Thursday, 26 April 2018

The raw egg and the 2 cent piece

Image via: Pixabay
My first full-time job was in a women and children's domestic violence refuge in the western suburbs of Sydney. I'd been working part-time through school and uni and once my studies were over, I knew what I wanted to do at the time. I wanted to work in women's services, somewhere in the community, where I could learn about issues affecting women and somehow make a difference. I got lucky. I found a job locally as a women's support worker. It was part-time with a view to becoming full-time for the right candidate. At the time I had a part-time job in a valuations office in the city, so I juggled my week between the two jobs, eventually quitting the valuer's office and working in a community housing co-op, until the refuge put me on full-time. It really was my dream job, but it was short lived. I lasted around three years. I soon grew restless, jaded and fed up with the lack of resources, the poor pay, the politics and the hopelessness and moved on. But those three years are some of the most valuable of my entire life's work experience and I still go back to that time to make sense of a lot of what I encounter in the work place and in the world today. Working in a collective, in a women's centered environment, in a community organisation with limited funding and a monumental social problem to tackle, violence against women and children; it taught me a lot about humanity, government policy, popular culture, social and economic class and diversity. The refuge was a microcosm of the world at large and in a very short time, I got a lifetime's worth of education so valuable, it still echoes in my life today.

Comparing my own life experience and reflecting upon my own cultural and social upbringing, I started to understand deeply the injustices, inequalities, and the cavernous gaps that exist for disadvantaged people. In particular, women and children, people of colour but especially First Nations people, those from non-English speaking backgrounds, poor families and those who were not only being victimised physically, emotionally and psychologically, (I soon learned ALL women and children are, in some ways, within a patriarchal society), but also those that had endeavoured to resist and escape, making the very difficult and dangerous choice to change their lives and demand their safety and prosperity. 

The refuge housed four families at a time in the main house, for a period of up to eight weeks. In the adjoining house, another four families could be accommodated for a longer period of time, for up to three months. Women and their children from all walks of life lived together communally, where the differences between them soon became irrelevant and were stripped away, leaving only the commonalities - their health, well-being and security, their day-to-day routines, their goals to become self-reliant and self-determining and their resolve to heal. It didn't matter what language they spoke, what food they preferred to eat, who or what they worshiped, what government they voted for, how much money they made, what suburb they'd come from, what clothes they wore, where they sent their kids to school and what their past experiences had been. They were all suddenly in the same boat, equalised by the paths that had led them to the large house in the suburbs that would be their in-between home, their sanctuary until they could get back on their feet.

It was the 90s. The Bosnian war was raging and we once welcomed two families in the same week; one Serbian, one Bosnian. We knew we had to tread carefully. We discussed the issues with each woman separately during their intake interviews and it was instantly clear that in the state they were both in, due to their very separate and crisis-filled circumstances, it was wise to create some space between them. We took both families in and decided to house them separately, which was an exception to our policy rules. On initial intake we were required to house new families in the main house for eight weeks, until they could move on to permanent housing or get the necessary protection to be able to go back home. The second house was reserved for families who needed more time, giving them three months to establish long-term security. In that instance, we bent the rules and let one of the families stay in the second house on intake, to separate the families and given them the distance they needed to settle in.

As time passed, the women were inevitably introduced and crossed-paths. There were workers on-site 24/7 at the time, but residents lived independent, adult lives and went about their days as they saw fit without much interference from us workers. They had a roster to maintain the house, but were largely able to come and go as they pleased, using the communal facilities together and taking turns to cook or shower and bath their kids. It was for the most part very civilised. Women just get on with it.

Without anyone even realising when or how it happened, the two women connected. They spoke a common language, they found the things that united them and they became friends to some extent. We eventually moved them both into the main house and they got along, even supported each other, until they eventually moved on and went their separate ways. 

Culture, religion, language and lifestyle are all constructs. Deeply ingrained and seemingly inherent "second nature", especially those lineages that go back longer than others, they are only however our experiences by luck of birth. Continuity of culture gives us stability and belonging and while it can only take a few generations to solidify and define our identities, the further our histories go back, the more entrenched they become - for better and/or worse. Once we understand that, we can look beyond these constructs and really understand each other as people, without diminishing our unique differences, because those differences are what enrich us. While the values and ideologies we inherit are what gives us our place in the world, our tribe, when we make comparisons we soon see that we simply have different definitions and understandings of the same universal human experience. I learned that very quickly and for the first time at school. My high school had something like 52 different countries represented. It was truly a melting pot. We celebrated our differences, but belonged to one community.

At the refuge it was sometimes difficult to accommodate everyone, but we did it, and that is when people find their common ground. When they are first given the space to be themselves. Like the two women from two different sides of a war who after being given the liberty to express their identities, came together by themselves.

We made sure every single family was allowed to feel acceptance and freedom to exist as they saw fit. We worked with translators and interpreters and communicated in ways other than speaking. We mimed when we had to and used very basic language to get sometimes very complex messages across. We allowed the provision of culturally diverse food. The western suburbs of Sydney are a global marketplace and we either shopped for the women ourselves as all food was provided and covered by the weekly rent they paid (an incremental fraction of their income or nothing if they had none), or reimbursed them if they bought food for themselves. We allowed them to create spaces for reflection, meditation and ritual as they saw fit, to facilitate the reclaiming of their sense of peace from the conflict they had endured. Altars and offerings of all denominations sprung up around the residence and it was inclusive. Adults and children alike knew to show reverence and respect for the trinkets and artifacts that people displayed around the house. Incense sticks, oranges, crosses, candles, flowers, statues, beads and the like would be placed in various corners of the house and yard. Each family had their own private bedroom but the communal areas were collectively used and taken care of whilst still providing an opportunity for individuals to contribute their own expression of identity. With each family passing through, the house reflected countless regions from all over the country and the globe. The cooking smells in the house were varied, cross cultural and always delicious! The office was in the front room and unless we had a meeting on, the door was always open. The backyard had a large childcare center and the children that weren't at school all played together. We held classes and activities including cooking, massage, art and play therapy and had both informal and formal counselling sessions. We celebrated together for birthdays, culturally significant days or just spontaneously over a cup of tea or a cake someone had baked. The women cooked for each other and us workers, they looked after each other's children, they helped each other get dressed and prepared for court or a job interview, they hugged each other when they sobbed and passed the tissues around. They broke up quarrels between the kids and danced when the radio was on. It was often a place of rage, fear and sadness, but mostly a house of hope, joy and fun. More than anything it was a house of kinship and particularly when a group of families ended up living together for the better part of the accommodation period, people got to know each other and became close. That's when the differences were stripped away and love and friendship was all that was left. Those weeks were truly something special and while there was always a service operating in the background: court dates had to be attended, AVOs applied for, instances of abuse and violence rehashed and recorded, mental health issues addressed, Child Protection policies adhered to; what kept everyone going was support, trust, unity, community - sameness, empathy, kindness. Also, courage, strength, resilience and the indomitable spirit of being a woman in this world.

