Pieces Falling Into Place

A complicated puzzle became both a memorial and an allegory for my grief journey and my life.

I’ve been working on a beautiful jigsaw puzzle over the past month. I chose it in honour of Helen, because she and I often did puzzles together. In fact, this was the first jigsaw puzzle I’ve done without Helen in probably twenty years. I also chose it for my dad, who would have loved both the map and the fact it was created by a Dutchman. 

The image is an antique map of the known world, complete with solar systems and representations of the four elements; highlighted with gold embellishments. It was created by F. De Wit in Amsterdam in 1663, and the puzzle was produced by Hinkler Mindbogglers. Boy oh boy, did they get that branding right! 

It really was a mind boggling challenge. Intricate lines, many pieces that still looked almost the same, and corner and edge pieces that were almost identical to one another made putting this puzzle together quite the labour of love. 

Mind boggling, to say the least!

Piece by piece, though, it started to happen. It is no understatement to say that I felt a profound sense of achievement when I finished a section and could anticipate how beautiful the whole thing was going to look. 

Piece by piece, it started to come together…

Doing the puzzle in honour of Helen and my father gave me purpose, but the concentration it required and the distraction from other things in life gave me a sense of mindfulness and peace that really helped me in my day to day life. 

Almost there! But those last couple of hundred pieces were the hardest!

Dealing with my grief and managing tasks related to Dad’s estate were somewhat complicated by the challenges of teaching online again during Victoria’s second major Covid-19 lockdown, but working from home also gave me the space I needed to do those things and start to heal. 

In many ways, that puzzle became an allegory for my own life. I was putting those pieces together too, seeing how things fit and getting an idea of how things would look. I too have intricate lines and a complex design that needs to be observed carefully in order to achieve the desired outcome. My life is full of pieces that fit together neatly, and it’s up to me to make sure I get that right. 

So, while the puzzle on the table is complete, the puzzle that is me is still a work in progress. 

A beautiful picture indeed!

Today marks thirteen weeks since my dad graduated to heaven. Thursday marks the same interval for Helen. 

Three months seemed like an appropriate goal for completing the puzzle, and I feel a deep sense of satisfaction at having done so.

This week, I will make arrangements to have it framed. 

When it is hanging on my wall, it will be a daily reminder that doing life well is a process, not an event. It will remind me that every piece matters. And it will remind me of my love for Dad and for Helen, of their love for me.  

I am so blessed to have known and loved them both, and to have been loved by them. The pieces they contributed to the puzzle of my life have helped to make it a thing of beauty. For that, I am very, very thankful. 

I know that as the pieces of life continue falling into place and fitting back together, my grief will remain present, but it will change. It will transform to become a part of the bigger picture, while keeping its own shape and character. In time, it will be differently painful, but the picture of my life would be incomplete with out it. In its place, fitting in with the pieces that represent joy, achievement, love, and hope, it adds its own detail, texture and embellishment to the canvas. 

Is English A Salad?

Today’s English class was the most fun I have had in a long time. I wanted to exercise the kids’ minds and get them thinking laterally. I also wanted them to enjoy it. A lesson with a difference seemed to me a great way to start our final week of term and inject some interest into our online classroom.

I began by presenting my students with the contention that a box of chocolates is a salad.

This was not a popular suggestion. 

“No it’s not!” one student said… quite defensively, I might add. “Salad is salad. Chocolate is chocolate. You can’t ruin chocolate like that!”

But, I asked, what is a salad if it’s not simply a mixture of vegetables? Chocolate comes from beans… and if you add nuts, or fruit, or herbs like peppermint, then it’s definitely a salad.

We spent quite some time redefining food, presenting the most persuasive arguments we could think of, and debating the nature of reality. 

Every time it sounded like the students might be in danger of reaching a consensus, I made another suggestion. 

Ice cream, on its own, may just be ice cream – but the minute you put it in a cone, or add fruit or chocolate, it’s a salad. 
Coffee, like chocolate, is made from beans. It’s a salad.

