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Uncharacteristic Pessimism: The Kind of Personal Post I Never Write

I’m waiting for my daughter to wake up from her anaesthetic, sitting in the kind of parents’ waiting room I walk through every single day in my work as a childrens’ emergency doctor, but not often as a parent looking in from the other side. There’s a television playing Sesame Street on loop and a bunch of other parents pretending not to be anxious by reading gossip magazines, but I see them looking at the clock every three minutes as we wait to hear it’s our turn to go to the recovery room. It’s an uncomfortable place to be.

I don’t normally write intensely personal posts like this one, because it has never seemed the right fit for me. I like to write about the things that make life so very enjoyable – great food, interesting places, fascinating people – and I write best from a happy place, feeling optimistic about life and the world around me.

But I’ve struggled with one of my regular posts for the last three weeks, trying to recreate the happy memories of an island we visited earlier this month on our family trip to Shanghai, and wondering why I just can’t seem to get the darn thing finished.

I write, and erase, and re-write, then find myself changing the topic, fiddling with the photos, deciding on yet another topic with better photos. I keep procrastinating, finding other tasks to do, putting it off.

‘It’s writer’s block’ I think to myself, ‘It will pass.’

Then the answer eventually came to me today as I sat in that waiting room – it’s not writer’s block, it’s mental exhaustion. It’s been building for months. 

The thing is, as a blogger it can be very easy to have everyone believe your life consists of nothing but eating good food, visiting exciting and adventurous locations, and feasting on street food. And sometimes it is, but only a bit of the time.

You can conveniently leave out the boring bits – paying bills, juggling childcare arrangements, working in an actual money-paying job that pays actual bills. I don’t often write about the bad stuff in life, perhaps from a misplaced belief that many people read blogs as an escape from all of that…drudgery.

But I should let you know that just like everyone I also have days of drudgery where I seem to do nothing but repeated loads of washing and emptying the cat litter tray. I have black days, messy days, chaotic days and days when it just seems too much. And although some people can tap into that deep, dark river and write wonderfully about it, usually I can’t.

Lately there haven’t been too many shiny, happy days though.

Combined with tragic events unfolding this week around the world, my own world is now also often filled with sad and tragic events – parents who harm their children, children who harm themselves, families who deal daily with a seriously ill or disabled child. It didn’t seem to bother me as much before I went to China – I thought I coped with the stress of it all quite well – but it bothers me a great deal now. I appear to have lost my immunity to that kind of heartache and I’m no longer a hardened ER doctor (actually, in all truthfulness I never was – only ever so slightly toughened). I’ve gone soft.

It can be inspiring too – children who overcome illness against the odds, happy faces after a broken arm is fixed, a look of incredulity when I extract a bright pink bead from a small boy’s nose. It’s a fine balance between ups and downs when you work with sick children, but lately the downs have been out-scoring the ups by a long way.
To add to the burden we’re all still, in our own way, homesick for China and the relatively carefree life we had there. 

I can’t identify completely what made it so carefree (well, yes, six months in a campervan), but I can say it had a lot to do with not owning a house or car, and not having to think about insurance, school meetings or mobile phone plans. Life back in Australia has been surprisingly complicated and difficult and we don’t seem to be having much fun. The writing isn’t coming as easily as it did.

As I write this I’m called into the recovery room. My daughter is lying flushed and asleep, an oxygen mask on her swollen little face. It’s nothing major or life-threatening, just the draining of a big ugly tooth abscess that reared up overnight last night, and the removal of the guilty molar that caused it all. She’ll be fine in a few days.

She frowns and struggles wildly as she emerges from the anaesthetic, distressed and crying, disoriented. Yet I’m so glad it’s safely over. I can deal with the night ahead knowing the worst is past.

She drifts back into a restless sleep and I think about all the reasons my brain is too full to write. A sick child. The emotionally draining encounters with stressed parents I think about for days afterwards. The complicated schedules of four family members that takes up more brain space than it should. The increasing difficulty of squeezing freelance writing into the existing list of tasks. The parking tickets and speeding fines I keep getting because I still drive and park like I live in China.

