Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Tracey Spicer with Anne Summers at Warringah Library

Last night I went to Warringah Library to see Tracey Spicer talk to Anne Summers about her new biography Unfettered and Alive. I've been an admirer of Anne Summers since I was in my 20s and working in the Women's Refuge Movement of NSW, for which she was partially responsible for establishing through founding the first women's refuge in Glebe called Elsie

When I walked in the room my first thought was the same thought I have in most places in this geographical area where I've lived for the last decade, but also in this type of gathering of white feminism - it's a thing. Everyone was white. Myself included of course. I pass as white, mostly. I avoid the scrutiny that people of colour face that attracts erasure, racism, victimisation and incarceration, but I'm not fair enough to pass as a 'real' Aussie for some people, because I'm not Anglo.

I looked around trying not to look too conspicuous, to see if I could spot some diversity - there was a smattering. I was born and have lived in Australia most of my life, but my background is Maltese, and if you don't know me, it's hard to tell if I'm European or Middle Eastern. I interpret all frowns in my direction as suspicion, so I work hard to adjust my standing bitch face and smile, even though I enjoy my SBF as my neutral face. It's comfortable. I made the assessment that most people were white and past middle age, mostly women, some men, and a few young people.

I looked up at the projection of the cover of the book on the wall and instantly thought to myself 'oh look that's white too, with blonde writing'...

Image via: Allen and Unwin
Then Tracey and Anne walked in and I thought 'Barbies'. That's my childish reference, what we all grew up with as the ideal girl; tall, thin, blonde, in a pants suit. I do respect both women immensely, but they don't reflect myself back. I read Tracey Spicer's book The Good Girl Stripped Bare and enjoyed it, but I couldn't relate to a lot of it. She had the Barbie life I would never have as a child of migrants. As removed as her life experience is from mine, I found some commonalities about her experiences in the workplace, but mine were not in elite news rooms or like Anne, in academia or offices of government. My experiences were in take away shops, factories, offices and the public service. It's hard to relate to someone when their life, while being portrayed as ordinary, is actually kind of extraordinary to someone from my own background - migrant and working class.

Anne and Tracey talked about a number of issues and experiences that Anne has covered in her book. They discussed the gender pay gap and the necessity for equal pay to be legislated, like in countries such as Iceland. Anne said it's no use leaving this issue in the hands of tribunals like Fair Work. It doesn't work. It complicates the matter and makes equality not only too difficult to access, but too complex to establish in the workplace. While I've never really worked on a professional basis, so was never really comparing my wage to my male counterparts, I've certainly experienced sexism in the workplace. They wouldn't let me get my forklift driver's licence in the factory I worked at with my dad while I was at Uni and I've worked with more incompetent and mediocre men who excelled while their female counterparts worked twice as hard for half the recognition, than I can count. My refuge experience was my link to Anne. I only spent three years there, because the pay was terrible compared to the risk and stress I was experiencing. Some types of work are simply not valued because they are considered feminine and are largely occupied by women - nursing, teaching, community support, early childhood, aged care. That influences the pay gap too.

I worked in a refuge named Bonnie in the western suburbs of Sydney, after graduating from my Arts degree at Sydney Uni, where I spent three invisible years, floating through the old buildings and gargoyles, not really making any friends, overwhelmed by the social pace, barely able to raise my voice above a husky whisper. Bonnie was established around the same time as Elsie. Folklore among the three generations of women I worked with was that Bonnie may have preceded Elsie but the attention was always focused on the city refuge not the one out in the sticks. The demographic was different too and may have contributed to Bonnie's obscurity. In the 1970s and 80s the western suburbs became home to a large number of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees following the exodus of people at the end of the Vietnam war, but the western suburbs were and still are largely populated by migrants from all over the globe.

Customs Officer Frank Dalton holding a Vietnamese refugee child, Xye Than Hueon the deck of the Tu Do in Darwin, November, 1977. Courtesy National Library of Australia - Image via: Migration Heritage NSW (site no longer active)

It was the 90s and I worked with women in their 60s who'd been there in the 70s when the refuge was established. There were also the baby boomers who secured funding, assets and corporatisation and me and my peers who began the process of digitising our newly created systems including policies, procedures, values and mission statements. The refuge is still in operation today as an advanced network of support services, thanks to the tireless work of the women who insisted on networking with the community and running the organisation efficiently whilst maintaining its independence. Elsie was taken over by St Vincent De Paul, (religious organisations tend to be preferenced for funding these days) in 2014 and while it still operates today, it can be argued that it lost its feminist principles by having to adhere to the NSW government's Going Home Staying Home policy, a problematic concept for women experiencing domestic violence and those supporting them to leave an abusive relationship. 

