STORM LILIES

A patchwork of stories about the 2017 Lismore flood

The greeting

When we break into the house, a red plastic dog bowl floats down the hallway as if to greet me smoothly with a tragicomic one-liner. But you can’t be too humourless when the river comes into your house.

A corner of our old cathode ray TV rises from the brown water like an iceberg of obsolescence. It has come up so much higher than they said it would.

Homebrew Carrots

When we weave through the canopies in the boat, I can see the trees moving with creatures. Mostly rats, but if you look closely, you see strange insects you’ve never seen before. One had a lurid orange and green exoskeleton, like a Jim Henson creation.  What underground den did it secretly luxuriate in when it wasn’t flushed out from home?

We speed up again and the tinnie’s wake makes a flotilla of plastic home brew drums bob violently.

You know what they say about carrots in vomit? How they are ubiquitous, but you swear you never ate carrots before you spewed? Well, when a flood purges all the contents from underneath Lismore’s Queenslander-style homes, it is the home brew barrels that become the carrots. You swear you’ve never seen them before, but remarkably, now they’re bobbing up everywhere. The only thing you can see.

Growth chart

Other families chart their members’ growth with little lines of permanent marker measured on walls and door trims. I like to read between their Sharpie lines, imagining the tension when rival siblings reached height parity; noting the date when emo teens hit their post-pubescent plateau.

In this house, I’m outnumbered by two tween daughters. I play the straight character in their liminal pantomime – drowned out by the scorn-fried commentary of YouTube sensations, fights over icy-pole flavours, and laughter from obtuse in-jokes.

As renters, we aren’t allowed a growth chart so unapologetically inked. But our walls now tell the story of the 2017 Lismore floods.

When the kids come back from their Dad’s place after the water has receded, I show them how far it cam up with the mud-lines and the warping on the walls.

They hold me tight and tell me they don’t need all their toys anymore anyway. My, how we’ve grown.

Ferocious smile

The street where I live, with its high-set workers cottages, is lawless and loose. More so in the 12 years since they built the levee to protect the CBD.

In safeguarding the businesses from moderate flooding, council literally cemented class lines along the river. Because of the levee, North Lismore cops more floods so the money side of the river less.

But when Cyclone Debbie hit, and the levee wall overtopped at 4am on March 31, the class divide went under. For a few days, we were part of the same flock – baptised by the same filthy water, united by the same loss.

Since the levee, you can’t get a development application for new dwellings in Lismore anymore. So, when a house becomes derelict and is removed, it becomes vacant — a place to keep goats, donkeys,  and market gardens. The vacant lots are like missing teeth. The more houses that get knocked down, the more ferocious our smile.

 Storm Lilies

The train no longer runs to Lismore, but bus tickets are still sold from the grand old station, now home to many of the city’s homeless.

As soon as the floodwater recedes, and the roads are cleared, the station becomes HQ for a pop-up community recovery effort. It is run with the precision of a military base, except with dance therapy classes and free massages. They call themselves The Helping Hands.

This deft mobilisation of community is a legacy of the Bentley Blockade, which took place 20 kilometres west of Lismore’s ghost station. With pristine farmland and aquifers under threat from invasive coal seam gas mining, over 2000 ordinary locals – led by Knitting Nannas and Bundjalung elders – gathered at dawn to hold off the drill rig. On the morning that 800 police officers were expected to descend to break up the blockade, the government, fearing a bloodbath, announced they would suspend the miner’s gas drilling licence.

The toxic operation left town with its share prices in freefall, but the community’s soft infrastructure – the email databases, the leadership skills, the chutzpah and heart – remain.

The community’s flood recovery effort burst forth like the storm lilies you get around here. When the flood hit, the grassroots operation erupted, blossoming spontaneously as if by magic. But really, it was always there, just waiting for another storm.

For most of the rough sleepers who call the train platform home, the recovery village which took over their camp was a bit of a novelty. Except for the odd social worker visit, they mostly get left alone.

One guy stood out. A Veteran with a scarecrow body. Diagnosed with PTSD, some of the other platform residents found him hard work. Nonetheless, he was the station’s unofficial caretaker.

During the recovery operation, he slept on the railway bench as usual, but with four homemade butter chicken dinners stacked up beneath him and a job to look forward to. Each morning he would line up at the Helping Hands volunteer’s desk to be assigned his next mission, where they dispensed gumboots rather than guns.

