What MY Kind of Peace Work Is.. and What It Is NOT

I have been asked “What is it exactly  that you DO?”

Tricky question, that one.

I will start by saying that Peace & Conflict Studies (PCS) is an incredibly varied field. There are people working at it from all angles- from Health and Sanitation to Black Lives Matter actions, Interfaith communications to Anti-War initiatives, LGBTQ and identity work to economic development.. I cannot even begin to list the ways in which it works…

But let’s back up and let me speak from my own experience- because this is the one I have and I never make claim to speak for any other. If you want leads on where to look for (AMAZING, INSIGHTFUL, CHALLENGING) articles or blogs that explore other topics, or these in-depth, I am happy to help guide you. Just leave a comment with your contact info and I will follow up ASAP.

Johan Galtung wrote in 1996 that “Negative Peace “ is essentially, the absence of war- or lack of direct, physical violence. But that’s not all. He went on to explain that “Positive Peace” is the collaborative of supportive relationships across conflict lines. To expand on that- Positive Peace is the presence of social justice and end of structural (indirect) violence. My work falls into the latter.

Stopping war is good, obviously. But that is not the end-all of Peace Work. I do not have the tools, or influence or (let’s be frank) the desire to try and get world leaders to stop waging war. I barely have the capacity some days to get my kids to quit flicking their wet toothbrushes at each other in the mornings. That’s just true.

I am thinking it beneficial to first explain what PACS for me is NOT, since that is/has been a source of conflict in my personal life:

1. I am not a marriage counsellor. It is not in my skill set to try to “fix” whatever problems arise in a romantic relationship. Anyone that tells you it is in theirs is a damn liar. Get help, sure, but work on your own problems. No therapist can prescribe, unlock or “discover” an easy answer for you. Some people specialise in guiding folks through this type of thing. I am not one of them.

2. Working toward Peace does not mean that there is an absence of Conflict. Conflict can be good. Conflict leads to change- positive or negative. Without conflict, we are doomed to a life of homogeny and monotony. We need to get okay with not always being comfortable all the time.

3. Being in PACS in no way exempts one from conflicts in life. We all have interpersonal, social, internal, political, etc etc etc conflicts. That’s just a thing. I am an outspoken person- this alone causes conflict. People get freaked out by that. I have the added bonus of being a person who is perceived to be female, straight, cisgender, white, maternal, (add your own label here)- some of which is true, other things- not so much. Suffice it to say, I am perceived to be a “peace maker”- and some people get that twisted. Which brings us to #4:

4. I am not, Not, NOT going to roll over and just go with whatever is happening or whatever I am “told” to do, usually by some older white dude (sorry other cool-older-white-dudes, but they are messing it up for you- SERIOUSLY!). A few examples here, because I feel like throwing some *nameless- I’m not a monster* dudes under the bus:

4a) An old neighbour drops by to try to bully me *in front of my children, no less!* into apologising to his ex-wife for calling her out on some potentially harmful stuff she pulled and thanking her for “all the things she has done for {me}” because he has ditched her and is pushing off her hurt feelings onto me. There were some veiled threats about how he could make things (*ahem* this fellowship) difficult for me, thanks to his Rotary connections. Says “You are in Peace Studies- take care of it- that’s what you do!” Nope. Not what I do, dude.

4b) A “relative” decides to overstep some boundaries in a pretty egregious way. Conversations happen amongst other “relatives.” I get a text ordering me to quit talking to people and adding “Good luck with your little ‘Peace And Conflict’ thing.” Yah. Nah. Go get bent. I don’t take orders, and I won’t be coerced into playing nice with you because you try to shame me with my own studies. Nice try, asshat.

4c) My ex-husband has been totally absent from my older son’s life for the better part of four years now. When he catches wind that we are leaving for Australia, suddenly pops up his head and makes a custody play. His lawyer actually tries the “well, she’s in PACS- can’t she figure out how to make this work for him?” routine. Well… let me think on that- oh, right- NO! Facilitating contact between a batterer and a child that suffers PTSD because of the abuse he witnessed and suffered is no way a part of what I do. Just- no. What? I can’t with this guy.

****

So- “What is it exactly that you DO?”

I focus on the stuff that, ultimately (in my opinion), leads to divides that are more persistent, long-lasting, and detrimental than a flat-out, good-old-fashioned-battle. To be specific- we are talking about oppression.

Oppression takes many forms. Most of us know about the “biggies”- racism, sexism and homophobia. Many of us know about about ageism, ableism, fat phobia, xenophobia, transphobia… and a zillion others I cannot (again) begin to list all of. Some of us know how these things work in “ordinary” everyday situations. Most of these are those who are directly impacted by that.

And that sucks.

It sucks because it makes it easy for the “rest” of us to overlook, or diminish, that person’s experience.

Here’s a real-life example:  At a school function, the principal (a woman who, by many accounts, is a sensitive and aware human being) is frustrated with a projector that she cannot figure out how to work. A teacher comes by and asks what is wrong. Her response is “I don’t know, maybe I’m retarded, but I can’t figure this thing out.”

Nearby, there is a very-involved-with-the-school Mom. This Mom happens to have two children that have autism and other health issues. This Mom is devastated by the off-hand remark the principal has made. This Mom roils in anger, sheds tears of frustration, reaches out to IRL and  online support networks. This Mom knows that, if/when she complains, she will be met with “What’s the big deal?” kind of defensiveness and dismissal.

