Posted in Learning, Life

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There is so much we can control in our lives; so much more we seek to control; and then there are things we simply have no control over.

It rains for days on end, rivers rise, towns are flooded, 300 cows are washed into the ocean.

A low pressure system gets lower, the wind increases, a hurricane/typhoon/cyclone strips trees of their bananas, houses of their roofs, power lines of their energy-carrying capacity.

A volcano spews lava down its mountainside causing mayhem to those at the foot of the mountain and those on flight paths above it.

We are reminded that there are some things we still cannot control; some things are bigger than us, they are beyond us: we are not as powerful as we thought we were. We don’t have dominion over the earth and all that lives on it.

As with the planet, so too with our bodies.

I have been raised to believe that I am in control of my body, in the same way that as thinking, intelligent, problem-solving people we think we are in control of the earth. Mind over matter. If you think you’re going to get sick, you will. To avoid getting sick, you just have to resist it; you have to be strong in mind and not give in to it.

I haven’t vomited in more than 30 years because I refuse to do so.

When I feel the first tinglings of a cold, I simply tell myself that I do not get sick, and most of the time that’s enough. I do not get sick. I do not give in to sickness.

When I feel pain in my body, I remind myself that my mind is stronger, and the pain dissipates.

Sickness is a weakness of the mind. Both of my parents hold firm to this view, and it has become part of the fabric of my being. (I have written about this attitude here.)

I felt this way until Tuesday 25th October at 3:34pm.

It was at that point that I came out of a meeting with Phil and Jo (two new colleagues) and noticed that I was shaking slightly. I felt a bit cold. I went back to my desk and for the next 47 minutes wrote an abstract for an article on workforce planning for beginning teachers. My fingers skittered across the keyboard in often uncontrollable ways, the shaking intensifying the longer I sat there. I tried deep breathing as a way of calming myself, in case the meeting had somehow agitated or excited me; I walked quickly to the toilet and back as a way of warming myself, in case it was the sitting that was making me cold. I didn’t think about getting/being sick … I was just cold. And shaking uncontrollably. And feeling slightly off my game.

One hour and forty seven minutes later I was in hospital. Admitted straight into emergency, even though the woman in the queue ahead of me had been told that she would be waiting at least an hour to be seen by a doctor.

I stayed in hospital for a week.

In that week, I had no control over what my body did, or of what was happening in my body. I couldn’t think my way out of my sickness. My mind and my body were two separate entities: one did not control the other.

Or rather, my mind did not control my body.

I lay in my hospital bed for a week and my mind was quiet (I am toying with using the word ‘blank’): it is usually busy narrating my life, having conversations with a host of others, skipping from thought to thought, involved in a rich array of experiences, ideas, images, connections. My inner life is integral to who I am and while I am quiet on the outside, on the inside my mind is loud and always on.

I realised, though, on my sixth day in hospital, that my mind hadn’t been on for the previous six days. I lay in my hospital bed under six blankets, sheet up to my chin, neatly tucked in, eyes shut against the light, and my mind was quiet. Nothing. No thoughts, no conversations, no ideas … quiet. I’d sleep (a lot) and when I was awake my mind was quiet.

My mind seemed to know that it had to be quiet so that my body could recover. It seemed, for the first time that I can remember, that my body was in charge, rather than me being in charge of it.

I am home from hospital now, and my mind has switched back on. But it’s now more willing to listen to my body. I lie here, in my own bed, with the blankets piled high, neatly tucked in, watching the clouds flit across the sky, and drift off to sleep, my mind on but quiet enough to allow my body to recover.

I am thankful that I am generally healthy: I had no list of medications to give to the doctors, no bouts of ill-health to share, certainly nothing like the 40 heart attacks and plethora of other ailments the woman in the next bed talked of. Even so, I was not in control. Something was happening to me, and I was unable to stop it.

On day 7, the day of my release from hospital, I thought about my/our lack of control. I had just as much control over the bugs wreaking havoc in my bloodstream, as we collectively do of controlling the force of the wind, the amount of rain that falls, or the size of the wave after an earthquake. We are reminded that there are some things we still cannot control; some things are bigger than us, they are beyond us: we are not as powerful as we thought we were.

It’s an unsettling thought, but allowing it is not a sign of weakness.

