I’ve got the power

We are truly a funny old species. The existence of climate controlled cars and a million labour saving devices has persuaded us that we can’t get wet, mustn’t get cold, and that most activities are beyond the reach of our puny muscles.

Yet it is possible to ride a bicycle to work even when it’s cold, wet, and windy.

It is possible to mow your lawn, cut branches off trees, and cut up firewood all without the aid of power tools.

It is possible to calculate without the aid of a calculating machine – or so I am told – the calculating portion of my brain seems to have atrophied.

And that’s just the point, isn’t it? Power is a “use it or lose it” phenomenon.

Yesterday morning, amid dire forecasts for wind, rain, hail, and general unpleasantness in the Melbourne weather forecast, I elected not to ride to work the way I usually would, and instead texted a local friend asking for a lift. I waited, and I waited, but I got no response. I texted again. Then I called. All to no avail, because his phone was on silent and he wasn’t looking at it. By then it was time to leave or be late, and so I had to bite the cold, windy, wet bullet and ride. I donned my voluminous rain cape, my waterproof trousers, and my knee high boots, and rode off into the rain.

And you know what?

I enjoyed it. True, there were times when I thought I was in a scene from Finding Nemo. “Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…” But by the time I got to work I was radiating the dedicated commuting cyclist’s extreme smug field. I was warm from the exercise. I had made it to work under my own steam in unpleasant conditions. I had power. I had self esteem. I was surprisingly dry. And my colleagues universally thought me insane – no change there.

Throughout the day the weather worsened and I swore I would beg, borrow, or if necessary steal a lift home, even if it meant coming in on my day off to pick up my bike. But by the time I was ready to leave everyone else had gone, the rain had stopped, and the wind had eased. So I rode home again, and this time didn’t even need the wet weather gear.

Here’s the thing: skin is mostly waterproof, and getting rained on is rarely fatal. Admittedly the weather in Melbourne yesterday was a touch extreme, and I would not have ridden in the 100kph winds we endured in the middle of the day. But even though the wind had settled, people were still aghast that I had done something so extreme as ride in the rain.

With decent wet weather gear, riding in the rain is no big deal, but we persuade ourselves that we need our climate control, our heating, our air con, and our isolation from the world. I persuaded myself that I needed a lift to work this morning, but when my lift failed to materialize, I rode to work just fine.

I had also persuaded myself that I couldn’t do anything about our treatment of asylum seekers. I’m just one person. Just one voice. One keyboard – albeit fairly strident. But I watched a friend become increasingly active, and it began to make my muscles twitch, until almost without thinking I stepped over the line and did something concrete for a family of refugees. Burning with their story, I came home and wrote about it, and in just over a week more than 700 people have read my piece about actually stepping up and helping.

I have power. One voice can reach many ears, if it’s willing to try.

Today I went to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Dandenong and signed up to teach computer skills there once a fortnight next term. Another thing I can do. And each person I teach can teach others in turn. I’m starting small, but who knows what impact this will have on the lives of the people our government wants us to abandon?

I’ve already noticed the impact on my cycling route of stopping to pick up the occasional piece of rubbish. I have power here, too.

We can walk or ride in the rain, much further than we think we can. We can pick up a little rubbish every day and leave the world a cleaner place. We can offer a little support to those most in need. And the magic of muscles is that the more we do, the more we can do. Which also means that the less we do, the less we can do.

So maybe it’s time to ask ourselves what we can really do.

What can you do?

 

 

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Land of confusion

I did a good deed today. My 11 year old was proud of me. She was so pleased that I had stepped up to help.  She said I would come back feeling really good. I thought I would, too. I was feeling a little smug. A little pleased to have got out of my own head, been lifted out of my own worries, and to be able to help some strangers. I thought I would come back all aglow with their gratitude, and a sense of self-worth.

But I have come home gutted. Devastated. Deeply ashamed.

