What We Take From Other People’s Stories

On Friday and this morning, I listened to two fascinating episodes of Conversations on the ABC. The one on Friday was about a woman who at 31, completely unexpectedly, suffered a stroke which she said she heard in her brain, like a fizzle. The conversation was about her journey post-stroke and her amazing and determined persistence through the fears, doubts and difficulties. This morning’s podcast was about Heather Ellis who (alone) rode her motorbike across Africa and along the Silk Road. I really want to get hold of the two books she has published about these adventures.

Listening to these stories is inspiring but it also makes me question what I am achieving and whether I could expect more of myself. My only adventure, comparable to the African motorbike idea, was going to China to teach English for a year. It was not as daring (on an objective scale) but for me it was massive. A good friend gave me a card at the time which had a picture of a single wooden shoe on the front and the printed words “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”. That simple card (and a large dependence on the encouragement of my naturally adventurous brother) got me on that plane in January 2005. I knew three words in Mandarin: tudou (potato), xihongshi (tomato), and pijou (beer) – a random assortment I had picked up through a demonstration class at the CELTA course I had taken in preparation for an overseas experience. The rest was a series of single steps.

I must admit, I had hoped for work in Europe. I grew up in Indonesia and I had spent a summer in Hong Kong. I thought Europe would be more of an adventure than more time in Asia. But a bizarre chain of contacts handed me a job in China and European visas were much harder to come by. I remember my brother driving with me down to Canberra from Sydney to organise my Chinese Visa. I remember not being allowed to smile in my photos. I had eaten something greasy and my lips were all glossy. I thought it was the ugliest photo ever and I spent much of the drive home being negative about the trip. My brother put up with it all and had arguments for everything.

In the Podcast about Heather Ellis, Heather comments that, when you’ve ridden across Africa on a motorbike by yourself, you begin to think you can do anything. She got to London and became a motorbike courier. It didn’t occur to her to be afraid, although I’m sure many would’ve been.

That’s what I wanted out of China. I thought it would prove my capability. I wanted to come away feeling like I could do anything. Actually, I came back, moved in with P and got married 2.5 years later. So maybe I might’ve “done anything” but I doubt it. I am still a very fearful sort of person and I always wonder where that comes from. If either of my brothers have those fears, they hide them well and challenge them constantly.

My next bravest move was having kids. I only put it second because, as a woman in the 21st century (given the long history of women having kids in much less safe circumstances), it seems like a dubious claim to courage. But the first, for me, was courageous, and to go on and have a second was downright medal-worthy.

My third bravest act, was moving to Melbourne in 2001. I knew nobody. I moved with the job I already had and, unlike China, I was absolutely convinced it was what I wanted to do. I lived in Melbourne for four very interesting and good years.

But what puts the “I” into my life now? I am married to a lovely husband, have two wonderful kids, adore our cat who is equal parts grump and sook, and we abide by a strong philosophy about living on this planet. Perhaps that is enough?

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