Making Peace with Vulnerability

Here is a piece I wrote for a wedding blog  Less Stuff More Meaning.

From our first choked exchange of words to boldly asking him to be my husband, my heart has been at risk. Part of being vulnerable is accepting the unknown and relinquishing control. It’s a challenge at times but believe me it’s worth it.

Even writing this piece about vulnerability has required me to be just that…vulnerable. What will people think? Am I any good at this? What if no one likes it? As much as I intellectualise what vulnerability means…it is asking more from me. It requires getting out of my head and into my heart. And this process can feel scary and uncertain so unbelievably different to my rational, control-all-outcomes self or even that funny joker face who plays to avoid having to go ‘there’.

Why is being vulnerable hard? Because even though we are hardwired for connection, we are scared to death of rejection. We are afraid that if we expose who we really are in all our complex humanness, we will be left alone. But the vulnerability we desperately try to avoid is paradoxically the glue necessary for successful intimate relationships.

The Oxford dictionary definition of vulnerability is the quality or state of being ex-posed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.

Does this sound enticing? No thanks. Vulnerability has been framed in the past as something to be avoided or seen as a weakness to be concreted over quickly before we come undone. Is it any wonder we find it hard to live?

I remember when I started to be more open in my relationship I had to overcome this lumpy prickly feeling in my throat whenever I wanted to express my true feelings. I’d have this negative doomsday voice…tut tut if you say that, he will laugh/be angry/repulsed/hate and run away. It seemed like this entity was always waiting in the wings to say I told you so. But as with many of my greatest fears, this didn’t come about. And the more authentic I became in expressing my emotions, the calmer I felt and the stronger I became.

So up yours doomsday, I no longer need you. Probably in your misguided way you wanted to keep me safe. But whilst I’m listening to your cautious, over-protective advice I am missing out on opportunities for connection and intimacy. Sure vulnerability can lead to hurt…sometimes it does. Some love affairs last a growing season, others possibly a lifetime. I remember an old boyfriend quoting Leunig to help with healing after our break up:

When the heart
Is cut or cracked or broken,
Do not clutch it;
Let the wound lie open.
Let the wind
From the good old sea blow in
To bathe the wound with salt,
And let it sting.
Let a stray dog lick it,
Let a bird lean in the hole and sing
A simple song like a tiny bell,
And let it ring.

I didn’t really get it at 23 when distractions seemed easier but I now see the wisdom of leaning into pain. This can feel counterintuitive at first but by stopping long enough to feel and let it hang out, we overcome emotions quicker through acceptance rather than denial. And that is a real gift and a skill to cultivate over our long, inevitably challenging lives.

There are opportunities for vulnerability every day, not just in our intimate relationships. Making a phone call to someone in grief or taking responsibility for something that went wrong at work. As I sit by my father’s bedside in hospital, uncertainty is palpable and life feels fragile. There is nothing I can do to change his trajectory just sit here holding his hand and rub lotion on his feet when he feels up to it. We haven’t always gotten along and we’ve done things we regret. But as he lies groggy from illness, things come into laser focus, what’s important and how precious time really is.

Through practicing vulnerability I’ve found the courage that lives in my heart. It’s no coincidence that when a warrior needs to find courage, he/she pummels their chest. It lives in our hearts, not in our minds. It’s an unlimited reservoir that leads to compassion and love for ourselves and others.

If we are willing to be vulnerable we are capable of true empathy. Empathy is very different to being in advice giving mode or veiled pity (sympathy). These responses are driven by our mind’s needs for outcomes or an unwillingness to connect on a deeper emotional level. I find that when I am in this headspace I want the exchange over as quickly as possible. It feels awkward and uncomfortable. But as I’ve become more open to simply listening without fixing or filling up the silence with my chatter, it’s become easier. I don’t have to have all the answers and can sit with uncertainty. All I need to do is show up in a heart-led place and hold this space without judgement.

We all start out trying to protect ourselves but love cannot bloom with walls. It’s liberating to live on growth’s edge, cutting our own path. As my partner reads my frown after my repeated requests fall on our son’s mute ears, we smile and his arms envelope me. We are in this together, sharing the load of a life lived connected. It’s an illusion that we will lose in being open, it is actually the opposite. Love without expectations is infinite. It’s not a weight to carry, it goes on and on filling us up.

Writing Stuff and Getting Published

Here is a piece that appeared on Elephant Journal recently. It is kinda old news. But I write to practice but also hope in sharing my story, it may fill some space for anyone who’s been there, or going through separation at the moment.

Why Separation was the most loving thing in my Marriage?

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Image by Sandra Henri Photography

We don’t go into a marriage expecting to divorce but we all know someone who has, have been this person or a child of divorce.

