Category Archives: Bathurst

On failures of communication

 

jbraine/flickr

jbraine/flickr

If you’re following along on this blog, you’ll know that last week I went to a function in town, got the shits with one small aspect of it, and wrote this blog post. The innocent victims of this then fought back in the comments. In the grand scheme of things this was all very tiny, but it was my teacup, my storm. I went on about it to my partner and friends. What did it all mean? Was I being mean? Were they being mean?

I kept trying to say, “I’m looking for the meaning, I’m not trying to be mean,” and they kept saying, “You’ve got the wrong meaning, and you are being mean.” Communication failure!

We live in a world of intentional and unintentional meanings. On one level, I have been a racist person today. I have not left the house; I’ve barely spoken to anyone. So how can I be racist? Well, I’m in a house on a plot of land that my partner and I own. We’ve got the key to the door. If a stranger wanders in off the street I have every right to shout at them or call the cops. All this is normal and ordinary. This natural ordinariness is the sort of truth I need to live in, today, for practical reasons.

But there’s another truth about what I’m doing here, on this bit of land. A couple of hundred years ago this block belonged to the Wiradyuri nation, or, to put it the way they often put it – they belonged to this piece of land. Today, there are Wiradyuri people who live in rented houses in Kelso; some are homeless. But because of our racist history I’m the one who owns this block, not them. I get to say who comes in and out. I didn’t personally create this situation. I’m also not going to give up my privilege. I’m going to keep living here, keep locking the door, keeping treating the place as if I own it.

My intention for today is to hang out inside the house, working from home. But another, extra layer of meaning (out of many) is that I’m living the privilege of a white person in Australia. Perhaps it’s a bit much to say I’m “being racist” but I think it’s true to say that I’m benefiting from, and perhaps in some way perpetuating, the racism in our culture.

The British decided to declare the land terra nullius – belonging to no-one – so that they could seize land without feeling like criminals.  If “nobody” owned it, then it was there for the taking. Finders keepers. The downside of this is that Aboriginal people were made to feel like nobodies. Racism comes in to support the threadbare logic of occupation and theft.

It’s not nice to think about this. It’s much easier to forget about history and just live in each day as it comes. But Aboriginal people – just by being here, just by walking down the street, passing me as I do my shopping – remind me that there are other layers of meaning embedded in my ordinary day. And they’re not just trivial layers of meaning. They’re about who we are and what we are striving to be. This is what I was trying to say about the marital arts demonstration. There’s intention, and there’s meaning. They’re different things. There are always lots of possible meanings, depending on your perspective.

After a day agonising over my martial arts storm in a tea cup, I decided to forget the lot of it and just watch Brad Pitt’s zombie film, World War Z. But my brain wouldn’t shut down that easily. Brad says goodbye to his family when he goes off to fight the zombies. He cuddles the little girl and says words along the lines of she’s a precious thing. He high-fives the little boy and says, “Look after the women.” This includes the adult woman who is twice the boy’s size. He’s nine, but he’s the man of the house! Arrgh! Somebody please EAT MY BRAINS.

Culture chases me wherever I go. I can’t not see. I’m constantly mulling over how we are all part of a culture that perpetuates racism and sexism and environmental destruction – even when we’re just doing our thing, even when we’re just trying to fight the zombies or spend the day in the house. We perpetuate racism and sexism not because we’re bad, or because we mean to, but because we’re caught up in history and culture. By becoming more aware of this, we might be able to change how we do things in the future. That’s my hope, anyway.

So, back to communication, to failures of communication. My commenters thought I was being unjustly mean; I felt they were failing to get my point. It was a disagreement about the meaning of an event and we all had feelings about it. I can’t “unfeel” what I felt at the time; they can’t “unfeel” their response to my feeling.

This brings me to the interesting question of audience.

Who is this blog for? Who is reading it? My audience is mostly family and friends – people who know me personally. (Average readership is in the dozens.) But it’s not a secret or protected blog; it’s public. In its own way, it’s also part of “the media”. With that, comes all sorts of other responsibilities. When I wrote my post last week, I was not imagining – or perhaps I was forgetting – that the young people in the demonstration might also read it. If I’d been addressing them directly, I might have expressed myself differently. Instead, I was addressing my “usual” audience …  which is what, exactly? You. You reading this, whoever you are. Sometimes I think I know you; sometimes you’re a mystery.

