Thursday, November 26, 2009

Summer night on Swanston

Summer wafts down Swanston Street and we float along in its warm evening breeze, all bare arms and sandals. I’ve left the woes of war and capitalism in my stuffy air-conditioned office at RMIT. A mild sun has kindly warmed the pavement throughout the day, and I nestle into a doorway to watch the crowd go by.

They come in waves, you realise when you sit still for long enough. On this summer night they meander by in big chatty groups that look like they’re together, but then you realise they’ve just crossed at the lights at the same time. The city churns in cycles and rhythms, forming us as one and dispersing us just as quickly, like sand on the beach.

She is playing the piano; her white hair becomes a dramatic veil as she sways back and forth over the keys. Her face is somewhere else; her arms stretch far and wide so that each key is visited – tenderly, passionately – by a nimble finger. I wonder how many poems have been written, inspired by her.

A crowd has formed and I can tell some people have been there all night. I imagine that they are receiving some kind of healing. People stop in their tracks, in the middle of conversations, arguments. Orange and blue money drifts into her hat.

Rob is doing his drawing on the pavement, a few metres down – more architecture, really, as he chalks up his grand designs with arches and ruled lines. A few people say hello as they walk by, have a quick chat. If he didn’t live on the streets, and if she didn’t live in a hotel, we might call this an ‘art space’ and serve coffee or chai. If they were richer again, people might pay for the experience.

But in these city margins we are given a taste of high culture, all for free. Around their art a spontaneous, temporary community forms – art appreciators from all walks of life (streeties, suits, people in wheelchairs). We slump against stone walls and shutters, content smiles on our faces.

Her son comes by to help her pack up. “One more, one more,” she calls out, holding up a finger. He shakes his head and laughs as “one more” turns into about four more. A smattering of applause follows each piece (Chopin, Beethoven, The Beatles). Her son is clapping loudest of all.

Eventually she is gone and the crowd dissolves, sand to be washed up somewhere else.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The stance of silence

My Dad says that I need to reassess my position on Afghanistan. He says it’s not clear-cut and coalition forces might be doing some good. He is uncertain and wants to stay silent while he ponders. He would rather I stay silent, too.

I say that in our silence, we are acquiescing in this war. We may not understand its complexities, but by saying nothing – doing nothing – we are saying that it’s ok. Silence is as strong a stance as any. The war will continue as long as we let it.

I say that my Dad needs to reassess his position, too.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Prayer of thanks for street evangelists, Socialists and British backpackers

Thankyou, God, for the man who stands on Swanston Street with grey hair and a PA system, reading the letters of Paul and telling us to repent.

Thankyou, God, for Socialists with card-tables who clamour at blank-faced pedestrians, for signatures in petitions that nobody cares about.

Thankyou, God, for the British backpackers who tell us about lost dogs and refugees and children with guns, asking for an ear and monthly donations on our credit cards.

Thankyou, God, for tacky religious tracts, badly-written political leaflets and UK citizens who talk too fast. Thankyou for stopping me when I need to be somewhere. Thankyou for making ignorance and ipods a choice.

Thankyou for reminding me, daily, that I have an option to listen and a chance to think. The possibility claws at my door like a hungry cat.

To Sibel

Bubs -
Streak of light
in a wintery room.
I'm sorry your world
has so little to offer
a ray of sunshine
like you.

Goodbye sweetie.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Charity ball

Charity balls are bizarre occasions – particularly ones that are aimed at poverty. You sit there is all your finery, sipping wine and nibbling at raw salmon, while somebody up the front is telling you about children who are too poor to bring lunch to school, and who struggle to hold their pen because they lost fingers in the war. The din of clattering cutlery and small-talk rises above the distinguished speaker, whom we are so privileged to hear from as he has come all the way from Rwanda. We are so privileged we can ignore him.

The Y-GAP Asante Sana Ball was a momentous occasion, with the historic St Kilda Town Hall decked out with giant African statues, pillars throwing fabric flames and exotic flower arrangements on every table. I’m not sure how much the tickets cost because Merridie shouted both David and I, but I gather they weren’t cheap. The proceeds would be going to two projects in Africa – classrooms for an overcrowded primary school in Malawi and a safehouse for children who have exited slavery in Ghana.

I’m impressed with these people. Their projects seem really great and they seem to have an incredible amount of know-how. I’m used to trivia nights in church halls and barbeques at Bunnings, but these guys are auctioning off guitars signed by U2 and opening Fairtrade coffee shops at major train stations. When I was doing this kind of thing with VGen (World Vision youth movement), we were teenagers and uni students. But these guys are young professionals working as solicitors at top-tier law firms and accountants at Price Waterhouse Coopers. They know how to work it!

I’m feeling slightly depressed, and I’m sure that it’s more than a vague sense of inadequacy. I think it’s the juxtaposition between these extremes – the champagne and the expensive cuts of meat, the stories of children living in abject poverty.

I’m also conscious of some elements of the ball, which might actually perpetuate the kind of injustice we are trying to fight. I nibble at my chocolate cake, encrusted in giraffe-print marzipan. Was the cocoa harvested by the enslaved children, like the kids at the Ghana project?

They’re raffling off a $5000 diamond ring, the kind that might put your back out if you wore it too long. A woman with a tiara, leopard-print dress and a tanned cleavage struts the room, offering people raffle tickets for $40 a pop, in exchange for a glass of champagne and a chance to win the prized jewel. Were the diamonds in the ring used to finance militant groups in Sierra Leone or Zimbabwe? They didn’t say.

It’s easy to get excited by wads of cash, because we are infused with a mentality that money solves everything. I remember running a fundraiser when I was in high school – something about protecting platypus habitat. We decided to make milkshakes and sell them at lunch. I remember the big jar of gold money and feeling proud. But I also remember looking out over the oval after lunch, and seeing it littered with disposable milkshake cups. I wondered how many might end up in the river.

Sometimes we give with one hand, and take with the other.

I sigh at the BHP Billiton MCG box they are auctioning off at the ball (what has this company done to the environment and to indigenous groups in Australia and around the world?). I gasp at the shopping-tour fundraiser advertised in our showbags (a percentage of the money you spend goes to projects in Africa – as does a percentage of the greenhouse emissions produced from the manufacture of the shit you buy).

But – as David keeps reminding me – these people are on a journey. They run advocacy forums educating young people on issues of slavery, so they are further along than most. We are all contradicted. These young professionals are straddling two very different worlds, and it’s gotta hurt a bit.

At the same time, we need to think of responses to poverty that go beyond giving money. Cash can fund some excellent development projects that have some wonderful, life-giving consequences, but without challenging the fundamental systems that we benefit from, children will always be enslaved in Ghana and the Malawian education system will always be impoverished. The West has a great deal of responsibility for much of the world’s poverty – whether through the Structural Adjustment Programmes it imposes on countries steeped in debt, or through the Western companies that benefit from slavery.

Our continual giving absolves us from guilt and allows us to continue sinning, much like the indulgences of the Catholic church. By continually being in the position of donor, we reinforce a position of power.

But 16 committed and passionate young Australians have been to Africa, and have seen the product of colonialism and oppression firsthand – even if it hasn’t been articulated as such. Some of them might come back, run a couple of fundraisers, get married in a few years, and then push their experiences to one side. But some of them will be fundamentally changed, and will continue the journey. Some – like the good soil in that Gospel story – will dedicate their life to fighting injustice, inspiring many others to do the same.

And some kids in Malawi and Ghana will have a better future now. Some of them might also use their opportunity and power to fight injustice, and bring many others with them.

The ball is jarring…depressing and hopeful all in one. I am choosing to hope.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Afghanistan: Standing in questions and half-truths

If Iraq was based on lies, then Afghanistan finds its legitimacy in half-truths. Iraq harboured no weapons of mass-destruction, but the Taliban is a reality that causes even the most peace-loving liberals to think twice. Everybody wanted out of Iraq. But Afghanistan…will peace jeopardise freedom? Will the exit of troops amount to the entrance of hand amputations for nail polish, and executions for teaching girls to read? Thousands are dying and the war is failing, but which father, which feminist, which brother, could abandon the women of Afghanistan?

These are the questions that tumble our way as we stand on those steps at Flinders Street Station with our banner: END THE AFGHANISTAN WAR. I try to stand proud but for the first bit at least I can’t help but feel naked, beside a banner that is too big and too red. My tendency is to avoid conflict, and right now I’m not feeling very agreeable.

“Sayyid Ahmad, 16 years old, killed when he picked up an unexploded US cluster bomb in Shakar Qala village, near Heart, Afghanistan, on 21 November 2001. We remember.”
We remember,” repeats a small assortment of peace activists, crowded around the banner.
“Private Benjamin Ranaudo, 22 years old, from Melbourne, killed in an IED attack in the Baluchi Valley north of Tarin Kowt, on 18 July of this year. Lord have mercy.”
Lord have mercy.
This morning’s weather seems fragile, a crisp blue sky clumped with thick wads of grey and white. We don’t know whether it will break into a smile or a torrent. Turns out we’ll get a bit of both, but this morning at least is brisk. We call out the names of the dead over a patchwork crowd – students, workers, day-trippers, tourists. Some people pause, consider, move on. We keep reading the names.

After a few hours we are standing in silence, having exhausted the small sample of names that Simon printed off the internet. We survey the crowd and let people survey us. A man with a determined shuffle and a golf cap pauses in front of the banner, mouths the words, nods, shuffles on. A woman with wiry, frazzled hair and a lined face considers the message a moment before swatting at the air in disgust. She swings her arms widely as she stomps towards the lights, where her worn face breaks into a beam as has a chance encounter with a friend. The woman picks up the friend’s dog and cuddles it. She turns to us again and swats in our direction, before crossing the road.

And then come the questions. Some are questions that don’t want responses – assertions more than anything.
“How is this helping the troops who are fighting overseas?!”
“Do you people support the Taliban or what?!”
These questions leave as quickly as they arrive, slipping back into the crowd in a whir of shaken heads and fists.

