Wednesday, 17 December 2014

In and out - navigating the public loo

Whoever designs public toilets needs to rethink the whole thing. Since the advent of the enormous toilet paper dispensers which hold enough paper to last into the forseeable future, there is no room to enter or exit the cubicle. The square meterage of cubicles has also shrunk, both lengthwise and widthwise. Add a container for the disposal of, ahem, ladies' sanitary items, a handbag and your Christmas shopping, there's barely room for a person. This is further compounded by a lack of hooks for hanging one's luggage. At Flinders Street station, this is a diabolical problem, as the floors are unclean and often wet - I hate to think with what. Once the door swings open, there's barely 2 cm between the edge of the door and the the lip of the loo. The space to stand so the swinging door doesn't knock you into the actual toilet, is taken up with the toilet paper dispenser. Getting in, it's a matter of slinging the bags over the shoulder and performing a physical origami act that would make a circus contortionist rethink their vocation. This results in being wedged between the toilet pedestal, the back wall and the lifetime supply of toilet paper. The door can then be flung towards the locking position, but arms are never long enough to reach the lock from there, so the bags are thrown, quoit-like, at the door in the hope that there is a) a hook on the door,  b) that the target will be hit and c)  that said hook will hold. The momentum keeps the door travelling the right direction, giving sufficient time to step over the bowl to the other side of the cubicle so the door can be locked.

Having undertaken the relaxing business of answering nature's call, the logistical challenge of ejecting oneself from this cell of complexity looms. The challenge is all about order. Standing up results in injuries to the face as the bags hanging on the back of the door make contact. Leaning up to try to dislodge the bags before fully standing results in considerable pain from the dislocated shoulder which follows. There's also the risk that the windmill action required could result in the bags flying over one's head and plunging to their watery death. Once that bit is worked out, the entry process is engineered in reverse: wedging in behind the toilet and the dispenser while trying to reach the lock on the door. If one can manage to open the door from this angle, then the ridiculousness of the situation is on display for all to see. And there will be plenty to see it because no matter where or when, there is ALWAYS a queue in the women's  toilets. Everyone pretends not to notice, but really they're dreading the feat that awaits them. Not only does all of the above have to be accomplished, it must be done under pressure of time - there are ladies queuing - but it must be achieved with a full bladder!

Who the hell designed these?

Open the doors outwards!

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Justice and fairness - casualties of fear

Funny how fundamental principles of justice and fairness are threatened whenever something like yesterday's siege in Sydney happens.

The gunman was out on bail.

First thing this morning I received a request to sign a petition to tighten up bail laws.

That didn't take long, I thought.

Extraordinary situations happen. Sadly. It's quite frightening to think about what our legal rights would look like if the laws were based on the rare event.

I think about Peter Greste, the Australian journalist currently in an Egyptian prison. He was denied bail. We signed petitions for him to be released on bail.

It seems that the presumption of innocence is the first thing that is easily thrown out when something terrible happens.

Maybe I'm a bleeding heart, but the presumption of innocence is precious to me.

Then again, we have dozens of innocent people locked up in offshore prisons, their only transgression, the temerity to seek asylum and protection. I suppose in this context,  what was done yesterday by a dangerous man known to police is very hard to accept.

The world is so out of balance.

It's interesting how all actions devalue or enhance. That balance is so delicate and now there's no balance at all.

As I despair, I remember the story behind "#illridewithyou" and a little bit of hope is restored.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Where's the transition industry policy for agriculture in Australia?

It's a sign of the times when newspaper headlines refer to something that went viral on social media. I think back to my journalism studies and it was never envisaged within the definition of news. We were still dealing with the dog bites man/man bites dog paradigm.

Because of personal circumstances, I've been taking a particular interest in the commercial realities and challenges of agriculture in Australia and I came across this article in the Toowoomba Chronicle: Darling Downs Vet's "corporate terrorism" blast goes viral.

It's well written, coherently argued and raises some striking points.

There's also last week's announcement from one of the big four banks of a 12 month moratorium on penalty interest and foreclosure action against drought affected farmers. None of the others have followed.

This prompted me to think about these problems from a public policy point of view.

Living in Melbourne (or any city) it's easy to forget about what it's like to be on a farm during drought. It's one of the most depressing and soul destroying things you can experience. The endless blue skies, unblemished by clouds, become oppressive, rather than welcome. A few years ago when Melbourne was in drought, people complained about water restrictions that meant they couldn't water their gardens every day. On a farm, vegetation disappears and the ground is just bare dirt. Animals are skin and bone. Everything is covered in dust. Hope is burned away under the relentless sun.

Not only is there no water or vegetation, there's no money. Income dries up too. We might feel the impact with an increase in food prices, but they'll creep up without being noticeable.

