Protecting the children

This morning I drove down to the local public school, where I spent a delightful hour listening to year 1 and 2 students practice their reading. This is my second year of this fortnightly ritual. I sit just outside the classroom window on a big chair, and Stephen's beethe littlies come out one at a time to sit beside me on a small chair, reading their books or flash cards. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience. They’re each of them determined and focused; they relish their stories and love showing off their ability to read. While one swoops off and another comes sidling out, I catch glimpses of what’s happening in the classroom. In cooler weather we sit in the sun and put on our jackets, but at the moment, in late summer, we do our work in the building’s shade.

There’s only the tiniest problem about it all, and that’s this 4-page form sitting on the desk beside me. Up until today it’s been lurking deep in the pile on my desk, but I’ve been reminded by the school secretary that I must complete it each year, so now it looms at my elbow.

Here’s how the form goes:

Page 1 asks for my name, address and date of birth.

Page 2 starts to get more exciting. It wants me to know that it is an offence for a disqualified person as defined in section 18 of the Child Protection (Working with Children) Act 2012 to be completing this form. If I have been involved in the murder of a child, or causing grievous bodily harm, or attempted rape, or incest or kidnapping or a whole page of other stuff I don’t even like reading about, then I am not welcome to apply.

Pages 3 and 4 continue the severe and lawyerly tone, dealing with proof of identity. I’m informed of how many points I need, and of all the categories in which I can get points, and how many points I get for each item. The exception to all this point-gathering, I am told, is if I am Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander in a remote area/community, and if my identity is verified by two persons recognised as “Community Leaders”. This clause strikes me as being quite sensible, though I’m not sure why it applies only to Aboriginals and not to me.

It’s not that I don’t understand what the issue is. If I needed reminding, it was all over the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald today: “Disturbing claims of abuse heard at Royal Commission into Knox Grammar School”. A past teacher at an elite Sydney school has been charged with some pretty nasty behaviour.

If only Knox Grammar School had used this 4-page form all their trouble could have been prevented. (Pardon the dripping sarcasm.) Clearly, what with rogue teachers,  Godzilla versus the bureaucracypriests and boarding school caretakers, children do need protecting, but I reckon this form is no part of the solution. To the contrary, it represents a good deal of what’s wrong with the world today.

Start with the waste of time, money and energy. Fancy the hours that were spent compiling that document; imagine the layers of public servants who created and read and proofed it, and the lawyers who went through it to make it insurance-claim proof. The invested time didn’t end there. At my little local school, tight on budget with an over-worked staff, somebody has to distribute the forms, chase them up, file them away, throw them out. Would-be volunteers have to put in an hour or so of time wading through irrelevant information and digging up documents.

Worse, it gives a false sense of security. Somewhere up the food chain bureaucrats can say they’ve done all they could do—and hope that they’ll be able to stay out of the news if the proverbial hits the fan. (False hope, amigos. The media will get you no matter how many reams of paper you barricade yourself in with.) Neither the bureaucrats, nor the staff at school, nor the children are protected in the slightest.

The problem is that common sense has been abandoned. If we lose our common sense—our personal sense of responsibility—we have no anchor, no guideposts, no markers in the channel. Common sense says that a woman of A Certain Age, sitting in plain view just outside the classroom window, someone who is part of the community and known favourably to many people therein, is not likely to be a threat to children. Common sense says potential volunteers will be put off by the 4-page form. Common sense says the young boys at Knox Grammar, or these little Mitchells Island children, would not be protected by any form.

Common sense says that for children to be safe, the adults around them have to be committed to their well-being and their safety. And I can assure you that that is the case at Mitchells Island Public School. If any reading volunteer so much as raised an eyebrow at one of the children, their vigilant teacher would be out that door in seconds. It likely hasn’t crossed her mind that the 4-page form provides her with any certainty or gives her reason to abdicate her vigilance.

