Friday, November 16, 2012

Tribute to my grandmother

Mum, me and Grandma at her place
My grandmother Mary and her twin sister Nell were born 92 years ago today. "The same day as Qantas", she often reminded me, a piece of knowledge that recently earned me a point in a trivia game. On their 56th birthday I came along to expand the happy band of scorpios, and we spent the next 17 years arguing over whose birthday we were really celebrating when the family got together.

There were a lot of children in my grandmother's life. She had 5 of her own, she fostered an aboriginal girl when my youngest aunt was still at home, and cared for me two days a week when I was a pre-schooler. I have fond memories of those times. The day would begin with a walk to the park, where we would inevitably run into some neighbour that she knew, pat a dog or two, and she would push me on the swing. Back at the house, together we would carefully spread peanut butter on our sandwiches, cut them into triangles and pack them in a bag. Then we would walk the 100 metres or so to my uncle's caravan that was parked in their backyard, open the door and unpack our lunch on the rickety caravan table and eat it as we stared out the window at the garden. It was the most exciting, picnicy, musty-smelling adventure a 3 year old girl could have. Later on in the day she would read me a story, punctuated by long pauses when Grandma would doze off for "40 winks" or so.

Grandma was generous and kind and everyone who met her loved her. Looking back, she was a very social person, but never a party animal. She was more in the background enabling the interactions to happen and ensuring that everyone was comfortable. Family gatherings were hosted by grandma. Her coleslaw with mandarin was a staple dish, and she would always try to feed our family chicken and hot dogs even though we repeatedly reminded her that we were vegetarian. She never missed the quarterly get-togethers with her cousins and was active in the local church to the extent that the brick-a-brack stall at the annual church flea market is still simply known as "Mary's stall" because she had been such a familiar and consistent sight behind the counter for so many years.

Mary and Nell were very close, as you'd imagine with twins, and they modeled for me how sisters could blend gossip, heated disagreement and business-like arrangements all into the one seamless conversation. I remember the two of them taking my friend Cybele and I for an outing one day. They walked together in front in animated discussion, and the two of us walked behind them having a great time quietly copying them. "No, I insist, Nell, let me pay" was followed by "no, don't be ridiculous, Mary, I insist. It's my shout" and behind we mimed with pronounced hand gestures. Then as the conversation shifted from which train to catch to stories of husbands and children, the banter seemed to turn into an endless cycle of "Oh, I know, I know", and "oh, yeees, I knoooow" and meanwhile in the rear were two girls with our heads bobbing all over the place in delighted and silent exaggeration.

When I was a teenager, I asked her about her relationship with Grandfather, who we all just thought of as an eccentric old man who worked a lot with clocks and trains but didn't interact much with people. She told me that "I still learn new things about your grandfather every day" which I found incredible after fifty odd years, although perhaps not that surprising given what could be hidden in that garage of his! Once she confided to me that she occasionally let Grandfather win a game of cards, just to keep it interesting. "Always keep a little bit of money for yourself" she would advise us girls. When I taped an interview with them about life during the war for a school assignment, she explained the simplicity of her wedding dress, and how friends and family had rallied around to add various special touches to it using their food stamps. Then with a sparkle in her eyes she added an anecdote about the honeymoon.  "We were given two single beds on a verandah on our wedding night. Your grandfather was livid!"

I would have loved to ask her advice about many of life's more tricky matters over the past almost twenty years, and relate to her as an adult, but she died just after I turned 17. I miss her all the time, but she might be happy to hear that many of her qualities live on in those she influenced. Her determination to learn to drive later in life, her courage to face terminal illness with grace, her patience with and kindness towards children, her intellect and quick wit, her love of people and her compassion for those less fortunate. It's a challenge I give myself every day to be a bit more like her. Happy Birthday Grandma.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Black dogs and bath mats

Some people are visited by the black dog. Others talk of feeling "low". The early Quaker George Fox wrote about an ocean of darkness. Whatever the euphemism, let's face it. We're talking about the good old elephant in the room - depression.

Most people have experienced some low points in life. For some, they are triggers for episodes of depression. Many sortof carry on as best they can, managing to maintain the illusion of normality, and eventually come out the other side. Others who can't are made to feel inadequate or even guilty because it's not possibly to snap out of it or even conceive of a life beyond the blackness.

