Thursday, June 21, 2012


To be a survivor–first you must bleed. You bleed all that was inside of you: the pain, the memories, the fear, the wounds fusing together, the ties to what was in, all its forms. You bleed not once but several times. And when you are empty, you either fade into a shadow or find the strength, and courage to live. When you stand up again, you are for a time, hollow–empty, like a bottle of beer lying on the street, cracked and reeking of its bitter contents. Then you fill yourself up with the new, your recreate yourself–you reform. You don’t have the same heart or mind. The way you see the world is forever changed. 

Lynn Mari via The Last Straw

Monday, June 18, 2012

Why I'm still learning how to be a feminist

I have been among the thousands - or probably millions - of people watching reality TV show The Voice in Australia over the last couple of months.  Unusually for me, I got quite involved in the Twitter stream during each episode.  Probably because at times I found the tweets more entertaining than the show. Especially the sharp minds that came up with scathing and hilarious comments on everything from the shoes to the song choice.

It was all too easy to get caught up in the hype. The conversations about the singing, costumes, the coaches' critiques, and more. But ultimately it was the people; of whom I know nothing other than what the show's producers chose for me to see.

But, as the show ends, none of that is what has really stuck with me.  Somehow, this carefully constructed 'reality' tv program - about an industry that is undeniably image-centric and does as much damage to women as good - became a lesson in feminism.  I've realised both why I declare myself to be a feminist and also why I still have a long way to go.

Lesson 1: power imbalances are visible

I was not the only one to notice that Seal had a (literally) very hands-on approach to his contestants, particularly the female ones.  He cupped their faces in his hands while congratulating them on their performances.  He talked to them about owning their sexuality and expressing it in their music.  He looked at some with thinly-concealed sexual appraisal in his gaze.

All of which might be standard music-industry behaviour.  All of which is probably (as a hapless colleague said to me over lunch one day) "just" Seal being himself, expressing his personality.  All of it done in a hugely public way (although that is preferable to behind closed doors) in front of an audience composed of untold numbers of young people still forming their concepts of gender, relationships, sexuality and healthy boundaries.  And all of it ignoring the glaring power imbalance between this male, older, famous, sex-symbol, music-industry role model and the naive, hopeful, barely-adult and adolescent girls he was coaching.  

I'm not trying to cast aspersions on Seal's character or intentions, but I cannot help but view his actions as problematic, even disturbing.  It might be naive and idealistic of me to hope that people with that kind of social and cultural clout would be not only aware of their power but to use it consciously and judiciously.

But the acid test is a gender reversal: what if Delta Goodrem behaved like that towards her male contestants?  What if one of the young women behaved like that towards one of the male coaches? It could not be dismissed or minimised nearly so easily.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Assessment and poetry don't mix

A little while ago I paid for a poetry assessment through my local writer's centre.  $75 got me half an hour with a renowned poet who is also an editor and well involved with the 'academic' poetry world.  I had been to a poetry reading by this particular person before, and loved her work.  I thought of all the professional wordsmiths to show my work to, she would be a good fit.

I knew it was a mistake as soon as I stepped in the door.  The person I was getting was not the sensitive soul with a skillful pen I had observed elsewhere.  The person I was getting was friendly but business-like.  I was getting the poetry critic, the professional, the lecturer.  In short, I was getting what I had paid for.

I was prepared for my poems to be critiqued.  I anticipated constructive criticism.  She told me that my line endings were predictable, that I should use more metaphor and simile, less abstraction.  Essentially that the little collection of poems I had presented were not bad, but could be better. It made sense, I could see her points.

What I forgot to allow for were my feelings.  I've always been emotionally attached to many of my poems.  They are my life story, in snippets. They are my impressions, my thoughts, my experiences distilled into brief lines. So, logic aside, criticism of my poetry has always felt like criticism of me, in some way.  Though I tell myself it is not, it is.

Critiquing poetry has always seemed sacrilegious to me, from an early age.  I remember stuffy high school classrooms; being hunched over my desk trying to analyse and pick apart famous poetry.  Trying to guess the poet's intention and meaning, talking about their use of language, rhyme, pace, alliteration.  I've always hated it.

