Letter From Australia

I was listening recently to the re-run of an interview on ABC Radio National that took place a few years ago with the great South African trumpeter, composer, and activist, Hugh Masekela. In it, he was speaking about leaving South Africa a few months after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 and not returning for sixteen years. He spoke about feeling more intensely South African in the years he lived away from his home than when he did on return.  

Even though my situation is very different, that sense of feeling my Australian-ness acutely while living in the US is similar.

And now I’m back in Australia for a while and I feel attuned to the land, knowing the contours of the sand dunes leading to the beach, listening to the choraling of Australian birds.  

In the car, I tune into Philip Adams, Late Night Live, Rachael Kohn, The Spirit of Things, Dr. Norman Swan, Health Report, Andrew Ford, The Music Show and Claire Nichols, the Book Hub. Long drives. Magpies. Kangaroos. Dogs bounding into the sea.  Older women soaking in the sea – up to their sunhats, long conversations, slowdown sea time.


Reading Helen Garner’s stories and re-reading Elizabeth Jolley, Woman in a Lampshade. On holiday weekends, there’s the crimson capped marathon swimmers, the more serene stand-up paddlers, the kite flyers, the kayakers, the sails and the motorboats specs in the distance, the bodysurfers and the kids being pulled along on surfboards.

While I’m in the sea, a shaggy golden retriever called Elvis dog- paddles up to me in the water, looking very much like his shambolic owner, also in the water.  All Elvis needs are those dark shades and we could be rockin’ it together to some groovy tune. Elvis gives me a daggy grin and then, with a waggy swish of his tail, he’s off again to find another swimmer.

My prime reason for being in Australia is because of family. My dad is very sick and I’m fortunate to be able to work from here for a while. As a result, I’ve been immersed in the world of those needing care –those who are old, sick, and/or have a disability.

My family learns about a new in-home support service created by three guys in Brisbane called Five Good Friends. The name refers to research conducted by the American, Dan Buettner, that identifies communities that have Blue Zones, where people live longer due to their connections with friends. Optimum quality of later life revolves around having a lifelong close circle of five core friends.

What’s different about this model is that it’s flexible and people-centered. Instead of my parents having to go through a central facility managed by coordinators they never see, with Five Good Friends, the coordinator sits down with them to discuss their needs, tailors the arrangements and then they can make and change arrangements directly with the people who provide their care.  

There’s also an app to track and change appointments, although those being cared for don’t have to use it. However, other members of the family can have access to the app so we can track changes in the care being provided and the costs. With Five Good Friends, the coordinator works from home rather than from a central office and people work as independent contractors, so they also have the flexibility of hours to suit their needs. With this approach, the company can keep overheads low and thus keep costs manageable for those needing care.

Rebecca Perry, the coordinator for South Australia, tells me “I am a dietitian and have been drawn to this sector after my father experienced a spinal cord injury 5 years ago. He is now an incomplete quadriplegic and needs to use a wheelchair so has complex care needs. I learnt about how well Five Good Friends operates so I’m delighted that I can be part of the team.”

Five Good Friends is the brainchild of Tim Russell, the founder of RetireAustralia, and his two school friends and founders of successful tech startup everydayhero, Simon Lockyer and Nathan Betteridge.

Russell resigned the CEO role at RetireAustralia in May 2015 and was joined by Simon and Nathan to establish Five Good Friends. They secured external funding and have taken the service to the wider market. Now, in addition to in-home support, the company is signing on partnerships with other providers to ensure a suite of in-home services including nutrition, physiotherapy and occupational therapy.

I can see the possibilities for this service to go even further. Taking my parents to Centrelink, and seeing people line up in wheelchairs, with limited mobility, very frail, very sick, with mental illness, to do things like sign up for disability allowance or carer’s allowance, how much easier it would be for home providers like Five Good Friends to be registered to do identity checks and provide assistance so that people are helped in their homes or local communities.

In San Francisco and Sydney and many cities around the world, whether it’s Airbnb, Uber, Lyft, UberEats, WeWork, is changing the way we access goods and services and the way we work.  Now with Airbnb, the experiences it’s offering to people means it’s positioning itself as an experiential company rather than an accommodation provider. Similarly, Five Good Friends, and other services like it, will likely be positioned as resilience and well-being companies supporting people to live fully and to age well with the wrap round services and experiences to make this possible.  

The way people are interacting with the sharing economy means that services adapt quickly to meet innovations recommended or crowdsourced by users. The downside is that, at least from what I’ve observed in San Francisco, the sharing economy follows the market and that often results in widening inequality and polarizing poverty. Regulation is thus also key to support innovation while ensuring policies are in place to address inequity.

In Asia, the region’s elderly population is projected to reach nearly 923 million by the middle of this century. This means the region is on track in the next few decades to become one of the oldest demographics in the world.

Most governments in Asia are not well prepared for this vast change and the dramatic social and economic consequences that will flow from this trend. In China, according to the United Nations, the population is ageing more rapidly than almost any other country. Exacerbating this situation is the impact of the One Child Policy in China resulting in ageing parents no longer able to rely on the care and support of their children, governments and populations are having to confront the reality of the situation.