I grew up in a household with divorced parents. It was quite a cultural shock moving from a rural town to Sydney, Australia. But with time my life adjusted to a new normality. My parents did remain amicable to their huge credit. My mum never said b*tchy comments about my father or vice versa, and they remain firm friends to this day.

Fast forward many years later and I have two children of my own. My relationship limps along in the wake of raising younguns. There is growing resentment and frustration on both sides, harpy comments and pinched frowns. I discover I have anxiety and putting the name to my feelings is a huge relief. I thought I was slowly losing my mind. I’m having trouble sleeping. A close friend dies suddenly of cancer and my partner slides into a silent depression. Our sex life suffers and a mattress mound grows between us.

“It’s the reality of having young kids,” people say and there is truth in that. But there is also truth in drifting apart and people changing.

I get this dream of going to Cambodia to volunteer at a friend’s NGO. I love that country and I feel it might reignite our spirits and hopefully our relationship.

So we pack up our belongings and rent our house for a year and take off. Of course it was going to be hard relocating but as an idealist, I remain upbeat and naive to the challenges. It’s a mixture of adrenaline and thrilling freedom but equally draining, as all our cracks have nowhere to hide.

It is like turning the voltage up and watching something implode. We begin criticising and barking at each other in full view, stress high with a danger-seeking three-year-old and limited medical services in the rural provincial city we live in.

We separate six months into the trip as this is the right choice to make.

We look at each other and see two people being squashed and not having fun. But more than that, we are modelling fighting, disrespecting and even at times hating behaviour to our two sons.

Something had to give and give soon before it was broken for good. So I return to Australia with the boys and he stay on for a month.

Now I am “separated.”

Now I have to give voice to that. And I can’t believe how lonely that felt at times. I was in grief and it’s such a shock to not share a bed with someone—or to catch myself looking up to see if his car is coming down the drive. It was a time of detriggering and reprogramming my way of thinking.

And it took ages.

Friends asked me questions I couldn’t answer. Equally hurtful, some “happily married” friends didn’t call at all. The shame and guilt I was already feeling seemed to be mirrored in some people’s behaviour (or so I think) and societal expectations.

In five words, I felt like a failure. Even though I knew he and I were doing the best thing for us and our family. We were actually choosing love. Love that looks like living separately to heal our hurts and not perpetuate pain.

So why do we shun separation or even divorce?

Is it a hangover from our religious days when marriage kept society’s structure together? Marriage is a worthy construct, and some marriages do last a lifetime and worked on by both parties. But some marriages are meant for a few chapters. And the reasons they end are many and varied, but to judge someone on giving up or to pity them (they feel it!) is not helpful.

We need to get down off the fairytale horse and have our feet firmly planted on the ground.

Being separated I inherited some free time. A bonus to be sure but also a very lonely adjustment. I felt like I was butting in other’s family time or that I will sit there being triggered like a pin cushion lamenting what I’d lost or hadn’t been able to hold on to.

I can see the value in sisterhood, bonding with other separates but I didn’t feel like doing that much either, especially if there was to be any man-bashing as I had no desire to perpetuate more hate toward my ex or stay blaming him. I used this time to finally deal with my own stuff. It was hard at times but ultimately lead me back to the self that I had somehow lost in my desire to be a great mother and partner.

To hold doggedly to this ’”til death do us part” ideal is dangerous.

I feel living truthfully and honestly with love is our path. So if that looks like sitting amongst your mess as your marriage falls apart, but you find yourself and a peace for what you had together and who your partner truly is, that your story filled some blazing chapters, that’s huge growth.

Eighteen months later we reconciled as brighter, stronger and wiser individuals who realised the value in our friendship and a love that still burns. Our path was to get back together. But equally worthy, was our decision to separate and potentially find love in a new partner.

Whatever path we walk, following our hearts and making peace with ourselves means even our kids come to acceptance sooner. Society is slow to catch up and we can’t let outdated mindsets put us off our game.

Maybe in separating vows can mean “‘for growth do us part.”

 

This piece appeared in Elephant Journal on October 13 2016

Life is beyond precious

Last week sunrise had risen pink and the bellbirds were making music as I skipped out the door.

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I was in a rush as seems to be our morning ritual. Quinn raced up to the school bus and I was taking Beau to school. We have to open/close gate due to our new horny pup that tries to escape to his girlfriend whenever he can. Beau got out to open the gate. I had some Himalaya chants playing in the car. When I drove through the gate there was a loud crunching noise. I stopped clear of the gate and turned around not seeing Beau in my rear vision.

I pulled the hand brake on and had this heart through the floor thought, ‘Where is he?’ I opened my car door and yelled that deep, guttural mumma howl, ‘Beau!’..no answer…again more urgently ‘Bowie?!”. By this stage I am standing out of the car and the adrenaline has taken over my body, I could hardly walk as I have visions of his crushed bloody skull. It was the most raw, shattering realisation that my life could be irrevocable changed forever.

