Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

Scrolling through Twitter can be a stroll down Information Street, and with a curious mind you never know where you might end up. Tweets from across the globe encourage exploration of links to events unfolding in real time. Lying in bed on a Sunday morning with coffee at hand, smartphone charged and dog snuggling at my feet is one of my life’s great pleasures.

Recently when scrolling through my Twitter feed, I learned that gravitational waves are a thing.  I had heard the announcement of this discovery on the nightly news, but apart from enjoying the rapt expressions on the scientist’s faces, I hadn’t paid much attention.  Then on a lazy Sunday morning a tweet caught my attention:

“Gravitational waves: Science ‘discovery of century’

explained perfectly in one paragraph”

This simple explanation looked enticing so I clicked on an @Independent link where a Reddit user explained gravitational waves as if to a five year old. (Reddit is a social news forum where stories are curated and promoted by its site members.)

“You know how when you throw a rock in a pool, there are ripples? And how if we throw bigger rocks in, they make bigger ripples? Well, a long time ago, a really smart guy named Einstein said that stars and planets and stuff should make ripples in space, and he used some really cool math to explain why he thought that. Lots of people checked the math and agree that he was right. But we’ve never been able to see those ripples before. Now some people built a really sensitive measuring thing that uses lasers to see them, and they just proved that their device works by seeing ripples from a really big splash. So now we know how to see them and we can get better at it, which will help us learn more about space.”

Satisfied with this description I went to close the link when a quote, from a user who was one of the 1,000 LIGO scientists working on the research, jumped off the page!

“Before we started detecting gravitational waves, looking out at the universe was like watching an orchestra without any sound.”

BOOM

We can actually hear the universe?  It was as if a window had opened and immediately I needed to know more!  I typed ‘gravitational waves’ into my phone’s browser. Believe it or not, my smartphone has considerably more computing power than the Apollo 11 had when sending man to the moon in 1969. In fact the Apollo Guidance Computer had less power than the electronics in some toasters today! @ComputerWeekly

But I digress, in fact I’ve taken a wrong turn (I could do with a GPS tracker right now but more on that later.) So, I continued to navigate the net and learned that 1.3 billion years ago two black holes had rammed violently together and merged to form one gigantic black hole.  Albert Einstein had predicted this event in his 1915 theory of general relativity, where the collision results in converting a portion of the combined black holes’ mass to energy, according to his formula E=mc2.  This energy is emitted as a final strong burst of gravitational waves that continue to ripple for billions of years across the fabric of spacetime.

 @NewYorker journalist Nicola Twilley eloquently describes the event with a sexually charged energy:

“Just over a billion years ago, many millions of galaxies from here, a pair of black holes collided. They had been circling each other for aeons, in a sort of mating dance, gathering pace with each orbit, hurtling closer and closer. By the time they were a few hundred miles apart, they were whipping around at nearly the speed of light, releasing great shudders of gravitational energy. Space and time became distorted, like water at a rolling boil. In the fraction of a second that it took for the black holes to finally merge, they radiated a hundred times more energy than all the stars in the universe combined. They formed a new black hole, sixty-two times as heavy as our sun and almost as wide across as the state of Maine. As it smoothed itself out, assuming the shape of a slightly flattened sphere, a few last quivers of energy escaped. Then space and time became silent again.”

The writer goes on to give us a sense of the immensity of time that has passed since the collision took place 1.3 billion light years ago:

“The waves rippled outward in every direction, weakening as they went. On Earth, dinosaurs arose, evolved, and went extinct. The waves kept going. About fifty thousand years ago, they entered our own Milky Way galaxy, just as Homo sapiens were beginning to replace our Neanderthal cousins as the planet’s dominant species of ape.”

On September 14 last year, the first faint ripples through space were detected by twin towers at The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) located in in the United States 4000 kilometres apart, housing the most sensitive equipment ever made. And someone was listening out for the music! More from Nicola Twilley:

“Marco Drago, a thirty-two-year-old Italian postdoctoral student, was the first person to notice them. He was sitting in front of his computer at the Albert Einstein Institute, in Hannover, Germany, viewing the LIGO data remotely. The waves appeared on his screen as a compressed squiggle, but the most exquisite ears in the universe, attuned to vibrations of less than a trillionth of an inch, would have heard what astronomers call a chirp—a faint whooping from low to high.”

