A Clinical Lesson – Part I

One year of my nursing journey has somehow already passed, and unsurprisingly, the last three weeks have been the most significant thus far. My first clinical placement experience was an important milestone – I needed to test my strengths and weaknesses and bring all of the knowledge taken in throughout the year into the real world. Just how real it was is where the experience became a critical one.

There were many moments over the three weeks that will remain in my mind as I reflect on my interactions, but three moments in particular had what I feel will be a lasting impact. As in all accounts of a medical and personal nature, no real names are used in these stories that follow.

PART I

In the days leading up to the start of my clinical placement, I was thinking about the challenges that lay ahead. One challenge that I knew I would be tested on was my ability to separate the emotional attachment from the task of caring for a person in need. Little did I know that this test would present itself in the very first week.

We were each assigned one resident to assist, and it would be a “simple” resident for now – one that did not require a high level of care with their daily activities (or ADLs, Activities of Daily Living, as we like to call it). I was assigned a friendly but reserved gentleman, who just one month on from his 94th birthday, had found himself admitted into residential care due to a complication with his eye sight after suffering a three-month pneumonia battle. He was otherwise mobile and independent, even though he used a walking aide. I only needed to assist with the trickier parts of a shower, and keeping an eye on a sore he had on one of his toes. Otherwise, I found my main assistance to him was just being there for a chat and we had a rapport right from the start. He was still processing the fact that he was now a resident in a care facility, something that was both unexpected and a little uncomfortable for him. It was the little things that were making a big difference to his transition, such as the lack of honey that was available at breakfast time for his toast (and of course, I set about trying to stash some honey away for him once I learned this).

After the second day, he said we made a good team, and that gave me a sense of satisfaction I’ve rarely felt in any work I’ve ever done. I was genuinely enjoying our chats – learning about his history as a merchant shipper, and the many fascinating places he had sailed to. I learned about his wife, who had passed two years earlier, and of the way he would spend his time down at the local stores with his neighbours. He told me of his three daughters and how proud he was of them. I had the pleasure of meeting one of them and I could see why he was a proud father.

Then, on the Friday, I knocked on his door as I always did and entered his room. I saw him sitting on his bed, quietly staring out the window, with all of his belongings packed beside him. This startled me, and it was almost like he read my reaction, as he started to tell me what was happening before I even had a chance to ask. He was being transferred to another facility, as this was only supposed to be for respite care. He wasn’t sure when he was leaving, but I said I would be there to say a proper goodbye. I thanked him for the opportunity to assist him and I told him how much I enjoyed our very brief time together learning about his story. I had some other tasks to attend to and then went back to his room about an hour later.

Clinical 1

The room was empty. My heart sank. My throat felt heavy. He was gone and I wasn’t there like I said I would be. I instantly felt like I had let him down and I was so disappointed in myself.

I went back to our meeting room that we used to debrief and told my educator and fellow placement buddies what had just happened. My educator had a look on her face, almost like she knew this was coming. I had mentioned to her at the start of placement that I thought I might struggle with the emotional side of things and here we were – on day five, already facing this test. But they rallied around me (something that I hope will continue to happen throughout my nursing journey) and reminded me of the reality of the situation – yes, I said I would be there to say goodbye, but this isn’t always possible. I was there when he needed me throughout the week, and then he needed to move to his next phase. I suggested that I would go visit him in his new facility, to say a proper goodbye, but my educator stepped up again: “Are you doing this for him, or are you doing this for you?” It was a powerful question, one that instantly highlighted to me that I had become too emotionally attached to the first resident I interacted with and proved this would be a real challenge for me to work on. People in need will come and go and I won’t always be there to say goodbye – things will rarely be that perfect or organised. There is a fine line between being the empathetic, caring nurse and the nurse that doesn’t protect themselves emotionally. I was already too close to this line and I had to back away.

Parts II and III to follow.

In the Wrong Place

As I grow older, one thing is becoming more clear – I need to travel. The benefits of travel are too numerous to mention, but the happiness I feel while abroad is unmatched in my current home life. That might sound really obvious – something that isn’t routine is more enjoyable than something that is. But there’s more to it than that.

Travel has allowed me to grow as a person. I’ve had to fend for myself in unfamiliar situations, sometimes in foreign languages. I’ve met wonderful people by chance and had very memorable experiences listening to their stories. There’s been the odd scare or two as well, but that is part of the journey and it’s also something that my own city provides every now and then too.

There is one thing that my recent travel has shown me though – that I am in the wrong place. There has been an uneasy feeling over me for some years and my time in Canada has highlighted this further. I don’t feel I belong in Melbourne anymore, and if I’m brutally honest with myself, I’ve probably been feeling this for at least the last six years. Not previously having the courage to act on it meant that I festered away and went through the motions. Something inside me is not allowing this to happen anymore, and so I went exploring.

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Toronto Pride, June 2017

Canada has always been a country of interest for me. I was offered an exchange when I was 20 to do one semester of university at McGill in Montréal. I didn’t take it, as I didn’t want to leave my Mum here on her own (she was going through some rough times, and my brother was also away travelling). Oh how I would do things differently now! Maybe it’s missed moments like these that fuel my desires to explore and not think of the reasons why I can’t do something. It’s more about why would I not do it?

So it comes as no surprise to me that my last two trips to Canada (luckily for me, these two trips have been in the last eight months) have had a profound effect. My time there has been overwhelmingly positive – stunning landscapes and cities, genuinely friendly people, a relaxed but proud attitude, a strong belief in diversity and acceptance – these are among the reasons that I feel I am in the wrong place.