—All of which should help explain why the offending document has been unattended on my desk. It’s become a question of conscience. On the one hand, I think of the service I am providing for the littlies of Mitchells Island, and the pleasure I get from that. On the other hand is the ignorance represented by this form, and whether I can afford to ignore the issue.

But enough agonising. The children, with their shy smiles and faces uncluttered by any of the dilemmas I chew over, represent the here and now—the tangible reality of what’s possible in community. The murky mindset that thinks a 4-page form will solve a problem is only a concept. And I can’t work out how to stage a meaningful protest without throwing out the babies with the bathwater. So I’ll sign.

Villawood Detention Centre

Villawood Detention Centre

***

Last night at choir, we learned, in four parts, a poignant song protesting the holding of children in immigrant detention centres. The song evoked “prison wire and terrified kids”, and when combined with the harmonies it was enough to bring tears to my eyes.

Now that’s a worthy problem for a community to tackle.

Hoping for a scot-free future

Friend Linda is still on my mind (see last week’s blog), so permit me a Chapter 2 in her story.

After publishing the post, I wrote Linda about it, saying I hoped I hadn’t negligently understated the situation she’s facing. Here’s the email she sent in reply:

Understated?—possibly. Maybe like me, your mind is running overtime to truly comprehend my reality, let alone really internalise this reframing business.

Maybe there is just too much going on, too many layers, too many unknowns floating out there waiting to land, regardless of our unbridled optimism for a scott-free future.

Maybe being “understated” is how we can move forward, putting one foot in front of the other, and hold our course, fears and all.

We can wax lyrical when the other side is safely trod.

I love that. All of it.

I try to put myself in Linda’s place. Have a think about what she’s dealing with:

First, there’s the surgery. Removing a breast is no small thing, especially when your breast is no small thing. When you hug me, you get enthusiasm but also some solid contact with ribcage and shoulder blade. When you hug Linda, as I did after the party on Saturday night, I could have hugged her cushiony self forever. Now, that’s a hug.

So what would it be like to remove an ample bosom that has played a major role, for better or for worse, in one’s life? They’re relatively impractical attachments but we have a lot of history with them. If you didn’t read Kate Llewellyn’s poem when I linked it to my post last week, read it now. Or just enjoy these excerpts:

As I lean over to write
one breast warm as a breast from the sun
hangs over as if to read what I’m writing
these breasts always want to know everything
sometimes exploring the inside curve of my Fly with meelbow
sometimes measuring a man’s hand

And:

these are my body’s curious fruit
wanting to know everything
always getting there first
strange as white beetroot
exotic as unicorns
useless as an out of order dishwasher

Granted that Kate is unapologetically personifying a piece of flesh that clings to the front of some of us—but her words capture the spirit of something about the way we women regard our breasts.

My own B-cup bosom rarely peaks into my armpit or gets hooked on the top rail of the fence, as Kate’s does, but I would still miss it if it were to be removed. Linda, like Kate, has lived with an assertive set of companions since she was a teenager. Imagine getting your head around losing them.

And that’s only one side of the scot-free equation for Linda. The other looming issue is what that lump inside has been doing, and what impact it might have on her coming months and years. There’s no point even going there until next Friday when the pathology results come in—but try not going there! Our heads don’t work that way.

This business that Linda describes as “our unbridled enthusiasm for a scot-free future”—what a species we are. You gotta love us human beings. We ache for that scot-free future, and then we try to ignore that ache, and that causes us more ache. Etc. Scot-free is not in the cards.

Nobody ever described our predicament more poignantly than Leunig, who always knows exactly what to say:

Leunig manages lifeache

***

We saw Linda this afternoon, the day after her surgery. I had texted her first, wondering if it was too soon to drop in for “a five-minute visit”. She replied: come soon and be prepared to stay for a lot longer than five minutes.

