Book I’ve Been Reading – October 2018

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life by Jane Sherron De Hart

With Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a modern-day heroine for these times, it’s no wonder there are two movies and a spate of books about her life. This book is a full-length biography that provides the facts and arc of Ginsburg’s life without the analysis that would have been a welcome accompaniment. Still, it IS Ruth Bader Ginsburg and so it’s worth reading because her life choices, partner and experience have been so rich and illuminating.  I like what writer Linda Greenhouse wrote in her review of this book in the New York Times: “She has objected. She has resisted. She has dissented,” the text reads. “Disagreeable? No. Determined? Yes. This is how Ruth Bader Ginsburg changed her life — and ours.” It’s almost as if, were we not lucky enough to have Ruth Bader Ginsburg among us in this troubled time, we would have had to invent her. Icons, it seems, are made as well as born.

Adrienne Rich: Essential Essays: Culture, Politics and the Art of Poetry, edited by Sandra M Gilbert

Getting up close and personal to Adrienne Rich’s writing feels like a political act. For anyone not familiar with her work, her writing is SO good.  This book is an immersion experience of her speeches, public and private accounts, criticism and essays. In her writing, Rich is clear about the importance of speaking up, even when we’re still figuring things out. “We can’t wait to speak until we are perfectly clear and righteous. There is no purity and, in our lifetimes, no end to this process.” Her own ‘wokeness’ demands that she speak, and she sees an intellectual life, a political life, as one in perpetual motion, arriving at thoughts and perspectives yet remaining dynamic and in flux.  Her poetry is a revelation and is also on this same continuum– my favorite book of poems of hers remains the Dream of a Common Language. More than anything this book provides insight to the depth of Rich’s intelligence and her political take on the world. She is writing from the margins and her own points of vulnerability, which in itself is an act of courage.

Born Free: A Lioness of Two Worlds by Joy Adamson (Re-read)

I had a yearning to re-read Born Free and the great thing about my local library is they had a first edition. What joy and revelation in reading it!  Since I last read the book many moons ago, I hadn’t picked up on the subtleties that Joy Adamson recorded when she was capturing Elsa’s life in Kenya in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  For instance, that Elsa sought out solitude regularly, away from people, away from her cubs. She seemed to need the quietude and time to herself. I hadn’t thought of a lioness being attuned to solitude and silence at key times the way many of us seek out this time alone, however, of course, why not? It’s also fascinating to read of how Elsa really did live between two worlds, the world of humans and the world of the wild. And how she raised wild cubs that stayed essentially wild their entire life, while Elsa retained her close connection to Joy and George Adamson as well as the wild until her untimely death from tick fever at the age of five.  I feel like I’m carrying Elsa’s spirit in my heart long after my hands have left the book.

Gold Dust Woman: The Biography of Stevie Nicks by Stephen Davis

I must admit I only skimmed this book yet I wanted to check it out, given that Fleetwood Mac recorded at The Record Plant, the legendary studio based inSausalito where I live. This bohemian village still feels like classic Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac territory. So, I was curious about the biography. In some ways, the book is a classic rock and roll biography and it’s also a story of a rockin’ woman of substantial songwriting talent rising despite the odds stacked against her. It’s also a classic #Metoo tale of how Nicks fights back against those seeking to minimize and diminish her. Of course, the drugs she takes place her on a collision course with her talent and it’s the Betty Ford Clinic that helps her address her cocaine addiction and support her to rise again as an American legend.

Betty Ford: First lady, Women’s Advocate, Survivor, Trailblazer by Lisa McCubbin

Betty Ford’s courage in facing and sharing her breast cancer and then later her addiction to painkillers and alcohol made it possible for many others to get checkups and seek treatment.   This book is also a love story between Betty Ford and Gerald Ford and is the backdrop for all that they faced, individually and together. Betty Ford was candid about her opinions on topics such as sex, abortion and marijuana from the time her husband was running for President.  She was also smart, funny, unpretentious, a dancer, and an outspoken advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment, among other issues.  She used her voice to make change possible and the Betty Ford Center has been her enduring legacy in supporting many others with addiction problems.

Being A Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide by Charles Foster

I adored this book. Especially the chapter on Charles and his eight-year-old son, Tom, becoming badgers, or at least badger-like.   Its divine to explore humans literally imitating animals and seeking to get as close to being in their skin as their physical bodies and imaginations allow.

