Monday, April 02, 2018

A round life

Yesterday morning I stood before a small audience of supportive strangers and read a poem I’d written a couple of months ago. It was about connection, tenderness, anniversaries and the hole that is left behind when somebody dies. Reading it aloud, my hands shook but my voice was strong. Being vulnerable, and connecting with my audience, felt brave in a really good way.

Karaoke at the Bohemia - another little act of courage

This weekend has been all about bravery and connection and creativity for me. As well as the poetic recitation, I’ve danced with abandon to the tunes of a contemporary brass band, strummed on my ukulele with a new friend, listened to beautiful music, laughed uproariously with old friends, sung karaoke with the assistance of a backing ensemble, and slept peacefully on the grass. I found myself in deep conversations about leadings, learnings, gender equality in the hair cutting business, the search for love, bad legislation, time management, and the eternal quest for meaning.

It seemed perhaps even more important to be creative, connected and brave as this weekend marks the ten year anniversary of David’s death. A decade ago there was another gaping hole left behind, another grieving spouse, and another set of communities making their way through the fog of uncertainty and pain. Yet, it was also the beginning of a journey of self-discovery, deeper friendships and creative pursuits for myself and others. And at David’s funeral all those years ago, I read a poem by Michael Leunig about living a spacious and round life, not necessarily a long one.

Poem I read at the funeral
What I've learnt from the past decade, and particularly from the past few years, is that while we can't control whether bad things happen, we can control the way that we reach out to others, show our vulnerability, and provide support and kindness at those times. These are the true measures of our humanity. Simple acts of love that have meant something include attending a funeral for the grieving not the deceased, quietly arranging transport, being there waiting in the rain, offering a place to stay, being okay with looking at ashes, bringing soup, and taking long, companionable walks where nothing particular is said.

So, as I think of those touched by more recent loss, I realise that opportunities to be brave, to connect more deeply, to move in surprising directions, to explore creativity, and to live a round and spacious life, can arise from the depths of suffering. This weekend I honour all those courageous, vulnerable and strong people who’ve chosen to live their lives with integrity, filled with creativity, love and joy.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Mind the gap

A friend recently posted on facebook about an older man and a younger woman holding up commuter traffic as they politely insisted that the other go first onto the train. I guess we've all found ourselves in that scenario at one time or another. It's the same in the lifts at my work. There will be a man who is positioned right near the entrance who will stand there with his arm across the door until those of us at the back have marched past him and safely out of the lift before he departs. I wonder whether he’s being old fashioned and patriarchal, or whether I am being stubborn and difficult for not appreciating his chivalry. Most of the people commenting on the facebook post seemed to think that a kindness shown to another person should be accepted graciously.

Since today is International Women's day, I have been reflecting on what it means to be a feminist, an ally, and a compassionate human. We know that, while women fare just as well as men at highschool, it’s men who earn more, have accumulated more superannuation, and are more likely to be in a management role by the time we’re in our 40s. Women are also more likely to do the bulk of the unpaid work at home, and be on the receiving end of domestic violence, sexual violence and harassment. In so many areas of our lives, there is a disappointing gap larger than that between the train and the platform.

Something is out of whack, and what I guess annoys me is that we women don't need doors opened for us. What we need is allies to the feminist cause, those who are willing to help shift the power dynamics, and open genuinely equal opportunities for advancement, confidence and leadership. Yet, how often do men who are in a position of power step back, encourage, and allow a woman to progress in her chosen field ahead of him? And when they do, are they the same men who hold open the in-real-life doors?

Tonight there was a new teacher at circus class. He was older, chubbier, and more cheerful than the regular guy. I liked him immediately. We started at the beginning because the other student had even less experience than me, and I couldn’t really remember any of the poses anyway. Throughout the entire class our teacher encouraged and supported us. At times he stepped back, and let us take the time to get the hang of a new balance. He continually celebrated our achievements, however small, and ensured that we ended the class with a successful three person koala stand! I came home on a real high, feeling as if a whole new world had been opened up for me.

Triple Koala
So, the next time somebody tries to hold a door open, I could take their hand and effortlessly swing into chair pose, or bird, or koala. But no, that would only create even more awkwardness and confusion with other commuters on the train. So, perhaps I’ll just take it as somebody seeing leadership potential in me and choose to step ahead with confidence. Because, hey, I am woman. Hear me roar!