“No!” was the response. “Coffee is hot – it can’t be a salad.”

So then I really twisted it up.

Is coffee soup?
Is cereal soup? Or is it a salad with too much dressing?
According to one student, and I quote, “Soup is not what soup is.”

Is the English language a metaphorical salad? Because it’s a mixture of a whole bunch of languages, right? The flavours are all mixed, but the parts are still recognisable if you know what you’re looking at.

Is the English language a sticky weed? Or velcro? Because you know, it takes something from every other language it swipes past. Maybe it’s double sided tape… 

I am not ashamed to say that I really had fun. Despite their groans and protestations, I think they did, too. 

Perhaps the most satisfying moments, though, were two comments made by different students: 

“You’ve just entirely ruined the English language.”

and

“These have been the most problematic fifteen minutes of my life.”

What started out as a brain tease turned into a really interesting discussion about how we use language and define things in our own ways, and often assume that everyone else understands what we’re talking about, and that everyone else agrees with us.

It’s safe to say most of them enjoyed it… but it’s also safe to say that I enjoyed it more. 

A Handy-Dandy Social Media Skill

I have a really handy social media skill. It may actually prove to be a talent: time will tell. 

It’s super for my mental health, and has amazing benefits in maintaining positive content on my social media feed. 

It is, quite simply, deleting rubbish content on social media and snoozing the people who post it. 

Obviously, “rubbish content” is a highly subjective term. But since it’s my hobby, and since it’s my social media feed, I get to decide what’s rubbish and what’s not. I don’t dictate to anyone else what they post, or what they read, or what they want to see. But I do get to decide on what I allow to speak into my life. 

Things that get an instant veto are racism, intolerance, and hatred. The chances of them changing my mind on those issues range at the lower end of remote to zero. Also high on the veto list are conspiracy theories, politics, and ignorance. I’m not limiting their right to free speech, nor am I insisting that they think or believe. I am simply choosing not to engage with them. All I am limiting is their ability to speak into my space and my mental health. 

To that end, I have deleted comments. Obviously, people can see if their comments have been deleted. If that bothered me more than  the comments do, I wouldn’t delete them.

I have also muted conversations in messenger. The person on the other end of the conversation won’t know I’ve muted them, because I don’t often respond to general content in messenger anyway. Forwarded messages, videos, chain letters, those virus-laden ‘OMG I can’t believe this!’ messages and spam only ever come to my inbox to die, friendless, unacknowledged and alone. If it’s a personal message, that’s a different thing entirely. 

I have snoozed or unfollowed people on Facebook. The advantage is that you can do both without those people knowing and getting all offended and being weird with you when you see them at the next family gathering or in the supermarket. 

Furthermore, I have zero shame about doing any of it. 

I have chosen to not engage in debates because I don’t have the energy, nor do I have any inclination to enter into conflict. My social media feed is not the place for a bunfight about whose lives matter or whether or not something is real. And if I post something and someone disagrees, they’re completely free to do so without starting an existential debate on my thread. They can do what I do, and simply walk away. 

As someone said to me last week, it’s a bit like peeing in a wetsuit: it gives you a warm feeling, but nobody else notices. That’s absolutely true, but that doesn’t matter one bit, because I’m not doing it for anyone else. I’m doing it for me.

Here’s the how-to:

At the top right of a Facebook post are three dots, like an ellipsis. Click on those. 

From the drop-down menu, you can choose to snooze the person who made the most for 30 days OR to unfollow them entirely. This means you won’t see anything they post unless you go to their profile. 

If that person is sharing someone else’s post, you have another option. 

I changed the names on this post so that there is no inferred suggestion certain pages should be hidden or unfollowed. I made this name up. Any resemblance to existing pages is entirely coincidental.

You can hide all content from the creator of the original post without affecting your friend’s usual posts. This is usually my first choice, and I don’t snooze or unfollow my friends until they have deliberately and repeatedly shared what I consider to be rubbish on multiple occasions: that’s when I understand that I am better off just not seeing their posts. 