Add to this the effects of climate change including rising sea levels, exposure to more disease, more frequent natural disasters, increased temperatures and what this will mean for people who are vulnerable, frail, isolated, have mobility issues, and different forms of disabilities especially hidden disabilities. Many countries are ill-equipped with physical and social infrastructure as much as regulatory environment and a well-developed civil society geared to advocating for change and addressing these issues.

The work we’ve done at The Asia Foundation is important – including a program called A Fully Abled Nation in the Philippines, established in 2011 initially to create more accessible polling places for upcoming elections and to promote voter rights in the disability sector. It was so successful that it became a major program involving government and civil society to promote the participation of persons with disabilities in electoral and democratic processes.

In Indonesia, the work we’re doing supports people with disabilities to participate in development planning from village level to district level and to assume leadership roles.

This work is vital, especially with the rapid migration to cities, the massive traffic congestion and air pollution issues, all of which will massively increase the challenges for people with disabilities, who are elderly and/or marginalized.

Here in Adelaide, it’s been so hot and a friend from San Francisco emails me – “not much rain. Very mild.”  Climate change is hitting hard. In fact, 2017 was the third hottest year on record in the US and it was also the year that cost the US the most ever with a $300 billion damage bill for hurricanes, forest fires, drought, and flooding. In South Australia, where my family live, the predictions are for the state to get hotter and drier with an increase in drought and fire-related conditions in the years ahead.

Perhaps that’s why I turn ever more frequently to the sea and the ocean. Tonight, the sun setting over the sea was achingly beautiful.  A deep crimson pinwheel spinning out above the water, gaining color and momentum until it filled the sky.

Even the books I’m reading mainly have a water/sea theme. My Life Underwater, Turning: A Swimming Memoir; Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller; Swimming with Seals by Victoria Whitworth and Land’s Edge: A Coastal Memoir by Tim Winton and two non-water themed reads –  An American Marriage by Tayari Jones and Earthsea by the irreplaceable Ursula Le Guin.

For me right now, I’m seeking creative time –for silence, swimming, spirit life, crayoning, dancing – away from noise and frenetic activity. I also visit my favorite tree – a bottle tree – that I’ve been spending time within the Botanic Gardens for over a decade. Back on my sea perch I watch two girls running across the sand with their dog and their parents behind them I think about the different world other girls are experiencing.

Last month in San Francisco at a Lotus Leadership Dinner we honored a girl group from Myanmar called the Colorful Girls.  I was introduced to this group when I first visited Myanmar almost six years ago, and I wrote about the visit in my blog at that time.

When I commenced work at The Asia Foundation I asked if we were supporting the Colorful Girls in Myanmar and I learnt that we were, so I could nominate them for a leadership award.

Colorful Girls in Myanmar – photo credit Whitney Legge

Colorful Girls is a grassroots organization in Myanmar that’s supporting adolescent girls and young women to gain confidence and leadership skills to prevent violence and trafficking and to advocate for their rights.  The organization has supported several thousand girls across the country over the last decade to gain confidence and connections through the programs it offers to girls from diverse cultures, ethnicities and geographies.

Importantly, girls are supported to speak out rather than feel compelled to be docile and quiet and in need of protection. By claiming their voice, girls are also more likely to speak out against abuse rather than stay quiet and be rewarded for enduring the abuse.

Zar Chi Win and Ji Mai are two members of Colorful Girls who are speaking out and sparking change.

Zar Chi Win – photo-credit Whitney-Legge

Zar Chi Win shares her story.  “I joined Colorful Girls in 2011 when I was in 7th grade. At 14, I started working in the garment factory near my home during the summer, when school is out of session. In these factories, most workers are girls and young women. A lot of girls like me—some even younger—work in garment factories. In my factory most of the girls were below the legal age. In that work environment, the most common problem girls face is sexual harassment. I have experienced it myself. My supervisor harassed me, and when I responded to him by shouting back I was fired.

Zar Chi Win was one of the girls who attended a series of workshops we held in Yangon and Mandalay to teach the girls how to organize and mobilize a campaign for social change. She subsequently launched a campaign to combat harassment on public buses alongside other young advocates They gave out whistles to women and girls to blow when they were being harassed. They spoke to bus conductors and fare collectors to get their support and to help anyone who was being harassed.

As Zar Chi Win said, “From that campaign, I learned that we girls can speak out. We can do anything! Now as a Colorful Girls facilitator, I get the opportunity to help other girls become leaders.”  

Ji Mai – photo-credit Whitney-Legge

Ji Mai’s pathway to joining Colorful Girls was very different, as she shares. “In 2012 I was preparing for my 6th grade exam at age 12, when war broke out in our surrounding villages. After fleeing the shelling and searching for a safe place for several months, we finally made our way to a camp for the internally-displaced (IDP) near the state capital of Myiktyina, Kachin State. I have now been living in this camp for over five years.  I joined Colorful Girls in 2014. For girls like us living in IDP camps, we experience discrimination at school: the school divides us war-victims from the students of the host community into separate classrooms, with poorer facilities. This reminds us every day of our low status. Daily survival is difficult for all of us. Some of the girls from my camp drop out of school to search for any possible paid work. During this process they will be exploited; some even become the victims of human trafficking.”

