Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A linen package, sealed with wax

When's the last time you got a package from Dharamsala? I received one this week. It was stitched into a linen pouch and sealed with red wax. As I collected it from our veranda on a chilly autumn morning, I thought I heard the whisper of Tibetan horns sounding through the Himalayas.

I've gone through a few shirts lately, and also a couple of pairs of pants; I am one of those rare women who wears her clothes out. When you have as few clothes as me, losing a few things means a bi-weekly washing cycle and regular dressing crises. So I trawled through the op shops, but didn't find anything; in any case, second hand leggings are icky. My options were to go to the nearest mall and buy an armful of stuff made in sweatshops, or try a little harder. The mall is what most of us do most of the time; and sometimes, when I'm frantic, I do too.

However, I try not to. For one, buying clothes made by someone in desperate conditions is hardly ethical. That someone is probably not Western, nor well paid, nor looked after in their workplace. That someone is almost certainly poor. But because that someone is so far away, so abstract an entity, we pretend they don't exist. We pretend that the clothes have dropped out of the sky, untouched by human hand until they landed on this clothes rack, here in front of us. Supporting this system holds people in a system of entrenched poverty and powerlessness that they cannot easily escape, and it's not a system I want to uphold.

I wonder if we'd change how we shopped if every item of clothing was tagged with a photograph of the worker who made it, with a description of their wages, the cost of living, their working conditions and their family situation. Could we still buy a $12 t-shirt if, attached to the label, was a photograph of a 15 year old Guatemalan girl named Maria: lives in a concrete bunkroom, sleeps on the floor with a dozen co-workers, works 12 to 14 hours a day, and hopes to save enough money for a bus ticket home so she can visit her mother, who is dying from poverty-related causes? Sewn from cotton grown by Ravi, who is sprayed with toxic chemicals on a regular basis and whose village water supply has been contaminated by industrialised agriculture? If it was personal, if we could attach a real person to the production of this t-shirt, these trousers, perhaps we'd investigate organically grown fabrics, and clothing made under fair trade guidelines.

I hear suggestions that such workers need to unionise and get themselves out of this mess, and certainly many workers are beginning to do just that. But millions aren't there yet; and rather than hold them down, I would prefer to be part of the solution, helping to create a market for fair wages and good workplaces.

I'm also not convinced that the way out of poverty is through charity. I'm looking for a more permanent solution. And I think that when people are paid fair wages for their labour; when they work in safe conditions; when they farm in non-toxic ways; when they belong to collectives that ensure their children go to school and have access to some medical care, then we are all participating in a system that is dignified, merciful and fair.

After all, we are degraded when our consumption exploits others; and as charitable donors, we can easily slip into self-righteousness. But if we make good decisions when we buy the stuff we need, we can become no more, and no less, than ethical consumers. At the other end of the arrangement, producers don't have to live and work in terrible conditions, nor do they have to endure our charity. Instead, they can become no more, and no less, than ethical farmers and manufacturers. We are all dignified by fair trade.

So instead of going to the mall, a few weeks ago I spent half an hour online and ordered some things from a workshop in Dharamsala. People of Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu faiths, many of them refugees, work there. The workshop provides skills training and supplementary education, and all workers, both male and female, have access to sick leave and maternity leave. The workshop is certified by an external body, so I feel assured that the conditions are fair. On my desk, I have a printed catalogue; it includes a photograph of the workers. Their workplace is an exception to an industry that is renowned for its ruthless brutality – it is no wonder so many of them are smiling.

And in the parcel that arrived today? Soft leggings, two shirts, and a gorgeous red scarf the colour of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's habit. Perhaps that's why, when I opened the door, I could hear the echoes of Tibetan horns calling from across the world.

Chunks of this blog first appeared in the article 'Looking Good' in Zadok Perspectives No. 104. I am reproducing it here because a few people have asked me to post a list of where I buy fair trade stuff; the list is here, or find it under the 'pages' headings.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Great house, shame about the neighbours


What does it mean to love thy neighbour? I'm confronted by this question every day, because I don't.

