Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Jesus effect

There's been a bit of an Orwellian vibe about recollections of Nelson Mandela since he died. People who had previously called him a terrorist are now calling him a freedom fighter. World leaders are comfortable saying that he stood for forgiveness and non-violence, while conveniently forgetting to mention that he disn't always advocate for non-violence and the connections he drew between apartheid in South Africa and the treatment of Palestinians by Israelis and Indigenous Australians by settler Australians.

My fear is that history will re-write the story of Mandela in the same way that I think happened to Jesus. Enthusiastic Christians who can't help but maintain the structural violence of the church seem to equate Jesus with patriarchal, homophobic and oppressive beliefs, forgetting that Jesus was considered a terrorist by the Romans, was willing to take a stand against injustice in all its forms, and would have had far more in common with the more radical left of the modern church than with Tony Abbott and George Pell.

I remember reading an article by Walter Wink, a progressive Christian theologian, about Jesus' teachings from a non-violent social change perspective. It's called "The Third Way" and sheds new light on the "turn the other cheek" passage. His message was possibly more like training for freedom riders and radical activists than a message of passivity.

When the slappee turned the other cheek, the slapper is faced (excuse the pun) with a dilemma; they must choose between using their left hand (unclean) or using a backhanded slap (only delivered to children or slaves, so makes them look really bad) to slap the other cheek.Taking all the clothes from your back and standing there naked is another way to humiliate the oppressor, as apparently nakedness was as much an embarrassment for the viewer as the one who was naked. Carrying the soldier's pack a second mile infringed the military code and created a dilemma for the soldier.

So, according to Wink, Jesus was never suggesting that people passively resist, he was giving them clever tools for resisting, humiliating, and surprising their oppressors. They were techniques for taking back power through creativity and surprise.  The important thing for me is that Jesus, like Mandela, didn't stand for passive resistance, forgiveness without justice or maintaining structures of violence.Yet, the story has been diluted over time and we rarely hear Jesus referred to as an activist or freedom fighter anymore.

So, I hope that when we remember Mandela, we remember the entire, complicated, human and committed man that he was, and note that he questioned and opposed oppression and apartheid everywhere, right up until his death. And I hope we don't try to squeeze him into a convenient box that fits the current political climate.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

The bad day

It was one of those days. My morning had consisted of burning a cooking pot to a crisp while watching the Alec Baldwin version of "A streetcar named desire", followed by dashing back and forth between doctor and imaging people for 3 hours to get a redundant x-ray result. Now, after hobbling from the car to the 'old' dentist and hobbling more frantically to the 'new' location, I was seated in the dentist's chair with a mouth full of flouride solution and an ice pack on my aching toe (clever use of time, i thought). To top it all off I had left my phone at home so was unable to confirm a catch up with a friend. I began wondering what else could go wrong.

The dentist, however, was a very up- beat sortof guy, and he gave me a new perspective. Adapting easily to his first (and possibly only) frozen peas-on-the-foot-of-the-patient scenario with enthusiasm, and after the usual chit chat, and the right amount of toe-related sympathy, he got to work. "Well, you don't need any fillings" he announced cheerily. "See, there's always something good happens even on bad days" he added, and i couldn't argue with his reasoning.

So, as I rinsed, and spat, and promised yet again to floss more often, i reminded myself that i have lots to be grateful for - friends who forgive me when I mysteriously don't respond to phone messages, beautiful strawberries growing in our garden, the fact that I didn't burn down the entire house, no fillings, and the kindness of strangers!! Life's not too bad after all.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A caterpillar's heart

Recently I chanced upon an old friend at a work event. We had lost touch, and it took us a while to place one another. After a few attempts at "did you work here?" and "are you involved in such and such a cause" he hit upon the connection. We had studied psychology together at Macquarie University back in 1995. 

He showed me pictures of his children, and we reminisced about those carefree, and occassionally not so carefree, days of our youth. Then, out of the blue, he told me that he had remembered me as a beautiful soul, somebody he had admired. My reaction at the time was delight and surprise, as I saw such high praise as representing how i had hoped to be, but not who i was. I had thought of myself more as somebody who was not yet fully formed, a chrysalis, if you will. And I still think I have a long way to go before I emerge triumphant and colourful from my cocoon. There are so many ways that I could be more compassionate, more considered and more humble.

butterfly image on a handmade card

In pondering this matter, and thinking of many old friends who are still incredibly important to me, I was reminded me of a poem my mother wrote in my autograph book when I was about ten years old. These autograph books were kindof like the facebook of the 1980's. You took it around to everyone you knew and they wrote thoughtful, complimentary or funny things in it. Mum's message has stayed with me, even though the autograph book has been long since lost, because of the beauty of the words she wrote: 

"A caterpillar's heart still beats in every butterfly. Inside you are always you. Inside you are always you". -
I like to think that, even as we grow and change, we are the same person on the inside and that's why it's so easy to pick up a phone conversation as if two decades had not passed, or camp together as if still in our 20s. 

As my new-old friend and I talked in the car on the way home, about lots of deep and spiritual matters, I caught a glimpse of that beautiful soul being re-awakened, of the person I had always hoped to become. With this new-found sense of my own beautiful soul, I feel encouraged to go about life seeking out that beauty in others, or to use the Quakerly quote "walk cheerfully over the earth, answering that of God in everyone". I intend to be brave enough to tell people about their beautiful soul when I particularly notice it, because life is short and we are all precious.

Aspirational street art in Surry Hills

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Family Maiden Aunt

With my brother's wedding coming up, it has dawned on me that I am in that slightly uncomfortable place that Bridget Jones was so well known for -  being single and childless. Yep, I'm now the family maiden aunt. But don't worry, I'm not completely alone. Apart from good ol' bridget, there is also a close family member not in a committed relationship... my three year old nephew!! So the two of us singles will be bunkmates for the duration of the wedding. Sigh. Back home, things are not much more impressive. I'm living in a share house again, and my assets include a wardrobe that I found on the side of the road, a chest of drawers that has been with me since childhood, and my shoes are lovingly arranged on four bricks and a length of wood that was lying about in our garden. All that's missing from the picture of the poverty stricken, lonely spinster is a cat.

Not a bad companion, really

And like Judy Small, in her ditty about being the family maiden aunt, I may have experienced some inadvertent sighing and shaking of heads from extended family members. Topics of inquiry in my early thirties focused on things like "when are you getting married?" and "do you think you'll have kids?" Now that all that's been covered, and it seems apparent that I won't do either, there's just an awkward silence. Some people are almost too enthusiastic about my work - possibly afraid to touch on more personal matters, some seem wistful and a bit starry eyed when we talk about the things I have done recently like travel and work and activism and adventures. With others there is definitely the impression that I have taken the easy, selfish road.

So, I guess I want to explain. When I was younger I did imagine myself as a parent and a partner. I had a dream that I still occasionally indulge in... it's of a slightly rural, sustainable house, with a vegie patch, chickens, kids, and maybe even a few children. (The kids are the young goats, if that wasn't clear). During my teens and then again in my late twenties I spent a lot of time babysitting and as a nanny. I would return home utterly exhausted, but happy -  boring friends and family with stories of how Connor insisted we start populating his ant farm then and there, or how Lexi so beautifully explained to me why she was angry and what her needs were. Definitely the most rewarding work I have ever done has been with children, so I have some idea of what I'm missing out on. But don't feel pity for me. I've made some choices in life that have taken me on a different path. It's taken a fair bit of "work" for me to get to that place of acceptance, recognising that where I am is a result both these choices and the cards I've been dealt, but I'm pretty much there now.