“Some of my fellow girls have little hope, and can’t see any better options, so they will get married while still very young. Due to the living conditions and problems that we face, we have a lot of stress and anxiety. But, when I play sports, it helps me manage and reduce my stress. I get happy while playing sports. It has truly become an outlet for me. Now I coach volleyball for the Colorful Girls. I teach girls from different IDP camps. To meet them, to know them, to do what I am good at, makes me proud, and them hopeful. For all of us who experience trauma and ongoing gender discrimination, playing volleyball together is taking action. We can relieve our stress, learn real teamwork, and gain leadership skills. Confidence and hope are critical for us to take the lead in our own lives and make progress for all girls. “

By mobilizing to confront abuse and violence and using sport to build understanding between different ethnic groups, these girls are actively building cultures of peace and resilience and reshaping the way girls are seen in Myanmar.

Back here in Adelaide, I visit Freya Povey, a friend and nationally renowned ceramicist who gave me the lessons in clay making that I wrote about in my book. Freya hands me a bust of a swimmer, resplendent in a dreamy blue bathing cap, a blue and white striped bathing suit and very red lips.   I call her Bessie. I can’t stop looking at her.

There’s often an essential self to which we return, as a touchstone for our lives when so much is evolving and in flux. For me, it’s swimming in the sea.  This morning, cool and delicious, I run to the sea and plunge in, a small daily act of fearlessness (“aren’t you scared of sharks?”) that makes me feel alive and with a renewed sense of hope.  

That night a big round lemony moon hangs low in the sky and early next morning, as I’m paddling in the sea, horses thunder by, their hoofs half in the water, half on the shore, spraying water on me. There’s magic afoot.

Jane Sloane
Adelaide 2018

Books I’ve Been Reading – January 2018

Reading is my great love, matched only by sharing these books, whether it’s by passing them on to others or telling friends about the stories I’ve read. I’m curious about so much in life and reading both satisfies and fuels this curiosity.

Perhaps that’s why my taste is so eclectic – it’s a response to the messiness of life. I pivot equally to fiction and non-fiction in both wanting to answer the ‘why’s and ‘how’s as much as wanting to be entranced by a story well told. I’m drawn to the feeling of being carried away and I also love standing on the shoulders of giants, figuratively speaking, and appreciating new perspectives on the world. And of course being up close and personal with others whose view is from the ground or from the margins.

Books I Read In January

Women and Power:  A Manifesto by Mary Beard This slim book is compelling in its message that it’s power that needs to change and not women.  Beard makes the case that that there has been a long tradition in Western culture of silencing women and keeping them from the centers of power.

The book draws from two lectures that Beard gave in 2014 and 2017, sponsored by the British Museum and the London Review of Books.   Beard’s central premise is that the myth of the weakness of women speaking to power has been perpetuated through generations beginning with Homer’s Odyssey through to the failure of Hillary Clinton to assume the US Presidency.

At the end of her book, Beard says that if she were starting again, “I would find more space to defend women’s right to be wrong.” This raises the question of what politics and power would look like if there was more forgiveness for human fallibility, greater generosity in supporting a diversity of views and voices and zero tolerance for violence against women.  With the rise of the # me too movement and the 2018 mid-term elections in the US which will attract many female candidates for political office, this book is a timely manifesto for those seeking and critiquing power.

Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living by Krista Tippett Krista Tippett is an award-winning host of the beloved US public radio program On Being.  Her book made me feel like I was absorbing wisdom by osmosis. Tippett’s writing style is like an extension of her radio sessions and the book captures the perspectives of many important thinkers and leaders in theology, science, and the arts including the Dalai Lama, the poet Mary Oliver, the Irish writer and priest,  the late John O’Donohue, and the physicist Brian Greene and how they are navigating issues of spirituality, technology and what it means to be human. It’s an absorbing read and, ultimately, an uplifting one too. The sections are organized around five themes: words, flesh, love, faith, and hope and this works well in guiding the inquiry, reflections and stories in this deeply wonderful book. 

Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner Back in Australia, I needed a Helen Garner fix. She’s one of my favorite authors and I particularly love her short stories and essays. Is it strange to say that Garner’s writing connects me to Australian-ness? It’s the combination of whimsy, fierceness, irony and tenderness that makes Garner’s stories unique. Chapters in this collection spin from dogs, dancers and grandchildren to Jane Austen, prisoners and life after marriage.  Several stories center on attitudes toward women and are spiky in their telling. Then there’s Garner’s love affair with the ukulele, and with Elizabeth Jolley’s and Janet Malcolm’s writing, and her deeply affecting piece on Australian philosopher Raimond Gaita and the film made from his book, Romulus My Father. This collection’s a keeper.

