Sunday, May 09, 2021

Mothers Day

This year I found myself accepting a “Mothers’ Day” massage invitation from the local urban health retreat, and a rose from my gym instructor. The pink thornless stem was thrust into my hand as I was leaving the gym, sweaty and tired. “Happy Mothers’ Day” he said with more than enough cheer for both of us, dutifully wiping his offering with hand sanitiser. Walking home with the ill-gotten gift that was too long to fit easily into my tote bag, I started to feel that my hasty reply “Oh, I’m not a mother” might have been a little too self-effacing. He had insisted I take it anyway.

While Mothers Day has come to be a time of commercialism whereby we bestow gifts and praise upon women who have borne children, Mothering Sunday was apparently an early Christian tradition where workers returned home to their “Mother” church, meaning the village and church of their childhood. We talk about our mother tongue to mean the language of our childhood, and the mother country to talk about one’s native country. So, it seems mothering can have a broader meaning. But there’s a reason the word Mother is used figuratively in this sense. Mothers have traditionally been so integral to those early memories.  


"Do you have children?" she asks as our gaze is drawn to the rainbow unicorn birthday cake. Standing amongst the group of mothers, who I haven't actually been introduced to by the harried host, I keep my response brief. "No". We stand there in awkward silence for several more moments. At another child's party I am introduced as "the other person without children", as if that in itself ought to be a conversation prompt, like "you both play tennis". These days I carefully manage how and when I attend children’s birthday parties.

In another scenario, I was sharing a drink with a friend, a woman who I admire greatly. She's incredibly funny, compassionate and creative, has a heart for justice, and is nobody’s fool. Yet, it was only after the second glass on an occasion several years into our friendship, that she gave any indication of how the grief of childlessness had affected her. It occurred to me that while a miscarriage brings unimaginable grief, at least it's a grief that has a moment and a form. It’s a known quantity. People send flowers. Grief of childlessness is less tangible, and the way childlessness is understood has less “form” as well, as another blogger reflects. 

A few years ago, during a weekend away with several amazing childless and childfree women, a friend recommended a book called “The life unexpected: 12 weeks to your Plan B for a meaningful and fulfilling future without children”. The author, Jody Day, weaves her own journey of coming to terms with childlessness into a book which explores the experiences of countless others. She offers examples of role models; childless women who have lived well and made significant achievements in their lives. It occurred to me reading this book that I wasn’t alone or unusual in my sadness, nor would I always feel this way. And the negative labels of childless and non-mother now have permission to evolve into positive, life giving descriptions. Now, a couple of years later, I can speak more openly about the subject, which back then was just too painful. 

Women with children regularly remind me of my good fortune. “Oh, I’d give anything to have a night at home alone on the couch watching tv” they gush at me, or “I wish I had the time to paint my nails”, or "you're probably busy partying". While my day to day life doesn’t look quite like how they imagine it to be, I have come to see the advantages of the dependant-free lifestyle I find myself in. I actually love being the fun aunt, having time to create a deep connection with nieces and nephews both biological and chosen, and the space to think deliberately about how I want to set boundaries with these small people, show love and model living with courage, vulnerability and integrity. I enjoy being involved in voluntary activities, and cherish the way I can spend a Saturday morning sitting in a cafe writing if I wish, or enjoy live music of an evening. 

I also wonder whether hiding behind the comments about toenails and couches is perhaps a voice that is as silenced and frustrated as mine. Mothers who want to talk about regrets or loneliness or a yearning to live out broader dreams than motherhood might be worried about being judged as ungrateful or “bad mothers”. Where is the space to talk of such things? Is there a way that we can be present for one another in our regrets, and yearnings, and moments of joy, without it being a competition as to who is most hard done by or most successful?

There’s also a cynical part of me that sees Mothers Day accolades as tokenistic. Our society idolises mothers, but does it really respect them? When people wax lyrical about how much they appreciate everything that their mothers and wives do, I can’t help but think “why don’t you just do your share of the work, mate?” Our national household survey indicates that even when incomes and paid workloads are even, women in coupled households with dependent children (as in Mothers) do 23 hours of housework compared to men, who do 16 hours. And that's a significant improvement since the early 2000s.