A few years ago a friend who knew from experience lent me a book called "Taming the Black Dog". It's a comic book designed for people suffering from depression or anxiety and those close to them. It describes the negative thoughts that tend to take over, and how they become a cycle whereby more negative things tend to happen as a result of the negative thinking patterns.

I like the black dog analogy. My mum was telling me once about a black dog (an actual dog that happened to be black) that she was looking after. This black dog would follow her around wherever she went. There was an element of comfort to it being there, but sometimes its presence got annoying and restricted what she could do. A defining moment was when she stepped out of the shower, and there was the black dog, sitting on the bathmat, and there was no room left for her feet.

The metaphorical black dog can be a bit the same. There's a comfort in the familiarity of the negative thoughts following you around and the fact that they give you an excuse for inaction and cowardly decisions. But sometimes you have a moment where you open the shower door and realise that the black dog sitting on the bath mat leaving no room for your feet is no longer helpful. You can't just get rid of it, but you can tame that dog.

The book my friend lent me offers tools for "taming" the black dog and suggestions for showing support for somebody caught in the fog of depression. It doesn't attribute blame or suggest unrealistic goals. It just offers a few steps for thinking differently, acting differently and for celebrating even the smallest indicators of progress. While I can't bring back the people in my life who eventually succumbed to the illness, I can try to be a supportive presence for others, and hopefully live my own life as a confident dog tamer rather than a wet bathmat when times get tough.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Where have all the feminists gone?

In the good old days of pretty party dresses!
I wouldn't call myself a trend setter. Far from it. It was at a birthday party aged about ten when this fact was made startlingly clear to me. I arrived at the party attired in what was an appropriate "party outfit" the last time I checked - a cute yellow dress with frills. But to my horror I encountered a room full of girls wearing jeans! It was as if I had missed the memo advising us that the trend had changed. We had reached the next stage of life and it wasn't pretty dresses any more, it was jeans.

I've noticed a similar change of trend recently with regards to feminism. Back in high school I think we had starry eyed notions of being super-women when we grew up. Surely we could have fulfilling careers, find Mr Right AND raise well-adjusted children - it was the 1990's after all. So much had changed since our mothers' and grandmothers' generations. Girls were doing better in high school than boys, there were women in parliament, and running their own businesses. And it was the era of sensitive new aged guys (SNAGs). The future looked bright.

During our twenties most of my friends focused on their careers and did very well. Many of the girls from my high school were already high flying doctors, lawyers, academics, journalists and politicians by the time the ten year reunion came around. But in the second decade since high school things have changed somewhat. We've entered the next phase, and I have watched as my peers take their husbands' surnames, trade in their careers for more time with little ones, and - let's face it - do most of the housework. The doctors are choosing family friendly specialties, the lawyers with children get overlooked for promotion, the academics are working crazy hours, and some have left their chosen career altogether to focus on family, starting on the bottom rung of the ladder in a new profession a few years later. Others don't have children at all, which is another form of compromise whether by choice or circumstance. All the women in my age group seem to be compromising one way or another.

So, where am I in all this? I now have a really fulfilling job that I would describe as a vocation as well as paid employment. I resent the sense of judgement I sometimes feel towards me that I must be selfish because I don't have children. I still get angry about men who don't do their share of housework and the way Australians pick on their female Prime Minister in ways they would never do if she was a man. Basically, I'm still a feminist, but I've turned up at the party and guess what? I'm told it's not about being an angry feminist anymore, it's more about "compromise" and "being realistic".

So, it appears that I'm still wearing jeans, having missed the memo telling me it's back to dresses! So, what am I to do? I don't want to be critical of the women in my life who have made difficult choices and compromises or of the many men who have gone out on a limb to challenge the old ways and carve out new models of parenting and role sharing. I just hope that the young men and women they raise have an appreciation for what their mothers, fathers and grandmothers have achieved in the name of feminism, a recognition that we are by no means "there" yet, and a determination to continue the work for greater equity when they grow up and are faced with the same challenges and tough choices.

Friday, October 05, 2012

To walk home alone at night

The rape and murder of ABC Journalist Jill Meagher has resurfaced old feelings of anger and frustration in me about violence against women.

