Thursday, 21 May 2020

Arriving and arriving and arriving


As you will likely know, I have spent the past five years in movement. First a move from London to Sydney with my partner, where we have lived on the unceded lands of the Gadigal people for what was initially supposed to be three years and has now extended into an indefinite time. Then in late 2018 I took the most beautiful opportunity to work with Luis Carlos Sotelo Castro helping set up the Acts of Listening Lab at Concordia University on the unceded lands of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation in Tiohtià:ke/Montréal – a position that should have lasted two years but which I have (with deep regret) left early due to the pandemic. During the time I was working there, I travelled back and forth across the world more than once a year in order to sustain both my job and my relationship with my partner. Now I find myself suddenly back in Sydney; the apartment I have been calling home sitting empty in Montreal; my (elderly) parents and sister in England; extensive blood family in India; chosen family all over the world. I have been living globally, dropping into communities and friendships, writing letters and sending voicelets, but never staying long enough on the ground to be counted (on). All of this movement that so many of us took for granted has come to a sudden standstill. In my last blog post, I reflected a little on the feelings of pain and confrontation that change (actual, real change, as opposed to the kind of change I can experience without destabilising my own privilege or comfort) brings. This one feels more personal – a reflection on my own journey – a document of what that kind of once carefree movement across borders has felt like in these past months – and a record of the kindnesses and questions I have encountered along the way. It’s a long read, I imagine only of interest to friends who care to know how I’ve been going. If you’re up for the long read right now, thank you for your companionship.


1. Tiohtià:ke/Montréal



Mid-March. I’m in my beautiful sublet in Montreal, on the 21st floor, overlooking the city. My university has closed. All my work for this year has been cancelled. I understand that staying isolated is an act of love that I have the luxury to perform, so I go into my own early lockdown, avoiding any time in other people’s homes, and only going out when absolutely necessary, washing hands frequently and using rubbing alcohol to wipe down door handles and occasional grocery purchases. I already hate this social distancing, and I notice how much I appreciate the looks. Over the next two weeks I notice more and more human connection. People smiling under masks, so their smile is visible in their eyes. People leaving distance between us as we pass, but nodding, as if to say: yes, we are doing this for each other.

When the isolation began, I left a note for my elderly neighbours on either side, asking them to contact me if they needed anything, and offering to do groceries. It feels like we often make these kinds of gestures, but they are rarely followed up. This time, it’s different. We have to reach out. The lady next door calls me. She speaks french. I understand just enough to be able to communicate. She tells me that she is well but she is over seventy and has been advised to stay home. She asks how we would do it if I were to get groceries for her. We come up with a system. A few days later, she calls again to say it’s time.  She leaves empty shopping bags, a detailed shopping list in careful handwriting, and some money in an envelope outside my door, knocking loudly before returning to her apartment. I go down and buy things for her from three different shops in our building. I wear a mask. I am careful with touching things. I wipe them down before leaving them outside her door, giving a knock, and walking away. She calls out, “Merci beaucoup.” She phones later to thank me for my kindness. It doesn’t feel like kindness. It feels like reciprocity. Reciprocity is what I have long been hungry for.

I make hot chocolate and cake for a small group of people who are living on the streets very near my home. I figure they must be suffering because of the social distancing. I am very careful not to touch anything or breathe on anything while I bake, and hand over the goods in a paper bag while wearing winter gloves. They are full of joy. I am full of joy. We chat a little, at a distance. I learn that one of them is called Lola. During this time as most of us have looked more and more harried and worried, this small group of people has continued smiling every day. I am so grateful for their smiles, and wish I had made friends with them earlier in my time living here. What is it that stops us from being kind to each other, or even noticing each other? The learnt behaviours of capitalism become easier to notice and more noticably absurd to me during this time.

Over these two weeks, the pandemic is declared, and things start changing swiftly around the world. It suddenly feels like nothing is a given. I feel into both the challenge and the possibility of this. I wonder about whether I should try and return home to Sydney, to be with my partner. I flip and flop in my decision, one day to the next. I am safe in Montreal. I have a beautiful apartment, and a good network of friends and chosen family who will take care of each other. I am seen and held. It doesn’t make sense to travel during a pandemic. I want to stay. And I also know that in wanting to stay I am holding on to a life that no longer exists.

