Sunday, June 02, 2019

No joy

The other day I needed a "comfort skirt" and found, at the depths of the wardrobe, one that I haven't worn in almost ten years. It's a bit small for me now, and some of the patchwork panels have gone skewiff after so much wearing and washing, but it's one item I didn't feel ready to throw out in the recent "does it spark joy?" clean up adventure. So, I put the skirt on and we spent a comforting day together.

The skirt and I in our heyday!

The skirt got me thinking about Marie Kondo in a broader sense. Some of her principles for household clear outs could be applied to our social networks too. At a time when its possible to become "friends" with someone we hardly know, and then to "de-friend" or "ghost" someone we have come to know quite well, I wonder if we're as intentional about the contents of our social wardrobe as we are about our regular wardrobe. Have we become a "throw away society" when it comes to some people? And a hoarder when it comes to others? Sometimes it's good for the soul to part with those relationships that no longer spark joy, but do we take the time to properly thank folk who've drifted out of our lives?

Not long after the recent election I was surreptitiously de-friended by a family member. Apart from not knowing how this will play out at a future family get-together, if indeed there are any more, I am disappointed that there was no explanation (although I can guess what it's to do with), no farewell, and no gracious recognition of happier times that we've shared.

So, as I contemplate the future for pre-loved outfits and friends, I realise it's not too late, for me at least, to do this right. As I carefully fold the skirt, I remember the day I bought it, at a market in Freemantle. A friend selected a slightly different one for herself, and we delightedly compared notes for a while afterwards. I remember that I was wearing it when I met my ex for the first time. He said that the corduroy was a giveaway of my hippy tendencies!! The same tendencies that, ironically, are not appreciated by all.

And I remember an outing - just the two of us - when I was about 5. I think there was ice cream involved, a walk along the beach and a child-like wonder at the world. And when, sitting on Grandma’s back porch as a twenty-something, I was told in conspiratorial tones about a first crush. I’ll treasure those memories.

So, while people and garments will continue to come and go from my life, I'll always have the memories. Each one has a special place in my heart, even if one of us has outgrown the other or there's hurt and disappointment still in the air.

And so with those sentiments in mind, I'm now headed to the op shop. I'll be dropping off a bag with a few memories inside. I hope that the skewiff patchwork corduroy skirt will spark joy and create new memories for someone else for many years to come.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Pell and the patriarchy

Last week’s lift on the suppression order regarding Cardinal Pell’s guilty conviction has led to an outpouring of anger towards Pell and the Catholic Church. There is horror and fury about the acts of abuse and harm inflicted on two children by a man in a position of power, and then there is anger and disappointment at the institution that turned a blind eye. For me, there’s a third reason to be angry and that’s the patriarchy. Our social system is one where those in positions of power - mostly men - cover for and endorse one another at the expense of the basic rights and needs of those with less power - predominantly women and children. It is this system of structural violence against those most vulnerable that enables an act of harm to go untold, unbelieved, unreported and unresolved for two decades.

A number of high profile men came out in support of Cardinal Pell, despite the overwhelming evidence against him and despite a jury’s decision. Pell’s barrister described the acts he committed as “no more than plain vanilla”. Andrew Bolt explained in detail on national television why he still thinks Pell has been falsely accused. John Howard gave the man a character reference. And, in my small circles, a man about the age of Pell and his attorney expressed doubt about the verdict, concern that the public decided he was guilty even before the trial, and bewilderment as to why anyone would believe an “invisible” person over a public figure.

And right there you have the problem.

Somehow we choose to believe a man in power over a child, and insist that those with less power defend their position rather than the other way around. Men feel entitled to cry out in rage over what they perceive to be “false accusations” far more fervently than they cry out in shame for the years of trauma experienced by survivors. Acts of significant harm are minimised, excused and ignored, even by some women. These are the voices of those who have become slave to the patriarchy, who fail to see the inequity of our society and the privilege and power that people like George Pell have enjoyed up until now. Any challenge to that privilege is bitterly opposed. It is said that when you’ve been accustomed to privilege, equality begins to feel like oppression. (Clay Sharkey on twitter, 2016)