Other questions come with brows knitted in conflict – despair, perhaps – but not anger.
“If we leave, won’t the Taliban return?”
It’s these questions that dry my mouth, doubts and half-truths soaking up the saliva. War is bad and people are dying, but aren’t these guns holding back the reign of a quintessential enemy to human rights and women’s liberation? If the troops leave will life for the people of Afghanistan get better or worse? What if it gets worse?

When I allow the questions to sit, away from troubled faces wanting answers, the lies seem to rise to the surface on their own. The idea that the USA is unleashing its might on the poverty-stricken country of Afghanistan in order to liberate its people emerges from murky waters as untenable. Of course, the whole region is key to the US and allies for its natural resources – Afghanistan, in particular, is required for natural gas and possibly oil pipelines. The more I think about it, the more the threat of the Taliban seems part of an elaborate PR campaign designed to convince us that this war is not about energy resources and wealth generation, but democracy and human rights.

PR campaign or not, the Taliban is a very real threat. A broad man with grey, concerned eyes approaches the vigil, which has now reduced in size to three. The clouds have lifted and the sun is heating the bluestone steps. The man says that he doesn’t have time to talk now, but he is worried about the vacuum of power that will be left if US/NATO withdraws. Won’t the Taliban just swoop in and take control? The man apologises for not having time to hear us out, scurrying back to work and leaving me wondering what I might have said to him. I think about the war criminals who make up the Afghan parliament, and how they are not so different from the Taliban – fundamentalists who use the name of Islam to justify cruelty and oppression. The ‘democratic’ government of Afghanistan recently legalised rape in marriage. Rule under the Taliban would be oppressive, but perhaps no more so than the current government, minus the military occupation and air strikes.

The answer in my head depresses me. Somehow I want something better than Taliban rule for Afghanistan. I ask Simon how he might have responded to this question. Simon, who admires men like Ghandi and Martin Luther King, talks about the potential for non-violent resistance to authoritarian rule. I want to know what that might look like, and he tells me about the non-violent student resistance to Milosevic, which successfully overthrew the Serbian dictator. Interestingly, he says, there was far more resistance to the Taliban before the US/NATO invasion and occupation. Now people are siding with the Taliban because they provide a degree of security, and also some basic services. Perhaps not education for girls, but more than what the government is offering. If the troops leave, suggests Simon, there will be room to support grassroots non-violent resistance to Taliban rule. We don’t know how this will result, but one thing we do know is that violence hasn’t worked.

No easy answer, but perhaps, in the cracks of this bluestone, a blade of hope.

The vigil stretches on into a second day, my feet sinking into the rhythms of the Flinders Street steps. I am beginning to enjoy the act of standing, like a proud red pimple disrupting a creamy complexion. We pack up umbrellas, sunscreen and banner at 6pm on the second day, sunburnt faces tired but content.

And now, in the days after our vigil, we hear that the president of the USA has been awarded the Noble Peace Prize. “No peace here,” quips The Age, as it places an article on the scaling up of the forces in Afghanistan right next to the NPP piece. This disparity is so ludicrous it makes me laugh. I wonder if the company that does the US government’s PR has somehow got a rep on the Peace Prize committee.

The view from the steps is a collage of flashing billboards. From the steps, it all seems one and the same – half-truths packaged up in lights and full colour, when what lies behind is greed and destruction. Usually I switch off, prefer to stay numb, not to think. Today I choose to do it differently – to refuse to go along passively with someone else’s PR campaign. I wish I felt as sturdy as the bluestone beneath my feet. Here, I find no easy answers.

We stand beside the big red banner - testament, perhaps, to the truth that lies in the question. It feels good to be here.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Migrating Bird

They fly into your life like a migrating bird. They stay for a season, sing their songs, build their nests, make you glad to be alive.

Early one morning you wake up, the small white sun yet to climb over the skyscrapers. Your bedroom is dark and the sound of silence rings through the city. You try to remember what you were dreaming about. All you can recall is the sound of flapping wings. You close your eyes and go back to sleep.

Bleary eyed, you stumble out of bed with the sun high in the sky and the city buzz in your ears. Your housemate is about to crack open an egg for breakfast. No, don’t! You pull it away and nurse it in your hands, taking it into your bedroom for safekeeping.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Where do your feet sink?

He tramps around Melbourne with a suitcase for a home, selling flowers and lunch-hopping for multiple free meals. Thursday morning is library morning, when he perches his large frame on a computer chair and studies his family tree. We meet at Credo over beef stroganoff and cut up wedges of orange. We chat for a while – history, politics, this and that. He has an arts degree with post-grad study in art history. He tells me where his family is from – England, Scotland, Cornwell. It’s funny, he says, I know much more about the British Isles than this place, here.

As scraps are tossed into the slops container, he wanders out the door again, flowers in hand, and feet sunk deep halfway across the world.

I wipe down tables and sweep the floor, where my own feet are stuck, for now.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


The other night, during my late-night visitation to the Level 9 living room, Gin and I talked about healing. Gin related a conversation she’d had with one of the outreach nurses.
“Jo seems to be doing well under the new programme,” she’d said to the nurse.
The nurse agreed. Gin and the nurse had both known Jo for many years. What they both knew, and didn’t need to say, was that ‘doing well’ for Jo still meant a life of drug addiction, mental health problems and debilitating physical illness. ‘Doing well’ meant that Jo was managing these things better.
Gin sighed as we debriefed the conversation. “And I thought to myself, ‘Is that all Jo will ever be able to hope for?’ What does healing look like for Jo?”

We tell the story of the haemorrhaging woman in our back laneway – a site that seems to represent the combined hope and despair of this Biblical text. Jesus is on his way to heal the dying daughter of Jairus, a very important man. He is flanked on all sides by a jostling crowd, all seeking a slice of Jesus. All of a sudden Jesus stops in his tracks.
“Who touched me?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” say his disciples. “There are people all around – everybody is touching you!”
Jesus won’t be deterred. “No – somebody touched me. I felt power go out of me. Who was it?”
A woman comes forward and falls to Jesus’ feet, trembling with fear. She has been haemorrhaging for 12 years, but just this moment, since touching Jesus’ cloak, has been healed. The woman tells Jesus her “whole truth”. She had been to many doctors over the years, but they had all ripped her off and left her worse than before. During this time the woman had been a social outcast, because in that society women who were menstruating could not dwell within the community. This woman had been effectively menstruating for 12 years straight.
After listening to her story, Jesus says, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”

This time, it is Kate who is telling the story, while we huddle close and rub our arms from the chill of the winter shadows.
Gregg pipes up. “Do you see that there are two healings here?”
There are, indeed, two healings in this story. The first is when the woman is physically healed of her bleeding. The second is a kind of ‘social’ healing – Jesus pronounces her healed after listening to her story – her “whole truth”. Perhaps this is the first time in 12 years that anybody has heard this woman’s story.

As we walk down the narrow laneway, past the fit bin and wall murals, I wonder about the unwritten epilogue of this story. What happened to the woman after her encounter with Jesus? Would she suddenly be embraced by her community and treated with all the love and respect she had been denied over the last 12 years? I suspect not. Prejudice runs deeps and low. Moreover, the woman is probably without a husband, so would be in a position similar to that of a widow – with no one to take care of her material needs. The woman has been healed, but her problems have not been fixed.

We tell his story in the back laneway as a recognition of the complexity of what it means to be healed. This is a space where people meet death, metaphorically and literally. There are no TV cameras or white suits in the back laneway. People sometimes fall to the ground, but not usually because they’ve been slain by the Holy Spirit.

But amid drugs and needles, there can be moments of healing, as someone finds a real encounter with another who cares enough to listen to their story. The back laneway also leads to Credo Café, which is where many people find life. Stories unfold over years and years: it can take a long time for a “whole truth” to be revealed. Healing is a slow and painful process. It happens until the day we die.

I don’t spend a lot of time in the back laneway. It’s usually cold and I always seem to be on my way somewhere else – to go to work, to take the garbage out, to see a friend. I don’t listen well in the back laneway – I struggle to sit on the concrete and hear a person’s story. But Jesus stops for the bleeding woman, sitting with her for…how long? How long does it take to hear someone’s “whole truth”? He stops, even though Jairus’ daughter waits, dying. He stops until it’s too late, and Jairus’ daughter is dead.

What does healing look like for Jo? Maybe it’s morning coffee, or candles lit during a moment of quiet on a Sunday night in Credo. Maybe it’s a shared smoke on the Level 8 fire escape. Maybe it’s Jo ‘doing well’ at a new programme. Maybe it’s choosing to stop and chat on the street, even if we have an appointment to rush to.

Maybe healing is about suspending, for a moment, what seems important, to hear a little bit of somebody’s truth.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


I’ve got the flu. This one’s a knock-out. Throbbing head, aching limbs, dank, gargling cough…ample opportunity to feel sorry for myself and to get other people to feel sorry for me too. I put myself to bed last night with a series of grunts and moans, sighing long and loud as I tied my sheets in knots.

I called my Mum. I always call my Mum when I’m sick – a weak substitute for an in-person mother, with accompanying vegetable soup and buttered toast. I got all emotional on the phone, as years of tension and angst melted into the primordial need to be mothered. I thought about the grown men on battlefields of the wars of old, and how, in their dying minutes, they called out for their Mums. I’m feeling a little teary as I write this now.

Dimitri tells me that you need to make a big stockpile of soup at the beginning of an illness, while you still have the strength. There are tricks to having no one to take care of you, he says. His words are so sad I want to cry again.

I lie on the carpet in front of the heater, listening to Regina Spektor and watching the sky whip by beyond my festering living room. A winter sun streams through the glass and warms my face. I close my eyes and imagine that God is smiling down on me. Life is so beautiful, I think through a throbbing head. Even in my deepest darkness, the universe shines bright.

I open my eyes again and see that the sky has turned a solid dreary white. Well that sucks. I pull out a crusty handkerchief and blow my nose.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Seeing Mel

Mel is lying content across the sofa, reading a book. She wears tortoiseshell spectacles and a thick, hand-knitted jumper. It’s hard to believe that this time last week, she was sleeping on the streets.