I am okay with this, because I know there are certain things that I can do because I'm not tied down. There are perks. I can do the work I love without worrying about anybody missing me back home when I travel. I can be the person who attends a rally, or evening meeting because I don't have other obligations. I can fly down to Hobart to spend my day off with my nephew and or spend it helping a friend. I can walk the Overland Track for five days. I can sleep in on a Sunday.  And I am not under any illusions about how hard parenting can be sometimes. I have seen my own parents, and now most of my friends, at the end of their tethers, and struggling to keep it together at times. I take my hat off to you all. But don't envy me. You made your life choices, and there are perks for you too - cuddles in bed on a Sunday morning, 50 million facebook likes because your child just blew a bubble, and knowing that somebody small loves you a whole lot.

The perks - having adventures AND cuddles
Then there is the thing about leading a meaningful life. I have heard so many people say things to me like "my job was getting a bit dull, so I thought having kids would give me a purpose again" or "this parenting gig is the most rewarding role I have ever taken on". Sometimes I feel judged because there's an unspoken assumption that the only way to find meaning in life is through having children, and by extension, if you don't have children your life must be fairly meaningless. Occasionally I have bought into this view, and judged myself quite harshly as a result. But, when I think about the parents I really admire, they are the ones who are already engaged in lots of activities, and care about issues. Their children simply augment their lives rather than providing all their raison d'etre. Secondly, many people whose lives were particularly meaningful because they changed history through leading significant social or spiritual movements, were either childless or received criticism for abandoning their children and partner in preference for this spiritual or ethical cause. I recently read that the Buddha left for a 6 year pilgrimage soon after his first child was born. Sometimes I think there is so much to be done in the world, that we need a certain proportion of single, childless people to do the other, non-child-related meaningful stuff, unencumbered by family obligations.

So, luckily the wedding is going to be a very inclusive one, and outside of our immediate family there will be lots of people there who don't fit the conventional mould, many of whom are close friends of mine. And sometimes I feel so touched that my beautiful friends with children want to connect with silly old me, and I am reminded that we will always have our values and love for one another in common, even if we don't share being parents. But, if you find yourself feeling awkward about talking with me at the wedding or any other event, remember that I might have taken a different path, but I'm not from another planet, and I am able to engage in conversation on a number of topics, including other people's partners and offspring. I don't want to be treated with pity, envy or judgement. I would love, though, to find out what's really happening in your life, and what gives it meaning. And who knows what the future will hold. Perhaps I'll foster, adopt or step-parent some amazing little people one day, and then we can talk about that too!

Monday, October 07, 2013

Bandaid solutions

Over the past few days I have had a rather high number of paper cuts. I think they must be 'going around'. Because of the disproportionately high level of discomfort caused by such small cuts, I have taken to applying band-aids and this got me thinking about the old band-aid analogy.

I am pretty sure there are two types of people. Those who like to rip band-aids off quickly, and those who prefer to peel them off bit by bit over the course of a number of days/weeks/months. I have a lifetime membership of the latter category. As a child I would take a daily stocktake of the state of the knee and its covering, taking a significant amount of time out of my busy schedule (not) to work on the task of gently separating the two, bit by bit. Being a deliberator and a 'thoughtful' person, I am not one for hasty decisions and have always hoped that if I peel slowly enough, the pain will be diluted to the point of being unrecognisable as pain.

This year I have learnt that the same band-aid solutions tend to be applied to matters of the heart. Some people prefer to take quick and decisive measures while others like to linger. Even when all logical and practical indicators point to the fact that the band-aid needs to come off at some point, I still prefer to peel it off gently, hoping again to dilute the pain. Probably frustrated with this situation of band-aid “no-man’s-land”, I have had the band-aid unceremoniously ripped off once or twice by the other person, in the same way as a frustrated mother who is tired of watching that child painstakingly edge the flapping and grubby plaster from their knee will swoop in and rip! And, like the small child, I am left a little bewildered and unsure about whether to be indignant or secretly relieved.

This state of affairs has left me wondering whether there are in fact times when it's better to just "rip" and get it over with. Perhaps ripping is not so bad. Maybe it can be freeing, and positive, and bold. So, in an unprecedented move, I decided to rip off the band-aid that had been on my paper-sliced finger - just to see how it felt. And then I just ... walked away!! Ah, not so bad after all. In fact, I think it means my finger is now truly ready for its next adventure without carrying around any excess baggage, so to speak.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Big foot

It turns out that I might be ....the weakest link in my household. We were taking a bit of an audit of electricity usage and as it happens, my heater uses *a lot* of our household electricity. I was a bit confronted by this information, as I think of myself as having a relatively light ecological footprint. I am a vegetarian, for crying out loud! I compost, grow stuff, refuse plastic bags, use public transport where possible and never use a clothes dryer. (Please don't get me started on people who use dryers!!). Surely all that counts for something?

But this situation I find myself in has caused me to reflect on how easy it is to become holier than thou on one aspect of our ecological footprint while ignoring other less comfortable areas.I also wonder whether I am perhaps focusing too much on low impact lifestyle changes and too little on the areas of greatest impact. So I decided to find out for myself which lifestyle choices can make the biggest difference to the environment. Thanks to the World Wildlife Fund online calculator, I have been informed that I am indeed a big foot - I'm using the equivalent of 1.7 planets or almost double my share. The average Australian uses the equivalent of 3 planets.

My ecological footprint results

So, what else did I discover? One of my biggest areas of impact is food. Initially I was surprised. A UN study entitled "Livestock's Long Shadow", indicates that eating meat is the number one consumer cause of global warming, above all types of transport combined. And according to the "What if" section below, if every Australian reduced the amount of animal products they consumed, we could reduce our ecological footprint by 18 million hectares! Yet, food is one of my biggest percentage items. I guess even a vegetarian diet takes a lot of agricultural land. Apart from going vegan or just eating less, which is probably not a bad idea, I can reduce the amount of packaged and imported foods that I consume. If Australians were to reduce the amount of packaging they use, we could reduce our footprint by 14 million global hectares!

My other big area was services. It seems that I am at the same time good (high use of public transport and recycling services), bad (high use of waste services, packaging, and possibly transport related to imported food) and confused (high electricity usage - but if it's renewable is it okay to use more?) which makes it hard to assess whether having a high percentage on the services slice of the pie is a good thing or not. However, given that the amount of land I use for energy is so high, that is one area I can definitely improve upon. If more Australians reduced their electricity usage through more efficient appliances, we could reduce our footprint by 2 million global hectares. If more Australians had solar panels (thereby reducing their *bad* electricity usage down to zero) we could reduce our footprint by 9 million global hectares.

Interestingly, although I travel by plane a lot for work, mobility was not my worst area. The fact that I mainly travel in Sydney by foot, bike, and bus apparently compensates for all the flying I do. Apparently if the average Australian reduced their car usage and increased their use of public transport, we could reduce our footprint by 9 million global hectares. Flights do contribute to 1 million of Australia's global hectares, however, so it's something I need to think seriously about.

