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."