Linda looked terrific. Perhaps it was the civility of modern-day anaesthetics, or more likely her own indomitable life-force, but she was in great shape (though admittedly a somewhat concave one). She talked about the surgery, pain (none), the hospital food (great), the prognosis (no point speculating til Friday), and her gardens (loving the rain)—and had a go at Tony Abbott, which is when I knew for sure she was doing all right.

Will Linda get away scot-free? Will any of us? Perhaps all we can do is face our issues as straight and courageously as Linda has done, and maybe “manage the symptoms” of the Leunig-style lifeache. Linda, please remind us one more time:

“…Maybe being understated is how we can move forward, putting one foot in front of the other, and hold our course, fears and all.”

***

If you’re something of an etymologist, don’t miss this description of the origin of the phrase “scot-free” (especially if you’re wondering whether it’s “scot” or “scott”, as I was).

Let’s not be beating our breasts

You know how much fun it is to walk into a party through streamers and gently swaying balloons? Well, last night’s affair was like that, except we came in through a billowing display of thirty or forty dangling bras. That’s not counting the big triple-D cup that swung loosely from the front gate, to announce the party venue.Dangling bra

Given the nature of the hostess, my good friend Linda, and of the party invitation she’d handed out a couple nights ago at choir, it wasn’t really a surprise. This is what her invitation said:

“My right breast and I must reluctantly part company in the very near future, shortly followed by the left.

Everyone who feels inclined is cordially invited to join in celebration of the amazing diversity, inherent beauty, wondrous sensuality and extreme functionality of breasts in general, and to give my particular breasts the send-off they so richly deserve.”

Linda’s right breast has a large lump, apparently not yet spreading, so the breast has to go. It’s happened very quickly. Only two weekends ago Linda was kayaking with us and slightly nervous about her appointment with the doctor the following Tuesday. Within a week, surgery was set, and will happen this coming Thursday. Reconstruction isn’t on the cards, hence the removal of the left breast as well.

Twelve days isn’t a lot of time to get your head around something, never mind to rally people around you so you’re not travelling the journey alone. But Linda has managed. There we all were, in the guise of celebrating breasts, and in reality drawing close around Linda to show our support and solidarity. Linda’s father was there, and her mother, her brother and sister, her daughters and a passel of grandchildren, along with mates from work and from choir.

There was much conversation, as we stood among the suspended bras, about the bizarrely conservative approach our culture has to breasts, breast-feeding, and breast Disney princess with breast removal scarscancer. At one point in the evening Linda dug out her iPad and showed us a controversial photo of Joanne Jackson, a woman who recently created a stir when Facebook removed “pornographic” photos she had posted showing the scar after her breast removal. I found the photos to be touching, inspiring and educational. Linda had shown one to her granddaughter that morning by way of explaining the surgery and its result.

Housemate Daniel sang a country and western song about breasts by Rodney Carrington; choir-mate Leslie read a poem by Australian poet Kate Llewellyn, and Linda’s daughter recited a limerick she’d written:

“Once was a breast beyond compare
Of hard work it had done it’s fair share
sadly it must go
but we want you to know
the stuff we treasure most is still there.”

There were many hugs and perhaps a few covert tears.

Peter, a musician well-known in the Manning Valley, led us in an evening’s medley of fabulous old love songs—capturing the intimate spirit of the evening as well as giving a nod to Valentine’s Day.

Linda gave a short speech at one point, and I wish I’d taped it so I could give it to you exactly as she said it. She thanked us all, and acknowledged her wonderful breasts. Linda 4And then she spoke about “reframing” her situation. If you’re not familiar with the concept, it means roughly to find a way to relook at a situation from a new perspective, rather than the one that our emotions toss us into. Wiki defines reframing as “a way of viewing and experiencing events, ideas, concepts and emotions to find more positive alternatives…a technique that consists of identifying and then disputing irrational or maladaptive thoughts.” It’s not difficult to bump into maladaptive thoughts when the word “cancer” is lurking.

Linda said she was reframing for her benefit, and her daughters’ and her grandchildren’s.