Shelter was my smallest slice of the pie, possibly due to the fact that I live in a modest sized house with four others. We can share things that take up a lot of energy like a fridge and also be part of a food co-op. Interestingly, there were not any questions about how many children I have and whether the people I lived with were the result of my own procreation or somebody else's. I felt that should have been asked. An article entitled "The 5 most important things you can do for the environment" lists having fewer or no children as the number one thing we can do. While I take off my hat to those who choose not to have children for the sake of the environment, it's nice to know that my situation (childless, as one friend so delicately put it) lightens my impact somewhat. I'd like to know how many global hectares I'm saving through this sacrifice on everyone else's behalf!!

Interesting to note which areas can have the biggest impact

So while I'm still the weakest link, I probably won't be voted out of the house. They are a very reasonable bunch! But there's plenty of room for improvement. One day I might just have a job where I travel less, reduce my waste and packaging even more, eat vegan and local, and yes, be warm in winter because of my amazingly insulated green house that is heated using passive solar and boosted by as much solar energy to power that heater as I care to use! Ahhh! But until then, I plan to rug up, or take the advice of the student residence in Switzerland when the heating system broke down - go hug a flatmate! 

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Swimming goggles, lemons and a clanging noise

During a recent visit to Istanbul, I found myself closer to the action in Taksim Square than I had expected. Although it was just after about a month of regular protests and police involvement leading to some violence, the previous week had been very calm, and the hotel staff assured me that everything was fine. So, it seemed that I was still "exercising extreme caution" in DFAT's terms if I merely ventured across the Galata Bridge and into town to meet some friends at a cafe.

Street in Istanbul pre-gas
Given that Istanbul was the only city on this trip where I literally knew nobody, I was very grateful for the contact, and to be able to hang out with locals. I ordered a lemony drink and began asking my new friends all about their jobs and what brought them to Turkey. As we were talking, I glanced at the shelf behind, and noticed a pile of leaflets announcing a rally to be held the next day. I took a flyer, noted the place and time, but contrary to my usual practice, it was in order to avoid being there. My new friends agreed that I could do more for the cause by staying safe and joining in the online campaign than getting physically involved.

Then, as we were wandering down the cobblestone street and considering where to go next, we came across some people running down the hill quite quickly, in the way that I imagined a stampede might begin. I didn't know which way to turn, and was reminded again that I am not good in emergencies. My new friends ushered me into a nearby bar, but not before I was exposed to a faint gassy smell, and my eyes began to water. Police had begun to spray tear gas on protesters again and we were in the firing line.

Once we were safely inside the bar and things had quietened down, my new friends started telling me stories about the situation so far. They lived very close to Taksim Square and had heard the events unfold quite literally before their teary eyes. One guy reckoned he had been gased by proxy about 20 times in the past month. As we sat there, small groups of people walked past the window with mouths and noses covered by gas masks, handkerchiefs, and interestingly enough, swimming goggles. We did wonder where all the swimming goggles were coming from, and whether any suppliers thought it odd that they were suddenly in such high demand. They also mentioned that within a few hours of the first incidents, enterprising street vendors were spotted selling gas masks, lemons and other useful items that one might wish to purchase post-protest, in much the same way that there is always somebody selling umbrellas the minute it starts to rain. 
protest flyer

Stories of creativity and humour started to emerge as well. Apparently the government had been making some comments about people "making noise for no reason", so people had decided to do just that and began clanging pots and pans randomly as they went about their everyday business. Even when people were running past us with tears running down their faces from the gas, nobody turned on each other. There seemed to be an overall feeling of good-will, and I couldn't help being reminded of classes in Nonviolence with Stuart Rees, who talked of historical figures such as Gandhi and King using humour, creativity, and retaining their *human-ness* in the face of oppression or violence.

I spent the next day taking ferry rides and exploring the less touristy parts of town. It was great fun, particularly as Sunday is family day and "day off" in Istanbul, so everybody was out and about enjoying the sunshine and parks. As I reflected on this, I realised why access to a park in the centre of town was so important to people. As the hotel manager told me, the police also have families, and enjoy parks, so it is perplexing why they respond with such vigour to essentially non violent protests about an issue they themselves would most likely support, if they thought properly about it. 

Friday, August 09, 2013

The cuckoo's nest

The other day I found myself on a bus sitting next to a guy whispering "coo coo" into a used macdonald's bag. No, he wasn't crazy. He happens to be one of my closest friends. Actually he had just rescued a baby bird which had fallen from its nest, and was attempting to calm it down. But as I sat there it occurred to me that other passengers might think we were both a bit cuckoo ourselves. I grinned at the thought.

I recently read "Veronica decides to die" - a book about life, death and what it means to be "mad". Veronica is a young woman who doesn't have anything particular going wrong in her life, but decides it would be best to die while she is young and healthy, as getting older she anticipates life only getting worse. She is plagued by the boredom of her uninspiring job and dreary day to day life. This is coupled with the belief that she was on a miserable trajectory where she would eventually marry, have a few children, become lonely, her husband would cheat on her, she would become fat and depressed, would consider suicide but wouldn't have the guts to go through with it, and in any case would have the children to think about. She reasons that it makes more sense to die now, before all that unhappiness unfolds.

In an interesting turn of events, after taking enough sleeping tablets to kill herself, she wakes up in a psychiatric hospital and is delivered the news that her heart is now so frail that she only has about a week to live. She begins to interact with the other patients. Some of them ignore her, some are confronted that somebody so young is waiting to die, and others become a comfort to her with advice about how to spend her remaining days, based on their own low points, regrets and experiences of finally "breaking free" of convention. With encouragement from her new friends, who view "madness" as just a more extreme case of being yourself and living life honestly, Veronica reasons that, since she's going to die anyway, she may as well do some of those things she wouldn't normally do. She slaps a man in the face when she disagrees with him, she gets naked, starts up a friendship with a young man who never communicates with anyone, and takes pleasure in the simple things - playing piano, a beautiful sunrise and seeing the city at night. She begins to see that life is full of choices. She doesn't have to live a dull, normal life. She can be as "mad" as she likes, she can inspire others, and experience the world around her with wonder...regardless of how many days she has still to live.

And so I think of my friend on the bus, and wonder how many of us are too frightened of what others will think to do what comes naturally - caring for other creatures, making a fuss about injustice, and being willing to live our life with integrity, passion and a bit of "madness".

Saturday, July 27, 2013

In the eye of the storm

I've grown up going to protests. As a child in the 1980's I have fond memories of the rainbow banners of the anti-nuclear campaign. In the 1990s it was Indigenous rights culminating in the hope and togetherness we felt during the Bridge Walk  for Reconciliation. After 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan I was busily engaged in the anti-war movement and got involved in refugee action groups. Throughout all those years I had never had a problem with the police and generally believed that they were there to protect us... until the other week.

Recent rally in Sydney
I was recently in a picket supporting the National Tertiary Educators Union to call for fairer working conditions. The riot police had been called in, and as soon as any negotiations began to take place between protesters and those wishing to enter the university, the police took it upon themselves to get involved, and quickly set about pushing protesters quite aggressively, and grabbing those who were seated on the ground. I was quite shocked by these displays of what some would call police brutality. I hadn't seen it up close before. There was a look of what I can only describe as hatred in their eyes as they pushed, shoved, and strangled their fellow human beings for nothing more than voicing an opinion and then sitting down at an inconvenient time and place. My impression was that it was also a blankness there in their eyes, as if they had put aside their humanity in order to do their job. I've been told that blank look is in fact part of what they have been trained to do, in the same way that soldiers are taught to kill without emotion.