I started off writing this piece with the desire to share two stories, anecdotes that sprung to mind recently, from that time in my life. Sometimes I remember an experience from those days and it takes me back and shows me how to deal with something in the present. I remember how much these events changed my perspective at the time. I was young, in my early 20s and was more naive and optimistic than the older women I worked with, most of whom were in their 50s and had been victims of family violence, racism and discrimination themselves. There were three generations of women working at the refuge at one stage. The first crop were the pioneers from the 1970s when refuges were first established, three women in their 60s and close to retirement who were generally from an Anglo-Australian background. The next group were a group of baby boomers from South American and Asian backgrounds - Uruguay, Argentina, Vietnam - all strongly represented demographics in the local area. Then there was myself and another young woman my age who was Lebanese. 

Once there as a Vietnamese resident at the refuge who had a very swollen and black eye. The story goes that her husband had gambled a lot of their life savings away and they'd fought. He assaulted her, hitting her in the face and giving her a black eye. She left with her children and sought accommodation at our service. We knew she had limited English and our Vietnamese worker was working very closely with her as her caseworker. We also knew she was incredibly scared, depressed and sad, understandably and commonly so. She kept to herself, but was always friendly enough. Our Argentinian overnight worker started her shift in the afternoons as we were all leaving. She spent the night and went home as we were all arriving in the morning. She was becoming concerned about the resident as she had been waiting until everyone had gone to bed and then would sit alone outside on the patio and play with an egg. The overnight worker observed her each night and was becoming increasingly concerned about her mental state. When we spoke to the Vietnamese worker about her client, she proceeded to explain what the woman had been doing. She had taken a raw egg and was gently gliding the egg over her black eye, without touching the skin. The swelling and bruising was filled with inflammation and heat and this was being transferred into the egg, causing the swelling and inflammation to be reduced and the white of the egg to harden. At the end of the exercise, the once raw egg became semi-hard boiled. The overnight worker claimed she witnessed this. Over just a few days, the woman's eye was better and the egg was no longer completely raw. Studies have shown the relationship between the consumption of eggs (eating them) and their effects on inflammation. I found some information about hard boiled eggs being used to reduce bruising and swelling, but not a raw egg absorbing the heat of the inflammation and diminishing the swelling, becoming hard in the process. Whether or not what the overnight worker had claim to have witnessed was true, or whether or not the remedy actually works was irrelevant. There was no need to be concerned for her mental state, more than was ordinary given her experience. She knew what she was doing and while a cold pack or ointment is something we would have recommended, using an egg was a legitimate cultural practice that we gave her the space to express. It wasn't bothering or harming anyone and the freedom to do it was comforting and facilitated her healing. From memory the story was shared around with the other women and everyone took an interest. Traditional healing techniques like that opened up conversations among the women that lead to connection and had therapeutic benefits, and even the shyest women would offer up an old remedy that had been passed down among the women in their family. Sometimes it was the ice breaker needed to bring down barriers between them and encourage co-operative living. It also encouraged them to share their more recent experiences and empower each other through their commonalities.

The second story is similar. Again a Vietnamese family was involved. Our child support worker, another Argentinian woman, had noticed that one of the children was displaying some angry red marks up their arms. At first she thought the child may have been scratching themselves, either from an allergy or eczema, or at the very worst case scenario, which wasn't unusual, self-harming. We even considered the possibility that mum may have been harming her child. We were required to be aware and suspicious of child abuse and mistreatment when evidence of injury presented itself. We observed the family and again discussed it with the Vietnamese caseworker. Mum had taken a 2 cent piece (they were still in circulation at that time), and was gently scratching her child's arm, just until the red marks appeared. It wasn't painful, but it was visible. The practice we learned, is called Gua sha (Chinese) or cạo gió (Vietnamese), which is an ancient Chinese medicinal practice that "releases unhealthy bodily matter from blood stasis within sore, tired, stiff or injured muscle areas to stimulate new oxygenated blood flow to the areas, thus promot(ing) metabolic cell repair, regeneration, healing and recovery." Basically, scraping the skin helps with circulation and boosts immunity. It was flu season and the family had just moved into a communal space. Mum wanted to make sure her child didn't get sick. Thankfully we didn't jump to calling DoCS!

These two stories were similar and taught us all a valuable lesson about understanding. When the status quo is a certain set of values, anything deviating from that is othered, judged and condemned. We needed to see with wider eyes. It was so valuable to have culturally appropriate caseworkers and a space where we sought to understand our clients instead of jumping to conclusions. It is something that is lacking in many social services and public domains at large, and the situation is even worse in the private sector, I would imagine.

I am now working in the public health system. It is a diverse environment both in terms of clientele and service providers being from all over the world. We are required to participate in Aboriginal Cultural Awareness Training as mandatory training. I took part recently and found it profoundly moving and emotional. The main feeling I had was rage. I kept thinking about the fact that here we were trying to condense 80,000 years of continuous culture into a three hour seminar to make us better workers, when the gift shop in the main hospital still sells golliwogs! 

Image writer's own
Fucking golliwogs! They've been popping up everywhere. Didn't we decide around 30 years ago that golliwogs weren't an acceptable artifact to sell given their very racist and genocidal history? Honestly, look it up, because I can't be stuffed explaining it! This SBS article from two years ago is a good place to start.

While cultural awareness and sensitivity policies are fantastic on paper, the reality is vastly lacking. It is an effort every day to maintain my composure when I witness blatant instances of racial profiling, discrimination, prejudice and downright ignorance, with no clear way to address it or report it and get any sort of adequate response. "Report it to your Manager" is not good enough. 

