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In defence of 2016 …

shutterstock_57851353In July this year, I fell to my knees, grief-stricken, beside my husband. The air was sucked out of the universe before emotions rushed in: shock, fear, and an intense, desperate longing for him to wake up, to open his eyes, to breathe …

This couldn’t be happening. This couldn’t be true. This. Couldn’t. Be.

I told him I loved him. I thanked him. I apologised, for what I don’t know … and then, glaringly obvious amidst galloping despair, emerged a mysterious thing. My breath. In, out. In, out. And my heart. Racing. Breaking. Beating.

I’d never felt more alive. Miserably alive, and terrified, but alive. I’d known our existence on this earth was fragile. I’d understood it was a privilege. I knew it could end in an instant and now the evidence of all of this was right before me. My vibrant, brilliant, beautiful soulmate was gone. I wasn’t. The miracle of life stepped out of the shadows and stood beside the awfulness of death, pulling me through then, and in all the times since, when I’d imagined I couldn’t bear to go on without him.

Since July, almost every day and with a growing frequency, I’m been bombarded with social media posts, news headlines and viral videos slamming 2016 as some sort of unprecedented, apocalyptic-like disaster. Favourite celebrities are gone. The wrong people are in power. The earth is erupting and warming and spilling blood. Parts of the world are a cauldron of hatred and violence. People are losing jobs and loved ones and hope. From an overwhelming number of reports, 2016 is the worst year ever. If we’re united in anything, it seems to be our mutual loathing of the twelve calendar months that are about to come to an end.

I can’t help thinking my husband would disagree.

He was genuinely worried about the way things were headed politically and environmentally. He was a history professor with a highly-educated, strategic world view. But he was also a man with a family he loved — a wife who adored him, young-adult children who hung on his words and blossomed in his company and a five-year-old son who lit up his world.

He was a man who, earlier in 2016, knocked his career out of the park with an international honour beyond any he’d ever dreamt. He was top in his field. Lauded so highly, and by so many that, months after his death, I’m still scrambling to thank people for their thoughts.

In the wake of our tragedy, friends, family and strangers closed ranks to soften our fall. We were enveloped in love. If we didn’t understand the depths of the compassion and kindness of ordinary people before July, we’ve been schooled in it since.

One daughter turned eighteen and graduated Year 12 with a stunning final result and early entry into university. The other worked hard and rose out of crippling anxiety, despite her step-father’s death and her first-hand witnessing of it heaping trauma and grief into the mix and handing her a mother who was suddenly on shaky ground in every way. She faced her fears. She re-engaged in her life with gusto. She fell in love.

Earlier this year, my husband had told me to hang in there, personally and career-wise. He’d helped me deal with personal difficulties and disappointment and had been proud of my work and my writing. He’d encouraged me for years in the face of false starts and failure and rejection … and he felt that it was only a matter of patience, and time.

With his support this year, I co-wrote a musical based on my novel. It was showcased at “Broadway Unplugged” in Sydney and will be performed in the coming months. I co-wrote a book on personal productivity and, on the strength of it, we were offered a second book deal for publication globally.

In many ways, 2016 played out for us like a longed-for highlight reel that had been years in the making, only for the film to become mangled in the projector during the premiere.

The screen went instantly blank. But it won’t stay blank. I won’t let it.

My husband died with the world at his feet and left a family making the most of our chances. This year battered us. It bruised us. It wore us down. It exposed us. It pushed us into the dirt and ground us in. Yet, at the end of it all, there is our breath. In, out, in, out. And there are our hearts. Still breaking. Still beating.

I’m not one who believes we should live every day as if it’s our last. That’s a tremendous, unrealistic pressure. Some days are diabolical. Some years seem diabolical because diabolical things happen, seemingly one after the other.

It’s hard to forgive a year that dealt our family, and many others, a king hit. It’s hard to stick up for a year in which something truly horrific happened, the consequences of which we’ll we’ll be unravelling for the rest of our lives. It’s difficult to defend the saddest year in our experience, but I know this much: If my husband was here, he’d be proud of how we’ve handled ourselves. Proud of how we’ve grown. Excited about the opportunities we’ve grasped. Impressed with the risks we’ve taken and the dreams we’re chasing. He’d be comforted and relieved that we didn’t stop living because he did. He wouldn’t wish the rest of our time away. He wouldn’t focus on how bad it’s been. He wouldn’t give up.

