Saturday, April 25, 2009


Today's ANZAC Day. Last year I got all keen and went to the dawn service. This year wasn't really happening for me, so I wandered down around midday for the afternoon service. I always have really mixed feelings about ANZAC Day - it feels wrong not to participate in some way, yet each time I go along to a march or a ceremony I feel kind of out of place. It's not often that I chose to stand amid crowds of mums and dads cheering on members of the military, or sing the national anthem in implied support of our overseas troops. Yet I have to go and do something to remember, lest we forget, I suppose. I go because I need some occasion to recognise the terrible waste of war that sits, proud and ugly, in our Australian history. I go because I feel like not going would be terribly disrespectful to all those people who died...ungrateful, perhaps, although I don't exactly buy into the idea that they sacrificed themselves for our freedom. I sort of think that they sacrificed themselves for the folly and power play of politicians. But my war history is terrible so I'm never very sure of this gut instinct.

And so this year, as last year, I took my place before the shrine, just wanting to remember the dead and pay my respects, but finding that I was becoming increasingly confused and uncomfortable. Why was everybody clapping the uniformed soldiers marching by? Was it because they, too, are ready and willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom and way of life, in much the same spirit as the ANZACs? Perhaps it was a general cheering on a show of appreciation for the armed forces. I find it hard to clap to that. Do people consider the present-day military a personification of the soldiers who died? Maybe. I don't mind that idea so much. But what I find really difficult is the way present war is justified by the ANZAC myth - we remember, alongside those who died on the Western Front, those who are serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Solomon Islands etc etc. That annoys me - I just want to remember those who died, not those who are presently fighting in wars I don't agree with. I don't like it when the lives of men who were virtually cannon fodder for the elite are turned into some nation-building myth, which somehow justifies more death, waste and injustice.

To be fair, this year wasn't as bad as last year. At last year's dawn service, this digger who had been serving in Afghanistan got up and told us all how he was proud to be following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather in both the great wars. It amazed me how powerful the ANZAC myth is - that it can make people proud of war. It struck me as a fantastic device used by the nation to normalise and glorify violence. This year John Brumby made a much more sensitive speech, which focused more on the tragedy of war. I don't mind John Brumby.

Friday, April 24, 2009

dumpster diving on Today Tonight

Here's a segment from Today Tonight on dumpster diving and freeganism!

I expected a really negative report, but it was anything but! Unbalanced, as usual, but in favour of the freegans, not the supermarkets. Perhaps that's not such a surprise, given these populist current affair programs usually side with the everyday little guy/girl, rather than big business or government.

Dad's Age article - sustainable cities

My Dad got an article published in The Age last Friday, which I helped him with. He says that many of Melbourne's problems are caused by its sheer size, and that instead of continuing the policy of never-ending urban sprawl, we should direct growth into smaller, sustainable cities in regional Victoria.

The article generated a lot of discussion, including letters from the editor and about 30 comments in the Your Say section, which is great!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

strange spots

I have developed some mysterious spots on my stomach and back. My first response was to look on the internet, which I don’t recommend for those suffering from any kind of hypochondria or paranoia. After not managing to do much more than rule out meningococcal, I began showing my rash to all my friend, who responded with diagnoses ranging from ringworm to shingles, and treatment plans varying from flaxseed oil to teatree oil.

One friend suggested seeing a doctor. I hadn’t thought of that. So I jumped on the internet again and googled ‘bulk billing doctors melbourne’. I found out that it’s hard to locate a doctor who bulk bills, particularly in the CBD. So I rode my bike to Coburg and sat in a waiting room adorned with plastic plants and a wood-veneer desk. Dr S- (the ‘lady doctor’) was a stern mother type, who threw a sharp, disapproving look when I confessed that I got “a little bit drunk” last Saturday night, but smiled when I told her, candidly, that my recent sleep deprivation was due to a new boyfriend. She looked at my spots through some weird mechanical looking device, and concluded that I would need a blood test to be certain of whatever disease I’d contracted.

