Battleship Motherhood – or – How I Lost My Muse

Just over a month ago, I sat down to write a post about Mother’s Day, and my complicated relationship(s) with parenthood as both idea and practice. It focused on a extended metaphor about a battleship we toured at the maritime museum here in Brisbane. I had photos of the kids aboard the  HMAS Diamantina, like the one below, to illustrate the ways in which motherhood is deeper and sturdier than.. blah, blah, blah… you get the picture.

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X & O bringing their target into focus

 

But instead, just under 200 words in- the muse faded and I was left staring at this stupid keyboard with nothing to say. This happens sometimes, so I let it be.

Then my youngest child, O, went into hospital.

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The opportunity for me to write about, or talk about or, let’s be honest here- even think about- parenthood is a privilege I often take for granted. It wasn’t always so. Before B, before O, it was just me and X, trying to figure out how to get dinner in our bodies every day.

There was little time for writing, though I tried to sneak it in whenever I could. I remember pulling a composition book out of the trash at work one day. Someone had put their name on the front in pink ink- big bubbly letters- and only used maybe a third of the pages for what looked like chemistry notes before pitching it into the garbage.
I covered the front with a magazine clipping and it became one of my treasured objects. But I hardly had time to write in it.
We were too busy moving from place to place, trying to hide from my violent ex-husband.
I did write about that. A love letter to my son that he still hasn’t read.

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Me & X, 2003

 

And I was reminded of all of this while O and I sat in the hospital. No internet service, no muse, no luxury of having time for myself to consider the circumstances or move the words from interior to exterior- the words were simply gone. It was nothing more than existence.

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O, clearly thrilled with the situation

 

We were there for ten days. O was tethered to an IV for antibiotics, and quarantined to his room. I was allowed to leave, but couldn’t. When I had to run downstairs for food, I scurried back up as quickly as possible, not wanting him to feel abandoned or to miss the rare visit from the specialists who held to keys to his release. The nights that B took over and sent me home, X slept in my bed and we both kicked ourselves awake from nightmares.
I was so grateful for the friends we had made here who came to visit, bringing games and crafts, or sending little messages between their own stressors of finishing up classes and writing research papers. My cohort took up a collection, which we used to buy some pet mice when we got home. And, though they do make a racket on their running wheel, they’ve become beloved members of the family.

 

And when Father’s Day came last weekend, I sat down to write- certain that the muse would tip-tap across my fingers and spill out all the buried truths I’ve been walling up behind this impression of parenthood (and childhood) I’ve propped here.

I was wrong.

So I’ll leave it at saying very simply that I am so grateful to have access to the hospital for my child, for semi-socialised medicine that allowed him to stay where he needed to be at no cost to us, for family and friends both near and far, for the power to put my words into letters, and the time to put those on paper. I do not take my privileges lightly, though I admit to sometimes minimising them when it is convenient for me.

It crushes me to consider giving up writing- even for a day, a week, a month. But I have.
I had to. My children and my family will always come first. And that’s just the way it is.

And with (or because of) the tumbling pain of acknowledging all that, the muse came tickling back up to me again today. I wrote several pages on a personal project; got started on that last, dastardly little paper I need to turn in for school; and finally got around to updating this blog.

We have a new house rule: No more illnesses or injuries.
That should keep everything on the up-and-up, right?

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My guys (plus one) playing under the overpass.

Food Ya’ll! – or – How Australia Helped Me See My Roots

It was 4:30 in the afternoon on a Friday, in Aisle 6 of a Coles grocery store in Brisbane Australia, when it hit me: I am a Southern Woman of a Certain Age. I knew it to be true when these words escaped my lips “What am I going to do?! They don’t have Duke’s mayonnaise!”

Though I had never made pimento cheese myself before, I intrinsically knew what all people raised in the American South know- you cannot make a proper pimento cheese without Duke’s mayonnaise.

Of course- you can’t make it without pimentos, either, and they didn’t have a can of these either. Which didn’t bother me so much, because I’m actually not sure what a pimento even is- a pepper maybe? After seriously considering buying a jar of olives and pulling the little buggers out of the middle, I decided instead to substitute a can of diced red capsicums (which is just Australian for bell peppers).

And then, too, you need cheddar cheese. ORANGE cheddar cheese. All they have here is white cheddar. Evidently, they are above ingesting day-glo food dye here. Whatever.

But I had committed to making pimento cheese for a potluck, and dagum it, I was going to do just that.

After my little moment over the lack of Duke’s, I realised that I would have to buck up and settle for what my Gramma Dee would have called a “make-do.” So, I sifted through too many aiolis (which is just fancy talk for flavoured mayo), “traditional” mayo (which is code for knock-off Miracle Whip) and settled for a little jar of “whole egg” mayonnaise. And now that we all know too much about my mayonnaise dilemma- let’s ignore the sound of my grandmother doing cartwheels in her grave and get to my recipe for Makeshift “Southern” Pimento Cheese.

*Not many photos for this post- as I was too busy cooking. Scroll down to the end to see the scrumptious results!

