betty

Many moons ago, my grandfather’s brother married an Australian woman.

Her name was Betty.

They must have been together for a few decades – they certainly had quite a few children and even more grandchildren, my lovely cousins.

By the time I was old enough to remember meeting them, I discovered they were no longer together. Aunt Betty still came to family gatherings though. I remember how her face lit up the first time she saw me as a young woman.

‘I’m your aunty Betty! I was Tony’s wife’ she said with a warm, inviting smile, holding my hands.

‘She looks just like Jacqui (my aunty)’, she would say to my mother.

Later she told me how she understood a bit of Arabic – ‘you have to learn or they’ll gossip about you’.

It turns out that Betty and Tony hadn’t been together for more than 20 years.

They told me that Betty was heartbroken and wanted him back. She stubbornly refused to give up and never stopped believing he might come back.

She was also my grandmother’s best friend – comrades in arms in being married to difficult Joseph men. They would call each other regularly. I remember my grandmother telling me about it.

She would say to Betty, over and over again.

‘Why don’t you go with someone else? He goes with others, why don’t you?’

‘I like Tony’, Betty would say.

Betty waited for Tony for 27 years. I wrote this down when my grandmother told me. I thought it was the sweetest thing I’d ever heard.

When my grandmother told me that he finally did come back to Betty, I couldn’t believe it. My heart soared at the news. I saw them together at a funeral. They were happy. Uncle Tony had no idea who I was but Aunty Betty was thrilled to see me.

Today I had a little cry at the news of Betty’s passing and the thought of her little frail body. I will always remember how she would see me at family gatherings and come over just to tell me I was beautiful and she loved me, even though she hardly knew me and we weren’t blood relatives. This didn’t matter to a woman like Betty. You were always the most important in that room – when really she was the most important all along.

Rest easy now, sweet little Betty – you were the best little woman. I’ll never forget you.

‘keep your heart warm’

‘The only thing keeping me going is hoping. I met some really nice people. I love them’.

He leans forward, his face serious, whispering.

‘The Australian people keep my heart warm, alive’.

I stare at him incredulously. At this stage, it’s likely the young man sitting across from me will be deported back to the country he fled from, a place where an inevitable death awaits him. I sit here, knowing that a government that does not represent me is doing everything in its power to prevent him from being granted asylum.

He gazes wearily into my eyes, filled with a small, slightly formidable shred of hope.

I am in pieces.

***

I interviewed Farid* six months ago on a balmy summer’s eve on my balcony. He leaned in close so the iPad could record his barely audible voice. I felt chills despite the warm weather and was a wreck in the aftermath of taking it all in. It took many failed attempts to finally sit down and write it and even more months to work up the courage to post this piece. Recently my  journalist best friend called me to say she had also recorded his story. Afterwards she sat immobile on her floor, unable to move or even comprehend transcribing the interview. We both agreed to hold off on publishing or broadcasting until we had checked with lawyers and made certain that publicising his story would not put his delicate case for asylum in further jeopardy, or make life harder for him in his home country, should the cruellest outcome of sending him back ever occur.

I decided to tell his story either way.

***

He walks with a quiet gait, in an almost trance-like state, lost in thought, distracted and downcast. He won’t talk unless he is spoken to and at first, he responds with quiet, delicate, one-word answers, muffled slightly by his accent.

I fire question after question at him, as though I’m trying to break through some kind of invisible barrier. I don’t know what I’m trying to get out of him or this interview or why I’m even doing it. I haven’t even begun and I am already helpless, limp and lost in a sea of thoughts plagued by the media, by conversations I’m trying to mute in my head, as this young man sits bravely and stoically before me.

‘What makes you happy?’ I ask him later, after questions about the anguish of travelling by boat, of living in limbo and waiting for residency, of escaping his country and the problems he faced and just before he outlines his hopes and dreams of becoming a world champion in the sporting field he has excelled at (it’s because he is so successful in this field that I can’t name the sport, for it will almost certainly give him away), when he responds:

‘I don’t know what you mean?’ he responds humbly and unassuming, as though ‘happy’ is not an option for him.

I have to explain the word ‘happiness’ to him and eventually he answers, smiling for the first time that evening…

We start at the very beginning.

‘How did you get to Australia?’

‘Boat’, he says seriously. ‘I didn’t know it was going to be a boat like that’.

I try not to think about what kind of boat he had in mind. Political problems plagued his local neighbourhood only a few years ago. A powerful local Islamic group made life impossible for him and his family.

‘They have the power to kill and put people in jail. They’re with the government but they have their own rules’.

He had a prominent position in his community and in the city council, so he was often in their direct line of fire. When his life was threatened and he was in danger of being captured, tortured and imprisoned by the group, he made the decision to leave his home country. Farid made the trip by plane and arrived in Indonesia.

He spent two months there. He quickly discovered that people could be waiting up to one or two years for the UN to make a decision about their case and to send them somewhere safe. He stayed in a house with ten people living on top of each other. That’s when he started to hear that Australia was a good place to go, that it was safe for refugees.

You have no idea where you’re going but suddenly you’re travelling in a van squished together with ten people. You spend 25 hours in that van, with no end in sight.

‘You’re feeling shit and you don’t know where you’re going or how long it takes. You just go, no other option’.

This is only the prelude to the now infamous boat journey. Eventually he makes his way on to a small, rickety boat, where the worst experience of his life gently beckoned towards him. He recalls that there must have been 70 people in the boat.

Until that day he had never been on a boat in his life.

They were on the sea for two days before arriving in Christmas Island. In that time the experience was so harrowing, that his only thought was of throwing himself into the sea.

I ask him to tell me more about the boat. His face transforms now into a slightly crazed expression.

He tells me how you have hope before you get on the boat, but when you are on the sea, the wild crazy sea, squished in with desperate people you don’t know, you start to feel bad, you start to regret the decision to get on the boat in the first place. But you are here now, terrified as it rains and as you rock back and forth on choppy waters. You had no idea it would be like this and you don’t know where you’re going. 

‘Did you know the boats can sink?’ I interject.

‘I hear about this when I am already on the boat!’ he cries out.

‘You are thinking you might get lost at sea and you hear the screams of the children’.

 ‘I can say I died in that time. You want to die. You don’t have a choice to go back, Even if it capsizes, you have to finish the journey or you die’.

He describes how the boat nearly crashed on Christmas Island and I shudder at the thought. I grip the chair beneath me when he tells me how they were seen to be coming towards the island but no one helped them.

They try to call the Australian police and plead with them.

‘Why are you not coming to catch us?’ they cry into the phone, hearing indifference on the other end. I dwell on the incorrect use of the word ‘catch’ for some reason. It reminds me of fish.

The Australian personnel kept them on the water from 9pm to 9am.

‘Oh what, doesn’t anyone work the night shift?!’ I scoff, my sarcasm flying over his head. I am getting worked up but he doesn’t even notice. He is back there now on that boat.

Eventually the royalty emerge from their thrones to rescue the 70 odd, desperate people. They ‘catch’ them and take them straight to detention.

He spent 4.5 months in detention. After that he was moved around like cattle. One month on Christmas Island, six weeks in Darwin, two months in detention in Broome. He relays the numbers like clockwork, as though this isn’t valuable time in a young man’s life.

‘It’s like prison. It’s a waste of time’.

‘There are people who have been there for three or four years. They were suicidal, crazy. They see people get released, while they stay, not knowing why.’

 ***

Something miraculous happened along the way. He starts to talk about one of the detention centres being a more open and friendly place. His face lights up when he mentions his sudden turn and interest in Christianity during his time in Darwin. He joins a group who teach him about the Bible and charity work. He seems  visibly uplifted when he talks about this class and how it allowed him to leave Detention in order to talk to other people. The cynic in me wonders if Christianity’s appeal was in the slight hint of freedom it afforded them, but I start to realise that its drawcard was bigger than that. It gave him a sense of purpose and belonging during a time that was deadening and devoid of life.

‘I have good feeling with Christianity and I like it. They are nice people, very helpful…and…why not?’

Farid converted to Christianity during his time in detention. The religious Islamic group that he had escaped from found out about this because in his words, ‘they hear everything’. The real reason is that Farid has a high profile back home. He was a national champion in his chosen sport. Thanks to social media, it’s easier than ever for extreme religious groups to find out things you don’t want them to know. They go to his family’s house and make a scene, swearing and threatening them.

It ends in them stabbing his brother. I ask how he felt about this and he shakes his head and stays silent.

Having converted to Christianity, it seems his life back home is in peril. If he goes back, he could be executed. Farid is eventually placed in Sydney, where he is embraced by a small Australian community who love and adore him, making it all the more devastating when his application for asylum is rejected after being handed to the new and, let’s face it, atrocious Liberal government (and handed from one case worker to the next, each time making it more and more difficult for Farid to plead his case).