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Credit: Zack Singer. Stunning sunset at Wreck Beach, Vancouver, BC, Canada. July 2017

It’s also why it was so difficult to leave Canada on both of these occasions. As my first time in Canada was ending, I cried uncontrollably as I approached the airport. I tried to wipe away my tears before they were visible, but the sadness washing over me could not be contained. I was genuinely upset that I had to leave and make the long trek back “home”. I did not know when I would be able to return, and the prospect of returning to my lonely existence back in Melbourne was something I was not ready for. There were other issues at play at this time, only serving to compound my sadness about having to leave. These inevitably made the transition back to routine a very difficult one – in fact, the few months after returning to Melbourne have been the most challenging of my life thus far. I was lost and feeling hopeless about all of the major aspects of my life, so it should not come as a surprise that I found myself at the dreaded door of depression and anxiety. I would not wish these few months of my life on anyone – there are few feelings worse than feeling like there is no hope. Every day. Every night. It all becomes too hard and it is so much better to hide away, rather than risk someone you know or love seeing you like this. Then the worst part happens – all this alone time compounds all of the negativity. The voices in your head take over every moment, always reminding you of the failures and never letting up. Sleep becomes more difficult each night – the mind does not rest, forcing the body into this same restlessness. A tired mind only conjures further negative thought, adding more turbulence to an already bumpy ride. All of this makes it even more difficult to see a way out. To ask for help, or to feel comfortable enough to open up to someone seems far too risky. What will they think? Will they laugh at me and tell me to suck it up? Will they not even care? Will they use this information to their advantage somehow? All irrational thoughts find their way to become rational when your mind is so clouded by overwhelming hopelessness.

I got lucky. A few friends noticed my changed demeanour and offered their support. I cannot underestimate the importance of being present for someone suffering through their own mental demons. For me, being able to talk about it without fear of ridicule made an enormous difference. I also sought professional help – something not everyone is either able to do, or feel comfortable to do. But I knew I needed help to get through this. It had become too big for me to handle on my own. Each time I would start to rise back up, the slightest setback would send me straight back to bed. There were days when I just could not face the prospect of getting up. I knew I was bad company, so what was the point in going outside and participating in the world around me? Spontaneous bursts of tears further added to the risk of going outside – what if I just started bawling at the supermarket checkout? I could not risk it, so I stayed indoors most days.

Then, I got lucky again. The opportunity to study in a field that I’ve long admired presented itself and after speaking with some friends, I took this opportunity. I had something to be hopeful for, something to show me that I had a purpose. All did not feel lost now. It may have been a distraction to everything else, but it felt like things were changing. I wasn’t feeling sad all the time anymore. There were still ups and downs, but the ups seemed to be outweighing the downs now. Having a sense of purpose again was a fundamental shift in attitude and it was helping me recover.

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Vieux Montreal (Old Montreal) – 375 years old this year. Montreal, Quebec, Canada, June 2017

 

The opportunity to travel back to Canada appeared and I seized it. It would be my reward of sorts for making it through my first challenging semester of nursing. And what a reward it was – my second visit to this beautiful country could not have been a more positive experience. Each city I visited had compelling reasons for me to stay, helped by the fact that I now have friends in these cities. But this has also led to the inevitable fall that I am currently feeling. I have been back “home” for three days and I am feeling more alone than ever. I was again very sad to leave Canada (no uncontrollable tears this time, but I got close while sitting at the airport) – partly because I am unsure when I will be able to go back for another visit, but more so, because I feel like I need to be there. I felt so happy, comfortable and so welcome in Canada, and I do not feel that here in Melbourne. It’s hard to explain the exact reasons, but it feels like I’m in the wrong place. And that is a strange feeling, especially when the prospect of being able to leave is years away. I am too old to move on a working holiday visa, and studying abroad is too cost-prohibitive, so my only option appears to be completing my studies in Melbourne and relocating with my new qualification. That is a three-year prospect. I don’t want to wish time away, but three years seems a long time to live somewhere when you don’t feel you belong. I know I need to find a way to make this work, but those voices of hopelessness are starting to nudge their way back in.

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The Inukshak at another golden sunset, Vancouver, July 2017

I write this both as a coping mechanism and as a call out – life is feeling complicated and challenging again and I need to find a way to rise above it. For three years. If any of this is resonating with you, I hope these words can give you the strength to speak up, but more importantly, know that you are not alone. You might feel alone, like I do at times, but there are many others fighting these same battles. Some have been fighting them for a very long time, others are relatively new to the fight, but the more we talk about these issues, the more we can support each other through them. We are social beings and we are so much stronger when we are together. We are also better when we know we are valued, when we are seen, when we are heard. When we are relevant. When we are loved.

Selfless – A Story of Giving

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My Nonno Michele, or “Mick” as his Australian friends called him. Yes, that’s me on the right looking pretty excited to get into that cake (clearly the sugar obsession started at a young age), and yes, my Mum loved indoor plants and making big cakes.

Today would have been my Nonno’s 90th birthday. He wasn’t a perfect man – none of us are. He was a selfless man and he’s the reason I’m here today. He’s also the reason many Italian migrants to northern suburbs Melbourne found their way in their distant new home.

Post-World War II Italy was not a prosperous place. Particularly in southern Italy, opportunity did not appear to be on the horizon. In much the same manner that I imagine current day asylum seekers make the impossibly tough decision to leave the relative surety of their homeland, my Nonno Michele Pizzichetta made that impossibly tough decision to get on a boat headed for a little-known country on the opposite side of the world. He left a small town, San Severo, in the Puglia region, for a 2-month boat trip. He did this on his own, leaving behind his wife and two very young children (my Mother being one of them). He arrived in Melbourne, Australia on 26 November 1952. Imagine that for a moment – a 25-year-old man, leaving behind his young family, to see if a better life existed in a mystery land so far away it took nearly two months to get there. It’s so difficult to comprehend as it’s so far away from the world in which I find myself in – a world that was made possible by his selfless move in 1952.

