I was just sorting through some images on an old hard drive and made a collection that caught my eye for one reason or another. Nothing spectacular here; just a collection of memories. (Click on an image to enlarge.)
Okay, this is quite random. I was just searching for an old email and found these tips I wrote when I was one of the leaders on a cross-cultural team in Bulgaria. It was a list of tips for the team regarding public speaking:
1. Speak with confidence (try not to "ummm..." or "welllll..." so much).
2. Keep hands out of your pockets (it's considered rude here, even when just standing around on the street; pockets are for things, not hands). Never ever cross your arms in front of an audience.
3. Try not to say "you guys..." (e.g. "We've really had a great time with you guys...").
4. Try to put across the fact that we are here to learn about others first and then we would like them to also learn something about us.
5. Look attentive during meetings; even though you don't understand a word of what is said, it's impolite to daze off. There is a certain art to doing this that may take years to master.
6. If you say what state you are from, be sure to add "...in the United States." (e.g. if you say "I'm from Georgia" here, people will assume you are from The Republic of Georgia).
7. Even when the translator is translating, you are still "speaking." Be sure to retain contact with the listeners.
8. Even if you (as a team) don't know what you are doing next on stage, try to make it appear like you are all "on plan" (try to maintain the appearance that you have everything worked out; first we will speak a bit, then sing, then so and so will give a testimony; rather than conferring after everything you do).
9. This is where you are "on point." Try to maintain enthusiasm; this meeting may be the only time this group of people meet the team; even though you are exhausted, it's important to give a good presentation of yourselves and be enthusiastic (this is a cardinal rule of all presentations).
10. If something happens that is an English linguistic mistake, try not to laugh or make note of it; people will not understand why you are laughing.
11. Don't "bumble about." It's distracting to the people watching. Try to be as smooth as possible with your physical movements and transitions on and off stage.
12. Gentlemen should let ladies enter and exit the stage first.
13. Hands to the sides or in "praise the LORD" mode whilst singing (definitely not in pockets).
This was all for a project through the American Baptist Mission Board; I did month-long cultural immersion trips with them in Japan, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic. I did media for the trips but sort of wish I had it all to do over again with the tools that are available today! I came across another email on suggestions for brands of MiniDV tape but somehow think that's probably not especially relevant anymore.
I'm just back from the States. Did a bit of rummaging through archives and came across this random selection of old family photos.
My parent's house was recently robbed. I'm unsure how passive to make that sentence; should I instead say that my father was robbed? That he and I were? I think it's most appropriate to say that the house itself was robbed—that the casualty is ultimately a sense of home and safety. Dad is, understandably, rattled and having to go through all the process of protecting his identity (they stole a load of paperwork). Unfortunately, they also stole my mother's jewellery, grandfather's watch, and other sentimental items.
Bizarrely, and tragically for me, they took the past two decades of my personal letters and journals (I had them in 'valuable looking stuff' fire-safes in my room). This is, I'm assuming, the kind of material they would immediately dump; it's probably lost forever. This was, initially, extremely upsetting; I don't have a lot of close connections with people but the letters we've exchanged are tangible manifestation of this. The journals document the passing from one stage to another in my life; perhaps not of great significance to anyone else, but important to me in retrospect.
However, as I reflect upon the whole incident, it's rather freeing. As I noted in a previous post, I'm attempting to look a bit deeper into my shadow side—my past, maturation (and sometimes lack of). I have a certain narrative built around who I am and want to be; that's framed by what's written. Journals aren't the most objective records of such. Letters to and from only reflect glimpses into the past and can't offer any perspective into the present that's come to be years hence. If that crutch is removed, I'm forced to hold a light to now and look into the shadow of now without explanation or excuse. That kind of examination isn't bound by the weight or hopes of the past. I am not the man whom I expected to be when those words were made; nor am I making the man reflected in those words. In many ways, the words from our past no longer exist as a record of reality either then or now. The more we hold onto them, the less we can 'become into' now and the future.
Regardless, it does speak to the transience and tenuousness of our ephemera. I had slips of paper stored away in locked boxes; that's only a reminder of people and experience. Perhaps, it calls on me to re-consider the now of those people as much as the now of my experience rather than hold to the past and what was—or what I thought might be.
I studied film production in University; our directing teacher was the venerable Dr Katherine Stenholm. One day in class she made this statement about filmmaking which, at the time, seemed ludicrous, "We make reality." To my young indoctrinated mind, that was beyond our human capacity; God made reality and it was so. However, I've grown to understand more of the nuance of what she meant. This morning I read George Monbiot's excellent Weekly Review article in this week's Guardian. His title and premise is, It's time to tell a new story if we want to change the world. He articulates much of what I've been ruminating recently about our individual and collective need for a better story from which we live.