I was keen to hear about the establishment of Elsie, how local women squatted in a disused house and turned it into a safe haven for battered women and wanted to ask Anne about the value of grassroots movements today. She talked a little bit about 'hitting the barricades' again and using social media as a tool for activism and I would have loved her to elaborate. I was too shy to speak up, still the intimidated migrant in a room full of Anglos.

Tracey and Anne mentioned briefly the factionalism that can happen in feminism, almost as though women are all individuals with different backgrounds, experiences, thoughts and lives. Go figure! This idea that women can't disagree or experience the world from opposing views and ideologies is one of the problems that keeps us subjugated and all lumped in together as 'other'. Men can be valued as individuals, but as a women's movement, we've often had to homogenise to maintain our solidarity, which almost always reverts back to white and middle class. They briefly touched on this with discussion about Anne's experience working with Gloria Steinem on Ms. Magazine in New York and the disagreements they had which she elaborates on in her book. But more than that it was palpable in the room that discussion about women being different to one another and having different needs, agendas and disadvantages was only going to remain on the surface. What white women tend to do is hold onto their perceived superiority at all costs, for the good of unity they say, by erasing the intersectional needs of marginalised women. We need a balance of both. We need to refrain from attacking each other, but reverse racism isn't a thing. When you're white, your skin colour isn't the thing that marginalises you and yes, we still need affirmative action. Anne talked about being criticised as being Anglo and commented that it wasn't something she could help or change about herself, but she could be vigilantly aware of her given identity, (at least as much as non-white women are) and white women need to learn the art of stepping aside. They need to stop stealing the work and achievements of women of colour and passing it off as their own, give them credit when it's due and by using their privilege help non-white women to be self-determining and independent so that they can strengthen their own communities. And they need to let them disagree with their brand of feminism, which doesn't always serve everybody equally. For more on this, start following Ruby Hamad on Twitter and her experience as a journalist who is constantly ignored when she writes something, only to have her work plagiarised, discredited and celebrated as the work of someone else. I see it all the time, particularly at work. They'll talk to you when they need something, but it's really hard to break the white barrier! That invisible wall that not only denies you credit where it's due, but I've witnessed and experienced the existence of women of colour literally being ignored, being othered by white women, the same way men other women generally.

The discussion was interesting, anecdotal and covered many issues including abortion and how important it is to achieve reproductive rights in the form of safe, legal and accessible abortion, and to keep talking openly about our experiences, all good introductions to the content of her book. Check out the Shout Your Abortion movement. 

I was a bit distracted to be honest, missing some of the content because I wanted to pay more attention to the audience's responses. Like, nobody booed like I wanted to stand up and do when Tony Abbott was mentioned, of course not, it's his town. People wriggled in their seats a bit though, it was hard to tell what the feeling was as it is definitely shifting. Anne didn't defend or criticise any politician too much or unfairly. She talked about both sides of government on merit and spoke fondly and honestly about Julia Gillard and her horrendous experiences as our first female PM, even mentioning that her speech in Parliament directed at Tony about sexism is still talked about globally to this day. 

My interest was piqued when discussion turned to childcare. I have three kids under five in daycare two days a week and it costs us an arm and a leg. It has meant that I could only return to work two days a week and as a result my career prospects and superannuation have suffered the most. Anne talked about the childcare rebate and the change in culture that has seen childcare places and their funding go from in the thousands to in the millions over the last decade or so. She talked about the Liberal government's push to privatise everything, including childcare and the impact this will have not only on cost for families, but on women, their agency, their place in the workforce and public life and children's learning.

