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Courage – by Justyna

19 Nov

My paternal Babcia (grandma) was the second oldest in a family of twelve kids. She was born in Ukraine to Polish parents who, although were not exactly landed gentry, had enough assets and dough to be sent off by the Bolsheviks to Siberia in 1940 and have their property ceased by the Reds. No one in my father’s family knows too much about the years spent in the prison camps because my Babcia and her siblings never liked talking about it. All that anyone knows was that they escaped through Russia and that the endeavour took a few years.

My Babcia was responsible for looking after her younger siblings, so much so that her youngest brother referred to her as ‘mum’. She also had the task to look for random jobs in small Russian towns during their escape back to Poland. She worked for a doctor who paid her in a pair of shoes and food. The shoes were confiscated by her own mother, who apparently was a nasty piece of work, had ‘airs’ (she spoke French and was tutored by a governess back in the pre WWII days) and wasn’t much of a mum to her twelve children. They reached Poland just as the War ended and were allocated a plot of land and a house in the west of Poland in a town called Debno. Debno was German before 1945 and became Poland after the Potsdam Agreement as part of the ‘recovered territories’ plan. The twelve kids were quickly put to work on the farm so that my great-grandfather Cezary could twist his curly mustache, drink loads of vodka and dance the cossack dance on tabletops. He kept all the family’s money in his hat that he wore daily, was a stingy bastard but liked to party.

My Babcia, to escape her family married at sixteen. My grandpa Stanislaw lived in a village a couple of kilometers from Debno and had served the Polish army during the War. He was a good but sickly kind of a guy. My dad was born in January in the coldest part of the winter. My Babcia had to walk to the hospital some 3ks when she thought she was ready to pop only to be turned back at the door by the nurses who told her the labour wouldn’t kick in for some hours yet. Bent over she walked back home in the knee deep snow, only to return some hours later trudging through the cold and the wet. Stanislaw died of heart failure some years later leaving my grandma a widow at the age of thirty-three and three kids behind. She worked two shifts in a jam factory to support her children, where she had a harrowing accident. Her legs were burnt when jars of hot fruit syrup exploded leaving her shins and veins scarred for life, causing her walking difficulties right into her old age. She never had the courage to re-marry. She thought it would not be right for the kids. Later as an old woman she told me that it was one of the biggest mistakes she ever made.

Her second biggest regret was living with her youngest daughter and her son-in-law, whom she hated. Babcia helped raise my two cousins and then sold off her apartment so that my aunt and uncle could buy a big house on the outskirts of town. In this three storey house my Babcia got a room and a bathroom on the second floor. When she turned completely gray she had a lot of trouble reaching her bedroom via the steep stairs because of her bad legs. So she would spend her entire days sitting in the kitchen looking out the window, hoping a visitor would pop in for a cup of tea. She never did learn how to read or write but she could draw quite nicely and cook tops Ukrainian dishes.

She died on my thirtieth birthday. She was not a happy person, smiled rarely and was in a lot of physical pain (her veins in her legs would often spontaneously burst leaving a bloody mess on the floor). She never saw the seaside or the mountains. She was resolved with knowing she had not made the best choices in life. She had awesome curly hair and a face that appeared to be completely free of wrinkles. I will remember her sitting on that kitchen stool, all courage zapped out of her body, waiting patiently to die.


Courage and Heroism – by Karen

17 Nov

When I think about courage, my first thought is of women in horrifying situations, like wartime in poverty-stricken countries, or even a lot of the maids I meet all the time in Singapore. Many of them have left their children, commonly at about age two, the age of my youngest and Beth’s son Leo, to work for their kids’ entire childhood in another country, visiting home once every two years, or sometimes choosing not to. In that time they’ll often be looked down upon, sometimes work seven days per week for years in a row, and sometimes be abused (in Singapore, working for years without a day off is not officially considered abuse). Two doors up from me lives a maid who is not allowed to speak to anyone outside the household*. A recipe for resilient mental health this is not. But these women believe this is truly the recipe for a better life for their children, and it’s a choice they bravely make.

I’m also moved by stories of people who aren’t forced to be courageous but do so from a position of comfort and power. I recently heard an anecdote about black singer Josephine Baker, who was refused service at a club in 1950s Manhattan.

Grace Kelly, who was dining at the club, rushed over to Baker (whom she had never met), took her by the arm, and stormed out with her entire party, vowing to never return (and she never did). The two women became close friends after that night.

