The View From my Window

I am peering through my window into the future, through a portal to unpredictable days, where two worlds touch – the pre COVID-19 past and a future I cannot see clearly. ‘For now, we see through a glass, darkly

My vision is clouded. I can peer as intently as I like and wish for gypsy confidence that the portal will reveal what I really want. The poet Rumi said ‘You must ask for what you really want’. What do I really want?  And why is it so difficult to diagnose and act on what is happening in the world at present?

Photo by Greg Rosenke @greg_rosenke Unsplash

I found answers to the last question in the words of Jamie Wheal, co-author of New York Times best seller titled Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, Navy SEALs and Maverick Scientists are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work’.  As well as being an expert in peak performance and flow state, Jamie Wheal has studied historical anthropology specializing in utopian social movements.

In an interview titled Sense Making in Chaos, he offered three explanations for why it is difficult for us to find clarity when looking into the future. He was interviewed in July 2019 in the context of growing disenchantment with: governments, financial systems, inaction on climate change, collapse of the promises of globalism, social injustices, the whole post truth era where one questions who and what is trustable. How much more complicated is the world situation now with the COVID-19 pandemic!

Why it is so difficult to see into the future?

Jamie Wheal suggests that the first reason we find it so difficult to look into the future is because of the complexity of the situation demands complex cognitive capability in our minds. The mind has to be aware of cognitive biases and hold conflicting ideas to be able to grasp the complexity of the issues. Approximately 5% – 10% of the population have this capacity. They can provide scaffolding for others to understand.

The second reason is our own cognitive bias. What version of reality do we take for granted? What are our sacred cows? What stories do we tell ourselves to make meaning of our world? What is our paradigm? Do we believe in a free market? Do we think European countries should retain their cultural identity? Do we think that the universe is unfolding as it should? Do we think some supernatural power is going to save us?

Such concepts may be deeply wired. We may be unwilling or unable to change them. We need to be aware of these biases because the future may ask us to hold all sorts of highly de-stabilising, unsettling and contradictory possibilities, all at the same time. If we can’t do this, our meaning making is skewed. 

The third reason flows from the first two. Jamie Wheal describes it as our ability to digest grief. If our version of reality is shaken to its very foundations, we need to find a way to handle the death of the sacred cows. If all our future happy plans, the way we thought the world worked, if all this unravels, of course there is grief. Deep grief. 

We can be crushed but he says we MUST find a way to reach the place where to quote poet Wendell Berry we can ‘be joyful though you have considered all the facts.’

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/03/26/820304899/coronavirus-has-upended-our-world-its-ok-to-grieve  Tracy Lee for NPR

Grief

The world is awash in grief at present. So many unexpected and premature deaths; so many jobs lost; so many relationships changed; so much loss of creative outlets and platforms in arts and entertainment; so much violence towards women in domestic crises; so much trauma piled on top of whatever was previously happening (e.g. in Australia, the slow recovery from devasting summer bushfires).

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. How can one be joyful, despite knowing all the facts?

The gypsy and the government

If I asked a gypsy to read the future, s/he/they would take my silver. Our governments take our silver and offer their readings. I feel deep sadness because I fear their prescriptions are following the same old money driven mantras, the same old prosperity pathos, the same old neoliberal lines.

My email feed is filling up again with subjects like: online action to protest against the huge Adani coalmine; supporting school students climate action; petitioning politicians to put #PeopleBeforeProfits; and the blog lamenting that the proposed ‘snapback’ of the Jobseeker payment will push thousands more ageing women into poverty in Australia.

Re-starting the economy seems to me like stepping back into the arena and watching out again for: the next threat to the environment, to other species, to social justice, to human rights; taking whatever small action I can. The pandemic gave some people breathing space to think outside this treadmill of threat/response and to imagine a saner, more just world.

A different world

I’m a dreamer so I’m longing for a different world. One where my young friend in the Philippines earns more than $5 a day working as a sales assistant in a phone shop and can easily save the few hundred dollars she needs to take her teacher registration examination;

Where a universal living wage affords dignity to the needy;

Where local communities nurture industry, food production, leisure, sports and entertainment;

Where actors, writers, musicians, artists, singers (and creatives) are valued for their insights, their inspiration and access to inner wisdom.

Where education is valued, accessible to all

Where compassion moves government policy towards dignified access to resources for the unemployed, the unwell, the disabled and any who for whatever reason cannot participate in the economy.

Where the environment and all species have a voice.

That will take a miracle!

Photograph: Marco Bertorello/AFP via Getty Images

Some thought it a miracle when the final span of the replacement Genoa bridge dropped into place at the end of April 2020. The old bridge tragically collapsed in August 2018. In nine months, including through the pandemic, the new bridge was almost completed. When asked about this amazing feat, the chief construction executive said ‘They say it’s a miracle – it’s not a miracle, it’s the work of human beings, men and women, using their hands.’

People of all persuasions using their hands, hearts and minds with a unified purpose can create miracles. This is how we come to the joy, though we have all the facts.

I look through the portal, my window in time and I see the places and events where the world as I would like it is beginning to happen. I celebrate the countries moving quickly to renewable energy. I note tentative moves towards a universal basic income. One report said: Pope Francis, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and European Central Bank vice president Luis Guindos all agree: it is time to think about a universal basic income in the face of the unprecedented economic abyss caused by the coronavirus health crisis.

