Emergence

This is an address I was asked to give recently at our local Church on the theme of spring, and with reference to the conference I attended recently (some parts taken from longer blog post about the conference)

One of the reasons that I love living in this part of the world is that the seasons here are so multi-dimensional. I love how my body and my instincts respond to the themes of each of the seasons, and to the rhythms and guidance of nature. I love going into hibernation in winter, slow-down in summer, and cleansing and efficiency in both autumn and spring. And I particularly love spring because of the reflections it gives us of the natural order of things. You just need to look outside your window at this time to be reminded of the ever-hopeful thread of emergence, and re-emergence – in us and in all things.

I am not much of a gardener. I inherited a beautiful one from the previous owners of our home. Richard and I have done our best to keep things alive, to keep the carved hedges in check, keep water up to the plants that need it, and we’re good at pruning, dead-heading and weeding. Which is lucky, because there’s lots of it to do. Whilst I seem to be OK at clearing away the old and the unwanted, and mostly keeping alive the resilient, I’m not so good at creating new stuff in the garden.

I’m really good at daffodils though and they are currently gracing our entrance-way, the edges of our dams, and various other pockets. They also fill vases in the house, thanks to Sophie, my nine year old whose compulsion to collect them and share them delights me. I think the reason that I’m good at daffodils is that they are good at themselves.

I was at a conference recently where one of the keynote speakers spoke about snowdrops, which are another flower grown from bulb. He told us how for large parts of the year snowdrops sit beneath the earth at the bottom of his garden in England, and you wouldn’t even know they are there; that when it is their time to bloom, he doesn’t go outside and ask them to please grow; that he doesn’t even tend to them or throw any money at them, and yet still they grow; how there is no point in him going out there and telling them he would rather they be daffodils because they will always be what they are; but that, unless he kills them or removes them, they will continue to pop up and flower, year after year at the bottom of his garden.

It was not a conference about flowers or about gardens, it was the International Association of Community Development’s annual conference, this year in Glasgow, Scotland, just prior to the commonwealth games. The conference title was ‘Community is the Answer – Exploring our Common Wealth.’ I was there to present my framing of ‘the Castlemaine story’ – a story I have been fascinated by, and documenting both in film and in writing for a number of years.

The term ‘Commonwealth’ apparently has its origins in Scottish linguistics and culture, deriving from an old Scottish phrase ‘common weal’, which goes back centuries and which means ‘common good’. It basically seeks to express a striving for a shared set of values which includes a valuing of the natural environment, the built environment, health, education and the creation of a fair and just society.

In my work, indeed in my play, I see enough evidence to believe deeply that community is the answer. Just look at our common wealth. The wealth and resources are already here, in us and in our communities, everywhere around us. But, like the bulbs bursting all their glory forth at this time of year, they may be underground, just waiting for the right conditions to grow. This is called emergence.

Emergence was a theme present in many of the presentations and the workshops at the conference – presented to and by people from all over the world representing 32 different nations. I love a good news story of good people and good communities doing good things. And yet, I had to be prepared to listen to some not such good news stories also. All around the world economies are stalling, the environment is flailing, and poverty and inequality, with all of their implications for health, education and opportunity, continue to rear their ugly heads. This is despite the enormous efforts, and generations worth of so much dedicated and good work on the part of so many who work towards a more just and sustainable world. It is hard in the face of the evidence, and the decisions of the power brokers, to maintain hope and momentum in this work.

Sometimes though, in the face of enormous hardship and immediate threat, communities of people come together, find and uncover their resourcefulness and creativity, find themselves coming alive by working together for the greater good, and they rise. My father lived through the second-world war as a child, living in coastal Wales. He speaks of an odd thing – that despite the terror, heartbreak and hardship of this time, there was a sense of joy. It was the joy of people coming together for the common good, connecting, collaborating, creating and supporting one another. Fences came down, petty differences were put aside and people found their power – both alone and together. I don’t want to romanticize this time but it is a great example of what was being called forth from us as community development practitioners, health workers, welfare workers and educators at the conference. How to create the conditions for emergence in times of darkness.

And there were many stories of hope. An Indian psychiatrist shared with us a program he is leading to bring mental health services to the people. If India were to have the same number of psychiatrists per head of population as Scotland, he told us, they would need 150,000 psychiatrists. Instead, there are 3000 practicing psychiatrists in India, for a population of 1.2 billion people. 80% of patients with mental health problems in India have not been able to access a mental health practitioner in the past 12 months. There are apparently more Indian psychiatrists in California than there are in India. His solution: He and his organization are training lay people to provide community based care to people with mental illnesses. ‘All these workers need’, he said, ‘is an ethic of care. The rest they can learn.’ Part of the role of these non specialized community based mental health workers is to help the person who is suffering to find and unearth their resources – to create a community of care around them. Often this is the bit that medicine misses in its reductionist, parts focused treatment of illness. ‘Health,’ he said to us, ‘is far too important to be left up to doctors alone anyway.’

I would love to have time to tell you more examples of wonderful work happening around the world to facilitate emergence. I want to tell you though about another theme which I heard – and which has helped me not only in my work, but also in my parenting. Many of us working in facilitating social or sustainable change are working our backsides off, some of us are burning out. Perhaps we are doing something wrong? We come to the work from a place of deep care and concern, but also from our ‘fix it’ mindsets. This is not only exhausting, it is part of the reason why available resources can never stretch to meet the insatiable and ever burgeoning need. It is also disempowering.

I was fortunate after the conference to do a field visit with a remarkable woman whose project was ostensibly community-based restoration of a small, un-preposessing piece of creek, running through an impoverished, industrial part of Dundee, in Eastern Scotland. Through her philosophy of hands off, enabling community development, her tiny organization had overseen an enormous array of programs finding their thread from this creek – historical projects, story telling projects, archaeological projects, theatre, mosaics, puppetry, poetry, conservation, conversation, restoration, partnerships between all number of organisations and parties – all initiated by the community while Ann, the project worker, had an attitude of saying ‘yes,’ and helped remove or negotiate any road blocks, find funding and encourage the initiative and skills of her community. The ripple effect of all of these initiatives and outcomes was astonishing, and all from the tiniest seed of funding.

Keynote speaker Margaret Wheatley, a very experienced American community development practitioner, writer and presenter, was also onto this. For decades, she told us, she has advocated being a change agent. Now though, she says, “it is time for all the heroes to go home” (quoting poet William Stafford). “It is time,” she continued, “to give up these hopes and expectations that only work to make people dependent and passive. It is time to stop waiting for someone to save us…. There is a simpler, finer way to organize human endeavour. The simpler way is demonstrated to us in daily life, not the life we see on the news with its unending stories of human grief and horror, but what we feel when we experience a sense of life’s deep harmony, beauty and power, of how we feel when we see people helping each other, when we feel creative, when we know we are making a difference, when life feels purposeful…. It is time to face the truth of our situation – that we’re all in this together, that we all have a voice – and figure out how to mobilize the hearts and minds of everyone in our communities.”

As Jesus said, also looking to nature for inspiration:

“The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground.  Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.” (Mark 4:30 – 34).

And I am reminded. That’s why I am good at growing daffodils: because they are good at growing themselves. My job is to have the eyes to see them.   

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Beyond the Stethoscope

Proposed introduction to my book (work in progress)

Beyond the Stethoscope: Restoring Hope Heart and Healing in Medicine

 

“A professional training often wounds us.  It encourages us to repress certain parts of our human wholeness and focus ourselves more narrowly and cognitively on the grounds that this will make us more useful and effective…Often parts we have repressed…are human strengths – the heart, the soul, the intuition, aspects of ourselves that are our resources in times of stress and crisis and enable us to understand and strengthen others.  Few people realize how repressive medical training can be…every doctor can give you examples of falling away from wholeness”

Rachel Naomi Remen (Kitchen Table Wisdom).

 

“How was your day hon?”

The question is almost on autopilot, and I expect no interesting reply tonight beyond the usual: “yeah, not bad,” as I roll over, turn my back on him, yawn and claim my side of the bed on this humid Queensland night.  I am almost asleep when the reply comes.

“Weird.”

I roll back towards him.  “What happened?” I ask.

There is often not much that my doctor husband can tell me about his day beyond the superficial, for fear of breaching confidentiality.  And there is often not much understanding I can lend to some of the nuances of that day, and the depth of the weight he carries home with him from the various dramas, tragedies, diagnoses and pathologies he has encountered.  In his day he wrestles with patients and pharmaceuticals.  In mine, I wrestle with toddlers and traffic.  They lend themselves to different kinds of exhaustion, and not ample possibility for connection at the end of the day.

He rolls towards me and has a go at translating his planet to mine.  “I had this woman in her 60s today who came in with menopausal symptoms and was wondering about having hormone replacement therapy.”

Not as interesting as I had hoped.  I calculate whether I can stay awake, and murmur to him that I am listening.  He obviously needs to talk.