‘It is what it is’, he used to say.

And then he’d get on with changing his corner of the world, one small act, one kindness, one email, one lecture, one book at a time. Because life — even the remaining days in what feels like a sorry, wreck of a year — is unbelievably precious. Making the most of our time, and valuing the breaths we take, is my husband’s parting gift.

Christmas miracles are made of this

15349578_10154735629383279_4858883712036350280_nThis Christmas was always going to be tough for us, as are all the ‘firsts’. Early on, we made a decision to handle Father’s Day, our birthdays, school graduations and now Christmas in exactly the way Jeff would have wanted us to, which has transpired into a situation where we’re leaning into the events, seeking meaning and life-affirmation, rather than moving away from them.

This brings me to last Sunday night, when we had pizza at my sister’s place. When we pulled into our driveway afterwards, we were gob-smacked to find our entire house covered in gorgeous Christmas lights! One of my friends from Kindergarten (in 1979) had thought to do this, along with her sister and a family from our running group. My kindy friend had never even been to our house — they ‘Google Earth’d’ it to work out what lights would suit it best. It was the most surprising, gratitude-filled moment in my life. I will never forget the way it felt. Ever.

This weekend, it was time for us to decorate our tree. We have a tradition where we each take it in turns to choose a ‘theme’ for the tree, which is how we’ve previously ended up with trees covered in boy bands or Star Wars. This year was always going to be Jeff’s turn, so we embraced that and made the tree a tribute to him and all the things he loved — books, music, the Brumbies, cities around the world …

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What struck me as we were making the decorations was how passionately he threw himself at life. We found ourselves limited by the size of the tree. There were nowhere near enough branches to accommodate everything Jeff adored, and those things were extremely varied and rich.

He embodied the Hunter S. Thompson quote:

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”

The extent to which we’ll miss him on the day can’t be articulated. I won’t even try. What I know is that opportunities exist for joy even in the saddest of times, if you let them in. We said months ago that Jeff would turn the light up in our lives, not down, and now our poor, sad house has been lit up in a way that it never has been before, entirely unexpectedly.

I always knew people were beautiful, but it’s only in the last few months that I’ve witnessed just how deeply that beauty can run. How quietly. How generously. My husband’s broken heart set off a domino effect in which my own heart broke and hearts all around me opened. My little boy said this the other night: “You’ve turned my heart into a super heart. A powerful, super, special heart.”

That’s exactly how I feel too, about the impact of the love we’ve received from all around — because, even when your glass is always half full, there are times when you need help turning up the light. And there’s always someone there if you look closely, finding a beautiful new way to do exactly that.

Let’s Start At The Very End

15288439_10154238850438163_6450548156591767131_oThe week that Audrey and I were set to go through the editor’s changes in our book, I Don’t Have Time – 15-minute Ways to Shape a Life You Love, life as I knew it fell apart.

We felt it important to add an ‘epilogue’ in the book, explaining what had happened, and the impact Jeff’s death had had on our central message. This is how we put it:

While we were editing this book, the fabric was ripped from Emma’s universe with the unexpected loss of her husband and soulmate, Jeff, from a heart attack.

When you lose the love of your life, it can bring you to your knees. It can completely destroy you. Or it can bring you to your feet.

When we interviewed Rebecca Sparrow for our ‘15 Minutes That Changed My Life’ speaker series she told us about losing her baby daughter, Georgie. ‘Somehow, Georgie was going to turn the light up in my life, not down,’ Bec had said.

Emerging from the first few weeks of shock and devastation, Emma decided to do one life-affirming thing, no matter how small, every day – beginning with rearranging the flowers people had sent into beautiful bouquets and delivering them to a hospital with her children.

We also thought about the words we’d written in this book. Did this shattering tragedy change anything? Did it alter our perspective on life?

Yes, it did.

Jeff’s loss is turning up the light in our lives, not down. We want to be better people. We want to do more. Experience more. Live more.

