Fairly Astounding

I thought I knew all about fair trade. It didn’t seem like there was much to know. I thought it was about paying farmers a fair price for their produce. Which it is, of course. But I recently heard Wells Trenfield, Managing Director of Jasper Coffee, talk about the really significant aspect of fair trade, called the fair trade premium. I knew about this, too – it’s an extra fee, on top of the price for the coffee, that gets paid to the farmers collectively. According to the rules for fair trade certification, this premium must be spent on a community project that benefits everyone.

Ok, that’s nice. Intellectually I know that the premium gets spent on education, health care, or other community improvements. But then I heard Wells Trenfield detail some of the ways that fair trade premium has been spent out in the real world, and suddenly I realised that this is world changing, astounding stuff.

First of all, you need to understand that many of the farmers growing fair trade produce have incredibly small holdings – some less than a hectare. They may produce as little as 3 or 4 bags of coffee a year. And that’s it. That’s their income for the year. These farms are generally in isolated areas, and they sell their coffee to an agent who treks in specifically to buy it. The agent tells them prices are down this year, so he can’t give them much for their coffee – and what can they say? They have no other way to sell, so they take the low price and eke out their poverty stricken existence until the next year, hoping the price will be better for their next crop.

The first difference in fair trade is that, in order to be certified as fair trade, these farmers must organise into a cooperative. Suddenly, instead of selling 4 bags, there are hundreds of farmers in the cooperative, with hundreds, if not thousands of bags of coffee. Now they have bargaining power – game changing bargaining power. The cooperative must have a democratically elected governing committee, and they sell the coffee, distributing the proceeds among the farmers.

But here’s where it gets astounding. The farmers get their fair price, and the cooperative gets that amazing fair trade premium. Then, each year, the cooperative – the farmers themselves – decide what their community’s most serious problem is, and they use the fair trade premium to fix it. And then the next year, they do it again, fixing the next problem.

For one group of women in Peru (the producers of Jasper Coffee’s Cafe Feminino), their most serious problem was their cooking – which was done on campfires on the ground outside their homes. They had back problems from bending over, respiratory problems from always leaning over the fire breathing in the smoke, and no way around it. So their first fair trade premium went on research on how to fix that problem with the materials to hand. Now every household has an upright stove and an oven – inside, with a chimney. Built out of mud bricks, because mud was their only available material. No more smoke, no more bending. And that was one year’s premium. Every year more progress, and a new problem solved.

One cooperative in Papua New Guinea needed wash troughs for their coffee – washing the beans straight away means they are better quality and the cooperative can sell them for a higher price. But instead of simply buying wash troughs for everyone that would only last a year or two in the damp conditions, they bought a portable saw mill. They live in the forest, so they have plenty of wood. Using their saw mill they built wash troughs for everyone, as well as better building materials – so they now have roofs that don’t leak. Crucial in a very damp climate. And when the wash troughs rot, they can build new ones with their saw mill, so it’s a sustainable solution. Again, this was one year’s premium, but world changing for those farmers. Oh, and their coffee sells for a much better price now, too.

Every year these cooperatives pull themselves further out of poverty – step by step, with sustainable solutions that make a long term difference to their lives. And they get to choose their own direction, doing what is most important to them each year.

Today I went to a talk at World Vision that was quite literally stunning in its power (a whole new blog, or probably several, so stay tuned). But one of the key points that came out of that talk was that we can eradicate extreme poverty in our lifetimes. And by buying fair trade, and even better, telling your friends about fair trade, you can make that real.

Which means that Fair Trade empowers you to empower others.

It doesn’t get fairer than that!

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Too tired

Most of today’s non-work brain capacity has been taken up in contemplation of Gary Moore’s bouncy, jazzy song “I’m tired”. It’s a puzzle, that song. Containing many variations on the theme of “I’m tired. Too tired for anything” – including “sitting on a pin, I’m too tired to get up”, it is a high energy, boppy song that you can’t help bouncing too. Well, I can’t, anyway, but I do have a somewhat alarming tendency to bounce.

