Sunday, September 06, 2015

The boy next door

Like so many others, I was deeply moved by the images of the drowned Syrian toddler, Aylan Kurdi. Except for the colour of his hair, he could be my nephew. Noah looks exactly that way when he sleeps. He dresses like that. They are both just little boys, except that while Noah plays endless games of "fire truck rescue", Aylan can't be rescued any more. But for the simple fact that one was born in a country that is now a warzone and the other in a nation relatively at peace, these two boys could have been friends, neighbours even. Had he been rescued and granted protection in Australia, he could have been the boy next door. But he wasn't and he didn't. Whenever I think of it, I want to cry.

This strong reaction has surprised me. I have been immersed in refugee advocacy, peace work and the aid sector for the past decade, and have had continual exposure to horrifying and distressing images, statistics and stories. I almost thought I had become desensitised. Yet, this image touched a chord. I am sure there is a heap of marketing theory and research that explains why the image of one boy can have such a great impact whereas years of banging on about policy, death rates and our "international obligations" has almost none.

I'm glad that people are starting to act, that a candle-lit vigil will take place Monday night, and that politicians around the world are announcing plans to offer more humanitarian places to Syrian refugees. This is certainly progress in the right direction. Wouldn't it be great if this turned out to be the point at which the world said "we just realised we do care about other human beings and can no longer stand by and let this happen to them". But I am cautious in my gladness.

While other leaders are responding with concern and practical offers to help, Tony Abbott is using this drowning at sea to intensify his "stop the boats" slogan, implying that the boy only died because he boarded a boat. I think this is the point at which we need to zoom out from the picture of a boy on a beach, and look beyond the horizon to Syria itself. Has Tony Abbott thought for even just a minute about why people are fleeing Syria on rickety boats in the first place? Surely he knows that it's because there is a humanitarian crisis in their country, because they fear for their lives. So, by turning back boats, to situations of almost certain harm and danger, he is giving every person a death sentence worse than drowning at sea. Stopping the boats does not equal saving lives. We need to make that perfectly clear - to Tony Abbott and to anyone who believes him. Turning back boats might stop people dying on our shores or the shores of Turkey and Greece, but it won't stop them dying. Let's make no mistake about that.

And if we zoom out a little further, we might consider the role Australia has played on the international stage, alongside other western countries, in creating these tragic circumstances. When we joined the war in Iraq, and offered military and financial support to certain armed groups and not others, and reduced our contribution to overseas aid and diplomacy, I believe we sowed the seeds of injustice and unrest. People don't become terrorists or join political struggles overnight or without reason. They do so because they are disillusioned, because they perceive a great injustice has been done to them, because they feel there is no other way. In order to understand why Syria is in the state it is in, we must take a step back and look at our own contribution to this boy's fate, however uncomfortable that might be.

So, yes, we should take in more refugees. Absolutely. But we should do more than that. Australia should engage in rescue operations at sea, like those that took place in Italy. We should welcome refugees warmly, just as we would offer shelter to a neighbour in the aftermath of a housefire or flood. And more than that, we should work with neighbouring countries on a truly regional solution to the increasing movement of people. It will only be with the cooperation between nations, with everybody doing as much as they are able, that the world can respond to the biggest humanitarian crisis since WW2. And finally, Australia should work continually to undo the causes of war, address injustice and to make peace. Only then will little boys and girls the world over be safe from harm.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Under wraps

"Can you keep a secret?" I type the text message, then pause. I've been told that the news is embargoed until Monday, but I'm eager to tell someone. After staring at the words for a few minutes, I decide not to send and the message just sits there as a draft. There have been a few occasions recently when I have hurt others by revealing secrets that, while having an impact on me, are not mine to tell. I've also experienced that sinking feeling when you realise a trusted friend or family member has told one of your secrets to somebody else.

It got me thinking about secrets, though. There are pieces of juicy gossip, skeletons in the family cupboard, confessions we tell a lover, and those shocking revelations that only come to light after a person dies. These days we think of our society as generally being less secretive than it was even half a century ago. Unwed mothers are no longer sent "down south for a while" in a veil of shame, we don't hide our political beliefs as reticently as our parents did, and people don't disown you if you come out as gay. But there are a lot of things we still like to keep hidden.

I have been thinking lately about mandatory reporting, and the times when there are not just emotional but legal implications of keeping and telling secrets. We are seeing the life-destroying impacts of institutional child sexual abuse coming out of the Royal Commission. And, the continuing theme in those historic incidents was the secrecy surrounding it. Children were encouraged to keep the incidents a secret, and mostly they did - for a very long time. Perhaps they kept quiet under threat of violence, perhaps because they didn't feel they would be believed, or perhaps for fear of what would happen to the perpetrator.