IMG_3870Then as I get to the rear of the car, his little face appears and he sees me and says ‘Mum what’s wrong?’ and I crumble into his sweet, perfect arms. Tears erupt down my cheeks as I stutter that I thought he was hurt and he gently strokes my hair. He thought he was in trouble so he had kept quiet. His car door wasn’t latched properly and had hit the side of the gate.

The neighbour calls out, ‘Are you alright?’ and all I can do is wave her away as I collapse into the back seat. Holding him in my arms and soothing myself I tell him that I love him so much and that I am alright, I just got a very big scare. It takes ten minutes until I can drive the car.

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As I roll the scene over in my mind posthumously, I feel a huge heart swell for parents who have lost children. How inexplicably precious life is. This seems to be something people understand the older they live touched by stories of loss and chance. How lives can be changed in the ‘blink of an eye’. That maybe I should be more present, and this is a constant work in progress. That in slowing down and becoming more mindful, I would have noticed his car door was ajar. That my music was properly too loud.

But for all the ‘what if’s’ I am fortunate enough to have them fade in my memory because this story has a happy ending.

I didn’t share this to be morbid but to be awake to the thin veil that keeps our lives in place and infinite compassion and strength goes out to those when it doesn’t.

Shape Shifting

We’ve had a wintery time full of viruses and cough. Grandparental aid and soup shipments were gratefully received. It was a challenging vortex that lingered on.

But as white bells pop up in the garden, hope returns with wispy spring potential.

Thought I’d share my latest work that was featured on Elephant Journal. A post called  Love Is- Poem

May you all be warm and toasty with juicy ideas on the horizon

x x Amy

Ubuntu: African Philosophy

“Ubuntu” : “I am what I am because of who we all are”

This is a Bantu dialect African philosophy based on the belief that a universal bond of sharing links all humanity. It is through this common bond to our fellow humans, that we discover our own human qualities.

This saying was brought to popular culture by the writings of Desmond Tutu, Archbishop of Cape Town and Leader of anti-apartheid movement who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work. As he put it:

“It is the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is inextricably bound up in yours. It speaks about wholeness, it speaks about compassion. People with Ubuntu know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, diminished when others are oppressed, diminished when others are treated as if they were less than who they are. The quality of Ubuntu gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them.”

And the South Africans fighting for independence strove to have integrity even in the face of adversity.

Nelson Mandela when asked to define Ubuntu in an interview in 2006 replied, “In the old days when we were young, a traveller through a country would stop at a village, and he didn’t have to ask for food or water; once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him”. It’s this ‘no questions asked’ hospitality that is present often in the poorest of cultures, that many of you may have experienced when travelling to different lands. I will never forget taking a trip from Cairo to Siwa Oasis in the Libyan desert where a local Muslim man got out his food and shared it with everyone on the bus before he ate. He had no airs about it, it was simply his custom.

There isn’t a direct translation in our language for Ubuntu, but we all know the value of sharing and giving. Being more individualistic by nature though the messages we get can be more about our family or our community, rather than humanity at large.

I want to share a beautiful video made as part of Amnesty International Poland response to the refugee crisis. So they let a European and a refugee sit across from each other and look deeply into each other’s eyes for four minutes.

When people are willing to look deep in each other’s eyes, one sees no labels any more. We see no language or birth or nationality. What we do see is a soul and a soul who sees purity, warmth and especially vulnerability.

I’m going to be braver next time I’m on a train and a stranger smiles at me, braver to hold the space a little longer and feel the human-ness that connected us all.

Debrief on a Life Changing Sabbatical

We’ve been home 3 months now and the dust has settled enough for some reflection on what turned out to be a life changing sabbatical.

Multi tasking Beau

Multi tasking Beau

Cambodia in its rawness and resilience seeped into my bones.

And called me to point.

I’ve banged on about the educational and cultural pluses of upping sticks to a foreign land, especially one that is starkly different from one’s own. The way it calls into question what you value and shows you a compassion that’s often dormant under the wear/tear of daily life. I was drawn to Cambodia ever since my first visit in 1999, where my senses were alive with flashing images of religious reverence (imagination gone wild with thoughts of monks walking the same footprints since 12th Century) at Angkor Wat. It took me quite by surprise, the depth of feeling. And years later, to have the fortune of returning there with a faint inner voice that whispered

throw light into the shadows

I am a believer in following your intuition. And boy does it lead you in some bizarre directions sometimes, but maybe it is alerting us to the need for change or adjustment or dare I say even risk taking.

And that’s what Tim, Quinn, Beau and I did.

The mandatory Chicken Run

The mandatory Chicken Run

It was hard on the kids at times. There is a definite intensity about the place. Both boys got off the plane in Sydney declaring they were never going back to Cambodia;  Quinn sang ‘Advance Australia Fair’ at full tilt with a fist in the air at the baggage carousel and said in his most blokey Okka accent ‘G’day mate’ to the racist Customs officer.