Now I find that I haven't written a single poem since that fateful half-hour in an upstairs room with yellow walls and a sloping ceiling.  In and of itself, this is not an extraordinary thing.  I often have long dry spells, usually accompanied by an overindulgence in working too hard, doing the things I like least.

But the difference is that I am shying away from it now.  I don't want to try, don't want to write more "not bad" poetry.  I don't remember feeling this way before, not this particular strain of wordless-ness.  Perhaps it's fear.  Perhaps it's a bruised ego.  I'm not sure.

The one thing most likely to pull me out of a slump is to spend time in the presence of poetry, and poets, those who see the world in a similar way.  So for now I am reading, soaking up what I can.  Hoping that I can fill myself up with enough lovely, piercing, elegant words that some of them will start to spill over again.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

On receiving ingratitude

I'm struggling with the concept of gratitude at present. The opposite end of gratitude, receiving it, or lack of it. In particular, how people express it for those that have done the most for us: family, our closest friends.  

It is a reflection of the space that I'm in: a culmination of my life until now, looking back at the decisions that have led me to here. I feel, very much, like being selfish.  You know the song "what about me, it isn't fair..."  Perhaps I'm having a 'thrisis'.  I find questioning the meaning of my life, wondering what makes it matter.  Why have I done the things I've done?  And what will matter from now on?  

By no means do I think it's a right to receive thanks for the things I do for those I love.  If that were my motivation, I would do much less than I do.  But there's a certain sting when someone stands about proclaiming "I did it my way" with no acknowledgement of the sacrifices I have made to help them get there.  

Lao Tzu is credited with saying:

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.

I think it is the same with family, with those we love.  Our best work is invisible, when we are helping without proclaiming it, working quietly in the background.  If someone says 'I did it!': job well done supporter-person-you.  This is what I tell myself, the logic I build up around myself.  Ah but the sting, the sting... 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

How people without kids can help parents

As someone who dispenses parenting advice on a daily basis, it’s pretty difficult to avoid the question “do you have children?”  Or, perhaps more importantly, the message behind that question: ‘how can you understand/help if you don’t have children?” Over the years I’ve come up with a range of ways to respond to this. Sometimes I just avoid it or deflect attention to the other person in the conversation.  Sometimes it bugs me and I feel like yelling at them: "why does it matter?! I'm good at my job dammit!" But really, it’s a very good question.

A little while ago a client asked me a series of somewhat personal questions throughout a conversation about his parenting dilemma.  He wanted to know if I had children (no), was I married (no again), what was my religion (a fair question, given I work for a church-based organisation… my response was that I wouldn’t be doing my job if I allowed religion to colour my advice to him) and where did I live (Sydney). 

Traditional counselling approaches suggest I perhaps shouldn’t answer those questions. However it’s never occurred to me to fib about how many children I have.  I try to answer questions directly and honestly, whenever I think it’s appropriate, and let my conversation, empathy and ideas speak for themselves.

Some people will stop listening to me as soon as I say “no, I don’t have any children”.  Sometimes that’s frustrating for me, but who am I to demand that someone should listen to me, if I don’t fit with their idea of a suitable source of advice?

I had a light-bulb moment with this particular parent as I realised he was asking for my credentials.  In my world credentials are provided by having a degree, doing lots of training, talking to other counsellors, seeing lots of clients, and having positive ‘outcomes’ to my work with families.  For this gentleman, that didn’t matter.  The kind of life someone lives can give more credence to their words than anything else. I think he was trying to compare my perspective to my ‘position’ in the world.

He was a little surprised that a young, city-dwelling woman with no children or partner could give him useful, balanced advice on how to respond to his family and his unique situation.  Perhaps it’s arrogant of me, but I suspect that my lack of “real-world” credentials actually made my input more potent. It highlights that direct experience is not the only way to gain insights of value.

Having children of my own will probably give me license to groan in sympathy as other parents talk about the frustrations and lowlights of raising children.  It will give me opportunities to say “well, with my kids this worked…”  One day.

But the experience I do have tells me that parents can often find sympathy more easily than sound advice or a balanced view.  There are peer support groups, huddles in school walkways, online forums and bustling in-laws for that. There are plenty of over-helpful bus drivers or cranky shop assistants with ideas on how to best take care of your kids.  If that’s what you’re after.