It has been coined ‘The discovery of the century’ and much celebration ensued amongst the LIGO Scientific Collaboration which includes more than 900 scientists worldwide. According to http://www.csiro.au “One of the major components of LIGO was the installation of ultra-high-performance optical mirrors, many of which were coated by researchers from CSIRO.”  I do hope you’ve been paying attention Prime Minister @turnbullmalcolm as your party wields its fiscal axe against our nation’s great scientific institution. #CSIRO #JobCuts (The # symbol in social media is used to tag subjects of interest to users.)

And so when my teenage son retuned from his early morning run, my head being full of science and poetry, I asked what he knew about gravitational waves. He said he was aware of the discovery but hadn’t given it much thought.  I puffed up my pillow to sit up straight and said,

“Well I’ll tell you what I know about it.”

And so I told him what I just told you.

Blah blah blah gravitational waves blah blah blah

But he just shook his head while casting me a look of hopelessness and said,

“But you don’t have any scientific understanding, so how can it be meaningful to try and understand science through metaphor and allegory?

Feeling a little indignant at this unexpected response I replied,

“I may not understand Einstein’s equation but I can grasp the metaphor of the universe as an orchestra”.

He frowned and asked,

Can I read you a quote from Camus?”

Still in his running gear he disappeared into his room and returned with a copy of Albert Camus’ 1942 philosophical essay ‘The Myth of Sisyphus.’ He sat on the end of my bed and flicked through the book to find a passage. The room was quiet, the dog slept on and my son read aloud:

“And here are trees and I know their gnarled surface, water and I feel its taste. These scents of grass and stars at night, certain evenings when the heart relaxes – how shall I negate this world whose power and strength I feel? Yet all the knowledge on earth will give nothing to assure me that this world is mine…

…you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain this world to me with an image.  I realise then that you have been reduced to poetry.

What need had I of so many efforts? The soft lines of these hills and the hands of evening on this troubled heart teach me much more. I have returned to my beginning.”

I thought about this for a while: “What’s the point of even attempting to understand science if you’re not a scientist? What’s the point of employing metaphors or imagery in trying to understand the scientific?  Are touching the ‘gnarled surface’ of the trees and smelling the sweet grass the only true ways of knowing the ‘world is mine,’ and not through the acquisition of ‘all the knowledge on earth?’

Later I queried him,

“Are you saying I shouldn’t even try and understand gravitational waves?”

And he replied,

“You either know the science or you don’t know the science at all. You can know things aesthetically, and you can know things scientifically, but you cannot possibly know one through the lens of the other. Once diluted, science was rendered useless to Camus; he was saying why bother when you can look at the soft hills?”

But for me, the metaphor of likening the sounds of gravitational waves to music has made the science relatable in the realms of listening and feeling – scientists had ‘heard’ the reverberations from two black holes colliding and as one scientist put it:

“It’s like listening to music. You might have the base in the left channel, the snares in the right. What this music will reveal is a set of stories about the universe that can only be heard in the language of gravitational waves; stories that would otherwise be lost in the cosmic noise of the Big Bang.”

I don’t agree with Camus, for it is worth attempting to associate with something greater than ourselves, even if it is only through the use of metaphor and imagery. We don’t have to be versed in theoretical physics, hell, if we can even understand one definition as explained to a five year old, or grasp a metaphor uttered by an ecstatic scientist, then it’s enough to allow us feel a connection to space and thereby make it personal.

Scientific discoveries continue to reverberate in our everyday lives; as @ConversationUK points out, quantum mechanics is the basis of our use of semiconductors in our computers and mobile phones; our trusty GPS trackers are borne of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. It is satisfying to make these connections.

Like Camus we can be content to just gaze upon the ‘soft lines of the hills’ and ‘the stars at night’ and leave science to the scientists. Or we may choose to lie back on a sleepy Sunday morning and glean information from the profusion available at our fingertips, to dream away while pondering the orchestral sounds of the universe and, as Camus said, return to our beginnings.

Now teenagers are another mystery altogether, and just as I was finishing writing this, I discovered the following quote copied in my son’s handwriting:

By pleasure drawn from discovery of new truths, the scientist is part poet, and by pleasure drawn from new ways to express old truths, the poet is part scientist. In this sense science and the creative arts are foundationally the same.