I remember reading the memoire of a woman who had been groomed as a child for a sexual relationship with a much older man. He showed her attention and kindness that other adults didn't, and they increasingly found ways to be alone together. She was eight when the first incident happened, eleven when things got more serious, and eighteen when she began to break away. He died when she was in her early twenties. Writing the memoire many years later, she could reflect on why what he did was wrong, how it impacted her, as well as the circumstances of her life that meant she was particularly vulnerable to the abuse. She had kept the relationship a secret throughout their time together.

The Royal Commission reveals, if nothing else, that child sexual abuse is far more prevalent than any of us could have imagined, and its effects are still strongly felt by survivors half a century later. These are secrets that need to come to light in order to give a sense of justice and closure to survivors.  We need to shift the culture in our institutions from one of turning a blind eye to one of open-ness and of acting swiftly and professionally to address issues before they escalate. We need to send a clear message about what sort of behaviour is appropriate and what is not, especially when it comes to children.

So, I think about the secrets in my life. The ones I've told and the ones I've kept hidden for many years. I'd like to get better at knowing when to tell and when to refrain, who to trust and whose trust I need to earn back. Sometimes the unsolicited sharing of a secret can spell the end of a friendship. Other times it's just a blip in the road. And sometimes telling a long-held secret can be a way to find healing and comfort, and bring two people closer together. 

And as for that embargoed piece of news? Well, I'll tell you on Monday.

Retreat, not surrender

The other weekend, against my mother's better judgement, I spent the night alone in the bush. Through a complicated set of circumstances, partly of my own making, I found myself with four tickets to a play in Kangaroo Valley and no "bums on seats" other than my own. The story of how this came to be is very long and convaluted, so I won't bore you with the details, but suffice to say that things hadn't quite gone according to plan.

My friend Selena and I took HSC drama together back in the day. We had bonded over incompetent teachers, encouragement of one another's "work", and the stress of writing and performing our own monologues. So, when Selena sent around an email announcing that she was getting back into acting, and would anyone like to see her latest show, I was, like, um, Yes! The other reason I wanted to go was that my favourite place in the whole wide world is in Kangaroo Valley. A beautiful secluded property that cascades from the road to the river, Werona is filled with happy memories, and gives me a sense of serenity and calm whenever I'm there. But I had never been to Werona on my own before. With a steep road that is in desperate need of repair, limited phone reception, and not a soul for miles around, it was a slightly frightening prospect for a woman on her own.

Werona in the afternoon light

Sometimes life feels like a battleground. You just deal with one disappointment, and another presents itself. It had been a rough couple of weeks for me, and I was very ready to give up on the whole trip, cut my losses and try to get as much money back as I could. But, as the saying goes, "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade". I realised that to not go would be surrender. To go, was merely retreat. Excuse the pun. The most appropriate thing to do, I reasoned, was to take time out to gain some perspective, and re-group, so to speak. And Werona is the perfect place to go for a personal retreat. So, I packed a bag, told people what I was doing, and set off via the scenic coast road. With Missy Higgins and Imogen Clark to keep me company, I started to feel brave and strong and, well, marginally less bitter.

As soon as I arrived at Werona, I knew I had made the right decision. I sense of peace swept over me as I walked the track from the car to the hut. The birds were churping, and I could hear the creek gushing by, full after recent flooding. On closer inspection I noticed certain paths were extremely well-swept. At first I thought "oh, how nice that the last visitors swept so thoroughly". Then I realised it was floodwater that had paved the way. On a trip down to the river I saw with horror the extent of the flood-damage. The area that used to be beach in my childhood, was beach again, with a mini-avalanche having dragged the entire grassy bank into the river. I stepped tentatively across the muddy track, feeling my way back from a brisk swim when all of a sudden one boot began slowly but surely to sink into the fluid ground. "Well," I thought, with a sense of resignation, "this is how I am going to die - sinking boot-first into the swamp of despair". Clutching on to the nearest tree branch, I pulled, and slowly the boot emerged. Disaster had been averted. I hurriedly scrambled to higher ground.

Boots after an incident by the river

There was a brief moment when, back at the hut, I thought "what shall I do now?" I didn't know whether to write, draw, go for a walk or just read. But then it occurred to me. Tea. I should start by making a cup of tea. So, armed with a mug of comforting brew, I got out my watercolours and began to paint. And, as the sun gently set and the possums began to gather, I sipped my peppermint tea, and those earlier feelings of bitterness and anger were swept away as thoroughly as the riverbank of my childhood. This really wasn't so bad after all. 