Finally, if people think something I post is rubbish or disagreeable, they’re welcome to ignore it or snooze/unfollow me, too. Fair’s fair, and I’m really not that easily offended. 

Fibro Flares and Self Care

It’s been a rough week, both emotionally and physically. Sleep has been patchy, which isn’t unusual for me, and my back pain has been relentless. 

Naturally, my fibromyalgia decided to join the pain party with some extra bass beats and neon flares of its own. 

Yesterday I chose to work through it. I’m a teacher working from home and my students are depending on me. It’s not that easy for substitute teachers to step into a remote learning classroom and make things happen the way I want them to. And, you know, I didn’t have to drive to school, which helps when you wake up in crushing pain. My classes were great, and spending ninety minutes with Genghis Khan in my Year 8 History class was a good distraction. 

When my classes finished, I had to go to town to pick up my much needed new glasses, I’ve been struggling with eye fatigue while doing so much remote teaching, and it’s fair to say that the curriculum planning and lesson preparation don’t stop just because we’re working off campus. It was a 45 minute drive, but I just went there, got my glasses, and came home. I am not interested in shopping or spending any more time around people than I need to right now. 

When I got home, I rested. Dinner was easy – the soup was already made, and just waiting for us to enjoy it with a spinach and feta bread twist. 

I really hoped the evening of rest would be enough to make the pain flare back off. 

Nope. 

So, by necessity, this weekend has to be a quiet one. 

My new glasses are great, but I’m not going to be spending much time on screen. I’d love to read a book, but my hands hurt too much to hold one for long. 

So, I will do what needs doing, and that’s it. I have a couple of new podcasts to road test, and then I’m going to indulge in an audiobook. I’ve got my recliner, my quilt, my cat, and the sound of rain falling outside.

Choosing my content is important for my mental and emotional wellbeing. I’m taking care to exclude anything negative, so I’m avoiding the news and social media. Throughout the whole Covid-19 pandemic and working from home experience, I have found that to be a good strategy for keeping my mental and physical spaces positive and healthy.

I’ve also got my pain medications handy in the drawer just beside me, because those things are my friends. It’s all well and good to be idealistic about managing pain and not relying on drugs, but on flare-up days, there is absolutely zero chance of that happening. A girl has to do what a girl has to do. 

I have good coffee and plenty of water on hand. And, at some point, I’m going to have one or two of those fabulous cookies from the care package I received in the mail yesterday.

So, here’s to a quiet weekend. I’ll be looking after myself, and I hope you are able to do the same.

At least raccoons look cute with dark shadows under their eyes.

A Sweet Act of Kindness.

Today I received a mystery package in the post.

Well, this was intriguing!

It turned out to be a box full of kindness from a former student who read Sunday’s post about my first Father’s Day without my dad. 

Beautiful cookies by @adornedbybeth on Instagram

The cookies were accompanied by a lovely note.

In case you’re wondering… yes, I cried.

In that moment, I felt so cared for. I felt valued and understood. 

What a blessing to receive such kindness. 
What an honour to know that a former student likes and respects me enough to do something so sweet and generous. 

Highly recommended.

Finally, those cookies! They’re sensational – and almost too pretty to eat.

Only almost, though. 

Happy National Teddy Bear Day!

Happy National Teddy Bear Day!

This is a celebration I can get right behind, because every day is Teddy Bear Day in my house!

I actually have a beautiful collection of Charlie Bears, who not only adorn my house but help me market my books on Instagram.

To see all my beary bookish posts, follow the hashtag #abearandabook on Instagram.

They are beautifully made and delightful to hold, and their faces are so expressive!

Some of my bears mark special occasions. Others are rescues, having been adopted from other people who no longer want them. As I keep telling my husband, our home provides an important service as a refuge for orphaned bears. And others, I have bought because I just fell in love with them when I saw them.

Benson: my first Charlie Bear.

If you’re interested in seeing my bear collection, there are photos of them all on my Pinterest board titled ‘Bear Collection’. There are some that are not Charlie Bears, because I already had a small collection of other bears before I discovered Benson, my first Charlie Bear, in a shop and was forced – forced, I tell you! – to bring him home with me and love him forever.