As the host of this blog, I can go under the hood and have a look at my statistics. I can see how many subscribers I’ve got, how many people read a particular post. I can see which posts get read over and over again and which barely get a look-in. I can see the search terms people use before they stumble upon my blog (I love this one, for example: “what to do with galah when it has tumour in its bottom”). I know who some of you are but many of you are a complete mystery.

That’s how this Internet and social media thing works. Something can go from a semi-private discussion to global controversy in two seconds flat. Context goes out the window. It’s like sitting in a booth in a cafe having a deep and meaningful conversation, forgetting that the people at the next table can hear everything you say. And might be tweeting it.

Was my blog post capable of doing actual harm to a group of teenagers innocently doing their thing? Are hurt feelings harm? In the end, I decided not to delete my post. It was a review of a public performance; it was not a positive review, but that’s in the nature of review. I reviewed it from my own perspective, which was not the same as their perspective. But they had space to reply to me and to defend themselves in the comments. So I decided to let it all stand: my original post, my update after a personal discussion over the phone; the comments. People can make of it what they will.

Perhaps it’s not about failure of communication so much as about what happens when different types of communication bump up against each other. It’s sometimes frustrating, sometimes painful, but always enlightening.

 

A kick to the groin, a karate chop

IWD Bathurst

Sally Neaves and Leah Moulden from Rahamim at the IWD event in Bathurst.

I’ve just returned from a stint on a stall at the International Women’s Day event in Bathurst. This day has many and varied meanings, some entirely contradictory, but that’s to be expected. Women come in all ages, sizes, shapes, races, height of heels, wealth, education, sexualities and even biological starting-points (in the case of trans women). School girls in their white blouses trooped in. Business women networked. After unstructured time for a trawl around the stalls with their fliers about domestic violence, aged care and health, we were called to order to witness a martial arts display. The mats were brought out and a group of young women and one young man readied themselves nearby, wearing black suits with orange embroidered or appliquéd flames running up their trousers.

I’ve always had a bit of trouble with the self-defence narrative when it comes to women’s rights. Some of this may stem from the fact that, as a teenager, I was rubbish at judo. We practiced in a hot metal shed out at the pony club. The vinyl mats were spongy and thick and sweaty. I wore a hot, white, quilted suit. I remember half-heartedly doing a bit of uncoordinated kicking and flailing about. Deciding I was hopeless, I plumped for just riding it out until I could legitimately declare (to Mum, who sewed the suit) that I’d given it a go and now wanted out.

There’s also my suspicion that the self-defence narrative helps perpetuate the idea that men are violent, lustful creatures by their very nature. Rather than putting the onus on men to change their attitudes and behaviour, self-defence puts the onus on women to change their attitudes and behaviour. Fight like a girl!

But unlike me in the sweltering hall at the pony club, or me stuck in the mental back rooms of feminist discourse analysis, these young black-suited women were putting their hearts and hands and feet into it. They were shouting and grunting and making precise, jabbing, swishy movements. It was exhilarating to watch. Their moves told a different story about young women: not passive princesses but active creators of their own lives.

After the girls had dealt with each other, the young man of about the same age stepped forward to play his part as perpetrator, the prowling opportunistic stranger who might accost them in a dark alley or an underlit carpark.

Another twinge of unease. Despite the media’s entrancement with Anita Cobby and Jill Meagher – both victims of the lurking stranger – most violence towards women is perpetrated by their own partners or ex-partners. I think back to last winter, when Nadia Cameron was shot by her ex-partner after she’d left him. Lurking, murderous strangers certainly exist, but women are much more likely to be raped, injured or killed at the hands of the men they know.

The young man performed his role in good spirit, repeatedly felled by a young woman with a swishing long blonde ponytail. In a sharp, unambiguous movement, she pretended to knee him in the groin. This final humiliation was a high point for the ladies in the crowd, who met it with clapping and cheering. This seemed to be the end of the show. But it wasn’t, not yet.