The bruises were hard to ignore. Her plea for help came in urgent snippets, when Steve was out of earshot. I just listened. I didn’t know what else to do.

We heard yelling in the back laneway and rushed down the stairs. We stood between the pair as Steve waved his fists. He left with Mel’s bag.

Gemma and I spent the night with Mel in a cramped motel room with a loud air conditioner. We drank red wine and tried to go to sleep. In the morning Gemma dialled numbers while Mel sat outside the room, chain smoking. Gemma’s voice grew weak and desperate as the options shrank. We decided to pray. We didn’t know what else to do.

Today we wandered the city, helping Mel rebuild her identity. Pension card, bankcard, Medicare card. Her presence seemed to strengthen with the swelling of her wallet.

I glanced over her shoulder as she wrote an email to her daughter. ‘Love Mum’, I read, and nearly cried. I’m starting to see Mel.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Social reject and sexual deviant: Stories from Year 8

When I was in Year 8 a rumour went round that I masturbated. I was first awakened to this great joke when I walked past a classroom full of kids in the year-level below.
“Hey!” one of the boys called out. “Did you remember your sticky tape?”
I was a little confused, but had a sickening feeling that something dreadful was unfolding. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
One of the other boys held up two fingers, bound together with clear plastic tape. “What are you going to do tonight?” The boy wagged his attached fingers in the air. “Are you going to masturbate?”
The rest of the classroom jeered while I fled the room, utterly mortified.

I wasn’t entirely surprised at the public humiliation. In some ways I’d brought it on myself. I remember sitting on the concrete one sunny lunchtime, in a circle with three others – two girls and a guy. Spring had arrived, and we were emerging like cramped reptiles from the tops of lockers in windy corridors. We were playing some kind of game – something along the lines of Truth or Dare. The other kids in the circle were higher on the social hierarchy than I, but I had a momentary sensation of acceptance and belonging. I remember enjoying the closeness of the circle.

I wanted to know whether the others masturbated. I guess I just wanted to make sure I was normal. One of the girls looked down, lips curved in a nervous smile. “No,” she answered, before looking me in the eye again. “Why – do you?”
“Well actually, yes,” I answered, confidently, pleased to be divulging a secret.
“Really? Do you really?”
“Yep. Sometimes. But don’t tell anyone!” I quickly added, suddenly aware of the power I had granted my three companions. “You can’t tell anyone.”
“It’s ok, we won’t.”
Their words were reassuring and I believed them. I had to believe them. I wanted to trust them.

Stupid, stupid, stupid! One little slip – one overly-confident assessment of friendship – and it had come to this. The outer corners of my eyes stung as I raced from the classroom of shame to my next class. I had been ruined.

I remember the whole ordeal as extremely lonely. Any semblance I had of friendship prior to the affair was now in tatters. And how do you talk about such things? Apart from the taunts, the only other noise was a deafening silence. Female sexuality, in our culture, has often been met by silence, and this sexual shaming was, in some ways, no different.

Something had to give. One evening, a week or so into my social descent, Mum and I went to school for some kind of information evening. As we got out of the car, a mob of large boys from my year level walked by, laughing and joking. I wanted so badly to be seen. Not ridiculed – just seen. I imagined yelling out and waving, and some of them coming over to greet me. I knew that that would never happen. The bank of tears broke and before I knew it I was crying my little Year 8 eyes out.

Mum pulled me into the foyer of the VCE centre. Mrs Maher, who was walking by, entered our little female huddle.
“What’s wrong? What happened?” they wanted to know.
Tentatively, through sobs and hiccups, I told them that there was an awful rumour going round.
“What is it?”
“That I masturbate!” I wailed, before descending into a fit of more sobs.
“Why that’s ridiculous!” exclaimed my mother. “As if they would even know!”
I didn’t tell her that it was I who had told them. “Everybody hates me! Nobody likes me!” I said instead.
“That is not true!” said Mrs Maher, who is always overly optimistic. “People respect you! They think you’re great!”
I didn’t believe her, and looking back, I’m still not sure that I fully agree with her. I was pretty low in the social pecking order, and had somehow even managed to fall out of favour with the less-cool female friendship group. I spent my lunchtimes at music rehearsals, partly as a survival tactic. I took home wheelbarrow loads of prizes at the school awards ceremonies, which didn’t make my life any easier. And now, the label of sexual deviant. A true Year 8 nightmare.

Some time later, a rumour went around that another person in the year level masturbated – this time a boy. I was not sympathetic – mainly I was just glad to have the attention off me. Rather than the two-week ordeal that I suffered, his lasted a day, if that. The message was clear: masturbation is dirty, but so much more dirty if you’re a girl. Girls are so disgusting that they apparently require the use of sticky tape to cover their fingers. I’m saddened by this message and its inherent double standard, and I’m saddened that in Year 8 I believed it and didn’t see how manifestly unfair it was.

I wonder also whether I was chosen as a scapegoat to cover the discomfort and shame others felt about their own emerging sexuality. I was an easy target – social reject, unpractised at fighting back. I wish that rather than denying the rumours, I’d stood up and said, “Yes! It’s true! I do have a rigorous, healthy female sexuality!” But you’re not thinking that in Year 8. You’re wondering how you will survive the next day of school.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Feeling climate change in my heart

“For a long time we have understood the implications of global warming in our heads. But Australians need to feel it in their hearts.”

So said the campaign coordinator from Greenpeace, who organised a speaking tour of Pacific islanders who told us – passionately, desperately – that their homes are drowning.

It’s gone past the point of mere intellectual concern; of artificial apocalyptic images produced by and aimed at the middle class intelligentsia. It’s gone past optimistic campaigns – environmental rock concerts, exercises in switching off lights for a particular off-peak hour. All it once, it seems, the issue of climate change has shot past all this and triggered in me a kind of heart-sinking despair.

The Age announced last week that this coming summer would be the worst fire season ever. I read the headline with a crinkled forehead and a constricting stomach. How can this be? What about a grace period of a few years – time to recover, to prepare? I imagined fireballs, thrown relentlessly from heaven at my friends and family in the bush, for every summer to come.

But it is not God who sends these plagues, any more than it is God who causes people to be homeless or dispossessed from their generational lands. We brought on our environmental woes when we decided that we were tougher than our planet, that we could use her up and discard her carcass and live happily ever after.

Or maybe it’s wrong to say ‘we’, for surely it’s not all of us? What we see now –smoke unfurling into the sky, machines swallowing whole forests – is the product of a particular system; a particular kind of greed. Western capitalism, with its guns and handbags, surges on while the people of other worldviews and other social systems look on in dismay.

And so our Pacific island neighbours suffer at the hands of a new kind of colonising force – one that steals land and destroys cultures (benefiting only the coloniser) as effectively as any of the past. King tides from the ocean lap at their coconut palms and taro plants, polluting their water supply. People with nowhere else to go evacuate flooded houses…until the next time. Or until their island home disappears altogether.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” asked a woman from Kirabati, pacing the room and talking in high, urgent tones. Australia, she says, is part of the Pacific family, and has also been part of the problem. When will Australia take responsibility and stop polluting the air? When will Australia pull its proper weight to help its family members adapt to rising sea levels? Am I my brother’s keeper?

Australia seems completely inept at responding to this crisis. How can we be using numbers like ‘5 percent’ when the firestorms have already started raging, and family members have already started drowning? How can we think that the solution lies in turning appliances off at the point, while the real problem is industry and consumerism? What has to happen before governments do something?

Government is wooed by the tea parties of people with shiny shoes and sharp teeth, while the vibrations of a monster’s feet rattle the teacups.

I’m feeling it. I’m feeling it in my heart.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The City and the Single Girl

This weekend is Seeds Retreat - that is, all the communities connected with Urban Seed getting together to hang out. I'm running a session on 'Single people, coupled people and community'. I put a few thoughts on paper to do with my own stories of singleness in intentional Christian community. This won't be the crux of my session but it helps me to understand my experiences when I write them down!


Single and living in community

I’ve never really identified as a Single Person before. I’ve had long periods of singleness, yes – but a primary identity as a Single (that dreaded noun!)? No. I’ve been Woman, Christian, Activist, Writer – but never Single Person.

We identify with what we perceive to be special, significant attributes; things that make us different from other people. I never identified as single because for most of my life, singleness has been the norm. Growing up, my parents had lots of single friends. My own friends had always mainly been single. Throughout life, singleness held a status no more unique than that of being coupled.

Things changed when I became a resident at Urban Seed. I stopped seeing my friends from uni so much, and spent more time with the Urban Seed community. My experience of Urban Seed has been that singleness is not the norm. I am the only single person in the residential community. The majority of staff members are part of established couples. While there are quite a few single women who work at Urban Seed or who are part of the City mob, and while most Credo punters are single, it often seems that the dominant culture is situated in the realm of coupledom.

I first thought I might be a Single Person when I went to the Anabaptist conference at the start of this year. Before I went, a small hope flickered at the back of my mind that I might meet somebody interesting. When I got there, all I could see were wedding bands. I was put in a cabin with the other Single Women – a mixture of the transient Singles, like myself, and more permanent Celibates. There were a few Single Men – about three, I think. One of them slipped me his number. I suppose we all had the same thing in mind. I’d never felt so Single in my life.

A few months prior, Dave announced at ressie dinner that him and Gemma had become an item. I burst into tears. Great lumps of grief emerged from some place inside of me. I hadn’t even realised they were even there. Part of it was sheer loneliness – the announcement of a new Couple held the mirror to my own state of being Alone. I was caught in that ravine that many a new ressie has found themselves in – the gap between a partial departure from old friends and support networks, and the arrival in a new community which absorbs most of your time but with which deep intimacy has not yet had time to develop. I was at a point where a boyfriend might have gone some way to fulfil my need for intimacy.

Part of my grief was also tied to the fear of becoming more lonely as a result of this new coupling. Prior to Dave and Gemma getting together, half of the residential community was single. Our team was well-balanced and I just fitted in with the mix.