I’m pleased to report that the kids’ memories have softened to all the good bits though. The ‘x-box’ at local restaurant gets a mention as well as Ian the owner who loved to lose hours playing it with them. The irony is not lost- I thought we’d take them and have less screen time but with the heat, humidity and intensity of the place, screens were a VERY necessary part of our routine. Quinn remembers going next door to 11 year old Sim’s place, only the brickwork done with no doors and windows and a concrete floor, they would sit and eat apple cakes made on the open fire that Sim’s sarong clad mum would sell at the local market. With 5 common words between them, ‘Super Man, ‘Hello’, ‘Yes’, ‘No’ and ‘Bye’, they would ride bikes, joust and play lego. I’d catch them sometimes sitting in the quiet silence of companionship, something I felt was kinda sacred to witness.

Sim and Quinn with Christmas wreaths that Narnie made

Sim and Quinn with Christmas wreaths that Narnie made

I suspect our boys’ll be heading back eagerly one day with a backpack. We Skype Quinn’s mate Waitya and his family who are dearly missed. It would be a wonderful thought to one day welcome them here. Quinn asked if we could Skype Sim- and then he realised we couldn’t because they don’t have electricity. An overriding benefit of the trip for our tear-aways is a definite understanding of what it means to live simply, not some Western concept of simplifying the excess, but out of necessity. A friend told me that Quinn delivered a lecture at a recent sleepover. Beau may have been too young to fully comprehend but at 7, Quinn got it and hopefully a lifelong empathy with it. (too much to ask??). He still loves K-Mart but showed uncharacteristic restraint when reminded why he couldn’t have more than one toy (!) by his Aunty when he was last there.

Our lives look different now. Tim described it as living in a ‘parallel universe’. The reverse cultural shock has been coupled with the fact that Tim and I are living separately. We are looking honestly at the footings that hold up our family structure. Years whiz by, extensions made for children and the extra loading bearing that comes with that, a relationship is put under strain. We all know this. And sometimes when you stop and come up for air, your partner has become all fuzzy around the edges or maybe you can’t clearly see their face anymore.

And this is terrifying.

This is what I meant by having my heart cracked open. And all I can do is keep walking towards the light and my truth amidst the rubble, taking one step at a time.

A Life Defining Gift even if it worked in ways I didn’t expect or necessarily want.

It’s time to honour all the people in our lives that made this possible:

Firstly, we wouldn’t have got out our front door without the support of Tim’s folks, Gwennie and Harrie who looked after our precious Patrick Swayze; our tenants and all the extra necessary admin that comes with jumping ship for awhile. You both have huge hearts.

And to all our wonderful family and friends who all were part of the cause: from purchasing Tim’s art, to organising and coming to our farewell fundraiser, to sending loving and empowering thoughts, and following this blog, these were all felt and helped us on our journey.

And to the NGO we worked with as self funded volunteers which initially I thought should involve some payback. It’s funny that word- but what I mean is – you think someone owes you something especially when none of your expenses are covered.  But once we arrived and rolled up our sleeves, surrounded by such a dedicated, ethical and giving bunch of people, you realise that giving without conditions is easy to do and has its own unlimited rewards.

T H A N K Y O U

Huge love to all who’ve followed our journey. The learning never stops, doesn’t it?

 

Tough Choices

Boys and I at  Phnom Sampeau

Boys and I at Phnom Sampeau

We’ve been living in Battambang (BTB) for close to 7 months. We’ve had our share of adventure, adjustments and eye openers. It’s been a real ride in many ways, a life changer.

Last weekend we visited hot spot Phnom Sampeau, a golden pagoda on a mountain (hill). It is very flat terrain around BTB and craving a view we piled on our family moto. Perched high on limestone cliffs, monks share the space with a huge bat colony that draws loads of tourists at dusk, where they proceed to pee all over their cameras as they fly overhead.

Beau Beau. Watch out monkey, this kid may attack!

Beau Beau. Watch out monkey, this kid may attack!

It’s been a time for reflection. Battambang with kids isn’t straightforward. The larger cities, PP (Phnom Penh) and Tourist Mecca, Siem Reap have more schooling options and recreational activities. BTB only recently got its first playground. We weren’t expecting a metropolis and this is part of the appeal. But it does make for some additional challenges, primarily connecting with other families. We are the first family to work for our NGO.

Often pensive Quinn

Often pensive Quinn

Quinn has gone to 3 different schools. First, French school which was like trying to speak Martian after recently landing on the Moon. Then he began Phare Ponleu Selpak School where they draw “a solid brick with a cup on top” for two hours Quinn tells me; and learn to juggle, handstands and rolly pollies. Lessons all in Khmer, Quinn the only foreigner, he has grown in so many subtle ways. Confident in new situations yet also a lot of time in his head. Just like all the other kids, scabs money off his parents to buy fried dough ‘bones’ in break time and plays battle cards.

