Wilderness — A Meditation

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Annerley Literacy Center: United Nations

Mary, a puckish Sudanese 26-year-old mother of 4 was a woman who before coming to Australia had never been to school, never learned an alphabet, a woman full of energy and patience, a woman who seemed to trust her world way beyond reason.

Ruth, her two year old, came to the literacy centre with her mom on Mondays. Nama, her four-year-old son came the rest of the week, but on Mondays he went to a preschool where he learned to speak English better than his mom.
* * *

On Monday when I arrived ten minutes late at the Annerley Literacy Centre, George, the coordinator, asked me to teach two groups, one of which included Mary who had never learned her alphabet in the Sudan where schools were not available to women, just to children of women. Two others were Masa, a young Sudanese man who had been in Australia for only one week, and Mammoud an Ethiopian whose smile and English were much better than Mary’s, and whose patience was a constructive addition to our lesson.

And then, of course, there were the usual mix of Korean students who came to the centre in order to practice English conversation, the intermediate group who had not paid quite enough attention in elementary and secondary school or who were shy and unwilling to make errors in front of each other. They had been in Australia only a short time.

There was also Lucy, the basketball player whose fingers went numb, who came to Australia from Yugoslavia, but who wasn’t willing to mention Bosnia, Serbia, or any other small enclave of her past. Her smile, her tall athleticism contrasted with Mary, whose small dark face absolutely lit up in the midst of class.

Why is Mary’s story and that of Masa and Mammoud, and Lucy important? Because they bring grace, balance, and good will with them from the impossible situations which they fled as they arrived in Brisbane where life seemed a tad safer.

Safer, that is, as long as the Howard government didn't have a say in the matter, civilized as long as the Family Court of Southern Australia stopped a ruthless federal government minister who insisted that children be placed in detention for the crimes of their parents.

We don’t talk much about politics at the literacy centre; it seems more important to focus on the positive nature of the world. We have talked about Bush tucker, the indigenous array of foodstuffs available in their strange new home down under.

We also talked about travel, how far we flew, from where, who flew the farthest, and what stops were made in our long journey to this place that offered a reprieve from our former death sentences.

Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. My American political background certainly didn't threaten me even though it was possible that my stress around the political climate in the USA may have shortened my life. I left the USA in part because of the degree to which I objected to the policies of my government. I was overwhelmed with a sense of impotency, anger and frustration at their intervention in world politics; at their concentration on murder and mayhem while they also decreed negotiation with other state governments was an impossible consideration.

However, this little treatise is offered in an attempt to inform you of the immense change in the people who came to Australia to escape the very real death sentence of their more totalitarian governments.

Was it possible that Mary could ever tell me, even when she finally had the English words, about her experience in her homeland, the experiences which caused her husband to bring their brood to Australia to escape a certain death in the country of their birth.

Let me begin at the beginning. In March 2002 Michelle invited me to join the volunteers at the Annerley Literacy Centre. Walking in the door, I was overwhelmed by the enormity of the need as well as by the lack of organization.

I didn’t pretend to have any ideas about how to organize the classes or the students. However, I knew that if I were going to teach, even on a volunteer basis, I would need to organize myself and my students in some fashion.

Most of all what I didn’t understand at that time was that the refugees and migrants were people who needed more than English skills. They had been through war, attempted annihilation, and the loss of any property they might once have accumulated.

Unlike my own travel agenda, their journey wasn't a holiday. Their arrival in Australia and eventually in Brisbane was a real life game of ‘survival’. Just arriving with their physical selves in tact made each of them a winner. But now, not only did they need to learn English, they needed to learn a whole new culture and the appropriate ways in which to earn a living, to go to school, to cross the street, to buy their food, to dress, to wash, to laugh at Australian jokes. Not only did the adults need to make the crossing themselves, but they needed to model the best possible way for their children to adapt and to keep the sacred practices of their own culture in tact. The pride of being from the Sudan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Eratria, or Yugoslavia also had to continue.

Mankind has always been on the move, has always attempted to established herself in new and alien locals, but somehow this journey from hauling water two kilometres in a jug on one’s head to turning a faucet seemed a very long way.

And so we volunteer tutors had not only to teach a new language to people’s whose native tongue we did not understand, but we had the added responsibility of introducing these avid learners to our high tech culture and all that was expected of them here.

