Tuesday 25 September 2012

Falling through the rabbit hole

One doesn’t stop to think about it much: how discombobulated Alice felt when she fell through the rabbit hole and crash landed onto the floor.  I’m not sure if ‘discombobulated’ is in the dictionary, though it’s understood well enough as Australian slang. It suggests Alice felt absolutely nothing was in the right place in the world anymore – neither within her or around her. 

Think about it: down the rabbit hole none of her previous assumptions about what was rational or predictable or fair stood for anything. She didn’t know who to trust. She didn’t know who to love.  She was confused, disorientated, had trouble communicating, and couldn’t even open the door to move forward – suddenly nothing fit, suddenly nothing made sense, and she was filled with fear, anxiety and a longing for what was once safe and familiar.

That happens to us all sometimes, I suppose, to a greater or lesser extent. 

I’m told a bad trip at a party can have a similar effect, though I haven’t personally experienced it.  I know a heavy bout of drinking can turn the world upside down.  Yet that tends to be more about proportions than hallucinations, and thankfully sooner or later (sometimes after the bed spins) you fall asleep and escape the predicament. Then the world is pretty much the same the next day, except that you feel horribly unwell and vow never to drink again.

What I’m referring to is a true side-swipe: the kind of change or impact which you don’t see coming… where you’re left winded, unnerved, and far from yourself.  Physically they call it shock.  With machinery they call it an accident.  In plays they call it a tragedy, particularly when one significant event sets in motion a flow of developments which combine to bring about catastrophe and heartbreak.  And with death, and deep personal loss, they call it grief; an all-embracing name for a difficult and complex phenomena. 

Emotionally these onslaughts leave you like Alice: wondering why it has happened, and how and when you are ever going to get out of the situation and return to something approximating your previous life, your previous self. 

Occasions of betrayal are the same – the worst of which is when you thought you had good reason to trust the person.  Abandonment is significant too, ranging from a broken heart or promise, to an asylum seeker or refugee being forced across a border into a lonely and foreign land.

And regrettably, like Alice, there is no clear recipe for coping or assimilation… only a necessary passage through everything which frightens her most, threatens to hurt her most, until she stumbles upon a thread of stability and eventually some light at the end of the tunnel.  It’s a painful process.  Friends help of course, Good Samaritans too.  But they can’t prevent her feeling the pain or take away the exposed rawness she feels in her unexpectedly hostile environment.  It is simply up to her, alone, to somehow make sense of things, or to give up trying to make sense and choose a path which goes somewhere new, anywhere new, as long as its forward.  For sitting down in one spot at the bottom of the rabbit hole, after the first days or weeks of the fall, is not an option if she wants to preserve her sanity.  Though, woman to woman, if Alice had a duvet I’m sure she’d have snuggled under it for longer than Lewis Carroll allowed her. 

Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz faced a similar challenge, and like most journeys she didn’t know what the lessons were supposed to be until she had survived and recovered from her severe discombobulation – putting one foot in front of the other on the yellow brick road until she came through the dark forest and up again into the relative-normality of the Land of Oz.  

I felt a little like Alice in the rabbit hole when I plonked myself down in the middle of Italy several years ago to live, without friends or language skills.  My disorientation was greatest in the winter, unaccustomed as I was to interminably wet and cold weather.  Yet, even in my darkest hour, I knew there had been choice involved – that in fact I had launched myself down the hole… in search of a new adventure.  So I was responsible for picking myself up each time and getting on with it. 

It’s much harder when you’re blind-sided: when you didn’t ask to be pushed or dropped in it, as it were, when the rabbit hole is not where you deserve to be based on your own intentions or merits. 

But that’s the thing.  Life isn’t fair.  The athletes from the Paralympics have shown us that.  It is, in the end, what you make of what you’re dealt.   And it requires courage – particularly when every inch of you, sometimes inside and out, aches with the wounds of the fall and the bitter taste of the loss.

