Elly McDonald

Writer


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Good in the world

Featured image: Screaming Freedom, and Freedom, both by Sina Pourhorayad

This week British MP Jo Cox was murdered by a man who in court justified his actions by yelling “Death to traitors! Freedom for Britain!”

Jo Cox was a champion for Yorkshire. She also championed, across her career, children’s health and safety, worldwide, and multicultural immigration to Britain. She campaigned for Britain to stay in the EU and she campaigned for just treatment of asylum seekers. She believed in humanity and a shared planet. She believed “We have far more in common than that which divides us.”

She died for her beliefs. More particularly, she died in consequence of acting on her beliefs.

The tragic death of Jo Cox, at age 41, elected to the Mother of Parliaments just one year ago, idealist and career activist, a wife and mother of two young children, has me thinking about good in the world.

It’s a truism to quote Edmund Burke in this context: “All it takes for Evil to prevail in this world is for enough good men to do nothing. The only thing necessary for the Triumph of Evil is for good men to do nothing.”

A partner to which might be the verse I quoted to some friends last night, from Julian of Norwich, the famed C14th English anchoress:

And all shall be well
And all shall be well
And all manner of thing shall be exceedingly well.
He said not ‘Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be diseased’; but he said ‘Thou shalt not be overcome’.

Usually that line is left out. I think that last line is where truth lives.

In a church today I heard the challenge activism presents expressed another way. The question was asked, “If this church closed tomorrow, how would that affect this town’s community? Would this church be missed? How would it be remembered?”

Last night I observed community activism in support of asylum seekers in detention in Melbourne. Richmond Uniting Church made its gallery space, Gallery 314, available for Over The Fence, an exhibition of art by asylum seekers, curated by Uniting Church minister Lisa Stewart. The exhibition is open for two evenings only, as an event within Refugee Week.

At the opening last night, a former detainee, Mohammad, spoke movingly about the experience of being a young man in indefinite detention. He spoke of the corrosive effects of being confined, restricted in his interactions with the broader community, unable to participate and contribute in the ways he wished. He spoke of the extraordinary moment it was for him the first time an Australian citizen with Anglo heritage spoke that simple word to him: “Welcome!”

Welcome. Well come. How can it be I’ve never heard the “Well come!” in “Welcome”?

An advocate on behalf of asylum seekers, representing the Melbourne detention centre visitor program, spoke about her frustration at the questions sometimes put to her by Australians with Anglo heritage who are well-intended and educated and whom she would presume are well-informed.

She asked, “How can it be these people need to ask these questions? How can it be they don’t know the facts about asylum seekers? How can it be they don’t know we have a detention centre here in Melbourne?”

I cringed when she voiced this. I consider myself well-intended and in terms of academic qualifications, I had the best education Australia can offer.

Yet despite a strong sense that detaining people indefinitely is morally – and surely legally? – wrong, I have questions I hesitate to ask, for fear of sounding stupid, for fear of sounding callous. Out of fear I am both ignorant and not nearly as kind as I’d like to believe I can be.

My questions include, “But if asylum seekers who arrive without papers are not detained, what are the alternatives? How can we verify who these people are? If we can’t verify who they are, how can we determine whether individuals among these arrivals without documentation might pose a threat to our community?”

Without realizing it, I have to some extent bought into a perception of asylum seekers as to varying degrees sinister.

There were past and a few present asylum seekers at the art exhibition launch last night.

This morning when I was telling my brother-in-law about my experience of the exhibition launch, he interrupted me and said, “I get it. Good looking. They were good looking. You’ve used the word ‘good looking’ five times so far.”

Without realizing it, I have to a large extent bought into the equation ‘good looking=good’. How very shallow of me.

Yes, the asylum seekers present last night were conspicuously good looking. Also conspicuously ‘normal’, in the sense they looked as eager to please, as motivated, as intelligent, smart, as delightful and frankly delicious as young people generally do to my middle-aged eyes. They looked nervous, too.

I spoke briefly to one artist, whom I will call Ayesha.

I said, “I hope you’re proud of yourself. You should be.”

In response, a flicker of what I can only describe as panic crossed Ayesha’s lovely face. Then she smiled, nervously, tentatively, and lowered her face slightly.

What did she hear? Did she hear an older Anglo lady say, “I hope you’re proud of yourself. You freeloader. You fraud.”

God, I hope not.

‘Ayesha’ is not ‘just’ a lovely face, and not ‘just’ a refugee. She is not a freeloader and not a fraud. ‘Ayesha’ is a talented and intelligent young woman, a young wife and mother – as Jo Cox was.

‘Ayesha’ and her fellow artists exhibiting in Over The Fence want to live. They want to live free in a community that accepts them and allows them opportunity.

