Friday, March 23, 2012


Well, I'm unemployed. And I feel bad about it. Only last night, Graham and I were talking about renting a house (currently we're living with his parents, which is very kind of them). We came to the conclusion, that even though he has just started a brand-new full-time job, we cannot afford to rent a house on our own on just his wage.

I felt like crying when I first realised this. I felt so guilty. Graham works so hard to support us, and I've been unemployed for four months now. It's not because I can't find a job, either. Although I don't have many qualifications, several years of working in cafes means that I can get most jobs in hospitality. No, the reason I'm not working is because I am quite sick. My bipolar disorder makes working very difficult, especially in the hospitality industry. Who knew that working in a fast, noisy, high-stress, low-paid job would be detrimental to mental health?

I left my last job because it was so demanding; I was having panic attacks in the bathroom, and shaking so badly that I was spilling coffees on customers. I was crying before going to work, crying after work, and dreading the next rostered shift. So when my doctor told me to take three months off, I jumped at it.

One month after the doctor's ordered time has expired, here I am, still unemployed. Its pretty awful. While it might seem great to have time to oneself everyday  - time to rest and relax - I can never quite enjoy it. I feel guilty over not working, so I try to compensate by cleaning and cooking. This tires me, and then I feel sick from worry and work. It's hard to let go, and just realise that I may never work to the capacity of other people ever again.

And then there's trying to explain my lack of working to other people. It's difficult, when meeting new people, to realise that I no longer have a job with which to describe myself. What do I say I do? I'm a professional sleeper-inner? I occasionally write blog posts and create digital art? I'm a champion dinner cook? I don't even feel comfortable describing myself as a housewife; it's not my house, after all, and (at least for me) the words "housewife" describe someone who keeps their home spotlessly neat and clean. That doesn't really fit me, somehow.

Even if I muster the courage to say I'm unemployed, that leads to all sorts of other questions and implications. "Unemployed" could mean a professional seeking new and better employment, but I'm not looking for a job. It could just as well mean a lazy dole-bludger. It's hard to deny that that is what I am, when I have a sneaky feeling that I should be doing more.

So usually I end up telling people about my bipolar disorder. It makes me sound semi-crippled, which I hate, but I'd rather sound disabled than lazy. Either way, I feel less than other people, a person who is always asking for special treatment and consideration from others. Whether I deserve it or not, doesn't matter to me. I used to pride myself on my self-sufficiency. Now I'm dependent on my husband and his family.

I guess one day I'll feel better about this whole situation. Maybe I'll get better, or I'll start a family, or maybe I'll just learn to accept my limitations graciously. Until then, my goal is just to reduce my expectations of what I can do, and to be satisfied that, if I do my best, that that is good enough.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Venturing Into The Bush

You may have noticed fewer posts from me over the last few days. That is because I was away with my husband on a trip to Western Australia's Southwest region. We drove 353 km from our house in Mullaloo to the little town of Pemberton. We left on Friday afternoon. I was very excited, as it felt like an adventure. Graham seemed happy too.

We drove for several hours. Well, Graham did. I can't drive. It was dark before we reached the caravan park where we had booked a small cabin. Even in the dark we could tell it was clean and tidy, and we appreciatively gloated over our good fortune before making the double bed and falling asleep.

Poor Graham. I was so excited about exploring that I woke up early on Saturday morning. To be fair, when I woke him, I did sweeten the blow with pancakes, but I think he was still sleepy! At my insistence, we ate quickly and got ready to drive out in search of adventure. We decided we would travel to the Valley of the Giants, which we were assured was only an hour and a half drive away. The sun was shining, the air was beautiful and clean, and we were ready to take on the bush!

Our GPS system has always irritated me. It is old and sometimes erratic. However, we've never had too much trouble with it. So I plugged it in and tried to get direction to the Valley of the Giants. The GPS came up with a route - only to inform us that it would include unsealed roads. But we were optimistic. Surely we could make it? So we drove along winding roads, and eventually came upon the warned unsealed road. It looked fine:

So it was a surprise when a sign declared the road closed due to flooding of a river. Oh well, never mind. Surely there is an alternate route? The GPS declared there was... one that would take us several hours to traverse. Undeterred, we decided to keep going.

