Thursday, 5 February 2015

On my return

Warning: this personal blog may contain the names and images of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now deceased. Please be aware posts may also contain links to sites that may use images of Aboriginal and Islander people now deceased.

I’ve decided to add a caution to my website. You’ve probably seen similar words appear many times before on screen with a voice over just in case you missed the notice, making you aware that the material to follow may cause distress. It is also courteous and culturally appropriate which is the least a person could expect from another person when talking about people who have died. 

I've been asked what the limit is to the period of being sensitive to the feelings of other people. Should there be a limit? Is it a sliding scale, of how much and for how long does a person care?  Where I come from, the easiest explanation is though they may have passed two hundred years ago or two weeks ago, the message and consideration shown is the same. What harm is there to you, after all? 
You are not being asked to shave your head or abstain from eating gluten.

The period around the funeral is a separate issue. Then there may need to be a conversation about leave entitlements - and bearing in mind that more often than not a fair amount of travel may be required - and some serious thought regarding how their family obligations are reconciled with the ones they have to their colleagues and workplace.  

How you conduct yourself was one half of the social compact of what many of us still refer to as Sorry Business. The other half was how people treated you.

It used to matter a great deal how blackfellas treated each other. These days about the only place you can rely on to not be further traumatised during a period of grief and loss is when you are with your family. Sadder still is it's one of the few places left where you can expect to be treated with respect and decency, full stop.
There is very little that I can control about my digital world beyond the content I produce.  The breaches of the most basic rituals around Sorry Business makes social media a culturally unsafe space. In fact it’s down right dangerous.

Where I come from, much of the ritual around Sorry Business continues to be a mystery. That is not so odd when you consider someone has died, so it is hardly the time for a public spectacle.

You keep yourself safe and respect the people around you.
At any given time what you say can be triggers for other people – it doesn’t take much reasoning to conclude that with statistics like ours, the Aboriginal community is in a permanent state of mourning -- so when you invoke mention of a death in the community, someone, somewhere is going to be affected a little and others may be affected a lot.  If there was any time at all when you were going to drag together a mature and responsible demeanour, a recent death and the funeral is that time.

Where I come from during funerals – the time before and the time that follows - there is no trouble. There is no fighting, there are no raised voices, and there should not be harsh words or unkind thoughts to be shared.  You are in mourning. That will take all your strength to do it right so you will come out the other end in sadness and not be chased out by a grief  that you will struggle to shake.

The most important person is the one who has died. You live your life for a large funeral. If you cannot face the day you volunteer to mind the little kids who cannot go. There is always a child or a baby who needs tending to for the hours it takes before people return home to change for the wake.

Discussing cultural traditions is increasingly a touchy subject when you are not among family and those who are as close as, and especially fraught if you are being squeezed by questions that demand your attention. The main query on even the lips of the merely curious is,  ‘how long will it take?’ My answer, these days when the only person stopping me from practicing my cultural beliefs is me, is to reply oh they have died. They’re not coming back. As for me, it takes as long as it takes.


I wore black silk, raw and stiff, with a long string of black satin ribbon beads. The mother of the boy met me on the lawn out front, in crushed black velvet, with her hair long and loose, the grey strands lifting in the quickening breeze. My aunt in a black dress with tiny white dots, strapless and ankle length, with a full skirt clinched into a bodice, introduced me to her newest grand daughters and I hugged them one by one. The younger girls with their hair combed close and twisted up into place, were not yet of an age to wear their shiny dark locks down and free. The sisters were pressed together in the first two rows, in diaphanous black, chiffon layers over bare legs and tightly folded arms.  Row after row filled with simple full length evening gowns and the soundless footsteps of flat heeled shoes. The men, all of them young and old, wore long sleeved white shirts and black pants and walked silently in boots and leather soled dress shoes.  There were so many of us we filled the cavernous space with it’s stained glass windows and plain wooden benches, all the way back to standing at the rear wall and deep at the doors. When we emptied out on to the lawns, heads down and fixed, the sounds of whispering and soft voices went up from the gathering that spread from the doors all the way to the fence and out onto the road. When we come to bury one of our own, our women are the most beautiful, our men the most handsome.  And when the wind picked up, we in our finery of black and white and long dark hair that whipped and coiled and billowed around us, we left that place for a moment and slipped away. Just for a moment. And then the rains came as they had been expected and people knew what they had heard about us was true.


Previous post 'Sorry Business' in brief is here


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