And then?

Five years ago on a blog now deceased, I wrote a post called ‘What do I do with my life?’ In it I ponder that which lies ahead and strategise for ways to get there. I was still in university, trying to figure out my next move. How to get to be where I wanted to be, doing the job I wanted to be doing, in the field I wanted to be doing it in. You can almost feel the bated breath and the wonder and the fear and the excitement. I’m here now, on that other side. And it feels funny to realise that.

In a coffee shop not long after writing that post I sat down with a friend and we wrote on napkins what we hoped to be doing in five years time. We had a ‘Hopeful’ column and a ‘Realistic’ column. The Hopeful column was everything we could ever want for ourselves in five years, no holding back. The realistic column was a somewhat bleaker, more cynical fall back. Sometime in the last couple of months we revisited those goals, this friend and I and realised to our astonishment just how many milestones we had surpassed. There are so, so many things you want when you’re in you’re twenties because there’s so much that you aren’t yet, there’s so much you don’t know, there’s so much you haven’t felt, seen, learned, done. You’re a blank slate, somebody’s for the taking.

And we’re here now, on the other side. What a strange and lucky feeling it is to be able to say that all of your plans have been realised, all of your dreams have come true and you step beyond the dream you’ve had and ask yourself what’s next.

 

How the leaves grow

It is December and that’s impossible. Having crossed off days on my various calendar for months, whinged and whined and raced to the twelfth and final month of the year I’m in a state of slow denial. What strange summer is this I find myself awaking to, drowsy and lethargic? I struggle now to place myself between the years of my life.

I am used to marking my life by countries and huge life-changing decisions. 2016 has been devoid of these. There was no country I moved to or back from. There was no love lost or won. Nothing, visible or apparent, has changed my life in the ways that I am used to it being changed.

But of course things have changed.

For one, I am a plant person now. If there are cat ladies and bag ladies then surely there can be plant ladies too (men appear to be simply men, regardless of their obsessions). It started with potted colour, grew to a few herbs and now has morphed itself into a habit of lusting after plants (particularly succulents) so badly I have been known to uproot some without permission (stealing?) from private gardens. Yes, I have turned into my mother.

The balcony that our room and living room opens up onto is my sanctuary. It is decorated with Mexican day of the dead flags and Bolivian mantas. One day I was sitting out there taking it all in when The American chanced up on me smirking, shaking his head he said ‘Just a girl and her plants’ with that non-movie accent he has that makes people think he’s Canadian. I was staring at my plants – observing them wilt or rebound, lean toward the light or droop toward the floor. I am fascinated by the reality that you can see life grow before your own eyes, if you stop to look for long enough.

This is how leaves grow, quietly and in between looks. This is how the year went, the way leaves grow.

It is these tiny, unsung changes that are the most enduring. These six years of my twenties I have been roaring, panting, throwing myself into change. I wanted to sprout, to flower, to reach and lean heavy into the sun. Having sprouted, flowered, reached, leaned – how then to measure the value of standing still? Of letting the roots grow deep at the expense of more height, more flowers.

There have been only humbling moments this year. This was not a year to be proud of myself and pat myself on the back for a year well done. I haven’t been asked to talk but to listen. In different ways, in work, in love, in friendship, in family, I have been asked to consider my role in the picture of things. I have been asked to look at the childish, darker, immature but deeply embedded parts of myself and to see what I want to do about it. If I want to do anything about it. It’s been a year of change underground. Soul work not soul-searching – infinitely less glamorous but forever rewarding.

This is the work of the soul:

Love: I’ll never get over the surprise of discovering how much work goes into love. Nobody tells you, really. If you want to know the true wonders of neuro-plasticity, get into a long-term relationship and then try to stay in one. You will have to face up to your own inconsistencies, irrationalities, mood-swings and flaws. You will have to look them in the eye, own-up to them, be accountable for them – and if you’re good – vow to change them – and if you’re really good – then move to change them – and if you’ve got time and anything left over – succeed. Then you’ll wake up the next morning and have to do it all over again. If you’re anything like me this will hurt your pride and even your self-image. It will also save you years of fighting and stale-mates (at least I’m hoping). The soul-work that goes into love should never be written off. Popular culture robs us of depth when it sells us the myth of easy, quick, fit-like-a-glove love because love hard-won is the only kind of love there really is.