And, did Mary survive? You betcha! With a determined mind and a concentrated smile, she read English, not always understanding each of the words she translated onto paper, but she learned her ABCs in written form and read the clock face accurately. She cooked Australian style by boiling potatoes, lamb, and vegetables on the gas stove. She roasted chicken in the oven. She made banana and peanut butter sandwiches on white bread for her children’s lunches, and she walked with Ruth in her perambulator to the literacy centre each week day morning to learn new English words, to drink her morning tea with two tsp's of sugar. And then she walked home to watch the Simpson's at 6 p.m. with her second and third grade children. Furthermore, today she will tell you all of this in perfectly formed English sentences and a bright smile.

She took what the volunteers at the centre offered and in the face of incredible odds she modelled these new behaviours for her children. She provided for all who have worked with her a sense of accomplishment that only her success could offer. Thank you, Mary.

On Thursday there was an addendum to the story of Mary. I was called to come to the literacy centre at 10 because two of the teachers could unexpectedly not attend. I didn’t know with which group I would be working and after I arrived, taking with me materials for all levels, I was placed with the advanced students, which meant the group would include only one refugee, an Iraqi woman who had lived several years in Egypt. The rest of the students were Korean and Japanese. We had a lovely class, introducing ourselves in conversation.
The students were answering questions about being either an A or a B type personality when Nama, Mary’s four year old son, came to play with his sister Ruth near our table. As I asked Nama about his pre-school session, he took my hand and looked carefully at my watch. I suggested that taking it off was easy. He turned my wrist over, figured out how to undo the catch, and stood there with it in his hand. After telling me the time, he put it back on my wrist and buckled it up.

Kook, a 24-year-old Korean student reached out to talk and play with Masa. I was always amazed at the interest the Koreans had in the Sudanese. They often come to homework club in the afternoon to act as tutors for the school aged children. They were kind and playful and never standoffish or judgmental.

Perhaps this is the greatest gift the centre has to offer Australia and the refugees and the student learners; young people from many countries come together to join a celebration.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Heron Dance

My Heron Dance Newsletter arrived this morning. The mornings when I open it and find Rod's amazing water colours, I always wish I had told you all about this site and so I am including the following excerpt. If you enjoy, you may wish to subscribe for free at the following address:

Dear Heron Dancers,

Monarchs are just starting to flutter through our lives, between our houses, our office buildings, through our parks and farms. They are arriving because the first milkweed plants are just starting to emerge from the ground.

Milkweed plants can grow two or three inches in their first day above ground. Monarch butterflies time their migration so that they arrive just on time—often that same first milkweed day. They lay their eggs and die shortly after arriving in milkweed country.

Monarch larvae extract poisons from milkweed—poisons they use to discourage predators such as birds. The Monarch’s bright colors thus warn predators of an unsavory and perhaps unhealthy experience. The toxins include a heart poison. Two other butterflies—the Queen and the Viceroy—mimic the Monarch’s colors in order to accomplish the same result, although they are not poisonous to birds.

Monarchs usually mate in large colonies. The male sprinkles the female with pheromones and forces her to the ground. They wrestle for several minutes as he gets into position. When the female folds her wings in submission, he grabs her and takes off for the tops of trees where they will remain together for several hours. The male may mate three times before dying. Groundbreaking butterfly researcher Mariam Rothschild described the Monarch as a “prime example of nature’s male chauvinist pig.” On the other hand, she also wrote:

“Butterflies add another dimension to the garden, for they are like dream flowers—childhood dreams—which have broken loose from their stalks and escaped into the sunshine. Air and angels...”

Male monarchs require lots of water to reproduce and can be seen drinking dew from plants in the early morning. Their spermatophore are 90 percent water and can equal 10 percent of the male’s weight. The bigger and wetter the spermatophore of the male, the longer the female will delay before mating with another male.

Monarchs also help plants reproduce. They depend on nectar for food, and in the process are important pollinators.

In celebration of the Great Dance of Life,

Roderick W. MacIver

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Tasmania: A Childhood Memory

Beneath the high ceiling of the downstairs apartment in Battery Point, she sat quietly on their last morning in Hobart and meandered through memories of the past week. This had been their second flight to Tasmania. Two years ago they had flown into north-western Tassie to Cradle Mountain where they spent two days trekking through the button grass wilderness. Late autumn 2008 they had returned, this time to Hobart for a celebration of his 60th birthday.