The southwestern area of Western Australia is stunning. Tall karri trees are skirted by lush scrub and ferns. Graham and I sat back and drank in the breathtaking views. We got ever closer to our goal, until the GPS turned us down one last road. 70 kilometres and we were there! The road had no lines, but it was wide and sealed, so we started driving.

Then the road turned into an unsealed road. No worries; it was still wide and graded.

Then it got narrower.

Then it got bumpier.

Until finally we were driving along a sandy death-trap suitable only for tractors. Graham suddenly spoke up. "How long is it until we get to the end of this road?"

Surprised, I asked why. 

"Because we are close to running out of fuel. We need to get off this track and find a petrol station."

"Should we turn back?"

"We actually don't have enough petrol left to do that."

We started to get nervous. Then the GPS went silent - it had no idea where we were any more. Visions of being stranded in the bush, with no petrol and no phone reception began to flash before my mind's eye. Graham looked just as scared.

And then, oh joy of joys! We got to the end of that horrific road! And only a couple of hundred metres away there was the most welcome sight - a roadhouse and petrol station. We filled the car and bought a map. As we relaxed outside the roadhouse we realised just what had happened. The GPS had sent us on a huge 500 km trip, when there was a highway that would have gotten us there in half the time. 

The orange arrows are the way we came. The purple marks the easy way the GPS inexplicably missed. Perplexed and frustrated, we checked our map again. We were only 13 km away from our original destination - the Valley of the Giants. We decided to go and visit it, as we had come so far to do so.

The Valley of the Giants is an untouched part of a National Park, famous for its forest of tingle trees. These trees are over 40 metres tall, and more than 400 years old. The rangers have built a huge and very high walkway among the ancient trees. We climbed up the walkway and found ourselves walking through the treetops, 40 metres above the ground. It was beautiful, and all our worries melted away as we explored the forest.

It was beautiful and majestic.

Eventually, refreshed and happy, we set off back to the caravan park. I packed away the offending GPS and we navigated the old-fashioned way... by map. And it was easy, and took less than half the time to get back than we had spent trying to get there!

We had a lovely trip away. But I now hate that GPS, and have sworn to destroy it in some way. Any suggestions on methods welcomed! 

Identifying Australian Country; A Beginner's Guide

Graham and I went for a weekend trip in the country a couple of days ago. I was quite excited. I'd lived for most of my life in rural areas, and had friends who lived in the country, but it had been a long time since I had really ventured out into the country areas of Australia. 

We left on Friday afternoon, in our trusty stationwagon.  As Graham drove, and I cooed at the sight of cows and snakes and rednecks, I began to wonder - where does the city end and the country begin? While you might think it's just a case of wide-open spaces and grass indicating the country, that's not always true. There are parts of the city that are beautiful and rustic, and there are parts of the country that bustle. So I began compiling a list of signs which one should look out for when trying to determine whether one is in the country.

Traffic Lights

Have you been through a set of traffic lights recently? Do you know if there is another set within a 1,000 km distance? If the answer is no, you are entering country. Traffic lights are unneeded in the country, a place where if you are in a traffic jam, you have inadvertently stumbled into the yearly agricultural Show on the day the Slim Dusty tribute band is playing.


Check the roads. Are there dead animals? In posher, "rural" areas, most roadkill is quickly swept away. Not in the country. There are simply too many roads and not enough cars to make it worthwhile clearing away the unfortunate furry victims. The most work put into clearing these carcasses is hauling away particularly large kangaroos and rolling wombats off the tarmac before decomposition causes them to explode. Because that would be messy.

I was going to put up a picture of roadkill, but the photos made me sad. Here instead is a photo of a happy baby wombat.


Count the cars passing you (and in the country, they will pass you, as they consider speed limits to be merely guidelines). If 8 out of 10 vehicles are utes (pick-up trucks, as the Americans term them) or four-wheeled drive vehicles, you have made it to the country. Look out for R.M. Williams stickers, red dust or clay, and sheepdogs in the back. If the driver is trying to impress a girl, he may have washed it. But probably not, as that wastes water.