Off to one side of the mats there were two big heavy concrete breeze blocks with three stacked roof tiles suspended between them. As the young women retreated and disappeared, the young man picked up the top tile and took it over to be inspected by members of the audience. Yes, a genuine roof tile out of someone’s shed, complete with spider webs. He went back and carefully replaced the tile. Someone lay a towel over the pile of three strong tiles. Holding his palms upward, he lowered and raised the backs of his forearms over the tiles, sizing them up. And then, in an almighty display of strength and technique, he suddenly punched his forearms downwards. The tiles smashed satisfyingly to the floor, kept from spraying in all directions by the bath towel. More clapping.

I made my way back across the room and sat down behind the gentle undulations of our crocheted river. I could hardly believe what I’d just seen, on International Women’s Day no less. It was as if a display of female strength and assertiveness could not go unanswered. It had to be immediately “corrected” by an even more dramatic display of male strength. That mental image of the vanquished boy on the mat with the girl standing triumphantly over him must not be allowed to linger. No, he had to get up and have the last “word”.

I’m sure this was not intentional. I’m sure it was simply the local martial arts group displaying its wares, putting itself through its usual paces. I’m sure nobody was thinking about the appropriateness of a dramatic display of male physical strength on a day dedicated to celebrating women’s rights and achievements. But that’s how culture works: it’s invisible. We find ourselves doing things that feel natural. After we’ve broken the natural order, we feel compelled to restore it again. So the roof tiles had to cop it.


UPDATE

Righto, this has been an interesting one. As soon as I hit “Publish” on this blog, I started to worry about it. Was it fair to dump some heavy-duty feminist theory on the local martial arts group? Possibly not. But then, what’s the use of feminist theory if it’s not used to think through the situations we confront in everyday life? Social change happens when we keep these discussions going. Anyway, this evening I got a phone call from Gerarda, who is a leader of the martial arts group I’m talking about in this blog (and author of this book). She understood my problem with the appropriateness of the tile-smashing at the end and took that on board, but felt I’d also been sarcastic about the particular girls involved in the demonstration (or their group). Oh dear. The last thing I want to do is be negative about girls being involved in a positive, assertive activity that builds a sense of strength and confidence in the world. The girls demonstrating their skill yesterday were amazing, and I was genuinely impressed. Their group is obviously highly professional. Gerarda pointed out that the training received by the men in the group is all about self control and skill and the utmost respect for women. Young men with such training learn ways to handle themselves consciously and respectfully in the world. I do take this on board – it’s obviously a great club doing great things! Hopefully this note will go some way to counteracting the whiff of negativity in my piece. But I’ll let my original post stand, because I do think that on a broader level my uneasiness with the self defence narrative (ie its place in the wider movement against violence against women) is worth putting out there. But this is an ongoing conversation and one that links with much wider issues around creating a culture that is genuinely non-violent and respectful towards women. It was great to have that chat!

 

How to do history

cabbageToday I’ve been crocheting a cabbage. It has a head and three green leaves; I may have to make one more leaf to make it look a little more cabbage-like. Lately I’ve made a kayaker, a few turtles and fish, a platypus and a blue damselfly (a blue dragonfly-like creature). These are all being stitched to a 60 metre (and growing) crocheted, knitted and woven representation of the Macquarie River stretching from Bathurst, to Hill End, Dubbo, Warren and beyond. This evening, at 5pm, we’ll be unfurling this “banner” at the Council chambers to no to a proposal to divert up to 10 megalitres of river water a day to a gold mine near Blayney. Some people will sing; others will hang more conventional banners painted by local teenagers saying things like DON’T ROB OUR RIVER; others will be holding home-made placards. Wiradjuri people, who have been here since time immemorial and call the river the Wambool, will be there too. Just now, I just got a call from an older man who said he would be there but he might be a little late, as his wife is infirm.

In the local paper today we’ve been branded as “emotional greenies” by Councillor Michael Coote, who is very cross at being bombarded with text messages. He feels we have been blessed by the gold mining company’s offer to take our water. The economic bonanza to follow will be like “winning the lottery”.