I have been thinking about this in relation to other protests around the world. I know we are lucky in Australia that, if you're white the police are generally there to protect you. Indigenous Australians have born the brunt of racism, inhumane treatment, incarceration without reason, and death from our so-called justice system for more than 200 years. Palestinian colleagues have told me about the endless Israeli checkpoints they have to go through, even just to get from home to work, and the discrimination that they face daily from Israeli authorities simply for being of a different nationality. I was aware in Turkey that the use of tear gas on protesters seemed an extreme reaction to an essentially peaceful protest about ideals that police would probably themselves support, if they thought long enough about it - access to public parks, and a democratic government.
Flyer in Istanbul

So, with all these situations, I have been asking myself whether some people are naturally evil, or whether these behaviours are just a result of violent structures, inappropriate training and propaganda. The other week, I got into an interesting discussion about the Palestine/Israel situation. A woman was asking me whether the Quaker belief that there is "that of God in everyone" leading to a history of impartiality during wars and conflicts (the Quakers provided an ambulance service to both sides during the first and second world wars) is in direct conflict with our pursuit of equality and justice, particularly in situations of human rights violations. Are we failing to stand up for the oppressed when we attempt to negotiate with the oppressor?

It is a topic I have been considering myself over the past few months, and I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. I think it is possible to call for justice and to stand alongside the oppressed while still believing there is something of God in everyone. There is a Quaker query that asks "Do you respect that of God in everyone though it may be expressed in unfamiliar ways or be difficult to discern?" The belief in this goodness in the 'other' enables us not only to look at conflicts in terms of two or more parties with needs unmet but also to see oppressive regimes as made up of human beings who are capable of good. Speaking to their human-ness, I hope, gives the oppressor the space and opportunity to change their behaviour.

An activist friend who has more experience than me of police interactions through his involvement with the occupy movement was telling me of a time when a protester had spoken so passionately to a line of riot police about the inhumanity of their actions that one of the officers had broken down in tears. While probably a rare occurrence, I think it shows that beneath the tough exterior and emotionless eyes of riot police in Australia, or Israeli soldiers at checkpoints in Palestine or police administering tear gas in Istanbul there is an innate humanity. Perhaps if we can patiently search for that humanity, we can encourage them to see alternatives to violence for achieving their objectives, recognise the humanity in their 'other', and over time, begin to see justice for those who have suffered as a result of violence, injustice and oppression.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Travelling by train

 "No mode of transportation inspires more detailed observation than the railway train" - Paul Theroux

There were a few reasons I decided to travel Europe by train. The first was to impress my nephew, who at 2yrs old is already a keen observer of toot toots in general, and Thomas the Tank Engine in particular. Another was ecological. While flying halfway across the world is a shocking thing to do to the environment, the only way I could justify it was to travel by train once I arrived. The plan was to pass through Germany, Switzerland, France and England all by train. The third reason was romantic. There's no other mode of transport where you can watch the scenery rush past free of road traffic, where your cup doesn't spill during turbulence, and where you can plug in your laptop or phone, read, or chat to the person sitting opposite you.I wanted to experience it for myself. 

So imagine my disappointment when, fresh off a 30hr flight in Frankfurt, and armed with instructions for how to travel by train for 16 euro to Erlangen via Nurnberg, I was informed by an efficient German teller that the only way to do so was to take almost every slow train in Germany, go via every small city and arrive three hours later than planned. With no way to contact my friend with changes to the agreed arrival time, I had to opt for the more expensive route. With a heavy heart, and even heavier pack, I purchased my ticket, found the platform, and boarded the train, only to discover that it was full of commuters. Suddenly aware that I had not showered in two days, I slid my backpack into the luggage rack, and eased myself carefully into the only available seat, next to a rather displeased man in a suit, and tried not to smell too bad. 

Things improved when I undertook my next journey three days later. "You have to book well in advance if you want a good price" they all said when I had been trying to book my tickets a few weeks earlier, which doesn't bode well for somebody like me who isn't good with decisions. I had been staring at the three options before me on the computer screen: 1) cheapest with no flexibility if you miss any of the connections 2) First class for only 20 euros more with officially no more flexibility, although reports indicated they were more forgiving in first class or 3) most expensive, with full flexibility. Eventually I selected option 2. I wanted to see what First Class was like, and after all, the trip was about 9 hours in total, with 5 changes of train. I reasoned that I might as well be comfortable. And it was such a pleasure to step into that empty First Class carriage and settle myself in with laptop, lunch, journal and reading material. As the scenery wizzed past, it changed from German cities to Swiss alpine countryside, and the trains changed from high speed intercity express to cute mountain crawler. I began to feel like I was really on holiday!

It was during the journey from Morges in Switzerland to Paris that I made a friend. Finding myself seated directly opposite a young man with a wide smile, it occurred to me that it would be weird not to talk at all for the next 4 hours. He was very willing to tell me, in French, all about Cape Verte, the island where he grew up off the west coast of Africa, the economic and social issues they face, explain about the glass making factory where he works, and show me photos of his eight year old daughter, who lives with her mother in Spain. I have to admit that this level of detail in a conversation was only possible because he was African-Francophone. I can never understand the native Swiss or French because they talk so fast. When the conversation drifted from the status of women in Cape Verte into the question of why a lady so beautiful should be single at age 36, which is charming when delivered in French, I decided to pull out my book and begin to read it in earnest before I gave the guy the wrong idea. 

One of the tricky things about train travel is making sure you catch it. I seemed to be forever running from one platform to another, trying to make tight connections. "Oh, they are very relaxed with the Eurostar" my friends told me. "You can't really miss it, because they let you on even if you're not there the full 40 minutes in advance". Well, it turns out you can! Having only booked it a few days earlier, I had paid a *LOT* for my ticket from Paris to London, and had to travel very early in the morning. We'd spent the evening before having a traditional Parisien BBQ, which means not eating until 10pm, and then doing so at a leisurely pace, so I had only had about five hours sleep when I awoke at 7am for my train. Admittedly, I lingered longer over my shower than if I was heading to the airport, but managed to arrive at Eurostar headquarters together with other passengers expecting to catch the 8:45am train. When I reached the head of the queue for British immigration, a guy in a cockney accent asked me where my arrivals card was. Sorry, what? It turned out they were back beside the check-in desk. "Can I come straight back to you when I've filled it out?", I asked. "No", was the careless reply. So, after bounding over to the arrivals card pile, bounding back, filling it out while progressing again in the queue, getting through immigration, taking off belt etc for security clearance, putting belt back on, misplacing jacket, and finding jacket again, I began to feel a sense of urgency about getting to the departure gate. After a mild panic because there didn't seem to be any clear indication of where to go, I found the departure gate, relieved that I had 'made it'.

