Welcome to the blog of Suchita Vanessa Smith!

I was inspired to share my rich journey of living with the challenges and blessings of Pseudoachondroplasia (a condition with malformed joints afflicted by arthritis and dwarfism) when Ben, the son of a good friend, was diagnosed with a debilitating condition at the age of twenty. Immediately I felt a strong urge to share with him the vital insights I have learnt that have helped me find inner peace, good health and to live a full life.  And the chapters of a book came to me.  So I am writing my book “Little Body Huge Life” and while I continue editing, it is time to share some of it with the world.

Everyone I know has issues with their bodies, mine are just more obvious. Most people do not have a positive relationship with their body, whether it is weight issues, illness, disability or injury. Many who are blessed with a ‘normal’ healthy body just don’t like it or parts of it and they treat it accordingly. Many abuse their body by not taking proper care of it; by not eating well, not exercising enough and imbibing too many toxic substances and then are prone to illnesses, pain or decreased capacity in later life. This has bigger ramifications; as we treat our bodies so we treat mother earth.

With a degenerative condition hanging over me all my life I have had a strong motivation to take good care of my body, keeping it fit and healthy, to stave off the deterioration and a frightening future. What has helped the most has been a profound journey of coming to love and accept myself and the body I was born with, and a deeper journey of the spirit, of getting in touch with that vast part of me which is not the body. Living with the paradox ‘I am not the body but I am’ sums up my journey of taking good care of my body as well as connecting with my inner divine spirit that is untouched by any of my body issues. If I can learn to love and accept my less than perfect body, and myself, then you can too.

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State of Mind – Attitudes and Choices

The Power of Persistence

I’ve learnt valuable lessons about the power of persistence. If we want to fulfill our goals and make changes in our life we need persistence.

I was driving to interview a meditation teacher from New Zealand for my radio program Full Circle, feeling tired after ten years struggling to produce a weekly two hour radio show on my own with no money.  Listening to an interview on the radio, with an author of a book about the secrets of success, the question was “What is the single most important ingredient for success?”. I was thinking “A great idea, passion, vision etc.” and was surprised when he answered “Persistence”.  The best idea or talent in the world is not much use if we don’t persist in developing them, whatever the challenges. Because of one thing we can be certain, there will be obstacles in the way. Often we hear speakers extolling the virtues of following our dreams, yet I rarely hear mentioned the need for determination and hard work to overcome the barriers that will inevitably arise.  It felt like a message for me at just the right time, and it gave me the impetus to continue with my crazy life of following my bliss despite the challenges.

About a year after my knee and femur fractures I tried walking to the beach, and by the time I reached the water I was tired and in pain, and in no fit state to have much of a swim.  With disappointment I figured that my days of ocean swimming were probably over.  I was deeply saddened, given that the sea has been one of the joys of my life, all my life.



Meanwhile I continued to swim at the local pool four times a week, plus hydrotherapy and working on my walking technique and changing habits with Julie my Feldenkrais practitioner.  One of my main focuses was building up the strength of my legs.  I kicked many miles of the pool, working the injured leg with its wasted muscles, with the aim of achieving the best my body could be, whatever that might be. During summer a few years later I gave going to the beach a go, at the encouragement of my two regular beach and coffee buddies Nirmala and Niyati.  To my delight I was able to manage it all, even the walk up hill on sand, without needing assistance.  There were no ill effects, no pain, no fatigue and so many positives from swimming in the ocean and enjoying coffee and catching up with my wise, fun friends.  I was amazed at how far I’d come.  My persistent effort over four years enabled me to wind back my degeneration clock and, rather than keeping going downhill physically as would be expected as I age, I improved.  It is about persisting every day, whether we see results or not, but just keeping going.


More recently, since having my second knee replacement and hip revision surgeries, I have been working on changing my twenty year habit of bending over from the hips, after my surgeon freed up tight groin tissue. I am able now to stand straight with some effort, but if I am tired or not paying attention, I regress to my old posture.  Every time I’m in the pool I am practising standing straight and that transfers to remembering during my day. I know it will take time to make this change, so I just keep at it, encouraged by my lessons in persistence.

Then I had another breakthrough at hydrotherapy when several different exercises I’ve been doing for months came together to create something new.  Tina Turner was playing on the sound system, louder than the usual background level, and when an old favourite ‘Nutbush City Limits’ came on.  I just had to dance in the freedom of the water.  I was in heaven, as all the years of not being free to dance disappeared.  While I couldn’t get too carried away in the class, I found a rhythm in a kind of walking/dancing/twisting.  Somehow I started using the muscles on the back of my legs in a new way. I kept going for the whole song, exploring this novel way of moving.  While I’ve been using my back thigh muscles for kicking for many years, I didn’t know I wasn’t engaging them in walking.  But when I experimented out of the water, suddenly I had at least double more power in my propulsion.  It has made a huge difference in my life, I am able to walk further, freeing me from some limitations.  It is a miracle as a result of a brilliant surgeon, persistence and Tina Turner. I am overjoyed.  Persistence is a great power


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Our Spirit Can Soar Wherever We Are

A major turning point, at age twenty four, in my journey of dealing with my deteriorating physical capacity brought me to experience a significant realization.  I don’t need to go anywhere, do anything and I can feel my essence. I can come home to myself and feel contented just sitting and being anywhere.  Our spirit can soar wherever we are, and doesn’t need to be dependent on anything on the outside.  Of course if we happen to be in a beautiful natural landscape, then coming home is all the easier.  When you can no longer go anywhere you want, this is an important realization.  It changed how I dealt with being able to do less and less.