A Life Underwater by Charlie Veron Charlie Veron is renowned globally as a coral reef expert.  His has been a lifelong commitment to coral reef conservation in Australia and across the globe. Along the way, he’s been a researcher, writer, participant in film projects and a lifelong activist. It’s a terrific read –  the kind of book that you begin at the start of the weekend and only get up to do the essentials before returning to the story. Veron has dived many of the world’s coral reefs, has been a leader in organizations including the Australian Institute of Marine Science and has named more coral species than anyone in history.

Veron tells of his growing love of marine life and his journey to becoming a coral specialist and activist for ocean ecology and coral reef protection.  He describes his kamikaze life exploring off the map wild coastal waters and then leading groundbreaking research including on the impact of climate change and reef depletion. What makes this a great read is that it’s a book about science without being a scientific read. Instead, it’s a very personal story of a life fully lived with all its elements of love, loss and personal discovery.   In writer Tim Winton’s words, “Charlie Veron isn’t just a coral scientist, he’s a pathfinder, a scout who’s been sending back dispatches on the future of the planet for decades. If ever there was a moment for Australians to listen up and act on what he’s learnt, it’s now.”

Thea Astley: Inventing Her Own Weather by Karen Lamb The names of Thea Astley’s books have always been a draw for me:   It’s Raining in Mango; Reaching Tin River; Hunting the Wild Pineapple; Girl With A Monkey. And so, curious about the author I was excited to find that there was a biography of Thea Astley and it’s a good one too. Astley was a Catholic girl from Brisbane, and both religion and geography had a magnetic pull on Astley throughout her life. She called Queensland her ‘‘dream country’’, the verdant, emerald green North of the imagination.  And as Karen Lamb depicts in her biography, Astley was resolute in her ambition to be a writer and yet always uncertain of her own worth. This biography provides a fascinating insight to the times, to Astley’s desire both for marriage and independence, to her sustained love of music and her aversion to conformity and how she built her career and reputation as a writer.

As the literary critic, Geordie Williamson wrote, ‘Astley climbs from its pages a flawed human with a gift that has been discounted in recent years. Until the recent republication by UQP of A Descant for Gossips, a few dusty warehoused copies of her wonderful final novel Drylands were all that remained in print. We can only hope that Inventing Her Own Weather will renew our fascination with a writer who was marvellous because she was difficult, groundbreaking because she was conservative, and deserving of celebration because of the author’s own uncertainty regarding her worth.’

Talking to My Daughter About the Economy by Yanis Varoufakis World-famous economist, Yanis Varoufakis, seeks to answer a question from his daughter, Xenia, ‘Why is there so much inequality?’  To answer this question, Varoufakis draws on mythic tales and contemporary culture as well as his own childhood experiences to provide an astute analysis and antidotes.  

This includes references to Faust, Frankenstein, The Matrix and Oedipus to illustrate the drama of economics and power and how it is playing out in our world. It’s a highly personal and accessible book that helps to illustrate how we got into this mess and what’s needed to rebalance the world. In doing so, Varoufakis equips us with new knowledge and vocabulary so that we can reclaim our power rather than deferring to economists. It’s a stunning read and an important one.

“Varoufakis’s brief history of capitalism unspools with characteristic fluency and verve … those seeking to better understand the ‘black magic’ of bankers should look no further.”                                               Financial Times

That’s it for this month

Letter from India

The Asia Foundation - Jane Sloane visit to Jal Bhagirathi Foundation Water Project
Jane Sloane visit to Jal Bhagirathi Foundation Water Project Photo by Vivek Singh

I was headed to India for work although I was concerned about the warnings being made by Indian doctors about the toxic nature of the Delhi smog. A young woman aged 20 would be six times more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer at age 40 because of exposure to this toxic air. Breathing in the air was like smoking 40 cigarettes a day.

photo by Jools

Social media was alight with stories and images. A new Right to Breathe movement was gaining momentum because of what has been happening in India and in other countries too in terms of rising air pollution and people on the ground fighting for their rights. The latest report in the Guardian Weekly of the lifelong damage to unborn babies contributes to the urgency to avert a global health catastrophe. I headed for my local hardware store and bought an industrial strength face mask and then changed my flight to Jodhpur in Rajasthan in the hope that the smog would lift before I had to fly to New Delhi.

The Asia Foundation - Jane Sloane visit to Jal Bhagirathi Foundation Water Project
photo by Vivek Singh

In Rajasthan, I met with colleagues and we joined Kanupriya Harish, Executive Director, Jal Bhagirathi Foundation (JBF) and her colleagues Santana Khurana and Inderjeet Singh, to visit work JBF is leading and which has been supported over the years by The Asia Foundation and other organizations.

This work enables desert communities of the Marwar region of Rajasthan to develop rainwater harvesting techniques that support their sustainability, health and food security. Importantly, the work reduces the burden on women walking 3-4 miles each day, often in scorching heat, to collect safe drinking water. It also saves the communities major expenditure in purchasing water for essential needs, which contributes to poverty reduction.

