Enhancing life

When a person dies, they leave behind, for those who knew them, an emptiness, a space: the space has contours and is different for each person mourned. This space with its contours is the person’s likeness and is what the artist searches for when making a living portrait. A likeness is something left behind invisibly.

John Berger,  ‘Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible’

It’s been hard to write, evidently. It’s March. This morning I was over on Plashing Vole’s blog reading this top quality piece about lefty academics (there’s no short version, just make a pot of tea and sit down, you’ll be glad) when I noticed from his sidebar of followed blogs that there hadn’t been so much as a chip wrapper blowing among these deckchairs the whole of this year.

Writing is slow, tricksy and always already falling behind. Why write, when you can shout? Why write, when the situation needs much more urgent action? Why write when the swamp of words is filling faster than we can bail it out? Placards, tweets, slogans: the US administration bellows #MAGA, and on Twitter—suddenly so America—the hashtags of the resistance come flying back. It’s like the worst Marco Polo ever.

And all of our efforts to grapple with what’s slithering about in this water with us have to be formed in actual words in our own mouths, in the languages we learned as children to talk about the world. Our mother tongues. Fake news, alternative facts: we’re trying to figure out what should be thinkable about any of this. Someone’s on television—surely we’d still call that “media”?— saying that the news is fake. Turn over the card. The statement on the other side is false. It’s like a drinking game. Something as intense, as intimate, as our own speaking is coopted to try to make sense of things that seem both obvious and entirely opaque, that reveal themselves only as we stare at them. What colour was that dress?

Words fail. Words fail. Words fail.

But the craft and practice of writing is more than an effort to try to get a hold of this, to nail it. It’s also a practice of grieving: the search for likeness, a feeling out and a pencilling in, it’s trying to represent and learn from the face of the thing that confronts you what it is that you have lost. Writing is the first attempt at getting it down on paper in a sketch, a snapshot, a sentence, because we’re all looking for someone who has died, some past self, who might not have existed, who might again.

And honestly there are days, even in this time, when it seems about right. But there are more days when your fingers are fused together and you bang at the keyboard with your fists and all you have is gestures and words that don’t sit right, that say nothing and convey nothing except how stupid this is making us all.

2

Back in January, knotted up and bad tempered with the effort of abandoned writing, I went to the Campbelltown Arts Centre to see ‘Another Day in Paradise’, the first exhibition of Myuran Sukumaran’s paintings, curated by his friend and teacher Ben Quilty. These paintings are at some level so familiar; we all saw them carried out of Nusakambangan still wet, still bleeding paint, still living.

Now here they are in a gallery on a hot day, with maybe ten or twelve of us walking around quietly looking at them. He painted his predicament relentlessly: the bullet, the scaffold, the AK-47, the politicians, the fellow prisoners, the body, and above all the face. He painted himself looking at the near future in which his paintings would immediately outlive him, because of the implacability of the judicial decision that his living had no value except in being kept alive to be brutally killed as an example to others.

Think about what it takes to keep trying to refine a practice of painting, writing, speaking, under that kind of duress. What are we doing letting the world silence us?

And now here we are, his paintings have done exactly as he intended and survived, cared for by his family and all those who loved him. And look: this likeness is not a photograph, this is an actual brushstroke in a self-portrait made by a person living under extraordinary pressure when he made it, and now he isn’t, and yet here we still are, and the marks made by his hands are still with us, as with any artist who has died.

Time bends around the then-and-now of all this. There are other pieces of writing on this blog about Myuran Sukumaran written at the time, and I still remember how it felt to lie awake thinking that if was me, if it was any of my kids in that kind of trouble, I would want the whole of Australia to stay awake all the time until my child was rescued.

Having sat with the paintings for a while, I came around a corner into a dark room and there was a large video installation by artist Matt Sleeth of a close up of Myuran’s face, blinking, not looking away, and laid in front of it a single bird of paradise stem. I thought the flower was part of the exhibition, but the next day I saw this:

3

There are always personal reasons why it gets a bit hard to write. Family life presses in. Stuff happens. Health happens.

But I think I’ve also been silent because this blog lost a reader. One of the people who really anchored me in the world, who knew me well, and knew where I came from, who taught me how to prune a rose, love a succulent, be an unsentimental gardener, try hard to respect botanical names, drink sherry in good glasses, and remain vigilant to questions of justice without ever wanting to be known for it, has gone. At her memorial, this was said of her:

She was deeply affected by the injustices she felt were being suffered by the Palestinian people, and was continually inspired by their unfailing resilience in the face of them; and she would take part in pilgrimages that were designed, not to visit holy places, but to cement friendships with Palestinian families. This went along with a deep concern for other major ethical issues in public life, as when she went to Scotland to join a protest against the nuclear submarine base at Faslane. Not that she could often be induced to talk about these things. Her naturally self-deprecating manner always meant that if one heard about them at all they would be recounted as negligible contributions to widely accepted causes. There wasn’t the smallest hint of pride or self-advertisement. But this modest self-deprecation concealed a character of startling determination.

This character of startling determination was my cousin, my friend, my fellow cancer patient and chemo expert, someone I confided in and listened to and looked up to and learned from. I was enormously proud to know her and be loved by her. We went through thick and thin together in the last few years, and when I said goodbye to her, I finally found the proper words to part from someone you know you won’t see again, which is the hardest thing migrants need to learn. (Really, my last words to my mum were awful and don’t bear thinking about. Long story.)

So after a rainy afternoon sitting in her home making plans for her to seek hospice care (“I just want to be with other people who are dying, and I need to be able to talk about this,” she said) we stepped into the driveway and had to figure out how to honour everything we’d been talking about and yet find a way to say goodbye.

“You are life enhancing,” she said. And I said back, “And you are life enhancing.” And that was it, we hugged, and I drove away.

I miss her every day, especially when gardening and fuming at the world. She was 89. She had an iPad. She followed Palestinian bloggers and read Alan Bennett. We were John Berger fans together. She read this blog.

With love to you, M. You are still enhancing this life. It’s time to get back to it.

Stop it, step in

If you are white, you can make sure where you work, doesn’t do this, look around you and if you see something happening stop it or step in.

Colleen Lavelle, Subversive Racism, Aug 2016

1

I’m sitting in the rain in my car listening to the radio, waiting for my daughter. There’s a senior corrections officer from the Northern Territory on the phone to the radio station explaining why restraints are used on “challenging prisoners”. He’s talking about Malcolm Morton, an Aboriginal man who has an intellectual disability and has been strapped to “the chair” 17 times in four years.

He has all the words in the right order, the rehearsed explanations of safety and benefit and conscience and proper governance. He’s trying to make “the chair” into something that sounds like good practice, a practice of care. These are words that have been put on his tongue.

Tressie Mcmillan Cottom taught me the phrase “cornbread that turns to shit in your mouth.”

He says it’s the worst week he’s ever had.

Until the last couple of weeks, Australians could be sorted into those who knew about “the chair“, and those who had no idea.

Now we can sort ourselves into those who are still shocked, angry and disbelieving, and those who are exhausted by their fellow citizens’ ability to keep being surprised by the reality of what’s going on in this country. We’re playing the stupidest game of catch-up in the world. We are barely on the map of this continent’s history and we keep claiming that we’ve arrived, we get it, we’re in this. We take to the streets again, or Twitter, or wherever it is that we express our concerns.

