Travelling in London, Paris and Rome a few years ago I felt like I'd arrived in a place of peace; a place where the Shopping Muse luxuriates in harmony with the Gods of Coffee. The Muse is always there, flitting in and out of doorways, enticing with a wisp of a silk, a glimmer of glitter. The Gods of Coffee called to me from every street.
Most days coffee is about the experience. It’s about the aroma, the texture, the flavour. It’s about enjoying the surrounds I’m in and the people I’m with.
Yesterday at Coffee O’clock my colleague and I scoffed two coffees each in quick succession. Yesterday was the final day of a 3 week 3,500 kilometre odyssey. We’d risen before sunrise and had been driving for hours.
We were incapable of polite conversation or gentle sips. We communicated in grunts of appreciation for the quality of the coffee.
As the glow of caffeine warmed us, we regained the power of speech. We talked about the challenges associated with leading and being part of a team of geographically dispersed paid and volunteer staff. We agreed it’s not always easy but it’s always worth it.
Our organisation adds value. Contributing to the Greater Good matters to us.
Being able to occasionally inhale coffee…that matters to us too.
This morning the roots of a cold wrapped themselves around my throat, and tonight I am literally speechless. When afflicted with a cold I tend toward the overdramatic. I vacillate between stoic Soldiering On and spectacular Flopping on the Sofa in Despair.
There is, thankfully, a middle ground. This is a philosophical It’s All Good/She’ll Be Right.
Tonight I was in the Soldier On phase. My husband made me a cup of tea. I huffed, sighed and muttered that I wasn’t useless and didn’t need his help.
I drank the tea and began to hang out briefly in the philosophical middle, still speechless but feeling less sorry for myself. I realised my melodramatic soldier-on-or-sofa-flop-woe-is-me approach is not helpful to anyone.
The middle ground, however, is a place of acceptance.
Recovery might not come quicker, but while I’m waiting my experience is better. I’m calmer. I’m generally nicer. I let people care for me. I feel less alone. Which makes me calmer. Rinse and repeat…you get the picture.
As underwhelming as this revelation is, it made me think about how we approach actual difficult situations (ones which matter slightly more than a blocked nose).
I’ve noticed folk – myself included – fight the situation or become despondent and overwhelmed. We secretly want help but we push it away. We feel alone. We resent people. Energy is often wasted. We continue to fight or feel despondent and overwhelmed. Once again, rinse and repeat.
Before change or healing is possible we need to change the cycle: rest, recuperate, fight less, be still more, and allow others to help.
In the meantime I’ll make us a cup of tea with honey and keep the tissues close by.
Some women have the Parents & Friends/ mother’s groups/ playgroup/ school volunteering mojo. I do not. Those sorts of groups are like my kryptonite.
However, because I am stubborn and resolutely optimistic, I’m determined to do this Mother Who Volunteers At A School gig well.
If I don’t, I’ll become part of a disjointed dance seen occasionally in volunteer-engaging organisations across Australia.
This is how the dance goes: existing volunteers unconsciously judge new volunteers as being a) less committed, b) full of self-importance and new ideas, c) disrespectful of existing knowledge/ experience or d) all of the above. Conversely, new volunteers unconsciously judge existing volunteers as being a) stale, b) exclusive, c) unwilling to embrace new ideas/change or d) all of the above.
Even if there is no new/existing volunteer dance, the cacophony of ‘shoulds’ – who should be in charge, how things should be done, what decisions should be made, how problems should be solved etc – results in movement full of sound and fury signifying nothing (I know, it’s Shakespeare out of context, but it’s appropriate and I’m sure he wouldn’t mind).
It’s not pretty to watch and it doesn’t end well. Regardless of who is right or wrong, eventually it ends up at least one person exiting the dance floor, and the party is ruined for everyone else.
The responsibility lies with leaders to develop a culture of engagement which feels genuine and beneficial for both groups of volunteers. A culture of Team which draws forth the best in everyone, values each person equally, and results in something which is greater than the sum of its parts.
I don’t just mean it’s the responsibility of the person with the positional or delegated authority to create that culture. It’s all of us. We are all leaders.
Right then. If that’s the case possibly I should put my ego aside and enjoy the dance.
Volunteering doesn’t have to be a tired, out-of-time, boring shuffle.
It can be an explosion of delightfully bad 80s dancing, or a graceful waltz, or anything in between and beyond.
Whatever the style, when everyone is dancing to the same music it’s a beautiful thing to behold.