I was in the jarrah forest for the weekend, outside the small timber town of Dwellingup, with a few friends having a reunion of sorts.  Ray, Dave and I had met one memorable night at The Loaded Dog tavern in Northbridge close to Perth city, a few years previously.  The Loaded Dog was a small intimate venue with live music and a dynamic Sunday session which attracted an interesting mix of alternative types of people.  My university friend Sue and I were regulars. Ray was a good looking man with long dark hair, warm wise blue eyes, a gorgeous smile and a look of a native American about him.  Dave was a funny, crazy New Zealander, with long curly blond hair and beard with bright blue sparkling eyes that would often bulge in humour.  Sue and Ray were seated on bar stools next to each other and starting chatting, and we all hit it off.  We laughed and laughed together as we progressed to the local food hall for some tasty Indian food for dinner.  Things might have ended there but Sue’s attraction to Ray meant she was keen to accept their invitation to come and stay with them at the modest riverside home they shared near Mandurah.  From that meeting came lasting, life changing friendships.  We joked these are our only friendships that ever came from meeting at a bar.

A few years later Dave had moved to a bush block with a Nissan hut converted into a small cosy home.  Ray and I, and his new partner Naveena, had been seeing each other in Fremantle, but none of us had seen Dave for about a year.


We arrived late Friday afternoon and after a night full of partying, laughter and fun, the next morning after a leisurely breakfast, Dave was keen to show us his land.  We all loved being in nature and sharing it with each other so we were keen to explore the surrounding forest.  It was a beautiful, balmy spring day.  I started out in high spirits, happy to be hanging out with good friends in the forest.  But it turned out to be difficult terrain.   We went up and down paths on quite steep slopes, often covered in gravel, which made it slippery and hazardous as we wove out way through trees and wildflowers.  From the time we headed off, I had to keep watching the ground, so I didn’t slip on the gravel slopes, or trip over the many possible hazards, and navigate safely.  I was given a hand up and down the slopes but they were still a real stretch.  In natural areas I am always navigating my way with a keen eye on the easiest route, up this step or smaller slope or around this tree and also watching out for any logs or rocks of the right height for stopping for a sit.  This time I only found one sitting spot, a wobbly bank of gravel.  I started feeling pain in my hips and legs about four hundred metres in, and then came the tiredness.  All of my attention after half an hour was on my aches, and then my focus became making it back to the house as best I could, step by step.  I wearily slumped into a chair when we arrived back, feeling a deep pain in my hips, legs and lower back.  I kept it all to myself, I didn’t share with my friends how tough it had been but Ray years later told me they could see.

When finally the pain had subsided some, I realized I hadn’t been able to appreciate or imbibe the forest.  In fact I had missed it, because all of my focus was on looking at the ground, and the aches and just getting through the walk.  This was another of those times when I pushed myself beyond my new limits, and suffered the consequence of pain and terrible fatigue.  These were at a level that grabbed my attention.  They jolted me into realizing ’Ah, I can’t do that kind of walking anymore, it is too much for me, it’s too hard, this is a new limit”.  In what became a repeating experience when I dramatically hit my limits over the proceeding years, I realized I would have to be more careful what I got myself into and not go blindly into terrain that was now beyond me (see also Misadventure in Gilli Nanguu).  Then came sadness at what this new limit meant, that more wild places were now impossible for me to access.

The next day when everyone else was heading out for another walk, I opted to stay on Dave’s verandah.  No more physical endurance battles for me that weekend.  I decided I would sit instead in comfort, on a big old lounge chair on the wooden verandah with my feet up, and enjoy the view of the forest from there, and that would have to be enough. For a while I felt keenly this new limitation that meant I had to stay behind, missing out on whatever adventures my friends were having together. Like most of us, I hate missing out.  All the feelings I felt as a teenager came back, frustration at my limitation, anger at the injustice of it and I had some resentment at the ease with which my friends could do whatever they wanted.  At the centre of it all was grief at this new loss merging with all my other losses. But I was also pleased that I was looking after myself, and choosing to be gentle rather than pushing myself again.


Then the power of nature started weaving its magic within me, with the sounds of the birds and wind in the trees.  After about half an hour the turning point came. I discovered the well of plenty lying in what could appear to be misfortune. I began to see more of what was around me, and so my attention was diverted from ‘poor me’. There was so much to look at and enjoy.  The forest, along with other five acre properties, had been logged many times but it was still rich with many jarrah and marri trees, birds, reptiles, insects and kangaroos amongst the forest and the undergrowth of shrubs. I started observing more detail in each of the trees, how they were shaped, the line of the branches, the variations of greens of the leaves and the changing sky behind them.  I watched the myriad of birds and what exactly they were doing, what they were eating, how they flitted from branch and bush, and so I became more immersed in the world around me. I relaxed more into the comfort of the chair and the experience, and I was just floating, observing, feeling my sadness and enjoying the peace, thinking about the fun I was having with my friends.  Then came a great relief that I wasn’t out walking, that I was in no pain, I was comfortable, and I was still able to enjoy communing with nature around me. The relief from not feeling any more pain was so strong I think it heightened my joy. I was so happy with my choice to stay back.

Previous to this I would have felt like I was missing the wildness the others would be imbibing.  I was a bit of a purist and it felt like a consolation prize to only be in the tamed nature. But I realized the contentment I was feeling from being surrounded by forest, even though it had been altered, was the same that I experienced when I was out in the wilds.  I had always thought that the effect on me was more powerful in pure wild nature, but I discovered it wasn’t so.  In fact I was feeling much more connection with my surrounds than I had the day before when all I could experience was the aches.

I felt the joy of simply sitting and being somewhere beautiful, without needing to be walking in the forest with my friends, without needing to do anything else, and feeling at peace and at home in myself.  That’s when I realised I didn’t have to go anywhere to feel that.  The contrast was very clear.  I felt so relieved not to be pushing myself with walking and feeling pain.  Instead I was in bliss just sitting doing nothing, enjoying the view.  It helped that I’d been learning meditation.  It came more easily being able just to sit and be, content being where I was, without needing to do or say anything.