We have no idea.

2.

Colleen Lavelle is a blogger who has entirely reshaped my sense of what it means to be an Australian with cancer. She has shared her own story of living with a brain tumour with extraordinary generosity: working with cancer, living with cancer, being a parent with cancer, managing debt with cancer, dealing with cancer drugs and cancer professionals and setbacks and fears and anger.

Time and again I’ve gone to her blog when I just need to hear the voice of someone who knows that there are days when all of these things are messed up.

But I also go because I’m a narrative researcher and Colleen does this incredible thing: other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people share their cancer stories with her, and she puts them out on her blog. Thanks to her, there’s a platform where the hidden voices of cancer care get heard, where people get to speak about having cancer while Black, having cancer in a country and healthcare system that is entirely failing to get to grips with structural racism.

Because cancer patients don’t just have cancer. We do other stuff. We drive cars and rent homes and stand in lines at the shops, and absolutely every one of these simple, self-affirming efforts at keeping it together while having cancer is messed up for Colleen in a way that it will never be for me.

How do you fight the system that leaves you out? How to you gain real equality when you are profiled and stereotyped? As a patient, I have been denied pain relief because of the colour of my skin. I have had medical professionals assume that I drink and take drugs. How do you fight against an entire health system? How do you deal with the police that pull you over because you are a black person in a new car? Don’t think it doesn’t happen because it does, it has been happening for years.

Please read the rest of what she has to share.

3.

In her last blog, ever practical, Colleen suggested that she doesn’t need white Australians to march or tear our hair or feel bad. She needs simple, practical, direct action.

If you are white, you can make sure where you work, doesn’t do this, look around you and if you see something happening stop it or step in. It’s not hard to say ” That lady was first” when shopping, When you vote, ensure that you are not voting for a bigot. Read about Aboriginal people and I am not talking just the negative stuff in the papers but positive and novels. Get involved in local activities to show your support and be willing to learn.

I work in higher education. And on the days where I wonder how print newspapers survive, I know that one way is that large institutions like the university where I work have multiple subscriptions to the daily papers. I wander round offices and there they are, put out and tidied away at the end of the day. I respect and admire many journalists who write for these papers, and I know it’s important that we try to keep some kind of national conversation going, for which national newspapers are still pretty well set up.

But The Australian, our most national newspaper, which to be honest rarely fails to disappoint on some level or another, has today responded to the national crisis in Indigenous incarceration with a cartoon so awful that for me it takes down the whole proposition.

I’m not linking to it. If you read one thing about it, read “Here We Go Again” by Luke Pearson, founder of @IndigenousX, who’s absolutely right that the problem this cartoon represents is way bigger that one individual, one editorial decision, one issue.

But there it is, and I look at it with tears in my eyes and I think about Colleen going about her work, having to step out into her community and know that this newspaper is in cafes and bars and homes and universities and concerned white Australians all around her are saying with a shrug “Oh, that’s too much”, and turning the page and moving on.

If you see something happening, stop it or step in.

Whiteboard
“You Are The System”. I found this written on a whiteboard where I work in May 2016.

Here’s what Australia’s universities could do: cancel your many subscriptions to The Australian, and explain why. We are Australia’s peak organisations for fostering ethical and critical thought, and that still has to mean something. So take a stand and say that even though this is the only national newspaper where there is anything like coverage of Higher Education issues, if this cartoon represents their editorial standard then the price for getting our sector’s news from them is too high.

And to the leading journalists working there who are so important to our understanding of higher education issues: I am so sorry, I know this is about your jobs and not mine.

But if the place I worked published something like this, I would not walk in the door.

Stop it.

4.

And if cancelling your subscription to The Australian is too much to contemplate (although do think about that for a moment, given the standard of this cartoon), then here’s a second thing you can do.

At the end of 2014, when I was beginning to pull myself together after chemotherapy and radiation, I came across a video in which a woman who looked to be about my age spoke to the camera with a fierceness that made me sit up. She talked about her struggle with chronic illness and for her the symbol of her determination to be well was to be able to walk up a hill that she found particularly tough. I was walking up a similar hill every day, trying to bring my damaged self back into some kind of order. So I contributed to the Hope4Health campaign that was fundraising to help Dianne Biritjaluwuy and other women from her community to develop a model of healthcare in harmony with Yolngu principles of culture and nutrition.

They have made it work, and they just met their target of raising the next $80,000 to run “a world-first, indigenous-led health retreat”, with their own meaning. You can follow them on Twitter @OurHope4Health, and read about their journey here.

So if what The Australian has done today makes you despair for this country, then don’t. There’s hope about, and you can help: read here and contribute to what these extraordinary women are doing.

Step in.

Service as a Service

There is a lot of activity that an academic undertakes that acts as ‘glue’ holding together the whole scholarly practice.

Martin Weller, Scholarship Can’t Afford Itself, July 2015

But after what happened at the Tour, I need to prove myself on a bigger scale.

Tejay van Garderen, 2015

Two stories about the glue that holds together the whole scholarly practice.

1.

It’s 2007. I’m in my office. I’m always in my office. Looking back, I don’t remember much else about that time. I have three primary school kids, and a partner who’s done the heavy lifting of being there for them when they were very small, but now he’s working too. The phone rings, while I’m trying to keep as many windows open as possible, and it’s my daughter’s school.

Now what, how can I possibly … ?

A teacher whose name I don’t recognise introduces herself, and then asks if I’d like to speak to my daughter, who’s 8.

“Is she OK?” I ask.

“Yes. She won.”

Won what?

It turns out that she stood up in front of a large crowd of teachers, kids, and parents, and delivered a small speech we’d been preparing at home. So far so good. I knew about that bit, although I hadn’t taken in that it was a Big Thing involving other schools and a sea of strangers’ faces.

And she found herself in the final round, where the winners were asked to talk off the tops of their 8 year old heads about their favourite animal.

“My favourite animal is … humans.”

#winning

Except not really.

2.

It’s 2014. At the worst possible point of the chemotherapy cycle, a whole other 8 year old says “It’s the athletics carnival, do you think you’ll be OK to come?”

Wild horses wouldn’t keep me away. We gather me up into the car, where I sag against the seatbelt sweating cytotoxins out of every pore, wondering what it will mean to show up among all the other parents at this time.

runningPrepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.

And then I see her. She’s running her whole race sideways so that she can scan the stands to see if we made it, and she’s coming a triumphant and celebratory last, because she can see me and there we all are together.

Actually winning this time.

——–

One of the sadder sights of this year’s Tour de France was the retirement due to illness of third placed rider Tejay van Garderen, who collapsed and was led weeping from the race by his team management. In technical terms, he abandoned the race.

Now that I’m back at work, I’m trying hold on to everything I learned when I abandoned work for cancer, including about the value of time spent doing things other than work. And it’s clear that thanks to what Anne Boyer brilliantly describes as “Capital’s inventive temporal bullying“, the prospect for my colleagues of finding time that does not always, already belong to the scholarly work that hasn’t been finished—that might actually be unfinishable—is rare.