There are farms, and there are farms. Or to be more precise, there are hobby farms run by enthusiasts, and then there are real farms, inhabited by farmers. One is built, the other accumulates and grows. One thing that always seems to turn up on real country farms are discarded tyres. Watch for drifts and piles of tyres in various desolated paddocks - the higher the pile, the longer that family has been there. One would think that they would haul them away and dispose of them, but that would only be feasible if one could find a functioning vehicle. And that's not easy because...

Country Farms Double As Auto Wreck Yards

For every fully functional, well-running car on a country farm, there is likely to be 10 more, ranging from fully rusted, disembowelled wrecks, to clunky bombs kept "for the kids to learn to drive in". It seems to be a point of honour not to get rid of them, perhaps because of a fear that, should they dispose of a vehicle, the very next day they will find that they needed a part from it. Or that they have broken their children's hearts by hauling away their playground and cubbyhouses.

A Sign Isn't A Sign Without A Bullethole

Many country people own guns. Many country roads have signs. How a respectable farmer's rifle ends up putting rounds into the local speed limit sign seems to be a mystery though. However, the fact remains that a true country sign is battered, riddled with bullets, and probably singed from recent bushfires. Legibility is for city slickers.

The Pub

If the settlement has a pub, it is a town. If it does not, then it is only a tiny village undeserving of mention. It may have churches, cafes, a garage, a general store and a doctors - but it is only when it acquires a pub that it truly becomes a town. The bigger towns may have two or more pubs. While it may seem that there just isn't enough people to meet the supply, these pubs usually have a strict clientele that they cater for. There are the rough pubs, where all the farmers and workers go to drink; there are the posh pubs meant for families, where one can get a meal; and there are the tourist pubs. If it has a title such as "Ye Olde Tavern", it is for tourists. Go to the tourist pub if you get a choice. The drinks are more expensive, but there will be more choice, rather than the three beers on draft in the local pub.


Depending on when you recognise these signs of impending country, you may be quite a way into real country Australia. If you have any sense at all, you will make sure that you know where the next petrol station is, and how far you can drive without your petrol running out. The reason why?

Get out your mobile phone. Look, no reception bars! Check the roads. Look, no bus signs! Taxis? Even if you could call one, how far do you think they are prepared to travel to find you? So, when next you go to the country, be prepared. Watch the signs. And if you feel faint of heart, make sure you have enough fuel to get back to civilisation. 

The Australian country is a foreign land, and no one has yet tamed it.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Soldier of Christ

Sometimes Catholic religious compare themselves to an army. They call themselves "Soldiers of Christ". In their opinion, they are fighting against the forces of evil, in groups, training and sacrificing themselves for the greater good.

And it is true that the religious are disciplined, strong, well-trained and obedient, capable of great sacrifice, just as a good soldier is. There are many parallels that can be made between the two. But, having lived as a religious for two years, I have seen more of religious life than most people, and I can draw some more interesting parallels between religious and soldiers.

They Break You Down, Then Build You Back Up

It's no secret that the army recruitment training can be tough. It's been a stated objective that the officers training the recruits aim to completely break them, before building them back up into the desired soldiers. And it's pretty clear why. A soldier needs to be part of a whole; he needs to be instantly, unquestioningly obedient, loyal, brave and uncomplaining. Any soldier without the physical and mental toughness born of enduring their training would not last long in a war zone.

It's exactly the same for religious. I'm going to refer to "nuns" and "she/her", as this is from my personal experience, but I am sure this can extend to male religious as well.

A nun's probationary period, known variously as a "postulancy", "aspirancy" or "novitiate", can be horrendously difficult to endure. At least in the convent where I was based, there was little lee-way given to new sisters. New sisters were expected to quickly learn and follow the rules; this, coupled with a demanding physical schedule, could be exhausting. With little sympathy from the older sisters, new sisters would be expected to sink or swim under their own power.