After the two and a half hours flight from Brisbane, they landed eighteen kilometres north of this island capitol city and wrapped themselves in jumpers and rain gear.

Dick and Tricia, friends from years of film making who now lived in Hobart, materialized about ten minutes later as the Brisbane tourists awaited their luggage.

As always she was a bit trepidacious about meeting these two people who were always coiffed perfectly, whose soft earth tones coordinated with the streaks of blond in lovely beige slightly poofed hair. The first comment from these folks who wore the right shoes and light woollen slacks was, 'Dorothy, here you are, our backpacker!'

Immediately taking minor offence at being so identified, she glanced down at her clunky hiking boots. They were simply too heavy to smash into a suitcase.

All of the Australian's friends, even the artistic ones, had Tourettes. Whatever they were thinking they said.

And at the same time they were obviously delighted at the arrival of friends. Kisses all round with compliments on Graham's new titanium glasses and small talk about all the tourist possibilities filled the few moments until the baggage stumbled off the conveyor belt. She had not seen him for at least a year and she instantly noted changes in his appearance

'That's mine. The one with the maple leaf tag. I travel most times as a Canadian,' Dorothy bragged. 'Safer that way.'

'Oh yes,' replied dick. 'Canadians are still well loved.'

Here they were with millionaires , riding in a tiny Honda about to embark on their maiden voyage to Hobart. Good on em.

Not only were Dick and Tricia accommodating, they were generous, far more generous than she expected. From the back seat of their little Honda the tour commenced of the brick and sandstone city on the Pictin River. Arranged around the long inlet, the city stood on the south shore protected from the cold westerlies storming in from the Antarctic Ocean by Mt. Wellington, a massive ridgeline running the entire north south border of the city.

As they exited the airport where Tasmanian police were busily giving tickets to airport drivers who had exceeded the 40kph speed limit around the new construction. All four shook their heads and continued on at a very slow pace.

Reaching the highway, the Honda flashed along at 100 kph towards Hobart. Very green gumtree forests covered the lower vales near the highway while ridgelines showed the effects of the timber industry in what was once a temperate rain forest.

She had expected to see some of the tall trees of the western side of Tasmania, the ones through which they had driven on their trip to Cradle Mountain. No. land clearing had been going on here in the east for the past 200 years. Whatever was left in terms of forestation was fortunate indeed and probably very young.

The city across the inlet sat like a jewel with a surprise. In the middle of the bay docked on the south side was a huge red vessel. The Arctic Voyager, an icebreaker, became her focal point. Whenever she saw it, she knew she was headed to her home away from home. Later an American battleship, overwhelmed in size by the Artic Voyager docked nearby. Imagine! An Australian environmental research vessel bigger than an American battleship.

Soon it became obvious that the city streets were arranged as a series of one-way grids. Unlike Brisbane, Hobart seemed to have been settled by military personnel who had a sense of order. Not all streets fit the grid, but generally they rotated around a wheel with Salamanca Square, dockside at the centre of radiating spokes. It would be difficult to lose oneself in Hobart.

They drove past the Arctic Voyager and up the hill to Battery Point, the spot from which the early military commanders built gun defences to protect the colony from what was feared might be marauding invaders – the Spanish and the French. However, neither committed the folly of attacking, which seemed well for the British since by all accounts those shore batteries could not have defended the city. She supposed, as in modern times, it was not the defensive nature of the guns, but the imagination of the residents that allowed them to feel safe.

As they drove past the wide streets of Salamanca Square, Dick pointed out 'the best noodle shop in town, the finest fresh vegetables and fruit shops, and finally, the best deli, 'The Worst House', all located near their vacation abode.

They parked their little conveyance on the narrow alleyway of Humbolt Street and in a light sprinkling of rain walked to the Bakery where they would eat three of the five mornings we were on vacation. As always, the smell of yeast rising, of warm sour dough accentuated her appetite.

They sat in ice cream parlour chairs at round black tables and enjoyed a superb cuppa. A flat white was not hard to make, but an excellent flat white – piquant, sharply awakening taste buds, was not easily found. This cafe bakery never failed them.

'Flat white in a mug?"

' Sorry we have only cups' rather smugly.

'Ok, then, a flat white in a cup, please,' echoed three times. Taste buds titillated by the fragrances resonating from the old brick walls of the 1830s building stimulated appetites.