There is a serious message to this seriously funny and deeply profound book. It’s that we’re disconnected from the wild in ourselves and from the wildness around us. And Foster tackles this in a way that no other writer I’ve read seems to have done.

Foster sets out to live as a badger, an otter, a fox, a stag and a swift to be steeped in their ways and thus understand their lives better and our own. He does this by setting up residence in different places and moving across landscapes as a stag, foraging through dustbins as a fox, attempting to fly like a swift and dwelling in hillside setts as a badger.

So, we’re taken on a shaman’s journey, one where Baker is clear about the boundary between himself and animal. He’s an evocative writer, an eccentric writer in the best tradition, and he’s also bluntly honest about his failure to success in this grand experiment.

His message is also that wonder is in the detail. “Only those blind to the velvet flow of a caterpillar’s legs and deaf to the grunt of a crocus as it noses out of the earth don’t worship.”

It’s an exhilarating read and one of the most original books I’ve read in a long time.

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker

Walker is a great advocate for getting eight of hours sleep a night and he makes the case that we’re in the midst of a “silent sleep loss epidemic” that poses “the greatest public health challenge we face in the 21st century.” His credentials are impressive – he’s Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and Founder and Director of the Center for Human Sleep Science.  Walker tells us that “Sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day.” One of the many stories he shares is a conversation with a composer who tells him that sleep often gives him the answer to an unsolved piece of music he wrestles with before he falls asleep.  Walker tests this theory and finds much truth in it.  A good night’s sleep comprises both REM (rapid-eye movement) sleep, and NREM (non-REM) sleep, a deeper sleep state that predominates in the first half of the night. NREM sleep is crucial to memory retention, and to acquiring and refining our motor skills. REM sleep plays a role in our abilities to deal with negative feelings, read other people’s emotions and solve problems.  Our last two hours of sleep are vital, so we shouldn’t sacrifice it for exercise because we sabotage the biggest health benefits.

Other fun facts: You’ll have a harder time falling asleep after reading a book on an LED device than you will after reading one printed on old-fashioned paper; the blue light emitted by an iPad suppresses your brain’s natural release of melatonin, the hormone that induces sleepiness, by over 50 percent. And adults aged 45 and older who get fewer than six hours of sleep a night are 200 percent more likely to suffer a heart attack or a stroke than those who get their full sleep allotment. The most straightforward recommendation from Walker is to “Establish a regular bedtime and wake-up time, even on weekends.” It’s a book to keep on your nightstand.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

I’ve only just started this book and I’m engrossed in reading it already. Stay tuned for next month’s book list for my review.

Letter from Me, Too

“I don’t understand why she is only coming forward now, some 30 years later,” a woman said in the shop.  “I do,” I said in response.


When I heard Christine Blasey Ford giving her testimony, I started crying. I was on the Sausalito ferry heading to work and, like at least half of those aboard, I was listening to her speak.  I knew that what she was saying was right and true. I knew it in my bones. I knew it because I have felt that same fear and the shame, the anxiety, the guilt from something that happened to me more than 35 years ago when I was at a friend’s party.

While I was there, one of the men invited me outside and suggested we ‘take a walk’ and then, as we headed away from the house, he pushed me against a tree and started pulling off my clothes while pulling down his pants and pressing his penis into me.  His body was heavy, and I was pinned between him and the tree. He smelt of wine and smoke and sweat. What stopped me being raped is two people walking down toward us and so he suddenly pulled up his pants and I pulled my clothes around me. The woman knew me, and the guy she was with knew the man. As they walked up to us, I said to all three of them, “I have to go to the toilet” and then walked up to the house. I went straight up to a friend, told her I wasn’t feeling well and needed to go home right away.  We were out the door before the man walked back into the party and my friend took me home. She asked me if I was okay and I said I would be once I got home and got some sleep.

I went home, showered and fell asleep and I never spoke about it again and I never saw the man again. I had all these feelings at the time including ‘I shouldn’t have agreed to go outside, I should have screamed for help, I should have been wearing different clothing, I should have told my friend, I shouldn’t feel so anxious, I should just get on with my life.’

I did get on with my life and yet the memory never left me. Even though I’ve spent more than two decades working for women’s rights and gender equality, including sustained advocacy to end violence against women and gender-based violence, I never spoke about what happened to me.