But we should and do collectively know better. The Royal Commission into Institutional responses to Child Sexual Abuse has taught us that child sexual abuse does and did happen to a much greater extent than some of us thought, it’s usually perpetrated by people in positions of power and trust, the resulting trauma is significant and long lasting, and the journey towards reporting is fraught with emotional danger.
local church
Having a #metoo story of my own, I know something of the journey that is trod in terms of choosing when and how to tell the story, and how best to heal. Not everyone believes you, and the best you can expect from some is an attitude of indifference or discomfort. You play the incident over in your mind, imagining the points at which you could have stopped it, or done things differently to get a different result. Ultimately, you blame yourself. It’s good that survivor groups have found their voice, and are calling out the damaging comments aired publicly (https://www.smh.com.au/national/victoria/vanilla-child-sexual-abuse-comments-were-profoundly-damaging-20190228-p510ta.html). They would know only too well that the boy who told his mother it didn’t happen would have done so because he was ashamed and confused, or feared disbelief and retribution. It’s exactly because of my acquaintance’s attitude that people decide not to tell. They sense that the risks are too great.

When a former colleague of mine was arrested for child sexual offences quite a few years ago now, a shudder of shock passed through the networks who had known him. We spoke in whispers, and tears of disbelief were shed. There was an element of racing to minimise reputational risk, and a couple of the men who knew him suggested that it was a “false accusation”. Yet, some of us women knew in our hearts that it was possible. We had not taken our earlier concerns or instances of discomfort with this man to management. Why? Because we didn’t think we would be believed. Or, even if we were believed, we doubted anything would be done, or done with integrity. We doubted ourselves and our interpretation of events. And we didn’t want a person we had come to know well to have his life irreversibly changed because of us, and a “hunch”. But in doing and saying nothing, we too chose to value the life of one man over that of a child. We have to live with the fact that there might be young people out there who were abused, and had their lives irreversibly changed as a result of the system that likely would have favoured his story over theirs.

But society has thankfully moved on to a certain extent from the views these few men still hold. For Australia to hold a Royal Commission, to follow through on a number of arrests and convictions, and engage in a process of reparation, is positive. Churches and other institutions are now held more strongly to account than ever before. The #metoo movement has also elevated the voices of those who have been kept silent for decades. And the aid sector in Australia now has one of the more robust Child Protection frameworks in the world. We have regular conversations about what constitutes child abuse, what signs to look out for, and how to respond appropriately and respectfully if a child reports an instance of abuse to us. And so, the groundswell of anger towards Pell indicates to me not so much a mob embarking on a witch hunt, as my acquaintance implied, but an outpouring of emotion after a long silence. It is the music of a people who will not be slaves to the patriarchy again.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

The warrior heart

When I opened the door of the small inner city studio, I was greeted by a high ceilinged room with yoga mats in a circle and half a dozen welcoming faces. It was day one of an urban retreat entitled “Awakening the warrior heart”. I had been invited by a friend, and signed up without really knowing what I was in for. Fairly confident that anything to do with warriors and matters of the heart would be good for me, I was also convinced by the promise that the two day workshop would follow Joanna Macy’s deep ecology work. The approach seems to be about providing nourishment for activists and those doing any type of 'work of the heart'.

Warriors
In the aid sector, where I work, the most common reaction to hearing what I do is “oh, that must be so rewarding”. People are correct in that it’s definitely work of the heart. I'm regularly blown away by the passion and commitment of people I work with. When a highlands man stands up to share with the group that he is dedicating his time to challenging harmful cultural practices within his church, or when the visiting facilitator from Solomon Islands expresses how impressed she is with the progress in PNG, or an exciting new idea is formed during a casual cuppa with a colleague it feels as if we do the most important and rewarding work in the world.

Yet, the day to day reality is far less glamorous or gratifying. We spend most of our office time engaged in very bureaucratic and mundane tasks like arranging flights, developing participatory workshop schedules, writing seemingly endless reports, preparing funding proposals and checking progress against the indicators we set for ourselves. When in the field, we’re sitting in over-air-conditioned workshops, seeking appropriate consent for photographs, bumping along on the floor of a fibreglass dinghy, sending off reporting data while using sporadic internet connections or attempting to carry on serious conversations with government donors while wearing flip flops and sweating like a pig. The long days, lonely nights, and inevitable security, travel or medical misadventure mean that there are high rates of burnout in the aid sector.

So, something is definitely needed to rejuvenate the soul. During the two days of yoga, movement, meditation and creativity we were served nourishing, homemade vegan food, which enabled each of us to focus on pausing, re-setting and reconnecting with spirit. But perhaps more importantly, I learnt a couple more tools for taking care of myself and reflecting on day to day difficulties.