In Australia and across the world there are many community-based initiatives that have been quietly gaining momentum for decades. For in-depth information on this check out Local Futures. Founder of this non-profit organisation, Helena Norberg-Hodge has advocated for years for localisation as a response to the global corporate economy. Localisation can reduce distances between the product and the consumer, especially for basic needs of food, clothing, housing.

Farmers markets are a template for local economies. According to Norberg-Hodge, farmers get 10% of the product price sold in a supermarket; 40-50% through a coop and almost 100% at a farmers’ market. Ideally this should mean better quality food, less waste (because it’s not the right shape or size), less transport, less refrigeration, less preservatives, less advertising; at a better price for the consumer.

Less tangible social benefits ensue. Research has shown, people have 10 times more conversations at farmers markets, than when shopping at the supermarket!

Successful intentional communities work best when participants adopt ethical principles. How amazing would it be if our governments operated ethical principles perhaps similar to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If government words and actions reflected such ethical principles, perhaps their trust index would rise.

At community level, one can find effective life-affirming organisations. I am a member of a world-wide liberal religious community that subscribes to similar principles. It has been my privilege to learn ways to integrate ethical concepts in some small way into my world paradigm and to have conversations that hopefully reflect some of the ideals.

Choosing joy

Choosing joy is ultimately a personal decision. Like the poet Maya Angelou, I realise joy is essential to life in the future because it nurtures resilience. She wrote:

We need joy as we need air.

We need love as we need water.

We need each other as we need the earth we share.

Remembering to choose whatever is needed to bring joy and care to ourselves in difficult and painful days is essential – meditation, poetry, dancing, art, singing, writing, exploring nature, walking, whatever!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e6vmfmZWY50&t=1s

The Future, Australian style

Our only option is to be like the kangaroo and go forward into the unpredictable days of our future, with eyes firmly fixed on joyous glimpses of the kind of world we want. Who knew that the kangaroo is the only animal in the world that cannot move backwards?  Who knew too, that the emu is the only bird that cannot walk backwards? Perhaps that is why they both appear on Australia’s coat of arms!

The Real View from my Window

This is what the camera sees from my window – varied shades of tropical green and that amazing blue sky synonymous with Queensland winters. Yet, when I look out my window, what dominates the scene for me is a dead strangler fig tree. You can see the scraggly pale branches if you look closely.

I remember and feel sad that the tree has died because a root was cut. I remember that the tree’s roots were constantly encroaching on our grey water treatment tank. This was a problem because the we humans chose to put an attractive source of moisture close to where the strangler fig began life wrapped around a eucalyptus tree. I remember we are all part of the interconnected web of life. Every action has a consequence.

I give thanks for the tree that added such verdant green while it was alive. I see the lifegiving green in all the other trees. I notice the beauty and the joy despite the facts.

Understanding Unconditional Love

I’m searching for the key to open the love-net that shrouds my life. Strands and webs bind and cling where ever they touch.

To realise the net exists is one thing. Acknowledging its entangling cords creates a breathing space, like the drawing of a curtain, the hint of a way out, an exit from cloying confusion.

The net contains and restricts, yet doesn’t cover me completely. My horizons and the ordinary lives of those around me are seen in snatches of clarity, bounded by the regular squares, tantalising in their possibilities, yet beyond the reach of my netted life.

I made the net myself

To admit that I made the net myself is quite another thing. I wove it with love and compassion, blended with a good measure of duty. It was a practical response to the physical and emotional needs for care and support in a beautiful adult daughter with debilitating Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue (ME/CFS).

It has become an entrapment. I’m blindsided by the rigid restriction.

If I rant and struggle, the net pulls tighter. How could something that began in love become so restrictive, so unyielding, so implacable? I am frozen in shock at the extent to which I am stuck and bonded.

I am searching for the key

But I’m searching, searching for the key.

There’s a remarkable sculpture of a man draped in a marble fishing net in the bizarre and beautiful Sansevero Chapel in the historic district of Naples. Titled Disilussione, (Disilusionment) it was created in the 18th century by Francesco Queirolo for the eccentric and controversial Raimondo di Sangro.


Disillusione  18th century sculpture by Francesco Queirolo. Photo from
https://twistedsifter.com/2018/04/museo-cappella-sansevero-naples-italy/

The work is a tribute to Sangro’s father who embarked on a life of excess following the death in childbirth of Raimondo’s mother. In later years, the father returned home and lived the simple life of a priest.

A winged angel, representing the intellect, is shown releasing the father from the meaninglessness of his profligate life (the net).

The sculpture provokes wonder and insight

The sculpture provokes wonder and insight. How did the artist sculpt the marble to create such beauty, such delicate strands, revealing tantalising glimpses of the body trapped in unyielding stone?

How can I find my way out of my beautiful yet binding love-net? Can my intellect help me break free? Do I need an angel?

Unconditonal love is the key

I searched and searched for release. I journalled. I meditated. I journalled again. Finally, I wrote: To practise unconditional love, but not get walked on and trapped in it – that’s the key!

Easier said than done, as many mothers I know report. I want to support my daughter; help her heal and recover. How do I do this in my mid-60’s with an aging body, decreasing energy and no end to the need in sight?

Finally, another revelation: I need unconditional love for self as well as my daughter and everyone else. It’s aspirational. It’s simple. It holds the boundaries that I failed to set.  It is freely given. It releases and empowers both the giver and the recipient.

