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.

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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.

Forgotten memories, unforgettable lines

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I first feared that mum’s memory lapses were more than old age forgetfulness in a brief moment of vanity last summer. I was staring at the tall, vertical mirror on her bedroom wall, pushing up my cheek muscles to hide the smile lines around my lips. Mum was watching me and said, “You are too young for Botox.” I chuckled. I wasn’t considering cosmetic intervention but at 43 and in Brazil, the land of Botox, I didn’t think that I was too young for one.

“How old do you have to be for Botox injections?” I asked giggling.

“40” she replied and I could feel deep worry wrinkles cutting into my forehead. Suddenly it wasn’t funny anymore.

“And how old do you think I am, mum?”

“Aren’t you 34?” she replied dropping her gaze.

“Mum, this makes me younger than my younger brothers.”

“Are you…36?” She asked hesitantly and I realised she had lost track of the age of her offspring.

Mum’s confusions didn’t seem normal so I took her to see a neurologist, who, after examining and asking her a few questions, explained that it wasn’t uncommon for elderly people that don’t live active lives to become very forgetful. Since my father passed away, almost ten years ago, mum has become increasingly insular, so, I put her mental confusion down to her sedentary lifestyle and lack of social life.

Despite mum’s reluctance, my siblings and I tried to help her become more active. We insisted that she used her hearing aid so she could participate more in conversations, hired a physiotherapist to improve her muscle strength and mobility and took her on outings. But unfortunately, her memory continued to deteriorate. Medical exams were scheduled and the results weren’t good. This summer when I came to visit I asked her again how old I was. She had aged me a little. According to her, I’m now 40. The inaccuracy didn’t surprise me. This time I knew that her mental confusion was revealing more than her way of living. Mum is losing her sense of time – she has been diagnosed with vascular dementia.

Vascular dementia is caused by problems of blood circulation in the brain, which in mum’s case was triggered by mini-strokes in the brain (transient ischaemic attack). These strokes cause damage in the area associated with learning, memory and language. The prognosis isn’t great. If the degeneration continues to occur at a rapid rate, the life expectancy is about 10 years. As the disease progresses she will become more forgetful, frail and, confused.

It hurts to see mum not being mum, not remembering to do the things she enjoyed to do for herself and for us. I wasn’t prepared to face her old age like this and I’m still learning to accept that our roles have been reversed and that our lives and our relationship are never going to be the same.  I miss the smell of her chocolate cake but now if I want to bring that memory to life I have to do the baking myself. At the moment it’s the small things but I sense that mum is gradually being dragged to a different dimension, a world where time doesn’t matter, a planet without a past or future. And she will increasingly spend more time at this place, often confused, frustrated and alone.

Because of the nature of the disease, I don’t know if she will ever realise that she has embarked on this journey and I wonder if she will be scared. Because I am. I’m pretty frightened to see my mum slowly being transformed into a different person. I’m scared because I don’t know how I’m supposed to follow her into her new world. I’m worried because I feel hopeless. I want to rescue mum from there but the wrinkles in my forehead are getting deeper and longer as I know there is only so much I can do. I can help slow the process but I cannot stop it.

I’m starting to unknown my own mother. Mum used to be predictable, consistent and calm but her behaviour is changing and she is losing these precious parts of her character. Now, one minute she agrees to go out with me but by the time I get changed, she’s changed her mind.  Or forgot she had agreed to anything.  Mum’s confidence is being whittled away, along with her memories. She is often responding to questions with other questions, uncertain of her own words, of facts or figures. “Mum, how much did you spend at the bakery today?” I’ll ask and she will reply “Didn’t I spend nine bucks?”

I look forward to coming home every summer but I’m starting to stress about my knock at the door being answered by a different person, by a new version of mum and that maybe that person won’t know me, or my story and the essence of who I am. I hope that day never comes, but if it does, I’ll offer her a smile because she taught me that a smile and kind words can heal a broken day. And I’ll come in and look at the tall, vertical mirror on her bedroom wall and will forever cherish the smile lines I gained because of her.

A stranger gave me roses

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It was the last day of the year and I was watching my children climb durian trees in leafy Parque da Jaqueira, capturing their primate adventures with my iPhone and listening to the songs of bem-te-vi, a native Brazilian bird of yellow and brown feathers. Suddenly the bird tunes were muffled by the noise of a crowd coming our way from behind the trees on the other side of the park and I immediately put the phone in my bag and turned to look for the nearest exit. But before I asked my children to jump down and run I noticed that the approaching mob were wearing white t-shirts and holding bunches of red roses. Phew. I sighed with relief and grabbed my phone again.