When Dave, Ray and Naveena came back after a couple of hours I could give them a big happy smile, for I hadn’t missed out.  I had had a wonderful sojourn on my own, going nowhere but soaring nonetheless.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this realization was to change the quality of my life.  It has allowed me to more easily find contentment, wherever I am or whatever I am able to do.  I’m not dependent on feeling at peace by what I can do and where I can go.  This is a great liberation.  As I have been able to do less, finding contentment just sitting and being, has meant that rather than a diminishing of my life from not being able to walk far or stand for long, and not being able to interact with the world as much, I have found a richness in whatever is in front of me.  Now when I go away on holidays I am a happy woman with a verandah with a view, I have no need to go adventuring.  Time and again I have experienced the truth that our spirit can soar wherever we are.


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Going For The Ride

Going for the Ride – State of Mind- Attitudes and Choices

I realized how far I had come in my attitude of making the most of what I have, rather than focusing on what I don’t, when encountering my eighty nine year old father. He was becoming more limited in his walking from his bad knees, and a dicky heart valve.  I was discussing with my parents a possible oldies bus trip down south for them.   My mother really needed a break from her relentless routine of taking care of the house and my father.  We weren’t sure whether my father would be up for the walks to the attractions from the bus.  I said “Well you could stay behind and enjoy the view from the bus, or outdoor seating. You can still be enjoying the whole journey and wonderful scenery along the way, and you, and especially mum, have a change, a break, an adventure.” And my father replied “Oh but I would hate to be left behind on the bus”.  As a consequence they didn’t go away on a holiday. So he would rather forgo the whole adventure through country Western Australia, which yes, would not be all that everyone else gets to experience, but it is a sizable percentage of that, and miss all the other wonderful things, because he would feel left out and alone sometimes. I was surprised by his response, comparing it with my own.  Because I would be happy to go on a trip for some of the adventure, especially if it meant my worn out, caring partner could have a well-deserved holiday.  I would share it with them, and enjoy hearing of where they had gone and what they had seen.

When I discovered our spirit can soar wherever we are (another chapter) it enabled me to be content with just being in my own company. I make the most of wherever I am sitting to imbibe, observe, watch, explore with my eyes, and reflect, in the country and the city.  I’ve sat on many beaches and national park car parks or at picnic tables or perhaps a bench seat enjoying the view, the birds, the vista, the plants, the fresh smell of eucalypt forest, while whoever I am with is off on a big or small trek.  I’ve invariably had a wonderful time as my spirit expands to meet the full force of nature, allowing the one to infiltrate my being and merge, letting it recharge me with space, sweeping out the inner cobwebs and grungy stuff. In fact on my own it is more deeply meditative because I am in silence and not chatting to my companions.

Not long after this surprising conversation with my father, I travelled to the deep southern forests with my good friends Satrup and Prabuhta, staying at Northcliffe.  We drove through the magnificent wild karri forests to the rugged remote coastline, and everywhere we went I found somewhere nice to sit, while they went off for a walk along the beach or up the rocks or into the forest. I was really happy enjoying where I was. They came back shining, faces softer, more radiant, and I loved to hear of their adventure and of what they saw and what it was like.  I didn’t feel I was missing much at all, because I had an enriching experience on my own.  Yes I would love to be able to go for that bush or beach walk too, and have that freedom to imbibe these special often beautiful and magnificent places, but hey I can’t, so I don’t want to give that any more energy. Nor do I want to miss an amazing experience, or to be a drag of a friend, and make my friends feel guilty for enjoying themselves and having an ability I don’t.


My father’s attitude kept him living in a limited and restricted way, and it was not just him who was affected, my mother didn’t get her much needed holiday. To be fair to him, I’ve had forty years to gradually get used to restrictions and adapt around them.  For my father all he had known was fitness and capability to do anything he needed to do, and so when disability came upon him he was ill prepared, and not used to adapting or looking for the bright side.

This has all been really helpful so I don’t have much of a sense of missing out in my life. Yet actually if most of you reading this were to walk in my shoes a mile (except I can’t actually walk a mile), you would probably have a hard time with the restrictions. To some it would appear on first glance that I must have a very limited life.  But I have found not being able to walk everywhere, and all the other things most people take for granted, doesn’t mean I don’t have a huge, fulfilling life.

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Living with Deterioration – Coming to Terms with Loss and Limitation


When I was on my ten month trip overseas in 1991, five months of it was spent tropical island hopping through South East Asia, looking for my ideal tropical paradise. I was at the start of my big adventure and had been having a wonderful time in Bali and the Gilli Islands off northern Lombok for several weeks with family and friends, when I met up with Sue, my best friend during University. We travelled first to the mountains of Lombok, where life was pretty much as it has been for centuries, and where people were especially poor and we were warned by the bungalow manager not to leave our washing unattended or it would be stolen. Then for an island experience we stayed on Gill Nanggu, not far off Lombok’s south coast. It is a tiny, flat island of sand with sparse, scrubby vegetation and it didn’t fulfill my dream of a lush ‘tropical paradise island’. Gili Nanggu had no inhabitants as such, just a budget tourist place with about ten thatched, two storey huts looking out over the clear blue sea. It is so small we could watch the sunrise from our huts and then walk about 500 metres up the beach to see the sunset.


We loved the island’s peacefulness, away from the bustle, and for a couple of nights we were the only guests. It may not have been lush but the views across the iridescent waters and the nearby coastline and mountains of Lombok were magnificent. We were content to relax there for a few days; reading, swimming, snorkelling the fascinating waters abounding with coral and bright fish, walking on the beaches, eating well, talking with the friendly staff. One day Sue came back with a big smile from walking around the perimeter of the island saying “What a great day I’ve had exploring the island and all the beautiful views.” I hadn’t gone with her, given I had now learnt not to go into unknown territory blindly. She said “It isn’t so far, and I think you’d be able to do it”. So my adventurous spirit was set afire and I headed off myself the next day. By nature I am quite intrepid, but I had had to curb it with my increasing physical limitations, and this misadventure was another lesson in taking heed of those limitations.