~ E.O Wilson, Letters to a Young Scientist

On that note you might want to sit back and listen to this Gravitational Waves music remix by Arthur Jeffes using the actual sounds recorded by LIGO – the music of our universe!

 

 

The title of this blog gratefully borrowed from Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, an English new wave/synthpop group.

 

 

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Changing Tracks

imageHe was the rock of our family; a hands on dad, great cook, handyman and initiator of spontaneous outings.  His departure left a gaping hole; I missed our jokes and our close bond born of both adventure and adversity, but most of all I missed sharing the joy of watching our little boy grow.

Despite the challenges of living with multiple sclerosis I was determined to be the primary carer of our son. I knew it would be a mighty feat without the support of my former husband, for it was he who had provided a buffer against the physical rigours of everyday life.

I had to prove I could look after our son on my own.   I went through a steep and painful learning curve on how to carry out my new responsibilities whilst factoring in recovery breaks, and then somehow in the evenings I taught myself to cook. I was perpetually exhausted and my son was having trouble sleeping. I was searching in the dark for new ways to be a family.

Music had featured strongly in our house. My son had surprised his grade one teacher when he listed Shirley Bassey, Vaya con Dios and Frank Sinatra as his favourite singers! After his father moved out he continued to play the tunes, but for me they held little joy. On the nights he stayed at his dad’s I stayed up late playing new music with the volume turned high, drinking wine and smoking cigarettes.

The Christmas he turned seven my son received an Elvis Presley CD in his Santa sack.  He was smitten! Every night he performed a new song in commendable Elvis-style with all the sincerity a seven year old can muster.  For his birthday he received a Live in Las Vegas dvd and we watched it utterly mesmerised; I finally ‘got’ Elvis – the emotion, the swagger, the small town politeness. Our boy knew the words to every song and on Friday nights we held a concert; music filled the house again.

We were creating new memories to the backdrop of Viva Las Vegas.  We went to the local RSL to see an Elvis impersonator; we travelled to Rod Laver Arena where on a giant screen The King came to life while his original backup singers and guitarist performed live on stage.  There were thousands of fans right here in Melbourne; we were part of an underground culture!

As my son grew into his teens Elvis faded away, but every now and then he’ll pull out the Vegas dvd and we sit transfixed on the couch with our new dog.  My changing track is ‘If I can Dream’; it’s for the end of the dark days when my seven year old belted out Elvis with fervour and passion, and we became a family again.

Aloneness

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Being on our own will come to most of us at one time or another. It may eventuate with the death of a loved partner, the disintegration of a marriage or the onset of a debilitating illness.

Fear often accompanies such change, fear of the unknown, or doubts in our ability to respond when our world is torn apart. (I remember entering my life as a single parent with a mixture of equal parts terror and excitement!) Whilst in the midst of a crisis we’re surrounded by support and the ensuing days can feel surreal. But once the crisis has passed there’s the aftermath to negotiate and the transition to a new life.  Grief must be traversed, but with the courage to keep an open heart one can become attuned to the faintest flutter of possibility.

At age 34 the onset of multiple sclerosis sealed my destiny and for nearly a third of my life I’ve spent much of my time alone.  This is a far cry from the social being I once was, and for many years I rallied against the loss of freedom.  My identity had been built on friendships, work, travel and outdoor pursuits, but in my new life days are defined by by rest breaks and everyday tasks scheduled according to pain and energy levels.  My social life is sparse as I’m tucked up in bed around the same time kids are being read their bedtime stories!

We are social animals by nature.  We receive validation from others; we gain empathy, information, relaxation and blessed distraction.  When this outlet is removed it can feel akin to falling into an abyss, unchecked it can degenerate into depression. With newfound circumstances, venturing out alone can feel intimidating.  As a newly single person you seem to inhabit less space, as a person with a health condition the world can feel perplexing and exhausting.  After a while the prospect of spending time alone may seem inviting.  There’s opportunity to re-evaluate life choices. Curiosity gradually replaces fear.  Space becomes available to contemplate our life’s purpose.