Posted in Learning, Life

147

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My sister Debbie has an impulse to pull people away from the edge if she thinks they’re too close. I have an impulse to shut garden gates when I see them swinging open. Different impulses, but ones we manage to control.

There’s one impulse that we both share, however, that is much harder to control. In fact, we are rarely successful at controlling it.

It is an impulse for fairness and justice. We are aggrieved when we experience, and when we see, unfairness and injustice, when things aren’t right.

When we were younger, and complaining about something that wasn’t fair and wasn’t right, our mother would say and neither is a black fella’s left leg*.

Mum was clearly saying that nothing could be done about the situation that sparked our feeling of injustice: let it be because that’s just the way life is. There was an inevitability, a finality about this aphorism that niggled away at me.

Why do I have to clean the bathroom again when Debbie’s never cleaned the bathroom, my 12 year-old self would wail. It’s not fair!

My mother would chant her now familiar refrain about left black legs. I got that being left, those legs weren’t right, and being black they weren’t fair, but my ‘rights’ and ‘fairs’ were of a completely different nature that I deeply felt weren’t being taken seriously.

I would slump off to the bathroom to scrub it clean, bemoaning (loudly and vociferously) the injustice of this situation. Things didn’t have to be the way they were. We could change things. Surely we could … or else …

I could never finish the ‘or else’, never get to why it was important to challenge the way things were. They didn’t have to be the way they were, I knew that intuitively, instinctively, but I was not able to articulate more than that. It just felt wrong that things had to stay the same, particularly when those things didn’t feel (or weren’t) right. It didn’t feel right that life was a series of inevitable situations that I had to simply accept for what/how they were.

Situations like the men at the local railway station drinking out of bottles wrapped in brown paper bags. It wasn’t right that men should live like that; surely something could be done? It wasn’t right that the children I met when doing work experience in Year 10 had been taken away from their families and forced to live in a community headed by an angry white man. It wasn’t right that someone cut the tail off a Labrador and then abandoned the injured dog by the side of the road. It wasn’t right that I be sent to the principal in Year 12, as a 21-year-old student, for failing to attend the sports carnival and for encouraging others’ non-attendance. (I explained to the principal that I had run a study group instead of the 400 metres, and he agreed, with only a small dose of exasperation, that it was a much better use of my time and, looking me over, my capabilities.)

Fast forward many (many) years and a senior colleague advising me: Sharon, if there’s a choice between peace and justice, always go for peace.

But … but … 12-year-old me and 15-year-old me and 21-year-old-me came rushing back.

But … choosing peace meant accepting things the way they were, and that didn’t feel right to me, not when those things were not right and not fair. Why do others get to make decisions about things that don’t impact them, but impact others (others I care about), and I don’t get to have a say in that decision? When the course my team of colleagues and I had spent two years developing was suddenly scrapped I fought against the injustice and unfairness of it. It had implications for students, implications for staff, it meant accepting something less, something inferior.

Go for peace.

But I couldn’t. I was angry. I felt disempowered. It was as if those making the decisions didn’t value my work or the work of my colleagues, at least not enough to allow it to continue; they didn’t value the ways we’d developed relationships with our students and the meaning and significance of those relationships to the lives of those students. They threw out our work as if it didn’t matter … but it did matter.

Go for peace.

I visited Debbie on the weekend and even though the decision that will change her professional life was made some time ago, she’s still angry. She feels disempowered. The decisions that others made about her work and the work of her colleagues has not been valued, at least not enough to allow it to continue; the relationships with her students and the meaning and significance of those relationships to the lives of those students have likewise not been valued. They threw out her work as if it doesn’t matter … but it does matter.

Deb works in a correctional centre – a gaol (jail if you’re in the US). In May this year, the NSW state government decided that inmates don’t need qualified teachers to teach them, and so Deb, a senior educational officer, and her team of teachers will all be out of work by the end of the year.

Debbie is angry. She still feels the sting of this decision months after it was made. She is fighting for justice and cannot settle for peace. She could walk away, not get involved, accept the inevitability of the situation, the finality of the decision, but she’s fighting for others. She’s fighting for inmates who require expertise and experience from their teachers.

Misty Adoniou, writing in The Conversation recently, concludes by arguing that “we claim that professional, qualified and quality teachers are crucial to improving learning outcomes, and the economic health of the nation. But we pursue policies that don’t put these teachers in front of our most marginalised students”. Misty is talking about students learning English as an additional language, and those with disabilities. But she could just as easily be talking about inmates in the country’s gaols.