"Ticket please", the neatly dressed lady ordered in french, and I began furiously checking pockets and bags. When I couldn't produce my ticket, she calmly closed the departure gate and informed me that I had missed the train. In a total panic, I began pleading with her to help me somehow, and when this produced no positive response, I decided to find the booking confirmation on my phone. Ah ha! There it was, and I raced over with the phone in my hand, jacket sliding out from under one arm, and bags falling from the other. But when I looked at the phone again, I had somehow, in the mayhem, DELETED the exact message that I needed. It all seemed hopeless. But, as I stepped back to assess the situation, I could hear another traveller who had missed the train asking what the cost was to re-book. "Oh, there's no charge", I heard the neatly dressed lady say "we simply book you on the next one". And, buoyed by this new information, I conducted a more careful search and low and behold, there was my ticket in a pocket I hadn't remembered putting it. They changed my booking, and I happily boarded the train, delighted to be finally on my way, and vowing never to tempt fate again!

When I arrived in England, I was exposed to a plethora of trains. There was the underground, overground suburban traings, and of course the regional trains taking me up north. The thing I loved about those English trains was that, as if they are all relatives of our friend Thomas, they seem to have so much personality attributed to them. When the announcement advises me that this train will be "calling at" West Ealing, Ealing Broadway, and West Drayton, I can't help picturing the train as an upper class Jane Austin-y fellow popping in for a cup of tea and a slice of cake at each of those places before reaching its final destination.  

And so it was with sadness that I boarded my final train from Frankfurt am main to Frankfurt Flughafen. I was heading home. But I couldn't be sad for long. Two gypsies got on board with an amplified stereo, and began to enthusiastically sing along and dance to the German version of various English pop songs. They timed the walk-about with the cup for donations perfectly so travellers about to get off at the airport could relieve themselves of spare euros before leaving the country for an indefinite period of time. I parted with about 50 cents before waving goodbye to European rail for another decade or so, and promised myself that I would do more to support the campaign for high speed rail in Australia.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

A tale of two share houses

some of the plants
Once upon a time there was a girl who lived in a small room in a large house in the heart of town. She came with a rather large collection of miniature elephants, her eclectic library of books, her edible plants, a worm farm and photos from travels around the world. The girl liked when the sun came streaming into the lounge room and spent her at-home time pottering in the garden, reading in the sun or watching her favourite shows with any willing flatmates. The house was an easy bus ride to work. Life was pretty good. Not perfect, but pretty good.

But then one day, almost out of nowhere, a cloud descended over the house. It was a cloud of mistrust, miscommunication and misunderstanding. Some people were not talking to others and there was resentment about borrowing of cars and parties and loud early morning blending. Soon there was so much unhappiness that the girl spent all of her time in her room or away from the house completely. Soon enough she started to think about what she really wanted in a home and realised it wasn't all this bitterness and bother, so she set off in search of a new home. It would be a homely place, she thought, somewhere that her quirks were accepted and her values shared. She dreamed of a place that welcomed her elephants and worms, where others shared her concern for treading lightly on the earth and where the atmosphere was welcoming to friends and family who might drop by. If it happened to have a bath, that would also be a good thing. 

The good luck elephant
As she pursued her search, the elephants stood by, with their trunks up in hopeful anticipation. Kind people offered her suggestions of households that they'd heard about, and she dutifully checked them all out.  But none was quite right. Some were too far away. Others didn't have the right "vibe" and some didn't feel that the girl would be a good fit for them. She started to feel a little despondent.

Then, when she was least expecting it, and thinking about something completely different, a new acquaintance mentioned she was looking for a person to complete a new household. They were mostly vegetarian, had a beautiful garden, liked to welcome friends to the house and best of all - they not only had a bath, but a spa bath with a duck's head for a spout and peacocks strutting all over the bathroom tiles! So the girl moved in, and they all lived happily ever after!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Old stuff

I recently, and luckily only briefly, lost the Nokia mobile phone that I was given in Kenya six years ago. I was devastated, not just because of the sentimental value, but because I like my stuff to last.

The phone was held together with sticky tape, it was hard to make out the numbers on the keys, and I wouldn't describe it as "smart" in any way, shape or form. But it was functional. I could send text messages and make and receive calls. After all, isn't that what mobile phones are supposed to be about?

Now, I'll admit it. I'm the sort of person who hangs on to things, and becomes attached, whether it's to old friends, old songs, old furniture, or gifts given to me twenty years ago. Which is why I get so upset when people try to convince me to upgrade my phone, get a new bike, or suggest to me that my beloved and reliable car won't pass rego this year.

I find this attitude challenging on a couple of fronts. Firstly, I'm offended on behalf of my "old stuff". My 21 year old car, treated with care by me and my mechanic, continues year after year to serve me well for getting from A to B, and almost never breaks down in public. And my bicycle doesn't just have the vintage look that's so hip these days. It actually is vintage. A friend gave it to me a few years back after it had been sitting in her yard for decades un-used. With the help of friends at Bicycle Garden in Marrickville, I installed a new set of brakes and put a bit of grease on the chain. Now it's as good as new. But I also get offended because I oppose the throw-away society. As soon as something doesn't work anymore we upgrade, whereas in my grandfather's day, people simply fixed stuff and kept using it. The cost to the environment of manufacturing and shipping new cars is believed to be greater than the benefits of the fuel efficiency that is often used as the excuse.

While I have a soft spot for my "old stuff", I do realise that eventually, I will have to reluctantly upgrade. I've already been given a smart phone, and have begun using it to check facebook or map out a journey on the run. And, using mobile "check-in" while still anxiously waiting for the airport train might have been the difference between catching and missing a flight.And I'm told it's more energy efficient to just use a small mobile devise as opposed to turning my entire computer on. One day it might be good to get a slightly newer bike that's a bit lighter to lug around and easier to ride and eventually the car will die and I will have to look at alternative options. But until then, this luddite will persistently continue using the old stuff that still works.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Neurotypical but nice

The other day I was chatting with a friend whose partner has Asperger's Syndrome. While I knew it was a mild form of autism, it was only when she began describing the symptoms that I realised how many people I know might be living with this condition. Misunderstandings and hurt feelings started to make more sense. According to her experiences, and some reading and talking to friends afterwards, I've learnt that people with Asperger's Syndrome (AS), tend to have difficulty in recognising social and emotional cues, and are known to frustrate coworkers and family members with their inflexibility, preference for routine, and sometimes pedantic adherence to rules or logic. But there are plus sides, as people with AS tend to have excellent auditory and visual perception, and are very compassionate and empathic, particularly when injustice has occurred. Sometimes they lack the skills to deal with strong positive and negative emotions and so avoid situations that might bring on these emotions, thus causing others to mistakenly claim they lack emotion and empathy. Some develop a fixation on a special interest, such as train timetables, the natural history of bats, or super heroes. The condition can often go undiagnosed into adulthood, with the person just having a vague sense that they're different.

Naturally, I went home and did the online test to see if I featured anywhere on the autism spectrum, but no, it seems I get the diagnosis of neuro-typical (NT) or "normal", whatever that means. Some female friends who have been diagnosed with Aspergers are not so sure I don't fit somewhere on the spectrum, as females with AS have slightly different symptoms to males, and are diagnosed less frequently. But either way, the discussion caused me to pause and think about how we as humans interact socially, how complex the mind is, how nice it is that people are different, and whether diagnosis is helpful or limiting.