Getting involved again is certainly an option for many.  But whenever I hear of somebody freshly single joining a dating site, I wonder at the rush to find a new partner.  Hold on! Take a breather! I want to say.  Just stand where you are; it’s uncomfortable, yes… it’s boring, I know…. it might also turn dark. But if you can stand still in the desert humbled, if you can surrender to your own aloneness, you will discover there’s an oasis inside; it’s not to be found in some mirage beckoning toward a new relationship, or any activity that does not feel authentic.  If you can stand alone, and like me you may fall repeatedly, it becomes apparent there exists another world, an inner world without rules and regulations or man-made expectations.  It’s an anarchic world connected to something greater, some call it God, some call it peace.

This is not to say we need remain alone forever.  The more we stand alone with ourselves the more secure we become which in turn leads to freedom.  Trust grows from this foundation and we can feel reassured we’ll once again be open to a new relationship.  We may even recognise that person as someone who had to find the courage to stand alone too.

We become respectful of our capacity to respond to whatever life throws at us, we learn to be responsible for our choices and our emotions.  The author Victor Frankl once recommended the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast of the United States be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast!

I feel grateful for my enforced solitude and thankful for the support I’ve received to raise a son, maintain precious friendships and provide a good home life. I would never have chosen this path, not in a million trillion years, believe me!  But aloneness has taught me true freedom lies with taking responsibility in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.

I Could be in Paris

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When I acquired a smart phone something profound began to happen.  Armed with such a light device, I started taking photographs and began to really notice my surroundings.   Dog walks became opportunities to look closely at gardens; social gatherings held fascinating subjects, our home revealed itself as a gallery. By capturing everyday life on film, its beauty was reflected back at me.

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 I now feel more connected to the very aliveness of a simple life.  Expressing creativity through digital photography is an easy way to connect with our environment, which in turn reconnects us to our distracted selves.  We are all creative but can conjure up a million excuses to denounce this gift, especially with the catchcry of our times “I’m too busy!”

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Setting a few minutes aside to tease our photographer’s eye can reveal unexpected beauty.  We can discover possibilities when weeding the garden, walking through a car park (I discovered Bayside Graffiti on the wall of our local supermarket), or waking the dog through a different neighbourhood.

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It’s fun to experiment with the editing options on a smartphone or an app such as Camera+.  There are different coloured filters, a selection of frames and different texts to choose from.  I can edit in front of the TV, while waiting to see a doctor, or travelling on a train.  I am no longer a passive consumer of everybody else’s art, but a creator of my own.

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Social Media is a fantastic medium designed for sharing photographs.  Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram all love a good photo!  At first it feels audacious, (why would anyone want to see my pictures?) but believe me, we do!  Personal perspectives offer a freshness away from the recycled posts that trawl through our feeds.  It takes courage to start, but it’s worth it for the effervescent energy creative engagement brings.

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Before I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, I took many extended working holidays overseas.  I drank in new sights as thirstily as I drank Sangria in Spain or Moosehead in Canada.  I eventually settled in New Zealand with the expectation of exploring a lifetime’s worth of mountain ranges and deep primeval forests.

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But it was not to be.  After a diagnosis I was advised to seek medical assistance in Australia and returned home for treatment.  I found it difficult to settle and to adapt to the challenges of living a much reduced lifestyle.  But I was in the best place to raise my son and happily reconnected with old friends while making new ones.  I made a life and it was a good one, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not slake the thirst for new experiences.

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When I began to take photos the old curiosity quickened.  Placing myself in the moment reminded me that life is full of colour and texture, and another dimension appeared when I shared images on social media.  I who spend so much time alone, felt validated again through daily engagement with a likeminded community.  I was sharing photos with friends and interacting with people I’ve never met, in countries I’ll probably never visit.  Revealing my world through photography gave me the confidence to reveal myself through writing.

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All these photos illustrate that the essence of what I was searching for exists within a radius of a few blocks from home.  With eyes to seek we see another world within.  I’d love to see a glimpse of your world, I’ll be looking!

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For the Term of Their Natural Lives

I remember as a small child looking back at my mum as she waved us off to school, and feeling briefly terrified at the possibility she could die while I was away. It was my greatest fear that one day I would be without my parents, and though this fear receded when I reached adulthood, it still inhabited a recess in my mind. And so it was one autumn day this year, that one of my worst fears was realised with the death of my father.