Anne argued that she has always noticed that Australians have a particular kind of disdain for women without children - a distrust or judgement that she herself has suffered alongside women like Julia Gillard. She also said however, that on one hand we exalt the value of mothers, but then punish them by expecting they withdraw from life to care for their young children (and the aged too by the way). Anne has always advocated for childcare to be absorbed into the education system. In many countries this already happens (including Malta), making childcare, like primary and high school free, paid for by the taxes of the population to benefit everyone equally. It pushes the quality of the service to higher standards, ensures qualified providers and promotes access across the board. How awesome would it be if childcare was of excellent quality and free! The trouble is there is an attitude that is growing in Australia that public services are not an entitlement. I work in public health and I have heard it from staff and clinicians alike that the public get the service they pay for (in other words, if it's free it's crap), and use this idea to deny or give sub-par service. I find it concerning that people don't understand the importance of public service, in particular public health. I challenge them to consider the situation in countries like the US where people go bankrupt when faced with unexpected health crises or ordinary health events like childbirth, unless they have expensive health insurance that not everyone can access or afford. I am tempted to tell them that if they don't believe in public health, they should cut up their Medicare card immediately and go and work in a shoe shop! It's the same with education. I wholeheartedly agree with Anne's notion that childcare is an important aspect of a child's education. It's not baby sitting. My kids get the attention, activities, learning and specialised guidance that only a trained early childhood educator can provide. As much as I love and care for them, the daycare staff do it better in some respects and it enhances their development. It also benefits them to see me happy and working, living the same kind of life that my partner is entitled to and the family benefits financially as well. I send my kids to daycare so that I can work and have a break and a life, yes, but I also send them for the same reasons I will send them to school. They need it and it's good for them. That is why it is the norm now. The majority of children attend daycare because its importance has become incredibly obvious. In my childhood it wasn't as prevalent. 

In Australia we have seen years of cuts and neglect for public education. Private schools are given precedence without a shred of evidence that students perform any better, in fact the opposite is true. I was interested in the response of the demographic in Warringah last night given there are so many private schools in the area and while the public schools are fantastic, because they are supported by privileged communities (through corporate and small business sponsorship, no less) and do better than public schools in other parts of Sydney, they are still overshadowed by the prevalence of the private schools, particularly those marred by religious indoctrination, which in my opinion has no place in education or public life. But we know all this, surely, and the opposite is happening. When we privatise education and make it expensive and exclusive to access quality schools, we risk dumbing down the population and ending up with someone like Trump in charge - we're not far off. The same happens when we privatise public services. The quality diminishes when the goal is profit not service provision. Public service should be the benchmark for private industry to aspire to, not the other way around. Better still, we should encourage community style organisations and co-operatives that are relevant to the communities and people using them. I kept thinking to myself, I hope Jane Caro runs as an Independent and with her wealth of knowledge about and advocacy for public education, I hope she wins and makes changes in Warringah! I hope the audience remember that next time they vote.

Finally, I want to address a question by one of the audience members. An older man asked Anne what she believed the genesis of violence, particularly against women was. She'd talked about her knowledge of domestic violence and the reasons why she'd established Elsie, and mentioned the 61 women that have been killed this year already, 8 up on last year and only 40 odd weeks into the year. These are some very confronting numbers and there is no presser from the PM about this kind of terrorism. The audience member lamented about the prevalence of violent images in our media, film, television, video games and social media and how desensitised young people are, as though violence is a new phenomenon in Australia. I wanted to answer the question. I wanted to say that we live on a continent that was colonised violently and that same violence continues today. We have not faced that history properly as a country. Tokenistic government apologies achieve nothing when First Nations children are still being removed disproportionately from their families, at greater numbers than the first stolen generations and when child protection legislation is about to change to force adoptions within two years, with no provision for extended family to have any input and to make these rash decisions largely outside the courts. Add to that mix the establishment of a My Health Record with the necessity to opt out (I believe the cut off date has been extended to January 2019) and the risks FN people in particular face of being monitored and judged based on prior health experiences in child protection matters is terrifying. Tokenistic acknowledgements of country as was performed in passing at the beginning of the night are meaningless when there is not enough visibility of FN culture in our mainstream. And not just in this area. Throughout Sydney and Australia I'm sure, we use a lot of FN culture - place names, animal names, concepts without allowing leadership and acknowledging origin and ownership. We don't have treaties. It's blatant erasure, complicity and continuation of colonial violence.

As a country we still haven't reconciled our past. We haven't owned it properly and until we do, violence is an acceptable means to an end. We also need to address toxic masculinity, the notion that aggression, conquest, exploitation and destruction - human traits which are masculine and not necessarily exclusively present in men, that these traits are superior and desirable to feminine traits, again prevalent in both sexes that are deemed inferior: nurture, kindness, creativity, humanity, honesty, integrity.