“I’m feeling good tonight,” she said in conclusion. “I may not always feel that way over the next while, but tonight, buoyed by your goodwill, I’m terrific.”

My own emotions were on edge all evening. None of us are indifferent to the challenges ahead, but Linda’s approach—generous, inclusive and life-affirming—is a powerful lesson in reframing for me, as well.

Another guest at the party was Susan, also from choir, and someone who had held Linda’s hand at her doctor’s visit last week. Poor Susan took a spill earlier this week Reframingfrom the back of a tractor. In the process she broke the tip of her scapula, an injury that her doctor says will come good but which has to be altering her lifestyle in the meantime. However, none of that stopped her from coming along to share Linda’s pre-surgery party, nor kept her from dancing, testing out the hula-hoop and singing up a storm. A couple of days ago her long hair found its way onto the hairdresser’s floor, replaced by a perky gamine cut that she’ll be able to manage with one hand. Not to miss out on the spirit of the evening, her own breasts were marshalled into a formidable bustier. Susan is an impressive reframer in her own right.

I’ll give the last word to two-and-a-half-year-old philosopher Ash, who is housemate Michael’s granddaughter. She recently had a peeing accident, as you do when you’re very little. As her father was helping her get sorted out, he hugged her and said, “It’s no big deal.”

Ash hugged him back, replying, “Yes, it’s just a deal.”

She’s following in Linda’s wise and wonderful footsteps.

The donkey gets the last laugh

This morning I couldn’t help taking a quick peek at the on-line Sydney Morning Herald to see if our prime minister has managed to get himself toppled from office overnight.

Australia is the only country I know of where a democratically-elected leader is regularly deposed from office mid-term by his/her party colleagues. It’s happened twice in recent history, both times while I was overseas in Canada. I’d be having a cappuccino at the local café and to my astonishment would notice headlines announcing that Australia had a new prime minister. It can be a bit of a shock if you’re abroad and haven’t been Julia and Kevin face offpaying attention to the daily internecine squabbles that only a local newspaper could love. Following on from the surprise was the embarrassment of having to explain to bemused Canadians how such a thing could happen.

GuruI’m reminded of an interesting conversation in the yoga shed this week, over warrior poses and backbends. Housemate Eve and her old friend and yoga colleague Peter were reminiscing about goings-on back in the day with abusive gurus and their unwitting victims. We speculated about how such authorities amass and abuse their power—and how it often turns on them. Peter noted Herr Hitlerthat people put their gurus on a pedestal, and then before too long put them under it. We reflected on how often we admire a trait in someone, then suspend judgement and hand over our personal responsibility to them; we get abused, then blame the abuser for their treatment of us. We speculated about the kind of vigilance one must have in order to neither abuse nor become abused.

And there was another conversation a few days ago over a glass of wine, where we discussed the “donkey vote”. This is the term for when you deliberately or accidentally spoil your ballot in the voting booth and is not uncommon in countries where voting is compulsory. Whether the term “donkey” is related to being stubborn or being stupid I’m not sure, but the connotation is surely disparaging. The implication is that people don’t vote properly because they don’t follow or understand the issues, or they don’t pay attention to what the candidates are saying they stand for. Donkey voters are considered to be at best ignorant and at worst apathetic. Either way, they’re irresponsible.

I took a strong personal interest in this conversation, because I usually employ a version of the donkey approach. On election day, I go into the polling box, carefully fold my two ballots, then exit and put them in the ballot box. I do this in secret, although I don’t know why as I’m now telling you and all of cyberspace about this idiosyncrasy.

Now, I assure you, I am not particularly ignorant or apathetic. I do my deed out of a deep sense of personal responsibility and respect for due process. What I’m thinking as I fold that unmarked ballot is that I don’t trust the candidates to stick to what they say they’ll do, or not do—actually, I know they can’t, because they’re caught in the party system. More important, I’m thinking that I must not abdicate my responsibility for the critical issues of our time by putting an X in front of some candidate’s name and hoping they’ll do the right thing by me. My vote will not fix anything or aid anything. The system doesn’t work and I prefer not to play the game.