The next challenge to greet me was getting the hire car back up the hill in order to set out for an evening on the town. The road had gotten progressively more difficult to maneuvour in the past few years, as rocks mixed with broken up bitumen. I put the car into first gear, took a deep breath, and floored it, spinning the wheel back and forth in an urgent attempt to avoid the worst of the potholes without losing momentum and sliding backwards into dense scrub. When I reached the top, breathing a sigh of relief, I promised myself I would not tempt fate again. The car would sleep at the top of the hill tonight. On the open road, I couldn't help but notice an incredibly full moon straight ahead of me. I had to stop and photograph it. Apparently that was the first of three consecutive supermoons.

Moonlight in the valley

The show was brilliant. Selena had organised for a friend of hers to meet me, which was lucky, because it was a very audience participatory kind of show, and the sort of thing where it's awkward if you're there alone. We were simultaneously guests at a cocktail party and audience in a cabaret performance. Interspersed between hilarious and food-related skits was a finger food degustation meal. Perched on cushions with our avocado au d'oeuvres and spicy ginger beer, we immersed ourselves in an awkward date, a meeting between wife and mistress, gossip with the girls, and repeated attempts to steal a bottle of wine. Just like the moon, it was a very full evening. 

As I returned to my hut in the dark, head torch on and scrambling over the indiscernable track, I began to worry about intruders and boogy men. All the ghost stories we told when we were younger came flooding back, and I wondered, again, if it was such a smart idea to come to the valley alone. Each step felt as if it could be my last, as every shadow held potential danger. But, I returned unscathed, and everything was as I had left it. Not even the possums had ventured to mess with my food or bedding, and I was able to light the stove, make another cuppa, and read into the night. 

A room of one's own, or failing that a table outdoors

Virginia Wolf said that if a woman is to write, she needs to have a room of her own. As I prepared for some serious blogging the next morning, a room of my own just didn't seem adequate. So, after various attempts at getting the sunlight and shadows just right, I took my writing table and tea outside and assumed the whole valley as my own. Aided by more tea, and the confidence that comes from having slept alone in the wild, I wrote and read and began to feel at peace with the world. So, as I made my entry in the visitors book, turned off all the appliances (at least, pretty sure I did) and generally made ready to go, I reflected on a wonderful weekend. While things didn't turn out exactly how I had originally imagined, it was in many ways better. And now I can say "oh, yeah, I've spent a night alone in the bush." 

Monday, August 03, 2015

Age of enlightenment

Three seemingly unrelated events happened in the last 24hrs. It snowed in Hobart for the first time in 30 something years. Bronwyn Bishop resigned as Speaker of the House amid outrageous entitlement claims. Oh, and I had a dream about the house next door to my childhood home, which is soon to be flattened by developers.

What these three events have in common has to do with a book I'm reading. "This Changes Everything" by Naomi Klein explores the intersection between capitalism and climate change. Or, more specifically, the intersection between capitalism and climate change denial. While we are clearly experiencing increasingly extreme weather events, which science tells us is caused by human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, the rhetoric is still all about economic growth. Yet, we know that our consumption of the earth's resources is growing at an alarming rate. The earth cannot sustain such an assault for much longer. We are already seeing the signs of distress in extreme and unpredictable weather patterns. And the Pope agrees. His encyclical on the environment that he delivered in June also talks about the unchecked greed, pursuit of wealth and economic growth that is destroying our common home (the environment) and recognises that the poor are suffering the greatest effects of climate change. He advises all of humanity to come together to care for our common home.

Growth and profit are almost certainly what the developers buying up three quarter acre blocks in my parents' street are hoping for. In so doing, they are destroying the playground of my youth. I broke my arm when Christopher sat on me during a game of horse and jockey in his front yard. The tree that I was only once brave enough to climb will be chopped down. Emily's bedroom, where we would sit for hours talking about boys or listening to Icehouse’s “Electric Blue” (her tape) and Phil Collins' "Another day in paradise" (mine) will be gone as well. Although I do realise that time marches on, and things do change, my former neighbour wishes her children had somewhere as beautiful to play as we had. Greed, and the pursuit of endless profit and economic growth, are diminishing those green spaces, and as Cat Stephens wondered decades earlier about the pursuit of growth and development…”where do the children play?”

On the North Shore, where I grew up, the wealthy are in an age of entitlement that stretches from the cradle to the grave. I was exposed to people who wore ball gowns to Saturday night parties, drove their parents’ BMWs at the age of 18, and after having partied through the university years, received high-paying job offers from their parents’ friends. People generally wanted to pay as little tax as possible, and spoke proudly of ways their accountants had helped them to gain the greatest economic advantage. When I raised issues of inequality, I was accused of being a hippy. It was us hippies who were actually rorting the system, apparently, what with some of us being on the dole and all.