They started to ask him about things he couldn’t possibly remember and drill him for details from two years ago – names, dates, the exact name of that guy and that small thing that happened on that street. They assume from the outset that you are lying and the onus is on the desperate, fleeing refugee, to have to prove that you’re not lying – you’re simply traumatised by the entire experience, obviously. After facing rejection time and time again, he sends a letter to Scott Morrison pleading his case but like all things to do with Scott Morrison, it is futile.

He whispers to me that if they send him back, he will end his own life. I believe him when he says this. Months later, news broke of Leo Seemanpillai’s tragic death. My hand flew to my heart. I know this story, I think, and it’s closer to home now than ever before – because this story has become our home, the home we have built for ourselves on our great and sprawling, hostile continent.

I am now so acutely aware of the agonising impact this ordeal has on the mental health of such resilient people and I am afraid for them and for the future of this country.

‘I didn’t know you were going to ask me about the bad boat’, Farid remarks as we walk to the car.

‘I thought I was going to talk about my sport. But I am happy to talk with you about these things. It is like talking to the psychiatrist – I feel better now!’

We laugh and I hug him goodbye, feeling more useless than ever.

***

My new friend watches on, helpless to the unfolding calamity, caught between worlds, unable to go back, unable to stay, unable to breathe freely without the impending sense that he is neither welcome nor safe.

All the while my heart is gradually breaking in one long calamitous slow take, like shards of crystal shattering across the island.

We are long overdue for our revolution.

***

*names have been changed

we cannot walk alone

‘It was a deal I’d made with myself months before and the only thing that allowed me to hike alone. I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked. Every time I heard a sound of unknown origin or felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away. I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid.”– Cheryl Strayed

I was maybe six or seven years old when my mother first alerted me to the fact that I was not safe. It began innocuously enough. I wanted to walk by myself to school like the other kids.

My mother’s hand flew to her heart, as though she had been shot. She may have even stumbled backwards and looked at her hand to check for blood, such was the shock she experienced. Her face contorted with panic and worry and rage all at once. She shouted ‘NO’ a few times and ranted about safety and what was I even thinking, this crazy child of hers.

When she was done, I thought that I had pushed it too far, trying to go on my own. So I tried another tactic and whipped out the older brother card for the first, and probably last time.

‘But maybe Matt could come with me? Would that be okay?’

She wailed once more.

‘Oh great, so they’ll kidnap your brother and then they’ll rape you!’ she shouted.

If I asked her about this today, I doubt she’d recall the moment. And yet there it is, locked away in my memory bank. Her words stung with such voracity that they left an indelible mark on my soul that you can still see two decades later. I didn’t know who ‘they’ were. Ghosts maybe. Faceless men. The back of a panel van.

The only thing I knew is that my brother would be kidnapped but it was me who would be both kidnapped and raped. Because I am a girl and one day I’ll be a woman and maybe one day after that I’ll be a human.

Maybe.

I remember that split second of hesitation before whispering,

‘don’t say that, mama’

and in an even smaller voice,

‘maybe they’ll only kidnap me too’.

But from the outset it became clear. The battle lines had been drawn. I am a girl. I could be raped. I cannot walk alone. I cannot walk with my brother.

I cannot walk.

***

Perhaps this is why I have made it my mission statement to walk alone wherever possible, going so far as to venture to foreign countries on my own.

As I grew older and more rebellious, the phrases brandied about in my house were often followed with the addendum.

‘You can’t sleepover at your friend’s house; you’re a girl.’

‘You have to do all the cleaning yourself; you’re the girl.’

‘You can’t go to that party and stay out late; you’re a girl.’

And in between those phrases came my cries of protest,

‘but the boys can do it, why can’t I?!’

But the logic was not infallible. I raged against the machine but the fight was futile and it seemed like things would never change.

***

I went to an all girls’ school that was entirely feminist at its core; I let them brand me with their radicalism. But I didn’t always see the every day manifestations of sexism in my own life because I started to block it out. It was a matter of survival. It was only recently upon reflection, that I realised how bad things actually were.

I was fifteen going on sixteen when our school did a simulated business week with an all boys’ school. Half of my grade went to the boys’ school and half of the boys went to our school in a kind of swap.

On the first day we were assigned to groups. A CEO had to be elected from the group by way of a democratic voting process. It was a tie between me and one of the boys. I can’t remember the specific details, but the tutor decided that I was the winner and declared it as such. The boys immediately began their protests, crying out that I only got the job because I was ‘a pretty girl’. Not a smart girl, or a confident girl or a girl with social skills.

A pretty girl.

Is that all you got punks!?

I smugly took it in my stride. Okay, so I’m pretty. Fuck you.

I didn’t even care about the ramifications of what they were saying, or that this superficial sentiment would carry along in my life up until the present day, filtering through all my achievements, my hopes and desires, my relationships, only to land smack bang in the middle of my everything.

Just another pretty girl coming through, nothing to see here, folks.

But I quickly learned that being a pretty girl was not a good thing, not by any stretch of the imagination. I was cat called for the entire duration of the week, leered at, groped, was told what they wanted to do to me, was treated like an object, was made fun of as a way of getting my attention and then hit on. One time I was sitting on a bench waiting for my male cousin to finish his class so we could go home together, when a year 12 student started making lewd gestures at me from his classroom. Naturally the teacher’s solution to the harassment was to kick the student out of  his class, thereby sending him directly to me, the receptacle of his idiocy. He harassed me for half an hour before my cousin finally turned up, looked at the guy and shook his head at me.

‘I hate having you here this week. I’m getting so much shit from all the guys about you!’

Yes it must be so hard, to experience this for just one week of your life.

A teacher from my school who was on duty – someone I liked and admired – pulled me aside to whisper angrily that my skirt was too short and that I was asking for trouble at an all boys school.

My skirt fell just above my knees.

I looked at my watch to check the time/see what century we were living in.

That week I sat by myself at lunch, read my book and ignored the comments. It’s incredible how little any of this actually affected me at the time. Maybe because I didn’t interact very often with the opposite sex, so I had become immune to it in some weird, twisted way. I chose to interpret this attention as complimentary because essentially, if we really wanted to look at the facts, I guess I was a pretty girl in a knee length skirt. I took the power back. They were nothing to me then. This was self preservation and denial at its best.

It’s only now that I look back and tremble with anger at the injustice of it. That our girls have had to endure this kind of bullshit for so long now and still do and try to mask it as ‘no big deal’ or to ‘just get over it’.

I should add that I wasn’t a very good fake CEO. I probably ran the fake company into the ground. I wasn’t cut out for it. Maybe that other guy would have been better. But that’s not on account of my gender, but rather that I was an aspiring author with my head in the nebulous and probably blew the company budget on catering. But the truth remains that I was democratically elected to be fake CEO because I could command a crowd, convinced the non-misogynistic half of the team that I was worthy. And I walked away from the experience unscathed – I was almost invincible. I didn’t need validation from these monkey morons. I was a goddamn powerhouse, plucked from my gender to fly high above the cretins.

I’m not bossy, I’m the boss.

***

Years later I was reminded of all of this when a good male friend told me that he was moved to tears by the things I had written. My reply was one of shock. I didn’t even know he had read those things.

‘Of course I do. Why do you think I’ve been sending you my scripts to read?’

‘I thought that was because you had a crush on me’.

‘Fuck you for saying that! As if I’m that superficial. As if you’re not good enough to warrant that compliment! Why do you believe that about yourself? It makes me sad.’

And he was genuinely sad for days afterwards.

But around the same time during a break up, a boyfriend wanted me to know that I would only ever have success in life because of my looks and my heart dropped into my ovaries and exploded there, to hear and recognise that voice that already echoes in my own head, reiterated from the mouth of another. The things you don’t want to ask yourself but you live with all of your life.

Did I get this job because of my looks?

Is he just saying that because he likes me?

Who would I be if I wasn’t pretty by society’s standards?

Fuck your pretty.

Here’s my brain!

***

‘Women in time to come will do much’

This was our school motto (the motto of the school with the teacher who told me my skirt was too short). Our founder Mary Ward was a revolutionary heretic of her time in the 1600s who believed in the radical notion that men and women were equal before the eyes of God. And that women should be allowed to act in plays, at a time when female roles were almost always played by young men. She told her nuns to stop wearing their habits, educated young women, travelled around Europe setting up schools for girls, and trained them to work with the poor and the persecuted.

So basically she was imprisoned and treated like a heretical witch and ex-communicated from the Church.

Ladies, this is your foundress!

And because it was high school and because most people in high school are dip shits, her radicalism was never truly appreciated. But I worshiped her in secret and spent a lot of time learning about religion and the meaning of life because of her (yeah I was legit the biggest nerd out).

There is one passage that I remember reading in year 12, while preparing for our final graduation ceremony. It was an innocuous enough passage, a quote that barely even registers to the average mind, but it stuck with me for so long afterwards, about the way education was so pivotal to the feminist fight.