It's hard to see why the experience should be so hard, but the effect was very similar to a soldier's training. Sisters would be broken physically and mentally, and if they survived, would be re-trained to think and act as a religious. While a nun may never need to enter a war-zone, the confines of religious life, coupled with their long days and rigorous schedule, requires a certain mindset and physical toughness. The probationary period is expected to produce that, whilst weeding out  candidates who couldn't or didn't want to make such a sacrifice.

I remember being broken in so many ways during my time in the convent. From kneeling to sisters when I broke the rules, to giving up personal gifts to the convent, to being denied phonecalls to my family - they all worked to break me down. The idea was that I would become selfless, identifying myself with the convent. But, at least for me, it didn't work. All it did was hurt, leaving me sick and broken.

They Both Value Obedience Over Individuality

Soldiers are not known for their individuality. They give up much of it when they first join, being addressed as "Private", rather than by their name; wearing uniforms; eating, sleeping, training and recreating in communal, utilitarian areas; even marching in uniform rows. Soldiers who stand out either do so because they failed to conform to expectations, or because they went over and above expectations in performing their duties. The great majority of soldiers are a uniform group, all with the same physical abilities and mental mindset.

Nuns are very similar. Of course, there are the habits, which turn every sister into a perambulating sheet of dull cloth, but there are the names too. Depending on the order, every person who goes into religious life can expect to be referred to as "sister", and even give up their given name for a new one. For example, my name is Felicity, but when I was in the convent I was referred to as "Sister Mary Raphael".

All sisters are expected to live alike, with no one having any privileges or possessions that cannot be shared with all the other sisters. Even more than soldiers, nuns are taught to hold everything in common, and to move, act and think alike. They become part of a whole, and are encouraged to disregard their own needs and wants in favour of the entire group.

I was quite ok with a lot of the methods used to make me a part of the convent whole. I didn't mind giving up my possessions, or sharing food, rooms and books. I didn't even mind being called by a religious name. For me, the problem began when I was led to believe I should give up everything, even my own well-being, in order to better serve the convent. I was ready to do so, and tried my best, but in the end, when I was ill and asked to leave, I felt rejected, as if I had given everything, and received no gratitude in return.

 They Are Open To Abuse

I'm not going to make this into a post about the various failings of soldiers or religious. Every organisation is open to abuse of the system, and for every example of power abused, there is hundreds of examples of the organisations working. If an adult chooses to take one of these paths, they should be mature enough to understand the pitfalls and dangers they are risking. Soldiers know they risk injury and death serving their country, and nuns should know they risk isolation and physical and mental exhaustion serving their God.

What interests me is the way soldiers and nuns both value their loyalty over their own well-being. From the before-mentioned training, both are conditioned to value the good of the whole over that of the individual. They are taught to be obedient and selfless. The problem can be if the organisation that they have been trained to be loyal to fails in its responsibility to the individuals making it up.

Even after I left the convent, I was very reluctant to discuss the convent. I used to deflect questions with humour, and tell quirky stories, rather than reveal what I had truly been feeling over the time I lived there. I think now that it was because I still felt this loyalty to the convent. Even though I had been rejected from it, even though I had no ties there anymore, and even though it may have hurt me, I couldn't bring myself to criticise it.

These days, I think of my time at the convent was as character-building as a stint in the army - with most of the same pitfalls. I may not have gone to a war zone, or developed PTSD, or been injured in the line of duty, but I bear my own scars of serving, even if for only a couple of years, as one of the Soldiers of Christ. The convent was not perfect, but I learnt many lessons. Rather more of them were learnt the hard way than I would have liked, but still, I have experiences and memories that will shape me forever. And it taught me the ultimate parallel between the army and religious:

Being a soldier is hard. One may asked to make the ultimate sacrifice for one's country. But being a Soldier of Christ is harder, as they aim to make every nun make the ultimate sacrifice for their God.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Long Distance Wedding

I knew soon after Graham proposed to me in October, 2010, that I wanted to get married in my home state of New South Wales, in the little village church of St Michaels in Mittagong. Perhaps this was silly. I have written before about my ridiculous lack of organisational skills. How was I meant to organise a wedding from across the country? 