Debbie feels the injustice of the decision to remove qualified teachers from NSW gaols deeply – it goes against what she knows is right and just. And she rails against it, wanting it to be different, knowing that it could be different. She doesn’t want to settle for the way things are … but it’s more than that. It’s a deep-seated impulse, a value deeply held, that when things aren’t right we shouldn’t stand back and let them happen. We should fight for others and for what we believe. It’s part of the fabric of her being; it’s who she is.

Choose peace.

Peace or justice.

Does peace sound too much like giving in? Giving up? Not fighting for what is right and fair? Is that why I’m uncomfortable with that choice?

Is it because it’s presented as a choice, as a dichotomy? A polarised/polarising choice? Does it have to one or the other? Could we have both? Is that even a possibility?

There are bigger conversations to be had of course, more questions for me to confront– questions like right and fair for whom, and is wanting what is ‘right’ the same as ‘being right’, and does peace mean allowing the status quo to go unchallenged – but this is not the place for that conversation, for those questions.

I just know that when we are confronted with a situation that feels unjust and unfair our impulse will always lean towards justice.

That being said, Deb, I do hope that you will eventually find peace.

*This wouldn’t be said these days because someone stood up for what is right and what is fair.

Posted in Learning, Life

145

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I pack the car, pick Tim up from the train station and we head up to my sister’s for the weekend. Along the way a bird, pecking at something on the road, continues to peck as if oblivious to its almost certain death. I remain poised as we drive ever closer, knowing with calm assurance that it will fly out of the way.

We arrive in time for morning tea. This is a regular ritual: every Saturday morning Debbie and her husband get together with a group of friends for a cuppa and a chat at a local cafe.

Tim and I are well known to this group of my sister’s friends. We have spent a number of Saturday mornings drinking tea and chatting, as if we too were their friends.

I have done this my whole life: latched on to my sister’s friends rather than making my own. I find it easier that way – Deb does all the work of making and keeping friends and every now and then I pop along and have conversations with them as if they are my friends as well.

Many years ago, when we were in primary school Stacey, one of Debbie’s friends, invited her on an outing to the beach. Somehow I wrangled an invitation too. Even then, I didn’t have friends of my own, preferring to hang out with my sister and her friends. [I don’t think Deb was as in favour of this arrangement as I was.]

As Stacey’s Dad drove us all to the beach, we sat in the back chatting, and laughing at nothing in particular as eight and nine year olds do. I nearly jumped out of my skin though when Stacey suddenly screamed, Dad, slow down. Please, Dad, don’t hit it!

Was there a person on the road, I wondered? A baby perhaps? Maybe a kid had fallen off his bike and was stumbling bleeding down the centre of the road. It must have been something momentous for Stacey to react like that, I thought.

It was a bird.

But Stacey’s Dad slowed down, the bird flew away unscathed, and we continued calmly to the beach.

To say that I was impressed with this interaction between father and daughter would be a mammoth understatement. Stacey had been able to influence her father’s behaviour in, if not exactly an hysterical way, a decidedly dramatic fashion! Stacey’s father, the man who had built the house we lived in, a big burly man who bossed others around for a living, took notice of what his nine-year-old daughter had said.

I sat with this racing and rolling around in my mind for the rest of the drive to the beach. Once we arrived it flew straight out of my mind of course because there were sandcastles to build and shells to collect to make a number eight with (eight was my favourite number that year).

But the episode lingered in my mind, swirling beneath the delight of being at the beach with people who weren’t my family.

The following weekend, I was again on my way to the beach, this time with my own family. A bird was on the road up ahead. I hesitated, then decided to go for it.

Dad, I screamed, slow down. Please don’t hit it!

Dad didn’t slow down.

It’ll move, he said, in that quiet, dry way he has. And it did.

I learnt a lesson that day. I still ponder about what that lesson was even after all these years of working it over in my mind. I think I learnt a number of lessons actually: lessons about emotional responses, pragmatic thinking, the capacity to influence behaviour (or not), and other things I still can’t articulate.

But it meant that when I saw the bird on the road yesterday morning I just knew that there was no need for histrionics.

