Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Toy story

Just as I'm wondering what gift to get my nephew for Christmas, a major debate erupts on social media about the gendered marketing of children's toys. If you didn't catch it, basically Greens Senator Larissa Waters backed the No Gender December campaign, which encourages people to think critically and carefully about the types of toys they buy children. Then the Daily Telegraph published a rather alarmist article about how that means the Greens hate Barbie or Christmas or something (interestingly enough, I can no longer find that article online). Then lots of people got annoyed, having read the Daily Telegraph article, saying "I played with trucks, and I turned out okay", thinking that the campaign was a critique of dolls and trucks. The next thing we know, politicians are jumping on the bandwagon, saying boys will be boys etc. And, I have to admit, lots of the progressive journalists went crazy too, writing immature articles about the Murdoch press.

I have felt for a while that the gendered marketing of children's toys is problematic, and always try to think carefully about what to buy the children in my life. They seem to respond best to toys that are educational and that allow imagination. So I was surprised that there was such a ferocious reaction, and wondered how to respond. Then, I came across what is actually the best article I have found on the subject. I agree with the author's opinion that people have misunderstood the campaign. You see, I know girls who have Barbies and boys who have train sets. They're all great and "well adjusted" little people and their parents are lovely too. This campaign isn't about banning Barbie or trucks or trains as far as I can tell. Nor is it about blaming parents and relatives for their children's preferences. I am an avid supporter of my nephew's train collection and bought him the first set of tracks when he was a one-year-old. But I also bought him a vacuum cleaner, which, incidentally, he also loves. So there.

For me, this is more about being aware of how biased and problematic the marketing of the toy industry currently is, and what that says about society more generally. Regarding the marketing of toys, I reckon this little girl sums it up when she chucks a very controlled hissy fit in the toy shop because all the girls stuff is pink and all the boys stuff is to do with superheroes. As she articulates so beautifully, the marketing of toys is manipulative. Why have they branded all the toys along such traditional gender lines? Why shouldn't boys be allowed to buy pink princessy stuff if that's what they want? And why shouldn't girls be allowed to play with superheroes? More importantly, why arent there more female role models in the superhero range and more everyday male role models in the domestic doll range? There should be toys available to suit all children, not just those who fit into the stereotypical gender roles, and nobody should be made to feel that their choice of toy is somehow wrong. Life is pretty tough for children who are different. We shouldn't make it harder still by ONLY giving them toys that adhere to those narrow gender norms. We should buy toys that relate to the individual interests of the child, and ideally that are educational too.

Regarding society more generally, I think there is a problem in the way we "buy into" (excuse the pun) certain stereotypes and expectations to do with gender that are actually harmful. And the toys we buy are part of that culture. If boys are always given guns and other violent toys while girls are continually given submissive, domestic toys, what does that say about how we expect them to behave and the career aspirations they are allowed to have? Domestic violence is a major problem in Australia, the leading cause of death for Australian women under 45, says the article I mentioned above. And it doesn't just happen in "other" families. It is rife across the 'pretend it's not happening' families on the north shore, in upper middle bogan communities in the Shire and amongst the greenies of the inner west. And, whether we like it or not, research does indicate a link between traditional gender roles and domestic violence.

So, I bought No-no (my nephew) an elephant family puzzle this year. It's not pink or princessy and it's not to do with guns or superheroes either. You might call it gender-neutral. And it is meaningful because he loves to play with the elephant family at mum and dad's. Now he'll have a puzzle elephant family of his own. But more importantly, I will make it clear to him that he is a valuable human being regardless of the interests he chooses to pursue. And as we play together this Christmas, I will try to model for him the type of behaviour that is acceptable and respectful and establish firm boundaries around behaviour that isn't. He will know that real men can wheel prams, teach, nurse, be train drivers, work in early childhood, advocate for vulnerable people, build stuff, whatever! But that domestic violence is never okay.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Where the heart is

So, I bid at a property auction the other night. Or, to be more exact, one of my many brothers bid, and I offered helpful suggestions from the sidelines. I felt kind of like Dennis Danuto in "The Castle" when they go to the high court and he passes notes to the retired QC inscribed with gems like "would you like a glass of water?" or "bloody good work".

The place I had my eye on wasn't a castle by any stretch of the imagination. It did, however, have the advantage of location...oh, and it was right near the airport! It had a few quirks, mind you. The linen closet was so narrow that you would have to roll your towels to fit them in. The bathroom needed a good scrub, and the hot water tank had its piping exposed in the kitchen, creating a "factory" effect. It wasn't, as the auctioneer claimed, full of modern appliances...not by any stretch of the imagination. But it was a small patch of the world that I had hoped I would soon call home.

I, accompanied by a small entourage of my closest friends and relations, sat in the front row. There facing us, in their pristine suits and slicked back hair, were the real estate agents. Gliding smoothly between client and home-owner-hopefuls, offering encouraging nods to those of us they have met before, their primary concern is apparent. The promise of profit glints in their eyes. Despite my sizeable party of supporters, I felt intimidated. Beating the money-hungry vultures at their own game was not going to be easy.

But unlike the Kerrigans, I didn't win in the end. Somebody else did. There was a bit of to-ing and fro-ing between the vendor and highest bidder, as it hadn't even reached reserve. Seated beside my mum was the couple selling the property. Unsmiling and well dressed, they were clearly further along in life than those of us seeking to enter the property market. I wondered whether they remembered what buying their first place had been like. Had some older couple, unsmiling and well dressed, been firm and forced them just a little outside their comfort zone?

But eventually a price was agreed upon and the hammer came down. My groupies and I went and debriefed in the lounge area. It's just how things are with "the market", they assured me. Somebody was willing to pay more, and that dictated the final sale price. The amount I thought it was "worth" was irrelevant. And, someone added, the bubble has to burst soon, surely.

As I wandered home, without having made the biggest purchase of my life, it seemed important to stop for gelato. It's easy, I thought as I licked the mango and chocolate in equal measures, to lose sight of the important things in life. To be safe, well loved, and well fed are my top three. Everything else is a bonus. While I will probably get back on that soul-destroying capitalist horse again and hopefully end up one day with my very own patch of the world to call home, the most important investment of my life will always be the people around me, and not a great, big ....driveway.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Slippery cabbage, soft rock and slidey slippers

As I wait in line to top up credit onto my phone, a familiar sound enters my consciousness. It's the nonchalant meandering of slippered feet across the tiled floor of the "Our Telekom" shop. Everyone wears flip flops in Solomon Islands, referred to as slippers, and they make a swishy sortof sound as people casually stroll the counter where they take a small piece of recycled paper on which to write their details, then cruising wistfully past the cabinet with the new smart phones in it, stopping to greet an acquaintance or two and then proceeding to the end of the queue. I realise I'm going to miss that swishy, slidey sound.

Given that this was my last trip to Solomon Islands, at least for a while, I was taking time to savour those sights, sounds and taste sensations that make a place unique. I tried cassava in coconut milk again the other night, because an Australian colleague was raving about it, but, this only served to confirm that I really don't like it. The taste is too bland and the texture too starchy for me. But there are taste sensations that I have enjoyed and will definitely miss. I like slippery cabbage (or ferns, yep like the ferns you would encounter on a bushwalk in rainforest conditions) cooked in coconut milk, which is sweet and green and delicious. I also got used to banana pancakes at the Lime Lounge, and omelette a la 2 minute noodles, a staple lunchtime meal at Red Cross cafe in Chinatown.

Banana pancakes
This visit, my colleagues had organised for us to hold our staff reflection workshop out of town at one of the community learning centres where we work. I like visiting communities. Apart from seeing what is actually happening on the ground, its also a bit like camping. You take a head torch on the midnight toilet visit, bathe in the sea or river, and tell stories into the evening. At our workshop evaluation, a few people said it was the best workshop ever, so that was a great note to end on.