(I grant you that any other game will be incredibly complicated to figure out, and will exist only in a far distant future, but, hey, you’ve got to start somewhere. That’s me in the polling booth—just starting somewhere.)

Anyway, I feel vindicated by the morning’s news. The Sydney Morning Herald offers strong odds that Tony won’t survive another week. And in spite of the international embarrassment another coup will cost me, I can’t say I’m sorry. I know as much about his without-substance policies and his broken promises as the next guy, but it’s his adversarial behaviour that has me licking my lips to see him go.

This brings me to my point. I reckon it’s the adversarial system that’s making a mockery of justice and wise decision-making, and Tony Abbott has been the most adversarial of them all. Ever since I first heard of him, he was obstructive and on the attack. My friend Diane and I used to meet him on the streets of Forestville when we went walking in the mornings, as Tony galloped by in his joggers, giving us a little wave. He probably didn’t appreciate the danger he was in as he loped past, in that Diane wanted to trip him because he was a Liberal and I because he was so noisily negative about everything.

People who voted for Abbott and won him fair and square in the election — unfortunately, they won’t have him for long, and they won’t get the decisions they were promised or the quality of governing they were hoping for. But I, with my donkey vote, had no expectations and will have no disappointments.

I doubt there’s anything Tony can do now to stem the flow of his blood. He was on the pedestal, and now he’s under the pedestal. The sharpest tool in his kit is his ability to attack, and people are OVER that technique at the moment. Because, of course, it’s not just Tony. Much as I may dislike him, he’s not unique. We have a long tradition of the automatic negative. Our Parliament is the one place where one day you might hear: “Motherhood? If you lot are in favour, I’m opposed.” And we’re all tired of it.

Maybe that’s the good news in all this. At some point we’ll get so sick of the adversarial system that we’ll start looking for something else. It can’t happen too soon for this donkey.

And now for today’s news

The other morning housemate Judy and I were doing some yoga in the Shed, listening to a bit of music as we did. Then the news came on, and Judy remarked: “I think I’ll turn this off now. The newscasters always sound so alarming.”

Interesting, I thought, that’s how newscasters always sound to me. It seems to be the media’s way of underlining the scariness of what’s being reported, or even of creating News 1scariness where we’re not yet feeling it. If you had a cynical streak, you might say the media was beating it up.

I think back to a few weeks ago when terror struck the heart of Sydney. Or more accurately, when a deranged dude took several people hostage in a café for 16 hours and ended up shooting one of them. Another was killed by “friendly fire”, and that death can be attributed to the bad dude, as it wouldn’t have happened without him. And he also was killed.

It was an awful thing to happen. But many, many other awful things happened to people in Sydney that day, things that didn’t get 24 hours of hysterical air time on all the local TV channels. On that same day in December, some people were killed in car accidents, some were deliberately killed by other people, some died too young from dreadful diseases. But the Martin Place incident had the electrifying possibility of being a terrorist attack. The words “possible terrorist attack” were used in the media for several hours, followed by “may not be a terrorist attack”, followed by, “not a terrorist attack” – each speculation milking the word “terrorist” until we were all in a fervour.

Parisian gargoyle The attack in Paris on Charlie Hebdo followed on the heels of the Sydney incident, and not since 9/11 has terrorism been so front-page in Australian news.

The Charlie Hebdo massacre was appalling and there is no doubt much to be learned from it. Eleven people were executed by armed gunmen with links to a larger organisation in the mid-east. We need to pay attention, to understand it.

But one thing we all know is that terrorists aim to instil fear. Thus they must be dancing in the street (or, more in character, nodding in grim satisfaction) when the world goes into a panic. (Close off the CBD! Shut down the airports! Double the National Guard!)