The beach is deserted and I am loving being on my own away from everyone else, which is a rare thing in crowded Asia. I am in heaven; beachcombing, seeing what is washed up on the shore, observing and enjoying the micro as well as the macro scenes around me. I am engrossed in taking photos with the backdrop of Lombok not so far away, it is stunning scenery. Except for the lapping of the water it is peaceful and quiet and I love having the freedom to follow my whims of what interests me.


I am about half way round the island when I realize I have bitten off more than I can chew. I am starting to get tired and I figure I have about the same distance to go back again. There are no places where I can sit, until I finally arrive at rocks extending into the water. It is a relief to be able to have a rest. I think about my choices, to keep going forward to new territory or to turn back the way I had come. I end up keeping going forward, the attraction of new territory is too great for my adventurous spirit, and the rocks look so interesting. The trouble is the beach ends and it becomes all rocks jutting into the water. They are black, volcanic-looking that rise in large rough boulders up to about 5 metres high, and extend inland as far as I can see. Sue had warned me of this, and had said “I walked around them in the water.” But she is good deal taller than me, and perhaps the tide is higher. With Taman (my walking stick) to steady me, I start trying climbing over the rocks but find that is impossible. When I try wading through the clear water to go around them, it becomes too deep and I am worried about getting my camera wet. I am starting to feel isolated, and stuck in a place I have to get myself out of on my own, with just Taman to help me.

So I can’t go forward, and I still have an aversion to going back because it feels so far now, but which, in hindsight, is probably the sensible option. I opt for a third way which is to strike out inland and cut across the middle of the island, figuring it may be more direct and hence shorter than going around the perimeter. I am thinking if I keep heading across the middle I have to hit the bungalows on the other side sometime. It is such a small island it can’t be far across the middle. Through the centre seems to be the shortest option and that is my priority with fatigue setting in.

But it isn’t a short distance and it isn’t as flat as I had thought it would be. There seems to be many sand dunes I have to climb over, which are not easy in the soft sand. They feel quite steep as I become more tired and sore in hips and legs, especially the effort of trudging uphill. It is very quiet, there are no birds, no sounds in the centre of the island and no people; it is deserted and lifeless. Now the peace and quiet I had felt walking along the beach earlier is starting to feel a little eerie. I feel more uneasy when I come upon an old, dilapidated bamboo hut, which is hidden down in a gully, as though someone didn’t want it known it is there. I feel very alone in a foreign place. I am tired and in pain. I am worried about my ability to make it back to the bungalows. But I don’t let myself wallow in feeling all this too long, I decide my pessimistic thoughts aren’t helping the situation. I have to draw on a reserve of inner strength to deal with this, and not give into my fears and just keep going.

If it is not already a challenging situation, it suddenly becomes more so. My intrepid spirit does not match the ability of my body, and this is where I come face to face with this new reality. I trip over a branch and fall on the soft sand, down in a gully. I suddenly feel vulnerable and very stuck, and I am shaken up from the shock of the fall. For the last couple of years it has been increasingly difficult to get myself up and down from the ground, and I have avoided it, or I use a chair or get a hand from someone else. There is nothing around me now to help hoist me up, just sand and sparse vegetation; all I have is Taman. I don’t know if I can do it, I haven’t ever just used Taman. So I am stuck on the ground, on my hands and knees all alone, in what feels like a deserted, hostile, unfriendly place. I feel scared and helpless and I whimper at my predicament. But that isn’t going to get me out of the situation, I realize I have to pull myself together and not collapse into helplessness. I have to find a determination that I can do this, I have no choice. I have to somehow get myself up off the ground on my own with only Taman. My first couple of attempts I don’t manage it, I don’t have enough physical strength. I fall back down on my hands and knees, feeling hopeless and defeated. I rest a bit and I work on psyching myself into being able to do it, telling myself I can do it, feeling really determined. Finally on the third attempt I draw on strength I don’t know I have, and straining all my muscles I manage to haul myself to my feet. There is nothing like necessity to find new strength. It showed me what is possible if we are determined enough.

Once I catch my breath and recover a little from the surge of adrenalin, I stagger on, shaken but relieved I can keep going. But I am increasingly concerned, as the shadows are getting longer and sunset is upon me, as I take extra care watching out for any potential tripping hazards. I am feeling more and more fatigued and sore in my legs and hips. With nothing to sit on to have a rest, I just have to keep going, step by step. It feels like I am going for a long while, with no sight of the sea or the bungalows, just scrub and small dunes. This route certainly doesn’t feel any shorter and I am regretting getting myself into this perilous situation. I start to worry that maybe I won’t make it, perhaps I am lost. I figure though that eventually I will be missed and that someone will come searching. Sue will surely be starting to worry and will alert the staff and they will send out a search party. The fact the island is so small gives me comfort that I will be found eventually.


It is such a relief, as darkness is upon me, when I climb up yet another dune, to find the beach below. As I struggle down the last steep slope onto the beach I see the lights of the camp perhaps 500 metres away – what a wonderful sight! I am so relieved the way is clear and much easier on the hard sand of the shoreline; I have made it to safety. But I am exhausted and that 500 metres feels like miles, as I lean more and more on Taman, and hobble more slowly. Once again it is necessity and sheer determination that get me there, step by step. Necessity is a powerful motivator. It is now dark as I stagger back to my bungalow. When I call out to Sue, she comes out from her bungalow all chirpy, “Hello are you just getting back? I thought you were already back and having a rest”. She hadn’t noticed I was missing (so much for the rescue). I sit on the chair on my verandah, having some tea from the flask, sharing with her my harrowing time, utterly exhausted and aching all over, but so relieved the ordeal is over. We have a good laugh about what a great friend she is in a crisis; when I could have really needed her, she was blissfully unaware, enjoying a good book.