Even I, though, can’t bounce when I’m too tired, and oh, how tired I am today. I have a whole lineup of profound, meaningful and important posts on the topics of fair trade, anger, and compassion, among other things, but I simply haven’t got the cognitive capacity to spare, because my whole brain is engaged in one long downwards moan. I’m tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrred.

I always knew parenting would be exhausting – especially those first few months. I wasn’t someone who leapt into parenthood with the bright, shiny conviction that a baby would slot right into my life without leaving so much as a wrinkle in the smooth fabric of my life. I had enough nephews and nieces to know that babies don’t work that way. Yet I sometimes look at the parents around me and it feels as though it works for everyone else. I berate myself that I must be doing something wrong – making a rod for my own back, or some other such alarming phrase.

A friend of mine recently bemoaned the fact that her husband was going on an overseas trip, leaving her to be single parent for a couple of weeks. She finished up with “but it’s his first non-work trip in two years, I can’t complain.”  And when I joked that she could complain if she really tried – I certainly would! – she responded unthinkingly “Yes, but I’m a coper.”

This was weeks ago, and I have been wrestling with my insecurity ever since, trying not to turn that simple, innocuous sentence into “Yes, but I’m a coper.” Unlike you. You’re not a coper. You’re a wreck, who shouts at her children when she’s tired, even when they don’t deserve it (and let’s face it, shouting isn’t ever really deserved, because it’s not a good answer to anything, except possibly the existence of Tony Abbott). You don’t cope. You go to pieces so fast people get hit by the shrapnel. You’re an emotional basket case not fit to be a parent.

She didn’t say that. I don’t believe she even thought it. I don’t. Really I don’t. Not much, anyway. She might have kind of thought it, but not really meant it. I’m sure if I asked her she’d tell me she didn’t, and that she never meant it like that. And there’s no way she’d lie. Is there?

I have, on many occasions, wrestled those insecurities to the ground, arguing that anyone who walked a mile in my shoes would have horribly sore feet, but anytime I am at all low, say, exhausted from getting up half a dozen times a night to a distressed 3 year old who can’t tell me why she is waking, and indeed half the time isn’t actually awake, but is nonetheless waking the entire house, wait… where was I? BAM! Those insecurities pounce, wrestle me to the ground and whisper sour nightmares in my ears.

Was there ever, I wonder, a parent who truly believed that he or she did the best job possible, and didn’t go all self-flagellant over regrets and mistakes long irretrievable? Parenting is such a collection of paradoxes. To switch songs for a moment, it’s rather like Bachelor Girl once said. “I walked under a bus. I got hit by a train. And it felt so good, I want to do it again.” Good days and bad days, and exhausted too-tired-for-anything days. That’s what little girls, and little boys, and even their parents are made of.

Ouch. Is that a pin? Oh, never mind…

In search of lightness of being

Today I am not so much walking as bouncing. I do tend to bounce when I’m particularly happy, but I have been lacking the time, energy, and simple lightness of being to bounce for what feels like half a lifetime. So what’s special about today? I finally went back to yoga, for the first time in nearly 4 years.

Aaah! Yoga! Tomorrow it may well be more a case of “Aaagh! Yoga!” as various unfamiliar muscles announce their presence in no uncertain terms. But it is totally worth it. Today I have been forcibly reminded of the benefits of taking care of your soul.

It’s so easy in the hectic chaos of life to forget to make space for the things that feed your soul. Coffee with friends, a chance to sing, reading a good book, going to a concert, walking in the sunshine – whatever it may be, it’s easy to put it last on the To Do list, and even to let it fall off altogether. In doing so, we forget that it’s impossible to shine at anything unless you take the time to put that shine back on your soul.

I have been lucky for the last few years to spend a few hours every weekend walking with a dear friend. Those walks have been small islands of calm and sanity in a chaotic life. They are excellent food for my soul. Sadly (for me) my friend is away for a few weeks, so I have been forced to look elsewhere for my weekend physical and mental escape. Now I remember why yoga kept me hooked for years, back when my time and energy were under less pressure. Of course, the irony is that yoga is the kind of thing that actually gives me more energy – it’s a “spend energy to make energy” kind of deal – but sometimes it’s still hard to persuade myself that I have time for it.