Monday, January 15, 2018

Through the looking glass

I recently had a new built-in wardrobe constructed at my place. When I was presented with the different options available, my main concern was with the idea of mirrored sliding doors. "Won't it feel really narcissistic looking at myself the whole time?" I asked various friends. "Oh, you'll get used to it" was the most common reply. So, I went with the mirrored built-in robe. A man with a truckload of tools came by, and after 4 hours of measuring, sawing, drilling and sweating, I had my new wardrobe, and, surprisingly, a quite different way of looking at things.

A younger me, mum and a mirror

You see, back a year or so ago I had decided to interview my mum about her life. I found a website with a whole bunch of questions that are good to ask people, and whittled the list down to what felt like a manageable number that would relate to our mum. Then the interviewing process began. As we sat together on the verandah, she diligently shared stories about her childhood, life as a mother, and her spirituality while I listened, typing as much of it as I could onto my little laptop.

Then, following a gap where life got in the way, I began the editing process. It felt intimate and special to be pulling together my mother's words, and helping them to take shape. My aim was to keep her phrasing intact, but take out all the questions and have it flow as if she'd said it as one stream of consciousness. On her birthday a year after the process had begun, I gave her the story, profressionally bound and complete with a picture of her and her grandson on the front. Mum was quietly excited. She'd go home and read it that very night, she told me. 

It took mum about a week to contact me again after that night when she read her story. The truth is, she hadn't liked it. "It was like having a mirror held up in front of me and finally seeing myself the way others must see me."

I recently had a similar experience to mum. I was contacted on a dating site by a very promising man. I immediately resonated with a lot of what he said and how he saw the world. The first time we spoke, the conversation lasted 4 hours. It all seemed to be going quite well, so we made a plan to meet when I'd be in his city.

In the meantime we exchanged long emails and continued with our enjoyable phone conversations. We would each make ourselves a cuppa and drink our tea while we chatted about the state of the world, feminism, literature, making music, Winnie-the-Pooh, and the stories of our lives. We shared some of our most intimate secrets, and the experiences that gave us real joy. 

Just as mum was excited at the prospect of reading her story, I was becoming more and more hopeful that our date would signal the start of a splendid story of my own. But then, with our interstate date only a week away, he called up to cancel. "I just don't think it's going to work". 

I hung up the phone, burst into tears, and lay on my bed while the grief of unfulfilled expectations washed over me. Sitting up, I glared at my reflection. Eyes blotchy with tears,  hair disshevelled, and those extra holiday kilos defiantly bulging out of my house dress, what I saw in the glass was suddenly not in any way the picture of romantic possibility or the confident woman I'd imagined myself to be.

The next day at work, eyes still a bit blotchy, I endured the mundane, and busied myself with the tasks at hand. Occasionally, when my colleague was chatting about this and that, my eyes would well up a little, and I hoped it didn't show.

It was only when I was packing up my things at the end of the day that I noticed a purple envelope slipped into my bag. It was a thoughtful note from my colleague, reminding me of the qualities she admires in me. Not knowing what was wrong, but sensing my pain, she had held a different mirror up in front of me, reflecting a more positive picture of who I am and the direction my story might take. It helped me see my situation in a much more positive light. The downside was that it only made the blotchy eye situation worse!

A thoughtful gesture can change everything

As for mum, after some time she told me she had re-read her story with fresh eyes as well. She could be compassionate with the parts of herself that she'd initially felt repelled by. She was thinking of writing more of her story...filling in the bits that I hadn't yet captured. She, too, wanted to hold up a kinder and more generous mirror to the narrative of her life.  

So, I've decided that my next home improvement project will be to put a few affirming messages on the looking glass. I want to be sure that the image reflected back at me is of the beautiful, courageous and kind person who my friend sees. 

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Both sides now

"If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality." - Archbishop Desmond Tutu

A sure-fire way to get me riled up is to say, in relation to Israel and Palestine "well, both sides have behaved in pretty vile ways" or something to that effect. I'll almost certainly come back at you with information about the power gap between Israel and Palestine, the statistics on the disproportionate numbers of casualties on the Palestinian side, and how it couldn't be much further removed from a school-yard quarrel if it tried. Yet, this flawed assumption of two equal sides is prevalent in so many contexts where injustice exists.