He had been frail and vulnerable to the ravages of old age when he died in hospital in the wee hours of the morning. After our family had completed the all-consuming practicalities of organising our first funeral, I’d felt restless and found it impossible to settle. I’d escaped to the local mall to lose myself in the mindless task of shopping, but still I could not focus and wandered around aimlessly, until on an impulse, I decided to try and centre myself with a massage. I lay back and closed my eyes while a vigorous woman expertly pounded and stretched my feet. Her deft fingers migrated to work deep into my calf when suddenly a memory rose unvisited for a lifetime; it was of my dad who’d been the one to tend to us in the middle of the night whenever one of us had leg cramps.  I had a clear memory of him making everything right again and tears welled beneath my lids. I felt that he was close by and letting me know that everything was indeed alright, and my sense of equilibrium began to return.

I continued to mourn Dad’s passing, but I did not experience the crippling grief I had expected to accompany it. In its place I felt peace and a deep gratitude for his role in my life, and wondered a little guiltily, why I didn’t feel deep pain.

My close friend Rob lost his elderly mother last week. She too had been confined to hospital and hadn’t been expected to leave. As he came to terms with the finality of her death, he also realised there was a ‘naturalness’ to it.  Rob contrasted this with the recent tragedy of a four year old, who was crushed to death when a rogue petrol tank smashed the car he was travelling in.  I too had felt incredibly sad after seeing a photo of the beaming, blond boy taken shortly before his life was extinguished in an instant. The loss of such a young life is impossible to reconcile.

When I saw my dad the day before he died he was struggling to breathe, making it difficult to talk. I said “Dad, stick out your tongue if you can hear me.” And he did in such a cheeky way that it made me smile despite the worrying spectacle. We could not have known it would be his last day, and when I returned to the hospital the following morning it was with the heavy burden of having failed to say goodbye.  Dad lay still as stone in the room he’d occupied for months, his eyes shut and his body just a shell.  But there was great tranquillity surrounding him; it filled us all and seemed to rise to the ceiling to fill the spaces in the sterile room.  Around the same time in India, my sister saw a firefly glowing in her hair and later intuited it as our father’s spirit passing.

After I hung up the phone from Rob, I reflected on how fortunate we are if our parents live to an advanced age. With the ending of a long life cycle there can be more space for acceptance, and gratitude for the mystery. There is a ‘naturalness’ to their passing, for we have outlived them as we hope our children will us.  We’ve been endowed with a sense of completeness in an unpredictable world, and an enduring peace as we ourselves move onwards.

Blood Lines

Blood Lines

It was the coldest day of the year and dog, boy and I were ensconced on the sofa under a pile of rugs with the heater humming and laptop aglow was scrolling through Facebook when a striking photograph appeared; it was a portrait of a late nineteenth century man wearing a riding cap. His long face framed intelligent brown eyes that held wistful look; he was strong jawed with a straight nose and resolute mouth, but what struck me most were his high, prominent cheekbones.

I had just that afternoon glanced at my son playing his guitar and noticed the arrival of his own cheekbones. t is a joy for parents to witness their offspring stretching into adulthood, but it can be tinged with sadness too as childish traits recede into the past. My boy doesn’t much resemble me, but his high cheekbones confirm that he is my progeny!

My birth mother had posted the photo of the man in the riding cap with the caption My grandfather!  Realisation dawned and I exclaimed to my son We’re related! He just shrugged at the remoteness of this ancestor, but for me it was a seminal moment.

I am happily adopted along with three siblings.They are every inch my brothers and sister so blood played no part in the relationships we formed in childhood. It was of little significance that we did not look alike; though in a broader sense by not resembling anyone at all, it feels I might as well have landed from a spaceship. I am intrinsically linked to my adoptive family, but I’ve never felt a sense of belonging toward any clan.

I’ve struggled to understand the desire to trace one’s genealogy and the appeal of television shows where celebrities are guided to discover the fate of their ancestors. Could this be because some protective mechanism closes when a baby is separated from its tribe?

I’ve always queried the notion that blood is thicker than water, surely we are bonded by something deeper; our very humanness, our desire to love and be loved, our need to be accepted. I believe I would love my son no less if he were adopted. Has my view stemmed from not sharing blood lines with family members?