Loss: Friendships, habits, dreams, favourite dresses. Things are lost with time. We give things up of our own free will or indifference. Sometimes we fight to keep things that we lose anyway. I have lost friendships to the quiet tide of life and some of these I have watched drift away, doing nothing to step closer. I have lost dreams I once had but don’t care for anymore. I have given up ideas and values I thought I couldn’t live without. The story of change is also the story of loss and you cannot have one without the other.

Work: Because for most of us this is a third of our lives and half of our waking hours. Adulting is also soul-work, mostly how to maintain the light and tend to the joy of your soul amidst the idea of seriousness that adulthood can bring. It can be challenging to remember how big the world is outside of the work you do, to remember the things you love and are capable of. Work is also the vessel through which we learn and measure ourselves, against our peers and our expectations. The soul-work of work is finding the connection to other souls and being real and authentic and kind about it.

Love, loss and work. The year has sauntered by unnoticed, like the leaves of the jacaranda tree I stopped paying attention to once the purple snow of its flowers had left it bare. I woke up a few days ago to find it full, bulky with a thick coat of green that hides the apartments across the street and makes me forget that only weeks ago there was nothing there.

Hope in the Dark

Working in Community services is different to other industries. Our achievements are not tallied in number of sales, accounts won or clients accumulated but by the very broad hope of the difference we make to people’s lives. This is often abstract and hard to measure. It is marked by doubts of the impact we are making as well as the glimmers of joy and hope when that difference is evident. We deal in words like resilience, confidence, connectedness, inclusion.

We operate in the work of human beings which has everything to do with the world in which we live and the present we are building. It can be immensely difficult to quantify this kind of difference. Community work is filled with people whose resourcefulness, compassion and resilience are reason enough to believe that the world is in good hands. Yet community work is filled more populously by those who are frustrated, doubtful, overworked and underpaid, and those many weary, jaded workers who have lost hope. When you stake your life, or at least your job, on making a difference it is shattering to the soul to discover just how marred with opposition, pit-falls, set-backs and imperfection that process is.

And yet.

There is always so much that we have to learn. There is always so much that we already know.

On the day that it became clear Trump was to be the president-elect of the United States of America, on a night where the rain drizzled the streets of Town hall in an almost romantic way, hundreds of sombre people gathered in a airy recital hall to listen to a talk called ‘To Change Everything We Need Everyone’. Author and activist Naomi Klein was in Sydney to accept the Sydney Peace Prize for her work to advocate for action on Climate Change. Joining her on stage were two women fighting for their countries and peoples survival.

Maria was a soft-spoken lady from the tiny pacific-island of Kiribati. She welcomed us in the language of Kiribati and spoken in an english of the even-paced gravitas particular to island people all over the world. She showed the hundreds of mostly Australian people in the room how her people made houses out of palm-fronds, how they dug holes for fresh water. She showed a picture of a sand-bank about to be engulfed by the monstrous jaws of the ocean’s waves. Please, she asked, we have always thought of Australia as a big brother or big sister and we are asking for your help before our people and our country disappears.

Then there was Murrawah, a young, bare-footed, curly-haired Aboriginal girl who began her testimony with a kind of performance piece. She was asked months ago if she could provide a testimony to what it feels like to be on the front-lines fighting the world’s largest new proposed coal mine Adani in Queensland.

She stepped up to the podium, the soles of her feet on the hard wood floors and let her words flutter from the mic uncertainly and float out into the empty air of the hall.  She spoke about how her grandfather was held at gunpoint and forced into a cattle truck and off his land. Her words were punctured with the truth of colonialism and dispossession. They had been resisting and fighting for hundreds of years. Her poem was a plea for connection – for us to see how the longest sustainable civilisation on earth continues to be the one that fights to protect our earth. Her poem was full of pain and anger and the kinds of emotion you would expect from generations of oppression and trauma.

And yet.

