Elly McDonald

Writer


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Special (19 April 2014)

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It was February 1988. I was dressed like a model in a Robert Palmer music video: black high heels, black tights, tight black pencil skirt, fine-ribbed body-hugging black top, huge dangly 80s earrings, kohl-lined eyes. Lots of hair. I sat in a room with about 100 people, listening to the man on stage sell snake oil. Every so often I crossed and re-crossed my legs.

When the presentation ended, a young woman seated near me leaned across. “That man spent that entire presentation staring at your legs!” she said. I knew. I’d noticed.

Might as well face it / you’re addicted to love…” But I wasn’t. I was addicted to rejection.

The man on the stage was on a barnstorming tour from the United States, selling seminars that promised to “transform” our lives. I told a male friend, “This man will turn your life upside down!”

My friend, not a sceptic, looked sceptical. In the event, it was my life that was up-ended.

After the presentation, the man on the stage was introduced to me and asked if I could recommend somewhere he might eat. I suggested he join me for dinner at the notorious Bourbon & Beefsteak in Kings Cross. We went to dinner. We watched the Japanese men at a neighbouring table get more and more drunk and more and more combative.

“That man has an opinion,” I said.

“No,” replied my companion. “His opinion has him.”

I felt very adult, very sophisticated, very seductive. I strode out afterwards into thick traffic and when he queried whether stepping out in front of cars was safe, I glanced pityingly at him over my shoulder. “It’s easy,” I said. “You just step out. They have to give way.”

I felt so powerful and so sexual. I felt special. I felt chosen.

On our third night together I said something about what other people were saying about us. I have no recall of what exactly I said but I do recall his reaction.

“Other people know about this?” he yelped. “You’ve told other people? Why would you want this to live out there as gossip?”

He was 6’2”, close on 200lb, a former combat marine who’d volunteered for two tours of duty in Vietnam. He was yelling and he was red.

Something was obviously wrong, and I was instantly very, very frightened. That was the moment I “went to Jupiter”, as I thought of it later. Psychiatrists call it dissociation. I withdrew mentally, naked in my bed, so that this raging monster in my small bedroom seemed as if viewed through the wrong end of a telescope: far, far away; small and distant; unable to reach me. I did not want to ever return.

In the transformational organisation, where I was a senior volunteer, gossip got around. Eventually I came to understand that in the mere two weeks this man spent in Australia, he had sex with perhaps five other female volunteers, each one of whom believed she was the chosen one. Believed she was special.

When I recall this man now, I confuse his image with others from the same template: Jimmy Swaggart (the disgraced evangelist), Jerry Lee Lewis (the disgraced rock’n’roller), Bill Clinton (the disgraced politician). He was a tall well-built man with silver hair and a cocky manner, a good ol’ boy from the Deep South, from Texas, just across the border from Louisiana. After Vietnam he’d been an angry man. He’d hung out with motorcycle gangs. Then he’d been, variously, a psychiatric nurse and an operative in local Texas politics before transforming into a personal development course leader.

The girls he targeted were of a type. They were pretty girls (“You are such a pretty girl”, he told me), superficially confident but insecure, each one of us an eating disorders sufferer. Each one had a desperate need for affirmation. We each of us wanted to be special, to be chosen.

When it became public that we were a harem, interchangeable conquests, each of us responded characteristically. One girl changed her address and her phone number and her family refused to divulge her whereabouts. It was rumoured she’d suffered a major breakdown. Another girl disappeared altogether. Eighteen months later she made contact from Canada – to apologise for worrying anyone. The girl who had best reason to believe she was the chosen escort broke down publicly in torrents of tears. Two weeks later she met a rising TV star, whom she later married.

I was perceived as the villain and the vamp. I was the one who made the issue public. I was the one who caused the floods of tears.

“How did this happen?” an older woman demanded.

“We just… clicked,” I responded, weakly.

“Well next time you just click, just walk away, okay?” the woman directed.

I went on a day cruise on the river with staff and senior volunteers from the personal development organisation. I watched as the senior manager, who had just lost a large amount of weight, experimented with her ‘new’ sexual allure. I scanned the smorgasbord and reached for the chocolate biscuits. I force fed myself chocolate biscuits for years as my own eating disorder resurfaced with a vengeance. I had no desire whatsoever to be the vamp. I had no desire whatsoever.