I live in Perth, WA, and that is a huge distance away from NSW. It is a 5 hour flight from Perth to Sydney, or a week's drive across a desert. For my international readers, that's the equivalent to flying from London to Greece, or from New York to the Caribbean! I would have to organise everything long distance, as well as organise flights and luggage for myself, my husband, his groomsmen, and his family. How on earth was I to manage?

I quickly found myself bogged down in tasks. Wedding dress shopping, invitations, guest lists, reception venues, catering, booking the church, bridesmaids' and groomsmens' attire... the list seemed endless. Faced by a gargantuan collection of jobs, I felt like cancelling the whole thing. It all seemed too hard, and too expensive. 

Who on earth has the money to pay for a wedding these days anyway? With the average wedding costing around $30,000 Australian, I knew I couldn't afford the sort of wedding presented as "essential" in all the wedding magazines. Apparently you need professional photographers and cameramen, rented wedding cars, professional hair and make-up artists, DJ's... the list seemed endless. Even if I had the money to pay for all of them, how would I ever coordinate them all?

The answer came in the form of family and friends. When I confessed to my mother and some close friends that I was overwhelmed, they stepped in and helped in so many ways. Firstly, they helped me understand what was necessary, and what could be safely dropped. The most important thing was to get the ceremony right. Then the reception needed to be organised. And then flights and accommodation. All else could be dispensed with or left to others to do.

And the amount of help I got from other was amazing! Julie, my good friend in Perth, gave up 4 or 5 afternoons to help me create gorgeous hand-made invitations and mass booklets. I paid only for the basic materials, and ended up with gorgeous professional-looking invitations. She helped me make sense of the ceremony, and was a great source of support and advice from her own lovely, low-budget wedding. Many days when I would have rather forgotten about the whole thing, Julie made me feel like I could manage.

My mum found the site my bridesmaids could get their dresses from (especially helpful when they lived in three separate states!). On my sisters' request, I selected a short sleeved, high-waisted style of dress. Each bridesmaid got one made in her own measurements and in the colour she liked best, so that I could have a rainbow of bridesmaids. My mum then found two darling flowergirl dresses in white with bright sashes for my younger sisters.

My sister Imogen made my wedding cake - a beautiful cupcake stack decorated with white edible flowers. She also volunteered her exquisite singing voice, and sang the Panis Angelicus and Ave Maria solo during the ceremony. My brother Callum cleaned and organised his car, and acted as my chauffeur for the wedding day.

An old friend offered to pay for and arrange my wedding flowers. Mrs H. took me down to the flower markets in Sydney the day before the wedding and allowed me to pick out the flowers I wanted. I ended up with a gorgeous bouquet of white tulips, roses and lilies, while the bridesmaids and flowergirls got bouquets of multi-coloured tea-roses. She even squeezed her supply of flowers far enough for button-holes for all the men, and corsages for my mum and Graham's mum!

My friend Francis generously agreed to take my wedding photos, and brought, not just his professional camera, but a colleague to help. Another friend, Joshua, brought his guitar all the way from Adelaide, and played and sang at the ceremony. And so many people put aside their time and made the huge effort to get to the wedding, especially my two bridesmaids from Melbourne, the groomsmen from Perth, and my maid-of-honour from Albury.

I could go on describing the gifts of time, effort, money and support we received, but I think you understand just how much help I received. After all this, my own efforts seemed insignificant - as if, knowing I didn't have the skills necessary for organising our wedding on my own, my family and friends decided to do most of it for me.

I guess this is a "thank you" post. If you read this and see your name here, or even if you helped me and I haven't acknowledged you by name, please know how grateful I am. What seemed like such a mammoth effort became a work of love, as so many people made sure our wedding day was special. 

I am glad we didn't have the money to afford a "normal" wedding. How could a wedding organised by distant professionals and paid for out of a large bank balance ever be as intimate and special as our little wedding? It may not have felt like a "professional" event, but it felt better - a celebration with those people who love us best. 

I love you all so much, and I look forward to when I can next celebrate with you.