So I jumped on my bike again and trundled to the Sisters of Mercy on Moreland Road. A nurse with grey hair and a smiling, olive complexion sat me in the big grey blood-drawing chair and tapped around for some veins.
“…On my way, to where the air…is…clear…”
I recognised that tune. “Are you singing the Sesame Street theme song?”
“Oh yes!” she answered, pulling the tourniquet tight. “I’ve had it in my head all day!”
I told her about the time I taught a group of people to sing the Sesame Street song in four-part harmony. She laughed, and noticed the strange spots on my arm. “What are those?”
I explained that I didn’t know, and that was why I was here.
“Oh, I think I have something similar!” she cried. “I’ll show you!” She stood up, putting down the alcohol wipe to untuck her blouse.
I inspected a few blotches on the nurse’s back. “Oh yes, that could be what I’ve got,” I said.
“Well, do give me a call when you’ve got the diagnosis,” said the nurse, and focussed again on the task. “Now, I’m not going to bullshit you,” she said, looking up. “This is going to hurt.”
It wasn’t too bad, and I left smiling, encouraging her to keep singing.

So it turns out that I probably have psoriasis, which is, apparently, one of the most ancient skin diseases known to humans, and incurable to Western conventional medicine. Dr S- prescribed cortisone cream which I refuse to use, because it doesn’t actually fix anything – it only treats the symptom. Nick says that your skin is like your body’s billboard, and will signal when there’s something wrong. Agreeing, I went along to the clinic at the Australian College of Natural Medicine in the city, and spent an hour and a half telling a trainee nutritionist and naturopath what I eat, how much I poo and lots of other giggle-inspiring information (from me, not them – they were very professional). My treatment plan involves fish oil, lots of nuts (thankyou stimulus package) and some kind of ‘flower essence’ which I drop underneath my tongue whenever I’m stressed. I’m trying to have a bit of a health overhaul – more sleep (despite the boyfriend), no alcohol, no dairy, no caffeine, etc etc. I’m also trying to remove the sources of anxiety from my life, which is proving a little more difficult.

The naturopath wants my blood test results. Dr S-'s receptionist is being all possessive about them – apparently I might have to go and collect them (40 minutes on my bike) because of ‘confidentiality reasons’. Whatever. People send confidential information in the post all the time. I think they’re just being difficult because they want to have a monopoly on my health…I guess their pride is at stake. They would hate it that I’m seeing a naturopath. But the doctor can’t fix what I’ve got – it’s like she would rather I stay sick than admit that she doesn’t have all the answers.

But anyway, it’s been an interesting exercise in health-service navigation, which I’m not used to because I normally don’t have heaps of things wrong. You really have to be switched on and quite pro-active. I can see how people would just languish for ages without proper medical attention, or else try treatment after ineffective treatment because of a blind faith in a particular system. I reckon you have to take your health into your own hands, which is something the conventional medical profession trains us not to do.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

thoughts on begging

I ran into Kwin the other day for the first time in ages as I was walking briskly from Southern Cross Station, eager to get back to my warm living room and my book. She was sitting on a blustery street corner (Bourke and Spenser), colourful artwork displayed in books, few coins dispersed in a hat laid out on the ground. I exclaimed that it seemed like such a cold, windy spot; she answered that sometimes she needed to see the sky and some trees, because you can’t look at concrete buildings forever. We chatted for a while about this and that, while she rolled a cigarette. A man came along and handed her a five dollar note. “Bugger!” she whispered, loudly, after he’d left. “He always catches me when I’m smoking!” I asked her why it mattered, and she said that he used to give her twenty dollars, until he found out she smoked. “Now he only gives me five – he doesn’t want me spending his money on cigarettes. I can see where he’s coming from,” she pondered, “but I don’t like the idea of people giving me money with conditions attached. If you want me to have a night’s accommodation, go down to the local backpackers and buy me a night’s accommodation. If you want me to have food, well buy me a sandwich. But if you give me money, it must be given graciously. Don’t tell me how to spend it.”

I can see where Kwin is coming from. To stipulate how somebody is to spend a gift is paternalistic and somewhat controlling. Rather than build a bridge, it breeds mistrust and further instils the power dynamic between beggar and giver. It is to say, “I give you this money because I pity you, but I don’t trust you to spend it wisely.” What kind of a gift is that? It leaves the giftee grovelling and disempowered and the giver puffed up on self-righteousness. In our momentary experience as welfare-provider, we forget that we are also likely to spend that money on drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. ‘Gifts’ attached to the words “do the right thing with it” are underlaid with a false superiority on the part of the giver.