Relaxing in between sessions
For my farewell, a few friends and colleagues kindly accompanied me for dinner and dancing in town. I think the Solomons might just be the only place where my preference for soft rock is shared by those who in every other respect are way cooler than me. We grooved the night away to the sounds of Elton John, Barry Manilow, Elvis Presley, Billy Joel and some pacific island artists that I was less familiar with. I also learnt a new phrase in pidgin - "fillim up buckets", which I think would loosely translate to "crying a river", used to describe what happened when we thought of no longer seeing one another every three months or so.

Farewell at Iron Bottom Sound Hotel
But eventually the evening came to an end, and the next day it was time for my flight home. The goodbye entourage was there to see me off at the airport amid hugs and smiles. Fond farewells were slightly marred by the discovery that Solomon Airlines had changed the time of the flight and was taking no responsibility for onward connections. This risk was made clear to me during my handover 3.5 years ago, and had never eventuated until now. Having carefully planned a 90 minute connection in Brisbane, I was now left with 30 minutes in which to proceed through immigration, baggage, customs, transit to domestic, go through security and board the flight. Not being one to give up, I "mentioned" the issue repeatedly to the flight attendants until they upgraded me to Business class for landing and then I raced like I've never raced before. It turns out that particular connection can't be done in 30 minutes. 45 maybe. I have to say Virgin was very good about rescheduling me onto a later flight at no extra cost, and so all was well that ended well.

Solomon Islands sunset
I know I will look back on these years of Solomons travel with fondness and nostalgia. There were many difficult meetings, sleepless nights and challenging situations, but also times when I have never laughed so hard, and moments of immense pride and gratitude. I know that the APHEDA staff and the communities they work with are incredibly inspiring and dedicated people. I look forward to seeing where their careers and life journeys take them, and hope our paths cross again in the future. Lukum iu fella moa.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Perfect match

Almost as soon as I open the email I know. Its another "Dear Aletia..." letter. Something to do with a crazy ex-girlfriend and needing space. At least this time I am granted the right of reply, and am able to wish him all the best before whatever it almost was, isn't any more, and we cease contact. He was a lovely guy, and I'm sad.

Yep, I am starting to think I have a little too much in common with unlucky-in-love Rachel from Friends and George from Seinfeld. As I accrue a collection of "meh" first dates, a few promising second dates gone just a bit wrong, and add a couple of friends turned lover turned stranger scenarios into the mix, I start to realise that at least I have some interesting stories to tell.

I was talking with a colleague the other day about how job searching is kindof like dating, except that for some very practical reasons (ie money) you don't want to be "unattached" for too long. Like dating, though, first you have to get the profile/resume right, then you go for the date/interview, and then, at least in my recent dating experience, one of you attempts the delicate art of gentle rejection and the other tries their hand, with varying levels of success, at graceful acceptance.

With these thoughts in mind, I am marvelling at how pleasant it was to have a different conclusion to my first foray into the job search process. I had completed steps one and two, and knew that I was still interested. So, it was with a little surprise and much delight that I learnt that the feeling was mutual. I was being offered the job! My new boss even confessed later on that she "knew" almost as soon as she read my application. Wow, maybe there is such as thing as a job match at first sight.

So, as I weigh up dating disappointments against employment euphoria, I can't help but feel lucky overall. We spend 8 hours a day at work, and longer if we're travelling, so it is important to feel valued and, as the Quaker advice goes, that you have taken "the path offering the greatest opportunity for the use of your gifts in the service of God and the community". I feel good about the change.

And as for dating, Quakers have some advice on that too. "In close relationships we may risk pain as well as finding joy" the advice reads. "When experiencing great happiness or great hurt we may be more open to the working of the Spirit". I agree. To be fully alive, you have to be willing to risk pain. And there have been some special and joyful moments. Even when experiencing a sad goodbye or the hurt of realising somebody you care about is just not that into you, it is still part of the beautiful and complex experience of being human, for which I am endlessly grateful.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Oh captain my captain

My favourite movie for many years was "Dead Poets' Society". Being a drama student I guess I felt I could relate to some of what the boys went through. Theatre was my mode of self expression, and I was also trying to find that balance between being brave and seizing the day, while at the same time being expected to fit in with societies norms and structures.

The film was also my first introduction to Robin Williams, and he quickly became a favourite actor of mine. I loved the passion, the integrity and the courage of his character in Dead Poet's Society - I, too, wanted to be challenged to rip out the pages of the textbook, emerse myself in poetry, express anger wholeheartedly and be encouraged to go think for myself.

In many of his roles Robin Williams seemed able to capture complex elements of the human spirit, whether it is the heartbroken yet tough-love psychologist in Good Will Hunting, desperate father in Mrs Doubtfire, or radio presenter in Good Morning Vietnam. And his comedy always had a depth to it.

The most memorable scene in Dead Poet's Society for me was the one where Robin Williams' character returns to collect a few personal items after he has been asked to leave the school quietly. He has been scapegoated as the cause of his student's suicide death and the class has gone back to using the textbook and thinking within the box. You begin to wonder whether the teacher had any impact at all. But one boy dares to stand up, to express his gratitude and sense of injustice as a small act of civil disobedience, and gradually the others follow. I am always in floods of tears at this point.

So, as I mourn the departure of a man whose life work touched so many people, I give thanks for the ways that he made us laugh, encouraged us to seize the day, and bore witnessed to the complex realities of being human. I want to stand up on my desk and address him with the respect he deserves: "Oh captain, my captain".

Friday, July 18, 2014

Evangelism: exasperating or essential?

I recently read an article about a Christian woman disciplined on 3 counts of bullying and harassment at work for religious evangelism towards a Muslim colleague. She had invited the colleague to a number of church events and lent her a book about a Muslim woman converting to Christianity.

While the whole thing will hopefully turn out to be a big misunderstanding, I can see how such behaviour might make somebody of a different faith feel uncomfortable. At high school I had a few brushes with Christian evangelism (and fundamentalism). I remember one particular bible study leader who was very friendly at first, but then advised me that I was going to hell because I didn't agree with her interpretations of scripture. Invitations back to that church were increasingly unwanted.

Now, this might seem like an odd reaction from somebody who identifies as Christian. I guess I just prefer not to be pressured into anything. I get the same uncomfortable feeling when approached by cheerful brits with clip-boards on street corners asking me whether I care about the environment (or refugees) as a hook for relieving me of funds on a monthly basis, and from earnest young socialists entreating me to buy their latest newspaper...if I genuinely care about the state of the world. Then there are the endless emails encouraging me to get involved in the next state election campaign and those people who are adamant that raw food veganism or google documents will revolutionise my life!!

And, well, the truth is that I am a bit of an evangelist myself. I think the world would be a better place if everyone shared my political and social views and I spend a fair bit of time on social media and elsewhere trying to educate the political and social  "pagans" in my life about what I consider to be "the truth". I guess that might be annoying for some people as well.

In spite of the challenges, I do think there is a place in the world for evangelism. Whether convinced and passionate about religion, the environment, human rights or politics these people are go-getters. They make things happen; raise funds, recruit members, win seats in parliament, save forests and hold oppressive regimes to account.

So, what's to be done? I think there are a few lessons in this story for the evangelist in all of us. While our enthusiasm is admirable, we can perhaps be more respectful of differences of opinion. We can learn to back off when our advances are unwanted. And, as one Quaker advice suggests, it might be wise occasionally to "think it possible that you are mistaken".

Saturday, June 28, 2014


I heard the news the other day
Another gentle soul
Made a devastating exit

He is added to the collection
Of young men whose lives
Are consumed by the black dog

I remember those already gone;
Artists, dreamers, wanderers
Who loved with big hearts

And i try to find a way
To be there, again, be real
When all I feel is numb

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Remembering the days of the old school yard

"You alone are enough. You have nothing to prove to anyone" ~ Maya Angelou

At my 21st birthday party, I dressed as Romy from "Romy and Michelle's high school reunion". While the movie itself was not exactly cutting edge cinema, it explored a theme that resonates with most of us - mixed feelings about the prospect of facing one's high school peers a factor of ten years after graduation. In the film, Romy and Michelle go to great lengths in an attempt to prove to their former classmates just how successful and happy they now are.