What’s so wonderful about yoga? There are lots of aspects to this particular yoga class that I have never found anywhere else. The key, though, is the instructor, Roman. I first met him years ago, when I tried my first ever yoga class, more or less at random, at Monash. Those classes were packed out, and I soon learnt why. Roman teaches a particularly vigorous style of yoga called Yoga Synergy.  It is, as he puts it, “a very physical form of yoga”, and it is incredibly hard work – yet people were coming back twice a week, every week, with the fervour of addiction. Yes, the endorphins are good, but there’s more to it than that.

Roman is definitely one of nature’s sparkly people. Everyone who walks through the door of his classes immediately feels like an honored guest – the person Roman was just waiting for to make the class complete. Throughout the class, as we struggle with unfamiliar poses and twanging muscles, his enthusiasm and encouragement always seem to get more out of us than we thought we could possibly do.

Today, when I fell out of a particularly challenging pose, Roman grinned at me and commented that I obviously had a wobbly mat. Even when I’m being hopelessly clumsy and uncoordinated, he manages to make me feel as though I’m doing really well. Sometimes I get frustrated as I hit my limits, and Roman always manages to make me smile, encouraging and guiding me past those limits as though they never existed.

Yoga itself is brilliant for my body – coaxing my back out of its habitual banana shape and back into something an osteopath would actually recognise as roughly spine-shaped – and generally toning and training my muscles to work the way they are supposed to. The endorphin rush from a good yoga synergy session is spectacular, and when it’s matched by Roman’s humour, encouragement and warm greeting, it’s a buzz like no other.

Yoga is also wonderful for helping me to switch off. Lately I’ve been having trouble calming down from a hectic schedule. When I’m doing yoga I am thinking of nothing but how to achieve the current pose, and all the stress and worry I arrived with gets left at the door. Often I neglect to pick it up again on the way out.

So that’s why I bounced home from yoga today, and why my back remains straighter than it has been in an alarmingly long time. I stopped going to yoga when Roman left Monash and opened his own studio, because his classes were much further away, and I just couldn’t find the time to get there, do a class, and get home again. My “me-time” was taken up walking with my friend, and I didn’t see how I could fit in yoga as well.

I now realise I need to do both – to keep walking with my friend, and to make it to yoga regularly. Time is a small price to pay for that lightness of being and straightness of back. Starve your soul and you begin a long, slow, downward spiral. I suspect that if you can make the time to nurture your soul, everything else will fall into place.

What do you do that feeds your soul?

Walk a mile

There’s an old saying – don’t criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. By then you’re a mile away, you’ve got his shoes, and you can say whatever you want. It’s hard to avoid judging people sometimes – it’s built in to the human psyche. But it’s much harder to judge people harshly when you have some understanding of what they’re going through.

Have you ever been to an unfamiliar supermarket? Not a different branch of your usual supermarket – they are almost disturbingly homogeneous now – but a completely different type of supermarket. It can be an incredibly frustrating experience if you are looking for something slightly unusual, as you wander the aisles trying to find something that you know the exact whereabouts of at your usual shop. They group things differently. The soap may be next to the tissues where you usually shop, but here it’s in the health food aisle. Why would they do that???

Worse than that by far is shopping in a different country – even one where they speak the same language as you. In the US some years ago we spent a very frustrating time trying to find muesli bars. None of the packets look familiar – and it’s amazing how much you navigate a supermarket by familiar packets. We had to actually read the labels on boxes to work out what type of product was in each aisle – it was astonishing how hard it was to find what we wanted. (It turned out they did have museli bars, but not as we know them. They were sugar with occasional grains tucked away in the middle. Ugh!) All those familiar cues that we rely on without even being aware of them were missing, and we felt remarkably disoriented.

Magnify that by several thousand, and you might begin to understand the frustration of shopping in a supermarket where you don’t speak the language, or don’t speak it fluently. Now label reading doesn’t even help, and you are reduced to trying to guess the meaning of the pictures on the labels – have a look around at your familiar groceries, and you’ll find that many of them have completely mystifying pictures on them. Nothing to do with the product inside. Lemons on dishwashing liquid. Puppies on tissue boxes.