In his own words (intentionally left in his broken English), from an interview with the City of Whittlesea in 2001:

“I was in the army and I was look for the go out of Italy because in Italy not many jobs and I want to make some future to my family. Matter of fact I did my ideas come to, I did I come to Australia I like, I been a like it first since I come here. Another thing too I remember very well when I buy this block of land in Thomastown in the Poplar Street, corner Poplar Street and Boronia Street when I buy that I was a feel to be really own something in Australia in Thomastown and then I bring my wife and the children and look forward to build the house, I did build the house through the Building Society and I been paying the bank 1971. I work very hard because I used to work Saturday and Sunday one hour every change they do work and I saved a bit of money to pay the house off. When I pay the house off I went and see my Mother that’s after 18 years I been in Australia I went and seen my Mother because my Father died two years after I been in Australia, the first time I come. After I went seen my Mother I left money for the house I leave my wife money for food and children and went and seen my Mother. I take the time off from the job a bit of a holiday and went and seen my Mother. I stay in Italy the first time nine weeks it is a part of my holiday I been keeping that holiday for a few years they grow. Then when I come back I see everything the right way. I was worried my Mother not was well because was very old. Three years after my Mother died and I was happy I been to see. I been carry on some things you know I come back to Australia and work again and that’s my life I keep a go like that”.

It would be two long years before my Nonna, Mother and Uncle could make the journey to Melbourne to join him. He spent those two years doing whatever work he could to get by, while also buying a block of land with a bungalow in the developing northern suburbs of Melbourne and eventually building a house on it for the family to live in. They arrived on 11 November 1954. He learned enough English to get by from attending night school and from his various jobs – making materials for suits, and utilising the skills he learned in the Italian Army to work in maintenance and the metal trades.

In 1956, he began what would become a lifetime of community action. I am emotional to learn that he even helped raise funds for the construction of the hospital I was born in: “I been really myself live in my own country I was like you know I cared somebody else, some Italian anybody because in my own country I used to do the same you know, help the people how much I cared and that’s what I did here when I be in Australia. In fact, 1956 I was living in Thomastown I been collected some money to build the Preston Hospital, no can do because not enough money, that’s what you call Community Hospital. I been for years you know collecting big money from the trains, Thomastown and also raffle tickets through the Preston Council and sell that ticket in Cup Day and the profit it went to the hospital. I collect a bit of money door to door around Thomastown that time it used to be two shillings”. Sadly, that hospital is no longer there – it’s been turned into apartments. Another hospital was built further north which would become my birthplace’s replacement. My Nonno also played a role in the new Northern Hospital development and was on the Steering Committee that got it built. On this he said: “I be very happy I did that because I feel I believe that’s why you can help people. I been helping people for the pension for anything they come and ask for me. I used to do this sort of thing in my own country and I now a do here. All my difficulty to me the language that why I be doing a lot more than I doing I still feel happy I did and people all around this area respect me and they do the right thing. I never stop, I still do help them when I can”.

For these numerous selfless acts, my Nonno Michele was awarded the Citizen of the Year. But in his typical benevolent way, he said “I not ask, they give it to me. Yes, I did a lot of things. Many time I try to push the Council at Whittlesea to get road built. Because the children used to go on the school in the winter you have no roads to the children not to the school to go along water and mud. I was feeling very sorry for the children, and I did push the Council that time. I not afraid to knock on the door and ask for the benefit to the people, benefit to the area, benefit I see to this area, no discrimination. I like to see that why because this very good area, you see the people come from different countries I seen never been discrimination for long time. I like to see that way because that’s what should be in every area, every place in Australia”. Wise words from a man lacking a formal education but absolutely not lacking compassion. Although these words were spoken in 2001, they could not be more relevant to the society we find ourselves in now, 16 years later.

He was also actively involved in social groups and events. A member of one of the very few Italian/Australian clubs at the time (meeting in Lygon Street, Carlton, which is still the main Italian area of Melbourne). “I was the Treasurer. You see, around this area, I build two pensioner clubs, the Bocci (an Italian lawn bowls game) club. 22 years ago, City of Whittlesea give a piece of land to make the Bocci club they give all the land and the fence around it – it still there. Us build the row for playing Bocci and it built 22 years ago and now I look after the welfare, Italian welfare in Whittlesea, I look after, I am the President. Before that I build Eastern Thomastown Bocci. Before this, I build the others and the Councillors helped me a lot for build all these citizen clubs in Thomastown. They said 12 years ago start Italian Women Groups. Why I started that Women Groups because I see the woman by themselves. They have nowhere to go, nobody to talk to and my idea, I got the Pensioner Club, I got the Bocci Club, now I gonna start something for the woman, that’s what I did. When I started there were five to six women now there be 200-300, maybe more. They have good fun, they play together, the Bingo, have a talk, have a dance. Many times I go there myself and you have a good time, food together, very good. I like it because I see I do something good for them and now there are too many people there and the place where they are not big enough – I tell them I gonna ask Council to build a bigger place for you”.