A couple of decades later and I find myself dressing again for a reunion - this time my own. While I wasn't intending to pretend that I had invented post-it notes, it's only natural to worry about being put in a room full of the people one went through adolescence with. They remind us of old insecurities, habits, grievances and labels that we'd rather forget. When thinking of those years, some of the more negative memories have lingered - the emphasis on grades and all that stuff about looks and money that seems to be a focus for people on the north shore, or maybe teenagers generally. It was easy to feel stupid, ugly and poor when surrounded by an above average cohort. So at the reunion I pictured all that stuff re-surfacing and wondered how I would stack up now against a group of highly intelligent and now probably extremely successful women.

Part of our group on Yr 11 "lawn"

But then I decided that reunions don't have to be traumatic events where we re-live old insecurities. They also offer a marker of time against which to reflect on the direction our life has taken thus far. Are we where we thought we'd be? Are we happy with the person we have become? What is our own measure of success? With these questions in mind, I laid out the outfit options on the bed. As I selected an ensemble that seemed to fit the occasion, a small voice inside told me "Just be yourself and it will be fine". And it was.

As we entered the room, our year advisor, who had always been great with names, greeted me. "Aletia, you haven't changed a bit", she declared, which was a very promising start to the evening. As I sought out the people I most wanted to connect with, there were hugs and smiles, and a real sense of comraderie. Everyone, most likely, was just as apprehensive as I was, and we all began by laughing awkwardly about forgetting one another's names. It was incredible to think that we were at high school before facebook, mobile phones and email and yet all these advances had been integral to organising the evening. Basically in our day we wrote assignments by hand, and communicated via note passing by day and the telephone by night. We also seemed to have a preference for large pink lunch boxes, according to one photo that I found.

20 years on and we haven't aged a bit!!!

Apart from being really excited to catch up with members of my friendship group again after so long, it was also lovely to see old classmates and reminisce about particularly odd teachers, memorable conversations on the bus ride from St Leonards station, going to Christian camp just to meet guys and those 1980s French songs whose lyrics are still imprinted into our brains. Discovering that I have a blog fan amongst my former peers (hi Ada) was another highlight. It occurred to me that it was really the competitive system and some teachers that had dampened my memory of high school, not my fellow students. Nobody was there to judge and we were all delighted to see each other...just as we are.

I have to confess that I was intrigued by the news that Madame Pickering, who eventually succeeded in getting two of us out of her class so that her precious average didn't suffer, now serves chips on a beach somewhere up north. I picture her giving those surfies a few lessons in pronunciation! I began to wonder what became of the Latin teacher who enjoyed the pleasure of my company during many a lunchtime detention while I repeatedly re-conjugated the verb to do/make with correct spelling or came to grips with the past imperfect tense as pertaining to the life and times of Caecilius and his family.

My only regret was probably not getting around to talk to some of the girls from Drama. This was one class that crossed all the friendship boundaries and where we had to put those petty differences aside and build a sense of community for a higher cause - love of the theatre (oh, and the other motivator - fear of humiliation on stage in front of family, friends and the rest of the school). I fondly remember playing Nora in "A woman of no importance" and Envy in Dr Faustus' Seven Deadly Sins, and being regularly reminded of the benefits of
Alexander technique by one of the Ms Fitzgeralds. Drama class was what made the rest of high school bearable for me, as well as, oddly enough, Maths. For some reason I loved Algebra...

As our hostess (the girl who two decades ago was deemed most likely to organise the reunion) reminded us, we hadn't really changed all that much. Those from the debating team were now lawyers or appearing on Insight discussing our country's budget. Those who wanted to be Prime Minister were now active in politics. One girl from the nerd group (her term, not mine) was telling me that too many of her friends are predictably in actuarial work, and the party animals were getting rowdy when the night was still young.  The talkative people possibly hadn't drawn breath in twenty years and the comedians still have us rolling on the floor laughing (yep, we spelt it out in full in our day). And of course none of us have aged a bit. :)

Themed cup cakes from Vanilla Whisk

So, another decade over, and what have we done? Our motto means "toward higher things" and I think that's what we've done, in our own individual ways. People have pursued careers, started families, moved state, moved country, gotten in and out of relationships, but mostly just continued on with the business of being ourselves, which is all we can ever do. I reckon I'll go to the next reunion as well, because I want to have the opportunity in another ten years time to mark where I am at, and reflect on how my high school days shaped me into who I became. In the meantime - Ad Altiora!

Monday, June 09, 2014


Like many others, I was horrified to hear that Elliot Rodger, a 22 year old California man killed 6 people, apparently in an act of revenge towards the women he was attracted that wouldn't sleep with him and the men who succeeded where he failed. This incident seemed to touch many of us in a painful place and has led to heated discussions on misogyny, male entitlement, and sexual harassment. Two twitter hashtags gained popularity as a result of this incident - #notallmen for men who say that not all men do these things, and in response to that - #yesallwomen for women to explain how misogyny affects all of us on a daily basis. What follows is my story, and thoughts.

I was about 8 or 9 when I was first experienced discomfort around the opposite sex. It was an incident that was innocent enough. A boy in my class had a crush on me. He had made this clear a couple of times, and I guess I hadn't responded positively enough for him, so he decided to change tactic. I was walking home from school when suddenly I hear somebody calling out my name. It was his brother warning me "Aletia, look out, [boy's name] is coming to kiss you". The two of them were racing towards me at an alarming rate. I ran the rest of the way home with those two boys tearing after me, and left it to my father to explain why I didn't want to come out of my room and be his girlfriend.

In his article entitled "Your Princess is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement and Nerds", blogger and self confessed nerd Arthur Chu describes how video games like Mario and movies like "Revenge of the Nerds" contribute to a belief amongst nerds that if you are persistent enough, try a different tactic, or pretend to be somebody you are not, you will eventually "get the girl". This sense of entitlement (to a beautiful girlfriend) is a strong theme in Elliot Rodger's manifesto and his video. (Yes, I watched and read). The problem with this thinking is that it ignores the right of a woman as a human being to have a say in who she dates, and when.

A few years later, as a young teenager, also on the walk home, an older man followed me and when he got close enough, asked me out. I didn't know what to say, because I didn't know him, and thought I was maybe too old for getting kidnapped, but too young for dating. In the end, I declined and nothing else happened, but it was odd, and left me a bit warier than I had previously been of strange men. Since then there have been the usual wolf whistles, persistent asker-outer-ers, and other awkward moments that I won't go into. In my late twenties, I was accused of having an affair with a much older man, and this really shook me. One rumour was that the man had fantasised about having a relationship with me, based on what I had thought was a positive, platonic, mentoring relationship.

These encounters have left me very hesitant about friendships with older men. They also tap into another emerging theme: that, yes, all women have experienced incidents that make them wary of men. Some of the stories on the #yesallwomen hash tag are far more disturbing than mine, but the point is that overwhelmingly it is men who rape and sexually harass, and it is mainly women (although young men too) who are the victims. Society tells women how to avoid rape, placing a sense of blame incorrectly onto women, while very rarely telling men to take responsibility for their actions. The idea that we need to be raising young men who respect women and understand what they go through is hardly on anyone's radar.

In the article "Lessons from #Notallmen / #Yesallwomen", by Devin McHutchin, the idea of male privilege is explored. The reality is that, while not all men will rape or murder, all men do benefit from being male and the privileged position men hold in society. Centuries of positive reinforcement mean that men on average are more confident than women, earn more, and are treated with more respect for the simple reason that they were born male. I remember feeling a strong sense of injustice because my father let my boyfriend  drive his car but not me, despite the fact I am still the only one out of the three of us with a completely clean driving record. My boyfriend at the time had no qualms about benefiting from this priveleged, boys club mentality. And, just as I benefit from being white, and know that I can be unintentionally racist from time to time, I am wary of men who claim not to be sexist. Even my gentlest, most gender-aware male friends have been known to make occasional assumptions or comments that perpetuate patriarchal norms, and cause offence.

