Thanks for being the opening speaker for the Festival of Open Minds held in Bega last Friday on the first day of Spring. You left us feeling a sense of deepest honour and respect for baring your heart and life to us. Ian Campbell nailed it when he said that you opened our hearts as well as our minds. Indeed, every speaker left us with plenty to ruminate on.
You are so lucky to have experienced even one moment of pure joy in your life – that joy you spoke of when you found the courage to decide to allow yourself to be who you are. I think it is a rare treasure many of us never have. I have had only one moment of pure joy, a moment when I actually cried and realised there really was such a thing as ‘tears of joy’. Just after childbirth, gazing at my baby, and feeling as if I had no skin – I was at my most vulnerable, and I was connected to all of humanity by some magical invisible but powerful thread. My personal shielding walls were surprised down with joy, at least for a short, special time.
So many of us are living ‘lives of quiet desperation’, or less than their hopes and expectations as you put it, and never letting themselves make that decision to really live. For many of us, the sh*t that happens to us suffocates us, and we don’t learn how to find our inner strength. Or maybe it takes a LONG time! Almost too late!! How poignant that you could see yourself sadly choosing to die before ever really having been born. Thank goodness for that laugh that saved you for another day.
Gazing at me in your audience, you may think me untainted with shame, unscarred and ‘normal’. Let me say that I too know shame. I carry the shame of having a convicted paedophile in the family who has left a trail of pain in my life. I have a deep fear of feeling unsafe to express myself in the face of others’ rage and anger. I understand the trapped and hopeless feelings of depression and PTSD, and the reluctance of talking about taboo subjects for fear of rejection.
The giant jigsaw puzzle of a thousand pieces of my life’s meaning is only just joining up for me at 56; the outer bits of sky and grass were easier, while those tricky inner pieces of complicated emotions and experiences buried for years have been much harder to put together, but an understanding is forming and becoming clearer.
To be honest, I related to you as a human, a person – not genderless, but both at once, having an understanding and experience of being both a woman and a man, but also the lostness of in-between. Maybe that’s what being human is? It transcends male and female. I have always felt that being a woman is an obstacle to feeling that my ‘personhood’ is recognised. That the gender trappings were a stage costume I wear every day, but underneath I’m just a person trying to live the best way I can in ‘my life’ as it unfolds, with seemingly little control from me.
I felt so sad for you in your depression, wanting an out with suicide. Speaking so frankly, so intimately, yet relieving my compassion with a laugh here and there gave me such insight into your struggle for meaning, a sense of who you are/want to become, which is really what all humans struggle with in various ways. That sense of connection and meaning is what I was seeking by coming to the Festival of Open Minds.
You shared moments of your own special connections – with cricket players and taxi drivers, and the salvation of a good laugh, giving you just enough release to live another day. That fine line between laughter and deepest pain – it reminded me of when I felt the overwhelming emotion of sadness at a funeral when it felt like laughter was the release I needed, and the confusing times when excessive laughter turned to tears of anguish leaking out from hidden unrecognised depths.
The sense of connection you allowed me to share by baring your most vulnerable moments in your life journey led me to blurt out aloud during the applause at the end of your speech, “Oh, I feel like standing up!”. The unknown woman in the row in front of me turned to me and said, ‘ Then you should!’ She gave me that little push of permission, and I consciously chose to stand and clap for you, alone and conspicuous for a few moments, then joined by the rest of the audience in a standing ovation which thrilled me, my tentative step meant others could follow…a small jolt, which is what taking action is about.
What a fantastic opening talk you gave us to prise open our minds! The other speakers on the day followed strongly – the theme that was repeated by many was our human need for meaningful connections with other humans, our sense of identity and belonging.
Hugh Mackay AO reminded us that when our sense of belonging is reduced, our anxiety rises and that social isolation (loneliness) is an even greater threat to our health than obesity. Technology promises to deliver more connection, but instead, it can isolate us further in a world of unreality. Hugh urged us to greet the people in our street, to smile at strangers and initiate conversations in trains, bus stops, and supermarkets… just like the old days.
Linda Burney MP described for us her deep connection to her land and the significance of the ‘Welcome to Country’. She presented her dilemma in the face of overwhelming sadness at her husband and son’s death: “I could go under, or I could become a more compassionate person” and showed us her strength in pushing through to try to improve others’ lives. I thought of the importance of connection to country two days later when I took my 90-year-old father back to his childhood farm which is now overgrown with pine trees and unrecognisable – to try to find a special place where he felt his ashes should be laid to rest. As we joined family members from far and wide to lay his sister to rest, I felt the importance of family, even though we are scattered across this continent.
Remembering that the word ‘compassion’ means ‘to suffer with’, I reflected on how many of the speakers highlighted some aspect of human suffering, and I felt their pain.
I was touched by Jan Harris who stood to speak of losing her home with its memories and treasures to the fury of the Tathra bushfire. Having been through the Canberra Firestorm in 2003, I could relate to her raw grief and agreed she was not merely in recovery – this was sheer grieving. It will take a long time to heal, both for individuals and for the Tathra community.
Jo Dodds’ photos and story of watching her home almost burn in the recent Tathra bushfire and then reacting to her friend’s loss was impressive. That experience has become a catalyst for her to advocate for renewable energy sources to ameliorate climate change. Climate change is the greatest fear in my teenagers’ hearts as they wonder if the world will still be liveable in their lifetime, that they may be the last generation.
Climate change and education have been the issues I have thought and researched most about, and I was heartened to hear speakers on both topics.
Gabbie Stroud’s experiences of the creativity being tested and standardised out of our children rang true for me.
How sad to listen to my own teenagers who are smart but bored, disengaged in their education, and disillusioned by politicians who instead of making sensible decisions for the good of our country, are passing the buck in the next leadership battle. Where are the political leaders with heart and courage to look after our world and everyone in it, not just those who are rich and powerful enough to have influence? Our teenagers find no hope in current politics where their future is uncertain and unsupported. What use is it that my kids show they are bands above their actual age in every standardised test if they have no hope in their futures?
My kids prefer to pit themselves as part of an international team against other gamers to combat various tests of skill, memory, morals, co-operation, and teamwork in massively multiplayer online role-playing games – maybe we need more teachers who can harness the power of games?
My Dear Catherine, this letter is my attempt to respond in conversation to you, so that your words don’t feel like they are echoing on an empty back wall. You are not alone. I am not alone – we need each other in all our diversity, in all our imperfection and our personal search for meaning and belonging. Without each other there is no meaning. Without a dialogue, a response, how can you know your own impact? How can you feel listened to and accepted? Those special people who have listened to my story, and still accepted me despite its pain and ugliness, have helped me on my path to healing. Every time I tell someone, the pain recedes a little more and my understanding and acceptance grows. When others disclose their pain, I can be there with them too, knowing we are all struggling with aspects of our lives.
I commend you, Catherine, on your new direction – your Law degree – and I look forward to watching as you help the Indigenous Treaty come to fruition. You, a formerly marginalised person who has experienced the dark night of the soul, and like a phoenix have risen to recreate yourself, carrying your past and present with dignity and compassion, are in a wonderful position to help. You are no longer a marginalised minority in the closet – you are now a leader, a perceptive and compassionate inspiration walking in the floodlights.
Namaste – “The divine in me bows to the divine in you.”
6 September 2018