How do educators teach, and what do we model, when this is the case? On Wednesday I spent a challenging, invigorating session with students looking at ways of grounding everyday professional choices in personal rather than institutional values. This is one of the things I teach, based on a fair bit of study and training in the field of narrative practices. Together we began the process of thinking about how work actually works, and what it will take for them to adapt capably and optimistically to the pressure of employment scarcity.

They are experienced long-term casual workers, so they know what this is about. They know the importance of giving just a bit more than the person next to them, in the hope of being remembered when next week’s shifts are organised. When work itself becomes scarce, when whole professions vanish into the sinkholes of technology and automation, then the power to limit expectations of service shift decisively. These students will graduate right back into the culture of outperforming the person next to you that characterises their existing casual work in call centres, retail and coffee shops.

And the skilled and successful graduate role models they’re most exposed to are those teaching them at university. Casual academics are hired under the same conditions as their students, but work under the same expectations of uncompensated overtime as their securely hired colleagues like me. This is the worst possible combination. They’re driven into hours of volunteerism because they are genuinely conscientious; because they know they won’t be hired again if evaluations of their performance dip; and because there is no guiding intelligence holding back the whole academic peleton from hurtling forwards at a pace that only a very few can sustain.

This is precisely the nature of “Capital’s inventive temporal bullying”. Choices about what invitations to accept, what tasks to take on, which calls for help to prioritise, are evaluated only in the narrowest context of personal capacity, and sometimes not even then. No one has yet worked out how to look at the systemic cost in physical and mental health of the entire thing going too fast.

This week Martin Weller, who I seem to be stalking, suggested that the rise and rise of service costing in universities has missed the fundamental value of the generosity and inventiveness with which academics manage time’s assumed porosity. If we costed the glue holding universities together, he says, we would find that scholarship can’t afford itself.

I get asked to examine quite a few PhDs. It’s generally both a pleasant thing to do, and also very useful in that it helps keep me up with the field also. You will sometimes get an honorarium for these, say £200, but if we were to fully cost it, then the figure would be closer to £2000 I expect. I’m a pretty quick reader and reviewer, but even so it takes me a couple of days to read a thesis, and then there is the viva day itself. I know colleagues who will spend much longer reading a thesis. Some of that reading takes place in work time, some in my own time, some could be counted as research time, some as a service to the other university. So it’s messy, but the point is we don’t make an attempt to properly cost it. And that is a really good thing.

I don’t share this view, not least because describing humans as glue is a little too glue factory for me.

Frankly, I think we need to apply the same critique that we’ve brought to the unpaid internship, to the culture of uncosted service. The capacity to offer your own time to service is grounded in the privilege of having that time in the first place. It’s hardest for those with other responsibilities, and although at higher salary levels there might be some opportunity to claw back bits of time by outsourcing domestic work, this isn’t a solution for those in early career and casual work. And academics working evenings and weekends shouldn’t just be seen as a problem for working parents. Everyone loses.

We need to recognise that service time that isn’t costed is human time that isn’t valued. So until we properly cost all the services that universities have committed us to delivering, we’re going to be sprinting over the mountains in a broken peloton, endlessly trying to prove ourselves against those nearest to us.

Let’s keep thinking together about what it will take to slow this down. Even professional cycling costs the labour of the domestique.

Reading

Lee Skallerup Bessette has consistently influenced my thinking about counting what counts. Check out her excellent post on social media as academic service, over on the lovely Hybrid Pedagogy blog.

Liz Morrish has written an outstanding piece on the management of productivity and performance in universities, and with colleagues will be participating in a seminar in September at which the death of Professor Stefan Grimm will be remembered.

George Siemens, who I think is probably more optimistic than me, has recently given an important keynote in which he explains why he expects technology to liberate time from routine work and expand opportunities for quality of life. The slides are here.

One of the best writers on labour and productivity in higher education is Canadian blogger Melonie Fullick. Typically when I’m curious about something I find her already on the case, as in this excellent 2011 post on counting the labour value of graduate students. Among other points, she says this:

Grad students aren’t paid for the time we spend writing conference presentations, or for the presentations themselves; nor are we reimbursed for the travel costs. It’s all considered part of the investment we make in our own careers.

In fact, budding academics do a lot of unpaid work, including peer reviewing, writing book reviews, and producing journal articles (we even hand over copyright to the journals, who then profit from our labour)..

Raul Pacheco-Vega, who curates the #scholarsunday hashtag (which is exactly caught in the dilemmas about work time referenced here), has just written a fantastic post about slowing scholarship down, with links through to some important new feminist work on slow academia.

And on domestiques, a metaphor for service work in universities that’s so obvious it makes your head spin, read the story of Canadian cyclist Michael Barry.

Words for the way we talk

1.

January 28th, 1986 the Challenger Space Shuttle finally took off after many delays and concerns about safety. The parents of female astronaut Christa McAuliffe were watching from the stands, news cameras trained on their upturned faces as the shuttle explodedScreen Shot 2015-04-29 at 10.44.49 am

Etched forever” is a meticulously pieced together account of the reactions of all those who prepared for the launch and then witnessed the explosion, from the NASA ground support to the families to the President to all the bystanders. So many stories woven together by a technical malfunction with its own story, that had been assembling itself over time while all the human stories came together.

This is “For and Against Knowledge (for Christa McAuliffe)” by US poet Sharon Olds

“If you don’t have to ask it,
Fine, but I have to ask it.
If I were her mother or husband, I would
Have to go through the center of it.
What happened to her? As long as it was she,
what did she see? Strapped in,
tilted back, so her back was toward
the planet she was leaving, feeling the Gs
press her with their enormous palm, did she
weep with excitement in the roar, and in
the the curve of her tear did she see for an instant
the first blush of fire?? If she were my daughter,
I’d want to know how she died–was she
torn apart, was she burned–the way
I wonder about the first seconds
of our girl’s life, when she was a cell
a cell had just entered, she hung in me
a ball of bright liquid, without nerves,
without eyes or memory, it was
she, I loved her. So I want to slow it
down, and take each millisecond
up, take her, at each point,
in my mind’s arms–the first brilliant
shock hit, as if God touched
her brain with a thumb and it went out, like a mercy killing,
and then, when it was not she,
the the fire came–the way we burned my father
when he had left himself. Then the massive bloom un-
buckled and jumped, she was vaporized back
down to the level of the cell. And the spirit–
I have never understood the spirit,
all I know is the shape it takes,
this wavering flame of flesh. Those
who know about the spirit may tell you
where she is, and why. What I want
to do is find each cell,
slip it out of the fishes’ mouths,
ash in the tree, soot in your eyes
where she enters our lives, I want to play it
backwards, burning jigsaw puzzle
of flesh suck in its million stars
to meet, in the sky, boiling metal
fly back
together, and cool.
Pull that rocket
back down
surely to earth, open the hatch
and draw them out like fresh puppies,
sort them out, family by family, go
away, disperse, do not meet here.”

2.

Michel de Certeau concludes his chapter on the paradox of dying and writing like this:

To write, then, is to be forced to march through enemy territory, in the very area where loss prevails, beyond the protected domain that had been delimited by the act of localising death elsewhere. It is to produce sentences with the lexicon of the mortal, in proximity to and even within the space of death. … In this respect, the writer is also a dying man who is trying to speak. But in the death that his footsteps inscribe on a black (and not blank) page, he knows and he can express the desire that expects from the other the marvellous and ephemeral excess of surviving through an attention that it alters.”