With no maths, home readers or science in the curriculum, I’ve taken on the role of supplementary educator. Filling in reading gaps amidst emotional outbursts (his…and sometimes mine) and getting him to count the change from shopping, does this account for half a year of school?

The nightly (who am I kidding…weekly) pantomime looks something like this: literacy books are red flags, Quinn the resistant Bull and I, the flailing matador spinning in circles. An enormous sombrero off to homeschooling parents out there.

How the heck do you do it?

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We’ve all had moments of homesickness, a flickering moth near a flame that doesn’t last long. Sometimes you miss things being easy, the cuppa at a friend’s place where you can let it all hang out while kids play raucously without fear of oncoming motos or disturbing tourists’ peace. To go a week without explosive poos and parasitic torch checks (yup, you know the itchy bum syndrome). But we know life remains barely changed and friends there with welcoming arms.

However Quinn has consistently expressed longings for home. He’ll often speak of kids in his old class (including the boy who’s got booby pictures of chicks on motorbikes). Out of nowhere he will turn quietly to me and whisper ‘I want to go home mum’. And I listen, rub his chest and say ‘I know my darling’.

You can never predict how change is going to affect your kids. Unfortunately after bonding with two English lads (Trapped in an Elevator) they left suddenly 2 months later. The family went on reconnaissance mission to Malaysia and never came back. Their sons refused to get on the plane, according to them Battambang was too hard. No one has filled their place as most families go elsewhere for education as kids get older.

No stone left unturned: I took the boys to the local Church as I’d heard whispers of some homeschooling Christian families. In a hall decked with plastic chairs we were ushered in by a lovely American lady who had warned me outside ‘you know it’s Christian organisation’.  Not seated for long, we were all up clapping and hip swaying to a band with a male Khmer singer.

I’d already scanned the crowd and noticed a woman with 3 boys: one tall gangly one with a crop of red hair looked around 8. Cotton balls were handed out. Quinn laughed loudly when the teacher asked if anyone knew what a sheep was? He couldn’t believe anyone wouldn’t.

We’re from Australia, I say

The teacher explained if anyone memorised the psalm for next week, a prize was on offer. Quinn, a known haggler went in for the kill,

‘What’s the prize?    Is it a toy?    Do I get to choose?

Not that impressed by coloured pencils and erasers, he didn’t do his homework. By the end of class, the tall redhead, a self confessed ‘weirdo’ (that put me at ease cos we are a bit left of centre) was hanging off Quinn chasing him around, pestering his mother for a play date. He was another socially deprived kid like ours. We swapped numbers but no play date was firmed up. With the best intentions to return, we haven’t been back.

Beau has had a smoother ride as there are many more English speaking kids at preschool. His best buddy, Max is French and they only share a few common words between them. It doesn’t seem to matter. They’re both cheeky.

Max and Beau

Max and Beau

So now as another school year looms Oz side, we’ve had to make some tough decisions. As Quinn wishes he could read and wonders why he can’t and with too much thinking time, he needs structure and stability. Tim and I came here to share new experiences with our boys. To ultimately show them how privileged we are with our white goods, typhoid- free water and flushing loo that doesn’t dump its contents in the irrigation ditch outside your house.

The neighbourhood kids along with Quinn and Beau run along big concrete pipes that were dropped outside months ago but not yet connected. It’s a myriad of buffalo, cow and human waste in stagnant water as it haven’t rained for months. Quinn asked is that where our poo goes the other day. He now wants to be an engineer when he grows up to stop people from getting sick. His Uncle works at a sewerage plant in Oz, I’m sure they’ll have stuff to talk about.

So D-ecision Day is upon us. I will return to Australia with the boys. Luckily, I can manage my project remotely. Thank You Internet. Tim is going to stay on the ground to set up a recording studio and be techie for The School in the Cloud. I will return to consult on the project near the end of our contract swapping with Daddy. To be honest, we will get a lot more NGO work done this way.

This is not the end Cambodia. Our love is firmly established and life is long. I’ve cried some tears but my heart grows quiet when I see Quinn relax upon hearing the news. Knowing the hard but best choice has been made for now.

Om (Aunty) and I. No common words but we held hands and just sat

Om (Aunty) and I. No common words but we held hands and just sat together

Cambodian Spirit

So the blog’s had some time simmering whilst other fish been fried. But here we are again. Happy New Year Everyone. May it be a rip roaring affair.

We had Tim’s folks and bro came to town for the holidays. They said Battambang grew on them after 2 weeks, which is a considerably longer time than the usual 2-3 days tourist trail stopover. They came to get an insight into our life and catch up on half a year of grandsons’ cuddles.