At a certain point I realise that no one can make this decision for me. There is something profoundly liberating about this. I am used to looking over at someone else to check whether I am doing right or wrong, good or bad. And now? Suddenly there is no validation of right or wrong that comes from outside, because nobody knows, and nobody is even pretending to know. There is only a decision that I have to make and that I have to live with. So many of these decisions being made every day by each of us. Heart choices, hard choices that will determine whether we get to be with loved ones when they die.

I wait, feeling into the decision.

I know it will come.

And then, against many odds, I decide to leave.



2. Travel



There is a narrative that starts to surface around this time: go home. It is a simple narrative, and a simplifying narrative. It says that everyone should return home. And for some people, it is more or less clear what this means. For some people, it is an easy decision. Home = one place. Family = one unit, or one location, or one person. For some people, home = safety or security, and returning is an option. For others, not. Many people tell me it would make them happy to know that I am with my partner during this time. I know that it will make me happy to be with my partner, and that I will be safe there. But I am deeply resistant to the idea that this is the only narrative, or even the most important narrative of this moment. I have many loves, many lives, many homes. Perhaps more importantly I feel that now, more than ever, we must connect with a wider sense of what it means to be family. I want to use this moment to open up, not to close down.

In spite of this, I decide to leave, and to travel during the pandemic, knowing that it might be a very long time before this kind of choice is available to me if I stay. I leave knowing that I cannot come back, that Canada has closed its borders, and so has Australia. It is a one way decision. I have spent the past years moving between worlds. I strongly believe that this is a role I have been born into – queerness fluidity not-knowing and inbetweenness are written into me at a very deep level. But I also know that flying in an aeroplane is not the only way to move between worlds.

In the moment I make my decision to leave, I understand that everything I need is within me. I am keenly aware of my privilege as I spend $2,000 on a one-way ticket to a country in which I have ‘permanent residency’ on unceded lands. I feel something that I have been lucky enough to experience only a few times in my life: that my movement is shaped by government policy, and my freedom is held in place by the decisions made at borders. And at the same time, something shifts inside me as I accept this reality. I trust something deeper, a history that is longer than those borders or governments, and therefore both longer and wider than my life.

At 7.15am on the morning of my scheduled (evening) departure, I check my flight status online, and find out that my flight has been cancelled and I have been rebooked onto a flight that leaves at 8am. I knew this might happen. We have moved into a world where getting a notification of a change or cancellation is rare. Airlines are barely functioning. I throw my clothes on, call a taxi, and head straight to the airport. I am lucky there are still taxis operating in Montreal. I am lucky that there are still just enough flights that Air Canada can re-route me that day. And then, without any goodbyes, I am on my way to Sydney, via Toronto and Vancouver, unshowered, hungry, my belongings shoved into all the vessels I could appropriate into suitcases on short notice. I contact friends and ask them if they can clean up after me. I left my apartment with dirty dishes in the sink, a half-eaten meal in the fridge, my bedclothes in dissaray from my rushed departure. Many of my belongings are still in Montreal, but belongings feel secondary in this moment. As I struggle through airports over the next 30 hours, lugging a cheap midi keyboard under my arm and three other bags full of stuff, I understand that being in this body is the only thing that matters. I feel like a human being, part of a species, struggling to survive, riding out this collapse that we have made and trying to learn how to plant seeds for a simpler and wiser future.

I spend hours waiting in Toronto airport, and then again in Vancouver airport. Both airports feel like an embrace between chaos and emptiness. There are no trolleys, barely any people, and almost all the shops are shut. Airport staff, airline staff, and travellers are dotted around in various levels of protective gear. A few people seem to have no protection at all, going about their business, gathering in groups, as if there were no pandemic. Many people, myself included, wear disposible gloves and masks. I see one person in a full body suit, with gloves, mask, and goggles. I am wearing a tailored suit and a silk shirt. I usually wear super comfy clothes when travelling long distance. But this time I wanted to feel glamorous. Glamour as armour, as safety, a talisman to get me safely across the world one last time.

