Stories, Questions, and Mysteries

Stories, Questions, and Mysteries

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Booklaunch: Shaking the Family Tree & When the Bough Breaks.

  “When the Bough Breaks” and “Shaking the family Tree”
Margaret McMahon.

Book launch.

       Good evening all and thank you Margaret for asking me to do this important job launching not one but two results of your hard work and courage.
       First a permission. In a town just west of Burrowa an unprepossessing local was to address the citizens in the School of Arts about his overseas travel. The mayor gave an overheated introduction and your man commenced. “G’day everyone.” Mumbled unenthusiastic “G’day.” “Can youse all hear me?” “Emm” mumbled. “Can you down there hear me?” Pointing. “Yes I can but I am willing to swap places with someone who can’t”. So feel free to do such a swap.
       “When the Bough Breaks” and “Shaking the Family Tree” cover similar areas. The genres of autobiography and family history are vulnerable territory. It is also an impregnable area as no one can deny or contradict a writer’s reaction to incidents.
       Margaret’s territory is also pegged by her father Barry’s writing, and that of her sister and her brother. So unsurprisingly there is a tinge of having to justify the writer’s unique version.  

              “When the Bough Breaks”
       Takes two little children from the care of their mother, to their maternal grandparents, to their paternal grandparents and then to a blended stepfamily. That is a lot.
       But it is further contaminated by the grandparent asking a child to promise not to love her new stepmother. That seems to block the possible nurturing warmth from a new maternal person.
       Barry, Margaret’s father, must have been shattered by the death of his wife while he was a new enlistee in the army posted to Western Australia. Adding to his pain was the charge that he was just trying to get out of an army for which he had volunteered. One doubts if Barry ever really grieved for his wife or instead used denial, workaholism and whisky. Perhaps too he was terrified of losing a second wife’s affection and so gave priority to his new family over Margaret and her sister. Work is such a respectable defence against living a fully human life. Philosopher Joseph Pieper, in “Leisure the Basis of Culture” talks of work; negotium in Latin as the negation of otium meaning rest which is our default state.
       “Strong women” or tough women surrounded Barry. He physically sparred with his daughters. Margaret laments his underdeveloped feminine side. Whence though would he have had the models to be more feminine? Margaret’s ambivalence toward her semi absent father, who was scant protection against his second wife, is evident. But he was the only parent she had to love and she did.
       Her mother Bunty dying young achieves canonization along with priest Uncle Robert.

“Shaking the Family Tree”.
       The second launch is “Shanking the Family Tree”.  Margaret is still a bit behind Kim Jong-un but this is her fourth launch in two years.
       Convict ancestor James Barry emerges from the family mist like the convict in the opening scenes of the film of “Great Expectations”. He looks scary but becomes more human as we get to know him. Margaret provides details of Irish history and nineteenth century occupied Cork. This is the landscape from which James Barry moves to primitive Australia.  (And there are still Barry families in Cork).
              Governor Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane said of people like James, “…every murder or diabolical crime, which has been committed in the Colony since my arrival has been perpetrated by Roman Catholics. And this I ascribe entirely to their barbarous ignorance. And total want of education, the invariable companion of bigotry and cruelty as well as the parent of crime”. A bit rich coming from a Scot who left his country to join the British Army and who collected his wife’s name to enhance his status. Governor Brisbane calls the Irish Roman Catholics ignorant. It was the British government who forbade them their schools from about 1695 though they conducted illegal “hedge schools” a risk they took because they valued education. The British also made it a punishable offence to speak their own language. As in our days with Aboriginal people? Asylum seekers? Punishment for the effects of what we have done to people?
       James had two children with his wife Margaret Barry who died aged 24 from tuberculosis in 1853. Margaret McMahon’ sympathy for the two bereaved children Margaret Mary and William patently parallels her own loss of a mother at as a little child with a younger sister.
       Outside the family and intermingled with family perceptions is the cultural context. That context is as fickle as fashion. Cultural norms are like good glasses they change focus and are imperceptible to the wearer. Just think how society’s views on gender have shifted in the past thirty or so years.
       There are also the pervasive social barbed wires of family/religious judgments based on societal norms. Often the connections one has with a respectable person can be redemptive. But should not always be relied on.     
My grandfather, who was asked to change his German name during two world wars, had a story of a well-known Sydney identity that was chairman of the water board. The said identity got into an argument with a tram conductor. At full charge he demanded, “Do you know who I am? I’m so and so. I’m connected with the water board.” The unphased conductor replied, “So’s my dunny”.
       These days you can cut corners for social renovation. You can be a criminal banker and use your gains to enrol children at private schools thereby elevating  your and their status.
       Religious intolerance, which threads through both books, has declined along with religion itself. However, racial intolerance in our multicultural society is alive and well. It is a highly inflammable seam of gas ready for politicians to ignite for their own benefit. 
       Reading, “When the Bough Breaks” and “Shaking the Family Tree” I enjoyed what I learned about nineteenth century life, rural life in Ireland, in Australia, about the Hunter Valley and its prominence in the Colony. About Mudgee, and the goldfields their miners and suppliers as well as learning about moves to the city and back to the bush again. At times I could smell fresh cow’s milk or leather dressing on harness or saddles or the smell of a horse. Or I could imagine the view to the side of a bush track curtained with thick flora now gone.
       Margaret’s work is impressive. It is the grinding, lonely unsure work of writing. Her children and their grandchildren can be grateful they have so much to go on.
       Margaret deserves our attentive reading and appreciation for sharing her paths, and that is why we are here