“As councillors we have to make decisions based on facts and not emotion,” Cr Coote said. “Let’s take the emotion out of this.”

The idea that Cr Coote is all about the facts and environmentalists are all about emotion is rather curious. Our case against the proposed extraction from the river is based on a cartload of scientific facts, all of which appear in Council’s own reports and pronouncements about the state of the local environment. Local temperatures are rising as climate change kicks in, and biodiversity is falling as habitat is destroyed. We environmentalists are quite aware of these facts, and find them devastating. Yes, devastation is an emotion. But it’s not a random or irrational emotion – it’s a congruent response to a set of facts.

Whether he realises it or not, Cr Coote is having some emotions himself. It would appear from the Advocate story that he is sick of the “scare campaign” by “greenies”. He’s sick of it! He’s not going to take it any more! He wants to get this whole thing over with by having Council vote in favour of the water sale tonight. That’ll stop those pesky text messages, and allow the river of cash to flow.

The fact is that we all have both minds and hearts. We all bring both to bear on our beliefs, values, opinions. It guides the language each side prefers to use. We say “water”; Cr Coote says “effluent”. It’s simply wrong for Cr Coote to say that he is being rational and we are being emotional. All sides in this are emotional.

While Cr Coote believes he is being factual about the river water sale, there is a fair amount of mythology – fantasy – at the heart of such an approach to the natural environment. The fantasy is that we can keep plundering our natural resources indefinitely. If there are consequences, they will be dealt with by unnamed, unknown people in the future, or downstream, or somewhere else in the world. To countenance this brings the possibility – perhaps just a whisper – of feeling bad. Best to retreat into a fantasy world in which “facts” can stand alone without being tainted by someone’s tears.

So, back to my crocheted cabbage. It’s true, Cr Coote, I’ve been feeling emotional about the river. As well as researching it and writing a respectable, unemotional submission to Council, I’ve been working off some sadness by making these little objects. The saying goes that history is made by those who show up. The suffragettes had a long procession of embroidered banners. We’ve got a long woolly river bearing turtles and cabbages. You might be just one person, just one cabbage – but together, we’re strong!

Crochet me a river

The beginning

The beginning

So! We’re already just over a couple of weeks into the new year. If you don’t watch them (days) they tend to escape. In just a few weeks – it’s not certain exactly when – we’ll find out whether the Powers That Be are going to go ahead and divert water from the Macquarie River into the wide open maw of an open cut gold mine. The quantity would be up to 10 megalitres a day, about four Olympic swimming pools’ worth. If the project goes ahead, the water will go out in an ordinary-looking concrete water pipe; the pipe will be laid down by people who are just going about their ordinary jobs; and then people will start working at the gold mine and earning good wages, part of which they will spend at the ordinary Coles or Woolworths supermarkets and perhaps the cafes and dress shops in town. In other words, a perfectly ordinary thing is about to happen.

It’s all pretty routine, but hundreds of people are making it known that they don’t agree. Opposition to the diversion of river water to the Regis gold mine is coming from all quarters – cabbage growers downstream, people who like to fish for Murray cod, people worried about diverting water out of the district just as global temperatures are rising, people dismayed by the privatisation of river water, people worried about declining flows into the fragile wetland habitat  of the Macquarie marshes at the other end of the catchment. Kayakers, bushwalkers, people with dogs that like to swim (that’s me and my dog, Bertie). The nuns around the corner from my house. People who can’t see the point in another gold mine when we’ve already got an absolute whopper just down the road.

Just because something is business as usual, doesn’t mean we have to keep doing it. Smoking, slavery and foot-binding were once business-as-usual.

So what’s a girl to do but take up her crochet hook and fight?!

A small group of “craftivists” has been getting together on Thursday mornings to create a long, crocheted, knitted and textile-based representation of the Macquarie River. We’re hoping that by the time Council makes its decision we’ll have something long and colourful that we can brandish before the media and general public.

The process has been wonderful so far. It’s both relaxing and, to use a rather over-used word, “empowering”.