On a deeper level, the terrorist objective is to create divisiveness. A permanent and highly successful way of keeping people fearful is to have them at each other’s throats. And you have to admit, world leaders really played into their hands, linking arms and chanting Je suis Charlie. Two billion Muslims, almost all of whom would have resoundingly condemned the Charlie Hebdo massacre, were reluctant to express their oneness with an organisation that had seriously disrespected their religion. Many of those two billion people are feeling a little more separate than they were before the incident and subsequent protest. Divisiveness grew.

What to do!?

And what has all this to do with me? As an individual not directly affected by terrorist activity, living in the sleepy confines of Mitchells Island amidst bower birds and cattle and peaceful housemates, is there any way in which I can help get us on a steadier path?

– Well, I can attempt to not to add mass to the hysteria. I can refuse to inflame incidents by becoming emotionally embroiled in them, and shouting about them to all and sundry. I can learn to acknowledge them, recognise the suffering, see if I can pinpoint root causes – and then move on to things that add positivity to the world. I have every sympathy with people who boycott the news and newspapers. Myself, I can download the Sydney Morning Herald and steer my reading toward scientific breakthroughs, good deeds and considered analysis.

– And I can keep looking for what we have in common rather than for our differences. I can feel sympathy for the families of people who were executed for nothing more than poking fun and expressing irreverent views – as well as for people with beliefs so strong that no sense of humour can prevail. I can read books like Mornings in Jenin, which took me far outside my worldview in its visceral portrayal of what it must have been like for Palestinian land holders to find themselves suddenly dispossessed by another race and culture.

– And I can keep encouraging tolerance in my own life and in those of people around me. I can surround myself with people like my housemates, and encourage living situations like the one we’re in – where on a day-to-day basis we must find ways of accommodating other points of view. We sat in a house meeting this week, chewing on ways to have us all get what we want. It’s not a given. We have different views, needs, desires, interests. “It’s okay with me if you want to put sliding doors in the Shed guestrooms, but it’s not a priority for me.” “It’s okay with me if you want to have a good sound system in the lounge room, but not something I’d do myself.” “It’s okay with me if you want a dog but I don’t want to be responsible for its shenanigans.”

It doesn’t have to be all for one and one for all. That’ll never happen. But tolerance is appropriate, and something much easier to bring to the table. I’ll pay for the Shed doors; you pay for the sound system; you get your dog and look after it. And guess what? – we will likely all profit from each other’s adventures.

I don’t have to praise Allah to tolerate Muslims. I don’t have to like being satirised to tolerate it. TelevisionAs the French used to be good at saying, à chacun son goût

I just need to keep honing my ability to be inclusive.

So, yes, Judy, let’s turn off the news.

Refugees are good at community

This must be a community!  It was a packed auditorium, with rows and rows of extra chairs set up alongside the stage. We were there to hear Hugh Mackay, a social researcher and commentator well-known in Australian circles. The theme of his talk paralleled that of his new book, The Art of Belonging.

Here’s a quote from Hugh’s website, to give you an idea of his worldview: “A good life is not lived in isolation or in the pursuit of independent goals; a good life is lived at the heart of a thriving community, among people we trust, and within an environment of mutual respect.”

As you might guess, he led an enjoyable and well-developed session. Hugh talked about how deeply seasoned we humans are in community, and about the forces that are interfering with the way our communities have always taken shape. He talked about how most suburbs are failing in their role as agents of community – and about what it might take to get us back on track.

At one point in his talk he acknowledged the little town of Bellingen, where we were gathered for our annual pilgrimage to Camp Creative. He described it as an old-style “thriving” community, and asked the audience why this was so. A woman took the bait and stood up. “Because we are mostly here by choice,” she said. “We visited here, fell in love with the town and countryside, and moved in. We chose it, andCommunity 4 events like Camp Creative are an expression of our appreciation for this community.”

“Ah, a refugee camp,” replied Hugh, as the woman sat down. “Yes, refugees are good at building community.”

Well, that made me stop and think.