That.

4.

This is from a three minute excerpt of a slightly longer documentary made with Myuran Sukumaran in conversation with educator Ivar Schou, in 2014

You think about all these tangents that your life could have gone on. And you think how could I have got there, how could I have got this, if I had done this differently, you know everybody does this when they’re sitting in their room with nothing to do for five years, you know you do a lot of thinking. … I accept what I did was wrong and I know that I should be punished for it but I do think the death penalty is excessive and I should be given a chance. I have demonstrated that I can do good and be good. I think I could do a lot of good in the outside if I ever did go free. It’s not like I’m just going to just go back after all this and just sit.”

4.

Every day this week fresh, wet artworks have been ferried from Nusakambangan in the hands of Myuran Sukumaran’s family, frienScreen Shot 2015-04-29 at 10.42.48 amds and lawyers. Along with other prisoners on death row, he refused to sign the papers for his own execution. Instead, he painted this picture, inscribed “Satu hati satu rasa didalam cinta – (one heart, one feeling in love)”, and the other prisoners signed it, including Mary Jane Veloso, who wrote “keep smiling”.

When the family representatives brought to the island as part of official proceedings heard the volley of gunshots just after midnight, no one had told Mary Jane Veloso’s sisters that she had been removed from the list. In the Phillipines, the woman who took her to Malaysia, and organised for her to be given a suitcase, has been found.

Mary Jane Veloso is still living, and will be returned to her original prison.

There are still over 40 prisoners sentenced to death execution for drug-related offences in Indonesia, including Mary Jane Veloso.

5.

The Roy Morgan company has surveyed Australians every year since 2008 to discover which professions are held in the highest and lowest regard for ethics and honesty. We like nurses and, oddly, pharmacists. We really don’t like people who sell us things. University lecturers come in around the middle, with lawyers.

We hold journalists and television reporters low in our esteem; in 2014 they were ranked 18th out of 30, a consistent downward slide.

Australian journalists who worked this long, painful shift in Indonesia, living alongside the families of the prisoners in Cilacap’s hotel, deserve better. Their words have often been all we’ve had, and their exhaustion and trauma must be extraordinary.

And now, where do educators go with this? What do we do with what we learned about ourselves, our world, its rapidly changing media infrastructures and networks, and the thoughts of others around us? If our attention were to be truly altered, as de Certeau puts it, by all the words and paintings that this burning puzzle flung out—what would we see, what should we do?

Writing and dying

This weekend the situation in Indonesia has escalated. It shouldn’t have come to this, and yet here we are. Networks and timelines are filled with expressions of horror and sadness that the executions are going ahead. Families and loved ones are racing to get there in time; governments all over the world are appealing and protesting. The lawyers are giving last minute radio interviews, exhausted. A consignment of plastic chairs being ferried to the prison is photographed and worried over. Who are these chairs for?  

Those who are still cheering on the executions as Indonesia’s decisive move in the war on regional drug distribution have a real problem in Mary Jane Veloso. Mary Jane is a 30 year old single mother, and her sons are just 6 and 12. Her own account of the events that led to her arrest has been published unedited online. In 2010, she left her children at home with her parents in their village, and travelled to Malaysia because she was promised domestic work that would enable her to provide for her family. There, someone she trusted gave her an air ticket and a brand new suitcase for a week’s holiday in Indonesia before her work started.

“We were so poor,” Ms. Veloso’s older sister, Marites Laurente, recalled of their time growing up. “We were just picking up bottles and plastic in the road to sell to make money.”

The suitcase contained 2.6 kilograms of heroin concealed in the lining. At her trial she was assisted by a student translator who didn’t speak much EnScreen Shot 2015-04-26 at 2.57.22 pmglish, and she didn’t either. There is a last minute worldwide social media campaign underway to try to save her.* As the stories of the others scheduled to be killed on Tuesday with her make clear, drug transportation is a business that’s managed as much by improvisation as organisation. People end up in the wrong place at the wrong time, having a go at making something better.  Read this:

Jamiu Owolabi Abashin was living on the streets of Bangkok in 1998 when a fellow African living there took pity on him and brought him home. Shortly thereafter, according to Mr. Abashin, his new friend asked whether he wanted a quick-paying job, in which he would get $400 for bringing a package of clothing to the friend’s wife in Surabaya, Indonesia, where she sold used shirts and pants.

But what do these stories have to do with us as educators, if we’re not legal experts, or researchers in drug policy? What should be our investment in this, if we’re not family or friends? What if our attention is just a variant on the prurient fixation with moment-of-death videos that Jade Davis calls out in her excellent piece on the street killing of black men in the US? As she says, it’s increasingly effective in prosecution that bystanders had the courage and presence of mind to record what they could see, but this is also the decision that puts the very moment of dying on the nightly news and all over the web, where their mothers and children can’t possibly turn away in time.

I have no idea how long it took for the announcement that the police officer who shot and killed Walter Scott would be charged with murder to make it to social media. What I do know is that I learned about it on social media, which is when I also learned what Walter Scott looked like as his feet hit the ground those last few times. I know exactly what his last step looked like.

That was when I closed my browser and walked away, because I couldn’t take seeing the rest over and over again.

Some of the same dilemma plays out here. How much do we need to know about the way Indonesia manages the business of execution, given that our knowing it inevitably exposes their mothers and sisters and their children to these details? There’s no respite from it: we have eye witness accounts, and stories from those who have participated, and the newspaper articles have illustrations, and the stories have details, and if I was their mother you couldn’t burn that stuff fast enough for me.

French philosopher Michel de Certeau, who died of cancer in 1986, wrote about the problem we have with the management of imminent dying. It is because we can’t accept our own mortality, he writes, that we put the dying away, out of sight. Literally, we make the dying person into something ob-scene: off the scene, can’t be seen. Humane killing is carried out at midnight, with only the minimum number of legally required witnesses. (Who are those chairs for?)  What he calls “the immoral secret of death” is written back in, “in all the procedures that quarantine death or drive it beyond the limits of the city, outside of time, work, and language, in order to protect a place.”

But deCerteau’s point is more complicated than this. It’s not because we close the browser and walk away, but precisely because we hold in our minds the details of someone’s dying, whether that someone is ill or is waiting in a cell or is right in the moment of being shot in a park, that we’re keeping their death in a place that is separate from our own. “I am participating in the illusion that localises death elsewhere, in the hospital or in the last moments: … by identifying this image with the dying person, I make it the place where I am not. Through the representation I exorcise death, which is shut up next door, relegated to a moment that I assume is not mine.”

For deCerteau all this is confounded in the end by the practice of writing. Writing itself invites death right back into the room because we write in anticipation of being read, later. Writing only exists because of what has been written—the traces and after effects of the moment of writing itself, which is more or less nothing in the scheme of things. And it’s through writing that we resolve the trick of locating death elsewhere, by producing it right out of ourselves, out of the mental calculation and physical gesture of putting words together. Look, we say, as the sentences appear, here I am in the very moment of living my life, and that moment has always immediately passed. Here is my dying, and now it’s bound up with yours, because this is the condition that we share.