**in the spirit of my Gramma Dee’s recipe process, the amounts listed here are merely suggestions. Feel free to interpret them however you like:

 

Makeshift “Southern” Pimento Cheese

Ingredients 

  • Two handfuls of shredded cheddar cheese
  • A couple of big spoonfuls of cream cheese
  • A little bit less mayonnaise than cream cheese- but not much less
  • One or two cans of capsicums- depending on how big the cans are
  • A pinch of sweet paprika- more for colour than flavour
  • A dash or two of hot sauce

Instructions

  • Mix it all up together
  • Eat on bread or with some crackers, or just straight with a spoon if you’re me.
  • If you’re feeling frisky, you can make it into a grilled “Kiss Me Not” sandwich with onions and pickles.

After figuring out the pimento cheese situation, I started hankering for other Southern delights. I wanted shrimp and grits (guess what- no grits here!), biscuits and gravy (hey there- none of the white sausage or “sausage” gravy packets I had come to rely on back home), succotash and slaw.

So, I set to figuring out how to make that happen.

 

“Shrimp” and “Grits”

Before I give the recipe I used, I’ll go ahead and dispel this Crocodile Dundee myth of Aussie’s throwing “shrimp on the barbee.” Just like Foster’s is NOT what they drink, shrimp is not what they eat. They have prawns- which is not another word for shrimp, it is in fact a different (though similar) creature. It’s like calling a crawdad a lobster. Not the same.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup dried polenta
  • 3 cups water
  • Prawns- enough to make folks happy
  • 1 sweet onion, sliced thin
  • Butter or oil to sauté
  • 1 tomato, diced
  • 1 can stewed tomatoes, with juice
  • Garlic, sliced, to taste (more = better)
  • Juice from 1/2 a lemon
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Thyme
  • Bay leaf
  • Salt & pepper
  • Green onion tops, sliced into thin rings

Instructions

  • Cook polenta according to package instructions- but double the water.
  • Sauté onions and thyme in butter until onions just start to go translucent.
  • Add diced tomato, lemon juice and garlic- cook for a few minutes
  • Add canned, stewed tomatoes, bay leaf, s&p, and cayenne pepper- bring to simmer
  • Add prawns and cook until just barely opaque through center
  • Put a hefty scoopful of runny (read: grits consistency) polenta in/on bowls or plates
  • Top with plenty of prawns and sauce.
  • Sprinkle with green onion rings
  • Add hot sauce to taste
  • Remember to breathe while enjoying the deliciousness

 

 

Succotash

This is the quintessential Southern “vegetable.” The dish has Native origins- and is closely related to the Three Sisters- which is a legend/recipe/crop growing method enjoyed across the Indigenous Americas. You can read more about the Three Sisters and get the recipe through THIS LINK -scroll down to page 49 (which is a shameless piece of promotion for my non-profit Zomppa).

You can really make succotash any kind of way, so long as you have lima beans and corn. I usually add squash or zucchini, as the ingredients combine to provide all the needed nutrients to our bodies. Tomatoes and peppers are good in it, too. And okra- because okra is good in EVERYTHING. For this one, I went simple.

Ingredients

  • Two medium-sized zucchini, sliced into discs
  • One can, or small bag frozen, corn
  • 1 bag frozen lima beans
  • Fajita seasoning (pre-mixed- not sure what’s in it, but it was delicious!)

Instructions

  • Toss zucchini in fajita seasoning and sauté until tender.
  • Throw in corn and lima beans and cook until warm through.
  • Serve hot or cold
  • Preferably with hot sauce.

 

Slaw

I’m not trying to get into any fussin’ about coleslaw here. To alleviate the Great Slaw Debate, I’ll go ahead and say that this isn’t the kind of slaw you’d want on a (*ahem* Eastern style VINEGAR based) pork bbq sandwich. This isn’t that icky-sweet industrial stuff that comes in lidded shot glasses from fast-food joints. This is halfway between mayo and vinegar based slaw. This is a side dish. And it has craisins (dried cranberries), for no other reason than that I like them in it. You can take ‘em or leave ‘em.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 head of cabbage- sliced thin
  • 3-4 carrots- shredded
  • Thin-sliced onion, if you want
  • About a handful of craisins
  • A squirt of mayonnaise
  • Some white vinegar
  • A pinch of sugar
  • Mustard powder, seed, or (in a pinch) a little prepared mustard
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Salt and pepper

Instructions

  • Mix cabbage, carrots, onions and craisins together in a container with a lid
  • Put all the rest of the ingredients into a jelly jar and shake like crazy to mix it.
  • Pour sauce over veggies- not too much, not too little.
  • Cover with lid and shake the heck out of the newly-sauced veggies. This will cover them completely and bruise them up a little to optimize taste.
  • Stick it all in the fridge for a while- at least an hour or two- to let flavors mingle. It’s even better if you can let it sit overnight.
  • Eat it and experience deep regret at ever having called coleslaw “cold slop” back in elementary school, ‘cause this stuff is awesome.

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This is the meal we had the other night. With my make-shift “Southern” ingredients. I made biscuits, too, which we ate with the pimento cheese. I’ll get to work on figuring out how to make breakfast gravy and report back after I’ve ruined a few batches.

Today, I will rest easy knowing that I did me “durn best” to honour the recipes of my people back home. Gramma Dee is hollerin’ at me from the beyond about that Duke’s mayonnaise (she would have sent me a jar- express mail!), but I’m sure she would be secretly proud that I even tried to find it. Who knew those micro-lessons would ever take hold?

… and this, my friends, is when you come into your own as a true Southern “belle.”