“I looked at her list of medical problems.  She had been put on Lipotor to control high cholesterol so I realised there must be a risk of heart disease.  I had just been to a lecture about the controversy surrounding cholesterol and its job in regulating the hormones and it dawned on me that we had jumped in with a cholesterol lowering tablet which probably explained the increased difficulties with menopause.  Just before we ended the consult, she said she needed a script for her thyroid medication – another hormone area.  It was suddenly so apparent to me what a mess we can make when we don’t look at the body as a whole system.  There is such pressure to put people on cholesterol tablets to reduce the risk of them dying, but then we end up effectively killing them slowly by upsetting the whole system, putting them on one drug which leads to the need for another drug, and then another.  This woman probably ended up feeling sicker, where a lifestyle intervention may have been all that was needed in the first place to lower the cholesterol and have her feeling well.”

“What did you do?”  I asked.

“Gave her the drugs.  That’s what she wanted.  That’s what would be expected of me.  I’m not her regular GP, I’m just a locum – I didn’t have time to talk to her about untangling the mess, casting doubt on her regular doctor, getting to the bottom of her symptoms.  But I just suddenly had this flash of all the times I have done this to people. That is what we are trained to do.

I just thought I can’t do this anymore.

When I spend too long with patients trying to get to the bottom of things with them though, I get so far behind, my colleagues end up wearing the load.  But I just can’t do ten-minute medicine anymore.”

Now I am awake and listening.

We had moved to Queensland from a small town rural practice in Victoria because he had been burning out.  We had thought that the sea change and a broader geographic practice area would help him to restore the balance.  It seemed though, that the burden of medicine was for him something beyond the location of his practice.  And yet, the irony: this was a job he loved with passion.  It was meaningful work which went to the very core of who he is.

I had recently read an article in Australia’s GP Review Magazine (they pile in tall, mostly unread towers on our breakfast table), entitled ‘Enough is Enough.’  It told how studies had shown that “more than half of Australia’s general practitioners have considered leaving the job because of workplace stress, and that eight in 10 have said their emotional health has suffered due to their work.  There’s no doubting it: Australia’s GPs are more stressed than ever.  So what’s wrong with general practice, and what can be done?”

My husband was very close to becoming one of these statistics, if he wasn’t already, and probably will be again.

We met at Uni.  I have walked with him and watched his path to doctoring: from intuitive calling, to earnest study, through dogged training, then self-doubt, hope, exhaustion, hope, overwhelm, hope, and then to near burnout, depression and disconnection – from himself, us, his family, and from his patients.  I could see it in the shuffle and stoop as he walked, in the mumble he had adopted, and in his words this night.  He was sinking again.

I sat up.  “You’re an amazing doctor.  Don’t apologise that you want to spend longer with patients, that you want to go deeper than their presenting complaint, that you want to help them towards long term wellness, not just short term band-aids.  The way you see it is the way it should be.  That is what the patients want, that is the future of medicine, and that is what will sustain you.”  I was gripped by a ferocious certainty, and an urgency that he had to be bringing his craft to the world in the way that he instinctively knew how.

And in this moment of protectiveness and passion I spat out the words: “You are not alone.  There are plenty of doctors who think and work the way you do.  They are powerful healers.  They sustain themselves.  I’m going to go and find them.”

And I did.  Some of them.  There are many, many more, and their ranks are growing.

And so began this book.

When we hear about the health system in the media, we most often hear that it is in ‘crisis,’ or at the very least, that it is unsustainable.  Concerns include public hospital waiting lists, the ageing population, the burden of lifestyle illnesses of our times such as diabetes, mental illness and other chronic diseases, conveyor-belt general practice, the affordability of private health insurance, and therefore the affordability and polarisation of care.

We have seen enormous life-saving and life enhancing technological advances in medicine in the last century, and with them raised expectations and costs.  Our knowledge and understanding of the vastly complex system that is the human body has been part of this revolution and yet, through lifestyle choices and circumstances, and environmental ignorance and blindness, and our very humanness, we continue, in spite of all the advances, to get sicker.  Our doctors are caught somewhere in the midst (at the forefront of this story), and they, just like the system and the patients, are under pressure and struggling.

At this time, when the costs of health systems around the world are spiraling out of control and our collective health is doing much the same, when the waiting room is, according to one of the contributors to this book, “like a siege mentality,” those at the front lines are a rich source of insight.  The economists and government have had their say (put prices up), the pharmaceutical industry (the fourth biggest industry in the world) has had its say (new drugs), the patients are having their say (walking at increasing numbers across the road to alternative and complimentary medicines, or alternatively popping vast volumes of pills), and the doctors, the ones at the front line, are too busy and too tired to have their say.  Or no-one has thought to ask them.  Some, who have tried to speak up, have been knocked back into place.  Some have given up trying, and have found other paths, usually believing the failure is theirs.  Some have found a way around the system, the training, the professional culture, the status quo, and the day to day challenges of their work, in order to provide a service which is actually healing, and which is fulfilling and sustainable for the practitioner to provide.

These are some of their stories.  They are challenging, pioneering, heartening clarion calls for a new future in medicine.

I have to admit, I have been selective about the doctors I have spoken to.  This is no scientifically produced, evidence-based theory on health care reform, this is a heart and soul investigation of deep wounds and deep wisdom, told through story.  That ancient art which binds us and humanizes us.  And, just like the ancient art of medicine, so too does shared story heal.

So what happens when you put doctors into a safe space, put the words: hope, heart and healing in front of them, and turn the listening chair, which they so often occupy, the other way?  When you ask them what it is like to be in their shoes, how they make meaning in their work, how they sustain themselves, what ‘healing’ looks like, whether compassion can be taught, the highs, the lows, and their dreams for the future of medicine?  What happens when you sit, mostly in silence and bear witness to the story of the doctor, as they do to so many, day in and day out?

The wisdom that speaks from these doctors, about life in general, can perhaps only be held by those who hear and see all the reaches of the human condition and story approximately thirty times a day.

Behind the scenes of the ‘health system,’ behind the stethoscope, are human beings doing their best to keep us all ticking along for as long as possible.  What about their wellbeing?  Have you ever wondered when you sit and offload your concerns and pathologies to your doctor what it is like for them to be a critical partner in your life and wellbeing, and that of scores of others, day in and day out?  Those people we hold up on pedestals, needing them in our time of illness to be all knowing, all-fixing, infallible – in-human, really.  And yet, while needing them to never make a mistake, to not be having a tired day or a midlife crisis in the background, we call for them to see our humanism, and to meet it with theirs.

In the midst of these galloping technological advancements, political pressures, incentives to implement complex public health campaigns, and increased public expectations for quick fixes, combined with the patient’s new status as internet-informed, demanding consumers of medicine, doctors are having to maintain themselves, their knowledge, their personal and professional boundaries, and some semblance of control.  And some semblance of professional satisfaction.  One of this book’s contributors describes the current landscape as factory style, conveyor-belt medicine.  Demand is seemingly insatiable, the medicare system (and its New Zealand equivalent), along with the corporatisation of medical services incentivises quick consultations and quick solutions, and doctors have to watch their back and cover their tracks at all times for fear of being sued for making a mistake.  There is enough high stakes fear of making a mistake built into the emotional pressure cooker without the added legal burden of more recent times.  Hospital based medicine is led by non-medical managers and is all about the bottom line.  It is not hard to see how a doctor who most likely has entered the profession with the desire to help people heal, who has taken an oath to do just that, who has studied for between six to ten years to be entrusted to the task, who intuitively understands (although possibly hasn’t been trained in) the socio-psycho complexity of illness, might be left feeling a little bereft.

None of these doctors signed up to be factory workers.  Some might say: ‘but they get paid well to do it.’  In fact they’re not, especially the ones at the coal face – GP’s.  I don’t know of many high demand, high risk, high responsibility, high overheads (including ever increasing insurances), emotionally, physically, intellectually and physiologically demanding jobs where your pay is determined by the government, where it crawls up in line with the CPI, and where it never increases more than that despite your growing experience and expertise.  While specialists can and do charge a significant gap to cover the difference, GPs as the front door of medicine are under pressure, both as a business choice and as a moral choice, to keep their costs accessible to the public.  Our plumber earns more per hour than my husband.

“How was your day?” I ask my husband, most days.  “Yeah,” he replies some days, in a voice tight with exhaustion, “people are just really sick at the moment.”  Yes, I think to myself, that is your job, get used to itGod, I think to myself, that is your job.  That’s full on.  You go in wanting to help people, fix their ills, they go in there expecting you to, and quite often you can’t.  It must be like professional failure staring you in the face day after day, patient after patient.

“We are under siege,” writes Doctor Kerryn Phelps, “like never before.”  Doctor Phelps, former President of the Australian Medical Association and of the Australian Integrative Medical Association, believes that it is the policies, pressures and paperwork which are conspiring to force doctors to more closely examine their careers, their lifestyle and their options and that these mounting pressures are “an unprecedented threat to the health of the doctor.”