Just a small passage about why girls were treated differently in schools.
And something about textbooks.
I’ll never remember it.
But somehow I always will.

***

I did a three sixty and found myself coming back to feminism after a heightened awareness of how important it still was in the world, even after all this time.

I think the most flagrant reminder of this was a solo travel trip I took to Turkey in 2009. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life but it was pocketed by several moments throughout where I was terrified. Like that time I took an overnight bus to Istanbul; filled with men who stared at me as I walked on, alone. And how the one sitting opposite from me stared at me for the entire six hours. So I stayed awake all night, afraid he might do something. He tried to speak to me at several junctures throughout the trip but I said no and he continued to stare at me. How can anyone stare for that long, I thought.

Please stop staring at me.

I think I prayed for him to get off the bus but he stayed. When I finally got to Istanbul, I ran so fast to the nearest taxi and told him to take me anywhere but this bus stop. It wasn’t until I noticed  that I genuinely had no idea where he was taking me, and as he drove for too long and stared back at me with menace, that I soon realised there was no safe refuge except for the one we imagine.

I was told not to walk around alone at night – yep, they already told me that, two decades ago, I thought. A guy who worked at the hostel offered to accompany me at night, pretending to be my boyfriend. I felt cloistered, claustrophobic, sick and stuck. He took me up to a rooftop and said,

‘If you didn’t have a boyfriend I would kiss you,’ as if that was the only barrier to kissing me, and not just that I might not want him to.

At the only hostel in Bodrum, an Australian rogue traveller who worked there told me in a calm, nonplussed voice that it wasn’t a safe place to stay because there wasn’t really any security and they didn’t lock the doors. He added, while eating a kebab, that girls had been followed home by men who sometimes got through the doors but you know, no big deal really, it’s all just a bit of fun, right! We’re all cool and easy going here, right mate! I literally remember staring at him for about five minutes in silence before picking up my bags and walking out of the hostel and I didn’t stop walking until I found a hotel, checked in and stayed in my room for about 10 hours before finally deciding, fuck this shit, left the hotel and sat at a cafe where I met an Australian Turkish couple who took me under their wing for a day. I think they took pity on me when they saw that I was literally trembling with fear.

***

I saw it everywhere in the physical manifestations of every day life. Have I ever been safe? The way I change my behaviour based on that inexplicable pang of fear that shoots up and down your spine against your will. The way I am ogled, objectified, inappropriately touched. The way boyfriends don’t see their own privilege, or realise their conditioning in the way they treat me. The way male friends have hurt me, ostracised me, expected me to love them, treated me differently for not doing so. The way they judge me. That list in my phone of random numbers – the license numbers of every taxi I’ve ever been in as a precautionary method to feel safer because of that one time the taxi driver thought it would be funny to lock the doors. The fact that I can’t walk home late at night without fear, the way I clutch the makeshift hair clip that looks like a knife, texting girlfriends to say you arrived home safely, always always always jumping when a stranger comes up behind you.

The way it was me, out of the whole group of people I was with, who was jumped on a street in Barcelona, and how it was only the girls who came to my aid, and how the one guy with us kept walking, and how we never let him live that down, even though I didn’t need him – I fought my attacker off on my own. But he was symbolically absent from the fight. I was reminded again of my mother’s words. And even though I didn’t leave the house for three days, I eventually did and when I did, I didn’t stop. I walked everywhere with my head held high, on high alert, ready to kick down doors.

Then there’s the harmless stuff; the belligerent and insulting sexist comments still made by people in our migrant community, who appear to still be stuck in the 1950s migrant time capsule. Make your own sandwich, why not?! The way the whole world is still suffering for this inequality. The views of the men in my life. The views of the women. The toxicity that persists.

I learned a lot from my best friend in my early twenties – the way she carved out new paths that no one else had previously explored. She was judged for it but she didn’t care. It was almost like she didn’t even realise how radical her actions were, and she hadn’t quite married them up with her own feminist ideals. It was only later that I’d see how it all built up inside as a kind of anger, watching her tell a guy off for assuming he could touch her without her permission. I saw in her a revelatory way of existing and it was a powerful thing. I am grateful to her for the influence she has had on me. I hold her up as an icon of how life can and should be for women and I always go to her when I’m feeling overwhelmed by it all.

I need to remind you of this from time to time. We can be just like you . You just don’t know it yet.

And there are ways in which men can be part of the revolution and ways for them to better understand what the fuck everyone is talking about when they speak of gendered violence. As uncomfortable as that is to read, it highlights the disparity in equality, that for so many women, we have had to live with these realities for so long, just to exist.

Being a woman is the single greatest thing you can know, I thought as I watched a trans friend try on her new clothes as a woman for the first time, a pang of excitement rushing through me. But I didn’t want to let her in on how hard it was to be a girl. Or maybe I was in denial at the time.

Maybe it’s that I still somehow have hope that by the time she finally experiences being a woman, it will be different.

Women in time to come will do much.

In time to come.

The time is now – and we cannot do it alone.

the place where apathy lives

‘Lately something has shifted inside of me and I’ve been thinking about how nothing matters and nothing has meaning because we’re all going to die (she says this so matter-of-factly, like it’s an accepted fact that we’re both aware of) …and I hear these ladies speaking about buying fresh vegetables and I think, why do they care? Why don’t they see that nothing has any meaning? and all these people are just making it so much worse, the meaninglessness. They’re making it worse because they care about these irrelevant things and I can’t get past that’.

A dear friend said these words to me late at night on a street near a shady looking park.  We had just been witness to a live poetry gig that moved us in every direction from sadness to emptiness to elation and laughter in a ceaseless circle of wonderment, so that our mouths were open and our faces in our hands, shaking with merriment and emotion.

And just before she said those words, we spoke of how this irrational thought had coincidentally popped up in both our heads lately, whereby it seemed like everyone we came across looked like a serial killer. We did not feel safe, I guess is what we were trying to explain to our male friend, who laughed at the perplexity of our shared thoughts.

I later replied to her aside: but you find a way through the murky darkness; you make your own meaning. Tell that story to someone. Turn nothing into something

‘That’s what he said too’ she replied, about the boy of her life.

‘But it doesn’t matter what we do because everyone else is just…ruining the nothingness’.

These words stuck with me and I thought about it for a while. I pondered on the emptiness that I’ve allowed to take up residence within. How I’ve guarded my kingdom of Empty like a Queen. How no one can cross and how nothing, not even love or compassion, can break through the fort.

I don’t know how I got to this part.

A few months ago I spoke to my friend about unadulterated happiness.

When was the last time you felt it?

He didn’t know and was perplexed by the question.

I used to feel it all the time, I replied for him.

Maybe it’s not so good that you don’t remember.

Later I realised that this too has disappeared and in asking him about that, I was hoping he would have an answer for me, or maybe a cure. But he is lost too.

Recently I went to an event I used to go to as a 20-year-old. I was a young volunteer editor still studying a creative writing degree and I barely had the discipline to wake up and get out of bed in the mornings, let alone finish an assignment, let alone write 10,000 words of a novel, let alone volunteer to help this organisation create their book, let alone attend this event they would host so early in the mornings.

Let alone.

In going back to this as an adult six years later, I had a revelation of sorts. As people spoke about changing the world, I couldn’t believe how removed and apathetic I had become in those years. What happened to me in that time? Where did I disappear to? How do I come back to myself?

How did six years stretch out into an eternity of nothingness?

I got lost somewhere, standing in the woods of my obliterated place.

16. The obliterated place is equal parts destruction and creation. The obliterated place is pitch black and bright light. It is water and parched earth. It is mud and it is manna. The real work of deep grief is making a home there’

I blocked out all the bad things. I did not want to handle them.

I blocked out all the good things that people did to counter the bad. I did not want to know what I was not doing myself.

I had blocked it all out, kept everything at arm’s length and replaced it all with fictional stories.

I watched TVs and movies and books and consumed content like oxygen, so as to become distracted and so it would take over all of my life. Somewhere along the line I became so far removed from reality, that when these incredible, inspiring, powerful people stood up to speak about the small and big ways that people could change the world and often did change it in spite of the challenges, and how it wouldn’t actually take much for us to do it too, I did not recognise myself in them but I knew instantly what I needed to do to get back in that world. Somehow at the same time, I already knew that I would not do it.

But last night through the poetry, there were so many words that flew straight into my head, in a language, nay currency, that I could transact. I sat forward in my seat, head filling up with these ideas, these beliefs – empowered.

I could write my way back through the darkness.

nos encontraremos de nuevo en el lugar donde no hay oscuridad

we will meet again in the place where there is no darkness

I want to go back there now.

If only I could find it on Google maps.

love in the time of the goat pig after life

The best life advice from my BFF, sister and cousin, Melissa

‘Ree, just remember that Aunty Antoinette was once a goat that was rescued by farmer Uncle Tony, rofl. I don’t know how that’s meant to help, besides providing comic relief, but just don’t give up on finding the merciful human to your rescued former pig life. If you were a pig in a past life, he probably fed you, treated you well, made sure you got lots of sun and good food, and then lovingly led you to the slaughter. Stuff that! None of us know who is in our future.’