With a sad heart I realized I needed to further curb my intrepid spirit, particularly as I travelled through Asia. I was reminded again that I would have to be more careful what I got myself into. I could no longer just head off into the unknown like that on my own and leave myself so vulnerable and potentially in danger. I had to make more enquiries of a well-meaning friend’s judgment. I had learnt my lesson the hard way. I grieved this loss of what I loved to do, I had to let go of something important to me, which gave me such great pleasure and fed my spirit. I felt like it meant I had to deny part of my nature, and instead of being wild and impulsive taking off into the wilderness on my own, I had to be more sensible (ie boring). It felt like a big price to pay, but it was such a strong, scary experience, I had no desire to go through something like that again.

I later found ways of getting around my limitations, it wasn’t the end of my adventures in the wilds altogether, I just had to adapt, and keep trying.

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State of Mind – Attitudes and Choices – Vasundhara


It sounds terrible but most of us have experienced times when in the midst of our difficulties it helps to know there are people worse off than us.  We can all get caught up in our worries and challenges and feel overwhelmed by them and they can feel like a really big deal. It helps sometimes to get things into perspective, that ‘yes I’m having a tough time, but not as tough as others’.  For me it stops the mind from going so overboard in anxiousness, worry and fear of what might be, or ‘this is all too much’. If I am feeling a bit sorry for myself, or feeling worn down, when I’m sick of all the worry, it helps to remind myself that things could be much worse. I feel a bit better then, lightened of my heavy load. It helps me come back to dealing with just what is in front of me, rather than being lost in obsessive, worrying thoughts of what might be and being in overwhelm.

I saw a news report on television about some Australian tourists who had been stranded in Pukhet Thailand for two days, but given hotel accommodation and meals, when their plane needed repairs.  The man interviewed said ‘It’s been a nightmare’.  This was at the same time we were watching night after night the terrible devastation after the big earthquake in Haiti. Compared to what was happening in Haiti, the man was in paradise being well taken care of, if he had stopped to do the comparison rather than being lost in his own personal drama.

When I was in hospital with my fractured knee/knee replacement/fractured femur saga, things were feeling grim, in fact the grimmest of my life.  I was confined to bed, with my surgeon keeping saying “This is a very bad situation”.  He was pessimistic, after seeing my porous bones in surgery, that the fracture would heal, particularly as it was so high on my thigh where it was difficult to stabilize the bone. While a suitable way to brace and support my thigh bone was being found, I was stuck in bed with only very careful small movement allowed for twelve days, made doubly difficult with my limited arm reach and limited neck movement. I was always getting sore spots from staying in one position too long, and unable to move to alleviate it much, discovering the delights of using bed pans, and dependent on busy staff who were only able to do so much.  It was unclear how my future would be, whether I would have use of that leg again, if I would be able to walk, so the immediate future was scary.

Sometime in those twelve days I received a phone call from my friend Vasundhara, who had Multiple Sclerosis and lived around the corner from me.  A feisty Irishwoman, Vasundhara carried deep wounds from a difficult childhood at the hands of a notorious Irish institution in the 1950s, who struggled with her demons, despite gaining immensely from the therapy and meditation in the world of Osho.  She said to me one day “I hate to think what my life would have been like without having loads of therapy and learning to meditate. I’m not sure I would have stuck around.” She could be irascible, and had put offside numerous friends over the years, but she wasn’t ever that way with me, when we had our occasional cups of tea and catchup, as she tootled by my house on her mobility scooter. We could share our body stories with each other more freely than with other friends who we didn’t want to burden.

It turned out she was in a hospital not far from me, and she said “The back pains I’ve been having are suspected cancer around the spine.”  She was due to have surgery imminently, and was looking for people to come and visit.  It was difficult to talk because my voice was only just above a whisper, and she had trouble hearing me, but I could hear her and we had a laugh about being so close (a few kilometers away), both stuck in hospital at the same time, unable to visit each other, and I wished her well.

So when I was feeling down or distressed about my circumstances, I thought of Vasundhara who was facing a much more difficult situation than me, with less support, in a public hospital ward, while I was in my own room in a private hospital with a roster in place to manage all my visitors.  Knowing she was in a worse situation I couldn’t get too carried away with ‘poor me’ and I couldn’t get really down knowing that. We promised to stay in touch and the next time we spoke was about two weeks later, when I had finally left the high care hospital and was much relieved to be at the rehabilitation hospital, with my room opening onto a tree-filled park, so I was making progress and on the mend.

The news from Vasundhara was not good, as a result of her high risk spinal surgery she was now paralysed, so there was no progress for her.  When we talked she seemed to be handling a nightmarish situation really well and was in remarkably good spirits.  She talked of gaining solace from listening to an audio of Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now.  She said “It’s been so powerful listening to Eckhart Tolle, I’m loving it. It’s helping me to stay in the moment and not be swamped by my situation.”  I too had found coming back to the moment really helpful when my future was so uncertain and full of grim prospects.  She was talking about making arrangements for care once she was out of hospital, as though she would be going home. Once again when I was having to hobble on the Zimmer frame to the bathroom with great effort, I just had to think of Vasundhara and know it could be a lot worse. It helped keep things in perspective for me, yes things felt challenging, but not as challenging as what she was facing, and I felt a little better, terrible as that sounds.

About six weeks later, after I had left the rehabilitation hospital and was so happy to be home, the news was that Vasundhara was on her last days at a local hospice, she never returned to her home.  So I was finally home, able to sit in my small garden and soak up its greenness and the fresh air, relishing having my autonomy back. I was still fragile and vulnerable with my thigh bone not yet healed, facing a long year of rehabilitation ahead but on the path to recovery nevertheless, and there was Vasundhara dying, not recovering at all.  I could only feel deep gratitude that I was on the mend, and heading in a positive direction, and I doubly appreciated my home and friends and all that I could now do in the freedom of my own home.