What surprised me most was their steady hope, their unwavering steps forward. Neither of them surrendered to despair. They only spoke of their struggles in way of a call to action, for support and to shine a light through the dark on the path they were taking. They did not refused to disengage, to give up any power or hope they had to effect change.

Responding to a long-winded question where an audience member seemed overwhelmed with how to act as an individual and use the privilege they knew to have in the world, young Murrawah responded with words:

It’s not about you.

We too often begin with I, and fall so deeply into that black hole of existential crisis that we cannot move then to We, to Us, to think of ourselves as part of a collective. We think too often of our own despair, our own failure, our own hesitation and our own crisis. In the Community Services field I see this too often. The change and difference we aim to make seems to us too blocked by a lack of funding, changes to government policy, an absence of public support for social services. It is easy to look at each other and say, this is too hard, this is not working.

It’s not about you is a whisper that frees you from the danger of disengagement and a push into the world of activism. It’s not about you is a call to connect to what It is about and Who it is about and What there is to do about it. It’s not about you is way for people everywhere, whether they are working in the community services work or taking part in activism for social justice in any measure, to get on with the work that needs to be done.

That night, where I was initially most excited to hear from famous names I knew most – Naomi Klein and Get Up’s Human rights activist Shen – Murrawah and Maria humbled me. Listening to their strong, clear call for support and action you could hear in their voices the strength built from resistance and the truth of change in their breaths. Here they were, fighting for survival without tears or spears or hysteria – there is simply no time and no room for despair. It is only hope that moves us into action, it is only hope that will get us there. As Rebecca Solnit so eloquently puts it, ‘Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit down on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky…Hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency.’

It is those that are most vulnerable that suffer first, it is also those that are fighting hardest. Who are we to lose hope? Those who lose hope are those that can afford to. Or that think they can afford to. Murrawah went more the point, ‘Have you been listening? Have you heard what we’ve been doing? Eighteen months ago we were just little black people nobody paid attention to. People supported us and we’ve convinced some of the world’s largest banks not to fund Adani. People need to learn to be led. There is already so much that people are doing already. You have to support what people are already doing and not think about how this can be your opportunity to shine.’

All of us who ache for changes, whose emotions drive us to madness or stillness or withdrawal – we need to get our of our own way so that the work can be done. There is much work to be done, there are reasons to hope. The world has always been dark, this is nothing new. There has also always been hope, there have always been people who have chosen to hope that things can be different, that change can be effected, that the world could be better. It is Murrawah and Maria who make the difference.

If we can connect with each other and learn to have honest conversations, to listen to the struggles, to support the champions of change, to sustain ourselves in the life-long, history-long, forever fight for life – than we have a chance. Rebecca Solnit’s collection of essays Hope in The Dark explores more fully some of the ideas expressed in this post. One of my favourite passages illustrates and clarifies the kind of hope we need:

 

‘An extraordinary imaginative power to reinvent ourselves is at large in the world, though it is hard to say how it will counteract the dead weight of neoliberalism, fundamentalists, environmental destructions, and well-market mindlessness. But hope is not about what we expect. It is an embrace of the essential unknowability of the world, of the breaks with the present, the surprises. Or perhaps studying the record more carefully leads us to expect miracles – not when and where to expect them, but to expect to be astonished, to expect that we don’t know. And this is grounds to act. I believe in hope as an act of defiance, or rather as the foundation for an ongoing series of acts of defiance, those acts necessary to bring about some of what we hope for while we live by principle in the meantime. There is no alternative, except surrender. And surrender not only abandons the future, it abandons the soul.’

Last week I was working on a program with about 25 newly arrived refugee kids. The workshops were designed to build confidence and resilience through a series of drama workshops. The drama facilitator appendix burst that morning and she was in hospital meaning I suddenly found myself in charge of running the second workshop myself. Wanting to role-model and normalise the (very real) sense of fear and dread I felt at having to do something I wasn’t sure I could (my heart was beating out of my chest) I started by the telling the children, You know, I’m scared – I’ve never done this before. And that’s okay. Has anyone else been scared like this? One of the quiet, soft-spoken Syrian girls sitting directly to my left said, Scared? Why Scared miss?