(some background: our uncle was telling us recently how a Buddhist monk told him how his wife was a goat in another life that was rescued by this uncle, a human, because she was meant to be cooked, and now she is married to him because of that debt. Oh how we laughed!)

Boys are the new Girls

Alien Child: I hate women. All they do is cry all the time.

Theodore: That’s not true. You know men cry too. I actually like crying sometimes. It feels good.

Alien Child: I didn’t know you were a little pussy. Is that why you don’t have a girlfriend? I’m going out on that date and fuck her brains out and show you how it’s done. You can watch and cry.

Samantha: Okay, this kid has problems.

Alien Child: You have some fucking problems, lady.

Samantha: Really? Okay, I’m gonna go.

Alien Child: Get out of here, fatty!’

– Her

***

While travelling, I met a handsome young guy in a village who insisted, perhaps a little too forcefully, on being the person to take me everywhere and explore the country. Let me stipulate here that I was crazy enough to travel there completely alone, so in many ways this was a blessing in disguise. In other ways, it truly brought to light how differently we view gender roles, particularly after attempting to let him down gently at the airport once he had asked for my hand in marriage and reassured me that I wouldn’t have to work anymore. Who knew my knight in shining armour was just 30,000 kms away by plane in a small village in the mountains of my ancestry! Not me, that’s for sure!

He was one of the most masculine men I’ve ever known in my life. If you had told me he was the original hunter-gatherer from the Neanderthal era, I would have believed you. He didn’t just walk through the village, he strode through it like he was the King. He would put his hand through fire and his expression wouldn’t change. He showed me his rifle collection and spoke of hunting wolves in the mountains during the winter snow. He didn’t have much money but would balk at my attempts to pay for anything and would fight me over the bill, literally picking me up and carrying me away from the table to stop me from paying.

His best friend was completely different. He drank lattes, went shopping for clothes and would regularly get laser hair removal on his face. Later when the Hunter Gatherer asked me about my previous boyfriend, he would nod sagely at my descriptions and then offer up this gem:

‘He poofter?’

I’d sigh heavily and explain that he a) couldn’t say that and b) not at all. Guys were just different back home, like his best friend.

‘Ahh you like the gay boy!’ he would respond while nodding as though it all made sense  now, my incredible rejection of him. I would explain my reasons but he would always insist that it was because I preferred the ‘gay boy’ as he put it. And although I tried to turn him off by explaining the myriad of ways in which I was so very different to him (ie. progressive, independent, radically opinionated woman) he would surprise me by saying something along the lines of, ‘Yes but I like you because you’re different’.

Although I think that was his way of saying ‘I like you because you’re a challenge and I will change you if it’s the last thing I do, now hand me that axe, I have some wood to chop!’

***

 

‘You’re sick of eating him out….because he has a vagina’ – Lena Dunham, Girls.

One way of giving credence to the cultural shift that is fast becoming the norm is to degrade an entire gender. Like since when did telling a guy ‘you’re acting like a girl’ (or a pussy) become a derogatory insult? I’m guilty of doing it myself, but that’s because I don’t see myself in extreme polarities and feel like waving that phraseology around is just another way of making a point. But I’ve got it all wrong you see.

Being a girl is the single greatest thing you might ever know. That’s what I thought when my ex’s housemate asked me if I would help her find clothes for their other trans housemate, who had only recently requested that she be referred to by her new chosen name and not the male name she had had all her life. Sure. She’s so lucky now, I thought, not considering how much abuse and bullying she would soon encounter in her transition. All I could think of was ‘welcome to the motherfucking club, girl!’

But back to the fact that boys are not acting like boys, or at least the way we have always perceived boys to be. It’s a widespread issue not being discussed in the right terms. Our notions of gender are being challenged by fluid and ever changing values. The times, they are a changin’ but we don’t know how to talk about it.

Ann Friedman, all round Internet legend, breaks it down brilliantly in this piece.

 

‘What’s striking isn’t the lack of consensus on what defines masculinity now, but the utter confusion about how to go about doing so. That’s because America is finally getting around to having the conversation about what it means to be a man that, decades ago, feminism forced us to have about womanhood. Women still face social consequences when they don’t conform neatly to gender norms, but many of even the most ideologically progressive men are just now starting to talk about how to break with masculine stereotypes and still hang onto a sense of gender identity. Goldberg and Rosin, in using traditional definitions of manhood (the simple, stoic breadwinner), declare him dead, or at least less marketable to advertisers. Men’s magazines, which now peddle facial moisturizers but still often shy away from heartfelt confessionals, have spotted how hard it is for men to balance both embracing and rethinking masculine stereotypes — and they’ve made some attempts to address it, but mostly ended up documenting the confusion.’

***

And here’s where I am also guilty of falling into the traps of this stereotype. Things keep happening in my life that seem unusual or more difficult than they should be. My love life is a revolving door of mishaps characterised by a trail of actual broken hearts and my fall back reasoning for remaining aloof and alone is that I am a disaster waiting to happen to every male and they are better off without me, a fact I actually believed and ran with as my feminist manifesto until my Cancer-sign, sensitive, skinny-jean wearing hipster boy broke up with me repeatedly for reasons unknown to him or anyone. Speculation amassed that it was because he was a repressed homosexual, speculation which may or may not have been inspired by my bitter, twisted self (I blame my ego). At one point he admitted that even he had started to wonder about that himself, but eventually came to the conclusion that he just wasn’t – and he was entirely comfortable discussing the possibility. And that was the end of that. Which is entirely fine and even admirable! In retrospect, it did seem silly to wonder that based on things like ‘he takes longer to get dressed than me!’ or ‘he uses a hairbrush and I don’t even do that!’ ‘he’s a really good dancer!’ ‘he picks up guys at parties and gets their numbers!’ ‘he said he’s not attracted to me anymore and he doesn’t know why!’ Wait, that last one is probably legit.

Or as my best friend would say, shaking her head: ‘European or gay. European or gay. That’s the test’.

***

We have a strange joke in our house that one of the guys is like the ‘housewife’ (doesn’t have a job, cooks a lot, is obsessed with cleanliness, wants to find a rich woman so he can be a stay at home dad), and I am the ‘husband’ (brings home the bacon – literally and metaphorically, is the only full time employed member of the house, eats steak, drinks whisky straight, says Ron Swanson things like ‘There has never been a sadness not cured by breakfast food’ or ‘Veganism is the sad result of a morally corrupt mind. Reconsider your life.’)

We are fully aware that these are based on silly stereotypes and that’s what makes them fun to throw around.

Back in the day, past boyfriends would get upset with me for no reason and later when I’d ask what was wrong, one would say ‘I don’t think you love me as much as I love you’. Another would get upset if I didn’t message him while I was out with my friends to, and I quote, ‘let him know that I’m thinking of him’ and would get annoyed if I would cancel our plans to go and meet my friends instead and that by not thinking about him all the time, the way he would be thinking about me all the time, meant I was not serious about the relationship.

In hindsight, this can probably all boil down to the fact that I am a heartless bitch (let’s be honest now). But also they were men who were not afraid to embrace their emotions. This is also a good thing (in moderation) but definitely something men need to do more of. Repressed feelings can only manifest themselves in dangerous ways.

I once complained to my housemate that he should bring a girl home every now and again so we could have some more females in the house. He would retort ‘WHAT! You’re the most masculine of us all!’ I said I didn’t know what he meant and he would remind me of the time I told him to ‘man up’ when dealing with a girl he liked. Who even am I?

My friend’s husband was getting annoyed once that people weren’t eating enough at a BBQ. He said,

‘Mark eats like a girl! But Sheree’s good, she eats like a man’

‘Bro. Don’t gender stereotype me. I eat like a garbage waste disposal’, I would reply, digging in to my fifth lamb chop.

Another guy on a date joked that I shouldn’t drink so much and try to take advantage of him. I laughed, he laughed, we all laughed. Later, he was seriously telling me we had to take things slow.

‘Wait…Is this a thing?’

‘I don’t know if it’s a thing but I’ve only just met you so, no funny business’.

‘You’re kidding’

He wasn’t kidding.

 ***

 

Brohemian is an apt term: The JWT report gives an overall impression that, just like femininity, masculinity is increasingly defined by both playing to and against type. It’s growing a really impressive beard and ordering a kale salad for lunch. It’s knowing Super Bowl trivia and being an emotionally supportive partner. But if this makes it sound like men are joining women in having a less gender-bound view of their sense of self, it’s not that simple. According to the JWT research, even though millennial men are, more than older men, okay with using concealer and learning to poach eggs, they also say they’re more frustrated with not knowing what it “means” to be a man.