The fervent murmuring lowered as the crowd broke into smaller groups and went about offering passers-by a hug and a rose. Most of the militants marched through the parks’ gates and on to the streets to approach drivers at traffic lights. I saw many getting out of their cars to exchange a smile and a hug with a stranger who also spread the love through open windows in buses, to cyclists, street vendors, and anyone willing to engage in this intimate act. I saw people with tears in their eyes, overwhelmed by emotion. I heard an elderly man saying he had not been hugged in years. I asked one of the volunteers why they were doing that and was told that the group is on a mission to simply reach out to strangers, clasp them close and make them feel better about their day – no strings attached.

I was in the park for two hours and was hugged twice by the group and the gesture made me feel warm and fuzzy indeed. I had been spreading the Christmas/New Year smile for a couple of weeks, wishing everyone a happy new year but was feeling a bit discouraged by the number of people complaining that their year had been pretty average. I was surprised to find that people that I know personally was so discontent. These are not people stricken by personal tragedies like a life-threatening illness or loss of income. What they were complaining about was that they couldn’t afford a bigger home, a dream holiday, didn’t have much ‘me’ time, their kids didn’t perform that well at school, their careers are not taking them where they want to go… first world problems we all face.

One of my friends who had “an awful year” was about to board a plane for an overseas holiday and had recently changed jobs. But it wasn’t the job of her dreams. The problem for me is that we live in a time in history in which we have never afforded and achieved so much and our lives are so abundant that it’s unfair to say that the year was ruined if we didn’t tick all boxes in our accomplishments list. We have become so obsessed with success and perfection that we created the self-improvement movement (or maybe it was the other way around), which I think is partially responsible for the widespread discontentment in our society today. The standards of happiness have become so high that too many people are thinking they are falling short of society’s expectations.

We are told that we can achieve anything and if we don’t it’s because we are not trying hard enough or didn’t follow the morning routine of the world’s most successful people. It’s about the Self, of improving our individual lives, but how about the lives of our neighbours? We are becoming increasingly isolated. We are living digital lives and moving away from our families and friends. Even if we don’t physically relocate to other geographic locations, much of our personal contact is now reduced to electronic interaction. Every year I travel back to Brazil and it always surprises me when my friends that are so active interacting with each other on social media say that they haven’t seen each other in a year. I’m also guilty, I only have to look at Facebook to see how many of my great friends have now become digital acquaintances.

Seeing people hugging, smiling, offering roses to random strangers reminded me of the essential things in life that do not need to be bought with a credit card but we forget these things when we are obsessing about our selves. We can only live authentic and satisfying lives when we realise we are all in this together but together doesn’t have the same weight through the window of a smart phone. The simple gentleness of the human touch is worth thousands of likes.

Flight wasn’t fun – now let our Brazilian holiday begin!

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Through the small oval window over the left wing, I see blue sky and soft clouds hovering above the aircraft and my dream of a breezy beach holiday getting closer below. Wait, no, that’s a mirage, what’s coming into view are houses of various colours and shapes packed together in a sprawling maze of streets and alleys – the famous Brazilian favelas. The Dreamliner tilts slightly to the right as the pilot angles the airplane for decent at Guarulhos International Airport in Sao Paulo and I’m reminded that we still have one more connection to get to our final destination, Recife, in the northeast of Brazil. I’m staring at the plane’s current route on the in-flight entertainment system in pure silence. This is torture.

I feel a bump when the aircraft touches down and the noise of the wind hitting the flaps scares my children – I kiss their messy hair. Well, not far now, I think to myself as I stretch my legs under the seat in front of me. My back aches and limbs tingle. That’s what happens after 18 hours trapped in an aluminum tin. The seatbelt light comes off, I get up and glance at my fellow zombie-looking passengers of long haul economy class, jumping from their seats to grab their carry-on luggage. I always wonder why such a rush to deplane, we will all have to queue again at immigration and the conveyer belt. But I guess when we are disembarking from such a long flight our thoughts are no longer coherent, the brain is too tired and confused to make sense of anything. Our survival instincts direct us to get out of the plane, and to do it fast.

So I gather up my belongings and the stuff my kids dropped and put my children in the line while my husband collects the hand luggage in the overhead compartment. We are then herded off the aircraft and rush to immigration.