I remember a friend of my mother came around one day, having been to an open house in Vaucluse. "Oh, darlings", she screeched, "you wouldn't believe the oppulence of this place. It was three stories high, with a chandelier in the entrance hall. Oh, now I know how the other half lives". Yep, the other half of the same 1%, I thought to myself. And that was when I realised that some people really have no idea how privileged they are. The sense of entitlement that Bronwyn has is the same sense of entitlement that was evident in my peers on the North Shore, and in many other political conservatives. Is it maliciousness, willful ignorance, or just plain blindness that leads such people to turn away from the suffering of others and the environment while they continue to live out another day in paradise?

And as I near the end of the book, Naomi Klein is talking about the difference between extractivist mind-sets (whereby you take things out) and regenerative ones (where continuous re-birth is the goal). While the extractive industries seek to take things literally from the depths of the earth, and metaphorically from the hands of the poor and the next generation, the regenerative types give me hope. They are the people who come together to solve their energy problems as a group, or organise to resist developments and mining or fracking projects. They care for the earth, for the poor, and for one another. They are willing to find new ways to operate, so that the earth can have a new lease on life.

As I have been reflecting on these issues, including Bronwyn Bishop's resignation as Speaker, I can't help but wonder - shouldn't the punishment better fit the crime? Rather than simply extracting Madam Speaker from the chair, why not attempt to regenerate her? Perhaps it would be more appropriate for Dame Bron to spend a night sleeping rough in a tent in Belmore Park, or on a train doing endless city circle circles all night long as was the daily practise for one asylum seeker friend of mine. That way she would see how the "other" other half lives, and maybe even become a champion of the poor...and of the earth. Who knows, she might find herself progressing into a new age - the age of enlightenment. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Game changers

The other night I attended an environment event that broke from the tradition I was used to. Instead of hardened old activists with long beards or short white hair, clothed from head to toe by Vinnies and getting together in some backwatery NGO over cups of fairtrade tea, it was held in salubrious, modern,  city offices, where people use the latest laptops, standing desks, and cupboards that double as white-boards. People sported short, hipster beards or flowing locks, fashionable clothes (although the t-shirts did promote causes of one kind or another) and there was beer!

After chit-chatting with some people I know and cruising past the food table, I settled myself into position on a chair that was within arm's reach of the hummous and bread. A confident fella with an appropriately passionate t-shirt, suitably hipster facial hair and a strong speaking voice began proceedings. After updates were given by various other folks who spoke of strategy, engagement and community organising hubs, we broke into pairs. Then, something unexpectedly familiar happened. Everyone was raising their hands and falling silent. Our leader announced that "hands up and we shut up" was the process. I followed suit with a slightly dropped jaw.

You see, the "hands up for silence" thing was familiar to me because it's what we do in Quaker gatherings. The idea for us is that whenever you see somebody with their hand raised, you raise yours and fall silent. It's actually kindof powerful. When everyone's chatting away over a hot cuppa, and somebody raises their hand, it normally only takes about ten seconds for a room of 300 people to fall silent. But then again, we Quakers like silence, right?! But I guess it grated on me that a uniquely Quaker practise had kindof been adopted by a quite different group of people. And, what's more outrageous? They didn't even credit it to us!! Sigh.

It reminds me of the time I introduced a well-loved game to a new group of friends. I explained the rules, ran through the process and before long everyone was enjoying themselves. They liked it so much, in fact, that they played it all the time, even when I wasn't around. I felt pretty pleased about this at first. My game was a success - yay!! But then, I noticed the group occasionally arguing over the rules and "telling" each other how it was supposed to be played. Nobody asked me about the rules anymore. They all had begun to feel such ownership of this game that they had completely forgotten that I was the one to have introduced it. The game, as I knew it, died, and another was born.

I have noticed a number of Quaker "habits", if you like, that have infiltrated activist groups and other faith communities. And, like my game, they have changed along the way. Concensus decision making pops up frequently, in a variety of incarnations. Lots of community building techniques are incredibly similar to those used by Quakers in their nonviolent training workshops. The Quaker "clap", whereby people demonstrate agreement by silently waving their hands in the air has also been "heard" around the traps, or so I am told. And, I even notice politicians talk of "speaking truth to power", which is a phrase originally coined by Quakers.

I suspect many of these habits have found their way into other groups because Quakers have introduced them. After all, Quakers are involved in activist groups, they serve on a disproportionate number of ecumenical committees, and were key players in the establishment of many of the organisations well-known in the human rights sector such as Oxfam, Amnesty, and Greenpeace. I guess I should be glad that the practices and beliefs that I hold so dear are out there being used in a very practical way.

