To meet the world on its own terms and respect the reality of another as an expression of that world as fundamental and inalienable as your own reality is an art immensely rewarding yet immensely difficult — especially in an era when we have ceased to meet one another as whole persons and instead, collide as fragments. Maria Popova, Brain Pickings
While I stand outside the iron-barred fence, my arms begin to tremble, then my legs, followed by discomfort in my stomach. I am about to give my first full length public talk.
Skip back thirty years… I’m up next, I have been preparing my five-minute discourse for two weeks. As each minute creeps by, my body trembles harder as I read over my script, waiting for the minister to call my name. “Anita.” My name is announced, and I signal my female partner, sitting on the far side of the church, to meet me on the podium. Women are not allowed to give sermons on their own, they can only talk from the stage if they convert their sermon into a two-way conversation with someone else. I’ve been giving these discourses since the age of ten. This is just a small part of my duty to receive the promise of eternal salvation.
I walk to the stage in my ankle length skirt, Bible in my hand and sit down, trying to look feminine. I have thoroughly learnt my spiel and only need to glance down to sight the odd bullet point on my palm cards. Despite my preparation, I shake, and talk too fast, but I do quite a good job convincing my partner why she should become a Christian and follow my faith. Weak applause follows and some feedback from the minister. “Great, but you spoke too fast,” as he writes his feedback on a slip of paper which will go into my church file. This is the exact feedback I have been receiving for the past ten years. Afterwards, another minister approaches me and says it was the best speech by a woman he had ever heard. The me of thirty years ago viewed that as a huge compliment. I’m chuffed, but ever so slightly unnerved that I did not feel entirely comfortable closely following the information that the church had told me to present. Unbeknown to me, this little niggling feeling of doubt, would grow, consume me, eat me from the inside out and destroy my body, my mind and almost take my life.
Now, thirty years later, I am here, standing alone outside a school gate, having an almighty panic attack, knowing I must enter those gates. How did I get here? What happened, that caused me to spend the last three years of my life researching something as innocuous and weird as plastic? Plastic! For goodness sake, who would have thought such a thing? No one told me to do this, no one knocked on my door and converted me, nor did anyone hand me a script to work from.
I have spent all week selecting photographs and sorting through my research from the previous years of environmental activism. Activism! Who the hell did that? Is that me? I still can’t believe this is me and this is happening. The juxtaposition of my years spent preaching about God and my current message about plastic pollution, challenges me to my very core. Add to this the disquiet my body feels about speaking for an hour to 150 teenage children. Is this who I am destined to be? Did I take the right turn? There is no large, well respected book from an almighty source, that confirmed this is the path to take. I can’t quite tell if I had a choice in this decision, or all the little decisions over the years, that led me here, to the school gate of Ryde Secondary College.
I shoot a short video to tell my page followers, “This is it,” and share the burden of how nervous I am, then turn my phone off. I compose myself and start to walk in, opening my left palm and gently brushing my fingers against the black bars as I enter through the large open gates. I pass children who look at me with the same apprehension I am feeling. I smile shyly and pretend I’m not nervous and enter the front office to introduce myself to the receptionist. She gives me a security tag and Paul, a very tall teacher, greets me with a handshake and big smile. I feel relieved to see tattoos on his arm, I was a little worried about my new tattoo and how the children would take it. Hey, I’m worried about how my parents will take it, and I’m in my forties!
Paul guides me through corridors, the basketball court, and playgrounds while briefing me with pride, on the layout and history of the school. I’m nervous to see so many teens in one place and worry I will embarrass myself if I have trouble with my PowerPoint presentation. I can’t afford a laptop, so I’ll be relying on the school’s equipment, which is unfamiliar to me. I hope to remember what I wanted to say, as I don’t want to read from notes, but an hour is a long time to recall what you planned to say. Thirty years ago, I found a five-minute script overwhelming! This time I want to tap into my passionate Italian storytelling ability and authenticity. I hope I can pull it off.
The first class is Year 8 (13-year-old children), plus a dozen Year 10 students, making a total of 45 children gazing up at me, with a little trepidation and curiosity. Some of them seem like they expect to be bored. I begin and the teacher, Paul, is supportive. I know Paul previously via the world of freediving, which is where I start my talk. It is World Water Day, that’s why I’m here, to talk about my love of the ocean and plastic pollution. I open with a question, “Who knows what freediving is?” After it is answered, I launch into a terrifying explanation of the dangers of freediving and warn them never to try it unless they are in a club and have proper training. I show them some very cool underwater photos I took plus a stomach churning photo of a massive wound to my head that happened during a freediving photo-shoot, I never anticipated that almost killing myself a few years back, would now be helpful as an illustration in avoiding excessive plastic.