But what can you do?  Not everything happens for a reason.  I reject that entirely on account of its pessimistic and fatalistic connotation – not to mention an inherent suggestion that some God or other is up there dishing out the suffering.  What I do believe is that there is probably something to be learned or acknowledged from any fall down the rabbit hole, however heart-wrenchingly difficult the episode may be.    

I just wish you could fast-forward to the time when you feel wiser and less discombobulated. 

For it’s a hellishly long time to wait… the initial rally supremely difficult… and new or unexpected detours the most lonely… but to do anything else is to wish away life.

And if Alice or Dorothy had thought like that, they would never have found their way home.



Friday 21 September 2012

Waiting for Charlotte



Still…… waiting.

I don’t like it much. 

Patience is the hardest virtue to acquire.  Well, the hardest when you’ve long since given up attaining Temperance.  Irish Catholic you see, just not in my genes.

So many things in life force us to wait, wait and… wait.  Even as I write the word it’s an odd collection of letters... uninviting, blunt, unforgiving… like the teacher who takes you outside the Principal’s Office and says “now wait there”.   I did a lot of that kind of waiting in my teens and it never ended well. 

I used to hate waiting outside the music rooms for my piano lesson too, when I had a Nun who used to crack me over the knuckles for what she thought were unreasonable mistakes.  Thankfully most of my piano teachers were encouraging, so my love of the instrument continues, but on exam day – when you’d worked so hard and SO wanted to play well so you could take home to Mum and Dad an A+ result – I was always a bundle of nerves.  “Say the Memorare and remember I love you” Dad used to say to me, as pre-exam psychology, and to this day whenever I’m waiting to do something important or receive a result I go through the same ritual.   It helps.  I was very lucky to have such a Dad.

Waiting for the bus is sometimes annoying.  Waiting for the toilet at a pub after too many beers is particularly inconvenient.  And waiting for the guy you’re keen on to phone or declare his intentions is downright torture – in a bitter-sweet kind of way. 

Of course I’ve long since discovered blokes hardly ever do what you want them to do when you want them to do it.  No, they have their own hard-to-comprehend timetable, and one has to learn to work with it; especially if you’re living in Italy where the tendency is hugely magnified.

Other things we wait for are equally frustrating: an overdue period for instance… where the associated “yikes” can range from “o oh”, “damn”, “could this be lucky?”, to “what the hell is your problem” and “of course I’m crying” as the woman is overtaken by a swell of demon emotions and distorted proportions.  Thankfully this is temporary, but the wait is still uncomfortable. 

 We’ve all had our share of “the cheque’s in the mail”.  Only recently I had to go a few rounds of indignant argument with an agency who hadn’t correctly paid me.  Eventually, no doubt to shut me up, they looked into the matter and I’m told I only have to wait until this Thursday to have the missing funds reimbursed.  But still there’s the wait.

Some of us wait nervously for our creative efforts in the kitchen to come out of the oven, never quite sure if it will be edible.  Others wait on the sidelines to get onto the field for an important match, or queue at the theatre for a return-ticket to a popular show.  To be honest I don’t mind the latter, as it somehow increases the enjoyment when you finally get into your seat.  The same can be said of foreplay of course… delicious.  Or waiting for summer rains to fall and wash away the grime of the day, for in cities like Sydney in less than an hour the sun returns and the city is washed clean leaving smells which are divine.  I used to love that about Tuscany too, though it happened less often so the waiting would build to fever pitch.   

I don’t mind waiting to find out how things operate in Heaven (I refuse to contemplate the other option, being a post-Vatican II child)… though I wouldn’t mind it if someone could get a clear message back.  It’s nice to look forward to a holiday, a party or a wedding, for there’s joy to be had in positive expectation.  And waiting for a small child to say his or her first words or take their first steps is a wildly joyous occasion.

So, yes, some waiting is essential, even desirable.  But that doesn’t make it easy.    