Within the organisation, there were internal discussions. Between the USA offices and the Australian offices, it was agreed the organisation bore no responsibility but that this man should “take care” of the damage, which meant “taking care” of me. He didn’t enjoy that. Occasionally I took perverse pleasure in torturing him with forlorn phone calls.

I went to San Francisco to do advanced training as a volunteer. This man was on-site, as an advanced course instructor. The older woman who’d warned me against “clicking” was there as well. I saw a card she sent him thanking him for changing her life, for his insight and understanding. Then she told me he’d told her I’d “made it up”.

On a hill in northern California, overlooking the organisation’s advanced training site, I sat watching a young man repair his car. He was a younger course leader and he was quietly sympathetic. We never discussed what had happened in Sydney. I just watched him work on his red sports car and we talked about INXS, who I knew personally and who at the time had a Number 1 US hit. When I returned to the office that day, I was taken into a room and told not to flirt with Brian, not to get up to my tricks. The woman who instructed me informed me she was a “master of communication”, who could “read human beings”, and she saw I was dangerous. Later, back in Australia, Brian of the red Alfa Romeo sent me a short note, telling me he’d left the organisation, and noting: “No one there was on your side.”

Some years later I was involved in a faux sex scandal – that is, a gossip maelstrom where no sex had actually occurred. It was so stale, being cast as the Scarlet Woman. The vehemence, the lurid nastiness, was all too familiar.

As I write this now, I fantasise an alternative reality, one in which I leap into Brian’s red sports car, cast my sultry gaze his way, and command: “Let’s go!”

I fantasise Brian and me speeding off through the hills above Santa Rosa, out towards Nevada, a male-female Thelma and Louise, revving up towards a deep canyon. I fantasise an alternative version of the faux sex scandal, one where I leap on the office desk – those damned office desks in that glamorous glass tower – and I proclaim, “Yes! I did it! I seduced this lovely man, I harmed his lovely wife! I set out to cause his children pain! I live to create workplace soap opera!”

I visualise me in a red dress, a music video model undulating as Chris Isaak melancholically accuses me in song of playing a Wicked Game: “What a wicked thing to do / to make me dream of you...”

I visualise myself as Jessica Rabbit: “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.”

I remember how a few weeks after my trip to Jupiter I was asked out to dinner by a young man with green eyes. A really handsome boy. Interesting. Kind. Someone who – had I travelled with him – might have been a partner on journeys worth making. I recall I was so petrified to date that I could barely converse. I remember us walking through Sydney’s Martin Place, in the dark, in the rain: me opening my palms out to the raindrops, him looking sad.

These days, when I hear reports of sexual exploitation within organisations and institutions, I feel I can relate. There is a spectrum of vulnerability. The saddest cases are those involving the very young and the most powerless. There are also adults who on the face of it were culpably foolish.

Believe me, they do feel culpable. They feel ashamed. In my case, I felt so ashamed it was years before I “stepped out”, in any sense, again. I spent years angry. The upside was eventually I had to work out ways to build myself a lifeline, to build a new life.

When I hear these reports, I want to tell those who’ve been exploited: Don’t let these predators poison your future.

Reclaim your life.


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Avatar-free zone (18 April 2014)

Introduction

The article below was written some years back for my church’s magazine, Keeping In Touch. I’ve reproduced it here exactly as written.

I’ll admit when I re-read this I was momentarily shocked by the level of disclosure. But then I realised that was my point.

At the time, I felt very strongly that the stigma still attached to mental illness shut down conversation about how it feels and what it means to suffer from the effects (direct and indirect) of mental illness, and inhibited people from disclosing, even to those with whom they are close, what their experience has been.

I still see things that way.

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This article was me outing myself, to show it’s possible to tell the truth, subjective as it is, and survive. In outing myself I outed my family. I prefer to think it was for this reason that the editors of Keeping In Touch chose not to run this piece. At the time, I felt they’d just proved my point: mental illness is, apparently, so shameful that its discussion is unsuited for a church publication. (Never mind that this church has as an annexe a secular mental health counselling service.)

I love my family. They’re crazy. There, I’ve said it. Each of us has many very admirable, very lovable attributes. But along with that, we’re crazy.

Re-reading the piece now, I consider again the ethics of disclosing family members’ experiences. The fact is I do not know how these individuals perceive these issues themselves. I can only recount my perception of their responses to their experiences.

