Not ready, set, go: A lesson learned from writing my first book

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Two years ago, had anyone told me I was going to write a book, I would have laughed. But here I am, with two stories published in the anthology, Pieces of North Shore. The book is a collection of stories from seven writers and it was a great way to tip my toes into the world of publishing. I had always written a bit of marketing copy but I never dared to call myself a writer, let alone a writer of fiction. For me, to be able to write a story that anyone would pay to read was something reserved for a few endowed individuals born with endless creativity and that had found solace in books as children. How would I ever catch up? But this experience changed my view of what it takes for you to do something that you are passionate about but never tried because you don’t think that you will ever be ready to get started.

Pieces of North Shore isn’t a best-selling book but we are getting closer to our target each day and it has propelled my writer’s group to start working on a second book.

Life lesson learned: You don’t have to be ready to get started

As the saying goes, everyone has a book waiting to be written, yet, we keep postponing it. For a lot of people, it’s on their bucket list of things they want to do before they die but statistics show that 60% of them, will never even get started. We have a tendency to procrastinate our dreams. Maybe we think it’s too hard or we don’t feel prepared, knowledgeable, financially capable, don’t have the time or insert your excuse here.

As a rookie, I neither had the confidence nor felt ready to put my ideas in writing to get a story published for the world to see. I had many fears and the ‘what ifs’ plagued me with uncertainty. What if I fail, get criticised, don’t find my voice or no one likes what I write? My biggest fear was the language barrier. English is not my first language and I feared that this would show in my writing.

Yet, I wanted to write. So, I decided to take action and joined a writer’s group. Although people say that there is safety in numbers, joining a group didn’t make my fears go away. But by taking the first step I felt motivated to give it a go. The group offered courage and inspiration for me to keep honing in my craft, and as the group had a deadline, I had three months to produce my stories. Despite all my fears, I made it happen. Instead of focusing on my concerns I focused on the stories that were waiting to be told.

I had to do my writing at night after the kids went to bed. I spent hours revising and rewriting my work until it gleamed. I lost sleep over it. I cast doubt on my capacity to write and at the end, I still had the feeling I could have done better if only I could work on it a bit more. Eventually, I had to accept that I got to tell my stories the best way I could.

Most of us to don’t get started or don’t complete that special project because our ego gets in the way. We get stuck in the quicksand of perfection. This experience taught me that you don’t need to be ready, and in reality, we rarely are, there is always room to improve and to get readier. My stories aren’t perfect and now I see lots of ways I could have told them differently. But I made them come to life. Next time, I will have more experience and more resources to draw on, just because I got started.

If you are itching to have a go at that special project, don’t wait for all stars to align. It’s unlikely they ever will and you may end up like the 60% who will leave this life without the comfort of knowing that they tried.

Changed my mind, I’m running a marathon again

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Hill repetitions – out of breath

 

It’s been three years since I ran my first marathon and I told myself that was it, crossed from my bucket list, no plans of doing another one. It was an amazing experience – I can still see myself crossing the finishing line with tears running down my cheeks in disbelief that I had completed the race in 4:04m. I was expecting to finish in 4:45m. It’s hard to describe how it feels to push the limit of human endurance on our own merit. I worked so hard to prepare my body and mind for this achievement. And that’s exactly why I had no intention of doing it again. The marathon is not just 42km of endurance. It’s months of painstaking preparation. It means to wake up at the crack of dawn to train, experience discomfort, get injured, monitor your diet, and have less time for everything else.

So why on earth am I doing it again?

It’s not only you, I’m also questioning my sanity. But I’m drawn to setting goals and following through. As a working mother, I’m always putting my energy towards accomplishing other people’s goals. Tackling a long-distance race, conquering the mythical 42km is my own private ambition.

Of course, I didn’t have to pick a goal that requires so much dedication but I find endurance sports appealing because I get a lot of satisfaction from having a long-term goal and celebrating the milestones you achieve along the way. Perhaps because we live in an age of instance gratification and we are rewarded all the time for very small efforts, setting my mind on something that requires planning, training, commitment and persistence give me a sense of boldness.

