A (Selfish?) Life in Savannakhet, Laos. (+addendum…)

I just came back from a party to farewell another fabulous human being I have met here, Michael.  He originally came here as a Fulbright scholar, and stayed for longer than he was contracted to… I mean, who wouldn’t?

It was a fabulous party.  Held at mutual friends’ house, ‘Pot luck’ – bring a plate.  Fabulous food, fabulous company, great conversations, music, shared interests – new faces, old faces, local people and expats.  Michael is a sociable person who has worked at a range of different places, and he invited them all!  He is around half my age, but his playlist was excellent – huge range of music from different places and eras.  This epitomizes a very different life to the one I lead back ‘home’.

People who had seen my recent facebook posts asked me about my plans for when my contract expires, at the end of August.  For the first time I needed to articulate something I’ve been putting off, what am I going to do?  It is June now, my contract ends in three months.  I don’t want to leave but I need to go home.  I want to come back.

I talked with my 85 year old father today.  He said something like “So you’re looking forward to coming home, because I miss you and many other people miss you too…”  My immediate thought was no, I’m not looking forward to coming home.  My ‘home’ is a miserable place, a job in which I am devalued and constantly on edge, never knowing whether I’ll have work for the next semester, no chance of achieving an ongoing position.  Children who I adore but I cannot continue to be their all when living a life of discontent.  A complete lack of ‘community’, where I sit at home on my own and wallow in my misery.  A lack of meaning and feeling as if I am contributing to the world.  Here I feel as if I am on my way to contributing.  To helping others achieve, to inspire, to educate, to share my knowledge and be a part of improving the lives of others.  I don’t want to go home.

Is this selfish?  Am I only thinking of myself?  Or does a meaningful life actually matter?  It seems to matter to me.  I have worked hard for a long time to develop the skills that I want to share with others.  I have tried to do that in my ‘home’ context, in working with students in Australian universities to inspire, to provoke, to work towards a better future for their students and the world.  Sometimes this feels like an achievement, as if I’ve made a difference.  And then I get my student evaluations, I get rejected for ongoing positions, I feel like I’m not inspiring, or achieving, or doing anything of any value to anyone.  I feel like a failure, with nothing to offer. God I hate that feeling, but it’s real, and it hurts.

So I leave Australia, I work here as a volunteer, supported by the Australian government.  I feel as if I have some purpose to what I’m doing.  I feel as if people appreciate what I’m doing.  People seem to acknowledge and recognise that what I’m doing is selfless – this is not for me.  I have knowledge and ability and I can share it unselfishly – I simply need enough money to live, and beyond that, I will give what I can.

This is the dilemma I find myself in.

Addendum:  a year later, another volunteer position in a different country…

The dilemma is still with me.  Again I find myself in a position that feels right – in a position that welcomes me and my skills, where I feel I can make a difference, where I am challenged every day.  As I leave home, my father hugs me and every time it feels like the last goodbye.  My children hug me as I farewell them, and I assure myself that my discontent presence is more damaging than my content distance – that technology provides a channel for more communication than would be possible with my presence.

I was asked by a friend why I didn’t look for the same work in my own country – out of respect for being a closer part of my kids’ lives, and (presumably) to work for the betterment of my own country rather than overseas.  It is difficult to articulate why I do not have any desire to work in my own country, but I think I have expressed this in many ways over many years.

Professionally, there are people who have training and experience in my profession who can certainly do these (local) jobs and who I would have to compete with based on questionable measures of competence.  I am tired of battling to prove myself, to present myself in an ‘acceptable’ manner, to write and to speak in a way that is not true to myself and has nothing to do with what I want to accomplish and how I want to work with others.  Or how I can draw on a life-time of experience that doesn’t ‘fit’ in my ‘3 page max CV’ and certainly isn’t mentioned in job interviews.

For a long time I have just wanted to work at my best, to meet challenges head on and to use my ‘big picture’ thinking to work on immediate issues … I don’t have as much energy as I did 20+ years ago when I started on the desperate journey through academia so I’d rather put the energy and passion into the work I have, than into getting my foot in the doors that remain closed to me.

So the ‘dilemma of selfishness’ remains but …

Deliberating inside my Cave…DSC_9022-Optimized

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New Year Reflections…

Midnight (or so…) 1st January 2017, Bangkok, Thailand

The Big ‘ol time clock has just clicked over to 2017.  And what a year it has been!

So many deaths – celebrities, innocent civilians around the world, refugees seeking asylum, so many needless deaths of those who happened to be born, or to be, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.  I   am sorry for so much loss, for so many.  Somehow, I am still here and so grateful for all that I am, all that I have.

At the beginning of 2016, I worked as a casual academic in a Melbourne University.  I desperately tried –for more than 10 years, to apply for the ‘holy grail’ – to be a tenured – ongoing academic, doing what I loved to do, improving what I was doing, and to just have someone say – give her a go … she deserves it.  But it was never meant to be.  In my 40s I was energetic and passionate, I would have done anything to be what ‘they’ wanted me to be.  OK, I never did establish my ‘expertise’ in any particular genre or discipline, I just wanted to work at something I felt passionate about – I could have become whatever ‘they’ wanted me to be.