I also wanted to point out that while it is a concern that people, particularly young people, become desensitised to violence, we can't allow violence to be cloaked in secrecy and remain in the shadows. The world changed when the Vietnam war was televised. It was no longer the words of surviving soldiers, journalists and historians we relied on to imagine the details, we could watch it with our own eyes on TV. Same now with the democratisation of information via social media. We get to witness wars, atrocities, violence, corrupt governments and militaries, and violent crime in real time on our phones. Yes it desensitises us to some extent, but what if it also allows us to confront it head on and nurture the desire to stop it. Check out the #ThisISMyLane hashtag on Twitter where doctors in the US are answering the NRAs appalling comments to stay out of the gun debate by sharing pictures of gun trauma they deal with daily. The images are confronting, but necessary.

It was a really valuable night and got me thinking about so many things. Sometimes we forget that the purpose of feminism is to change lenses and see/move through the world with a feminine gaze and that gaze is diverse. Feminism isn't about aspiring to conform to a masculine world, by becoming the tyrants we abhor. It's about deconstructing and dismantling the patriarchal, and in our case, colonial systems that oppress us and damage people regardless of their gendered bodies and sexuality. The questions we need to start asking within the feminist movement must include the intersections of race, class, sexuality, gender and lived experience. We need feminism to lead us away from white supremacy, the cost of which is not only our humanity and our planet, but our future.

Friday, 26 October 2018

Superstition: As Stevie Wonder says, it ain't the way.

When I think about superstition, my mind immediately goes to extremes or the popular cultural ones. Black cats, walking underneath ladders, opening umbrellas indoors, walking on the cracks of the footpath. All of them childish, but impactful. I still get a shiver up and down my spine when I have to dry an umbrella indoors, but I do own a black cat and he's delightful. I know intellectually that these things aren't real, the stuff of myth and storytelling. There must be millions of things, in every culture and religion that people have passed down through the generations, through both written and oral traditions, things to look out for, to protect yourself against or with.

I remember as a kid, some of the things from my own heritage, things outside of religion that have meaning and are said to bring misfortune or prevent it. In Maltese folklore a symbol derived from the Eye of Osiris or Horus is used on fishing boats to protect them from harm or misadventure. The symbol of the evil eye can be found in many different cultures that have Phoenician influence, including on the Greek Islands. 

Another superstition I remember is the red horn or hand performing the horn sign, which is exactly the same hand gesture for "rock on". It was frequently used as jewellery or seen dangling from the rear vision mirror of cars, to keep the occupants safe or to curse male enemies with impotence. 

Image via: Pixabay

The Luzzu in Marsaxlokk, Malta. Image via: The Corinthia Insider

 Image via: Tuscan Traveler

Superstitions originate somewhere, are changed and applied to suit the people who they benefit most and eventually fade into mythology. People tend to hold onto these symbols though, as cultural rites and identifiers. They make them feel empowered and in control of things that life inevitably throws at them. They are all a bit of fun when not taken too seriously; comforting and decorative. But they can also define a people and is truly what makes humans so interesting and diverse. We all see the world differently, based upon our heritage. It's how we find belonging and how we connect, not only with people that are like us, but those that aren't, who also explain the same things about life, just in different ways.

But what about when superstitions become institutionalised beliefs that dictate more serious ways in which we live our lives? What about when symbolism, mythology, folklore suddenly starts to infiltrate society, where fact and science belong? That's pretty much my understanding of every religion ever. People used ideas and symbols to describe and influence events. When they came up with better explanations or methods, through trial and error or what we now call scientific discovery, they tossed out the old ways and did things differently. Some things that worked long ago, remained. Many of life's basic knowledge about survival is ancient. Others that were no longer useful, became harmful or were replaced with better ways were forgotten, or given another place to occupy in people's psyches. Perhaps they were used as fables or moral stories, perhaps as cultural traditional celebrations or festivals. Maybe examples of what not to do.

It seems logical to me that by now as a species, we should be able to discern what is real and what isn't. What needs more attention and what can be discarded.

I heard a story not long ago, and it's what got me thinking about superstition. A counselor working in public health had to do a home visit for an adolescent client who was accessing services. When they arrived, one of the parents opened the door and immediately told the counselor to leave. You see she was wearing a red dress and the parent was offended. I don't have details about cultural background or where the belief was derived from but basically the parent believed that red was a deliberate choice by a government employee to exert power and there would not be an equal exchange between the counselor and the client if she came in wearing a red dress.

Amazing right? Ridiculous? Well to that parent it wasn't. It was real. The family, I assume, would already have been feeling vulnerable and powerless. The counselor on the other hand, would have had no idea, but of course would not have achieved much had they insisted on pursuing contact. Of course they left and the case was reassigned to another counselor.