So, here I go again. Last week I started my training – I was a bit greedy and instead of the ‘beginners’ program I downloaded the ‘intermediate’ which requires approximately six hours of running per week. I could barely squeeze in four. I’ll have to make some adjustments to my plan, time is always my main issue and there are only 13 weeks to go. Wish me luck.

If you are looking for inspiration or reasons to run, check here.

No icing on the cake. And no cake either.

Do you have days in which you just want to have one thing accomplished, without asking too much, just a few hours for yourself to get something done, and then, it just does not happen? Well, I have lots of days like this and today was one such day.

All I wanted was a few hours alone to work on a story I’m writing. Actually, no, that’s not all I wanted. I also wanted to bake a sweet potato brownie, roast some vegetable and make a pumpkin soup. I had planned to have breakfast and then sit down with my laptop and a notepad and write for a few hours. The later in the day, I had hoped I would do some cooking.

But then the kids woke me up at 6:30am asking to go to Bicentennial Park. “Only if you finish your homework,” I said from under the blanket. I didn’t think they would finish their assignments. But they did, with parental help. And they reminded me that they have been asking (or shall I say, nagging) to go to that park for a month and I keep putting it off – the traffic, the traffic!

I did not really want to go – the story kept popping up into my head – but it was such a beautiful day and I felt that mother guilt for saying “no” once again. I know many women would have stood their ground but the day before had been my son’s birthday party, he turned 12. How much longer will he be asking to go to the park? So, I obliged, and I told myself we would be back by 3pm. Of course, we didn’t.

So, there I was, driving to the park, feeling like I’m never going to finish the story and wondering why it’s so hard to make time for myself. I was feeling increasingly frustrated. I raised my voice at the boys at the petrol station when they asked me to buy Doritos. “You are going to eat the homemade brownies, stop asking for junk.” They hate the healthy stuff I bake.

I was also getting annoyed because I was getting annoyed. There are bigger problems in the world, I was telling myself, why get grumpy because I can’t find time to write unless I cut back on sleep? I know it sucks but it’s not the end of the world.

Maybe it’s just a question of getting my priorities right. Do I really need to exercise? Lately, I’ve been waking up at 5am to go to the gym twice a week, I could get up at 5am to write my stories instead. But I already wake up at 5:30am two to three times per week when I work in the city. There is not much I can cut there. But wait, this morning I spent an hour in the kitchen making sweet potato brownies. I also spent 30 minutes on Skype with my mum and an hour on homework. I also read a section of the weekend paper. How about the day before? I had a haircut (had not had one since January) and went for a run. I guess if I really wanted, some of these things could go.

But it’s so hard, everything seems to be a necessity. So, I practice mindfulness– not so much the sitting down to meditate, although I do that from time to time. I believe in living in the moment, in dealing with one thing at a time. So when I notice that I’m getting grumpy, I take a few deep breaths and try to focus and accept the present moment as it is. The problem is that accepting does not change my reality. No amount of mindfulness, praying, or yoga can put more hours on a day. I can’t defy the laws of physics, the day only has 24 hours. I wonder how you real people out there do it. Be it a sport or hobby, do you have to cut back on sleep to follow your passion?

I’m going to have to cut back on something. Maybe it’s going to be the cooking. Bring on the Thai takeaway. It’s impossible to do it all. I can’t have the icing on the cake and sometimes, not even the cake. Sorry for the whining dear readers. At the end of the day, I didn’t get the cake but I still got to eat the sweet potato brownie. There are lots to be grateful for. It’s just a bit of frustration when you think you can embrace the world.

21KM – WHY??

 

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Half-marathon today, running with a great friend.

 
I’ve been running half-marathons for years and I still keep being asked the same question: why? For those not used to endurance sport, it’s hard to fathom why one would get up at 4:30am on cold winter Sunday to go run a 21KM race.

So today, as I sit up in bed with a pillow under my legs, I decided to write a poem to try to explain why I’m out pounding the pavement when people are still cocooning under their blankets.

Poem: 21KM – Why?