The best I can do is be an example, treat everyone equally while being aware and sensitive toward their individual needs and keep trying to see beyond the things that divide us, by connecting with everyone's humanity first.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

My fashion dilemma and my eyebrows

Image via: Glam4Good

Before I start, don't even bother to read on if you're only interested in a photo-log of my 'journey'. It's not happening. 

I've always had an antagonistic relationship with fashion. I was the first born, so mum had fun dressing me. And to top it off it was the 70s, so I was a freaking little hipster in floral smocks, corduroy overalls and red Mary Janes. When you have your first baby you enjoy adorning your new little bundle of joy in cute outfits. You get a ton of presents and hand-me-downs and you revel in your first opportunity to give your little 'mini-me' an identity. Within the first year though, you soon realise the importance and necessity of practicality. This usually follows your first experience of a colossal shit explosion, when suddenly Bonds onesies with zippers down the front seem like the only logical solution. 

I grew up in the 80s. It was short shorts with piping, tracksuits, glo socks (one pink and one yellow), jelly shoes, more corduroy, sloppy Joes and grandpa tops, denim and more denim. I was a teen in the 90s and that's when I went anti-fashion, because as a teenager, you're anti-everything, AS IT SHOULD BE.

It started slowly. My friends and I obsessed about INXS and that was my introduction to band t-shirts. I grew my collection steeply for the next decade: The Cure, The Stone Roses, The Pixies, The Clouds, Hole, The Beatles (it was retro), Lenny Kravitz, Rat Cat. I wore band shirts to identify my taste in music and reveal the concerts I had been to and therefore my personality. I didn't have a lot of money. I had a job from the age of 13 though, so I did have some and it allowed me to make independent choices about what I wore (and listened to); clothes and music were all I spent my money on. I remember saving up to buy my first pair of Doc Marten boots and it was exhilarating. To this day, when I feel like treating myself to something special to wear, I buy a pair of Docs.

I swung between Goth and Hippy - let's face it; the ingredients of Grunge, never committing to either and on some level always knowing that teenage fashion was just a bunch of bullshit to sell you stuff and convince you that you needed to 'pick one' subculture to fit into. The minute something became 'mainstream' was the second my generation, Gen X, rejected it. 

When I was perceived by others as Goth, it was because I was wearing black. I loved wearing black, I still do. I related it to my cultural heritage of the traditional Maltese dress called the Ghonella. Black is an easy and practical choice. I loved lining my eyes in heavy black eyeliner. It made me feel scary and powerful; a throw back to the days when mum dressed me as a Gypsy for Maltese Carnival. I have big eyes and when I line them they look huge and foreboding. If I didn't want to make eye contact, I wore black makeup because no one could look at me for long without turning their gaze away. It accentuated my rage. I plucked the shit out of my eyebrows. It was fashionable to have thin, arched, 1920s eyebrows in the 90s. They looked feminine, but they also made my giant black-lined eyes look even bigger. I dyed my hair black or blue black.

When I wasn't feeling dark I was indulging in the trend of bringing back 60s idealism, psychedelia and shit loads of Pucci and paisley and I dyed my hair red or burgundy. I discovered the local Indian fashion shop that sold beautiful cotton maxi skirts and dresses, cheese cloth blouses and paisley scarfs. They also introduced us to silver jewellery, gemstones, crystals and incense. Looking back and still today, I'm aware that I was possibly appropriating culture, especially more recently since piercing my nose. I haven't made my peace with any of it yet, but I have awareness. I just like what I like. Again, I'm sure my traditional Maltese peasant dress roots has something to do with my taste and definitely explains my love of crocheted lace. I had crocheted dresses and cardigans that looked like doilies and wore them shamelessly. I have previously written about my crochet addiction.

The dichotomy of black and colour suited my personality of extremes and I could go one way or the other, or a bit of both. I confused a fellow student at Sydney University during a first year Sociology lecture. When I met her I was wearing a black Robert Smith t-shirt, over a short black mini and black opaque stockings beneath my black Doc boots with purple laces. She was a proper Goth, only ever wore black and lace and described to me in detail what her funeral was going to be like. The next time we met up I had on a green and yellow cotton Indian skirt covered in Aztec suns, a Stone Roses t-shirt with holes in the shoulders and my black converse Chuck Taylors. She snubbed me! She was disgusted that I was bright enough to hurt her eyes and her dark, dark soul.  

Which brings me to my dilemma with clothes and body adornment/image now. I stopped dyeing my hair a few years ago. It coincided with me having three young children and making a bet with my hairdresser that I wouldn't cave. I've now fully embraced my greying hair and enjoy the discomfort it provokes in others, in particular, other women. I still get told things like "you're too young to go grey", when in fact I'm looking my actual age and the hairdresser (not the one who I'm WINNING the bet against) still asks if I will get a colour today. During my last haircut, I received unsolicited and extensive advise about dyeing my hair. I didn't hesitate to mention that my husband never gets asked about his greying hair and that I'd been dyeing my hair since I was 15 and knew all about tints, rinses, bleaching, peroxide, lemon juice, roots, foils and permanents, but had chosen to save my time, money and scalp and resist the need to be infantilised.  As women, we are not allowed to grow old. We are compelled to stay child like, free from body hair, coarse hair, white hair, wrinkles, crinkles, wisdom and strength. As we get older and lose our ornamental value, we become invisible. In the media, the workplace, public spaces and anywhere where power and influence lies. This is the general rule. Women break rules all the time. And the way to break this stupid rule, in my opinion, is to get old and get visible. Get hairy, frizzy, grey, louder, stronger and in everyone's face - like men do. When men do it we don't blink an eye. We commend them and give them a parade for being 'silver foxes'.

I'm fighting the pressure to address my body hair. I don't systematically monitor my body and spend time, effort and sometimes pain to make myself prepubescent anymore. Don't get me wrong, I still groom and shave when I feel like it. Literally when I get in the shower and go, "you know what, today I'm finding a razor and spending an extra 10 minutes shaving and moisturising." These efforts are getting to be few and far between. I literally can't be arsed that often. I've also stopped plucking my eyebrows. This has been really hard to stick to. I had thick, uneven eyebrows as a teen. I'm positive that I if I'd left them alone, I would have been able to just tidy them up and the caterpillar-brow fashion of today would have been entirely accessible. However in a bid to succumb to the pressure to look more feminine and less ethnic, I plucked the bajayzus out of them and now they WON'T FUCKING GROW BACK! Well that's wrong, that was just the initial panic, but my failure to give a shit meant that I have been able to neglect plucking them and ignore their asymmetry for long enough for them to bulk up a little. For when I'm going out somewhere and feel like wearing makeup, my discovery of a very subtle eyebrow pencil gives me the opportunity to colour them in (on a cool day when I don't have sweat pouring down my face) to even them up a bit. However, I will admit, that I'm paranoid that I've become that chick. The one with the coloured in eyebrows and not in a Kardashian way, but a disconcerting and strange way. If I knew then what I know now I would never have touched them and I wouldn't have made fun of that mum at school who drew her entire eyebrows on depending on her desired facial expression! When I colour my eyebrows in, I feel like I look like Bert from Sesame Street.

