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 CafĂ©, 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.