Dr Atul Gawenda (?) has said that “the doctor’s plight is inexorably tied up in that of their patient.” (Ted Talk, pre 2002)  You could look at it the other way too, the patient’s plight is inexorably tied up in that of their doctor’s.  Even if we have no sympathy for the plight of the doctor, we can at least have some concern about the impact of the doctor’s wellbeing on the quality of their medicine.

Medical representative bodies are rightly concerned and recent figures on the mental health of our doctors leave no room for complacency or denial.  A recent Australian study surveyed 50,000 practicing doctors and medical students about their health and wellbeing.  The results were shocking. The study found that doctors showed a dramatically increased incidence of severe psychological distress and thoughts of or attempted suicide compared to both the Australian population and other Australian professionals. A quarter of all doctors surveyed had had thoughts of suicide in the past.  The researchers postulated that the statistics could be even higher and that suicide as a cause of death is quite possibly under reported by sympathetic colleagues.

We have seen in Australia that the rate of suicide amongst doctors is three times the national average.  Professional peak bodies scratch their collective heads at this and wonder if they can somehow free up a bit of the paperwork burden.  This book tells a much deeper story.

The doctors whose stories make up this book use language such as love, compassion and intimacy.  Which is likely to be uncomfortable, and certainly unmeasurable, to policy makers and those pulling the strings in the delivery of medicine.  To those actually doing the delivery of medicine though, these stories may feel like a welcome mirror.  To those of us on the receiving end, it will come as a relief to know that so many doctors out there are earnestly interested in big picture wellbeing and in us as a human being first, and a conglomeration of cells second.

For patients don’t just come with their bodies.  They come with their emotions, their mindsets, their list of internet solutions, their hopes, their fears, their needs and the impacts of the profoundly complex mix of life and living, of their eating, their doing and their relating, on their own unique balance of physiology and psychology.

And medicine is delivered by another set of profoundly unique and complex human beings with their own set of needs, hopes and fears.  “My medicine is much more about art than it is about science,” says one of the book’s contributing doctors, Dr Glenn Colqhoun, a general practitioner from New Zealand.  “Our medicine becomes who we’re connected to, what we care about, what we carry and haven’t dealt with, and our sense of spirituality in the greater context.  Those aspects of ourselves necessarily become much more a part of the conversation, although they remain unspoken.  These parts of ourselves, and our relationships can be a good part of the consultation.  But we’re slapped over the fingers all the time as doctors for bringing our subjectivity to the consultation.  As if we don’t?  I mean, really?  We just need to learn the power of our own well examined subjectivity.”

The Stethoscope.  One end attached to a pair of ears.  The other, connecting them to a heart, chest and lungs.  A fundamental, two-hundred-year-old, relatively simple tool in the practice of medicine.  A routine checking device which immediately forces intimacy into the exchange between the listener and the bearer of the heart.  The listener requires a broad base of knowledge to read important information into the messages that the heart and chest emit.  The heart bearer requires a degree of vulnerability and trust to raise their shirt and allow these key organs to tell their story.

Stethoscopes are seen as symbols of the doctor’s profession, indeed as an icon of perceived trustworthiness. Doctors are often seen or depicted with a stethoscope hanging around their neck.  One medical commentator contends that “the stethoscope best symbolises the practice of medicine. Whether absentmindedly worn around the neck like an amulet or coiled gunslinger-style in the pocket, ever ready for the quick draw, the stethoscope is much more than a tool that allows us to eavesdrop on the workings of the body. Indeed, it embodies the essence of doctoring: using science and technology in concert with the human skill of listening to determine what ails a patient.”[1]

The stories in this book place great importance on that very ‘human skill of listening.’  Not because it is the most important skill in the doctor’s tool-box, but because it is not as often formally recognised or acknowledged for its fundamental role.

“The most important thing that doctors can do for their patients is listen to them” says immunologist and founder of the multi-disciplinary Auckland University Mind Body Medicine course, and contributor to this book, Dr Brian Broom.  “Listen to them at the beginning and listen to them at the end, and find out who they are.  If you fail to listen to them beyond listening for diagnosis and treatment, without listening to them as a human being, you will miss something. Diagnosis is a pattern of dysfunction in a person, recognised by a group of people who look at people in a particularly peculiar type of way, and who all agree on what treatment should be applied, according to that peculiar way of looking.  The person you are treating who has been reduced to a diagnosis, has been reduced down to your limited way of looking.”

As doctor and writer Rachel Naomi Remen writes in her book ‘Kitchen Table Wisdom,’ “Everybody is a story.  When I was a child, people sat around kitchen tables and told their stories.  We don’t do that so much anymore.  Sitting around the table telling stories is not just a way of passing time.  It is the way wisdom gets passed along. The stuff that helps us to live a life worth remembering. Despite the awesome powers of technology many of us still do not live very well. We may need to listen to each other’s stories again.”

My own GP postulates that some of the additional burden on front line doctors these days may in fact be in part due to the loss for many of the priest and church community (in addition to the kitchen table, perhaps) as a listening ear.  Dr Glenn Colqhoun acknowledges the complexities of this in general practice.  “We need to unload and repackage the model.  The waiting room really does drive a lot ….. I’ve been at my current clinic for five or six years now and there are some I saw on the day I started and I’m still finding things out about them now, which I didn’t in a million years know about them, and I’m embarrassed.  But taking a full social and family history, which can be hugely revealing, is very inefficient and just not economic at all. In the long-term it has efficiencies but in the short term it means you get through a quarter of the patients.  But, general practice without that, you’d want to stab yourself in the eye wouldn’t you?”

It felt to me, as I travelled around Australia and New Zealand, seeking out doctors and their stories, that I became a kind of curator of the art of human story.  My original intention in ‘catching’ these stories was to draw out themes, weave together some kind of social commentary about big picture, sustainable medicine, and to speculate on the future of medicine.  And yet, as I tried to work my craft with the threads, I felt I was denying them the purity of their context.  It became clear to me that, like a curator of art, it was not my job to comment – it was merely my job to hang these stories in the gallery of this book, and to invite you to come along and make your own meaning of them.

“Breathe deeply please,” says the medical practitioner, when listening to a heart and chest through a stethoscope.  May we be reminded of our power when we breathe deeply, listen deeply, feel deeply and connect deeply.

 

[1] ‘Medical professionalism and ideological symbols in doctors’ rooms.’, Schuklenk U

J Med Ethics. 2006 Jan; 32(1):1-2.

 

Self-Raising Children

A piece I wrote for a personal essay competition with the Castlemaine Word Mine. The theme was ‘food.’ I wanted to somehow incorporate the role of mother’s milk into our understanding of ‘food.’ The meeting I was heading to was a meeting of the local branch of the Australian Breastfeeding Association, a lifeline for me at the time.

The blast of warm air and sweetness hits me as I grab at the biscuit tray and bring it swiftly from oven to stove top, nimbly avoiding the grasping fingers of the eager audience. Chocolaty bits ooze out of the pimpled faces of the sweet treats and little ones clutch at my legs.

“Can I have one mum? Mine, mine? Mum, me? Chocolate?”

They look up at me with their flour tousled hair, biscuit mix smeared through crevices of sticky faces and fingers. “Too hot,” I commiserate, and the smallest goes back to working her face deeper into the mixing bowl while the four year old makes the finishing touches to the spoon.

I cast an eye around the kitchen. An upturned bag of flour spreads its remaining contents across the bench, diverted on its course by stringy shards of eggshell, and dripping, along with spilt milk to join a discarded cruskit on the floor. I turn my back on it, swipe at my kitchen ‘helpers’ with a wet face washer, and we make the burdened trek to the car.

Strapped in with a peace offering each, we hum and chew happily along to the latest motherhood sanity-insanity tea, coffee and cake morning. Without these gatherings I would probably have long ago hired a nanny and gone back to work. Except that my brain doesn’t work anymore. And that isn’t the way things are done here in the country. Instead we all bake incessantly and gather for endless cups of tea. We share scone and soup recipes, stories of sleep and sleeplessness, feeding, weaning and toilet training, all with remarkable hilarity. Our kids stuff their little faces and free range with the chooks. Not everybody’s idea of good parenting, I’m sure. To my mind though, the mess, the sugar high and the probable bruises are a small price to pay for a bit of almost uninterrupted adult time.

My mind wanders to one of the mums with whom I had shared the mother baby ward in post-natal depression land. “Let him take the spoon himself Larissa,” the nurse had coached her gently, “can you see that he wants to feed himself?”