My Nonno Michele was the one other migrants to the area would go see when they needed help. He was referred to as the “Welfare Italian” and he said “the Council give me one place where I can meet the people with the problem every Friday from 10 o’clock in the morning to 4 o’clock in the afternoon. And they are very good and happy for that and the fact that people come there for ask for help, they come to pass the time too, play cards, or have lunch together, or some bit of music and play Bingo like that for the Italians. No obligation – the only fee for one year $3 for membership and that’s very good because I want to keep as low as possible, because all that come there are pensioners and the ladies and not rich people, that’s a working class people. Sorry I say that, because in this area they are all a working class, because I remember the rich people never come to this area because the rich people go to Toorak or South Yarra, but here all the friends all working, all get on well together”.

His community action also extended to political activism – he was a member of FILEF, or the Federazione Italiana Lavoratori Emigrati e Famiglie (Italian Federation of Migrant Workers and Their Families), a group that existed from the 1970s in Melbourne. It is said that “not only has FILEF been the launching pad for the professional careers of some of its members, but at a smaller scale it forged the political consciousness of rank-and-file activists and ordinary members who through their activism or presence in FILEF were able to retain, express and foster their political culture, whether communist, Labor or broadly left-wing” (pg xiii, http://www.academia.edu/11331631/Immigrants_turned_Activists_Italians_in_1970s_Melbourne). He is pictured below at some of their meetings (pictures courtesy of the article linked above).

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Even my Nonna (Pina Pizzichetta, 2nd from the left below) got involved in the political action, pictured here at a PCI meeting, which was the Partito Comunista Italiano (Italian Communist Party), later renamed the Partito Democratico della Sinistra (Democratic Party of the Left) in 1991 and Democratici di Sinistra (Democrats of the Left) in 1998.

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When asked what Italian people hope for, he replied “Italian people not only here but everywhere, they are very good for the family. They look after family and in fact the ladies, the Italian ladies, the grandmother, always look after the grandchildren, they do everything for them, cooking, buy them some suit, shoes or some socks, they grow the grandchildren more than they grow their own children”.

It’s really no wonder that I continue to develop a strong desire to be socially minded and to be actively involved with social programs that assist those less fortunate than myself. I have it in my blood, and I owe it to both of my grandparents who fought for equality and access to basic rights for all, regardless of position or background. They did this with very little wealth of their own, but did it anyway. I’m so incredibly sad that I did not know this story when my grandparents were still here, but maybe I was too young to understand it anyway. So many things I need to say thanks for, but I know that the best way I can say thanks is to continue their legacy. Happy 90th birthday Nonno, I miss you so much (and you too Nonna). I hope I can make you proud one day as I try to contribute to the world around me, much in the way you did.

The Pursuit of Happiness Isn’t For Sale

“Love people and use things. Cos the opposite never works” – Joshua Fields Millburn, The Minimalists

 

I’ve been searching for a fulfilling career path from my first day working as an accountant. I knew through University that this wasn’t going to be for me, but for some reason, I persisted with it. I also gave it a good 12 years professionally in five different organisations, but each time, the initial challenge of learning new processes and meeting new people would fade after six months and the mundane routine would set in.

I decided to pursue a career change – one that many advised me against. The health and fitness industry seemed a perfect fit and I was passionately immersed in it for 18 months. Until the lack of financial stability finally took its toll. So I went back to a career that I knew I had no passion for, yet, felt the need to return to so I could get some financial freedom back.

Money is an interesting concept – I can say with total confidence that it simply does not make you happy, but not having enough to sustain a life you want is a recipe for unhappiness too. So, where’s the line between living for a bank balance and living for a passion?

This question has been in my head for years and I’m not sure I have the answer yet. Through these 12 years working in accounting and finance-related jobs, I pretty much hated them all, but persisted with them for various reasons – lack of acceptable or viable options, money (or so I thought), lifestyle (or so I thought), it came easy to me and people told me I was good at it. I worked with people that enjoyed what they did, and good on them. I worked with people that admitted they just did it for the money, or for their family, or for the mortgage. I worked with people that hated what they did, but didn’t see a way out, so they just kept grinding away. I saw myself slipping into that latter group and it was a scary prospect. There’s few feelings that I’ve encountered in my time that scare me more than the feeling of being trapped.

My first career change almost came about by accident, but it taught me many lessons. I discovered that I had other talents and that I did have the confidence to get in front of large groups and lead others. It also started to highlight to me the true value of stuff. I’m using this non-descript word purposely – “stuff”. The more I earned in accounting jobs, it seemed the more I spent. And I can’t say I have much to show for that spending either. I just accumulated stuff, and got into substantial debt at the same time. Maybe I was constantly buying things to make me feel better about being in a profession I had no connection with, or maybe I just liked having things.

When the income was substantially reduced with my move to health and fitness work, my lifestyle had to adjust. I simply couldn’t afford the same luxuries and certainly didn’t have the means to pay the credit card debt either. But this wasn’t just a job – this was a privilege where I got to help people improve their fitness and their life, while having some fun at the same time. I can’t adequately describe the feeling of having someone approach you and tell you that you made a positive difference to their day, to their outlook on life. Sadly, as a society, we don’t reward these types of jobs with appropriate pay, and after 18 months in this uplifting world of group fitness, I had to make the brutal decision to go back to accounting. I just couldn’t pay my bills and I was too embarrassed to ask another person for some money. Surprisingly, it was really tough to get back into accounting after a break – apparently it’s frowned upon to step away from your career to see what else is out there. Your commitment to the cause is questioned and you need someone to give you a chance. What a load of bullshit! Someone did eventually give me that chance, but it’s ridiculous that it is this way.

