Lessons in Compassion from a Rasta

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“Life is full of good, bad and ugly,” said the Rasta, making a sweeping hand gesture out to the idyllic beach scene in front of us, in which I could see nothing bad or ugly besides a few lobster red tourists who had been in the sun too long. “You just have to keep your mind on the good, and love the bad and the ugly even if they don’t love you back.” I bought a string bracelet from him with the Rastafarian colours of red green and yellow spelling out the words ‘One Love’. Such a Jamaican cliché, but something I have not often felt connected to in my time here. As he tied the bracelet around my wrist I thought about how much I had been wishing for more understanding, respect and compassion, but in the face of the bad and ugly experiences, how much of those things was I giving?

I have no understanding for the grown woman who kicks and throws stones at a dog who has just had puppies. I have zero respect the teacher who beats a terrified child with a belt for getting too many answers wrong. I have completely lost compassion for the man on the street who follows me home yelling that he wants to have sex with me because I am white. I want nothing to do with them. I want to close my eyes to it all and retreat into my own head to dwell in how wrong and unfair their behaviour is.

It is all too easy to forget that every single one of us is fighting a hard battle. And as that fortune-cookie of endless wisdom Gandalf the Grey Wizard said: the hardest battles are always those fought within. Other people’s battles may not be obvious at first glance, or they may not seem battle-worthy. But you can be sure that we are all battling nonetheless. Sometimes our own battle seems so immense; so insurmountable; so unjust. It can feel like there is no space left in our minds or our hearts for anyone else’s struggle, especially when no one is making any space for ours. But every battle is difficult, and it is never deserved. We have all been hurt, rejected, knocked down by life in different ways. Those that show the least compassion are the ones who most need it themselves. Perhaps each struggle is the disguised opportunity we need to learn and grow, or perhaps it’s just part of the random and harsh reality of life. Either way, we let our internal battles divide us because we forget how deeply they connect us.

A beautiful friend of mine once told me the way she tries to hold compassion for everyone she meets is to imagine we are all walking around with a painful wound under our clothes. And trying to hide or protect that wound impacts everything we say and do. I consider again the woman kicking the dog, the teacher beating the child and the man chasing me. I wonder what they themselves have experienced in their own lives and what wounds may have been left behind. It seems very likely that their struggles, their hidden wounds, are far greater, far deeper than mine.

I think of a conversation I read about between the Dalai Lama and a man who was tortured by the Chinese for many years. The Dalai Lama asks him if he was ever afraid. The man tells him, “Yes, I was afraid I would lose compassion for the Chinese.” How can anyone hold on to such a staggering amount of compassion when he was given none at all? The answer is so immediate, so unwavering, so simple, and of course its not a revelation but simply a remembrance: creating a more compassionate world has nothing to do with what you intend to get, and everything to do with what you intend to give.

All I Want For Christmas

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As soon as I saw him I knew I was in trouble. Because as soon as I saw him I loved him. I had wished for this exact moment ever since my first night alone in the eerily quiet volunteer house. I had literally dreamt of him. I had even had conversations with people about how happy he would make me. I heard him calling the night before I met him, but thought I must be imagining it because I wanted it so much. And then the next morning, my wish came true. I was sitting in my garden feeling woefully homesick when he appeared, terrified, defenceless and completely alone. Instantly he stole my heart and all I wanted to do was nurture and care for and protect him. I knew that like me, he would not receive a warm welcome from many locals – whether it be the dog-hating neighbours who would poison him or the feral cats and mongeese that would literally eat him for dinner.

In those first few hours the only thing that would calm him was snuggling up in my lap. So I sat with him, knowing full well I would be bitten by fleas and most likely peed on but willing to give him whatever he wanted to feel safe. He needed me for reassurance, comfort, food, survival. But I needed him too, in order to rediscover the kind, soft, giving side of myself I was secretly starting to think may have disappeared forever.

For the first time since arriving here, I knew I could give freely and he would take only what he needed – nothing more, nothing less – and give endless joy and love in return. As I dote on him, come to his whimpering call, play games with him, clean up his many messes, feed him constantly and cradle him to sleep, I realise I would do anything for this little creature. I know that sooner or later “anything” will include letting him go, giving him to a Jamaican family and saying goodbye forever rather than putting him through the trauma of Australian quarantine.