As I mentioned, I’m in Australia this week so I’ve been able to meet up with Beth and have a real world conversation with her, which was a treat. We discovered that we were both heavily exposed to fairy tale morality as children, and I told her about my resultant mental tic growing up, whereby I would analyse how every literary character’s predicament could have been avoided by better moral choices. I was taught Sunday school by elderly women from two generations before my parents’, and read musty books of 18th century gentlemanly moral anguish in my many, many empty hours. Perhaps as a result of this, I have a strong latent desire to be a hero, fighting injustice on behalf of the powerless. I’ve indulged in many fantasies of overcoming my inhibitions and indignantly fighting back, like Grace Kelly does in the story above. Sadly, most of my heroism has taken place only in my mind.

This week I did have a chance to play the hero for a few minutes at least. We were driving along and I noticed the oncoming car’s driver was peering at something on the pavement, but intending to drive on by. Realising what the something was, I told Richard to pull over right away. On the footpath an old lady was lying on her side, with her shopping next to her. It is ridiculous how ambiguous this situation can seem (perhaps she’s just having a nap!) and if it weren’t for my hero impulse I might have driven by too. But indeed she had fallen down and we were able to help her back to her home for a happy ending.

Her neighbour (also a helpful type who came over to see what had happened when we got her home) commended us on being good Samaritans and suggested we “buy a lottery ticket”. I thought this was a fairly odd thing to suggest and she seemed slightly embarrassed after saying it, but I realised that we have no real social form or ritual in our society for responding to altruistic acts. She felt like something should be suggested to commemorate the occasion and that is what she came up with.

I am very amused and a little embarrassed to recall the simplistic morality I embraced so earnestly as a child. On the other hand, I still sincerely hope that I will have more opportunities to be heroic in small or large ways in my life. I am extremely grateful that I haven’t needed to show the kind of courage born of desperation I described above. If any readers from the far flung corners of the world would like to help with my completely non-courageous efforts to help some courageous people, please chip in.  And if your own courageous efforts are dedicated elsewhere right now, please share your  stories of heroic acts large or small below!

*My German next-door neighbour is a minor hero in this tale, smuggling top-up cards across the fence so that the maid is able to call her family.

Courage – by Tabitha

16 Nov

For this blog post I was going to write a list of things I’m afraid of. When I got started, I realised that while there are lots of things I don’t like (such as flying), or am nervous of (such as horses’ enormous teeth-filled mouths), or would prefer to avoid (such as death), I have enough courage to confront all these things. There’s only one thing that I’m really, truly, afraid of, and it’s spiders.

Just thinking about spiders right now, I am involuntarily shuddering. When I see a spider – or at least a big one – I usually don’t see very much of it at all, as I evacuate the area as fast as my road-runner legs can carry me. My heart-rate goes crazy and my intestines clench. I once let out an uncontrollable blood-curdling scream, the likes of which I never even knew I had in me. It’s absolutely ridiculous. When I think that this is how some people must feel when they’re forced to do public speaking, all those years of school and uni presentations seem like particularly cruel torture.

Once I was in the front seat of a taxi going over the Harbour Bridge when an enormous huntsman ran across the windscreen. My first reaction was to reach for the door and throw myself onto the road in a blind panic, but as soon as I did so, the taxi driver grabbed the UBD and squashed the spider with a thwack, and it fell dead onto the dashboard. I then said “Oh! You didn’t have to kill it!”

The taxi driver gave me exactly the kind of look I deserved.

Courage by Beth

14 Nov

Courage (also bravery, boldness, fearlessness, mettle, fortitude, or intrepidity) is the ability to confront fear, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation.

Ah, mettle. Fortitude. There are some words you don’t hear often enough. Mettle sounds so hardcore. Resilience is hot right now though. Bit of a buzz word.

I wouldn’t describe myself as a particularly courageous person, but I’m working on building up my resilience. Resilience and courage beget one another in a nifty positive feedback loop. Just gotta get on the right track.

I had a totally life-changing thing happen to me a couple of years ago – life didn’t go as I had hoped. And that, coupled with several other factors, led me to spiral into anxiety and the darkest bout of depression I hope I ever experience. It was deeply humbling.

Doing something about that episode in my life… reaching out for help; admitting that I wasn’t perfect; climbing back up that spiral Tabs was talking about a few weeks back, felt like the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But it was also the most rewarding. There’s not a day that goes by now where I don’t feel gratitude for my recovery and all the things I learned along the way.