I regret that I didn’t know unconditional love as a child. My parents’ love was filtered through a set of religious rules and legalistic expectations. I began to understand it with the birth of my daughters and I am still learning to embody unconditional self-love.

At least now I understand how to use it as the key to open the love-net.

Footnote: There are other marvellously beautiful and shocking works in the Sansevero Chapel. Put it on your bucket list for next time you are in Naples. https://www.thevintagenews.com/2019/02/23/capella-sansevero/

Call of the Blood

How often does travel lead to an authentic connection with the places we visit? Mostly, we sight see, we eat out, we visit museums and parks, we take tours along with every other tourist, rarely absorbing more than a superficial understanding of the place and its people. This is the story of a very different travel experience that led to a deep connection with an ancestral Italian village and its place in history.

My story begins in 1927 when Amelia Gandini, a tall, striking, young woman left her home in Faedis, Friuli, in north-eastern Italy and boarded a ship in Genoa bound for Australia. A few months later, she married by grandfather in Mackay, North Queensland (probably an arranged union – two of Amelia’s brothers were already in Queensland.) Twenty-six years later, I was born, her first grandchild, the daughter of her first-born child, Corrado.

Amelia Gandini on her wedding day to Giovanni Stroppiana, Mackay, Qld, Dec, 1927.

I remember Nonna’s ready smile; her smooth white hair pinned in a loose bun framing the bluest of blue eyes; her never-idle hands, serving us soft drink and biscuits or fingers flicking coloured threads into lacy crochet doilies and table runners. We didn’t know any Italian and Nonna and Grandpop spoke only a smattering of English, so in many ways they were like a foreign country to us kids. They smiled and nodded kindly. They were welcoming and gentle, so quaintly different from our Anglo-Saxon maternal grandparents. Yet love found a way to cross foreign borders and rest in my heart.  

I have dim memories of bath-time in Nonna’s huge cast iron bathtub that stood on a rough concrete floor; of butterfly shaped macaroni drying on racks and strings of pasta falling from a hand wound machine. When Nonna died, I was in my late 20’s. I grieved her death deeply. I felt cheated of the opportunity to know her in my adult body.

Decades later, I long to visit Nonna’s birthplace, Faedis. (She never returned). My younger sister made a stopover on a cross-Europe trip in 2017. Her photos of the streets and buildings move me deeply. I am so drawn to the place. Of all the amazing experiences I know I could have in Italy, there is only one place I want to go when a travel opportunity arises in November 2019. I journal about travelling there. I think about walking the streets. I imagine Nonna’s spirit smiling on me, welcoming me. I literally write myself into a story that proves to be rich and meaningful beyond my wildest dreams.

Close to border with Slovenia. Photograph by James Hills

I tell myself that most of the buildings and places that Nonna knew will have been erased by history. Secretly, I hope to find some traces but I think the odds are against me. Faedis is now only 12 kilometres over the mountains from Slovenia. Of course, this puts the village perilously close to what was the Eastern Front in both world wars.My sister told me that a devastating earthquake struck the area in 1976. Still a lovely sense of anticipation keeps me smiling as James and I take the train to Udine and then a taxi to Faedis. (We had been warned about the irregular bus services.)

In my head, I have a handful of Nonna’s stories, as recalled by my father and his sister, my aunt. In our records, we have some digitised photographs of Nonna and her brothers. I know a few Italian words (not enough for conversation) and I can read a little. I have no other tangible evidence of my connection to this place, just a deep desire to learn and to re-imagine Nonna’s life here.

Enter Andrea Tofolletti, a passionate local historian and our host in the beautifully restored Roman and mediaeval Affiticamere Valnascosta where we are staying.

Entry to breakfeast room, Valnascosta. Photograph by James Hills
Andrea Tofolletti, host extraordinare at Valnascosta and enthusiastic local historian. His help was invaluable to my understanding of the village and its history. Photo by James Hills

I tell him that I have seen photographs of Faedis bombed in WWII.

‘No,’ he corrects me. ‘Faedis was never bombed. It was burnt.’  

Andrea speaks good English. We follow the story he tells of the partigiani, the WWII resistance fighters who kept Friuli clear of Germans and operating pretty much as normal for much of the war. Eventually though, the Germans were irritated beyond restraint by the partigiani’s continued raids and incursions.

‘They threw fire into every house and building in Faedis. The commune (local council building) was burnt. All the commune records (births, deaths, marriages) were lost. But the priest had been warned. He hid the church records in a box in the bell tower and they survived.’

Andrea tells us that he saw the church records when researching the history of the Valnascosta buildings.

‘Some of them are written on sheepskin vellum,’ he said.

Silently, I thank that priest. It’s probably due to his actions in 1944, that I have a precious copy of Nonna’s birth certificate and consequently, I and my daughters now hold Italian citizenship.

Stone walls survive fire. Just one year after the war ended, Faedis celebrated their annual Strawberry and Wine Festival. Photographs show roofs re-built and life continuing in an amazing show of resilience, during those very difficult days.

What fire couldn’t destroy, the Terremoto del Fruili, (Fruilian Earthquake) almost did on   May 6, 1976. The first shaking began around 9 pm and lasted 30 seconds at 4.5 magnitude. After a short pause, the main quake hit with much longer shaking at 6.4 magnitude. The thick stone walls of many buildings were held together with weak mortar. They simply collapsed. The village cemetery was destroyed. Hundreds were left homeless. Despite timely and immediate response from the Italian Army then stationed at nearby Cividale, sustained recovery of the area took much longer and was shattered by an aftershock of 6.1 on 15 September, that resulted in more damage.