The big deal is that the language the principal used was derogatory and injured the Mom who trusts her children in the care of this person. Fortunately, the children did not hear. If they had, it would have undermined them as human beings and led to a long-term distrust of not only the principal, but of the education system in general. And, let’s face it, the US education system is not looking so hot anyway.

The Mom was stuck feeling helpless against a person and a system that dehumanises her children- and, by extension, herself. Who is she going to go to? Who will hear her? What will happen next?

This is just one of hundreds of thousands of examples of how oppression works.

***

So- “What is it exactly that you DO?”

I talk about this stuff. I share stories and I work with others to share their own. I listen. And, even if there is nothing I can do about it *right now*, I bear witness to what is being said and seek to understand the impacts of what it means and what it does to the individual and community.

And I train young people how to do this. Because it is not a skill they teach you in school. It is not a palatable (and easily ignorable) little blurb that comes in a handout. This is a habit that requires intentional and sustained effort… and it has to start early.

How early? I work with people as young as three-years-old. By this time, they have already had a richness of experiences that inform their view of the world, how it works, and who they are in it. These are not “potential adults,” they are fully realised human beings right now. They know what’s up.

My work seeks to reach older people, too. Domestic violence survivors, migrant and displaced peoples, those who are living with drug addictions or recovering from drug dependency, homelessness and food insecurity… my experience is broad, yet interconnected…

I focus on drawing out stories that explain and empower, defy stereotypes and health trauma, ,a and those that subvert the narratives that we have been told about ourselves.

The power of a story is two-fold:

One is for the audience- can you move them, make them understand, help them feel?

Two is (in my eyes, more importantly) for the storyteller- are you validated, do you feel ownership, are you triumphant?

So- that, my friends, is what I DO. 

I bring stories to power and light.

“Becoming” a Peace Fellow

Orientation week is upon us. This is a rapid pulse intro into meeting the cohort, making our first grasping attempts at discovering who we are (or are not) as a group, getting the basics of campus life and academic expectations, and enjoying some delicious snacks while awash in Rotary events where we will try- but likely fail- to remember all the names of the people that brought us here and have graciously hosted us.

And here, I find myself marvelling again at how amazing and accomplished Class XIV is! To be perfectly honest, I am struck by even bigger pangs of unworthiness as I listen to them talk about the places they’ve been and agencies they have worked with.. most have already been doing the things that I hope to do in the next ten years or so. These are the best of the best.

But it is important, too, to bear in mind that these are just regular people. In the little itchy back-part of my brain, I know that they are also feeling all the feelings of being in a new place- on a pedestal built of paper copy. We are teetering here together, a unit cobbled together from a word of experiences, of joys and fears, successes and failures.

This experience will test all of us. I am not alone…

We Need To Talk About The Wiggles

Dear Captain Feathersword,

You may not remember me, but ooooh… do I remember you. You probably don’t know about all the imaginary trysts you had back when I was a single mom- exhausted, overwrought and subjected to the same damn DVD of Wiggles “favorites” tunes time and again just to get through one single bathroom break without curious toddler eyes all up on me.

You were my favourite of all the characters on the show. With your non-sequester pirate-y appearances and that bizarre “hoo-hoo-whoo-HOO!” laugh. And that sword, that delightful pink feather sword…. but that is a private message for us to share later…

What I need to tell you now is very important. It is a comment and a question- perhaps more an airing of grievances. I don’t know if you keep up much with Anthony, Jeff, Greg, and Murray (yes, I remember all their names- we watched that DVD a lot), have dreadfully misrepresented the fine country of Australia and led thousands (if not millions) of children astray with their biggest hit- “Fruit Salad.”

Let me explain. While none will argue that fruit salad is, indeed, “yummy-yummy,” I demand to know why these colourful singing dweebs chose such pedestrian ingredients. I mean- apples, banana, grapes- sure, yummy, but COME ON!!!

Look.

I have only been here for one month. Yet, I have been around, in the gardens and to the markets- I see what you have. Passionfruit, mango, and papaya (or paw-paw, as you call it) just dangle from everything, all around! And what about the sugar plums (which I didn’t know was actually its own type of plum, not just a holiday confection), lychees, longans, rambutan…. I could go on for ages…

This is pure insanity. Just look at this thing. It’s called a Monstera- a MONSTERA!!! How could a kid not love the sound of that? It’s huge and weird-looking and tastes like a mango ate a banana and then had a baby with a kiwi. Could they not make a song about that?

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And THIS baby right here! A dragonfruit. Yeah, DRAGONfruit! Kids love dragons! Everybody  loves dragons!! It’s also strange to look at and all speckled inside. Hands down winner of kids sing-along-song fodder.

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*sigh*

Oh Captain, my dear sweet Captain… I implore you… Consider the children.

Think of how all those sweet little moon-faces are turned to your programming, watching as you cavort in those billowy pants and enticing half-unlaced shirt.. .(*ahem*) I mean- watching as you and your crew promote healthy fruit consumption.

