What is it that makes us who we are?

It’s often argued that the self is socially constructed, developed through the interconnectedness of the various aspects of the society in which we function. More specifically, the self could be seen as a complicated jigsaw puzzle of how we’re parented, our schooling, our social interaction with family and friends, and all our other life experiences.

But what happens if pieces of the puzzle that’s been created start to disappear? Are we still ourselves if we forget some of the bits that make us who we are?

What’s brought this to mind is my dear friend Mil. For a while she’s been getting more and more forgetful. But until fairly recently she just found it an inconvenience, something that could be considered an inevitable consequence of ageing. It was mostly variations on a theme of oh-dear-where-have-I put-xxx and not a cause for undue concern, she thought, considering that we all do that sort of thing sometimes.

Then suddenly great big gaps in her memory started to appear, seemingly overnight. The gaps seem random – her birthday party a couple of months ago, visitors from overseas last year, a tragic death in the family a few years before that, her youngest son and his family coming to stay last Xmas and a number of short-term gaps as well. Most worrying is that, despite visits to the hospital, consulting a neurologist and all manner of tests and scans, there appears to be no specific or discernible reason for it.  So there’s no clear diagnosis, just a great deal of confusion and worry.

Talking to her, I’ve realised that Mil feels as though she could wake up on any given morning and another little chunk of what makes her herself might be gone. Another memory – big or small – could have disappeared and, until told otherwise by family or friends, it will be as though the event never happened.

More frightening than the actual memory loss, she says, is the randomness of it all. For someone accustomed to being in control of her life, to planning events and taking an active interest in the world around her, who values logic very highly, this is a very scary place for Mil to find herself.

No matter how much I think about the situation or read up on memory loss, I find that I end up with more questions than answers. What does one do when events, days and years start to fizzle and disappear?

Standard advice seems to be to plan ahead once a diagnosis is obtained. This includes legal, financial and health planning. But the path to diagnosis, to discovering choices and to possible treatment seems to take so very long.

Starting to keep a journal seems to have helped. Mil’s found that simply making a note of things as they happen or writing down how she’s feeling on any given day provides her with reference points. When she pages back, even if she’s forgotten the events, she feels she can trust the words on the pages. She can see that she’s written them, even if she can’t remember having done so, and that distinction makes a big difference to her.

I find that this puts my years of intermittent journaling into a new perspective for me. Perhaps I’ve always been writing for a future me, providing myself with trustworthy breadcrumbs back to a past I’ll very possibly forget one day.

Perhaps it’s something we could all consider doing. That, and making sure that every year we have is as good a year as we can make it.

Since I’ve rather cleverly managed to end up with several part-time jobs (all at the same time), pups that need vets, walking and endless cuddling, and in-laws to keep an (active) eye on, normal things like grocery shopping, visits to the GPO for stamps, going to the gym, cooking and socialising have all taken a back seat for the moment. Pretty lame excuses, I know, dear Pen Pal, but there it is. So, until I have a little more free time, a quick-fix postcard to keep you going. Enjoy. Perhaps I’ll make the next one a recipe card – that’s almost like cooking, right?




Public Speaking is widely touted as being one of the top three fears that people have. It ranks up there with death of a loved one and terrorist attacks  — and well ahead of clowns.

So why did I join Toastmasters when we first moved to Australia?

Mostly it was to meet new people and to try to form connections, both personally and professionally. But it was also my all-or-nothing go at overcoming the shyness I tended to feel when speaking to strangers.

Right from the first meeting I had to work on overcoming the shaking hands, dry mouth and elevated heart-rate that arrived unfailingly every week – but I kept going. Feedback from people who had no vested interest in anything but my ability to speak in public was tremendously useful. I learned to ensure that my prepared project speeches addressed project criteria succinctly, to pace my delivery, and to be able to respond to impromptu topics or questions even when the subject matter was something I knew nothing about.

Much to my surprise, despite being quietly terrified every single time I stood up to speak, it was fun. The techniques for coping with delivering presentations and managing public speaking-related stress proved invaluable and I carried on going to meetings for a number years.

In due course and after conquering various speech challenges, taking part in competitions and so forth, I eventually moved on to other things – but I wasn’t ready to get rid of my file of prepared speeches and very insightful feedback reports, so I stashed the file in a cupboard for later.

Later happened this weekend. My study was due for a clear out and, in the process of sorting, tidying and binning, I unearthed the file… and had to decide whether to just chuck the whole lot out or to have a look. Predictably, curiosity won out.

Although the content is twenty years old, some of it still resonated — so I thought I might share one or two and see what people think 🙂

This one was my first ‘advanced’ TM speech. Entitled Get Personal, the speech objectives are: (1) to learn the elements of a good story,  and (2) to create and tell and original story based on a personal experience. Time: 6 – 8 minutes.

So: are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin


There’s nothing like it

A perfect day. Clear skies, not too hot, and a steady 15-knot wind. What more could a novice windsurfing enthusiast hope for?

