Courage is a mindset

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“Courage is found in unlikely places.”
                                                       J.R.R. Tolkien

Throughout history courage has been considered a vital attribute or virtue in many circles.  It’s been written about by  great philosophers and been a requirement of adherents to various traditions including those following the Samauri Bushido Code and the Knightly code of Chivalry.  It is a key virtue in almost every military tradition;  eastern or western, present day or in the past.  But what is this thing called courage? What place does it have in society today? What does it mean to be courageous in everyday life?

When I think about courage I don’t instantly think of those who go out to achieve great feats of strength or daring or to conquer world records.  That sort of courage, that risk taking sort of courage isn’t where I go first.  Don’t get me wrong, I definitely appreciate the intrepidness of thrill seekers and the fortitude it takes to conquer mind and body while surmounting physical hurdles, be they mountains, giant waves, marathons, ocean crossings.  When I think of courage I think of the Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Emmeline Pankhurst, Aung SanSuu Kyi type of courage. Despite all the meanings and interpretations of courage my immediate definition of courage is that which describes those who sacrifice their own sense of comfort or freedom to stand up for principles they hold dear, for principles they believe are a basic human right.  That sort of courage captivates me.  It’s the sort of courage we see played out in many popular novels, and plays and movies.  We all love a hero.  Ethics scholar Scott LaBarge believes we define our ideals on the heroes we choose and as a result, our ideals define us.  But what does that mean? For me? Today?

I wouldn’t consider myself self-sacrificing.  I don’t play on a large scale; locally or internationally.  I’m certainly not an intrepid adventurer or world record beater. Am I then devoid of courage? Is the average person today without courage? I think not. Perhaps then this thing called courage can take many forms. Perhaps there are degrees of courage. Perhaps courage  can be  subtle and understated. What do you think?

Wouldn’t it be marvellous to collect stories of courage, an anthology of everyday courage of the men and women we know? Whose story would you share?

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The faces and fibre of our communities

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Invisible threads are the strongest ties.  

                                         Fredrich Nietzsche

It shouldn’t but it still  surprises me when the universe delivers synchronistically interwoven gossamer threads that tie a thought or an idea to another with seamless perfection.

I recently wrote about the joys of being a tourist in your own country.  Last weekend I visited the Museum of Brisbane, the city I call home, to engage with a new and exciting exhibition called 100% Brisbane. The exhibition uniquely draws together the stories of 100 residents and examines what it is about their city that they love. It goes deeper than that, it shapes for the viewer through touch, sound, smell, film and text the heart of the city, the human community with its complexities of origin, sexuality, race, gender, age, defining life experiences and so on.  It delivers an impressive and captivating self-portrait of a city and its people; a provocative self portrait of a community. I felt both a tourist and a sense of belonging and connection.

Looking in on something I take for granted and have neglected to examine closely (in this way) gave me a sense of being a bystander or a visitor learning about this place. It was fascinating to take a helicopter view of my city and examine it differently. 100% Brisbane is provocative on so any levels.  Too many thoughts surfaced, eddied and flowed to share them all, though I’ve walked away with a sense of pride, with a deeper level of understanding and with questions too. Questions about myself and my place here. Questions that will tick over in my mind as I interact with this city and it’s people, looking for answers, insights and elaborations. These questions percolated as a result of a series of questions I answered while there.

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A feature of the exhibition is an interactive survey that gathers information about visitors to the exhibition and provides statistics that inform you of your likeness and difference to those who have previously visited and to those 100 people, who each represent a 1% slice of Brisbane, on whom the exhibition is based.  As I submitted my results I got to see which of the 100 I was most like in each of three sections. I answered a range of questions from basic demographics to my attitudes and beliefs on key social issues and I discovered that I am not as unique as I’d imagined nor am I quite as conventional either.  In part one I was like only 1% of my fellow citizens and in sections 2 and 3 I was like  9% of my fellow Brisbaneites. That’s pretty interesting data to walk away with.  You can see why I might now have a few questions whirling away in my mind.