Reconnected

Merv showed up right on time. He came through the door with a warm hug and gentle concern for us. He had seen the Facebook post from the day before and shared our relief that the dogs had been taken care of. He asked only if everything was alright now- and I appreciated that he didn’t dig for anything more. My brain was exhausted from the drama.

We had been planning a trip out West- to the Jondaryan Woolshed– and everyone was excited to get on the road. X wanted to see “the bush” that he had heard so much about, and O was eager to see the sheep and other animals at the ranch.

So we set out several hours west to “the other side of the Black Stump,” as they say here.

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To get to Jondaryan (pronounced like the name John Darian not Jondha-rain, as I thought), you first have to cross through Toowoomba, which is on the crest of The Great Dividing Range. We chugged up the mountain, astounded by the surrounding beauty. he terrain was so different, certainly, than that which we see in the city, but also from what we saw on the way down the Gold Coast. The temperature dropped dramatically, and the sky was a much different shade of blue-grey than we had seen. We stopped at the top to take a few photos and enjoy the thin air.

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From Brisbane, it’s about a two hour drive to Jondaryan. If you don’t stop to explore fruit markets and get smoothies, cruise through historic downtown areas that survived massive flooding, and take photos of mountaintops- which, of course, we did.

The woodshed is one of the oldest and largest sheep shearing operations in Australia, if not the world (don’t quote me on that). It was also the ground for many labor conflicts that paved the way for the sheep-shearing unions that contributed to the formation of the Labor party in this country.

But enough history, let’s talk ANIMALS!!!

Our official greeting to Jondaryan came in the form of three Clydesdales. They sauntered up to the fence for snuggles, which thrilled the boys. They had been close to horses before, but none as huge or friendly as these.

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After that we explore the grounds a bit. It appeared that they had had quite a large event the day before to celebrate Easter, and were in the process of cleaning up. The sheep had been moved out to a barn far across the rise to give them a break from people. There were movers rolling tables out of the barn, and pulling down tents from the fields around it. Tents and camper vans dotted the landscape behind. It must have been quite the to-do.

O spotted a sign that read “Animal Nursery” so, naturally, that’s where we had to go next. We were delighted to find that we could go right into the pens and cuddle with the chicks, calfs, and piglets. Geese, turkeys were also nearby, but not as amenable to snuggles.

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Afterward, we went to B’s happy-place. The equipment barn!

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Through the old homesteads and school.

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Crocheted wool food even!

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After seeing those delicious-looking wool sandwiches, we had to get some nosh of our own. We ate, and then took one more swing by the nursery. And captured this adorable pig being… maybe not as cute as we thought.

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On that note, we decided to take our leave. But the road trip adventure was not quite over. Merv took us on a backroads return to the city, allowing us even more spectacular views. I cannot begin to describe, and these pictures do absolutely no justice to, the beauty of this cloudscape. It was stunning and surreal.

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From the fields and valleys that had been washed completely away by flooding a few years back, we ascended back into the mountainous region. Eucalyptus forests and lakes, signs warning us to take heed of wandering koalas, and more clouds- Oh! The clouds!!

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We visited the Wivenhoe Dam, which feeds the Brisbane River. Though there are many thoughts to think here on the impacts of dams on nature (including causing the devastating flooding here in 2011), I chose to focus on the beauty of this place. And it IS beautiful.

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This adventure took us from city to mountain to bush, fields and farms to lakes and forests and back home again. We saw more of the rich range of landscapes and experiences Australia has to offer.

Merv deposited us back on our doorstep tired and happy- reconnected to this place and re-content with the (sometimes very hard) choices we made to get us here.

Thanks, Merv! I hope you read this and know just how very much you have meant to us on our journey here. I cannot imagine it any differently.

Disconnected

I anticipated a wall. My husband and I have moved enough times, gone through enough travel and poverty and loneliness, that we knew to expect a breaking point. We knew it was coming but, maybe because we’ve done it all before, were a bit casual about our periodic malaise.

We only sort-of miss our lives back home. We keep up with friends and family via social media and video chats. We can even make international phone calls with our Optus cell plans here. My mother went through surgery, and I was able to track it and sleep easy knowing that she was fine the whole time. We missed certain things, but not enough to question being here. It was our normal.

But when we got the message that something was wrong with our dogs, we were hit by a wall of helplessness and homesickness that we did not see coming. Without spilling too much detail publicly (it’s still a source of great confusion and pain), I can say that the person we left them with was out of town and there was an incident. A lot was muddled because information was coming through an unreliable roommate to my out-of-town friend then across the world to me. Leave it at the message we heard One of your dogs may be injured, they are locked in a bathroom, everyone there is freaking out. 

Not the message you want to hear at 9am. On a holiday. When you are completely unable to help. Or get clear information/straight answers. And already having left questioning whether this was the best place to leave your beloved pets.

We put out the alert-calls. Please help! Our dogs may be in danger. Can anyone go get them? It would have been around 10pm back home. And our dogs are BIG.  As sweet as they are, it takes a hell of a commitment to welcome 200 pounds of somebody-else’s animals into your home.

Fortunately, I heard back almost immediately from my biological father’s girlfriend. They could take them… but it would take a few days. It didn’t feel like we had that kind of time.

So- while the church near our house played host to happy families in their pastel best, rolling boiled eggs across the lawn- we fretted. We cried (okay, I cried, B kept it together), and regretted coming here, feeling we had abandoned two members of our family to some uncertain darkened bathroom fate back home. Everyone we knew was asleep in North Carolina. Our dogs were frightened and confused and- maybe, as one version of the story went- “covered in blood and possibly injured.” All of this seemed stupid and harmful and pointless.

