A Mighty Woman, The 11.15 Train to Flinders Street, and Thoughts on Forgiveness

Tony Birch reflects on how forgiveness can help us move forward to engagement - and taking responsibility - with issues as diverse as Indigenous rights and climate change. He draws on his memories of Dot Cannon, a friend whose funeral he recently attended, and the ideas of climate change activist George Marshall.

Image by David Jackmanson, Flickr (CC BY-SA)

Image by David Jackmanson, Flickr.

This morning I caught the train to Williamstown, a western bayside suburb of Melbourne. I was on my way to the funeral of Dot Cannon, an Aboriginal woman of great character. Dot was born in the state of Western Australia. As a so-called ‘mixed-blood’ child she, along with thousands of other Aboriginal children, virtually became the property of a racist state government. Children were taken from their families, sometimes separated for life, and were able to do little in their lives without the permission of the state. That Dot overcame the violence she was subject to is testament to the strength of her character.

We sometimes become stuck for ways to deal with problems that perplex us, or frighten us, or stand in the way of us ignorantly having a good time.

Hundreds of people attended Dot’s funeral, each of them touched by her generosity. Most of the people at the celebration of her life were non-Aboriginal, including her husband of fifty-five years, Pat Cannon. As a couple, Pat and Dot embraced each other’s culture; he, her Indigenous story, she, Pat’s Irish heritage, articulated through the great poets, such as Yeats and Heaney.

I left the funeral and caught the train back into the city, looking out the window and marvelling on what I consider to be Dot’s capacity for forgiveness. I would not be presumptuous enough to say that she forgave those who were directly responsible for the attempted destruction of her family. Perhaps she did? Only those closer to her than me would know this. But I would say, with confidence, that she must have forgiven White Australia for its ignorance and mistreatment of Aboriginal people. Dot was not ‘colourblind’, but she would never let colour, or race, or prejudice of any kind stand in the way of her helping others, of offering friendship, of being there just when we needed her to be. (As I discovered personally some years ago when I experienced a profound personal crisis).

Today, two people brought a thought together for me; the means by which we deal with one crisis in our lives can aid us in dealing with other issues of difficulty, seeming disconnected, but in fact, not.

When I got home I finished reading a new and important book on climate change, Don’t Even Think About It, by George Marshall. The book deals with the peculiarities contained in the relationship between climate change and our ability to think about it, both rationally and emotionally. I also watched a program (on YouTube) where Marshall spoke with an audience and expanded on the issues raised in the book (followed by a conversation with George Monbiot, the environmental writer and Guardian columnist). Marshall is an impressive speaker and writer. He is clear, direct and engaging. While the issue may be difficult to deal with for some, Marshall’s is a guiding voice. Toward the end of the conversation Marshall spoke about forgiveness. I’m not certain about this, but I think that Marshall believes that WE, having collectively damaged the planet, feel guilt over this and subsequently turn away from considering climate change emotionally. I think he is also suggesting that we perhaps should forgive ourselves, and through the experience of forgiveness, turn to engagement and take responsibility for our relationship with the Earth.

So, the connection between Dot Cannon and George Marshall? Within an issue of complexity something simple and instructive, I believe. We sometimes become stuck for ways to deal with problems that perplex us, or frighten us, or stand in the way of us ignorantly having a good time. Sometimes we stick our heads in the sand. At other times we look in the wrong places for a easy solution. Today, two people brought a thought together for me; the means by which we deal with one crisis in our lives can aid us in dealing with other issues of difficulty, seeming disconnected, but in fact, not.

It’s not surprising that Dot Cannon loved the land, both the red dirt of the desert and the rich loam of her suburban garden. She nurtured her garden and it reciprocated, in its colours, and shapes, and scents, and the birds that found her waiting for them. I had not seen Dot for some time before she died. But I know that if I were to ask her advice on how to think and speak and write about climate change, she’d tell me to get out there … do the best you can.

Portrait of Tony Birch

Tony Birch is the author of Ghost River, which won the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Indigenous Writing, and Blood, which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. He is also the author of Shadowboxing, and three short story collections – Father’s Day, The Promise and Common People.

Tony is a frequent contributor to ABC local and national radio, and a regular guest at writers’ festivals. He lives in Melbourne and is a Senior Research Fellow at Victoria University.