Larissa, rolls of flesh peering over the top of her pyjama bottoms, hair falling in greasy strands around her face with its too small, too dark eyes had murmured into her chest: “But he will make a mess. I like to feed him myself.” The nurse had gently taken the spoon and moved around to sit alongside Larissa, giving her baby the spoon. “Here, let him show you how he loves to feed himself.” The baby missed his mouth and smeared the white, sticky stuff around his fat little face. But he was smiling. Larissa was in tears.

This incident had allowed me a rare moment of smugness. At least I was doing one bit of mothering right. Letting my baby feed herself. I’d have let her wipe her own bottom and take herself off to bed at night if I could have.

One mum sits opposite me with new babe snuggled into her breast. In spite of my harrowed memories of those early days of parenting, I smile wistfully. Breastfeeding can be an agonizing experience with the pressure to produce, perform and persist. But I had loved it. It was another thread I could hang onto of something I could do well. My baby had been placed on my belly at birth and had wriggled and sniffled and mouthed her way to her target. Fresh as day, she had known just what to do, as did my breasts. I was in awe of the human and food producing system I had become. Thank God my body knew what to do.

One mum who has been in this town for longer than I have leans over to me and says: “Thank God for you and Margie – before you two started coming along, all we ate at these mornings was rice crackers and hummus. Margie and I, having instantly bonded a few years earlier over being the only two breast-feeders in our mothers’ group, and therefore the only two with babies who didn’t sleep through the night, had introduced evening gatherings and wine to this group, and so I decide to take this comment as a compliment. Jeepers, in the old days they all smoked and took Valium to get through these early parenting years. Wine and chocolate were an acceptable step-up, I decide (preferably not, unfortunately, while breastfeeding). I do make a note to self though about perhaps learning more about how to cook with lentils.

Later that week the telephone rings one evening. I answer, expecting it to be someone from India. No one rings on the landline any more. It is the kindergarten teacher.

“I’m sorry to ring so late,” she says, “I just need to know, um. I’m sorry, I just need to have a bit of a chat with you about the cake you brought in for your son’s birthday today.”

“Yeah, sure”, I say, glancing guiltily over at the two-minute noodles my children are gobbling up.

“Well, are you familiar with the food policy?” she asks?

“Um, no peanuts?” I reply, that prickly, schoolgirl, I’ve done something wrong here feeling, starting to spread.

“Well, there are quite a few allergies, sensitivities and food preferences in this class. We have a list but maybe I forgot to give it to you. I’ve just had a few phone calls from parents tonight who have been wondering what their children ate today because they are a bit hyperactive.”

O lord, I moan, under my breath, my eyes rolling. “Yes, sorry, well, it was a cake. So. There was sugar.”

“Sorry,” she responds gently, “there’s one little one whose mother doesn’t like her having sugar.”

“Oh. And there was chocolate.”

“Yes, there are two who can’t have chocolate.”

I would have thought the fact that it looked like a chocolate cake might have alerted her to the fact that there was chocolate in it, I think to myself, although I would learn years later that these people have uncanny ways of replacing sugar, dairy, eggs and even chocolate to make healthy things that look exactly like chocolate cakes, and taste even better. But I was new to this game.

“Right,” I stumble. “Sorry. Anything else, for future reference?”

“Yes, the flour should preferably be biodynamic and one little boy can’t have eggs and another can’t have dairy and one little girl has a nut allergy.”

Is that why my son keeps asking me what his allergies are, I think.

Years later, I have learned many new kitchen tricks through the sometimes inspiring, sometimes overwhelming and annoying wholefoods habits of my peers. Tonight, the local biodynamic meat oozes its glutinous, wintery satisfaction onto the slop of organic potatoes, mashed with cream, butter, salt and dill. Lentils poke their beady eyes from behind anonymous pieces of vegetable, which melt into juices flavoured with lemon rind, prunes and cumin seeds. We have mercifully moved on from mush, cheese cubes and self-doubt, and I am proud and salivating at this latest creation.

“Eeew, that is disgusting” snorts my eleven year old. “I’m not eating that.” “It’s delicious, just try it,” I retort, hearing the echo of decades worth of such similarly inspiring motherhood statements. “I’m not eating bloody hippy lentils and what’s this?” he gags, stabbing a piece of slow cooked prune with his fork. After last night’s dinner table lecture on protein, vegetables and carbohydrates, and how to eat like a budding AFL football player (he is apparently allergic to vegetables), I have run out of steam tonight and so I call on him to leave the veggies and the lentils and just eat the meat and potato. He holds his nose as he lifts a fingernail sized piece of potato towards his mouth, grimacing and making vomiting noises. “Just eat it!” I bark. “I can’t,” he squeals, “why can’t you just cook like normal people?” “Cook for yourself then,” I snap back.

So he does. Butter sizzles and spits and he swirls the eggs around the pan as they quickly catch and colour. He dishes them up, adds a grind of salt and pepper, and inhales them in three swift mouthfuls, finishing with a smile. Discarded eggshells with their stringy remains litter the kitchen bench.

I turn my back on the mess, and on him. Well, I think to myself, the nurses did teach us right from the beginning to let our children feed themselves.

Women, leadership and empowerment.

I was greeted at the door by a smiling woman and asked to choose between a small picture of a pineapple, a banana or a pomegranate. Being a women’s leadership workshop, I thought it would be an auspicious start to choose the pomegranate as my brain remembered some kind of symbolic connection between the seeds in the womb of this fruit, and our passionate, fruitful femininity. Or some such meaningful metaphor. Settling into the smug security of this smiling and promising start, I found my fellow pomegranate crew (that was it, it was just a tool for gathering us into discussion groups, no more pomegranate references), and prepared to hear more about a transformational leadership program for African Diaspora women in the United Kingdom run by an organization called ‘Changes UK’ (www.changesuk.net). It wasn’t until the very end that I plucked up the courage to ask what ‘Diaspora’ meant – it turns out I wasn’t alone in my ignorance. It means people who are living outside of their country of origin.

Scattered amongst the banana, pineapple and pomegranate groups were beautifully clad, elegant, and poised women of African origin. They would be our group facilitators, and would share their inspiring stories of change through this profound program which they had been fortunate to participate in. They were from varying cultural, educational, professional and social backgrounds and they all spoke eloquently and passionately about their experiences.

In the context of a conference workshop with a 90-minute time slot, the discussion which ensued was remarkably raw and deep. I found myself instantly transformed from intellectual bystander to emotional participant. I have participated in, designed, and led a myriad of leadership programs and yet still, it dawned on me, discussions about empowerment disempowerment are remarkably important and ripe amongst women, no matter what their professional training or life stage or circumstance. These are the questions which, in a well-held space, led to such depth of discussion:

– What would it look like if women aren’t valued, equal and valuing themselves?;
– What would it look like if women were a bigger part of creating the wealth?;
– What responses are needed to free up the wealth that women bring?

Women’s health, we were reminded, is a bottomless pit, but the bottom line comes back to women’s power to influence decision-making. We talk so much in community development about community assets and yet we often don’t appreciate what is lost by women’s marginalization, invisibility, and lack of valuing their own skills. It was at this point in the discussion that I was becoming hot under the collar. Oh, yes, I was thinking, here is a theme I can so relate to. I am not a Diaspora woman. I was raised and educated in the culture in which I live and work. I was raised with privilege and educated to within an inch of my life. I was told I could be anyone, work anywhere, have influence, change the world. And then I had children. And followed my husband’s work to the country. I am not currently part of creating much of the wealth in my household and my very expensive and expansive education has not yet been paid off and remains largely untapped. I had to beg for and borrow money to get to the conference because I felt so passionate about telling the great grass roots story of my own community to an international gathering in Scotland with representatives from 32 nations around the world. I climbed out of my cave and my invisibility cloak to go and be seen and heard. I crawled out from underneath my rock of insecurities in the face of all the academics who were clearly much more practiced than I am at writing punchy and attractive sounding blurbs to get maximum people along to their presentations in competitive time slots. I got coached by one Australian local government official when she overheard me introducing myself to someone, trying to respond to the dreaded ‘so, what do you do?’ question. My reply: “well, I sort of, um, well, I work for myself. I write, and do group work – I’m a social worker by training but I’ve got young children. Well, they’re not that young anymore, but, anyway, I just do bits and pieces when I have time.” “Smooth,” she teased me later over a glass of wine. “You gotta take a leaf out of the book of the men, they do this self-promotion stuff so much better than us,” she continued. “Tell ‘em you’re a consultant and an author, none of this apologetic, uncertain stuff.” I had plenty more opportunities to ‘sell myself’ over the next couple of days, and luckily for me, the women’s empowerment workshop was at the start of the conference. But I digress. Sort of.

