The federal election was held in Australia this last weekend. Now that it’s over, I wonder why I tied it to political change at all.
I’m an anarchist at heart. I think our societies need leaders but that we should stop giving them all of our power. We expect too much of them – whether they’re Jacinda Ardern, Scott Morrison, Donald Trump or Greta Thunberg – and thus we expect too little of ourselves. We ask these chosen people to live our divinity for us.
Political change doesn’t really come from individual people, whether they are inspiring, boring, principled or craven. Change comes from the systems we collectively put into place. At this point in human history, I’m still hopeful that we can behave more like the tribal animals we are – and that we will still instinctively, decisively, turn away from the destruction of our own species as well as millions of others.
I also don’t think my personal opinions are very important. My actions count far more. In this next Australian political cycle I pledge to opine less and act more often. Despair is lazy. Optimism is not a choice.
(Click here to listen to a new podcast called ‘Outrage and Optimism’. The first episode has an interview with David Attenborough).
I’ll always be grateful to Graham Linehan for Black Books. Oh my Goddess, but Bernard Black was a joy. I’ve no idea about Father Ted or the IT Crowd or anything else that Linehan wrote or co-wrote. I don’t watch a lot of telly.
Why am I writing about Graham Linehan? For reasons that are obscure – at least to me – Graham Linehan has been supporting the ‘gender critical’ position on Twitter for about a year now. There might be a good reason but I don’t know what it is. For this, he’s earned the praise of those who are loosely called TERFs and the condemnation of many trans people and allies.
I disagree with just about everything Linehan tweets and I’m not surprised he generates pile-ons. I’m also not surprised he’s had enough. He’s just published a farewell to Twitter on Medium (which maybe I shouldn’t support with a link but I will). The article contains many things to take issue with, but today I’ve decide to take issue with this bit in particular:
Why then, are we telling children (children!) a similar, harmful lie? And when current ideology dictates that you don’t need surgery or hormone treatments to be trans, then why are these children being sent down a medical pathway AT ALL? It is contradictory nonsense enacted every day in gender clinics all over the world.
I probably read something in a similar vein to this every day. It’s nothing new. But it occurs to me that at the heart of Linehan’s (and the objections of thousands of others) is the idea that being transgender is a lie. Particularly in the case of kids, there’s a conviction that even if children are telling the truth it’s not an endurable truth, that it’s literally impossible to ‘be in the wrong body.’
I wrote a ‘thing’ last week for an online page in a parent support group. It hasn’t gone up yet, so I thought I’d reproduce it here. It’s just a personal account; the best response I can muster to Graham Linehan:
“Our youngest child was always a cheeky sprite of a thing. We gave ‘her’ a name which seemed to perfectly describe her impish, other-worldly quality. I remember her as being a ball of energy, hair always flying, ever curious, ever busy. I still miss her. Sometimes, it feels like it’s not permissible to say that, but it’s true. I mourn her, this fantasy child who never fully came into focus.
I’ll call our child – now our much-loved son – ‘O’ from here on.
From babyhood, O was often distressed, but we seldom understood why. O was early to walk and talk and he met all developmental milestones. But he couldn’t settle and often wouldn’t eat; he would rip everything off his bedroom walls and wail for hours that “everything was wrong.” He was stubborn, difficult to discipline, impossible to reason with. Getting dressed took hours and there were days we didn’t leave the house because the world was inexplicably so, so wrong.
Like all good, worried, middle-class parents we had tests done. All the tests. Nothing definite. None of the ‘A’ diagnoses (autism, ADHD, Asperger’s) fitted – except anxiety. Terrible, terrible, world-upending anxiety. By the age of eight O often begged me to kill him. He wanted me to end how unrelentingly awful it felt to be alive. I was alarmed and frightened, and we got a referral to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. But there was still nothing obvious to diagnose and we were turned away.
O’s Dad and I didn’t think of gender dysphoria and there were no clear signs when O was very little. O did all the ‘girl stuff’ well. He had excellent fashion sense (and he still does); he was good at socialising and always had enormous birthday parties; he had a talent when it came to looking after younger children (and still does). He was also feisty, fascinated by insects and football and climbed everything in sight.