'I'll have the rabbit, mushroom, tart with the Greek cheese and hazelnuts,' said she.

'And I will have the scrambled eggs with the Tasmanian salmon crust,' said Trish. 'Please don't make the salmon hot. I prefer it at room temperature.'

Food was the delight of her life. Good food accented any situation. It formed the plate from, which she tasted new territory. Hobart currently seemed the culinary delight of all of Australia thanks to the little bakery and to the amazing food at Stanwell House, home of Tricia and Dick.

After their light lunch, they were dropped off at the lovely space that would be their home for the next five days. The old house, a half block from the bay, less than a kilometre from where the Artic Explorer was docked, only a block away from the Bakery, had recently been sold. As seemed to be true throughout Hobart, the garden flourished with blossoms still budding even though they were far into autumn. The daily rain showers probably had something to do with the health of all that greenery.

They had a large veranda looking out towards the bay. They entered into a hallway on the left side of which was the lounge/kitchen, the right side of which was a huge bedroom complete with queen sized comforter-covered bed and almost floor to ceiling windows. The bathroom with washer, dryer, bathtub and shower, was located at the end of the hall.

This entire scenario sounded almost too perfect. And so it was until their last night on this southern most island state of Australia when it was necessary for Graham and Dick to complete business concerning their long years of coordinating lights and cameras to produce some of the most effective commercials screened on Australian television. Dorothy was invited to join the former business partners that evening. Although Tricia was out at Spanish lessons that late afternoon, Dorothy could have gone along and entertained herself with a good story while the two men talked.

However, she preferred to spend that last afternoon in the art shops of Salamanca Square, shops she had not had the time to investigate earlier in the week.

'If you drop me off at the Square, I'll window shop and then pick up some Vietnamese take away for dinner. I'll meet you here in the apartment when you're finished. I suspect I'll be home before you. Would you mind if I took the key?'

'Of course not. Here you go.' Graham finagled the house key off the car key ring, handed it to her, bent to give her a kiss and opened the front door as they headed off to the car.

'You sure you don't want to come along?' he queried as he unlocked the car.

'No, I've wanted to look around those shops. This is a fine opportunity. I'll see you here in a couple of hours.'

And so they drove off around Arthur's Circle to Salamanca Square, where she kissed her driver and stepped onto the cobblestones.

Graham drove off as she wandered across the street to decide which shop to visit first. The glassware caught her attention, brilliantly colourful in the late afternoon greyness. It was 4:30 and in so southern a climate, the sun was reaching for the western horizon behind the huge precipice of Mt. Wellington.

She loved jewellery. She had very little, but she loved to window shop. These pieces were larger than life. Huge silver squares connected to make a most unusual chain upon which rested a brilliant blue/glass square bead. It would take someone with a rare personality to wear them.

In another corner were brilliant red/blue woolen sweaters, avant-garde, unusual, made for only the very slender, but beautifully crafted with buttons to set off their angular cut. It was hard to call them jumpers; they were fashion pieces made for only the most dramatic women to wear.

The next shop was rife with wood; bowls, cutting boards, placemats, knives, and leather belts and more woven goods, woollen scarves resplendent in designer colours and shapes and berets to keep one warm in the far south.

Rather suddenly, she was awakened from her artistic window shopping. It was always an unexpected surprise to find that Australians really do go home for afternoon tea, that their marketing gene was not as strong as that of Americans who would never close the doors of a shop if there were a shopper present.

Politely, window shades were drawn and keys jangled mildly in the shop owner's hands. Time for her to exit. Much sooner than she expected. There were still had two hours before the Australian would return from his meeting.

Nonetheless, she exited and headed for the market to purchase milk for morning tea, some island cheese and winter pears for their dessert on her way to the Vietnamese Noodle shop where she debated on their order.

Finally, she decided on green curry and vegetarian rice paper rolls.

Valhalla Ice Cream from King Island was also on sale.

'Do you have these flavours in bulk?'

'We have cones, and paper cups. We have no tops for the cups.'

'That's ok. Please, may I have a double dip of mango and a double dip of macadamia nut in the cups?'

Placing the ice cream gingerly in the corners of her plastic bag, she began the kilometre walk up hill to their apartment. The sun was low on the horizon, well below Mt. Wellington. Cool air from the bay surrounded her as she climbed the steps up from the square to the high ground of Battery Point.