I knew I wouldn’t last in accounting when I went back. Particularly my last role, which I won’t name here, where I was absolutely overpaid and underworked, was a time where things got really bleak. But I can see now that it was a blessing. It was what I needed to know again – that money truly is not the catalyst for happiness, and that this industry simply wasn’t for me. Most people I spoke to said to stick it out, take the cash and start studying in your spare time, then quit. But I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t continue taking that salary that I didn’t deserve, all while working in a job that I truly hated. So, I quit and took the chance of going back to study while working part-time at a gym again to help ends meet. I started a Writing and Publishing Masters and was absolutely loving it, before another job opportunity presented itself. This time, it wasn’t accounting, but my knowledge from those roles would come in handy. The part-time work was becoming a factor too, as my hours were inconsistent and budgeting for things was proving difficult. There were also other factors to taking this new opportunity, so I jumped in with both feet.

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When I’m absolutely honest with myself, I know that I will need to leave this role too. Simply, I’m most content when I am giving back, when I am contributing to society in a positive and meaningful way. I know this now, but putting it into action is proving to be the hurdle. When I was helping others improve their fitness and outlook on life, I was truly happy and satisfied with work. When I write, I am happy, as expressing myself in this form is a release. It doesn’t always carry the same notion of giving back, but it does allow me the opportunity to communicate thoughts such as these, which may give at least one other person the confidence to interrupt their status quo and seek what truly makes them shine. I’m probably a socialist and I am completely comfortable with that. I see no issue with wanting everyone to have equality in all forms and with helping those that haven’t had the same opportunities to succeed that I have. So it follows that I don’t believe in capitalism, and most things that it stands for. The pursuit of money does not bring the best out of people and it certainly doesn’t allocate it fairly.

This finally brings me to an inspiring documentary movie I recently watched on Netflix, Minimalism – “a documentary about the important things”. It speaks of everything I have discussed here, as well as detailing a movement of de-cluttering your life of worthless possessions and simply taking what you need. They explain that although we have more things at our disposal now than we could possibly have imagined (or ever needed), we are also suffering more unhappiness and depression. We think that adding more material possessions will make us happy – that latest phone, or the newest trend in fashion. Even that bigger house that we can’t afford, or don’t actually need. Yet, it traps people into a routine of Monday to Friday melancholy and programs them into thinking they’ll be OK once (or if) that pay rise comes in.

I know that some of you reading this are probably thinking I’m overstating the impact of putting up with a meaningless career, but if you’re truly happy with your career, or the job you just happen to be in right now, then this isn’t aimed at you. This is for people that used to think like I did while wasting away in a career path that I had no passion for. Don’t think that you have no choice, or that you’re trapped. You may need to alter a few things about your lifestyle, but if it means you can be passionate about something again, then it’s surely worth it. I’m still searching for that elusive career path that will make me happy with myself again – it’ll look something like a social or community-based organisation, a not-for-profit or even a health-oriented role. I’m lucky – I know I have options, and although most future paths for me will inevitably mean returning to study, I just know I have to do it. And by getting rid of all the unnecessary stuff around me, I’ll be freer to continue exploring my options, and the world around me.

Your Personal Legend

“To realise one’s Personal Legend is a person’s only real obligation. All things are one.” – Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve just started reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, even though I actually purchased this book about four years ago. It sat on my bookshelf all those years, but something recently made me go find it and read it. Not knowing exactly what this book was about, I just felt like it was something that was worth reading. Within the first twenty pages, you find the above line. It’s closely followed by this passage:

“What’s the world’s greatest lie?”

“It’s this: that a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That’s the world’s greatest lie”.

“Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is. At that point in their lives, everything is clear and everything is possible. They are not afraid to dream, and to yearn for everything they would like to see happen to them in their lives. But, as time passes, a mysterious force begins to convince them that it will be impossible for them to realise their Personal Legend”.

You might be wondering what is meant by “Personal Legend” – it is what you have always wanted to accomplish. This book is a work of fiction, but its message is surely not. It is a story told through this message, and the importance of this message cannot be underestimated.

Before I started reading The Alchemist a few days ago, I had already written the words that follow. Things really do work in wonderful ways sometimes.

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I am having a “me” day today and I am not afraid to admit that. I think somehow the notion of taking time out for yourself, just doing the things that you want to do, on your own, has been given a bad name. You might think it’s selfish to be doing this, but I see it as the opposite. I see it as time spent reminding yourself about how important you are, and that this time is critical to your own personal fulfilment.

Most of us spend far too much time in each day doing things for other people, or worse, doing things we think that other people want us to do, but why have we forgotten to do the things that make us happy too? I’m not suggesting that you should do this all day every day, after all, life is about balance. There will inevitably be some things that you will need to do that you do not necessarily want to do, but when this becomes a daily habit, you’ll probably find yourself becoming unhappy and unfulfilled. It doesn’t even need to be a full day of “me” time either, so don’t think that you don’t have time for this – even spending a few hours a day for yourself is better than no hours at all.

I’ve read numerous quotes that ask a simple question – how can you love others if you don’t first love yourself? It might sound fluffy, but it is true. You need to know yourself and need to know what makes you happy. Then you can work on sharing that with others, whether it be with friends or a partner. Having regular “me” time will help you remember about the things that make you happy and might even lead you to some new ideas or hobbies that you can take up. It’s not selfish at all to take time for yourself – it’s just as important as other aspects of your health, both mental and physical. Personal time can be used to think about where you are, where you are going, or simply just to switch off and relax (something we all need to do more of too!). Listen to music, read a book, go for a walk or a run if you’re that way inclined. Go sit in a cafe and people watch. If you have children, it might be more difficult to find some personal time, but you owe it to yourself and your family to at least try. Even if it’s just one hour, I truly believe this will help you be a better person overall, someone that is more positive and caring. If you’re unhappy with yourself, you’ll find it difficult to be happy with others.