But there's a part of me that feels a sense of discomfort. When the most powerful person at the most powerful NGO in the room talks about "speaking truth to power", or when concensus is almost forced upon people in a business-like manner such as "do we have concensus for this?, good, right, next" or when the silence thing is all about getting people to shut up, I wonder whether these practices being "misused" and whether some integrity has been lost.

So, what's the answer? One option is to run about screaming "you're not doing it right!!", but that wouldn't be very Quakerly, would it? Another option is to more quietly and gradually suggest that we do things differently. But, perhaps the best option is for me to get better at letting go. Maybe these non-Quaker folks have stuff to teach me. Maybe their incarnation of certain practices work for them, and combine even better ways of operating that I haven't yet been exposed to. After all, even though the new version of my game was different, it was still just as much fun to play.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

At the end of the line

It's the post-lunch session of a course in nonviolence and the energy has lowered. "Right", says the facilitator, "I'd like you to imagine a line going down the middle of the room. 'Agree' is at this end. 'Disagree' is at the other. Now, where would you stand to respond to the following statement: 'I would use violence to save a family member's life'?". We look at one another with dread, and shuffle awkwardly into place. I, inevitably, am down one end of the line.

As a pacifist, I am regularly asked to justify my stance in ways that Governments, churches or just mainstream people who take a just war approach are rarely asked to do. Whether its during an animated discussion with friends, exploratory queries after 2 or 3 dates, or the post-lunch session of nonviolent activism training, I do tend to find myself alone at one end of the line. Recently, I've had cause to question my stance. Am I too fixed in my thinking? Would I be truly open to changing my mind if presented with new information? Am I simply naive?

There's a sortof assumption that use of violence "as a last resort" is more pragmatic and intelligent than committing to nonviolence more completely. And perhaps I am naive, simplistic, or not pragmatic enough. But I also wonder how people decide that all other options have been exhausted, or that now we have reached the time of "last resort". I wonder whether people really understand the practice and theory of nonviolence when they make the decision to dismiss it out of hand. I also think there's a massive assumption that pacifism, because of its name, is passive.

I remember a few years ago I was very affected by the story of a Canadian Quaker (let's call him Joe) who had been murdered by his estranged son-in-law. I had heard about this situation through the nonviolence network because Joe had been actively involved in the Alternatives to Violence Project, a workshop process that I'm also involved with. Back in the 1970s it had drawn tools from nonviolent social change training methodology to work with prison inmates who were seeking to transform the cycle of violence in their lives. Many inmates had found the process transformative, and had gone on to become facilitators, mentors for younger offenders and to live exemplary lives. When I became involved, I found the process useful for dealing with conflict in my own life, and worked time and again with inspirational people who had experienced terrible violence in their lives, were facing those demons, and working to create different patterns in the future.

With Joe's situation, I had been struck by the tragedy of a person, who had dedicated his life to peace, dying in such a violent way. I kindof became obsessed with the story. After some internet research, I learnt that Joe's daughter's ex had a history of violence and mental illness, and on the fateful day that Joe had intervened, he had saved his daughter's life but sacrificed his own. When I told friends this story, I remember one turning to me and saying "isn't it ironic that he resorted to violence after working so hard his whole life for nonviolence?" I was baffled by this analysis, because I hadn't said that the man had resorted to violence. I had simply relayed that he had "intervened". None of the media articles had specified exactly what had happened. I had assumed that the man had intervened nonviolently, whereas my friend clearly imagined any intervention would necessarily be violent. It's almost like the riddle about the surgeon who can't operate on her son which confuses people because they don't think that a surgeon could be female. Similarly, people can't imagine any type of intervention that is not violent.

So, when asked whether I would use violence to save a family member's life, and I choose "no", everyone assumes I would somehow sit idly by because I apparently lack the imagination to come up with any kind of intervention that isn't violent. Of course, I can probably only list, on demand, maybe half a dozen of Gene Sharpe's 198 methods of nonviolent action, and I am not especially skilled at any of them. In fact, it's entirely possible that I would blunder my way through such a scenario. Perhaps I would be so scared that I would freeze and essentially be passive, or would, in the moment, resort to violence. But the point is not really to predict what I would "actually" do, but to assert what I believe is the best thing to do and what I would aspire to do. Just as I believe that Joe was willing to lay down his life to save his daughter, I hope that I would step between an attacker and somebody I love in order to save them from harm.