So, yes, it is important to acknowledge mothers and motherhood. And I am ever grateful for the ways my mother’s care has shaped the trajectory of my life, and what she gave up to be my mother. And there is room, I hope, to acknowledge broader notions of mothering such as nurture of communities, and the birthing of new ideas. My adopted aunt, who has several more decades of navigating the childless scene under her belt than me, reflected today that Mothers Day doesn’t have to be a time of exclusion or loneliness for those who are not Mothers. The intent is evolving, she believes, to include recognition of those who nurture others in a multitude of ways, and those who would have liked to have been Mothers but couldn’t or didn’t. When I skyped with family on Mothers’ Day a couple of years ago my nephew wanted to wish me a Happy Mothers Day as well, but then remembered that I’m not a mother. After a short and slightly awkward pause while he contemplated this dilemma, he announced that there should be a “Ladies Day”. Cute. And luckily there is an Auntie's day in July, so he can make me a card then. But until July rolls around, I’ll unapologetically take the rose and the massage, thanks very much.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Worth your weight

"I propose we read books by amazing authors who are reframing the idea of living in bodies that do not confirm to the mainstream acceptable shape and beauty standard." And so it was that our summertime book club decided to focus on books written by larger women this year - a personally relevant topic for many of us after a year of sedentary lockdowns.

After a few emails about the topic (which everyone was keen about) and which specific books or poetry or podcasts to select (trickier to agree about with so many options), we decided to start with Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West. I cheated and just refreshed myself on the TV series. Shrill is a bit of a hero's journey. A young, plus-sized journalist is insulted by a personal trainer in her local coffee shop, humiliated by her boyfriend who expects her to leave by crawling awkwardly over the back fence so that he doesn't have to introduce her to his flatmates, and belittled by her boss. After a life changing circumstance and the encouragement of her flatmate and work spouse, she finds her voice and power. In standing up to her boss and setting clear boundaries with the boy she’s dating, she finally earns the respect she is due.

My online copy of Hunger

Next we read Hunger by Roxane Gay, whose life changed immeasurably when she was gang raped as a 12 year old by boys she knew. Gaining weight as a protective mechanism, she offers insights into the experience of living life defined as a super morbidly obese person. Roxane doesn't allow the reader a reprieve from the daily humiliations of her lived experience; from chairs cracking, to gym bullies, and the challenges of air travel we gain some understanding of the ways in which fat people are denied a dignity, and how one incident can change a person's life trajectory so significantly. Decades after the event, she searches online for the boy who, with his friends, raped her all those years ago; the boy whose face she sees in her minds eye every single day. She learns that he is successful in the business world and has used his privilege to build a good life for himself.

Both of these talented and brave and ultimately powerful women feature on an episode of This American Life podcast entitled “Tell me I’m fat” where they share about their journeys. Also on the podcast is Elna Baker who, with the assistance of drugs and surgery, transitioned almost overnight from being Fat Elna during the first 20 years of her life, to become Thin Elna thereafter. Fat Elna had wondered whether her unlucky-in-love status and lack of success in her career were attributable to her size. “Don’t be paranoid” she had told herself, “of course it’s more complicated than that”. Sadly, Thin Elna had to admit that it had been 100% due to her weight. Recently married, and with her career moving forward in leaps and bounds, she had achieved the success she yearned for, yet found herself missing “Fat Elna” who she describes as happier, less inhibited on the dance floor, and a generally nicer person than Thin Elna. I, too, felt incredibly sad about the loss of Fat Elna. 

Just the other day, an aunt shared a photo of two young women at the beach, circa 1960. The dark haired one on the left, stunning in her white two piece swimsuit and polka dot head band and smiling broadly, turns out to be my mother aged around 16. Never having seen photos of her younger than about 23, I peered inquisitively at the young lass in the beach scene, taking in the details and finding the points of likeness to the petite, now grey haired woman I have called mum for more than 4 decades. Those were the tail end of her “fat years”, apparently, and so she didn't ever show us photos of that time. I'm glad to see that “Fat Lyn” is happy and carefree.