So, here I am; 42, grey hair, hairy legs and pits, coloured-in eyebrows and I have nothing to fucking wear. I hate clothes. I hate wearing them, I hate styling them, I hate looking like a Big W catalogue, because let's face it, that's what everyday people wear. Myer is for wankers. I have for a long time now refused to buy expensive clothes. I'm not that person. It would be a lie. So I buy cheap clothes, but I'm not that person either because, you know, I object to slave labour and disposable fashion. I would love to make my own clothes because I know what everything would look like. In summer, I'd wear cotton peasant skirts and dresses with tank tops and in winter I'd be in jeans (more specifically, elasticised jeggings) and slouchy tops. I envisage going out in pajamas as a fashion. Draw string and elasticised pants made of linen and cotton, and loose fitting tops with low necks so I don't feel like I'm suffocating. I could make my own clothes, but fabric is expensive and I have not the time nor the patience. I hate clothes, but I can't walk around naked!

So now, I look for a bargain where I can get it, at the big department stores or online. I'm still part Goth, part Hippy at heart, mostly dressing like a toddler, happily aging and breaking the so called rules. In the end, I get a glimpse of myself in the mirror and then for the rest of the day, people have to look at me so in fact, it's their problem what I look like. It's none of my business what they think of my attire. I know when I open my mouth to smile and speak, when I look someone in the eye to connect, that's when who I am takes shape. And if they can't see beyond what's concealing my nudity, that's their dilemma not mine.

Friday, 9 March 2018

When you grow out of toxic people

Image via Pixabay

I was once a doormat. 

Like most girls, I was raised to be nice, accommodating, polite, in control, quiet, easy going. When I say raised, I don't just mean by my parents. If anything, they lit my fire. The part of me that yes, does its best to be kind, but stands up and resists if I feel like I'm being abused or taken advantage of. I mean raised by society generally. I'm referring to all the little messages that told me my discomfort was something I had to tolerate in order not to upset anyone. In some ways, aren't we all conditioned this way? Isn't that the aim of good upbringing? To guide children to develop empathy by growing into emotionally mature and self-regulating adults, so that we can be fully functioning citizens and good, humane people? All good. That's what I'm helping my "just-out-of-toddlerhood" kids to do. No tantrums, acknowledge your feelings and meter your responses, relinquish ego and self-centeredness and do your best to be a positively contributing member of society and help others to do the same.

The biggest lesson we are supposed to learn as we mature is tolerance. Absolutely we need to be tolerant. It is the only way to make the most of and extend the time between when we are affected by something negatively and our response to it. The longer that pause is, the better our response or ability to remove ourselves. And when we fuck up, with practice, we get better at making amends.

Lately though, I have been thinking a lot about this question. When does tolerance become complacency? When does the strength to self-regulate and empathise turn into the weakness of being worn down and allowing ourselves to be abused.

When I had kids, something very vivid turned over in me. I don't think it was sudden, but rather an accumulation of a lifetime of getting to know my own limitations and what I could withstand, in both myself and in others. For others it might be another milestone that forces that change; a death, illness, divorce, sudden loss of income. 

It wasn't just about me anymore. I think when we become parents, we have this stark realisation that we are responsible and obligated to being the best version of ourselves so that we can model this existence to our children. Maybe it's not even about parenting as such, but instead a reliving or re-experiencing of childhood, by seeing the world through the eyes of our children, that forces us to re-calibrate.

I started being incapable of tolerating bullshit - and yes that's a quote from Jerry Maguire proclaimed beautifully by Regina King who played Marcee Tidwell, the pregnant wife of Cuba Gooding Jnr.'s Rod Tidwell. You can hear it here.

Actually, I was never capable of it. I think deep down we all know when something isn't right, but we aren't always strong enough or in a position powerful and autonomous enough to be able to articulate it, let alone push back. That comes with time and wisdom and privilege. Personally, I felt that sense starting to get stronger in me the moment I became a parent the first time and by the second and third kid (twins), I couldn't deny the force inside myself to demand what I felt and knew was right for the well-being of both me and my kids, and what I felt was just. I acknowledge that this can be subjective, but generally there is a universality to right and wrong.

Which brings me to the idea of toxicity. The topic is about toxic people, but I mean toxic situations as well. When I was younger I knew when something felt wrong, but I felt powerless to control my proximity to it. That's when my tolerance kicked in. I reveled in a sense of martyrdom and pat myself on the back for being able to withstand arseholes and shitty circumstances. Afterall, wasn't that what it was to be a good person? To sacrifice your own happiness for others and to turn tragedy into comedy. Surviving your pain and anguish and using those lessons to be a beacon of hope and experience to others. I still think that way sometimes and try to pass on what not to do or put up with to my kids.

But when my self-assuredness forced me to cross over, I started to feel that sense of invincibility, and I began to shed the people and situations that made me miserable. I started to see clearly the things I could neither change nor accept and I walked away. Easily. Without looking back. 

But that's not the end of the story. I'm still a work in progress, aren't we all? It is naive and unrealistic to think that you can do that forever and with every person and circumstance that feels wrong. Some things you simply cannot shed. Some people, some situations...well you simply have to make peace with them. And that is where I find myself these days. I'm tapping into that pool of tolerance, and it's currently very shallow, to find the ability in myself to rise above that which makes me bristle, that I simply cannot fix or walk away from, with the hope that the volume of the pool will replenish. What has shifted is that it's no longer about feeling like a powerless doormat, but a formidable warrior. And here is what is different. I'm naming it. I'm pointing it out and flashing a flood light over it. When my comfort is compromised, I don't pretend it's ok and I don't run. I vocalise it, I face it and I stare it down. Suddenly it doesn't feel so poisonous or dangerous anymore and more often than not, the toxicity dissipates or better still, the garbage takes itself out.