You may not even be able to find the things you are used to. You might not be able to cook the meals you usually rely on, might not even be able to find the right sort of soap. Without a guide, you may spend a year or more in that foreign country, as a friend of mine once did, completely unaware that what you are looking for is right there on the shelves. My French friend spent a year in Melbourne, pining for real cream. He thought we only had thickened cream. He never realised (until we talked about it, long after he had returned to France) that there was pure cream, and double cream, and even clotted cream if you knew where to look.

And that’s just shopping. Picture that applying to your whole life. Unable to ask for directions, unable to understand signs or announcements over loud speakers. Unable to cook familiar food because you can’t find the ingredients. Completely cut off from the world around you, until you can get a grip on the language, the culture, and the basic mechanics of being in a new country.

How brave people are, to seek a new life for themselves and their families, in a country they don’t yet understand. And how incredibly strong and courageous to risk crossing hostile oceans in barely seaworthy craft, to escape unimaginable dangers and trauma in their home countries.

Regardless of what our politicians would have you believe, refugees are not cashed up queue jumpers, lounging on sun lounges on the lido deck, on their way to plunder our riches. No, those cashed up queue jumpers are arriving by plane, and on the whole being welcomed with open arms. Boat people, in contrast, are frightened, desperate people, and there is no queue. These people don’t have the option of waiting patiently in a queue outside the Australian embassy, certain of being heard. They are not walking past a sign saying “please wait here and we will look after you.” They are running for their lives, and for their families’ lives.

Not many people know that Australia signed a UN convention stating that we would not discriminate against refugees based on how they arrive. But we do. Oh, how we do. We demonise, vilify and torment them. We lock them behind razor wire in the desert, keep them there for years, and then send them back to the hells they came from.

Walk a mile in those shoes.

Life wasn’t meant.

A friend used to tell me, when things were driving me crazy: “Don’t worry. It’ll all come out in the wash.” I always took that to mean that things tend to work out ok. There are two ways to get there, though – there’s the belief that things work out ok because we, as a species, are pretty good at making the best of wherever we end up. That’s a positive outlook.

And then there’s the belief that there is a plan. That everything happens for a reason.

I think this is an untenable position. Well, maybe it’s true, that there is a reason, but the idea that it’s always a good reason, or that there is a benign hand guiding the universe – this I find very difficult to swallow. A good reason for massacres in Darfur? For race-based persecution in Sri Lanka? Try telling a 6 year old refugee who watched her family massacred that everything happens for a reason. A good reason for genocide? For World War 2 and the persecution of the Jews? A good reason for cancer? I think this is taking our ability to make the best of things a little too far.

It may be a kind of anthropocentric arrogance, to assume that the world has been put here for our personal benefit, and everything will work out ok for us. It also puts an untenable load of blame on the shoulders of the bereaved, the afflicted and the persecuted. “Why me? What have I done to deserve this torture? Was it the lolly I stole when I was 3?” What an appalling load of guilt to place on the shoulders of someone already suffering unimaginable horrors.

Throughout history we have desperately struggled to find reasons, and ways to make sense of the world. Books such as “when bad things happen to good people” try to bring comfort, but seem to raise more questions than they lay to rest. “Why me?” “Why her?” “Why him?”… Above all, can I find a reason why what happened to them couldn’t possibly happen to me? How can I hold myself and my loved ones immune from the fate that randomly drops catastrophe on others?

When something bad happens to someone we know, it is natural to search for reasons to reassure us that it couldn’t happen to us, and for reasons to hope. Someone dies unexpectedly of heart disease? That’s terrible, but I exercise and eat healthily, so I’ll be fine. It couldn’t happen to me. Got cancer? That’s ok, if you have a positive attitude you can beat it. Never mind that it places a burden of intense guilt on the shoulder of anyone who has cancer and feels sad and scared. “You have to be positive! It could save your life!” By all means do your best to be positive and fight to your last breath. But don’t feel guilty for feeling sad and overwhelmed. That’s called being human.