One of the best days was full of biking, paddy fields and food. We set off from Kinyei Cafe (great lattes, a precious commodity in a sea of instant flakes) on well heeled mountain bikes. A fit, tall guide expertly needled the traffic. We, a long line of fleshy bicyclists weaved through motos and SUVs following our fluro clad beacon. Soon we were meandering along the river, first stop a local rice paper maker.

 

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Matriarch Sreyvin , a spinster who works 7 days a week even at 62 years old. After surviving the Khmer Refugee Thai Border Camps through those dark years (1975-1979), she returned with her brother to her homeland in Battambang. Her family had some paddy fields that they were lucky enough to reclaim. Something that many families were unable to do and were left to start over. But as fate had it, she had to sell the rice fields a short time later to pay for her sister’s breast cancer operation. Medicine is heinously expensive and without any government safety nets, people have to make their own way.

Sreyvin in position over the hot skillet

A large bag of rice husks rests upside down on a precarious angle but purposefully arranged to drip feed the fire. These hard coatings have many lives. Also used as fertililiser, building and installation materials. Rice grains are made into a paste much like pancake batter. Sreyvin deftly drops some on a smoking skillet and flips it with one hand, whilst removing a cooked one with the other hand. Not wasting a drop she churns out 2000 beauties a day. Her brother works in unison, taking the sealed paper and placing it out matted boards to dry off in the sun.

The hours pass like this and they make a total of US$5 per day. This may not seem a lot but it is enough to educate the children in the extended family. By going to school they can choose another life. The average income for a Cambodian family is $950 per year. So relatively these guys are doing ok.

Next stop, fish factory. Some sensitive flowers on the tour (mostly men) declined this stop. But Tim’s spirited Ma (darling GG), a Scottish lass and I forged ahead.

About 13 ton of fish

About 13 ton of fish

First sight at the dock was about 13 ton of mud fish getting rolled into large wicket baskets. Fresh catch from the Sangke River, it’s hard to believe there are any fish left. Khmers love fish paste-  a crushed, salted and fermented fishy mix known as prahok.  It’s added to every meal and given as gifts at festival times.

Roasted Rat anyone?

Roasted Rat anyone?

These sacrifices were drying in the sun. Tim, Beau and I tried some of these sweet babies just the other day. We must be turning Khmer- none of us flinching as we gnawed into some crunchy rodents.

All in all, a ripper of a day on the Sokasbike Tour, highly recommended day out. Even Quinn at 7 managed the 30km round trip. Beau on the other hand rode in style with his grandparents.

Tough work being chauffeured around in tuk tuk

Tough work being chauffeured around in tuk tuk

From my colleagues at work, I see an incredible Cambodian resilience. A positivity in the face of hardships past, and a people rising Phoenixesque grabbing opportunities given to them with long fingernails.

Some of the local NGO staff work 5- 6 days a week, up to 10 hours day. And moonlight in evenings studying English. Chantha, my dear Khmer counterpart survives on 4-5 hours sleep per night. Up at 4am to revise her English university studies before putting in a full 10+ hour day (working with kids!) then goes to classes til 9pm and studies close to midnight. Like most 23 year olds, she can survive on less sleep but not because she’s out partying. The Cambodian Work Ethic is a force to witness.

Survival instincts  have never waned here. Unlike in the West where years of material comfort and government’s generous hand holding have eased our path, people here rely on their wits and ability to turn trash into treasure. Recycling works out of necessity not out of principle. From the dude emptying and cleaning out PET bottles to sell, to the guy who’s cycling around town all day on his food cart spriuking his potato cakes and fried banana. Morsels he’s made in his earthen floor hut the night before.

In words that don’t suffice, these people’s smile and spirit has touched my heart.

Indomitable Chantha

Indomitiable Chantha

What’s Your Story?

On the weekend after another trip to the hospital, nothing serious this time Beau split his toe open when a heavy wooden chair left backwards on to it.  The kindly security guard with good English always has a joke about life philosophy. Beau slept through the dressing and rectal suppository. Not requiring stitches, we’re ushered home again.

An old shed from the outside but what a find..

An old shed from the outside but what a find..

Quinn and I took off for Mother and Son time whilst the other two were shacked up at home. We discovered a swish, indoor skatepark minus the skates. A concrete maze of curved waves, jumps and pillars. Bikes and rollerblades were the choice. Quinn took his bike for a spin and even tried his hand at blading. Not a bad first effort, especially considering his guts weren’t great.

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I’ve barely made it through the door when the owner, a middle aged Khmer with a pleasant round face asks me the obligatory question;

‘Where are you from?’

His eyes lit up as he shares his story:

My father live in Melbourne. I call him 5 years ago except he say he’s not my father.

What kind of curlie is this?