Cornflakes

In the days after the flood, keeping up with the Joneses was a contest of who had the biggest pile of crap outside. The streets resembled a zombie apocalypse garage sale from hell. Mattresses, cane furniture, toys and lawnmowers were piled on verges for council collection.

One of the homes had a particularly small pile of crap out the front.

Inside, lived a brother and sister. They had recently moved to Lismore. They had fled their family home in Casino and its alcohol-fuelled violence, with virtually no possessions. He had a severe intellectual disability — couldn’t pour his own cornflakes – so when she finally left, she took her brother with her.

When recovery volunteers knocked on their door they found the siblings in an empty house covered in flood mud. They had nothing. And nowhere to go.

The Helping Hands army called Code Red and within three days their house was clean and fully furnished.

You’d see the two of them down at the Recovery Centre, drinking the finest free espresso, laden with donated packages filled with Italian biscuits and hand sanitiser. From there the State Recovery Centre took over their case. It was staffed with ladies called Shirley and Beverley, members of the Red Cross.

One of the Shirleys helped him get on the NDIS. His sister, no longer needing to be a fulltime carer, enrolled at TAFE. If it wasn’t for Cyclone Debbie, she might still be sitting in an empty house pouring her brother cornflakes.

Wildskin: A hero’s journey back to her body

Wildskin performer Bianca Mackail. Photo by Darcy Grant Photography

In the opening scene of NORPA’s homegrown production, Wildskin, a phalanx of five women struggle to keep their existential rage to the confines of their yoga mats.

Protagonist Eva tries to keep her awareness on her breath, but her mindful-downward-dog eventually succumbs to her inner-panting-bitch. She is savaged by her four alter-ego co-stars and lies contorted in rigor mortis. The next scene, Eva is reborn with wild conviction — propelled onto a hero’s journey. She leaves her boyfriend and hitchhikes deep into Ivan Milat country, discovering herself along the way.

Her revolution started in her body.

Eva’s struggle to step off of her metaphorical yoga mat uncannily echoed my own internal fight.

I’d recently returned from a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat, and while the experience felt life-changing and liberating – a journey every bit as awakening as Eva’s – instinctively I felt stillness and equanimity was only part of my hero’s journey. I needed to rewild, and I wasn’t alone.

Before the show I checked in with a good friend, still smarting from a recent breakup.

“I’ve never wanted to hit the ‘fuck-this-shit’ button so hard,” she revealed.

I nodded with profound empathy and suggested embodiment practices which may better help channel this energy.

Pole dancing? Roller derby? Bikram Yoga? Ecosexual clowning? Soulistic Transformational Breathwork? Kung Fu? Chakradance?

She swiped left to all my suggestions faster than we did our potential Tinder matches, generated by searching men aged 30 to 55 in a 50km radius of Lismore.

The Northern Rivers may be the home of NORPA, top-notch physical theatre, macadamia nuts, and esoteric ovarian massage cults, but it also produces a disproportionate number of underemployed, overthinking single mothers like us, whose arrangements with lovers are as tenuous and disempowering as our rental agreements. If we were in any position to simply take off like Eva in Wildskin, believe me, we would. Instead, we gather together in solidarity, drink too much, cry a lot, and express the desire to repeatedly hit our fuck-this-shit-buttons like exhausted kids playing Hungry Hippos.

Friendships like these are essential to healing, but I also know there is another way — because I have felt it in my body.

The older I get, the more heartbreaks I’ve healed from, the more violence I’ve survived, and the more mean coal-hugging prime ministers I’ve lived under, the more I believe in the power of my own body to overcome. It’s taken me until 40, but I now fully trust in my body’s intelligence to connect me to the wholeness of the present. I know that disconnection with the present is the primary source of stress not just in my personal life, but for the systems of the planet of which I am part.

Eva didn’t decide to ditch the comfort of her relationship because her mind told her it was the best thing for her. It was a decision wholly informed by the present, by receiving the intelligence of her gut-brain. Basically, she followed her instinct.

Wildskin is a story that could only have been told by women’s bodies. While there was plenty of witty dialogue, it was performances from five of Australia’s best female physical performers, dancers, and acrobats, that propelled the bush-thriller journey.