Michael D. Breen,
May11th 2018

Friday, 4 May 2018

Graduation Address UTS May 1st Kate Kamkong Breen

Graduation Occasional Address UTS   Tuesday May 1st 2018.
Catherine Breen Kamkong
Deputy Representative
United Nations Population Fund

I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land upon which the UTS campus stands, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. My respects also to Deputy Chancellor, Provost, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President, University Secretary, Associate Dean of the Faculty, Chair of the Academic Board, staff, family, friends and graduates.
What an honour it is for me to be with you all here today to celebrate the end of your foundational education as nurses and the beginning of the careers that lie ahead of you.
I wanted to share a little bit with you about the lessons I have learned on my journey since graduating with my Bachelor in Applied Science, Nursing back in 1993, not because I feel that what I have done is anything outstanding  or significant but more because I want each of you to believe that the world is at your feet and there are infinite possibilities which lie ahead for each of you , huge contributions that each of you have the potential to make …….and need to make.
 Mother Teresa once said that Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.
Nursing is much more than a job. It offers the opportunity to be a vocation and one where you support people at critical moments in their lives. What each of us might consider small can make a big difference to a person’s experience of pain, fear, loss and life itself. I remember once at St Vincents here in Sydney when I was working in the oncology ward. There was a women from the Solomon islands who had been brought to St Vincents with uterine cancer that had metastasised. Her prognosis was poor. She was away from family in a new environment and culture. I remember one night doing rounds of the wards, and was startled to find her on the floor. I assumed she had fallen out of bed. She cried and told me she was lying on the floor as she wanted to feel the healing warmth of the sun from the earth. There was no sun heating up the 10th floor of that old building at St Vincents.
 I sat with her on the floor, crying also as I saw the pain she was in, her loneliness, her prognosis, and the lack of what she needed to bring her comfort..  That moment has stayed with me ever since – as I learned many things – I learned that there are often moments when we want to help and make everything better but the best we can do is just to be with that person and show them that you care. No clinical procedure at that moment could help. It also taught me to understand how important Respectful care is, and the importance of understanding difference..
During my experience working in a public hospital in Sydney, a Tibetan refugee camp, with refugees from Myanmar, with street children in Vietnam, young adolescent mothers in Nepal or rural women in Cambodia. The lesson for me has been the same   try to do Small things with great love.
The second lesson I have learned and wanted to share with you is of the importance of gratitude and finding a way to express that gratitude. Sometimes one has to experience something else to really know and understand the privileges one has.
 In around the year 2000, when I was working in a Burmese refugee camp on the Thai Burmese border training community health workers, I was struck by the desperate situation faced by these people and why it is that some in life must suffer so much. That health worker said to me that it was the “lottery of birth” and that though we are all given the same chance in life – a lot depends on where we are born, when we are born and to whom we are born. The race of life starts at the same place but all of those things have a very strong influence on the path after that.
I was so lucky in the lottery of birth to be born as an Australian, in a good family and to have many opportunities including the chance of a wonderful education. The foundational base that studying nursing here at UTS gave me has really created so many opportunities for me and it is that opportunity that also has motivated me so much to give back whatever I can and to contribute to making the lives of those not so fortunate a little more dignified and for their right to health to be somewhat realized.
And this leads me to the final lesson that I wanted to share with you.
The importance of finding your purpose. 
I had a good job in critical care at St Vincents Hospital back in the mid 1990s and the prospects of saving enough to put a deposit on a small place in Balmain. Yet I remember feeling that there was something more that was calling me. I handed in my resignation, bought a ticket to Ho Chi Minh , Vietnam and went volunteering as a nurse to a clinic in an orphanage where babies and small children were being brought in after being found abandoned on the streets and found dumped in garbage bins. I used to come home and cry, feeling helpless, homesick and upset at the plight of these children and also the way the other health professionals treated these babies . It sparked something deep within me though that I wanted to do be able to do more. This searching took me to India where I continued to volunteer and had to draw upon everything I had learned at UTS and in life!  Just being from Australia, and trained as a nurse led me to be called upon to assist in all sorts of situations I felt unprepared for –  women giving birth in a small hut in fields in the mountains of Himachel Pradesh,  Tibetan refugees children coming to me with totally burned hands from lighting the fire to cook in their house, resuscitating a newborn of a refugee women in a health centre at night with no light and no other equipment than my mouth and 2 hands . I became passionate about refugee health and global health and have continued on this journey of trying to harness all my brainpower and capacity to make a small difference.  I studied further and  worked even more in humanitarian settings after cyclones and also ethnic conflicts in Myanmar, post conflict in Nepal and then to Cambodia.  I became passionate about trying to make sure that no woman dies in pregnancy and childbirth and that every baby that is born has a chance of more than survival. That is why my work has taken me to the United Nations . None of this is important in itself but what I am trying to impart on you is that I found my purpose and I encourage you to find yours also. I love the words of Eddie Woo, the amazing mathematics teacher from Cherry Brook high school who gave an address on Australia day. He explained -  
“If you’re a young person trying to find your way in the world, I don’t think you need to follow your passion. I think you have to become passionate about following need
So if you will allow me, I would like to ask each one of you to think about these words and the lessons I shared.
Do small things with great love. Look outwards at the world around and find what matters to each of you. Consider all that you have and try and give back to others some of what you have learned and taken away from your studies here at UTS. Make a contribution in whatever way you can to some of the needs of our people here in Australia and in our shared world. Put your heart, soul and all your skills and capacity into that and you will have found your purpose!
I wish you the best of luck in all your endeavors and congratulations.