Our first day began with yoga, including quite a few warrior poses (which i really should have anticipated). It was a little more strenuous than I’m used to, and afterwards, during shivasana (lying quietly on our backs) I began to feel a strong sensation of tightness in my chest. When I mentioned this to the teacher, wondering in my usual hypocondriac way if I was perhaps heading for a heart attack, she calmly and lovingly suggested it might more likely be unrecognised grief popping up unannounced.

A Joanna Macy meditation exercise invited us to each consider the aspect of nature that we most identify with. Some chose a physical thing like a tree, or drop of water. I identified strongly with a particular place in the world where I feel connected to nature and all beings. We also shared about our hopes and fears for the world, and I discovered that my fears were to do with our broken sense of community as well as environmental destruction and my hopes were about building a more peaceful and equitable world. After our final yoga class of the day I tentatively ventured back into the real world, aware that we'd created a small but special community in the backstreets of Newtown.

That night I was given a ticket to see Bob Dylan in concert. in some ways the activity took me out of the “vibe” of the retreat, and it felt wierd to be suddenly seated behind a couple of yobbos who were forever getting up for the toilet, yelling requests and generally disrupting the night for the rest of us. But the music was great, and towards the end I found myself singing along happily to an updated version of “Blowin’ in the wind”. It occurred to me that the sense of grief over the futility of war, the cruelty inflicted upon refugees, and the injustice of oppressive regimes has not waned since the song was written. My own grief is even stronger when I think of my nephew and (soon-to-be) niece, and the broken world that awaits them.

Our homework after the first day was to find a natural space to be in, and create a monument to our grief. Waking up the next day, I had a panicking feeling that I had run out of time to complete the task, and also that I didn't know how to create a physical expression of my grief, or even how to describe it. But walking through a park on the way to class on Day 2, I found myself reaching for the makings of a nest. As much as the nest represents grief about my own childhood and childlessness, and about the fragile world we live in, it is also a symbol of hope and of the nurturing aspects of work of the heart. I remember when two birds built a nest and eventually raised baby birds in the balcony of a house where I lived. The parents were so attentive and focused, and so distressed when one of the birds got accidentally caught in the attic. Perhaps my nest represents a commitment to keep working just as attentively for a better world for the next generation, one where the answer to all Bob Dylan's questions is more emphatic than futile; canonballs are forever banned, all people are free, no more unnecessary deaths, and nobody turns their head away pretending they just don't see.



During the morning’s meditation exercise we were invited to find a partner and look into one another’s eyes for several minutes. It was very intimate, and my partner and I felt as if we were falling in love a little bit with one another as we gazed into the windows to our souls. It’s very difficult to look into another person's eyes and not feel love, compassion and understanding. I wondered what the world would be like if we all took more time to really look at one another. I've been thinking about the ways that I get so caught up in my own grievances and petty concerns that I forget to look really deeply at the other person, and consider what might be going on for them.

Just the other day, I was given the opportunity to test this thinking. On the 418 bus, I've found myself seated a couple of times next to a slightly scary, elderly man. Each time I've made those moves to ask him to let me out for my stop he has raised his hand, and instructed me to wait. So taken aback by his prickly manner, I sat there sullenly, feeling like a child told off by the Principal. But, as I followed him off the bus (he was getting off at the same stop as it turned out) I saw a sadness in the way he held himself. I suddenly realised that he was just like me on one of my angrier days. And it can be annoying when people want to get up way before the stop and you're getting out yourself anyway.

After morning yoga and meditation, we were given the opportunity to use coloured pencils to express the support networks that we draw upon in our heart work. I found myself pulling out my travel watercolour set for this activity. The brush moved between green spaces, bodies of water, yoga practice and a telephone, because connecting with close friends is such a source of strength and support for me. When I was caught in a boating mishap a few weeks later, I contacted a close friend immediately after it happened, and was rejuvenated enough by that connection to continue with the tasks at hand - drying clothes and encouraging others to see the funnier side of our misadventure.


Sources of support
The final session was a spirited dancing time. Blindfolded in the hope of minimising our self consciousness, we each found our groove, moving to speedy tempos and to slower, more lilting rhythms. As adults, we've largely forgotten how to dance like nobody is watching, and yet it's such a freeing thing to do. In fact, one of our group has planned her birthday party at 'no lights, no lycra', which operates on a very similar principle. Finally we were also shown a couple of power poses, which are supposed to not only make us feel stronger, but have been found to reduce anxiety as well. After standing for 2 minutes with my arms up in the air, I did feel a little bit more like the warrior that I tell myself I am.