Together with feelings of fury and outrage, many other women were crying that day, and I would imagine some men too. Three men I know have been violated by other men.

I heard Blasey Ford speaking the truth, her story was real.

I heard her say, “I am terrified” as she came before the committee. I imagined testifying and I imagined feeling terrified.

I imagined her fear as she described having a hand over her mouth, feeling he would accidentally kill her. I could taste that fear. It was visceral.

Her courage gave me hope, as it did so many watching her testify.

“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?”, the poet, Muriel Rukeyser asked. “The world would split open.”

In a way, it did that day. The world tilted as one woman stood her ground in front of a room of largely older white male men and told her story.

Blasey Ford told her story in front of one of the biggest audiences imaginable, with so many glued to televisions, computers and cell phones as she spoke.  She detailed the violence while maintaining her poise and recalling in vivid language, “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter. The uproarious laughter between the two. They’re having fun at my expense.”

Blasey Ford told her story in a way that was reminiscent of the courage that Anita Hill showed when she testified facing an all-white panel of male senators in 1991 during confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, then a Supreme Court nominee. One of the profound differences Anita Hill faced was one of race: she had to meet a higher burden of proof due to her black skin.

In the Sunday New York Times on September 30th, author Peggy Orenstein refers to a Making Caring Common project survey of more than 3,000 18-25-year olds. More than 60 percent of respondents had never been told about the importance of not pressuring someone to have sex with you. The lead author of the survey, Richard Weissbourd said, “If you ask many parents whether it’s really important that your son has a lot of integrity and is a good person, they would absolutely say yes,” he said. “But if you were to ask, ‘Have you talked to your son in a concrete way about the many ways you can degrade women?’ most parents, I think, would say no.”

Orenstein goes on to say, ‘These days, many parents (myself included) have been vigilant, nearly obsessive, about providing our daughters with positive images of women to counteract the incessant messages telling them their greatest value comes from their body and appearance. We buy them “Nevertheless, she persisted,” T-shirts. We provide books and video featuring estimable female characters. We encourage bravery, intelligence, resilience. We point out the misogyny of the culture and engage them in media critique from the time they can say “Snow White.” …Still, that is only half the equation, and I fear this quest for equality – including a reduction of violence against women – will stall if we don’t start providing more powerful counternarratives about women’s worth, particularly in sexual encounters, to boys.

Mara Gay writes in the New York Times Editorial (Sunday, September 30th) about being at a bar and the man who raped her coming up to her decades later to say hello and giving her a kiss on the cheek. She goes on to say, ‘A female friend texted me on Thursday, saying Dr. Blasey’s testimony about that encounter had sent tears streaming down her cheeks. “That feeling, too many of us know it, and the muscle memory of it is so deep that it is something that can never be forgotten,” she wrote. ‘For so many of us, this week has been a collective mourning, a deluge of grief and trauma. We watched Dr. Blasey, and we remembered.’

What to do?  What can we do individually, what can we do collectively that will make a difference, aside from ensuring we all join the Women’s March on Washington in January 2019, that will come with a specific set of public policies to advance women’s rights?

The New York Times Letters to the Editor pages are filled with people’s ideas and responses. ‘I am a man, and I can assure you that governments and institutions governed and run by men are not going to significantly change. If women want change, want respect, want personal safety, then vote. Don’t vote for me, Vote for women.’

It’s true that having more women in positions of power, decision-making and influence will help to shift political and economic power and resources and challenge the status quo. We also need more women making movies, choreographing, composing, being recognized by Nobel Prize committees as much as being in Parliaments, board rooms, science labs and as head of Fortune 500 companies if we’re to change attitudes, behavior and systems. There also needs to be a diverse representation of people of all genders, cultures, ages, geographies, races, classes, abilities and identities to increase likelihood of reporting as much as to achieve radical culture change.  

Women are more likely to report sexual harassment in the workplace if there are people in leadership and facilitation roles whom they feel comfortable talking to, and whom they feel will understand their situation and circumstances because they are similar in some way rather than vastly different in every way.

While it’s critical that we reach gender parity in both economic and political spheres, change is not going to happen just by women assuming more positions of power. Men must change too. And it shouldn’t be women changing because men can’t, as is suggested in this Letter to the Editor in the New York Times (September 30th): ‘Why aren’t women told that getting inebriated at a party is never a good idea? Why aren’t they told that they should never get into a car or go into a room with a young man alone if they are unsure of their willingness or their safety? Why aren’t women in the work force advised to take someone with them when they are “Invited” to someone’s house for a meeting? Where are the parents the friends, the siblings who could offer this advice? This advice is not fun or sexy, but must be given, and especially to young teenage girls.’