So if “death is the necessary condition of evolution”, as deCerteau points out, and “the law of the species is that individuals must lose their place”, then why care so much about those who are leaving us? Why are so many taking to the streets and calling radio shows and expressing their anticipatory grieving online as we wait through these terrible two days?

Firstly, it’s because dying is the most precious thing that we do, the most important and generative capacity that we share, and it’s the one thing that should restrain our chasing of productivity, status and stuff. We need to learn to live with it better, for sure, but we don’t do this by letting it become a bargaining chip in a political war on this or that. And secondly, dying entangles us intensely with the lives of others; we are all woven together and one life can’t be neatly picked out without severe, sometimes not-survivable, damage all around it. This violent and premedidated bereavement, including of children, can’t be made civilised, no matter how many forms are signed.

The stories from all those waiting to be executed on Tuesday tell us that this world isn’t a safe place for most of the people in it. The least we can ask is that the state recognises this simple thing: dying belongs to the individual, and is the most fundamental human capacity that the state is there to protect.

There is still time to speak

Please read this article and take a moment to sign this petition to appeal for clemency for Mary Jane Veloso. The Mercy Campaign petition for Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran is here. What difference will it make? Maybe nothing in relation to the outcome, but maybe also something really critical for those who love them. It’s all we can do, and it’s not nothing.

Appreciation

This post owes a lot to others who have helped me think about an educator’s place in relation to death and dying, but especially to Paul Prinsloo, Bon Stewart, Melonie Fullick, Jesse Stommel, Jade Davis, Frances Bell, Anna Notaro, Audrey Watters, Rachel Duke and Tressie McMillan Cottom. And there is nothing adequate at all that can be said to those who love Myuran Sukumaran, Andrew Chan and Mary Jane Veloso and the others on death row tonight, except that our heartsick thoughts are with you all.

Vigil

End of life illness stories come to this moment: the final period of waiting and staying awake. Sleeping mats on the floors of hospital rooms, dozing in chairs, holding hands, keeping shifts and vigils, hard choices, knowing what is to come. There’s an intense wish repeatedly expressed to get there in time: for the living to be present with the dying, to let them know that they are safe and cared for, and that those they love are safe and can go on from this point, to let them go well.

A vigil is a form of ethical attention. It’s an act of deliberation, a commitment to staying awake during the time that is normally kept for sleeping. It comes to us from words that invoke the simple fact of being alive and strong. We keep vigil because we are still here, and we have the capacity to give our time to waiting: attention as the rarest and purest form of human generosity, as Simone Weil put it.

So this week Australians and now many others around the world are keeping a vigil, in growing numbers, for two lives trapped in the gift of a system that seems to have innoculated itself against any possibility of saving them. It is almost beyond belief that political calculation could play so large a part, and yet there it is. We’re amazed, shocked, disbelieving and much more informed about the procedural technicalities of death by shooting than we were.  It’s like something happening in black and white, in slow motion. It doesn’t belong in this world.

Except that it’s here.

Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan have achieved so much where they are because the Indonesian prison system has some fundamental expectations of prisoner self-sufficiency, that place a different set of practical demands on prisoners and their families than we commonly see in Australia. What happened next is suddenly being recognised by advocates of restorative justice around the world as a unique configuration of structure, agency and institutional trustThe risks taken by the prison management itself in trusting them, and the way that they have each responded, resulted in a new system working in the best possible way for others. The prison governor testified on their behalf.

Australians have been taken by surprise by the fact that this restorative work has been going on for several years, and that our lazy stereotypes of “drug kingpin” and “godfather” are so completely out of date. This is not who they are. And from the level of support that they’re now getting, it’s very clear that significant money could be raised to extend their work, and perhaps even transfer some aspects from Indonesia to Australia.

So this is a very, very hard moment, and a very difficult decision to accept. Why shoot them now, after all this time? What possible future is there for rehabilitation as a vision for anyone once this thing is done?

Understandably, it’s easier to retreat into the mechanics of standard operating procedures than to admit a misgiving, to explore instead the complex potential of trust—in human capability, in rehabilitation, in imagination. In every leadership manual ever we’ve accepted the same limiting proposition: that strong leadership amounts to a willingness to act decisively and to push on regardless, braving unpopularity. There is nothing at all, it seems, on how strong leadership could go about reversing its own decisions, on the basis of fresh evidence.

A couple of days ago someone wrote privately to me that what’s happening is causing us all to “have a good hard look at our humanity”. I don’t think that’s overstating it, and I think this self-scrutiny is at the heart of our vigil. We’ve all seen the expressions on the faces of the men in orange jumpsuits waiting to be killed, but we’ve rarely had such intense exposure to what comes before that—the waiting, the bargaining, the families, the dread.

Governments who execute force us all to watch, but what we feel and think about it is up to us.

So while we’re waiting, we’re wondering: could we have done more, said something different, shown up sooner? It’s not just the people who gave casual answers to polls that were then used to claim something about Australian popular support for execution, or even the people who commissioned and published those polls in the first place—as if this really should be a crowdsourced verdict, like some kind of reality TV voting process.  It’s not the difficult possibility that Australians didn’t speak out sooner because they’re not white. It’s not even the relentless tallpoppyism that is still, incredibly, causing people to say that there’s nothing special about them and the attention is undeserved.

The vigil we’re keeping is the answer. The attention is deserved because they have as much right to have their human sovereignty over their own lives defended with great force, as any of us do. The attention is deserved as it was for Mike Brown, and Eric Garner, and Ms Dhu, and T J Hickey. Human sovereignty over life matters, and really has to be bigger than state sovereignty; this is why murder, like torture, can’t be part of the instrumentality of the state. Whatever it might achieve, whatever political strategy it might be part of, is very, very tiny on the scale of what will be sacrificed.

Today there are public vigils being held in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and other smaller places. More and more voices, including powerful ones, are speaking up. There is almost no hope left—but the most incredible stories of human survival are those where there was no hope at all, and those waiting did not give up.

The Mercy Campaign petition is still open. Please sign if you can.

And please watch this. Myuran Sukumaran in his own words, on living. Or this, on the projects they’ve developed within Kerobokan. At the very least, know what they have achieved.

Update

Last night I drove with my teenage daughter to the vigil held in the Sydney church where Myuran Sukumaran’s family and wider community are part of the congregation. We were welcomed with real warmth, and it was an honour to be there. Messages from Myuran and the Chan family were read aloud, and Myuran’s grandmother was an unflinching and unforgettable presence.

So all possible courage at this late hour to everyone involved. Updates to the Mercy Campaign petition are being sent to the Indonesian government regularly. And there will be another vigil on Friday evening. This is an extraordinary time in Australia.

On the long drive home, we were stopped by a cop. He asked where we’d been, and I told him. “They shouldn’t be executed,” he said. Just like that.

Update

This morning in darkness, the transfer of prisoners to the island where they will be executed has begun. Because the purpose of execution is to discipline others through horror without exposing the state to implications of cruelty, then execution by government is the worst kind of double standard: lockdown secrecy and extravagant display all at once. Let’s put this very plainly: there is no ethical or compassionate way to end a life without entirely defeating the purpose of execution. So there has to be very evident cruelty, and there has to be a thin veil of procedural correctness over it all.