The ABC's recent Q&A program that focussed on the marriage equality postal survey also upset me for the same reason. The program found equal numbers of yes and no proponents for the panel and gave equal voice time to all panelists. Yet, this is not a balanced debate. Those opposed to legislative change have benefited from a system that recognises their circumstances as valid and provides them with their rights to religious and secular union. Magda Zebanski, on the other hand, was the only actual representative of the LGBTIQ community on the panel. She alone represented a minority group of people who make up only 10% of the population, and who have been regularly harassed, abused, discriminated against and dehumanised for centuries, and who are now forced to beg and plead for equal rights. 

In the #metoo movement, where countless women have shared stories of sexual abuse and harassment in their lives, the power gap issue raises its ugly head yet again. Men who were high up in business, or politics, or in the entertainment industry knew that there were career incentives pushing young women to say yes despite misgivings and career consequences for those brave enough to say no. But the global movement of everyday women speaking up about sexual misconduct and abuse demonstrates that it's not just those men with obvious power and influence who are the culprits. It's also everyday men - our colleagues, our friends, and our family members.

While not all men act to abuse and denigrate women, all cis-gendered men hold the privileged position of living within a society that does not treat women and men as equals. Our society teaches men that they are entitled to speak on any topic and be listened to, that they can expect to progress easily in their chosen career and that they should go after anything in life that they want. Women, on the other hand, have been socialised to be grateful for the opportunity to speak on a subject we know a fair bit about, to work hard if we wish to succeed, and to believe that others' needs must be placed ahead of our own. Our patriarchal society is the perfect breeding ground for abuse in intimate relations.

Like just about every woman, I can think of a few situations of my own where a friend or colleague ignored the boundaries I had set and behaved inappropriately. In each case, it took me an incredibly long time to name and acknowledge and speak about what had happened, most likely because I'd been socialised to blame and doubt myself and to feel ashamed that I'd let it happen to me in the first place. I also spent a significant amount of time worrying about how he would feel if I stood up for myself and held him accountable for his behaviour. Eventually, in a recent case, I did speak up, and the man admitted his wrongdoing and apologised.

Yet, as was the experience for others publicly sharing their similar stories, those who offered me the most valuable support were other women. The responses I tended to receive from men involved a fair amount of discomfort, denial, and dismissal. I found I came away more doubtful and ashamed than before. When the perpetrator and I were described as both nice people who just needed to learn to get along better, I felt similarly to Desmond Tutu's proverbial mouse.

One of the down-sides to being raised a Quaker is always being encouraged to consider the other's point of view. Quakers have taken up the role of mediator in many international and interpersonal disputes, a role which inevitably involves seeing "both sides" of a conflict. But what does taking a neutral, peacemaking role in situations of injustice mean for those who are oppressed? A fellow Quaker recently posted on facebook her concern that we've misunderstood our commitment to see "that of God" in everyone. She believes that we are not being asked to overlook transgressions or only look for the good. Perhaps, she argues, we are called to view that of God within each person as their conscience, and seek to shine a light on that conscience when the other person has done wrong. We all have the capacity to recognise the harm we have caused others and set out to remedy it, but it's less likely to happen if that harmful behaviour is repeatedly condoned, minimised, excused or ignored. 

I think there's an important role for observers of injustice, whether in situations of sexual harassment and abuse, discrimination towards vulnerable people or military control exercised by powerful Governments. We all need to move past the discomfort of holding others to account. So, I will continue to model speaking out about injustice in all its forms.  I will also continue to set boundaries and more confidently challenge those who try to push past those boundaries. It's a journey, and I'm not always pleased with how I respond, but I do seem to get better with practise.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The first date

We sit down at a small outdoor table in the courtyard of the cafe. Me in a spot directly beneath a large palm frond, he in the chair opposite. He had arrived late, citing traffic, and then immediately suggested we move tables. My original choice had not been to his liking. Drops of water from the tree above start to land intermittently on my head.

We settle into a rhythm. He speaks earnestly about his life, and i listen. I hear about numerous Masters degrees, his kids, the women he’s recently dated, his views on polyamory and his brush with teetotalling Buddhism. This is normally the point at which I might mention being a Quaker, but somehow, I get the feeling that this date is not actually about me.

My companion enthusiastically assists me in choosing a glass of wine. He’s a bit of a connoisseur, you see. For him, just a pot of tea, thank you. I comment favourably on his shirt. It’s green, which is always a winner for me, plus he wears it well.

His appearance reminds me of my uncle colin, whose rugged, outdoorsy good-looks made him everyone's favourite. Although I remember col as modest and interested in other people. Even when he was dying, he went out of his way to dress up for my 21st and assist me in planning my first overseas trip.