 

Other times I wonder if a strong, dominant woman is intimidating to a man who isn’t quite sure what he wants. I’m also starting to see the ramifications of a society where women are more dominant and assertive in what they want. There is an ugly side to this shift, particularly from an older generation who want to hold onto their power. This powerful polarising effect – whereby a man seems to be either extremely sensitive to the point of making an assertive and strong woman uncomfortable, or hyper testosterone fuelled to the point of being close to violent (forceful, pushing, speaking in threatening tones, holding your hands down while he argues with you, weird power plays like throwing money at you) – are all things I‘ve experienced in circumstances which destroy your trust, and make you question what it all means and how are you supposed to be in this world? It’s a weird new duality that the coming generation must face.

My housemate did a comedy show recently and one of the bits was about how men just want something casual and women do this thing where they are trying to trick them into being in a relationship. People were laughing while I was needing to be restrained in my seat and reminded that this was not our living room and I could not just call out ‘WHAT LIES SPEAKETH THOUST?’

When discussing some troubles to a few more traditional girlfriends, they’d relay the same tired, oft-repeated gender stereotypes that feel hollow and empty in the grand scheme of things: ‘Yeah but what can you do? Men! They’re all the same’. But they couldn’t be more wrong. Sure, certain types of behaviour seem unexplainably masculine – but girls can fall into those patterns too. I’ve probably had to console more heartbroken men in my time than women. There is a shift where men are starting to show their emotions more and stick up for what they want and what they believe in and there are times when women are the more assertive ones who know what they want and sometimes what they want isn’t the traditional thing you might expect.

And I can unequivocally declare that this is a fucking good thing. I guess what I’m trying to say is that traditional gender roles are taking a real beating as of late and I feel like I’m just another bro holding the bat.

Would you like to take a swing?

Musings on Spike Jonze’s Her and how technology can set us free

The credits rolled at the end of Spike Jonze’s latest film ‘Her’, a film I had been waiting to see forever (I saw it the day it came out).

I swiftly felt the ramifications of the film ending, as though someone had punched me in the stomach repeatedly and only paused to see my reaction. It seemed like my head was trailing metres behind my body as I exited the cinema.

‘What the hell just happened?’ I said to my cousin as we walked out.

‘I don’t know…I’m confused and not sure if I liked it’ she replied.

But it wasn’t a question of liking it or not. It was a matter of picking my heart up from the floor, peering inside to see if it was broken and then placing it back in its socket, so it could resume pumping blood to the rest of my body. Only I couldn’t articulate that in so many words.

Torn between not knowing how to feel about the main character who, in the trailer appears to be lonely, forlorn and a bit of a loser, thereby eliciting my sympathy, to suddenly seeing him in the feature length film in a whole new way. He’s just another messed up person — your average, emotionally disconnected male. No sympathy really, just empathy.

He’s a real life human. And so seems she, her, the operating system named Samantha.

***

The setting for Spike Jonze’s film is quite out of this world, but so palpable at the same time. Like you could reach out and grab it by the face. The technology was tangible, possible. You could relate to it but you also couldn’t relate to it. You felt on the cusp of something bigger, brighter, more daring.

I wanted to be there in that place.

The tones were warm, full of rich reds. The colour blue was notably absent from the film, to further accentuate that warmth, a real antidote to Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (Sofia is Jonze’s ex-wife).

I know a lot of women who found the whole film slightly jarring. Like my cousin who found the sex scenes weird. And yet most of my male friends seemed to love the film unconditionally, citing it as one of the best they’d ever seen.

My director friend Jeremy Brull wrote:

‘So I think ‘Her’ may be the greatest cinematic love story of all time.’

It’s a weird sort of thing. Does Spike Jonze just get the male concept of a love story. Or does it transcend gender?

At one point Rooney Mara’s character in the film, Theodore’s ex-wife, blurts out sarcastically,

‘You’re dating your computer?’

And later Theodore would say to the voice called Samantha;

‘You’re not a real person’.

I know what it’s like to hear that level of skepticism in someone’s voice. I know what it’s like to love someone who isn’t real, someone who mostly lives within your head. I know what it’s like to become addicted to that fictitious notion, even if it’s in the conventional sense of that person definitely existing in real life, just differently to how you imagined them, and so far removed from you, that the only way you can experience them is through their voice.

It’s a special kind of madness. But I know how powerful that voice can be.

I believe we are capable of understanding and translating these complex human emotions from a distance, from a voice, through words on a screen. And I fear that there are still those who are unable to understand it, or who are afraid of it and how much it makes them feel and it holds us back.

I can’t vouch for the more formalised online dating because I’ve never tried it, but I can tell you that I spent my early teens meeting all kinds of ridiculous crazy characters via the Internet. Most of those resulted in friendships but for many, there was something that transcended friendship. It was a confusing time to be a teenager. We were literally on the cusp of that technological shift.

We knew both worlds. We still do.

A girl I had literally met through the comments on a band’s MySpace page and who I developed a kind of online pen pal friendship with, once flew halfway across the world for me based on that friendship alone. She had no idea if I was even real. She was my modern day internet pen pal. I’ve known her for 8 years and we’re still good friends who hang out (IRL) to this day.

I have other stories too. The photographer we met in New York through Tumblr (still good friends to this day). That guy I met through Twitter who I ended up casually dating for a stint. My most recent boyfriend who I met through Facebook mutual friends. The list goes on.

And of course, my favourite of all the stories — that time my heart leaped into my mouth almost instantaneously for a person who would go on to become one of my closest friends, someone I really did love in the end and all from an accidental, case of mistaken identity on Microsoft’s Messenger. He is like another version of me, my other person, a kind of soul friend, anam cara. Someone I look at and recognise almost instantaneously. That’s a kind of connection that transcends the every day, a kind of lasting rarity you don’t just find or stumble upon in the middle of the street, but one you trip over in a late night chat room.

He was the first person I ran to when I saw the trailer for Her.

‘You’ve gotta see this! It’s like us’.

***

‘But in Her, he’s meant to be all by himself, responding only to a voice, and so the performance is a floating, free form solipsistic dance. It’s not pure solipsism because Samantha exists, but you might be watching a four-year-old talking to an imaginary friend — it’s that inward.’

I had imaginary friends as a child. I was lonely and severely shy to the point of being a mute. I refused to speak to another person I didn’t already know (and even when I knew them I struggled). I couldn’t understand others. I shut myself off from the world and created my own in the forms of characters, stories, scenarios. As an adult, we call this being a ‘writer’, lol.

***

Every now and again a boyfriend will look at me with concern and ask,

‘What’s wrong?’

And I usually respond with a curt ‘nothing’.

‘I can hear it in your voice’ (what can you hear?)

And then they’d ask:

‘Why don’t you love me as much as I love you?’

I’d argue back, somehow trying to make the emotions more apparent. But you can only reproduce so much before you have to admit to yourself that maybe you’re not as capable of showing as much raw, unfiltered emotion as you once believed yourself to be. Or maybe the emotions you used to feel were different, stronger and more powerful.

I wonder if my story is the reverse of Her — if I started off knowing technology’s powerful hold over my emotional landscape and have since struggled with the translation of that to the real world.

I remember as kids how my brother and I used to have profound, existential conversations late at night in our bunk beds. He had wanted so much to teach me. And he used to have these grandiose predictions about future technology that would both scare me and leave me in a state of perpetual awe-filled wonder (some of those predictions have come true but not as fast as he thought they would).

‘When you go to Loreto…’ (I was enrolled from a young age) — ‘…you’ll all have your own computers!’

‘Nooo’ I’d cry out. ‘I want to have typewriters’.

‘Nah Ree, computers are the future! Everyone will have their own laptop one day too! Fuck typewriters’, he’d say.

(We were both right, the hipster version of me eventually got my way with two typewriters that I never use, while the practical, realistic me is typing this on a Mac).

A few people and critics have remarked that Her is a chilling warning about the dangers of technology. That the film is a cautionary tale to put the smartphones down and step away from the computers and connect with people.

And I have to ask – did we watch the same film? And Spike Jonze himself asks that question for real with an irritating interviewer.

Because what if technology quite simply helps us connect with people in a more profound way? Why is that so impossible a thing to believe?

‘The relationship is real enough to make us ask what a relationship is and whether the coming so-called singularity — when artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence while humans’ minds will be broadened by machines — will change the way we relate (or don’t) to one another.’

I don’t see the film as a critique of our dependency on technology. I think our boy Spike used film and technology as the medium through which he has chosen to tell a love story that transcends the human experience. It’s as simple and as powerful as that.

Our fear of technology is a paralytic one. It hinders progress, it shames those who look inward and struggle to interact on a day-to-day basis. Sure, it can have a negative impact when used to the excess or when people become addicted. But truthfully, how often is that the case?

Recently at a family gathering, most of the kids were on their phones or iPads. We staged an intervention, forcing everyone to put their devices on a table in the middle of the room and we each took turns going around the room and answering questions about our interests. The Beatles movie was on in the background and we started singing along to the song. Later on my way home, I used Shazam to tag that song and then I listened to it on Youtube, Instagrammed a photo of our hijacked devices and tweeted about the song on Twitter, humming the song all the way home.