Two sisters, circa 1960

In contrast, my teenage years were inhabited by Thin Aletia, and there’s a photo somewhere of me, also carefree in a black and white two piece, all limbs and hardly any curves. In those days I moved through the world confident that I was valued and my contributions worthwhile. I believed the narratives expressed indirectly - "those" people are lazy, they just don’t have any self control, and they are so unattractive. I’d never end up like that. As the kilos gradually piled on, seemingly unbidden, I had to examine my own prejudices, and those of folks around me. I began to move through the world with less of the entitlement and confidence of Thin Aletia. Lived experience has me reluctantly agreeing with some of Thin Elna's conclusions.

When I was about 10, we all had "autograph books" where the people in our lives wrote messages to us. Some people wrote silly poems, some shared affirmations or declarations of love, some offered advice, and some just drew pictures. Mum's message to me was a bit of all the above: "A caterpillar's heart still beats in every butterfly, Inside you are always you. Inside you are always you". Staring at a moth in the bathroom at a campsite the other day, the fluff of the caterpillar head still visible beside the adult wings, I thought again of mum's words. Yet, if we are inherently the same, regardless of any physical change, why does it feel as if our worth is inversely related to our size?

As opposed to Elna and me, Lindy and Roxane don’t go through any chrysalis-like transformation. Although Lindy considers surgery, she eventually decides against it. Both women have only dwelt in the fat camp, with Lindy becoming a trailblazer for the fat acceptance movement and Roxanne an advocate for fat friendly clothing and accessible spaces. While I’m here in this camp, I’m enjoying supporting Australian-based clothing designers who make attractive, colourful, garments for women of a wide size range and helping otherwise tentative women to find clothing that makes them feel great. 

But with some size-related health issues rearing their ugly heads, I'm seriously considering making an attempt to work off those COVID kilos. There's a part of me that, like Roxane, is afraid of being thin again. What if doors are opened that were previously shut? What if I am faced with evidence that society really is that shallow? What if I turn into one of those women who tut tuts when fat people reach for another piece of cake? But whatever my size, I'll still be me, and I'll always have the richness of my wider life experience. I hope I also have Fat Elna's uninhibited approach to dancing and Fat Lyn's broad, unapologetic smile. 

Monday, March 09, 2020

Point of view

Point of view

The other night, after returning from a week of travel for work, I found myself watching "The Shawshank Redemption". Snuggled in to the corner of my horsehair stuffed, genuine retro sofa, covered with blankets and surrounded by cushions, I was swept away yet again by the emotion that wells up when Andy’s library books arrive after a mere two years of sending letters every week, when he gives those beers to his team while they’re working on the roof, and when he eventually wades through shit to freedom. 
Back in the day, that film was my favourite, alongside "Dead Poets Society". As a young adult I was drawn to literature and film that explored aspects of our common humanity - how we respond to suffering, what makes us feel truly alive and free, and the triumph of the oppressed over their oppressors. As a drama student myself, I saw my own struggles in Neil’s experience, and had mandatory tissues on hand for the moment when Todd steps onto his desk as an act of resistance and in acknowledgement of his betrayed teacher. In many ways, these iconic films have shaped the way I look at life as an adult. It just never occurred to me to wonder why so many of the heroes in my favourite films were men. 

Now, fast forward two decades, and there I was in the age of #metoo, and the next wave of feminism. I suddenly realised, with a splutter of wine all over the couch, that neither of my favourite ‘90s films would come close to passing the Bechtel test, which asks three simple questions - 1) are there any women in the film?, 2) do they speak to each other? 3) about anything other than men? While not a single woman appears in Shawshank Redemption, given that it is set in a male prison, the women in Dead Poet’s Society exist mainly as objects of the boys' affections, and consent is not a major consideration. 

But there’s something else that I realised about the films of my youth. It’s not just that the heroes were predominantly white men. The producers, directors and creative teams of most films in the ‘90s would almost certainly have all been white men as well. On the website of “Women in Hollywood”, a group that advocates for greater gender diversity in Hollywood and the film industry more generally, it is revealed that more than 95% of films made in the past 10 years were directed by men, and 80% of the creative teams were men. Twenty years ago that proportion would have almost certainly been even higher.