(I choose delightfully bad 80s dancing)
I rode my bike to the beach this morning, hung out with my husband and son, then sat on the deck reading a book and drinking coffee.
My day was delightfully, unusually relaxed until…well, until I checked my work emails.
My day went from breezy and blasé to bothersome.
The contents of my inbox were the usual melange of things to do, people to meet, and problems to solve. Nothing diabolical, but the lazy Sunday afternoon buzz I had going on was destroyed.
It’s pretty easy to justify checking emails seven days a week, but I’ve decided the return on investment isn’t worth it. Very rarely is there anything in my inbox on a weekend which needs immediate action, so all I do is ruin an enjoyable day off.
Ten minutes after I started checking emails I was working myself into a self-righteous lather and my phone rang. I was tempted not to answer because, you know, I was so busy working on the day I wasn’t supposed to be working.
I dragged myself away from the emails, unnecessary stress and self-indulgent frustration to answer the phone.
It was my step-mum. We talked about my dad, who died earlier this year. We talked about our family. We talked about how our lives are enriched by spending time with people we love.
After I hung up the phone, I turned my iPad off.
The world needs less emails, more bike riding and book reading.
And coffee, definitely more coffee.
Hey. Listen up.
I know as you look at that small spoonful of yoghurt your throat constricts and you feel like you’re swallowing razor blades. I know your fear both paralyses and drives you.
It feels like the world is conspiring against you because they’ve got you in hospital now, hooked up to machines, telling you what to do. These people saying you have to eat are violating your carefully constructed controls and rules. You think no-one understands what it’s like to be you.
You’re right; they don’t. So stop expecting them to.
Hey. Listen up.
I know it feels like life will always feel like this, and no amount of anyone telling you it gets better can make you believe it will.
I also know you’ll get through it. In fact, you won’t just ‘get through it'; you will have victory. You will emerge from this long, dark battle bruised and scarred…and triumphant.
That being said, there won’t be a moment where you think, “the war is over”. There are defining moments such as this one, but just as it crept into your life with promises of making things better, anorexia and bulimia will slip quietly away when you’re not looking.
There’s work to be done before then. You will have to change your habits, but harder still…you’ll have to change your mind.
It will hurt. It will be difficult.
You do it though. Once you’ve made the choice to live, you commit to it and don’t stray from your path. You lead yourself well. Your stubbornness finally benefits you.
This battle will become a distant memory, a story you tell as if it happened to someone else.
Hey. Listen Up.
Life being what it is, there will be other challenges in the future. That’s okay. When they come you’ll sit down with a real coffee (that’s something thankfully you never forget; instant coffee is never an option) and cast your mind back.
We define – and are defined by – our experiences. When it’s needed you have access to the strength and tenacity, grace and forgiveness, and resolute optimism you developed in this battle.
Hey. Listen Up.
Eat the yoghurt.
Last night I assisted in our renovations by painting a chair…for about three minutes.
I momentarily forgot this important fact: when it comes to home improvements my primary skill set is in occasionally having ideas about stuff not actually, you know, doing stuff.
I put my memory lapse and uncharacteristic interest in renovating down to being weary. Moving house, busy work weeks, and Essential Thrombocytosis (ET) weary.
The heavy, constant fatigue of ET is like the lingering dysfunction of a tired affair with a needy lover. As much as I want to, I can’t quite end it. The days ET invades my space and forces me to acknowledge it is real are simultaneously a relief, an annoyance, and a teensy bit embarrassing.
I am relieved because I know after the heaviness there will be a few days of energy before the cycle repeats. I am annoyed because I place a high value on being active. And I am embarrassed because it feels like ET is my guilty secret.
People living with chronic conditions are adept at managing symptoms and mitigating impact, so others are often left wondering if it’s even real.
It’s difficult to explain why some days I can’t do simple things like go to the shops, be social, get out of bed/off the sofa, form a coherent sentence, or even make coffee. The unable-to-make-decent-coffee thing is particularly frustrating.
But those days are necessary. They slowly fill my tank so I can carry on being professionally and personally effective.
We all need to refill our tank, regardless of our physical situation. Before ET, I didn’t understand this.
So I guess my dysfunctional love affair has taught me a valuable lesson about self-leadership.
It’s also taught me a variety of techniques for resting and re-energising.
Today’s technique is a lazy slouchy afternoon with coffee and wine on a balcony with a friend, followed by lazy slouchy evening with my family watching Parks & Recreation or – at the request of my son – the Doctor.
I’m hopeful this technique also reduces the frequency of my urges to ‘help’ with our renovations.