When my date reveals that he’s actually 46, having lied on his profile, I note that he’s only a few years younger than colin was when he died.

The tea and wine arrive. Having done a fair amount of swishing and swirling of both beverages, he settles back in his chair, smiles widely and calmly crosses his legs. It is at that point that I notice the clogs. They are a smart casual black leather clog, definitely not a croc, and the one that has caught my eye now dangles about an inch from my knee. I try to recall what my "how to tell a man by his shoes" book from high school said about clogs. I don't think it was terribly favourable.

Moving on to other topics, I ask if he’d like any tapas. “I should be up front” he says by way of reply. “I actually have another party to go to tonight. I’ll have to leave quite soon”. And, sure enough, he does. Somehow I end up paying. He promises to get the next one, which I am already suspecting will never happen.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Broken and Tender

I wake just before dawn, from another night of vivid dreams. Pulling aside the thick monastic curtain, I watch from my single bed as the sun slowly creeps away from the horizon. A few birds signal that morning has indeed broken. The 'silent day' stretches out ahead of me; open, daunting, and full of possibility. First I think I’ll do some meditation, followed by reading, writing, and then in the afternoon some watercolour painting or a short walk. All this will be punctuated by meal times, where fellow pilgrims either nod or smile in recognition before continuing contemplatively on their way.

Sunrise over Don Bosco Retreat Centre
I’m on a Quaker retreat, the second bookend to a year of spiritual learning. A year ago at the first retreat, when the year was just beginning, I read a book called To be broken and tender: A Quaker theology for today by Margery Post Abbott. I was drawn to this book because of the title, as I was feeling fairly broken and tender myself at the time. It had been a year of emotional challenges that I had mostly dealt with fairly well. I was also about to embark on a three month peacemaker program in Palestine, so was already beginning to think of ways to nurture and be tender with myself during that time.

But the author’s meaning was a little different. The phrase ‘broken and tender’ was used to describe a community (a Quaker community specifically, but it’s probably relevant more broadly) that is thriving, nourishing, open and connected. The broken part talks of breaking open our hearts enough to allow the light to shine in, or breaking the earth in order to allow a seed to grow. The tenderness is about tenderness to the spirit, or an openness to being led in unexpected directions. A broken and tender community contains people who have “broken apart the bounds of the ego”, and experienced pure love. It is ready and able to be tender in the care of its members and more passionate in its concern for the wellbeing of the world. It all sounded good to me.

Another Pilgrim, halfway up the mountain

Indeed, a lot of my personal journey this past year has been about self-care, and how to draw communities into that. I’ve gathered groups of friends around me, for fun and music as well as for nurture. I explored the types of support networks that I need for work, for activism, and for play, and how to seek out these things. Creativity and watercolour paints have played a big role in this practise of self care. I’ve also explored setting boundaries, and when and how to stand up for myself, and what happens differently when I do. And I've had a fair few surprises along the journey.

One session at this year's retreat encouraged us to think about "truth and love". It's taken from a Quaker advice about listening to the promptings of truth and love in your heart. Truth can mean 'my truth' or right path, or it can mean speaking an inconvenient or difficult truth to someone that you love. When we shower someone with love and avoid the truth, it is an empty, shallow love. When we speak the truth without an ounce of love, we are just being mean. Over the past year I've experimented with different balances of love and truth. There’ve been instances of truth spoken with love, truth spoken without enough love, and times when I realise that the other person is not in a safe enough place to hear the truth.

Painting as a meditative practice
Now, a year later, having been on this journey of self-discovery and contemplation and creativity, I find myself again at the retreat centre, and back to the spaciousness and scariness of 'silent day'. This time I’m reading another of Margery Post Abbott’s writings, a lecture given last year in Australia on Everyday Prophets, where she explores a number of common and quite contemporary issues that Quakers, and other pilgrims, face along their journey. She describes discerning the best way forward at a fork in the road, testing a leading, wrestling with whether our ego is getting in the way, and figuring out how to speak truth to power particularly when those with the power are other members of our faith community or family. She spoke a lot about the marriage equality debate as it was a hot topic in the USA at that time. The experiences of her fairly conservative Quaker community were extremely interesting to me as lately I’ve been wrestling with how and when and if to discuss the subject with family members and friends who sit on the other side of the fence to me. It's another example of discerning the right balance of love and truth.