In additional acts of service to teddy bears, I’ve inspired my cousin and my sister to start collecting Charlie Bears. Between us, we’re saving the world, one bear at a time.

And in case you were wondering, the collective noun for teddy bears is a hug.

Good Grief! Getting Through My First Father’s Day Without My Dad.

The challenge: dealing with my feelings on a day I’ve always enjoyed celebrating before.

Over the past few weeks, I found myself growing heartily tired of advertisements and posts about Fathers’ Day. 

I sincerely wish all the dads out there and their kids a very happy Father’s Day, and I truly hope they can spend some quality time together. I hope kids of all ages cherish their dads and make the most of every opportunity to spend time with them while they still have them. 

For me, though… it just hurts. This is my first Father’s Day without my dad after 53 years of having him in my life. It has only been 11 weeks since he died and I miss him enormously every day. 

Dad enjoying a great coffee at Camperdown Bakery in March 2020.

I have so much to be thankful for. Dad was wise, and funny, and encouraging, and consistent, and caring, and always there when I needed him. I loved being able to care for him and provide for him, to spend time with him every day, and to take him to the places he needed or wanted to go. We were father and daughter, but also great companions and partners in laughter, day trips, good coffee and sweet treats. 

All of that is why I miss him so much. And while everyone else is celebrating their dads as they absolutely should, it feels empty for me. 

So, I spent part of my day commemorating my father. 

I went to visit the grave where both my parents are now buried. I placed flowers there, took some photos, and had a big howly cry. 

There was a young guy nearby, placing something on a grave — maybe his own dad’s or grandfather’s resting place, I don’t know. He approached me gently and asked, “Are you okay, miss?” We we’re both wearing masks, but his eyes were kind and I could see he was genuinely concerned for me. I thanked him and explained it was my first Father’s Day without my dad as he died in June, and he nodded. “He was lucky to have a daughter who would cry for him,” he said. Then he patted my arm and walked away. What a kind, compassionate soul! 

As I calmed my breathing and emotions, I took some photos for the family. 

My next stop was the Camperdown Botanic Gardens. I love walking there. It’s so pretty and there is always something lovely to see. It was the perfect place for reflecting and mindfulness as I walked.  Surprisingly, I was the only person there: everyone else was missing out, because it was an absolutely glorious day. There were blossom trees covered in buds and blooms, new leaves on limbs that have been bare all winter, a glorious grove of bluebells, pretty tulips and cheerful daffodils and jonquils. They were all sights that were good for the soul. 

My third destination for the day was the nursery: I wanted to buy a tree to plant in memory of my dad. There were some lovely options – silver birches, ornamental pears, weeping cherry blossom, and a range of decorative blossom trees. In the end, I couldn’t decide between the crabapple and the Persian witch hazel, so I bought both. They both have leaves that change with autumn colour, and pretty blossoms to give cheer in late winter and early spring. 

There was one funny moment when the lady who runs the nursery suggested a maple tree. I had to confess to her that I adore maples — they are my favourite tree— but I couldn’t get a maple this time because nobody would believe I bought it to remember Dad. A maple would definitely be just  for me. 

It has been an emotional roller coaster of a day, but I have tried to fill it with positive things and happy memories instead of dwelling on the past or wallowing in misery. I experienced a beautiful moment of kindness from a stranger, enjoyed fresh air and sunshine on an absolutely cracking spring day, and I have two lovely new trees that will brighten the garden and my life. 

The crabapple has been planted, and the Persian witch hazel is just waiting until tomorrow evening for its turn. 

Counting my blessings instead of my tears is definitely what Dad would have wanted me to do.

So, once again, job done.  

Stress Management Tips For Workaholics.

At a time when my state is still in lockdown, we’re back to teaching online and trying to tick all the boxes that go with that while at the same time dealing with all the other demands of life.