The Asia Foundation - Jane Sloane visit to Jal Bhagirathi Foundation Water Project
photo by Vivek Singh

In villages where communities have constructed sand dams, they’ve been able to recharge wells and grow crops such as cumin, green chilies and mustard to be sold at local markets. This allows families to support their children staying in schools and keeping healthy. Trainers working with these communities encourage women to play a key advocacy role in securing toilets in each home to reduce the health risks they otherwise face.

The Asia Foundation - Jane Sloane visit to Jal Bhagirathi Foundation Water Project
photo by Vivek Singh

What’s great about the JBF’s work is that it’s reviving inexpensive, simple traditional rainwater harvesting technology to address the drinking water needs of drought-stricken populations. This includes community-led water management systems to tap runoff from the catchment area, and from above and underground rainwater-harvesting tanks near the village. Women are encouraged to be part of the water management group and to play an active role in the maintenance of these water governance systems.

The Asia Foundation - Jane Sloane visit to Jal Bhagirathi Foundation Water Project
photo by Vivek Singh

It was inspiring to see this work and to learn that The Asia Foundation was the first funder of this work some 15 years ago, recognizing the critical importance of food, water and energy security to rural and desert communities where in summer, with the scorching heat, temperatures regularly spike to 50 degrees Celsius. We were visiting during the cooler months, and even then it was still warm. We set off in 4-wheel drive vehicles and mid-way we switched to jeeps for the rugged sand hill drives to local villages.

The Asia Foundation - Jane Sloane visit to Jal Bhagirathi Foundation Water Project
photo by Vivek Singh
The Asia Foundation - Jane Sloane visit to Jal Bhagirathi Foundation Water Project
photo by Vivek Singh

The organization engages community trainers to work with local communities to have them map the houses in a village, the water access points near the village (and how far women need to walk) and then where people in the village defecate (just about everywhere). This visual mapping precedes a conversation about the value of building water storage facilities inside the village and the value of every household having a toilet.

The Asia Foundation - Jane Sloane visit to Jal Bhagirathi Foundation Water Project
photo by Vivek Singh

While the government does provide some compensation to those villagers who build their own water tanks and toilets, they still must front the funds to build these facilities. Having communities and households raise the funds for part of the overall cost means they’re more likely to be invested in maintaining these facilities too. There’s also the challenge of lethargy, motivating individuals within communities sufficiently to ensure that the construction work required gets done.

Speaking about the foundation’s work Kanupriya Harish, its Executive Director, said “The model that JBF uses draws on a unique amalgam of some 20,000 village-level volunteers assisted by technical staff to develop water harvesting.”

Harish added, “Living in the desert makes people and communities resilient – otherwise survival is perilous.”

The Asia Foundation - Jane Sloane visit to Jal Bhagirathi Foundation Water Project
photo by Vivek Singh

“Beyond the construction of the rainwater tanks for rainwater harvesting and toilets for sanitation is the creation of sand dams. These sand dams allow the rivers to still flow, but they slow down the flow and, by so doing, this contains the river as this creates clean drinking water downstream as the sand acts as a filter. Each year there is greater access to water since more sand settles. This results in more fresh drinking water for villages as well as to support agriculture, tree planting and land management, and thus the self-sufficiency of villages because one dam supports 103 wells in different villages,” Harish said.

The Asia Foundation - Jane Sloane visit to Jal Bhagirathi Foundation Water Project
photo by Vivek Singh

This water harvesting supports communities to have year-round access with water user associations called Jal Sabhas comprised of women and men from the villages. The associations establish pricing mechanisms for collecting a user charge to support the long-term maintenance of the water structures. Supporting women to have a greater voice in decision-making in water and natural resource management is crucial to incorporate their perspectives and build their capacity to be able to respond and adapt to climate change.

This work on water management has taken on greater urgency given the estimates that the earth’s surface temperature will increase by at least 2°C this century with Rajasthan as one of the most vulnerable states in India that will be adversely impacted. With high temperatures in summer, average annual rainfall of only 200mm and with annual 40% chance of drought, the region faces acute water scarcity. With with the worsening forecast, there is a huge need to act.

The Asia Foundation - Jane Sloane visit to Jal Bhagirathi Foundation Water Project
photo by Vivek Singh

As we drove across sand country I watched young girls walking across the land. Rajasthan remains highly traditional in terms of attitudes toward women and girls with girls as young as five or six being married or committed to a boy or man, even though the legal age of marriage is 18.

That’s why addressing attitudes toward women and girls is so crucial to changing the status quo. The Asia Foundation has been supporting the pilot of an initiative called a Gender Lab for Boys as part of a Blue-Ribbon Campaign to ignite a boy’s movement for gender equality in India and this video gives a sense of what’s possible through this work.

I hope we can secure the funds to extend the Gender Lab pilot across all of India as this is where change begins – in the hearts and minds of boys and the way they see their own masculinity as much as their attitudes and behavior toward girls – and girls knowing, and being able to advocate for, their rights.