The blinking stars remind me I should be in bed

The gusty Autumn wind leaks through my jumper

I want to bring my broken body home

Because it’s hard and it hurts, and it’s too early and it sucks

But I strive for a goal, for an experience

 

It’s not for a throne, for wealth or even health

The steady repetitive strides

Along the endless roads, tracks and trials

Lift my mind beyond my limits and denials

And yield a sense of completion and joy

 

In a leafy road that goes uphill

I pound the pavement until my mind is still

And silence the little voice that doesn’t believe

So, I keep going accumulating miles and blisters

Because I’d rather run battles than sit and watch

 

Call it endurance, stubbornness, stupidity

But when I look past the finish line

I see that the way has been paved

For a world of great achievements

Because the mind can take you there

– Rosana Wayand
Copywrite 2017

From comics to poetry with creativity

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Poem and picture: Car Crash

What a pleasant surprise today when my 9-year-old opened the door of my office and handed me a handwritten note. He said he felt inspired to write a poem. So adorable, totally out of the blue. This is what he wrote:

Car Crash
Flames burning the rusty old metal
Scraps of chaos flying through the air
Tiny glass shards continuously falling
Soon, metal turns into ashes
KABOOM

I encourage my children to read and write and at present, this child is always reading and creating comics. The problem is that I question the value of comics as the only source of reading, I tend to think that these books are little more than glorified picture books.

I understand that stories are stories. I know that regardless of the format in which they are delivered, they make us think and form options. But comics are easier to read than other types of books and they require less attention. And graphics replace the intricacies of plot and emotion that words alone can convey. If the pictures are telling the story for you, what work is left to the imagination?

The benefits of reading in developing imagination and creativity are well documented and every parent I know starts reading to their children as soon as they are born. But experts say that creativity has been on the decline since 1990. Although the loss in imagination has nothing to do with comic books, it makes me think that preference for comic books is a reflection of shorter attention spams of kids today.  Scientists don’t know what is the main culprit in the decline in creativity but they suspect that the number of hours kids now spend in front of the screen rather than engaging in creative activities plays a part. And we know that technology and information overload is reducing our ability to pay attention.

When I see my children restricting their reading to comics I wonder if their brains are just getting lazy. But then, they constantly surprise me with bursts of creativity. Whenever this happens I think that doesn’t matter what they read, as long as they read, the children are all right.

 

The time is right when you are ready

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Yes, we did it again and, yes, he beat me again! I wrote about this same race with my reluctant runner last year.  This time around he was much more willing, not to mention faster. He ran 5km in 23 minutes, knocking my socks off. As the start gun went off, he sprinted to the front of the crowd to catch up with the lead runners and within 300 metres had disappeared from my sight.

When I first wrote about this fun run, I was debating with myself how to find the right balance between pushing my children to excel and encouraging them to explore the world and be kids. A year has passed since that blog, and today, as I pounded the horrid hills of Roseville trying to catch up with an 11-year-old, I was thinking about this dilemma again.

My son is such a natural runner – if only I could convince him to train a bit more. Last year it was the first time he showed an interest in running. After a lot of parental nagging, I convinced him to do a fun run with me. But training was not fun. He often complained he would rather be doing something else and on the day of the race and whined all the way from home to the start line. After last year’s race, he did well at the school athletics carnival but refused to train for the next level of competition. Maybe a tiger mum would have punished or threatened him to continue. I offered encouragement and incentives instead – to no avail. Then, this year to my surprise, he announced he wanted to run again.

This time around he was more committed to training. Sometimes I had to insist but for most part, he was willing to join my morning runs and for about a month we managed to run consistently twice a week. On race day he was excited and did his best.

There were dozens of children in the race. Most of them were wearing a club t-shirt like Little Athletics or Sydney Striders.  These are children that take their training seriously. Maybe they have tiger mums and dads behind them. Maybe they are just naturally driven. Maybe it’s both. With my own children, every time I try to get them to do more than they think it’s necessary, it backfires, it becomes a chore and they lose motivation.

I still don’t have the formula figured out but from observing my children and their friends, to get kids to do something with passion it’s not about pushing, it’s much more about encouraging children to explore and learn and giving them support when they are ready for the challenge. The problem for most parents is to learn when encouraging becomes pushing, where to draw the line.

“To get kids to do something with passion it’s not about pushing, it’s much more about encouraging children to explore and learn and giving them support when they are ready for the challenge.”