So, I do feel that #yesallwomen have stories of harassment, discrimination and worse. Our past experience does influence how we respond to new men that we meet. And yes all men benefit from society's bias towards them. What we as men and women need to do is to change the way we all view the coupling process. The only sense of entitlement anybody should feel is entitled to say no. Also, we should be brave enough to stand up and question the most harmful beliefs that lead to violence against women, and encourage the men in our lives to listen, openly and humbly, to our stories, as that is always the first step to healing.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Those bullies

One of my favourite episodes of the IT Crowd is the one where Moss has to deal with a group of bullies on a park bench. Eventually, after some role playing of likely scenarios with his colleague (a technique that also helped him learn how to buy sandwiches), and a surprising turn of events where he finds himself in possession of a weapon, he overcomes the fear of those bullies picking on him.

I can relate to dear old Moss. There are some people in my life who, possibly due to their own insecurities, like to ever so subtly undermine my confidence. It's sometimes only after years of silently suffering and tears in the toilet that I realise it is not ok to feel this way. And what's more, it's not just happening to me. Others have noticed it too, or also been victim to the behaviour and are just better than me at responding.

I do think I need to take responsibility for enabling people to treat me badly. At this age, I have *almost* mastered surrounding myself with positive, affirming people. But we can't control who we interact with all the time. Sometimes we just have to find ways to live with somebody.

I am grateful, in a weird way, to these difficult people, as their behaviour allows me to grow. Sometimes there are hard-to-hear truths to be found amongst the put downs, even if the delivery leaves a lot to be desired. It takes courage to accept one's shortcomings with grace, and it requires a certain wisdom to differentiate between what is useful feedback and what is, well, just plain meanness. It also is a reminder for me to find more constructive ways to voice my frustrations with others, knowing that being constructive and encouraging is more effective in changing people's behaviour and getting the outcome we want than criticism or aggression.

Like Moss, I use role play, although mainly inside my head, to rehearse ways to respond to the mean stuff that show greater respect for myself and that name the behaviour as inappropriate. Some people say you have to kill the other person with kindness, others say it's best to ignore. Many are able to model assertiveness with ease. And then there's always those who are able to employ the clever use of humour to disarm or surprise the other person.

Whichever way I respond, the trick is to do so in the moment, and not a week later when the perfect comeback finally occurs to me. On the rare occasions that I do respond assertively, creatively and respectfully, I feel good - just like Moss at the end of the episode as he confidently strides past those bullies on the bench in the park. I, however, am not brandishing a gun!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Budget boo hoo

Last night Joe Hockey announced the budget. You all know what happened. There were cuts to health, education, overseas aid, and welfare, and except in some cases it really seemed to be the most vulnerable who are being robbed to subsidise the rich. The winners were big business, medical research, the military, road infrastructure and subsidies for fossil fuels. There was no mention of renewable energy, climate change or innovative transport solutions like high speed rail. The offshore detention of refugees on Manus Island alone will cost $8.3 billion while there will be $7.9 billion cuts to overseas aid. I felt very sad.

Then another thing happened. This morning I went for a walk along the Cooks River. I feel better when I am near water. On the way I passed an elderly man. We nodded and smiled. On the way back, there he was again. I nodded again, and this time he wanted to connect. He called out to me after I had passed him by and asked me my name, and I'm ashamed to say that I paused, looked at him, then kept walking. I had panicked, and decided not to engage.

After a few paces I started to feel really bad. What if his wife had recently died and he just wanted to connect with another human being? Maybe he had something really important to tell me. Would it have cost me so much to stop on my day off and talk to somebody that I didn't already know? What was I really afraid of? That he would rape me in broad daylight? Or that he might ask me a favour? I started to weep with shame as I walked.

So, what's the connection between my non-interaction with this stranger on the path by the river and the budget from hell? I think the link is that we've lost touch with our common humanity. One friend was saying that anthropologically we can only accommodate a certain number of people into our immediate circle. And sometimes I think we are more able to empathise with those who are in our immediate circles.

I wonder how many of the socio-economic groups that will lose out in this budget Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey have had meaningful interactions with? How many of their close friends are ex-soldiers who struggle daily with the psychological and emotional scars of fighting wars on our country's behalf and can't hold down a job of any kind? How many grew up in housing commission arrangements? How many have struggled throughout life due to disability or mental health issues? How many fled war and persecution, torture and rape and then lived in poverty stricken conditions in refugee camps before ending up on our shores? How many currently live in countries that have been aid partners for the past few decades, with limited opportunities for basic health services, free education or employment opportunities? I can honestly say that I count all these groups amongst my friends, and maybe that makes it easier for me to understand their circumstances and why we need a budget that is just as well as sustainable.

But it's not just me and my bleeding heart friends who think it's important to be compassionate as well as fiscally responsible. The United Nations has set out standards for countries to follow when it comes to refugees, Indigenous Peoples, development aid and action on climate change. Australia already falls embarrassingly short on all four accounts, yet the rhetoric that is believed by many Australians is that our finances are in a mess, there is no urgency on climate change, we already take too many refugees, Aboriginal people have been given too much already, and that our own backyard is more important than those of our neighbours. Yet, if the SBS program "Go back where you came from" tells us anything, it is that even the most poorly educated, hard-hearted, red-neck is capable of changing their mind when they come face to face with another human being who tells their story.

So, what do I think we should do? I think we should organise and we should start to engage. While the Government might not be changing its mind any time soon, I think we can educate those who voted for them, introduce them to the facts and the real people who might open their minds and give them a broader perspective. We can provide examples of other countries that have great high speed rail, renewable energy programs, and recognise their international human rights obligations while still managing a stable economy. We can encourage the other political parties to get their act together and provide real policy alternatives at the next election. We can encourage one another to speak up about what it is we don't like, so that we can move towards a country that we're all proud of.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Lost and found

This is the story of my long lost brother.

The tale of how he came about really begins with two teenagers in the summer of 1963, but as far as I was concerned it all started with a 7 year old girl twenty years later and her unwavering wish for an older sibling.

You see, I had been wishing for siblings since I was about 3. When I was 5, I got two younger ones, and since that worked out so well, I decided it would be nice to have an older one too; somebody to stand up for me, to advise me, and be in solidarity with me during those difficult teenage years.

When I was 12 my wish was granted. An older brother had materialised and wanted to meet us. When dad told me the news, that he'd had a son when he was 19, and this person had been in touch, I burst into tears. Partly sadness that I hadn't known about him before,  partly happiness that I had an older brother after all, and partly a knowledge, as far as my young mind could comprehend, that this new information was big and complicated and was going to change how I saw the past and the future.

Andrew on a visit to Sydney,  circa 1992

My new brother was 24 years old - positively ancient as far as I was concerned, and already had a mum and dad who had raised him and a sister. He also had a new biological mother to get to know. Plus he lived in Melbourne. None of these factors were conducive to the instant solidarity and closeness that I had been expecting. But I retained an open mind.

I can't remember much of what we talked about that first meeting. We probably shared family photos, he must have mentioned his work as a librarian, and I think dad made plans for him to meet the grandparents. I suspect us kids were asked to give a short violin recital. I do remember him telling me that he used to really annoy his sister when they were teenagers, and I filed that away as evidence that maybe I had gotten the best of both worlds after all. Everyone thought he looked more like Uncle David than any of us, although he did share dad's strong dislike of capsicum, which gave a certain validity to dad's claims that it was a genuine health condition.

Overall, dad was just stoked that his son hadn't turned up as some tattooed bloke on a motorbike. That seemed to be his main fear, so it must have been comforting to see that Andrew is undecorated and prefers 4-wheeled transport. The other fear was that Andrew and I would meet, fall in love, then discover we were related and end up on "The Oprah Winfrey Show". That was thankfully no longer a concern either. We also learned that he is incredibly considerate, sociable, thoughtful, tells a great story and has an exceptional memory for people and places. None of us could have asked for a more delightful long lost relative.