‘The weather was becoming cooler. People had begun moving back into their partially destroyed homes. Many of these buildings totally collapsed in the second quake,’ Andrea said.

Many dispirited residents left Fruili after the second quake. Those that remained eventually saw significant money flow from the Italian Government for village reconstruction with a mixture of contemporary new houses and restoration of historic buildings. Faedis actually experienced unprecedented economic development and was later awarded a Gold Medal for Civil Merit (an award given to people or organisations that show an exceptional level of self-denial in alleviating suffering and helping those in need.)

I am fascinated by the history. Yet it further convinces me that I am unlikely to find where Nonna lived or much physical evidence connected to her past. Her parents’ graves were probably destroyed by the earthquake. The old cemetery is now a bare gravel carpark. Families that could afford it moved their ancestors’ graves to the new cemetery out of town. I can find no trace of my great-grandparents in the beautiful new cemetery. I suspect their remains are under the carpark, next to the ancient Slavic church that was once the centre of the village.

But then….we show Andrea the photo/postcard sent more than 100 years ago in 1923 to the young Amelia Gandini from her older brother Antonio in France. It is simply addressed:

Alla Signorina, Gandini Amelia, Faedis N293, Italia (via Udine)

Photograph by James Hills

Amelia brought the postcard with her to Australia and her daughter (my aunt) still has the original. When Andrea sees the address, he is very excited.

‘I think I might know where is that address,’ he said. ‘Come outside, I will show you.’

On the stone shed wall that borders the car park outside Valnascosta, he points to a pressed metal house number plate N85. ‘This used to be the address for this place,’ he says.

‘They have changed the numbering systems so many times in Faedis. First, they had the Napoleon system (the French arrived in 1797). Many years ago, they had this metal plate house numbering system. Now they use something different again.

‘I have found another number like this in the field near Canal del Ferro. I think your N293 is also in Canal del Ferro. I have a friend who lives there. Let me check. I think that is where the number will be. Those old buildings up there. They don’t change. They’ve been there for hundreds of years.’

The old number found in a field near Canal del Ferro. Photograph by James Hills

Turns out, it takes more than two world wars and an earthquake to destroy my history. Turns out too, that Nonna did not actually live in Faedis proper. Canal del Ferro, is a collection of medieval two-story stone buildings a few hundred metres up the road towards the foothills of the pre-Julian Alps.  

A sense of the antiquity of this area seeps into my consciousness from the reading I’ve been doing. Before the French ruled, the Venetian Republic conquered the area in 1420. Before them the Cucagna family and their noble descendants ruled and built the castles on the hills on the other side of Canal di Grive. Roman coins turn in up vineyards. Excavations during renovations of the main church in the village piazza, revealed evidence of a small Roman temple. In fact, humans have probably lived in the area since around 2000 BC, according to archaeological digs in the nearby Cjondar des Paganis Cave located between Faedis and the neighbouring commune of Attimis.

I stand in Borgo Canal del Ferro on a clear, chilly November morning touching the rough stone walls of N295 (the house of Andrea’s friend) and those of the buildings next door. N300 was nearby. One of these buildings has to be N293!

Smiling through tears of belonging in borgo Canal del Ferro. Photo James Hills

The old numbering plates were mostly discarded, especially following the earthquake restorations, and location records were probably destroyed when the commune records were burnt.

Andrea says later that N293 may have actually been part of N295. Sometimes different families shared the same building.

N295 is a gracious, beautiful building with vines growing up the walls and traditional external wooden staircases giving access to different floor levels.

N295 in Canal del Ferro. My grandmother lived in N293. It has to be nearby! Photo James Hills
Part of the borgo Canal del Ferro. Photo James Hills

 This borgo has to be where Nonna lived, played, laughed and worked as she grew up.

This was where in 1917, her mother Erzegovina Gandini (nee Puppini), loaded all her children and their supplies including the pig and their chickens on to a cart, hitched the cow and attempted to lead them to safety at a friend’s house in then Austria when occupation by enemy soldiers seemed likely.

This was where Erzegovina returned a week later to find her home occupied by German soldiers. This was where she and the children then slept upstairs while the soldiers lived downstairs.

This was where the soldiers ate all the family’s food stores, including their pig and chickens;  broke up their furniture for firewood. (I read similar local family stories recorded in Faedis history collections). Nonna said the soldiers did not physically hurt them. Victors and vanquished, all were trying to survive a harsh wartime winter.

This was where the family would have starved that winter, except for the ingenuity of Amelia’s brothers who stole chickens and other food wherever possible.

This was where Amelia heard the bells from the Santa Maria Assunta church in Piazza 1 Maggio down in Faedis calling her, her mother and her siblings to mass; calling too many times during the Spanish Flu after World War 1, yet never once for their family.

Tears flow as a deep sense of connection to this beautiful place seeps into my being. Green and gold autumn trees on the foothills behind me wrap around the vineyards surrounding the borgo. Across the gurgling Canal di Grivo a few hundred metres away and up on the hills opposite, the two medieval castles, sharply white against the clear blue sky, watch over the valley as they had done for centuries.