In March of 2016 I turned 50 years old and actually felt very happy to be where I was.  I was never sad about what I hadn’t done, I was proud of what I had achieved, and particularly proud to have two incredible children, to have achieved my PhD, to have a house to live in and food in my fridge.  I paid my bills, I had savings in the bank, I lived near the beach and I had opportunities to follow another of my dreams, to volunteer again – this time in South East Asia.

I finished my work at the end of 1st semester, and prepared to pursue my next dream – my escape?  My saving grace?  An adventure that I so missed?  A real challenge?  An opportunity to take a chance and to draw on my experience, my passion, my abilities, my desires, my spirit?  I had finally managed to succeed in a job application to work as a volunteer in Laos.  With thanks and eternal gratitude to Pol, my daughter’s father and guardian, and Rani, my son who would now have to look after himself (and my house), I was able to pack my life away in the shed and embark on a dream.

So at the beginning of a New Year, I am so happy about the last, and hold so many hopes for the next.  I just ask for more of the same – joy, adventure, challenge, gratitude, and good (enough) health to get me through.  I give thanks to my family and friends – old and new – and want only the best for them too.

Thank you.

Good, Better, Best, Never let it rest!

dsc_5995GOOD, BETTER, BEST … NEVER LET IT REST!

I’ve moved from a crazy culture that seems always to be in an urgent hurry, to one that isn’t.  And I’m loving it.  I tried the good, better … but was never the ‘best’ – of course!  So like a dog chasing its tail, I never got to where I (thought I) wanted to be.  I didn’t get that prized tenure, I was judged ‘not good enough’ for every job I applied for.  I saw the people that got that prize, and it didn’t look like much fun.  Because there is always another hurdle before you get to the next prize.  And another after that.

I don’t know a lot about Buddhist culture but it seems to me that in comparison to the one I’ve left, where you must achieve NOW! or at least in this life time – after all, it’s the only one we’ve got, there is a different way.  If I don’t get it right in this lifetime, I’ve got another chance.  Another lifetime.  I will try, but I won’t have lost anything by not reaching that prize.  Because I can try again in the next life time.  And the next.  And the next…

I interpret this to be equivalent to making the most out of what we have – now.  To see merit from good actions, leading a good life, rather than simply to judge and be judged on ‘success’ or ‘failure’.

Slow down.  Live a good life.  Be kind.  Be generous.  Do the best you can. And forgive yourself.

First Post from Lao PDR

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All so good, all so happy!!!  My Room with a private balcony at Hotel Lao.  Perfect.

Started off at 3.30 am on Wed. 31st August with my baggage for a year.  Met up with Susan who will also be working in Savannakhet and almost 24 hours later, put my head down on the pillow in my French Colonial style hotel room for a dead to the world sleep.  Phew!  No disasters, just lots of queuing, waiting, walking (never knew how big Bangkok airport actually was!) queuing, and transiting.  Oh, and more queuing.   Some thoughts I noted down on the trip…

It’s been difficult staying set on my goals with all these goodbyes and unknowns.  Matilda and Pol, dad, Rob and Helen and Rani this morning – they all matter so much to me and there’s no promise that I’ll see dad again – he’s so tired…

2hrs from Bangkok:  I’ve been dozing for hours.  Thoughts slowing down.  I remember feeling guilty, no, selfish.  Dad seems to have come to terms with me leaving by concocting a story that I was working for the govt., taking on a very important role as a representative of Australia and tax payers.  He made me out to be generous and altruistic.  I’m glad he’s made sense of it this way, but when I reflect I can’t help but think that I’m simply being selfish.  I’m going where I want to go and doing what I want to do, and deserting my family in the process.

In fact I dread the idea of living at a snail’s pace [in Melbourne] simply to keep things humming along in the same way.  My ambitions have never been to simply succeed and maintain the status quo, or to get the most excellent job and work my way to the top.  Sure there’s been moments when I’ve applied for jobs and imagined such a life but I never get it.  And if I did, I can imagine the initial interest/passion would soon wane.  [Life is too precious].

Last leg – Flight to Vientiane

I’m not quite ‘getting’ that I’m embarking on a year away, working in a strange country and culture, away from familiar ‘comforts’ of home.  Yet I’m excited but I’m sort of resigned to it – I decided this was what I wanted to do, and now I’m almost there.

This is where I wonder about my selfish motives.  But then again, it is not as though I ignore the potential impact it may have on my kids (I actually believe it is a wonderful thing for them too).  I probably ignore, or just cannot know, the impact it might have on me [or them].  I don’t have ‘planned outcomes’ – generally it is unknowable.  Like so many other decisions we do or don’t make – we don’t know how it will turn out, or impact on all those involved.  But business/management – even teaching/education, is full of ‘outcomes’.  A ‘good’ project will be one with specified outcomes and steps to achieve those delineated results.  Is that really what life is about?  And why is it that I am always so keen to talk about ‘life’, rather than career, earning potential, possessions, reputation?