The leadership program, which formed the framework and impetus for our discussions, consisted of a series of five three-day residential workshops over the course of a year, with themes ranging from valuing yourself, knowing yourself through and with others, belonging and non-belonging (what divides us and what connects us), knowing how the external world operates, choosing where you want to be and knowing where to go to get what you want. The program defined leadership broadly, including leadership for self, family, community and wider society. They saw leadership as collaborative and reflective – leadership without authority. I liked their catch-cry: ‘you don’t do leadership alone. It is a social experience.’ Interestingly, that is a very feminine, non-competitive definition of leadership – one which the world is sorely in need of. Underpinning the program was a philosophy of challenging notions of citizenship, and that with empowered and empowering, active citizens, partnered with empowered and empowering communities and with empowered and empowering agencies, transformational change is possible.

So what, in the opinion of the pomegranates, would it look like in a world where women aren’t valued, equal and valuing themselves? It didn’t, as you would know, take too much imagination (please note, these lists came out of a five minute brainstorm with a small group of people and are only scratching the surface of where these excellent questions might take us). There would, we decided, be: breakdown of family units; family violence; stagnant development; loss of skills to society; compromised mental health, spiritual health, general health and children’s health; lack of representation and democratic deficit; and disempowered communities. One comedian added that nothing at all would happen.

And if we were more involved in creating the wealth, what might that look like? We decided there would be: more checks and balances in the system; more focus on social justice, social services, human rights and environmental protection; families and communities would be healthier physically, emotionally and spiritually; there would be more diverse economies and increased family income; balanced leadership and increased collaborative decision making; women and children would be safer; compassion and sensitivity would be given higher value; we would enjoy a more holistic world; there would be better emotional health for both men and women; and there would be a better balance between the domestic economy and the wealth economy. One poor, brave bloke respondent kindly to a comment of mine during this discussion by reminding me what an important job parenting is. Caught up in a moment of emotion, I forgot my conference manners and shot back: “with all due respect, and with great love for my children and my role, I am so much more stimulated at this conference than I am being at home with them, and that kind of platitude just gives me the s**ts!” I hadn’t even known I was sitting on that bubbling little piece of fury. I apologised to him later that evening in the midst of a ceilidh (traditional Scottish dance). He spun me on his arm and said: “No worries, I’m used to strong women.” It (not the dancing apology) was a fleeting and mini insight into why this complex, multi-layered and emotional debate has occupied women and men hotly and, and gone largely unresolved, for generations.

So what responses did we come up with as to how to free up the wealth that women bring to economies and communities? We decided that part of the answer might lie in: opportunities for personal development; encouragement and up-skilling towards community involvement; building women’s knowledge about how institutions and systems of power work; listening to women’s voices around decision making tables (equal representation); engaging both women and men in the conversation, and reaching for mutual understanding and respect. Having just alienated one of the two men in the room I was, at this point throwing my invisibility cloak back on! The other man in the room, someone high up in the government in India, happily piped up at this moment and shared that there is an ancient Vedic saying that ‘where women are worshipped, there the gods dwell,’ in other words, that where women are happy, there will be prosperity. I must remember to tell that one to my husband.

Ultimately, the room was in agreement that what was really needed was a paradigm shift, from the bottom up. Women can be as confident and assertive as men but until our culture and institutions change, real change will not be possible. The work of the women’s leadership program run by Changes UK recognizes one element to the healing of the deep wound of invisibility for women: if you understand how power works, you won’t feel like it is such a personal failure. I really needed to hear that.

A world without the full contributions of women, in all their manifestations, is a poorer world. My personal opinion is that as the institutions, economies and environments of our world are crumbling, this new paradigm which is needing to emerge will be be one where feminine interpretations of power and leadership will be re-valued and will re-emerge. And the pomegranate is indeed an apt metaphor (I googled it when I got home). Dating back to ancient Greek mythological times (particularly the myth of Persephone), the pomegranate is, thoroughly appropriately, a symbol of fertility, resurrection, fruitfulness, and the significance of changing times and seasons.

Exploring our Common Wealth

Fly thousands of miles for dozens of hours, trek to the fourth oldest University in the English speaking world, stumble into friend of friend’s apartment nearby, wonder what to wear, slap on some lippy, unearth social skills, make small talk, sit amongst hundreds of like minded folk from 32 nations, swoon at resonance of most of what most are talking about, eat, sleep, listen, talk, pinch self, present, hope, pray, connect, smile, exhale. This was my experience, in a nutshell, of Glasgow last month, more specifically Glasgow University, more precisely, the International Association of Community Development’s international gathering: Community is the Answer: Exploring our Common Wealth. I love a good story about good people doing good and necessary things in the world so suffice to say I was pretty in my element sitting back and taking in the many stories from many communities, cultures, political, economic, social and climactic contexts, in dealing with the issues of our times. There were stories about social enterprise, leadership, resilience, change, transformation, intercultural and interdisciplinary learning and research, collaboration, community art, social innovation, financial inclusion, homelessness and housing, building sustainable communities, tackling climate change, livelihoods, regeneration, community based economies, building social capital, tackling poverty, re-imagining wealth, measuring impact, policy development, new perspectives, resourcing community development, the commons, ensuring quality standards, refugee rights, politics, education, youth issues, suicide, health and wellness, gaps between rich and poor, motivating and mobilizing, power and empowerment.

As Glasgow prepared to host the 2014 Commonwealth games, it is a proud, shiny, impeccable city, far removed from the dirty, industrial past, which has haunted it until recently. That said, there was plenty of pride in an interesting intellectual and artistic history, and in the recent ‘regeneration’ of the City. Regeneration was a word we heard a lot as we toured the city and the Commonwealth games venues and housing, all in ‘regenerated’ areas. I did find myself wondering where the people went who are too dirty or unruly or poor to be presented to the world in this newly scrubbed city.

The term ‘Commonwealth’ apparently has its origins in Scottish linguistics and culture, deriving from an old Scottish phrase ‘common weal’, which goes back centuries and which means ‘common good’. It basically seeks to express a striving for a shared set of values which includes a valuing of the natural environment, the built environment, health, education and the creation of a fair and just society. With the themes: health, wealth and power, these were the values underpinning the vast array of presentations over the course of the three conference days.

While it is difficult to define in few words, I like the following definition of community development which came out of an excellent workshop on an empowerment and leadership program for African diaspora women in the UK: community development is about developing empowering ways to lead people and communities. I also enjoyed hearing about approaches where communities themselves had risen up, often off the back of an ‘unqualified,’ inspired and inspiring local leader or group of passionate people, to respond to an issue, rather than being led, or consulted ‘at’, or told what, how and why by an agency, a government body, or a consultant. My own presentation was a case study on a community (my own) taking the initiative and self-leading development and change in the face of climate change and finite resources. Self-initiated, community based responses to any issue, and community based leadership are my interests and this was, largely, the lens and question I was looking through at the conference.

Another thread I heard emerging through many of the stories was that the world and its people are in a tough place at the moment and that ‘soft’ sciences with intangible, often long-term insights, such as social justice and earth justice are not high on cash strapped governmental priority lists. The part of me which likes to hear the good news stories also had to be prepared to listen to the bad news: austerity measures are being rolled out by governments worldwide; economic and environmental crisis loom large; and despite decades of effort by dedicated and passionate community development practitioners, activists and change agents across varying organizational and cultural contexts worldwide, poverty continues to rear its persistent, cyclical, ugly head with its resultant poor health, educational and wellbeing outcomes. In Glasgow, for example, which has the worst life expectancy in the UK, there is a 28-year disparity in life expectancy according to wealth. That means that 25% of boys born in Glasgow today are not expected to reach 65 years of age. This is a shocking statistic in our day and age.

There was plenty of good news too though. It came in the form of stories of resilient communities and empowering practitioners, in stories of the power of people gathering, in communities, and doing what communities of people have always done well, as is our human herd instinct; to pool resources, skills and insights and to face the issues of the times head on. And, ironically, when times are tough, we are more likely to find things in common, and be buoyed by that sense of connection and community. My father tells me about the upbeat energy of living through a world war during which neighbours came together, supported each other, and had an opportunity to experience their resilience and the power of truly being in community in the face of incredible human led devastation.

When governments tighten their belts, such moves often come with the assumption (by the middle and upper ruling classes and power brokers) that poor people need to just improve their work ethic and take better responsibility for their health. Here is what, as an alternative, we can seek: “a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than stand in judgment of how they carry it” (Gregory Boyle, Catholic Priest, USA, per Sir Harry Burns, Professor for Global Public Health and former Chief Medical Officer for the Government of Scotland).

Such compassion is the starting point for empowerment. ‘Empowerment’ is a slightly overused term these days but the fact remains that empowered people are the first solution to dwindling economic resources available to prop up the ever-burgeoning social need. As Sir Harry Burns noted in his keynote address to the conference, “a lot of our social systems are based on doing things to people instead of with them. They become passive and disempowered recipients of services and have no sense of control over their lives.”