In the week before the Wildskin premiere, I had been inhaling the work of visionary writer, Phillip Shepherd, author of  ‘Radical Wholeness’ and ‘New Self, New World’.

I would normally shirk away from the spiritual instruction of a baby boomer man wearing polar fleece, let alone one who told me how to think with my perineum, but Shepherd’s thesis is profound. Shepherd believes our current state of head-consciousness falsely teaches us to see the body as something we possess. We try to take care of it but never really learn how to inhabit it. He is quoted often by playwright and activist Eve Ensler, founder of V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women and girls.

Like Shepherd, Ensler asserts that the revolution that will bring us out of humanity’s dark night begins in our bodies. Through our bodies, we can surrender to the present, connect to our wounded planet, and rise up against the violence that desecrates all that is sacred.

The threat of male violence is felt throughout Wildskin, which borrows from the bush-horror conventions of films like Wolf Creek and Killing Ground.  Thankfully, the captivating tension conveyed by the performers’ bodies cut through the laughs and gave respectful gravity to the issue of male violence.

I am no trained dancer. I dropped out of jazz ballet class after two years — quitting in shame because my precocious pubes had sprouted outside the high-cut leotard I was made to wear during my performance of Cindi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’.

Still, my amateurish dancing has been a source of connection and healing throughout my life.

Most notably, two years ago, when I was forced to wrestle with my own wild inner-bitch. I was at a frightening impasse in my life — teetering towards a long-overdue breakdown, except that collapsing wasn’t an option. I had two dependants and no safety net. My job had become impossibly stressful and compromising but there were no other jobs in town. I had quite literally run out of moves.

I remember my seven-year-old daughter’s little hand wrapping around mine at the Lismore Shopping Square carpark, instinctively pulling me to the direction of the car because she knew her mum no longer had the capacity to remember where she parked. According to my counselor, after years of living in chronic stress, I was losing the ability to encode memory. My brain had started eating itself.

So, I did the next best thing to taking a long nap. I enrolled in a blindfolded Hawaiian shamanic trance dance class run by The Blisstitute of Living Aloha in the hope of  finding my next move.

At the beginning of my second class, my shaman-trained teacher dedicated the two-hour dance to the Hawaiian concept of ‘Na’au’, which translates to ‘your gut knowing centre’.

I  secured my blindfold, suspended my disbelief, and asked for guidance from my ancestors and from the earth, and began to dance.

About an hour in, I entered what I suppose was a state of flow. I was taken over by something bigger than me — dancing with solid, bent legs and making angles with my body that were sharp and sure, and easy. If I was to take off my blindfold, perhaps it would look a bit like a haka, danced with the regal ferocity of Beyonce during her Lemonade album.

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It was some kind of war dance for which this suburban white girl had no muscle memory. This dance forged new neural pathways which allowed me for the first time to feel joyous rage.

This dance did not employ the coquettish shimmying of a Britney Spears’ backup dancer. And it certainly didn’t require the pelvic thrusts of a pubescent girl dying inside onstage to Cindi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have fun.

This was the dance of a woman who had run out of moves.

Part of me died on the dance floor that evening. I cried for two days before handing in my resignation. This war dance made it possible for me to charge joyously headlong into financial doom, discard my career-ego, and go into battle with Centrelink.

The subsequent year was really tough, but following my ‘Na’au’ turned out to be the best decision of my life.

This mystical embodied experience made me reflect on my own views of indigenous dance. I never fully understood ceremonial dance as a superior form of storytelling. I never really understood how the dancers were in a state of simultaneous giving and receiving from a greater power. That it had taken me reading the work of a white man wearing polar fleece to finally put this into words just reveals my own racism.

In the final scene of Wildskin, Eva shoots down four figures representing her old-selves that were no longer serving her. She needed to do this in order to fully embody a more authentic self.

Eva decides not to return to her boyfriend. There is no great homecoming. Frodo does not return to The Shire having cast the ring into the fiery depths of Mordor.  Harry Potter does not return to Privet Drive with a feeling of belonging.

In this hero’s journey, Eva’s homecoming is a return to her body.

I believe that a revolution is coming, and it will come from the fully-embodied woman who has run out of moves.

It will be easy to recognise her. She’ll be the one surrounded by bros telling her that what she does is insubstantial, weak, dangerous, too-sexy, stupid. Or their favourite, crazy.