We just wanted to be there. The shared sentiment was that none of this ever would have happened if we had just stayed home. It has all been too hard. And maybe we don’t belong here after all.

By evening (early morning there), we had found someone to pick them up and give temporary shelter until my family could come get them. It wasn’t until we got word that they had been retrieved, and were on their way to a safe place, that we finally allowed ourselves to fall into bed. The sleep was deep, but not restful.

And the kookaburra outside our window seemed to wake extra early to laugh us awake. I wanted to wring his neck.

Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary

It was dark in the platypus habitat, and I was happy for that when I realised there were tears streaming down my face. I’ve always dreamed of getting up close with them, but you can’t see a live platypus outside of Australia. In that moment, I realised that I had done the “impossible.” It tumbled into me that we are actually here- this is real this is HAPPENING!

And so I stood there and wept. I wept for joy, and I wept for the little girl I was so long ago- the girl who was told time and again that my options were limited; that I could only ever go so far in life; that opportunities really only come for those who have the luxury of options- and that didn’t include me.

I watched the goofy, bumbling creature knock about- bonking up against the stones and plants in her underwater habitat- searching endlessly for food. I tried to take a photo, but the slippery girl was too fast, too random in her movements to track. Perhaps I need to reconsider the rhino as my soul-match animal. I see a lot of myself in the platypus.

Since I couldn’t get a clear photo of her, I went over and got this shot of a skeleton. If you want to see her live, you’ll have to come on down here yourself. I’ll make the bed for you.

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While I was rapt with the platypus, O was equally entranced by the Tasmanian devils. I have to admit that these guys were a lot cuter than I had anticipated, which perhaps says more about how gross I thought they would be, rather than a testament to their cuteness. One of the devils was particularly active, trotting about through the three large, interconnecting habitats. He was playing to his audience, clambering up on a log to greet us with that- that one sharp snaggletooth the only indication of what he is capable of doing to us should we actually attempt to touch him.

And, I realised, I could probably have touched him if I wanted to. There seems to be a different safety standard regarding proximity to beasts here.

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We saw the dingos next. To which O stated “It’s just a regular dog.”

I think the dingos would disagree, but no one ever asked them.

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Aside from the platypus, I was most excited to see the wombats. I am a weirdo freak for wombats. This is the animal that makes me shake joyful fists in front of my chest and make that “squeee” sound that happens when you see something too cute to comprehend. But wombats are A) nocturnal, B) lazy, and C) less impressed with me than O was with dingos.

So, I took pictures of them sleeping. A lot of pictures. An embarrassment of pictures. And then found a little hidey-hole where O and I pretended to “cuddle up” to them. I would have stayed there all day, but some other families saw what I’d found and wanted to get in on the action, too. I’ll spare you the multitudes of images and just post these two.

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For those of you who know me- you know how actually terrified of birds I am. Yes, I kept chickens- but those don’t count- and no one ever said I wasn’t scared of them, too. I didn’t get any photos of the section of pathway that is flanked by bird enclosures. This was partly out of fear paralysis… okay, it was entirely that- but I did find it interesting that cockatoos come in more colours than just white. We saw black ones, pink ones, grey ones.. all of them equally disturbing. Something about those raptor eyes. The evidence is clear- these are just dinosaurs in feather drag. They will kill us all.

Which brings us to the big birds.

In the kangaroo enclosure, there were also emus. I was fine, so long as they were wandering away from me- but then one came right at us. Yeah- nah. Not so much with the cool then.

Far away from all the other everything, there was also a cassowary. A very scary cassowary. With big claws and a chilling glare. Again, I was surprised that nothing but a chainlink fence was between us and this cold-blooded killer. If we had wanted to reach through and touch it, we probably could have. Maybe this is Australia’s way of serving survival-of-the-fittest.

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Some random photos before the jump to kangaroos. “Jump”- get it?! Ahhahaaa- I kill me sometimes.

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X and O trying to get our bearings.

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The kangaroo enclosure was super cool. Except for the part where there was an echidna overlook which overlooked exactly zero echidnas. I assumed that they were just hiding somewhere, sleeping. But I met a man a few days ago who said he used to eat porko-sammies, or porcupine(meaning echidna) sandwiches, as a child. He said they were delicious. So, maybe someone ate the echidnas. I don’t know.

Anyway- there were so many kangaroos! This photo is nowhere close to representative. These were only a handful of the ones who were in the designated no-visitor “Kanga Lounge.” There were many more. I would put the number in the hundreds.

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At $2/each at the gift shop, we bought two bags of kangaroo feed, which was more than enough. Kangaroo food, by the way, looks suspiciously like guinea pig food. Turns out, these ‘roos are so calm and well fed that you don’t even have to try to ply them with treats. They don’t even bother to look up when you approach. Some of them just lounge on their sides, pellets scattered around their heads, occasionally making the half-effort to nibble from your hands.

If you look carefully at the below picture, you can see that the kangaroo that O os feeding has a joey in her pouch. He kept sticking his feet and head out, but she would shove him back in. Guess she wanted all the snacks for herself. I can get down with that.

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X thought this lifestyle was exactly his speed.

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Ya know, just hanging out with a lazy ‘roo- like ya do.