Now, five-sixths of the residential community was in a romantic relationship with somebody else. Where did that leave me? When everybody around you is sharing most intimately with one other significant person, how is it possible to have any deep relationships within a new community? I began to feel a bit silly – like a lonely old aunt who bakes and is generally very sweet, but is relegated to the position of amusing minor character. I presented my various romantic exploits as entertaining titbits – stories of adventure and desperation told with smiles and laughs and received as such…but failed to get across the very deep needs and desires at their heart.

I am thankful to say that my fears were not realised as drastically as I thought they might. I think that others in my residential community have understood my situation, and have been intentional about including me in their lives in a deep, meaningful way. Gemma and Dave conduct their relationship in a holistic way that refuses to shut out others in their community. I’ve never felt like a third wheel around them. The others seem sensitive to my stark singleness in a coupled community – on ressie retreat, for example, my consent was sought before partners external to the residential community were invited along. My answer was fully respected.

I have faired well, but have also come to understand the potential vulnerability of the single person living in Christian community whose makeup and culture is dominated by couples – or perhaps even more potent, families. When churches and communities are segregated along relational lines, it’s often single people who get left out. Couples inviting other couples round for dinner; parents with young children going on family holidays with other parents with young children…we always need to ask the question: who is being excluded here?

It’s not so bad if there’s a group of single people who can all hang out together. It’s harder when you’re the only one. But there’s more at stake here than feelings of exclusion. Actually, married people need single people. Single people need married people. Unmarried couples need married couples. We all need each other, because we all have unique things to offer.

“[R]elationships require more than having honest heart-to-hearts with one another,” writes Lauren Winner in her book Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity. “Relationships require that married people must invite single people into their lives, and vice versa. This means not just inviting your friends over for dinner; it means going grocery shopping together and taking vacations together. It might even mean […] married couples or families with kids living with unmarried folks.” Supporting single people is more than making sure their social needs are met (which is more than a little patronising) – it’s about recognising that, like couples, they are integral parts of the community. It’s about singles and couples and families doing life together.

I refuse to take on the identity of Single Person. I’m just Me. I’m excited that I’m able to do life with people of all relationship statuses. I feel blessed that I’ve been able to offer my gifts and energy to enrich my community, and that people care about my romantic plight but don’t seem to take pity on me. I appreciate what the couples in my community offer. As I say, I have faired well. I wonder how many others can say the same thing?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Paul's gift

It’s a Friday night, just past knock-off, and the streets pulse with optimism. An eclectic crowd swarms the pavement, all chatter and clatter – Asian students with vertical hair, couples gliding hand in hand on their way to restaurants, young women in pointy heels and fitted grey suits burning the sidewalk with hurried strides. I enter the torrent and float along, flute over shoulder, mesmerised by this world outside of my living room.

The card table is filled with intricate objects made of what looks like woven grass – dragons, frogs, a cross, even an engagement ring. In place of the Chinese man who usually sits there, crafting his delicate trinkets, is Paul.
“Change of profession, I see?”
Paul glances up, surprised. His beard is snowy white and his eyes are pale blue. When I asked him where he was from last Christmas, he told me he came from the North Pole. “No, no, I looking after for other man,” he answers, smiling.
Right on cue, the Chinese artisan comes up to the stand. We greet each other with smiles and little humble bows.
“Look, I show you what this man do,” says Paul, guiding me round to the other side of the table. Apart from the woven articles, there are engravings of famous people (Michael Jackson, Barack Obama, Madonna), and framed cut-outs of women’s profiles.
“I buy you one of these,” says Paul, pointing at one of the frames. “He will cut out picture of your face – take three minutes!”
My impulse is to refuse – the night is getting on and I really need to do some busking. But Paul is standing firm, eyes wide.
“Do you have the money?” I ask, immediately regretting what I’ve just said, and all that it implies.
He looks at me intently. I notice that one of his eyes is watering, sending a tear trickling down his right cheek. “I may be homeless, but I’m not poor,” says Paul. “I don’t pay rent, you see.”

“Stand right there,” says the Chinese man, and I obey. I face a glut of commuters outside a tram stop, while crowds stream behind me.
“Be very still.” I can sense people momentarily congregating at my rear, looking to see what’s going on. I move my eyes from side to side, attempting to see who is watching me. The artist stands a metre away on my right, nimbly clipping away at a piece of paper with a small pair of scissors. I am grateful for Paul standing in front of me, describing all the things he intends to do this week. Art gallery, gym, something else I can’t hear properly. As well as being from the North Pole, Paul is about 90 percent deaf. My ears strain, as his muffled words navigate the Friday night din.

“Done!” says the artist, and shows me the paper cut-out. I recognise that nose, that brow – normally I hate seeing my profile, but this time I’m impressed. Paul has been distracted by a couple of older women he knows. I recognise them from Sunday night dinners in Credo. They look refined and English. “Oh yes,” they say, admiring the image. “We can tell it’s you!”
Paul is pleased with the product. I thank him profusely. “It’s okay,” he says. “I want to give you something – you give me food at Credo, and I give you something as well.”

Clutching my frame, I exchange more humble, thankful bows with the artist. Paul and I part ways, a little more equal than we were before.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Saving the Giving Tree

There was once a Giving Tree who loved a little boy very, very much. When he was young the pair would play together – he would swing in her branches and she would protect him from the sun as he napped.

As the boy grew older he visited the tree less often. The tree just wanted the boy to be happy. She gave him her apples to sell so that he might have money to go out and have a good time. She gave him her branches so that he might build a house. In the end she gave him her trunk, so that he might build a boat and sail away. The story tells us that the tree was happy, because she loved to give.

The tree was happy – “but not really”, the story tells us. For the tree had become just a stump. Eventually the boy became an old man, and came back to sit on what was left of the Giving Tree.

A guest speaker read this story to us last Sunday in church, showing us the pictures like a kindergarten teacher would. It was a metaphor for the way we treat the Earth, he said.

The speaker asked what we thought of the story. The conversation began with a cough and a splutter. (Once very vocal, our congregation is now unaccustomed to being asked its opinion.) Somebody offered a comment about ethical investment. Somebody else mentioned plastic bags. I nodded in agreement. A little part of me dies every time I forget to take my greenbags to the supermarket.

Then Bogusha – God bless Bogusha – raised her arm straight and high.
“I think,” she began, “that we should be caring for the sick and the needy before we think about saving the environment. How can you think about plastic bags and superannuation when your mind is consumed with how you are going to survive the next day?”

I have a lot of sympathy for Bogusha’s point of view. The power to make ethical and environmentally friendly consumer choices often corresponds with the power of your dollar; environmentalism is a middle-class concern that requires a middle-class income. Organic food, solar powered hot water, energy efficient appliances – these choices involve both money and head-space. Bogusha is a long-term sufferer of chronic fatigue syndrome. I imagined there would be times when finding the energy to make breakfast would take precedence in her mind, over and above how she might reduce her personal carbon footprint.

I put up my hand. The speaker acknowledged it with his eyes, but by this stage the congregation was revving with ideas and opinions. I waited patiently as people talked over one another. Finally I told everybody my point of view: which was that the planet cannot be saved through consumer choice.

For me, conserving plastic bags and turning appliances off at the switch are matters of integrity; simple living is part of the life that I expect my God would like me to lead. But the hard reality is that these small, precious acts are dwarfed by the problems at hand. Reversing climate change requires drastic action at a national and international level. With polluting companies in the pockets of governments, preventing the development of new, clean technologies, we are kidding ourselves if we think that turning the hot water system down a couple of degrees will make any difference at all.

My comment was framed negatively and, as expected, was shot down by a dozen voices. But consumers can impact on companies! Shell changed its practices in Nigeria because of public outcry!

These things might be true, but I don’t think they’re enough. To suggest that we can turn climate change around through our consumer choices to me is both a gross understatement of the problems we face, plus an overconfidence in the potential of consumers. Plus, it puts too much responsibility on the shoulders of individuals rather than government and business, who have the power to effect real change. I find the whole idea kind of disempowering.

Actually I think effective action is possible for the everyday person, but it must occur at a structural, systemic level. The solution lies not in people changing their daily habits – many are too lazy and many others are simply unable. For real change, the whole system must change. For me, staging a protest at Hazelwood – telling the government to shut down decrepit brown coal power stations and invest in clean energy instead – goes further in the direction of a genuine solution than installing energy-saving lightglobes or improving my personal recycling system. Of course, these actions are important, but I don’t think they get to the heart of the problem.

I don’t want to abuse my Giving Tree. The difficultly is that we are collectively the boy in the story. I can’t prevent the cutting down of the Tree by reducing my personal environmental footprint. The best hope I have is using my individual power to change the system.

So what am I doing to change the system? Nothing. For now, I will continue to take out the recycling and turn down the heater. I smile sadly at the Giving Tree, while my people reduce her to a stump.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Can I help?

Tom* has one of those awful coughs that gurgles in his lungs, pushing through a swampy mess until it breaks free with a fresh production of phlegm. My friend and I look up, concern creased across our foreheads. Tom has a hospital-issued plastic bag, held firm at its rim by a plastic ring. Official mucus-collector, it seems.

It is a Sunday night. Outside the sunny winter day has evaporated into a chilly, cloudless night. I’m hanging out at Credo Café - the church runs a dinner on Sunday nights, and it’s always well-attended by lots of cold and hungry people. Often, on a Sunday night, the warm air of Credo is laced with an uneasy energy that I don’t feel during our weekday lunches. Credo is small and easily crowded. There’s a lot of people getting by on little sleep, and the tension is catalysed by drugs and alcohol, occasionally erupting into conflict. I run an open prayer time before dinner starts, where we light candles and occasionally sing a song. I always light a candle and say a prayer for Peace.

Tonight, my Peace candle has been noticed. Some people sit quietly, tucking into bowls of meat and roast vegetables. Others sit around the big table talking loudly and laughing. I eat my meal on the little stage with my Sunday Night Dinner friends, including John and Djar, who don’t usually come in during the week. I talk about bikes with John and art with Djar. It’s hard to engage them both in a conversation at once.