Many of the news articles about the incident mention that she walked home alone. There's an implied sense of blame there, and a warning to other women. So often it is suggested that the best way to avoid rape and other acts of violence is for women to take precautions; learn self defense, dress sensibly, and of course -  avoid walking home alone at night.

And now we hear that the greatest danger is not actually from strangers in the street, but from people we already know. So, again, women are advised to avoid friendly banter in the workplace, dress sensibly on dates, and try not to antagonise our fathers and husbands at home.

I would not call myself a high risk taker. Yet, if I took all the precautions suggested by those who believe it's women who have to change their behaviour, I would not be walking down the main street of Honiara even in the middle of the day, I would go back to wearing clothes that are drab and grey, I would only interact socially with women, family get togethers would be out of the question, and I would have to ask a friend to walk me home every single night that I'm returning after dark. Of course, it gets really complicated, because if I'm avoiding contact with men, who is going to walk me home?

But I'm sure we all agree that women are not actually the problem and we are entitled to live rich and fulfilling lives free of fear, just as men are. I like the poster above (from lipstick feminists) because it changes the dynamic of the debate. You realise that the advice is for men rather than women, for offenders rather than victims. Instead of  spending so much energy advising young women how to be afraid, we should be advising young men how to be respectful.

So, I'll be at the Reclaim the Night rally this year (28th October) with bell's on. I think we should reclaim the night, and the day and the workplace and the home. Who will join me?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The gender mind bender

Last week the Solomon Islands Province of Malaita elected a woman into the National Parliament. She's the second woman ever in the country to be elected nationally. Now, the interesting thing about this is that Malaita is one of the patrilineal provinces (meaning that when a couple marries it is the woman who moves to the man's place) and has a reputation for being very strong in Kastom (custom) and quite patriarchal in thinking. Other provinces like Isabel and Makira are matrilineal.

So, on the one hand, people are a little surprised that Malaita should lead the way on female representation in parliament. On the other, there is talk of Vika Lusibaea only being elected because of her husband, who was very popular in the region but banned from politics due to his involvement in war crimes. She promised to continue her husband's agenda. I heard that some felt that since democratic elections are a western imposition and not Kastom, so why not go the whole hog and elect a woman!

As these issues play out on the national stage, we grapple with gender and power dynamics at the village and organisational levels. One of the challenges of the project I am involved in is to promote gender equity in the communities that we work with. For us, it also means thinking about enabling real participation of women in decision making, and making spaces for people to talk about gender roles and how men and women are sharing workloads and decision making power in the home and modelling both male and female leadership at the organisational level. It's also about taking a tough stand on gender based violence.

However, I am finding that it's wise not to make assumptions or quick judgements. The only man in Solomon Islands to be considered a gender expert is our beloved Grayham, who comes from Malaita. And it's the men from Makira who are currently not happy with me because I support the appointment of women into positions of leadership. At the same time, I have had more meaningful discussions with men that I work with in Solomon Islands about gender than I ever do in Australia.

Another thing that annoys me in this whole development scene is Australian men coming in and making judgements about "gender issues" in Solomons without looking at the plank in their own eye. While more than a third of Australian women have experienced domestic violence and men still make up the majority of CEOs in our sector, I think we should be very careful about getting on our high horses and demanding  miraculous changes in behaviour and attitude overnight in places like Solomon Islands when it's taken 60 years to see any meaningful progress in Australia.

However, I believe that change is possible. As we've seen from this recent election, and from changes in livestyle, dress and eating habits, people all over the world can and do adapt to changing circumstances in both positive and negative ways. We just need to encourage healthy changes, and support people who are at the forefront of challenging less helpful beliefs and practices. So, as Malaita heralds a new era of politics in Solomon Islands, let's wait and see - maybe other positive changes will follow.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Out of Honiara

8 seater plane to Marau Sound, Guady

Getting to most of the community learning centres that we work with in Solomon Islands is no easy feat. A typical journey to the provinces can involve a small 8 passenger plane, followed by an 8 seater boat with an outboard motor (referred to as OBM), followed by dug out canoe, wading through raging rapids or a hike into the jungle. In most of these scenarios it's better to pack light.

There is something very homely about boarding a small plane and being able to see the pilot and all the controls. It's "a more personal experience" when the pilot climbs aboard, checks the doors are shut properly, gives the safety demonstration, and comments on the weather and expected flight time before settling into his seat and starting the engine. Flights depart for most provincial capitals 3 times a week, and the arrival of the flight from Honiara is a community event, with people turning up to watch the landing, even if they don't have family members arriving or departing.