My tolerance is growing as is my empathy, but it's a different understanding to the one I had growing up, that I just had to be good and pleasant when things were shitty. I have come to the realisation that we are all toxic sometimes. What about the times when I'm toxic? I'm not always an arsehole, but I am sometimes, and I want people to excuse and forgive me when I fuck up. We're all fallible and when we start to see that, we get a bit of perspective. That doesn't mean we have to put up with bullshit people and situations and we all have limits and triggers, but acknowledging that to others we may be no different, certainly helps us to pull our heads in. Some people will leave our lives and it won't be pleasant. They'll be replaced by others and eventually we find the ones that are going to stick. The one person that will never leave you is you, and that's the person you need to make peace with. 

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Here we go again!

Image via: Pixabay

The other day, I was in my kids' bedroom and through the window, I watched a woman stake an Australian flag in the ground at my letterbox. She went around the whole neighbourhood sticking flags in the ground outside everyone's house. It turns out she's a local Real Estate Agent and she does this every year. A handful of people on the local community Facebook page were thrilled and thanked her, saying it made their kids happy and to keep it up. To be honest, I saw it as a bit of a passive aggressive act, given the current national debate so close to Invasion Day. At the very least it was tone deaf and defiant. I simply went outside after she was gone and put the flag in the bin. I discussed this with a few people. The reaction was mixed. Most people like to sit on the fence in this kind of debate. Her intentions may have been good, she didn't mean any harm. Or is it a subtle message about who is still in charge and what the sentiment in this community is? I asked the question, where are the Aboriginal flags? What if someone did the same so close to January 26 and planted Aboriginal flags outside everyone's home. I would like that. I believe many people in my community would see it as an act of aggression. 


I'm paying attention to the national discussion again this year. It feels like every year it picks up a bit more momentum. Rallies are being organised all over the country, there are festivals being organised by Aboriginal groups celebrating culture and honouring remembrance, and the discussion is filtering into the (very resistant) mainstream media.

What I'm noticing is a huge case of national cognitive dissonance. People are affronted by change and when they are confronted with the reality of how provocative having an Australia Day celebration happen on January 26th is, the day the First Fleet landed on our shores; when they are faced with acknowledging that this day is not a shared day of unity and jubilation, but for many a painful slap in the face that reminds them of the attempted destruction of their culture, that only a specific group of people think this day is an appropriate day to celebrate their version of what this nation is, people tend to hold on tighter to their way of doing things. I understand that for many people, the idea of redefining who and what Australia really is, is terrifying. Sometimes I think that they imagine what it would be like if the shoe was on the other foot. If Anglo Australia surrendered its homogeneous identity and relinquished some of its power, would they suddenly be treated as poorly as the treatment they have inflicted on others in the past? I'd be scared too.

It's interesting how this cognitive dissonance plays out. The little symbols and the not so little ones. All the shops start selling Australia Day paraphernalia, or people, you know, start staking the flag at your letterbox. The language and symbolism in the media is persistent. It's all about selling booze and food, having a BBQ and speaking in Aussie slang. These images are from my local paper, The Manly Daily, who incidentally, included an Australian flag with their last delivery.

Image via: The Manly Daily

Image via: The Manly Daily
Image via: The Manly Daily

Image via: The Manly Daily

The other thing I've noticed is how the status quo will manipulate non-white Australians into participating in perpetuating the dominant paradigm. They will literally use dark skinned or ethnically diverse models and personalities to promote white culture. See, they seem to say, this includes you! It's gaslighting.

Image via: The Manly Daily

Image via: Aldi catalogue

I try and reflect upon my own response to these things and why I feel the way I do. I get why. In the good old days of inappropriate language, I'm what was commonly referred to as a "wog". Never mind that I was born here and have spent the majority of my life living in Australia. My parents are Maltese, I have dark hair, skin that swings from light to dark with only a little sun exposure and a big nose. I have had an interesting version of growing up in Australia. I pass as Aussie most of the time. I speak the language well, have an Australian accent and use lots of Aussie slang: "mate" mostly. I know my way around, I've lived all over Sydney, I was educated in Australia and am "assimilated" - whatever the hell that is. I get what being a mainstream Australian is all about. Sometimes, I don't pass. I was always mistaken for Greek or Italian growing up. Sometimes, I'm sure people assume I'm Arabic, especially if they hear me speaking in Maltese. It's a language of both Latin and Semitic origin. I've been asked if I was Turkish. I've also been asked if I was Jewish. I'm sure it's the nose.

It's a unique experience being mostly acceptable, passable as Australian, but sometimes not. I'm still othered and different when it suits people to undermine me. However, most of the time I can get away with not being vilified and condemned because I tick a lot of the boxes for what it means to be acceptably Australian. Am I not Aussie enough because I don't have blonde hair and blue eyes or Anglo heritage? I'd never understood this properly until recently. How can a second generation English person be considered more "Australian" than say, a person with Chinese heritage that goes back to the gold rush days? I know now. White supremacy, that's why.

So where to from here? I'm not sure what we are doing as a family this Friday. Probably nothing. It's going to be hot and it's easier to stay home and catch up on stuff around the house when you have a public holiday and small children. I'm reluctant to go to the beach because I know I am going to be triggered by people who are defiantly claiming their right to celebrate the unlawful invasion of this land. I've been to parties where there were so many Australian flags, it felt like I was at the Nuremberg rally. Last year we went to Yabun Festival in the city. It was a beautiful day and I loved exposing my young kids to Aboriginal culture, music, dance and community. 

For a long time, I supported the campaign to change the date, but to what? It is something we, as a nation, have still not yet resolved. I'm leaning towards abolishing it altogether until there is real structural change. I am listening to the important voices of Aboriginal elders and activists and that is what they are telling us. We need to disassemble so much still. A day that celebrates this nation, truly represents everyone and has made peace with our history, committed to healing the present and is looking forward to an inclusive and equal future for everyone; that day hasn't arrived yet. Maybe we can aim for that day and then we'll have a date. I envision treaty with and reparation for all Aboriginal nations, I look forward to a Republic, I wish for a new flag and a new national anthem. All those things are still coming despite the resistance and denial.