He says, "Stories are the means by which we navigate the world. They allow us to interpret its complex and contradictory signals. We all possess a narrative instinct: an innate disposition to listen for an account of who we are and where we stand. When we encounter a complex issue and try to understand it, what we look for is not consistent and reliable facts but a consistent and comprehensible story. When we ask ourselves whether something 'makes sense', the 'sense' we seek is not rationality, as scientists and philosophers perceive it, but narrative fidelity."
We are the storytelling creature and without a coherent story we fall into a kind of madness. We hold to our myths and legends because they give us a form to work from—the archetypes from which we can understand ourselves and our relation to others. One cannot remove the 'story' from the 'self' without either replacing it with another or causing significant trauma. This is evidenced—everywhere in countless ways. From the products we purchase out of 'brand loyalty' to the celebrities we admire, in our adherence to a certain sports team to a willingness to die in battle for the cause of a nation. It's often based far more on the story we've been told or tell ourselves rather than objective reality.
I'd like to think of myself as a rational person but I know that my own life is not given meaning nor is it motivated by lists of facts. Monbiot, in his article states, "A string of facts, however well attested, will not correct or dislodge a powerful story. The only response it is likely to provoke is indignation: people often angrily deny facts that clash with the narrative 'truth' established in their minds. The only thing that can displace a story is a story. Those who tell the stories run the world." We aren't living in a 'post truth' world; objectively, truth is still truth. We are living in a world where the collective narrative can be powerfully shifted and driven on a mass scale. We are in a world where The Story is even more paramount than ever. All these matters we focus on, the economy, the environment, migration, human rights, resources—we discuss them all as if control of them is the goal and end of power. They are insignificant, or at most, secondary to the power derived from The Story. Consider this, twenty years from now will it matter more who has more control of all the oil in the world or who has shaped a story about how and what resources we use? Will it matter who controls a given swath of geography or how we consider the migrant and the other—how we consider identity? The Story is the basis for how the world continues and we shape that narrative as individuals and as a collective of societies.
The point this keeps coming back to for me is the issue of immigration. Immigrants must be given a space to make a new story in our adopted homes. If we do not feel part of a place's story we will never feel part of that place. We cannot live as sane human beings without that story in place—if that's missing then one will latch on to another story and that's often one based on disenfranchisement and fear. ISIS provides a story of a place and identity that can call in all the misplaced people around the world who are hungry for a story to live under. They've taken up a story that's undergird Islam for centuries, re-worked it to their own devices and deployed it as a narrative to fit their own needs, "if you cannot feel at home in the place you were born; join us in making this new story for the future." We are suffering for a scarcity of healthy stories.
We have to find a new way to make The Story for us as human beings on Earth while, simultaneously, find a new story for each of us as we readily move about upon it. All that list of serious matters above are also real and increasingly weigh upon us; but, without new stories to guide our actions, we aren't going to have a remedy for any of them. We have to recognise the reality of where we are (both literally and metaphorically); we can't make the story up on a blank slate. We have to respect the place we are in and start from there. I'm trying to consider exactly from where that story begins. I think, perhaps having read too much Wendell Berry, it truly starts from the ground up—that our stories start from a place and that place begins with soil. After writing so much about the idea of stewardship, I'm convinced that we are, ultimately, stewards of the soil. There's not much point in anything else if we destroy the actual earth beneath us; so I'd propose we start building our stories, place to place and person to person on the stewardship of soil (however, that's probably another topic to explore).
One final note though; back to where I began in directing class. The first thing to suffer in our education, when we tell the story that capital is primary, are the liberal arts. However, if you remove Humanities from the curriculum, you remove someone's capacity to both tell and interpret stories. People are rendered powerless to either understand or generate stories and can then be controlled. That's, of course, a purposed act by neoliberal governments and institutions who want to shape the story to their own ends. We may not feel we have great powers but, if we have the power to tell a story, the story makes the world.
I'm at a time in my life where it's become increasingly necessary to 'own' my faults and failures. There are many things we might let go on the wayside as we mature but these don't really go away until we face them and hold them to the light. Unfortunately, that means I have to look blankly into my shadow and converse with a side of myself I'm not especially comfortable with.
I took this picture the other day walking to the shops; I later noticed that, in the harsh light under my deep shadow, the pavement reflected tiny glimmers of light. I need to realise the benefit of looking deep into my darker side to come up with those points in contrast. It's in darkness we see the stars—and sometimes we need starlight to find our bearings.