Fifteen minutes standing in the queue feels like an eternity when you haven’t slept in two days. Screaming and inconsolable children makes our heads thump – I feel sorry for their freaked out parents and grateful that they aren’t mine. My overtired boys stopped whining at the promise of McDonalds once we clear customs.

We go through the required procedures and are left with 30 minutes to board our flight to Recife. Our gate is on the other end of the airport so we pace down the wide glassed corridors, following the signs to terminal 2 – it’ll take eleven minutes, the sign on the wall tell us.

Guarulhos airport has been recently redesigned and looks beautiful. There is plenty of natural light and long moving walkways to my kid’s delight. Looking at them play you couldn’t tell these kids haven’t slept in two days. I notice that my eldest doesn’t have his backpack.

“Lucas where is your backpack?” I ask knowing we are in trouble.

“In the trolley, I think.” He replies walking backward on the moving belt and points to the cart my husband is pushing.

“That’s your dad’s backpack.”

“Oh,” he sighs.

“Where is your iPhone?”

“Oh, no”

I turn to my exhausted husband giving him an accusing look and remind him that “it was in the overhead compartment along with your backpack.” He has deep dark pockets around his eyes and it does not look like he’s registering what’s happening.

“We have less than 30 minutes to board the plane on the other side of the airport. Let’s just leave it.” My husband answers unsympathetically and the children stare at me with teary eyes.

“We can’t leave the kids’ iPhones behind,” I argue. “This is what we will do: give me my boarding pass and go ahead with the kids. I’ll go back to the Latam terminal to try to find the bag. I’ll meet you at the departure gate.”

I turn around and run back to the arrival’s gate as fast as I could, weaving through the rushing crowd. I feel my blond ponytail swinging frantically from side to side and beads of sweat gather in my forehead. The oncoming traffic of people look at me like I’m crazy, I think if I were in Sydney security would stop me for questioning. I make mental calculations of how long I have before my plane departs and wonder what possessed me to give iPhones to my children.

I spotted the staff in Latam uniform behind the help desk and explain I left a bag in the airplane.

“You need to go to the lost property desk,” a friendly staff explains pointing to the lift.

“But I have less than 20 minutes.”

“Just go up to level one and turn left. They will be able to help you there.”

And they do. The officer dials the aircraft and they confirm they found the said backpack.

“The customer has to board another flight in 15 minutes, could you bring the bag here immediately?” I hear him asking the person at the aircraft and cross my fingers.

“The bag will be here in five minutes.”

I wait pacing up and down the corridor, which is packed with lost items like surf boards, guitars, luggages of all shapes and sizes. I can’t take my eyes off the clock on the wall. I’ll have less than ten minutes to make my way to the gate – butterflies flutter in my stomach.

Within the promised five minutes I’m running back to the domestic gate with my faith in humanity restored. Pumping my legs as fast as they could go, I jet to my destination dodging people, luggages and trolleys. I was soaring like an eagle on a mission. No way was I going to miss my plane.

I’m approaching the gate and see a long line of passengers already boarding the flight. I spot my family there waiting for me. I wave the backpack up in the air and catch their attention – mission accomplished, I announce. Together we walk through the portal to our final destination, in three hours the plane will be kissing the ground and our summer holiday will finally begin.

Junk inside your stockings?

Empty red Christmas stocking hanging on a door

Photo: Creative Commons

 

I’ll never forget my first Christmas in Australia. We were invited to celebrate the event with our former host family (this is long before Airbnb was invented), this lovely interracial young couple (Korea meets Australia) with two gorgeous small children. The Australian grandparents joined the party too. Apart from celebrating Christmas in broad daylight, the party was not dissimilar to our Brazilian Christmas soiree—overeating and drinking, music and family. But then it came the time to open the gifts. Grandpa had the presents in a gigantic red sack and he could not tie the ends of the bag together, the gifts were overflowing, I was left wondering if more guests were coming considering the number of presents. He started distributing the gifts, most of which were for the children. The first couple of beautifully wrapped toys made the kids jump with excitement but the more gifts they opened the less they cheered. You could tell that the first gifts were carefully selected, age-appropriate, but the rest were just ‘stocking fillers’, an expression I had never heard until that day.

My head kept turning to the clock on the wall, the gift giving was becoming too long and boring and the pile of worthless junk tucked beside the Christmas tree was getting taller by the minute. By the time the last gift was distributed the children were more interested in what was showing on TV.