It is incredulous really that our brains can compute the subtle messages given in body language and facial expressions that convey emotions the person is feeling as well as cues for how to react. As somebody who doesn't struggle too much with reading other people's emotions, I still don't think I could articulate in any scientific way what it is that tells me somebody is annoyed, or sad or offended or bored, or how I detect the nuanced ways that it varies from person to person. And there are times when I get it wrong and misinterpret or make assumptions. One of us gets offended or sad or annoyed and the cycle of guessing emotions begins again. Given how much we rely upon these non-verbal cues, it's quite incredible that any of us manage to get along with one another at all.

When I was an undergrad, I took a unit in "Abnormal Psychology", a term I am pretty sure would be considered politically incorrect today. While I was fascinated to think about all the different syndromes and spectrums and conditions lurking in the psychological etha, I found myself wondering where is the line between normal and "abnormal" as I quietly conducted self-diagnosis for each and every disorder. So, naturally, recently armed with information about this new condition, I began to see myself on the autism spectrum along with just about everything else. Let's see. I am sometimes socially awkward, I experience strong emotions when injustice occurs, I can retreat into my dream world, and obsess about strange things at times, though haven't developed a focussed interest in superheroes just yet. But at what point would I have enough of the "symptoms" to warrant a diagnosis? Luckily the online test put a stop to those musings, but it caused me to ponder how useful a diagnosis is anyway.

One friend adamantly insisted that we are in an age where we over-diagnose. The number of children diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome or ADHD (attention deficient and hyperactivity disorder) is apparently on the rise, he argues, and in most cases only serves to provide parents with an excuse for bad parenting and people with an excuse for bad behaviour. I agree that society seems to be over-diagnosing us with a range of psychological conditions and then racing to find medications that will treat the condition rather than looking to behavoural and cognitive tools. It all seems very passive and slightly dangerous to me. Another friend who works in early childhood believes that it is a welcome relief for many parents to realise that their child is different and their parenting is not at fault. There is a place for diagnosis, she argues, given that awareness and a willingness to change are important steps in the success of behavioural treatments. I agree that, as with many other conditions, the person has to acknowledge that they are struggling, want to make changes in their life, and be given the appropriate tools and support to be able to make those changes. A quick perusal of AS blogs suggests that many people diagnosed are in happy relationships, and living full and fulfilling lives. So, perhaps awareness and developing coping strategies are important. But how does all this affect me?

As one Quaker who isn't fond of labels put it, "perhaps sometimes it's useful to know what works well, or doesn’t work well for people who are a particular way”. I think in my future interactions with the variety of people in my life, (both AS and NT) I will endeavour to be more compassionate and clear speaking. If I want people to know how I am feeling, I can simply tell them rather than expecting others to guess. And I will try to remind myself that, on the whole, people aren't trying to be difficult or rude, and probably don't realise when they have upset me. All of us are really just responding to the confusing, wondrous complexities of life as best we can. After all, who of us is "normal" anyway?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Overland Track

Walking the Overland Track in Tasmania was a challenge I set myself back around October 2012. You see, I like the great outdoors, I enjoy a physical challenge, and I wanted to set myself a goal, but I'd been finding excuses for not making the commitment. Finally, when I was complaining to my flatmate that I had wanted to do this trip but had nobody to do it with, she said "well, I'm doing it in February, why don't you join me?". And the rest, as they say, is history. Of course, there were lots of preparation dramas - what type of shoes to take, the question of dehydrated or fresh food and discussions about the optimum changes of clothing. And of course there were the training days that I dragged friends and family along to - rain, hail or shine! But eventually the big day, or rather the big five days, came, and I have to say we were blessed with amazing weather, gorgeous people, and delicious food. Here's a snapshot...

Day 1: where we take the path less travelled and still see the same view

It was about 1pm when we finally set foot on the Overland Track at Ronny Creek, after what seemed like an endless series of flights, long distance buses, shopping trips, and pit stops. The easy wooden walkways that I had seen in all the photos soon gave way to more typical bushland, followed by the steep ascent to Marion's look-out, where we were rewarded with beautiful views, the first of many picnic lunches of hummus and crackers, and of course - scroggin!

Setting off from Ronny Creek
Crater Lake

Marion's Lookout with Dove Lake behind
The next challenge was Cradle Mountain, and having conquered Marion's Lookout, we confidently left our packs at Kitchen Hut and eagerly began our climb. As Suzanne raced ahead, I took the opportunity to chat with those coming down the mountain. A clever way, I thought, to take a break without it looking like I was resting! About halfway up I called out to Suzanne, and discovering that she was directly above me, began navigating the rocks as I climbed my way towards her. At times I wondered if I would make it - it was VERY steep and not at all what I would call a "path". When I reached the top, or what I deemed to be "close enough", we took a few photos of the view before commencing the bum shuffle back down the mountain. Halfway down, Ciara was there to greet us, and point out the error of our ways. It seemed that we had taken the path less travelled, while our fellow hikers had opted for a reasonably well signposted, less vertical path to the top. But, as we reasoned, the view was the same, and we did it in half the time!

View from Cradle Mountain
Rocks soon became the dirty word for the day, with the rest of the path offering what seemed like an endless scramble over more horizontally positioned, but equally challenging rocks before a final steep, rocky, wet descent into Waterfall Valley. Somebody commented that 80% raised wooden walkways that the Overland Track boasted may have been an exaggeration. It was 8pm when we finally arrived at Waterfall Valley Hut. It had been a long day, but the worst was still to come. Tomorrow would be the longest day. But it didn't matter, as there was enough room for me to bunk up in the hut, we had changed into warm clothes, and had made a start on dinner. Things were looking up.

Waterfall Valley Hut

It was as we were settling in that I overheard somebody mention that he hadn't realised you had to bring your own toilet paper. Oops. I did spare the odd thought for that guy over the next 5 days. Apparently he was a little anxious about his situation. But to be fair, everyone has a packing fail (or quirk) of some kind. We encountered a guy with solar panels covering his entire backpack, which he used to charge a radio, another man carried 27kg just so he could have all the comforts of home, and there was a group who were rumoured to have not brought any tents, thus forcing them to rise at 4am each day to ensure they arrived first and secured enough spaces in the huts each night.

Day 2: where I "hit the wall" and made some new friends

With a fairly relaxed air, we boiled the billy for breakfast tea and porridge, what was to become our morning routine for the week. After the others packed away the tent and I packed away the stove, we were ready to depart for Day 2 - a half marathon with 15kg packs on our backs! We covered the first section to Windermere Hut fairly easily and enjoyed a relaxed lunchtime swim at Lake Windermere before turning our attention to the 6hrs of walking still to go.

Lake Windermere from a distance
About an hour into the afternoon, with five still to go, I began to hit a wall. We were traipsing through scrubby forest on the side of a hill and the tree roots and muddy pools that needed to be negotiated seemed endless. As I plodded on, I tried various mind games to keep myself motivated, and began to wonder whether, if a woman falls in the forest and nobody hears her, does she make any sound? Towards the end of the day, I began imagining myself walking repeatedly from my parents house to the train station and back, knowing that it's about one kilometre in distance. When the hut finally came into view I was too exhausted to be relieved. Again, we were the last to arrive, I was hungry, in pain, and somehow I had dropped my sun hat along the way. I was not a happy camper.