The poor old think-box is just too exhausted. Too used up. I need to stop thinking for a while, stop cogitating, stop struggling, and give it a rest. 

Then I think about how very lucky I am to have two happy and (usually) healthy children, and to live in a place where safe healthcare is readily available. Lucky to have children and a husband who I love as hugely and passionately as they love me. Lucky to have the chance to write with complete freedom about whatever I want. 

I resolve to be less hard on myself. The writing will come when it comes, sometimes at surprising times like this, in an operating theatre recovery room. 

I look forward to a return to normal optimistic functioning very soon, and in the meanwhile my heart is with my American friends and readers – as many of you are. Sending the few good thoughts left in this poor tired head your way.

  • NguyenVanFalk

    Thanks from NYC Fiona! Always a pleasure to read your writing. Your audience will always be here, eager for more. Best to you and yours.

    • nanchanglu

      Thank you so much for your lovely wishes. Wow…I love to think I have readers all the way from NYC…who read my late night scribblings!

  • Michael Czyzewski

    I’m sending some good thoughts over YOUR way!!!

    • nanchanglu

      Thank you Michael – I feel so much better after a good night sleep and my daughter is much better today – those thoughts must have arrived in the night when I most needed them.

  • Swirley

    I’m with Michael…sending positive thoughts your way!

    • nanchanglu

      I think I got them – thank you Swirley!

  • Liz M.

    Was thinking about you a ton these last 2 weeks and checking the blog. I thought something was amiss. I think when you emerge from the dark, in the glow of the bright and happy you will find the need to communicate and your fingers will unfurl and fly over the keyboard. It will only be a moment that touches you but it will inspire you to write. Perhaps it passes but then it comes back with the enthusiasm that only you carry in your heart. Don’t feel guilty about writing about a shining spot in your week or holiday, it may make you feel good to remember it again and write it down. Hugs! xoxoxo. P.S. can I still send the special candy for the girls – this tooth is now gone so sweets can be had….yes? ๐Ÿ™‚

    • nanchanglu

      Liz you’re such a gem and have a great way of always lifting my spirits. They don’t flag often, but when they do it’s lovely to know you’re there. Such a big heart you have. The dentist is a very pragmatic man – he knows candy will always exist as long as kids want to eat it. So no problem, as long as she brushes her teeth afterwards!

  • ordinary malaysian

    You need a rest. And if this involves not writing your usual chirpy stuff on food, so be it. Or if it will help writing about the less cheery things of life and more on the everyday mundane things that occupy all of us inevitably, let it be. You will feel better eventually and that’s all that matters. Things will eventually return to normal – if there ever is such a creature! But things can’t always be bad and stressful. The good days will come again. And we will see you smile again like you probably are doing now. Take good care. Love from Malaysia!

    • nanchanglu

      Thanks you for your very kind and lovely words, they cheered me up enormously. Writing a blog is as much therapy for the writer as the reader, and having got all of that out of my system I’m sure I’ll be back to delicious foods in no time. Good days will come again, and soon, I’m sure. Having a lovely quiet day today reading recipe books and looking after the small patient in the house.

  • Marcia in MD

    Life happens! I know. My great plans for getting the spring garden going have been put on hold when my 94 yr old Mom ended up in the hospital with a fib, pulmonary hypertension, CHF. Today she was discharged to assisted living and the task of downsizing begins!

    • nanchanglu

      Oh Marcia, you’re so right and I do feel for you – a dear friend is going through the same thing with her parents and although my children still worry me more than my parents, there will come a point when that’s reversed. Assisted living at 94 – I hope her health improves so she can enjoy the garden when you do find time. It must be a great relaxation, I’ve always thought – as I look out at the empty vegetable garden I had big plans for when we returned home. Next year perhaps….