Personal time is even more important if you find yourself in an employment situation that doesn’t fulfil you and there’s no obvious way out of it (and I think most of us have been here at some point). I understand that it’s too simplistic to suggest that everyone can just throw in their job that they hate without any kind of backup plan, but personal time may help you deal with your less than fulfilling work a little better, or at the very least, remind you why put up with your job, so that you can do those other things in life that you want to do. It will help give you clarity on your other options too – don’t ever think that you don’t have another option. You might need to make changes to your lifestyle for this other option to be feasible, but if you truly want it, those changes will be a blessing.

The point is, just find a way to spend some time with yourself and make it a habit. Start small and build on it. Whatever start you make is a move in a different direction and you don’t know where that might take you. If you don’t make this time, you’ll still be in that same place in another year, and I’m pretty sure how that will make you feel.

Don’t allow that mysterious force to convince you that you can’t realise your Personal Legend. It might not be visible right now, or it might be quite a way down the track, but keep looking for it and keep putting in place whatever it is you need to do to make it happen. You are still in control of what is happening in your life, and you always will be. You owe it to yourself to keep going.

 

A New Year Ode

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The years, they come and they seemingly go,
Where that is, we don’t quite know.
As 2015 comes to its inevitable conclusion,
Let there be absolutely no illusion,
That it’s time to wish this year goodbye,
And look forward to the new things that you can try.
One thing is always true for ever more,
Don’t wait to knock, just open that door.
Do all of the things that will make you see,
Just how happy you can truly be,
When you do what it is that you want to do,
Not what others have in store for you.
Let go of what you no longer need,
Try each day to plant that seed.
Be you, be true, love and really live,
And whenever you can, remember to give.
Who knows what the new year will offer and bring,
But it’s surely time to let the next chapter begin!

 

Josef Himmelreich

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My recent trip to Europe resulted in many a museum visit (there’s just so many of them worth visiting), and there’s a reason that this one will keep a strong place in my mind. On October 19, I visited the Jewish Museum in Prague – a sobering collection of six venues clustered around the beautiful Jewish Quarter in the Old Town.

Two names are etched in my memory after this visit. Josef Himmelreich and Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. A visit to Europe for me usually means at least one trip to a WWII memorial. I’m not exactly sure why I’m drawn to the history of this unthinkable tragedy – one which I simply struggle to understand how it ever happened in the first place. (Having said this, it seems similar atrocities still occur today, albeit not at the scale of devastation seen in WWII, but you could debate this when you look at the current plight of Syria and its seemingly never-ending crisis). I think I want to understand what led to this war and how (or if) it can ever be avoided again. History has a habit of repeating, but this simply can’t repeat. It also strikes me that this isn’t some distant atrocity that can be put down to the Dark Ages – this occurred a mere 75 years ago. There are survivors who can tell harrowing stories to the rest of us, but I’d understand if they’d prefer to not revisit those stories. The impact of these times feels palatable when I visit a memorial such as the one I did this day in Prague.

The Jews began settling in the Prague area during the tenth century. There are numerous occurrences of mistreatment throughout their history in Prague (as in other parts of the World too), but it all pales into insignificance the moment you step into the Pinkas Synagogue.

There are three large rooms. 12 walls. Some of these walls are at least three metres high. On each wall, there are names inscribed in small text painted in black, surnames in red, with a gold star painted between each name. There are 77,297 names here. This is the number of Jews murdered during WWII from the Prague area. Entire families, young and old. Beside each name is their date of birth, followed by their date of death where known. The number of people in their twenties, thirties and forties really stands out. Initially sent to the Terezin ghettos, then sent onto those hell-on-earth camps.

As I solemnly make my way to each wall to read the names, the number of children start to get my emotions going. I was also feeling very sick in the stomach. Then, an uncontrollable grief takes over as I stand in front of one wall that has the name Josef Himmelreich on it. Born 8.IV.1942. Died 18.IV.1942. Josef lived ten days. Ten days. I find that incredibly difficult to comprehend. You might think that at least Josef didn’t really know what was going on and that he possibly didn’t suffer much, but Josef had as much right to live a fulfilling life as the rest of us do. I had to take a long pause here to collect my thoughts and ponder how the human race can be so unbelievably cruel to itself. I then remembered all the current examples where we continue to be cruel to each other and moved on to the next wall. I decided that it would be disrespectful to take photos inside this memorial, and I wish other visitors were doing the same. In fact, I think this Synagogue should enforce a rule to ban photography in there – it just doesn’t feel right. Thankfully though, there wasn’t a selfie stick in sight.

I then made my way upstairs to an exhibit of children’s paintings, all made possible by one amazing woman – Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. An artist and a school teacher, Friedl helped the children of the Terezin ghettos find an outlet of positivity and hope, in utterly unimaginable circumstances. Friedl gathered whatever materials she could find, any scraps of paper, paints, whatever could be used to allow the children to draw what they looked forward to. What they dreamed of. I find it incredible that children in this circumstance could ever think of something positive. Looking at their drawings was equally uplifting as it was totally devastating. Most of these children did not survive their experience in the camps, but thanks to Friedl who went to great lengths to conceal their work from those who would destroy it, we are able to visit this Synagogue and get an insight to their thoughts amidst the terror they must have seen on a daily basis.

It’s said that Prague remained relatively untouched by the horrors of WWII due to Hitler’s affection for it, but this obviously doesn’t apply to its citizens. The Jewish Quarter was to become a museum of a past people. I’m thankful that instead, it is a beautiful memorial that will forever tell the story of a people’s spirit that remained strong to the end, in utterly tragic times.