After returning from a 12-hour day in the field, my colleague, Aditya, and I are invited to join Prithvi Raj Singh, the founder and Managing Trustee of JBF and Kanupriya, for dinner at the Water Resource Centre (WRC) in Jodhpur. The centre is located at the historic Bijolai Palace, nestled in the Aravalli Hills, that was built by Maharaja Takhat Singh and given to JBF for its restoration and use. Adjacent to the palace is the sprawling Bijolai Lake, a traditional rainwater-harvesting structure. At night, it felt mythic and stories were spun under a midnight blue sky.

The next day we flew to Delhi and my industrial strength mask seemed inadequate to the level of pollution that hits us on the tarmac. My body felt like it was going into toxic shock and I worked to calm my mind as much as my body. Once we got to an area where trees were more plentiful I felt myself relax more. I’ve been reading a book called Indira Gandhi, A Life in Nature and, in this book, Indira Gandhi tells the story of 250 years ago where the King of what is now Rajasthan ordered the felling of trees in the forest and how more than three hundred men and women belonging to the Bishnoi community sacrificed their lives while resisting this order. In the 1970s Indira Gandhi would pay tribute to the Chipko movement in India in the hill districts of Uttar Pradesh where community members would sacrifice themselves in a similar way by hugging the trees to prevent them being felled. The Right to Breathe Movement is focused on tree planting to sustain the lungs of the earth, coupled with advocating for regulations to address the dangerous combination of exhaust from vehicles running on dirty fuel, diesel generators, road dust, burning of waste and crop burning.

Once I was back in Sausalito again I returned to my restorative yoga class, a Friday early evening ritual that restores my sense of balance. The last Friday of each month our yoga teacher, Mirabai, is joined by Timothy, a didgeridu player who plays over our bodies as we do long relaxing postures. “Those who know how to deeply rest know the art of vitality,” Mirabai says. I think a lot about the toll that continuous travel takes and about how challenging it is for many people to commit to self-care. We’re becoming so endlessly busy in our work, social media and activities that we neglect the need to stop and find ways to deeply rest.

Coupled with this is the need to find time for our creative selves. Recently I re-watched a special on Joni Mitchell’s life called A Woman of Heart and Mind that my friend, Thatch, sent to me. I’m struck by Joni’s honesty and authenticity in her search to find balance between love and commitment in a relationship and her fierce need for her creative time as an artist.

Joni Mitchell speaks movingly in the video of wanting to end the pattern of her mother’s and her grandmother’s frustration that they didn’t have this creative time, and of her grandmother breaking down a door in her urgent need to have this creative space. So, Joni ended her engagement to Graham Nash and (literally) went out into the wilderness for a year from which came her album, Blue. There’s a beautiful image of Joni lifting her arms like wings as she seemingly goes to lift off like a bird from the snow she’s walking across. A slow snow kind of dance.

For me, I’ve sought to carve out the space to draw and dance and –most especially — write in a liminal space where I can feel expansive in my thoughts and dreaming self. Time in Kauai gave me that gift this year.

Returning to my boat in Sausalito I see that many of the surrounding boats have Christmas lights strung from their bows and windows. My neighbor, Joe, has mounted the largest possible heart wired with tiny red lights across the front of his boat as a reminder of what’s important this holiday season. I can imagine its large enough for passengers on a plane to look down and see that winking message of love.

Jane Sloane

[metaslider id=”4647″] (photos by Vivek Singh)

Books I’ve Been Reading – November 2017

Reading is my great love, matched only by sharing these books, whether it’s by passing them on to others or telling friends about the stories I’ve read. I’m curious about so much in life and reading both satisfies and fuels this curiosity.

Perhaps that’s why my taste is so eclectic – it’s a response to the messiness of life. I pivot equally to fiction and non-fiction in both wanting to answer the ‘why’s and ‘how’s as much as wanting to be entranced by a story well told. I’m drawn to the feeling of being carried away and I also love standing on the shoulders of giants, figuratively speaking, and appreciating new perspectives on the world. And of course being up close and personal with others whose view is from the ground or from the margins.

Books I Read In November

In Jodhpur, India, I walk into a tiny and mighty bookstore, and one of the staff ask me what I’m looking for. “Writing to better understand dimensions of inequality in India.” “What writers or books do you like?” he asks.

“Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, everything Arundhati Roy has written, Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Glass Palace’, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies.”

“Okay, here’s some ideas…” Which is how I came to read the following books:

Untouchable: The author, Mulk Raj Anand wrote this slim book in 1935 however it’s as relevant today as it was then. Over the course of one day, the book follows Bakha, an Untouchable in India’s caste system, who is a latrine cleaner and street sweeper. We are privy to the humiliations he suffers at the hands of higher castes and the way the class system defines him totally and denies him any other existence. Bakha’s fierce desire to become part of a larger world and his smoldering, seething anger as injustice upon injustice is thrust on him makes him unforgettable in his realness, and utterly devastating as a portrait of an India whose class system remains as cruel, inhumane and entrenched as apartheid. Anand brings fire, vitality and the power of witness to this book – which reminds us why he is one of India’s most important writers this century.