I’ve watched with fascination, and a little envy, the tightly woven closeness of families who share looks and mannerisms alike, and those who simultaneously revel in spats and fierce displays of loyalty and sentimentality. But I also wonder if it’s too high a price to pay, to sacrifice the spaciousness that comes with being an ‘alien’ raised in an independent household.

When I made the connection with the man in the riding cap I felt something akin to a current running through him to me to my son.  For a rare moment something inextricably wonderful linked the three of us, and it wasn’t just the cheekbones.

I found myself repeatedly going back to gaze at his photograph.  I asked my birth mother about him and she said his given names were Michael Patrick and he was a horse trainer born in Ireland. My son’s confirmation name is Michael and at birth my mother named me Patricia before she was made to give me away. This synchronicity gave me a small bond with my great grandfather.

The man in the riding cap has opened a door enabling me to feel a blood connection, and provoked questions into the formation of identity when part of a clan. It feels weirdly nice, but for now I’m happy to be an alien.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our Big Issue

Our Big Issue

Last Sunday I travelled into the city to accompany my son who was competing in the ‘Run Melbourne’ fundraiser. He was running in support of Servants Community Housing, an organisation offering affordable, safe housing for vulnerable people.

I left him and a mate amongst the heaving throng of runners and headed to the Arts Centre to enjoy a coffee in the winter sunshine. St Kilda Road was bustling with those who’d already completed their race and I felt happily anonymous amongst the young families and tourists.

A tall man conspicuous by his stillness stood aside from the crowd. His dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail, a hessian bag slung over his lean frame. He was holding up a copy of The Big Issue. At $6 this magazine not only provides a good read but offers homeless people the opportunity to earn their own money.

As I approached the vendor his face flickered with a mix of reticence and relief. We commented on the large crowd and I asked how business was going. “A bit slow, it’s mostly joggers and they don’t carry much money.” He laughed and his eyes crinkled at the corners. Big Issue Guy thanked me and as I headed to the coffee cart I thought, he just made $3 from the sale of my magazine, that wouldn’t even buy a coffee. I went back to ask if could I get him a coffee too. “That’d be great; a cappuccino with two sugars” he replied, adding almost apologetically “it’s really just a flat white with chocolate sprinkles.” Again that crinkly smile. When I brought back the coffee he joked “I’ve got to move on from here, this bamboo flute music is making my ears bleed.” He gently shook my hand and said with sincerity “God bless you.”

I followed the Yarra River which was full of movement. I was crossing the pedestrian bridge when a lone figure caught my attention; I turned around instinctively and asked “Are you ok?” Slumped against the railing was a man, cap pulled low over his eyes. “No, I’m not ok.” I walked over and crouched beside him. He was wearing bulky clothes and appeared to be carrying more in a backpack. “I’m sick of being moved on, a busker just told me to move, it happens all the time.” He spoke in a rush. “I can’t stay anywhere, I’m always being told to leave, I’m so over it.” Tears began to fall from his blue eyes, he was very young. I rubbed his back – “I know, you’re absolutely exhausted.” “There’s nowhere to stay… I’m not a bad person.” The words were tumbling out. “I can see you’re a good person and you’re having a really rough time.” Tears were falling like plump raindrops. “I feel like such a loser, I just want to give up.” I felt his despair and said “I’m so sorry.” He shook his head “It’s not your fault.” A waiter was watching from between tables of a fancy Southbank restaurant. “What are you looking at?” I said in a low voice, my eyes challenging his to look away.” The exhausted young man said “Everybody looks.”

I knew I couldn’t fix the problem; I just sat and rubbed his back. But I needed to do something so I handed him ten dollars and said “Maybe you could get something to eat.” He gave me a grateful smile. “Don’t give up” I said as I stood to leave. I crossed the bridge and turned to see him still there, his head buried deep into the backpack.

I felt incredibly sad. What had happened to this beautiful boy? He and Big Issue Guy were polite and well spoken, just ordinary people finding themselves on the wrong side of the line.

Things often come in threes. As I approached Flinders Street Station I saw a man sitting cross-legged in the shade. He was holding a cardboard sign with the words ’please give’ scrawled on it. He was older, more worn than the others; there was no light refracting from his face, his brown eyes were hard, body inert. I asked how he was doing and he answered in a low monotone. Into his hat I placed the last of my gold coins amongst a smattering of silver. As I left I touched his shoulder, which was probably an intrusion, but I was selfish and I did it for myself. He had enough dignity to allow this indulgence to pass.