About a week after being liberated from hospital, the call came out from her close friends, to come one evening to gather around our dying friend. I didn’t feel up to going anywhere, particularly at night when I was still so tired from poor sleep all the time, but I knew that going to someone whose death was imminent was not something I could postpone.  This would probably be my only chance to honour and say goodbye to my friend. So I went to a small gathering around Vasundhara’s bed at the hospice with my friend Apara, who took me in a wheelchair. Vasundhara was unconscious and being kept on high doses of morphine. There were ten of us, and we sat in meditation in the darkened room full of candlelight, taking it in turns to talk quietly to Vasundhara and hold her hand.

Giri came with his guitar and we sang chants and songs from the Osho commune, and between us created a sacred, beautiful space of love for our friend’s final hours. The harmonies were exquisite, particularly when we sang ‘Halleleujah’ to the notes of Pachabel’s Canon, and I felt Vasundhara was loving being surrounded by such love and sacredness.  I was sitting a little awkwardly, as close to the bed as the wheelchair allowed, stretching to hold her hand, unable to sing with no voice but just being present and being in my heart, with my back to most of the room.  At one point during the ‘Helleluejah’ what sounded like a recorder started playing along in perfect harmony to the singing.  I couldn’t see who was playing behind me but with the voices it brought tears to my eyes, it was all just so exquisite.  Later when there were only about five of us left, Apara said quietly ‘Did you hear the flute?” and I’m thinking “Of course I heard it”, and then the others were saying “Yes yes I heard it too”, and I said “What do you mean, who was playing?”  And they said “No, no one in the room was playing”, but everyone heard a flute.  I felt shivers down my spine as we all looked at each other, shaking our heads, smiling in amazement at this mystery, feeling touched by something exquisite, sacred and not of this world.

The next day Vasundhara left her body, and I remain so grateful to her for helping me get through a difficult time, by keeping things in perspective, to remember to be grateful for the blessings in my life even in adversity. It was such a privilege to, in a small way, assist her passage from this world, which is always an extraordinary experience, something I realized is an important role of close friends and family in each others’ lives.  About a month later I happened to meet the nurse who had been taking care of Vasundhara that night, who was the sister of the hairdresser who came to my home, and she said “It was the most amazing night of my fifteen year nursing career, to walk in to that room with the candles, and the beautiful singing which rang out through the hospice, everyone there, both patients and staff, were touched by it.”


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Self Worth – Speaking Up

The first time I needed to speak up about my limited physical capacity was in my fourth and final year at university, when I was twenty one.  I was doing a double major in Biology and Environmental Science. Up until this point I had pretty well managed to get away with just being one of the crowd, disappearing into the group (or so I thought).  I had also managed not to make an issue of my physical limitations and be like everyone else. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself for all the ‘wrong’ reasons, things that made me feel ashamed, things that made me different, in not a good way, from my fellow students. This time though I had to move beyond my innate sense of not wanting to be noticed for having special needs. This was a major turning point in my journey of overcoming my sense of unworthiness and a new stage in acknowledging my disability.

We had an environmental management field trip to Newman, a mining town in the remote north of Western Australia and about a twelve hour bus ride from Perth.  Our field trips were the highlights of our university years, not only did we learn hands-on environmental skills, we had a huge amount of fun and great adventures, in some of the most magnificent parts of the state. After field trips of previous years I was already realising that I couldn’t keep up with everyone else and that I needed to say something.  Nevertheless it took a lot for me to approach the lecturer for the course and request a group project that didn’t involve a lot of walking.  This was the first time in my life I was standing up and saying ‘I have a disability which limits what I can do and I need some special consideration’ and I so didn’t want to do it.  This doesn’t sound like a big deal to me now because I’m so used to speaking up for my needs, but this first time was a big hurdle.  I was reluctant to draw attention to my disability, as I was able to be in quite a bit of denial because at this age I wasn’t that limited. I felt ashamed to ask for special treatment.  This was my lack of self worth speaking.

The lecturer was our favourite; a small, eccentric man, famous for his powder blue safari suit and the comb-over of the thin wild hair, who made us laugh and brought his uniqueness and passion for the environment to our lectures and field trips. He wasn’t long staying in academia and soon after this went on to become a senior environmental bureaucrat in Canberra. He received my request graciously, and I was relieved he didn’t make a drama of it, and proud of myself for speaking up.

What was weird was that my first ever attempt to speak up for myself was to no avail.  I ended up being assigned to a group of six who was to map the vegetation on either side of the banks of the Fortescue River. There were ribbons of lushness and eucalyptus trees along the river banks while being surrounded with a vast, harsh, red desert landscape with mostly spinifex and no trees. The river only seasonally had water flow and was dry at the time.  Our project entailed walking great lengths of the fifty metre wide river bed all day for seven days.  It was the project that involved the most amount of walking, and for some strange reason, I was assigned to it.

Another project involved mapping quadrats of about one metre square of vegetation, so involving lots of standing but not much walking, which would have been more suitable.  By the time I realised the extent of walking involved I was two days into the project, and was having a great time with the people in my group, and my self esteem didn’t extend to speaking up again.  Asking for a change, and so making a fuss, felt too much, and besides it felt too late to swap and inconvenience others.

Each step from one of my group mates, with their longer legs, meant two to three steps for me, so in fact I was expending more steps than anyone else.  I remember gentle giant Phil Scott who, at over six feet tall with a strong, fit body, was a footballer who went on to play for Subiaco Football Club, saying to me one day “I don’t know how you are managing to keep up with this Vanessa, because I’m finding this tough going.  It’s really tiring.” That was when I realised the big feat I was managing, and that no wonder I was feeling so exhausted and sore.