And so began the getting to know you process. He sent us birthday cards, and if he was in Sydney or any of us were in Melbourne, we would meet up. He gradually became part of our lives, not wanting to intrude too soon, and for many years was something between a cousin and a good friend. Since we never lived together as siblings, I still think of myself a little bit as an eldest child. And besides, his sister in Melbourne has the only legitimate sibling claim over him because of all the teasing she put up with during adolescence. We have to respect that, but I did feel extremely proud introducing my new brother to friends and relatives at my 21st. He and Richard had flown up 'specially, which meant a lot to me.

In my twenties during a visit to Melbourne I asked Andrew and Richard about the secret of their relationship success. It was a tentative request for brotherly advice. They celebrated 20 years together just last year, and are one of the happiest couples I know. "Oh, I think it helps that we're boring" Richard offered, after a longish pause. "Yes" agreed Andrew. "I like looking at open houses and Richard likes seeing planes take off. We do those things together". I have yet to find a direct application of this advice to my own life, but was very glad to receive it.

Six years ago, Andrew and Richard moved to Sydney and bought a house just a short walk over the creek from mum and dad's place. While they were house hunting, Andrew stayed with my parents, and he and Mum bonded over beautiful sunsets, chats over a morning cuppa and a love of books. Since then there have been plenty of opportunities to connect more. At family get togethers Andrew and I enjoy entertaining others by carrying on a conversation in pidgin English or giggling and gossiping about the antics of each other's friends and family. When we reminisce about the early years, Andrew will remind me that when we met I was 12 whereas the twins were only 6, and I feel like one of "the older ones". We have the solidarity thing that I always wanted. It's turned out very nicely.

Well and truly part of the family, 2013

So, here we are 25 years later. Am I glad he wanted to find us? Only on a daily basis! Would I have liked to know about him earlier? Kinda! Just like Tom Cruise's character in "Rain Man", I sometimes feel it just would have been nice to know that I had a brother. But over time the lost years diminish in proportion to the found years and it matters less. Instead of regretting what we missed, or how things could have been, I am just so glad he is in my life now. And it is a reminder that even the most unlikely of wishes can come true!

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Do you hear the people sing?

I spent a lovely weekend at the National Folk Festival over Easter this year. It's become a bit of a habit for me. I catch up with friends who perform, those who sit with me and enjoy the music, and those who are kind enough to have me to stay. I also get to see some of my favourite performers live. This year a highlight was seeing Archie Roach in concert.

Archie Roach in concert
One folk festival veteran, who is also a life long activist, was complaining to me that the new generation of folk singers (as in my own generation) don't touch on political issues in the same way that their parents did. They have veered away from the radical themes that their parents would bravely sing about in the '60s and '70s like the Vietnam war or Apartheid, she says, and only sing about mundane, safe things like going for a walk or odd socks.

I started to wonder about the official definition of folk music. After a perusal of wikipaedia, it seems the exact meaning is not altogether clear. Some say folk music is anything sung in the oral tradition, like folk tales. Some said it was the music of the uncultured class, which is probably still accurate if you think of the high number of folk festival goers in animal onesies, pyjamas or blunstone boots teamed with tie dyed rainbow skirts! But one widely accepted definition appealed to me: "folk music is what the people sing".
"Charlotte Raven" creating beautiful personalised poems
I guess this final definition comes closest to explaining what folk music is for me. Some of my favourite performers use music (or poetry or art) to express their passionate feelings about subjects that affect us as people; love, loss, war, injustice, and racism. Many of these themes are the songs of angry women and men; of activists. After all, wasn't jazz born of the struggle of African American people for their civil rights? Didn't the Irish sing about oppression by the English and doesn't Archie Roach sing about the racist policies inflicted on his people by us newcomer Australians?

While Archie Roach could never be accused of not being political, he is of an older generation. Thankfully, there is evidence that our generation is not completely apolitical. The Riff Raff Radical Marching Band is pretty politically radical and made up of at least three people that I know, and who are around my age. Many of my friends who perform sing of their anger about local, national and international issues; the wastefulness of a 50 metre pool in a town of 350 people, the destruction of the Jabiluka Uranium mine, shame at living in a racist colony, and reconciling feminism with the bible. But they also sing of love, friendship, loss and laughter.
Riff Raff Radical Marching Band
So, while I agree that some of the folk music of today might seem trivial and less radical than that of earlier generations, I think our radical, political themes are there if you look. We should encourage those folk singers of our generation not to be afraid to explore the political and social themes that make us angry these days. But I hope they don't stop singing those delightful ditties about everyday matters like wondering about the things one's guitar has seen, choosing to wear yesterday's clothes again or drinking too much gin. They are as much about the people that we are today as is our anger about modern manifestations of slavery, injustice and war.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Coming right way

Three of us journeyed in my car. Two Davids and me. I nicknamed them front-seat David and back-seat David for the purpose of telling them apart. As we shared stories and snacks on the trip, front-seat David kept referring to my "dilly bag" whenever I asked him to retrieve an item for me, and I enjoyed that gesture of inclusion. We were headed for the third workshop held by Quakers and First Nations People to explore connections, racism and sovereignty. When the three of us tumbled, late, into the first session, the smiles around the room welcomed us. There were some people I hadn't seen in two years, some I had kept in touch with, and new faces.

my dilly bag
And as we fell into a rhythm of discussion sessions punctuated by meal times and sleep, it became clear that my role was to listen. I listened to stories of youth suicide, stolen children, rape, racism,  hopelessness, incarceration, deaths in custody, mental health, the white man's poison, anger, addiction, activism, hope, resilience, unconditional love, support, and forgiveness. As always, I had to guard myself against the strong emotions that always well up at these types of occasions, knowing that even being able to take care of myself is a privilege afforded those of us for whom the personal is less political.

When I think of the suicides I think of my friends who took their lives. I think maybe I can empathise somehow. Because I've received the phone call, tried to make sense of it, felt overwhelmed and angry and unsure. I've said goodbye to that beautiful, gentle soul: somebody who, in that moment, didn't think life was worth it any more. But I know it's different. To see suicide touch so many young people in the same community is not the same thing at all. What is happening for them is collective hopelessness; the collateral damage caused by decades and centuries of structural violence and racism.

When I think of the children taken away, I think of my brother, who was taken from his mother at birth. And again I think maybe I can empathise somehow. The lost years that you never really get back, the what ifs that go through your head. And how you know he is always trying to catch up on a family that he wasn't part of as a child. But again I know it's different - for them it was a deliberate attempt to deny children their heritage, to breed out the black. And it continues - now it's called "The Intervention", or "stronger futures" or "concern for little children". People shared stories from all corners of the country of children taken away and it became clear to me that they never stopped taking the children away. But some, like front-seat David, came back, determined to reconnect and reclaim their lost heritage.

"What are you Quakers going to do?" they ask us, and we are eager, but unsure. They want concrete action. Sometimes it feels as if we are very much "the other", "the enemy", and I am aware that I benefit daily from the structures that hold them back, but there are moments of solidarity. When we talk of collective action it feels like progress. I know that there is more that the women would like to say, and I could have done more to listen to their stories over meals, or during the times when I selfishly chose to spend snatching up missed sleep.

Halfway through the second day, back-seat David and I took a walk up the mountain behind the centre and looked out over Lake George, letting the strong feelings settle. I am aware that, while friends and colleagues continue to campaign against apartheid around the world, we are the oppressors in a similar scenario here in Australia. We are complicit in and benefit from two centuries of genocide. Will we have the courage to stand up and be counted among those who see and name the racism that exists in our own country and in our own hearts?

Silver Wattle Quaker Centre, Bungendore
At one point, somebody made a distinction between Quakers and other Wadjula, and I felt a sense that we were beginning to come right way, a concept introduced to me by a very wise Quaker many years ago. The idea is that, by listening and hearing stories of what has happened, we can start to build a relationship with the First Australians, and eventually start to right the wrongs of the past. When we first came to Australia, we came wrong way. Now we are being given the chance to come right way.