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Now, about the koalas. There are lots of koalas at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. “Heaps” of koalas- as they would say here. There are at least twelve different “houses” and a koala forest for them to …  do whatever koalas do (sleep?).. in.

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There is also a part where you can cuddle and have photos made with koalas.

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Before we get too far, I must say that I admire the system they have in place for this. The koalas are all hand-raised, so they are accustomed to being handled, but they are also put on a time-limit of half an hour per day of visitor contact. Also “cuddling” is merely an adorable term for standing very still and holding them. The keeper instructed us on how to hold our hands just so, and to “act like a tree- BE a tree!” She then placed and positioned Minty on me, and I did my best to tree-cuddle her wooly tummy. And Minty grabbed my boob pretty hard, and I did my tree-like best not to jerk away. This was for a family photo, after all.

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So, if this were a review- I would give Lone Pine all the stars. We didn’t get to see the sheepdog show, or the Tasmanian devil feedings. They also have a reptile house that was closed when we got there, and barnyard with tiny goats and chickens and some guinea pigs that we didn’t get photos of.

And, despite the kids insistence on never smiling for any photograph never-ever, they did actually have a wonderful time. We’ll certainly be going back when our visitors from the US start showing up.

Boggs Road Gaol- Part Two

In Part One, I tried to focus on the small kindnesses at Boggo Road, but that paints too simple a picture of this place. It was, as all acknowledge very publicly, “A HellHole.”

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Opened in 1883, the prison grew and changed quite a bit before its closure in 1989, or 1999, or 2002 (depending on which part you are talking about). However, some things always remained the same.

Modern electrical and plumbing updates were never made in the windowless cell blocks. This meant that inmates were subject to brutal heat, cold, persistent darkness, and having to relieve themselves in urns that would be taken to a “slop yard” for rinsing every day. Every day, that is, if they were allowed out of their cells.

 

*****

In 1935, a woman named Constance Clyde (who was arrested for reading tea leaves, and refusing to pay a fine for it) wrote an article for a local newspaper about her experience there.
I include this section mostly because I feel a strong fondness for Ms. Clyde. She a suffragette, contemptuous of Puritanism, and writer of short stories, poetry, and investigative journalism. Most of all- she was not one to be fucked with, and I respect that. I like her.
A lot.

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*****

Back in Boggo Road, court-ordered floggings were issued feely, and deaths by suicide, murder and medical neglect reached into the hundreds. Escapes were frequent in the early years, and not unheard-of later. Riots began to break out as early as 1921, but became extremely violent and frequent in the 1970’s and 80’s. Prisoners staged hunger strikes and stand-offs with guards and personnel. Prison staff were also prone to striking, or just plain giving up on trying to maintain order in the trouble-plagued complex. It fell into chaos.

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International attention was garnered in 1987/88, as Brisbane prepared to host the World Expo. Instead of changing to modernise or raise

Of the 42 people executed by hanging at Boggo Road, at least two of them are now known to be innocent, including the only woman executed. Her name was Ellen Thompson. And true, it was much more complicated a storyline than just that she was framed for killing her abusive husband- it almost always is. The fact, though, that the politicians, judiciary, and wardens knew her to be innocent before they proceeded to murder her is appalling.

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Her body, like all the others, was dumped in an unmarked grave in the nearby Brisbane State Cemetery.

Later, the site was marked with a plaque. We know because this plaque on the entrance to the pedestrian bridge we cross to get to UQ told us so.

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The boys and I have looked for the grave. But the cemetery is quite large, and we have had no luck so far. I am determined to find it in this lovely stoneyard.

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*****

There is a blossoming friendship between my family and a man named Larry Campbell, who spent more than his share of time (off and on) at Boggo Road. He has a stand at the Farmer’s Market in the prison plaza every Sunday, where he sells his many self-published books and a few other mementos. He speaks passionately about prison reform and the importance of early intervention and youth opportunities to promote pro-social behaviours. He speaks little about the conditions he suffered under at Boggo Road- but his books explain why he is loathe to utter the words aloud.

The woman who acted as our tour guide was brought here as a child- her father employed as a guard. She clearly loves this place. There is no sweetener added to her recounting of what happened. She acknowledges the full range of experiences- from kitty cats to stabbings- with a matter-of-factness that is refreshing. There is no pageantry here.

 

*****

So what is to become of this place?

Efforts to privatise the site have met some resistance, but as many of us know- pushing back against corporate interests is Sisyphean. And yet, we keep rolling those damn boulders up the hill, don’t we?

There is currently a petition to maintain the prison as a heritage site. You can like them on Facebook and keep up with tours, speaking engagements, and Inmate and Indigenous Art Shows.

I am dismayed that they want to gentrify the Boggo Road complex by converting this space into a “cultural centre” where- for the right price- you can take in a meal where once people starved, or purchase luxury items in a place where human beings had to physically fight to secure jam or toilet paper.

It doesn’t have to remain in stasis as a trophy of historical denigration, but it shouldn’t be converted into a showcase of modern materialism.

What about a community hub- with free programming to offer opportunities to lower-income families? What about a library dedicated to social justice literature? What about a Peace Centre?

Men and women had their dignity stolen here. We should give it back to them by honouring their memories and utilising this space in a way to promote resiliency of the communities in this area.