Another book I’ve been reading is Rex Ambler’s Light to live by. This book describes the author’s challenges in settling down in meeting for worship, and delves into the wisdom of the early Friends. Without the distractions of mobile phones, facebook, and the crazy array of choice in our modern world, those seventeenth century Quakers seemed to find it much easier to centre down and listen to God, spirit, or what they often referred to simply as Light. Rex Ambler hears of a psychological technique called focussing, and discovers that it is incredibly similar to the technique described by the early Friends. He put a mix of the two into practise, and found he was receiving much clearer direction from the Light than ever before. 

I was keen to try this technique for myself. I’ve heard of many Australian Friends who are involved in “Light Groups”, and I felt ready to move from what has felt like a much more emotional journey to perhaps a more spiritual one. But, as I sat on the edge of my bed in the early hours of the morning, I couldn’t get past stage two, which was to let the real concerns of your life emerge. Instead of clarity on what was going on in my life, I felt a heaviness, a sortof tightness and discomfort in my chest. So, after what felt like hours of patiently awaiting guidance, I gave up. 

The rest of the day was spent reading, writing and doing chest-opening yoga poses. I just loved walking past the purple daisies in the retreat centre grounds and sat for a while painting them. For me, with their vibrant colours and fragile petals, they seemed representative of the heart broken wide open. I was particularly grateful for the silence at mealtimes. But despite these enriching experiences, there was a niggling feeling of discomfort hovering above me all day. Had I been doing this new meditative practice wrong somehow? Or is this how it feels to have one’s heart breaking open just enough to let the light shine in? Do you literally feel it in your chest? 

Open, a daisy from the retreat centre gardens
Towards the end of the day I spoke with my spiritual counsellor, and she assured me that I wasn’t doing anything wrong. Different techniques for centering down or discerning meaning work for different people. What seemed to work better for us was to explore some of the vivid dreams I’d been having lately. After thinking more carefully about a secret storeroom filled with encyclopedias, a kitchen bench that didn't used to exist and an overflowing washing machine I now have enough fodder for about a year of silent days.  So as darkness falls, and I crawl into bed, I feel settled, and calm. The sensation in my chest seems to have faded away. And, tomorrow is a new day. There will be new light.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Checking the checkpoint

The alarm wakes me from a deep sleep. With my nose the only part of me not in the sleeping bag, I can almost smell how cold it is. I take a deep breath and reluctantly emerge from my cocoon. I can hear team-mates also stirring in the next room. It’s not long before we’re bundled into the car and hurtling down the highway towards the Israeli border at a roaring pace.

As an Ecumenical Accompanier in Palestine's South Hebron Hills, we rose at 3:30am once a month to monitor the treatment of Palestinians travelling into Israel through the Maitar checkpoint. Most of the people passing through this checkpoint between 4am and 7am are men on their way to work. Because work is difficult to come by in Palestine, people will go to great lengths to find work in Israel, even if it means waking at 3am, and staying most of the week away from their family.

By the time we arrive, the entry to the checkpoint is a bustling hive of activity. Stallholders litter the side street, offering warm coffee and tea, or food for the journey. We stake out a spot near the turnstile, where it’s possible to see the people lining up, and catch those rejected and on their way back home. Carrying sleeping gear, or food for the week, some hitch a ride with anyone else going the same way, and others park their car in what soon looks like a drive-in just ahead of the checkpoint.

As the morning wears on, and the sun’s first rays of light begin to appear, the numbers of people waiting to enter Israel increases, the line begins to spill out onto the road and those inside the caged maze find themselves at a complete standstill. Some, who become frustrated by the pace, climb the caged walls, in an attempt to cut in ahead of those who perhaps decide that they can afford to wait. Little tussles and arguments break out from time to time.

Credit: Peter Morgan, another EA
The process of lining up in a tin shed, presenting one’s work permit to an emotionless guard, and then travelling by foot in the harsh desert weather is dehumanising and would make anyone feel like cattle set for the slaughter. Yet there were so many ways that people quietly demonstrated their humanity, dignity and sense of humour. Many of the men wave at us as they pass through, and joke with friends as they wait their turn.

One man who was turned away was hanging around near us for a bit, assisting other rejectees in filling out our brief survey form. He told us his reason for refusal was “expired work permit”, which was the most common explanation. These workers are reliant on their boss going ahead with the necessary paperwork to extend the visa. After hanging around with us for half an hour or so and chatting in a good humoured way, he disappeared. About ten minutes later there he was in the queue again, smiling at us and sporting a different hat. He wasn’t rejected a second time.