During the flight, they don’t serve any drinks apart from bottled water, which is limited to two tiny bottles per person. There are no meal services on the short flights, and on the sixteen-hour flight they bring around pre-packed food, once in the evening, once in the morning. There are no ‘special meals’. When one of the crew members realises that I cannot eat the prepackaged meal they have brought around, he sends half of his meal to my seat, so that I have something to eat. I am bowled over by this gesture. Some of the crew members are, understandably, snappy and rude, their fear and exhaustion seeping through. But in this moment this person chooses to be compassionate and I am flooded with gratitude at his kindness. What used to be a transactional relationship within a service economy suddenly feels as if it has transformed into a reciprocal one. Throughout my experience of travelling during the pandemic, I have encountered people who are choosing this as a moment of connection and compassion. Every time it happens, I notice how much it changes me, how it feels like it changes everything.



3. Quarantine




It was two days before leaving that I found out the Australian Government was going to make everyone arriving into the country quarantine for 14 days in “hotels or other accommodation”. I almost lost my nerve. The Australian Government is known for its xenophobia and racism. It sounded terrifying. And when we walked off the plane, and I saw the people from first class and business class, I smiled to myself thinking: we’re all in this together, even the people who travelled first class. I have to say this brought me some joy. It was only later that I realised this was going to work in my favour. Later I realised that because we were all citizens and permanent residents, we would be treated well, and because this ‘we’ included those who have power, financial or otherwise, we would be treated really well.

The hotel I am housed in is a four star hotel – somewhere I would never be able to afford to stay in for two weeks on my own terms. There is a desk, there are two double beds, there is a beautiful bathroom with a bath and a shower. For two weeks, we are served food three times a day, and can order snacks from the hotel menu. We are given fresh towels and toiletries every two days, and fresh sheets once a week. I can call the hotel staff at any time to make a request or ask a question. After a few days, they even introduce a grocery service, so that families can order extra provisions. At the same time, populations of less importance to the government – refugees, prisoners, the homeless – are denied safe accomodation.

During this time, people keep asking me if I’m okay – I mean, friends ask, but also mental health nurses call to check on me, the Red Cross calls twice, and medical staff call every day to see if I have any symptoms. One day, I get into a short conversation with the nurse who has called. I tell her I am grateful for the work she is doing, the work they are all doing to look after us. She says that my kind words have made her day, and that I am the only person who has said something positive to her about the work they are doing. I hear on the news and from friends that some people are complaining about ‘prison-like’ conditions in the quarantine hotels because we are not allowed to leave our rooms. I find their phrasing deeply offensive at a time when prisoners are at such high risk of contracting the virus. I dream about a world in which people in prison and others who are in vulnerable situations receive the same treatment as I am receiving. I have a deep hope that all those people who are struggling with their quarantine hotel experience will dedicate their post-quarantine life to prison reform.

I come to treasure the interactions I have with staff at the hotel, and even with the police. None  of these are face to face. Each of our meals comes in a paper bag, and every night someone writes a joke or little message by hand on the bag that houses our dinner. This detail is amazing to me – in the middle of a pandemic, within a police operated quarantine, someone thought this was important. I start drawing little pictures and leaving them out with my dinner bag when I have finished to say thank you. About halfway through my stay, I receive a note form the police:


Near the end of my stay, I get a knock on the door, and am surprised to find that when I open it there are two people standing outside. Usually there is a knock and when I open the door there is food or towels. This time, two male-presenting white-passing Aussie policemen greet me and say they are doing a room check. They take my name, and my phone number, and then they leave. They are friendly and formal. I find myself longing to keep them there, to make some kind of chat that would mean we would stand around and banter for a while. But I am totally lacking the language of banter that would be appropriate for this situation. I hear others further down the corridor laughing. I close the door and feel a deep longing. Later, it strikes me that I am craving human to human connection. It doesn’t matter who the people are. I never thought I would feel fondly towards the police, or that they would thank me for my drawings. This is an upside-down state for me. It is an indication that things are not as normal, and that what was assumed can be un-assumed. Confusing as they are, these are the moments when I have felt grounded in all of this: the moments when I remember and live into the fact that care and compassion are all that we have.