The little red Peace candle has melted almost entirely into the sand, which is clumped with hardened wax and various other foreign objects. My friend James has dropped by and we sit at the back of the stage area, chatting. A small possie of grey-headed men congregate nearby cradling milky coffee with too much sugar. They talk quietly and laugh in the hushed, cynical tones of the experienced. My conversation with James (war, politics, relationships) is interrupted by Tom’s cough.
“Are you ok?”
“Upper respiratory infection,” he croaks.
“Oh.” I pause, wondering what helpful thing I should say. The gap in the conversation is filled with another batch of coughing. “Did they put you on a course of antibiotics?”
“Do you have somewhere warm to stay?”
Tom sighs and looks up at one of the other men, who has a lined forehead and laughing eyes. “The hospital kicked him out,” says the man, raising his eyebrows high. “But he’s got a place til Wednesday.”
“Yeah, I collapsed on the way out,” Tom elaborates. “The doctors helped me up and sent me on my merry way. Staying in an old folks’ home now.”
“But only til Wednesday,” I murmur. “What then?”
Tom just shrugs. “Hopefully find somewhere warm.”
“Do you have a health worker?”
I receive a blank look.
“You know, like a nurse or a case worker or something?”
The man with the laughing eyes smiles at me and winks. “He’s had a few of those.”
The rest of the men roll their heads back and laugh. Wet, guttural coughs ring through the near-empty café.

That night, I discussed with Gemma and Dave what I might do to help Tom. They suggested calling one of the outreach nurses, who work with homeless people. The reality is, though, that the nurses are most likely well aware of Tom’s situation. The entire Melbourne welfare sector probably knows all about Tom. I imagine Tom has been homeless for some time. He’s probably very well linked in.

One of the things I’ve learnt since becoming a resident at Urban Seed is that usually, people don’t need my help. If someone is homeless, they’ve often been homeless for a long time, and know what phonecalls to make for crisis accommodation. Having experienced crisis accommodation, they also know that it’s sometimes safer to stay on the streets. They know more about the system than me – a community worker who has only ever experienced the welfare sector from the end of an office telephone.

People have a myriad of support services at their disposal, and many spend more time trying to avoid them than using them. Shirley* is a fiercely independent 75-year-old in a pink beanie and spectacles, who thinks the main problems with society are too much swearing and immigrants talking loudly on trams. Shirley yells at streeties for using the ‘s’ word. She speaks with annoyance about the nurses who come to her house to treat the cancerous growth on her hand. “Why can’t they just leave me alone!” she wants to know. I bet she gives them a tough time when they arrive at her home.

There is a housing crisis, and for many, secure housing is an impossibility. It’s no surprise that people don’t want my help, because the situation is hopeless – there’s nothing I can do.

However, even if housing is available, not everybody wants it. When you’re on the street, you have a whole lot of social networks available – drop-in centres, street culture friends etc. In the city, it’s easy to get a free feed, and if you want medical help, that’s usually available too. I have a friend who, after years spent waiting for a housing commission unit, finally got a place…in Broadmeadows. He knew nobody there, and spent the first few years wondering whether he would be better off moving straight back onto the streets, where at least he had support.

And so, I realise, there are often more important or more useful things you can do than providing material help. We sometimes refer people to services in Credo, but our main work is to provide something that the services don’t offer. Tom probably has a nurse looking out for him – several, perhaps. What the nurses can’t do is provide a warm space with prayer candles and good friends.

I also have the feeling that I am ‘helped’ more in Credo than the people I could potentially assist. My job is to build connections with people ‘on the margins’ – but in doing that, I think I am the one who comes out a healthier, more whole person.

* names changed

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Tell me a story…

James told me that he wasn’t a fan of Ghandi.

“Really?” I’d never heard anybody say that before. I almost wanted to tell him to keep his voice down – we were sitting in Credo Café, one of the main hubs of Urban Seed. In that organisation, to deny Ghandi is getting close to denying Christ! “Why?” I wanted to know.
“Well Ghandi called off the independence movement when it turned violent,” stated James, leaning against a wooden bench. A candle flickered while volunteers mopped the floor around us. “I think to myself: how dare he! If the people wanted to take the movement somewhere, stopping it was a complete abuse of power. It wasn’t his movement – it was the people’s!”
I sat there half-smiling, a little stunned.
James went on. “In fact,” he said, “The Ghandi story is simply a narrative that is popular amongst Americans. Same as Martin Luther King. He appeals to a white liberal audience, because he’s relatively nice. It’s all about racial harmony, as opposed to Black power. Actually,” said James, “the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech was made some years before his death. Before he was assassinated, his speeches took on a stronger socialist flavour. But those speeches don’t get remembered and quoted!”

I am not surprised that James has picked up on – or rather has been around people who have alerted him to – the socialist leanings of Martin Luther King. James believes passionately in the power of the grassroots. He is a self-identifying activist, and continually wears a cotton red-and-white scarf that he picked up during his time in Palestine. A dense beard belies a youthful face and a crooked smile, which persists whether he’s extolling the virtues of a polyamorous lifestyle or condemning Israel for genocide.

James reminds me that the stories of the lives of people we love and admire – like Ghandi and Martin Luther King – are simply that: stories. Like any narrative, some aspects are left out and others are emphasised, and this corresponds with the agenda of the storyteller.

The Ghandi story, for many of us, is a principle in narrative form that nonviolent good will always conquer violent evil. We underscore the nonviolent methods Ghandi demonstrated, such as long marches to gather salt and the burning of British cotton. James, on the other hand, emphasises the fact that at a certain point Ghandi calls the movement off – taking power from the people and causing the Indian people to suffer even longer under British rule.

Similarly, we pick and choose from the historical reality of Martin Luther King – constructing a story of the man as a peaceful defender of civil rights, rather than a man of socialist persuasion. In fact, the whole Black civil rights movement is framed by the figure of the peaceful, Christian King, rather than the Muslim Malcolm X who believed in disciplined, violent defence. We construct a narrative and that becomes history.

As I write this, I think that it all seems so obvious it possibly doesn’t deserve a blog post. But it’s something I need to continually remind myself of – that there are so many versions of history, and when you seek to emulate an inspiring figure, all you can do is imitate the ways of a character in a story. A story based on a historical reality, yes, but nonetheless a story.

The Jesus that I know is a story character. A while ago I posted an analysis of a narrative in Mark, in which Christ overturns the tables of the vendors in the temple. Actually my interpretation is very much a product of my time at Urban Seed, where we tend to view the figure of Christ almost as a social and political revolutionary. My Dad doesn’t share these views, and responded to my post with a lengthy comment, arguing that Jesus’ purpose wasn’t primarily political or social

“I don't believe Jesus came to Jerusalem just to cleanse the Temple,” said Dad. “He came to die […] so that Man might live.” Dad went on: “His death would enable Man […] to enter that Kingdom, because without Jesus' death and therefore atonement for sin, NO ONE would be able to enter it.”

For me, Jesus was about restoration on Earth. For Dad, Jesus was about eternal life in heaven. There are many other narratives you can create around Jesus – I even read recently that Jesus’ mission was to free women and teach us about sexual liberation and the ways of the subconscious. The Gospels give us four separate stories about Christ, and we pick and choose from them to construct a narrative that works well for our own agendas.

Somebody turned the main lights off and we sat in semi-darkness. James related a story about the people of Venezuela, who defended the socialist President Chávez against a CIA-backed coup. Of course, James has his own narratives that he follows – his actions are inspired by the stories in which the common people win. Like me, he picks and chooses from what actually happened, constructing something that is useful for his life.

What actually happened? Who knows? All we can do is tell a story. That’s called history.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Devoted to truth

By the time dinner was over, we were sitting like content cats, warm and sleepy, sinking into the corners of the couch. The conversation had relaxed to a steady rhythm, like the breath you listen for in a slumbering child.

“If you can’t rely on the Bible for truth,” Dimitri was saying, “then where do you look?”

I gazed at a poster on the wall, not really seeing it. The Bible and me – yes, what a contentious relationship we’d had. It no longer made sense to believe all it contained at face value. Worse, often my efforts at understanding context and peering behind bad translations left me wondering whether I was getting any closer to truth, or just reading into the Bible what I wanted to read.

“I suppose you look within yourself,” I said. Even I wasn’t entirely convinced.
“But then you could end up believing just about anything, based on your personal circumstances or just the whim of the moment.”

Dimitri is not religious, but I agreed with him on this one. When you seek truth, surely you need some kind of reference point. People believe all kinds of crazy things because it feels right. There is good spirit within me, but I can’t know truth based on that alone.
“You need to talk to other people,” I offered.
“Yes.” Dimitri was nodding. “There’s something to be said for talking to others, and maybe for traditions, too. You can’t believe something because it feels right at the time, and write off centuries of thought and the experiences of other people.”

At some point Dimitri mentioned the word ‘listening’. Maybe truth-seeking involves good listening skills, I mused. Listening to other people, the voices in your own tradition, the voices in other traditions, the sounds of your own heart, the words of sacred texts, the movement of waves and the rustle of a breeze. I don’t think truth can be found in any one of these things. It has to be sought after in all of them.

The conversation reminded me of a prayer by Leunig:

In order to be truthful.
We must do more than speak the truth.
We must also hear truth.
We must also receive truth.
We must also act upon truth.
We must also search for truth.
The difficult truth.
Within us and around us.
We must devote ourselves to truth.
Otherwise we are dishonest
And our lives are mistaken.
God grant us the strength and the courage
To be truthful.

I haven’t known Dimitri for very long, and we continually marvel at just how differently our brains are wired. You really think like that? He is brain; I am gut. He is scientist; I am spiritualist. While I am intrigued by mystery, he would prefer to ignore what is unknowable; what cannot be measured or investigated. He wants concrete truths. I am content with the knowledge that some deep truths cannot be proven, but are still very, very real.

But the prayer struck a cord with both of us. While we seek our truths in different ways, we are nonetheless both devoted to it. We are both ‘listening’, but perhaps hear different things.

