cats who are young and healthy, and the most pressing parts of our several insurance claims are settled or close to it (I see no need for haste in repairing a house on flood prone land when we don’t need to live in it).

On New Year’s Day I tweeted:

Not precisely a resolution but this year I shall find and create more opportunities for joy. Do things that fill our hearts and souls.

I am going to take whatever time we have between storms to find ways of filling our tanks. From now on I am striving for more: more love and connection, more laughter and fun, more food that nourishes body and soul, more opportunities to move our bodies, more making and creating, more magic and wonder, more gratitude and more care taken of each other.

Reinventing Christmas: Love, Change and All The Food.

Chronic procrastination led to this post sitting half-written until it is long past seasonal. Please pretend it’s still last year

My parents moved here, from England, in the mid 1960s. My father had fallen in love with the Pacific a decade earlier, during his military service as a nurse on Christmas Island so, as soon as an opportunity arose, he and my mother packed up and moved across the world.

Amongst the first friends my parents made were another immigrant couple, Pat and Brian, who had recently arrived in New Zealand after an immense overland journey with their young daughter Madeleine. I’m not sure who called who called who that first Christmas, but my parents visited Pat and Brian in the caravan they lived in and a tradition was born.

Every year Pat and Brian (and Madeleine and son Chris), would host, first in their caravan, then in a wee farm cottage and, eventually, in the house they built themselves on a patch of native bush near Cable Bay. Everyone was vegetarian so sharing a meal was easy. They would make the main course – a selection of savoury pies, tvp ‘sausages’, walnut balls, vegetables and salads. We took dessert. For years, until my egg allergic partner started accompanying me, and Pat and Brian became vegan, I made a pavlova. Christmas Eve was pav day. My parents only had a hand beater so a six egg pavlova took all afternoon to whip and anyone who entered the kitchen was commandeered to add their muscle to the task. One infamous year our cat slept on the (thankfully tea towel covered) cooling pavlova necessitating a hasty reassembly – whipped cream and kiwifruit will cover a multitude of sins.

The number of people around the table varied. Friends, relatives and assorted waifs were welcomed. Children moved away and returned, sometimes with partners. Madeleine, tragically, died, and I had children. I think Mum, Dad, Pat and Brian missed, maybe three Christmases in almost half a century.

A bit over a year ago Brian died, quite unexpectedly.

Pat decided she wasn’t going to host Christmas alone and would, instead, spend the day with Chris and his partner. We were left to figure out new ways to find joy and meaning in the season. We’ve had two Christmases without Brian now and, while there is grief there still, we have begun to establish some traditions.

My response has been a combination of over compensation and food-is-love. We’ve always done a Christmas dinner part 2 for my father’s Boxing Day birthday so I already had a good stock of festive recipes. We decided to keep the main meal in the evening and have a lunchtime BBQ. This gives us longer to produce the more complex dishes whilst happily fulfilling the eating all day requirements of a traditional Christmas. It also combines the two types of meals that my non-vegetarian friends wonder most about.

So much of the produce that is abundant around Christmas lends itself perfectly to BBQing. Asparagus, eggplant, capsicum and courgettes all come into their own when cooked this way. Add a bit of flavoured butter or a tangy dressing and nothing could be better. Most of our favourite bbq recipes come from Fired Up: Vegetarian by Ross Dobson. We were no strangers to marinated tofu and vege kebabs but the notion that cheese and filo pastry can also be cooked on the grill has been life changing.

For the evening meal I tend to focus on luxurious, traditional ingredients and flavours – nuts, cranberries, red wine. The central dish of a festive feast must be rich and decadent. This year I made a cashew nut loaf with herb stuffing – a recipe from the wonderful Rose Elliot variations of which occur in several of her books. At other times I have made rich pâtés of chestnuts or mushrooms wrapped in crisp, buttery pastry, savoury strudels, and a parsnip and cranberry loaf. The accompaniments would be familiar to anyone – cranberry, red wine or horseradish sauces, new potatoes, garden peas, green beans and asparagus.

Christmas dessert has been my domain since I hit double digits. It is perfectly possible to make a vegetarian or even vegan trifle. It all hinges on having some beautiful berryfruit and a decent gelatine-free jelly ( The Cruelty Free Shop is usually a reliable source), anything else can be fudged by way of a generous slosh of good sherry. If I don’t feel like trifle I might make a pie (one year I made 3: pumpkin, lemon and cranberry/nut) or a gussied up ice cream mould.

These last two Christmases have been strange and a little sad but we are finding happiness too. With my parents ageing and my children beyond the stage where they need constant entertainment, a quiet day of togetherness fulfils all our needs.

2013

This year has been challenging. We’ve had tough years before, the year of the earthquakes and the year Juliet died were both horrible, but this year has felt relentless in a way we haven’t experienced before.

We’ve mourned the death of a close family friend and been rocked by the news that Jamie’s dad has cancer. We’ve been flooded, fought with our insurance company and learned that this is an on-going risk. We’ve lived with the uncertainty of merging schools and constant change.

There have been good bits too. We got engaged, my job was made permanent, I turned 40 and the world didn’t end. The kids took up instruments (Crispin learns sax and Ferdi trombone) and discovered the joy of making music. Ferdi learned mandarin and archery. Crispin reenacted Monty Python skits with his school drama group and started attending the high school two days a week to work on computer programming.

We come to the end of the year battered and exhausted, knowing that, while some things can be left in the past, some of this year’s hardest parts are unlikely to ease in the near future. I don’t make New Years resolutions but I wish for strength and courage, resourcefulness and humour, and the ability to stop and see beauty and joy no matter what is raging around us.

Home

This house, it’s too small and it doesn’t have enough storage space and everything’s a wee bit wonky. We really need to move somewhere more practical. We’ve tried. Twice we have put everything on hold following natural disasters. Several times we’ve found a perfectly good house and dithered until its been too late to make an offer.

Every time we’ve stopped trying to leave I have felt myself relax. Some of this is because moving is hell but there’s a lot more to it than that. When we were forced out of our house by floods and earthquakes I faced the possibility that we would be unable to return and found the idea almost unbearable. Being able to move home, to a damaged house that we’d previously been set on selling, felt like a reward.

We’ve lived in this house for eight years, half the time we’ve been a couple. When we moved in I was 36 weeks pregnant with my second child. A month later Ferdi was born beside the fire in the dining room (in almost the exact spot I am sitting to type this, in fact). Two cats are buried in the garden. The years we’ve lived here haven’t always been easy (some have been very hard indeed) but I feel that this has been a happy home, somewhere we have sheltered from life’s storms and kept each other safe. I don’t know how I will learn to leave here.

Over the last few weeks we have been helping Jamie’s father and his wife pack up their house for sale. They have lived on their lifestyle block for around the same amount of time we have been here. The house they had shared for the first year of their marriage sold the day Ferdi was born. John’s cancer diagnosis has precipitated a rush to sell up and move somewhere smaller. The move is sensible, given the circumstances, but the toll of moving from a beloved home is heavy.

I wonder when we, as humans, came to tie ourselves so closely to the places we dwell? Did our nomadic ancestors feel this pang whenever it was time to move on?

The question of how to hold our memories close when the places we remember are gone is one which will plague Christchurch for a long time. I don’t think rebuilding everything the way it was is the answer (and, even if it were, so much cannot be rebuilt) but there are places whose leaving brings remarkable sorrow.