It started me reflecting on our own community on Mitchells Island. Over the seven years that Rick and I have lived there, we’ve got to know many of the 250 or so people who live on the island. Many have become good friends, including several who have moved here in more recent years. Without even breathing hard, I counted up to 30 Mitchells Islanders I know well and love to spend time with.

But here’s the thing I realised: not many of those people have been here much longer than ten or twelve years. They’re pretty much like me: newbies, imports, drop-ins.

…Or as Hugh is calling us, refugees. We’re all escaping from a less desirable place and have chosen this delicious part of the world. Then, once we arrive, as human beings we’re hungry for community – and of course we can’t take it for granted, as we’ve left our known world behind. We’re forced to look outward to find “people we trust…and an environment of mutual respect”, as Hugh says in his new book.

And then I started to consider what I think of as real refugees: people who have left behind traumas I will never be able to understand, dragging their hopes with them along with a motley collection of meagre possessions. In one of Hugh’s lives he is a patron of the Asylum Seekers’ Centre. So although he didn’t talk about that role, he’s someone who knows something about refugees, the lives they’ve lead and the lives they’re leading now.

Refugees establish their family, find a place to live, and begin to get a handle on services available and the cultural mores. Simultaneously, to help them in that process, they begin to find a community. There are no doubt many like-minded people in the neighbourhood, people who are also keen to leave behind the trauma or the lack of possibility, people who want to share a cup of a familiar beverage in an unfamiliar environment.

As I sat there in the lecture (multi-processing quite well), I reflected on my doctor, a GP, who asked me one day what I was writing while sitting patiently in his waiting room. I told him about my book, Shedders. One thing led to another, and, with tears in his eyes, he revealed to me a snippet of his own story that he longs to write some day. As a teenager he’d travelled from North Vietnam to Singapore in the hold of a decrepit boat, dreadfully sick and frightened for his life – at the hands of pirates or an incompetent captain or terrifying competitors for the little space he had. Years later, he’s a respected doctor, head of the Medisense medical clinic in Taree, with a happy family and a blossoming community around him. The doctors in his clinic have accents and names like Patel and Echano and Kang. He’s chosen people who have an edge, who don’t take life and comfort for granted. I look forward to someday reading the story of his escape, but meantime he’s focused on building a great life for himself in the here-and-now.

And a few miles away, on Mitchells Island, we too have created a community for ourselves. Like us, most of our new friends are leaving behind the stresses and anonymity of the city. As Hugh says, I’ve found people I can trust and respect, people who “take responsibility for the places where they live by engaging, volunteering, joining up and joining in.”

We animals are tightly programmed. Ants, lions, water dragons, bower birds – each species has its way of surviving and thriving with its own kind. And creating community is the human being way.

Hugh Mackay

Hugh Mackay

So there in the auditorium in Bellingen, Hugh Mackay was speaking to the converted. We attended not so much to learn, as to be validated and inspired, or more accurately, to gain distinctions about community that would sharpen our ability to create and use it well.

Seeking refuge or not, I reckon you can’t ever get too much of that.

How to create community

In search of certainty

Here we are again, the new year gleaming in our pockets like a newly-minted penny. It’s a time when somehow the slate feels cleaner than usual, with possibilities lurking everywhere. I could take on this or that new activity, we say; I could become Uncertainty 6accomplished at something or other, or smarten up a miserable way of being. The possibilities are exhilarating, but at the same time daunting, and we seek to put a little certainty into life by making New Year’s resolutions.

Resolutions get their share of bad press, but we Shedders have found it useful to weave them into our new year. Over a glass of wine, we take turns reviewing the year past, then, usually the following day, declare what we intend to happen in the coming one. We take our time with the process, listening fully to each other and asking questions to clarify. We find it gives meaning to the undisciplined past and shape to the unknowable future.