  • Robyn

    Oh Fiona, do you forget that you have just moved countries and cultures, got the girls settled into school, started back at work in a profession that solves other peoples hard times, big and small. Had a huge lifestyle change and I’m sure are enduring the same heart wrenching homesickness for China and our life there, that I am. Give yourself a break, we need this roller-coaster life as the lows make the highs all the more exciting. I only write about the highs so everyone thinks I am living this amazing live…which I am …but there are many lows I don’t mention, so I understand, though I havn’t got a speeding fine…yet. Just look at the things you accomplish and not what haven’t’ll find the list is still long and satisfying. Hit that refresh button and have a rest, you will write when the time is right. So wish I could give you a big hug right now but sending you all lots of cyber ones for now xxx

    • nanchanglu

      Robyn we must wonder at times why we put ourselves through this – the upheaval, the strange customs of our new homes (!) and the difficulties for our children. You didn’t really have any choice and absolutey made the most of your new situation – yet it cheers me up no end to know it was also a struggle for you at times and you’ve come through the other side. We do so miss our friends from Shanghai, you all especially! xxx

  • Sally Thelen

    I can so relate! It certainly isn’t easy trying to be all chipper and bloggy when you are feeling neither chipper nor bloggy.
    And moving home is HARD. And I’m saying this as someone who doesn’t have kids and school meetings and a hard-core doctor job. So if it’s hard for me, I don’t know how hard it must be for you!
    I didn’t blog much at all when I first returned to the States. This was partly because I was so crazy-busy with work and grading and commuting 2 hours a day (man, do I miss my 5 minute China commute!). But also because I wasn’t feeling it — I wasn’t feeling inspired and cheerful and fun and adventurous. Plus, I wasn’t even so sure what to write about. Even though I’d never been a true “travel” blogger, at least living abroad there was always something kind of weird/strange/what-the-heck to write about.
    But slowly I got myself back on the bloggy horse (so to speak) and I’m now blogging more than I ever did before. I’ve really been enjoying how blogging is giving me a way to look at my home in a different light and how it gives me a reason to go out and explore all the places I “meant” to explore when I lived here before but never did.
    I’m sure you’ll have the same turn-around. But don’t push it. It will come.
    If in the mean time it means more “uncharacteristic” posts by you or even less posts than usual, than so be it. We will wait. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • nanchanglu

      Sally – I so appreciate your lovely thoughts. I’ve often thought of you and your move back home after so many years of living in different countries. I can tell you’re having a ripper time now by the frequency of your posts but I know it must have been hard at the beginning to connect with old friends and places. I feel like I’ve stepped back into exactly the same place after being on another planet for a few years – Planet China. You’ve lived in that part of the galaxy so I’m sure you also felt the weird and unexpected ‘disconnect’ when you went home.

      I’m working through it all the best way I know how – by cooking, a lot. The beneficiaries of all this cooking are wishing I’d hit a low spot more often ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Camille

    I think we can all relate to this. As fun as it is to connect with blogfriends around the world, sometimes you’re just not feeling it. Too often the minutiae of managing one’s life get in the way of actually living it. Your honesty is refreshing, and I’ve always admired your upbeat attitude. Glad to hear your daughter is ok, and looking forward to your future posts, whnever and wherever they may be! ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Linda Forshaw

    As the amazing writer you are, you write from a place within you. A source all true artists fish from and that place is an ocean forever changing, as life does. You may not always ‘keep up’ with the changes consciously. Just trust this. The colourful articles you write are so inspiring, if the colour range change, so be it. Thank you for sharing both joy and pain! Looking forward to your future posts, xxx Linda

  • cosmoHallitan

    I worry that I’ll be in a similar situation when we return to the States in the fall. For all of China’s challenges, life in Shanghai has been pleasantly stress-free. Reverse culture shock will be hard, and I’m sure to get some funny looks at the grocery store when I try to haggle over the price of apples. But it’s all one grand adventure and, as they say, good things come to those who wait. Let me know if you’ll be back in Shanghai over the summer!

  • Shashank Shekhar

    Just goes on to say that you are eventually a writer at come and from surprising quarters and even more surprising times ๐Ÿ™‚