Following this train of thought results in women being required to be accompanied or protected by men and being held to account for what they wear, eat, drink, and say, where they go and when they travel. This not only disempowers women, and denies them their rights, it results in men feeling judged and second-guessed every time they seek to meet or spend time with a woman and it implies they can’t be trusted or change their propensity for violence.  It’s a spiral downwards and it’s a lose-lose situation.

There’s got to be a shift in attitudes, behavior and mindsets at schools, colleges, workplaces and communities to ensure we are building cultures of respect, for ourselves and each other.  Gina Bellafonte, in her NYT Big City column (September 30th) quotes Anthony Charuvastra, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Manhattan, who says, “Gender roles are much slower to change. In my entire history of clinical practice, I have never had an experience with an adolescent boy who has come to me and said, ‘How do I make sure, that I don’t go over the line?’ That’s my small sample size, obviously, but young women are constantly walking this razor’s edge, trying to seem desirable and maintain their safety – either their reputational safety or their physical safety. They are less likely to blame themselves now, when something goes wrong, but they bump into this power asymmetry around sexual expectations and drinking and they are really confused.”

This work of building cultures of respect needs to start with children and young people learning about respectful masculinities. This includes being in touch with their emotions, recognizing that gentleness and vulnerability are also strengths, that balancing work life with time with family, friends and self is important: that expressing feelings is essential to diffusing potential for violence.

When I was a boy I used to think that being strong meant having big muscles, great physical power; but the longer I live, the more I realize real strength has much more to do with what is not seen. Real strength has to do with helping others.

Fred Rogers

It’s why the work in India that my organization is supporting, Gender Labs for Boys, is valuable in helping boys think about their own power and propensity for violence and how to can change this.  These labs are introduced to schools to encourage boys to think about what being male means, and to discuss their attitudes to power and violence. They do this so they can recognize that violence harms them as much as others and that rigid forms of masculinity limit their potential and their ability to fully express and know their creativity and humanity.  Now we’re supporting an extension of this work to connect boys with their fathers and other male figures and to male leaders in the community, so they can have these conversations.

We’re doing this while supporting women to build strong grassroots movements, working to get more women into political office, supporting women entrepreneurs to access economic opportunities, working with companies to design for diversity and to address sexual harassment, working with governments to create gender-responsive judicial systems and workplaces free of violence, and supporting girl’s education, access to scholarship and mentoring.  It requires action on many fronts to see sustained social change in support of women’s rights and gender equality, including freedom from violence.

What to do? Fund organizations that are doing this kind of work.  Build your own portfolio of influence through what you choose to fund and resource. Join the Women’s Funding Network. Attend your local Indivisible group.   Volunteer for causes and attend forums that build networks and communities in support of change.  Nominate women for leadership roles. Advocate for diversity in representation and participation. Be a mentor.  Talk to your children about issues of power, boundaries, behavior and identities. Live your values.

Here on my boat, I listen to tinkling bells near the boat ramp, and I watch a man rowing his boat to shore in the inky black water, with his dog for company. There are few stars tonight, and the big buttery harvest moon has been replaced by a lemony wisp of moon. Yet there’s no place I’d rather be, except Piccadilly in the Adelaide Hills, or the sweet sea of home.

Now, even the bells have stopped, and the silence is velvety. If I’m lucky, tomorrow I’ll awake like today, to a peach-crimson sky and a whiskery sea lion popping up from the water, following the wake of a boat as it heads into the bay.  I can see that man getting out of his row boat and climbing onto the wharf. His dog jumps out, tail wagging and the man bends down to pat him.

I firmly believe today that the only way to stop violence against women is to speak out and refuse to be silenced.

Zainab Salbi


Books I’ve Been Reading – September 2018

Books I’ve been reading – September 2018

Since I’ve not shared an update since January this year, this list captures some of my reading over the last eight months.

A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work by Bernadette Brennan – for anyone who loves Helen Garner’s writing, this book is a valuable companion. Brennan is clear that this is a “literary portrait” rather than a biography. Even with that distinction, it’s a terrific and insightful book that explores Garner’s work and her complexity as a writer. I read it in one sitting.