If you’d like to join in, we’re meeting at Rahamim, 36 Busby Street, Bathurst on Thursday mornings from 10am to 12noon. Come for the whole session or just part thereof. Or if you’d rather just work on a stretch of it at home (we’re asking for lengths that are 20cm wide by however long you like – ie narrow lengths that we’ll join together), you can just drop them off at Rahamim any time in business hours (ask for Sally).


 

 

 

THE REVOLUTIONARY POTENTIAL OF CROCHET

In my twenties, I remember reading a pamphlet by Ernest Mandel (I think it was, will check), called The Revolutionary Potential of the Working Class. If the working class has the ability to change the world, what about crochet?

Question: Are you taking the piss?

Answer: Yes. A little bit. But piss must be taken.

This week a possum crashed down out of the ceiling of my hallway, bringing the manhole cover with it. Before we could shepherd it out the front door, the possum pissed on the floorboards. Maybe, as an oppressed, homeless possum, it was taking the piss. Literally. Because sometimes your ability to piss is all you’ve got. (I told you this was going to be a little mad.)

Question: What is the revolutionary potential of crochet?

Answer: I’m glad you asked. It has something to do with the meek inheriting the earth. Crochet is associated with the meek. Crochet is inherently non-violent; it’s unlikely that crocheters, even militant ones, are going to force anyone’s back up against the wall. (Airlines, however, beg to disagree. A crochet hook is a potentially gruesome weapon. Think eyeball, steel crochet hook.) If the meek don’t inherit the earth, we run the risk of the strong continuing to inherit the earth, and look where that got us.

Also: You might have noticed that the word crochet has the word Che inside it. As we all know, Che was a revolutionary. So there’s the revolutionary potential of crochet right there!

Che didn’t think think a new society would be very well served by people made up of all the faults and peculiarities of people who had lived in the old, bourgeoise society. So he said the Cuban revolution required a “new man“. People had to be different, or become different, if they were to build a new society.

Question: What if you’re not sure you can be a new man?

Answer: If you’re a man, you might become a new man by learning to crochet. The simple act of crochet could well challenge your sense of manhood and perhaps cause you to shed some of it.

Question: What if you’re not any sort of man, old or new?

Answer: Perfect!

Question: Why are you focusing on crochet in particular? Wouldn’t you get the same benefits out of knitting or paint-by-number or adult colouring in?

Answer: Perhaps.  But every art form (and crochet is surely an artform) has its particular attributes. There could be something particular about crochet that gives it an edge in the revolutionary movement. For example, the Wertheim sisters, who got the crocheted coral reef going, say that crochet follows some of the fundamental, mathematical rules of biological growth; therefore crochet, as an activity, is connected through technique to the techniques used by Mother Nature herself!

Question: So how is that revolutionary?

Answer: I don’t know, exactly, but I’m sure there’s something in it. Maybe – if crochet has a direct connection to the very processes of Life Itself then it somehow connects to the Agency of all life on the planet. If we can respect the common or garden crocheted knee rug that is used by old people in nursing homes, we might also grow to respect the agency of all the background processes that keep life going on Earth. And then we might not divert rivers into gold mines, because we’d be thinking about the Booroolong frogs.

Question: Agent as in Travel Agent?

Answer: No. Agency as in the capability to ACT and to CHANGE THINGS. If you are incapable of action or changing things, you can’t have agency. You’re just a plum pudding. Then again, a plum tree, arguably, has agency because it is actively involved in the creation of plums. These plums change the world because now it is a world with plums in it.

Question: So how is this revolutionary?

Answer: Because Life. And I’ve been reading a book given to me by my friend Helen the other day. It’s called Blueprint for Revolution – How To Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men and other non-violent techniques to galvanise communities, overthrow dictators or simply change the world, by Srdja Popovic and Matthew Miller. Anything Lego men can do, crochet can do better. I rest my case.

And here’s Ella Fitzgerald singing Cry me a River.

Another year

Wicket_cardAnother year down, and all is well! I’m still here and my numbers are still nice and low – 12 last time we looked. For this, I thank modern medicine and the wizardry of my two surgeons. I’m happy but never entirely out of the woods. I walk in the wooded valley of the shadow of the Rainbow Bridge. People think the Rainbow Bridge is just for pets but it’s not; it takes bookings from anyone. Actually none of us ever gets out of the woods. There’s always more woods. And woods are beautiful places, buzzing with life…

Anyway, I’m getting carried away by my own metaphors, so let’s move on.