On one side is a disgruntled older woman who loathes us because we, to her, represent gentrification. We know this not because she talks with us – she won't even acknowledge our greetings – but because, having refused to meet with us regarding our renovation, in a surprise move she took us to the building tribunal to complain. When we appeared before the panel, her issues turned out to have nothing to do with the building; instead, she and her adult sons ranted about the yuppies who were changing the suburb, and told everyone how hard their lives had been in the post-war migration period fifty years earlier. Notwithstanding that they now drive a large late-model Mercedes, they are, apparently, life's victims and we are the privileged ones they love to hate. It's been five years since our renovation, and they still haven't forgiven us; and I am beginning to realise they never will.

Yesterday, I discovered a sturdy five-foot-long wooden bench in the hard rubbish. As I carried it home, my two year old tripped over and skinned her palms. She began to wail, so I put down the bench, sat on it, and gave her a big cuddle. I had a vague thought that we may have presented an amusing picture, even charming – mother and daughter having a moment on a green bench in the middle of the footpath – but clearly not. My neighbour bustled around the side of her house to see what the commotion was; but when she saw us, she ignored my cheerful greeting, hissed through her teeth, and turned her back on us. Again.

A few doors up in the other direction is a couple who moved in perhaps four years ago, then had a son. I've greeted them every single time I've seen them in the street or bumped into them at the local shops, and the mother is yet to do anything other than stare straight through me.

There's another guy who doesn't acknowledge my greetings; the invisible people who scurry from their back doors to their carports and so out via the lane; and the family across the street which, although I have dropped in with gifts of quinces and cake, still do no more than wave if they're caught directly in my line of sight, and I wave first.

For a few years I thought that perhaps we hadn't been here long enough, and that if I kept smiling and greeting and waving, then we'd settle into the street. But lately I've realised we've been here almost ten years; before I know it, one of us will be carted out in a pine box and our neighbours will barely register.

When I was a kid, we were in and out of the neighbours' houses. Kids flowed between four or five houses in the street; neighbours stopped to say hello and swap lemons and figs; there was always someone around when we needed an emergency babysitter. Our street was choked with traffic, but we'd climb the tree in the front, hang over the footpath and give pedestrians a start; we'd share rides and walks to school; we'd hang out after school and play. Here, this is unimaginable.

It's not that I want my neighbours to be my best friends. But I'd like a cheerful greeting, a bit of 'how's the weather', or a cup of tea in someone's kitchen from time to time. I could use a safe house to drop my kids in an emergency; and I'd love to have a neighbour's kid come by for a play. For that matter, I'd even appreciate the simple courtesy of people returning my greetings. Yet with the exception of a busy older couple who live across the street, I have no indication that anyone else wants any form of interaction at all.

And at some level, why should they? They, like me, must have dozens of friends and companions and fellow-travellers; why add the connections of neighbours? Who really needs to know anyone else?

And yet, why not? Why pretend we're all islands? We overlap at the shops, at the library, at school; our cars jostle for the limited parking out front of our houses; the cats explore each other's yards. Could it be possible that a little interaction might make our stay here a little more enjoyable, a little easier, perhaps even a little bit fun?

A couple of years ago, I wrote about some of my efforts to connect with my street. Sad to say, beyond calling 'hello' left right and centre, we haven't kept it up. We've hardly been encouraged; and in any case, there are times when it feels like whenever we go out front someone across the road is screaming abuse at someone, or our most dotty neighbour is shuffling past, shrieking. For a while, my kids wouldn't go out the front without me.

But they're older now; and we have a new bench. Yesterday's find is on the veranda beside the front door. It's exactly the right height for me to dump my groceries while I fumble for the key; but even better, it's perfect for a kid to sprawl on. The wood has been rendered soft by decades of other people's bottoms; this is one comfortable wooden bench. So comfortable, in fact, that last night, for the first time, my kids asked to go out the front and wait for dad to come home. They turned on the outside light and took books; he found them curled up in a pool of light, on the bench, the oldest reading aloud to the youngest.

