Dear little 15-year-old Michael,
I thought I’d reach across the years to you to offer a few gentle words of advice. My deep apologies that I’ve been so silent for all these years – I guess I got carried away with my own world of projects and explorations. It’s a really, really big world out here actually, filled with so many bells and whistles, but as each year goes by, I learn more that the phrase ‘small is beautiful’ is not just a way of approaching the outer world, but the inner one also.
Thinking back, I remember viscerally how hard it was for you, going to a high school where competition, humiliation, and violence were routine. You felt trapped in an oppressive, regimented world where you didn’t know your place or your own gifts, a place where computer games and fantasy books were the only safe cocoons. You looked forward to these simple pleasures after surviving another long, heavy day. Your dad seemed to care only for your grades, which you learnt to deliver on a gleaming silver platter, even though the rest of your world felt like a dark pit of unending misery.
I want to give you a sneak peek of how the journey unfolded for me (and you!)… there actually is hope yet! Even though I had no idea at all about where I was going at the time, when I look back I can see so clearly the stories that made that journey possible.
At 20, after a couple of years of diligent study of my Science/Engineering degrees at Melbourne University, I walked hesitantly into an Environment Collective meeting in the Student Union for the very first time. I immediately felt both intimidated, and irresistibly drawn to the passion of these fiery and dedicated young activists who all sat cross-legged in a discussion circle. The gap between them and myself seemed so large in that moment, but it gradually shrank as I joined with them to collectively organise events over the next weeks, months, and years. Tentative at first, my confidence steadily grew with every leaflet handed out, rally attended, meeting organised. My first involvement was the ‘save the food co-op campaign’, where I had to ‘lecture-bash’ – giving an announcement with the lecturer’s microphone before class – something which chilled me to the bone. But somehow my unwavering belief in the cause, and the occasional positive response (one architecture lecturer actually urged his students to support the co-op for the deliciousness of the eggplant calzones alone), allowed me to incrementally grow my confidence. Within a couple of years, I was; lead-organising ‘Reclaim the Streets’ party-protests (involving blocking Smith St to cars with outrageous community carnivals), sitting in front of bulldozers at forest blockages, unexpectedly dodging riot police tear gas and plastic bullets in the streets of locked downtown Quebec City amidst anti-globalisation protests, and helping to pull down the razor-wire fences that imprisoned desperate refugees in the middle of the desert at Woomera detention centre. My grades started sinking as my life started rising – somehow I had found purpose, identity and a community – all those precious things which I know how much you crave so deeply.
I finished at this university at 24 with the most generalist, abstract, and least vocational degrees – Arts/Science – with arcane majors in Physics and Social Theory. I ended up dropping Engineering for Arts along the way, gravely disappointing my Asian father. I was without any graduate job or internship lined up, having blockaded on-campus careers fairs due to the environmental abuses of corporate exhibitors, I was at an impasse. A way forward came from my relationships – my older and more worldly girlfriend at the time was an experimental artist and longed to study at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), having been expelled from Melbourne University, which piqued my interest in art and creativity. It was altogether new – throughout my years of oppositional activism, the confrontations always had sat comfortably with me, and I had found myself steadily drifting towards more creative means of action. In parallel, I had been gradually exploring the world creatively through photography, which I had started at 16, as I found that I could actually find some beauty in that big, frightening world, safely from behind the lens. However, growing up in your family, your middle sister was the quintessential artist, and I was the science nerd – exactly what you are living right now, surviving your schoolyard nightmare by pouring everything into your grades and hiding out in the library where bullies dared not tread. Those family roles had seemed fixed for so long. But now, my unfolding journey had started to loosen things, and now a few precious conversations with my girlfriend and a supportive friend has cracked open my outdated self-perception, and I could finally see myself as creative! So I gathered together a hasty photography portfolio, applied with my girlfriend, and we both landed into the VCA, further disappointing my father with the only course possibly worse than a humanities degree – Fine Art.
The elation of this moment was short-lived as my girlfriend broke up with me before classes started which momentarily threatened to shatter my world as it transitioned. But I soon found stability, and then nourishment in the art school environment, it was a university after all. However, this time the classes were much smaller, and filled with passionate, dedicated and quite odd artists; musos practising for hours on end in their soundproof cells, tiny dancers in their 20s who resembled teenagers and seemingly existing on an air and gossip diet, the larger-than-life drama kings and queens who performatively smoked outside their auditorium, and the nerdish visual artists hunkered in their labyrinthine studios who lived and created other worlds in their canvases, photographs, and mind-boggling installations.
Naturally, I was one of the latter, though I quickly found that spending long hours studiously in my art studio was not enough to fill my cup as I had grown so much through the brief years of activism, and hungered to make an outer change. I soon discovered, to my delight, that there was a (tiny) Student Union in the school and while conversing with the fellow-art student Environment Officer there, I suddenly saw fertile ground to plant activist seeds within my new environment. Within the week I had persuaded her to let me join as a fellow Environment Officer (you were elected un-contested as art school seemingly contained none of the Young Liberals who had been the bane of my time at Melbourne University!). Finally, I had an office to organise out of and an actually legitimate reason to be there which grew my confidence working in environment, media, and general secretary roles, culminating in my third year as president. But I soon found the stress and infighting rattled me to the core, which seemed to confirm to me that my energy was better suited to the more nourishing avenues of collective art projects and community organising. Along the 4 years that I was at the VCA, I bounced between the student union and the art school, in the latter feeding my hungry mind during the art, philosophy and photography classes, and in the former finding a stable container where I could feed my restless heart and body with creative activism.