Have you ever considered the face of your city or  how similar you are to the community you live in? Can you see the elements that link you to those who live around you? Do you recognise those points of difference that make you unique?  This exhibition has made me realise that while we might think of ourselves as ‘just one face in a crowd’ we are each representatives of the place we live. We are each the face of our community; our individual voices, stories and perspectives interlace to create the fabric that swathes us and weaves the shape and spirit of where we live.

 

 

Stories of yesteryear

Joe McSweeney

What a mug a man be
to go fighting in the war over the sea
Half starved, the pay was low
a man was mad to even go.  

Joseph McSweeny

There is an exhibition coming to town – The Spirit of Anzac Centenary Experience. It sounds like a big event. It is a free exhibition that showcases the story of Australia’s involvement in the First World War. From what I’ve read, there will be a good many stories  as well as photos of Australians who served our country during the war. It’s timely and synchronistic, for me, that this event should be coming to my city.

I have been pouring over some writings and photographs of my great-grandfather, Joe’s recently.  He was a character.  I wish I had known him better, though I am getting a sense of him through his musings. I met him several times when he was old and sick and in no mood for silly noisy little girls. My grandmother and my father have both shared stories of him that have intrigued and me. I knew he was an artist and sign writer. I knew too that he had fought in the first world war. My great-grandfather captured some of his life in poetry. Some of it is long and prose like, some short and snappy, some of it is good, a lot is not.  However, I have learnt much about his life through these handwritten notes.  I have discovered he was a swagman and wandered out west looking for work on various stations, orchards and farms when times were tough. He worked in shearing sheds and in a butcher shop; anything to make a quid.

His writing paints a picture of what it was like to be a soldier in the first world war. He doesn’t go into depth or detail. In fact, he seems to skirt around the edges of the atrocities of war. Often I find the greatest messages lay in the gaps and silences. There are many postcards he collected while abroad and a few he sent home to his wife, my great-grandmother and his daughter, my Nana.  These were short notes but very touching. Among his effects are a pile of vintage postcards with beautifully painted images of women clad in their undergarments. Oh, they are very tame by today’s standards but I imagine they were outrageously risqué in some circles way back when. They are exquisite reminders of a time long ago. A time not forgotten. A time of heroes and ordinary men and women who left these shores not knowing what horrors awaited them. A time when these same ordinary men and women, the lucky ones, returned home to carve out lives for themselves when their whole view of the world and life had been irrevocably changed.

I would dearly love to share some of Joe’s writing about the war with you though I realise now, so many years after it was written, that much of it is politically incorrect and may offend some readers. His poems were written in a different time, when feelings about the enemy were raw. Some things, I guess, are best kept private. Below I have included a short ode he wrote, it gives you an idea of the larrikin he was.

Have you heard the story about sign writer Joe?
He fell on the floor with a heavy sound
It took some time to bring him round.

The butcher rubbed his ribs with greasy hand
and sat him in a chair, he could not stand.
The butcher grinned and laughed outright
Poor old Joe, looked an awful fright.

Back to the job he went once more
His ribs was aching and arm was sore.
Down he got and gave a grunt
Through the door and out the front.

Now dear readers, this is no lie
The poor old bugger
Went home to die.

The Spirit of ANZAC Centenary Experience will be held at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre from the 17th until the 30th June. You can book tickets online at http://www.spiritofanzac.gov.au

What’s your story?

Dada and Rodney

That’s my Dad on the left, as a young man, with his brother.

 

“Since storytelling is a dialogue, shared stories create more understanding; bring people closer together as a community;  and serve as a string that binds one heart to another.  (And I believe that the universe is made up of string.)”
Peninnah Schram

“Stories are at the very heart of being human; they talk about where we’re from, where we are, and where we’re going.  They’re like bread; you need to hear and tell them everyday.”
Bill Harley

We all have a story. Sometimes we live a false story and are victims of a self belief but that’s not the story I’m talking about. I’m talking about our own individual history kind of story. The really interesting stuff, the stuff that make us, well, us I guess.