Not because the strangers weren’t grateful – far from it. The children adopted me instantly. Hugged me, proudly told me the words they could spell, and wanted to know all about my own kids. The parents offered me tea, and told me many times how grateful they were, and how they had been told someone would come. When they heard how far I had driven they were overwhelmed. They were lovely. We live about an hour apart, but I think we could be friends. I’ll take my kids to visit them in the holidays.

But… my god. The horror of what they have been through. The horror of what we, as a nation, are still putting them through. I knew it was appalling, but until I met these people, until trauma was given faces, names, and lives, I did not look it full in the face.

These people, these beautiful new friends, who welcomed me with open arms, who want nothing more than lives, jobs, and freedom – those trivial details that we take for granted every day – they are refugees. Fleeing from a homeland that promised them death and destruction, they have been in detention overseas for DECADES.

You read that right. FOR DECADES.

There’s too many men, too many people
making too many problems
and there’s not enough love to go round.
Tell me why this is the land of confusion?
 

So they risked everything to cross the sea to come here. They risked EVERYTHING. They took their lives, and those of their families, in their hands. They piled 40 families on a fragile, largely unseaworthy boat, and they came here. Looking for life. Looking for compassion. Looking, above all, for safety. And we locked them up.

We. Locked. Them. Up.

For years.

This is the world we live in
and these are the hands we’re given
use them and let’s start trying
to make it a place worth living in
Land of Confusion – Genesis
 

Children. Families. People.

It costs money to lock people up. To prevent them from working. To ensure they put down no roots, create no support networks, and never feel a part of the community. These families want nothing more than to make their own way in the world in safety. They don’t want our charity. They want to build themselves valuable lives, and establish themselves in the community. After all they have been through, all they want is to live. But we would rather pay to lock them up.

Abbott professes himself devout. I am not much of a religious scholar, but I remember endless passages in the bible about compassion, and about helping those in need. I don’t remember anything about demonising the desperate.

Do you know what undid me today, more than anything else in the tales that unfolded? One of my new friends was desperately concerned that I would think him a liar, and a bad man. He showed me his UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) documents that proved he had, indeed, been in detention for decades. That he had lived, married, had a child, all in detention. That all he wanted was a life. And all he was given was jail, for himself, his wife, and his child. He wanted me to know that he was honest. That he was a good person. That he deserved to live.

I took them food today, as they have no way of contacting their case workers on the weekend. No nappies for their babies. No food for their children. No friends in the community – they were uprooted from their only support networks, and transferred to where they have no means of supporting themselves. They are not allowed to work. Who knows if their children will be able to go to school.

The Department of Immigration refers to these people, these families, as “Illegal Maritime Arrivals”. They are not. Australia has promised the UN not to discriminate on the basis of arrival, but oh! How differently we treat people who arrive by plane and overstay their visas. For a complete discussion of the legalities and technicalities I refer you to Julian Burnside.

I won’t be coming home tonight
my generation will put it right
we’re not just making promises
that we know we’ll never keep.

Ultimately, though, the legalities are irrelevant. The facts are these: Desperate people come here, seeking our help. We punish them. These people with faces, names, and families. These people who are filled with love, with gratitude, and with hope, after years of the world battering them with the worst it has to give. We punish them.

When I came home and told my family the story over dinner, my 7 year old cried: “I don’t want to be Australian anymore, Mummy!”

Is this who we want to be?

I. WILL. NOT. STAND. FOR. IT.

Will you?

 

Treading lightly

When I say “teenage boys,” what’s your first reaction?

My daughter is vehement about not wanting to become a teenager, because everything she hears about teenagers is bad. They graffiti. They are rude. They are grumpy. They are vandals. Teenagers have a really serious PR problem.

And, indeed, 3 teenage boys made me cry last Tuesday. But not, perhaps, the way you are thinking. They showed up at my desk at recess with a gift, to tell me how grateful they were for the opportunities I have given them, and the work I have done with them.