We drew ever closer, and I heard my Dad again: it’ll move, and at the very last moment the bird flew lazily away.

Thanks Dad … I think.

Posted in Learning, Life

144

This is Debbie, my big sister. She doesn’t look much like an axe murderer (mostly because she isn’t) but she did come close a number of years ago.

She looks innocent enough now!
She looks innocent enough now!

When I say ‘a number of years’ I’m talking about the late 1960s, so really, quite a long time ago now, when neither of us had yet reached the age of ten.

Our parents had bought a block of land on which to build a house. Dad decided that it would be quite fun to clear the block himself and so after work (for him, school for us) and on the weekends we’d head up to the block and he’d dig up trees and rocks and such like.

As Dad wielded an axe, Debbie, in a moment of father-emulation, took up the tomahawk.

Sharon, said she, hold that rock while I chop it. She knew how this worked. She’d been watching Dad.

Now, I mentioned that Deb is my big sister and as all little sisters know, if your big sister is emulating your father, is wielding a tomahawk, and suggests you hold a rock, you do as you’re told.

So I held the rock.

The blade was lifted, it hung momentarily in the air at the height of its swing, then came down to rend the rock in two.

Well, that was the plan. At the last minute, the rock, which was round, rolled to the right and so instead of the blade of the tomahawk rending the rock in two, it instead sliced through my finger. The pointer finger on my left hand to be precise.

Blood (mine). Screams (mine and Deb’s). Shouts (Dad’s). Swooning (me). Ditching the tomahawk and finding a place to hide (Deb). Swearing (Dad). One daughter getting into trouble.

Now at this point I can imagine that you’d be thinking it would be the tomahawk-wielding big sister who would be getting into trouble as Dad drove (swiftly) to the ambulance station.

And it would be at that point you would be wrong.

Even though the blood dripping off the tomahawk was mine, even though the finger hanging in two pieces was mine, even though the pain in said two-pieced finger was mine, even though the horror of having my tomahawk-wielding sister sitting next to me in the car was mine … it was me getting into trouble.

It seems that I ‘shouldn’t have been so stupid’ and that I ‘should have known better’.

Lesson learned … the hard way.

[I still bear the scar]

[On my hand as well as in my heart]

Posted in Learning, Life

143

My sister wrote through the week about her impulse to pull people away from the edge if she thought they were getting too close.

I too have an impulse, but of a different kind.

I live in an area that is awash with picket fences. Each of those picket fences has a gate.

Now, I happen to know that gates are supposed to be shut, so you can imagine my reaction when I see a gate that’s been left open.

I can feel my arm being pulled out of my jacket pocket, my hand reaching over, my fingers touching the top of the gate; a quick flick, and it’s shut.

I never do it of course, but the impulse is strong.

Each time I control that impulse the middle finger of my left hand aches, deep within it.

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I am transported back to when I was six years old (maybe five). We were dropped off at Mrs Miller’s house every morning before school, and while my memory is hazy, I have a few, very clear recollections.

One involves the gate. I would stand at the gate watching the big kids go past on their way to school. I wouldn’t just stand on the gate though; I’d swing on it. I have a funny feeling that I wasn’t supposed to do that. I’d watch the big kids and wonder what it’d be like to be so grown up that you could walk to school independent of your mum or Mrs Miller. I used to wonder about something else too, in the way little kids do when they’re trying to make sense of their world.

You see, we lived in Miller St at the time, and my sister, brother and I were looked after by Mrs Miller. It went round and round in my head like the boiled lollies my Nan used to keep in a tin in the car would roll around my mouth, sucking all the meaning out of it. What a delightful bit of synchronicity for a young girl to dwell on. How about that, I’d say to the big kids (in my head of course), I live in Miller St and Mrs Miller looks after me before and after school. Don’t you think that’s interesting, I’d ask them (in my head, of course).

One day, swinging surreptitiously on the gate, making sense of my world, something really quite dreadful happened. Somehow my hand slipped into the workings of the gate and my finger was crushed. Had a big kid walked past and pulled the gate shut, not fighting his impulse as all big people should? Or was it my own fault, for swinging when I shouldn’t have been?

I will never know, but what I do know is that I ended up at the doctor’s.

[Note: It’s hard to type with my fingers and toes clenched against the horror of what happened there.]