I am mindful that since this piece was written, I was livid when the mental health of a friend of mine became gossip fodder for people she worked with, the gossip spreading out into our community. I argued then that no one has the right to disclose someone else’s mental health status, presumed or diagnosed, without their consent. By arguing that, am I, too, buying into the cultural belief that mental illness is so shocking, so shameful, that to “tar” someone by association is to damage and denigrate them?

Sharing and Caring

I was struck when in church during ‘Sharing and Caring’ someone shared about a UK friend who literally had to shout to get help in her struggle with depression. She had to present at a social welfare office, line up in a long queue, then publicly explain her situation to a junior clerk behind bullet-proof glass.

I kept coming back to this thought: She had to shout.

The plea for compassion is often tentative, not daring to do more than whisper.

Not long ago, my mother turned to me at lunch and quietly confided, “You know, darling, it was scary growing up with an amphetamine-abusing bi-polar father.”

I believe mental illness continues to carry a social stigma. I use this anecdote to begin to challenge that stigma, and to introduce a few necessarily brief thoughts on how mental illness relates to the faith journey, both for those who suffer mental illness and family and friends who suffer its fall-out.

How can someone with my mother’s experience have a stable concept of an all-loving, all-forgiving, dependable, forever trustworthy parent? Lacking this, how should she understand God?

I happen to have known my grandfather, and I can confirm he could be deeply scary. His illness was dramatic and for most of his life was unmedicated. This was partly because he so valued the ‘highs’ that went with his ‘lows’, and indeed in his manic phases he was filled with creativity, energy, zest and charismatic qualities. As the mania progressed he felt God-like, and that is the image I think his children have of God: a flaming column, a pillar of black smoke, a booming voice stifling the universe’s oxygen.

Yet there is no doubt he loved his children absolutely. I’ve seen photos where the love shines from his every pore; and when my mother speaks of him, the love is as tangible as the pain. I am certain the last thing my grandfather wanted was to leave his children a legacy of self-doubt, anxiety and intermittent, recurring terror. But that was a consequence of the behaviours driven by his illness.

My father, to my knowledge, never speaks of the fiery dynamic between his parents, except in asides he somehow makes sound uproariously funny. Like the story of how his mother discovered his father’s whiskey stash hidden in the woodpile. She chased his father round and round their country property with a huge kitchen knife, while my father hurriedly scaled a high tree and climbed and climbed as far as he could climb. Or the story of how one day, in response to who knows what, his father propelled him to the railway station, bought them both a ticket to Melbourne, many hours away, no luggage, no food – and then when they got there had no plan for what they should do next.

How do people who grew up with these kinds of experiences find ‘safe places’ spiritually? How do they establish stability?

My parents had successful careers and lives. They are productive, capable and deeply compassionate. They are also both somewhat erratic, somewhat unpredictable. Suffice to say I recall the time – not an isolated incident – my father took me to a high profile restaurant and then proceeded to berate me at max volume, insisting I should have my head cut off and be stoned to death (in that order). The waiters formed a protective circle. Or the time my mother pursued me into a bathroom during a heated argument, then burst into tears when I cowered with my arms protecting my head.

So successful, but perhaps not entirely healed. The ripple effects cause choppiness on life’s lake.

Since age 14, I have experienced eating disorders, moderate depression, anxiety and what can politely be termed ‘compulsive behaviours’. That’s not fun for me. It’s not fun for my parents either, or for my sister. For my family, it can trigger memories of earlier episodes of irrational behaviour, from other family members. That “scaredness” my mother speaks of in relation to her father is easily aroused when I or someone else near to her does something that causes her to revert once again to that condition of being vulnerable, helpless, and just wanting the people you love to behave in a reassuring – or at least unthreatening – way.

I offer up the story of my family – or this aspect of the story of my family – not to embarrass them, or to be exhibitionist, but so we might ask some questions of ourselves. When someone behaves in a confronting way towards us, how do we respond? Do we avoid them? Do we get angry? Do we pass on our bad opinion of them to whomever will listen? Or are we capable of compassion? Can we be the space that allows them to settle and calm?

I am often reminded of the words of a woman I admire. She told me, “Be kind. When we’re with someone, we don’t know their circumstances. We don’t know what it takes for them to get up each day. We don’t know what courage it might take for them to live.”

With mental illness, trust is a barrier that can prevent people telling us who they are, let alone what they need. As Christians, we try to be sensitive to what is not said. We need to listen for the silent communications as well as those that spell it out.

Postscript: The spell-check function on my pc points out there is no such word as “scaredness”. It suggested I might mean “sacredness”. Seems to me one invites the other.