Island Home by Tim Winton – I read this by the sea in Adelaide and it felt like a homecoming. The connection to land, and to a way of understanding self, culture, identity and expression is so strong. 

This book is the whole package, coming from one of the most gifted writers of our generation. It’s a geographic and a metaphysical journey in search and celebration of home and what it means to be Australian today. 

It’s also (rightly and) inherently political in its advocacy for environment and justice.

The Storm by Arif Anwar – is a stunning debut that reminds me of Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace in its storytelling ability.  Its epic story traverses four countries: Burma, 1942; India, 1946; Bangladesh, 1970; the United States, 2004 and involves a diverse cast of characters. This includes Claire, a British doctor stationed in Burma is in the middle of World War II, Rahim, a wealthy Indian Muslim who, together with his wife Zahira, flees to Bangladesh after partition, at the height of the religious riots. There is Jamir, a fisherman barely subsisting in Bangladesh, together with his wife, Honufa, their young son and who are facing a major cyclone. And then there is Shahryar, the main character who is from Bangladesh and living in America, who is facing expulsion with his visa about to expire, and the prospect of leaving behind his young daughter, Anna. It’s a compelling and magical read. A modern-day hero’s journey.

When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams – a re-read because I gain from  this book each time I read it.  A month after her mother dies, Williams discovers her mother’s journals in her family home and, settling down to read them, finds them all to be blank. This book is Williams’ journey in coming to understand and accept this and, in so doing, it becomes her exploration of voice and expression by others famous and not-so-famous. This includes the famous silent piano piece “4’33” by John Cage and the voice of her late friend and mentor Wangari Maathai, leader of the Green Belt Movement. Williams also evokes her own acts of remembering such as this: ‘And each night the smell of orange blossoms and sea salt ignited sunsets into flames slowly doused by the sea. Not a year of my life has missed a baptism by ocean. Not one.’

River Notes: The Dance of Herons by Barry Lopez is a poetic and mystical book about the life of a river and part of a trilogy that begins with Desert Notes. I first read this book more than two decades ago and its message and beauty have stayed with me all these years. If you’ve never read Barry Lopez, this book is a great introduction to his fine writing on nature and humanity.

What Are We Doing Here by Marilynne Robinson is an intellectual journey as much as anything.  The Guardian got it right in calling the pieces in this book, ‘uncompromising essays.’  And a ‘call to seriousness’. They were originally composed as visiting lectures during the Barack era, before the Age of Trump, delivered before Donald Trump’s election. One of the essays that most captivated me is one on Hope which Robinson defines as loyalty. She invokes this quality as one that informs our human-ness and humanity by being “creative, knowing, efficacious, deeply capable of loyalty”. It requires serious attention to read these pieces and the rewards are persuasive arguments on important issues while also illuminating an author who writes such magical and strange fiction.

The Hour of the Land: A personal topography of America’s National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams:  I’ll read anything new by Terry Tempest Williams. In this book, she traverses 12 American national parks – from Grand Tetons in Wyoming to Acadia in Maine to Big Bend in Texas – in a literary and physical exploration of place that I found both centering and lyrical.

Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively – a gorgeous book for lovers of gardening and Lively’s writing. She lives up to her name – settle in with a cup of tea and shortbread for this book which is informed by the two central activities Lively says have informed her life, alongside writing – reading and gardening.  And so Lively’s sharing of horticulture and gardening is spliced with vibrant snippets  from a range of nonfiction and fiction writers and poets writing about gardens and gardening. This includes evocative gardens from the Egyptian oases of Moon Tiger to those of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West and theAmerican prairie of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Willa Cather.  As someone who spent many childhood days reading in the garden, and who returns to visit my favorite tree (the Bottle Tree) in the Adelaide Botanic Garden each year, this book is both remembrance and a delight.

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magunsson – for anyone committed to creating physical and mental space — living on a boat, it’s a necessity – this is spare, clean writing reflective of the topic. Not a death wish, or even a death task, more a constant practice for living well.

Reporter by Seymour Hersh – A riveting read by a journalist who has covered a lot of ground, broke a lot of stories and writes extremely well.  It’s as much a deep dive into the practice of investigative reporting as it is the stories themselves. The New York Times has referred to Hersh as ‘perhaps the most notable lone wolf of his generation.’ That seems right from reading this book. Equally evident from this reading is that Hersh has a huge ego and temper and maybe they were needed to achieve what he has managed to do in a lifetime of reporting. This includes some of the most important stories of the last 50 years — from the My Lai massacre in 1968 to the inhumane treatment of detainees in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in 2003.

