Aaagh! ‘How is (absent loved one)?’

The first time, indeed the only time I have dyed my hair blue, I was a 39 year-old mother of 3 with an ailing husband.  Two months previously, Warwick’s diagnosis with an aggressive form of leukaemia had come as a shock: without treatment he has a month to live.  The seismic shift that understanding wrought in our plans, our business and our family life seems prescient today given how many families reel under similar shocks within this current Covid19 crisis.

blue hair dye colors 282453 Pin by shop gurl on art in 2019

Back in April 1997, it takes just 4 days to re-organise our lives.  Warwick and I are only days away from travelling with our 3 girls to the UK to spend time with my mother but after the diagnosis, travel goes on hold.  In fact most things go on hold; priorities shift overnight and within days we live in Auckland, the girls are attending new schools, while I accompany Warwick to seemingly endless hospital treatments and blood transfusions.

Now, 2 months on, I am exhausted. Here we are crammed into an elderly  2-bedroom flat in Auckland.  In between tending to sheet changes for my weakening husband’s night sweats, checking on our business and attempting to keep family life together for our daughters aged 8,9 and 10, I catnap on cushions on the lounge floor. It is a lonely time, buoyed up by the love of my sister-in-law and 2 close friends, but we are far from home and I’m not clear what the future holds.

What turned my hair blue was a frequent query on the phone and from casual acquaintances, “Hi Jane, how is Warwick?”  Only in hindsight does the reasoning behind my bright blue hair become clear; at the time I surprise even myself!  Four weeks later I feel hugely relieved how the blue colour is all but washed out, lest I be deemed frivolous.  Back as a family in Paihia I walk with others to the stone church for Warwick’s funeral.

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That well-intentioned question, “How is ….(absent loved one)?” seems to me just as inappropriate in today’s challenging lockdown absences as it was then.  I’m want  to share how I reacted back then before I suggest what I would have found more helpful.

The ‘How’s Warwick?’ query hits my exhausted nervous system like a red hot arrow. My mind races through a series of possible responses. ‘Am I expected to assuage their fears (I have enough of my own) or is the enquirer checking whether I am conversant enough with what is happening to my husband to make good decisions?  Are they assessing whether they need to help him or curious about treatment for leukaemia? Do they expect me to explain hospital processes?  Or perhaps the enquirer is hopeful Warwick was now fine, in which case will I disappoint them if I am honest about how desperately sick he is?   Whatever it was they are looking for, I feel my capacity even further drained in attempting to respond with care.

I didn’t know then what I know now. In my exhausted state from multitasking school, business and caregiver commitments, my instinctive move was to change my hair colour  to a striking shade of blue!  “Can’t you see me?” I wanted to say.  “Please don’t ask me to return me to that place where I feel so fearful, powerless over what happens to my husband, and scared for my family’s future. Isn’t it enough that I spend so much time with that pain in the sleepless early hours, in the hospital waiting room and while while our kids play?” Back then I didn’t know how to set my boundaries, to explain to others, “Please don’t probe that sore unless invited!”

If it wasn’t helpful to answer that question, what did I long for?  It’s simple really: I wanted someone to ask how I was.  To ask, “How are you, Jane, given that Warwick has been sick for so long?“ That would have worked for me: I’d have felt loved and cared for and been able to respond about things that I could control.   I was managing as best I could to meet the family’s needs, what wasn’t going so well was meeting my own. What I needed was recognition, to know others had faith in me, I didn’t want to be a powerless victim looking for rescuing, I just wanted to know I had allies who I could level with, who trusted me and understood how I was finding things.    Covid-19-Comms-MAR2020-unite-against-banner

 In this new Covid19 era, with my daughters far away, I recognise the same sense of powerless over caring for their health and wellbeing. Yet this time around, when someone asks me, “How’s (absent loved one)?” which has happened several times already, I feel better equipped to deflect the arrow.  To care for myself and honour their intention too, I simply request that they reframe their question:  “It works better for me if you ask me how it is for me with ….(loved one ) sick and far away.  Would you ask me that instead?”

So far it seems to be working!  I’m able to stay out of a black hole of powerlessness and rampaging fear; instead as the person listens with understanding and love about how it is for me and how I feel, it allows me to order my thoughts.   Once I can acknowledge how it is for me, I discover ways to care for myself and to reach out to others for what I need, while the caring connection of real friendship deepens between us.  ‘He waka eke noa’ /we are all in this together can be felt in the space between us, virtual though it may be. Indeed, this sense of allies who understand how it is for me is currently so affirming, I don’t think I’ll even dye my hair blue.

LETS NOT TALK ABOUT ‘THEM’

We’ve fallen into reliance on ‘them’, government and business, but as my previous blog outlined, we householders have significant power to create real change.  We seem to hang back, challenged by the loneliness of embarking on a journey such as  zero waste by ourselves.

So, why not make it ‘easy as’ and a whole lot more fun by doing stuff together with others?  This blog explores how getting together with others seems central to household adoption of zero wastefulness.  

‘Nelson Mandela had this genuine belief – and he often argued with me about the provability of it – that human beings are essentially ‘good-doing beings, beings who do good’… He argued that, “If you follow human beings from the moment they get up in the morning until they retire at night, you would find that most of them do the proper things most of the time, and that erring is an aberration” ‘[1] 

I guess you recognise, as I do,  Mandela’s viewpoint in your own understanding, perhaps partially buried under layers of social conditioning to the contrary.   It’s not surprising, given that recent research finds humankind the most empathetic and altruistic of all living species; we have evolved to naturally form small groups to work together for the common good.