But the "intruder attacking my loved ones" is only one scenario where people want to argue that nonviolence is pathetic or flawed. The other scenarios where a pacifist stance is questioned is where there are great injustices and complexities at play such as the recent riots in Baltimore. When asking friends about nonviolence recently on facebook, I found that this contemporary scenario was one that resonated with many who said "this is the one situation where I would question nonviolence". And I see where they are coming from. When a police officer, who is part of the structural violence and unjust machinery that condones explicit physical violence against black people, turns around and tells the community (meaning black people) to keep calm and use nonviolence, I, too, lose patience.

There is an assumption that because I am a pacifist, I will side with the police and the patronising and hypocritical call for nonviolence. No, I regard perpetuating racist structures and discrimination as extremely violent. Being a pacifist absolutely means confronting structural violence, naming racism, oppression and injustice, and standing alongside those who are most vulnerable. While I think creative nonviolent strategies are most likely to succeed and produce durable results, I do recognise that in order to stand in solidarity with those who are persecuted, I need to support them "where they're at", even if that space is expressing frustration violently. After all, I regularly find myself resorting to emotional violence or participating in structural violence, to my own chagrin. I am certainly not the one to throw the first stone. And, I've actually found that it's never that hard to find the humanity and goodness in the inmates, or freedom fighters or even mentally ill sons-in-law. The real challenge is to find the humanity and goodness in those who don't challenge themselves about the ways that they benefit from injustice, perpetuate violent structures, or stand idly by while others are persecuted. That's when my commitment to nonviolence is truly tested.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

A round life

The other night, while I was sleeping, two Australian men were executed in Indonesia.

I have been reflecting on why these two lives mean so much to us, and what meaning I draw from the story of their "redemption", if you like. In the case of these two men, we hear an inspiring story of transformation, confirming my deeply held believe that there is something good, or "of God" in everyone, that we are all capable of transformation, and are all connected by our common humanity. These beliefs lead me to oppose the death penalty, just as they lead me to be a pacifist. How can I consider killing another person if there is good in them, and we are connected somehow?

Quakers, and many others, have worked with prisoners for centuries. They have done so because of this belief in the good in others, that each person's life is "worth" something, and none of us is the sum of our worst action. Elizabeth Fry, who visited women in prison and campaigned for improved conditions, their education and rehabilitation, was recognised eventually on the 5 pound note for the positive impact her work had on the lives of many female inmates. The Alternatives to Violence Project was begun in prisons when older inmates wanted to provide an opportunity for change in the life experience of younger inmates. The project succeeded in turning around the lives of many people, who attribute their transformations to the experience of being affirmed and supported during their darkest time.

The story of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran has certainly captured the hearts and minds of many Australians. Their "rehabilitation" was quoted as a reason to show mercy, to make an exception. Many Australians would like to see Indonesia cease using the death penalty. Indeed, most of us would like to see an end to the death penalty throughout the world. It's an area we feel Australia is ahead, and has led by example. Yet our Government is not a shining example of human rights or compassion right now. We have been regularly told by UN reporters that our treatment of asylum seekers and our First Peoples leave much to be desired. Can we really plead with another country to make an exception or change its policy, in the name of compassion, when we don't do the same ourselves?

For me, I am aware that none of us knows when we will die, and so the best thing is to live fully and meaningfully every day. I think Andrew and Nyuran did that, and were an amazing example to other inmates. In some ways, I can reconcile their deaths because they made something meaningful out of their lives and were an inspiration to others. I am reminded of the Leunig poem that I read at my friend David's funeral seven years ago:

"But once again Vasco, it is not the length of life which is important, it is the shape and spaciousness – for therein lies the potential for a beautiful freedom. It is the roundness of life which matters. A round life is surely a happy life – and dare I say – it is a good life." - Michael Leunig.

How can the rest of us learn from this? How can we make our lives more spacious, round, good? When our time comes, will we be able to face death with calm, knowing that we have made a difference in other people's lives, transformed ourselves, and learnt from our mistakes, even if our death seems unjust, untimely or simply unwanted? And how can we as a country demonstrate greater compassion for strangers on our shores? How can we show, by example rather than through retaliation and vindictiveness, what a compassionate, progressive society looks like, that other countries might be led to follow suit and eventually do away with the death penalty.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Intergenerational blindness

I am somebody who gets stressed thinking about money. I'm a bit like the shoemaker in the children's book about the rich man, the shoemaker and the bag of money. Basically, the rich man gives the shoemaker a bag of money in order to get him to stop singing while he works. Apparently the happy singing was annoying to the rich man. The burden the money bag creates stresses the shoemaker out so much that he ends up giving it back. The moral I took from the story was that happiness is worth more than money.