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Luiselli Valeria – this is such an important read at this time by a writer who is Mexican, gifted and compelling in her telling of a tale of migration and dislocation.  It’s a slim book that packs a mighty punch.  The book is based on Valeria’s experiences working as an interpreter for many child migrants who risked their lives crossing Mexico to the US and now must be vetted by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, a vast, impersonal bureaucracy. These children must answer 40 official questions that will determine their fate. This heartbreaking experience is told with Valeria’s own story of her journey to secure a green card and to stay in the US. For this reason, it’s a personal journey of hope as much as it is a polemic against the sustained injustices experienced by so many children. I wish everyone could read this book.

Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton – I typed in swimming in my library index to find books about swimming and this popped up! It’s a book drawn and written by Shapton where she shares her swim journey to the Canadian Olympic trials while recalling the pleasures of swimming.  Her writing is poetic and an invocation to all of us who love to swim to find ways to do so regularly. For instance, here’s Shapton’s description of being underwater: the “loud then quiet, loud then quiet” of one’s head rising above the waterline, how “a chorus of warbled pops and splashings bursts against the sides of your cap.”

Swim: Why We Love the Water by Lynn Sherr – another book on swimming!  This one is an enchanting exploration that navigates history, myth, adventure and personal experience with swimming coupled with gorgeous maps and images. Sherr also includes vibrant accounts of open-water swimming and phrases like these: “Swimming is the chance to float free, as close to flying as I’ll ever get . . . a time of quiet contemplation…The silence is stunning.”

No Time to Spare:  Thinking About What Matters by Ursula Le Guinn – here is an immensely gifted writer whose short stories are arresting.  One of my favorites is a chapter on the art of eating soft boiled eggs. As someone who grew up loving the ritual of eating soft boiled eggs, and the equally compelling ritual of making a proper pot of tea, I so related to Le Guinn’s description. The whole collection is a joy.

Rabble-Rouser for Peace: The Authorized Biography of Desmond Tutu – For any fan of Desmond Tutu, this is a great book to understand his personal journey and the many sacrifices and challenges Tutu faced along the way, together with his wife and family, to become the great peace maker and peace broker he’s renowned for today.  My favorite book featuring Tutu remains the Book of Joy – conversations between Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama.

An Elephant in My Kitchen: What the Herd Taught Me About Love, Courage and Survival by Francoise Malby-Anthony and Katja Willemsen – for anyone who read the earlier The Elephant Whisperer, by Francoise’s late husband, conservationist, Lawrence Anthony, who passed away in 2012, this book is the sequel. For any lover of elephants, and for anyone committed to protecting elephants from the ivory trade, this book is a love story to the elephants whom we’re introduced to in this book as much as a reality check on what’s happening and what’s required to keep them alive. Francoise Malby Anthony is managing director of Thula Thula, the Empangeni game reserve and safari lodge in South Africa and which recently launched a conservation drive involving volunteers from across the globe.

From Elfland to Poughkeepsie by Ursula Le Guin – suitably elflike size for this jewel of a book that tells would-be writers how to stay real in the writing and validates the right of readers to demand authenticity in storytelling.

Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself by Mark Epstein:  I was drawn to the subtitle of this book. It reminded me of a cartoon pinned up on my wall of a woman in a crowd with a thought bubble coming out of her ‘What if it’s not all about me?’  This book is like Buddhist mindfulness meeting M Scott Peck’s book, Road Less Travelled. I found Epstein’s book immensely helpful, for its application of the essential Buddhist precepts for ‘right living’ with the stories of people in therapy and how they navigated the issues they faced. 

Joyce Rupp: Essential Writings by Michael Leach (editor) I came to Joyce Rupp’s writings late, and in the form of the pilgrimage Rupp undertook with her beloved friend and priest, Tom Pfeffer, in her beautiful book, Walk in a Relaxed Manner: Life Lessons on the Camino. It’s a walk I plan to do in the next few years and I hope I can do it with Rupp’s grace and grit. In the meantime, this  book gathers some of Rupp’s best prose and poetry in a journey of body, mind and spirit.


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