Towards the end of our three hour shift, we start to see women and children appearing in the queue. We are told that they are usually headed to Israeli jails to visit sons and daughters doing time for minor crimes like “stone throwing” that they may or may not have committed. These travellers are laden with food and small gifts, a reminder of how important family and hospitality are to Palestinians. Eventually it’s time to wake up our driver, and begin the trip back to town. As we drift into a snoozy silence, I think of my own commute back in Sydney. It’s hard to believe that such a dehumanising commute is the norm on the other side of the world.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Eid Marabak

Today is the last day of Ramadan. As Jess and I rode our bikes from her home in West Heidelberg to the nearby organic food markets, we passed a family getting in their car, in religious dress. Jess wished them Eid Marabak, and the older son’s face lit up. Waves and smiles, and cheerful greetings followed, as we peddled on our way. That's  interfaith dialogue, in my mind.

And I'm reminded of when I was in Yatta, a predominantly Muslim city, on Christmas night. We four internationals had been in Bethlehem for Christmas eve, and had just returned home. Our neighbour, Abed, turned up in his usual style, which was to knock loudly on the door while shouting out various names at the same time, and clad in a full-length fake-fur overcoat. I came to the door, and Abed marched into the lounge, announcing that he’d brought each of us a Christmas gift. There in his hand were 4 small wrist bands in Palestinian colours. He explained that he didn't really know what to give us on our religious festival, and hoped this was acceptable. I really appreciated the thought, and the act of interfaith generosity.

Abed, on the balcony of his guesthouse
My experience in this place where I was a religious minority, was of constant graciousness, generosity, hospitality and warmth. We were regularly invited into our neighbours’ homes, and fed bread, hummus and tea. Our cultural quirks and misdemeanours were graciously ignored, and attempts were made to understand our seemingly odd behaviour. And it's the same here in Australia. Visiting Lakemba the other night, shop-keepers were delighted to be able understand some of my broken Arabic, and share in the delight of delicious middle eastern food. I want to be able to give something of that generosity back to Muslims in Australia and elsewhere, who live as a religious minority, and/or whose difference is more often seen as a reason for suspicion and fear as opposed to an opportunity for connection or learning.

Coffee in Lakemba
So, whether it’s across the street in West Heidelberg in Victoria, over a cup of coffee in Lakemba in Sydney, between neighbours in Yatta, Ramallah, or Jerusalem or across the wires of the internet, the faith divide is only as wide as we wish it to be. I wish my Muslim brothers and sister Eid Marabak and hope for more opportunities for connection and understanding in the future.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Resistence shepherding

Seated on a bag of flour placed on top of an upturned bucket in an isolated tent on the rocky fields of the West Bank I listen as Jibrin, a kind-faced Palestinian man, talks of his religious convictions and his troubles. I’m in the West Bank as part of a World Council of Churches program, to provide protective presence and monitor human rights.

Jibrin’s tent is all he has in the way of shelter. His grazing fields, crucial to his livelihood, stand less than a kilometre from the Israeli settlement of Susya. Frustrated by settlers who set fire to barley and wheat fields and attack his sheep, soldiers who turn a blind eye, and unjust arrests for crimes he didn’t commit, this shepherd is determined to remain on his land, no matter the cost.

Jibreen in his tent
And the costs have been significant. I wept as he spoke of his brother's death at the hands of Israelis in the late 1960’s. Ever since, his life has been marred by violence, injustice and fear. One nearby settler, who goes by the name Son of Mudahai, had come by just two days earlier with a gun and a big knife. A while back a neighbour was arrested and given a 20,000 shekel fine and 7 months jail time. Yet, Jibrin, a Muslim man, remembers a time when Jews, Christians and Muslims lived happily alongside one another. Despite everything he has experienced since the occupation began, he still believes in the inherent goodness in others. His faith seems to give him courage and hope.

Jibrin’s home is in the Palestinian village of Qwawis where less than half a dozen families remain. In order for his sheep to have a healthy diet, he must regularly take them out to his fields for the day. What was once a relatively straightforward journey is now fraught with danger. Multi-lane highways connecting settlements with cities now cut through Jibrin’s usual shepherding route, and I hold my breath as the sheep veer perilously onto the road. Settlements have appeared atop the hills where his sheep are accustomed to graze. As he speaks the odd and abrupt directives to his beloved sheep, Jibrin always has one eye on the settlement nearby.