When you disembark, you find yourself in the middle of a large field, with a few people gathered around, and most likely no airport as such. It's important to be met at the airport, as getting from the airport to the port can often be an adventure in itself. At Kira Kira airport in Makira Province you have to either squeeze on to the back of a large communal truck, or organise a truck of your own, because the port is quite a distance away. Luckily you won't get bored waiting for your truck, because one of the locals makes it his business to greet every flight coming in, chatting away to passengers in sign language, and offering to carry bags for a small fee.

Once you're at the port, then it's a matter of organising a boat and securing enough fuel to last you for the return trip to wherever you're going. Given that fuel usage depends on how angry the sea is that day, the fuel discussion is always a lengthy one. Then it's time to board. One boat ride in Makira was so rough, I truly believed I would die. Rain was pounding our faces, while the boat rocked from side to side and waves crashed against the side of the boat. The captain and crew were excitedly shouting directives to one another and I expressed some concern. "Oh, don't worry", they assured me. "If we were really in danger, we wouldn't be talking at all". OK. My petite colleague told me that she once found herself literally flying from one end of the boat to the other in the bad weather. I was secretly glad to be on the heavier side of average in this case!

Dug out canoe for crossing difficult channel, Makira Province
When your boat approaches the shore, however, the journey is still not complete. To reach some villages requires a 30 minute hike inland, while others are closer to the shore. One village I stayed at was spread across both sides of a raging river, and the only way to get to my accommodation was to wade across the river. After much discussion, it was decided that I needed the assistance of a very skinny pre-teen boy. Another time, I was assisted across a river by a dug-out canoe, expertly steered by another very young man. My colleagues told me that I couldn't be trusted to sit in the canoe without capsizing it AND be responsible for my own bag, so my bag was taken across separately.

Normally arrival of newcomers at a village is heralded by calls on a shell or pipe, and then warriers turn up pretending to attack you while the other villagers gather about and help secure the boat or say hello. Garlands of flowers and speeches often follow. Normally I am drenched from head to toe, busting to "pay a short kastom visit" and a bit wobbly on foot during these prestigious welcomes, but always glad to have arrived safe and sound. I try not to think right away about the return journey.

Time to toughen up

Honiara is not the worst place in the world to be. But it can be tough. In the course of one day I managed to get groped in the middle of town in broad daylight by one young man, another threw his melon peel in the direction of my crotch in an intentional way, and in the evening I was harassed by two drunk men, each apologising for the behaviour of the other. And that wasn’t even the day I got pickpocketed. It’s become a challenge to get through a day in town without such eventualities. 

However, it’s not only in Honiara that you can be surprised and scared. Within days of the pickpocket experience, I was off on my first site visit to a village half an hour’s hike in from the beach in East Guadalcanal. The walk itself was not overly demanding, but nevertheless, I was looking forward to arriving at the village. Suddenly, out of the bushes came a group of warriors dressed in the traditional dress of leaves, and surrounded me. One grabbed his hands around my neck and held on firmly. Others were shouting and seemed very angry. Suddenly my colleague was nowhere to be seen. I began to panic and fear the worst – that I was under attack. Then, as suddenly as it began, my neck was released, and everyone started shaking hands and ushering me into a clearing where the whole community had gathered for a welcome ceremony. I have to admit that there were tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat from the surprise of it all. When my colleague re-appeared, and I told him in a wavering voice that it might have been nice to have been warned about this little welcome ceremony, he simply shrugged and bemoaned the fact that he had been unable to get a satisfactory photograph of the event. I guess I just have to toughen up and get used to it all.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

In the life of a child

Noah and Auntie Leash
Just over a year ago I became an aunt and have been privileged to experience the joy that little Noah gives me when he smiles and the excitement of watching him achieve a new milestone. I've also become an adopted aunt to a few children over the years, and enjoy selecting meaningful gifts for them, receiving beautiful drawings in return, reading and telling stories, the games we play, and spontaneous cuddles. While I don't have any children of my own, it's important to me to be involved in the lives of the children in my life. As one wise person said:

"A hundred years from now, it will not matter what kind of car I drove, what kind of house I lived in, how much money I had in the bank...but the world may be a better place because I made a difference in the life of a child." - Author unknown