Widen their eyes, Captain. Clearly Anthony has failed us. Greg, Jeff and Murray probably tried to throw in extra pieces. I know. I’ve seen their dynamics. Anthony always drives the “car” and gets to hold the bowl while directing the others in his big, tall way to add BOOOORING fruits to the salad.

You are our only hope. He listens to you. Speak reason to him. The children deserve passion fruit- even if it is hard to rhyme.

Entertainment

Given that we don’t have internet, or TV, and we didn’t bring much in the way of books and games- we have been at bit bored around the house. We have parks around to keep us entertained during daylight hours- my notoriously un-athletic children even play basketball and soccer now- but come night, we are at a loss.

We did buy a small set of acrylic paints, which led to a few adapted and original works of art20160223_160228

Dino home

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We’ve taken up sushi-making:

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We even had a “party.” A Helmet Party. The boys dressed their pillows up as helmet-wearing attendees, and they had some tap water hors d’eovres to really make it “special.” The whole gang crowded in for this group photo.

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The biggest hit we’ve seen so far has been the knot-tying lessons and practice sessions that Brian has hosted. There are just gobs of tangled-up rope all over the house. This is how we live now.

 

But if you happen to have a boat that needs lashing to a dock- we’ve got you covered.

Wanderings

There is a steep twist in the sidewalk as you come to the edge of Princess street. There is also a loud dog that can jump high enough to lift its entire front end above the top of the very tall fence. And there is a house that looks haunted, but emits a steady stream of cheerful dubstep from a side window. It was my favourite corner.

Until I turned to look at the haunted rave-house, missed the wonky sidewalk shift, stepped into nothingness and rolled right over my ankle. I landed on my knee, then my butt- facing the wrong way up the hill, next to the fence with the angry dog. In the moment, I was most concerned about my ankle. This is the same ankle that I sprained/bone-chipped last year when I tumbledy-thumped into one of Macho’s dog holes. Fortunately, it was *mostly* okay. Oskar helped me up, and limped me the few blocks home.

Turns out, it was my knee that suffered the most. The raggedy scab makes for an interesting addition to my “being a proper Peace Fellow” outfits. While I am fond of the tomboy-in-a-cute-dress look, I don’t know how well it’s going over with the actual adults I am interacting with. I think the first conflict I need to resolve is between myself and gravity.

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But you know that no amount of injury is going to slow this intrepid wanderer. I’ll share with you a few of my favourite things from my walks around the neighbourhood.

Found:

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20160222_114738             20160221_104807Yeah- that’s a smashed bike helmet. Not my favourite.

 

 

Nature:

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This little plant growing out of the rock wall reminds me of something a fellow DV survivor and friend of mine once wrote about how they tried stacking the cement on her chest, but never killed off the root of who she is. (Love you, girl!)

 

“Braille Trail”

For sight-impaired citizens: These indicators run along most sidewalks as a guide for where crosswalks, intersections, and other points of interest are.

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Ice cream: because DELICIOUS!!

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Temple:

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Street Art:

 

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And this graveyard!!!

 

 

 

Updates

First update: I set my computer to autocorrect to Australian English. This doesn’t seem like a big deal, except that it makes familiar words into seemingly slightly-wrong spellings. Like neighbor into neighbour, color into colour, and aluminum into aluminium. Evidently “proper” spelling is important whilst attempting a fancy-pants graduate degree. Whatever. I’m just happy for spell check, so I don’t have to waste my time here learning things.

So, anyway…

X had a great time at camp! He made new friends and wowed everyone with his archery skills (thanks to the backyard set-up we have back in the States). We are a week out from those halcyon days of mud splashing camp life and well into get-to-business academic zone. Today, he told me today that he “absolutely LOVES school!” For a kid that, six months ago, was plagued by bullies and begging to be homeschooled- this is a momentous step.

He even almost likes his uniform now! Just yesterday, he popped the collar and was strutting back and forth in front of the mirror admiring how much he resembled “a 1980’s vampire.” I guess that’s a good thing?

Oskar is tolerating the uniform as he tolerates most things I have subjected him to in his short life. He uses his endless eyelashes to conceal the glare, and crams the hat on his head. Luckily, it has a very large brim. That way he can mouth all sorts of words at me, and I’ll never see.

Stinky tree update: Here are some pictures of the stinky tree. It is a very stinky tree, and we pass it everyday on the way to Oskar’s school. He opines that it is a type of eucalyptus. I call it the “skunk trunk.”

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I had my first Australian Rotary presentation- meeting with the members of the Loganholme chapter at Beenleigh. It was a really fun time, with very good food. I spoke about some of the work I’ve done in the past, and fielded questions on what I hope to get out of the fellowship, and where I see it taking me… (answer: Giant Question Mark) ….

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I met some really lovely people there- and had a good long chat with a fellow artist and writer named Peta.

You know those moments where you connect with someone on such a level that you both just press hands against your own chest and sigh that big, magical sigh that comes with knowing that someone just “gets it?” Peta gets it.

Which leads me to some big news:   We have a washing machine now!!! 

Peta read the last blog post and contacted me. She had a spare washer to loan us for a few months. She even delivered it the same day! Hurrah for spin cycle!!

It lives in a creepy little gnome-home outside, which is underneath our duplex-neighbours. I can listen in to the newest in entertainment news playing on their TV while I try to figure out exactly how many items of clothing fit into the machine. Note: the number is markedly lower than I initially believed- according to Brian, who has taken laundry perfectionism on as his new hobby.