They want to be “well come”.

I am grateful for the opportunity to meet Ayesha and to see Mohammad and others who have been – or are still – in the detention centre in Melbourne. (What is its name? I heard the acronyms but I don’t know what they stand for. I would ask but I hate disclosing my ignorance.)

I am grateful to the volunteer detention centre visitors who attended the exhibition opening.

I am grateful to the activists who spoke and to those who organized this event.

I am grateful to the young woman employed by the detention centre security company who chose to spend her Saturday evening at this exhibition launch.

I am grateful for having my eyes opened, even if it took “good looking” young people and heart-rending artwork to clear away some cataracts.

Most of all, I am grateful to be reminded of goodness in the world. Jo Cox died and unjust detentions continue, but Good (with an uppercase) acts in this world, and I do believe good can prevail.

 


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Practice Talk (1986)

He is learning English.

He likes to practice.

 

– So tell me what your life is like

here

asks the passenger.

He practices talking.

 

– My life is very filled

he says

his life is full.

 

He drives this cab: all days

most hours.

He studies.

He works hard and he

is learning.

Family?

 

No family.

There is no

since he was 15.

 

His passenger asks

– Was it hard?

 

– getting out?

he waded down

a river he swam

at night: smell

 

bodies

bits of bodies

like bouillabaisse

and mines

and he

did not know how

or where

to turn or which direction

and the delta was a swamp

clogged with flesh and he trod

and wished

 

for moonlight and the sea and

for his uncle:

who was dead

among bodies somewhere

 

else

and now

he is here.

He is learning.

Not so hard.

 


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Remembering Snow (1986)

Rosa says

I remember snow

When I was a girl I lived

in Siberia

There was so much snow so

much

we skated on a river of ice

Mrs Cameron

born Roth

40,916: tattooed in blue

teaches art

forgets

she remembers.

Don’t ask.

But

Mrs Zabukovec

gypsy eyes

teaches German

born Bulgarian

she remembers

being 18

in Berlin

being 18

Russians

she remembers.

Don’t.

She remembers

long rows of blossoms, white-clustered blossoms

so white so

much breaks

down

 

remembering snow


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Black Woman (1985)

A woman is following me

She’s been with me since the street

When I turn, she’s not there

A thin woman, turned sideways – a shadow

in the dark

I can hear her footsteps, scuffling, now

tripping; I can hear

her breath catch, the odd stumbling

sob. She’s crying

in the dark, but when I turn

to speak to her she drops

from sight: the empty

space where I felt her

shocks – I am sure she’d

be there if I could just

see

if my eyes could make out

her outline against black

if I could just define

her features in shadow; a negative

woman, as dark as I am

light, crying

dodging streetlights, avoiding white

floodlights that wash

out subtlety, uncertainties, and leave what is

strong, what is simple – blinded and ambitious

I turn back, and I see her

standing against stars – a black shape

stamped out of the night

 


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Limits of compassion (2 June 2014)

Paul Slovic is a psychologist at the University of Oregon whose experiments explore the limits of human empathy. He might, for example, show his subjects pictures of a starving African child, a child given a name, photographed gazing straight to camera with huge pleading eyes. The experiment subjects are asked how much they’d be willing to donate to, say, Save The Children. With this experiment, the average hypothetical donation was US$2.50. Slovic might provide a different set of subjects with facts about starvation and child mortality in Africa: how many million are malnourished, how many need immediate food assistance, prevalence of death by diseases linked to malnutrition. In this case, the pledged donations drop by 50%, to an average of $1.25 per experiment subject.

I read this in Jonah Lehrer’s book How We Decide. Lehrer was subsequently discredited in a plagiarism scandal, but his account of Paul Slovic’s work is unproblematic:

“According to Slovic, the problem with statistics is that they don’t activate our moral emotions. The depressing numbers leave us cold: our minds can’t comprehend suffering on such a massive scale. That is why we are riveted when one child falls down a well but turn a blind eye to the millions of people who die every year for lack of clean water […] As Mother Theresa put it, ‘If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.’”

Other obstacles to empathy? Relative power. Lehrer quotes UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner: “’The experience of power might be thought of as having someone open up your skull and take out that part of your brain so critical to empathy and socially appropriate behaviour. You become very impulsive and insensitive […]’.”

Keltner bases this conclusion on the outcomes of his experiments including the so-called ‘dictator game’, in which designated subjects are given hypothetical ‘money’ and instructed to distribute it (or not), as they choose, to a fellow subject within the experiment. Most ‘dictators’ in these experiments are surprisingly benign, choosing to gift about a third of ‘their’ money to the person they’ve been paired with. But if you put the two participants in separate rooms, so the dictator cannot see the penniless person, generosity dries up. Social isolation has this effect. (I wonder, too, whether being paired with a direct counterpart encourages giving. Would the dictators give away as much if the pool of supplicants dependent on their largesse was larger, a “mass” even, in Mother Theresa’s words?)