And the outcome? I felt more connected to everyone than ever before, and that one moment of indescribable beauty had a kind of prolonged longevity, recorded for the ages, there for us to look back on. It became permanent.

I’ve had at least four previous boyfriends comment that I was addicted to my phone (so pretty much all of them). I’m one of those rare senior social media managers who has been in this industry for too long. So apart from the fact that I’m paid a lot of money to monitor and be responsible for many high profile online communities (sometimes having a second phone to do just that) that close minded attitude always irritated me and still elicits a very frustrated reaction when those concerns are voiced in a condescending manner.

What are they afraid of? That I would pay less attention to them? That something was more important to me for a nanosecond? That this was what my life had become and they’d just have to accept it? That I had made a choice to step away from the old world and catapult myself directly to the new one, with or without them?

And with every dissent from this old, tired, echoed voice, it sort of cemented my own independence and how much I didn’t want to be dragged down by the closed off archaic world. Maybe the definitions and parameters of love have changed and have already evolved into something more, something you can’t back down from or shut out as easily. Perhaps it’s a very real and tangible thing in our lives, existing in a myriad of ways.

And I can assure you that if you haven’t yet experienced it, technology will help you get there.

Please direct all mail to the sky

Taken from a thing I wrote about my last days in Barcelona.

 ***

Dare to be one of us, girl / facing the android’s conundrum / you don’t know how long I’ve been / watching the lantern dim / starved of oxygen / So give me your hand / And let’s jump out the window…

 ***

They took me under their wing and into their home to seek solace. I was in my very own sanctuary. I realised this while standing on Marc’s miniscule balcony which looked out over the tiniest street in all of Barcelona.

But this is not a street’, I remarked. ‘It’s a sliver of space so small, you can barely even see it!’

‘It has a street name and everything’ Marc protested.

‘This makes no sense!’ I decried, rather unnecessarily.

‘Sheree, not everything has to have a reason’ Marc offered seriously.

‘Everything has a place’.

***

Before finding sanctuary in the old city, I was lost and didn’t know where to go. I only knew I couldn’t stay where I was.

I was told to meet friends in the square who may have been able to offer a spare room for a few months. Plagued by the idea of going to meet them on my own, I asked my ex at the time if he would come with me. He shook his head and said he had no place there anymore, and that even though they started off as his friends, they ended up as mostly mine.

I cycled over to the plaza. Standing there in the middle of the plaza stood my future, my drunk future, huddled together and hollering out my name, searching for me through the crowd.

‘Shereeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee donde estaaaaaaaaaas’.

I called out and ran over to them. They predictably made a scene. I met everyone from the house that night and they half-heartedly interviewed me about taking the room, in between doing shots.

Rodrigo leans in and whispers in Spanish.

‘The German girl in the room now? Crazy. Depression. Not good. You the same?’

I feel dejected already. They can see it on my face.

‘Don’t worry. Only crazy survive here. You’ll be with you’re own. But don’t drain us of our energy, okay? Be crazy for a little while but then be good’.

Be crazy good. Got it.

They will eventually pass their energy over to me through a drip like system, because there’s enough to go around.

Bienvenida a tu nueva casa

Welcome to your new home.

 ***

Photography by Sophie Roberts

Photography by Sophie Roberts

Each night I find my way home by following the path around the most beautiful church I have ever seen, the Santa Maria del Mar. I use the giant old rusty key to open the magnificent door to the old apartment and walk up the many flight of stairs to our place. It was once an artist’s house and you can still see old film reels and paint scratchings on the wall.

The ceiling in my room is so high, it looks like it goes on forever. Nobody needs that much space, I think. Only giants. My bed is elevated on a stage in the middle of the room, but there is no show to see here. The room is devoid of windows. There are two big glass doors covered with blinds for privacy. There is always darkness here, and in the throes of Barcelona’s mild winter, no one really minds. The only reprieve comes in the form of light from the main balcony window. I will sit for many hours slumped on that tiny balcony, bare legs leaning against the railings, searching for sunlight and holding a glass of sparkling wine that cost two euros in my hand.

This becomes my favourite place to cry.

‘Do you ever think about all the things you did wrong in that relationship?’ Rodrigo calls out to me, while I balcony brood.

‘No, I hadn’t thought about it’.

‘I’m sure you were a problem’, he says seriously without a shred of hesitation.

I laugh for the first time in a long time. This is the start of me always thinking that exact, painful truth in future heartbreaking situations.

Photography by Sophie Roberts

Stolen glasses. Photography by Sophie Roberts

For some reason everyone likes to congregate on my stage bed. At some point they all pass out there and there’s no space for me, the owner of the bed. I wander in to someone else’s bed – any will do – and sleep there. No one cares or notices until the morning, when they wake up in a flurry of exchanges, pushing each other out.

‘I have the smallest room and bed’, Marc would shout out in frustration. ‘Why does she always end up here!’

‘You were in Alba’s bed!’

‘SHE WAS IN ALICIA’S BED’

‘No, you were all in my bed for some reason’.

‘Tonight I’m going to sleep in the biggest room and I don’t even care’.

They slump with careless abandon all over the place.

Photography by Sophie Roberts

Photography by Sophie Roberts

They’d often lecture me on my attitude to life, telling me to loosen up. Who cares if he was flirting with other women, meeting with ex-girlfriends and setting himself up to be a massive player while still being with you? Just do the same back, they’d say.

‘What’s the big deal?!’

You can live life however you want, they’d explain. If a guy wants to kiss you, you can kiss him. It doesn’t have to mean anything!

‘But I don’t care about any of that’.

‘One day you will want to, even when you don’t care about it’.

Whatever, I think, hating how right they’re going to be.

***

sky photo 1

They stop and stare at me when I come home from the markets, exhausted from carrying bags of overflowing vegetables, herbs and meats.

‘How do you keep getting free food Sheree?’

‘I don’t know. I smile at them, ask how much it costs and they say nada!’

‘It’s a gift and a curse!’

I soon become the designated acquirer of food for the house.

We jump around in the kitchen and say ‘family reunion’ just after coming home from a normal day. We sit and hang out in each other’s rooms, in the living room, in the kitchen or wherever but we’re always together. We get excited when someone returns after going away for the weekend.

We drink copious amounts of tea and coffee. I have my favourite cup at all times, the one I acquired from my mother who abandoned everything when they left their expat home in England. That tea cup would remind everyone of me, including my ex boyfriend, who would move in after I’ve already returned home and would later go on to smash the cup to a million pieces out of frustration, unable to erase me from his mind, oblivious to how much I suffered in that house in much the same way.

***

One day we run out of gas in the kitchen and nobody rushes to replace it. Instead Alicia grabs her guitar, Alba orders pizza, Marc buys some booze and I sit in the living room with my notebook, which helps absolutely no one. We all congregate together on the couches, which have moved to the stage in the corner (there were so many weird, elevated stages in that house). Lit candles sit in wine bottles in random places, fairy lights snake across the wall and a Spongebob doll sits on the TV we never use (‘WE HATE THE TV!’) and stares at us (Bob Esponja is his Spanish name). Alicia is lazily playing music, trying to recreate the song she once improvised about me during a gig- Bird Girl, and failing to remember it.

We have no gas for a whole week, maybe longer.

The other three housemates crawl out to the space and we’re laughing, drinking, lazing about, joke-telling and critiquing something or other. Within minutes, the place is full of people and a party is beginning somewhere, a single domino being pushed at the start.

Photography by Sophie Roberts

Photography by Sophie Roberts

sky photo 3

We all love cameras funnily enough. The filmmaker, the photographers, the amateurs. We sit for hours, comparing our cameras, like proud parents. One of the housemates, I can’t remember his name (or I’ve deliberately chosen to forget for various reasons) parades his new Canon 7D around, filming us as a way of testing it as the rain hammered down outside. Everyone in the house was keeping me company, as my friends had gone to my farewell party without me. He films my reaction. I am wearing a black tulle dress, my hair in a braid. I’m sitting on the couch in silence.

‘Why are you sad?’ he asks, the camera trained on my face.

I stare long and hard at him and say nothing because that’s exactly what I feel in that moment.

Nada.

***

They come home and find me on the couch watching re-runs of Gossip Girl even though I’ve never watched an episode before in my life.

‘What is this mierda?’

‘I don’t know’ I reply, ‘I’m watching it because I can’.

‘Get up. We’re going out’.

They, quite literally, drag me out of the house. We dance manically at a night club called Nasty Mondays to music they’ve never heard of before but which is second nature to me. They sing the wrong lyrics and flounder about without a care in the world. We keep singing and dancing all the way home, bouncing down the promenade near the beach.