Castello di Zucco and Chapel friese (photos from http://faedis.mobi/galleria_fotografica.html
Vineyards near Canal del Ferro

Exploring Canal di Grivo further convinces me that we are in the right place (or maybe I just want to believe this). From the bridge I watch the clear mountain stream rush down towards Faedis. Nonna often described her mother, my great-grandmother Erzegovina, washing clothes for rich people in icy river water. In this way, she earned a few lire to supplement the income that her husband drank on his return from seasonal work in Germany.

A few days earlier, I stood on another bridge in the main village of Faedis and watched the Torrent Grive, literally a raging torrent, especially after rain. I tried to imagine accessing the tumbling fury from the steep banks to wash clothes. It didn’t seem possible.

But here at Canal di Grivo, the river is much gentler – hurrying, clear water, broken on the edge with worn slabs of rock. I could almost see those women one hundred years ago, rubbing their clothes on the stones, maybe laughing and chatting.  

Canal di Grivo

As we drive out of Canal del Ferro, we pass a drinking fountain: worn mediaeval stones and running water, cracked by the earthquake and wrapped around with an iron strap. It simple beauty in form and function calls to my heart.

Fountain near Canal del Ferro

Like her mother, Amelia would have drunk from this fountain and collected water here. And almost 100 years after she left her birthplace, I, her oldest grandchild, pay homage to her at the fountain. I honour her courage and resilience in seeking a better life in a strange new country. I honour the grief, the cracks in human experience she knew. I honour the stories she told. I honour the power of her love that flowed through all the decades of my life and led me to this moment.

Renee Hills (Stroppiana) 2020. Amelia Gandini was my paternal grandmother.

Beyond Four Walls

ME/CFS Awareness week recognizes the millions of people around the world, their families, carers and allies who deal every day with ME/CFS.  Emerge Australia, Australia’s lead advocacy group describes Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) as ‘a complex and disabling disease that affects many parts of the body, including the brain and muscles, as well as the digestive, immune and cardiac systems, among others.  Of the 250,000 Australians living with ME/CFS, some 25% are so severely impacted they are housebound or bed bound.’

For a long time, my 20-something daughter was in that 25%. It was one of the most challenging periods of my life. I want to honour the many parents, grandparents and carers of adult children with ME/CFS. Ours is a demanding and arduous road. I reflect on my journey here:

When my daughter first became seriously ill, I was deeply afraid. I sensed that this was no ordinary illness. Her inability to get out or bed or to stomach most foods or to think rationally – this was something desperate and dire. This was no ordinary ‘flu or a simple case of exhaustion. This was a body in extreme distress, operating systems corrupted, teetering on the edge of a deathly shutdown.

In my fear, I posted on Facebook asking for healing thoughts – prayers if anyone believed in them. I wasn’t sure I believed in prayers, but we needed help. Conventional medicine offered no explanation or solutions. Alternative medicine and nutrition offered only slight relief at exorbitant prices.  I wonder if friends realized how disturbed I felt or how ill my daughter was, because not many responded to my message. They probably thought ‘Oh, she’s just having another drama with her daughter.’

And they would have been correct. It was another drama and there had been plenty of dramas. All through her teenage years and early 20’s, friendships went awry; she experienced self-loathing and depression, anxiety, parties where too much alcohol and god knows what else was consumed. And me, her mother, in a constant state of hyper arousal, poised for the next phone call, the next rescue, the next catastrophe. Perhaps, I thought, my friends are tired of hearing all this.

Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash

Lately though, she’d been more settled. She’d lived in Italy for a year, working and travelling, returning home only when her visa expired. She determined to save up quickly so that she could return to the country where she felt completely at home and where she could remain indefinitely on an EU passport recently acquired through Italy’s jus sanguinis, the Right of Blood. This legal principal of Italian nationality law allowed her to claim Italian citizenship through me. I in turn claimed it from my father who was born in Australia at a time when both his parents were still citizens of Italy.

I felt alone, physically and emotionally when at 24, her body systems flicked into the peculiar, elusive illness that most people call Chronic Fatigue, medically termed ME/CFS. It happened suddenly, but in retrospect, of course there were warnings. I look back and see the flashing red lights.

Her gut was insistently intolerant of gluten, despite a later colonoscopy revealing she did not meet medical criteria for coeliac diagnosis. The cruel requirement to eat gluten in the lead up to the test made her so ill and weak (with either constipation or diarrhoea) that she could barely walk into the hospital. She persisted in the vain hope some new information might be revealed.

Since childhood. consuming dairy products linked with eczema which now broke out again frequently. But the most dramatic warning was the difficulty regulating sugar levels. Medical and DNA testing finally revealed that she was a true hypoglycemic – someone whose insulin production does not do the timely switch off after eating sugars. In this state, she resembled the spent spring of a music box ballerina doll. Her speech and movements faltered like the tinkling music as the doll twirled ever more slowly. Her thoughts were scrambled and her body was faint, dizzy, cold and clammy. She could not function. She could not drive herself home from work where she managed a fashion retail store. The doctors said ‘take glucose’ (first we had to find a gluten free version) ‘or a juice’. She quickly learned this sent her into a spiralling cycle of energy followed by slump; energy followed by slump. She called it a ‘sugar crash’.

These were the stop signs, cleverly disguised as errant, malfunctioning, temporary ailments, belying the extreme distress that now enveloped her. In those first miserable months, she barely left her bed, except for many stressful medical appointments and tests as we searched for answers. She went days without showering because the physical exertion utterly exhausted her. Sometimes she needed to be helped to and from the shower. She was so dizzy, she could barely stand. I became her physical carer in all but official status. I did her washing. I drove her to appointments. I helped her shower. I made her meals.