I search for him on internet. He has same name and from photo he looks like my father. And people I know who knew him in Cambodia believe it is him as well. I haven’t seen him for 35 years.

Geez this guy has such a sweet face. He keeps talking.

He escape during Pol pot regime because Pol Pot was going to kill him.

We’re all versed in the horrors. But hearing it firsthand and seeing the fallout all these years later really brings it home.

What about your mother? Does she know if it’s him? I ask

She doesn’t like talking about it much. He left her.

He’s on a roll now:

So I call my (not) father, I speak to him and ask him if I am his son. He says no. He has new wife and family in Australia now. His new wife doesn’t want him talking to me.

Why don’t you write him a letter? I suggest.

He shrugs not believing the letter will reach its rightful owner without interception

I don’t want money. I just want to know‘.

He has 3 school age children and a shiny black Lexus parked out the front. Even though he has obvious pain around this large question mark, he looks peaceful. He can discuss this with a contagious calm. Maybe he gives him some solace disclosing it, or maybe he’s an expert poker face. The conversation turns to DNA tests and possibly another phone call. I get this uneasy vision of the father who is over 70 now confessing on his deathbed in a ramble of delirium.

But what’s the truth? Maybe it will never be known.

Leong Bo’s story reminds me of meeting my own brother when I was 26 for the first time. The joy around finding a long known but not discussed piece of a puzzle. I knew I had a brother who lived on Norfolk Island. He had a name but I hadn’t seen his face.

As the hedonistic, self absorbed university chapter closed, I remembered the baby photograph sent by his mother in 1987 of a chubby, blue eyed babe in what looks like a Christening gown.

Unsure where to start, I call the telephone operator on Norfolk. I ask what PJ Wilson’s number is?

A bonny madam replies ‘Auy, PJ! You can call him on Pelly and Dinty’s number, 6475839.’

I’m scrawling down this gold on a tightly held paper. Within minutes I’m yards closer and I can’t quite believe how easy and quickly this is all happening.

The oil still spitting in the pan, I dial the number.

A spritely, strong female voice answers. Hello. I introduce myself.

A bit of a pause, and then ‘Oh Amy. Hello! I’m PJ’s mum Dinty’.

An easy conversation follows. I find out PJ now lives on the mainland. His proud mum tells me he got a scholarship to uni. I get his direct line.

Dinty and I taken at PJ's wedding

Dinty and I taken at PJ’s wedding

It takes me another week to digest it all. When I’ve worked up the courage, I’m sitting on a park bench in Glebe, the grass lush from summer rain. He answers, I’m up on my feet pacing circles under the trees.

I remember hearing the warmth and excitement in his voice that first time. His Ma had given him a heads up. But what struck me so clearly…was the ease of it all. We must have spoken for half an hour. Filling in our stories. Talking about his uni, friends, life at college. Our shared love of horses.

We arrange to meet, a necessary step to complete the journey. With Easter bunnies jeering from supermarket shelves, Tim and I fly north. We stay at a friend’s place in New Farm, a treehouse built high on a hill, its deck amongst the banana palms. Art books line the shelves, a dishevelled, lived in feel. The smell of coffee grains, peeling paint on the kitchen table.

PJ and I plan to meet at Queen Street Mall outside Hungry Jacks. What a romantic place! Ha. When in doubt find a fast food landmark. I remember responding to a foot model advertisement once with an ‘interview’ at McDonalds involving a dubious character salivating over my sandals. I digress…

The day arrives, I can’t walk slowly instead I stride out with nerves leaving Tim in my wake. He is sensitive enough to leave me to it. I spot the glaring red/yellow sign and I can feel the spike of tears forming. By the time I reach the spot I see a tall dude with jet black hair and a beaming smile. I already know who it is. I’m crying and we give each other a huge hug. I’m home in my brother’s arms.

Family resemblance?

Family resemblance?

We spend the rest of the day cruising the Brisbane River on a ferry. Non stop talking as we catch up on a lifetime of news. We have similar crinkles around the eyes, snub noses and flashing whites. We disclose our dreams, his to improve Norfolk’s environmental practices still stuck in the 70s where rubbish is burnt or worse ends up in the sea . I speak of my love of art and artists. He meets Tim. I hear about his homeland: 35 square kilometres of rock in the Pacific Ocean nearly 1500 miles from my birthplace. Only 2300 ‘odd’ people live there- a courageous, heavy drinking, outspoken lot with resilience in their veins. PJ talks with love for his clan not by blood, but forged through childhood, birthdays, bruises, work and acceptance.

'Odd' lot

‘Odd’ lot

Our friendship has grown. PJ has stayed at my house several times, meeting both my sons after their births. I’ve seen his Norfolk and met ‘Pothole’ (named because everyone wishes to avoid him) and his childhood bestie. We went to his wedding last year in Sri Lanka. I have a beautiful sister in law Ashley. Life is richer and reflecting on having made the step to meet him, I’m thankful to have answers and for those answers to be easily found.