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We still don’t have internet installed at the house. Telstra told us that our information got “stuck” in their system- after they got our money, of course. It has been “stuck” for two weeks now, but they’ve “got I.T. on it,” so it should only be a indeterminately long time before they know what is going on. So, that’s not really news at all.

However, the upside is that they have really sweet customer service people. They stick with me, running around and asking all the questions of different departments while I’m on hold, instead of transferring me to someone else who has no idea what’s going on. I just have one person to deal with who has no idea what’s going on- and that is a HUGE step up from Time Warner back home… (just sayin’)

As we’ve been offline, I’ve got some backed-up posts to throw on here. I broke them up so they’d be short and topic-specific. Ya know- like “blogs” are supposed to be.

Typical Day

3:00am
A familiar scent pulls me from sleep. Tendrils of wisteria wind their way into my dream and return me to a special place in Duke Gardens where my parents got married and where my cousins and I would hide as children. Our heads bonking together as we tried to, three of us simultaneously, read the same book- a copy of Rubyfruit Jungle heisted from my aunt’s collection. I sit up in bed now, a world away from that fragrant garden and inhale deeply. I commit to myself to track down a weighty purple sprig of it to keep in the kitchen. I fall back asleep to playful memories with my cousins, when the scenes in Rubyfruit Jungle were the raciest we could imagine and as seemingly unattainable as living on the “rich people place” that was behind the Gothic stone walls of Duke campus.

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7:00am
We’ve got one child halfway sunblock slathered, and the other re-packing his bag for camp. Neither knows where their shoes are and both have left uneaten food on the table. They are a bundle of nerves. It is the first day of school here.

Because of his age, X has been bumped up to 7th grade here- which is high school. At home, he had only just started Middle School, and had a pretty rough go of that. There is no Middle School here- just Primary (grades preK – 6) and Secondary (grades 7-12). He will be the new kid in the lowest level at a much larger, and older, school. But he is excited because his grade is going on a camping trip for three days, starting today. And at least he doesn’t have to wear his school uniform yet, he announces. He turns away in time to miss his brother shooting him the middle finger.

They are not excited about school uniforms.

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9:00am
I figure out what smells like wisteria! It is not the familiar drooping bell of purple on weavy-wandery vines, but rather some sort of bush with waxy, dark green leaves and white flowers. I am entranced by them and stop to stick my nose in every delicate blossom I pass on my way back from dropping O off at school.

I also discover that there is a tree that smells very much like fresh cut marijuana. And here, I thought this whole time that my neighbors just got started early and went hard all day every day.

There is another aroma, maybe hibiscus? It is similar, but not quite the same. There is an almost-manufactured strength in it. Like “tropical” deodorant marketed to teenaged girls, or the doll hair of one of Strawberry Shortcake’s friends. I haven’t placed it yet, but I will follow my nose and try to find the source.

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Noon
The midday sun has seared through us. B and I retreat to the house, open all the windows and strip down, leaving piles of sweated-through clothing all over the place. I am beginning to understand why there is such rampant casual nudity here. I suggest we get a baby pool for the little paved carport area that serves as our “front yard.” B thinks I am joking and laughs. I drain the last of the cold water and hand him the empty bottle.

The heat and humidity is quite similar to Summer conditions at home, and frankly it doesn’t get quite as hot here as there most days. But when taken in consideration with our increased walking and bike-riding on or near asphalt, which bounces the sun to sizzle up through our feet and legs as well as beating down from above, and the lack of air-conditioned spaces to hole up in, we have a new appreciation for these Aussies that complain of it. Our first few weeks of shrugging it off has faded. I reckon it like comparing my two pregnancies. The first was so easy that I often wondered (at times, embarrassingly, aloud) what these other mom’s problem was. Then, on my second, I became that swollen doddering woman and even gave my own former self a good scowling at. We have a better understanding now of why everyone trots around in panties now. Not that I ever had a problem with it. Growing up (okay…and even as an adult), I was resistant to shirt-wearing. I have an excuse now, though, Mom! Everything is good and aired out here. Except my shirts, which are in a fetid pile on the floor.

 

2:00pm
Laundry. I have resolved myself to the fact that stiff towels are a part of my world now. I hang the clothes out on the line, and even have a little technique for pinning them that I pretend is innovative. I like hanging clothes in the evening better. Around 7pm, it is still light enough for me to see my washing, but dark enough that the neighbors have turned on their lights. They have panes of brilliantly colored, bubbly glass in their windows which cast intriguing shadows down onto the peeling clapboard paint of their house. Sometimes they have on the radio- songs I don’t know- other times they talk and I can’t make out what they are saying, but I like the hum of it all.

But is early, and they are not home yet. And I am not hanging out clothes just yet, anyway. Until we get a washing machine, we have been doing our laundry in the bathtub. Which seems much more vile a task than I have found it to be. For one thing, the water is nice and cool and I can slop around in it as much as I like. But there is another thing I am finding.

Hand-washing clothes is rather meditative. Much of it is just repetitive shaking and rubbing, which allows my mind to slow down or wander as it likes. And I feel closer to the intimate details of our lives while doing it. I note spots and stains and see the difference in the dirt that rinses from some clothes, and how B’s sweat has begun to turn his clothing a strange rust color.  There is a worth in this work.