I recently had dinner with my parents and I was moved by what I learned about my father. I was moved and intrigued by his stories; stories I didn’t know; stories of him I’d never imagined. Okay, he didn’t go hunting tigers or elephants  in the savannah or trek the arctic on a quest of find a long-lost artefacts. But he did do some pretty unique things.

My dad is an artist, a lover of art, race horses and fine wine. He is also a handy man and can fix just about anything. He has been married for near on 46 years, has three daughters, worked in retail as a manager and then went into insurance. He played squash and entered walks for charity when I was young. He loves the oceans and still, to this day, at the ripe old age of 73, goes for a body surf to relax and unwind. He is clever and kind and, well, you know, a dad.

A drawing my my father did as a child.

A drawing my my father did as a child.

Growing up I’d learnt a little of my father’s early life, life before me and my sisters, life even before my mum was in his picture. I gleaned these little snippets from my grandmother and some from passing comments he’d make at times, in relation to other things, never as a topic of conversation in and of themselves. So I knew my dad had attended boarding school, that he was a pretty good student, I’ve seen report cards. I knew too, that as a young man he had learnt and practiced Judo. I’d also seen photos of him in a rugby uniform while at school but I hadn’t realised he continued to play as a working adult. He also played hockey. For some reason I imagined he’d played ice hockey, why in Australia would I assume this?  I’m not sure. Too many movies I guess. Anyway, dad told me about the very rough grass court they’d play on, not a smooth manicured green as one might see today but a rough and tumble, bumpy lumpy piece of paddock. He loved it. He and a mate, from an outlying property near Gladstone, would play of a weekend. They’d also turn their hand to lawn bowls on occasion, to test their mettle in other ways.

Graeme felsch second row frist on left

Second row, first on the left.

The story that really blew my mind and had me gawping in amazement and horror was a tale involving a boat. I knew Dad had sailed in a Brisbane to Gladstone yacht race. If you are unaware, this yacht race is an icon of Queensland, the state in which I live. It’s a pretty high-profile race held every year over the Easter long weekend. It begins from Shorncliffe in Moreton Bay and follows a 308 nautical mile journey up to Gladstone.

Over dinner I discovered my father had sailed in, not one but, five Brisbane to Gladstone yacht races.  I learned how it came about that he was recruited as crew with no ocean-going experience,  just river sailing under his belt. The skipper, a very  colourful character, and his two sons, both teenagers, were making their maiden voyage and needed an extra hand. They took dad out for a day on the seas and he got the tick of approval.  Dad, in his twenties, loved the experience and became close friends with the family.  My parents are still friends, some 40 odd years later, with this family.  One year, after race was run and things were winding down, news that a cyclone was brewing set things back in motion.  Dad had to be back in Brisbane for work. Time was of the essence. To make it back in time and safely they had to leave immediately when normally they would rest and celebrate. Trouble was, one crew member, the older son, had left to make a rendezvous elsewhere and the skipper had retired to the bar, where he felt most at home. With a sense of urgency Dad and the youngest of the crew collected the skipper, poured him into his bunk and set sail for home.  As fate would have it the cyclone hit early and Dad singlehandedly, with some assistance from a young teenager, manned the boat through rough seas negotiating twenty to thirty metre waves.  They rode out the night, a very tense night I imagine, and sailed into calmer waters by dawn, safe and sound, surrounded by thick fog.

The skipper was rudely awakened from his slumber to navigate their whereabouts. Funnily enough, my Father had managed the boat through tremendous odds but had no navigational skills in the white out. I think that’s gorgeous. I was aware my jaw and eyes were wide open (not an elegant look in an upmarket restaurant) in amazement as I listened to this story and marvelled at the courage, skill and foolhardiness of my Father.  What an incredible experience.

How is it I never knew these things before?

