Sydney Alliance reflections

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Today’s guest post is by Kamal Krishna, who works for the NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association. The NSWNMA is a partner in the Sydney Alliance, a coalition that aims to work for a better, more liveable and democratic city through building community. The Alliance offers training workshops in community organising – Kamal writes today about attending a six-day training – one that focuses on power, organisations, relationships and leadership.

The next foundational Sydney Alliance two-day training is on April 5 & 12, with another on May 3 & 10. NSWNMA members can attend – if you’re interested, contact Rita on rmartin@nswnma.asn.au.

Sydney Alliance will also hold an Assembly at Sydney Town Hall next Wednesday March 26 at 6.30pm. Again, NSWNMA members are invited to come along.

Here is Kamal’s story.

I must confess I was anxious after I read the email from David. It came three days before the start of the Sydney Alliance’s six-day training. The organiser had written: ‘The Chevalier Resource Centre is a Catholic retreat and there is bedding in each of your single rooms. The bathroom is shared. Required reading: the Melian Dialogues. Please write a short public autobiography 3-5 pages (at most)…’

Kamal is at centre at the top of the table in this NSWNMA group at a Sydney Alliance gathering in Granville, November 2013.

The thought of being summoned to the front for a presentation would usually fill me with horror. That anxiety was bypassed, however, by the fact that I did not actually have a ‘political biography’. Nervous tension rose within me like a tightening net. I recalled the last time I’d felt so unwell – when I agreed to fire-walk in Fiji 15 years ago.

‘Is it too late to pull out?’ I speculated. But flight was out of question as I had already told everyone at work I was going.

Rain drizzled as I drove up a long, curved driveway to the Chevalier Centre. I parked my car at the back of the dormitory, then went inside to register, a little late – I’d missed the tour of the site, which showcased a magnificent cathedral built by pioneers. As compensation, I flicked through an old yearbook within sight of Father Tony, hoping this would ensure my place in the good books of the gentle cleric. Glossy photos of the early days graced the pages. These filled me with curiosity for meaning – to discover in those old black and white images the answer to the mystery by which communities form.

Father Tony handed me a key. As I jogged up to the top floor, the lyrics of a familiar song teased me from memory. ‘O very young, what will you leave us this time,’ sang Cat Stevens. ‘You’ll be dancing on this earth only for a short while.’ His fading words prompted me to dream of another era, like the photographs in the yearbook I held in my hand.

I turned the key and the door opened easily. I found myself in a room much like a sunroom in a typical Queenslander, but half the size. There was a single bed against one wall and study table along the other. The window overlooked the courtyard. On the table I placed my valuables: car key, iphone charger and wallet. The atmosphere was monastic but apt, such as could invite hours of quiet reflection. Outside, it appeared that rain clouds had passed.

As there was still time before dinner, I walked in the garden to contemplate the perplexing ‘political biography’. In the changing light of dusk, the garden seemed surreal. I paced about in search of ‘the silent voice within’. The sound of slowing traffic on the roads seemed part of another, distant world from which I was exempt.

During a self-guided tour, I spied a bath in a secluded corner of the communal bathroom. As others had not noticed this yet, soon after dinner, I found myself soaking there. At last I was alone. The ‘Melian Dialogues’ lay folded in my bag unread and my biography was still out of grasp. I stretched out, burdened by unfinished business.

An Alliance Assembly in Sydney Town Hall 2012.

I closed my eyes and let thoughts amplify. Deep in my memory, I recalled the primal beat of ceremonial drumming. It was not on burning coals I’d walked that night but on thin air. I remember drifting towards my grandmother afterwards. She stood glowing in a white sari like a temple pillar, undisturbed. My drenched clothes, stained from turmeric water, clung to shivering skin. The overwhelming scent of camphor and marigolds filled my nostrils, while the shrilling conches deafened my ears. She looked at me and sensed my puzzlement. I was stung with fury.

“Three weeks of penance, wandering village to village carrying alms like a mendicant and not a thing to show for it? I can’t remember anything!” I told her.

She always knew what to say. “When you overcome fear,” she replied, “time stops and there is no memory. You entered the zone.”

Downstairs in the common room, a gathering had begun under a tapestry depicting the Last Supper. Chips, dips and a small quantity of wine were passed around.

Upstairs, alone but content, I felt insular, like the traitor who stood out most in the tapestry artwork. But I was not ready to leave the soothing narcissistic waters yet. There were longings and mysteries that tantalised me. Putting the looming biography aside, I narrowed my vision onto a fundamental question – why am I here? In the spirit of the training program, finding out about my self-interest became a priority.

A neglected mobile rang out on the top floor and broke my single mindedness. It also drew my attention to the anticipated arrival of Maribeth Larkins, who would give us lessons in days to come. The thought of meeting a nun from One LA reminded me of others who were like her in spirit.

Sister Maribeth Larkin addresses nurses in 2013.

I reviewed the lives of women who had devoted themselves to nursing the sick and the poor. Florence Nightingale came to mind, then Mother Teresa. Perhaps it was something Mother had said about a lamp that made me yoke the two together. I marvelled at the simplicity of that saying, ‘To keep a lamp burning, we need to put oil in it’. Was such profound realism a result of her rigorous spiritual routine or did it mature from an unwavering dedication to a life of service? These things I wondered about while resisting mental probing into bills overdue and the garbage truck that would be missed that week. My interest would be solely introspective till I knew why I was here.

Hope, that’s it, and commitment. Logically, this meant to put more oil in my lamp, to recharge that faint spirit on the virtue of moral courage. I felt instantly lighter when I realised I was neither ready to write a biography nor willing to go through another trial by fire.

I pulled the plug. The water took a long time to drain, taking with it the tensions I had eased ‘between the world as it is and the world as it should be’. With a final slurp, the silent voice within also slipped down the drain. I dried myself in haste and proceeded to dress quickly. Likeminded souls downstairs, taking advantage of Father Tony’s early retirement to bed, were midway partying into the night.

Addendum: The tone in Cathy’s voice made me worry. “I’ll be down straightaway”, I assured the cautious Records Officer, as I hung up the phone on my desk. It was only mid-March and already the toll of protracted campaigning was evident.

I could not help notice the look of perplexed amusement that greeted me. “Here you go” she said, presenting me with a nicely folded pink letter and an opened white envelope. My perusal revealed a letter addressed to me, but also, strangely, signed by me. A second glance at the signature confirmed in hurried scribble: ‘Kind regards, Kamal Krishna’.

Next, I checked the date, ‘16 November 2012’, next to which was stamped ‘Received 5 March 2013…

‘Why would it be posted three months after it was written?’ I wondered. I proceeded to broadcast the curious note:

‘Dear Kamal,

In three months time, I want to be more involved in the Sydney Alliance core group at work by having relational meetings with people and learning of their self-interest…’

Upon reaching the word ‘self-interest’, the penny dropped. “It’s from the Sydney Alliance six-day training! I completely forgot about it!”

We all chuckled. I explained to Cathy that this was an exercise only; a reminder of the wholehearted promises made at the end of the six-day program. Some way down the corridor, I enjoyed another cackle as I reflected on the letter. The beginnings of my ‘political autobiography’ will not soon be forgotten.

Sydney Alliance will hold an Assembly at Sydney Town Hall next Wednesday March 26 at 6.30pm. NSWNMA members are invited to come along.

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