Boy did I suffer on those long walks, they became trials of endurance, particularly by late afternoon. I doggedly kept going, despite the pain in my feet, legs, hips and back,  and managed to keep up with my team, while somehow also doing the work, and maintaining a good sense of humour.  I didn’t say anything of my struggles to my team mates, I didn’t want to be a drag on anyone. I would take any opportunity I could to sit on fallen logs along the way, which were few and far between; in fact I became obsessed with scouring the landscape for any logs or big rocks.

Each night I was utterly spent and in agony all over. I don’t know how I managed to get myself up the stairs to my room in the single persons’ quarters at the mining camp or to dinner across in the canteen.

By the fourth day my exhaustion manifested in getting flu symptoms and I was too sick to go out.  I felt dreadful, aching all over, and spent the day in bed, mostly sleeping. As I lay there in the silent building I came face to face with what I had done, pushing so much I made myself sick.

The flu symptoms had magically disappeared the next morning, and off I went with my team for another two days.  The six of us were dropped off in the morning, and were essentially alone in what felt like the middle of nowhere; I loved being out there. This was us out of the lecture theatres and labs into the real world of scientific surveys in a wild remote place, this was Uni life at its best and we were in high spirits. We worked hard but there was always lots of laughter and camaraderie, so I was loving it all despite the hardship.

Out of this rather extreme physical experience I learnt much. I find it ironic that my first public attempt to speak up for myself failed. But it ended up making me more clear that I needed to take better care of myself, inflicting that amount of suffering on myself was ridiculous. It made me more determined not to repeat my failure.  I was probably quite tentative when I spoke to my lecturer, coming as I was from my lack of self worth, and may not have been clear and strong enough to register with him. The gift in the whole experience was that I never again allowed myself to not be heard about my physical needs.

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Blessings from Obstacles – Meeting Michael Leunig

I had booked my trip to Bali and then realized I would be there at the same time as the Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival, which I had long wanted to attend.  When I looked at the program what interested me the most was an evening with Australian cartoonist and poet Michael Leunig, whose wise, insightful work I have loved for years.  One of his best known cartoons is a picture of a father and son enjoying watching a sunset on television, while out the window is a beautiful sunset they are missing.

Of course I would not be able to go on my own; it is one thing to be in Bali staying with my Bali family who help me with everything, but the rest of the island, with its large stairs everywhere, uneven paths and busy traffic is quite physically hostile for me, though the people are always helpful and kind.  But joy of joys, my friend Niyati would have arrived from her world trip by then and she was game to go, so we booked a night in Ubud.  I was interested in perhaps going to an afternoon session before our dinner talk, and one the following morning, but they only sold $100 tickets for a whole day, and at two hundred dollars for two sessions it was out of my budget. So we would content ourselves with just one event at the festival.

Rule number one when travelling: always be prepared for the unexpected and the odd misadventure or two. Before leaving Candidasa I showed our driver Ketut a map of where we were staying, a place about ten minutes out of Ubud and checked he knew where to go.  I asked him “Shall I write down the address and map, to make sure we find our way?” But he said “No, that’s okay, I know where to go.”

Ketut is related to the owners of my homestay, and I have known him for many years.  When he came to see me when I arrived this time in Bali I was shocked at his appearance, he had lost weight and he was in tears as he told me that life had become very difficult because his wife was sick, she was hardly able to walk and was in a lot of pain.  Born with an ugly red growth on one side of his face, life has always had its challenges for Ketut and now with a sick wife, four children and not much money, life was very stressful for him.  If he had been born in the West he would have had plastic surgery early on and his life would have been quite different. So I promised I would hire him as a driver on all my trips around Bali this time, to help him out.

As the crow flies it is probably only about an hour’s journey from Candidasa to Ubud but with so much traffic and congestion it was more like two hours.  Unfortunately the roads in Bali have not kept up with the growth in vehicles, impacting on the quality of life and making getting around more difficult for everyone. When we finally arrived in Ubud we were stuck in a traffic jam, in the Monkey Forest Road circuit.  After our third trip slowly around the loop, it dawned on me that Ketut had no idea where to go.  I learnt that his way of navigating places he didn’t know, as with many other drivers in Bali I was to later find out, is to stop and ask locals, and I suppose eventually he gets where he needs to. But in the new Bali it can mean a whole of extra time being stuck in heavy traffic and for us it added about an hour onto our trip. Of course we had no map, because Ketut had said there was no need, but thankfully I did remember the basics from looking at it, and with better directions, I got us there in the end.

BALI 2013 008

We then had to work out how I was going to navigate the various new obstacles at our unique and colourful accommodation.  After a delicious lunch and a rest, that evening we headed off at 7.30 looking forward to our eight o’clock dinner and talk. We were getting hungry, having saved ourselves for what should be an excellent dinner at one of the top restaurants in Ubud. Except, unbeknownst to us, the restaurant is a little out of town on the most congested road in Ubud, and we crawled our way along what should have been a fifteen minute drive, and were late.  In Bali they are always saying ‘Palan, palan’ or ‘slowly, slowly’ for a pace of life, not to rush around in the hot tropical heat, but to take things easy.  Well the same applied to the traffic around Ubud, we went “palan, palan’ to the restaurant. Finally we arrived, eager to get in and not miss any more of the talk.

Then we see the steep, big steps leading down into the restaurant and my heart sinks.  I was expecting some steps, there always are in Bali, but not usually this many, and not for a venue for a festival. Thankfully the welcoming girl, looking beautiful, dressed up in her uniform of traditional sarong and kabaya, helped me down, slowly and carefully each poorly lit step, with Niyati following behind with my cushion.  The welcoming girl knew how to assist too, offering strength I could lean into, not just a token arm which many offer, which is of no help. While going down there is the help of gravity so it doesn’t require as much effort as going up, but it was tough on my bad knee, which didn’t like the impact of each step. When we reached the bottom of about forty uneven, large steps, I paused and took a few big breaths and then tackled the few steps up into the restaurant, which seemed remarkably quiet for the venue of a talk.  I thought “Phew I’ve made it! At least I can stop and rest now. But where is Michael?”