 

 

 

 

 

One Week Pre-departure

I have just spent four days at my ‘pre-departure briefing’ – information, advice, networking, and an absolute brain overload!  And too much food.

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As the departure date looms, I just have to maintain the pace – fill in all those little bits, tick off the ‘to do’ list (that really only exists in my overloaded head) and go through all the doubts, worries, trepidations and fears that are to be expected before setting off on a big journey.

During the four days of the briefing I learnt all of the rules for what I (we volunteers and ‘representatives of the government of Australia’) should and shouldn’t do, say or think.  What to say and what not to say, how to behave and how not to behave.  We learnt that there are people employed to support us on our ‘missions’ (my word, not theirs) and there is in-country, international and support from home if we find ourselves in need.  I learnt that our roles involve ‘capacity building‘ (the new catch cry for international aid).

Overall, I learnt that a hell of a lot has changed since I volunteered 22 years ago.  That changes in line with neo-conservative government have far flung consequences that have a significant role in how we might attempt to live a meaningful life.  That our ‘freedom’ only extends so far in what we are able to do, to say, to choose.  Or to share.

I have organised two ‘see you later’ parties to share with friends and family.  I have spent time with my gorgeous children and organised for their trip to come and see me for Christmas.  I have said farewell to my dog, my house, and my life in its current state.  One of my colleagues at the briefing said ‘oh, but it’s only a year’!  I think of a year in my child’s life and it is huge.  I want my year to be huge too.  We only have so much time in this life – I want to make the most of all of it.

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Boxes crammed with Stuff – the Stuff that memories are (were?) made of.

DSC_0054I was born in the 1960s, schooled in the 1970s, higher education in the 1980s, art/media, 1990s, education, TESOL, Masters … 2000s, PhD … skip to 2016 – and I am packing up my past (yet again) to get away.  Boxes and boxes of my study, my resources, my ideas, my research, those articles that really meant something to me, all of that work I put in, notes, ideas, revelations!  My 20 year old son – get rid of it mum, you don’t need it, when are you ever going to look at it again?  The simple revelation, that the internet came along somewhere during that time, that obsolete storage devices that held such significant material can’t even be accessed anymore (remember, VHS, floppy disks – even CDs are considered obsolete), that there is no need to keep ‘hard’ copies of anything anymore, and yet I can’t bring myself to let them go.  Not without a fight anyway!

So sorting through these boxes – crammed in every space – and each item bringing back a memory of what it meant at the time.  Teaching ideas – both theory and practical, so important to me, and the product of so much work.  The dilemma of a newly minted teacher – ideas of what to teach, how to do it, how to engage my students – surely I could use that again, next time I’m stuck for ideas?  Another word of wisdom from my son – these are what you did with what you know – you still know it, you know even more now, so what good are they?  Let go!

How do you shift a mindset that has been subsumed by technological innovation?  I still love my old photo albums, my record collection (I think I can manage to get rid of all the old cassettes now) and all those old memories, the journal I kept from the age of around 13, the letters my friends and I used to send each other – as often as emails/facebook messages – the newspaper clippings, the old magazines, posters, the memories!  Are they, as my son says, still there, but built into something else with everything that has happened since?  That these concrete memories are obsolete and just taking up unnecessary space?

Living with diabetes type 1

Do you want to know something?  Living with diabetes is a pain in the arse.  I’ve had 40 years of it – it is one of those ‘hidden’ disabilities, it is just there, always there, always impacting on how I feel, what I can do, even how I think and behave.  It is not just a physical thing, it affects my brain – I can’t ever ‘forget’, it affects my moods, my competence, my confidence and even the words that come out of my mouth.  I fill out a form – do you have any disabilities?  No!  I am as competent as anyone.  More so in fact, because I have a hidden disability that I have to deal with every day.

At the age of 11 I got this damned thing.  I went through my teenage years denying it – don’t treat me any different!  But if you were told, at the age of 11, that if you don’t follow the rules and look after yourself, you are likely to end up blind, lose your feet, on kidney dialysis, would that suddenly make you ‘behave yourself?’  Or perhaps goddamned it, I’m going to live my life to the fullest and fuck living for a long time, I’m going to live for a good time?  And then you get caught up in a car accident at the age of 13 and your life is fucked anyway, and if you live until you’re 30 then you’re doing damned well?

Jeez, and people wonder how I turned out the way I did.  I am.  And I’m 50 now.  And I’m off again to challenge the naysayers of 1977.  I have my sight, I have my feet, my kidneys are doing fine.  I’m in the process of trying to get enough medical supplies to last me the year I’m away.  Anybody would think I’m the first and only person ever to have asked!  I know I will have a massive supply of medication to take with me, yes, diabetes and all its complications are a pain in the arse!  But it will not stop me from doing what I want to … need to do.

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Know the Difference!