Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Coming right way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 06, 2014

On twins and non-twins

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 04, 2014

Truth telling

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

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

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

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