I walked slowly back along the Yarra, my heart heavy. I approached the busy ‘Servants’ tent. It was white and the sun shone in. I met the returning runners and saw that some good had been done.

“It can be as little as 12 months from a significant life event to losing everything and arriving on the street. Last year alone we worked with over 2500 individuals, enabling people who are homeless to take control of their lives.” The big Issue Foundation

Sacred Bodies

On social media there has been a trend to post photos of bodies, particularly those of children, killed in Gaza during the escalation of bombings by Israel.

Is this the only way the Palestinians can grab our attention? By shocking us with their daily horrors, shaking us into realising that it’s not just something that happens ‘over there’ but is the obliteration of their families, the inconsolable loss of their children?

I’ve seen a photo of a distraught father holding his lifeless baby covered in dirt, its little mouth in a pout, its lower limbs blown away. If it were my child would I allow this photo to be published? How can I know the utter desperation of those who use such images to draw attention to their plight?

Are these photos making a difference or have they become another form of voyeurism? Media reports indicate that international condemnation is on the rise. Mass rallies are being held around the globe; there’s even a photo of orthodox Jews protesting against Israel in New York City. Does this imply that no matter how gruesome the photo, it should be shared?

I was still pondering these questions when I came across footage of a suitcase in the wreckage of the MH17 flight in eastern Ukraine. What struck me about the lime green interior of the small case was its innocence. It somehow contained all the lost hopes and never-to-be realised promise of its owner.

The reporter began to rifle through the case; its small privacies were exposed as he fingered keys and a toothbrush. To the viewer it felt like a violation. The reporter soon stopped when he realised he’d crossed a line.

Of course the Palestinian children hold no comparison to a suitcase. But sometimes symbols speak directly to us. The innocent bodies of children hold infinitely more potential, more life, more love, than anything a fleeting photo could convey.

But we have the choice to look away. 

All Breasts Great and Small

All Breasts Great and Small
A good friend, whom I admire for his candour, recently dropped into our conversation “Oh but you’re flat chested” to which I immediately retorted “No, small breasted.”  I felt indignant because that label can instantly dismiss the existence of something small but perfectly formed.  I didn’t give the exchange any further thought until a photo arrived from a recent girls’ weekend where we held a  tongue –in-cheek photo-shoot, and my first thought was ‘Oh, I look flat chested.’ I was surprised that my uncensored thought was as conditioned as my friend’s.

Small breasted women can easily be dismissed as being flat-chested because we do not fit society’s preferred image of being ‘curvy.’ Larger breasts are celebrated by the media as being the most desirable female form.  Skinny, flat chested models are forgiven for their impossibly long limbs and dreamy expressions.

In the 1970’s when we were pre-pubescents, my sister and I would insert a pair of tennis balls under our tight white t-shirts and parade around our bedroom posing as sophisticated ladies.  How I longed for the day to arrive to fulfil this fantasy!  When my breasts finally began to bud I was in awe and hugged myself at the prospect of becoming a woman.  And then I waited… and waited, but nothing much happened.  I grew little breasts and then they stopped.  My sister, younger than me, continued to bloom and soon all my friends had bosoms.

So I had no choice but to accept that I would always have less than my peers, and I intuited this as somehow being less. There was to be no first bra fitting for me, a rite of passage denied.  But being skinny and tomboyish I wasn’t unduly worried; I got on with kicking the footy with the kids in our street and going for long bike rides, two or three dogs galloping by our side.

By the time I started work it was clear that my small breasts were no impediment to the attention of the opposite sex.  I had my fair share of admirers and some passionate relationships followed.  I discovered that males love breasts, no matter what their size!

I gave birth to my baby in my mid-thirties.  I wanted to breast feed and though the first six weeks were gruelling, I achieved this through a combination of luck, unwavering support and sheer determination.  From then on I began to feel differently about my body; for the first time I felt womanly and empowered. After nine months my baby weaned himself and my breasts returned to their former size. I may not be able to fill out a swimsuit or look shapely in a dress, but I haven’t had to face breast cancer either.

I’ve come to accept my body and I wanted to share my experience as another view to repeal society’s expectations of women having to look a certain way.  No matter what our size or shape, we are already good enough.

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