 Most foods sent her gut into painful spasms. I tried smoothies filled with supposed super-foods. I researched non-irritant foods and learned to cook without onion, garlic, tomatoes, capsicum, cheese or any other dairy product, sugar and gluten. I crushed almonds and made our own almond milk. I tried to make kefir probiotic and yogurt from the almond milk. I bought organic food.

I continually trolled the internet looking for research and answers. I printed off reams of confusing, conflicting information. Eventually I found the ME/CFS Australia Facebook group where authentic user information was honestly shared, including recommendations for sympathetic doctors and other professionals. Many doctors still don’t recognize ME/CFS as a serious medical condition. The resulting gaslighting and disrespect that my daughter experienced exacerbated her emotional and physical distress.

All this happened while we lived in our beautiful octagonal home, in a beautiful bushland setting on the outskirts of Brisbane.  I was usually alone with an adult daughter barely able to shower herself and spiralling deeper and deeper into a self-destructive depression as more of her life disappeared every day: the job, the friends, independence, and her sense of self. My older daughter was working and travelling overseas. My husband was interstate managing a massive project that consumed his attention. He came home some weekends but did not seem to understand the depth of my fear and despair. I struggled to explain that the darkness in our daughter’s room was seeping out and threatening to engulf me. My life was on hold and my future, now bound to my daughter’s was very unclear.

People told me later they admired my resilience, my care and patience, my dogged attachment to hope. Mostly, what I was feeling was terror at the responsibility of ensuring, as much as was in my power, the mental and physical well-being of an adult child who was incapable of rational decisions or physical activity. On the worst days, I made brief forays to the gym or the supermarket and returned home in fear, approaching her silent, dark room, dreading what I might find.

Almost eight years have passed since my daughter lost the life she thought would have. She turns 32 this week. We’ve all been in COVID-19 lockdown for the past 60 days – a situation that has introduced millions of people to the lifestyle that people with ME/CFS live interminably (albeit with less reliable energy). Ironically, the enforced insolation has removed pressures of physically attending doctor’s and therapists’ appointments, her main excursions, and her health has improved slightly.

Six months ago, she was just well enough to successfully apply for a scholarship and then to enrol in an online life coaching course. This has literally been a life-line, connecting her to inspiring women, some of whom have created viable careers despite chronic illness. She is currently developing her own online coaching business.  Mentoring other womxn (sic) to change mindsets, set boundaries and increase confidence and self-worth will allow her to share the wisdom of her hard-won life experience as well as potentially creating a independent lifestyle.

She still needs to pace her activities and their emotional demands very carefully. She still needs to rest. She rarely sees friends face-to-face. Every outing requires the energy payback period, requiring extra rest, and sometimes including headaches and exhaustion. She’s made close friends online. She is building a new life day by day. She still plans to return to Italy.

Perhaps my friends’ thoughts and prayers did work. My daughter is still here. That in itself is a miracle. Amazingly, she is stepping into a new version of herself, living with ME/CFS. If I believed in prayer, I would say something like these words I wrote in 2015 when my daughter was entering the third year of severe illness. I offer them now in gratitude and deepest hope that all sufferers of ME/CFS may find the life beyond.

Beyond

Beyond the four walls, the white ceiling and the cluttered floor

beyond the nausea and death-like weakness

beyond the brain fog that renders decisions almost impossible

beyond the persistent need for excessive rest

beyond the merciless chip, chip, chip of malicious despair

beyond the job no longer worked

beyond our fractured family

beyond those doctors who will never understand

and who have no magic cure

beyond the well-meaning friends who suggest getting a grip

beyond the fear that this will go on and on until the end of days….

Beyond lies hope, frail and shimmering

an indistinct shape of a life that is joyous

fulfilling, purposeful, committed

beyond lies whispered confidences with a lover

beyond lies an adored puppy

beyond lies travel and return to your beloved Italy

beyond lies your own home

beyond lies frustrations, delights, challenges

beyond lies the ordinariness of an ordinary life

Beyond is calling.

#mecfsawarenessday #chronicillness #ME/CFS #unrest #MillionsMissing #chronicfatigue #carer #mecfs #myalgicencephalomylitis #chronicfatiguesyndrome #emergeaustralia

Autumn Archetype

May 2020.  Auspicious times. COVID-19 lock down restrictions are easing here in Australia and Europe. In Celtic earth-based traditions, it is southern hemisphere Samhain: time to settle in for cooler, less-light winter days; to note the passing seasons in the cycle of the year; to prepare for change. According to the old ways, this was the beginning of the new year. Time to gather in, acknowledge life’s gifts with gratitude; to remember our ancestors; to face our fears.

Marking the change of season seems particularly meaningful for me this year, perhaps because the lockdown has settled me firmly in my beautiful natural environment – trees in abundance, clean air, blue sky. (And yes, I realise I am very privileged.) Ancestors, autumn, anxieties link me with the wheel of the year and the seasons of my own life.

Recently I was intrigued to discover that as a post-menopausal woman who is not yet an elder Crone, I fall into the Maga or Queen archetype in the female life cycle.  Archetypes and symbols, myths, folklore and legends are treasure houses for writers. Lately, I’ve been obsessed with them, partly because I wrote a story about a water witch, based on a legend from the Friuli area of Italy where my grandmother was born. The legend had such significant connections to stories my grandmother told about their lives, that it felt like it was my story.