A wonderful example of a community which is (by force of necessity) empowering people to take their wellbeing into their own hands is India, in tackling its mental health crisis. Psychiatrist, Vikram Patel, professor of mental health and wellbeing at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, spoke to us about a vastly under-resourced medical system in which 80% of patients with mental health problems in India have not been able to access a mental health practitioner in the previous 12 months. He told us that, with its population of 1.2 billion, if India were resourced with the same number of psychiatrists per head of population as Scotland, there should be 150,000 of them. Instead, there are only 3000, with America having more Indian psychiatrists than India has. His solution; up-skill and mobilize laypeople to provide non-medical interventions to people with mental illnesses. He calls them non-specialised community based workers. “Health,” he says, “is far too important to be left to doctors alone.” In Patel’s opinion, “the only real starting point skill you need is to care for people, and from there you can build key competencies onto that to deliver evidence based responses.” This in turn serves to solve the problem that what medical care there is in this arena, is often very alienating for the patient with highly medicalised language, expensive medications and insufficient focus on the mobilization of practical supports and resources. “Nearly everyone,” he shared to an inspired audience, “has some sort of resource, either within themselves or within their community which could be mobilized. When we go from whining about what we do not have, to celebrating what we do have, we move from being under-resourced to being richly resourced.”

One audience member questioned the thread of this discussion by asking whether we let governments off the hook when we try to fill the gaps where they have abrogated their responsibilities. The answer given by one of the panelists was that rather than blaming the State for its failures, we can call upon them to be partners in the solutions, because their scope and capacity is beyond compare. Sometimes, it was noted, austerity measures by governments can raise the status of community groups and non government organisations because those organisations can innovate and work closely with the States to deliver the outcomes which States can or will no longer take full responsibility for.
The big challenge in community development is to get diversity to decision-making tables and to show leadership in the art of true community engagement – which is where many untapped solutions and resources lie.

A beautiful example of untapped solutions and resources came out of a story about grassroots comics. I was just slightly over stimulated mid-way through day two, and had just finished my own presentation so decided to reward myself with some creative down time at the World Comics Network doodle corner. Instead of turning off the left brain, as I had planned, I found myself so inspired and mesmerized by the artist and founder of this network, that I spent the entire hour writing furiously as he told me his story. Sharad Sharma was a journalist and political comic illustrator in India when he realized he was tired of drawing the same old cartoons with the same old themes, while nothing in the news changed and the same old people had all the voice. He loves drawing and he loves traveling so he set off to teach people to draw, and to give them a voice through comic art. His network now travels the world giving people from all different backgrounds, with varying levels of literacy, a voice through grassroots comics, which are then distributed in their local area as street art, and to local power brokers and decision makers. He showed me powerful pictures and told me powerful stories of change in the lives of the artists, from prisoners, to the homeless, to veiled women with no voice, and more. As my pen barely paused, and he barely paused, as excited by his story as I was, he looked up at me, smiling, and said: ‘are you a journalist?’ ‘Well, kind of,’ I replied. ‘I prefer to call myself a story catcher. I just love people’s stories.’

With ten keynote presentations and then seventy-six parallel presentations from which to choose in the eight time slots made available over the course of three days, there were many more stories caught by my pen and my imagination. On the second afternoon I was in much need of some time to digest the seventy-six-course meal, and was glad that I had opted in advance to do a pre-determined field trip. I had been allocated a trip to an ‘emotional care centre,’ but decided that I needed some fresh air and some more environmental stories to report back to my funders and supporters at home, so I tried to get onto the wind farm field trip instead. Unfortunately I was not allowed to swap. Fortune though works in funny ways and the wind farm bus got lost and never found its destination (they did apparently have a good time at the pub), while my trip led us to a most inspiring community centre with plush armchairs, cushions, blankets, books, tea, coffee, chocolate biscuits, private meditation and relaxation rooms, aromatherapy and massage spaces, and counseling spaces, and a multi-sensory audio visual meditation experience which was exactly what my tired, over-stuffed brain needed in that moment. We were sent home with essential oils, a relaxation CD and awe and wonder at the enabling, non-judgmental, caring, and nurturing staff at the centre. I thanked my lucky stars for the strict schedule, which had led me to exactly the place I needed to be.

The staff at COPE (‘Caring Over People’s Emotions’) had such a respectful, non-pathologising and normalizing attitude to people’s mental and emotional health crises and concerns that it made you feel that if we just allowed ourselves to be human and to struggle sometimes, and allowed others to, there would be so much less stigma, so much more help sought and much faster recoveries in many cases. This speaks to another theme which was emerging for me throughout the conference. As practitioners we leap in to fix because this makes us feel useful. And yet maybe there is something deeply empowering and healing in creating, educating, enabling and holding space for the innate and natural emergence of the wellness and talents of people for themselves, and of we ‘change agents’ and ‘fixers’ redefining how we practice, and largely getting out of the way. One presenter (Andrew Lyon of the International Futures Fund) gave us the example of the snowdrop to this end. The snowdrop is a flower which grows from a bulb. He told us how for large parts of the year they sit beneath the earth and you wouldn’t even know they are there; that when it is their time to bloom, he doesn’t go outside and ask them to please grow; that he doesn’t even tend to them or throw any money at them, and yet still they grow; how there is no point in him going out there and telling them he would rather they be daffodils because they will always be what they are; but that, unless he kills them, they will continue to pop up and flower, year after year at the bottom of his garden. Again, we are speaking of that innate capacity of people and of organizations, communities and societies to struggle, fall over, hibernate, adapt to changing conditions, heal, and to flourish once again.

The conference gave international delegates an option of a two-day extension with a practitioner in our field. Happily, I was hooked up with a remarkable woman who had decided not to come to the conference because she gets sick of hearing people talk about what to do, and she would much rather just be doing it. She described herself as a ‘do-er,’ and a ‘yes person.’ She was such a breath of fresh air, running an incredibly low budget conservation project in a disadvantaged area which, by virtue of her allowing and facilitating every twinkling of interest in the people who crossed her path, had overseen the most remarkable array of projects centred around a small stretch of a small, unprepossessing creek. The projects included local history, community arts, archaeology, conservation, regeneration, theatre, poetry, story telling, media, and events and were rich with creativity and participation (see http://www.dightyconnect.org). To me she personified exactly the enabling style of practice we had been willing ourselves towards at the conference.

As well as making limited resources stretch, such approaches to community development help practitioners sustain themselves in the work. The ‘fix it’ approach to any kind of work is a recipe for disappointment and exhaustion. Keynote speaker Margaret Wheatley, a very experienced community development practitioner, writer and presenter, was also onto this. For decades, she told us, she has advocated being a change agent. Now though, she says, “it is time for all the heroes to go home” (quoting poet William Stafford). “It is time,” she continues, “to give up these hopes and expectations that only work to make people dependent and passive. It is time to stop waiting for someone to save us…. There is a simpler, finer way to organize human endeavour. The simpler way is demonstrated to us in daily life, not the life we see on the news with its unending stories of human grief and horror, but what we feel when we experience a sense of life’s deep harmony, beauty and power, of how we feel when we see people helping each other, when we feel creative, when we know we are making a difference, when life feels purposeful…. It is time to face the truth of our situation – that we’re all in this together, that we all have a voice – and figure out how to mobilize the hearts and minds of everyone in our communities.” (margaretwheatley.com)

Surrounded by such rich and informed conversation and case studies about the ways in which we organize our societies and distribute, deliver, measure and recognize power, health and wealth, the keys which emerged to me as making a difference were:
• Community driven initiative;
• Caring for people and caring for place, in sustainable ways;
• Teaching, empowering and up-skilling community members to lead, facilitate and value themselves, and in so doing allowing the emergence of a rich resource;
• Caring for ourselves as practitioners, maintaining hope, and working in sustainable ways;
• Social connectedness;
• Investment in prevention;
• Start with what we agree on;
• The art of listening – really listening, to communities and microcosms of communities;
• The art of coming together and working together – diverse voices;
• The art of getting out of the way.

The logo for the conference was the Celtic knot. The circular drawings are a single strand maze pattern that is endless, symbolizing infinity and eternity. For the purposes of the conference, the symbolism that was drawn from it was the knot as a story of life, with no finality, no destination, just a process of being alive, and a link between traditional cultures and our future. There was much talk about this being a time when old paradigms, old ways of organizing ourselves and power, of old value systems such as the essence of life being consumerism, materialism and wealth building, being near or on their death bed. Margaret Wheatley quoted William Ophuls (author of Immoderate Greatness): “Human societies are addicted to their ruling ideas and their received ways of life, and they are fanatical in their defence… Instead of changing their minds, leaders redouble their efforts to do what no longer works, wooden headedly persisting in error until the bitter end.” I was in the company of hundreds of people, however, from all over the world, who are part of this generation of fringe thinkers, the Galileos of our times, those who are not afraid to challenge the status quo, be undervalued for their work, and who continue to work hard and intelligently for a world that encapsulates freedom, justice, love and compassion, in spite of so much evidence of institutions and systems built on contrary values. Andrew Lyon was also speaking of new futures, telling us that “what we know how to do is not what needs to be done. We need to learn new ways.” We are though, he told us, of nature, and like nature, we are a transformative species. Margaret Wheatley opened the final day of the conference by articulating the pioneer’s dilemma: “We end up having to hospice the old as we midwife the new. We must invent new systems while still working with broken ones. This dance between the new and the old means we have to be very smart, we have to learn as we go, and we have to work together.”