My fingernail was damaged to such an extent that the doctor ripped it off.

Just like that.

A quick pull, and off it came.

Screams burst forth from me.

I don’t know if I screamed then, but I’m screaming now. Oh, the very thought of it is horrendous.

And so, while I resist the impulse to pull gates shut these days, I do so with a heavy heart: a shut gate causes no damage to five-year-old fingers.

I learnt that the hard way!

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No fighting an impulse over this gate!
Posted in Learning, Life, Writing

2016 Writing Challenge: Day #2

Looking up

The topic for today is to dig through the couch cushions, your purse, or your car and look at the year printed on the first coin you find, then share what you were doing that year.

The first coin I laid my hands on was from 1993. It makes me wonder how many pockets it’s been in in the intervening years, and what it’s been used to buy, but that’s getting off-track, and I need to focus on the task at hand.

In 1993, which was twenty-three years ago (in case you were trying to do the calculation) I was in my first year of university. It was an exhilarating time, scary to be sure, but exhilarating. I turned 31 that year, and had had many years of wanting to use my brain and here I was, finally doing it.

I’d been volunteering (full-time) at a community radio station the year before I started university, doing everything from gathering and reading the news (in the time before the internet), updating the music database, creating music playlists for 16 hours of programs (each day), recording and editing sponsorship announcements, interviewing ‘celebrities’ (some of them were even real celebrities: Jeanne Little springs to mind), producing and presenting a talk show in the after lunch timeslot, organising the Schools Out program, and a host of other duties. I loved every minute of it, except the part where the station manager told me that her prayer group were praying for me because I was living in a ‘sinful relationship’. But everything else was fabulous. It was real work, I was learning heaps, and surprisingly I was good at it all.

I was enjoying this work, even though it didn’t pay the bills, and not thinking of venturing into other things. But then an opportunity came knocking, and a deep-seated desire for learning reared its head, and you can’t ignore deep-seated desires now, can you?

The opportunity was in the form of a brochure which appeared on the front counter at the radio station. It was from the University of Tasmania and was promoting a teaching degree in English, Speech and Drama.

I had no ambition to be a teacher, but the English and Drama bits appealed to me (a lot).

I applied, went through the interview process, and was accepted. I can gloss over those moments now, but at the time each of those steps was fraught with self-doubt, what if …, how do you…, but …; agonising over whether I could/should, considering what the practicalities meant (one practicality was having to move to Launceston. I lived a two-hour drive away and it wasn’t possible to travel every day.) There were other, more important, considerations, but this isn’t the place to air them. Suffice to say that throughout the process I was feeling all sorts of trepidation but when the acceptance letter came through, excitement took over. For a time, and then, when the reality struck, trepidation made a return.

I enrolled, bought a house, moved to Launceston mid-February, found a wonderful woman to look after my three-year old daughter, Emma, and in the final week of February started university.

First day, Monday morning, 9am, Drama in the Auditorium. The class was relatively small, less than 20 students, many of whom knew each other, all of whom had studied Drama in college, all of whom were 17 or 18 years old. I sat on the edge of stage wondering what on earth I’d gotten myself into. I was struck by how much I was behind, before we’d even started. I had been in a theatre group in my teens, but that was around the time these young people were born. I’d completed senior secondary education, but that was 10 years before (we don’t have time for that story now) … I felt overwhelmed by my lack of experience, my lack of knowledge, my advanced age, my newness to Launceston, even by my lack of work experience. These young people had had more jobs in their 17 or 18 years than I’d had in my 31.

But they were generous and because we had all of our classes together, we got to know each other quickly. I don’t know if that was helped by having to get up close and personal in many of our classes. In Voice and Speech we spent time in the early weeks massaging each other, in Movement we had to choreograph, rehearse and present dance pieces together which sometimes meant rolling over each other on the floor (or eating cheezels off each other’s fingers), in Theatre we had to pair up to run seminars, which meant hours of working closely together, in Drama we had to devise performances and rehearse which again meant working closely with others. We were at uni a lot! We had 24 contact hours that first year and many (many) more spent in rehearsals of one sort or another.