I still hold to a noble idea that money is better utilised in the hands of an organisation like the Salvation Army, where perhaps it can be used to address a problem closer to its root, than in the hands of a beggar, where at best the money represents temporary pain relief. When a woman armed with a convincing sob story and a request for some loose change confronts me on the street, however, I find it difficult to hold to my conviction. Slightly frazzled and feeling compromised either way, I usually hand over a few coins. My housemates, who have lived in the CBD and thought about this issue longer, seem more intentional when faced with the same situation. They see it as an opportunity to build relationships with people who are very marginalised: Gemma often invites people to lunch and at the very least will ask them their name; Dave only gives money to people he knows. I like this form of giving – the kind that strengthens our social fabric through relationships, rather than the kind that hopes for a salad roll, but actually just keeps people in their place.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Palm Sunday

Today is Palm Sunday. I intend to go to the peace rally. I've been studying the Book of Mark, and have only just realised how apt it is to have a peace rally on this occasion. The events that led us to celebrate Palm Sunday - Jesus on a donkey riding on a path made of palm leaves and people's cloaks - was the prelude to the clearing of the temple. The parade was not an isolated event, but, according to Mark, part of one of Jesus' most powerful political and social statements. So I thought I'd relate the story in this blog, using my own words.

Jesus and his disciples are traveling into Jerusalem from the Palestinian countryside. They get to Bethany, which is a sort of suburb of Jerusalem - much like Footscray or Coburg. Jesus tells two of his disciples to go down the main street and get a certain donkey which would be tied there, and gives some instructions as to what to say if people question them. So the disciples do this and bring the donkey to Jesus. A crowd of ordinary people gathered, and they immediately recognised Jesus as their working-class hero! They take their cloaks off and lay them in front of Jesus and the donkey, making a path for them also with palm leaves. People are going crazy – it’s like a ticket tape parade. They’re shouting out and celebrating, and quoting old scriptures that pretty much say that Jesus is the king and he is going to transform society. It’s weird, because Jesus is riding a donkey, which was the transport that ordinary poor people would use. It would be like someone saying she was the queen and riding through Footscray on a bicycle!

Anyway, the ticket tape parade ends, and Jesus goes on into Jerusalem and makes a bee-line to the temple. He’s planning on doing something. Now, the temple ain't no ordinary temple. It is the political and economic hub of Jerusalem, which was one of the big cities in the Roman Empire. It's absolutely massive - King Herod had knocked down the old temple and built its monolithic replacement out of imported marble in 19 BCE, which was apparently around 450 x 300 m (outer wall dimensions)! There were various courts for different classes of people (women, Gentiles, Jewish men, priests), plus the temple itself. There were large areas for buying and selling sacrificial animals, souvenirs and food.

The temple was so much more than a place of worship – in some ways, it was more like Wall Street or the World Trade Centre. It was a place of business and commerce and the abiding place of the rich and powerful (businessmen, politicians, lawyers, priests). Laws dictated that people participate in the temple life, or else they would not be an acceptable part of society. For example leapers (outcasts) and women would have to buy doves to make them ritually pure, whether or not they could afford them. It reminds me of the way people feel like they have to buy brand name clothes, shoes and handbags, so that they will fit in, even though they might not be able to afford them. It’s only really the corporations that benefit, in the same way that it was only really the businessmen who benefited from selling animals in the temple.

So Jesus goes to the temple and has a good look around, but it’s getting late, so he goes back to Footscray. The next morning him and his disciples get up early and go back to the temple. His aim is to SHUT IT DOWN. So he starts driving out the people doing business there, overturning the tables of the brokers changing currencies and throwing aside the benches of the people selling doves. He tried to stop anyone carrying merchandise through the temple courts. This was a bigger deal than usual, because it was Passover time, so there were people there from all over the Roman Empire, buying and selling produce.

And then Jesus speaks to the whole crowd, in this massive temple, and says, “My house is supposed to be a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it into a den of robbers!” The whole crowd was completely captivated by Jesus’ message, because they’d never thought of it like that before. Until this time, they might not have considered how they were participating in something that benefited the rich but kept the poor in their place.

Jesus was a pretty big threat to the priests and politicians and lawyers, because he was exposing the system for what it really was. They were scared because people seemed to be listening to Jesus! The priests, politicians and lawyers plotted to kill Jesus.

Jesus didn’t stick around – in the evening, he went back to Footscray.