I asked him why he’d never told me and he simply said he didn’t think they were worth telling, they were just things he’d done. From my wide-eyed stare and enthusiastic responses he said he guessed he should write some things done.  You bet you should DaddyO.

If we don’t tell our stories we are like ghosts on this planet. We appear to be but husks without our narrative to give essence and depth. Our stories are bridges; they deepen relationships, they inspire, and, through hearing them, they give us a greater connection to ourselves and our own sense of place in the world. That may sound a little odd but I walked away from that meal with my parents with a greater sense of who my father was but I also felt differently positioned in my own narrative as a result.

Whatever your story, share it. Nothing is too grand or too insignificant.  Sometimes it’s the most mundane scraps of information that feed the soul and mind of the listener.

What’s your story?

Graeme October 1959

Did I forget to mention he liked to swing a golf club as well as a hockey stick?

 

The ripple effect of a $2 gift

 

Image courtesy of against the grain scholars

Image courtesy of against the grain scholars

My husband made me cry last weekend. He said the loveliest thing that tears sprang to my eyes and streamed down my face.

This story began one Christmas morning about twelve years ago when I gifted my husband and son a box each for Christmas. They were $2 boxes from the discount store, about 20 cm cubed with lids, bright, colourful and empty. Yes, that’s right. They were empty.

My husband, trying to remain polite, looked incredulously at this empty box. His expression conveyed his thoughts – what was the meaning of an empty box? At Christmas?

As I explained to the pair of them the box was a ‘Happy Box’, empty now so they could fill it with happy memorabilia.  I too had a box which I filled over the years with photographs, love letters, certificates, news clippings, small hand-made gifts. I filled it with things that made my heart sing. Things that bought joy to my life. Things I wanted to remember.  My husband’s box began to fill too.

About six years ago my beloved used his box as the focus of a motivational talk to his students. He is a Principal in a high school. I’m not sure exactly what he shared in his story. I wasn’t there but I do know that he shared with them the types of memories he collected, the joy of delving into the box to reflect on successes and achievements. He impressed them by drawing from the box a photo of their cohort and sharing the positive impact they have had on his life and the joy he received from working with them, seeing them grow and helping them reach their goals. Funnily enough, he shared with them too his reaction at having received an empty box on Christmas morning. That got a chuckle I’m told.

That story and the happy box, shared for the first time six years ago,  was such a hit that parents, teachers and students continued to comment about it throughout the year.  In the years since that first speech the senior students have asked for the ‘Happy Box story’ to be told at assembly. Parents, teachers and friends of friends have commented about the inspiration that simple story held for them.  Students have bought friends happy boxes for their 18th birthdays, parents have bought them for all of their children and themselves. Each year a cheer goes up when students become aware that the happy box story is about to be told.

How does this connect with my tears you might ask?

You see, we were discussing the popularity and the reach of the happy box story and my darling husband turned to me and said “Shannyn, from one small act you have changed the lives of hundreds, if not thousands of people.” He calculated that over six years he has told the story to almost 300 young people each year, who then share it with goodness only knows how many others.

He looked at me and said “You always say you want to make a difference in the world. And you do through the small things that come naturally to you. Each day you impact so many people in such positive ways.”

(Hence the tears)

I hadn’t considered this before, particularly in connection with the box. I’d not considered the ‘Happy Box story’ to be my legacy. I’d always marvelled at the inspiration my husband instilled in others with this story.  I’d not realised that a small gift I had given, with love, one Christmas morning many, many years ago would touch the lives of countless people.

I was humbled.

I realised too, that we never really know the impact we have on the lives of others.

I realised that it doesn’t have to be grand gestures that change the world, that small acts of love, consideration and sharing of ourselves can have the mightiest influence.

The idea of the ripple effect really sunk in for me. I have been mindful all week. This new knowledge has put a different perspective on the way I act. The way I talk. The choices I make.

Don’t underestimate the impact you have in the world.

Much love,
Shannyn

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