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Boggo Road Gaol- Part One

We pass the jail every weekday. It sits at the top of the hill, across the street from O’s school. And it is lovely, and tragic, adorned with rusty razor wire- pretty much everything that piques my interest. I knew we would go on the tour, and I knew I had to write about it.

And yet I was surprised at my own resistance to writing this post.

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There are countless coming-out processes, innumerable private shames to overcome, often impressed upon us by outside forces. Ways of being, ways of thinking, things we have done, or had done to us… a bottomless well of ambivalence:

Do we own these things publicly and take whatever the rewards or consequences are? Knowing that there are rewards.

or

Do we bury them in fear of negative repercussion? Because maybe it has been used to diminish or damage us in the past?

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The jail (or “gaol,” as was the old spelling) waits for me everyday. I walk right up to it and sit in its shade as I wait for my youngest child to meet me after school. And I often think about what the tour guide told us- though the jail was “officially” closed in 1989, the women’s unit stayed in operation into 2002. If I had been here then, I could have been here then.

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But I’m getting ahead of myself. The tour. We should talk a bit about the tour.

It was originally called a “gaol” because it was a temporary stop for convicts on the way to the gallows. Forty-two people were hanged there. More on this later. Suffice it to say that, eventually they realised they couldn’t just kill everyone and turned it into a “prison”- or long-term incarceration.

In 1903, they moved the men’s prison across the way and converted the space we toured into a women’s jail. In that time, women were subject to laws that prohibited their being intoxicated, “disruptive” (read: loud or outspoken) in public, using curse words, indecency (which was left up to the arresting police to decide), and any number of other arbitrary rules often made up on the spot to put them in their place. Many women were also arrested for petty crimes such as theft (usually from markets- to feed children), prostitution, and other survival crimes.

The women were typically only there for a few days or weeks, though there were some long-timers. The guards were generally sympathetic to the sensitive nature of the women in their charge and allowed women to protect their identities from the swarms of journalists, who flocked to the grounds, by facing away from the cameras. This allowed them to go back to their everyday lives without the shame of having been seen in the newspapers. They were able to tell friends and neighbours that they had been off visiting family, or some other excuse, to save face and – potentially- their livelihoods, homes, and children.

In addition to the vegetable gardens that provided produce to the jail, there were also flower garden that the women were allowed to cultivate and tend. This brought a touch of beauty and homeyness to an otherwise dreary place (it was later removed after the space reverted to male housing and the inmates pulled out the brick edgers to use as weapons). Around this time, there also appeared a community of jail cats that guards and inmates alike doted on. You can see a cat door cut into the bars of this cell (lower right corner).

And here I have to reckon with the fact that the only way for me to impress upon you the importance of these small acts of kindness is for me to turn my face to the camera.

I was in “prison” in 2001. If I had been here then, I could have been here then.

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I put “prison” in quotations because it really is a hyperbolic title- it was just a jail. But: Pennsylvania *shrug* they like to make things mundane sound important.

In the women’s unit- our “yard” consisted of a paved basketball half-court, edged with fifty foot tall chainlink fence. Through it, we could see vast expanses of green valley dipping down to touch the edges of a forest. And above the treetops there, the soft tops of the Allegheny mountains that glowed lilac in the setting sun.

We inmates would crush against the fence to look at a herd of deer passing by, and point out the flocks of birds passing over on their way South. In late Summer, we would reach through the metal mesh and pull up dandelions and clovers to put in our hair. These were always taken away by Ms. Brookens- the oldest, and cruelest, guard there. She slapped me once in the mouth, hard, for having a four-leaf clover tucked behind my ear.

But some of the guards were kind. They left the radio on “by accident” after lights out so we could have dance parties in our cubes (like cells, but open- think Orange is The New Black), and let us convert the crafts we made with the Mennonite volunteer squad into contraband jewellery. The most special thing, though, was when they let us keep a bunny.

It was Autumn, and the grass outside made one last push to grow before it shrivelled up yellow and died. Though the groundskeeper hadn’t been out in weeks, I suppose he felt he should take care of it before the snow came and matted it all down- which would make it impossible to mow come Spring. Usually, the guards hustled us all inside when the lawn men were out- worried we would flash them (which we would) or have them throw in contraband (which, I sure we would have tried). The guard who was with us that day was easygoing. She just yelled at us to keep our clothes on and let us stay out. It was, after all, one of the last warm days we would have for a while. She even rolled up her uniform legs to get some sun on her shins.

As the tractor-mower crested the hill, we could see small movements on the ground in front of it. Rabbits. Maybe seven or eight of them scurrying, panicked, ahead of their certain doom. Someone screamed, and we all started waving our arms. The driver did as I am sure he was strictly instructed, and dutifully ignored us. We watched as one, and then another, poor creature disappeared beneath his wheels. The mother rabbit was pushing her babies- darting from one, shoving it with her nose, and then over to another. One lost its footing and came rolling toward us- safely out of the way of the machine- just as its mother and sibling were sucked under.

Most of the women by then had taken themselves to back inside, disgusted or dismayed, or just bored with trying to prevent the carnage. There were only a few of us left outside- all from the same, smaller cell block- and the guard. The mower turned and disappeared down the crest of the hill, leaving the bunny alive, but shell-shocked.