Not quite ready to return to the real world, we all lingered afterwards in the courtyard with cups of herbal tea in our hands, the monuments to our grief in our pockets or backpacks, and our brave hearts on our sleeves. Now each of us has another circle of support and encouragement for our various works of the heart.

Friday, November 02, 2018

Paved with good intentions

The other day a colleague shared the news story of an aid project gone horribly wrong. An American charity in Liberia called "More than Me" (MTM), whose stated purpose is empowerment through education, had claimed to save girls as young as 10 years old from engaging in sex work by providing them with an education. In 2014 it was revealed that, far from saving these girls, the Liberian program coordinator was sexually abusing dozens of female students and, as it was later discovered, infecting many of them with HIV.

The article explains that the founder of MTM, American Katie Meyler, had visited Liberia as a mission volunteer, seen the extreme poverty and hardship, and decided to start her own aid organisation and build a school. Katie and her board didn't have the experience or qualifications to set up and manage a school in Liberia, let alone start up a new organisation with all the governance mechanisms that are required. She was, however, quite accomplished at raising money and enthusing American donors to feel just as passionate about the plight of Liberian girls as she did. She had raised millions of dollars and contributed immense amounts of her own time and resources by the time the abuse allegations came to light. Yet, some of the criticism in the article was that she and her board didn't act swiftly enough when they were first told. In fact, there was a sense that their response was more focused on reputational risk than what was happening to the girls. Such criticisms were initially viewed as personal attacks rather than genuine areas for improvement.

Screenshot from MTM website

While this story is horrific, it's certainly not unique. About five years ago, I heard of a similar situation that happened at an orphanage in Kenya supported by an American church. Again the church had good intentions, but hadn't picked up the warning signs of sexual abuse of the children by the Kenyan Director. Research indicates that children are best cared for by family or foster carers rather than in institutions, which is no doubt why Australia's orphanages were mostly dismantled decades ago. Also, many children in orphanages don't meet the western definition of orphan, and actually have family members who they could live with. It is understood now that the parade of well-intentioned short term volunteers through orphanages only further entrenches any feelings of abandonment that the children might have.

And yet, most Australians do not flinch when somebody they know, who has no teaching or social work qualifications, heads off to the global south to teach English to and briefly hug children in an orphanage and then share selfies on social media. Otherwise known as voluntourism, this trend is vigorously criticised for being ineffective, for perpetuating stereotypes of helplessness, and for failing to address the underlying structural problems causing poverty. It also puts children at risk of abuse.

Like Katie, many returned voluntourers tread the well worn path of setting up a MONGO (My Own NGO) in the hope of solving the problems they witnessed as volunteers. In a former role, I had to manage and guide a whole bunch of enthusiastic, manic, egotistical, well-meaning and pigheaded MONGO folk towards improved governance and risk management. They each had a similar story to Katie. They'd travelled somewhere (being Australians, it was usually Nepal, Timor Leste or India), been affected by the poverty, and made a commitment to help... through starting their own organisation. In many ways my job was a nightmare, because these people tended to be high up in the corporate world, or entitled recent university graduates, or eccentric but well regarded leaders in their communities. They were not used to taking direction from young women talking about child protection, project implementation schedules and monitoring plans. But, if they wanted tax deductibility for their donations, they had to comply. One comfort, looking back on that thankless job, is that by insisting on child protection mechanisms, we might have prevented abuse like what happened within MTM. 

All of these stories point to a phenomenon called the white savior complex. It's this belief that we, as white people, can somehow "save" or "rescue" others. There's an element of the behaviour that is self-serving, because we get to play the role of hero. This is a really confronting notion for those of us in the aid sector, because in what we believe to be a post-missionary, post-colonial world, we risk perpetuating the same harm done in those eras. I was listening to a podcast the other day where people from the global south shared about how the covert racism of the white saviour complex continues to affect them. Despite extensive experience and qualifications, people of colour were repeatedly overlooked for jobs in the aid sector. They would later hear that a recent white graduate who spent two weeks in Kenya had been offered the job instead. The story began with footage of a middle aged white man (a self-professed missionary) going on an abusive rant in a Ugandan hotel. It was just awful to watch. And yet, while never to the same extent, I know I have, in a time of stress and frustration, gotten angry in a hotel lobby, and I felt ashamed about it afterwards. But perhaps even more confronting than the overt racism is seeing myself reflected back in the more insidious face of the white saviour; I want to contribute, to make a difference, and to feel worthwhile. Like so many others, my identity is wrapped up in the work I do. Because of this, there's a real risk that, like Katie, I become closed to constructive feedback, and risk doing more harm than good. 

