What’s wrong with Australia (my official rant)
I was born to a white Australian of good upper-middle-class stock. But they were a slightly quirky family branch who decided to take their kids to live in Kathmandu, Nepal. From three, my idea of normal included the routine sight of an elephant strolling down the street with half the jungle in his trunk. It was normal for one hundred member brass-bands to cram through a crowded bazaar in order to properly celebrate a wedding. It was also usual to see a freshly slaughtered goat still dripping blood in the town square; for a starving child with a bloated belly to stand naked crying in the street or for a man without any legs but a very nifty cart to beg on the side of road. Before I had the language for it, I’d experienced life’s great surprising joy and it’s awful brutality.
At ten when I was transplanted back into the neat grid of Western Australian suburbia it was difficult to connect my sense of normality with the empty sanitised streets of my new neighbourhood. The kids around me found the memories from my former life confusing and met my stories with blank and bored stares. I wish it had been different with the adults but no one wants to feel shown up by a ten year old so I learnt to hold back my exotic tales and instead answer Auntie Beryl’s benign question about my favourite food (which thankfully was still vegemite toast, phew, social crisis averted). So the technicolour and deep shadows of Nepal fell unspoken into the recesses of memory and I focussed on being Australian.
Scrambling through my adolescence and early adulthood, it seemed being Australian meant holding down a steady job, buying property, and marrying succinctly before the age of thirty to begin reproducing. I really wanted to be a writer but while that was a nice pipe dream (*pat-pat*), real adults earn real money so I neatly changed my professional aspirations and became a health professional.
It’s still not clear to me though exactly why we must earn so much money. As a nation we’re obviously obsessed with stuff, digging up the most beautiful parts of the country in our quest for it. We hold down numbingly boring jobs to earn big bucks in the mines and other ill-suited to the human race jobs and collapse into a sea of alcohol at the end of shift. We tell ourselves we’re doing it for just a short time but the fat paycheque is so reassuring and job-security becomes a sacred ideal. Many of the things we once imagined we were earning money to do fall into the background replaced instead by mortgages and not quite enough time to travel anyway.
Luckily, just as this disconsolate cycle gathers speeds and perpetuity, if you’re a woman around the age of thirty you can at least retreat into motherhood.
Except, holy-shit, when you get there you realise it’s the worst paid, 24/7, non-union regulated vocation out there, and it’s really only a couple steps away from some kind of psychotic nightmare and sometimes it very well trundles on over at that line. Of course you love the little being you’ve created but don’t you occasionally find yourself sprung awake in the middle of your exhausted night only to realise the baby isn’t crying, YOU are, wondering what the hell this whole thing is about?
Don’t get me wrong, I signed up to the Great Australian Dream. I did the full time work, I grew in position, responsibility and salary and I bought the property. I knew exactly when my boyfriend would propose, was complicit in that destiny and wore the veil of my mother, grandmother and hers before that. When my husband suggested we make a five year plan I laughed hysterically for twenty minutes (a reaction I couldn’t explain at the time) and then congratulated him on such a sensible suggestion and we made the plan. It included a dog, children, a country lifestyle, our own property and reasonable wealth. Living the dream.
Is this really the dream though?
When I was a child life seemed so wild and wondrous— getting stuck behind the elephant on the way to school leaves that impression. But so many of our children’s stories end in exile from the magic of wonderland; adults get locked out of Narnia, trapped out of Never-Never land, woken up from their marvellous dreams. Adulthood is synonymous with being tied down with mortgages, routine and accumulation. We call that grounded. Our dreams get ridiculed, rationalised and eventually silenced. No wonder we end up unhappy and mean.
And we are mean.
We’re an immensely prosperous country frantically barricading ourselves in with our treasure. We turn our faces from our Indigenous people who know the true cost of our lands, turn from the refugees who come baring the frank reality of our times. We pull funding from the Arts that reach our imagination, the part of our being that exists beyond the pragmatic. We harshly judge anyone who is aging or dealing with physical, mental or social barriers to employment. People who may fail to accumulate piles of cash but whose hearts have been stretched wide through their struggle, a quality our community is aching for.
Our Great Australian Dream extracts an immensely high price. It demands blind greed and cruelty from it’s citizens and disconnection from our heart, our instincts and from other human beings. Financial security is treated as the absolute bottom-line under whose alter everything else is sacrificed. We desperately believe our property, investments and permanent jobs will give us security and stability. We secretly hope our wealth will hold at bay all the suffering that happens ‘out there’: poverty, war, homelessness, sickness, death. Our government takes increasingly extreme measures to control and protect our country’s massed wealth, acting in so cruel a manner it horrifies me.
But the chilling truth is that the Great Australian Dream lives and dies in my own heart and mind first.
On the precipice of child bearing thankfully I paused for a good think and went on a meditation retreat. The pause turned into the scratch or massive tear, or whatever would derail the movie playing technology of our time. It made me seriously reconsider.
It occurred to me that nobody ever knows what will happen in life, not from one day to the next. There isn’t even some external measure that can truly mark out my success or failure in life. There’s nothing to win at; it isn’t a competition, it’s just your life, my life, and it could all be over in an instant.
I reject the idea that real life begins at nine and dies at five. There are a thousand different ways for life to be lived, all of them full of exquisite joy and heart wrenching horror. Life is wild and wondrous, it is technicolour and deep shadows, and there is nothing safe or secure about it.
I don’t believe it’s necessary to stifle my creativity, to mediate and rationalise my instincts, to estrange myself from my bleeding compassionate heart. At our depth, humans are wired for connection and empathy. The human specie has a wonderfully imaginative brain that is constantly redefining what it means to live.
It seems to me there is no limit to our capacity and very little to lose given the fragile, fleeting nature of this one precious existence. That seems like a pretty fertile ground from which to begin reimagining the Great Australian Dream.