I’ve worked at universities most of my adult life. I now think my education both helped me and blinded me to what was going on. I thought I already knew about gender diversity, about ‘performing’ gender, about gender being a construct, and about the difference between biological sex and gender identity. I knew some trans people – though not well – and somehow thought I was “across this”. I had also long understood – intellectually at least – that my child’s sexual and gender identity was not about me. For a while it was very easy to accept O’s emerging identity, because our kid was a feminist’s dream child: a tough, spirited girl who suffered no bullshit and took no prisoners. I loved her. I loved everything about her, including my idea of what she was and who she was becoming.
But, today it feels weird to be talking about ‘her’. Despite how hard things have been and continue to be, I also don’t care much anymore about the gender of our darling child. By nine years old O was running in front of cars. He was running and running, often bolting out of the classroom doors and running for miles. We changed schools, we found a psychologist trained in CBT, and our families blamed our indulgence and lack of discipline. We got ‘back to nature’ and spent time at the sea and in the bush. We bought a puppy. (The puppy is still hands-down the best thing we did).
It’s not like it suddenly became clear that O was transgender. It was something that slowly but surely came into view. Now, looking back, I can pinpoint when shifts occurred. The haircut. The time he was called ‘he’ when we went to buy boardshorts and he asked me to stop correcting the shop assistant. The insistence on swimming shirtless. The distress about being handed the ‘girls’ colouring book (I know: why gender a colouring book??). The panic at being in the girls’ cabin at camp. The refusal to wear a sari in the school concert.
O was nine years old at this point, approaching puberty. He has two older sisters who had also been tomboys at this age. I thought very little about O’s early gender rebellion. But then there were the other, more private, things. Some aspects of O’s gender identity are very private. These private details are also how O’s Dad and I know that his identity as a boy is profound, and real. This is not a phase, or a whim, or an experimentation, either O or for us. It’s also not something O can choose.
I remember meeting two of my friends for dinner around the time O was in Year Four. When they asked how ‘she’ was going, I said, “Well, she’s wearing boys’ underwear and wants to use the boys’ toilets but I don’t think she can be transgender because she’s nine and I’ve read that kids usually say something when they’re much younger.” I still remember the doubtful look on my friends’ faces: was I kidding myself?
Then, in the kitchen one evening, not long before his tenth birthday, O told he was a boy and he needed to live as a boy. I wasn’t surprised. Amazed, proud, fearful – but not surprised. O insisted I do something so he could use the boys’ toilet – and that was the first of my many steep learning curves. How can the place you pee be so important? But it was important to O and I accepted it, even though I didn’t fully understand. O often says I’m overthinking gender stuff – and sometimes I think he’s right.
When a child comes out as transgender at the age of ten, it’s the parents (and, statistically speaking, usually the mother) who paves the way. I still think of myself as the minesweeper, clearing away potential explosions so O doesn’t have to. This job of mine has no exact precedent: in 2014 there were no “trans child rule books” about negotiating names, pronouns, health cards, education, counselling, clothes, sport, toilets, changerooms, passports, birth certificates, health care etc. etc. The social, legal, political and health changes in the last six years have been incredible, but none of them happened by accident. If a trans kid transitions with ease today it’s because they‘re standing on the shoulders of the fearless activists who came before them.
In 2014, when O transitioned, there was no ‘out’ transgender, primary school-aged child in our entire city. O’s school had never had a child go through a gender transition. I didn’t enjoy having to explain the situation to O’s classroom teacher or to the school principal. (I should probably clarify that the transition was social, not medical: we just asked everyone to use O’s new name and male pronouns and to let him use the boy’s toilet). I also had to explain to the dentist, the gymnastics coach, the general medical practice, the parents of O’s friends and a thousand other people. It was exhausting and it enveloped all our whole family’s lives for a long time.
Unfortunately, the worst aspect of O’s coming out – both for him and for our immediate family – was trying to explain the situation to our extended family. Today, I think a lot of the problem stemmed from me being O’s primary advocate. Because I often had to speak for him I was seen as driving his transition. The subsequent misunderstandings and estrangements hurt everyone involved. To everyone who has a transgender child, I would say: make sure you listen and attend to the siblings. Both of O’s sisters suffered terribly.