We made kissing noises at the poor creature, trying to lure it over to us. It was paralysed with fear, but we eventually managed to woo it. She- we guessed it must be a “she”- was small enough to fit easily through the small openings in the fence. We yanked some grass through the fence and tried to hand feed her. She was, understandably, not hungry. We passed her from person to person- stroking her ears and nose- making cooing sounds. We asked the guard if we could keep her.

The answer was no. She could lose her job just for letting us hold it out here. But, not to be deterred, we asked her to look at its face- how could we send this sweet orphan back out to her certain death? We were allowed one night- “ONLY ONE”- she said- and that was only because she was back on duty the next morning. And we had better keep our lips ZIPPED.

Only a handful of us know about the rabbit, and we gathered in the cube of the two that had been decided as caretakers. They had a laundry bin we could use as a pen, and some extra vegetables brought back from dinner. We didn’t sleep that night, five of us laid across the small floorspace, wrapping legs and arms around each other. Letting “our” bunny explore the space between us, feeling special when she chose to sniff at our pants and fingers. We shared stories of loss and violence- using the bunny’s fate to frame our own- hoping we were each the one shoved out of the way of the machine in our stories, rather than being left to churn under its blades.

The next day, the guard smuggled the bunny out after her shift. She gave it to her daughters, and brought us in photos and updates on her wellbeing.

Eventually, we would all be released from that place. I wonder still how many escaped the gnashing of the machines in our lives- be it poverty, addiction, racism, or any number of other brutalities.

I wonder how many of us rabbits are still out there running.

People In The Neighbourhood

When trying to think of a title for this post, I was mind-blasted by this song from Sesame Street. When I went to grab the video to share, I was delighted to find this version, starring David instead of Bob (who usually sung it), and starring a male librarian and female plumber. Seems things were a bit more progressive on the ‘Street then than they are now (don’t even get me started on baby-voiced characters and dopey girl fairy-things).

 

Deb

Our first trip to UQ campus was on a Sunday, weeks before the students and faculty returned. We spotted more turtles in the lake than people on the sidewalks that day. As we entered the main quad, I noticed a woman walking.

She had teak-colorer skin speckled with dark freckles across her nose and cheeks, thin silver dreadlocks, and wore a light blue linen dress. She looked so much like a friend back home, I did a double take- which, of course, she noticed. I fumbled out a “Hi, how ya doin’?” before peddling away.

On our way back through, we saw her again. This time, she was walking with another woman. She flagged us down and asked where our accent was from. When I told her, she clapped her hands and did a little hop. She told us that she is from Chicago, but moved here on a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship (!) fifteen years before. She gave me her card and told me to contact her soon.

Like an overeager suitor, I agonised over how long to give it before reaching out. It was a little over a week- mostly because I temporarily lost track of where I put her information (found it in with my sporks- don’t ask- I have no idea). I emailed her some basic info about how we came to be here and asked about possible connections we may have through Rotary.

She called me a few days later. Turns out she works in Trans-Cultural Mental Health and is nearing the end of her PhD program at another nearby university. We talked for a long time that first day. She shared that she seeks out other Americans because even after nearly two decades, she still gets lonely and homesick here. She offered some helpful hints and things she still finds surprising. We arranged a weekly call time to stay in touch and, hopefully soon, set up some in-person coffee dates.

We’ve spoken a few times now- sharing our experiences, challenges with coursework and professional life, and building a friendship. I am so grateful for Deb’s honey voice. I am so happy that she stopped us that day, and that I overcame my awkwardness to reach out to her.

 

BusStop Wally

On days that it’s my turn to walk Xabien to school, I stop to say hello to Wally. Wally always blinks at me like he is surprised that anyone noticed him there. Wally is the type of person that most people might not notice.

He is small and elderly, with a tattoo on his forearm that has gone muddy with age- a blue blob that was a ship, or a dancing lady, or something that was important to him when he was a youth shipped overseas in the armed forces. He has a hopeful smile and eyes surrounded with white lashes. His teeth are tiny.

Wally sits at the bus stop near the shopping plaza with exactly four plastic bags full of fruit and crackers and tins of flavoured tuna cocktail. I am always happy to see him.

The first time I waved at him, he looked behind himself to make sure it was him I was greeting. We escalated to “hello” and, later, comments on the weather. One day, Wally was accompanied at the bench by another older man. We said hello, as usual, and as I walked away I heard some grumbling about my tattoos from other-guy. Then, I heard Wally say, “You hush. That’s a nice girl, that.” I pretended not to hear any of it.

Yesterday, I took the leap to ask Wally his name. We laughed that it was about time we were properly introduced. Today, I stopped to ask how he was doing.

He told me that he likes to get out to the shops early, to beat the heat. It’s hard, he said- his wife’s been gone for a few years, and she used to do all the shopping. He always thought it was a simple task. Today he got himself a Turkish Delight candy bar as a special treat just for making it through the chore. I told him that it seemed a great way to drive the blues away. He agreed, and added that sharing the fancy tuna fish with his cat while they read the newspaper together was another. His bus came and he said he’ll see me tomorrow. Maybe I’ll bring him a Cherry Ripe.

 

Mahesha and Naveen

We would pass them occasionally on the way back home. The bright broad brim of Nabil’s hat announced that he attended O’s school. It was particularly noticeable because most of the other students live the opposite way down the hill. Ours were the only two bobbing blue heads this side of the railway bridge.

They approached at the school one afternoon. Mahesha presents a cat-like combination of shyness and extroversion. Naveen has her smile and dips behind her skirts, more to get my attention than to hide from it. This is his first year at school, and she hasn’t met many of the parents yet.