But, anyway, back to me. I have my own small bag of money, so to speak, and it worries me that I'm probably not investing it as wisely or ethically as I could be. So, the other day I met with a financial consultant. Somebody had recommended him as being independent and ethical, which were my two criteria. Alas, it was quickly evident that we had fairly different definitions of "ethical". I explained that I was concerned with the future of the planet and the treatment of people and wanted to invest money in enterprises that were not damaging in those areas. He talked more of "tithing" and being compassionate with people as they sorted out their wills.

I think he may have used the word "idealistic" about a hundred times in our conversation, in relation to me. He cited an example of an ethical enterprise that went belly up as reason to not even try. He was also very concerned about economic growth, and the fact that my generation was likely to live longer than his, and thus would need greater superannuation resources to draw upon. Basically my choices were, as he saw it, to either continue being a naive idealist and waste my money investing in stupid fluffy idealistic notions, ending up as a burden on society....or I could do the sensible thing and sign up with a balanced fund that his company managed for a fee of ~2%pa. Sigh.

Around the same time our esteemed Federal Treasurer released his Inter-generational Report, which predicts the future context for our economy. It too, was full of concern for a projected increase in life expectancy and the burden that our aging population would place on society by 2050. There was no mention of climate change, the growing gap between rich and poor, or increasing worldwide militarism and violence.

I actually think that if the definition of idealism is having one's head in the sand and pursuing a particular ideology regardless of the facts, then our treasurer and his colleagues are the naive idealists. Do they think, as the First Dog on the Moon Cartoon in the Guardian depicts below, that we will be contentedly serving out our retirement in bubbles floating above earth because we ignored climate change, or will those who survived the nuclear winter in their underground bunkers be grateful that we made a good return when we invested in all those armaments?

First Dog on the Moon, in the Guardian
So, I have given up the idea of finding an "independant and ethical" financial advisor. Instead, a friend who is very good at understanding complex concepts cos she's a scientist, and also shares my ethical position, has offered to share with me the findings of her research into the matter. I am now confident that I can invest my little bag of dosh in a fund that is ethical, reliable and which will set me up as not too much of a burden on society when I'm like a million years old. And, if Joe Hockey's prediction is true and I do live to a ridiculous age, I reckon it will be BECAUSE enough of us invested in future oriented enterprises now. I, for one, don't want to destroy the only planet we've got to grow old on.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Abundant Love

I have a friend who stays with me from time to time. We're not lovers, but he once told me that we might as well be. There's fondness, we share secrets and fears and joys. We cook breakfast for each other. He offers me gardening advice and I offer a sanctuary, somewhere safe to stay. We take boat rides together, or hang out at the markets.

I have other close friends too. Some live in Sydney, and we grab dinner or lunch together. Others are from out of town and come to stay from time to time. Some share a passion for justice, others for folk music, and others for camping. Some are good listeners, and others provide fashion advice, or serve amazing Chai. Each person or group strengthens different aspects of who I am, challenges and supports me in different ways.

I have been thinking about what it means to have a number of special people in my life. And I've also been thinking about how there seem to be a lot of people in the circles where I move who describe themselves as polyamorous. For them, intimate relationships are not exclusive. They say that they don't like to make demands of their main partner, or that they enjoy being intimate with lots of different people.

I don't know whether I could ever feel comfortable in a polyamorous relationship. But then I wonder whether my situation is really much different. Perhaps I am "poly-amicable" - somebody with multiple close friendships. Or maybe I'm just the recipient of abundant love. Either way, I'm grateful for all these friendships and couldn't imagine one person who would ever replace all of them.

And I don't think I'm alone in this perspective. Marriage counsellors have warned people in couples about the risks of expecting their partner to fulfil or be involved in every aspect of their life. It's healthy, I think, to maintain friendships outside of a main relationship. I remember the Kahlil Gibran poem which advises new couples to "let there be spaces in your togetherness".

So, this year I will continue to foster the dear friendships in my life, to accept the gift that each person's friendship offers and not to expect any one of them to be everything to me. If I am ever in a committed relationship again, I hope that there is space in that togetherness for all the other beautiful people in my life. If that makes me polyamorous, then, fine, I own it with pride!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Well read and intellectually fed

Amid glasses of wine placed precariously at people's feet, bowls of soup balanced on knees and almost enough seats for everyone, the first meeting of the Women Author's Bookclub commences. As the discussion moves from style to character development and on to an animated debate about what actually happened in the end, I feel a sense of gladness. Yes, this is what I had in mind.

The idea for this particular bookclub was a few years in the making. At the end of 2012 I set myself three intentions and one was that I would join a bookclub. It seemed like a good way to nurture my mind. About a year later the bookclub thing came to fruition. Having heard about a movement of people choosing to deliberately and only read books written by women, acknowledging that by default we tend to read books written by men, I decided to take the matter into my own hands. I started a women authors' bookclub!