This image is from the Bureau of Meteorology and shows areas that have had below average rainfall in the last two years. Those red areas are Australia's prime farming areas. From their website:

As I've watched my family's (mis)fortune on the land, I've come to the conclusion that farming, grazing, and any agricultural business is a mug's game. The investment required is enormous and the conditions required for a return - even to break even - are completely uncontrollable. The weather is central, yet is so uncertain. What other business has this challenge as central to its standard operating procedure? Add to this the impact of climate change and "free market" agreements which make market conditions even more difficult the need to borrow money is the only thing that's certain. Banks will lend it too, but have no tolerance for the natural vagaries of the industry. Call it corporate terrorism or at the very least, it's the modern equivalent of the unctuous snake oil salesman or travelling tent evangelist. The hands go out to take the money, but there's no one there when you need help.

One of the things we take for granted in the city is the ability to go to the supermarket and buy whatever food we want. Some of us are conscious about origin and try to buy local, but anyone who has ever tried to buy Australian garlic will know how hard this can be. We have a secure food supply. I don't think its continuity is assured. As more farmers are forced off the land and fewer people take it up, the real question is "who will grow our food"?

My Dad talked to me the other day about how his father was able to raise a family of four on a reasonably small farm. That's not possible anymore. What surprises me is that this is an industry going through the kind of transition that the automotive manufacturing went through in Australia, yet the support for the people who have no choice but to leave is just not there.

One bank promising not to foreclose on drought affected farmers for 12 months is not going to cut it. Where's the comprehensive public policy response? There isn't one. Farmers aren't sexy in the way cars are. They're also not concentrated in particular towns. Most regional towns and villages in Australia feel the flow on effects when the farms surrounding have no money to spend. While 12 months might bring welcome relief for farming families who are affected, it does nothing to solve the problem. What happens at the end of the 12 months? Farm debt will have grown even more and the capacity to pay still won't be there. Perhaps the banks hope that the issue will have faded from public view and they can quietly go about the business of evicting families.

The other aspect is the actions of the supermarket duopoly which distorts the market and puts further pressure on farmers.

Food is pretty important. A safe and reliable food supply is critical. It might be hard to imagine these are under threat, but without a comprehensive public policy response, we're in trouble. Some may argue that the market is operating as it should and weeding out inefficient businesses. That's probably true, but there are plenty of examples where a pure market response has been abandoned and the government has intervened.  Surely feeding the nation in a secure, sustainable way is a priority.

ETA: Today's Daily Telegraph newspaper has a comprehensive story and photographs about the situation in Walgett in NSW's west.

The Commonwealth Bank is running an appeal. Donations can be made here.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Ritual or habit - Is there a difference?

Following on from yesterday's post about ritual and community, I've been thinking about whether any of the things I do constitute ritual. I think they do.

On Wednesday nights I drive over to the other side of town to meet with 20 other people in a hall attached to a Russian Orthodox church. It's choir practice night. There are the greetings as people trickle in. People connect with each other and new things are discovered. We stand in a circle to warm up with music that is familiar before learning a new song or working to develop a work in progress. New friends are made and professional connections forged. There is much laughter and warmth and it's very special singing in a group and making eye contact around the circle.

I think this is a ritual. It is regularly practised. It creates connection and leaves me with a sense of refreshment and connection. Is it any wonder that choirs have been used as an indicator of community health

Each night I light a couple of scented candles. Sometimes I think of something particular as I do and other times I just light the candle. The lighting of a candle often forms part of sacred ritual. This is an accessible and private ritual.

Knitting is something I do everyday, along with reading, walking, playing music and brushing my teeth. Knitting is part of my daily ritual. I slow down, sit down and take up my needles. My hands know what to do without even looking and I soon find my rhythm. I delight in the rich colours as every piece passes through my hands. If I'm knitting for someone else, I think of them while I knit. Soon I feel calmer.

Not so long ago, writing was part of my daily habit. Is a habit the same as a ritual? I think it depends. Contemporary language has appropriated terms like "ritual" and "icon" from religious context and placed them in a purely secular, often commercial context. Sporting heroes and pop star celebrities are now referred to as icons and mundane actions like checking your phone are often referred to as rituals. Reality dating shows like "The Bachelor" hold a "rose ceremony" to remove contestants and "Survivor" incorporates "getting fire to symbolise life" into tribal council. Perhaps these are examples of things that have become ritualised. 

A search of the web for images of ritual resulted in pagan images. Interesting. To me a ritual has an element of purpose or mindfulness and something changes as a result of engaging in it. And there is an order or a sequence which is observed.

At the music camp I go to every year (Summersong), ritual forms part of the big celebration party held in the middle of the week. Often the experience is profound and individuals can engage in the experience as deeply as they wish. My first year at Summersong involved a moment that I can pinpoint as being life changing.

