Subject: Courier Mail: Setting the world on fire

Setting the world on fire

By Kathleen Noonan

April 28, 2007 12:00am

Article from: Courier Mail

THIS is a story about comfort zones and invisibility. About square pegs and round holes. About June Norman, who woke up one day and realised sometimes in life, instead of knocking the edges off yourself, whack a new drill bit in and carve out a hole that suits you. She's talking over a cup of coffee in Brisbane's creamy afternoon sunlight, a petite, tan, humble, vital woman, eyes as soft and clear as creekwater, fresh from heckling the Prime Minister John Howard during his Queensland visit. Clearly it agrees with her.

"I had to laugh. There were about 50 various protesters but just three of us on a corner with an anti-nuclear banner. Then 15 minutes before Howard arrives, the Tactical Response police officers arrive. There are six of them with guns and three of us with our little banner. So who's the threat?"

comfort zone: term used to denote a type of mental conditioning resulting in artificially created mental boundaries, within which an individual derives a sense of security

June Norman is not some radical, dreadlocked ratbag, although she has been arrested for her protesting.

She is a woman with five children and seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, from a conservative background who has simply decided to live a life less ordinary.

She splits her time between working in East Timor as a teacher and aid worker and in Australia as an activist.

She's a latecomer to the activism thing. Now 67, the breakdown of her marriage when she was nearly 50 left her devastated.

"I felt my life had ended. I was no longer someone's wife. My children had nearly all left home. I lost my meaning. My comfort zone had crumbled."

She felt invisible. And life closed around her like a fist. Then she went to lunch.

"A friend had invited me with another friend of hers. This woman was from the UK and could only spare a couple of weeks for her Australian visit because she had her own business back home and needed to be there." She was 84.

"I thought, well, I've got 30 years, almost another lifetime, so get going."

She started counselling work with troubled schoolchildren and become involved in activism. Slowly she has built a life based on her beliefs and passion for helping others.

She went to East Timor in 2002 as a self-funded volunteer to stay for six months. She taught English in a prison and then returned with PALMS Australia, a Catholic volunteer agency, to Balibo teaching large classes of students aged from 14 to 21. "The Timorese people are beautiful, happy people with such a sad violent background," Norman says. "They give me so much more than I give them."

Norman has managed to sidestep trouble overseas. Yet trouble found her at home.

In June 2005, she was one of 10 peace activists arrested during the Talisman Sabre Military Exercise at Shoalwater Bay in central Queensland. The Rockhampton Magistrate's Court heard that the group held a peaceful memorial service for those who had died in Iraq. The service was held inside the entrance to the training facility and prevented the exercise from proceeding. The group argued that the military exercise contravened Australian and international law.

Norman told the court that having enjoyed the privilege of growing up in a war-free Australia, she wanted that for her children, grandchildren and their children. The group was not convicted.

While her sons happily supported her activism, her daughters were less than impressed by her arrest.

"They weren't pleased," she says and then smiles.

There is a touch of imp about her. Looking at her small capable hands and petite build it is easy to see, Norman would be a deceptively useful ally at protests.

"Police have always treated me with respect," she says.

"Also ordinary middle-aged Australians look at protesters, see me and think: 'Hang on a minute, what's this respectable-looking woman about?' Then we get talking and I've made a connection so they might get an understanding what we're on about."

June Norman is not just all chanting, no action. She has sold her property in northern NSW and moved to Brisbane to make overseas travel and participation in protests easier.

She plans to divide her year between work in Timor and activism in Australia.

"I feel I really belong doing my work there," she says.

Belonging is something she has grappled with all her life.

"My mother died when I was a baby," she says.

"My three brothers went to an orphanage and my grandmother took me. My father married a 19-year-old woman, my brothers rejoined them and they went on to have another five children. My stepmother was an amazing woman who cared for that big family. She's still alive.

"But everyone thought it simply would be best if I stayed with grandmother. So I did and was well looked after. So when I was 19, I married and wanted so much to have a family of my own."

She threw herself into mothering and never worked outside the home until she was 40.

After the divorce, Norman bought a campervan to drive off into the sunset like so many of Australia's grey nomads.

"Then I thought, that's so meaningless for me. I can't sit on a beach and think, aren't I lucky to have this nice life?"'

She ditched the grey nomad idea but kept the campervan. She heads off next month to Alice Springs to join peaceful protests at the May 29 trial of four activists who broke into the US-Australia top-secret spy base at Pine Gap in central Australia.

The Pine Gap Four, Jim Dowling, Adele Goldie, Bryan Law and Donna Mulhearn, who are members of Christians Against All Terrorism, face charges under the Commonwealth Crimes Act and the Defence Act 1952 concerning entering a prohibited area and taking photos in December 2005.

Does she ever become disillusioned with the struggle?

"Well, there's so much to fight for in Australia these days ­ anti-war, anti-nuclear, for Aboriginal rights, against the Government's WorkChoices and climate change policies. We just keep going. You have to if you really believe in something. You must stand up for it," she says.

It does not require a majority to prevail, Samuel Adams once observed, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people's minds.

The June Normans of the world set brushfires in our minds. They make us question why women feel invisible at 50, why they disappear from television and other media, why they fall into cultural blind spots.

"That's one thing about working in East Timor," Norman says. "Older women are treated like wise elders, matriarchs, rather than being invisible, as in Australia."

The June Normans of the world make us think about how too many people are only willing to defend rights that are personally important to them. Freedom does not mean freedom just for the things I think I should be able to do. Freedom is for all of us. If people will not speak up for other people's rights, there will come a day when they will lose their own.

The June Normans of the world remind us that's it's never too late to lead another life, drill a new hole for yourself if you are sick of trying to fit into someone else's version of what your life should be.

It's never too late to live a life less ordinary, outside the comfort zone.

A peace convergence to protest against this year's Talisman Sabre war games at Shoalwater will be held from June 18-24. For more information go to: www.peaceconvergence.com


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