We gather at the tree to say goodbye to the Kooma mob who are heading home. They have fifteen hours of driving ahead of them just to get to Brisbane. Then another couple of days due West. Suddenly Koko realises that I never got one of the sovereignty t-shirts. He looks me up and down, mumbles something about needing to find a large one, and produces an XXL and thrusts it into my hands. Gratitude prevails over indignation.

One man, a gentle, thoughtful soul who I felt I connected with over the weekend, was standing  beside me. "When are you coming back to Cunnamulla?" he asks me. "Oh, when front-seat David invites me again" I reply, because we'd already established that I'd visited back in 2008. "I'll invite you", he says. "I'll show you around". I try not to let the wetness in my eyes show. After two days of listening to how my people have wronged another, I can't believe that I might have made another friend. I feel I am another small step closer to "coming right way".

Sunday, April 06, 2014

On twins and non-twins

"So, what are you getting Jess for her birthday?" Tom asks me earnestly. Five minutes later I have the reverse conversation with Jess. Yep, this can mean only one thing - the twins' birthday season is well and truly upon us!

You see, I grew up with twins. My younger siblings are twins, my grandmother was a twin, and my aunt and uncle are twins. I, however, am not a twin. You could say that I am the non-twin in our family.

For the first five years of my life, I was an only child who dreamed of siblings, prayed for siblings, and played at having siblings. I had a large doll that I referred to as my sister, and was bitterly disappointed that she seemed to get smaller and smaller as the years went on. So when mum and dad told me that I would be granted not one but two of these fellow offspring that I had covetted so, I was stoked!

Once I got over the initial disappointment that they too didn't seem to be the right size for playing with me, I patiently waited for the circumstances to change. I had to wait two years before they could reasonably be expected to sit at the little desks upstairs and dutifully play the part of the school students while I played Miss Valentine! I had to wait even longer for them to be able to play 500 and charades, but it's all good now.
The Golden Jubilee of twinhood, Paris 2007
I enjoy twin birthday season, and I enjoy teasing them about it. The earnest conversations about what to do for the other, the generosity they both show, discussion about parties, shopping and lots of phone calls. Also just the "double-ness" of it all. I do remember when they turned 21 and Jess mentioned that she might prefer her own party, there was talk of separatism. Tears were shed. But that was all forgotten a few years later when we spent their 25th birthday together in Paris. The golden jubilee of twinhood was definitely worth commemorating, they assured me, and they were generous enough to include me!!

I can remember people asking Tom or Jess what it was like being a twin, and they never knew how to answer. It was all they had ever known. Tom used to ask them in return what it's like not being a twin and that usually shut them up.

I recently met another non-twin. Or to be more accurate, she is actually a non-quad, and I think she summed it up when she said "it sucks not being a quad". It can be a bit lonely, but mostly it's double the fun and I would never want it any other way.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Truth telling

Somebody shared a Virginia Woolf quote the other day: "a feminist is any woman who tells the truth about her life". I have been thinking about this, because I recently told the truth about my life and didn't get the reaction I wanted. And I'm okay with that.

The truth is not always easy to hear. We don't want to find out that our idols or family members or partners are fallible and have human frailties. There are things I've done in my life that I'm not proud of, and I'd like to be able to tell those stories truthfully, without judgement. I've also found that people don't want to hear about hard stuff, messy stuff, and raw emotions. It takes courage to share those things, and courage to hear them.

I'd also like to be able to tell the truth about what has happened to me, the times when I have been hurt, or really vulnerable. Often, when it comes to a story about my life, whether it happened when I was a child, a decade ago, or last week, I've already been on a journey with the story before the time of the telling. I've been angry, sad, and confused. But normally when I come to the point of telling others the story, especially new friends, I've still got lots of those emotions associated with the story, but I'm okay with it. I forget, though, that sharing a story is a two way thing. Sometimes I tell it flippantly, or carelessly. Sometimes I don't think enough about how it's going to affect the other person, whether they've got enough resilience to deal with it, and also whether I've put enough of my own armour on or built up enough trust with the other person before I make myself vulnerable in that way. 

But I guess a feminist, or any person wanting to live with integrity, keeps on telling the truth about their lives, even if it's hard. The trick is to get better at knowing when, and how and why we're sharing that information about ourselves. And then to be able to live with the reaction.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Power and lightbulb moments

With it being International Women's Day the other day, I have been thinking about the power some have over others. I was struck by the message that in NSW, domestic violence is still the most common case that police respond to, and that half of all cases go unreported. It was suggested that there are more than 700 instances of domestic violence occuring in NSW every day. It's clear to me that there is still so much to be done in Australia to close the gap in opportunity, power and safety between men and women, yet many people in Australia believe that all the battles have already been fought, and that there is nothing a woman can't do, if she would just stop complaining and get on with it.

Then, across the Pacific ocean, I find myself on the opposite end of the power spectrum. As a white woman I am constantly aware of my own power and privilege. In Solomon Islands I represent those who have greater access to money, safety and decision making ability. This was made even more startlingly clear to me this past week when my Solomon Islands colleagues were invited to share about some of the power inequalities that they experience in a cross-cultural group. For the first time in five years, the "elephant in the room" was being discussed. They explained how it felt that decisions were already made before the meeting had started, how they felt inferior and unable to contribute anything worthwhile, and how some more powerful people would interrupt, talk over and generally not seem to value the "Solomon voice".

Suddenly, I saw that lightbulb moment happen for the most powerful people in the room. Instead of insistently denying any suggestion that interactions within our cross-cultural group were not 100% rosy, as had been the reaction in the past, there was genuine listening, and they began to understand. We agreed upon some ways to change the power dynamic a little - discussing more complex issues in smaller groups before sharing with the wider group, allowing a moment of silent reflection before rushing in with our thoughts, and taking a secret ballot to find out how people actually feel about the level of power that they hold in the group. As a result, the mood in the group really improved for the better.

In the taxi later on my Solomon colleagues and I were discussing this turn of events. We couldn't believe how much things had changed. Then one of my colleagues summed it up: "I just realised that she didn't realise what she was doing". What we had assumed was deliberate we began to realise was not. Some just hadn't realised the extent of their power. It was our own lightbulb moment.

So, as I think about the men in my life, I realise that some of them probably just don't realise either. Of course, my friends range from those men who would describe themselves as feminists and "get it", to those who can't understand why you'd need a women's only space, and all those in between who benefit in many little ways from the position of power that they hold.

As I listened to my Sols colleagues share their discomfort, I could relate. I sometimes feel that my views are unimportant and that decisions are already made by others with more power. And I wonder how I can learn from my Solomon Islands colleagues about how can I share my experience with those in more powerful positions than me in a way that allows that realisation, and enables them to be part of the solution rather than feeling like the problem?

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Wild Woman

I've been thinking about how I'm very rarely described as a strong, confident woman. Instead, people normally say that I'm nice, or thoughtful. Which I don't mind, of course. It's just that the strong, confident women are the ones that make things happen, who earn respect. A very wise friend of mine is often telling me that I need to tap into my "Xena the Warrier Princess" alter-ego a little more. He thinks she's in there somewhere.

Following on from this advice, I was reading a book mum lent me called "Women who run with the wolves". Within every woman, the book assures me, lives a powerful force made up of good instincts, passionate creativity and ageless knowing. Through unpacking the experience of "wild women" in a number of folk and fairy tales, we learn of our innate power and potential, even if we are quiet, or not conventionally beautiful, or a bit broken.

Often what these wild woman face and fight are not enemies of a physical kind, but the enemies within. Their stories are about overcoming emotional obstacles, learning a difficult lesson or discovering one's power. The skeleton woman emerges from the sea on the end of a fisherman's hook, and chases him back to a cave where she takes his heart and through his eventual acceptance becomes flesh again. A young girl buys a pair of "too scandalous" red shoes that give her the urge to dance uncontrollably until she must cut off her feet to stop. The ugly duckling must find her own kind, the place where she belongs and is beautiful. Vasilisa the brave is sent by her mean step-mother to Baba Yaga, the old witch lady known for eating people. When she completes the impossible tasks set by Baba Yaga, with the help of a magic doll, she is free to return home. Etc.