It was clear in the interviews last year as part of my Masters research that shifting to zero waste lifestyles improved physical, mental and spiritual well-being.  Localising food production and introducing sharing schemes also led to a greater sense of community.  It got me thinking , ‘Could we join together with others whose company we value, our friends, our neighbours, or our colleagues, to make the journey to zero wastefulness a fun way to flourish both individually and as communities?

For me, the journey to zero wastefulness has given me a core sense of my unique purpose which was reason enough for me to change my habits.  I believe Mandela is right, we’re caring beings, but of course we each prioritise our caring into different areas and I’m aware that not everyone finds reducing waste an enjoyable and challenging adventure!   Reflecting on our district, there’s certainly no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to waste reduction.

 Drifting, anchoring, voyaging or treasuring?

drifters, anchors etc Figure 1. Four levels of householder behaviour towards waste

Just as the varied species create the beauty of our New Zealand bush, so too, much of the charm of the Far North District comes from the diversity of our householders. With so many unique individuals, it’s hardly surprising we have such varying attitudes towards zero waste goals.  The model in Fig. 1 above describes 4 types of  householder behaviour  I notice here in the Far North.  Of course, responses to waste shift between levels depending on circumstances, my own included, but perhaps you recognise yourself or others in the descriptions below?

A Drifter meets their own strong need to belong by following market trends, doing whatever they believe their peers see as ‘on trend’. Drifters shift like flotsam and jetsam  flowing in and out with the tide.  Not everyone has the resources to deal with change, and Anchors stick with the way they’ve ‘always done things’.  Blocking out alternative options, even ways to minimise waste that might now better meet their needs, may be easier than opening up and grieving alone over awful environmental issues. Voyagers, on the other hand, need to connect with values they view as important, and so adventurously set out on a journey to reduce their own wastefulness amidst a sea of Drifters and Anchors.  It’s a lonely journey though, in a culture averse to conflict, but eased when they catch sight of Treasurers, beacons of light who can inspire and guide their journey. These Treasurers are the rare people at any age who choose to treasure what they have. These inspirational people find greater meaning in what they do and their connections with their brothers and sisters of all living species than in what they can purchase.

So, with all these different types, how will the message of zero wastefulness ever infiltrate the wider Far North community?  Anchors and drifters seem to hold back a flourishing Far North, don’t they? Well, I think not, they just need to get together with like-minded others, and here’s one way it could happen.

Spreading Positive Change – the Big Organising Model.

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‘Big organising’, a new model for spreading positive change was used in the 2016 Bernie Sanders US election campaign.  With little money but such a transformational vision for change that it inspired people across party lines, in just 7 months, Sanders shifted from just 3% name recognition at the start to gaining 46% of the votes.  It is believed one further month would have tipped Clinton out of the nomination and the Trump campaign would have been defeated. Such are the hindsights of history,  but the important thing is how the campaign used volunteers to connect directly with 75 million Americans.

At public meetings, volunteers were asked to sign up to host a ‘house party’ inviting others around to their home to work together to spread the word.  After signing up, house party hosts came to the stage to tell others what would be unique and fun about their own house party.  It was a model that worked, with the confidence of others creating similar groups, with guidelines, support and by sharing ideas, they were able to decide for themselves how best to spread understanding of the Sanders vision.  The Big Organising model has now been used around the globe. Local leadership is not appointed, but arises out from the work the volunteers do, other people join in and the first wave of volunteers hands the baton on to others.

Would a public meeting with an invited panel of ‘Treasurers’ discussing a waste issue relevant to the community similarly inspire offers to be house party hosts?  I believe so, polls show that the majority of the NZ public is highly concerned about waste. My expectation is that some people will be moved by relevant speakers to want to gather a few friends, neighbours, or colleagues together and give some aspect of waste reduction a go. Hosts could be provided with guidelines, followed up with support from peer-to-peer text messaging, and results can fed back to monitor the movement.  The Big Organising model avoids a common problem of campaigns, burn-out of volunteers;  hosts can ‘hand on the baton’ to one or more of those attending to hold a further ‘house party’ with their own friends and so forth.

Zero waste priorities and constraints, as already mentioned, are very different for different people. However, as you will see from the following scenarios, appropriate house party gatherings could provide the peer support to engage not only Voyagers, but Anchors and Drifters too:

  •  a farmer inviting other farmers for a ‘zero waste bbq’ to discuss how they can reduce toxic plastic waste
  • a teenager gathering a group of friends to talk together about what would work for them to transform their school
  • a lunchroom get-together of colleagues to talk about what their organisation can do
  •  mothers with young babies bringing to the coffee table the plastic concern that bugs them most and discussing ways to get around it
  •  a couple of senior citizens hosting a machinery repair or clothing alteration session for young neighbours.

So, why  wait for ‘them’, be they government, council or business sector before change towards zero wastefulness and 100 % vitality happens?  Remember ‘Sihamba nabahambayo’ (‘We take along with us those who are ready for the journey‘)?  What if every Far North householder is ready? It’s just that like any journey, it’s a whole lot more fun with like-minded companions.

FND map

 

 

[1] Dare not Linger: the Presidential Years. Nelson Mandela & Mandla Langa (2017).p. 118-119 .https://us.macmillan.com/books/9780374134716