 


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Children (2012)

The year I turned 39, I tried desperately to have a baby. The process was expensive, painful and unsettling. By the time I cried quits I had sold my beautiful home in London and made the difficult decision to return to Australia, after eight years away. What sealed the deal was the prospect of being able to live in a house with a garden (a massive luxury in London), where I could keep a dog.

I’d seen Brittany spaniels while on holiday in Dorset and had promised myself that if ever I was in a position to own a dog, I wanted a Brittany. But I’d also walked ex-greyhounds in Blackheath on behalf of dog owners who were too busy, and I loved these gentle, sleek creatures. As soon as I moved into my home in South Geelong I put my name down on waiting lists for both an ex-racing greyhound, and a pedigreed Brittany.

In early 2001, just before my 40th birthday, I received a phone call from the Brittany breeder to say an owner who had purchased a puppy 10 days earlier had decided his toddlers weren’t ready for a dominant male puppy with sharp incisors, so “the young gentleman” (puppy, not toddler) was available for collection.

I drove to Bacchus Marsh to collect my baby. I’d planned to call him Caleb, which is Aramaic for “hound”, but my sister insisted Caleb cannot be a dog’s name and persisted in calling him Toby, which stuck. My first sighting of Toby was not unflawed. I had expected a liver (dark brown) and white Brittany, like the Brits I’d seen in Dorset, but Tobes was orange (auburn) and white. Mostly white. He had a pale pink nose, pale pink ears, pale pink toes and looked like a piglet. He smelt of some horrid chemical, some dogwash shampoo. But he had an optimistic demeanour, and I scooped him up and threw him in the car.

It is illegal – and clearly unsafe – to drive with an unrestrained 10-week old puppy clambering over the steering wheel. But that is how we drove that day, and within the 40 minutes it took to reach home I had fallen in love. That night I slept on a mattress in front of the gas heater unit, with my puppy curled up against my stomach. We’ve slept that way almost every night of the 11 years since.

My mother winced when I introduced Toby as “my little son”, and when, a year later, she met me on the beach and saw a second Brittany puppy – my younger boy, Joshua – with Toby and me, she was ropeable. “You can’t have him!” she said. “Take him back!”

The issue was, prior to Toby, I had worked in Melbourne, at a good job, well paid, and well-suited to my experience and my strengths. But once I had Toby, I wanted to take time out to be with the puppy, and I felt it was no longer possible to spend the majority of my waking hours working and commuting. It wasn’t just about Toby, however. Across those years in London I had mostly been on a train by 7.15am weekday mornings and seldom returned home till 7.30pm at night. Part of the appeal of coming back to Australia was the hope of work-life balance: time to prepare meals at home, to take part in activities I loved, to be part of a local community – rather than being hyper at work, exhausted outside work hours, with my home little more than a crash-pad. In Geelong, not only could I have a puppy, but I could sing in a choir, be part of a swim squad, do yoga classes, visit my parents and friends, attend church …

So when Toby joined me, that ruled out employment with long or irregular hours, or any distance from Geelong. In this past decade, this choice has caused me grief. Sometimes I’ve looked back at my adult life and seen it divided into the rock’n’roll decade (my 20s), the London decade (my 30s), and the decade of eating humble-pie (my 40s). But then I remind myself that this has been not merely the decade of erratic employment and financial hardship, it’s been my parenting decade: my dog-mother years.

Now, both my boys are getting old. According to my vet, at 13 and 12, they are both geriatric. Since Toby was 6, I’ve been fretting about his aging, and fearing the day when I’ll have to live without him. Then when Josh was 7, my “little boy” was ripped apart by a kangaroo. He cost $3000 to repair – and even then, the vets say his survival was miraculous – but that episode brought home to me how much I love my Joshi, too.

Toby has had a couple of operations and is so covered with lumps I can no longer afford to have them biopsied. The vet and I have agreed that if he’s diagnosed with cancer, it’s palliative care only. Josh – who once could race the length of Collendina beach and back faster than a storm-cloud – has announced he can no longer keep up with the long, brisk walks I prefer. So I do my own exercise walk alone, then come back and do a separate, shorter walk with the dogs.

On the internet, I saw a t-shirt with a caption reading “My best friend is a Brittany”. Last week, I saw a picture that said “A house is not a home without a Brittany”. I subscribe to both sentiments. My next dog, in fact, might well be a greyhound, or it might come from GAWS (Geelong Animal Welfare Society). But my current dogs, my beautiful boys, will always be irreplaceable.