So, what is my wild woman story? There are elements of all the stories in my life.  Like the girl with the red shoes, I have struggled with addiction (mainly to chocolate, gelato and all things sweet) and seen my wellbeing and weight spiral out of control when I don't keep my cravings in check. I've also faced the death/life/death cycle in relationships that the fisherman faced, where the dark side of the other person is revealed, and you want to run away because you feel betrayed by their frailty, but you continue anyway, finding that acceptance can give new life to the relationship. I have been on a journey to connect with "my people" just like the ugly duckling, because being a little different can feel lonely. I have found that sense of connection with the Quaker community, and also in new friends who are passionate activists.

I also think my story is about Vasilisa the brave. She journeys from subservience to independence. For me, it has been fear, not an evil stepmother, that I have been a slave to. I'm often too scared to set boundaries, to try new things, and to be vulnerable. It took me about half an hour of procrastination disguised as "getting ready" before I set off on my first after-dark bike ride home. But recently I've been tapping into the power of that magic doll. I stood up to a few of those bullies. I have been blogging more, accepting that not everyone will like or agree with what I write. I have been prepared to follow through on tough work decisions that more senior men could not bring themselves to address. And earlier this year I found the courage to finally face a longstanding pain, and sow the seed of meaningful reconciliation. My strength is not big or loud or obvious, but I think you will agree that it is there if you delve a little deeper.

Woman and wolf
Yep, I am woman, here me roar... or howl, if we are keeping with the wolf theme. I know that my power, while quiet and backgroundy, still contains those elements of good instincts, passionate creativity, and ageless knowing. Of course, I still have a few more internal enemies to fight. In fact you could probably write a whole season of Zena episodes or anthology of wild woman fairy tales representing the issues I still need to work through. But I am proud of the wild woman that I am, and actually look forward to the next chapter of my own little folktale with anticipation.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Letters I've written

Now, this is going to make me sound really old, but in my day we didn't have facebook or email or skype - we just wrote one another letters... lots and lots of letters. During my teenage years, I corresponded with friends in other cities, love interests, boyfriends, mentors, pen friends overseas who I'd never met, and school friends who I saw every day. It was the way we expressed ourselves, and how we connected.

There is a box at my parents' place full of letters that I received, and cherished. This little box of treasures provides a glimpse into the 1980's teenage experience, expressed through the people I was communicating with. There are tentative reflections in french on a memorable night, angsty post-break up letters complete with lyrics from REM, tales of road trips and overseas travel accompanied by photos, drawings and mixed tapes, queries about life's purpose, declarations of love, and secrets shared that I have never disclosed. Boy-crazy letters and girl-crazy letters. Letters on pretty paper, neat paper, and on the back of recycled paper. Letters that followed ruled lines, and others that whirled across the page in a spiral. That was the great thing about those letters - there were no rules, and each person's style of writing and choice about the packaging said as much about them as the words they wrote.

While I hold some of the letters written to me, those I wrote are scattered around the world. I have since wondered who kept them, what they meant to the recipients, what I was saying back then, and where they will end up. After my grandfather died, and we were methodically and painstakingly going through his possessions, I stumbled upon a Valentine's Day card Grandma had written him early on in their marriage, when she was not much older than I was at the height of my letter writing era. I felt like an intruder into a time and intimacy that I hadn't been privy to before. I guess that's what happens with letters - sometimes they outlive those who cherished them.

After my friend David died, Lisa told me she had some of the letters I had written him over the years and that I could have them back if I wanted. He had kept them for over a decade. For those years since he died, I didn't feel ready to read them, perhaps scared to discover myself there - raw in black and white. What if I wasn't how I remember, or I don't like that girl? But one day I will read them, and like a voyeur again, I will be transported back into the experience of my 21 year old self, a girl who might seem as distant from my "today" self as the newly-wed woman was to my Grandmother. But that's the thing with letters...

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Gender, peace and politics

The other day I came almost face to face with my political hero. I was in Hobart with family and had wanted to catch up with my mate Peter sometime during my visit. Given that Peter is such a very busy man, and doesn't have a mobile phone or answering machine and is never home to answer the landline anyway, it was agreed that we'd just meet at the anti pulp mill rally and go for lunch afterwards. As I glanced around the Parliament House Gardens looking for Peter, I noticed Bob Brown, casually leaning against a garbage bin at the edge of the crowd. I had to do a double take because he was in disguise - a blue baseball cap was shielding his face from the sun. Of course I was too shy to go and say hello, but it was very comforting to know that he was there.

Me and Peter at the rally. Bob Brown is somewhere in the vicinity.
I've been reflecting on why I am so fond of dear old Bob and why I finally joined the Greens last year. I guess I can blame Peter to a certain extent. The whole time we have been corresponding (since I was about ten), he has been modelling for me a life of activism and integrity; riding his bike to work, refusing to own a car or mobile phone, writing angry letters, teaching literature from a social justice point of view, handing out greens leaflets and generally encouraging every young person in his life to take a global perspective. He worked for Quaker Senator Jo Valentine when I was in primary school and took me on a private tour of Parliament House.

Skip forward a decade or two to my late twenties, and I was right in the thick of leading a Peter-approved life. I worked for an NGO, was vegetarian, didn't own a car or a mobile phone and was completing a Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies. In a course entitled "Gender and the development of peace" I found myself writing an essay about the feminisation of politics in Australia. I could have written about anything from female genital mutilation to the Grameen Bank, but I chose the feminisation of politics in Australia. It was an odd decision in some ways, but I got a pretty good mark for it!

In my essay I critiqued the adversarial nature of politics in Australia, describing it as patriarchal and violent. Our political climate was and still is dominated by men and operates in a culture of competition. I was writing at the height of the Iraq war when, as now, we had a conservative government that was trying everything it could to divert resources away from basic needs such as health, education and humanitarian aid in order to justify military interventions in places where we should have been offering development aid and diplomatic support.

What was needed, according to feminist theorists was a feminist approach to politics. Anne Summers was amongst those arguing that increasing the representation of women in parliament would transform the nature of politics. There was the discussion of whether quotas were important, or needed. Bronwyn Bishop was saying we didn't need quotas, since she had made it. Joan Kirner was arguing that we do, because greater numbers of women will break down the male dominated factional leadership. Yet, the fact remained that in spite of quotas in the Labor Party, very little had changed in the way the game was played. After all, people like Amanda Vanstone were asserting that the system ain't broke: "Look Susan. It’s an adversarial system, and you’re never going to change’s probably my legal training, but I think the adversarial system is the best way to get as close as possible to the best result, to what the truth is" (from "The Scent of Power" by Susan Mitchell).

In a mentoring session with Meredith Bergman, she told us essentially the same thing - to power dress and act more like men if we wanted to be taken seriously in male dominated arenas. I have taken on board her advice to introduce myself by both names but feel uneasy about changing aspects of my personality or wearing shoulder pads in order to fit in. Rejecting the notion that for women to succeed they just needed to be more like men, and play the political game, I was drawing on feminist and nonviolence theory to argue that this didn't need to be the case. Women have strengths to offer politics, and, I argued, the political system could do with a bit of an overhaul and this required more than an increase in representation of women in parliament.We needed to challenge and replace the patriarchal and violent structures that underpin politics in Australia.

One theorist (Rod Cameron) was arguing that feminisation of politics would not only involve greater representation of women in leadership roles, but also a change to our definition of strong leadership. Leaders of the future would be increasingly judged on their humanity, intelligence, honesty and creativity. We will be looking for leaders who are in touch, honest and direct.

As I read further, it became clear to me that there were in fact alternatives to the existing model already being tested. It was our friend Jo Valentine and my beloved Greens party that were actually exploring different, more feminised, if you like, ways of doing politics. Jo Valentine told me all about her attempts to model nonviolent behaviour when interacting with other politicians. Using her background in nonviolent civil disobedience, she cited times when she had changed hearts and minds through taking a more patient, listening and collaborative approach to points of difference.