I couldn’t believe it when the woman at the entrance points to the two flights of stairs up to where the talk is being held. I gather my strength for the next leg, keeping my attention on just one step at a time, not the whole lot.  Once again it was with a hand from one of the staff supporting me.  At least these ones were more civilized, well lit and not so steep and big, and had a balustrade to assist.

In another heart sinking moment, as we reached the top, I saw there was no one having dinner, just people sitting in rows. I’d mistakenly assumed having a talk at a restaurant, for the price being charged, would involve dinner. I had two mistaken assumptions that night, that in hindsight would have been good to check; that the ticket price included dinner and that I would be able to get into the venue, albeit with some help. I usually check about the accessibility when I go somewhere new at home, but this time I didn’t.

We sat quietly in chairs at the side of the small stage, and tuned into what Micheal Leunig was saying, delighting in watching him draw his well known characters projected onto the wall behind him, resigned to being hungry, and resolving to make the most of all the effort it took to get there.

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He talked of a turning point in his life as a cartoonist for a major newspaper, during the Vietnam War.  When he was particularly moved by the horror of it all and wanting to express what was in his heart, with the first cartoon where he broke out of his old mould, of Mr Curly with a teapot on his head. That was the start of Leunig bringing heart, the dignity of the human spirit and the sacred into the hard world of journalism. He talked of his creative process while needing to meet a deadline, but just allowing his pen to move where it wants, and getting himself out of the way and seeing what comes. It felt to me he was describing being in the moment and allowing an energy greater than him to come through. He talked of days when the drawing gets messy and complicated and feels like it is going nowhere, and he has to meet his frustration and sense of failure, let his ego go and continue on.

I loved when he said he just has to keep going, meet what happens and somehow get a result to meet that deadline.  I loved when he talked of the fragility of the human condition, and how important it is to have love and the spirit represented in a media that is usually so empty of these most important human qualities. Quite often when someone asked a question he would say “I don’t know, I don’t have a lot of answers”. I loved his humility.

I was touched and inspired and so glad I made the effort to get to his talk. He gave me a boost in my tortuous working on this book. By 9.30, we were fading from a lack of food, but Niyati slipped downstairs to the restaurant to get some snacks on offer, which revived us to be able to stay until the talk finished at ten.  Niyati asked “Do you want to go and meet him?” I looked at the queue of people already forming to meet him, and not feeling up to standing in it, I said “No I’m happy with the talk, that was enough, let’s go and eat.”

So down the two flights of stairs we go, with a woman in the queue tuning in fast and walking in front of me in case I needed help.  We ordered some food, and I could finally go to the toilet. We shook our heads at how this inaccessible place, where there wasn’t even a toilet on the same level as the talk, could be a major venue of the festival.  Thankfully in Australia there is far more awareness these days about having accessible venues and almost wherever I go some thought and effort has gone into making the venue accessible to all.  As we sat and ate I was facing the stairs and I noticed my slight resentment at all the people so effortlessly going up and down them, not giving it a thought, taking for granted something so basic.

We were both tired by now and ready to head back to our hotel, but with some dread at the mountain of steep steps that first must be climbed.  Niyati was sympathetic and empathetic; sometimes it is easier being the sufferer, than watching a loved one suffer and being able to do little about it.  Once again there were ready hands to help, and I just focused on one step at a time.  It is not a good idea to look up and ahead when climbing a mountain, eyes kept just on the next step, then the next; otherwise it feels too daunting. I got up to what I thought was the top, and was dismayed to see another flight, which nearly undid me, and then it was back to just one step at a time.  By the last few I was tired and sore, my bad knee and neck and shoulders were complaining at the effort, at which point I had a man on either side hauling me up.  I said to both of them “I will never come to this restaurant again, it is not friendly for me”, needing to say something about it and make a point. I was feeling annoyed at the festival organisers and at myself for not checking ahead.

I was so relieved to reach the top, and I was standing there recovering in the now quiet carpark, catching my breath, letting my shoulders relax a little, when suddenly Niyati cries out “Ah! Here he is!”  I turn around and Niyati is lassoing Michael Leunig from the top of the stairs towards us. He is all alone on his way out and we have him to ourselves.  He is quite tall with a mass of white curly hair, and he bent over slightly to us two small women.  Niyati says, with hands in a Namaste position, “Thankyou so much, that was wonderful.” And perhaps in need of expressing her concern for me, she burst out, “And my poor friend Suchita here had to go through so much to see you, all those dreadful stairs.”  He turns his attention to me, smiling, looks back at the stairs and says “Yes I can see”. He would have been behind us as we climbed the stairs.

I gush out “Thankyou so much, we love your work and I so needed to hear that tonight.  I’m writing a book and it is not easy, and I’m inspired by hearing you; it was so helpful.” He continued smiling and said in a heartfelt, sincere tone “Thankyou so much,” as though he was touched. And he reached down and took my hands in his large soft ones and held them.  We smiled into each other’s eyes and for me there was a meeting of hearts. It felt like we were standing there for quite a while, and it was me who drew my hands away; I was tired and uncomfortable standing for that long.  Then we said our goodbyes and he headed to his waiting transport.

Niyati and I turned to each other with huge smiles and shining eyes, saying “Wow!” My heart was full of joy; it was like this extra special reward after all that effort, to meet and connect with one of my heroes.  We were on a high all the way back to our hotel and felt blessed. It was a magical moment, wrenched from misadventures, which made it all worthwhile.

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