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One for Evelyn (2011)

My 30s found me living in London, south of the river in Blackheath, commuting to central London every day. I worked in major advertising agencies, which were everything their reputations suggest: glamorous, glossy, sexy, scheming. It was an interesting environment, where everyone it seemed had bought into a rather vicious consumerist fairytale: the people with the most aesthetically attractive façades and the most coin sat atop the totem pole, juggling their multiple toys, while beneath them everyone else frantically competed to shimmy up the pole to reach those heights.

What always struck me forcibly is that the ad-men (and women) charged with marketing the consumerist dream were themselves the most fervent dreamers.

My home, Blackheath, was an oasis of privilege in a sprawl of south-east London suburbs often described as “economically disadvantaged”. That’s a dry way of saying they were former dockland slums now filled with high-rise housing estates and terrace rows converted to Council housing. To Australian eyes, they were dismayingly dense and drear, not to mention dangerous. They were the antithesis of the Knightsbridge fantasy my colleagues and I inhabited.

There were things about South London (“Suff London”) that were, eventually, vivid enough to knock me out of my Ad-land stupor. The music, for one. South London was plastered with posters for pop acts, many of whom were local boys and girls rising to national (sometimes even international) success. Most of these performers were the children of black immigrants from British Commonwealth countries such as the West Indies and Nigeria.

I grew up in Adelaide, which in my circles was racially homogeneous, and even after I moved to Sydney and spent 10 years working in the rock music industry I had met remarkably few people from Africa, the Caribbean, South America or the Indian sub-continent. In the UK, in eight years in business development roles for high profile London ad agencies, networking at every relevant conference and seminar, I only ever worked with one black colleague, in any agency. Oh, I heard there were token hirings: one agency apparently had a black receptionist, a couple of media buying agencies had blokes on staff whose parents came from India. But thousands of people worked in London advertising in the 1990s, and I can tell you with certainty almost none were black.

South London forced me to recognise my own snobbery and racism: I was not comfortable in those early days around teenagers, especially, from the suburbs around Blackheath (Lewisham, Lee, Woolwich). They sat next to me during hour-long journeys on the iconic (and late lamented) X53 Routemaster bus, through the multiracial communities of Greenwich, Deptford, New Cross, Peckham, the Elephant and Castle and Southwark, then over Westminster Bridge to Trafalgar Square, and up Regent Street to Oxford Street. The X53 was an old-fashioned double-decker red bus; I always sat on the top deck, at the very front, left of the aisle. As I travelled I’d hear strands of the latest local girl-or-boy made good’s latest hit, wafting through open windows or from someone’s Walkman. Some of those songs remain my favourites: Seal singing ‘Crazy’, Gabrielle purring ‘Forget About The World’, Carlene Anderson’s extraordinary gospel rendition of Paul McCartney’s love ballad ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’.

One evening a very young boy, maybe only 16, sat down next to me. He was drunk, but gently drunk. He wasn’t obnoxious. He did want to talk. I did not want to engage, and I justified that by pointing out, loudly, that he was drunk; and besides, I was twice his age. He responded that I didn’t want to talk with a black boy, wondering out loud, in the words of Rodney King, “Why can’t we all just get along?” I got off at the next stop (which, as it happened, was my stop), and spent the next ten minutes in self-righteous mutterings.

Another time, two young men in geometric-print zoot suits approached me on the bus. The older boy – maybe 20? – explained in French-accented patois that his friend needed practice in talking to girls, and asked, courteously, was it OK if they sat with me? It was OK. We talked the whole way to Trafalgar Square. Or, mostly the older boy and I talked, while the younger boy smiled shyly. When we reached the terminus he beamed at me. They said, “Thank you!”, and alighted in graceful, dazzling fast motion, not wanting to embarrass me with the possibility they might cling.

An older woman I sat next to sighed and offered me a share of her boiled sweets. A younger woman got up and changed seats when I ate my way stolidly through a bag of chocolates, intense dour focus, one chocolate after another.

Things happened. My brilliant career in blue-chip advertising went belly-up. I took a job as a staff supervisor at Greenwich’s Millennium Dome, now known as the O2. I was responsible for managing and mentoring a team of teenage high-school drop-outs of all ethnicities and faiths, the common factor being that they were long-term unemployed. (Our team also included people who were long-term unemployed due to mental illness, addiction, de-skilling or age.)