Here’s another thing I’ve learned: the importance in honouring the “starting point” of other people, no matter how much their incomprehension might grate on you. We were lucky enough to get immediate support from a local gender centre; several members helped O at the school in ways that I couldn’t. One wonderful woman taught me a lot about how to be at peace with “where people are at.” I learned from her that most in our community weren’t hostile: they’d just never thought about the possibility of a transgender child. Most people I’ve met are compassionate and open hearted once they understand something of what is going on for O and what they can do to support him.
O ‘came out’ nearly five years ago now. He’s fourteen, nearly fifteen. He’s still feisty, cute and funny. The puppy dog is one of his best friends – but he has other (human) friends. He still likes football and he also loves skating and acting. So, is this a happy ending? I don’t know.
I try to not worry about the future. All parents of transgender kids do what I’ve seen called anticipation work: we have to simultaneously ‘hold space’ as our children to grow into who they need to be – but we also have to make hard decisions about bodily changes that might threaten their survival. For us, the Family Court decisions of 2017 have meant that those that know O best are now free to work very slowly and carefully to help him determine the best way forward. It’s not easy, but we know we’re lucky.
I’m not going to tell you that everything was better once O transitioned. It wasn’t. O still suffers crippling anxiety: it didn’t fix his sense that at times the world (and he) are irretrievably broken. He rages, he breaks down, he screams at the unfairness of it all. There’s difficult shit to overcome every day.
For a while I drank way too much wine and developed an autoimmune disorder (these things do not go together well). But lately, thanks to the love of friends and family, and consistent professional care, I’ve had time to reflect on where our family is now. We are alive. We’re out in the world again: teaching, writing, studying and performing. We’re sadder – but also wiser about the precariousness of having privilege in this society. Loving and supporting someone who’s gender diverse doesn’t make you a good person. It will likely make you a person who can better understand what it’s like to live beyond what society deems to be acceptable – and to stand in your truth regardless.
There’s one reassurance I can give anyone who has newly discovered they have a transgender child: you will never, ever, have to do this alone. The power of this truth can’t be overstated: your child will never have to feel like they’re the only one. Today, there are support groups and services across Australia and internationally. Transgender people can connect with millions of other transgender people – and they can be certain that, throughout time and space, there have always been transgender people. And I know that the more stories are told, the better it will be for those that come after us. That’s why I’ve shared O’s story – and our story. I wish you the very best of life and luck.”
Feeling much pain after the media release of Cardinal Pell’s guilty verdict this week. Here’s a blog post offering perspective where I can’t:
Sexual abuse perpetrated and hidden by clergy goes back centuries.
A priest with unsupervised access to boys grooms and then molests them. As the pattern becomes undeniable, the primary concern of church leaders is not for the children but for the reputation of the institution (a school) and the priest himself. So they simply move and promote him, as they have with other abusers. In this particular story, that includes appointing him headmaster and ultimately giving him administrative power over the religious order that runs the schools—before the whole mess implodes.
Stories like this have become mind-numbingly familiar, but in this case the abuser is Father Stefano Cherubini and the story takes place in the 17th Century. The superior who covers for him is Joseph Calasanz, a peer and correspondent of Galileo who, in 1767, will be canonized.
Sexual abuse perpetrated and hidden by clergy goes way back.
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I think it was Al Gore who I first heard talk about the oppressive Washington summer of 1988. During this time James Hansen, the climate change scientist, was finalising his study demonstrating the link between burning fossil fuels and the greenhouse effect on climate change.
Hansen could choose the day to present his findings before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, so he chose June 28, knowing it was likely to be a scorcher. It was 38 degrees Celsius in Washington that day and there are stories about how the windows in the room of the Congressional hearing were kept open, so that the policy makers were visibly heat affected and the implications of Hansen’s findings were given maximum dramatic effect.
I’m coming back to this page after a week. My point about the Hansen story was to illustrate how immediate physical sensations are always going to affect – perhaps erroneously – our sense of what’s real, particularly when it comes to something as ephemeral as the weather.