We’re more committed than ever to the ideas we’ve presented in this book. We want to procrastinate less, focus more sharply, reach higher and further than we ever have without a backwards glance at our insecurities and fears, because life is short. Life is precious.

The time we have is a gift. Take it and turn up the light.

Next week, I’ll be writing about ‘2016’. As years go, this one seems to have hit people harder than usual and I’m no exception to the apparent trend. But I don’t believe that’s the whole story. There are opportunities to change life for the better, even in the darkest of days.

Can you help?

We want to distribute a bit of good news, so we begged our publisher to release a limited number of FREE advance copies of our book (in PDF format) to people who may like to volunteer to help us spread the word with their friends.

If you’d like to volunteer to read the book now and help us launch it, we’d love to have you on board in our special ‘Book Launch Team’. You’ll receive a free copy of the book and a bundle of other bonuses, and all we’re asking in return is that you will write an honest review, share your favourite concepts and quotes with us and help spread the word on social media, with our guidance, organised in a private Facebook group.

If that sounds like something you’d like to be involved in, please fill out our short application form here. Thank you very much for your ongoing support of everything I’ve been doing here since 2009, particularly this year. It is so dearly appreciated.

First World Problems?

shutterstock_94764160People keep apologising to me for their problems. They have a bad day at work, or the kids drive them to distraction or they have an argument with their partner, and they start telling me about it, then apologise, and say, ‘Sorry! It’s nothing like what you’re going through. First World Problem …’

Yes, it is. Because we live in the First World.

It’s often true that there are worse things that could happen. It’s true that sometimes we whinge about things that don’t really matter, or make situations more difficult than we need to.

That said, sometimes our ‘day-to-day’ gets on top of us. Our ‘equilibrioception’ gets out of whack. That’s a fancy name for our sense of balance, which I picked up during a show at a science centre over the weekend, right before I comprehensively lost my patience with my kids.

It was hot. I was tired. I have a sinus infection coming on. I’d spent eight hours on Saturday decluttering and cleaning the grout in the bathroom on my hands and knees. One of the kids wouldn’t do what he was told and another was trying to get the car into reverse and kept stalling, then getting frustrated, and I snapped at her — completely unfairly, in a way I’ve never done before while teaching a teenager how to drive.

Looking back on the morning, the frustration began when our coffee and hot chocolate order was accidentally picked up by someone else and when I explained this to my 6-year-old he growled loudly. A woman nearby glared at him, and frowned at me. It was all I could do not to go up to her and tell her his father had died recently, but I didn’t need the extra drama.

One minor thing after another was piling up, on top of some major things. It’s coming up to the four-month anniversary of Jeff’s death and we’ve just had a week of Year 12 and Year 10 exams, which would have been stressful at the best of times.

It’s often not until we’ve lost the balance and we’re in the act of falling over, or losing patience with the wrong kid, or dropping an important ball, that we twig that something’s off. That’s when it’s time to really wind things back and be kind to ourselves.

So, I texted two friends who we’d been going to meet up with in the afternoon and postponed our plans. Even social things with people you love can be too much sometimes.

It’s all right not to get through everyday life elegantly all the time and it’s okay to get frustrated by things that aren’t major problems. Coco Chanel advised women to look in the mirror before they leave the house and take one accessory off. It’s a good idea to look at our diaries too, and remove one thing …

Love it? Own it!

November 5th, 2016 | Comments Off on Love it? Own it!

bros2I had a message from a friend on the weekend, with a screenshot of the direct message 80s demigod Matt Goss had sent her on Friday night.

One of my daughters was with me at the time, and the conversation went a bit like this:

“Matt Goss sent a DM to my friend!”

*Blank stare*

“Bros!”

*More staring*

“This would be the equivalent of Harry Styles sending you a DM in 2039.”

*Oh-hh!!!!*

Rach prefaced the message to me with, “Em, you are one of the few people I know who will appreciate the momentous-ness of this,” and indeed I do. Not just because a bone fide heartthrob from our youth whose posters many of us had on our bedroom walls, replied to her directly (with a kiss emoji, no less), but because my clever, accomplished, talented and compassionate friend is willing to own her life-long passion for the band wildly and freely, and doesn’t care who knows about it.