Everyone Likes A Good Drought: Stories from India’s Poorest Districts by Palagummi Sainath
Sainath is a journalist whose focus is the rural poor, and this collection is perhaps the most admired collection of reportage published in India in the last two decades. He is meticulous in his reportage on people on the margins written between May 1993 and June 1995. He is also a storyteller, and the way the book is constructed makes it easy to dip into both the stories and the analysis in easy to read bites. Sainath is scathing in his analysis of the impact of the withdrawal of agricultural subsidies and ill-conceived budget cuts in rural areas. His adroitness with language makes this book a dream read – and an important one since the crisis in rural India has continued to grow since this book was written, forcing millions of farmers to abandon their plots and seek employment in cities. Meanwhile, most journalists in the country focus mainly on city problems and the elite, ignoring the lives of the rural poor and the potential for a different world.

I also picked up:
Jhumpa Lahiri’s, The Clothing of Books: ‘If the process of writing is a dream, the book cover represents the awakening,’ is the magnetic quote on the back of the book, making it an irresistible purchase. This 80-page memoir spans Lahiri’s reflections on how a book cover impacts the potential reader and how the book cover reflects on the author; “The right cover is like a beautiful coat, elegant and warm, wrapping my words as they travel the world, on their way to keep their appointment with my readers.” Lahiri reflects on how book covers are an integral aspect of the book and they become a statement about the author even though many authors have little say in the cover chosen. She shares that even if she does not like the publisher’s choice “the covers become a part of me.”

Indira Gandhi and Nature by Jairam Ramesh – I must admit I was drawn to this book by a combination of compelling cover and title. Then there’s the subject herself. The book is really well written and it’s one to curl up with for Thanksgiving as it traverses Indira Gandhi’s life in a wholly original and satisfying way. As the author writes, ‘The environmentalist in her has never got the acknowledgement it warrants from her biographers… A cohesive ecological narrative extending right through her life based on written records has been missing.’ The result is poetic and political and important. We learn of Indira Gandhi being singularly responsible for the tiger conservation program, ensuring the protection of vast tracts of environmentally sensitive areas and pushing through Wildlife (Protection) Act, Forest Conservation Act, Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 and Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981. It makes me think she would have a very different response to the current air pollution issues in India if she were Prime Minister today.

Beyond India…I dipped into:
Adam Curle: Radical Peacemaker by Tom Woodhouse and John Paul Lederach: Adam Curle was a Quaker and peacemaker whom I was fortunate enough to meet him before he died – I climbed up to his apartment where he was caring for his wife who was very sick and he was generous with his time and patient with my questions. Here, two intellectual giants in the field of peacemaking have collected Curle’s powerful and astute writings for this book. Curle’s work was informed by his ideas on resolution, mediation and conflict transformation, all of which are illustrated by real-life situations Curle dealt with, and his approach to inner peace as much as the peace with justice he sought and practised in the world.

What I found in a Thousand Towns by Dar Williams. The subtitle is A Traveling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, and Open-Mike Night at a Time. This is such a great book – you may feel like I did – variously wishing I’d written this book and that I could go hang out with Dar Williams while she makes great music and interviews people with such sensitivity and insight. She has a bit of that Studs Terkel magic in the way she interacts with people and in her clarity about what contributes to and constitutes urban renewal.

Williams brings to this book both a curiosity and clarity about what it takes to sustain community. This is a book fused with joy and hope. In short, it’s a keeper.

The New Enchanted Broccoli Forest by Mollie Katzen (re-read): coming home from India, I craved cooking fresh vegetables and dishes for myself so brought out this trusty favorite companion volume to the Moosewood Cookbook, and timeless in its some 200 recipes. Katzen’s is a truly wonderful approach to food, nutrition and happiness.


Books I’ve Been Reading – October 2017

Reading is my great love, matched only by sharing these books, whether it’s by passing them on to others or telling friends about the stories I’ve read. I’m curious about so much in life and reading both satisfies and fuels this curiosity.

Perhaps that’s why my taste is so eclectic – it’s a response to the messiness of life. I pivot equally to fiction and non-fiction in both wanting to answer the ‘why’s and ‘how’s as much as wanting to be entranced by a story well told. I’m drawn to the feeling of being carried away and I also love standing on the shoulders of giants, figuratively speaking, and appreciating new perspectives on the world. And of course being up close and personal with others whose view is from the ground or from the margins.

Books I Read In October

Here are some highlights …

No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America by Ron Powers: This book takes its title, and its cue, from the casual comment made by a Governor’s staffer that captures the reality of people, politicians, policy makers seeing people with mental illness as those to be contained, pitied and treated with suspicion rather than helped.

This book is also intensely personal as Powers, a Pulitzer Prize winning author based in Vermont, details the journey his sons go through with both suffering from schizophrenia, one committing suicide and the other trying and surviving, and how Powers and his wife, Honoree, deal with what happens.