In a flurry of enthusiasm I rallied the troops, getting the children organised and hauling my younger brothers (who were staying with us at the time) out of bed. Next I rushed around like a headless chook, packing the car with the essentials: sailboard, picnic and muscle power (the brothers, B & R), then off we went. A day of fun at on the water was less than an hour away…

I’d only been on a windsurfer three or four times before, but I was your archetypal enthusiastic beginner: incredibly keen… but not very competent! I was at that (unfortunate) stage of being able to get a sailboard run with the wind… but turning round and coming back still posed something of a challenge!

After what seemed like an age, we were finally there and unpacked. Once the board was rigged: sail taut, mast secured and fin attached, I dibsed first turn. Squelching out through the muddy shallows, I stepped up onto the board and tipped the sail forward. Ignoring B & R,  who were standing knee-deep in the water behind me chorusing Don’t go too far out! You need to PRACTICE those turns…, I set off across the lake – the wind in my hair, the flies in my teeth, a grin from ear to ear. THIS was freedom! THIS was sheer exhilaration…

After a while I realised just how far I’d gone… oh-oh … time to turn around….
Now, how does it work again??: sail forward? NO! That makes it go faster!
Try sail back? Ooops…… Ka-splosh!

Wrong  choice!

That was the start of a long, frustrating and totally exhausting struggle to get back to shore. Water logged, I scrambled onto the board… got to my feet… pulled the sail up… got my balance… moved the sail….
Right… Clambered onto the board… staggered to my feet… hauled the sail out of the water… slipped on the wet board… Ka-splosh!

And rinse and repeat, until I couldn’t think coherently past the sound of my heart racing… and tears weren’t far off.

What I didn’t know is that my brothers had been taking a keen interest in my activities, watching anxiously from the shore as I drifted further and further away. After a while it was obvious that I wasn’t going to make it back without help. So they flipped a coin as to who’d stay onshore to keep an eye on the children and who’d get the thankless task of swimming out to rescue me.

By this stage I’d given up to have a rest and was lying full length on the board, shivering, wheezing and oblivious to anything but my own sorry state of affairs. So my surprise and delight when a wet (and slightly abusive) younger brother popped his head over the edge of the board was heartfelt. Hero status immediately awarded!

Okay, Nik, you sit on the back and DON’T move: I’ll sail us in, okay?
I sat.

R – a regular and competent board sailor, effortlessly plucked the sail out of the water, turned the board and headed for shore. I sat on the back of the board like a stranded, bedraggled, miserable mermaid.

And it must have been these thoughts that caused me to move — ever so slightly — and catapult us both back into the water!

Even worse, there was no time to avoid the descending boom. It came flying towards me, hitting me squarely on the bridge of the nose as we exploded off the board.

I didn’t know which way was up and had a blinding pain in my head. I kicked desperately, hoping to find the surface. The water was cold and murky, and the weeds seemed to wrap themselves around my legs as I struggled to get away.

Finally my head broke the surface and I drew in a giant breath as I was hauled up onto the board like so much limp washing.

Sit still and put that on your face!
R thrust his wet tee-shirt at me and started paddling frantically for shore. Bemused I put the tee-shirt up to my face, pulled it away and looked at it. It was covered in blood… MY blood.

B had been watching the action from the shore and, with rare anticipation, had grabbed all the picnic gear, flung it in the back of the car and strapped the children into their car seats. Then he raced down to the waters edge to help carry me and the board in.

After that things became somewhat confusing for a while.  The boys rushed me to the emergency ward of the local hospital, where people asked lots of questions that seemed totally irrelevant and got me to sign forms, so many forms, in triplicate.

It turned out that the sharp edge of the boom had made a deep ragged gash across the bridge of my nose and, just to make my day, x-rays showed that the force of the blow had actually also broken my nose. Luckily the break was a clean one and there was no displacement, so my nose didn’t have to be realigned.

But I did have to have the obligatory anti-tetanus shot and the gash had to be stitched. The duty doctor injected a local anaesthetic into the wound, which was an eye-wateringly painful experience.  Then the stitching started – and I can only imagine what it would’ve been like without  the local anaesthetic!

By the time I left the hospital a couple of hours later my face had started to swell, my eyes were puffy and looked like I’d gone at least a couple of rounds in the ring with Mike Tyson. Not a pretty sight.

The brothers were very kind. They minded the children, drove me home, made me tea and waited until I was safely settled on my bed with an ice pack on the swelling before saying ‘I told you so!’ in many and different ways. They read big sister the riot act about being irresponsible, which was such a role reversal that it was almost – but not quite – funny.

All of the week that followed, as the swelling gradually went down and the bruises on my face went through all the colours of the rainbow, I thought about what they had said and about what had happened. I felt silly — and my nose hurt A LOT, which re-enforced the silly-feeling. But I was determined it wouldn’t stop me from sailing. I’d learn how to turn that board so that I would never get stuck and have to be rescued again!

So, the next weekend, I was out on the water again – battered and bruised, looking like the walking wounded, practising turn after turn after turn, until I had it just right. Then I was off — flying across the water:  a plume of spray behind me — and a wealth of windsurfing ahead 🙂

Late last year a friend told me he’d decided to focus on being more proactive about finding the good things in life in 2017 and on acquiring some achievable habits to promote that outlook. He’d had a tough year and I was (and am) impressed at his resolve and determination to rise above it all and to chooses to make positive changes to his life.