She is a member of a Facebook Group called “Aussie Brosettes“, which is currently dedicated to a social-media frenzy designed to entice Bros to include Australia in their 2017 comeback performance schedule. (If this calls to you, send a request to join, and they’ll furnish you with hashtags galore.)

Whether the band tours here or not, Rach has a VIP meet-and-greet ticket to one of their UK shows (and no idea yet how’ll she’ll get there). She made the decision after asking the universe to “send her a sign”, right before pulling out in front of this truck on the motorway:

If the surname and band name weren’t enough of a match, the phrase “Come join the family” and number plate GBT and ’17 were solid signs. Universe or not, she booked, and is going with a lifelong friend who she met at 14 in the Bros section of a record shop.

My late husband, Jeff, probably wouldn’t have known Bros had he fallen over one of them. Of all the wonderful things that he was, “80s pop music tragic” was not on the list. His music passions were eclectic, and he was just as vocal about his love of Springsteen (a mainstream admiration) as he was of his passion for bluegrass (a bit more ‘niche’).

On weekends, he would paint tiny soldiers. He was amassing an Army when he died, with the intention of war-gaming with his best friend, Roger.

There are people who might ridicule war-gamers, and people who might laugh at middle-aged “Brosettes”. This post isn’t about those people.

This is about owning what you love. No “guilty pleasures”. No “secret passions”. No apologising or disclaiming. Just “THIS IS ME AND I LOVE THIS”.

Jeff won’t get to go war-gaming now. I’m left with hundreds of little men, lined up in plastic containers on the shelf. How I wish he’d made the time …

And how I LOVE that Rach is a Chief Brosette, making a dream come true in her 40s on behalf of who she is now, and her teenaged self. There are so many serious issues to worry about in the world and, while Jeff and Rach never met, they shared deep concern for many of them. But sometimes a message we need to hear falls off the back of a truck. Shouldn’t we honour the lightness in our lives while we can?

What if this was your last To-Do list?

shutterstock_4175839A friend confided in me recently that she’d seen her GP for help with depression only after my husband died, because she felt she needed to address her health in order to support me the way she wanted to. I thanked her for taking this step for me, but observed how sad it is (and how common) that we don’t rate our own needs as highly as we rate those of others. What about seeing the GP for herself, so she could be present in her own life to a full extent? That’s something she’d been putting off — swept in the chaos of family life and the never-ending ‘to do’ list.

I gave an awareness-raising talk at a government department on Friday, about the importance of prioritising our health over all else. I was able to share our story, to show the impact of thinking “I’ll get around to that …” (whether “that” be changing our habits or having routine or specialist tests or seeing a GP about a niggling concern that is “probably nothing”).

When we were clearing out my husband’s office at work, it wasn’t the photos of his children on his desk that upset me. It was seeing his last To-Do list. There were 15 items. Ten were crossed off. Missing was the one thing that might have saved his life: “book GP and have heart tests done”. And this was missing despite a strong family history of heart disease and early death.

I could feel angry about that, and perhaps I will be one day, but I’m not now because I know I’ve been guilty of the same thing. I’ve thought: “I’ll get to it when we’re through the next week…”

Or fortnight …
Or after the school holidays …
Or when I submit my final book draft …

The intention is there, but the timing is inconvenient.

Our family has learned that intention isn’t anywhere near good enough. It’s not the thought that counts, it’s the follow-through. Everything we believe to be important is rendered null and void if we’re prioritising any of it above health and well-being. All those other pursuits — the work pressures and family commitments, even the “me time” and dream-chasing — are rendered pointless if we no longer exist.

There were some big things on my husband’s last To-Do list:

Rhodes Scholarship reference
ABC stuff
Book chapter
Conference paper

But which of these was more important than ‘find out I urgently need heart surgery’? The conference paper? The radio stuff?

Those things, and all the other achievements he pulled off in his productive, prolific, love-filled life have been traded now with seeing our five-year-old son grow up. That’s the stark reality of it.

I’m overdue for a routine skin check, but I’m off to Adelaide later in the week for a workshop. Even though, based on this message, the skin check is my top priority this week, another part of my brain is still playing it way too cool. Maybe I’ll schedule it for the week after, when it’s less stressful …

It’s so easy, putting things off — dicing with death the way we all do, whenever we write a list of things that we effectively rate more highly than the only thing that matters: staying alive to enjoy it all.