We live in a world of creation and delight and simultaneously a world of pain. In our daily encounters, and on social media, we are constantly confronted by suffering. Sometimes we choose to harden our hearts and other times we let it bleed.

Oh, the bleeding hearts!

We are sick at heart for the loss of a little girl named Madeleine. For what her loss has done to her parents. We are sick at heart for that dog pictured in a Facebook post, the canine equivalent of Paul Slovic’s starving African orphan. We are sick at heart over young women emerging from years imprisoned in basements, subjected to sex slavery. For the children working as indentured labour, or slaves, in countries far from ours. For the people closer to home who sleep rough. Or stay in unsafe domestic arrangements out of fear. For the people derided, abused, injured and killed for being conspicuously different. For the victims of others’ explosive rage.

I have very little education in ethics. Or politics. I have not followed closely debate over the efficacy of international aid (whatever forms it takes). I am not skilful in how I express myself exploring these matters.

What I do know is it does matter.

It matters that we care, and that we express our caring, even if clumsily.

Currently I am reading, belatedly, Martin Flanagan’s novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I didn’t get hooked by the first 100 pages. The sequences describing Australian servicemen in combat in Syria in WW2 then as POWs working on the Burma Railroad were gripping but I found the romantic backstory tedious. I thought much of the writing was overly literary.

Then the romantic subplot took an unforeseen turn and it seemed Flanagan was saying, “This, too, is tragic. This too is pain and loss that asks to be acknowledged.”

This interests me, as, through his central character, Flanagan repeatedly reflects on sentimentality, the expression of emotion, the centrality (or otherwise) of emotion, and the cultural significance of strategies such as optimism, magical thinking, fatalism and stoicism. And also, it seems to me our culture offers a hierarchy of compassion, with some forms of suffering ‘privileged’ over others, and some categories of victim accorded more sympathy than others.

With the romance, Flanagan seems to suggest that domestic tragedies can have similar weight to historical atrocities. Or I as reader am inferring that.

So what causes us to care, and what is ‘worthy” of concern?

It’s a truism to suggest we are most likely to care if the issue as it presents touches on something in our personal experience. My father supports Seeing Eye Dogs and Guide Dogs organisations. He does this because his father and his grandfather both became completely blind. But recently I was with a man whose face screwed up at the sight of a guide dog with owner. This man explained that he despises the entire concept of a seeing eye dog, precisely because his grandfather was completely blind. His grandfather felt strongly that it was ethically wrong to train a dog in such a way that it lost autonomy as a being in its own right, to reduce it to a functionary, an extension of a human. Similar starting point: blind grandfather. Different expressions of compassion.

The other thing that strikes me about the “I can relate” aspect of compassion is that our personal experience might bear only the most tenuous relationship to the event or circumstance that pricks our heart on behalf of another. There are issues – deprivation, catastrophic loss, abuse, exploitation, helplessness – that we identify in someone else’s situation, that we feel we share. But frankly, the gap between my experience of that issue and the situation I see playing out on the TV news might stretch any relationship to the point of metaphor. Is it the case that I feel deprived, abused, exploited, helpless, whatever … whereas what I see and respond to elsewhere is “real” deprivation, abuse and so forth?

This brings us back to the hierarchy of compassion. And the primacy – or otherwise – of feeling.

My position at this moment is that exercising compassion has value almost regardless of what prompts it. If, as is increasingly argued, what we understand as our ‘Self’ is an ever-changing complex of neural networks that reinforces the pathways most used, then I’d prefer the street named Compassion to be well-trod.

In the play A Streetcar Named Desire, a fragile woman confides she has always depended on the kindness of strangers. She is not an entirely sympathetic victim. She is not Weary Dunlop, not a war hero. She is not Malala. And her faith in kindness is abused.

But I think she has, essentially, the right idea. And I think there are worse things than to be a “bleeding heart”.

Vivien Leigh as Blanche Du Bois


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One for Clare (2011)

This piece was written in 2011, for a church magazine. At the time I didn’t recognise anything problematic in a white woman writing about her experiences of race making reference to the experiences of her Black friends, without forewarning them. Now, I figure me writing about how Elly got woke is kinda pathetic. But, this is what I wrote, back then – with names changed.

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 Clare flaring up when an older man in our team referred to an interpersonal issue within the team as being “the nigger in the wood-pile”. I recall Clare 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 Clare’s friend 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 Clare and her baby daughter. I remember coming out of the shower, wrapped in a small towel, joining Clare 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.