‘We can’t go this way, I got attacked around here probably!’ I cry out woozily, not really sure where I am, just needing to say it in case it happens again and I can say I told you so.

‘You’re with us now! Nothing can get to you!’ and they form a hilarious, albeit entirely useless, protective wall around me, falling over themselves.

We have such a good time, maybe too good a time, that we barely remember how we got home or why there were toasted sandwiches waiting for us when we got there. It’s morning and I crawl in to Alicia’s room and sit on her beanbag, reading a book about broken hearts because I can’t sleep and I’m hurting.

‘I don’t feel well’ I say to her.

‘I know’ she replies.

One night when I’m walking home alone, I stop to feel the stone cold wall beside me. My hand delicately brushes over it as I walk all the way home and I’m afraid to remove it. It’s then that I know this is home. The labyrinth streets you get lost in and the dark but illuminating old quarter, the old familiar paths, the quiet plaza with the candles sitting in the bullet holes from Franco’s civil war. And then there’s the fire in the people that’s so close and contagious to me, I almost catch it.

On one particularly maddening night, I run through the old city in tears, screaming in Spanish at that infuriating ex behind me, throwing things at him.

‘We’re not even together anymore, why do you still care!’ he pleads with me, but I’m not listening.

‘She has the face of a horse!’ I scream back irrationally. ‘It’s insulting to the memory of us!’

I hear him laughing at that. He follows me all the way to my house, pleading for me not to be mad at him.

I slam the door in his face, exhilaration pumping through my blood. Where did this Spanish heat come from? It makes no sense.

Everything has a place.

I turn back down the stairs and open the door calmly. I look in to his teary, pleading eyes, shake my head with a mixture of sadness and pity and mouth out a sorry. I close the door gently this time, the old, quiet girl in me coming back for a moment.

I don’t remember where I ended up sleeping that night, but one of the house members kissed me on the forehead and whispered something in Spanish.

‘You are alive’.

For my last night in Barcelona, I arrived home from a Christmas in Malaga to find a smoky, hazy fog throughout the house. It’s empty except for one. In our absence, Azdrubal, the extremely lovely Mexican drug lord hermit who occupies one of the rooms has taken over the house, smoking pot incessantly for about a week. .

He balked at my presence, apologising for all the smoke. He didn’t realise I was coming home so soon. He tries to fan the smoke away uselessly. I can’t help but think that he is the sweetest drug lord I’ve ever known.

I tell him I’m leaving the next day.

‘Where to next?’ he asks cheerfully.

‘I’m going home’.

He looks confused, because my home is there with them.

‘My other home. Sydney’.

He hits the wall in protest.

‘But we don’t even know each other that well and Sydney is ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD, MAN!’

He chooses to deal with this news by continuing to get plastered.

I am surprised to find I still have 50 euros left in my bank account. I spend it all on pizza and booze for my last night with the last person I expected to spend it with. Azdrubal mentions something about all his dreams coming true when I come home with the pizza and I wonder if he has eaten at all in the last week.

‘Why don’t you just stay in Barcelona?’ he says, as if it’s the easiest thing in the world, his eyes trained on the six pizza boxes in front of him, knowing all too well I could feed him for at least another week.

‘I have to go back I guess,’

‘Do you want to?’

‘I don’t know anymore’.

He smiles, nodding absently, possibly stoned. He looks over at me and says words I’ll likely never forget, mainly because he wrote them in my little red book for safe keeping.

Vuela mariposa vuela vuela vuela vuela.

 Fly little butterfly fly fly fly fly.

barcelona copy

‘Apply Within’ by Alice

The following tiny thought is penned by the ever talented Alice Wild Williams. You can read more of her delightful musings here. Everything she does is wonderful and you are welcome.

My grandmother used words the way some people use rusty old bathtubs to grow vegetables: not really for their intended purpose, but with a useful kind of beauty. If she thought my dad was being cheeky she’d say he “got away with words.”  To her, “first thing to hand” was something important, treasured. Something she’d save in a fire. “That picture of you on the boat when you were little, watching the whales? It’s my first thing to hand.” Most people thought it was an impediment from learning English last, after Spanish and Japanese, but it wasn’t.

Language lived in the cumulonimbus of cigarette smoke that hung above her head. She could shape or disappear behind either whenever she wanted.

“Apply within,” is how she would command us to summon courage. When we fell over and skin peeled bloody from our knees,or when the raincloud settled in her chest for good, and we stood by her bed and took turns holding her hands that felt like kindling.

Years later these mangled turns of phrase show up when I least expect them. For my birthday, a well intentioned boyfriend woke me in the freezing pre-dawn for a balloon ride. I am completely terrified of untrustworthy flight. Planes, sure. Planes have maths and magnets and science and lots of people in uniforms. Wicker baskets suspended by fire and silk do not.

Two sounds can be so far removed from each other but sound exactly the same. Rain that begins like a slow applause, a heart that volleys like a game of tennis. The balloon breathed out just like a whale, the silence between exhalations as quiet as the space between the stars. We rose with the sun. I clung to a basket that felt like kindling, and all I could think was Apply Within.

Moments from a Monkey Mind

I  interviewed Jack Heath in 2008 for a creative non-fiction biography project. Jack wrote to me after reading the finished product remarking that he had done a lot of interviews before but was not sure anyone had quite got it as close to the mark as I had. It’s one of my favourite things to read over because it reminds me of how ridiculously astounding it was to hear and recount his jaw-dropping life story…

***

‘Warm Heart, Cool Head, Open Ears’ – Jack Heath

‘Are those jeans skinny leg jeans?’

‘I don’t think so. They look more like straight leg to me.’

‘They’re pretty trendy though.’

‘Oh I’d say they are definitely trendy.’

‘Let’s take a look inside.’

In Balmain, the social and political hub of Sydney’s Inner-West, Jack Heath leads me into a trendy clothing store. The side trip isn’t planned for and yet, like a child in a candy store, Jack is amused and excited to come across jeans in a shop window that he is certain are the same jeans he wore for a photo shoot that day.

It’s Jack’s sporadic nature that leads him from one thought to the next, segueing from one moment where we are perusing the streets of Balmain, to finding ourselves sifting through a clothing store. I fall into step behind Jack and follow with excitement wherever his train of thought leads him.

The first time I saw Jack, the creator of the Inspire foundation, all those years ago, he openly revealed his life story to a group of strangers. We drank in his words then; it was impossible to do anything but. He was placid in his delivery and yet as powerful as though he had slammed a truck into the room, followed briefly by stunned silence, as he recounted horrific and inspiring life events in a tone as diplomatic and as natural as one would adopt when discussing the weather forecast.

Coming to meet Jack one on one, I was a little apprehensive, knowing that on some days, Jack will reveal very little, and on others, it was getting him to stop that proved to be difficult. Jack is stumped when asked, before anything else, to describe himself in one sentence. A hard task for anyone put on the spot, but particularly for someone as modest and altruistic as Jack. Talking about himself exclusively is not something this man is inclined to do. Before he answers, I notice he sits with his shoulders slightly slumped, looking down every so often as if lost in thought. His left hand is adorned with a simple, wooden beaded bracelet, resembling rosary beads.

    ‘I guess someone trying to make a difference in the world while being a good father and husband.’

I want to get to the core of what Jack Heath is about, but have difficulty unveiling the man behind the mission. With each attempt to uncover a layer, Jack diverts the attention to a topic praising others, divulging information on the work Inspire has achieved, and rallying off his hopes for the future. But who is Jack? The question persists and yet he continues to evade talking about himself exclusively.

I imagine myself knocking on a door that leads to his brain.

Hello is Jack in?

No sorry, he’s away, but would you like to meet his extended family and all the people he loves, admires and wishes to be more like?

***

Jack was born in Melbourne and raised on a farm just out of Mooroopna in North Eastern Victoria, attending a Catholic boarding school in his formative years. The first of a series of shocking life events occurred in 1992 when his 21-year-old cousin tried unsuccessfully to blow his face off with a gun, before finally ending his life on the tracks of an oncoming train. To escape the trauma this had on his family, Jack threw himself into his career. It was at university that Jack cultivated a passion for politics and wanted to work for the PM. So he ended up working for Paul Keating.

‘Just like that?’

Just like that.

Perhaps it was sheer luck that upon walking into the job on the first day, Geoff Walsh announced that Don Watson, the main speech writer, was unable to work due to family issues and that Jack would be taking his place. So he spent the first week travelling with Keating, despite being warned that he might not get to spend much time with him. ‘You look at politics today, and in some ways a lot of it seems so banal, but we really felt that we were doing noble work and it was exciting times’.

One thing he is particularly proud of is working on the Creative Nation statement in 1994. It was here that he learnt that things could be changed with a strong vision. There was a line they created for Keating in 1994 that was almost prophetic in its delivery – Everyone can become a journalist – referring to great technological advancements, back when the net was still something you used when you went fishing.  Jack was enraptured by the internet and what it had to offer. Images of a younger Jack looking at a giant internet screen in a shop window with the same excitement procured by the skinny leg jeans, flash somewhat instantaneously before my eyes.