There is a challenging pivot point between observations made as an 'insider' and those from an 'objective' outsider. Often the person on the inside is too close to the subject to speak comprehensively about a given matter; however, the outsider risks generalisations and fills gaps with assumptions based on limited knowledge. (I think this is where good journalism marries the two; a competent journalist can give voice to the insider who would otherwise not be heard.)
There is a tradition of memoir told from both perspectives. We have inner monologues about a person's life in a given place that provide a slice out of time picture. We also have the other extreme such as Black Like Me that tells a story from a perspective that could only be manufactured. Everything here is valid; I don't have any criticism for one or the other as they tell the story in different ways. However, there is another layer on top that involves the expectations of the audience and their inherent bias and suppositions. Hillbilly Elegy was promoted as a portrait of Appalachian life and culture. I had read several reviews (from national publications; I should also read reviews from regional papers), that touted the book as a view into the lives of Appalachians. This is simplistic and not something I think the author intended. It's possible to attempt such a book; it's just not what this book is. The risk of promoting or reading it with that purpose in mind though is that, of course, one gets a skewed image of 'those people' (in the same way that you can't read a book about a Chinese family in Chicago and know all about Chinese people).
What it does relate is a simultaneously tragic and hopeful story of one man's experience growing up in Ohio and Kentucky. Much of it resonated with me; I wasn't raised in the same poverty or difficult family situation as he but it was always something a few doors down. If you're from Appalachia, you are never far from poverty; however, most people are also distant from extreme wealth as well so I think, at least in my experience, there was a certain type of equity (you didn't think less of neighbours or relations because they had less as long as they were upstanding good people). The picture J.D. Vance relates in his book chimes with that but the tragic trajectory of his story brings us into the present where people are giving up hope and aspiration.
The book has called on me to reflect further on whether I still look at West Virginia from my perspective as an insider or now from outside. The several times I've been back in past years to my parent's (and grandparent's) hometown, I've visited a place in decline and decay. Almost the only people who are left are pensioners and apparently younger people are mostly on welfare. There seems to be little life or industry to the place or people (the county has the highest unemployment in one of the poorest states in the nation). I remember, as a child, seeing this same place as a more vibrant and interesting. How much of this change is what happened in the place or what has happened from my change in innocence and experience? I can sense the damage to the place brought by years of exploitative industry—to both the land and the people. There is this evident decline in spirit, like a draining in colour visible in people across the state (witness the ill health, obesity, and prescription drug addiction).
I also struggle with leaving 'home'. Vance now lives in San Francisco; I'm on the other side of the planet in Sydney. Like so many Appalachians, we've felt compelled to leave in order to make sensible lives for ourselves. For some of us, there will always be a gnawing call back to the hills and this feeling that we've abandoned them. The opportunity for careers there are limited; but, equally, the opportunity to bring healing to a damaged place and people is overflowing. I hope that people can read the book and look past their own suppositions about the region; it's not simply a huge swath of land populated by rednecks. It's clear that, especially with the election of Donald Trump and the shock that followed in the wake of this, much of the country does not understand the social and economic situation of people in Appalachia. To think 'they' are just a bunch of lazy people on the dole is to misunderstand the promise that was given that they could work hard and obtain a decent life. For millions of people in the region, it's not that this isn't a given—it's truly out of reach. Appalachia has this knockabout history of poverty and despair; that's the picture that's been in the travel guide for generations. But, I'm not entirely sure how true that's been on the whole when jobs could be had and there was some way to keep one's family fed. Now, we need to hear and retell these stories. We need, both on the inside and out, to consider closely what is happening as there is always some means of empowerment in this. We need the truth of what has happened—but, again, as I said in my last post, we also need better stories about what is possible. Perhaps, regardless of where we are, 'The Expats of Appalachia' can write both into being.
I'm Appalachian. I'm specifically from West Virginia, which 'sided' with the North in the American Civil War; regardless, I consider myself 'Southern.' Each of the above are layers of identity and heritage. Above those labels I'm an American which, though we consider it some kind of concrete identity, is really so diverse an amalgamation as to defy any sort of compact definition. If anything, America, as I was raised to ideally understand it, is composed of dissimilar peoples who have come together in the United States. Our similarity is based on and strengthened by our diversity. My personal identity is expanded though by further experiences I've had in other places and cultures. In other words, my identity doesn't come from existing in one place or only referencing that single place. Identity comes from an understanding of my place in the larger whole. It's both looking back and forward, not something static and based wholly on the imagined past. It's also tempered by an informed understanding of other people and their experiences. Neither my culture or my personal history have formed in isolation; before I can comprehend my own place in the story, I need to make the effort to properly 'read' that of others. Otherwise, I'll have only a narrow and weakly formed identity based on my internal monologue.