“None of us have 300 years” (Audre Lorde). When we are all gone—all the politicians, the shooters, the judges, the witnesses who insulted and those who wept, the dealers and the users, and the president himself—this moment will be part of history, alongside all the men in orange jumpsuits waiting quietly for the speeches to end. Because in terms of the impact on others, there is absolutely no difference between legal and illegal execution, except candour.

Go well, Myuran Sukumaran.

The reality

Even though I know what the reality is, it gives me hope, it gives me a purpose, it gives me something to do. However little time I have.

— Myuran Sukumaran, Australian artist

Here’s a story that ought to be filling us all with hope: a big tale of resilience, creativity, cooperation and opportunity, driven by a remarkable and gifted Australian. Look at him here: he is young, and healthy, and doing so much good. He has time left. If I was his mother watching this, I’d be awash with pride at what he’s achieved.

But his reality is this: that right at this minute plans are being made for him to be taken to a field, tied to a post and shot. Let’s not mince words, this is what we mean by “death penalty” and “firing squad”, and anyone who is still championing this as a just outcome needs to look much more closely at the violence in the details. There is nothing at all separating this killing from that of Kenji Goto, and the only whisper of daylight between this and the shooting of Kajieme Powell is the premeditation, the forced contemplation of what’s to come. Nothing at all distinguishes what his mother will feel when his body is returned, from the grief of Junko Ishido.

None of us are going to live for ever, and this is why mortality really is inseparable from love. We all wonder how, when, in what condition we’ll end our turn; we wonder who will be with us, and how they will get up and carry on without us when we stop.  Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, an intensely personal discussion of what happens to individuals and their families at the end of life, suggests that this is why humans really cannot bear the idea of dying. So we go on suffering because we don’t know how to accept that what’s around the next bend—the next birthday, the next family wedding—isn’t going to be part of our life time. The weather will continue, the buildings will stay up and the clocks won’t stop; it’s just that we won’t be here to see it, and people we love will have to go on without us.

Gawande and many others are now arguing that it’s vital to good healthcare that we learn to make peace with human dying, and let that direct us towards living while we’re here in a way that reflects our values. This isn’t a simple thing: it takes time to untangle our own values and beliefs from those of our community and the cultures that shape us. It’s easy to get taken up with the things that seem to matter to others, the achievements that are celebrated, the stuff that is envied. But in the end we all have a fairly strong sense of what we each really care about—what we would go on doing if it was the last day of our lives.

UK palliative care specialist and cancer patient Kate Granger, for example, has taught me a great deal about what it means to value work, and to fight to continue working while thinking that this might be the last year for doing anything at all. Lisa Bonchek Adams advocates tirelessly for the right of patients with metastatic breast cancer to have their condition recognised as a disease stage that can be lived with, and in so doing she continues to love and care for her children, her family and friends. Both have made hard personal choices to continue in treatment, and to do this in public, because this is what enables them to go on living with purpose.

This is Gawande’s point: we each approach the question of what it would take to live the best possible day today on our own terms, whatever the constraints we’re facing. This isn’t just a question for people who are sick; the best possible day is a wish we can all offer each other, for the simple reason that we’re all mortal too. And this really should be the basis for how we treat each other, how we value each other’s time, and how we react to the knowledge that someone is facing their death. This isn’t just about ethics in institutional or constitutional decision-making, or state sovereignty: we stop in our tracks for death, and we try to bring every possible resource of care and hope to the end of someone’s life, because one day that’s exactly how it will be for each of us.

How people die and how we participate in their deaths is as much about us as about them. Our own humanity is at stake.

— Eric Manheimer, MD, Twelve Patients

And so I can’t make peace with this dying at all. I wander round the house thinking about him, and I know that thousands of us are doing exactly the same, right at this moment. Those close to him have said goodbye and look exhausted with grief. I can’t imagine their pain.

Execution strips all possibility of dignity or care from the event of dying, which is why it’s used wherever the aim is to brutalise and terrify. The aim isn’t simply to end life, but to cause its end to be a spectacle, and to force the whole world to contemplate the violence and abjection of life being ended in this way. Kenji Goto’s mother, pleading for his release, said that she would sacrifice her life for his, and we all knew that this was an unbearable cruelty that she should be made to suffer the knowledge of his death, and her exclusion from it. Nothing is different here.

Myuran Sukumaran is an Australian artist. With persistence and vision he has created a studio and an educational enterprise filled with generosity, and inspired an incredible campaign to try to keep him alive. And at this last minute, he’s still there painting, caring for his family, thinking it all through, making a portrait of himself and the island of Nusakambangan, where prisoners are taken to be shot.

He is one of us, and he is still alive. Don’t disturb him. Let him paint.


While there is still even a fraction of time to register your concern, please consider following the Mercy Campaign and signing their petition for clemency. They are highly organised and refusing to give up hope. Also, Australia’s parliamentarians are united on this, which is all the hen’s teeth you need.

Whatever it takes

“We will do whatever it takes to make Medicare sustainable … If we don’t, with an ageing population, we will find ourselves in 10 or 20 years with a system that will collapse under its own weight.”

Peter Dutton, Minister for Health,  The Australian November 27

With things in the world as they are, two things to celebrate, and Australian health care reform.

First, something really great: the women of Elcho Island mentioned a couple of posts ago succeeded in their crowdfunding campaign, and can now put in place their plan to address some of the nutrition and health issues that contribute to chronic preventable disease in their own lives and families, under their own community leadership.

In the same week, our Federal government—the government that currently has care of the Australian public health system on our behalf—outlined Cunning Plan B for their own bit of crowdfunding.

The plan now is to reduce the amount of funding to GPs by $5 per visit, an amount that GPs can either choose to pay for themselves or shift onto patients. This saving to government will be still not be invested back into Medicare itself, anywhere, because it’s still going to be harvested into a national medical research fund. That’s the crowdfunding part.

There are some other modest improvements in the new copayment proposition—especially the sudden insight that pathology collectors who spend all day working alone drawing blood in centres that say NO CASH ON PREMISES can’t actually collect cash on those premises.

And plans to make it mandatory for GPs to collect a co-payment from people under 16 or on concession cards have also been parked. As Health Minister Peter Dutton put it to leading Australian television journalist Leigh Sales this week, the focus has narrowed to people who could pay more, but don’t:

And we believe the people on higher incomes, people in your situation or mine, that we do ask a $5 co-payment, but that we haven’t mandated it.

OK, let’s not muck around here. People in either Peter Dutton’s situation or Leigh Sales’ situation aren’t reference points for the general Australian population, income-wise. So this remark deserves a bit of attention.

Because this is still a health policy shift that is not primarily designed to improve health outcomes. As furious GPs and community health organisations across Australia have been pointing out, the impact on lower income users and already vulnerable communities will continue to be far more serious than on anyone like Peter Dutton or Leigh Sales.

The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, for example, put it bluntly that this is still a proposal to defund the services that are trying to fix Australia’s existing problems of health equity:

“Aboriginal people are not overusing services, they are underusing them. Adding a financial barrier like a co-payment will not help reverse this trend.