This means that the perspective of most films from that time, even the ones with women in lead roles, would have been that of a white male. So, why is this necessarily a problem? Because we are socialised to see the male experience as the norm, and representative of the rest of us. As Simone de Beauvior wrote almost 40 years earlier:

Representation of the world,
 like the world itself, 
 is the work of men; 
they describe it from their own point of view, 
 which they confuse with absolute truth.
- Simone de Beauvior

With lead actors, directors, and producers all being men, it’s pretty clear who they imagined would be sitting in the cinema. The concept of the “male gaze” refers to films whose intended audience is a heterosexual man. The male gaze is also characterised by a tendency to objectify or sexualise women. In the 1990s most of the female leads were the sexy sidekick or love interest of the male protagonist. And according to recent research, not much has changed. Women still say less, appear less, and are more sexualised than their male counterparts.

There’s also a sense that strong female leads, such as in Wonder Woman or Tomb Raider, are simply scripted as men in a sexy woman’s body. Brit Marling, an actress who moved into sci-fi script writing because she wasn’t seeing female characters that inspired her, complained that strong female leads tend to be written into action films as “give me a man, but in the body of a woman I’d still like to see naked”. She also noted that these strong female leads typically adopt the attributes of a strong man - physical strength, ambition, and rationality. On the other hand, she argues, women in film who are unfettered, spirited and display feminine bravery like Thelma and Louise face brutal consequences.

All of this has led women of my generation to experience an identity crisis. On the one hand, we're told that those male heroes we resonated with do represent us, and that we women can absolutely do anything men can do. On the other hand, the limited diversity of faces we see and the limited complexity of female characters reinforce for us a different message - that women are weak, simple, objects of desire, and above all - not the hero of the story. 

Around the time that I became aware of the gender bias in film, I also began to explore race and white privilege as another lens from which to consider the messages fed to me through pop culture. When I examine The Shawshank Redemption from this perspective, I realise that Red, the character played by Morgan Freeman, exists within a system that has marginalised, discriminated against and enslaved black people, and yet his history and character are given very little development. Instead, he essentially just narrates the story of Andy, a white man who is innocent of the crime that put him in jail for 20 years. Andy ultimately acts as white saviour, and hero of the story, enabling Red to be redeemed, released and to begin his life again in Mexico. I hadn’t noticed any of this previously. My own white perspective had its biases and limitations.

But things are changing. We now know how important it is for young people to see their own faces reflected in the faces of role models, rather than all of us having to see the world as experienced by white men. It’s encouraging that more complex and diverse leads are appearing in films, tv and books these days. Squishy Taylor is a series of Australian children’s books (written by a totally awesome friend of mine) with a great female protagonist of Fijian-Indian descent. Outlander, whose protagonist is a woman whose pleasure and needs are in the foreground, has been described as deliberately adopting a “female gaze”. Chimamanda Adichie’s book “Americana” and her ted talk about the danger of a single story shed light on the impact on others when we don’t question our particular, privileged view of the world. And "Orange is the new black" provides similar insights into the nature of humanity, and suffering, and injustice as Shawshank Redemption, but this time through the experiences of a diverse collection of women in prison.
So, when I curl up on my mid century couch the next time, I’ll be reading “The Parable of the Sower”, a near future science fiction novel written in the ‘90s about a young African-American woman who becomes the local hero in the year 2026 where society that has all but collapsed due to climate change, corporate greed and wealth inequality. Her strength is in her empathy, intellect, and resourcefulness, and I can’t wait to find out how the story unfolds. Also, I’ve sent my nephew a copy of “Spirited Away”, an award winning children’s anime film who’s central character happens to be a brave girl who must rescue her parents from a haunted island. These might seem like small gestures, but they are steps in the right direction. I yearn for the day when the most powerful heroes and role models of the stories that shape the next generation are just as likely to be women as they are to be men, and just as likely to display strength of character and emotional intelligence as they are to exhibit physical strength and ambition. 

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 ( 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'.

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


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.