Recently, there was an incident in Virginia that involved a particular set of Americans protesting that their heritage was under attack. Heritage and identity are based on the stories we tell to ourselves and each other. The story that these (mostly white men) tell to others and themselves is that they are a now a minority at risk of dissolution. The elements of this story are made from a collection of objects and 'small h' histories reformed into a new narrative that drive them to this conclusion. The focus in Virginia was a memorial statue of a Confederate general from the Civil War. These monuments are peppered around the South as a lingering reminder of that period in our shared history; however, many are slated for removal as they are and have become increasingly a tool for these 'oppressed oppressors'. I'm tempted to speak about 'the current political climate' or to go off on the poor state of leadership in the White House; but, in some ways, these are indicative rather than causal. We have malicious and tawdry leaders because we, as a diverse group of peoples, have allowed ourselves to become so or have permitted that kind of energy to inform our narrative. I don't really believe the men violently protesting and carrying NAZI flags truly represent the spirit of the South as they think they do; they are more representative of an underlying and systemic disease in the culture that has produced them. They say they are the embodiment of a real America; they are instead an example of ignorance and a complete misunderstanding of what America essentially is. (Further I have to wonder if, despite his personal or political aims, Gen Robert E. Lee would have condoned fascists using his monument as a symbol of their cause!)
There was a physical clash between the protesters and counter-protesters on the weekend and a woman was killed (it's a wonder that more weren't in the presence of heavily armed angry men; I'm afraid it's only a matter of time before these situations spill into uncontrolled violence). The resolution of this is, in the main, not a question of taking up arms on either side, it goes back to our stories. These men don't need some recognition or revolution to satisfy their frustrations; we who oppose their views need not clamp down on their actual freedoms (that just re-enforces their narrative of perceived oppression). We need better stories―stories that are informed by a broader understanding of ourselves and others, stories that aren't based in the Shadow side of our past but have come through and out of it, stories that recognise the reality of now rather than the imagined 'then'. Without a better story, people fester in ignorance of both their own true heritage and that of others. The men protesting on the weekend shouted 'you will not replace us' as if there are hordes of people coming to America specifically to become bigoted disillusioned men. These men have so wholly separated themselves from an understanding of 'the other' that their comprehension of other people outside their own sphere is stilted and misread.
I'm going to digress for a moment. I said in the first paragraph that my identity doesn't come from referencing a single place; that's not to say that a sense of place isn't important. We all need to have roots in a place and/or be able to transplant ourselves into new soil. That's a needed skill as people move about freely (and, increasingly, unwillingly) around the world. What we must realise is that this transition does not mean that existing cultures must be eliminated or that we must lose our own identities. What it does mean is that I need to have a healthy understanding of myself, to be able to communicate that to others and welcome them into my own culture. It requires effort on both parties in the encounter. I am a migrant into another culture now; though Australia is in many ways an easy transition, it's required of me to make the necessary effort to integrate into this society. That does not mean I lose my own identity nor does should it require Australia to diminish itself in order to accommodate me. I think the shouting angry men in Virginia are still looking at the world in a Colonial way―that, with any influx of 'the other' there is an invasion of culture that supplants the native one. That's certainly still possible; however, not necessary for either the migrant or the receiving culture. It's also incumbent on the native culture to offer its best narrative for the newcomers to enter into (in the same way one must offer a rich soil for the transplant as it roots itself). This effort is even more important than ever as the volume and speed of migration increases round the world. Migration, within living memory, was in many ways a slower and more permanent life event. Now we can fly round the world in a day and visit 'home' several times a year; our communication is instantaneous and continual. There is little incentive to wholly integrate into another culture when the ties to ones own are so thorough and especially if the culture one has entered into doesn't offer a compelling narrative in which one can have a place. There is a much larger issue here that probably warrants more thought and writing―but if you want to look at the creation of 'the terrorist next door' don't place the blame wholly on radical preachers far away. Ask why the young man who did some terrible thing couldn't find a place in the story of the country his parents migrated to. Why was the story he was offered as a citizen of one society so weak that it could be so easily supplanted by some YouTube videos and a shady guy he met online?
Ask as well why the men carrying NAZI flags to a rally in Virginia can't find an identity other than that of hate and bigotry. Ask why they have created this kind of narrative as their own history and want to offer that as a way forward for America. How do we counter that failing? We must create better stories and speak them with both both conviction and humility.
Just because the Harbour Bridge was mentioned today in the media (for a ridiculous reason which doesn't bear repeating) I shall post a picture from a very early morning photo shoot when I was waiting for the fast ferry to Manly.