Anyway, down here in Australia, we have just had two weeks of frighteningly freakish weather. In my home town, it got ridiculously hot. I found my usual coping mechanisms didn’t work – usually I just figure out how to accept and enjoy the weather as it is. I try to move more slowly, I find a way to see the sweat trickling down my back as pleasurable, I take cold showers before bed. I try to adapt and I try to teach the kids how to adapt.
But this time, I was frightened and as a result I didn’t cope too well. I was frightened by the conviction that this was not normal, that the next decade was going to get hotter and hotter and that no one – least of all me – had worked out how to manage this. I haven’t even worked out how to effectively cope on a personal level, but it was also evident that if this particular hot spell had gone on for much longer all kinds of mechanisms and infrastructure would stop have working too. As it was, my workplace got daily notifications from the energy provider that the grid was at capacity and the city was in danger of ‘brown outs.’ In response, my work instigated rolling power cuts where rooms and buildings that weren’t being used were left without electricity. Those still in those buildings had to leave: it was too hot to work safely.
Other catastrophic events happened this January in the eastern states of Australia; there are still floods in Townsville and we lost a third of our fruit bat population. We also lost millions upon millions of fish.
One febrile, sleepless night in late January, I responded – albeit not directly – to The Orange One’s tweets about the polar vortex in the US:
Insomnia made me do it. But I want to write about how that response led me briefly into a parallel reality, one where climate change really was a hoax, perpetuated by power-hungry, conspiratorial politicians, and fanned by the mass media.
In short, I made contact with Jessie Jay @coopitupanotch. I don’t know if Jessie is young or old, male or female (or other), black or white. If I was going to guess from their profile I would say they were white, heterosexual and probably working class – but all I really know is that they’re American, they support Donald Trump, and that they’re aligned with conservatives on things like abortion, immigration and climate change. They’re also a bit of a troll, but nonetheless our superficial exchange was fairly polite. Here’s some of it (I’m @jackolanternC ):
I decided to watch some of Lord Monckton’s videos. I didn’t watched Alex Jones, as recommended, and I only had a brief look at Marc Morano, also recommended and conclusively not as classy as Monckton. I lack the energy to respond in any sort of point-by-point manner to the arguments presented. But I will say this:
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how an ordinary person’s belief in climate change depends on whose words they decide to trust. This troubles me – a lot – and not just in relation to climate change. I don’t want to believe that individual attitudes – to LGBTIQ people, or asylum seekers or indigenous rights, for instance – are just a matter of where we are born and what version of authority we choose believe. But a lot of views on identity seem inextricably trapped in sociological bubbles: people’s views are predetermined by where they are born, who they are born as, and how their personal circumstances unfold.
Climate change strikes me as the ultimate challenge to subjectivity, in that changes are objectively, empirically happening. A physical world exists, which is shaped by we humans but it’s not created by us. So the words of someone like Christopher Monckton – erudite despite his quirkiness – depress me. Monckton makes a kind of sense and I can deeply appreciate that someone like Jessie Jay, already inclined to be skeptical of climate change, would grab hold of the arguments that Monckton makes. It makes me realise that unfortunately discussions about climate change are still socially constructed discourses: that is, they are value systems, rather than something human beings are capable of looking at without a particular sociological lens filtering the view. There are still no universal truths.
I can agree with Jessie Jay about the importance of questioning authority and not blindly believing in a position just because most people are following it. I can also agree that power distribution is desperately unequal right across the globe, both in democratic and totalitarian regimes. I understand why Australia’s heat and the US’s polar vortex, freakish as they are, will never convince climate skeptics of incoming doom because it’s impossible for a lay person to extrapolate and provide proof that climate change is anthropogenic and that humans have indeed irrevocably altered the climate.
After conceding these things I get a bit stuck. I don’t see robust evidence that there’s a planetary Marxist conspiracy to take away the civic freedoms of citizens. I do see many challenges in organising on a large enough scale to halt environmental destruction, climatic or otherwise.