But for now I am simply overwhelmingly grateful that fate or luck or pure random chance conspired to allow Buddy to wander into my backyard. I called him Buddy after my favourite Christmas movie, Elf – because this little puppy is a little ray of sunshine in this big, wild world and he is the ultimate proof that Christmas wishes definitely do come true.

She’s transforming her fear into dance

Joyous Woman! with Sukhvinder Sircar

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Fear does not define her limits anymore. It is no longer the place where her journey ends. This is not  where her river dries up and the sun never shines.

She is re-defining fear as the edge of the diving board to jump off from, as the starting point to great journeys. Every fear is becoming a calling,. Every contraction is the beginning of a new expansion, a thrill of the unknown.

She has come to sit in a safe space inside herself ~ finally. She’s connecting to her relaxed Shakti that rests in her womb temple. From here she can go anywhere, do anything. Her fear becomes her dare.

The spirit of adventure is awakening in her heart. She’s willing to go to all those places she has only stood on the edge of, till now. All unfinished journeys are on their way to completion. All incomplete songs will…

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Stelly Welly

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When I first met Stella she was deathly thin and painfully timid. She was so hungry she ate stale bread and tried to bite my leg. If I moved suddenly she would disappear in a blur of black fur into the pumpkin patch and would not be seen again until the next day.

I am not a cat person (ironically enough). I could never really understand how anyone could get attached to a cat when they are so aloof, so self-involved and so instinctively wild. I vividly remember the sight of my backyard strewn with the fur and blood of my beautiful pet rabbit as a child and the horror of realising my ever-curious little pet bird had flown to its death at the paws of the neighbour’s fat tabby. Cat’s were off the Christmas list forever after.

But somehow Stella would change all that. After a less-than-ideal first meeting, I nevertheless began to feed her every day. She would hide under a pumpkin leaf as I placed a little fish or biscuit on the ground and would only come out once I had retreated out of sight. As mice took over my kitchen, I gradually began moving her food closer and closer to the house until Stella was gingerly stepping inside to scoff her fill and race away again. She did absolutely nothing to help the mouse situation (the only solution to that was traps and OCD cleaning) but she began to feel comfortable coming inside, rubbing against my legs, sleeping on the kitchen floor. Eventually she allowed me to scratch her behind the ears and she began to stay with me long after I had fed her, curling up underneath my chair with a gentle little purr.

Stella slowly gained weight, trust and confidence. In the beginning I had to shoo away the other cats in order for her to get any food – now I proudly watch as she stands up for herself with a hiss or a swift head-butt, letting them know she is number one at this house.

She has been my constant companion for this whole crazy journey. In those moments of overwhelming loneliness, when I had no one to talk to, Stella was there quietly sitting by my side. In the times of happiness, when I would dance around the kitchen, she would swirl around my legs as if she was dancing too.

And so, despite myself, I have grown to love her. I look forward to seeing her bright green eyes when I wake up and listen out for her hopeful little meow when I get home after a long day teaching. She is no longer just Stella, she is my little ‘Stelly Welly’, my furry friend, and I’m so thankful we learned to trust one another because I can’t imagine my roller coaster of a Jamaican life without her in it.

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Three Simple Reasons Why This Will Not Be a Year of Jamaica

“Excuse me, I said good morning. I’m a human being, you know!”

It was in the moment immediately after these words had left my mouth, as the woman stared at me like I was a pink turtle doing a tap dance (and still did not return my greeting), that I realised three things:

1. It is not normal to feel the need to remind a perfect stranger (or yourself) of your humanity
2. The effect my current environment is having on my mental state is not positive
3. I need to go home