It was a steep learning curve. I still remember brightly asking one boy, “So, what religion are you, Muhammad?” Not my finest moment.

I came to love my team. I remember a delegation protesting that the Dome’s uniform required them to wear Doc Marten boots, an iconic British brand but strongly associated with right-wing racist skinheads. “How can we wear Doc Martens?” my team demanded. “These are the boots skinheads use to kicks our heads in!”

I remember my friend Evelyn flaring up in fury when an older man in our team, whom she’d clashed with, referred to an interpersonal issue within the team as being “the nigger in the wood-pile”. I recall Evelyn explaining to me that she was one of three sisters, all of whom were relatively light-skinned, a skin-tone known in Jamaica as “purdy” (“pretty”), whereas her own ebony skin tone meant she would always be considered within her ethnic group as less attractive. I recall Evelyn’s friend Leethie crying because her skin was so light-toned that most people just assumed she was white, which to her was a denial of her family affiliation: her parents and siblings were darker-skinned.

I learnt it’s poor etiquette to ask a Caribbean what their heritage is (everyone is so genetically mixed). I learnt Nigerians looks down on West Indians and don’t want their kids to date them (the girls they see as sluts, the boys as drug dealers). I learnt that no, a good Bangla Deshi Muslim girl does not attend the neighbourhood Hindu festival of lights, not even just to enjoy the spectacle.

An irrepressible boy named Chris pointed out that he and his friends had made it through the lengthy hiring process precisely because they were lively and bright and yet once on board were chastised by management who wanted them complacent. I remember him embracing me as he announced to all around, “Some of our managers are racist. But not you Elly. You’re not racist at all!” That gave me pause for thought. I tried to mentor Chris. It hurt when they sacked him.

In the year or so prior to returning to Australia I was fortunate enough to be able to travel in North Africa, India and elsewhere (Russia, China), where my learning curve continued. But I think the moment when it all fell in place for me was one afternoon on the X53 bus. South-east London was such a racial hodge-podge, with so many inter-racial couples, and on this occasion I remember looking around the bus and marvelling at how many young mothers were standing (the bus was crowded) with mixed race babies on their hips. I noted how many of these young girls were white, and in a moment of clarity I had the thought: “If I had a mixed race baby, racial prejudice and discrimination would not just be an abstract issue for me. It would not be simply something labelled ‘Not good (but not my problem)’. If I were the mother of a mixed race child, I would fight like a tigress, at every opportunity, to challenge the racism that limits opportunities for people of colour”.

The truth is I haven’t been that tigress. But I’m thankful I’ve lived in environments where I’ve been confronted by social injustice I could feel viscerally – almost, but not quite, as if for those moments I understood how it feels to be excluded.

black baby laughing

There’s a postscript. On my one visit back to London, 18 months after returning to my native Australia, I stayed with Evelyn and her baby daughter. I remember coming out of the shower, wrapped in a small towel, joining ‘Velyn and her daughter in their living room. I remember when she saw me the baby’s eyes lit up: so big! so wet! so white! She reached out and touched me, stroked my skin. Then she looked up at me and she laughed.


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Peace Love & Understanding (2011)

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Between ages 18 and 29 I lived slap bang in the middle of Sydney’s Kings Cross. There were reasons. At that time I worked in the rock music industry, which involved seeing bands play four nights a week from 11pm to 3am. I needed a home close enough to the inner city music venues that I could afford taxis to and from – or could walk (shudder!). I needed to be somewhere open 24/7 so I could buy a snack at 4am. I didn’t earn much, so I survived mostly on my 4am post-gig snack and a late morning cappuccino, with slice of continental chocolate cake, at a sidewalk café.

Many of the musicians I knew and worked with lived nearby. There were also artists, writers, filmmakers and actors, which made for interesting chance meetings and creative cross-pollination. The Cross at that time did have a certain charm: it was bohemian and vital, with a carnival-like atmosphere late into the night.

People have asked me if it was exciting living off Darlinghurst Road during the period dramatised in the top-rating TV series ‘Underbelly: The Golden Mile’. Yes, it was exciting. But I hate people asking me about John Ibrahim, the nightclub owner and underworld figure who was central to the ‘Underbelly’ narrative. I’ve been asked if I met Ibrahim, by a woman who sighed he was so “Sexy!” I don’t know if I was ever in the same room as Ibrahim. Very likely yes, as I did spend a lot of time in nightclubs and the Cross was a close-knit assemblage of characters. I do know that even then I despised what Ibrahim represented, which to me was clear: exploitation and thuggery.