I’m out of time for writing today, so I’m going to end with sharing two ways that I navigate some of these conundrums. They’re only partially satisfactory, but here they are:
First, I try to work on my personal critical literacy whenever and however I can. I work in an academic environment, and so I do have a privileged vantage point. However, in the last twenty years, like everyone, I’ve had to build on the maxim of “don’t believe everything you read.” When I’m teaching undergraduates critical and information literacy, we use the C.R.A.A.P. test. Like any acronym, it’s a bit crude and reductive, but it helps. Asking if information is current, relevant, accurate, authoritative and purposeful is useful to any reader trying to determine what is true. I would add to this that it’s important to scrutinise agenda, whether we’re referring to institutions, publications or individuals. And it’s important to follow the money, whether looking at Monckton, Breitbart, The Guardian or Al Gore.
I still struggle to express the other way I try to wade through the mire of words that confirm and deny climate change. For me it’s about returning to the non-human, trying to reengage, becoming aware again of being part of nature.
Yesterday I witnessed cultural training by two Koori men who were gifted in coaxing a diverse group of workers to share their stories about the place that they lived. One man talked about how the water in our bodies has been part of the water in all of parts of the globe, and that the water molecules we each contain have also been in the oceans, the rainclouds, the rivers and the streams. We know that all the matter that has ever been in this world remains, that it just gets reconfigured again and again. So, we don’t have to reconnect with nature, as human beings. We are nature. And we just need to remember that.
I walked in the bush this morning and thought about how the kangaroos and the rocks and the trees overhead don’t care about human politics. That’s not to say they’re not affected by politics; of course they are. I see everything around me changing: dams drying up, scrub and grasses dying, small animals disappearing and others taking their place. But it’s reciprocal, to an extent; the world also changes the human beings contained within it. So, there’s another way that I might – possibly – have some common ground with Jessie Jay. Perhaps the politicians arguments about whether climate change is real or a hoax aren’t so relevant, in the end. We could ignore all of these arguments – maybe – if we had more control over the way we care for the land in which we live. If we could all remember to care calmly and consciously for our natural environment, then maybe I’d worry less. The future might not look any brighter but the present certainly would.
I don’t know how many people have been struggling with fragmented thoughts lately, but I have. I’m off overseas in a couple of days, and so far any attempts to summarise my year have been fruitless. My head’s a mess. So, I’m just going to write in fragments. Perhaps this is counterintuitive, but I want to feel a bit more whole. So, firstly:
Climate Change Not Only Changes Everything: It’s About Everything
I first remember a teacher explaining ‘the greenhouse effect’ when I was about 14 years old. I find it curious that this lesson sticks in my memory at all. It was about 1985, at the end of the Cold War, and we were taught that nuclear apocalypse was a real and present danger, far more alarming than any other possible catastrophe (movies like Threads and The Day After were made compulsory viewing at my high school). I found out later that my parents had seriously considered building a nuclear bunker in our back yard. Greenhouse gases seemed benign in comparison; in fact, if my memory serves me, my impression was that my arid homeland might become a lush rainforest, which was not an unattractive idea.
There were serious bushfires sometimes. One December afternoon, returning from the city with my parents, we could see billowing smoke over our suburb. As we drove closer, I realised it was the bushland to the west of us burning, but at night I dreamt of running and running from a fire that was always just behind me and always about to swamp everything.
In my late teens, I lived in Canada, and I joined a group at the college called SITE (Students Improving The Environment). I don’t really remember what we did – a lot of recycling, mainly – but I became aware of biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste. Canadians sorted their ‘trash’ long before we did. With the confidence of adolescence, and with the backdrop of perestroika, I was certain that my generation were the most self-aware to ever exist: more open and more politically galvanised.
So, I grew up with an awareness of impending global crises, but also a feeling of optimism that I suspect is common amongst colonials in the Antipodes: real life was always happening elsewhere. I also carried with me what now seems a particular sort of privilege: I felt certain that people were good and that everything would be alright in the end.
I also think I was fooled by my morbid, Catholic, literary attraction to apocalypse. At university, I studied both utopias and dystopias, fascinated by Wim Wenders and post-armageddon tunes by Morrissey.
For a while I lost sight of societal/environmental collapse as more than a concept, or an aesthetic. But in 2005, my Canadian English teacher sent me Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress , and this triggered an epiphany about the urgency of climate change: it was not Jared Diamond or Al Gore, as it was for so many others. Now I wonder why my understandings of various socio-eco crises came together after reading this particular little text: it’s a compilation of the 2004 Massey Lectures, and it’s about the collapse of former civilisations. But this was the book that finally sent me into permanent existential foreboding: I remember wandering the streets that Christmas time, thinking of my stepdaughter and my two small children, frustrated by the lack of a sense of crisis in the people around me. I had no idea how to live the rest of my life.
