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

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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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