What we agree on is that truth must be lived. It is no good simply to believe. If the world is heating up we must do something to reverse it. If Christ calls us to befriend the poor then that is what we must do.
Otherwise we are dishonest
And our lives are mistaken, says Leunig.

We sipped tea, together and different, pondering the nature of truth.

God grant us the strength and the courage
To be truthful.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Always enough

The other day I received a newsletter in the mail from an organisation called ‘Manna Gum’. Jono Cornford had written an article about the manna story, from the Bible, which I found really inspiring.

When the Jews were released from slavery in Egypt, they set out in pursuit of the Promised Land. What they found was desert. While they were the cogs that kept the economic powerhouse of Egypt running, they shared, nonetheless, in a part of the wealth that was generated. “There we sat round pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted,” they complained, when they found themselves faced with the harsh emptiness of an Egyptian desert. It would have been better to have died in the city, they declared, than to starve to death in the wilderness.

God’s response was to provide. The Jews arose the next morning to find a layer of dew on the ground. When the dew evaporated into the desert air, a residue of mysterious white flakes remained, which apparently tasted like honey wafers. This was the food they lived on.

“He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little,” the Book of Exodus reports. “Each one gathered as much as he needed.” When people tried to save some for the next day, it turned smelly and grew maggots. The exception was the Friday morning, when they could gather double the usual amount – since Saturday was the Sabbath, no manna would fall that day. For each day of the week, there was always enough.

Sometimes I think the coins that commuters toss into my case are a bit like manna from heaven. Like the mysterious bread appearing while the people sleep, I cannot make the coins come. No matter how sweetly or how passionately I play, this means of survival is placed squarely out of my control. Some days I am faced with an abundance of small gold coins clunking softly into my case. The other morning, an hour’s work brought in less than $10. I sighed and wondered whether I should bother anymore – perhaps I should go back to my research job. But, just like the manna story, I find that there is always enough. A little today, a lot tomorrow – whatever rains down on me, there is always enough.

When you wake up in the morning knowing there is only 60 cents in your bank account, and the remainder of your savings sit in a jar on your desk, you can feel a bit like a climber with no safety rope. I love the feeling of freedom – of being weighed down by nothing but the clothes on my back.

Other times you feel the fear. For me, it’s not a fear of starving or being rendered homeless – I don’t pay rent and I live in a place whose mission is to eat food. But I fear other things: rejection from friends because I can’t pay for drinks; being overly dependent on the generosity of others; a strange sensation that I might be whisked away in the next strong breeze, because my wallet isn’t heavy enough to hold me down. I am no longer a cog in a machine, but somehow that machine is a source of comfort and security!

Every now and then, I am faced with a decision of whether to keep money I have found in my possession (stimulus package, back-payments from RMIT etc.), or pass it on. If it sits in my bank account, will it go bad? Or is it wise to hang on to a few of these dollars, for rainy days and emergencies?

Like most things in life, there are no hard and fast rules. For now, an existence with less cash is serving me well. New growth defies a bank balance that shrinks. I am becoming more practiced in releasing tense stomach muscles when I think about all the things I need money for, and trust that I will be looked after (like the lilies of the fields and the sparrows of the air, I remind myself). Somehow, maintaining a loose fist helps me stress less about money – rather than seeing it as a scarce commodity, I prefer to view it as an abundant resource that needs to be moved around. There is enough for everybody.

Less money keeps me awake. My eyes are open to the ways of God – to the grace, the magic, the serendipity, if you will. I bit the bullet and gave a chunk of money away to a friend who wanted to travel. But I walked away with a wad of cash – an old housemate my friend and I were visiting had finally jumped on ebay and sold a table we owned (but didn’t use); a friend paid back some money she’d been owing me. I graciously received – it was my manna from heaven. For me, it was more life-giving to live within the goodwill of the universe, rather than rely solely on my personal prosperity. Perhaps this is the lesson Jesus was trying to teach the rich young man, when he was told to sell everything he owned. The rich young man walked sadly away.

But, I can envision a fuller bank balance in days to come. There will be times when having more money will be life-giving. Money can be used as a tool for fulfilment.

Perhaps when that time arrives, the money will fall, ready to be harvested when the dew clears for the day. Should I look for it; seek it out? Or do I simply need to open my eyes?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A flower...or God?

Something a friend said, describing a past relationship: "I looked at a flower and saw a flower; she looked at a flower and saw...God."

I could expand and write 800 words on the topic, but I'll refrain because I have to write an essay!

tourist icon

This morning somebody took a photo of me while I was busking. It was at a new spot I've found, at Melbourne Central. I didn't say anything at the time - just gave the Asian girl, cradling a tiny digital camera, a strange look. It wasn't til afterwards that that the incident settled in my chest and I began to feel angry. I suppose I felt objectified - like I was a tourist icon, rather than a real person who deserves to be asked before having her photo taken. Just part of the city landscape. I imagined finding myself in a Melbourne Information brochure - a two-dimensional thing that adds to the 'culture' of this city, but devoid of background or personality.

I remember going to Mexico City and guiltily taking my little disposable camera out of my backpack and taking a picture of a scene of people eating outside a street vendor. I knew it was wrong but I did it anyway, and I still remember the looks of annoyance on people's faces as they found their images imprinted - as though they were monkeys at a zoo - on the film of a tourist's camera.

I guess now I know how it feels.

My Jumper

My jumper is big and dense and made with green wool plus copious amounts of love. In the dead of the winter, when I’m tapping away on my computer late into a Saturday night, my jumper holds me close like a zealous lover. Together we keep each other warm and fight off the icy fingers of an encroaching dawn. His arms are thick and wide; I feel safe and protected as he nestles against my chest.

The sky lightens and a small, white sun creeps up over the buildings, throwing a beam of winter warmth through the glass and onto my desk. It moves onto my cheek. Suddenly it all gets too much and I pull my jumper off – quickly, urgently – and dump his vast green mass onto the floor beside me.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

An unexpected friendship

Dad came into Credo with the intention of bonding with his daughter. He sat down opposite me at the big table, poking at a bowl of chow mein with his folk.
“So, what’s news with you?” Dad asked, earnestly.
“Oh, you know, the usual.” I launched into a vague description involving my studies and my work.

While I was talking, a man with a red face and a fluff of white hair sat down beside me.
I turned to the man. “What’s your name?” I asked, also quite earnestly.
“I’m John.” John didn’t seem to have any teeth and his voice was soft and muffled.
“So John,” I began. “What brings you here?”
John turned out to be a particularly candid person. “I want to find someone who can live with me.”
“Like a girlfriend?”
“Oh. Right.”
“I’m very lonely. Maybe you can come and visit me?”
“No!” I said, smiling. “You’ll want me to move in with you!”
John grinned. “You can if you want!” he said.

I decided to change tact. “John, I’d like you to meet my Dad, Frank.”
“Hello there,” said John.
Dad looked up from his bowl. “Pleased to meet you,” he said, a little unsure as to whether he meant it.
“Where do you live?” asked John.
“Ah, Whittlesea.”
“That’s near me.”
“Oh really?”
“Yes – I live in Mill Park.”
“Oh yes well I suppose…that’s not too far from where we are…”
“Will you come and visit me?”
Dad cleared his throat and threw me a slightly startled look. “Oh well I’m not sure if…”
John pulled out an old docket and scribbled some words and numbers on the back. “He’s my address, and my phone number as well.”
Dad reluctantly reached across the table to take the piece of paper. As he did, John grabbed his hand. His eyes spoke desperation. “Please visit me.”
Dad tucked the paper into his breast pocket, saying nothing.

“So will you visit him?” I asked later as I walked Dad out to the laneway.
“Well – you know how it is – you say yes once and you have a friend for life!”
I laughed. I knew exactly what he meant.
We walked slowly to the end of the laneway. When we got to Little Collins we kissed and parted ways.

I watched Dad as he walked a little way along the narrow street. He pulled the folded docket out of his pocket and opened it up. He stopped walking to read the scrawled words. Then he carefully refolded it and put it back in his pocket, before setting off again to his car.

I stopped watching and wandered back to Credo. John had gone. Somebody had turned the music up loud. I filled a bucket with soupy water and began wiping down the tables, humming along to whatever was playing.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Going up the mountain

Today Mum offered to take us up the mountain to see what it looked like after the fires. I didn’t know what to say.

The first thought that popped into my head was ‘disaster tourism’. I remembered how in New Orleans companies ran bus tours of the flood-devastated Lower 9th Ward. It seemed wrong. It was wrong.

Yet when I found myself in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, I wanted to go down and see it for myself. The other Australian interns at the law office and I took our hire car down and drove quietly around the narrow streets, cameras guiltily poised. We took home our pieces of Katrina – images of buckled lives burnt into our minds and onto our films. I’m glad I have those photos, but I’m still a little ashamed.

So when Mum was doing the last call for the bushfire tour, I was in two minds whether to go. I badly wanted to see it. Somehow it seemed more valid and less disrespectful because I’m from Whittlesea. I have a connection; it’s not blatant stickybeaking.
“Is it wrong?” I asked my sister, Rebecca.
“I’m not going,” she answered, decidedly.
I chose to go anyway.

Mum was a good guide, pointing out Coombs Road, where Brian Naylor died, and the O’G-’s property. Andrew sat in the front while Kat, Elizabeth and I squished in the back. Mum complained about the council, which was holding up the rebuilding process. I stared out the misted windows. I followed the valley and the bare, hard crest in the distance with my eyes. Trees jutted from a smooth dome like spikes of hair on a bald man’s head. An army of blackened sticks descended down the hills and across the land, on and on.

I felt sick. February came back. Helplessness. Taking the train and the bus back to Whittlesea the day after it happened, only to do nothing. Asking what I could do. Can I cook dinner? Can I water the garden? Can I pray? Being told: no, no, no. Those things are all wrong. Looking at a candle. Deciding it’s a bad idea to light the candle. Setting up a vigil in my old bedroom. Nobody coming. Everybody rushing around. Feeling alone. Feeling stupid.