I recall disliking the waiting I had to do after making an offer to buy a house, the waiting to discover if I’m going to be short-listed or ‘called back’ after an acting or singing audition, and the horrid waiting involved in any legal dispute or court case is terribly disconcerting; not to mention expensive.  I guess a Groom finds it hard to wait for his Bride to appear at the church, if she’s unfashionably late.  Watching the Stock Market must be hazardous to one's well-being at times (though I myself don't dabble).  And Penalty Shoot Outs in football is a mercilessly dreadful wait.

Of all the waiting we do, however, I suppose two kinds are most significant.  Waiting for death.  And waiting for birth.  The cycle of life. 

If my experience of the former is anything to go by (and I don’t include here sudden loss or accidents as they make for a completely different set of difficulties), then this wait is a slow grinding down of one’s energy and spirit… an immensely challenging and tiring prelude to something you desperately don’t want to face but slowly realize you must.  There is a chance to say goodbye, which is valuable.  There is a chance to make peace if there have been things in your shared life left unresolved.  There is even a chance to laugh and reminisce which is priceless.  But it is extremely poignant and deeply sad to have to watch and nurse someone you love and wait and wait for the unspecified moment when you must let them go.   It changes you, permanently. 

The flipside is the ‘pregnant pause’, the wait before the baby arrives.  Of course there’s the nine months of gestation (about which I can only say Thank God we aren’t elephants).  But it’s the final weeks, days and hours of waiting which really test a pregnant woman and her spouse.  She is blown up like a Telly Tubby.  She has pregnancy-induced problems with number twos so she feels like a blimp.  She may be nauseous or suffering from pressure headaches.  She can’t get comfortable in bed so she doesn’t sleep well.  She’s naturally nervous.  Everyone wants to know when it’s going to happen and she wants to shout “if only I bloody knew”.  And if it’s her first, she knows she really doesn’t know what to expect of herself, or the experience, despite how painstakingly she has tried to prepare for this most primal of events.  So as the clock ticks on, towards and then passed the due-date, one day more, one day more, she does everything she can to distract herself.  She takes walks in the park.  She watches multiple TV Series on DVD, her husband by her side ready to switch into Birthing Partner mode at the sign of the first full contraction.  She checks and rechecks her hospital bag.  She takes long baths but over time the candles and soothing music are getting more irritating than soothing.  And still the clock ticks on and on and she’s left waiting. Why hasn’t the Indian curry worked?  The encouraging bouts of sex?  Or application of other ‘old wives tales’?  The damn kid is still in there clearly quite happy with his/her snug situation and reluctant to come out. 

Timmy or Tammy, so named by my friends for pre-birth purposes, seems to have no comprehension of the fact that both his/her parents are Project Managers who are used to delivering projects on time and on budget.  They’ve drafted a Communications Strategy and a Schedule, there are Quality Assurance matters and Stakeholders to keep happy (many of whom are in New Zealand trying to bridge the time gap as well as the geography) and Timmy or Tammy is simply not playing ball.

Then FINALLY it’s Game On: the waters break and the real contractions kick in.  Off to the hospital for a check-up.  Ok, all fine, go home.  More contractions.  More waiting.  Waiting and waiting to dilate.  Back to the hospital.  Another check: for surely she must have made sufficient progress to be admitted now?  But no, the advice is to return home.  On and on (they don’t call it labour for nothing)… more waiting, more effort, more waiting, more effort… vomiting and exhaustion has long ago set in.  My friend is shaking from dehydration and strain, when finally close to twenty-four hours after the waters have broken prematurely, the little trouper is finally taken into the labour ward and pronounced four centimetres dilated. 

The wait isn’t over though.   There’s still a long way to go and decisions to be made about how to best look after mother and baby for the ultra-marathon which is continuing… unrelenting effort, unrelenting waiting….

…until at 7.31am on the second morning of a long and challenging labour, the prize arrives:  a beautiful baby girl… little Charlotte… little Lotte… as her mum would like to call her… another little miracle… perfectly soft, perfectly formed, perfectly loved, protected and adored… by her relieved, exhausted and exhilarated parents, and a host of loving family and friends who don’t have to wait and worry any more. 

Well, for a little while anyway…