To paraphrase Tracy Chapman, talk of climate change sounded “like a whisper” in Australia, 2005. Environmental destruction was talked about, but only amongst some scientists and greenies. I don’t remember it having much traction in mainstream media.
Even today, I’m often struck by how hard it is for me to refer to climate change in professional situations, particularly as someone who is not a trained scientist. The very subject remains tainted with politics, though I can’t understand why it’s still often viewed as a partisan issue. Outside of Australian cities, as recently as last year, I witnessed tour-guides, geologists and farmers click their tongues in frustration whenever a trendy city person (like myself) brought it up.
There’s another thing I struggle with, when I talk about climate change. I don’t know if I can articulate this well, but I’ll try.
The thing is: we spend so much time in Western societies, capitalist societies, consciously forming our individual identities. We do Myers-Briggs tests, to see what kind of personality we have. We make conscious decisions about our style of clothing and hair, music, living space, occupation and leisure habits (as well as the more subtly ingrained aspects of gesture, speech and taste – what Bourdieu would call habitus). We assert our sexuality, our gender identity, our alliance with some groups and our opposition to others.
Some of these aspects of self are chosen; many are pre-determined or innate. My attempts to comprehend what is innate and what is chosen is one of the subjects I keep returning to in this blog.
I don’t have a good way to say the rest of it: fighting environmental destruction is now the core responsibility and task of every human being on the planet. But I find the environmental activist aesthetic unattractive and it mucks with my personal identity. I know now that I will spend the rest of my time on this planet being conscious of how my own life reverberates with other lives, and with our shared biosphere. But I’m no scientist. I don’t much like dirt. Environmental activism sounds sort of . . . ugly and khaki-coloured. It smells like mould and mud.
I’m not good with sweaty earnest tree-huggers. I like abstraction, poetry, beautiful art, impractical clothing, cityscapes, the exhilaration of air travel.
I’m trying to reconcile myself with environmental imperatives and my personal sensibilities. I suppose part of what I’m coming to terms with, like every living human being, is what is already lost. I’m also trying to work out what can be saved. I remember reading Station Eleven: at the close of civilisation, people mourn simple things, like orange pekoe tea and warm baths.
Everything around me is so precious. I love our garden (what’s left of it); the bush; the stars at night; the handmade quilt on my bed. Our dogs, my husband, our crazy beautiful, mixed-up kids. I don’t want to let any of it go.
So . . . Adani Must Be Stopped
Adani is an ‘energy and infrastructure company’, a subsidiary of India’s Adani Group. Adani plans to build the Carmichael Coal Mine and Railway in the Gallilee Basin in Central Queensland (yes, close to the area last month that had ‘once in a century’ bushfires).
There’s more about this coal mine here, but suffice to say it’s projected to be Australia’s largest coal mine and one of the largest in the world. There are grave concerns about groundwater, the Great Barrier Reef, further desecration of indigenous sacred sites and, of course, the effects of carbon emissions. A Greenpeace report showed the output from Carmichael would exceed the yearly carbon dioxide emissions from fuel combustion in many countries.
Thirty overseas companies have refused to finance it, but the Australian government has pledged to subsidise two billion dollars to build it.
This is, inevitably, deeply political. Here’s our dickhead Prime Minister giving his infamous ‘coalphobia’ speech (when he was Treasurer):
Yeah. I do have an ‘ideological, pathological fear of coal’ if it continues to be dug up. Thanks for that, Scott Morrison.
Then there’s these pathologically tone-deaf words from Federal Energy Minister Matt Canavan:
In response, my children, like hundreds of thousands of others around the world have taken to the streets:
Canavan also had this to say, but he’s already demonstrated his complete disinterest in the future of kids and the climate around the world.
The Personal and the Political: The Big and the Small.
I tweeted last week that articles like this make me consider not tweeting about identity politics – including gender and transgender politics – ever again. How can individual concerns continue to be important in the face of global destruction? How can we care about our own lives and the life of everything on the planet at the same time?