Does my Heart Work? – Paris

I must confess I am one to moralise a bit. I research and write about humanism and compassion. I dine out on the social justice issues of our times. I am a passionate couch activist. As I gaze out over the glorious views from my house on the hill, nursing a hot drink and with ready access to a full fridge. There is nothing like going to one of the world’s major cities to have your actual humanism – prejudices and naivety and all – shoved in your face.

I arrived, bleary eyed in Paris yesterday morning after over 30 hours of travelling, at 5.45am local time. Greeting is far too generous a word for the reception I received at the reception of my hotel. My worldly goods stuffed into a corner of a miniscule office behind the desk of Mr Charming, I set off into the humid, rainy Paris morning, awaiting the availability of my bed.

A spring in my step, the lightness of no longer shouldering my worldly goods, nor my (first) worldly problems for a day, I navigated the stunningly efficient Metro system into the city where I planned to wander aimlessly, going where the whim took me, for a whole day in one of the most famously adored cities of the world. What bliss!

By the end of the day, a four hour bike tour under my belt, and after scaling thousands of steps amid thousands of fellow ‘pilgrims’ headed for Sacre Coeur (‘Sacred Heart’ Cathedral), that other ‘house’ on the hill which I had chosen to sleep near, I was wrecked.

Despite being charmingly accosted on my way up the hill by a very persuasive African who tied five Euro worth of artfully woven cotton around my wrist, promising me good fortune and ‘Akuna matata’ (‘no worries’ – which I quoted back at him when he tried to charge me ten Euro for the privilege of his two minutes of wisdom and cotton), I managed to make it into the Cathedral in time for Vespers. I pushed my way (nicely) through the seemingly endless South American tour group who advertised the details of their tour on matching fluorescent cowboy style banners around their necks, made my way into the ‘for people who pray only’ section, trying to look very Catholic (whatever that looks like), and flung myself gratefully into a pew to soak up the cool, and the ambience. The world-class, stunning vocals of the nuns drifted over me (I found myself wondering if they had to audition for nun-hood these days), and my mind stilled, my breath slowed and I found myself not just feeling like I should, but actually wanting to pray.

Transported by the song and by the enormous embrace of a glorious, golden Jesus, arms outstretched around the dome on which he was painted above the nuns, I found myself praying for forgiveness for the many times I had walked passed beggars that day. There was one who had even called out and said hello to me and I had pretended not to understand.   There was one at the doorstep to the Cathedral, hands outstretched as thousands of us crammed through the doors ignoring her, preparing to light a candle for our souls and donate to the good works of God and His servants. It was my fear at what might happen if I pulled out my purse in the midst of the throng, I rationalized to myself. It is true, I had felt scared walking the streets of Paris alone, bag clutched to chest, trying to walk purposefully and not look too much like a tourist (who am I kidding? They even spoke to me in English before I managed to open my mouth half the time). But I had also felt overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the poverty, the grottiness, the peeling buildings, filthy pavements, rubbish-strewn roadsides, the homelessness, the evidence of alcohol and drug abuse, the evidence of crime, the evidence of our animal nature when the streets and underground sometimes smelt like a human pissoir, and overwhelmed by the many, many demands for my money. Some just begged. Others were artful about it, striking up a tune, for example, on the train in which we were trapped from airport to city centre, and then handing around a hat with an imploring smile. Others were entrepreneurial, selling bottles of water when the sun shone, then whipping out ponchos and umbrellas when it rained. I was halfway through being thoroughly ripped off in the purchase of fakely branded sunglasses outside the Louvre when the guy with whom I was haggling suddenly scooped up his goods in one swift, well practiced manouevre, and upped and ran off, responding to the call of his mates – the police were coming. I was left with my unpaid-for sunglasses in hand, wondering what to do. So I prayed for the fellow whose sunglasses I had walked away with too.

And then I found my prayers and my transcendence being interrupted by my irritation at the people around me. Some behind me were chatting loudly, hundreds still moved around the edges of the Cathedral, whispering loudly en mass as the nuns continued their service, and people all around continued to take photographs despite the very clear signage asking them not to. I wondered how on earth the nuns could share their sacred worship with these ungracious, gawking, gabbling tourists. I marveled at the compassion that I imagined they held for all living souls, in all our humanness, those women with their sacred hearts. And I chastised myself for my irritation and righteousness.

Paris is a city of contrasts. A melting pot of diverse cultures, skin colours, education, world-views, wealth, health, sexual preferences, all paraded before you, out in the streets for all to see. Except I get the feeling the locals stop seeing after a while. They can’t afford the daily overwhelm or guilt trip as they step over, around and past bodies in various states of suffering, on their way to and from work each day. It reminds me of when I used to work in inner city Melbourne. I barely even noticed the homeless people being cleared out of the sheltered entryways of the buildings of a morning, ready for we suits to enter our kingdoms of paradise. When I then went on to study social work I did a placement just a few doors down from the Rialto towers where I once had worked, and all of a sudden I was exposed to a whole world of people who had been virtually invisible to me beforehand. 

And then you look up, and the shabbiness and human sea is replaced by glorious row upon row of uniform, iconically Parisian housing, tree-lined, florally-edged boulevards are aligned neatly, radiating star-like outward from the centre point, that most famous of phalluses, the Eiffel Tower (or as my children said when they visited Paris at 3 and 5; what’s is called? The Awful Tire?). Triumphant arcs and triumphant architecture abound, along with statues, bridges, domes, drama and plenty of gold. These many grand and golden monuments of this magnificent city have some stories to tell. Many were actually either beacons of a once war hungry culture, or monuments to monstrous wealth, greed and power. The likes of which once led to revolution. The city’s next greatest phallus, the obelisque at the centre of ‘Place du Concorde,’ is supposed to be a symbol of harmony, in a place that was once home to such bloodshed from the guillotine that the cattle and horses refused to go there, and the guillotine itself kept sinking into the muddy earth below, so soaked was it with human blood. The obelisque was a gift to the French from the Ottomans who, having conquered much of Europe, were suffering from lack of popularity and trying to a buy a few strategic friends. They had stolen it from the Egyptians. The Egyptians ask for it back on an annual basis and the French, claiming that they were not the ones who stole it, and that it was a gift, refuse to give it back. And so it stays, at the centre of harmony square. The recently crafted peace sculpture with its view across to the Eiffel Tower was made of glass, to demonstrate the fragility of peace. It has been smashed by vandals.

So, humanism. I have defined it in the past as our highest human state born out of our instincts towards peace, love and compassion for our fellow species. I am forced at the end of this day of conflicting sights and emotions though, to sit in this place of prayer with my own violence, judgment, righteousness and ego, in amidst so many other displays of these very human qualities. As with the fragile peace monument, my own glass ideals have been smashed by the violence of mind bending, eye opening travel. Theirs was made of reinforced glass. I hope mine are too. The light looked quite pretty coming through the cracks. 

As I leave the Cathedral, I hear a shout behind me. I look back to see a uniformed ‘keeper of the peace’ angrily shoeing the beggar lady away from the doorway of the house of God. I feel a tiny bit better about myself. And I walk away into the Paris night with ‘no worries’ around my wrist.

Intellectual Disability

I ran a workshop the other day for a bunch of super inspiring, super diverse women with disabilities.  They ranged from women born with severe physical and intellectual difficulties, to those with invisible intellectual disabilities in able bodies, to those with acquired brain injury, to those with profoundly able and insightful intellects, with bodies that seem to have somehow put them on a different rung in society.  I learned way more than I shared with them.

I am always struck by the power of my preconceptions when I am as moved as I am by workshops like these.  It was the same when I worked with women in prison.  What is it in me that is expecting something other than the inspiration I receive from these women?  To have our unexamined prejudices dispelled through that powerful connector – our shared humanity – is a powerful thing indeed.  Perhaps it is not just the shaking up of my world experience, but the experience of witnessing strength and courage in the face of enormous hardship which rocks me on these occasions.

This most recent workshop was on presentation skills.  The women were to deliver a speech in the second half of the workshop about something they were passionate about.  My job, during the first half of the workshop, was to grab their attention and try to distract them from, and prepare them for the speech-making part.  My personal passion is people being free to be themselves, expressing themselves from the depths of their being, and living and making life choices from that place.  So, often when I’m asked to run a workshop, if it is appropriate, I usually twist it to come back to these core themes.