Which brings me to my point. How are we to know what people are thinking all of the time, what beliefs they hold and how they navigate the world? When people's superstitions, (and that's what they are), are derived from a religious belief, particularly the three main Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), we have a bit more clarity because they have dominated and colonised a large part of the world. Of course other major religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism have just as huge an influence on many. We can't exclude the Indigenous cultures of the world either, that despite attempts to colonise and eradicate them, have survived and in many parts of the world, through oppression and degradation have thrived and preceded everything else.

What about new and unknown stuff? There must be an eternal combination of heritage, new information, life experience and mental process that can influence the way a person walks through the world. What if someone thinks they can read my mind or vice versa? Or that they have had previous lives, or that I have? What if someone thinks they travel in their dreams or can heal using their thoughts and hands? (This is an actual industry worth millions of dollars). What if I am dealing with people on a day-to-day basis, people I love, acquaintances, those I interact with at work and in public, that have superstitions that I could never even guess let alone navigate openly? Maybe they think I'm sabotaging them or that they can move things with their mind and therefore I can too. Some people might have a thing about women with grey hair, or left handed people or those who only have female children or no children. 

What if some people's superstitions are so strong that they genuinely believe things that are not real and don't exist, but live their lives as though they do and those people make the laws, influence the medicine, control the information and decide who is worthy of life and who isn't. Imagine that superstition was mixed up with government!!! Imagine that!

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Where do we get our education from now?

Image via: Pixabay
My first born is about to start school and the twins soon after. The last five years feel like they have passed quickly and I hope that I've prepared them. I try my best to be a very aware person and to pass that awareness on to my kids. Kids don't learn too much from what you tell them, I've realised. They learn from the activities they experience and what they observe. Then, when they get out into the world they make up their own minds. My main aim is to make sure we have an open and nurturing relationship so that we can keep growing together. I want them to see me as a safe place. Somewhere they can offload all their worries and fears, their sadness and their rage, without apprehension that they will be judged, disbelieved, or that their feelings will be minimised and denied. I have made it a point to behave in that manner with them. I don't hide my feelings from them and I explain my behaviour. I don't try to protect them from the harshness of reality. They know that I get sick, I get sad, I get angry and I get fed up. They also know that these feelings are the necessary flip side to living a happy, exciting, curious and empathetic existence filled with love. Without darkness, there is no awareness of light.

I finished school a millennium ago. Ok, not that long, but high school graduation happened in 1992 and I only spent 3 years at Uni to get an Arts degree, then immediately started full-time work. My education only accelerated once formal education ended. In many ways, institutionalised learning only stifled me and taught me the stuff I didn't need. The stuff decided by bureaucrats of the dominant paradigm, and while there were probably female individuals who were from non-white backgrounds and with gender fluidity, the system itself was male, straight and white. It still is. So I'm prepared. I know that the kids are going to get the basic, systemic curriculum - reading, writing, maths, art, "history" - the blanks will need to be filled in.

I think about how I filled in my blanks. When I reflect on my education, I realise that it wasn't the place where I got most of my answers. It started there, certainly, but I guess that's the point of a formal education, to put you on a path towards learning and give you the practical tools to obtain knowledge. I read books, listened to music, talked to my friends and observed others. I got out into the world, through work and socialisation and talked to people. I watched movies and television and listened to the radio. As I got older, I ventured further afield and traveled, short distances at first, then broader. I looked for the commonalities between people from different places and tried to make sense of the differences. I questioned everything and the more uncomfortable it made others, the more resistance I got, the more it felt like I was on the right track. Not much has changed and I believe this is going to be the pattern for the rest of my life. I'm an eternal student. I think they make the best teachers.

Kids have so many other avenues for learning these days. They still have all the things I experienced, but information is now so freely available and accessible, it seems they have the sum of all of humanity's experience and thought at their finger tips. They can ask just about anything and they will get an answer. The quality of answers will vary, and it will be up to them to critically discern what is real and what isn't, so they too can fill in the blanks.