I have a good friend at the annual UN Climate Change Conference at Katowice in Poland this week. She’s a climate scientist and has spent a lot of time in the small, rapidly drowning islands in the South Pacific: the Marshall Islands; Kiribas; Tuvalu. When my friend and I meet, we don’t discuss climate change much, really, but I once asked her how long she thought we had left to avert certain catastrophe. She replied, “Two years. Sorry.” That was a year and a half ago.
The world has already warmed by 1 degree celsius. It’s unlikely that we can prevent 1.5 degrees of warming, though many scientific and environmental bodies are still trying.
Personally, I still struggle with my sense of conceptual dissonance. I’ve lived on this planet for almost fifty years in a manner that now seems stupidly and fatally disconnected from the non-human world; now I, my family and everyone I know needs to figure out how to live in a fundamentally different way.
In the midst of all of this, I have a home to look after, young people to teach, two children still to raise. I have health issues and gender services to navigate. I still have individual aspirations: to learn the violin; to teach yoga; to publish a short story and to be a better cook. And while it sometimes makes me cringe to acknowledge it, I have a lot of personal healing to do, a lot of grief to accept and overcome. Sometimes, keeping myself balanced and functional is a full-time job, particularly when I spend so much time hunched over a computer screen, neglecting my physical health. These efforts makes me drink too much wine and then consult naturopaths about why I’m gaining weight and feeling so tired. But naturopaths and alcohol both cost a lot so then I deal with the residual guilt about my over-indulgent life.
They’re first world problems, but problems nonetheless.
I’ve written before about how the American educator and philosopher, Maxine Greene, made me aware of how we can misconstrue what is ‘big’ and what is ‘small’. Green regarded ‘big’ things as being about the intricate and complicated lives of individual students. ‘Small’ denoted bureaucracies and institutions that could only conceptualise demographics, not people. Greene wrote:
“To see things or people big, one must resist viewing other human beings as mere objects or chess pieces and view them in their integrity and particularity instead. One must see from the point of view of the participant.”
In terms of where I put my attention, I feel I’ve been incessantly zooming in and panning out most of my adult life. Is the big life or the small most important? I feel giddy, distressed – and unfocused.
How do We All Stop Screaming At One Another?
This is a poem I return to frequently:
The Place Where We Are Right
by Yehuda Amichai
From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the Spring.
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.
But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.
I know that there’s little to be gained from adopting a hard line and then screaming at all who oppose it. One of my problems with activism is that a position needs to be adopted and maintained, often violently. I despise ‘us’ and ‘them’ rhetoric – partly because it is never effective. I have never known anyone to shift their position or capitulate when they’re kicked to the corner.
In my climate conversation with my scientist friend she predicted that as global resources continue to be depleted, and to be inequitably distributed, there will be more terrible, unresolvable conflicts like Syria. As I write today, the yellow vests are rioting in Paris in response to Macron’s austerity measures. I fear – I know – my friend is right. Historically, the ability to not choose a side is a luxury. It’s also frequently amoral. Many people – including me and those closest to me – will have to fight. In some ways, we already are.
On social media too, virtual as it is, there’s a lot of yelling. Inevitably, I’m particularly aware of the angry divisions within transgender and feminist alliances and it fills me with dismay. I don’t see how anyone suffering gender oppression will be helped while this polarity runs so deep. I’ve equivocated lately about some feminist issues and I now feel regret, even though I know it was absolutely personally necessary to dwell with my uncertainty for a while.
I’m running out of time today to articulate everything exactly as I wish but finally, I wanted to write that I value kindness. It’s not a soft or a weak emotion: it’s so bloody hard to maintain. I want to be kind – and I want to be unafraid. As well as a bit less earnest, sometimes.
To conclude, for now:
I intend to focus inward a little more in the next year, to pay close attention to my friends, my family and my inner life. It feels like the right time to reimagine what is big and what is small.
I know this seems like an odd choice, given everything I’ve articulated above. The planet and our lives upon it are tumbling out of control. But I can do my best and most urgent work by guiding and enabling the young people closest to me, as we head into this unknown, burning, swirling future.