However, I am also happy to turn it over to B when it is his turn to do it.

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3:00pm
Back at the school to pick up O. He tells us about how they have three recess periods. The first is Morning Tea, after which they can play, then Lunch, after which they can play, and finally recess or exercise period, which is wholly devoted to play. This, on top of a shorter school day  and open access to the library, almost… almost… makes up for the uniform. His teacher informs us that she allows children to self-select research topics and he has gone with the Tasmanian Tiger. He is going to CRUSH this assignment.

 

5:00pm
We are sneaking bits of mangosteen and kiwi while making O’s next-day lunch. He has decided that he wants to bring his favorite food- sushi- and he wants to make it himself. Being opposed to the consumption of meat, he is substituting fruit, fresh basil, and carrots for fish. It is really quite delicious. When he is finished, the counters are covered in sticky and there is rice just about everywhere- including O’s eyebrow- but he did it all alone and actually wrapped a roll that was superior to mine in tightness and taste.

We eat pasta with veggie sauce for dinner and little cups of “Breakfast Juice,” which makes us feel decadent. I start to wonder what X had to eat today, and if it was enough, and if the other kids are nice. It will be two more days until we find out.

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6:30pm
O takes himself to bed early. We have not set a bedtime here yet, because the boys have not backed us into it yet. I suppose that will happen eventually, but for now I think they are just happy to lay down in front of a fan at the end of the day.

We still don’t have internet at the house, so communications and web-browsing only occur when we happen past a rare free wi-fi area. It feels good to be weaned from my phone, but is frustrating when you need (or just want) to be in touch with loved ones. And when you just want to see an episode of The Walking Dead on Amazon Prime- since you paid for the season anyway, and it’s finally back up. But instead, we wait patiently. We read books in bed and fall asleep by 8 or 9pm.

There is a strange bird outside our window that woos us to sleep with a rolling, guttural song. Her voice is like an old lo-fi record that my grandmother used to play on a built-in cabinet turntable. It reminds me of a pre-princess-mania Disney record that had Baloo and Mowgli dancing on the cover and featured heavy throated matrons singing pure sex in the guise of birds and Siamese cats.

In the morning, a different bird will wake us up with its clattering squawk. The one that, every day, Brian thinks is an alarm clock going off.

Words and Feelings

This one is a bit longer and more polished. Things have calmed down around here so I’ve had more time to focus on writing, instead of just dashing off snippets.
I love to write, but find the blog format very frustrating. Postcards never were my thing.
This time, no photos. Just words.

Okay- One photo.

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We are settling into our new house now. Our new habitat is quite different from West End. There, there were many eclectic little shops and goings-on to check out. Here it is quieter. There are several large parks within a two-block radius of us, including a skate/bmx park, and a local library branch and shopping center nearby. Here, the neighbor came by to greet us and advise us of their mail-checking habits. We are making a little nest here of library cards and dishtowels, and all the things that make this a home.

And in that, there is room for our feelings to start bubbling. O had a bit of a meltdown last night- tears of loss and fear, things he couldn’t quite put into words, but didn’t have to because we are all feeling them. I held him and tried to help give vocabulary to it but English is flawed, and we don’t have enough words to describe the richness of human emotion. If I were a neologist or trendsetter, I would write an entire dictionary dedicated to it. But I am not, I am a mother. So I do what parents do and try my best to make up for the failings of the world.

I spent the better part of the night, and much of this morning thinking about themes and topics that have come up recently. Some stretch across BLOX, others are mine alone. Most are a combination. As the spokesperson for our little family, I will do my best to be true to the experience of BOX, but know that what is written here is filtered through my lens.

 

On Longing

Because of the snow event, all of us missed the opportunity to have one last goodbye with our dearest friends. Plans were cancelled, bodies left un-hugged. We mourn that loss.

Our dogs and guinea pig, rabbits and chickens are cozy in their new (or temporary) homes. The boys have been wanting to look at old photos and videos of them, but get overwhelmed with emotion when they hear the little squeaks and playful growls. O has designs on getting a pet turtle while we are here, but says “it’s not the same.” It’s not.

We are also missing the small things- things that you don’t realize are comforts until they are behind you: Familiarity with the geography and terrain, a sure-footedness that comes with knowing a place so well that you could traverse it barefoot in the dark; the smell of your own house; bird songs and cricket chatter that had woven themselves into your background fabric so much that you don’t even notice them anymore; knowing exactly what time by looking at where the sun is glinting off the green pickle building, and what shade of orange it is; and being versed in local jargon and colloquialisms.

It isn’t a constant longing with us. Not a pining homesickness cobbled together from overexposure to Hallmark movies and long distance telephone ads. No one here is gazing out into the middle distance or watching raindrops race themselves down grey-tinted window panes. It hasn’t been long enough here to justify melodrama (and I’m not sure that it ever will be long enough), but we are tasting the fist pangs of loss.

And knowing that, even if everything were to stay the same as we left it at home- which it won’t, but if it did- everything would still be different. Because we are already different. And maybe, we are beginning to mourn the loss of who we were back home.

… or maybe I’m just being melodramatic here.