A Table For One

22 October 2015

It’s two weeks in on my Europe 2015 adventure, and it feels like a good time to reflect on where I’m at. I feel very fortunate to be able to do this – to get out and see some of my favourite places in the world, and have the freedom to wake up each morning and decide what I want to do on that day. It’s a very liberating feeling, possibly one of the best aspects of travelling.

I’ve tried to remain free of any expectations on this trip, but one thought that has occurred to me a few times is that of loneliness. I wondered before the trip commenced whether I would feel alone at times, not having someone familiar with me to share in the experiences each day. Sure enough, it has been evident that this is indeed an issue thus far – particularly when something reminds me of friends or family. Taking photos and writing a journal is one way of sharing these moments, but it’s certainly not the same as having someone there to actually experience it with. Social media helps, but it doesn’t fill the void either.

This is not to say that there is no benefit to travelling solo – absolutely not. There have been some moments of personal growth and character building, especially when first arriving in unfamiliar places and not knowing where to go and not having anyone there to help. Venice and Prague come to mind here.

Venice was particularly challenging. I was told that I would surely get lost, but nothing quite prepares you for that feeling of helplessness. Your thoughts become clouded with doubt, and a mild panic sets in. You question yourself where you normally wouldn’t. I can read a map, but why can’t I now find this street? It undoubtedly gets frustrating and you just have to take a moment, stop, collect yourself with some deep breaths and remind yourself that you’re capable of figuring this out and that you’ll be fine. Eventually. A little tip for Venice too – don’t bother with Google Map walking directions, they are close to useless! It really comes down to intuition and asking for help.

Prague was a similar experience initially, although I think the weather played a significant role in my uneasy feelings here. It was getting dark (an added layer of complexity when you don’t know where you are), it was quite cold and it was raining steadily. By this stage of the trip, I’d figured out that the GPS function on my phone still works without a phone signal as long as you preload your walking directions when you have wifi, but for some reason, it didn’t seem to be helping once I’d left the main train station in Prague. I wandered the streets until I finally came across a hotel, where I went in and asked for help. Turns out I was heading in the right direction, but I still felt a little anxious. I continued on my way in the rain, past crowded alleys and beautiful sights (no time to enjoy them just yet though) until I made it to the Old Town Square. This made me a feel a little better as I knew I was close to finding my hotel, and sure enough, I made it shortly after this.

However, I didn’t feel comfortable in Prague until the next day, when I took the advice of friends and joined a free walking tour. As a social person that enjoys engaging with others, I really enjoyed being able to interact with other travellers after two weeks of almost no contact with familiar faces. I picked up the distinct Aussie twang of one of the girls on the tour, and it turned out she was also from Melbourne. We had a quick chat, but I wanted to interact with travellers from other countries. I next started chatting with a guy from Dubai, who had decided at the last minute that he was going to have a weekend in Prague (as you can do when you live in this part of the world). He was a Palestinian, so we started chatting about the current situation there and what might solve the crisis. He was very interesting to chat with, and even bought me a coffee when we had a quick break from the tour. I’d given him some small change for the toilet earlier (you always need change in your pocket in Europe if you want to use a toilet!), and he felt he had to repay the favour. We also discussed the sad state of affairs in Australian politics – I was somewhat surprised he knew a bit about what’s going on in Australia (in particular about our treatment of asylum seekers), but it just shows that we’re making headlines for the wrong reasons. I also had a chat with a lady from San Diego, who was on a three-month tour of Europe with her two brothers. They were winging it, and just going wherever they were enjoying the most. Part of me wished I’d done the same, instead of planning each stop and pre-booking all of my train trips. Each method has its pros and cons, but I feel like my next European adventure will be an unstructured one. I’ll buy one of those train passes and just go with the flow. I would have stayed longer in some places if I hadn’t organised each step – Verona for example, was utterly charming and 24 hours there simply wasn’t enough. Another thought I had while on this walking tour was how amazing it would be to do the same back in Melbourne, as a tour guide. Why not share the love I have for my home town with those that decide to travel there? Something for me to follow up, that’s for sure.

Inevitably though, when I go back to my room, or when I go out for dinner, the loneliness factor kicks back in. I wonder whether this might be a result of being in a long term relationship that’s recently ended. You get used to having your partner there to share experiences with, or even them simply just being there when you’re having a good or a bad moment. I was single for all of my twenties (another by-product of not coming out fully until I was 28), so I developed a pretty steady state of independence, but it feels different now. There’s no magic bullet and there’s no script on how these things are supposed to go, but maybe I’m not feeling all that comfortable in my own space right now. It’s been nearly three months since our break-up, but it can still be a presence in these times when I’m on my own, or after I’ve just had a positive experience followed by alone time in my room again. I know I’ll be OK and that I’ll come through the other side, but I think it’s important to acknowledge these feelings and deal with them as and when it feels right to. Things will be different when I return home, and that’s exactly what I need.

While it’s obviously a matter of personal preference of whether you travel solo, or with others, I think my next trip will be with at least one other person. It’ll probably be more spontaneous too. More time to live the moment, less time to follow a script – sort of sounds like how life in general should be. Plus, I’m a bit over asking for a table for one at dinner each night.

Identity

Growing up with a foreign family name was an issue as a child, and even as a teen. Having to spell my name, help people pronounce it, answer questions on its origin, and of course, the occasional racial slur, helped stoke the shame I felt towards the name that was a part of me. The number of times I wished my surname was Smith. Steve Smith – such a simple name, no questions asked and no comments made.