My role as a human rights monitor and accompanier was to provide protective presence to people like Jibrin. During those three months I accompanied a number of shepherds, and activists, and children, all of whom were seeking to have their basic rights observed. And in many ways, they accompanied me on my own journey of understanding and insight. As I wandered alongside a flock of sheep, or carried trees to be planted by activists, or walked with children to and from school, I reflected on what it must be like to continually live under occupation and with human rights denied.

Jibreen and his sheep

In my final week in Palestine, the worst happened. Jibrin was arrested on my watch. The ordeal began with the arrival of a settler who with a mobile phone in one hand and a pistol in his back pocket began hurling abuse at Jibrin. Jibrin remained firm. Our visitor retreated, only to make some calls, and not long afterwards the army showed up. Three army jeeps, plus the Israeli police and the civil administration appeared to respond to an unarmed shepherd whose only crime was to defiantly and persistently watch his flock on his family land that the administration seem to have now declared a closed military zone.

Suddenly I was receiving calls from our field officer and a local activist, both of whom were advising me to leave the scene, and advising Jibrin to leave too. We were both hesitant to follow those orders, but in the end I left and Jibrin remained. As his sheep meandered back onto the road, and had to be rounded up by his wife, I looked on helplessly as Jibrin was taken into the police vehicle and detained for the rest of the day. It felt as if I had failed him.

Jibrin is someone that I think of as a resistance shepherd, because the simple act of taking his sheep out to graze is his way of nonviolently resisting the occupation and all its impacts on the existing inhabitants. Each time he goes out, he doesn’t know what troubles he will face, but he sees it as a small but important role that he plays in nonviolently resisting an unjust system. Up until his recent arrest he was determined to continue shepherding on his land until they killed him. Now his sumud (steadfast persistence) is somewhat deflated. The last time I saw him, he told me he'd rather be killed quickly in Syria than slowly in this way. Then he burst into tears.

As we bid goodbye under these traumatic circumstances, I promised to share Jibrin’s story with others. I was struck by the differences between our two life journeys, and yet how we are forever connected through this shared traumatic experience. As Jibrin’s journey will inevitably take him and his sheep along that well-trodden path between his tent and the grazing land where he never knows what kinds of challenges he will face, my journey has taken me back to the familiarity and comfort of a home not under threat. But I will never forget Jibrin, or the way that he saw the world.

This article was recently published in The Australian Friend

Saturday, June 17, 2017

On being and doing

Many years ago I read Peace Comes Walking, the biography of Donald Groom, an English Quaker peace activist who had lived in India in the 1940s and followed the example of Gandhi. As I was ensconced in my Masters degree in peace and conflict studies at the time, I was intrigued by the life of a peace worker. I had been struck by the tension between Donald’s commitment to live his life in the pursuit of a just peace, and his attempts to maintain inner peace and peace with his family.

In the years since, I have held this tension in my mind as I forge out my own work for peace and justice. Another aspect of peace activism that I drew from Donald Groom’s biography and from writings about Gandhi’s life was the balance, or sometimes tension, between “being” and “doing”. Or, to put it another way, between the inner world and action in the wider world. Much of what is written about Gandhi suggests that he took time out from his activism (the doing) to nourish his spiritual soul, and to seek divine guidance (the being). It was during a time of deep contemplation (being) that the idea of the salt march (doing) occurred to him.

Jerusalem - where spirituality abounds
I wanted to explore this idea of how to incorporate the being into the doing as I prepared for 3 months as an ecumenical accompanier in Palestine. This role was to be a very active and potentially stressful one, where I was to accompany those working nonviolently to end the occupation and monitor human rights abuses. I was aware I would need to be grounded and comfortable in myself in order to do this work effectively. Where would I seek spiritual guidance in this context? How would I find the time and space to nurture my inner world? And what effect would it have on the “doing”, if any?

After my first support group meeting, it was decided that I would explore creative ways of engaging with Spirit, as the idea of reading lots of texts didn't seem to bring me particular joy. I began with watercolour painting as my main way to nurture the “being” side. I had packed a travel sized watercolour set, and began painting the washing lines visible from the roof of our house, and loved the vibrant colours of the clothing that shone against the backdrop of mainly cream coloured houses and dusty earth. One evening I tried to capture the sunset, but the sky darkened so quickly that my painting looked more like a confused prawn as I played catch up with the changing hues of the night sky.