I know for many people it feels like change is happening too fast and suddenly and we need to go slower. I wholeheartedly disagree. Resistance has been happening from day one and many have been speaking about these issues for decades. I think we are at the pointy end of it to be honest. Many have been gradually seeing reason. I mean just in the last few years we've seen this debate gain momentum and the backlash that goes along with it, reflected in the emergence of right wing politics and fascist ideology, the ideals people thought they'd got rid of for good during the last couple of world wars. Isn't it funny that some of the people who solemnly celebrate things like ANZAC Day are some of the most resistant to acknowledging the white supremacy that established this nation in the first place! We don't need to go any slower. We've gone too slow for too long and change is now undeniable and inevitable.

For now we have to be honest with ourselves. We have to work towards reconciliation by facing up to the destruction that our colonial history subjected our Indigenous people to. We have to move past the anger and the hurt and the confusion and look towards reclaiming our identity. As a white, (sometimes brownish), big-nosed person, I feel so much sorrow when I think about what our country and the whole world lost when we destroyed Indigenous cultures globally. I imagine what a world that shared resources peacefully from the start would have looked like. I wonder how differently we would have navigated, as humans, things like the environment, birth, sex, death, infrastructure, medicine, law, politics, exploration, science, astronomy and survival. I wonder how much more inclusive of women, the elderly and children, of all colours, we would have been if humanity had not been held captive by the ideology of whiteness, masculinity, wealth and religion over the last couple of millenniums. Because it's not a new idea that people can live in harmony and with equality. We wouldn't have survived this long as a species if we weren't altruistic, co-operative and diplomatic for the majority of the time.

Aboriginal people have been on this land for around 80,000 years, the science is still uncertain and I suspect will change to show us that it has been much longer. The arrival of the First Fleet didn't end the "stone age" here, as Piers Akerman ignorantly brain farted on Twitter the other day. The people that inhabited this land for so long before the British arrived, did so prosperously and expertly for millennia. And despite efforts to destroy them completely, they have survived and thrived. Isn't that enough proof that the colonialists were wrong? That's where we are at. Time's up alright. Time's up for a lot of things and if we're truthful, we can move forward and fix this mess.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

All in a Day's Work

Image via Pixabay

I recently started working in a hospital. It's actually a community health center attached to a public hospital, but I have to walk through the main building each shift. There's something very comforting about a hospital. I probably don't need to articulate it. It is simply an environment that levels everything. People are being born, they are unwell, they are tending to loved ones or they are dying. People are working in service of others. On every level; whether they're performing life saving surgery, providing care and support, answering questions at the front desk, making food and coffee or emptying bins and cleaning floors. There is something really special about being a part of that workforce community. I find myself smiling the minute I walk through the doors. I feel myself being extra polite and helpful. I start up conversations with strangers in the lift all the time, AND IT'S RECIPROCATED! 

The other day at work wasn't especially significant. I work two days a week and keep as busy as I can for most of the day. The community health center provides services to children from birth to 18 years of age. There are a range of services provided through the public health system for people living in the local area, ranging from speech and hearing assessments, occupational and physiotherapy, paediatric and developmental services, mental health and child protection. I work in the administration section. There are always children around and it feels familiar, comforting and sometimes soothingly chaotic. I sometimes think about my own children when I'm at work. When I'm distracted and busy, they're out of my thoughts, which has given me a balance and freedom from the constant attention required when looking after young children, that I could feel swallowing me up before I got back into the workforce. Going back to work wasn't easy. It took seven months, more than 60 applications and only a handful of interviews, before I finally hit the jackpot. I found myself over qualified and too old for a job that was only two days a week. Those jobs tend to go to school leavers and 20 year olds that employers can underpay. The jobs I was qualified for required shift availability and flexibility on my part, and this time I was inflexible and unavailable. After a couple of decades of being completely at the mercy of employment, I finally had to put my foot down and wait for a role that was accommodating to me and my family's needs. I know it is temporary and I will someday be able to give more, but that time is not right now. 

When I'm idle at work, or it's a quiet part of the day, I think about and miss the kids. This is healthy. The resentment I used to feel about being at home all the time has melted away. Even when I knew it wasn't going to be forever and I should have been loving every minute of being with my babies, I didn't. Sometimes I fucking hated it to the point of desperation. Every mother does. How could you not? Being a stay at home parent is relentless, exhausting and isolating. Someone once suggested I should "get a real job" instead and I laughed and I laughed. He was right. A real job pays you, gives you a lunch break, unlimited toilet and coffee breaks and you get to clock off and go home at the end of the day. Being at home with little kids doesn't. 

When I hear babies crying at work or a fussy toddler, I smile and think about my kids. I'm empathetic towards the (usually) mothers who are flustered and tired, dragging their kids to the appointments and it makes me feel grateful that my mind is at rest that my kids are at a good daycare, being taken care of, having fun and learning. I wish the workers who have looked after my children were paid better, valued and appreciated more. I wish the care service industry treated its workers with more respect and recognised how vital those services are to a prosperous community. I see pregnant women or new mums at work on a regular basis and my heart remembers that feeling with nostalgia, but also a little bit of relief that it has passed. It was so hard sometimes. Rewarding, but not properly acknowledged or supported and very hard. 

I'm acutely aware that I am also surrounded by illness and death. I see patients hooked up to drips, I walk past the radiotherapy ward and walk through the floor that contains the mortuary. I see sadness on the faces of some of the people that walk past me. Expressions of worry, fear and despair. 

The one thing I have noticed a lot since starting work, is that people look you directly in the eyes at a hospital. More so than say in a shopping center or when you're walking past someone in the street. I have a habit of making eye contact. I have big eyes and I can't help it. I remember someone once saying that it was very disconcerting and it isn't something that you are supposed to do with strangers. I think I complained to him that nobody ever smiled and he told me it was because it was unusual to expect eye contact from a stranger, let alone acknowledgement with a smile. I was honestly taken aback. Why? Why was it unusual to connect with someone even momentarily? I hadn't expected to exchange numbers and become best friends, but you know, an appropriate level of recognition that we were sharing the same space was normal, I thought. I get it now. I'm older and wiser. I don't always feel like making that connection either and must appear aloof or rude sometimes too, and I don't care. Perhaps I was worried about being judged before and smiled at everyone all the time. I don't do that anymore.