‘I was adamant that if Christ was alive at the time, he would have had his own web page’.

Jack’s inclination for technology and strong desire to use these innovative tools would later characterise the creation of the Inspire Foundation and the process of reaching out to help young people through the internet medium. He admits that his cousin’s suicide was a turning point in his life and he began to look for ways to address issues of mental illness in Australia. It was around this time in 1995 that he developed his brain child, the Inspire Foundation.

Today Inspire strives to promote international awareness of mental illness and improve the well being of young people through technology and youth involvement. ‘The idea is to attract young people to use and engage with content that improves their mental health and promote their well being’, according to recently appointed CEO Kerry Graham. Reach Out, Inspire’s main branch, has achieved outstanding success in raising awareness of mental illness and depression among young people in Australia with Jack citing cases where young people write to him saying that Reach Out stopped them from committing suicide. The slogan ‘Life sucks now has a website’ adorns billboards and radio slots everywhere. Jack’s achievement with Inspire saw him win the Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2007.

In contrast to the hip surroundings of Balmain, Jack was raised a farm boy. He recounts those days with an almost reverent respect for the land. You can see how the daily ritualistic slaughter of animals and the constant connection to the land has affected Jack. He is halfway through describing the current state of their farm property being compulsory acquired, when he suddenly falls into an almost trancelike state, describing the way it used to be. He recounts the smell of clover, being around animals, and the constant smell of raking hay. Being so close to the earth meant Jack felt quite grounded about, as he puts it in colloquial terms, ‘stuff’. He saw the transition of the seasons and experienced firsthand the cruelty of long periods of drought.

A powerful memory for him is that of a sick calf or lamb that was brought home and put in the shearing shed. ‘They’d be lying there almost dead and you’d have to try and put a tube down their throats to feed them. And you know sometimes they’d survive which is wonderful and sometimes they wouldn’t.’

Following this sombre tone, the monkey mind kicks in and Jack remembers how he used to love climbing trees, where he would climb as far as he could.  I can’t help but wonder if his restless mind is his way of staying on the positive side of life.

When talking to Jack, it’s easy to get the sense that you’re speaking with a big kid, someone who never really grew up. But the reality is that Jack was forced to grow up too quickly. He mentions briefly how he was sexually abused by a priest for six months at boarding school. It comes out rather quickly, almost unexpected, but still in the same tone of voice Jack has adopted throughout. He appears unaffected by this revelation despite the fact that it took almost 30 years before he could speak out about this traumatic part of his life. Jack later admits in another interview that he considers taking action and becoming a survivor rather than a victim of sexual abuse by a priest, as one of his greatest achievements.

Jack has always been religious but in different ways. When he was five or six he wanted to be the Pope, but he didn’t know how to pronounce it: ‘I wanted to be the Poke at the age of 5.’ Jack has come a long way since those early Catholic days and part of me wonders if the previous revelation had any impact on this departure from institutionalised religion to a more spiritual and meditative path. His strong affinity with Buddhism is evident in his mannerisms, his patience and his calm demeanor – but also from the continuous reference to past actions and previous lives.  It’s hard to imagine that he was once battling to control his anger. I ask him about the beads on his wrist. The Buddhist version of rosary beads, the mala has just 21 beads on it. You say mantras and repeat them 21 times.

‘So it also helps you focus the mind as well. There are times you can’t do without it.’

Even in his answers, I can tell that Jack is thinking about something else or is keen to take the conversation to a different level. When a Tibetan Buddhist teacher warned him against running away and becoming a monk in a cave on the premise that he had a monkey mind, it raised all sorts of questions about what a monkey mind actually is.

‘A monkey mind is just a mind that jumps around all the time from one thing to the other.’ In meditation you have to train the mind to be still and focused, just on one thing. ‘Whereas my mind is jumping around, so my teacher was basically saying, look it doesn’t really matter what your external circumstances are, if you haven’t trained your mind, it doesn’t matter if you’re in a cave or somewhere else.’

Can there be other states of mind?

‘There’s the Rainy Elephant who goes in full steam wherever, and the third one is the Sloth mind, it just sits there and doesn’t do anything.’

In between deciding if I have a Rainy Elephant or a Sloth Mind, Jack orders lunch.

‘Do you think you still have a monkey mind?’

‘Yeah yeah. Oh yeah. You know it’s interesting, when you start off with Tibetan Buddhism, you feel like you’re making lots of progress. Then after a while it’s sort of, I don’t know whether or not it’s the novelty that wears off or you just realise your mind is not anywhere near as controlled as you wanted or thought or whatever…  Hi, can I get the risotto? Are you sure you don’t want a cup of tea or something?’

‘I’m fine thanks really.’

‘Please I insist.’

‘Maybe a juice?’

‘Yeah.’

‘And can I get a piece of lemon or something like that? Or a grapefruit juice? Can I get a ginger beer? I like that. Actually what I’d like is lemon grass tea, that’d be better. Thanks a lot. Where were we? Oh right. Monkey mind’

Does Jack want to completely erase the monkey mind through meditation?

‘I think you can in time, if you practice hard enough, and that’s the goal. Part of it is to be able to train the mind so then you can have a bigger impact on the world. So it doesn’t mean you actually stop doing the work, you just train the mind to focus better, and then you’ll have a bigger impact.’

With this revelation I am peeling off the layers with my own hands and making real progress in getting to the bottom of the Jack Heath Monkey Mind Mystery.

One thing that I can pinpoint about Jack and Jack alone is his special affinity with celebrities and people in the public profile. He’s hung out with Cathy Freeman, made business deals with Rupert Murdoch, chatted with the Dalai Lama, drank gin and tonics with the first chief Justice of Burma, bonded with Paul Keating, and yet any special attention he receives from these people has no apparent effect on him. He even describes Murdoch as ‘warm and generous’ and Keating as a ‘nice, friendly, down to earth guy’.

It’s clear from the outset that Jack has a special friendship with Cathy Freeman, a friendship that is not befitted with mere words, but he gives it a go anyway. ‘We have a lot of laughs together which is really important. You know, I think she’s quite an extraordinary person. We took a road trip when she first became a Patron of Inspire, and just had conversations about life, the universe, love. I think there was just a really nice clicking together, a really strong and easy bond.’

With Jack’s Buddhist background, he can’t help but wonder what would have happened in previous lives, if he and Cathy were somehow connected. Jack often speaks about previous lives and karma with certainty, as though he is aware of something that the rest of us are oblivious to.

Jack’s friendships mean the world to him and so the loss of a dear friend in Thailand marked another turning point in his life. Although he describes the rape and murder of Ewa Czajor with the same calm tone of voice that he has adopted throughout, I notice the water in his eyes has shifted slightly at the mention of her. All prior discussion of karma and previous lives leads to an eerie realisation that Ewa was murdered in January 1988, the same year and month of my birth. Something in the air changes and there’s a brief silence before Jack attempts to recount these horrific events.

‘She was a good friend of ours, she was supposed to stay with us in Thailand, but two days before she arrived they told me her body had been found in Northern Thailand’. It happened in a cave and Jack believes she was murdered by monks, a shocking theory that he refrains from elaborating on but mumbles something about not wearing shoes before entering the cave.

Jack wanted to be there during the crisis so he flew up and before he knew what he was doing, he raised his hand and volunteered to view the body. At the time he believed he could handle it, having seen dead animals on the farm. He soon learnt that a human body, much less the body of someone close to him, was an entirely different story altogether. In Thailand it didn’t make the news. Back home it was all over Sixty Minutes.

After Ewa’s death, Jack began to drink a lot, party a lot. He was quite manic at times: ‘a wild, crazy guy’, he says as he calmly pours the boiling water over his lemon grass tea. ‘Until you find your path, you kinda just want to push up against things really hard’. Dancing was a way of ‘getting back into the ground’. Years later, Jack went back to the site where Ewa was murdered, where he found himself at a crossroads. Something inside his head told him to go back, to not continue down this one particular path, and that’s when he knew it was the place where she was murdered. When Jack tried to meditate after going back there, he always heard a women wailing somewhere in the distance.

Jack has an intensity about him when he speaks, but every so often he might laugh and his blue eyes follow suit with a trace of incandescence. It’s this laughter that reassures you of all the clichés about beating the odds and rising above the ashes. He truly is a source of hope and I realise that although Jack’s life has been characterised by as many lows as there were highs, I can’t help but smile in the end.

I click on Reach Out and discover Jack’s life motto to young people everywhere.

‘Walk, don’t run. Attain enlightenment for the benefit of others. Have a good shit at least once a day.’

The picture I seem to have painted in my head of this man is almost complete. Almost.
We have almost come full circle but I’m tempted to ask:

Who do you think you were in a past life? The man before me smiles coyly and I suspect that this little part of Jack Heath will remain a secret.