She is right. This 11-year old refugee girl who had to leave her country due to war was asking me what there was to be scared of. So I got out of my own way and on with the work to be done. There is so much hope in this darkness.

There is so much that we have to learn. There is so much that we already know.

When you find the thing you’re looking for

Our street is alive with Jacaranda flowers. It is an impossible purple that flowered from leafless branches in trees that have been naked for most of our time in Erskineville. The southern hemisphere spring has come upon us hastily – advancing and retreating as if hesitant it wants to stay. The winter made me want to write but the days have stretched and there are things to do and I’ve reclaimed my love for socialising and novel events that are Just So Inner West.

Tuesday nights we get together to sing songs that sailors and workmen would sing in a small bar in a suburb full of empty warehouses, vietnamese food and desperately hipster gatherings. Wednesday nights are life drawings and live music that remind me that underneath my adult self is a child who likes to create and hasn’t done so in many years. October has moved me, as did April, to make a transition with the season. Out of the nest and into the world.

There’s been a calm about October that has seemed so uncharacteristic. It feels like for the first time in many months I am living the way I float in the sea. The Why of that is many things and for all of those I’m grateful. After what has been a year of pushing and pulling and testing and growing in my work and home life – stories for another time – it feels as if things are consolidating, as if I’ve run a marathon without realising there was a finish line and have turned to see that I’ve long since passed it. What rare moments of peace.

Looking forward and looking back have always been things I’ve struggled with but somehow I look at my life here in Sydney, feeling it and being in it completely, not wishing I was anywhere else or anytime else. Some people would call that contentment.

 

 

All the other people in the room

It’s a Monday night and I have plans to meet a writer. She is everything I aspire to be – honest, empathetic and transformative. The American and I are among the first to get to The Dendy in Newtown and are promptly ushered into the ground floor, cinema number two. We decide against sitting in the front row, a metre away from where two empty stools are placed. Sitting instead in the second row I reason I can take photos and stare without being completely obtuse. Within half an hour the cinema is full and she is walking down the stairs. Maxine Beneba Clarke. Her earrings hang bright and low from her ears. Her hair is cropped close to her head and in my mind I’m trying to memorise it all. Her publisher come interviewer begins by admitting they’ve just taken a shot of whisky before coming on. Laughter breaks the silence.

I came across her books by chance, The American and I were in Better Read than Dead on King Street when he picked up Foreign Soil and handed it to me – you might like this. He was right. Later Maxine would write in the cover of that book, ‘Dear Grace, From My Heart to Yours, Maxine Beneba Clarke’ I’d gush like a school girl and get a photo taken of us where I’m smiling so big my lips disappear into my face.

That night at The Dendy was the launch of The Hate Race, Maxine’s childhood memoir of growing up black in a predominantly white suburb of western Sydney in the eighties and nineties. The interview takes up most of the time and I sit there enraptured and squishing the desire to run up and hug her. She spoke about the difference between writing non-fiction and memoir, the desire to capture the feelings of a childhood self and the fear of misremembering. She spoke about how her mother sent her a review of the book she said was her favourite where the writer wrote ‘Maxine’s mother is a pillar of parental integrity’. More laughter. Then there is question time. What has most stayed with me from that night was Maxine’s response to a question – Could she speak a little more about her experiences with friends who stood by while she was the victim of racism and bullying?

Maxine’s response was to refer to what she tells people and even her own children about being a by-stander – that there is something everybody can do.

‘The thing with bullying is that there is the person being bullied, there’s the bully and there are the twenty-six other people in the room’. 

Let me tell you a story.

It begins on a packed, peak-hour train on Sydney’s Western line. In a carriage full of commuters sits my sister. There is a man of Indian descent sitting a few rows in front of her. He is speaking on the phone in a language other than English. A woman is sitting in the row directly behind this man and begins to mumble to nobody in particular but her voice rises until it fills the dead air with We’re in Australia, why don’t you speak Australian? The woman continued her diatribe with exactly what you would expect to follow that sentence. She spoke for ten, maybe fifteen minutes.The carriage was silent except for the cut and slash of the woman’s words and the man on the phone who was, maybe, oblivious to the abuse he was the subject of. When he finished she said, Finally! Nobody stirred. Eyes were averted and people shifted in their seats I’m sure. My sister, moved by her anger and indignation, spoke out. You’re all the same was the retort.  It was close to Seven Hills station where my sister gets off. She was mad as a dog and about to say something more when other commuters said, Just leave her alone. Just keep walking. Other people shook their heads at my sister and looked at her as if to say, look what you’ve started.