In a book co-authored by Bob Brown entitled "The Greens", society is condemned for being selfish and consumer-driven, and not meeting the needs of the current generation, let alone the needs of future generations and non-human species. They describe the Greens party model as non-hierarchical, networking and alliance-building. Decisions are made by consensus and women were equally represented within the membership and leadership, not because of quotas, but because the greens arose out of activist and community groups where women are already well represented. Policy positions, decided in consultation with members, seemed to reinforce values of cooperation, compassion, integrity and a concern for future generations. The qualities traditionally associated with feminism seemed to be lived out and considered valuable and important qualities in future-thinking politics by the Greens.

Whenever I have heard Bob Brown speak since, he has lived up to the values that are now so important to me - integrity, compassion and a participatory approach to democracy. He always modelled a style of leadership that is in touch, honest and direct. Women and men in Australian politics could learn a lot from Bob. Although he has now left politics, and so was wearing his "concerned citizen" cap rather than his "Leader of the Greens" hat, I admire and thank him for his contribution to Australian politics.

As I sat down to lunch with Peter and a bunch of our activist and Quaker friends, I felt reinvigorated. While the situation we find ourselves in today is pretty dire - even more dispassionate approaches to asylum seekers, reductions in overseas aid, funding cuts to basic needs, and a female Prime Minister who was treated appallingly - there is hope. Since joining the Greens I have met so many gorgeous, charming, welcoming, committed, passionate and intelligent people to add to the list of pretty amazing Quaker friends, flatmates and colleagues who will be part of making this clunky old political system of ours into one that is more community based, nonviolent and future thinking. All of them are my political heroes too.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Booked in

One of my end of year resolutions, if you like, was to solve the reading while travelling dilemma. Since I have been known to take month long trips to the Solomon Islands for work, with my suitcase half full of books, I had begun to feel that a 'kindley-type-thing' might be more practical than taking half my bookshelf with me each time. I also thought it might be more environmentally friendly in the long term.

The trouble is that I don't like doing what I call 'shopping research'. I just find it time consuming and I'm not that good at making decisions. Plus, all the options and permutations stress me out. I can happily go down one research path almost ready to commit, only to discover that it doesn't have a USB drive, or it only works in the northern hemisphere, and I have to start all over again. So, in a stroke of brilliance I decided to outsource the problem and happily put 'research the best kindley-type-thing for me to take overseas when travelling' on my santa list, and then put the matter out of my mind. I had vaguely thought that if my brother was my secret santa this year he might really enjoy doing this for me.

Best gift ever - the research done, AND beautifully presented!
Imagine my surprise and delight on Christmas day when I discovered that my secret santa (or kk as we call it in our family), who was the one family member with  "technologically challenged" as part of her email address, had completed the task with first class honours. Lovingly seeking the help of a technologically endowed librarian, my Kris Kringle had presented me with the alternatives, the ethical considerations, and a final recommendation, all presented nicely on blue card.

My new travel reading companion
Thus, I found myself purchasing a kobo (because my KK had explained to me the ethical fallbacks of going with Kindle/Amazon), joining my local library (because kobo is connected to the library network and I can borrow e-books), starting a bookclub and downloading my first books. It's all incredibly exciting. Now the only issue left is resisting the joy of browsing second hand bookshops. But buying the odd  "real" book is still ok, isn't it? I do still need something to read in bed when I'm not on the road!!

The bedside bookshelf remains

Saturday, January 25, 2014


The other night I saw John Pilger's film "Utopia" at The Block in Redfern. Arriving late, I was wondering whether I'd find anyone to sit with or whether I would miss the beginning, but I needn't have worried. It seemed that Sydney's entire progressive community had turned out to see the film. The movie itself didn't get started until I was well and truly settled into my picnic spot surrounded by people I knew.

Photo taken by my friend Costa

At the beginning of the documentary we learn of the price people are willing to pay to stay one night in a luxury apartment by Sydney's breathtakingly beautiful harbour. This opulence is then juxtaposed with Utopia, a remote desert community just a few hundred kilometres north of Alice Springs, where a health worker describes the appalling conditions that people live in. In one particular house, the only toilet doesn't work most of the time meaning that raw sewage collects in the back yard, and they don't have the basic medical supplies for immunisations or to prevent diseases that are non-existent in the rest of Australia. Oh, and cockroaches have been found in children's ears.

The description reminded me of an incident in Balgo, another desert community set on the intersection of Warlpiri, Kukatja, and Ngarti lands a couple of hundred kilometres further north, where I journeyed in 2009 to attend The Kapulalungu Aboriginal Women's Association Law Camp. Arriving in town, I remember one of my travelling companions commenting loudly about the state of the sleeping quarters, citing cockroaches, dog poo and unwashed dishes scattered about the place as unacceptable, perhaps unaware that while our new room-mates might have been too shy to speak English with us, they understood the gist only too well. We were perpetrating again the shame we place on First Nations people because they are not like us, or because they don't have access to the basic sanitation facilities that we take for granted.

In that community I formed a bond early on with one lady who had recently lost her son to suicide. He was the third young person to die that way in the space of 12 months. As we shared snippets of our very different lives, I marvelled at her resilience. Some of her older female relatives remembered a time pre-invasion, before the middle generation had been raised in a Catholic mission school away from their families and prevented from speaking their language. These women were now teaching their traditional laws and customs to the younger and middle generations with the hope that re-connecting to culture would make a difference to self-confidence, cultural pride and a sense of healing for the community as a whole. Even after sixty short years, "settlement" had clearly been very destructive to the mental health of young people, evidenced in the high rates of suicide.

One of the buildings used for health and community work, Balgo

Rates of youth suicide amongst First Nations people was highlighted in the movie, with Robert and Selina Eggington from the Nyoongar Nation speaking about their own experience of grief losing a son to suicide, and then talking about a space of remembrance that they created for other grieving parents in the Perth area. I wished the movie had included more positive stories like this, and perhaps more from urban and rural experiences as well as remote. But I did find it valuable to hear about successful strikes and union activities that had led to increases in wages, improved standards of living and safety for workers. Stories of resistance movements and urban survivors could have been more prominent.

The irony in the connection between the Northern Territory Intervention and the Stolen Generation was explored. John Pilger reminded us that the Intervention was supposedly implemented because of John Howard's concern about rape of children by Aboriginal men in Northern Territory communities following the "Little Children are Sacred" report. Yet, such allegations were a complete misrepresentation of the report. Even more frustrating is the irony that it was the rape of Aboriginal women and girls by white men that resulted in the "half-caste" children who were stolen as part of a racist policies to breed out the black. Some of the books that tell the stories of the stolen children are so powerful, and I remember tears streaming down my face as I learnt of each person's unique but similar heartbreak. Since I was aware that my grandparents had fostered an Aboriginal girl in the 1960s, believing they were doing a good thing, I imagined with some discomfort every story taking place in their house.

The racism of newcomer Australians is evident in interviews with former politicians, people celebrating Australia Day, and countless stories of unnecessary deaths in custody and massacres that have gone un-noticed in history books. I am also disappointed by how this country has handled Australia Day, almost completely oblivious that our day of pride represents nothing less than invasion day for First Nations people. My sister-in-law tells me that she was shocked by the racism she noticed amongst settler Australians when she first moved here. As I continue to struggle with my own racism and privilege, I am filled with love for the First Nations people in my life who have opened their hearts to me over the years. I have a number of "uncles" who continually forgive me as I stumble and offend. They gently nudge me in the right direction.This movie is another step on my journey. I hope it is seen by those who need to see it, rather than only those of us who are "the converted" -  those of us well-intentioned lefties who want to be supportive, but still need a great deal more educating, mind you! And I hope this story will spark vigorous discussions. I reckon it's okay if we don't all like the style of journalism or the choice of content, as long as it gets us talking about our embarrassing history, the change we want to see in the future, and maybe even taking action in our own lives to be that change.