I explored whether festivals were the right vehicle for this balance by joining with a rag-tag bunch of art students to organise the Melbourne Environmental Arts Festival, persuading the Melbourne City Council to let us put up marquees filled with ecological art and performances in a huge open square in the middle of the CBD. We couldn’t afford security, so to protect the precious art, so we had a roster of students sleeping overnight in the tents. The students bantered with the curious late-night party-goers who’d peep in, and try to catch the scant attention of the overly-caffeinated early morning business people with their DIY interactive art installations as the sun came up. We did end up biting off more than we could chew by making the second year’s event a 10-day festival. When a key volunteer got stoned at the worst possible time and I had to pick up the pieces, I knew it was time to move my energies elsewhere.
While the ecological art was intellectually stimulating, I found its audience was somewhat limited to the usual few suspects, just as I had found oppositional activism years before. I started looking for avenues for my art photography to make more of a difference and found it unexpectedly through taking up an invitation of a few friends who were going to volunteer in a destitute boys’ home in Kolkata. I had never been to India, and although a bit apprehensive from the stories I’d heard, I arrived alone in Delhi at 3 am with a guidebook and a bag of donated film cameras. After somehow evading an elaborate multi-venue 8hr scam attempt that tried to get me renting a private driver and ‘special hotels’ all across India, I threw myself into solo travels across this wonderous country, as my dad had years before. I later met up with my friends at the Boys home and taught the boys photography. On my return I exhibited their photographs alongside mine in a grungy Brunswick community arts warehouse that I had discovered through my arty ex-girlfriend (who had now left art school), raising just enough money and support to co-found a small volunteer-run NGO, Friends of Kolkata, with my friends. The latter grew out of, and blossomed into a dedicated and caring community of co-organisers and friends, with fortnightly meetings held over shared pots of dahl at each other’s houses in Melbourne’s inner north.
I had just turned 28 when I finally graduated from the VCA, having successfully drawn out my delay of the ‘real world’ of jobs as long as humanly possible. My emergent strategy had been to be far too busy to let annoying, boring paid work get in the way of all those exciting creative projects. With a mix of luck and extreme thriftiness (which my dad approved of); cheap rent, being vegetarian, partying at houses rather than bars, and riding my dilapidated bike around Melbourne meant that Centrelink’s Youth Allowance had been mostly enough for me to get by. This was supplemented by sporadic casual jobs – ironing, tutoring, raffle ticket sorting and other such high-profile activities. Now I finally found myself wanting to get a ‘real job’ – which I secured unexpectedly quickly in an environmental non-profit. I was surprised and relieved that the diverse pile of skills and experience that I had somehow amassed doing all those unpaid community, activist, and art projects over the last 8 years was actually recognised out in the job world! My dad could finally breathe a sigh of relief.
I threw myself into community environmental project work first at Environment Victoria, nestled in the Green Building amidst a cluster of environmental organisations, then at Moreland Energy Foundation, where 1960s Italian dancing music would waft through regularly from the Brunswick Town Hall below. I then returned to international work at Concern Universal all the way over in sweltering Bangladesh and returned home to explore local government. I didn’t have the ideal background that they wanted at Maribyrnong Council, but I somehow landed the job based on my diverse hodgepodge of experience, as well as making them laugh in the interview. All but the Bangladesh role was part-time, which I vastly preferred as this give me time to do all the other projects that seemed to invariably crop up. During my time at Maribyrnong Council, I missed the intellectual stimulation from previous years, and so started a PhD in my spare time, which ended up being the only vehicle for squeezing in my key passions – the environment, photography, travel and youth engagement. Through returning to my academic path, I found that finally, my dad felt so proud of me, after all those years of disappointment. While he didn’t live to see me complete my degree, somehow knowing that my scholarly footsteps were a path that he would have taken in another life, if he had the opportunity, was of deep comfort amidst my grief. I know that he is with me as walk the unknown path ahead.
So now, after these steady passing of the years, YOU are actually ME! Ah, so many words. Let them soak in, then forget them, and just follow your heart. Most of all, remember to keep moving and dancing along the way, as your journey towards life is an evolution to live out your passions fully from your heart and body, not just from that heavy serious head of yours!
All of these learnings I only found out the hard way, in hindsight after my many failures. But although these felt like failures at the time, I found that, given sufficient time, all can be recognised to be gifts along the way. Remember that I’m still very much learning these lessons as well. In fact, I’m writing these words to both you and me right now. The journey of life is a wonderous, meandering spiral that keeps moving forward, yet winding itself around and around, and your own learning and growth will keep faithful to this dance of circling and expansion. I can hear your dad chuckling quietly to himself as he reflects on my meandering path, and know that he loves you deeply through all of it, even if he might not express it at the time. I hope you find that these words somehow resonate with you, heard from across all these years and that our paths will cross somewhere, some time out there in this vast, surprising and beautiful world.
Big(ger) 42-year-old Michael
Illustrated by Kimberly Hoffman @kimhoffy