There was the bully, the person being bullied, my sister and all the other people in the carriage. Hers is a story that is not unique. She did what many of us fail to do, what many of us think is not our role or place to do. We are too often conflict-averse and would rather sit this one out than stand up for a stranger. We think our voices don’t matter, that it won’t make a difference and that is our first mistake. Words change the world is what Maxine wrote on the inside cover of my copy of The Hate Race. She’s right. It’s not important exactly what the woman said or exactly what my sister said. What she was really saying was this:

Your hatred is not acceptable here
You are not allowed to treat people this way
You will be called up on your actions and the words you say
We will speak up so that it is known, so that hatred does not grow in the comfort of silence. 

In my brief experience trying to advocate for issues I believe in, I have realised you cannot achieve much by preaching to the converted, to those who would and have already pledged their allegiance to your cause by virtue of being directly affected by it or morally outraged.

We are the sum of our voices and if we are to achieve anything we must build a chorus that sings from all parts of society – not just those you would expect to cry out. We need to create a culture where people who are not directly affected by issues of racism, discrimination, abuse, neglect, imprisonment, violence, vilification and all the other acts that spring from the thought You are worth less than me, stand up for and support those victims of such acts. We need to see how devaluing other human beings devalues us as a whole. We need to remember that we are all connected.

We need to be willing to give up the safety of our silence and enter into conflict. We need to realise that our silence is not safe, that it creates a dangerous culture and legitimises hateful thoughts that can turn into violence.

What I loved about the Sydney rally in August against the offshore processing of asylum-seekers was that there were university students, grandmothers, teachers, unions, families and in October there will be another rally headed by doctors and nurses. What we need is the loudest and broadest voice we can that says in no uncertain terms that the Community we are a part of is more love than hate, more acceptance than intolerance, more Maxine Beneba Clarke than Pauline Hanson.

We are the other people in the room and we will not be silent. 

 

Hope: The Rally

I spent all week thinking about what to put on a sign. A few days before, a group of protestors had made headlines crashing a speech the prime minister was giving and wielding a rectangle of disgust that read ‘FFS CLOSE THE BLOODY CAMPS!’. (FFS = For Fuck’s Sake!) How do you top that?

I’d never made a sign before, although I’d read a good many of them at the daily protests in Bolivia. Things like ‘Mineros de pie, nunca de rodillas!’. In the end we made two. My sister, a design student at the university down from Town Hall where the protest was being held, had just finished class and bought us some sturdy white cardboard the width as long as my arm and the length twice that. Minutes before the rally started The American came up with ‘Send MAL to Manus, Bring THEM here’. Later he would overhear a by-stander ask, ‘Who’s Manus?’ Mine read ‘End the War on Asylum-Seekers CLOSE THE CAMPS!’ 

What I should have written is ‘I’m so angry I made a sign.’

But I wasn’t angry during the rally, I was buoyed by hope. Hope that comes from seeing a sea of demands that human beings take care of each other. Hope that comes from reading sign after sign beseeching the government, by-standers and Australians everywhere to understand that our humanity is collective and so too our inhumanity. Hope that comes from chanting together and walking together – knowing you are not alone in this fight. Together and in step with your own values and the strong belief that change is stirring, rubbing the sleep from its eyes and taking form – slow as molasses but sure as the sun rises.

I could try and find the words to explain myself but Rebecca Solnit says it best:

‘Your opponents would love you to believe that it’s hopeless, that you have no power, that there’s no reason to act, that you can’t win. Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away. And though hope can be an act of defiance, defiance isn’t enough reason to hope. But there are good reasons.

Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. 

It is the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterwards either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.’