At that time, you couldn’t walk more than a meter or so along Darlinghurst Road without there being drugged out prostitutes standing on the pavement, unsteady on their high heels, their bruised flesh massively exposed by flimsy, abbreviated garments that barely covered their wispy limbs. The prostitutes were young girls and transsexuals. Darting between the prostitutes were people looking to score: some of them hard-core drug addicts, others “sightseers” mostly from the western suburbs. You could pick who was scanning for drugs. Their eyes flitted constantly, seeking out their dealers. In addition to prostitutes and their clients, dealers and their clients, the rag-tag bunch of eccentric residents and the tourists (local and foreign), periodically there’d be an influx of US sailors on “R&R” (rest and recreation). Those nights were especially lively.

Many years later, when I revisited the Cross after 15 years or more away, I was astonished that I had tolerated living there for even five minutes, let along close on 12 years. It was physically filthy, and squalid. The local “colour” I’d taken as a given, even thrived on, seemed to me sad and abhorrent. But at the time, given I was a freelance writer who worked from my own home, producing not more than two articles a week, I spent hours on end people watching. I’d sit somewhere I hoped was unobtrusive and watch the entire parade.

Of course this led to many curious encounters (tarot card readers, random celebrities) and many encounters that were plain tedious (men hoping I was a “working girl”, or trying to recruit me to porn photo shoots or communes in Orange).

It also led to an encounter that I believe changed my life. One incredibly hot evening, I was sitting atop a low brick wall when a group of young people wafted towards me. They were fresh-faced, somewhat angelic looking, handing out brochures printed in pale blue and white containing prayers for peace. I don’t know what, if any, church or spiritual practice they represented, and although I kept the brochure for many years – and later cut out the readings and pasted them in a special folder – there was no text to identify who produced it.

I don’t think these young people attempted to engage me in long conversation. They simply handed me the brochure, told me their aim was to promote peace, and continued on their mission. I turned my eyes to the brochure and the first words I read have stayed with me always: Peace begins with me.

As it happens, that message, and the other prayers, were remarkably pertinent to my circumstances. My life was turbulent. I was not a peaceful or spiritual person, in any way. In fact I mentally dismissed those kind young people as sappy and naïve – but I did keep that brochure.

For a long time, through the toughest time of my life, I read those prayers out loud every day. And when I started to explore related readings – both through the Christian church and through peace activists of other faiths – there’s no question it was those foundational readings that prompted me.

I sometime think of the young people who spent that evening in the Cross, handing out brochures to hookers and drug addicts and drunkards and people who looked at them like they were crazy. It was brave of them, really. They probably wondered whether what they were doing could possibly make a difference. And I am here to answer, once again: yes.

Mission is a challenging concept, easily confused with intrusion. What I took from this experience, amongst much else, is that there’s nothing embarrassing about peace, love and understanding (despite the anti-hippy ethos of my rock music comrades); and that speaking one’s truth can be a gift, if offered with love.

So if asked if I met John Ibrahim, gangster, I will reply that if I did, he made no impression; but the teenage “peace people” I will remember, always.

Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Lord, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen


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Buddhist thoughts at Easter (18 April 2014)

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In my yoga teaching, I believe the most important part of the session is the concluding practice, which is generally termed Savasana. But the meditation that concludes most yoga classes, valuable though it is, is seldom “savasana” in the classical yoga sense. Instead, many yoga teachers, myself included, substitute some form of guided meditation, often a visualisation.

The meditation I often use to end classes, especially prenatal classes, is some form of metta meditation, “metta” being a word from the ancient Pali language – the language of the Shakhyamuni Buddha, the historical figure Siddhartha Gautama – often translated as “compassion”. It is perhaps more accurately translated as “loving kindness”, and in the book Cultivating Compassion (Broadway Books, New York 2001) author J Hopkins translates it as “unselfish and unconditional kindness to others”. A distinction is held between “loving kindness” (metta) and “compassion” (karuna), with “loving kindness” understood to mean “the desire to promote the happiness of others” and compassion understood as the desire to alleviate the suffering of others, “the heartfelt wish that sentient beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering” – a subtle distinction, but a distinction nonetheless.