We winded up the road, specks of rain gently tapping the windscreen. I imagined what it would have been like – trees splayed across the baking bitumen, trapped screams, an inferno hotter than hell.

Bronwyn coming around. Words of hope that nobody believes. Fighting with Mum. Crying into Dad’s chest. Praying with Dad. Hearing the news. Watching Rebecca rush off to be with Bronwyn. Nothing to do. Feeling alone. Feeling stupid.

Tents and caravans dotted the sides of the road. A few Australian flags floated in the cold breeze – a symbol of strength and hope, I supposed. Up close, I could see that many of the black trees were clothed with a beautiful, defying green, like lace. In one spot, large ferns had popped up. They seemed to have even surprised themselves. A couple stood on the side of the road, holding a digital camera at arm’s length and peering at its screen.

I left Whittlesea a few days after the fires. There was nothing for me to do. The city was waiting for me. Nothing much had changed in the city.

The conversation rolled around predictably in the car. People should have left earlier. But there was no warning – it just happened! It was the wrong policy, this whole idea of defending. But it was the best policy we had at the time! I would have left. I would have left early; on time. They’re just things. Who cares about things? Oh, but a house is so much more than a house! It’s a life!

I feel better when I ascribe some blame to the victims. Foolhardy! Should have known the risks! My brazen words hide the truth that scares me too much to say out loud. It could have been me. It could have been us. That’s the one thing we don’t say to each other.

I’m glad I went up the mountain. I didn’t feel like a tourist – or if I was, it was equally a tour of an emotional destination I had spent several months trying to escape. I sit on the periphery and peer in – not knowing what to do but look.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Why soldiers go to war

My sister Kathryn is being deployed to the Middle East soon. She invited me to her going away drinks at the mess and so I went along, my floral skirt and knee-high boots clashing with the surrounds as much as the red ‘visitor’ badge clashed with my pink top. But military people are almost always friendly, with a firm handshake, proudly Aussie accent and a stockpile of questions about my civilian life.

Kathryn shouted me a Coopers – it was Happy Hour and cost her about $2, which is half the usual price. No wonder they have a drinking problem in the army, I thought. I stood amongst uniformed officers and swigged at my beer, pleased not to be sipping on wine. When the conversation descended to a rattle of acronyms, I gazed about the room, observing the dark wooden panels and forest green carpets. A well-maintained windup clock hung from a wall, proudly paying homage to an era of old, its culture and traditions preserved like polished brass.

Kathryn introduced me to Luke, who was slim in his RAAF uniform, with fair hair and a cheeky smile. Luke was excited because he was about to be deployed to the Middle East. I was curious at this excitement – mainly because I’d witnessed the same sentiment in my sister.
I plucked up the courage to ask Luke. “So why are you so excited about being deployed?”
“That’s a good question.” He picked up his beer from the table and took a sip. “Think of it like this. Imagine you’re eighteen years old and you’ve just been drafted into an AFL footy club. You’re the first pick. Now, imagine that it’s the first game of the season, and before it starts the couch tells you to stretch your quads because you’re about to go on. So you warm up and do your stretches, but then he says, ‘Actually, we’ll put you on for the second quarter’. So you wait around but then when the second quarter comes, he changes his mind again. And so it goes on like this for the rest of the game, and then the whole season. You never get to go on.”

I was nodding – I got what he was saying. They want to go to war so they can put their training into practice. I could relate to that – it would be like practicing the flute day in, day out, but never getting to perform. None of us want to do what is frivolous – we want our efforts to make a difference.

I met Susan, who was also RAAF. She had down-turned eyes and wore a bemused expression on her face. She kept pulling a medallion out of her pocket to show people, which was still in its box.
“Look at my medallion,” she kept saying. “It’s the first one I’ve got!”
I asked to look at her prize. The small metal round bore a little map of Victoria, and said something about the Victorian bushfires. Susan told me she’d been very instrumental in helping with the defence contribution to the fire fighting. She’d finally been recognised for her efforts.
She told me what rank she was, but that she was really the RAAF equivalent of an acting-Captain in the army, which her salary reflected.
“Another Captain got picked over me for deployment,” she said. Her glass of wine was disappearing quickly. “It was only because of his rank – I had the expertise. I’m pretty much a Captain anyway.”
When it was just Susan, Kathryn and I, standing in a little female huddle, she told us that often people get deployed as a way of getting rid of them for a while. “The problem with me,” said Susan, “is that I’m too indispensable. That’s why they won’t send me overseas.”
The problem with not being sent overseas, however, is that you don’t get recognition for your work: there are no gongs or coloured panels that you can wear on your chest for being indispensable in Australia.
“The person who stays at home works harder than the ones who go,” Susan said, “but they just don’t get the recognition.”

I was curious that Susan was so desperate for a medal. But then I thought – isn’t that what we all want? To be told that we are valued and that our labours have not been in vain? I said, “But civilians can work for decades in the same job and not get a gong or a medallion.” As I said it, I realised it was entirely different. In the military, the main way of showing a person they are valued is by presenting them with one of these formal rewards. If you don’t get it – even if they throw you a party and make you a cake – you feel jibbed. Medals are the language of the military, just as gifts and cards reinforce words of thanks in the civilian world.

This afternoon’s trip to the mess gave me a good insight into why soldiers go to war. I don’t think it’s usually because they believe in what they’re doing. I think it’s because going to war, for them, fulfills some very basic human needs, which all of us, in our different ways, spend our lives trying to meet.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


I set up an RSVP account last night. I’d like to say it was just for fun; a social experiment or an experiential pastime…but if I did say that, I’d be leaving out a big part of the truth.

The truth is that, well, sometimes I get lonely. There, I’ve said it. Sigh. It’s the kind of loneliness that you’re not aware of most of the time because you’re distracted by the rest of your life. But it occasionally manifests itself in your gut like an indigestible mass of rice-starch after a big yummy meal at one of those cheap restaurants off China Town. Sometimes it’s more of an ache, and you can’t figure out why it’s there. Did I eat something bad? Am I stressed about that essay? Ah, that’s right, we’ve been here before. It’s loneliness.

Gemma hovered by my side as I worked on my profile description, giving me advice on when I sounded like an idiot. It’s hard to be honest and still give a good impression of myself. It’s hard to say what I believe without sounding trite and clichéd. I worried that what I was writing was a caricature of myself – a flattering cartoon image, if that’s at all possible. I sound fun and quirky, full of colour and soul. Anything vaguely negative that I write about myself is carefully placed to be balanced by a more overwhelming positive, and inserted for the purpose of making me sound fallible and thus, perhaps, more attractive.

There is nothing overtly dishonest in what I write…what feels unreal is in the very nature of what is a profile – a snapshot taken from a particularly attractive angle, like the photos we post of ourselves on Facebook. I would say ‘like the photo I uploaded that accompanies my profile on RSVP’, only I don’t really like my RSVP picture. It was one of the only ones I had of myself, and gets me on a funny angle.

Despite my reservations, the kisses came in thick and fast – these virtual flirtations stacking up in my inbox like unfinished drinks at a bar. My immediate response was panic. Do I have to talk to all these people? Most of them seemed completely inappropriate. Gemma and I sat cross-legged on my bed, giggling as we sifted through the pile of profiles from lonely men.

if u make me smile once...ill make u smile twice. no discounts. only double deals… I own a to travel...will never sink in the sea...planning to own 1more...relationship... anyone wanna come for a ride?...

"Hmm, no thanks."

I am a hard working and committed gentlemen who works for a small chartered accounting firm in the CBD. I working in the Taxation, which may sound BORING to most people..


i am very fascinated by the quantum interactions that occur on the sub atomic level, sadly it is a topic that i can spend days discussing but i shall spare you the tedium of a long winded speech about the wonders of string and membrane

“He’s got to be kidding.”

We scanned through the profiles the way we run our fingers across the ‘best and worst dressed’ in the MX, sniggering at them for their sin of making themselves known and vulnerable. I cast them aside with the polite auto-reject of “Thanks for your kiss but I don’t think it would work between us.” Clearing them from my inbox and my life, I felt in control again.

Like a beautiful woman sitting alone in a bar full of men, I don’t pursue. To be able to send ‘kisses’ you have to pay $14.90 a month; each email conversation you open costs $9.99. So far I haven’t paid a cent – I let them come to me. Seems that the online dating world isn’t so dissimilar from the real world.

One man started an email conversation with me, deeming me worthy of his $9.99 ‘stamp’. He declared that my profile reminded him of a girl he’d once adored, but lost contact with. Seems that he’s pursuing me to live a dream with another woman he thought was long dead. I don’t know why he told me that, but to tell the truth, when I read that statement, I didn’t mind. I was kind of flattered, actually, that he liked me.

We emailed back and forth, and he wanted to catch up. I said, “Sure, why not?” I don’t really know much about him (he likes reading and LOVES to travel, apparently), but I guess I’ll find out more on Saturday. That’s when we’re meeting for lunch.

We’ll see if this RSVP thing fixes my loneliness problem. Somehow I doubt it…although it could prove a very useful distraction.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Anger that shuts down an intersection

These men are angry. It’s a body-gyrating, fist-pounding anger, sounding distorted and tinny through run-down megaphones. A band of young men, some in turbans, others not, stand invincible at the centre of a sea of more young men, who sit like immoveable rocks or else stand and cheer at the command of their leaders. On the periphery is a husk made up of the curious and the less committed, poised with digital cameras and mobile phones. Police complete the configuration, circling it with their fluoro vests like speciality dancers in a Rock Eisteddfod.

I first saw them just after 3, when I walked past the intersection between Flinders and Swanston Streets. With vague curiosity I meandered through the edges of the crowd. What’s this about, I wanted to know? Racially-inspired hate crimes, I was told. Apparently international students have been victim to a spate racist attacks in recent weeks. Aussies have been stabbing Indian students with screwdrivers at railways stations and gatecrashing Indian parties. These people want it to stop.