I remember some of the adults outside of my immediate family who made a real difference in my life when I was a child. Peter sent me postcards from all the countries he visited, and modeled living with integrity and passion. Colin quietly encouraged me to be adventurous and showed me that men can be kind and outdoorsy at the same time. Rowe announced to a group of us that even her bras were second hand and got me thinking about living simply. Mrs H was a teacher who treated all her students with respect even if they didn't get the high marks and showed me the power of believing in someone. Bruce was enthusiastic about camping trips and hands free phones  and taught me that being an adult can still be fun. Marg remembered our birthdays with thoughtful gifts and was genuinely interested in our lives. She taught me the power of unconditional love.
Aletia skipping with swirls, by Lily E

So, as the next generation goes about the business of growing up, I hope I can make even half the difference in some of their lives that others have made in mine. I guess time will tell. My wish is that I might always find the time to play, listen, encourage, and believe in. And that my life might be patterns and examples of integrity, depth, fun and kindness.

ANZAC Day - J'accuse

I will admit it. I am the kind of person who likes to commemorate ANZAC Day by listening to Eric Bogle's song "And the band played Walzing Matilda" or Redgum's "I was only 19". These songs speak of the horror, the lies, the blood and the trauma of battles fought by Australians in far off lands. And they remind us that soldiers, whether they live or die, are casualties of war.

In Europe they seem to do a better job of teaching children about the futility and reality of violent conflict. I was reading that in France the message is "J'accuse" meaning I accuse the men, the decision makers, the war, the whole thing of being so incredibly stupid. In German schools, they teach children the full story of the war, and don't hide from the evil decisions of a past regime.

Yet, in Australia ANZAC Day seems to have turned into a glorification of war. When I attended the Dawn Service one year, I was horrified to see private school boys parading around Martin Place in their cadet uniforms while middle aged men talked in fake somber tones about the justification of war. Clearly none of them had actually been in the trenches, and yet it seemed that they were using the old men who had been through so much as justification for current deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. They spoke of the courage and the sacrifice of the young war heroes of almost a century ago, and suggested to us that they had been fighting for God, and for our Country.

But in those tales of heroic deaths, and sacrifice and supposedly having God on our side, where is the space for the soldiers who were really, really scared? Or those courageous enough to refuse to take part? Or those who began to doubt the existence of God because of what they'd seen humanity do to one another? Or those who returned home legless, armless, blind or insane, and were expected to just get on with life?

So, when we say "lest we forget", I hope we mean that we will listen to the digger's stories, and always remember and acknowledge the experience of every soldier in every war, whether heroic, tragic or just plain miserable. I also hope we mean that we promise to work towards a world where these experiences really are part of our history and not our future.

Thursday, April 12, 2012


The gang, back in 1999 or so
Almost every Easter long weekend during my 20s was spent with Quaker friends at Werona in Kangaroo Valley. The things I loved about these camps were the fun, the depth and the sense of community that we created. I remember epic rounds of 500, laughing so hard over a ridiculous game of dares or mafia, swimming in the bitterly cold river, massage chains, and sleep-overs in the cave. Over the cooking, washing up or later on by the fire we discussed the meaning of life, the pursuit of meaningful vocations, what we thought Jesus was really trying to say and the struggle to live with integrity. We shared honestly about our fears, hopes and dreams for the future. These deep discussions sustained and enriched me. And through the laughter, the fun and the deep sharing, we built a community. I felt genuinely accepted for who I was and knew I was a valued member of the group even if I hadn't showered for days, was wearing my daggiest clothes and was covered in ticks.

Remembering at Werona, 2012
This Easter weekend, we returned to Kangaroo Valley to farewell our friend Juchie. Since his death in January, I have reconnected with so many beautiful people who knew him, seen photos and heard stories, and have been reminded of the love that still connects us. That same sense of community returned, and many of us felt sheepish that we had let one another drift from our immediate circles, and particularly sad that we had let our beautiful friend slip through the cracks. Now I am wondering how we can honour his memory with integrity, without pretending he was more than he really was by placing him on a pedestal or diminishing him by only remembering the way that he died and not the way that he lived. And how can we re-create that sense of community, of fun, of depth as we move on from youth and into the next stage of life?