But at work, in the hospital, it feels like the opportunity and the need to do that presents itself more often. And I really like it. It feels good. It's a powerful thing when we connect with others, even for a moment. I always leave work feeling great. Like I contributed something and had meaningful exchanges. It makes me a better person, and not only is it because I work in a hospital, whilst that does add to the significance, it's the power of working in the service industry. I have always worked in a service based industry. Whether it was food service, or community service, or public service. It was those jobs that allowed me to contribute something useful to others and it made me feel good. It motivated me to do good and to value moments when I was in receipt of another person's service. 

We need to put more importance on being of service to others. Not in a self-serving and self-righteous sort of way, but by understanding that altruism is healthy and necessary, that kindness is vital and crucial, and that helping each other is actually our natural state. We too often get roped into thinking that it's every person for themselves and that's the only way to get ahead because nobody would do it for you. That's utter bullshit. Everyone has at one time or another been helped. Help is readily available if we are just willing to find a source, ask for it, and receive it gracefully. Opportunities to give are everywhere and really simple. There is no need for aggrandisement. Slowing down to let someone into your lane in traffic, letting someone with less items in front of you in the supermarket queue, holding a door open, giving up your seat...too easy. When we feel strong and the opportunity presents itself, do good, and pass it on. Guaranteed, it will come back your way when you need it too. Then you start to notice those moments more and the laws of attraction kick in. Maybe it's just a slight shift in awareness, but at work it happens all the time. If I go about my day with a positive attitude, willing to help others, being mindful of the people around me and their feelings and needs, I then notice when my needs are being met. I'm bringing this attitude home to my children the three days I'm with them too. I don't have that feeling of isolation and enclosure anymore. I have more patience and I'm more willing to find the silver lining when things get tough. I still understand the massive discrepancy in society when it comes to women's roles both at home and in the workplace. That inequality is still not resolved and is far from balanced, but I feel like I have struck a balance in my own life that is allowing me to contribute to the lives of others so that they may benefit too.

Most of the time we blend in like the grey umbrellas, but when we can, we can choose to be the yellow one.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Self-doubt and writing

Writing is one of the most liberating processes for me personally. I journalled endlessly as an angst-ridden teenager and young adult. It helped me to get my feelings and thoughts out of my system, read over them and make sense of them. The words were a true reflection of my disposition at that time. Sometimes it was poetry, sometimes black marks on the page. These days we blog or post on Facebook. Same difference.

The art of letter writing too, has evolved into emails and texts and I have to say, I'm ok with that. I would rather write short greetings, day-to-day catch ups or verbose soliloquies, than say them. Writing to someone is a great equaliser. They can't talk over you or respond their thoughts without considering your voice. They are forced to read what you have to say and then reply. I find it not only an efficient way to communicate but a leveler of the proverbial playing field.

Writing books has been a blissful and wrenching process simultaneously. I love nothing more than to sit alone and in silence; (this never happens, I write among the chaos of a young family most of the time!), and to thump out the work of my mind and heart on a keyboard. For me, the hardest part is definitely not the writing. Not even the re-reading, editing or re-writing. It's the sharing.

When I journalled, I assumed, and rightly so, that the words on those pages were mine alone. Nobody would ever read what I wrote. Maybe my children or grandchildren, or great grandchildren, after I'm long gone, would discover the chest of journals in some dusty garage and pour over the ramblings of their long dead relative. How romantic!

When I decided that I would write books and self-publish them, it was with the intention that I would manifest my desire, regardless of what an industry's rules were, and whether or not I was lucky enough to ever set foot in that world. Without the approval, hmm maybe that's the wrong word. Promotion? Endorsement. Without the endorsement of an industry: having a publishing house pick you up, give you a contract, market and promote you; without that machine of commercialism behind you, it's just you and your words, out there in the wind, naked and for all to see and judge or ignore. It's a bit masochistic because that is what I love most about self-publishing. That authenticity. It's just me out there. Purely what I have written, by myself, without much interference, with no one but myself to blame if it all goes pear shaped. It's very scary, but it's very liberating and I get control over the entire process of creating a book. I'm aware this may be a bit dysfunctional, but it's the only option I have to live out my dream right now. People don't have to read my books. They are not coerced or encouraged to, other than by my piss-weak self-promotion on social media, to my handful of followers (most of whom I'm convinced are bots!). And if someone does read my work, they don't have to like it. It's not trendy to. They don't even have to finish it. They can be completely indifferent. There's no popularity to cloud their vision or entice them. I have to say, I really like that. I can stay in the shadows.

But, and it's a big one, I'm still terrified about writing the wrong thing, causing pain, getting it wrong. Despite there being no real contractual consequences, (I don't owe anyone anything. I can write and publish the same word over and over again if I want to); despite that, I don't! I want to write something good. I want to write with integrity, honesty, emotion, passion, authenticity and fearlessness. I want my words to have impact. I want them to be enjoyable and entertaining, to make people feel and think. I want it to be the best it can be at the time I do it. Subject to change of course, and hopefully for the better.

It is now time to publish my second book, a prequel of sorts, in the trilogy that has become the guinea pig of this whole journey. And I am plagued by fear and doubt, which some may say means I'm on the right track.

When I wrote and published the first book I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. The story took 10 years to develop and building the architecture of a book, setting up a business from scratch and fulfilling the needs of this experiment were a massive learning curve. This second story was a smoother process, from the benefit of experience, but I have some major doubts. I'm getting to the main point, stay with me!

So, my biggest fear with the first book was creating and writing characters that were Aboriginal. I was terrified that I would get it wrong. I worried about appropriation mostly, and so many other issues that I had no idea how to even approach it. I asked questions, did my research and let my imagination and intention speak for itself. Then I came across a great paper by the author Anita Heiss who addressed this issue. Dr Heiss' paper talks about white writers and their fear of not getting it right when creating Indigenous characters. Whilst I still had lots of discomfort about my amateurism, my lack of experience, my limitations in research, I forged ahead and did my best. I worked hard to portray my Indigenous characters with sensitivity and respect and to ensure that it was clear that the voice of both the author and protagonist was clearly a white person. In this way, I did my best to be descriptive without appropriating. I'm not sure if I succeeded completely, I'm sure there is always room for improvement, but I worked really hard to get it right and as stated in Dr Heiss' paper, I simply could not omit an Aboriginal presence in a story set in Australia, and in particular, in the countryside.