And it wasn’t just any gift. We worked together on a dolphin research project, so they gave me a purple bracelet with a silver dolphin charm on it, together with one of the most appropriate and eloquent cards I have ever seen (also purple, and also with dolphins, naturally).

purple bracelet with silver dolphin
purple bracelet with silver dolphin

That project was one of the highlights of my career, both as a teacher and an academic. I had a wonderful time working on it, and the fact that it’s ongoing and turning into a real, usable, useful system is intensely satisfying to me. It was clear from the way the students kept working on it long after the assignment was submitted that they were highly motivated. I knew how they felt about it. And they knew I knew. Yet they wanted to express their gratitude in a tangible form.

So I wear my bracelet every day, and when things get overwhelming I use it to remind myself that I must be doing something right, and that I am appreciated.

They didn’t have to do it. They didn’t have to write the card, or buy the bracelet, or do anything at all. They could easily have taken the attitude that I was just doing my job. They could have been all take and no give. But instead, as they have done throughout the project, they took the opportunity to give back. To lift my spirits in a way I could never have anticipated, and certainly never asked for. They left me far happier than they found me, both with their work, and with their gift.

They chose to make a difference.

There are so many ways we can all make a difference.

On the weekend I went walking with my family at the Quarantine Station down at Pt Nepean. As we usually do, we took a plastic bag and collected what rubbish we could. We collected a wide range of random stuff. Polystyrene, plastic bottles and caps, hair bands, food wrappers, pieces of glow stick, rope, and a large chunk of silicon sealant.

Rubbish from the beach at Pt Nepean
Rubbish from the beach at Pt Nepean

There was some rubbish wedged in rocks where we couldn’t reach it, and it took so long to cover a small section of beach that we couldn’t collect it all. The bag we carried away with us was only a small fraction of the rubbish on the beach on that one day, and it was heavy.

Volume of rubbish collected in half an hour at Pt Nepean.
Volume of rubbish collected in half an hour at Pt Nepean.

The trouble with starting to collect rubbish is that it’s very hard to stop. It’s easy to become a bit obsessed, and not stop as long as there is rubbish in sight. Sadly, in our current environment, that often means not stopping. Ever. Because there is SO much of it. Ever since our involvement with the Baykeepers Documentary, we have been a lot more aware of rubbish. Heartbreaking pictures of dead birds and dolphins with a stomach full of plastic bags tend to have that effect.

So if you make yourself responsible for it and decide to clean it up, you could be at it forever. And ever. And ever.

But you don’t have to pick up every single piece of rubbish to make a difference. The other day on the way home from work I ignored a lot of rubbish, as I have to, or I’d never get home. But I did pick up quite a few large pieces of polystyrene. This is particularly nasty stuff, because it breaks down into small white balls that look exactly like eggs. It attracts toxins and pollutants, and winds up floating, egg-like in our waterways. Indigestible balls of poison that our native fish, birds, dolphins and seals snap right up, with tragic results.

So I picked up as much of it as I could, and then I rode home. The rest of the rubbish that I had not picked up nagged at my heart, but I was comforted by the idea that there was a whole lot less rubbish than there would have been if I hadn’t stopped at all. Sure, I hadn’t got it all, but I left that part of the world a little cleaner than I found it.

I think this is a lesson I can learn at work, too. I can’t fix everything. I can’t do everything I want to do. I can’t solve every problem for every student, or even make my own subject perfect. But I can aim to leave the world better than I found it. Not perfect. Not clean. Not sorted. But better than it would have been without me.

It’s easy to feel that we have so little power, such a faint voice, that nothing we can do counts. There’s so much rubbish that it feels as though there’s no point in even trying to pick it up. But if everyone picked up 3 pieces of rubbish, our insoluble litter problem could vanish overnight. We can’t fix everything alone. But we can do a little every day, and have an impact that surprises us, even in a week. And by doing what we can, we can inspire others to do what they can. And together, our tiny acts can build up into a tsunami of change. Just by doing a little, when we can.

Like my students, we can choose to give back. To make a difference in the world. By showing someone we appreciate them. By cleaning up our local environment a little. By seeing something that needs doing and getting it done.

And that’s something that everyone can do.