Read the rest of the article here 

 

 

A day in the life of

There are two ways I can drive to Fairfield. I can take the heavy traffic and too close lanes of Parramatta Road then the eventual congestion of the M4, or I can take the endless lights of the A22 through Ashfield and the back of Bankstown to come out the other end of The Horsley Drive. Either way it starts on West Street in the too big, too red 4 wheel drive. I miss the old one,  a conspicuous brown-black Nissan Dualis we used to drive all over South West Sydney. Now when we drive around I can feel the eyes of everybody as the car screams RED! RED! RED!

Marhabar! I say sheepishly to R when I get there, hauling bags of ipads and bilingual books – the rounded curls of Karen Sgaw peep out above pictures of happy otters and the small lines and dots of Arabic dance above a little girl’s face. R throws up her arms for a hug, her red-lipped mouth upturned – happy with a dash of surprise. The only thing I catch from her flurry of words is Shlonk? Iraqi slang for How are you? Ana tamam I exhale, adding to it a dramatic sigh. One of the Lebanese mums looks over at me and starts in. ‘Alhamdullilah!‘ is all I catch. Now the jig is up and I revert to english – That’s all I know. 

We’ve done this dance a few times before, since I started my Arabic classes a few months ago. Since I started trying to lessen the gap between us. They ask me how my Arabic is going, they giggle when I perform my well-rehearsed 2 minute conversation. I make the mistake of showing A I can read in Arabic and spend the next 10 minutes struggling to get through the front cover of a children’s book with my slow budding literacy. I tell them Arabic is much harder than English to learn. We all agree on this.

The women are doing Arts and Crafts today. S, a raven-haired lady with a walker, has brought in PVA glue and glitter. The other women have been saving up empty toilet paper rolls and everything is laid out on the cheap table cloths I bought from Kmart earlier in the year. S shows the other women how to fold the rolls and cut them, how to dip them in glue and glitter and press them together until somehow it is an ornament and no longer recycling. I am continually impressed.

I catch all this while I chase around H, an 18 month old with a mind of her own. Today there is no room for a rug and the children’s toys I usually try and distract her with. She only wants to run, usually away from me. Her fringe is long now across her forehead, six months ago it was sparse but has since grown thick. We are old friends now, H and I. I know that her favourite toy is a wooden stick with donut-shaped circles of different colours and sizes. She also likes Mr Koala, grabs him close to look at before hugging him and exploding into fits of giggly happiness. But she gets restless and does not want to be stuck indoors. I don’t blame her. She runs inevitably to where her mum sits, weaving around the legs of chairs and tables. Her mum picks her up absent mindedly while handling a freshly cut roll. The other women are speaking passionately and erupting into laughter. I smile, understanding nothing and go to retrieve H as she runs off again.

There are many things I will never understand, even if I learn the language. Experiences I will never have, culture that will never be mine. The difference is palpable. Do they feel the same way as I do? Do they look at me with curious eyes? I wonder, I might never know. I put down H and excuse myself from the group, it’s almost 3 o’clock and I need to head to the library for the other program where most of their kids will be. Thank you Grace! H’s mum calls out and smiles. She never smiles at me, I think.

On the drives home from days like these the sun sets in my rear view, dead west. The suburbs disappear as I turn onto the motorway, the houses shrinking and sitting closer and closer together with every city-bound kilometre. The afternoon rolls around my head, I’m searching through conversations to compile an action list for tomorrow, sure I’ve forgotten something. The drive is necessary to unclog it all and take off the many hats I wear. The bluetooth on my phone doesn’t work so I let Triple J play and hope for minimal ads and minimal screamo songs. When I remember I’ll take a deep breath in and it’s as if all day I had forgotten to breathe at all.

By the time I turn into West Street it’s usually dark, no five-toned sunset lighting in the mirrors. The lights in the building are still turned on but I know it’s mostly empty. There will be a few IT guys lurking around and a few stray workers on the other floors. Tonight the mother and son cleaners drive into the garage before me. As I get out the son grins flashing large white teeth, hello! he says and I reply hello! We don’t know each others names, despite the number of times we’ve done this dance. His mother’s face always looks like a battle between frowning and smiling that nobody has won. I smile at her, another anonymous face, and head home.