We were asked to think of something that we wished to give up. We then had to find a natural object that would embody this thing and bring it with us to the party. I thought about this, taking it very seriously; the idea resonated. After much deliberation I realised that I wanted to give up my hardness. After many years of being a union leader I started to recognise how the toughness I was required to have everyday had made me quite a hard person. I realised I had drifted a long way from myself. I found a stone from the lake bed to embody my hardness. As we filed into the hall we were greeted with deep eye contact and invited to sit and have our feet washed. It was exquisite. I clutched my stone and as I sat there, I could feel a hard lump rising through my torso. Soon, the tears started to flow. They continued for quite a long time. I was invited to discard my stone into a basket. As I did, the tears stopped. I felt like the hardness had left.

I don't know how this will sound to people who weren't there and I'm a bit nervous about sharing it. The reason I have shared here is to show that ritual does not have to be religious. The thing that defines an action as being a ritual, for me, is the notion of being purposeful and conducted in a thoughtful, conscious mindset.

As for the writing habit, I'm reinstating it and still deciding.

What rituals do you have in your life? Where did they come from? How do they affect you?

Saturday, 13 December 2014

The ritual of grief - remembering those who died at work

My last post was in early October. I've been pondering why I have not been feeling the compulsion to write. It wasn't that I was "blocked", I could still write easily and freely when required. Fellow writers and regular readers kept telling me how much they hoped I would start to write again. This was lovely feedback and support, but still the desire wasn't there.

A few weeks ago I realised what had happened. I had so much going on in my life that I just couldn't talk about publicly. The filtering was so much harder. After the filtering, the sifting through what was left to see if there was anything available to spin a story of interest to readers. There wasn't.

So much of my writing is based on observing the behaviour and interactions of others and thinking about the encounters that I have out in the world. When many of my interactions became confidential or deeply personal, I could not filter enough; or filtered so much that there was a mere speck of a detail left. I may as well write about the dust on top of the fridge!

This week, all of that has been shaken out of the way with two experiences. The first experience I can't write about just now, the second one happened today.

Today I sang as a member of vocal group Mood Swing at a service to remember and celebrate the lives of those who have died from work-related causes. The annual remembrance service is conducted by the Uniting Church's Creative Ministries Network, GriefWork and I knew that it would be a sombre, sad occasion. I also know that sometimes my empathetic nature makes it hard for me to be in this kind of situation without being emotionally moved.

Families, workmates and other members of the community came to share a ritual of grief with their community. As I listened to the reflections, prayers and personal experiences I was moved by the courage on display. Death is part of what it is to be human, but it is so much worse when that death was preventable and far too early. I was struck by the open way in which tears and grief were discussed in the coolness of the church. The summer sun illuminated gloriously the stained glass windows, their stories reminding us about death and sacrifice. These workers who died because of something at their workplace were not martyrs for a cause or a better world. They were innocent people, going about their daily lives and earning a living to support themselves and their families. To work is one of the most revered activities in our contemporary world and it has so many casualties.

I was shocked to hear so many of the deaths were suicides caused by workplace bullying. How can this happen? How can it be so severe as to go unnoticed, with the victim left unsupported with only one, terrible solution available to them? I could feel my anger stirring.

Woven stories - the commemorative quilt.
© 2014 divacultura
Candles were lit, illuminating the photographs and mementos bringing lost loved ones into our hearts. A memorial quilt was unfurled and hung beneath the big window. Names of those lost were read. Each new gesture renewed my tears as grief and anger swelled inside me.

One woman, Olive, spoke about the loss of her husband 10 years ago. He was shot at work. Their son was 6 months old at the time. Olive is an amazing woman. She showed courage as she spoke about the deeply personal relationship she has with her grief and her struggle. She spoke about thoughts being the language of the mind and feelings being the language of the body. On the subject of forgiveness, she spoke about the challenge and how she has recently realised that forgiveness isn't for the person who pulled the trigger and it can't change the past; it's for her. Through forgiveness she acknowledges she can become a bigger, stronger person. We all can. I examined who in my life I need to forgive.

After the service, I thanked her for sharing and acknowledged her courage in speaking the way she did. She looked uncertain and asked me if it was "all right". I responded: "You are extraordinary and what you did today was an amazing privilege to witness." Tears filled her eyes. Tears filled my eyes. She hugged me.

The inclusion of music in such a service is a beautiful and inspired choice. The songs we sang today were all part of our repertoire and I can regularly sing them without tears flowing. Today, a new poignancy was discovered in the words. The program promised songs of "justice, sorrow and hope". We sang:

He's Sweet I Know
Waiting on an Angel
Don't feel no ways tired
Come and stand in that river
Lean on me
Irish Blessing.

At the end of the service we stood in a circle and were invited to say something about our experience of the service. (Such an inclusive act, not just the  priest or designated authority allowed to speak!) A woman standing next to me patted my arm and asked me if I was all right. Unlike me, she had lost someone and was enquiring into my well being!

Thoughtful, simple rituals, can be so powerful in helping us express and come together to share our feelings, whether they be sad or joyful. How I miss them in daily life.

I left the church thinking about the death of cricketer Phil Hughes who suffered death in his workplace. The simple act of the community at large placing cricket bats outside, bears out the power and importance of ritual to help us heal.

© 2014 divacultura