The fact is that traditional means of education have diminished in quality. We have an outstanding education system in this country - for some, not for all. On paper, our curriculum is adequate, but there are still huge discrepancies when it comes to who can access it, who it represents and who it benefits. There are massive gaps in funding, resources and culture between private and public education, many private schools are marred by the bleeding in of religious dogma and the execution of the curriculum is reliant on the luck of getting a good teacher, dedicated people who are still largely underpaid, undervalued and sometimes ill prepared. Systems are only as good as the people practicing them and if those systems are unjust and unequal, the content is going to suffer. We need diversity and we need open access. We need to redefine what education means and what its purpose is. We need to remind ourselves that education is a life long process that begins at birth and ends on our death bed. As such we need to consider how we as a society, share the load of raising and educating children. We need to stop compartmentalising education into separate categories of parenting, pre-school/childcare, primary, high school, tertiary and vocational study into an all encompassing way in which we nurture and inform each other at every stage of our lives.

At the moment, the bulk of early education falls on women. Whether they stay home in the early months and years of their children's lives, giving up their own education and employment to nurture their children, or return to work and lean on others, it is usually other women they end up leaning on. Early childhood educators are for the most part, women, and like teaching, it is an underpaid, undervalued, over worked and expensive to access profession. I didn't want to give up work when I had kids, but I didn't want to leave them for at least the first two years either. I couldn't afford the full-time daycare even if I did have a high-powered corporate career to maintain, which I didn't and never wanted. However, at the same time, the thought of leaving an 18 month old and 2 newborns with other carers was unfathomable and largely unavailable. I needed time. Not only to feel like I had educated them in the basics of existing: feeding, walking, toileting, hygiene, talking; I also wanted to witness those milestones and to be honest, there really wasn't anyone else to lean on, who wasn't already too burdened by their own life to help me. It is unfair to expect grandparents to raise your children, they've already raised their own. It's not realistic to burden other mothers who have their own children to raise and it's not an option to interrupt someone else's life with your kids, unless you're paying them. I wanted to pass on the knowledge that I had inherited myself, and to make sure it was prospering in a healthy way. We undervalue this practical education in how to exist in the world that we call mothering, instead fetishising it, only to degrade it when it suits. It is unpaid work or lowly paid when outsourced and we don't address its importance. When I say we, I mean the capitalist, patriarchal society that tells us it is women's work to care for young children. If this weren't true, men would be doing more, and I don't mean the basics of day to day tasks or even one-on-one care occasionally. I mean the mountain of mental and emotional labour that considers every aspect of a child's mental, emotional and physical well-being. If they did, workplaces would be assuming that when anyone becomes a parent, whether they carry the fetus or not, they would need quality time with their offspring to raise them. We would have free, quality and accessible child care, with educated and qualified workers who were paid exceptionally well. We would have flexible working hours and accommodating workplaces that valued productivity over time with 'bums on seats' and we would be seeing the education of children from day dot as a whole society's responsibility. As it is now, the education of children is struggled through as secondary to what is most important in our society; holding up the economy. In the long run, the current cultural system is its biggest burden.

So what else educates us? Our mass media, news outlets, television and newspapers are beyond a joke. Owned and controlled by a conservative and self-interested minority, the only real option to maintain your brain cells is to flick the off switch and use the paper to line your compost bin. 

Movies and music are a little more diverse and the Arts are always the place to find the truth of the human experience and lessons about how we navigate our existence. While mainstream crap is still shaped and manipulated by the zeitgeist, which is broken right now, there are always alternatives to be found. Visual arts, music, language, prose, poetry, story telling, creativity, the reflection of our beauty and pain is unbound and indomitable. And it is everywhere we look outside and in. When the Arts are not funded and valued properly, when there is an attempt to control, censor and stifle the Arts, that's when you know a society is sick and broken.

So, I'm trying to see this next step in my kids' journey as simply a change of scenery. Their eyes are going to be opened to new experiences and people and I wish for them to have the tools to navigate their external world in harmonious unison with how they navigate their internal world. That is the one that is most important. How they think and feel, what they want, what makes them happy and what makes them feel safe, valued and understood. I want them to know that no matter what they are doing, who they are with, what they see and hear, they are ok inside themselves and have a safe harbour to re-calibrate at home.

Mostly, I want them to know that learning is ongoing and in their hands. I want them to be curious, interested, excited and motivated about finding out new things. Even if that new information changes their mind and rebuilds them. As difficult as that transformation is to make sometimes, the way new knowledge can force us to crumble into confusion, throw us into a dark tunnel and see us stumbling aimlessly for a while, I want them to know that even in the shadows, they don't have to immediately see. They can feel around, trust and wait for the light that comes at the end, illuminating their path toward bigger adventures and opportunities and the absolute best version of themselves they can possibly discover.

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.