In the literature of female archetypes for a woman’s life, three figures are usually described: Maiden, Mother and Crone corresponding respectively to the child and girl; the mother who births and cares for children (or if childless, she nurtures in other ways); and finally becomes the wise woman reflecting in her life, sharing stories with those who will listen. The Maga or Queen archetype reigns in the autumn season of the life cycle between Mother and Crone. (Thank you, Jen Storer from Girl and Duck for drawing my attention to this development).

Seems with all the baby boomers living well past child-bearing stage and into careers and interests outside of and including the grandmother role, our collective unconscious needed a new persona to typify this emerging phase of women’s lives.  Enter the Maga/Queen ( I think she’s always existed in various incarnations of the work of Jung and others) but she has recently taken firm hold in popular iterations of the female archetypes.

While the Maiden energy is youthful, inquisitive, learning about herself and the world and the Mother energy is about birthing new life, understanding unconditional love and putting the ego aside; the Maga/Queen energy is both grounding and balanced while accessing deep insight and powerful wisdom that can contribute much to our evolving 21st century. Australian naturopath Angel Counsel suggests the word means magic woman or wise woman in Sicilian.  

Image by Valentin Salja on Unsplash
A beautiful hike through the Serbian Kosmaj mountain forest in early, cold spring.

The Queen/Maga feels connected to all life, yet she realises she cannot nurture it all. She must be selective. She is aware that her time is running out. She must set boundaries on energy expended. She realizes she can’t do it all; she must let some things go and she must do what really matters. Her expertise, wisdom and knowledge may benefit many if she chooses to work in the community.

She may feel drawn to focus on her own needs and creativity. I think she possesses what Elizabeth Gilbert describes in Big Magic as a fierce sense of creative entitlement. She writes on p.92 creative entitlement simply means believing that you are allowed to be here, and that – merely by being here – you are allowed to have a voice and vision of your own.

What a gift is this message to those of us who feel called to write, draw, act, dance, sing, create (any creative endeavour) in the Queen years of our lives. Certainly, we’ve earned the right to be here through our Maiden and Mother experiences, not that we needed to earn it. We were always allowed.  Yet somehow, there’s a knowing in our bones that now is the time.

And how powerful for women at other points on the wheel of life to bring in this Queen energy, whether as a Maiden learning her own thoughts, life purpose and expressing her voice; or the young Mother challenged with conflicting demands of child-rearing (or other kinds of nurturing) and societal expectations; or as a Crone settling into her wisdom, sharing with those who will listen. The Queen teaches all of us how to ask for what is needed, how to say no, how to negotiate boundaries, how to use expertise and influence for good.

And as a Maga what am I to do at this stage of my one wild precious life (Mary Oliver poem). Am I doing what I want to be doing? Am I being who I want to be? Questions for another day, another post.

Remembering Ancestors in the time of Coronavirus

Was it prescience? I made a vision board in January and devoted a chunk of it to intentions to focus on spiritual growth, intuition and meditation. I highlighted the words: wisdom, resilience and growth.

I chose these words because I wanted to add that focus to my life. But as the ancient adage from Aesop’s Fables (circa 260 BC) says: ‘be careful what you ask for.’ Who knew that just two months after gluing those words to the poster, a pandemic would find me digging deep for my own wisdom and resilience? Whether I want to or not, I am going to grow.

I am heartbroken at what is happening in Italy. My father is the son of Italian immigrants who came to Australia in the 1920’s after WW1.

My grandmother Amelia Gandini and my grandfather Giovanni Stroppiana on their wedding day in Mackay, Queensland, Australia, December 1927.

In the last few decades, I have been increasingly drawn to my Italian roots. I connected with a distant relative while my daughter was spending year working and travelling in Italy in 2011. Last year I stayed in Faedis, the small village in Fruili-Venezia-Giulia, where my grandmother was born and lived until she came to Australia in 1927. Now I feel as if half my heart lives in Italy.

To see the heroic efforts of the Italian medical staff; to know the devastating Utilitarian choices they are making to save younger over older lives (and this in a strongly family-orientated culture); to hear the indomitable spirit of people singing from their balconies; all this moves me to tears. A queer sense of pride rises in my blue-sky, brown-land Australian heart for these people, this culture and this country that I claim as part of my heritage.

In the time of coronavirus, I draw strength and resilience from my Italian ancestors. I and my daughters are here partly because of their incredible resilience. My grandmother (Amelia Gandini) was fifteen when the last pandemic l’influenza Spagnola (Spanish Flu)came to Faedis in 1918 just over 100 years ago. She said every family in the village lost at least one person. A vigil would be held in the home with candles. Then when the bells rang in the piazza, she and her brothers and their mother would run up to the church to say Mass.

Santa Maria Assunta Church, Piazza 1 maggio, Faedis Nov 2019. When my
grandmother left in 1927, the church was still being
renovated from a smaller structure
Photograph by James Hills

No-one died in Amelia’s family but her mother (my great-grandmother) became very ill with a high fever for many days and all her hair fell out. This is the same woman who washed clothes for rich people in icy running water for a few lire to feed her family. I’ve seen that icy running water. It’s a beautiful river if you don’t have to wash clothes in it.

Canal del Grive – this is probably where my great-grandmother washed clothes to make a few lire to feed her family. Photograph by James Hills

This is the same woman who tried to take her children to safety when the area came under enemy occupation. She loaded all her children and her chickens on a cart and with her cow, she led them to a friend’s house and supposed safety. I don’t know why this did not work out but a week later she returned to find her home occupied by enemy soldiers. For the remainder of the occupation she lived upstairs with her children and the soldiers were downstairs.