He later asked me, ‘Are you much in the way of New Year’s Resolutions?’ Well, although I do think about the year ahead, I’m actually not at all prone to making resolutions. Instead I generally just aim to get more things done, to be a bit more patient (!) and to do more stuff. None of these are resolutions, as such, and nor are they life changing, but I find they’re usually achievable. Perhaps because they’re so non-specific?

Then, on New Year’s Eve, my BBF told me about her resolution for 2017. Instead of making a list of wannas and gonnas (and having them turn into shouldas), she’s chosen one word around which to frame her year.

After much thought, the word that emerged was one that’ll encourage her to she achieve her goals and that she believes she can commit to on an ongoing basis for the entire year.

Accomplish 2017

As we talked (and sipped our NYE bubbly), I realised that choosing a word can provide direction, without being dictatorial. It’s both a clear focus and a soft target, covering any number of possible outcomes and thus a wide range of opportunities for success.

I could see that the process of reflecting on what you’d like to achieve, broadly speaking, and then condensing that into one word would be a valuable exercise. Actioning the word across the year… now that would be empowering. I loved the idea!

I went to sleep in the early hours of New Years Day thinking about it – and woke up with it still on my mind several hours later. Since it was pretty clear that inner-me was trying to tell me something, I spent the next few days considering what, in broad terms, I want to achieve this year. Is it the usual ‘get more things done in the year ahead, to be a bit more patient and to do more stuff’ or do I want more from this year?

Since 2016 was a relatively stagnant year, the short answer is I want more. More engagement, more activity, more learning, more fun. (But no more dogs; two is quite enough!)

Choosing just one word to encapsulate all that proved to be surprisingly difficult. It should be both broad enough to encompass many things and specific enough to result in action/outcomes. I need it to be something with direction,  with a certain amount of gravitas. And, whatever word I chose, it should be one that will influence the way I think, the way I behave and the choices I make.

In the end I came up with a short list and noticed a distinct trend in the sorts of words that had popped up: Achieve / Focus / Expand / Purposeful / Learn. All of these are active words, all of seem to want to carry me forward into the year, towards completing projects and starting new ones, into new experiences and opportunities. So, rolling all of this into one big glom, I’ve come up with my word.

This year I plan to be more ACTIVE – in all possible ways. What word would you choose?

Would you choose a word at all? I’m interested to know what people think of this idea.

Active 2017

The first time I watched Fiddler on the Roof  was when I was 14. It made a huge impression on me at the time. I laughed, I cried, and I went away profoundly moved by the story.

Topol’s voice (as Tevye, the narrator) stayed with me over the years, and at odd times I’d find myself saying things like Tradition! – or – On the other hand… usually in a poor imitation of his rich tones and gregarious manner. It always made me smile.

Twenty years later I hired the video and sat my kids down to watch it with me, having told them it was an excellent film. They were 10 and 12 at the time. It may have been a little to soon for me to be trying to inspire their social conscience and historical awareness, because they soon got bored and opted for bed instead. But I watched it through to the end anyway.

I laughed, I cried, and I came away profoundly moved by the story, but with a far more nuanced understanding of the historical context. It reinforced the memes and rekindled my awareness of complex sociocultural issues.

Heading into the New Year, these are the things on my mind. I’ve realised that it’s not about resolutions or making changes, it’s about awareness of my core values and an understanding everyone in this world is a brother or sister and should be treated as such.

When I watched Fiddler on the Roof for the third time this week, fully 44 years since I first sat in a darkened cinema and fell under its spell, my puppies kept me company. They were only slightly confused when I laughed, cried, and sang along to every tune.

Once again I was moved. If anything, I was more moved by the stark realisation that some things never seem to change. Details, certainly. Situations, of course. But whether it’s in Antevka (Tevye’s village in pre-revolutionary Russia), in Turkey, or closer to home in Papua New Guinea, whether it’s religious, ethnic or simply a struggle for power, people face discrimination, oppression and isolation. And they cope with strength, courage and determination. These appear to be universal themes across time and space. Sometimes the good guys win, but often they don’t.

So I end this year as I started it: with the words of one of my favourite songs as my New Year’s wish to all for 2017. I do hope that the good guys win more often in the year ahead and that you all travel safely through it.

Let the Good Guys Win (Murray McLauchlan)

May I get what I want / Not what I deserve / May the coming year not throw a single curve / May I hurt nobody / May I tell no lies / If I can’t go on give me strength to try

Bring the old year out / Bring the new year in / Bring us all good luck / Let the good guys win

May the one you love / Be the one you get / May you get some place you haven’t been to yet / And may your friends around you / Never do you wrong / May your eyes be clear / And may your heart be strong

Bring the old year out / Bring the new year in / Bring us all good luck / Let the good guys win

May the times to come / Be the best you’ve had / May peace rule the world / Let it make us glad

When you see something wrong / Try and make it right / Pull your shadowed world /Into the bright sunlight

Bring the old year out / Bring the new year in / Bring us all good luck / Let the good guys win.