Obviously thoughts like this don’t just appear out of nowhere. This was the last in a long line of interactions that left me feeling less than positive. Each day brings an experience of being hissed at, spat at, shouted at, hit on, chased, ignored completely and sometimes all of the above. I cannot pretend to know what prompts these responses – all I know is how it made me feel each and every time: unwelcome, unsafe, frustrated and totally disheartened. I have been trying to ignore all these feelings because I was so sure they were temporary. Yes, okay, I have wanted to go home pretty much ever since I arrived, but surely that’s normal when faced with living all alone in a country and a culture so vastly different to my own, with bucket baths and mongeese (mongooses?) and not a washing machine or television or microwave in sight. Time and patience makes everything better, right? It didn’t really occur to me that staying would be – could be – detrimental. I was sure that if I just looked hard enough at the silver linings and the hidden lessons, if I just completely trusted that my instincts brought me here for good reason and I truly appreciated the natural beauty, the kids, the people that showed me kindness and care, then things could only get better.

Instead, I angrily tell strangers that I am a person (Flight of the Concords style) and have a recurring dream about landing in Sydney airport, falling to my knees and kissing the hot dirty tarmac. If that is the state of things after four months of keeping calm and carrying on, it seems going home is no longer simply a want but a need. I don’t know exactly when I will go yet, only that it will not be a Year of Jamaica, and I have to be okay with that. Maybe the lesson in all of this is simply how incredibly lucky I am to have such a beautiful and safe home to go back to, with all the love and opportunities and hot showers a girl could ask for.

The hardest part is thinking of the children I have gladly spent most of my days with, who have provided the brightest sparks in this whole experience… Energetic little Andre and his epic smile after reading his very first sentence. Sweet Xavier and the way he quietly says “Thankyou, Miss” each and every time we finish a book. Cheeky Chevoy and how I can never ever stay cross with him for one look at his face sends us both into fits of giggles. Precocious Jordy who always begged to be the first to read with me but isn’t at school these days after a beating from her mother left her with a broken hand. Gorgeous Shandece who loves stories about other countries because one day she hopes to get on a plane and see the whole world. My heart hurts to think of leaving them, of what is in store for them beyond the schoolyard if they cannot read and write.

But as I feel myself fading, my own cup slowly emptying, I know that no amount of my time and energy will save them from the harsh realities of this life. I can only hope that some of them are able to hold on to that spark of belief I saw ignited in each one of them as we sat side by side in noisy, dusty classrooms with sporadic electricity reading Green Eggs and Ham and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Belief in the joy of books and most importantly, belief in themselves.

Surviving

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I have never been much of a gardener. I should be – there are green thumbs sprouting out all over both sides of the family. And I just feel like it should be something I can do. I absolutely love flowers. I love how they can brighten someone’s whole day just by being their lovely selves. And flowers will always remind me of my beautiful grandma and the joy she found in her roses and lilies. But despite all this, somehow plants in my care are almost always severely neglected, left without water or adequate sunlight. It’s not that I don’t care, I just forget. If only a plant could be more like a child or a pet, crying or complaining when it’s hungry to remind you what it needs. Instead, they just silently wither away and leave me feeling very guilty and negligent and swearing never to try that again.

So when I spontaneously planted some little flower seeds I found at the volunteer house in my first few weeks here, I did not have high hopes. I had to assume that like everything else in Jamaica, this would not go according to plan. I sought advice on how to plant them and where to place the pot and I hoped for the best while expecting the worst. So I was totally astonished to see little green shoots bursting from the dirt less than a week later. My amazement has only grown as they continue to grow slowly but steadily. They have been without water for days at a time, then completely flooded by tropical downpours. And yet they just keep on pushing their heads upwards and their leaves outwards, as proud and as green as can be.

Now I am tentatively imagining that maybe they will even bloom before I leave. But first I know I must take them out of their protective but restrictive plastic tubs and set them free in the vast dirt outside. They can never hope to reach their full potential when their roots cannot roam far and wide. I worry about all the things that could go wrong – how do I know when they are strong enough for this big transition? What if I put them in soil that doesn’t have enough nutrients? Or what if my fragile little seedlings get washed away in another unforgiving storm? But I should have faith – they have withstood all the challenges that have been thrown at them so far, and they only grow stronger every day.

Recently I shared my surprise that the little plants were actually alive with a local who shrugged and said, “Of course – they have to be very tough to survive in Jamaica.”

I smiled. Indeed.