The Indigenous characters have returned in the second book, and I hope to include them again in the third book. I felt more comfortable the second time around. They felt more real and accessible to me than ever. I felt better about writing them and even bringing them closer to the central narrative. Again, I wanted to make sure it was clear that the story was fictitious, the author and the protagonist were still white and still mostly describing, from their perspective, their experiences and relationships with these fictional characters, which sometimes exposed their bias and ignorance. Again, I have doubts and I'm sure there is room for improvement, but I'm happy to stand by that, and if necessary grow and learn. 

Now I have a new uncertainty and this one is a little harder to make peace with. In the first book (spoiler alert), the protagonist starts off being a heterosexual woman, who later falls in love with a woman, the protagonist in the second book. I had some concerns about writing from the first person about being bisexual, when I, the author, am not. How can I speak for someone's experience, when I haven't had that experience myself? Do I even have the right? There was no way to make clear that the author was observing the character, because the protagonist tells the story in the first person. I justified my actions by allowing myself to explore a "what if" scenario. What if I, a heterosexual woman, found myself falling in love with another woman? It's not entirely impossible. I delved into that possibility as the fuel to my creativity.

This time it's a little different. I have to say from the outset that it's too late and I can't change it. As I write this, the second book is in the final stages of publication. You see, this time, the protagonist is a lesbian. She discovers her sexuality in her teens and I wrote the story in the first person. It feels a little deceptive and I'm not sure that I have the right to do this. I have a million justifications. I tried to be respectful and authentic, it's fiction, I should be able to imagine characters that are far removed from myself. But it still doesn't make peace with the appropriation of a gay woman's voice. I knew the only way around it as I was writing, was to write from the third person, making it clear the author was a straight woman, observing and describing a fictional lesbian character, but I felt the impact would be stronger in the first person and I felt strongly about not 'othering' the character - I didn't want her sexual orientation to be trivialised. I am aware that I may have done the wrong thing. That I may have made a mistake, but I simply didn't know how else to achieve the continuity of the style of story telling that I began in book one. I even considered writing the third book in the third person to prove myself wrong, to highlight how I should have written book two, but I'm not sure I can. I even told myself that the central issues of the story in the second book weren't the sexual orientation of the main character. That family breakdown, relationship dysfunction, addiction and recovery were the main themes. That it doesn't matter that she happens to be a lesbian. But it does matter. Her orientation is central to the character's being and I have appropriated that voice as a straight woman, by telling the character's story in the first person.

Therefore now, all I can do is stand by my decision, whether or not it is right or wrong and let the storytelling speak for itself. The politics are something I am willing to admit I got wrong, and knowingly! It is not something I am only discovering now, or that has been pointed out to me. I knew it was problematic from the outset, but I did it anyway. I'm not hoping to get away with it and this blog in part is a way to address my doubts, not exonerate myself. Remember, the industry machine does not exist in my writing and publishing. There is no media attention, no social media mob, no consequences. Lucky for me. It is very likely that not many people will read this book. So I want to make it clear that I am aware and mindful of my possible misstep and that I am willing for it to be a point of discussion if it comes up for people who do happen to read this book and find it odd that a straight woman is writing from the perspective of a lesbian.

In saying all this, I am proud of the work I have done so far and hope to do more. I adore the characters I have created and their journeys and truly feel that the story honours the issues and themes I hoped to highlight. This year I hope to write the final book in the trilogy and bring all the characters together. It might make all the mistakes of the past worth it. After all, that seems to be the central message of the saga. That life is just a series of experiences and decisions that we make with the tools and knowledge we have in that given moment, and that in retrospect, these events form the tapestry of our lives. We don't live in a vacuum. We share our life's voyage with those who we are intertwined with through kinship, friendship, love and chance.

The second book in the Space trilogy will be available for purchase on Amazon on the 14th February 2018.

Monday, 1 January 2018


Making resolutions is a tricky thing. Big decisions are made, mostly in our own minds, during a rush of emotion, often marked by significant milestones in life. New Year's Day is the most common one. Birthdays too. We feel like we are getting a clean slate. The end of something and the hope for a new beginning. There are other triggers too. Falling in love, a quarrel, losing or starting a new job, having a baby. Sometimes it's simply a matter of waking up with an unexplained surge of energy. After a powerful yoga session, I feel like I can change the world!

The reality though, is that many of these thought processes never see the light of day. We don't manifest many of the thoughts in our mind, because they are simply thoughts. What ifs. Coulda, shoulda, wouldas. That's why we are such suckers for entertainment. Living vicariously through others. Reality TV, a sitcom or soap opera, a film or play, music. We look outside of ourselves and want that feeling within. "I'll have what she's having!"

Finding a balance between dissatisfaction and gratitude is tricky. It's no good simmering in bitterness and unhappiness, but complacency is the killer of dreams. It's tempting to live vividly in our heads and merely survive reality. Or go the other way; mindlessly seeking instant gratification to satiate our endlessly insatiable desires, never making peace with anything we do or have.

Where can we get perspective? In nature? With our loved ones? Through exercise, sex, intoxication? Why not all of them?

Above all else is creativity. I think the answer lies in Art. What is your art? What do you create alone? By yourself and for yourself. Do you garden, cook, paint, write, play music, sing, build, craft, mend or heal?

Sometimes the jumble of thoughts that make us crave change are just a jumble of thoughts making us crave change.

Fizzy, muddled energy that clouds our vision and torments our feelings.

Go make something beautiful. Make it a habit. Share it. Sell it or give it away, display it or collect it for future generations to find. And learn to read what you create. What does it tell you about yourself? What does it make you notice? How does it help you to see? What path is it leading you on? 

Do it. Or not. Sometimes doing nothing is an act of creativity - simply observing, existing, when life is demanding you to do anything but. What art and creativity does achieve is a manifestation of energy, a practice that trains us to make decisions. To choose. It really does. Art, in and of itself, imitates life. It teaches you to think and see efficiently. To make sense of the 'thought mess', the 'feeling chaos' and turn all of that into something beautiful and meaningful. Or at least external. Art pushes out the muck inside and transforms it, makes sense of it. It liberates and lightens. It empties and makes room. Art creates and takes up space simultaneously. It facilitates balance.

This is my resolution for 2018. Also, growing out my eyebrows, but that's another blog post.

I resolve to create. I write. I crochet. I sew. I might draw and paint again. I make every action a work of art. As luminous with beauty or prickly with ugliness as it needs to be, I resolve to notice my ability to create. What other purpose is there? 

Happy New Year.