Arriving home, she put the ice cream in the little freezer and the noodles into the apartment refrigerator. She sat down on the lounge, took out her pencil and her sodoku while she waited for Graham's arrival.

As she finished a puzzle, she looked out the huge windows eastward toward the bay. Darkness had settled quietly all round. Unbidden, a great angst caught her breath and carried it away. Nervous tension replaced her relaxed demeanour. Nervous, she set down her pencil and book and began to pace the room, moving out into the hallway. Opening the door, she paced out to the veranda. Tears began to form. Shaking, she re-entered the hallway, closed the door and found herself sobbing.

Her mind echoed. 'You know where he is. He will be here shortly. He loves you. Stop this. Calm down.'

And as the words moved through her consciousness, her muscles trembled, the tears flowed, and short sharp cries of pain reverberated across the apartment. 'Oh, no. I can't do this. I can't stand to feel this way. Help me. Oh, help me.'

She sat upon the queen sized bed, threw herself onto the pillows, rolled over and slid to the ground, sitting with her back against the bed crying uncontrollably.

There was a knock. In some part of her consciousness, she had heard him walk cross the cement veranda. She had to go to the door. There was no way for him to get in unless she unlocked the door. And so trembling, wiping her nose with her fist, she ran to the door, undid the lock, opened the door, and apologizing, ran back into the bedroom.

Still crying, she rolled onto the bed, facing the wall. Curling up into the smallest ball possible, she tried to calm herself.

Several minutes later, her tears drying, her sobbing diminished, she blew her nose and walked into the lounge room where Graham was sitting alone staring off into space.

'I am sorry. I had an anxiety attack. It is not your fault. I thought I could handle myself. I am sorry.'

'You have no idea how hard this is for me. I can't go anywhere. I cannot leave you alone. I never know what I will come home to find.'

'I apologize. It is not your fault. Abandonment overwhelmed me. I was so utterly alone. I couldn't stand it. I don't know what to do.'

And there they were; their birthday celebration ending in anguish, anxiety. Once more, she had lost control.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Cold Westerlies and clear skies

Winter has arrived a month early.

9 degrees celcius last night – snuggly sleeping keeps us warm. We still haven't closed the veranda doors – Winds from the west swept the final leaves from the Frangipani trees at the end of the veranda.

Before bedtime thunder and lightening provided a light and music show that we haven't heard for quite some time. Cold air off the continent meeting warm moist Pacific Ocean air creates energy..opposites attract!

I have been missing for days. Our trip to Tasmania for six days is one of the reasons. While in Hobart, the brick and sandstone capitol of Australia, other American visitors arrived – 9000 sailors from an American battleship touring the Pacific.

Twas pleasant to hear my own patois for a bit in the squares and shopping center of Hobart.

We also travelled south to the most southern town in Australia – no match for Ushuiaia in Patagonia, Argentina, but also a forested, a green spot on the land map. We looked at a house for sale in Cygnet south of Hobart. Located on an ocean inlet with yachts in the harbour and green lawns backed up with forested ridge lines, we enjoyed black swans preening on the quiet ocean waters.

We stayed in Battery Point at a charming 1830s vacation apartment provided to us by friends of Graham with whom he has worked for years. The Battery Point bakery has flat whites and scrambled eggs w/Tasmanian salmon to satisfy the most discerning palate.

We also travelled north to Freycinet National Park – the subject of the second web page below.

I am including a couple of web pages to entice you to southern Oz on your next visit across the Pacific. It is truly a lovely parcel, I promise!

Monday, May 05, 2008

Crazy Mixed up Personality Types

Ok, so now if you have listened to the southern hemisphere choir, you might enjoy a little giggle at this web site with slightly slanted info on the MBTI, The Meyers Briggs Temperment Sorter. Click on the title of this entry or use the addy below.

I thought it very funny. A great way to begin my Monday morning in the midst of that same birdsong you may have listened to. By the way, had new music yesterday..Currowong came to munch on the figs in the big tree in the back garden. The regulars really resented the entry of a new species and the racket was kinda like a death metal concert. No one was tossed into the audience though – without a doubt, the Butcher Birds tried.

Tomorrow we join the birds in flight. Headed down to Hobart in Tasmania for a week to celebrate Graham's 60th birthday – Hooray for the Boy Toy. He has almost made it to adult hood.

It's gonna be cold and rainy – just the weather he most enjoys.

I'll post pics and story upon our return.

Be well!