Then I share more of my diving experiences—swimming with seals at Narooma, Manta rays in Bali, and Port Jackson sharks at Manly. Most of the children look quite engaged. Next is my favourite part, my trip to Tonga, where I swam with humpback whales. If I allow myself to slow down and fully immerse in this part of the story, tears will come, every time. I hope the children will let themselves go there with me, and most do. I love it when I see eyes widen and hear little gasps of disbelief. My PowerPoint photos help bring my experience to life for them. I explain how I was so moved by the incredible encounters I had in Tonga, that I returned to Australia, on fire with passion to give something back to the ocean and to my new friends, the whales.
I explain what a surprise it was, when my plastic journey started. I recount my research into recycling and then plastic pollution. I summarise my solo undercover mission to infiltrate a recycling plant and what I discovered there. I am pleased to make a topic, as seemingly boring as recycling, interesting and interactive. I take the children on my #PlasticFreeProduce campaign journey and shock them with images of excessive packaging, the very same images that recently shocked me. The hour is up, and I have filled it perfectly and not had to look at my notes once. The children applaud, it’s a good applause, I am most pleased and thank the children as they file out of the classroom. The next class scrambles in, quietly settles into their seats, and I begin again. Paul asks a question about glass versus plastic. I love this question and am happy to elaborate.
One boy has his hand permanently up, asking question after question. To my surprise, I find one child, in every class, exactly like this boy. As soon as I answer one question and resume my presentation, their hand shoots straights up again and they freeze there, in silent respect until I give them permission to ask their next question.
I love the topics of sociology and psychology and weave these into explaining the reasons why we love plastic so much, and why the shops love wrapping food in plastic. And then the consequences of our ‘plastic addiction,’ why it is not healthy for the planet, and ultimately, how we need to move away from a plastic obsessed lifestyle.
I explain my goal is to help them to ‘see’ plastic, for it to become visible to them. Once they are aware of it, then they can avoid it.
At the beginning of each class, I promise that one child who engages well, will win a prize, and three times out of four, it is a boy who has engaged the most. I hope the little gift will be a motivator and conversation starter for them, when they return home. The bells rings, the students stream out and as the new class of thirty enters, I hear Paul inform the next round of students, “This is Anita, listen carefully. We have something very special in store for you today. It’s going to be full-on and very interesting.”
Sixty eyes are soon looking at me, my passion and storytelling takes over while the shy me, sits cross legged in the corner, wondering how the hell I am doing it. In an hour, another thirty students will love whales and hate plastic. Another round of applause, another prize. Another thirty children fill out their worksheet and leave with a new passion for the ocean and the environment and a whole new perspective of plastic, a substance they touch hundreds of times every day, but may never have given any thought to. I realise when they try to discuss this back in their homes, they may butt up against some resistance from family members who are yet unaware. I secretly hope their future conversations don’t ignite an angry backlash, heaven knows, I have received a lot of hate for my anti-plastic message.
All the while, a thought on the edge of my consciousness, teases me… would any of their parents know me from my church-going days? I was high profile, the quintessential ‘Good Girl,’ the perfect representative of the church. I feel a little ill that those same people who viewed me with immense respect, would now see me as ‘the enemy’ because I no longer attend church and I have a tattoo. These thoughts always haunt the recesses of my mind, always trying to claw away at my attempts to find happiness and my true self.
One class left, and all goes smoothly except a little glitch with the PowerPoint. I momentarily refer to my notes while Paul resets the presentation. This time there is another teacher with some students visiting from a nearby school. I wonder how a new adult will feel about my talk. She looks engaged, though I wonder if I perceived, just a flash of disapproval in her expression, when I made a snide remark about my attempts to engage with politicians. Oops, I quickly realise that should have been adult talk only and make a note not to mention that in future school talks. Aside from that, she looks as engaged as the children.
In this class, I have four very attentive students. I am especially drawn to a few girls up the front who ask many questions and look open to learning. The sparkle in their eyes shows they are receptive to new information, they have ‘bendy minds’ is how someone recently described teens. The bell rings, the class is over. I know I spoke too fast, but no one chastises me or notes it in my file. Paul thanks me and the children applaud. It is a big applause, I never expected that, I almost cry.
The visiting teacher approaches me before she heads to the door, she smiles and asks if I would speak at her school too. Of course, I happily agree. When the class is empty, Paul asks if he can show my PowerPoint presentation to the Principal and explains that he’d like to book me to return and give my presentation to a larger audience.