 

On Embarrassment

“Excuse me.” I caught her attention over the rack of blankets hanging in the thrift store. “I’m sorry. Could you please tell me what ‘Manchesters’ are?” I pointed at the sign next to us. The woman looked puzzled for a moment and asked me to repeat myself. When I did, she laughed and said, “Oh. Those are linens. Weird word, eh?” I agreed and added that I am in need of an English-to-English dictionary. We laughed and she went over to tell her friend about the “funny American” she just met.

I am used to the awkwardness of language. There is no shame, for me, attached to asking for clarification. As a non-native speaker, there are still many words and phrases in Spanish that I do not know. As a person who has suffered some oxygen-loss related brain damage, I often struggle to connect thoughts to language: I mispronounce words I know well, and sometimes can’t force the line from brain to mouth- despite being able to see what I am trying to say in bright, neon lights written across my mind. But this moment with the woman in the thrift store (or “salvo” as they call it here) was a highlight to a different embarrassment.

The United States is on a bit of an uneven keel right now. Between awful celebrities and horrible politicians, our public image is… well, let’s say “tarnished.” We appear to be a spoiled, stupid people with backwards ways and too much money to keep the flibbertigibbets in check. As a whole, I’d have to agree with this assessment. Our hometown is a liberal/radical oasis in a state awash in hate and self-defeatism, in a country overcome by fear and polarization. It is embarrassing.

I am embarrassed to be absolutely a part of that culture. I work constantly to overcome the messages ingrained and internalized in me. Yet, I am it. And while abroad, I feel compelled to represent the struggle to overcome those things. And then, I am embarrassed by my inclination and desperation to present this alternative representation. And then, I am embarrassed that this thought process has spooled itself out so far that I cannot retrace it to its inception.

The boys are embarrassed about the goofy school uniforms they will have to wear. And they are goofy- please don’t say that their not. I mean- those sun hats- come on! Despite knowing that all the kids have to wear them, they are still resistant. They know that they have to go home to the US, where what you wear means so much and affiliates you with your “people” at school, knowing that they will be behind the times. And not only that, but they may not even catch up here. And in that, they’ll have to forge a new identity two years in a row as “the new kid.”

 

On Identity

A woman we met told us that we were the first Americans she had ever met, and asked us many earnest questions about things like if we had “ever met African-Americans?” and “are there really Cholos?”  Her inquisitiveness brought to light some distinct cultural and environmental differences. X and O were baffled by her interest in the demographics of their schools in the US- which are roughly equal in number across Black, Asian, Latino, and White (with a much smaller number of Native American students). Xabien was curious to her delight in his best friend being from Mexico. To them, this is normal.  And realizing that your “normal” is no longer normal takes some adjusting to.

In addition to figuring out who we are here in the context of our community, we have to figure out who we are here in the context of this family. The rules are different, because everything is different. The boys will be getting greater freedoms to walk or bike into the city or schools on their own (it wasn’t possible from where we lived in the States), and so have to be trained to get around safely. There are different chores and responsibilities here, and so they have to learn to do things like hang the laundry on the line, and do the grocery shopping on their own. They are being reinvented as Brisbane city-kids. And B and I as parents of city-kids.

We are adjusting to our new roles with one another as well. I am the reason we are here. I am the anchor. Things, at least right now, are not the 50/50 we are accustomed to. We go where I need to go, and meet who I need to meet, for the fellowship. We move where I need to move to be close to campus (though, truthfully, if it were only up to me, we’d still be over in West End).

Soon, B will find a job, and (hopefully) it will even back out, but for now- this is my circus. I am a clown thrust into the role of ringleader, and the guys are here to jump through the hoops.

And I really like circus metaphors. I like clowns. A lot. It’s who I am.

 

On Bicycles

B loves riding bikes. X and O seem to, also. Many people do. Millions of people do. I do not. Let me clarify. I love the idea of bikes, in fact I looove my bike. I even named her Matilda (after the song Waltzing Matilda, whose socialist history I encourage you to investigate).

Cycling is a mode of transportation that is, in many ways, vastly superior to a car. By comparison, the carbon footprint is negligible. You can use alternate routes, go places a car often cannot, get physical exercise, and all the other things people say when they try to convince you that you love to ride bikes.

For me, it is an exercise in frustration management. It isn’t that I struggle physically- though that is sometimes the case- but rather that I am perplexed by the attraction to it.

As we’ve been riding around this city a lot lately, I have had plenty of time to consider what my irritation is. And I realize that it is very similar to that which I feel while driving a car.

See, I am a walker. I love to walk. Walking allows me to poke about and explore, investigate interesting things, look over and behind the scenery, discovering tiny treasures and catching bits conversations that inspire my imagination. I walk so I can stop and admire. This is not so on a bike.

I can see the panorama but am whizzing by too quickly to enjoy it. I wobble because I am caught up admiring some this-or-that and veer off course. It is an unsteady agreement I have with my little Matilda. She likes to get there, where I prefer to eventually, maybe, make my way over yonder. She is achievement, where I am wonder.

But for now, Matilda and I are locked in this waltz. I need her to get me around, and she needs my wiggly butt to stay still in her saddle. But I am sure we are a sight to see, lagging far behind B and the boys, swerving side to side because I caught a glimpse of something charming. Maybe we’ll catch up to them, or maybe not.