So, the Palm Sunday ticket tape parade was really a prelude to a larger political act. How fitting it is for us to have a peace rally on Palm Sunday! This occasion should be used to challenge the powers that be, just as Jesus did in the temple.

The 'clearing the temple' story is sandwiched by a curious tale involving Jesus and a fig-tree. While Jesus is in Bethany (or Footscray!), he is hungry and sees a fig-tree, which is not in fruit because it's the wrong time of year. So before Jesus goes off to Jerusalem he curses the fig-tree, saying, "May no-one ever eat fruit from you again". The next morning, after the temple episode has concluded, Peter notices that the fig-tree has indeed withered and died.

It is as though the fig-tree is a metaphor for the temple - in Jewish tradition, figs are a symbol of peace, security and prosperity. Like the fig-tree, a fruitless temple will wither and die. At Peter's surprised exclamation, Jesus tells him to "have faith in God". Jesus points to the Mount of Olives - a cultural and historical icon for Israel - and says that if you tell it to throw itself in the sea, and really believe that this will happen, then it will. Jesus is telling Peter that he has the authority to dismantle the systems that oppress, if only he will believe it possible. In partnership with God, we can tell a fruitless fig-tree to die or end an oppressive system symbolised in a temple. In some ways, the system will end itself, just as the mountain, on your command, will throw itself into the sea.

Jesus ends the sequence by saying that when you pray, you should forgive people who have hurt you, so that God will forgive your sins. The system you have helped destroy will be replaced by God's system of mutual forgiveness, where you must forgive those who oppress you, because you are also an oppressor.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

economy of God

This is my two week anniversary of living outside of the cash economy. Well, I haven't made it completely into a cashless world - I've had a few busking stints. Nonetheless, for the benefit of all my faithful blog readers, who span all the way from Footscray to Camberwell, I will provide an update.

A big thing I've noticed is my attitude to waste. While in the past wilted celery at the bottom of the crisper and half a pot of uneaten soup in Credo would have posed as a burden, these moments have become exciting opportunities. In my world, which has a strong focus on eating and 'table fellowship', there is food to be found everywhere! I don't know why I ever bothered to buy bread because in Credo, we throw out loaves of the stuff (nice, wholemeal slices) nearly everyday. Right now I'm munching on some apple that might have just as easily ended up in the organics bin had Gemma not rescued it. The leftover cabbage in the Level 9 fridge becomes a part of my surprise fried rice, which included eggs from my parent's chooks and peas buried deep under chunks of ice in the freezer. I've had plans to go dumpster diving but to tell the truth, so far I haven't really needed to. 'Fridge diving' is thus far proving suffice.

The other cool thing about having not much cash is that my eyes have been opened up to more of the kindness of the universe; the acts of grace; the workings of God. Or, more likely, having less money means that this kind of synchronicity has a chance to surface and operate. You can choose to ignore it, or you can choose to open your eyes and be inspired that God is helping you along. One thing I was worried about was not having wholemeal pasta and my special non-hydrogenated peanut butter - sounds silly I know, but I think they represented a fear of a reduced ability to make choices. Anyway, I went up to Emerald to hang out with my friend Chandra, and what did she have in plastic bag for me? A packet of organic wholemeal pasta and some freshly ground peanut butter! She works at a health food shop: the pasta was going to be thrown out and the peanut butter was a grinding stuff up. Coincidence? No. I felt like it was God saying, "Don't worry. I'll provide." And then there's little things like walking to the supermarket with my bag of 50 cent pieces chunking around, and having almost exactly the right amount of money for the items I needed, despite having given a couple of dollars away to some people begging. It's that stuff that keeps you just have to decide to notice.

You can notice and be delighted, and then you can decide to throw yourself into the hands of the universe's kindness. The more you do that, the more you will experience her gifts. I am only a little way along this journey of faith...I have many safety nets that sit above the hands of God. Jesus says to sell all your possessions and follow him. I am starting to see how advice is wise; how possessions prevent you from following him properly, because they stop you relying on his kindness. Don't worry about what you will eat tomorrow! he says. That is what the pagans do! I clothe the wildflowers and feed the sparrows, so how much more will I look after you?

So I'm at a point where I'm thinking about my safety nets. When I get lumps of money (scholarship, stimulus package, RMIT pay, etc), what should I do with it? Should I give it away, as a step of faith? Or do I see these things as provisions in and of themselves? Both options are tempting, in their different ways.