As I progress through life, I am developing a sense of pride in my name and especially in the story of its origin. I wish I knew of this story at a younger age – a story of sacrifice and risk, where my Nonno made the two-month journey here by boat, on his own, leaving behind a young family in 1950s southern Italy, to see if a better life was possible on the other side of the world. I often think to myself what I would do if I was faced by the same choice. My circumstances could not be more different to those of my Nonno. I don’t have family commitments and I am very fortunate to be in comfortable surroundings – none of which I would have without his sacrifice. To get on a boat and go to a foreign country so far away, not knowing what awaits you, and also not knowing when you’ll next see your wife and two young children, just so they can have a chance at a better life, has to be one of the most selfless and courageous acts one person can do, and I’m not sure I have that in me.

I learned of this story soon after my Nonno had passed away. He was a humble man, and he wanted no praise or fanfare. He had been very active in local politics, to the point where a local park was to be posthumously named in his honour. He helped those that followed after him when they arrived in this distant foreign land to find their feet – whether it was assistance with language barriers (he managed to learn basic English from the family that sponsored his trip here), help with accessing the limited local services that were available, or just being there when new arrivals needed someone familiar to talk to. He built his family home by himself, using money saved from the jobs he was able to pick up along the way. He must have been so patient, so driven to achieve what he came here to do, but it’s likely you would be when you’re desperate enough to get on a boat and try to make a new life on the other side of the world.

To only learn of this after his passing was sad. I didn’t have a chance to thank him for everything I now have. He probably had enough satisfaction from seeing his six children grow up to start new families and provide him with plenty of grandchildren, but it’s not fair that he didn’t see how much this meant to me before he passed on. To compound my sadness, he became a shadow of himself in his final years. Diabetes led to a stroke, before dementia took the final toll. I don’t think he remembered me the last time I visited him and that was profoundly sad for me. Even sadder was seeing him strapped down to the bed in the nursing home, as the dementia was making him violent, posing a risk to the staff and to himself. He didn’t know that though, and it’s possibly why he continued to be violent those last few years. I stopped going after that. I didn’t want that to be my final memory of him – a once great man, reduced to rubble.

The sense of shame as a young boy is now replaced by pride. By a sense of belonging to a culture that values family and sacrifice above most other trivial material things. While it’s fair to say that this didn’t shape my formative years, it now plays a significant role. I want to know more about why they had to leave Italy – I don’t want to assume it was due to the aftermath of WWII. I know he came to Melbourne as he had a sponsor in a small Victorian country town, but he could have gone elsewhere. The entire story could be different in many ways. So much of life is chance; it might not make sense at the time, but when we grow to learn of the how and why, things begin to fit. My place in all of this begins to feel right. I am developing a sense of identity. I am no longer an Australian with a distant Italian heritage. I am an Italian Australian. I am feeling drawn to travel Italy and see where all this history and culture comes from, and I aim to understand why so many Italians felt the need to leave all those years ago. I want to rekindle the traditions we had when I was young – the boisterous weekly family dinners, the making of sauce, wine, pasta and pizza, or the sitting on the couch watching cartoons while my Nonno swore at the TV because the cartoons didn’t make sense (that last one isn’t necessarily a tradition, but it’s a very fond memory). We prioritise other things now, and these traditions are sadly less prevalent. We’re too busy doing all those little things that might not matter, but at the time, we think they are really important. The important thing to me is ensuring these traditions are maintained – my Nonno gave up far too much for me to do anything less than this.

It’s now impossible for me to feel anything other than immense pride in my name, and the story behind it. Sadly, it took a death to truly understand the significance of this story.

I got accepted!

It’s apt that on the day I planned to write my first post for this new adventure that I also learned I’ve been accepted into the Master of Writing and Publishing at a university here in Melbourne. It’s an amazing feeling – one of genuine excitement, and of utter nervousness. It’s surreal to think that next year will now take me on a different course, one that is mercifully away from my current career in Finance (hence the title of this blog). My passion has never been in the numbers – it’s always been in the story behind the numbers. Finance was a part of my life because I allowed it to be. It was comfortable, and I could do it reasonably well. It also helped that it was a well-remunerated field, but that’s probably a topic for another post.

I don’t think I was ready to embrace the prospect of a career in a creative field – one in an unfamiliar area, where I allowed the thoughts of others to influence my thoughts. How could I possibly make a career out of something like writing? Those doubting voices have been vocal for far too many years, and I’m glad that I finally ignored those voices and made the decision to apply for this Masters course. I don’t know where this will take me, but I’m reasonably sure that it will be a more fulfilling path than the one I was on. Even if it doesn’t work out, at least I’m giving it a shot. I already have one or two regrets in life, and I’m not prepared to start adding to that list.

The last few months have provided some significant change in my life, both in personal and professional circumstances. I decided to book an overseas trip (my first in five years!) as I needed something to look forward to. I also need to get away for a period of time and reflect. What better way than travelling alone on the other side of the world? I will document my experiences on this blog while I am away, and hopefully I will figure out how to upload some pictures on here too. I don’t want this to simply be a verbal journey – the visual always helps too.

So, this blog will hopefully become my place to reflect, and to grow. This is only the beginning of my writing journey, and I’m incredibly excited about the opportunity that is now before me. I will get to work on my writing technique and learn from the best. I will also get to learn the art of editing – something I feel I lack at this point. It’s an added bonus that a particular focus of this course is also on publishing and that I will have the opportunity to collaborate with other like-minded passionate creative minds. It’s a far cry from the world of spreadsheets and monthly reports, and that is exactly what I need.