To address that, I came up with the term ‘short burst of pushing’. For the child that is not willing to try new things, sometimes they may just need that extra push. My theory is that you create the opportunity for the child to experience a new activity and if they like it, they may return to it even if at a later stage. In the context of this race, if I had not pushed my son a little bit last year, he may not have realised that he enjoyed the sport and could be really good at it. I hope he continues training but I will not insist. If he wants to pursue the sport, I’ll provide support and encouragement.

I’m a strong believer that childhood is about exploration. I’ve created an opportunity for my son to explore running as a sport. Maybe if I hadn’t, he would have found the sport own his own anyway. I don’t think we need to create endless opportunities but listening to our children and being in tune with their needs and interests can help us give them a little push (or a short burst of pushing) to help them push a few boundaries when they are ready.

What a challenge these races have been for me as a parent and a runner. I had trained much more than my son and still came two minutes behind him. I’m not getting any faster with age but I hope I’m getting wiser. Time will tell.

The Bridge Less Travelled



My book is launched! Pieces of North Shore. I say ‘my’ but the book is a collection of short stories from seven writers from Stanton Library Writers Group. Here is my presentation at the event in which I share the background to my story The Bridge Less Travelled. The book can be purchased on Amazon and Google and independent bookstores in Sydney.

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2 April 2017

Can I have a show of hands, how many people crossed the harbour bridge to get here today or came from outside the North Shore? When I finish my speech you will understand why I asked this question.

When I first arrived in Australia I went to live in the south of Sydney. I knew nothing about Sydney’s suburb rivalry and every area looked just fine to me. Then one day, I was waiting for the train at Riverwood station and started chatting to another commuter. With such a strong accent, I always get asked an inevitable question: “where are you from?” When this gentleman learned I was from Brazil he said: “wow, you crossed the pacific ocean! I’ve never even crossed the harbour bridge.” – I thought he was joking, I didn’t think it was possible for a Sydney sider to have never crossed to the other side, so I asked: “Are you serious?”

He answered: “Sure, am. There is nothing to see on the other side.”

My train was approaching so I left it at that but I took a seat next to the window thinking that there is a lot to see and experience on the other side of the harbour bridge or any bridge for that matter. And that’s what The Bridge Less Travelled tries to explore.

My story is about a beautiful Australian icon that connects places and people. But, as I show in the story, the structure that joins can sometimes separate and isolate people from change, acceptance and inclusion.

When you cross a bridge for the first time you leave behind the familiar and comfortable to enter the unknown. The more you do it the more used to difference you become. I’ve met people on both sides of the bridge that were pretty comfortable to live within the very well defined boundaries of their suburbs. But by limiting their lives by geography and excluding others from getting in, these people can only see the world through a very narrow template. My character, Sarah is one such person:

This is how the story begins:

‘Oh, you were brave to cross the bridge,’ says Sarah looking more immaculate than the unit she is trying to lease.

‘What’s a bridge when you’ve crossed the Pacific Ocean,’ I reply referring to my pilgrimage from Brazil to Australia just a few months prior.

‘True,’ she concedes, while tucking her straight dyed-blond hair behind her pearled ears. ‘But the North shore isn’t just like any other place in Australia darling,’ she pauses, ‘the North Shore is the Promised Land, home only to the “chosen few”.’

My character’s stereotyping is shameful and we are quick to look down on her but what strikes me though, is that if we really stop to take stock of our own attitudes and behaviours we will find that we all have lots of bridges to cross.

There is an old proverb that says “Don’t cross the bridge until you come to it” – after moving to Australia I learnt that the problem is that many times we don’t event realise we’ve come to a bridge. When we are blinded by stereotyping we normally only see the gap. To close the gap it takes effort and courage. In this respect, I agree with Sarah, you have to be brave to take a step in the other direction.