So, how to avoid falling into all these white saviour traps? One short video suggests cutting out the selfies at the very least. A self-confessed white saviour found more genuine meaning in taking on a background volunteering role where she is on an equal footing with black and hispanic colleagues. My colleagues and I are also continually learning and improving. We share these types of questions and challenges with one another regularly, and I think we have a healthy culture of self reflection and calling one another on our bullshit, which is good. Just the other day we heard about an organisation that runs education campaigns in Australia warning students and teachers about the risks of orphanages and the dangers of voluntourism. These are positive steps. And we're constantly working out how to improve the safeguarding of children in projects our partners implement, without being colonial about it. We're also exploring how to enable passionate Australians to have a more meaningful connection to the projects they support while ensuring these connections do not impose upon our partners or put them at risk. Like any work or vocation, we're going to stuff up sometimes, and I guess for me the key is to have an attitude of learning from mistakes, and of continually listening to partners in the global south about how to support their objectives rather than imposing our own ideas of who needs to be rescued and what the future should look like. 

Friday, October 19, 2018

Waterproof

Bump, bump, splash, bumpity bump, splash, swerve. I was clutching the side of the boat for dear life as we roared through the ocean. Sometimes our dinghy rode the wave, as if on a surfboard, and other times we missed the mark and the waves crashed against the boat drenching those passengers facing forwards and causing the rest of us to lurch sideways. We were returning from a national church gathering in a PNG village just a short paddle ride from Australia’s Saibai island in the Torres Strait.


Our colleague's dinghy
The gathering had been an extraordinary experience for me and the couple I was with. Following a village visit a short dinghy ride from Daru where there was much dancing, ceremony and religious fanfare, we had set sail (so to speak) once again, and arrived at the Assembly venue as darkness fell, together with a fleet of other canoes. Over the next couple of days Church leaders and visitors shared their progress reports, a special bilateral contract was signed with the Cook Islands, policy decisions were made, gifts were exchanged, and there was plenty of dancing. We were billeted in the home of a local family, and generously fed and given their bedrooms while they slept under the house on mats on the ground. Our trips to the loo and shower were closely monitored lest we should come to any harm in the course of such an expedition.

Having been so well cared for during our stay, saying goodbye was an extended and emotional process. Laden with gifts, serenaded with gospel songs, and waved goodbye by what felt like the entire village, we had set off on our motorised dinghy. After one particularly intense bump where my bum parted company with the floor of the boat entirely, I began to wonder how much further away our destination was. As each large wave hit the passengers facing forwards, the drowned rat look made the rest of us laugh, until a fresh wave somebody else off guard, and amusement was redirected elsewhere.

It was not much later that we must have hit the fishing net. The engine made a funny sound, we slowly came to a halt, and waves began crashing into the boat rather than against the side. As the scene went into slow motion, it occurred to me that we were actually sinking. Gradually edging out of the now semi-submerged side of the boat, I found my foot caught in a section of fishing net. Once broken free, I began wading to shore, grabbing whatever floating luggage I could along the way and noticing an odd flapping feeling on one of my feet.

Two of us stood on the shore, still in our life jackets; shipwrecked amid mangroves and white sand, considering the remainder of our belongings. She had mislaid her phone, and I appeared to have lost a toenail. A few metres away in the ocean, our crew were joined by passengers and crew of two other vessels, and dozens of hands were busily redistributing our soggy luggage and fuel canisters to other boats. Eventually, once our boat was emptied of water and the motor checked, plans were made for us to recommence our journey.

This time, on a different boat, I found myself seated beside a woman clutching a newborn baby. As I pondered the possible damage to some of my cargo, I also wondered how I’d feel if I was responsible not just for my own belongings, but for the well-being of an infant as fellow passengers and cargo were bumped and splashed along, completely at the mercy of the ocean and dependent on the skill of the skipper.

The second half of the journey was less bumpy, and the jovial vibe was reduced as well. Acutely aware of how quickly and easily a boat situation can go wrong, I continued clutching the side of the boat, mentally planning a more effective rescue operation should it happen again. Each bump and splash was accompanied by a silent prayer that we safely reach the shore without incident.


Only one Birky survived

Back on dry land we were taken to a nearby house to dry off, shower, and examine the extent of the water damage. I was hopping along on one sandal, its pair somewhere in the Torres Strait. Happily my phone still worked, and I learnt later that Samsung Androids from the S7 onward are waterproof for up to 30 minutes submersion under water. Or is it 30 metres? Anyway, I guess they didn’t have the saltwater of the Torres Strait specifically in mind when testing this claim, but I was glad it was the case and made a quick call to my boss to report the incident.