“To close the gap there needs to be every incentive in place to get Aboriginal people to have check ups, to see their doctor, to attend their follow up appointments and attend to their health needs.

“The co-payment undermines universal health care and targets the wrong end of the system. It is simply poor health policy.”

If it’s not good health policy, what is it? Apart from funding the hypothetical Australian cure for cancer, Cunning Plan B isn’t even really aiming to fix a current health funding problem, so much to raise fears about system load in the future that the minister insists we should prepare for now. (This is from a government relentlessly selling prosperity in the present because even “what might happen in 16 years time” is too far ahead to imagine in terms of climate impact. So there’s that.)

But there’s something else going on with all this price signalling, that’s not at all subtle, and is much more interested in the dog-whistling of the past than any risks posed by the future. Governments commonly use price signalling in a disciplinary sense, to stop people doing something. Taxes on alcohol and tobacco fall into this category. Price signalling in relation to GP visits is an attempt to reframe healthcare needs as part of a generalised state of moral co-morbidity, interacting with other symptoms of individual failure to shape up to the demands of being a model citizen in a growth-focused economy.

It’s this idea of health as something that you fix by not visiting the doctor that hitches the GP co-payment to other measures being proposed in the current reform climate, and it’s why Australian higher education really needs to study the language of responsibility versus entitlement in which it’s being haggled over in public. In other words, it’s a huge clue to an effort to turn Australia back towards a time when we celebrated individuals and their ambitions over the wellbeing of their communities, and lived with ourselves by stigmatising those for whom the playing field was a mess of potholes from the start.

But we don’t necessarily think this way any more. Doubts creep in. The vision of people crashing their boats on our shores and drowning right in front of us, and the terrible conditions under which we then hold them indefinitely along with their kids, and people around the world shattered by trying to hold their families together in the face of unimaginable catastrophe just because they are where they are, and the total mess of climate change that even the biggest of polluters are rapidly trying to fix, and people all over the place taking to the streets in protest—all these things have made a difference to the way we think about who has what.

The result is that we haven’t reacted as expected to the reform program before us. As new Guardian columnist Jason Wilson (that’s the second piece of good news) put it so well this week in an outstanding piece on the current effort to put lipstick on the budgetary pig:

But another problem with “resetting” is that the current crop of Liberal MPs – a much more right wing collective than even the Howard majorities were – can’t really comprehend the belief that their budget measures were unfair. Despite Abbott’s well-known Catholicism, he shares the secular-Calvinist presuppositions that animate his party, and provide the core belief of the English-speaking right: namely, that just as the rich deserve their wealth, so do the poor deserve their fate.

Code-phrases like “personal responsibility” express the belief that those who have no job, cannot provide for their own healthcare expenses, or cannot fund their own retirement lack virtues that more successful people possess. Economic values – efficiency, the necessity for “price signals” to deter the undeserving – merely give it a contemporary gloss. It’s possible to stoke the outrage of a minority of Australians with talk of dole bludgers and queue jumpers, but the failure of Abbott’s attacks on the most vulnerable shows that Australia is not at heart a Calvinist nation.

I think he’s right; this is a government that simply cannot stop itself from reaching for the ideological condiment when they’re serving up reform. That’s why we have an out of the blue mention of “six minute medicine” in this policy, for example. It’s a healthcare myth that’s been around for a long time and has already been debunked, but it’s back now because it’s an attempt to smear general practitioners as a whole, to whisper to us that without government regulation they’ll shuffle us all out of the door as quickly as possible, before whisking away to the golf course.

It’s the worst kind of insinuation designed to break down trust between GPs and their patients, to tell us that the government is on our side as consumers, and the people to whom we’ve entrusted our health are not. This is the reality of  “whatever it takes” healthcare reform: it’s sly, divisive, and unconvincing, and I can’t imagine how tough it must be to suddenly be the target of it.

So this is really an end of year thank you to the GP who takes care of me as a public health cancer patient and looks after my whole family, and to all her GP colleagues and their professional staff. We are so grateful for everything you’ve done for us.

Hang in there.

Showing up

Go son, go down to the water / And see the women weeping there
Then go up into the mountains / The men, they are weeping too

Nick Cave, “The Weeping Song

1.

It’s a day for weeping, as it turns out. All over the place, so much grieving.

Lives brought up short abruptly and in shockingly public ways right in the middle of being lived, and other lives ending privately with some warning.  Barely born ones touching down lightly and leaving us at once and very old ones leaving us in the arms of others they made out of their own bodies, or not.

And all of us still here at this time going on with the unfinishable project of writing the rules for grieving when grief is suddenly more than can be held in the boxes and buildings and clay cups we have made to hold all the stuff. People setting fire to things and lying down on freeways, and setting tables of thanksgiving with empty places, and making quiet organised gestures, all of us trying to find the words for these confusing experiences of shared public grieving while not getting in the way of others above us in the complicated hierarchy of entitlement to shock.

Because it’s not over. We’re all here to go on dying, that’s our work, our gift of making way to everyone who comes after us. And yet we work as if that’s not the case, not relevant to our values, as if it’s a vanishingly tiny thing relative to the busyness and accomplishment we stand for while we’re here.

But sometimes it feels as if the spectacle of dying demands our attention, and so we stop awkwardly and don’t know what to do with ourselves, how to show up, where to stand, banal and tricky survivors that we are. Do we play cricket this weekend, or not? Do we go to McDonalds? Do we carry on with the chatter of our day online as though #blacklivesmatter or #blackdeathsincustody or #stolenlives or #putoutyourbats shouldn’t just let all the other conversations fall quiet and all the workday deadlines go by unattended?

Aren’t we meant to stand and line the roads in silence at a time like this?

2.

In the waiting room of the radiotherapy unit where I spent a lot of time this year, there’s a big table of jigsaw puzzles. People come along, and fill in their bit, while they wait. Because that’s one of the weird details of cancer treatment: it involves a lot of waiting, a lot of sitting about, a lot of downtime. So we put the pieces of the sky back together, over and over.

Without exactly planning it this way, at home we distracted ourselves from cancer with the enormous and unfinishable puzzle of military history. Weird, hey.

So now, written up in the incalculable heap of debts I will never be able to repay to the beautiful Rustichello who walked every single step of this year with me, is the fact that I really know a lot more than I did about war. War movies, documentaries, audio books, actual books being read aloud to me in the middle of night: the soundtrack of this year. It’s got me thinking about why we keep telling ourselves the story of war, given the price of listening: wins at terrible cost, losses at even greater cost, history excused by the winners and remembered by the losers, and all the maps and diagrams and technologies and turning points. So many stories, so much hurt.

And at some level it seems to me that what happens when people commit to going back and thinking about what happened in the past is connected to this strange capacity that we have to show up—this same capacity that social networks online have suddenly made visible at such extraordinary scale—in respect of the grief carried in the lives of others, to maintain some kind of vigil over the histories of dying, to keep passing on the stories of the exact moment they left us, and what grief remained, and for whom.

But I think we’re still struggling with the practice of showing up in the context of lives that are still being lived.

3.

And so this gets to what we might be searching for as we say over and over and over and over: rest in peace. What is that peace that we can’t bring ourselves to create in life on this earth, that we hope others will rest in by dying?