I challenge you, before you click away:

Please pick up the phone and make a GP’s appointment for a check-up, or for any tests you’ve been putting off.

Because there’s no ‘bliss’ and no ‘work’ without ‘life’. It’s that simple.

What I learned in the gutter

Last weekend, my five-year-old son had a meltdown outside a Byron Bay surf shop, and we gave into it and cried in the gutter. He was upset about Daddy dying and telling me how sad he felt.

We have these conversations regularly, within our family and with the various psychologists we’ve begun seeing over the last couple of months. This was a case of experiencing the same emotions as we do at home, but in a warm, tropical setting. And why not?

The old song lyric, ‘pack up your troubles’ makes a lot of sense sometimes. We took our grief on the road for a week, and took a break from the place where it had been unfolding for weeks. And it was good for us.

Going away doesn’t magic away your worries, but the distraction of a different perspective and place can be soothing. If we’re going to be melting down here about this, we might as well melt down about it on a beach on the far north coast, in T-shirts and shorts.

We don’t want to put off ‘living’ until we feel better. No matter how bad we feel, things feel marginally better — or at least different — somewhere new and pretty.

My daughter turned 18 while we were away. We set our alarms for 4.30am and drove from Ballina to Byron to watch the sunrise over her adulthood, from the most Easterly point in the country.

We’ve been doing these life-affirming things since the day after Jeff’s funeral when we re-purposed the floral tributes for strangers in hospital, and these experiences — bitter-sweet though they are — are forming precious memories, at a time when we could write-off any positivity altogether.

We spend a lot of time waiting for circumstances to be right. We wait for the ‘right time’ or think, ‘I’ll be happy when …’

There is no right time. There’s only now. And there are almost always things we can choose in every moment to improve our context.

Since we returned from the trip, and after an inevitable ‘low’ coming home to the house we now associate with the worst experience of our lives, things have been marginally easier. I’m not keeping as many lights on at night. I’m not shutting as many doors.

Even if something improves a situation by 5%, that’s a step forward. Every step forward, no matter how small, is worth taking. It’s a philosophy we can all apply, any time, no matter what we’re dealing with, and where we’re dealing with it. Days don’t need to be perfect or idyllic. A single day can have its ‘gutter’ moments as well as the promise of a sunrise on a new future.

What have I done?

September 25th, 2016 | Comments Off on What have I done?

I turned 43 yesterday. Another year older, and what have I done?shutterstock_20903101

Co-written a musical. Co-written a book. Lost my husband. Brought myself and my children through the darkest days of our lives without losing our faith in love and beauty and humanity.

I’ve said ‘yes’ a lot: To risk. To potential failure. To help from friend and strangers.

I’ve said ‘no’, too, in what I’d dubbed a, ‘Year Of Not Getting Involved’. YONGI. No online arguments. No reading the comments. No doing things that sucked time away from the closer goals and responsibilities and choices.

Facing one of my worst nightmares, I found I was still standing. And, if not standing some days, kneeling. If not kneeling sometimes, crawling. Or lying on the floor. Still breathing, even on the worst days when thoughts of ‘this can’t be’ and ‘I can’t do this’ pushed to the surface …

I can do this. I am doing it. But what am I going to do next?

My best friend phoned from Melbourne last night for my birthday and, as always, we caught up on the things that are going on in both our lives. At one stage I said, ‘I don’t really know what I’m doing … with my life.’

It wasn’t a scary admission. It was just an admission.

She reminded me that what I’m doing is putting one foot in front of the other at the moment and that’s true. On birthdays, though, you often wonder ‘where will I be this time next year?’

It’s okay not to know. It’s okay not to have set goals and plans.

While I appreciate the methodology and know lots of people have success doing it, I’ve never been a ‘five-year planner’. Now I’m less likely than ever to take it up.

We don’t know what will happen in the next five minutes. All we can bank on is our capacity to respond to everything: the events that destroy the path we were on, and the opportunities that unexpectedly show up and can, at times, cause almost as much fear and uncertainty as the ‘bad stuff’.