It’s spring, the sky is smoky yellow and birds are fucking in midair. OK, that wasn’t how I was going to begin. It’s the season when feelings of change are palpable. This year I also feel unsettled. The bushfires have already begun and teenage-dom is contributing to my sense that everything is a little weird and a little undone.
O’s sister and I are travelling to Hong Kong and China next month. I’ll probably write about that in the future. But tonight I wanted to get down a few thoughts about adolescent rites and The Sleepover.
I’m beginning to realise that part of the reason O’s friends are flocking to our house at present is that we’re being more liberal than other parents in O’s age group. O is now 14 – his friends are mostly 13 and 14 – and it’s a tricky age for rule enforcing and boundary setting in any context.
Personally, I’m loving a sense of normality returning to our lives. I haven’t written much about how things were for our family in the last eighteen months but, suffice to say, a lot of our experience was frightening and isolating. I like having young teenagers lolling around on the couch or out the back, playing with the dogs or talking to me, and generally just being silly together. O is starting to thrive again, and that’s immeasurably important too.
Anyway, in the last couple of months we’ve let O hold several sleepovers – boys and girls. It was never something that O’s Dad or I were permitted at this age, so we did stop and talk about rules – but also why we felt OK with this. Here was our thinking:
- It was important to us and to O that our house was a place where kids felt welcome and safe;
- None of the kids in this particular circle are experimenting with alcohol or drugs at this point – at least in our presence. But this is part of our reasoning: we want these children in our presence as much as possible – and to have as good an idea as possible about what is going on;
- Both our younger kids spent have spent much too much time in the last few years communicating online. We want them to build deep, strong friendships with their peers in person;
- Sleepovers are lot of fun, if a bit exhausting. Our dogs (in particular) are thrilled.
There are definitely some well-documented problems with sleepovers. Firstly, there’s often not a lot of sleep and then there’s the thing where parents, in particular, worry that things will ‘get out of hand.’
I’ve found myself revisiting this second concern: basically, it seems that what adults worry about most is that teens will have sex. Specifically, teens will have sex in their house. When I was growing up teens were definitely not supposed to have sex at all. Of course, many did, but it was not talked about and not officially happening.
I still find it a bit hard to completely understand the origin of this fear of teenage sex. I am not sure if the biggest issue in the 1980s was that it was immoral to have sex or that someone might get impregnated. I tend to believe that it was more of the latter, although I have to recall that in my Catholic upbringing casual sex was always really, really wrong.
But O is transgender. He is also pre-puberty, which predictably enough is becoming more of an issue for him, week by week by week. O’s pretty sure he’s straight, which means he likes girls, and doesn’t believe this will change for him with pubertal hormones (although we’ve talked about how it might).
At the moment, this situation means that O is inevitably ‘friend-zoned’. He has some strong, genuine friendships with girls but they’re not particularly sexual with one another. I suspect some girls like him very much for the very fact that he’s ‘safe.’ O also has some longstanding male friendships and a lot of acquaintances through soccer and skateboarding. The need to socialise is strong in this one.
But here’s the thing – or part of it. Some of O’s friends are gay. Some are bisexual and some are straight. Some don’t know who they are attracted to as yet. So, with sleepovers, it seems ridiculous to insist on segregating genders. It might save some outdated notion of propriety but it won’t limit sexual behaviour. We could ban sleepovers, but then, inevitably, sexual experimenting will happen at the far ends of school property and in the bushes and the backs of cars, just like the ‘good old days.’
I feel a bit without a road map here and I think O’s Dad does too. This is not how our parents or our friends’ parents handled this issue at all, but it’s safe to say that a lot of our own sex education was uninformed and just plain wrong. It seems clear to me that the only sincere way forward – the only good way forward – is to ensure that all the kids in our care understand and practise mutual respect and enthusiastic consent. I’m pretty confident that there are no young teens copulating under our roof at this point, but in the future this could well happen. I’ve realised lately I’m far more concerned about O’s friendship group continuing to listen to one another and to treat each other with care and consideration than I am about anything else.
On that note, I should get to sleep. I’m hoping we can all enjoy what is shaping up to be a long, hot summer – with added hormones.