It made me wonder whether it's time to dig out the chalk again and let them loose on the footpath while I sit out there shelling almonds. Maybe we can find a way to be present on the street again; maybe someone will smile at the kids; maybe someday someone will return my greeting.

And if not, then at least I will know we have tried.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Report Card: 36

When do I get to be entirely comfortable in my own skin? I've just turned 36, and I've been awkward my whole life. In many older women I see a confidence that I long for, and I've always hoped that by the time I'm forty I might, like these women, have grown into myself. But from where I'm standing now it feels a long way off, certainly further than four years.

Like so many women, I don't love my body. I don't hate it, and don't want another. Yet somehow I always feel the wrong size. If I were thinner, my clothes would fit better and I wouldn't have this muffin top peeking out my jeans; if I were fatter I'd be more beautifully rounded. My skinny friends are always stylish; my large friends just gorgeous; but somehow my thin bits are scrawny and my big bits are lumpy and I never, ever feel just right.

The only time I've loved my body was when I was pregnant. That's when I began to swim, my enormous balloon of a belly wafting below me as I meandered up and down the lap lanes. Once I had the babies I stopped swimming, however; I can't stand being seen in bathers. I love the feeling of being suspended in water, but every time I look at the swim bag I feel sick. I've tried sidestepping this with tank tops and big shorts, but I hate wearing them more than regular bathers; they just make me more obvious.

Yet the discomfort doesn't seem to have much to do with my body, per se. I can't imagine I'd feel different if I were glamorously thin with perfect olive skin. I would still hate being looked at, or feeling scrutinised by strangers. Really, the discomfort is about being noticed; and the physical side is only one aspect. At times this aversion has dominated how I've felt in public. I never used to sing, or laugh; I'd get highly anxious in shops or on public transport; I'd become flustered and stammer in coffee shops when the waiter came to take my order. I've only danced under the influence of exactly the right dose of alcohol, and usually not even then. Much of the time, I hate being observed; and I struggle with this.

I long to grow out of this discomfort, this desire to be invisible which has, at times, crippled me; I get so frustrated that I haven't managed it yet. But I'm beginning to realise it's a thing to keep working it, a gradually dawning state that will come with effort and patience, for when I look back over the years, I see change.

Although I never sang for many many years, now I sing every day. A few years back, having spent several years at a small church where singing was paramount, I realised it was time to get over my fear. I stayed at the church, joined a community singing group, and began singing to my kids. I've learned to listen, and to modulate my timing and tone; my singing voice has shifted from a whisper to a bray to something moderately tuneful. Not only that, but where once I stood stiff as a board, these days I find myself swaying, sufficiently lost in the act of singing to be able to move with the sound.

I used to get wildly flustered in shops, and at times I still get anxious. But gone are the days when I avoided them altogether; now I enjoy the hustle and bustle of the city streets. I used to get so panicky on public transport that I'd disembark early to avoid missing my stop; now, I stay seated til journey's end. For years I wore only black; but now I wear colour – lots of muted blues and greys, yes, but also pinks, reds and greens, impossible a decade ago. My black boots have been replaced by burgundy; my black Mary Janes by clogs sprinkled with flowers. Small things, perhaps, but indicators of change – though what slow change it is! At kindergarten, I smothered my pictures with thick black paint so no one would comment on their strangeness; they showed perspective and depth. At school, I found it easier to draw like everybody else, formulaic flowers and little girls in pink. Thirty years later, I am gradually unlearning the drawing, peeling back the paint, and depicting the world as I see it. I use words now instead of a brush, but it's the same game; and I'm finally doing it in public.

So at 36, looking back, I find things are progressing. Healing may be possible. It's taking a long time, quite literally decades, but I'm well on the way. No longer stuck in the desolate years of my teens, or that awful black hole of my early twenties, I feel like I've found good earth and am sinking down roots; I'm sending out new green shoots. And the more I unfurl in spirit, the more I unfold in public.

One day in my forties, perhaps I will blossom. I will put on a pretty dress without wincing; I will wear my bathers casually. I will write something long, and become one of those women I adore, big and bold and confidently present. When that day comes you will probably know; for not only will I be singing aloud, but you'll probably find me dancing.

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