4. (always) Arriving















Back in my apartment in Sydney. I wake every morning and wonder if I will be arrived yet. This question about arriving is a luxury. I have enough time and space in my life right now to notice that I am often expecting to wake into my childhood bed these days, that I don’t know which season comes next, that the timelines in my life are jumbled around. I know that these are ways in which my body is processing this moment with its own intelligence.

I have often written or spoken about things like kindness and difficulty, care and (dis)ease, or reciprocity. Now I come back to them as urgent matters. I feel more than ever that we need to re-learn for ourselves how to both give and receive, separate from desire or shame or guilt or greed. How to develop the skills to do this without going into a mode of protection and separation from each other. We are not our money, our love, our resources. But we have a choice to allow those to flow or not flow.

Turning this world upside down, in the small ways, can bring about change. Or rather, turning this world upside down allows for change. We can make that change ourselves, in small ways, amending the systems that used to be default in our own behaviours. I can make friends with my neighbours, inside and outside the building where I live. I can cook for someone who does not have that skill or cannot find the energy. I can ask my friends to be there for me. This is the work of reciprocity. It is complex, and it is simple.

Now I am trying to do the work of not returning, not going back into old patterns.

Now I am trying to feel my way into what reciprocity looks like at a deeper level.

Now I am looking for allies who are ready to turn things around, or are already doing this work.

Now I realise that the work of arriving and arriving and arriving I’ve been doing over these years was preparation for this moment of collapse. I am not ready, and maybe that is the point.

Becoming and becoming and becoming.




*

with heartfelt thanks to CIFAS, who have supported me during this time without need for any outcome, allowing me time and space to process and write and develop the work of reciprocity


Sunday, 22 March 2020

Today everything changes

These words will resonate so differently, even in a week.
But here are some thoughts, from where I am right now,
March 21st, a marker of Spring or Autumn in some places.
2020, a marker of change on this planet.
Tiohtià:ke/Montréal.
Alone in my apartment.
Falling through uncertainty.



I’ll tell you a secret, something I’ve always been a bit ashamed of. When things fall apart, when projects fail, or plans – even big ones – fall through, a small part of me rises up. I feel excited by change, by the possibiltiies of thinking wider, of cancelling and finding another route at another time, of starting all over again. I think of myself as a good leader in these moments because even as I might feel challenged, I love feeling new futures emerge.

But this time, none of that. Just grief for a whole life lost. My plans this year – to deliver listening workshops and a beautiful symposium, to celebrate my dad’s 80th birthday, to be with my family who live in other countries – all cancelled. Universities closing. Borders closing. Everything closing. I am left with some hard decisions about whether I can or should travel to be with loved ones. And even harder decisions to come.

When the wildfires raged earlier this year where I and others were living, I thought: this is a time of reckoning. I wrote the last blog post in response to that moment, while wondering how to write from what felt like the end of a world. At that time, I felt a certain horror that everything kept functioning while the world was on fire. But now I feel the horror of everything shutting down and breaking apart. It is this, it turns out, this virus moving very much like wildfire, that provides the moment of reckoning. And I am not ready for how much that reckoning hurts.

I have a cardboard sign I made for the climate march in Montreal last year. It says, "Today everything changes." It was the first sign I ever made for a rally. I felt so proud of it. I brought it with me to a performance I did that night, and then I brought it home with me. Ever since, I have looked at it and it has looked at me. A kind of daily impasse has developed. I started to wonder what it even meant.

But now everything has changed.

*

What I haven’t done yet is slowed down enough to really feel the changing rhythms of this city, this mountain, to know these birds. What I haven’t done, in a long time, is felt into the rhythms of sleeping and waking without electronic input. What I haven’t done is let go of my plans. Instead, I have postponed them in my mind, to carry on with later.