Later, as I watched the women one by one, each in their own way, get up, gather their courage, breathe deeply and bare their soul to the room, I was reminded of a transformative moment I had had at a conference years earlier.  Conferences in my experience are not usually places of transformative moments.  This was one sinking into the disappointing basket as I sat through endless Australian and American academics presenting their analytical, black and white, humour-less findings on ‘happiness,’ and how to achieve it.  Something about that entire premise now grates on me but at the time I was gobbling up the idea of consuming and graduating in happiness.  Someone must have the five-point plan out there!  It must have been starting to wear thin though and I found myself thoroughly uninspired by the conference until the very last moment.  A troupe of dancers with intellectual disabilities took to the stage for the last session.  As they danced, the complete, unfettered joy and pride in their faces and the utter presence and commitment they brought to their movements was mesmerising.  Tears falling freely, I turned to my companion and said: “and we call them intellectually disabled.”  Finally someone in that conference was making sense, and truly speaking to the theme.

I worked with children with intellectual disabilities when I was a teenager and I always loved their capacity to wear their heart on their sleeve.  I must have been responding to the yearning in myself to shake off the blanket of intellectualism which was being so earnestly fostered in me at the time, and to respond equally freely and fully from my heart.

I didn’t share these stories with these workshop participants but I wanted them to know that their voices were worthy, deserved and needed to be heard, and that they could inspire others with their vulnerability and courage.  I played them Sarah Barielle’s song Brave:  “you can be amazing, you can turn a phrase into a weapon or a drug… you can start speaking up.  Nothing’s gonna hurt you the way that words do.  When they settle ‘neath your skin.  Kept on the inside and no sunlight. Sometimes a shadow wins. But I wonder what would happen if you…Say what you wanna say…And let the words fall out…Honestly, I wanna see you be brave…With what you want to say.”  It all feels a bit clichéd writing it out here now but with the beat of the music, and with smiles and superhero costumes, and a bunch of awesome women, it felt pretty fantastic.

And then, all my clichéd, peppy, pre-prepared ‘how to’ workshop bit done, I sat back and nursed a lump in my throat as these women grounded me in the truth of their existence.  They had been prepared for this task and had taken on the challenge and prepared themselves well.  There was shaking, there were tears, there was momentary verbal paralysis. One woman whose physical and mental capabilities had been robbed of her in an accident struggled to form words as she radiated to us her pride in being able to walk and talk and be independent.  I thought of my yearning for more career opportunities, more pay, more free time with and from my kids, and wondered at how trauma and being stripped of everything we think is important, can remind us what is really important.  She had no self-pity, just smiles for herself and for all the others in the room.  Another woman was almost non verbal and had been unable to contribute during the earlier part of the workshop, yet she made her way to the front, claimed her space on the ‘stage,’ and shared photos of her family with us, with great feeling.  Another woman shared her passion for photography.  Her photographs were complex, unique and stunning – giving her a profound voice which she otherwise struggled to claim in the world.  The very last woman to share her story was a woman whose disability wasn’t clear to me although at face value she had some mild physical difficulties.  She spoke powerfully and articulately of her frustrations at being labeled as disabled, rather than acknowledged for her abilities, and of her passion for the rights of people with disabilities.  Here was a women, I saw, who could represent all these other beautiful voices, of these women and others, who she mixed with, worked with, and knew beyond their disabilities, and who was not herself disabled by prejudices and preconceptions like mine.   I hoped she had been listening to the words of the song and that she would go on and say what needs to be said far and wide.

 

Effort of no effort

“You don’t have to work so hard at this. You don’t have to do so much. You don’t have to endeavor to be natural, normal and good. It happens by itself when you least expect it. 

If you are confused about what you should be doing, try this: Stop what you are doing. Take care of what is in front of you, when it is in front of you, and the confusion will pass.

This is called the effort of no effort. No effort is what powers the universe. With time, your roots grow deep and your branches long. You lean a little less backward in fear and a little less forward in doubt, resting solidly right where you are.
 
When the wind blows, you bend. When it stops, you straighten. Your boughs provide shelter and shade. Your strength supports the sky. Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes and the grass grows by itself.”

~ Karen Maezen Miller

 
Posted at A First Sip 27/5/14 – http://afirstsip.blogspot.com.au/2014/05/effort-of-no-effort.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed:+blogspot/WlDqbC+(First+Sip)

 

Community is the answer

I recently had an article published in the Griffith Review online.  Check it out:  https://griffithreview.com/articles/tree-changers-moving-and-shaking/

The article is a memoir / essay about my experience as a tree-changer to a dynamic rural community, and a celebration of people who come together to innovate and create change towards more sustainable futures.  It also looks at some of the challenges of blending long time locals with new-comers – often with differing values, but mostly with a shared valuing of community.

I’m off to Glasgow, Scotland next week to present this story at an international gathering on community development:  ‘Community is the Answer.’  My presentation is titled:  ‘Coffee and Buzz, community glue and forces for change,’ using my community of Castlemaine and its outlying townships as a case study.  The themes in the above article are mostly what I will present on.  I hosted a ‘community conversation’ last week to gather more stories and was thrilled to receive word of all sorts of community hearted initiatives from health to business to the arts and more.  Will report more as I travel.

The Griffith Review is a quarterly, themed Australian publication of new writing and ideas.  It “celebrates good writing and promotes public debate.”  It allows writers long form opportunities to “reflect on the underlying significance of events and trends, explain the details that get lost in the news and examine the unintended consequences of public policy.”  It is “iconoclastic, and non-partisan, with a sceptical eye and a pragmatically reforming heart and a commitment to public discussion.  Personal, political and unpredictable,” it claims to be “Australia’s best conversation.”  I am delighted to be a part of it.    

Six Inch Drop – from head to heart

They tell me you are no one these days without a blog.  I look at a view from my desk much like the one some nice person put on the customisation theming for this blog I have chosen.  It is stunning.  Some days, I feel like I have ‘made it’.  But no one looks back at me and tells me so.  At school they told us we could have it all, do it all.  We were the new breed of young women taught by the phoenix feminists of the 70s and 80s, rising from the ashes of their disappointing marriages and limited career choices.  It was the time of the ‘self esteem for our children’ movement – external accolades, awards and acknowledgement were craved for, imbibed and became as addictive as alcohol can be to some.  Motherhood, and satisfaction from it, was as invisible then as it feels to me now.  I absorbed the notion that I am no one without a stellar career.  So now, here I sit, stunning view, cute kids, nice bloke.  But I don’t have a stellar career.  And until today I didn’t even have a blog!!  So, I’m hoping that, by some miracle, by clearing up one element of my invisibility – the lack of blog – I will facilitate the second – pathway to stellar career (get noticed, published, famous – yeah!).

I do actually have a job – which I am procrastinating from – but it is one of those compromise situations (it is just me, my view and my computer, and appalling pay), which can happen even to those of us with the highest of ambitions and qualifications when we ‘settle down’ and face the sometimes (often) messy and mundane truth about wife-ing, and mothering and, in my case, living in the country.

I see it as a sort of a pilgrimage, this parenting ride.  I started life firmly attached to my brain and its importance.  It wasn’t until I had an infant firmly and almost permanently attached to my breast that the first ego shattering awareness sunk in that my brain and all that learning, preening, competing, striving and award gathering wasn’t going to help me much with this gig.  What a fall from grace.  Actually, as I now see it – a fall to grace.  That was eleven years ago.  I’m still walking the rocky path of layers and layers of peeled back ego (in which task my children seem to be spiritually ascended, all knowing masters at the necessity of such), still finding new muscles I hadn’t yet known existed, and still tending to blisters.  Sometimes the views are breathtaking but mostly, as with pilgrimage (from what I’ve read), you turn a corner expecting to find yourself, finally, at the highest summit or the most beautiful cathedral, only to find there is another bend in the road and your knee is seizing up.  So then you have to gather all of your inner resources again, and carry on.  I’ve been trying along the way to shed baggage from the heavy backpack I carry.  Among it, cast off along the way, are bits of my brain.  Some bits dropped off as the inevitable result of pregnancy, birthing, sleeplessness, parenting, worry, guilt – ie: other more important things cramming the once available brain space.  Other bits have been holding on for dear life, screaming at me not to drop them, leave them behind.  They are the bits that still want to be famous, noticed, impressive – to ‘be someone’.  They have been happily usurped though by the other clinging variety – children.  The ones who woke my heart up and let me know that it was time for the brain to take a back seat.  I am definitely someone to those children.

I once dreamed of working at the United Nations on world peace (seriously).  I now dream of peace starting at home.  Starting with me (no more yelling: “Eat your veggies!  Because I say so!  because I’ve got three degrees!”).  And peace for my children (no more me yelling).  I hope that they don’t have to forget and then relearn the deep skill of knowing and liking themselves just the way they are.   That they  don’t have to abseil down the terrifying, death-defying six inch cliff-face from head to heart which I have been trying to achieve now for years.  Someone hand me an award for that one please!