Once drier and steadier on our feet, we were able to laugh at our circumstances and congratulate ourselves for not freaking out any more than we did. However resilient we felt we were, though, our Papua New Guinean colleagues were more so. They took the losses and delays in their stride, quietly dealt with damage and changed logistics, and focused attention on our well being ahead of their own.

Fishing boats in the morning light
I had my moment of falling apart when we tried to clean the grit from the place where my toenail used to be. I realised that, unlike my phone, I could probably not claim to be fully waterproof. While I am able to take most unexpected situations in my stride, and have experienced a few of them over the years, I do have my fall-apart moments when I don't feel particularly brave or strong. The trick, I think, is to prepare as best we can for disaster, notice our weaknesses and vulnerabilities when in the challenging situation, and then seek the support we need when back on dry land. In my case, I like to relax and regroup by writing, painting, and walking. Ironically, I find it calming to walk along the water. Still bodies of water, that is, rather than rough seas.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Great Aunt Gert

I’m seated at the dining table adjacent to Dad, typing away on my tablet as he dutifully answers my questions. Occasionally he gazes out the window as if looking beyond the loungeroom for inspiration. I’m interviewing Dad about his life, and in preparation for this occasion he has pulled out a pile of family history volumes about our ancestors. They sit unopened beside him. I’m more interested in the memories, feelings and ‘his’ story than the historical detail.

But Dad practically knows the content of these books by heart anyway, and takes every opportunity to discuss his forebears, some of whom had arrived in Sydney in the 1830s and dispersed to various farming communities in New South Wales. One particular character captures my attention. Dad’s Great Aunt Gert hailed from the small town of Newrybar, in northern NSW, where she was most likely born a bit before the turn of the century. She was still living there in the 1950s when my dad used to visit his grandmother as a boy.

Gert was a ‘spinster’, and 'a very unattractive woman’, I was told, as if one explained the other. Both she and her sister (my great grandmother) were apparently formidible women, who might have been called 'feisty' these days. Gert was also missing a finger, an attribute that only added to her frightening demeaner. That she had become her elderly mother’s main carer by the time Dad knew her was the only neutral fact I could glean. Nothing is known of her interests, leisure activities, sexual orientation, line of work apart from familial responsibilities, aspirations, or whether she ever left the small town of Newrybar.

When I was visiting a family friend, who also had family ties to Newrybar, and just as many family history volumes, I was able to grasp snippets of life in Gert's day. One community notice in 1928 describes a school concert. My grandfather, who would have been in his teens at the time, joined the other senior boys to perform an act entitled "The Dwarfs" which was accompanied by Miss Woods who played 'lightly on her violin'. Thank goodness Miss Woods didn't dominate the no doubt thought-provoking performance of the senior boys. Other acts were entitled "10 little niggers", "Ching Chong", and "Golliwog", providing a deeply depressing insight into attitudes towards diversity and multiculturalism in those days. The concert was declared a roaring success to the extent that some theatre goers had to satisfy themselves with a view through the window. And the women did a splendid job with the refreshments.

Newspaper clippings from our friend's family history book


Meanwhile, on my mother’s side of the family was another intriguing character. Great Uncle Ces was an artist, creating insightful sketches of life in the 1930s. In the early 40s he was in France sketching aspects of the second world war, and sending his cartoons back to the Sydney Morning Herald for publication. Many of us in the family have one or two of his limited edition works on our walls, and enjoy the minor celebrity involved. One of my favourites is “Sea legs", a lino print of five women sunbathing on the deck of a boat, legs outstretched in all directions. I also have one of his calendar sketches of a man awkwardly holding a baby, while a woman changes a flat tyre. It is entitled “the weaker sex”. I love the insights into humanity that we take away from these drawings. Like Gert, Ces never married, and didn’t have any children, yet his art survives him.


The weaker Sex, by Ces Percival


Sea legs by Ces Percival

So, while Ces is busy with his art and travel, Gert gets on with the daily drudgery of providing refreshments, entertaining weekend visitors, and dealing with bed pans. I wonder if she dreams of a different life. I’d love to sit down with her, and hear “her story”, and the issues that got her riled up, but sadly she’s now long gone. With nothing surviving her apart from a death certificate which Dad tells me would likely have been marked "Spinster of Newrybar" and a few community notices that list her as an attendee, I’m left to piece together the possibilities of her life from the impression she made on her great nephew.

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.