The age difference wasn’t ever an issue; in fact it was an advantage. The others soon learnt that I knew when assignments were due, that I could bake biscuits, that I was reliable when it came time to rehearse, that I wasn’t scared of the lecturers, that I was prepared to negotiate on their behalf, that I would accompany them to meetings when they were worried about those meetings being at the lecturer’s house after dinner (that’s just creepy, Sharon/no it isn’t Ashley, he won’t hurt you), and that I had done the readings. I was worth getting to know!

That first year I studied Voice and Speech, Movement, Theatre, Drama, Tech Theatre, English Literature, and an Education subject. I spent my time outside of class in rehearsals, preparing for seminars and presentations, being an assistant stage manager for the third years, on a two-week placement learning what it was like to be a teacher, sourcing or making costumes and props, creating lighting plans, learning lines, learning how to use the library and how to write academically, reading, talking about plays and poetry and monologues, rolling my pelvis to release my breath, learning how to use my organs of articulation more effectively … learning, always learning.

It was the start of a learning journey that hasn’t stopped.

Do you have memories of 1993? Was it a big, risky, scary year for you too? Please feel free to share your memories in the comments section below.

Posted in Learning, Life, Writing

2016 Writing challenge: Day #1

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Hello.

Remember me? I used to write posts on this blog, something I haven’t done for a few months. I admit to missing it, so here I am.

I was re-working my blog last night – putting all my writing onto the one page so that if anyone wanted to find it and read it, they could. I had a reason for doing this, but this isn’t the time to go into that.

I have been thinking about writing something for some time now, as I’m aware that while I used to blog using words and ideas to express myself I now use images. That’s a big shift. A shift in perspective as well as a shift in the form I choose to communicate my world. It’s hardly surprising though, given that my world has changed quite significantly in the past two and a half years. The word and ideas part has diminished somewhat.

It’s almost exactly two years since I moved to Melbourne. Maybe just as significantly, it’s now six months since I left the job I walked into as soon as I got here. Oh, I’ve worked since then – in fits and starts admittedly – but I haven’t had to get up every morning and head to a workplace. I transcribe audio interviews from home; I develop content for the university course I’m teaching at home; I work on a teacher toolkit for a volunteer organisation at home; I record lectures and upload them to the university’s learning management system from home; I supervise research higher degree students from home; I meet with the publisher of my textbook to talk about the next edition from home; I mark university assignments at home. I do, however, go out to teach. Well, I did, but semester is now over and only the marking remains. To be done from home.

Of course, I also I think about applying for jobs and intermittently spend the day looking for something I want to, am qualified for, or not too old to do. I write applications, address selection criteria, and ensure my resume is fit for purpose. I have, on occasion, attended interviews, then waited (and waited) for the inevitable ‘no thanks’.

It’s fair to say that I’ve spent a lot of time at home. I bake much more now than I used to. I read a lot. I’m up to the second season of Seachange. (It holds up really well, in case you find yourself with some time on your hands.)

So, why this post? Well, in re-organising my blog I came across two writing challenges I had been set a number of years ago. One was from my husband Tim, who challenged me to write about writing every day for a week, and the other challenge was from Jill, a former student, who challenged me to write each day for a week about what I’d learnt outside of formal learning. I remembered that while they were challenging (I guess that’s part of the inherent nature of challenges) I enjoyed writing them, and I particularly enjoyed the interactions some of those posts sparked with those who read them.

So here I am: about to spend a week being disciplined, achieving a goal – one post per day, thinking. Those of you who know me well know that how I love to think. I will work to a particular topic each day, the first of which is: when you started your blog, did you set any goals? Have you achieved them? Have they changed at all?

Please realise that I find it extremely challenging to write to a topic, so there will be times when my writing only tangentially applies to it. A bit like a beginning university student writing an essay! Oh that’s cruel Sharon … perhaps, but if you’ve read as many first year university students’ essays as I have you’ll know there’s a lot of truth in it.

So, to the topic. Did I set any goals when I started my blog? [Three hours later] I’ve just trawled back through my blog to find my initial post to see if I had expressed a goal. And yes, I had. This blog is for me to determine whether I have anything to say. That’s a goal. Isn’t it? I also thought, back then, I might write on a weekly basis. I even joked about scheduling time to write. I never got as far as scheduling, but for a while I found things to write about. Now I’m not so sure, but I’m prepared to give it a go.

Are you willing to travel on this journey with me? It’s only for a week, and you never know what we’ll discover along the way. And I might just discover whether I do have something to say.