Some plans will get postponed.

Some plans will get postponed indefinitely.

I want to remember that I have everything I need inside me, now and always – not in a ‘my’ and ‘mine’ kind of way, but in the sense that we are universes. In the sense that looking in is already also looking out, if we let it be that way. In the sense that my inside is not separate from the world. And the world as I have known and lived it is breaking open.

*

Many years ago my friend Mark Trezona gave me a pack of cards he had made. They were designed to help with running an Action Learning Set. Each had an open question that would help someone think through a problem they were confronting in their lives. I still use this pack, and treasure it. But there are two questions from the pack that I carry inside me:

What is the most radical thing you could do?

and

What is the simplest thing you could do?*

I wrote in my last blog post that I have been struggling to argue for listening in a world that needs action. I was thinking about the way that listening in a time of urgency sometimes feels inadequate or even silly. And I still feel it. I feel the trace of those thoughts in here, in this moment. But I also feel something different. I feel that listening is here, right here, urgently and proudly present in this moment. It’s not feeling ashamed any more in the face of activism. Today listening and being are activism. This moment, a deep acknowledgment that we are intricately bound whether we like it or not. That my touch, my breath itself, affect your breath, your capacity to live. The virus and its behaviours are us.

As we find ourselves in global shutdown, breakdown, and the sorrows that come with this collapse, I have a feeling that we must do what is at once simplest and most radical. Take to the roots. Know or trust that we have what we need within us. And listen in before we move forward.




*the actual questions are: ‘What is the most radical thing you could do to get what you want?’ and ‘What is the simplest useful thing you could do?’ but they have simplified in my head



Monday, 20 January 2020

Listening / in a time of urgency



It seems I have a tradition here of first signalling another blog post that has inspired me to finally sit down and write this one. Today it is ‘umb’ by So Mayer, which – exactly one month ago – flung me into the present moment, reminding me that writing doesn’t have to go somewhere else, be something else. That it can sit right in what is happening, even when that thing is unspeakable, hard to process, unprecedented, and beyond the confines of this language system I have found myself bound to.

So’s words don’t try to move beyond a state of (n)umbness, but to speak from it. The deep strong resonances their words create in my body remind me that the work I am constantly trying to make happen in the world is about just this: providing places and times when humans can come together and do nothing, move nothing forward. Places and times when we can be together without the need to also demonstrate that we are here.

It’s quite hard to say that out loud with conviction. The debate about whether this listening-gathering work I do has any worth goes around and around inside my head, as well as passing between me and brilliant others who do activist work that allies listening with politics in more obvious ways than mine. As I write it, now and every time, I feel ‘need for change’ and ‘need for action’ telling me that I should be doing something different. How can I argue that we should stay still, be together, without action, in a moment like this? The world is quite literally on fire.

“Numb. Succumb. A rhyme lost and found in the silence of an excrescent letter is a signal alerting us to be ready. To hold, open, even as we are going under. To let things echo in the hollow, however uncomfortable and hard – in their complexity, in their absoluteness, in their burden – to speak or to keep silent.

In that strange, held, horrible, heart-hollowing moment between the two – speech and silence – in the –umb, is listening.”



*


The blog post I began writing back in September was about a series of events I recently organised called Listening Tables – gatherings in which a group of up to 25 people collectively performs an act of reorientation, attempting to meet across difference from a place of listening, while taking on roles that we are not usually assigned within mainstream culture. In other words, an attempt to literally change who gets a seat at the table, who is heard, and how listening happens.

In a document about the project, I describe it as follows.

Each event will take place in two halves:

From 5-6.30pm ten people will drop into a place of listening, and collectively discover the words that arise from there. This is the Listening Table. Audience members who are not taking part in the Listening Table will have the opportunity to listen in via headphones from another room.

From 6.30-8pm we will enjoy a more convivial gathering in which everyone will be invited into a loosely held discussion together, shaped by the Listening Table that has just taken place.