Back then, climate change was not a mainstream topic of discussion but I could not help thinking of the waste that millions of Australian households were creating that day and how they were nurturing a throwaway generation.

At that time it was clear to me that, by comparison, the Brazilian Christmas was very much a celebration of hope, love and piece rather than a purely consumeristic event but I was forced to change my mind when I went back to my country of birth for Christmas in 2005.  My city, Recife, had been invaded by stores selling cheap goods manufactured in sweatshops in other third world countries. Now, everyone had access to crap they could afford and this was reflected in the Christmas giving that year. I guess our Christmas principles weren’t so different after all, the festive Brazilian people just didn’t have easy access to an oversupply of things they didn’t need.

Fast forward 18 years from my first Ozzie Christmas and now we are all talking about climate change and the impact of our consumeristic society in the environment. But it doesn’t feel like we are matching our words with actions. I recently saw statistics showing that each Australian family contributes enough rubbish each year to fill a three-bedroom house from floor to ceiling. I think that Christmas alone is responsible for filling up the whole lounge room.

There are truckloads of reasons why society has evolved into such a remarkable waste producing machine and one of them is because we now can afford to buy more things and these things last less. It’s a vicious cycle and of course, this has an impact on the planet.

So it really surprises me when I see that the idea of filling up Christmas stockings continues as strong as ever. Don’t kids (and adults) receive enough gifts already? Do we really need to top up the Christmas gift giving extravaganza with more?

To make piece with our compulsion to buy, lots of websites are now promoting environmentally friendly, zero-waste stocking fillers. But this defeats the purpose, if we are combating excess, we don’t need fillers. We need substantial changes to our behaviours, we need to realise that Christmas giving doesn’t have to mean excessive buying. Giving makes us happy, but we can replace needless stuff with other ways to give like giving our time, offering a helping hand, being there when our friends need. That’s the true Christmas spirit, in Australia and elsewhere.

Stick figures: 21,000 min slicing carrots

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I did the maths. Every single school day for seven years I’ve cut carrot sticks for lunch boxes. This equates to 21,000 minutes or 14.5 days cutting the same beta-carotene vegetable (sometimes I add cucumber for a bit of variety) and stuffing them in little plastic containers. Today while I was going through my daily ritual it was borne in upon me that we haven’t had Disney’s lunch boxes in a while, my children have actually grown (I have these revelations from time to time), so why don’t I let them cut the vegetables and prepare their own lunch boxes? With their help, I would save 15 minutes each day.

There are many explanations why my kids don’t prepare their lunch boxes, but the main reason is the mother:

  • I don’t want them to make a mess that I will have to clean up
  • I don’t want to put up with the whining and whinging (they don’t want to do their lunch boxes)
  • I don’t want them to get hurt using a sharp knife
  • I take pride in a properly made lunch box, one that includes fresh food and prepared with love

As I was writing this I was thinking, gee, if I wasn’t in the equation, they would be using a butcher’s knife by now. I had set a deadline that by high school they would be doing their lunch boxes but now high school is just around the corner for my eldest and we haven’t had much progress. The mess they make in the kitchen and the complaining drive me crazy. And watching them use the knife sends shivers down my spine.

I know I have to do something about this so I rationalised that  I’ll continue with the vegetables and they can do the other food groups. But then the other night I was watching my eldest spread butter on his toast. I was standing there staring at him, my head shaking in disbelief as he maneuvered the butter knife. He made a deep whole in the creamed milk and ripped up his bread trying to spread the butter on top. Another revelation: my 11-year old can’t handle a butter knife, or any other knife for that matter. My kids are bad with knives because I haven’t given them access to the tool, I haven’t taken the time to teach them how to use one properly. I have to admit that rather than nurturing future helpers I’m over protecting my precious treasures from most house chores and denying them the chance to grow. I might be protecting their little fingers now but this can actually hurt them in the long run.

I want my children to be capable of looking after themselves by the time they leave home and I know there are still many years to get them ready but they have embarked on a journey towards independence from the moment they learnt to crawl and my role is to equip them for the journey, help them gauge the risks accurately rather than removing all obstacles.

The new year will begin with a better division of chores, a present that they don’t expect Santa to bring but they can thank me later in life. And the carrot sticks will continue make their way to school next year, but there will be a new pair of hands making them.