It’s very easy to become consumed by the job. It’s very easy to rationalise going those extra steps to create whizz-bang lessons that will engage and interest the students and hopefully keep both them and myself motivated despite the malaise that I have dubbed ‘online learning fatigue”.

I have learned over recent months how important it is to set limits for myself. I have consciously tried to avoid overburdening my students with work, and sought to develop learning activities that they can complete offline. I’ve tried to remind them to get up and walk around, to drink water, to get sunshine on their face and on their back.

Ironically, I’m not always so great at managing my own stress. In the midst of trying to be Super Teacher or Little Miss Motivator, I still have to remind myself to do those same things.

This post from Nerdome appeared in my feed at an opportune moment. It’s a good read, providing some quick tips and good insights about managing stress.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Nerdome

Those who spend more time with their works tend to suffer from stress more than the other. The mental and emotional burden that is often attributed to the demands of work can affect our productivity and efficiency with our task that would often lead us to troubles than not. This is one reason why it is very important for workaholics to undertake stress management to avoid compromising their career.

You don’t have to be in a special place to apply stress management. In fact, you can do it anytime and anywhere if you feel like it. You can do it while at your work desk, in the comfort room, or even out in the lobby. The idea here is to control your mind to relax so that you can continue fresh with your task — emotionally, physically, and mentally. Here are some tips that will surely help you out.

Tip…

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My Souvenirs.

Yesterday, I wrote about completing thef tasks I needed to do after my father’s passing. That included rehoming a number of his things, including two bookshelves that have been in our family longer than me, the art prints that Mum and Dad loved to have on their walls, and personal things like his bed and his walker. 

I don’t know how many times I told my siblings that I wasn’t sentimental about giving away things we didn’t need, or selling the things worth money, via buy/swap/sell groups on Facebook. There are people out there who needed them more than we did. That was mostly true. 

I have kept Dad’s hat and his walking stick. I don’t need them, but they are so iconic of him in the last few years that they are deeply meaningful to me. Those are things that he held and wore most days. They identified him at any distance, and had become part of his identity to everyone who saw him when he was out and about. 

My beloved Dad in March, 2020.

These things are my souvenirs, tangible holders of memory, and valued physical symbols of my no-longer-present, much loved father dad. 

Job Done.

Today my best friend and I went to visit my parents’ grave to see the new plaque that has been added for my dad.  It signifies another landmark, of you’ll pardon the pun: all of my responsibilities for Dad’s funeral and memorial have been met. All the jobs are done. 

Photo: Joanne Van Leerdam

The past few weeks have seen the dispersal of the last few things that needed to find new homes. Dad’s bed and walker went to an elderly chap who will benefit from them as much as Dad did. The last things to go were some bookshelves, some framed art prints, an organ stool, a couple of shower chairs, and an odds-and-sods collection of Tupperware containers that are too good to throw out but surplus to our needs. 

The plaque was the last thing that needed to be finished. It looks lovely, and matches Mum’s plaque perfectly. It’s completion leaves me with a profound sense of achievement and satisfaction, but also one of being at a loose end. Those tasks have kept me busy and feeling like I could do something useful to help process my grief. When I took the photo of the finished headstone this morning, and placed one of my own beloved wombats beside it, I knew it was all done. 

And now I don’t know what to do with myself. Oh,  I have work and books and all the demands of life to keep me busy, just as I have always done. But that sense of purposeful mourning has run its course, and I am not sure what comes next. 

I guess I am about to find out. 

This afternoon I was talking about these feelings with my best friend as we drove home. We were blessed with the most beautiful, bright rainbow — not in the distance, but touching the side of the road as we drove. At one point, we could see the whole rainbow just outside the front and side windows of the car, but I couldn’t successfully take a photo of it. 

Image Joanne Van Leerdam

“After today, and everything I was just saying… it’s like God telling me everything is going to be okay. It sucks that Dad is gone, but I’ll be alright.” 

“it absolutely is,” she said. “You’ll be alright. We all will.”

And when we got home, we were greeted with another rainbow.  

Image Joanne Van Leerdam