Cancer is trying to kill the women of my family

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My mum with her parents and siblings, Rio de Janeiro


Breast cancer has stalked my family for generations. First, it was my grandmother whom I never met. Then an aunt, a cousin, my sister and, just last week, my mother heard the four awful words: “you have breast cancer”. It’s been very traumatic for everyone. Right now, I don’t view breasts as symbols of beauty, sexuality, and nurturing. They feel more like weapons of female destruction. When I see women gathered together, I’m now doing a headcount and applying the statistics. The other day at the office there were sixteen women on my floor. All young and full of potential but two of us will develop the disease in our lifetime. With such a family history, I’m a strong candidate. Every woman lives under the shadow of cancer but my shadow is darker.

Over one and a half million women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year globally. Considering that there are 3.5 billion women on the planet it doesn’t look like a lot of risk. But your chances increase as you get older, if you have a family history or carry mutations in the BRCA 1-2 genes. I’m not getting any younger and as the years go by, more females are being diagnosed with breast cancer in my family. When you are on the wrong side of the statistics, numbers look too close to home.

Doctors say that the chances of getting breast cancer can be reduced by not drinking alcohol or smoking, being physically active and maintaining a healthy weight. Neither my mum nor my sister took chances. They didn’t drink or smoke. They were not overweight. I fact, when my sister was diagnosed four years ago, she was a super fit and enthusiastic cyclist and runner. But her healthy lifestyle did not prevent her from getting the disease. Luckily, both my mum and sister had always done annual breast screening and the disease was picked up early, increasing their chances of survival.

Like my sister, I eat well and exercise and see a breast specialist annually armed with the films of mammogram and ultrasound. But now I’m scared that this isn’t enough. I’ve been thinking about my chances, which are high, and my options, which aren’t many.

“When are you removing yours?”

In recent years, prophylactic double mastectomy (PDM) has gained popularity as a preventive procedure for women at high risk of breast cancer. Angelina Jolie brought the surgery to the spotlight when she bravely went public about testing positive for a mutation of the BRCA-1 gene and her decision to undergo the risk-reducing surgery. The extensive coverage of Jolie’s news has raised awareness about preventive surgery and opened a much needed public conversation about genetic testing, medical risks and women’s choices regarding their bodies and health. But the flip side of the celebrity endorsement is that now there is the impression that preventive mastectomy is the standard way to manage the risk for women at high risk.

When I talk to people about my family history I’m often asked: “what are you going to do about it?” Maybe I’m becoming paranoid but I can see their enquiring eyes glancing at my boobies and wondering if I’ll do what Jolie did.

Well, I’m not rushing to the surgical table. I’ve been researching about breast cancer risks and prevention and I’m not convinced that prophylactic double mastectomy is a superior choice when trying to ward off the disease. I don’t want to discourage anyone from doing it, it’s a difficult and utterly personal decision, one that a requires courage and consideration. I’m writing about it because there are women like me that feel like they are going against established medical best practice and women that may not realise that there are other options that are just as valid.

After reading countless articles online, I was left with the impression that the general public considers PDM a cure-all procedure but this is not the case. In 1997, the Cancer Genetics Studies Consortium, issued a statement saying that there is “insufficient evidence to recommend for or against prophylactic mastectomy as a measure for reducing breast cancer risk. Individuals should be counseled that this is an option available to them. Those considering prophylactic mastectomy should be counseled that cancer has been documented to occur after the procedure; its efficacy in reducing risk is uncertain.”

Since then, studies have been conducted and many claim that PDM can reduce the chances of breast cancer by up to 95%. I could not find many clinical trials to support that. Most studies I came across involved women that had previously had breast cancer. Two trials of cancer-free women at high risk caught my attention. The first one predicts that mortality from breast cancer can be reduced 81-95% and the second, that incidence reduction at 3 years is 100%. You look at these space studies and feel hopeful. But the European Society for Medical Oncology warns that “no randomised controlled studies on this issue have been carried out. No survival benefits have been demonstrated in women who have undergone RRM.”  This was published in 2016.

There are two types of prophylactic mastectomies: Subcutaneous mastectomy, which removes tissue under the breast, leaving the skin, areola, and nipple intact and a total mastectomy which as the name suggest, removes the entire apparatus. But not even a complete mastectomy can remove all breast tissue. You can find breast tissue in the abdomen, chest wall, beneath the nipple and other parts of the body. Some studies that indicate that removing a large proportion of the tissue does not remove the same proportion of the risk. Many women that have a preventive double mastectomy with no previous cancer history later develop breast cancer.