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Work Life

This blog has been focused on sharing stories about Cambodian life from a personal perspective.  But I get asked a lot about what work we are doing here. Tim and I work as unpaid volunteers for a local NGO, established about 8 years ago by a young Australian woman, a mover and shaker. The NGO provides much needed social support to Battambang’s poorest families. It was once an orphanage but quickly decided to move away from the model due to the perils of institutionalisation and the knowledge that children are better off with family members. Relatives such as aunties or grandmothers have been tracked down and in most cases, they are happy to relocate to Battambang where they get support to care for the kids. For those children who are legitimate orphans without family, they are cared for by devoted foster aunties and uncles who have been working with the organisation for a long time and understand the life long commitment of raising children. In two words: remarkable humans.  What has impressed us most about the NGO is their child protection policy is bullet proof and international best practice, the benchmark (and the reason I can’t plaster the kids’ gorgeous mugs here).

Me in work mode

Me in work mode

There is a saying ‘Cambodian Time’. A phrase that refers to being patient as things take time, plans change and do complete somersaults only to land back at the beginning. This has definitely been true of the culture shock and adjustment for our family. You can basically double the figure you think it will take and add some. And this is primarily why I’m so glad we didn’t come for a short time (we are fortunate to have no set return date) because you are always working to that date and as it draws closer you begin to mentally withdraw from the place you’re in. In the past, I’ve always travelled to a deadline (like most of us do!) but more than that, it was like I had to cram all these things in (tick it off the list) which is so different from letting life and the journey unfold naturally.

I have been teaching English over the past month as we eagerly await the opening of the School in the Cloud classroom.  It’s been a great foundation to get to know all the kids (all 80 of them). First I taught yoga over the summer break and now we sing songs, incorporate yoga and practice English. These kids have had no formal English lessons. The local public schools are fraught with problems. So the level of education is dubious.  As is so often the case across the globe, teachers are poorly paid so they often moonlight in other jobs and their attendance rates are low!  Often they don’t show up and the class sizes are large, they feel pretty overworked and under appreciated, I’m sure.  Again the cycle of clever graduates who could help improve the quality of education choose to work in banking or for foreign corporations where they get more dosh.

The School in the Cloud classroom - it now has walls

The School in the Cloud classroom – it now has walls

The space was previously a cabana where I taught yoga and a much needed shady place for sweaty football players mid afternoon.  The design is quite simple and uses easily sourced materials like concrete. But since the School in the Cloud program is about encouraging creative thinking and inspired by Earthship Cambodia the top part of the walls will be recycled bottles letting fractured light decant the space.

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We want to put vertical gardens around the exterior walls. The computer stations will have curved edges much like surfboards.

What is The School in the Cloud?

School in the Cloud is the brainchild of an Indian bloke Sugata Mitra who is one inquisitive guy posing lots of big questions about how children can learn for themselves through the use of technology. Let’s face it we are in a period of unprecedented change and the education system needs a face lift. He has his critics (mainly from the academic fraternity who want to see proof) but I’m willing to get involved in the experiment and see what happens. Part of my job is to document observations throughout the SOLE (Self Organised Learning Environment) sessions and funnel this data back to India.

We’ve begun testing the kids’ English levels this week to get a baseline from which to chart their progress over the course of the program.  Some of them are so hungry for knowledge. Painstakingly trying to identify letters even though they’ve only learnt the alphabet via the ABC Song and can barely recognise individual letters.  It will be very interesting to see where their knowledge goes from here. Another part of the testing is to gain qualitative data relating to their aspirations. All in Khmer, I work with an awesome Khmer counterpart, Chantha who is so perceptive and caring and gets the nature of the work, allowing the kids space to explore. She asks them the perennial question “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. The answers range from ‘”cook rice” to a painter (it “makes me happy”) to the usual suspects of doctor, nurse and teacher. The point of this exercise is to see if their dreams change as a result of access to the internet and School in the Cloud philosophy, and in what ways they transform.

The Mighty 'Buffalo' at work

The Mighty ‘Buffalo’ at work

Tim is working on the building helping Buff who is his Khmer counterpart. These two, as thick as thieves, both with a killer sense of humour and matching Buddha bellies (Tim’s is fast shrinking though). For first two months before Tim got his own bike, these two were spotted cruising around on the one moto sourcing potential materials and sites. Tim is also infiltrating the local arts scene working at the NGO’s gallery and undertaking an artist residency (another post).

As you can see we are busy and there is loads we can do.

For any education nerds, you may find this video interesting. A light bulb moment for Tim and I- sparking us to embark on this journey and giving us confidence in our own kid’s education.

Happy Wednesday x