Mt Pelion Hut, at long last
As I made a start on dinner, and the others set up the tent, a couple of other walkers who had finished their dinner began showing an interest in the workings of my fuel stove. It had belonged to my friend David, and Lisa had recently given it to me. I treated it with the respect such a gift deserved, but was also apprehensive about how to use it properly. After 2 hours of anxiously watching youtube clips at my sister's place and pressing pause while attempting each stage before returning for the next segment, I had managed to figure out how to light the stove, which way up it should go, and how to regulate the temperature. But there was still the odd moment when the orange flames were rather scary, and I did manage to singe the hairs on my fingers during one of the more "oh-my-god-I-think-I've-caused-a-fire" type moments. But once the onlookers saw the end product - my pasta a la broccoli, mushroom, spinach, cheese and condensed milk, the mirth turned to twinges of jealousy as they compared my dinner to the "modest" portions of the dehydrated lamb curry they had earlier consumed. With a few panadol to relax the muscle pain in my legs, I slept quite soundly that night.

The infamous fuel stove in all its glory

Day 3: where we deal with blisters and my shirt gets a new lease on life

I received lots of advice about walking the Overland Track. Some was unsolicited, and some contradictory. For me, shoes were the biggest worry. Some people said you definitely need ankle support and the best brand of hiking shoes, others said that you can walk the track in dunlop volleys and it will be fine. After many hours agonising in the company of patient and not so patient outdoor store staff, I bought a pair of Salomon boots and a pair of Vasque boots, proceeded to wear them both around the office for two days to get a feel for which one I preferred, repeatedly asking the advice of long-suffering colleagues, and eventually decided upon the Vasques. Yet, having worn them on a few practice bushwalks, I decided they were giving me too many blisters, and finally opted to take my no-name hiking shoes (so no ankle support, and apparently not even gortex) which at least I knew did not give me blisters. And guess what? They were absolutely fine. I didn't get any blisters at all, didn't twist my ankle, and was not clomping around in heavy boots for five days.

One solution to the blister problem
But others were not so fortunate. Suzanne developed such painful blisters that when we arrived at Kia Ora Hut early on Day 3 she decided to just bandage her entire feet. There was another lady with gaffa tape holding her boots together, and others were making repairs using super glue or needle and thread.

The other great thing about having a short, fairly easy day, was that there was time to take a dip in the icy cold river, and wash and dry my ONE hiking shirt. Yes, that's right. If you notice that I seem to be wearing the same clothes in every photo, well I am! Another flatmate, whose advice I valued immensely since he hikes regularly in New Zealand, culled me down to one shirt for the whole week, reasoning that it didn't matter if I smelt bad, and that since the shirt was "quick dry" it would dry quickly if wet. A good idea in theory, but all the same, it was great to put on a relatively clean and dry shirt the following day.

Day 4: where we see waterfalls and encounter wildlife of the slithery kind

Day 4 took us through more foresty areas, with charming moss-covered tree stumps and butterflies and birds. It was quite magical and I almost expected to see a faun appear at a fork in the road and lead us to Aslan. But with no mythical friends to be met, we settled for three optional side trips to waterfalls. I ended up visiting two of them, and relaxed in a clearing while others visited the third one.

D'alton Falls in the sunlight
Many of the huts along the Overland Track are visited by possums and wallabies, Australian wildlife that I don't mind encountering at night. Snakes, on the other hand, I'm less inclined towards. Because I was walking most of the track on my own, being slower than my companions, I encountered 4 snakes; 2 green and 2 black. We were told that the black ones were tiger snakes, a venomous variety, which Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife insist are not all that keen about wasting their venom on humans unless provoked or accidentally trodden on. Their website adds that, in fact, we are more likely to die from an ant bite, peanuts or by the hand of our spouse than from a snake bite! Still, I hurried past them, nevertheless.

Sign cautioning not to tread on snakes!
Day 5: where we cross the finish line and reflect on the week's adventures

It's hard to get much sleep in the huts, by the time you deal with muscular aches and pains, snorers, and early risers. But on the last morning, a group departed before dawn to try to catch the early ferry and were particularly loud as they packed up all their gear. (Later accounts suggest they missed the boat and had to catch the midday ferry anyway). Anyhow, we arose, packed everything up for the last time, served up our last breakfast, and departed for the easiest walk of all - a gentle downward slope towards Narcissus Hut, where our walking ended. It was another glorious day, with hardly a cloud in the sky.

The final hours
Crossing the finishing line, with Narcissus Hut behind
As we waited for the ferry to take us across Lake St Clare to the Visitor's Centre, I felt a sense of achievement, but it was a quiet one. I was going to miss the people who had become family for the past few days, staggering in and out of our lives as our different paths crossed, sharing tea, fuel, card games, toilet paper and stories of crazy people they'd met or near-death experiences had along the way. Now they would return to their lives and we to ours, in some cases not even knowing each other's names, just bonded by a shared experience. As I sat at the back of the ferry with march flies swarming around my head, I allowed myself to plan for the next adventure. Perhaps I'll do that pilgrimage in Spain next, I thought to myself. But for the moment, there was normal food, showers, a massage, and time with family to look forward to.
Lake St Clare, waiting for the ferry

Friday, January 25, 2013

Footprints and songlines

'I have a vision of the Songlines stretching across the continents and ages; that wherever men have trodden they have left a trail of song; and that these trails must reach back, in time and space, to an isolated pocket in the African savannah, where the First Man shouted the opening stanza to the World Song, "I am!"'  - Bruce Chatwin

The songlines, as Bruce Chatwin describes them in his book, are the pathways trodden by the ancestors in ancient Australia. They represent the perimeters of land navigated by different tribes as well as being a means of passing dreamtime stories to the younger generations to explain the existence of certain mountains and rivers and to give colour to the history of those lands and journeys. It is possible to recognise exactly where a person is from in Australia by the song they sing. Inflections within the song represent mountains or rivers.

Bruce Chatwin is an English man who travels through the Australian outback seeing connections between Aboriginal dreamtime songs and stories and his own thesis about song as the origin of language. He explores the paths trodden by humanity's ancestors as they migrated from south eastern Africa to Australia. He intersperses anecdotes from his encounters with memorable outback characters with quotes from his hundreds of notebooks on related topics including enjoyment of walking, nomadic travel, the origin of our species, and human migratory practices and songs.

I've been thinking about the songlines of my own ancestors. My family are newcomers to Australia. Four generations ago we began treading on this land. Before that our footprints mark pathways in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Our songs and stories are of challenging journeys by boat, establishing themselves in a new land, and time spent in country Australia as farmers or church ministers. My grandfather used to tell of getting up at dawn to milk cows, and walking barefoot to school, insisting the journey was uphill both ways. Dad has tales of spiders in the outdoor dunny, playing tricks on teachers, and other Tom Sawyer-like adventures in country New South Wales. He  remembers the Aboriginal People living in settlements outside of town in the 1950's, pushed out from what was once their place. It is a reminder that we are literally and metaphorically treading all over other people's songlines.

As I walk the streets of Newtown, my current home, there are more family footprints that were trodden before. My parents owned a house in the next street, and it seemed like we visited almost every  second weekend to do repairs when I was a kid. And my older cousin Ben lived in Newtown up until his death in 2000. While I was too young at the time to understand his illness or have a meaningful relationship with him, I feel strangely connected to him now. I picture him walking the same pathways, perhaps sipping coffee in some of my favourite cafes, and finding inspiration for his art in the interesting characters and colours of the neighbourhood. It's comforting to think that wherever I might go, other people have trodden before, and now it's time for me to mark out my own path, treading lightly so as not to trample upon the ancient songlines, and probably singing my own verses about walking, nomadic travel and migratory practices, as well as continuing the chorus of "I am".