I almost didn’t check out this book from my local library because I thought it would be too depressing. I’m glad I did, both for what I learnt and because, thanks to Power’s fierce and fearless writing, I came away feeling hopeful and determined about what we can do rather than feeling helpless in the face of what we’re dealing with here and elsewhere.  

The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection by Michael Harris

I was drawn to this book as one that suggested respite from a culture where everyone seems to have their heads down, checking their phones, rather than eyes up to experience now life in the now.  The promise of the book, written by journalist, Michael Harris, was his poetic take on what future generations won’t miss – the loss of lack and of quietude and day dream time due to the demands of constant connection.

Harris shares his own experience of being digitally connected and then unplugged however he’s continually pulled back to how others are experiencing technological change and in exploring other people’s experiments with technology.

I guess I was hoping more from what someone deliberately switching off from the ubiquitous social media and internet presence might discover however the book is less a meditation and celebration of slow self than it is a wrestle with these different ways of being.

La La La by author, Kate DiCamillo, and illustrator, Jaime Kim

This almost wordless book has striking illustrations of a girl singing ” La La La,” in various natural scenes involving trees, leaves, sun and moon. The girl always gets sad though because she receives no song in response to her singing and so she finally wakes up to the moon singing La La La back to her, and later, and finally, the sun.

The author said she wrote it due to the intense loneliness she felt as a child until her sister was born, and in celebration of the connection she now has with her sister. I’m not sure how young children will respond to this book – I think the message of hope may resonate with those who are going through a difficult time and in some ways, it seems more a book for young adults or adults than for children.


Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep by Eleanor Farjeon

My Mum used to give me Celtic fairy tales to read when I was young and this book has that same magical quality.  

Elsie’s life is filled with fairies and other children and Elsie’s talent at skipping rope results in a marathon effort to save a village from a greedy landowner who agrees to what he thinks is an easy win for his plans to build a factory on a hilltop where fairies and children jump rope.

Elsie’s skill, determination and love of life makes for a wise and affirming book for all little people – and big people too.

Gwen Harwood – Poems

Gwen Harwood (1920-1995) is one of my favorite Australian poets and this is one of her best collections, together with her Poems Volume 2.  Here’s an excerpt:

Could one seize and move
the stubborn words to yield and sing,
then one would write as one makes love
and poems and revelations spring
like children from the mind’s desire,
original as light and fire.

Devotions by Mary Oliver

For any lover of Mary Oliver’s poetry this book is a treat as it contains some of her best work from the last fifty years. Oliver has chosen and curated these pieces and they follow her journey from the age of 28 to her most recent work in her collection, Felicity, published in 2015.

Within these pages there’s so much of Oliver’s acute observation of the natural world and insight to the human condition. Having it close and dipping into it is like an everyday act of meditation and prayer.

Salvation Creek by Susan Duncan – re-read

I’m surprised this book was never made a movie -or if it was, I must have missed it. I even treat this book like a favorite movie – returning to re-read it when I feel the need, or when I feel homesick for Australia.

At 44, Susan Duncan was living the dream. She was an editor of two top-selling women’s magazines, had a happy marriage, enjoyed a jet setting lifestyle covering stories across the globe. And then her husband and brother die within three days of each other. Duncan keeps going until she can’t and then she’s diagnosed with breast cancer.  

While this storyline might sound like a descent to depression it’s far from the truth. Duncan is a gifted storyteller and she’s also very funny, aside from being very honest. The journey she goes on is rich and uplifting and the place she finds in herself — and physically in a natural idyll — is deeply affirming.


Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World by Billy Bragg

Having just seen Billy Bragg perform (check out his website and see if you can find a performance that isn’t sold out near you – his performance is brilliant, brilliant, brilliant) I wanted to read this book. While I’ve just begun reading, it has already won me for the style of writing as much as the substance.

The book tells the story of the rock and roll movement in 50s and 60s England. It was called “skiffle” as a parallel movement to that in the US.  Bragg documents the rise of the skiffle movement from when young Brits developed a guitar-led rebellion against the jazz movement of the day and of skiffle being the precursor to so much of the great British music which followed.

It’s an easy read and so typical of how Bragg interacts with his audience on stage. Bragg is a natural storyteller and as Bragg said up on stage, the pleasure is in the telling as much as the story.

The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit

I read this book in one sitting and I’d stand and hand it to every person in the street, if I could. It’s that good. Solnit says in her introduction to the book that a revitalized feminist movement is changing our understanding of consent, power, rights, gender, voice and representation. In this book, Solnit dives deep into what this means and what’s at stake and how we need to respond.

It’s a natural follow on from her last book, Men Explain Things and in this writing Solnit calls on men to challenge silence and end violence and join with women and those of all gender identities in transforming gender norms and behavior that perpetuates violence and silence.

What’s powerful about Solnit’s writing is that she really takes us there – her humor is powerful and her hammer of fury is a call to arms, which is really what this book is.