Exploring and Sampling

Today is our last at the AirBnB. Scott, the owner, has been so amazing and helpful through our first weeks here. We will be sad to leave his home in West End, but pleased to be in our own place.

We’ve had quite a bit of time over the past week to explore the city by foot and bicycle. We brought our bikes, and B’s repair stand and equipment, from home. This will be our main form of transportation while we are here.

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While it is refreshing to be liberated from reliance on a car, I must admit that my inner wimp is crying a bit. We found the steepest hill in town- maybe the steepest hill in existence. I didn’t get a photo because I was too busy pushing my bike up it and trying not to die. We also found multiple routes around the steeper hills in town. Fortunately, the topography is such that there are almost always ways around the suffering. Almost.

Yet, the vistas here are incomparable. Getting to the top of a hill and looking out to see a phenomenal landscape or cloud formation makes it worth every bit of sweat (and strings of creative profanity) to get there.

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I mean, have you ever seen clouds that look like these? What even makes that happen?

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Or THESE?!

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Speaking of beautiful… Merv took us down to Coolangatta for the afternoon a few days ago. It was magical! The water was pretty cold, but as crystal clear as promised. In up to my chest, I could still look down and see my feet. There were these tiny sand-colored fish that would dart around the bottom, managing to just outrun my toes while I bumbled around in the strong undertow. Shark Control Program (SCP) nets with red floaters are set to keep the sharks from coming too close to beachgoers.

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I’ve realized that I am not nearly as afraid of all the deadly things here as I thought I would be before we left. I think the hype might be invented just to scare off stupid Americans who come here with our big loud voices and trampling all over everywhere. I mean.. the created “Drop Bears” for that, right? Why not make some buzz about the real creatures here?

**btw- I am delighted that the Australian Museum actually has a page for Drop Bears. I LOVE this place.

Aside from exploring our environment, we’ve also been on a bit of a gustatory adventure. Last Saturday, O and I sampled some toasted crickets and cricket-flour energy bars at the Farmer’s Market. This week, we picked up some special “viper pepper” hot sauce and kangaroo jerky.

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The boys were a bit dismayed at our choice to get the kangaroo, but they didn’t try to make me feel guilty about breaking vegetarian for it. They know my policy is to always try a new and novel food when the opportunity presents itself. I encourage them to do the same- hence crickets (but not for X, who recoiled in disgust at the thought of it).

We did talk about the Australian policy of culling kangaroo herds– they are quite the pests here, I guess- and the benefits of consuming the meat rather than have it go to waste. I’m not sure they were sold on the idea, but at least they understood.

They did go in for Vegemite, though! We had a jar of Marmite back home, so they were somewhat accustomed to the flavor. Vegemite is thicker than Marmite- think Nutella rather than molasses- and has a saltier, less bitter flavor.  We’ve been eating it properly- on toast with eggs- in the mornings.

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One thing that I haven’t tried *yet* is Musk flavored candies. I considered it, but then I smelled them. It’s a powdery chemical perfume scent, like what my Grandmother Hilton (yes, we called her by that formal surname title) used to wear. It reminds me of plastic couch covers and a doll collection we weren’t allowed to touch. I was fond of my grandmother, but not so much so that I would want to eat something that smells like her face powder. Maybe one day I’ll muster up the moxie to try some. Or maybe not.

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B and I managed to slip away one evening to hang out just by ourselves and have a drink at a nearby bar- which they call “hotels.” Hotels are also hotels. Also- chips are chips, but they are also fries. Don’t try to figure it out. Just have a pint and chill.

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I suppose I should sign off now and go get packing. The next dispatch will be from our very own home here. We are shifting out of exploring and playing around, swimming every day and watching movies, and back into some semblance of a “normal” existence.

Which, it should be noted- “normal” for us is rather abnormal. We own that.

This is going to be fun.

What We’ve Learned So Far

We’re on Day 6 here- according to O, our self-appointed timekeeper- and just shaking off the jet lag and “vacation syndrome” of our arrival. Our first week has been a rush of new and novel sights and experiences. I am a bit overwhelmed, so just made a list-thing for this post.

Here are some things we picked up on (in no particular order):

  • It’s hot, but not like “hot-hot”-  It’s Summer here. Maybe 95º midday and humid- comparable to NC high-Summer weather. We adjusted to it well, despite coming here straight from snow and ice. The new upstairs neighbors are French-Canadian and German, coming here after living in Scotland for some time. They are melting. We are frolicking. We did get a bit pinked-up after walking around for a few hours without protection… evidently, the sun is much closer or stronger or something here. Sunscreen is important. Otherwise, you’ll be sizzled to a crisp. Screenshot_2016-02-01-18-16-10-1

 

  • My hair and skin are LIVING for This Climate- I am not ashamed to indulge in some vanity here. The Greek in me is flourishing under this heat and humidity. How about hair that curls in the right way and skin that glows and gets clearer every day? I’ll take that over winter-itchy redness and frizzy flatness any day. IMG_20160131_153414.jpg

 