 I want to believe you can take control of your health. But there are so many figures brimming at your face that makes you feel that authors are simply using statistics to support their point of view. In Jolie’s case, she preserved her nipples and this increases the chance of a breast cancer diagnosis in the future. In her article, she says that her chances of breast cancer dropped from 87% to 5%. But Jolie is reportedly a smoker and studies show that cigarettes increase your risk of breast cancer. This study concludes that just 100 cigarettes smoked in your life increase your chances of breast cancer by 30%.  Even if she is no longer smoking, I wonder if her past use will detract from the 5%? There are so many variables with health statistics, I’m not finding safety in these numbers.

I looked at the average rates of breast cancer survival. Statistics vary depending on the stage of the cancer, age at diagnosis and types of treatment. But in general, five and ten year survival rate of stage 1 breast cancer is 100% and 89% respectively. These numbers are very similar to the outcome prophylactic double mastectomy. If you are simply comparing numbers, either early detection or PDM will provide you with equivalent results.

Numbers aside, a double mastectomy is not a boob job like many people think. Breast plastic surgery is generally a cosmetic day surgery with minimal chance of complications. By contrast, women that undertake mastectomy typically undergo a complex eight-hour surgery and go through multiple procedures. Their body is disfigured. After surgery, many suffer from restricted range of motion, muscle weakness and numbness for months and sometimes for life.

I have no attachment to my breasts. I’m not against surgery (I had two elective caesareans). But a PDM is a drastic measure that does not rule out the possibility of cancer. I don’t think that the likelihood of developing a disease means a certain fate. There are some important questions that are not being asked. What about the women at high risk that do not develop breast cancer? Why aren’t their mutated genes or hereditary predisposition triggering the disease? Is there something in their environment or biology preventing cancer to occur? I wish I could find answers to these questions.

Many women at high risk opt for selective oestrogen receptor modulators (SERMs) or surveillance instead of mastectomy. See chart below from the Cancer Forum.

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SERMs can reduce the risk of breast cancer by up to 40%. The medications include tamoxifen (for pre-menopausal women) or raloxifene (for post-menopausal). These medications only work to prevent tumours that are responsive to female hormones. They work by blocking the effects of estrogen on breast tissue. When I read from various sources that the medication may cause serious side effects, including blood clots, stroke, and endometrial cancer I stopped looking at this option. These side effects are a show stopper for me but they are not for many women and this is an alternative they may want or need to consider.

This brings me to the final alternative, surveillance of the breast. This includes clinical breast examination, mammogram, ultrasound (I have doing the trifecta annually since my twenties) and MRI. My doctor mentioned MRI in the past as an additional tool to investigate suspicious alterations in the breast. MRI and mammogram seem to be a common practice for women at high risk in the US.

Surveillance does not reduce the risk of developing breast cancer but it does improve your chance of catching cancer early, at a curable stage. My grandmother and aunt were diagnosed decades ago and there were no regular screening back them. They both perished soon after they heard the fatal news. My sister skipped a year of screening and was diagnosed with stage 2 but thankfully her prognosis was very positive. Mum is still doing tests but it’s looking like it’s an early stage cancer. Many of my friends and acquaintances have been diagnosed in recent years. The ones that were diagnosed early and treated are leading happy lives and raising their families.

Some question the risks of radiation from mammography. Doctors and radiologists claim that the test is safe, that there’s only a very small amount of radiation exposure from a mammogram. My radiologist said that you get more radiation on a flight from Sydney to Melbourne. If I had the choice, I would not be exposed to radiation but I reckon the risks of not doing the screening would be higher.

Considering all this, for now I’ll continue with my regular check ups. I will discuss with my doctor adding an MRI to my repertoire of tests. I say for now because who knows? A future science breakthrough might change my perspective or create new alternatives.

While there is no cure, cancer will continue to try to kill the women of my family and of millions of other families out there. Mum doesn’t know yet what the treatment will be for her cancer but judging from others in the family, it will involve surgery, radiation and chemotherapy—painful, disfiguring, stressful. But her prognosis is looking good so far. I may be suspicious of health statistics but I hope that mum will be on the right side of the numbers this time.