I have never understood the idea of the power of prayer, either. If you pray for the people in Darfur, they will be saved? What kind of omniscient being would only save suffering people if you beg?

I don’t argue with anyone’s right to believe in whatever they want. But I do object to being told that everything happens for a reason. What reason could there be for the torture of children? What reason could there be for companies getting fat on the profits from child slavery? (It happens even today. Make sure your tea, coffee and chocolate are fair trade!)

The real problem with the benign plan theory is that it allows the malicious, the stupid, and the bigoted to use the “it’s a judgement” line whenever something bad happens to some group of people they disapprove of. AIDS? It’s a judgement on homosexuals. Hurricane Katrina? It’s a judgement on that morals of that modern day Gomorrah, New Orleans. It’s God’s punishment – you must have done something to deserve it.

Of course, there are plenty of people who believe that there is a plan, yet would never dream of using it as a judgement of anyone. Caring, loving people who make the world a better place on a daily basis. I have no argument with them. I can’t agree with their beliefs, but I can happily work beside them to try to make the world a fairer, happier place.

It may be true that life wasn’t meant to be easy, but in my view, life wasn’t meant. The meaning is what you create yourself. Leave the world a little better than you found it – that’s a meaning of life that I can really believe in.

Breastfeeding – get used to it!

“Breastfeeding creepy” screamed a headline on the front page of The Age Online. I wish I could say it came as a surprise, but sadly this attitude is all too common. I was recently representing Breastfeeding Friendly Workplaces at a large Human Resources conference, and over 50% of attendees went red, looked shocked, and scuttled past our stand as though expecting us to whip out a breast and offer them a squirt at any moment.

I have dealt with large, reputable companies where senior management could not bring themselves to meet with me (sending a female representative to keep me at arms length) because they weren’t “comfortable” with the whole issue. Scared of the breast woman. The same managers put endless barriers and legalistic hurdles in front of attempts to transform workplaces into family friendly, breastfeeding friendly workplaces.

Breasts sell newspapers – never mind the fact that the headline above was, in fact, attached to an article about how appalling it was that someone had written that breasts were sexual objects and that breastfeeding ruins that (which, incidentally, is news to me, but I won’t go into detail, even though it would apparently be much less controversial to talk about using my breasts for sexual pleasure than about breastfeeding my daughters past the age of 2).

In 2008 I wrote an article about breastfeeding past the age of 12 months, and titled “Yes, Actually, Breast is Best” it was the most viewed (not to say read) article on the online WA Today site for days on end. Breasts sell. Breasts are “fun bags”. Breasts are about sex.

There are still people who are happier about babies drinking cow’s milk (straight from a cow’s breast, people, how creepy is that?) than about babies being breastfed. It’s time to face facts – our society has completely lost the plot when it comes to breasts. How do we regain the plot? There is only one way to normalise breastfeeding, and that’s to bring it out into the open. Do it in public. Do it at work. Do it in restaurants. Do it in parks. Do it on the train. Talk about it and write about it, in all its complicated glory. Yes, it sometimes hurts. Yes, it can be difficult. Yes, it can be an incredibly wonderful experience, even while hurting and being difficult. It doesn’t have to hurt – getting the right advice and support can change trauma to transcendent glory within days, but it is hard to seek advice while the taboo remains.

Breastfeeding remains something that is often easier not to do – because we don’t talk about it, we don’t see people doing it, and we don’t cope with having breastfeeding mentioned, because it contains “the b word” – rejected by spam filters and society alike. New mums often have not seen anyone breastfeeding up close. They’re shy about feeding in public because the prevailing opinion is still, in 2010, that it is an embarrassing and shameful act that should happen behind closed doors.

We still have companies telling their employees to breastfeed or express in the toilets. Would you want to eat lunch, or have your lunch prepared in the toilet? I am happy to say that I breastfed anywhere and everywhere – if my girls were hungry, or simply wanted a feed, they got one. On ferries. In trains. In restaurants. In shopping centres. In the street. In school. At work. And that should be normal. No-one should be made to feel embarrassed, ashamed or awkward about breastfeeding anywhere.

Breast, breast, breast, breast, breast. Get used to it!