While last year was all about taxol, carboplatin and long stretches of time on the couch, this year was a bit of whirl as I got back into Life at 100km an hour. Teaching was weird. I’m probably a bit like Samson, taking strength from my hair. I felt I didn’t have quite enough hair to stand in front of a room of 19 year olds and hold my own.  Meanwhile, I was sewing three giant turquoise dresses and learning my steps for the Invisible Body performance in May, where three of us did nifty moves on stage while someone else read out our personal accounts of living in bodies. We did this twice and then on the last day of the Bathurst outpost of the Sydney Writer’s Festival I got to be on a little panel of bloggers talking about our blogs. I said I blogged every Thursday, no matter what. This commitment has now begun to unravel, as you may have noticed.

What else went on this year? Check the photos on the computer. Oh, a LOT! There was a little campaign to save the Tremain silos in Keppel Street (saved!); Tracey Carpenter’s campaign for the state seat of Bathurst (retained by Paul Toole); the giant Diffenbacchia pot plant reached the level of the ceiling fan and then FELL OVER. I cut it off to its stump, leaving its two daughter plants to replace their mother (they are going very well); we had an Afternoon Teal to raise money for ovarian cancer at which Deb and Bernie, Max and Joey auctioned small items and we made lots of money (and Larissa baked cakes using the neighbour’s stove because ours was on the blink); there was the trip to Kandos to help Karen Golland poke pom poms into the ground, and then a day at Cementa; a school hols visit including nephews and a random kid they brought along; a trip to Shelley beach with Bertie and his cousin Wicket; painting ring-pulls for this year’s Waste to Art exhibition; an attempt to make sauerkraut (it looked the part but we never ate it); making Nicole Welch’s promotional video; getting more hair; going to TASMANIA (Maria Island and Hobart and a bit of the east coast) with Ranger Steve; experiencing a day of snow in the streets of Bathurst; experiencing, with all of Bathurst, the shock of the murder-suicide of cafe proprietor Elie Issa and beautiful real estate agent Nadia Cameron; more hair; following along as Mum constructed a separate wing at the back of Deb’s place to move in to; and then the grand flurry of the 200 Plants and Animals exhibition in the Bathurst CBD, followed by a battle to stop a gold mine sucking water out of the Macquarie River. Steve’s sudden obsession with kayaks. Whoa! No wonder I’m tired! And that’s not to mention the first steps into a PhD and the most amazing thing I haven’t mentioned yet but will mention now.

Over the last half of this year, I was mentored by the totally amazing and brilliant Charlotte Wood, author of The Submerged Cathedral and The Natural Way of Things as I made one last charge up over the trench and into the enemy lines of Finishing This Wretched Novel for Once and For All. (I’d finished it before, a couple of times, but not really. It still had essential problems, problems I was hoping some editor, somewhere, would help me fix.) Charlotte gave me some big guns. Howitzers. These will be handy in future battles. So as 2015 comes to a close The Lucky Galah, the novel I’ve been working on forever, is now really, truly, ruly finished, except for some typos and tiny touch-ups. And I’m so glad I didn’t settle for faulty earlier drafts. This novel is not quite the perfect thing I had in mind, but it is as good as it’s ever going to get, so that’s that. Done. Line ruled under. All over.

Meanwhile, out in the bigger picture, I just want to take a moment to savour the moment Tony Abbot was ousted. I know all the stuff about Malcolm carrying on most of the same policies, only in a more smooth-talking way, but I tell you what, that moment of waking up the next day was pure bliss. It was like a weight dropping off the shoulders of the nation.

Finally, little Wicket the long-haired dog really did step over the Rainbow Bridge recently. Vale Wicket. And Vonnie, my sister’s Mother in Law, with whom I spent many Christmas days. And thinking of Dad, too, who is sitting on a chair on a deck somewhere over the Rainbow Bridge, with his big white Maremma dog at his feet, looking through his binoculars at all the native Australian birds in the tree canopies.