Suggested reading: The Choice. By Mark E. Robson, M.D.

There are things kids don’t learn at school

The sun was fading in the horizon when I got home on Wednesday and my children were still playing outside. They had built a wall of dirt orange bricks in the backyard and had sand in their hair. They had not yet had dinner, homework had not been done and I had just arrived from a school event where I learned what schools in Australia are was doing to prepare the children to live and work successfully in the 21st century. By my side in the full auditorium, a mother showed me brochures about kid’s computer coding class and maths tutoring. She confided that her son had spent the entire primary school doing Kumon and now for high school, she was looking for other options to occupy and expand her son’s mind. I felt like a bad mother. While the other kids are having coding classes, a skill required in the digital age, mine are digging holes in the backyard. So, I got home and once again, sat on the fence while I watched my children play, uncertain if I’m letting them have too much fun instead of filling up their schedule with more structured activities.

This year at school orientation night, I heard a lot about the 4Cs that are required for individuals to live and work successfully in 21st century — creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking — and how the schools are embedding these elements into their curriculum. It was encouraging to learn that the education system is trying to equip young people with the capacity to think, create and solve problems but I couldn’t help thinking that schools should have been doing this since the beginning of times, not just in the digital age. Didn’t we need these abilities in the 20th century and before? The education of last century took us to the moon, gave us heart transplant surgery, personal computers, the Internet, Tim Winton, Martin Luther. The adults involved in these amazing inventions, the social changers, the inspired artists, must have had well developed 4C skills. If the school of the 20th century didn’t give them these skills, who did?

If the school of the 20th century didn’t give children these skills, who did?

I think it’s important that we answer this question because parents like me are being left feeling that it’s all about the school, formal education and the expensive extra curricular activities that money can buy. Sometimes we forget that education continues long after the bell rings. Children learn by observing their parents and the community, experiencing and exploring the world and of course, playing. Free, unstructured play, beyond the watchful eyes of adults, provides critical life experiences without which children cannot develop into confident and competent adults. That’s the view of many psychologists and educators and, when I think of my own childhood, this makes a lot of sense. 

I grew up in Brazil and had only four hours of school per day (but shorter holidays compared to Australia). After doing my homework, I was free to roam with the children from the neighbourhood. Together, we were always involved in some kind of adventure, from rescuing kittens from a nearby shantytown to building our own cubby house with materials found in old construction sites. We argued about rules, many times got into trouble but we did learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control. Where were the parents in all this? Well, most mothers were at home providing the kind of loose oversight that free plays require.

Today, it’s fair to say that many children don’t have the luxury of a stay-at-home parent to provide that type of supervision. Busy working parents have no choice but to outsource at least some the supervision to tutors and coaches. Or in many cases, to the TV and an assortment of electronic devices. (I’m guilty as charged, my children have all of them). But even when parents are available, they are still reluctant to let kids venture past the front gate. They fear the traffic and stranger danger, or that if there aren’t enough structured activities in place, their children will fall behind and won’t be ready for the hyper-competitive future.

Last year, one of my son’s friend couldn’t come to his birthday party on a Saturday afternoon because he had four hours of tutoring to endure. On another occasion, the retired neighbours complained that the kids were playing on the cul-de-sac road. It saddens me when parents and community don’t see free play as essential for the development of children and as an opportunity to learn and grow. Unfortunately, the value of play these days is often underestimated.

That’s no surprise then that play has been declining in the last decades. Psychologist and research professor at Boston College, Peter Gray, shows in this article that in the last fifty years, “school and school-like activities” have gradually replaced free play, leaving children today with “more hours per day, days per year, and years of their life” either at school or involved in adult-directed activities. And according to Gray this isn’t a good thing. He correlates the decline in play with the continuous increase in anxiety, depression and suicide rates in young people, a rise in narcissism and a decline in measures of empathy and creativity.

“You can’t teach creativity; all you can do is let it blossom, and it blossoms in play” Peter Gray

Gray argues that we are going through a period of creativity crisis. In this article, he quotes research that shows that creative thinking is a better predictor of future life success than IQ and school grades. Children, he says, are our greatest innovators, but by raising play-deprived children we are curbing their ability to retain their creative capacity through to adulthood.