We found this photograph in the WW1 Museum at Kobarid, Slovenia. It was taken during the enemy occupation of Fruili, October 1917. It shows a woman leading two cows drawing a cart with all their supplies, a child on top – exactly as described by my grandmother.

This is the woman who somehow found the means that winter (with the help of Amelia’s brothers who stole and scrounged food wherever they could) to keep her family alive (1917-1918). Amelia said that the soldiers were hungry and cold. They ate all the chickens and the pig and the family’s winter stores. They burnt all the wood stored for winter, then the family’s furniture. These were desperate times. The hardy and resilient – my ancestors – survived.

My great-grandmother Erzegovina Puppini with one of her sons. When her only daughter, my grandmother emigrated to Australia in 1927, she never saw her again.

We all have ancestors who lived through difficult times – wars, pioneering days, economic depression, undiagnosed and untreated mental health issues, chronic ill health, family tragedies, natural disasters, discrimination, racism, injustice, etc. Their blood runs through our veins. Their collective resilience and strength are in us still; their capacity to dig deep, their wisdom and way of being runs in our DNA.Let’s call on these qualities, the gifts of our ancestors to help us through these strange days.

Then we will be able to say, like our young friend in Brescia, in one of the worst affected areas of Italy:

‘We in Italy are all fighting and we won’t give up, never at all. The only thing we can do in this moment is staying at our home. This moment is a kind of opportunity to have time to stay with our families. It is a kind of moment of reconciliation.’  

Which of you ancestors inspire you with their resilience and strength? Comment below.

readilearn: Meet the author-illustrator team for Turtle Love – Renee Hills and Anna Jacobson

Thanks Norah Colvin and readilearn for this thoughtful review.

Norah Colvin

Do you love turtles? I find these magnificent creatures of the sea fascinating. Although I already owned a collection of picture books about turtles, I couldn’t resist supporting local author Renee Hills publish her first picture book Turtle Love, illustrated by Anna Jacobson, through Pozible at the end of last year. I was delighted when I received my very own copy of this beautiful picture book with its warm and empowering story that engages young children and invites them to be proactive about the welfare of other creatures.”

Synopsis

Turtle Love is about Jacob Gordon Lachlan Brown who lives on perhaps the most interesting and beautiful beach in the world. The flatback turtles agree. They come every summer to lay their eggs. But life is becoming more difficult for the turtles because the big ships that load coal are stirring up sediment and this affects the seagrass that…

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January: Looking Back to Thrive in 2018

January is the season of planning and resolutions. Some of us have probably already broken a few of the latter. Fortunately, we can renew them on Chinese New Year – 16th February – but perhaps we’d be better off considering Sankofa.

There are various translations and meanings attributed to the West African Akan words ‘san…ko…fa…’  and the associated bird symbol shown above,  but the one I like most is it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.”

The bird is usually shown with its feet firmly planted forward while its head is turned backwards, beak open to retrieve an egg from its feathers. The egg is a symbol of something precious, the wisdom from the past, necessary to move into the future. Sankofa” teaches us that we must go back to our roots in order to move forward. That is, we should reach back and gather the best of what our past has to teach us, so that we can achieve our full potential as we move forward. Whatever we have lost, forgotten, forgone, or been stripped of can be reclaimed, revived, preserved, and perpetuated.

Sankofa has special significance for the descendants of those taken as slaves from Senegal, Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Benin to the “New World” or North America. It reminds of the need to reflect on the past in order to build a positive future.

At this time of the year, when goal setting pundits reign supreme, the past is mostly ignored. It’s all about the future, creating the best year yet, planning to get that novel/memoir/kids’ book written, illustrated, finished; multiplying income; building an author platform, etc. etc. etc.

We do need to plan. I’m a great lover of planners. In fact this year I invested in a beautiful Kiki K gold leather binder and filled it with Charmaine Clancy’s 2018 Planner for Writers pages. There’s something inviting and inspiring about the feel of leather and the quirky page design that Google Calendar simply does not deliver on my phone screen. So far I’m using the planner, unlike last year’s that languished on my desk under piles of paper for months at a time.

Yes, I am planning. I’m facing forward into 2018, but I am turning again to bring with me the precious truths from the past; the strengths, the achievements, lessons learned, the happy moment memories. I think sometimes we need to be reminded to go back and collect those things we have forgotten, or lost or had taken from us.

Last year,  one of the things I lost was my own perspective on events and personal history. I know why that happened – that’s a story for another post. Let’s just say, I became very enmeshed in loved one’s version of events until I was confronted with such an unbelievable, manufactured memory (at least from my perspective) that it shocked me back into my own reality.

I realised then that to shut out the past, or to travel onwards acknowledging only the pain, and ignoring the power of the past is to live a strange, half-truth reality cobbled together with determined forward planning. It’s a distorted, uneven landscape that buckled and heaved beneath my feet. It’s like the reassembled shards of a shattered mirror that presented a crazy disconnected reflection of the story or event.

In the end, it’s all personal perception, but for now, I’m seeking out those eggs of wisdom from the past as I make my plans for the future.

Please leave a comment. I’d love to hear what you think about this idea.

Photo credit: Spencer Means on Visualhunt / CC BY-SA