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Demystifying the mystics

It's 6am and I can hear two older Quakers speaking earnestly about toothpaste. Yep, it's another day of "Yearly Meeting", the name for the annual Australia Quaker Gathering. If you've ever read Roald Dahl's book "The Witches", the first day of Yearly Meeting for me is a bit like the witches' AGM. Quakers from all around Australia begin to arrive and with great delight greet friends from the other side of the country that they haven't seen since last year. While there aren't the wigs, square toes, or an abhorrence towards children, there are some physical features that set Quakers apart from the rest - lots of sensible hair cuts and sensible shoes.

Mealtimes are a good opportunity for inter-generational exchange. The first morning at breakfast I overheard a rather articulate nine year old boy explaining to his grandfather why he should be permitted to walk across campus and across a busy road to reach the children's room rather than taking a lift in his grandfather's car: "Well, grandpa I have been around for 9 years and have never been hit by a car. Yet, it was only yesterday that you got lost driving across campus". Grandpa conceded defeat.

The first day of Yearly Meeting is when we hold "Summer School", a full day workshop where we can explore deep spiritual issues or creative processes. I selected to do a workshop on "Eldering", which is about the spiritual nurture of the local meeting we are part of. Elders in Quakerism are not necessarily older, and in fact the most profound experience for me in that workshop was when the facilitator's daughter, aged 18 months, waddled around the room quietly greeting all of us, pausing for longer with those who she sensed needed more loving attention. There was a wisdom in her that we often overlook in children.

The other days are taken up with meetings for worship and for business, where the Quaker process of discernment and working towards consensus are applied to a range of issues from earthcare concerns in Australia, international aid and development projects, and appropriate resourcing of our children's program. When there isn't unity on an issue, sometimes the Clerk will ask for silence so we can all centre ourselves before considering the issue again. Each person can only speak once, and there is silence between each contribution. As Friends rise to stand and voice their concerns or support, it's possible to see the energy in the room shift as the group comes to a shared understanding of the best way forward. Sometimes the final decision is different to, and in some ways better than, the original proposal.

Taking a break to cycle around Lake Ginnunderra
But it's not all serious stuff. There is always time for hugs, smiles, and more earnest conversations about toothpaste or the time and energy saved drinking tea with cold water. One Young Friend fondly remembers a year when he was invited to spend an entire afternoon learning Tibetan throat singing.

During the week the children have their own sessions, with older Quakers joining them to share stories from their life experience or to hear what the children have been up to. Older Quakers take seriously the care and nurture of their younger counterparts, taking the opportunity when given, to teach experientially about Quaker process. I can remember one year when I was a teenager, it had come to pass that one of the phones in the dormitories had been broken, possibly as a result of enthusiastic over-use. Rather than attribute blame, or swift discipline, our adult carers asked us to sit in a circle and "discuss" the issue of the broken phone and what to do about it. As the sun became stronger and stronger, and our stomachs hungrier, we discussed and discussed without "unity", until finally one of our number stood, and declared that he thought perhaps it was in fact he who had broken the phone after all. We all breathed a sigh of relief, agreed to share the costs of the repair, and finally went to lunch.

Invariably the staff at the university where we are staying are not used to a group with so many vegetarians and people with other dietary requirements, and so soon enough a brash Quaker who needs her energy for the next session will be heard explaining in no uncertain terms to the kitchen staff that salad doesn't cut it - they need to provide protein to the vegetarians! Slowly, under the guidance of more brash Quakers, the quality of the vegetarian meals improves over the course of the week, until we are inundated with beans, eggs and tofu.

The final night of Yearly Meeting is when we hold the concert. Suddenly all semblance of quietness dissipates, and there is poetry, singing, laughter and dance. My favourite act this year was Young Friends' Australian rendition of Jon Watt's slightly irreverent flash mob rap song "Friend speaks my mind", closely followed by the Children's mock news segment and weather report for 2050, highlighting the risks of not acting immediately on climate change.

All too soon, it's time to go home, and I hope yet again that the hugs, smiles and enriching conversations will lovingly sustain and hold me throughout the coming year, enabling me to go about my life with integrity. The challenge for me is to find ways to recreate this same sense of community, love, passion and depth in my everyday life.

Friday, January 04, 2013

New Year's Intentions

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.(Serenity Prayer)

New Years is a good time for being intentional about self-improvement, and to reflect on what we can change and what we can't. A quick google search revealed that the top ten most common New Year's resolutions people tend to make are: get organised, help others, quit smoking, quit drinking, learn a new skill, get fit, lose weight, get out of debt, have more fun and spend more time with family and friends. Many of them remind me of past resolutions well kept and not so well kept. One year I wrote down everything I planned to do before I turned 30 and methodically went about achieving them. Last year I lost ten kilos, went on a yoga retreat by myself, started riding my bike again and completed more postgraduate studies. This year, I thought I would be courageous and share the "adventures" I plan to embark on, and it seems there is something for the mind, body and soul!

Firstly, I plan to be more deliberate about how I nurture my mind. With studies out of the way, I can choose my own sources of mental inspiration. One friend likes to send me links to songs or movies that he thinks I might like. It's nice - gives us something to discuss later, and reminds me that I'd like to do more sharing of inspirational and thought-provoking music, books and movies. So my plan is to join a book-club or movie club so I can get ideas for interesting reads or films and talk about them with others afterwards. Also, I've booked two tickets to see the wise and beautiful Archie Roach in concert!

For my body I've already set myself the physical challenge of walking the Overland Track, a 6 day hike in Tasmania. As with planning for any big adventure, it seems as if the universe is checking how determined I really am to achieve this goal. For example, when planning a one day hike with my mother as part of my training, we were faced with gloomy-looking rain clouds, the fear of mum falling down midway through and me having to somehow carry her out to safety, and the threat of "noticeably steep hills" written into the track notes. We seriously considered giving up and doing a shorter day walk. But we did the hike in the end, and the sound of mum's voice from the kitchen when we had returned saying "what a glorious achievement!" over again reminded me that sometimes it's important to feel the fear and do it anyway.

Nurturing the soul is just as important for me. Many inspirational figures such as Gandhi, Jesus, and the Dalai Lama have talked about times of retreat and stillness that nourish them so that they can go out into the world to be and act. We all need time to reflect, meditate or pray in between times of intense being and doing. So I plan, yet again, to develop some kind of regular spiritual practice, whether it ends up being meditation, yoga, or reading. I might enrol in a Quaker Learning course. Whichever way I go, I have chosen serenity as my aspirational quality for the next few weeks. I plan to get better at accepting the things I can't change in life, and taking more time to smell the flowers.

So, how will I ensure that I keep these resolutions? Perhaps the fulfilment of these goals will be a bit like the sunflower that I photographed in our garden late last year. The first step is to plant the seedling and tell people it's there. Then encourage everyone around to water and nourish the goal, letting the sun shine on it. And hopefully one day it will open into full bloom and sing out to me that with a little courage, serenity and wisdom great things are possible.