For me, I enjoyed the review. Yes, I had my surgery, and prepared for it satisfactorily. Yes, I took on the piano, and got to almost where I left off 45 years ago. No, I didn’t finish the Shed renovation. No, we didn’t buy a caravan, but we did get a double Hobie kayak. Yes, we had a snorkelling holiday, though at Lady Elliot Island rather than Niue. No, I didn’t implement a daily meditation practice, but mindfulness became a watchword in my life as never before. Yes, I implemented an excellent new exercise program. Et cetera.

So you can see that the thinking and resolving I did at the beginning of the year made a difference in how the months unfolded. A few things that weren’t in the going-to-happen-anyway mix got seeded, took root and bore fruit. A few things didn’t get seeded, or didn’t take root, or didn’t bear fruit, and turned out to be learning experiences instead. Without doubt, I learned something from each one. About myself, about reality, about what I really want in life. The forward thinking provided direction and a little certainty to life.

The following day we tackled the coming year. That posed challenges, with the uncertain recovery of my ankle creating waves of insecurity for me. How can I commit to things when I don’t know when and how well I’ll be walking? Surely mobility is key to everything.

***

Hold that thought and flash back to several weeks ago when I sat in the office of the surgeon who performed my ankle fusion. I was fresh out of the cast-removal clinic and my leg, which had been fibreglass-bound for ten weeks, glowed vulnerably in front of me. I asked the doctor lots of questions and got reasonable answers; there’s no doubt he wants me to do well and has some picture in his mind of what it’ll take for that to happen. But he was evasive about physiotherapy, about the amount of pain I’m likely to feel, about how much weight I should try to put on the ankle. His true perspective seeped through the floorboards: I did a good job with the surgery and now it’s over to you; you’ll figure it out.

I believe my doctor to be an excellent surgeon; he’s well-regarded and people come from miles around, including from Sydney, to have their ankles, feet and knees restored by him. But those of you who have had complex surgery may be familiar with this phenomenon: a surgeon has finished his job when he washes up after the operation.

The only thing I was dead sure of as I stood up to leave his office was that he was headed to Europe for two months. I left the office tightly gripping the handlebars of my knee scooter, my life a muddled vista in front of me.

Over the next few weeks, I managed the uncertainty vacuum by filling it with a couple of very accessible specialists. There’s Doug, the orthotist, who’s set me up with a nice secure moonboot and an orthotic that will help keep the fusion in alignment. And there’s Gavin, the physiotherapist, who knows about ankle-fusion surgery, about pain and about weight-bearing. He takes a nice, clear approach. First, don’t push through pain, which equals not-yet-healed bones. Second, measure. Gavin explained how to use the scales and an old telephone book to check how much weight I’m actually bearing on the operated ankle. Measure time and measure pain, he said, and explained how. Keep the swelling down, he said, and explained how. Third, be realistic. It’ll take a long time, he said. There’ll be pain. But walking will happen.

Thanks to Gavin, I can tell you I’m now able to put over 60% of my weight on the wayward ankle. I have minimal pain and I can smell the day I toss away the crutches.

Pema ChodronThat’s all well and good, but none of it provides absolute certainty. So every now and then I take a nip from a book of tiny essays called, Comfortable with Uncertainty, by philosopher Pema Chödrön. Pema says: “…Whatever we’re doing should be done with one intention. That intention is that we want to wake up. We want to ripen our compassion, and we want to ripen our ability to let go, we want to realise our connection with all beings. Everything in our lives has the potential to wake us up or put us to sleep. Allowing it to awaken us is up to us.”

It’s a reminder that uncertainty is the vehicle of life, and our job is to climb on board and ride.

***

In the end, the resolutions exercise went well. There’s lots of travel, singing, new gardens, and much time in community predicted. I’ll be cycling and doing long walks by December, I said. And there’s writing in my future. Muse or no muse, I’ll be exploring the world and developing connections through this blog.

Next week we’ll be doing our annual pilgrimage to Camp Creative, and after that this blog will resume its weekly pilgrimage to you.

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