The problem is that a conciliatory practice of peaceableness can’t come into being in any rational way with things as they are, and we all know it, and none of us know what to do about this. So we end up with showdown after showdown, pleading with each other to listen, while demanding compliance and respect and public order and fatalism from those who get the least from the way things are.

And it’s so hard because to listen well, we have to listen to the stories that are furthest from our own values. Because for someone it really is about ethics in games journalism, and for someone else it really is about the shirt, and for a whole crew of others it’s the energising sense of capacity and relevance that comes from tipping the trash cans over and over and over. What even is that?

So power can’t make way, privilege can’t shut up, and yet for all the talking there is now so much we can’t bring ourselves to say. In a beautiful post, Tressie McMillan Cottom puts part of it like this:

But it should never be spoken. We should never have to admit that we have sanctioned murder so that we can have stuff. Stuff, loosely defined, runs the gamut from televisions and plate glass windows to whiteness and bike lanes. We should never be forced to articulate that we have accepted a minimum threshold for murders so that we can have stuff. (Tressie McMillan Cottom, Riots and Reason)

And then it happens that people who do have something to say about this, something that might help, second guess themselves, stay quiet, and don’t know how to show up in case they’re in the wrong fight, on the wrong topic, carrying the wrong credential.

Shut up.

4.

And yet we keep trying to show up. In Australia we’re watching the showing up that’s happening in the context of a particular incident of public loss, a life that was stopped in public, right there on the television while people were reaching for a beer or chatting or sending another email, freakishly and impossibly and in a way that confounds statistics and any reasonable safeguards.

And I’m reading about Kate Forristall’s beautiful #irlproject, which is fundamentally about showing up for others as we are here, all still living as we are.

And I can’t help it: I think in the face of all of this—look, we have got this. We know what to do. We’re doing it. We’re weeping, exactly as we should.

Cricket bat
All over Australia, people are doing this thing today: #putoutyourbats

With our own meaning

I met for the first time the essential questions of my own mortality … None of us have 300 years. The terror that I conquered in those three weeks left me with a determination and freedom to speak as I needed, and to enjoy and live my life as I needed to for my own meaning.

Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals

Short version: it’s about this.

Please donate.

Long version

Last week was national Go Home on Time Day, and for me, the anniversary of all this. After a year of writing about academic overwork—why we do it, and what it costs us in human terms—I spent the day at the NTEU Insecure Work conference in Hobart, learning about makes these personal choices part of a larger system in which, as a colleague said to me a couple of days ago, labour itself is broken.

To nudge overworking academics into going home on time, the NTEU put out straightforward and sobering resources, including the astounding fact that “Australian workers donate $110 billion unpaid overtime to their employers.” I’m not sure how we manage to do this, given that a recent UK study showed their overall unpaid overtime value to be a trifling £640 million, but the general point is clear: the most developed economies run on a chronic habit of overwork for some that’s chained to a chronic problem of underemployment and underemployment for many, that together leave millions locked out of the benefits of having a developed economy at all.

UK reports are now consistently showing that the problem of overwork is being driven by the “culture of extra hours” of workplace managers who lead us from the front in using their early mornings, late evenings and weekends working and communicating with their staff, continuously promoting to the entire workforce a powerful lesson about what it takes to flourish in this culture:

Almost half of UK managers work an extra day of unpaid overtime per week, a study into working practices has suggested. … Around 13% of managers work two days unpaid overtime per week, the Institute of Leadership and Management said.

To say that academics can relate to this pattern of work is to enter the terrain of bears, woods and shit. It’s so obvious that we hardly know where to begin in thinking about it. Although if you listen to any group of academics talking about their own experience of overwork, you’ll still hear from people who think it’s about the privilege of flexible working lives, the ability to work when and where we want, to get on with doing what we love at all hours of the day and night.

This packaging of system failure as personal privilege is precisely how we cooperate in ensuring that the unpaid overtime never gets back on the balance sheet, never amounts to business intelligence that not enough people are being hired to do the work the organisation wants done. Your day of unpaid overtime might feel like the only strategy you have, the only way to survive, the only hope of future promotion or the protection of those around you—and it actually might be all of those things—but it’s also the sound of someone else’s job not being created, not even being reckoned with in the budget and the strategic plan and the audit of the sustainability of the organisation where you work.

And universities are leading whole communities in this way of living because when we do this, we also send this message to our students and our kids and our friends and our neighbours that secure employment now naturally involves relinquishing the political solidarity it would take to do what we came here to do, and that we do well, within the compensated hours on our contracts. This is also how we find ourselves without even the time to listen to one another in ways that would make our work more effective and durable, because every day we’re being chased by deadline after deadline, and our whole thinking lives are galvanised by interruption and crisis: because the system as a whole has said yes to too many things at once.

So the lesson that I’ve learned in my year away from all this finally sank in this week. A visitor came to our campus, and a small group of us sat down together to reflect on the questions about the fragmentation and repair of academic life and practice that he had raised for us by sharing a short piece of his work in progress on networked participatory scholarship. We didn’t come out with a grant proposal, a research paper, or an outcome of any kind. This work would show up on any reckoning of our productivity as a little gap, an inefficiency, a nothing.

But I came out smarter, better at listening.

And we also came out to a world of hurt, like people who were on a plane when the big news broke. As we sat in the room, #FergusonDecision. The immense, desperate spectacle of anger in the US on a scale that Australians find hard to imagine. And from Australia, the anger in return of all those who live here under the shadow of our own reckoning that some lives matter less than others: that some people get to participate in our economy and enjoy its prosperity and raise their kids in freedom, health and safety, and some people don’t, and that’s just the way things are.

So I got snagged there for a moment there on the problem of how to sustain practices of hope that will lead to change when the evidence seems to pile up on all sides that we have already broken the environment we live in and that the best we can hope for is to pull off surreptitious gestures of resistance or appreciation, before going to lie down in a darkened room and wait for the finish.

Then some things happened. That is, things didn’t happen differently, but having taken time to think, I noticed things happening that add up for me to a way of looking differently at this mess we’re in.

The Koori Woman wrote this about the kindness of strangers. The Smart Casual—the most kick-ass colleague you could ever hope for—came flying out of the corner where higher education had her boxed in and wrote this astonishing piece about grief. My daughter Clementine wrote this about what she has learned from her dad. Australian journalists Mark Colvin and Julia Baird shared this conversation about resilience, love and survival in the face of life. A bunch of famous Australians got together and made a thing that—even if celebrity singalongs aren’t your cup of tea—at the very least shows a group of influential humans right in the act of saying that the way things are won’t do for them any more.

And while thinking about tipping points, I came out to an email from the organisers of a health campaign that really matters to me, telling us that the tipping point has been reached, and they’ll be converting the pledges to donations. This is great news. But they have a way to go, so they are reaching out for the practical support of anyone who can give a small donation in the final 13 days of their campaign.

I support this campaign because these women, in the context of their own community and in line with their own cultural meaning, will get this done. It’s their idea, their cause, their health, their plan, and their determination to change the way things are. The donation process is really, really simple and quick. Please find time to read about them, please pass on this message, and please consider giving them a donation if you’re in a position to.

Dianne Biritjalawuy and the women of Hope for Health, I really hope this helps.