Rooftop washing
As winter lifted and we began to accompany shepherds much more frequently during their days of meandering and grazing, I found myself using this quiet, meditative time to centre down. Since my only obligation in this particular job was to simply ‘be there’, it seemed appropriate to take the time to practise ‘being’ in a more intentional way. Sometimes I would allow thoughts to wander about in the corners of my mind, grazing on a matter that might have been troubling me. At other times, I would, like our shepherding friends, gently direct those thoughts to move on.

One of the shepherds, Jibreen, who is a muslim, would often invite us to his tent at the end of the day for a meal or cup of tea. He liked to speak about peace. As his gentle, lilting voice would wax lyrical about his vision of the world’s faiths getting along, and about forgiveness, and his troubles, I felt so moved that on a couple of occasions I just wept. Although we didn’t share a language, it was through a mixture of gestures, translation and the inexplicable kindness in his eyes that I understood most of what he was saying. His perspective sat comfortably alongside those of Gandhi and Jesus and so many other people whose faith informed their actions and whose ministry described a peaceful future free from injustice.

Jibreen and his flock
During my last week in the job, Jibreen was arrested and detained. In the confusion of numerous phone calls from those who knew the context better than I and competing directives leading up to his arrest, I felt incredibly torn, and ultimately that I had let him down. I wondered whether a more deeply spiritual person, or alternatively a more practical person, would have handled things differently and better. And yet, I was somehow able to pick myself up from these feelings, and make attempts to right any wrongs. I made the promise to share Jibreen’s story far and wide.

More than halfway through my time in Palestine, I finally made it to Quaker meeting and met Jean Zaru, a Palestinian Quaker who writes and speaks often about nonviolence as a way of life and the struggle for justice for Palestinians. She's been influenced by liberation theology. I’d never met her before, and yet saw her as a bit of a spiritual mentor. Over a cup of tea and biscuit after meeting, I made a thoughtless comment about the call to prayer interrupting Meeting for Worship and she gently eldered me. Jean reminded me that, in the face of Israeli attempts to deny access to worship and ban the call to prayer, Christians and Muslims in the holy land needed to band together in solidarity. For her, the call to prayer during our worship was a beautiful reminder of their common struggle.

Jean and me
I found myself part of a small group of international visitors who joined Jean for lunch after Meeting for Worship. We all wanted to know more about the challenges facing Palestinian Quakers, and how they see the occupation ending. As we discussed interfaith relations, the commitment to nonviolence that we all share, and the everyday struggle for justice, I wondered how Jean blends the being and the doing in her life? How does she seek nourishment of the soul when she faces the “doing” every day? It was clear to me that a deep connection to spirit directed her activism and ministry in the wider world.

The third spiritual mentor during my time in the holy land was a fellow accompanier called Carole. She was an Australian Christian based in Hebron, working with a different organisation. Since we’d met back in Australia, and were now so physically close, she was the person I turned to when things got tough and everyone in Australia was either asleep or busy at work. Carole had a way of blending the practical and the spiritual, and would know which kind of support was needed. Sometimes she provided a compassionate ear when I needed to vent about difficult personalities, and at other times she offered a gentle nudge to encourage me to think differently about a situation. And sometimes we’d meet in Hebron for shisha. Much needed hugs and laughter would abound.

Carole and me, surrounded by friends in Hebron
So, as I entered the final weeks of my time in the holy land, I continued with my watercolour - painting neighbours, more of the countryside, tractors, and sometimes just colours on the page. I found it difficult to be stressed when painting, as it gave me a focus other than circular thoughts. I also found it helpful to write letters and blog pieces in an attempt to collect my thoughts and prepare for the advocacy work when I returned. On days off, I would sit for hours in a cafe in Ramallah nurturing my impressions into a reasonable story for others to read.

Sooner than expected, it was time to leave. A week spent partly with friends and partly alone in Europe after leaving Palestine gave me distance from the events of the previous few months, without having to face the well-intentioned questions and company of friends and family just yet. I found myself again taking time during that week to wander and wonder - writing and watercolouring, exploring and capturing the aesthetic cityscape of Prague and the parks of busy London. I took a boat ride on the lake in Geneva, as being by water always calms me.

Prague at night
As I reflect on those three months, and my attempts to find the right balance of being and doing, I realise that even those I greatly admire are struggling with these things as well. It feels as if being and doing become so intertwined that it's difficult to work out which one influences the other. I found that spirit and meaning was to be found in the unexpected - the call to prayer during silent Quaker meeting, the unjust arrest of a resistence shepherd, and the everyday reality of washing hanging on the line, flying freely while its occupants remain occupied.