Having never even attended a bookclub myself before, I had to google how to go about it. I wanted the group to be egalitarian in its decision making, and for everyone to take turns hosting, choosing the book, and facilitating the discussion. I wanted it to be fun, as well as intellectually stimulating. I mentioned the idea on facebook, and suddenly a whole bunch of my friends wanted to be involved, and so the Women Author's Bookclub was formed.

We've read a range of books. Some memoire, some fiction. We've covered Australia, USA, Nigeria, Kenya (briefly), Sri Lanka, Germany, England and France. We started in Australia, with our friend Chrissy Howe's "Song in the Dark" about a boy and his grandmother. The novel covered issues of drug addiction, hope and family connection. Then we read "All that I am" by Anna Funder. This followed anti-Nazi activists from Germany to London where life as political refugees is challenging to say the least. The main character reminded me of an activist I know, and her commitment led us to consider the lengths we would go to for a cause we believe in.

Next, we seemed to read a string of quite heavy books about race and/or sexual abuse. "Caleb's Crossing", by Geraldine Brooks explored life in the early settlement days of North America, through the story of the first Native American man to go to University, told from the perspective of his closest childhood friend.  Alice Walker's "The Colour Purple" took us through the life of an African American woman in the deep south, told through her letters to her sister who is in Kenya. This woman faced abuse from her step-father and husband, but eventually found a way to create a sense of family and build self-confidence in herself and the women around her. "Two or three things I know for sure" continued the theme of sexual abuse, exploring how one white woman came to navigate life after rape, while "Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie continued the theme of race, with the story of a woman from Nigeria who came as a student to America. The thread running through this story was her relationship with her childhood sweetheart, whose life takes a very different path to hers.

"Plains of Promise" by Alexis Wright took us back to Australia, with journeys in and out of remote Aboriginal communities, in an attempt to understand an Aboriginal woman's heritage and connection to her spiritual power. For something quite different, we read "The elegance of the hedgehog" about a well educated and cynical concierge in a bourgois hotel in France. It is the arrival of a Japanese resident that changes how everybody sees one another. Our next book was Michelle de Kretzer's "Questions of Travel", which explores the parallel lives of a white Australian woman who travels around and lives in Europe and a Sri Lankan man who seeks asylum in Australia. And we ended the year with "Wild" by Cheryl Strayed, which follows a white North American woman on a journey of self discovery as she hikes her way across the Pacific Trail following the death of her mother and breakdown of her marriage. 

All of these books have been really good reads. I particularly valued the fact that I got to partake in books that I wouldn't necessarily choose for myself, although i still found them all really interesting, well written, and engaging. I did notice that women write of pain and suffering in a particularly knowing way, and I'm glad I had others to share and reflect on this experience with. So, we're yet to see if the bookclub will continue, whether it will take on a new theme, or fade away. But whatever the outcome, I am so glad we did it! I feel incredibly grateful that I had the opportunity to read those books. 

Friday, January 09, 2015

A growing concern

The other night I got asked, yet again, if "that" was a baby bump. I replied, yet again, that it wasn't, and conversation moved on to other things. As per usual, I tried to make the other person feel better about their social faux pas.

What i really wanted to do was vent about how crappy it feels when somebody asks you if you're pregnant when you're not. For me, it makes me feel fat, it puts my body on display in ways that never happens for men, plus it reminds me that I'm not pregnant. Since it seems to happen on a scarily regular basis, it's no longer something I can just laugh off.

As I reigned in the strong negative feelings, I began to consider how I should respond next time. The thing is, I do have a larger than average belly. (Apparently I have a 4 months along kindof look, which is probably why people feel safe saying something). And it's not just to do with my size. About fifteen years ago, when i was a size 8, an elderly lady stood up for me on a train, insisting that i was "in the family way". She remained upright, refusing to accept my views on the matter, so in the end I accepted the seat. It seemed the easiest way to avoid further embarassment. 

But, anyway, I realise there are two ways I can respond in future. The first is to take the approach of some plus size models who embrace their curves. They talk of body acceptance, of finding clothes that are flattering to fuller figures, and of walking through life with confidence.This is definitely a good approach, and one I would do well to take on board. I'm sure some of these plus size models would have a great one-liner response too. 

But there is a small part of me that worries that simply embracing my "condition" is the easy way out. If I am slightly overweight, wouldn't it be better to lose the weight and be healthier? So, this year I am not going on a diet per se. I will continue to seek out dresses that I enjoy wearing and that suit my figure. But I will also try to resist those chocolates and cakes, and be more disciplined in my exercise. And, I will come up with a great response for next time - something that's funny and shows respect for myself, without being too harsh to the other person. Any ideas?