The metta meditation itself is translated various ways, which you can locate easily via google. The version I most often use is this:

May you be safe
May you be well
May you be happy
May you be free
May you be at peace

I guide my yoga students into a meditative state, focusing on the breath, then cultivating the image of a soft golden-white light that gently pulses from their heart centre throughout their upper torso. Then I introduce them to the phrases of the metta meditation. I ask them to mentally repeat each phrase after I speak it. First we go through the meditation with each phrase directed to themselves: to their own well-being and happiness. Then I ask them to visualise a person they love, and we go practice with each phrase directed to that person. Then I ask them to visualise someone they have neutral feelings towards, perhaps a workmate or an acquaintance, and we direct each phrase to that person. Then I ask them to think of someone they have difficulties with, suggesting that they not choose the person at the very top of their “problem people” list, as the negative emotions evoked might be too strong for them to engage with effectively in the context of this yoga class, tonight: they might need to work up to directing metta towards someone they’re really struggling with, emotionally. Then I ask them to think of a category of people to whom we’ll direct the metta meditation phrases: a group, who might be a family, a community, a special interests group, an ethnicity, a nation.

Finally, I ask them to take their focus back to that soft, living, glowing white light at their heart centre, to visualise this soft healing light as an orb, and to release it towards the mental image of that category of people towards whom we’ve just directed metta phrases. This is based on a Tibetan Buddhist practise known as tonglen. Releasing the golden-white light towards the image of these people in no way diminishes the healing energies pulsating throughout the meditator. Instead, it extends love and compassion from that person – that mind-body that generally experiences itself as “separate”, as an individual – out into the environment to the wider community and by extension into the oneness that is our true state.

I love the metta meditation. It never fails to flood me with benevolent, healing feelings, and I believe almost always has a similar effect on my yoga students. Very often after practicing the metta meditation my students are reluctant to rouse themselves to conclude their yoga session.

Why am I writing about this, today?

This week I am struggling with metta. Truth to tell, metta is not always my default emotional state. Too often I hold onto resentments and mistrust.

In Buddhism, metta and karuna are considered to be incompatible with anger, hatred, envy and jealousy. Metta and karuna are two of the Four Sublime States, the Immeasurables, known in Buddhism as the Brahma Viharas. The two others are mudita – joy in others’ joy (the opposite of the German term Schadenfreude) – and upekkha, which is equanimity, being calm and even-tempered. Needless to say, I’m not a natural at these, either.

Given I need to consciously direct my attention to generate loving kindness, compassion, joy in others’ joys, and equanimity, I was extremely interested recently when psychologist and neuroscientist Rick Hanson shared on his Facebook site an academic research paper on the efficacy of meditations based on the Brahma Viharas when used in therapeutic contexts: variously, for psychiatric states such as depression, anxiety, chronic anger, personality disorders; and also for the relief of chronic back pain and other chronic medical conditions not considered primarily psychiatric.

The paper was published in Clinical Psychology Review 31 (2011) and is titled Loving Kindness and compassion meditations: potential for psychological interventions. Its authors are Stefan G Hofman (Boston University, USA), Paul Grossman (University of Basel Hospital, Germany) and Devon E Hinton (Harvard Medical School, USA). You can access this research paper via http://www.wisebrain.org/media/Papers/MettaPsychotherapy.pdf

In this paper, the authors cite the classical formulation of the metta meditation, from the Buddhist tradition Book 1, uraga vagga [the Snake Book], cunda kammaraputta sutta:

May this person be free from enmity
May this person be free from mental suffering
May this person be free from physical suffering
May this person take care of him/her self happily

I like this very much and have resolved that across the Easter period I will meditate on this rendering of the classical language, even though it’s a bit more unwieldy than the simpler version I’m more familiar with, and even though at Easter, Christian meditations might seem more appropriate. I love the Christian tradition, too – but in honesty, in terms of practical tools (how to cultivate love for my neighbour? How to cultivate love for my sibling, at those times when frankly I’m not feeling it?) – the Buddhist tradition gets down to brass tacks.

At the Last Supper, Jesus instructed his disciples: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I love you, you should love one another” (John 13:34).

We know we should. The issue, sometimes, is how.

So this week I am using the toolkit that is the Brahma Viharas to honour the life, and death, and life again, of that great Buddha, that great Awakened Being: Jesus Christ.

[P.S. If you’re interested in why what’s taught in yoga classes as “savasana” is generally not the classical Savasana, that’s a topic for another time.]