  • Everything Wonderful Grows Easily Here– Merv took us to his house and we marveled at his garden. In it, we saw: Mango, Avocado, Papaya, Oranges, Lemons, Pineapples, Jabuticaba, Passion Fruit, Coffee, Macadamias, Pink Lady Apples, and all sorts of amazing vegetables and herbs like Tomatoes, Silver beet, beans, etc, that grow year-round. Merv’s wife, Margaret, asked at our inability to grow such things. My heart also tsks. It really is a shame.
  • This City Smells Good. Like, Really, REALLY Good- Brisbane is an urban zone, but there are many wild spaces that are home to native plants, and those imported from East and Southeast Asia. The refreshing vapor of eucalyptus mingles with soothing hibiscus to neutralize a lot of the traffic and other city odors (odours). Also- there are many smaller markets here that offer an abundance of fresh fruits. These get overripe fast in the hot heat and emit a gorgeous aroma that reminds me of an episode of Star Trek I saw as a kid, with my dad. I am wooed by the thickness of the nectar and want to just roll around in the produce aisle and … oh… sorry, forgot myself for a moment there.
  • Englishes Are Different- I realize that I am entering graduate-level courses in an area where the spelling and grammar rules that have been banged into my head by countless well-intentioned (American) English teachers no longer apply. While not illiterate, I am definitely behind the game. I may just add an extra “u” to everything and hope for the best.
  • Fake Vodka– this is a liquid that is packaged in a “vodka” bottle and sold alongside actual vodka. It has a similar proof rating, but is a bit less than half the price. Here’s the rub- it isn’t vodka, which you probably guessed by the word “fake.” The guy at the store warned me away from it, saying that it’s basically fortified wine (think Mad Dog 40/40 or Wild Irish Rose) that kids buy to make mixed drinks with at teenage parties. The drinking age here is 18, so that makes a lot of sense. For us grown-ups who prefer not lose major organ function all at once, this is a terrible thing. A terrible thing, indeed. I am happy the friendly shopkeep stopped me from making a terrible, terrible mistake.
  • The Term “Reluctant American” exists– this is a person from the States who is not super-eager to announce that to the world. They dodge around it and prefer to spend time in the company of anyone other than more Americans. I can see how this person exists… especially with US politics standing as they do at the moment.
    • *Note: Flyer photographed in West End, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. 9,485 miles away from Washington, DC, USA.                          Yeesh…

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  • Casual Nudity is Casual- it is completely common to see people from all walks of life in little to no clothing, just out in public everywhere. Shoes are especially forgone, but also shirts and pants. I have seen more people in their underwear here, just chatting outside with neighbors or whatever, than I have since my mid-twenties. Changing out of bathing suits into street clothes while standing at the edge of the water is cool, too. I wonder why we even bother with suits (or swimming costumes, as they call them here) at all.
  • Native Trees Don’t Shed Leaves, but Rather Bark– it only appears that every eucalyptus is blighted. In fact, the trees regenerate in Summer, as opposed to our Winter dormancy, and slough off big sheets of bark so they can grow. Like a snake shedding its skin. Which is an awesome metaphor, until you start thinking about snakes.
  • Snakes!!-  I have not seen any snakes so far, but I believe it is not far off. The community center/drop-in-childcare building had multiple signs warning visitors to watch for snakes. Why? Oh, you know, because they found AN EXTREMELY VENOMOUS SNAKE ON THE PLAYGROUND! … but, you know, no biggie. They put up a sign.
  • Australians Are Waaaay Laid Back- As evidenced by shoeless nudity and snake casualness. But really- my limited experience shows me that terms like “no worries” and “well done” are not only common vernacular, but also a way of life. These phrases are used in professional and casual conversation and are indicative of a supportive and chill existence. You just can’t get all that worked up here, it seems. Maybe because of the heat.
  • Animals Are Cute, Birds Are Terrifying- Kangaroos and koalas, as it turns out, are not as huggable as I need them to be. They are pretty standoffish, actually. Whatever. Possums are cuuuute… but also not interested in my snuggles- or even in being photographed. I have several shots of darkened treetops to attest to their diva behavior. There are turtles and creepy eel-fish things in the pond on my university campus that are interested in eating fingers (so I imagine), and the birds are creepy (like ALL BIRDS EVERYWHERE are). A bird called “noisy miner” sounds like a squeaky wheelbarrow, magpies and crows attack people’s heads during swooping season, bush turkeys are city turkeys that tear up gardens and do not give a whit about you trying to stop them, ibis are relatively harmless but will steal your lunch, and a flock of cockatoos is the most terrifying thing that ever darkened the sky with their white feathers of doom. I have no photos because I do not want to die. Birds are scary. AND BATS!!!- I almost forgot about the bats. There are flying foxes here. Which are pretty much the size of foxes. With huge, leathery wings. The biggest I have personally seen had about a four foot span. Yeah- like, the size of my younger child. But, you know- it’s whatever.
  • There is a Fake Beach, on the River, in the Middle of the City!!!– South Bank is an open-access pool/faux-beach area on the bank of the river. Visitors can cool off, sun themselves, and grab a drink at one of the overpriced bars nearby. There are lifeguards on duty, despite the water being only 5’ at the deepest. As evening falls, underwater light turn the entire place lavender and you can see the reflected lights of the city all around you. It is a dreamer’s paradise!

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Which reminds me, we promised the boys we’d be back at South Bank this evening. I need to go find my “swimming costume” …

… or not.