Picketing for a Better Future

Tracey Barnett ©January 2011
Burmese refugees living on garbage dump

What if you had all the impossible assembled together – time, money, purpose, freedom from your mountain of daily responsibilities – to do whatever you wanted?

No restrictions. What would you choose to do?

I don’t remember anyone ever telling me I had to stop asking that question after age 22 – but slowly, quietly, it becomes the domain of the generation behind you. It gets shoved between the lost recycle bin and the car’s WOF certificate that one day inexplicably had the words Bhutan, Laos and Burma doodled down the side of the receipt like an accusation.

I didn’t exactly want to run away from home. Anal, grown-up types like me make lists and open tiny, wistful bank accounts six years before spontaneously combusting into what I called my three-month “Grand Cleave” from life as I knew it.

Travel has always been my drug of renewal. It just gets a hell of a lot harder to feed your addiction when the heavy machinery of daily drudge deafens the urge for another fix.

But this time, I had made it real, in quiet slow motion. The pennies finally turned into a small mound. The bloke was already secretly celebrating temporary desertion.

The kids were sold into the white slave trade. Most importantly, I had already asked the Big Question. You know, the one that secretly scares the poop out of 95 per cent of us: “What if?”

Somehow those answers grew into plane tickets and a plan when I still wasn’t taking them seriously. Until one day I found myself spending an entire afternoon taking pictures of graffiti in East Berlin that said things like, “Picketing for a better future”.

One day I found myself sleeping in a small hut in a Burmese refugee camp like 65,000 others. Under a faulty fluorescent light that my host William couldn’t afford the 150 baht [about $6 dollars] to fix, I listened to a transistor radio announce that “The Lady”, Aung San Suu Kyi, was free. William and his piecemeal family of nine orphans and young relatives, simply shrugged, resigned after almost two generations enduring one of the world’s most brutal military junta’s and said: “She can’t do it alone.”

One day I went to visit a school beside a rubbish dump. About 20 families physically live on the garbage pile to get first pickings from the trucks. They choose not to go to refugee camps because it means they may never be able to come out again. This poverty is their semblance of freedom.

An Australian missionary teacher there wrote to me recently before going home for the holidays. Describing the continued post-election violence by her school near the Burmese border, she said, “Over 500 refugees now in my village … the [Government] have sent in their “crack” unit in retribution … whole villages completely burnt out, crops destroyed, etc. – same old thing. A child shot in the back last Friday, his mother mourning here. Another woman has lost her husband first and then her father in just 2 weeks. She has 4 children under 4 including 12-month old twins. Amazing sadness on our doorstep and like you, I will leave with my privileged passport to a place that has no understanding.”

A friend wrote, “You’re in a different world. I think of you and what you’re doing and wonder how it’s changing you.”

I wrote back what I felt. It wasn’t changing me. I didn’t know how to say the truth. I had forgotten what rich means – choice.

I had forgotten that I had to leave my life to see it again. I had forgotten that all of us will choose what we will do this year, whether we want to admit it or not. I had forgotten to respect the huge responsibility of having choices.

I don’t understand why we equate settling down with sedating our personal dreams. Or that being grown up means putting the greatest things you can possibly imagine third or fourth. But I need to believe in the sanctity of a two-word graffiti poem I once saw sprawled across a brick wall in Chicago years ago. It read simply, “Dream/Fast”.

We forget. We forget that the richest question you owe yourself this New Year is, “What if?”

I wish you and yours the richest of answers for 2011


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