I leave the school on a high, yet I have a strange feeling, that I am all alone, I have no boss to report back to and no charity that will thank me for my efforts. But I can’t collaborate, it doesn’t work for me. I spent my entire life confined in a box, taking orders from people telling me what to do. The thought of submitting myself to someone else’s authority, makes me break out in a cold sweat. But even though I am alone, I’m also not. There is an army of people, who have my back. I recall one of the questions the boy in the back row asked, it took me by surprise, I wasn’t ready. “Do you have anyone to help you?” I hesitated at first, a little caught up in the solitude, and fear. I see that first visit to the recycling plant, which catapulted me into this unplanned journey. I felt so very, very alone, on that little mission, the only person in the world who knew I was there, was my husband. I had no backup team should things go pear shaped. And all the trolling by hateful people and disrespect from others, who resented me when I started to gain a following. So many people assigning themselves with authority to ‘take me down a peg’. As I let the reactive negativity filter out of me, all the positive support I have received, bubbles to the surface and clears my mind. I hear my words move from staccato, to flowing. “Well, I have 5000 followers on Facebook and 3000 on Instagram,” to which some impressed ‘whoooos’ came from the children. “And they are immensely supportive. If I ever need anything, they are there for me. I can ask for any kind of help, like ‘Can anyone quickly proof read this letter I am about to deliver to a politician? Can anyone go over these images and let me know which you like the most? Can anyone edit my new video? Is anyone available to help me with some photos this week? Can someone help me with admin in my group?’ And as I said at the beginning, no one was talking about plastic packaging on food, when I started, and there are a lot of other people like me wanting to share this message but a little lost as to how to do it. Many people appreciate that I have raised my voice, most of whom I have never met, but they are an immense support to me. So yes, although I feel like a bit of a lone soldier, I indeed have support and help.”
I wonder if my ceaseless work, this constant frenzied activity, is a way to keep my mental demons at bay, avoiding that niggling guilt, that the new me must somehow, be bad, worthy of eternal destruction. I try to fill that feeling, with positive actions. Today’s presentation was book-ended by other full-on activities, to promote the anti-plastic message. Last night I met a campaign supporter for the first time, her name is Trish. She and her daughter helped film me taking my own containers to some shops. And Claire, has been helping me immensely with lots of behind the scenes work too. And I am about to meet Lisa, another page follower who is going to film me doing some #PlasticFreeProduce work at Parklea Markets. A market stall holder was a little perplexed in a recent conversation and asked me, “So what do you get out of it?” I answered without hesitation, “A healthy planet.” I was unaware that this little conversation with the stall holder, triggered one of the biggest changes within a business I have yet activated. And my spontaneous video was about to capture it all.
I approach the barred school gates and am so very, very happy. I have just engaged and educated the next generation of decision making adults and consumers. Hopefully they will share the knowledge when they return to their homes. I look at the bars, that’s how my mind used to be, locked, rigid, inflexible, keeping new thoughts out and old thoughts in. I did not have a bendy mind, it was as rigid as could be. I was taught it had to be, to protect myself, I had to close the world at large off. But now the gates to my mind are open, I allow new ideas and knowledge to enter and exit comfortably.
I turn on my phone and am overwhelmed with beautiful supportive messages from my page followers, who had seen my nervous post before I entered the school hours earlier. They lift me up, yet with all this positivity and activity, there’s still that niggling feeling, my past, taunting me about my present. The irony is not lost on me, I’m in a weird parallel universe, I have ended up replicating my old life. Dedicating hours a week to a cause I don’t get paid for. And in a way, I am again preaching, trying to convert someone. I feel uneasy about the similarities, but clarify to myself that the difference here, is that I have not been spoon-fed my beliefs by someone else, nor am I taking orders, allowing someone else to dictate my beliefs and micro-manage my life. I have gone out alone, oh so very alone, and researched and built my own personalised view of the world, a rough framework which I feel comfortable and confident within.
Although the guilt always lingers in the shadows, I’m happy and excited about what I am achieving, but ever so slightly unnerved about who I was and who I am and which version of me is correct, or valid. All my religious companions from the past now reject and label me with the harshest of terms, while those who are attracted to the new version of me, view me, in a similar way, to which my ex-church going comrades used to. I am seesawing, my psyche struggles, the war is always within, though the battle is quieter than it used to be. I poke around and try to find my sinfulness, the poisonous motives that I was taught I had, if I lost my faith. Doubt starts to emerge and prepares to slap on some cruel labels.
I am too scared to be strong, but too strong to be scared.
I send Lisa a message, confirming our meetup at the markets and check Instagram one more time. There’s a new comment below my post about this morning’s presentation and it fortifies me against the onslaught of self-doubt that’s crashing toward me.
This journey might not save my soul, but it might just heal it.
Interested in reading more about my journey? You can read the first chapter of Part One of my memoir for free, by clicking on my book on this page.