It sounds joyful, doesn’t it? That’s the betrayal of words. The reality of doing this work is that it feels like a full body encounter with the stuckness, stubborness, and confrontedness of human beings facing change. It is some of the most complicated and challenging work I have ever done.

As anyone who has attended a workshop or gathering that I’ve organised in the past few years knows, I like to hold space by proposing parameters that challenge default modes of communicating. Something like:

No questions.
Silence and speaking are equally valid.
Anything is welcome.
Challenge your usual behaviours, so that those who are usually heard might find this a place in which to practise listening, and those who are usually unable to come to voice might find enough time and space to be able to speak.

These parameters always provoke relief/revelation and frustration in equal measure. By which I mean that there are always people who are frustrated by the amount of silence, who find the invitation to listen constraining, challenging, even violent; and there are always people who find the very same invitation a huge relief, a revelation. I have repeatedly been surprised that the ways in which people interpret the invitation fall so clearly down race lines: those who are used to being heard tend to find the experience silencing and oppressive, and are often the people in the room who pass as white and/or male; those who are used to not being heard are more likely to find it generous, and generative, even tender.

(image from Listening Table I)

*


Listening has a relationship with the unspoken, of course. When a room of people are collectively attempting to listen, there will be things that are not spoken that might otherwise have been voiced. And there will be things that are unspoken because they cannot yet be voiced. And there will be silencing, of self, perhaps, or coming to voice. And these things will be felt in bodies with histories, threaded through with the resonances of other stories from other lives, before and after, and alongside: our peers, mentors, parents, siblings, lovers, friends, and those who we pass by without realising that they changed our lives.

And yet, the invitation to listen is not an invitation to keep things unspoken. For me, it is actually quite the contrary. When we attempt to listen, we can more clearly perceive the extent of what is not heard, what is not said, and how speaking or declaring are only a part of what we share, navigate, and negotiate together with other humans. The things that are unspoken sit in the room with us. In the act of sharing listening, a slower, more careful dialogue unfolds. Unless it is arrested.


*


Listening  Safety  Whiteness.

Already those three words, sitting next to each other, do so much work. And that work lands differently in our different bodies. What is obvious in seeing those three words together changes as they are read by different eyes or heard by different ears.


When I say that I’ve been surprised that people’s behaviours so often fall along race lines, perhaps what I mean is that I’m disappointed at the impossibility of the task. My goal is not to reorient spaces that usually centre whiteness. My goal is to do the listening work that becomes possible having performed this reorientation. But it is hard not to get stuck reeling at the apparent enormity of the first task. The reorientation is such a surprise for some that they seem to experience a strong sense of vertigo. In response to this sensation, they hold on tight. And it is hard, if not impossible, to hold on tight and listen.


I want to keep safe those who are usually harmed within those spaces.

:
:

But I also want to let go of the illusion that I can keep anyone safe.


During the time that I've been running Listening Tables, I have come back to those three words again and again. I've been forced to feel the violences that run through a room when they are brought into proximity. And I've been forced to confront my own limits, my own desires, my own hurt.


*


I’ve been living and working on the unceded lands of the Gadigal people these past few months, witnessing the immense fires that are beyond my human understanding (though caused by human, and specifically colonial, actions) growing and changing every day. I have been trying to sit with the idea that there is no going 'back to normal'. That we are not okay, we are not okay, we are not okay. How is it possible to sit with these feelings without turning completely inwards with despair?


There have been moments in the last few months when I’ve felt shattered by these Listening Tables, and wondered whether I have the capacity to continue this work. You might think that the recent wildfires would have me turn my back on this kind of thing in favour of something more on the ground. It certainly feels strange to prioritise sitting in a quiet room, listening for what might arise between a group of strangers, while the world ends violently around us. But as it turns out, I believe in this work. I believe that, if nothing else, it reveals the underlying structures that hold us – the histories and ignorances that we would like to think belong in other bodies, somewhere out there. And it asks us to to sit with those feelings, knowing that we are not okay, together.

Trusting that the change will come wider and longer with this pause.