Parents that question the value of play often quote Pasteur, saying that “chance favours the prepared mind.” I could not agree more. But the school is not the only place to prepare minds, especially developing minds. The school is an important component of our lives and yes, they must embed the 4Cs in the curriculum. But to raise fulfilled humans and good citizens it takes the effort of communities to create spaces for safe play, governments and organisations that have the right policies to allow for flexible work, and parents willing to create opportunities for their children to explore the world.

As I write, a child just ran past the corridor with arms and head tightly wrapped in toilet paper. Another child wearing only pyjama pants chases him. The front door bangs. I hear giggling and the words hospital and video. I don’t know if I’m raising artists, doctors or scientists but I hope I’m opening the door for my children to imagine a better world in this century and beyond.

Painting the full picture

I was lying across the couch with a book trying to decide whether to read or take a nap, when mum appeared from the kitchen with a Tupperware container full of colour pencils.

“That time of the day.” She announced smiling at me.

It was 3:30 pm and it was hot and I thought it was the perfect time for a nap, so I put the book on the floor and made myself more comfortable on the couch. But mum wasn’t talking about nap time. She walked over and sat at the dinning table and placed the container alongside two stacks of books laying in front of her. Her skinny, pale hand scattered the books on the table – books with black outlines of animals, flowers, patterns and cupcakes. She picked the title Floral Designs. She loves flowers and talk about flowers but there was no talking that afternoon. She was ready to fill the blank spaces with colours.

Mum flicked through the pages then put the book aside and started inspecting the tips of her colourful tools. She pulled a pencil sharpener from the Tupperware container and shaved away the worn surface of three pencils: “red, green and yellow” she said out loud. Looked like she was now ready to start her project, to get lost in the world of colouring in.

I’m all for meditation but have no patience to sit still to colour in mindfulness colouring books, or any books for that matter. I think I may waste precious time unable to relax, trying to figure out which colours to use and how to combine them. But mum has been colouring in these books for months. Her collection just keeps growing. She says it’s calming and that she likes watching the colour slowly spread across the page and the surprise element of creating something unexpected and pretty.

I realised I wasn’t going to fall sleep anymore so I sat down and moved to the corner of the couch to observe mum more closely. I saw that she selected the green pencil and, in slow, repetitive movements started to fill the stencilled page. She was focused and the room was quiet. All I could hear was the hypnotic scratching sound of pencil lead on paper. She paused from time to time swap pencils or turn the pages.

Mum smiles at everyone she meets and I saw her smiling at what was appearing underneath the colours. So I got up and sat beside her to take a peep at her creations.

She was creating beautiful patterns and I congratulated her on her creativity but what really caught my attention was that most of the patterns were unfinished. She was moving on to the next object without finishing the previous one. I flicked through the pages in the other books and most of them had not been completed. It didn’t make sense to me to leave the images partially done.

“Mum, why don’t you finish a pattern before you move to the next one?”

“That’s funny,” she frowned, “my friend asked me the same question.”

“Your pages will be even more beautiful if you complete them.”

“I don’t know,” she continued without looking at me, “I don’t feel like I need to finish them.” She turned the page.

Oh no. I could immediately feel drops of sweat running down my back. At the moment I came to the conclusion that mum, who is 74 and had recently been diagnosed with dementia, was losing the ability to see the full picture. She was going downhill much faster than I expected. I knew I was catastrophising. I wasn’t sure if the page hoping really indicated a progression of the disease but my Hypochondriac brain tends to resort to the worst case scenario when it comes to health issues. I grabbed a pencil and the book closest to me and started colouring in to calm down. I needed to find my focus again.

I just sat there in silence with mum, following the lines with my left hand no end in sight, no destination and I didn’t know if it was the repetitive strokes but I could sense I was starting to relax. When I completed a couple of patterns I looked at mum, content in her world of patterns and colours. Her back was straight and her neck leaning slightly forward. She was losing her hearing and her memory, but she looked content and poised. Just then I realised that it didn’t matter if she can see the full picture or not. What she sees makes her happy and that’s enough. I felt like I was learning to get the full picture. These books can be useful after all.