So, 43. Here I am. Clueless about you. But ready to explore.

When you’re forced to reinvent yourself

1319727I moved all the furniture around in my family room on the weekend. I’d been feeling anxious in the room, as it held some negative memories, so there was a choice: avoid being in there entirely, or change something.

Nothing is now where it was. I’ve added lights and candles and flowers and switched the lounge and dining table, de-cluttered the books and DVDs and I’m even playing different music. It feels like a haven now.

The family room is just a microcosm of the larger challenge I’m facing and at its core the problem is the same. Something happened that I couldn’t control. I’m in a situation I don’t want to be in. It is 100% impossible to change the situation back, no matter how desperately I wish I could.

We all face situations like that from time to time. Times when choices are taken from us — when our deepest desires are not and will never be met. It happens when we lose someone or something important to us. It happens when we can’t have the outcome for which our hearts ache.

These are the times when life backs us into a corner. They’re the times when we feel trapped. Times when we have no options, and no way out … or so it feels.

And it’s in exactly those moments that we have an opportunity to define ourselves. It’s from that place of fear and vulnerability and emptiness that we have a chance to rise.

When we rise from those circumstances, we do things differently. We have to. There’s no going back to the way things were. There’s no going back to the person we used to be. One painful stroke of the chisel at a time, life sculpts us into something new. It’s transforms us, as painful as that process might be, into someone we could never have become from anywhere else but backed into this particular corner, at this particular time.

It’s about taking the shattered remnants of how things were and re-purposing them into a new mosaic — not because ‘everything happens for a reason’ but because sometimes things happen without any reason at all. We can only readjust and reinvent ourselves as best we can, where we are, with what we have, whether that means shifting the furniture a bit or shifting much bigger and heavier things until we finally settle into the ‘new normal’ we’d have done anything to avoid, and which is now ‘home’.

3 uncomfortable truths about asking for help

shutterstock_42362977Someone arrived on my doorstep a few days ago who I’d never met, and gave our family a meal. It’s her 40th birthday year, and she’d made a deal with herself that she would do 52 ‘random acts of kindness’ — one per week. Helping a stranger’s family with a meal presented her with another opportunity to do some good in the world, and we were very grateful, as we have been for all the help we’ve been given.

I was telling another friend about it, and we talked about how easy or difficult it can be to ask for and accept help. We wondered whether the following factors muddy the waters …

Asking for help requires confidence

Admitting you can’t do it all, and there are times when you’re not completely independent takes guts. Unless you’re in the grips of an emergency (during which you don’t care who knows you need help) there’s often a ‘what will people think?’ component. If our self-image and our relationships are built on strength and capability, rather than the arguably more challenging traits of humility and vulnerability, we can miss opportunities to bring people closer to us through offering and receiving mutual assistance.

Asking for help requires trust

“I can’t manage this myself” places us in the hands of others. That can feel precarious, particularly if we’ve learned over the years that people can let you down. Being able to demonstrate vulnerability and trust, even after being hurt, takes immense courage. Sometimes it feels easier, in the short term, just to struggle on alone. That’s not a workable plan for the rest of our lives, though. None of us can do everything ourselves indefinitely — it won’t work.

Asking for help requires honesty

“I don’t ask for help because I worry you’ll say yes, even if you’re not in a position to…”

It would be easier all around if we could all get on top of our yes-and-no’s. If we can’t do something for someone, we need to say so, honestly. We can become fearful of being a burden and that fear is created in a large part because we’re aware that many people can’t say ‘no’. We worry they feel resentful. So perhaps we’d better not risk asking …

It’s worth it

When my husband died, I made a personal rule to say ‘yes’ to all offers of help. As a result, I’ve been incredibly inspired by people’s thoughtfulness, and have had countless people express how useful it was for them to be able to feel as though they had ‘done something’ in what is an irretrievable situation at its core. The people who give help often walk away from the transaction feeling better than the receiver. Allowing people to help nearly always gives them a gift.

When this exchange works well, and when it’s part of a mutually-beneficial ecosystem and community, much of the awkwardness around helping evaporates. Be helped now. Help later. Imagine how much easier all our lives would be if we all made it that simple …