I went back at 5. The cold air had a new bite to it and the city lights were shining bright against the descending darkness. The bells of St Pauls wouldn’t stop ringing – loud, disjointed notes that went on and on. They mingled with the now seemingly crazed voices coming out of the faltering loudspeakers – words I couldn’t understand. The mob had bunkered down to a large, impenetrable core.

It’s nearly midnight and I can still hear the crowd. Sirens scream and float up to my bedroom. Last year, taxi drivers protested in the same spot for 22 hours. This mob ain’t going nowhere.

When I went to Credo for dinner, I sat next to Djarro and told him what I’d seen. Djarro said they had no right to take to the streets like that – they weren’t from this country and they should either go through diplomatic channels or else deal with it like everybody else. They had no right to be so angry.
“Are you angry?” I asked.
“You’re not angry about what colonialism has done to your people?”
“It’s not in my people’s psyche to be angry,” was his answer. “We are calm. We don’t yell and shout. We’re just not like that.”
He went on to talk about his people, and how they had been decimated by ‘Anglos’. His eyes grew fierce with hurt and what looked like anger.
“You sound angry.”
“Ok, well I am angry. But our anger is controlled. We listen and we talk.”
I thought back to times when I’d heard Aboriginal people talk about what has happened to their people since colonialism. They don’t normally yell or embellish their words with lots of emotional adjectives. They just speak the truth, with a clarity that almost sparkles.

After dinner Djarro and I wandered down to the blockade. We stood on the steps of St Pauls, surveying the formation below. I stood next to a man with a bushy black beard. What is it they want, I wanted to know? His voice was impassioned, his dark eyes avoiding mine. We want freedom from these hate crimes, we want police protection. He related stories I’d heard earlier about stabbings. We come to this country to peacefully study, he said, and we do not deserve to be attacked by Aussies. We want more police protection.

When will they stop protesting, was my next question? When somebody comes from the government to assure them of more police protection, was his answer.

His demand was vague and his rant sounded like repeated rhetoric. More police protection…what did that even mean? It sounded to me like a simplistic solution dreamed up by one of those informal leaders with megaphones, mid-speech.

The protest, it seemed to me, was just their way of channelling anger. There may not be any political strategy behind it. I wonder if what this is really about is a group of proud, educated men who are sick of doing the demeaning jobs that no-one else wants to do. They drive our taxis, staff our convenience stores – and have been reduced to a strange stereotype that includes both impotence and violence. They are looked down upon, yet also feared.

This stereotype is not so dissimilar from what Djarro faces. He has a lot more to complain about, and perhaps that is why it gets under his skin when educated Indians take to the streets. For the most part, Djarro has dealt with dispossession by expressing his hurt through art and making the best of his tattered roots. His anger rages, but comes out as a sort of sadness – grief, for example, that he can’t think and talk in his own language.

I think that Djarro is resentful of others who are already powerful using that strength to shut down major intersections and make the front pages of newspapers. In this country, genocide never stopped traffic. Djarro’s people are scattered and disenfranchised. Dispossession makes it very hard to make change out of anger.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


On Tuesday it was Sorry Day. We held Credo Gathering outside in the laneway, before a backdrop of an Aboriginal flag and the urban Dreamtime mural that is painted on the wall of the adjoining hotel. Coco, who is not indigenous but could somehow pass as such, read out the acknowledgment to the traditional owners of the land. Gin read the story of a man who, along with his siblings, was stolen from his mother. We lit candles as we prayed for this man and others. I lit a candle and said “Sorry”.

I’ve been thinking about that word a lot lately. It came to my attention a while ago, when I was with Nick. I noticed that he never said sorry for anything. He would arrive hours late armed with excuses rather than apologies. Ill-fated circumstances were never attributed to himself – they were always somehow out of his control.

In some ways, I admired Nick’s ability to recognise where he was not to blame. Some things are out of your control, even if you are involved in the incident. I compare Nick’s aversion to saying sorry with my own tendency to be unceasingly apologetic at times. Nick’s son, Marrick, picked me up on it during a game of ball – I threw badly and instinctively said “Sorry”. “There’s no need to apologise,” he said, with incredible clarity for a 6-year-old. “It’s only a game.”

Over dahl and shahi paneer with Despina at my favourite Indian restaurant, we chatted about the word ‘sorry’. Like me, Despina apologises a lot. “In Greek,” she said, “they don’t have the word ‘sorry’. When I went to Greece I had the experience of not being able to apologise for everything I did. It was really weird.”

So in Greece, I confirmed, if you accidentally knock someone on the train, you don’t say sorry. If you’re late, you don’t say sorry. What if you do something really bad, I wanted to know? Well, she answered, you explain your actions. You don’t – you can’t – say ‘sorry’.

“Actually,” said Despina, “There is one phrase that you can use. It’s something like ‘I have an ill feeling’. You use it if you’ve done something bad.”

An ill feeling. Very different from a flippant ‘sorry’. You wouldn’t use it if you knocked someone on the train, for example, or were five minutes late for an appointment. This phrase, whatever it is, seems to show that you are aching inside because of your own actions.

‘Sorry’ says that you regret something you’ve done. Perhaps it is also a request to be excused by the person you did wrong to. Stating that you feel terrible about doing something is different. You are not asking for forgiveness. You are not even really saying, outright, that you did something wrong. You are just describing your feelings in the aftermath.

Women, I have noticed, say sorry a lot. I think we generally feel more guilty than men – guilty, it often seems, of our own existence. Karen Armstrong, in her book “The Gospel According to Woman”, puts it like this: In the West guilt seems to be part of the female condition. When we women have cause to feel guilty we wallow in it, and when we have no cause we manufacture one, in a way men simply do not do.

Armstrong goes on to describe the guilt of women who return to work after having children, and the guilt of women who stay at home. Women are guilty about failed relationships and bratty kids. We are trained not to be assertive and to prelude a criticism or to herald our presence with an apology that might be verbal (I’m sorry to disturb you…sorry to insist on this…sorry to have to tell you that your work is appalling) or it might simply be a deprecating smile or apologetic shrug.

Armstrong links this obsession with apologising with the guilt we have inherited from centuries of Christian thought blaming all women for the sins of Eve, who, apparently, introduced evil into the world. According to the Church Fathers, we are all Eves.

Personally, I’d like to try living for a while without the existence of the word ‘sorry’. For times I really needed to apologise, I could just say, “I feel sick inside for what I’ve done”.

But, for our Indigenous friends, this might not be enough. I do feel sick inside for what colonialism has done to Aboriginal people and communities. But I don’t think ill feelings alone cut it. What is required is a reaching out; a statement that what has transpired is morally wrong. A plea for forgiveness – if not for the individual but for the wider society.

I think there is something healing about the word ‘sorry’, when used well. Maybe when we women use it too often, we devalue its currency.

Monday, May 25, 2009

bleeding heart

In the city, on almost every street corner, is somebody with a clipboard and a pommy accent trying to sign you up to some moral cause. It’s funny, but no matter the charity (old growth forests, empowering women in India, rescuing bears from evil circus masters) they all pick me out as a potential supporter. Some people get approached in the street because they look like they might want drugs; I get approached for some kind of principled vibe I apparently possess.

And it’s not a bad pick, on the part of the ethical spruiker. I work with homeless people (tick for Mission Australia); I don’t eat much meat (tick for Animal Liberation Victoria); I care about the environment (tick for the Australian Conservation Fund). I once campaigned for the introduction of Fair Trade products in universities and I used to be involved in the youth arm of World Vision (both ticks for Oxfam). I am the quintessential over-achieving bleeding heart, and they pick it in an instant.

I generally scurry past the clipboard-bearing backpackers with my hat low and my eyes cast down, lest they see what kind of person I am. Occasionally I accidentally make eye contact, or fail to adequately brush off a conversation hook.
“Do you like animals?” or “Do you care about the environment?” they ask.
I whimper, “Maybe,” and that’s it, I’m a goner.
“Fantastic! Now, before I got on, are you over twenty-one?”
I’m a little flattered that they still ask me that question. “I think so.”
“Great. Now – have you heard of Amnesty International?”
And so it goes, on and on, a barrage of questions that require only one-word answers that apparently give the desperate salesperson (paid by commission) permission to rattle off information and point at graphs at a speed I can only guess has developed from the fear of having potential signups walk away mid-sentence.

What really bugs me (warning: minor rant forthcoming) is that they don’t usually bother to engage with me as an intelligent person who is possibly interested in the subject area and not altogether ignorant. Actually, I was once the secretary of the Amnesty International club at uni – so clearly I care about the issue. I don’t need to be convinced to care; I need to be persuaded to give money. But you just get treated with the same eye-glazing spiel, like everybody else.

So I’ve never signed up with any of these guilt vendors – I always end the conversation with a declaration that I have no money and make a quick exit. That is, up until today. Because today, as I was hurling my grocery shopping home, I encountered Steve, who was playing with his dog. Stuffed dog. Steve introduced me to Bob, who was a very obedient dog and hadn’t bitten anyone in over five years. We got chatting and Steve soon revealed that he was from the Lost Dogs Home. That is, he worked for the Lost Dogs Home. We talked and joked and he told me about all the amazing things the Lost Dogs Home does – and I was impressed!

It probably helped that Steve had a cute Scottish accent. But it also turned out that the Lost Dogs Home don’t get government funding because they refuse to put down healthy animals (“We just work harder to find good homes.”), and have a 24/7 animal ambulance! When we got to the part where he was asking for money (or, in his words, become a member of the “Paw Club”), I felt so awful turning him down. I took the usual approach and told him that I had no money, which was true. Steve wouldn’t take no for an answer. He said I should busk more. So I agreed. I signed up to be a member of the Paw Club, making monthly donations of $20 a month. The first payment is set to come out 2 July – hopefully I’ll have more than 18 cents in my bank account by then.

And then I slipped him my number. I shocked myself. I’d done two things in the space of 5 minutes that I’d never done before – signed up to one of those clipboard charities on the street, and given a guy I liked my number without him even asking for it. After that I ran away, scared I’d do something else disturbing.

He hasn’t rung, yet. He probably has a girlfriend. But it’s only been 5 hours. Should give it a day or two. We’ll wait and see.