We spent some time talking and discovered that they moved to Brisbane from Sri Lanka eight years ago, when her husband attended UQ. She likes it here, but says that sometimes it gets lonely. Her mother recently moved in to help out with their two month old daughter.

She told us that they see us walking home, and would like to walk with us. But Naveen complains about it hurting his legs too much, so they take the bus instead. The hope is that seeing O, the “big kid,” do it everyday will inspire him to give it a try. We ask every day, and Naveen consistently defers. So we walk and they ride, and we often end up at the bus stop at the same time. We have at least the last few blocks home together.

 

Gabe and Dave

Before our internet was set up at the house, Brian and I spent a lot of time at the library trying to keep up with emails and other dispatches from home. *Well- we still spend a lot of time there, actually- it’s nice, and they have air conditioning*

One day, I noticed scored the rare seat at an actual table. This never happens- it’s quite a bustling, small library. I happened to sit next to Gabe and Dave.

Gabe promptly started blowing raspberries at me. Dave told me that Gabe would like to say “hello” and showed me the iPad he used to communicate. Gabe reached over and pressed the icon again. The computer said “hello.” I said hello back to Gabe and introduced myself. There was a flurry of tablet-tapping, and Dave translated it for me, “We are checking emails right now. You can email me if you like.” I said I would love to do that someday.

I saw Gabe and Dave again this morning, while waiting for the nail salon to open up. Gabe swerved his walker over to me and we chatted for a few minutes. He told me that I needed to get a sparkly colour. So I did.

 

Pool People

I am endlessly fascinated with the people I see and meet at the Southbank swimming area. There are your to-be-expected “beach” people: ridiculously fit surfer type guys that are constantly emerging from the water like a cologne ad (seriously- how do they ever get in there if they are always walking out, shoving carelessly damp hair from their eyes?), tan and shapely girls lolling about on towels pretending not to enjoy all the attention their tiny bathing suits attract, confused and frustrated parents lugging about diaper bags and trying to chase down maverick toddlers who are made extra slippery by ten layers of sunscreen, and the ever present scowlers- people who seem to go there just to cast scornful glares on the people who dare to go out and enjoy themselves. I generally see them as a collective- more a backdrop to my own entertainment than individuals in their own right.

There are a few people, though, whose images got lodged in my brain. I find myself wondering about them, hoping to see them again.

Two women in long jeans and beautiful silk hijab kicked off their sandals and dangled their perfect pedicures over the edge. A boy and a girl clambered over them and cannonballed into the water. They paddled around a bit before making their way back to the women. The younger woman scooted closer to the edge of the pool, her denim-clad legs in up to the knees now, so that the children could each ride her feet while she kicked them up and down. They were giggling and shouting in Arabic. The other woman threw back her head and slapped her friend on the back. In an instant, the younger woman was in the water, having given in to her children’s urging to join them. She waded around for a few minutes before turning and diving under the water. As she passed me, she twisted her body around to come to the surface face-up. Her expression was beatific. She was still there, playing in the water in her long jeans, when we left an hour later.

Another mother led her children to the edge of the water, but did not get in herself. Her children were both nervous, chattering in their makeshift swimsuits of neon-coloured stockings that hung loose from their narrow hips and bunched around their ankles. Mom pointed at the pool and told them not to be afraid but, no, she would not come in with them. They moved incrementally into the water, squealing first that it was cold, then warm, then arguing with one another over how cold or warm it was. Eventually, they were in up to their bellies. Mom sat down next to me and said “This is their first time. We don’t have any pools where we come from. It’s quite exciting.” She dangled her fingertips in the water and shuddered.

A man with white-blond hair and a giant iron cross tattoo carried two equally blond little girls on his shoulders into the deepest part of the pool (which is not very deep). They jumped off and splashed around screaming “Daddy help!” until he retrieved them, and drug them along the top of the water back to the ramp end. When they got there, he told the girls to be gentle and not bother Mommy, because she was tired and needed to rest. He then got out and walked over to a woman leaning against a baby carriage in the shade. He took the fussing newborn and carried her ever-so-gently into the water, kissing and nuzzling her brown cheeks until she quieted. The older sisters came up, each giving the baby pats and smooches. Dad told them to be careful not to get water on her face, as he ran his fingers through her full head of curly, black hair.

Three teenagers, two boys and a girl, clambered into the water. They were loud and obnoxious, as teens left on their own tend to be. The girl wore her ankle-length dress into the water despite the fact, pointed out by her friends, that she had a bathing suit on underneath. They teased each other about a wasp floating dead in the water, until I scooped it out and threw it up into the rocks. Which was, perhaps, a mistake- as then their attentions turned to me. It is never comfortable to be in the spotlight of a teen-group gaze. “Oi! Mad tats!” shouted the redhead, ogling me. The girl asked how many tattoos I had, and I responded that I’m not really sure- I don’t count them individually anymore. Her eyes boggled “Hey! How you talk! Are you American or something?” I nodded and she yelled, “An American! That’s MAD! Completely mad, mates! We met an American! I knew coming to the city would be an adventure.” The redhead asked me if I was married and, not to be discouraged, said “I would double-marry you! I don’t mind sharing. tell your husband, okay?” Later, I did. Brian seemed less enthusiastic about the prospect than the teenagers did.

 

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…