Words for the way we talk


January 28th, 1986 the Challenger Space Shuttle finally took off after many delays and concerns about safety. The mother and father of teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe were watching from the stands, news cameras trained on their upturned faces as the shuttle explodedScreen Shot 2015-04-29 at 10.44.49 am

Etched forever” is a meticulously pieced together account of the reactions of all those who prepared for the launch and then witnessed the explosion, from the NASA ground support to the families to the President to all the bystanders. So many stories woven together by a technical malfunction with its own story, that had been assembling itself over time while all the human stories came together. This is “For and Against Knowledge (for Christa McAuliffe)” by US poet Sharon Olds

If you don’t have to ask it,
Fine, but I have to ask it.
If I were her mother or husband, I would
Have to go through the center of it.
What happened to her? As long as it was she,
what did she see? Strapped in,
tilted back, so her back was toward
the planet she was leaving, feeling the Gs
press her with their enormous palm, did she
weep with excitement in the roar, and in
the the curve of her tear did she see for an instant
the first blush of fire?? If she were my daughter,
I’d want to know how she died–was she
torn apart, was she burned–the way
I wonder about the first seconds
of our girl’s life, when she was a cell
a cell had just entered, she hung in me
a ball of bright liquid, without nerves,
without eyes or memory, it was
she, I loved her. So I want to slow it
down, and take each millisecond
up, take her, at each point,
in my mind’s arms–the first brilliant
shock hit, as if God touched
her brain with a thumb and it went out, like a mercy killing,
and then, when it was not she,
the the fire came–the way we burned my father
when he had left himself. Then the massive bloom un-
buckled and jumped, she was vaporized back
down to the level of the cell. And the spirit–
I have never understood the spirit,
all I know is the shape it takes,
this wavering flame of flesh. Those
who know about the spirit may tell you
where she is, and why. What I want
to do is find each cell,
slip it out of the fishes’ mouths,
ash in the tree, soot in your eyes
where she enters our lives, I want to play it
backwards, burning jigsaw puzzle
of flesh suck in its million stars
to meet, in the sky, boiling metal
fly back
together, and cool.
Pull that rocket
back down
surely to earth, open the hatch
and draw them out like fresh puppies,
sort them out, family by family, go
away, disperse, do not meet here.


Michel de Certeau concludes his chapter on the paradox of dying and writing like this:

To write, then, is to be forced to march through enemy territory, in the very area where loss prevails, beyond the protected domain that had been delimited by the act of localising death elsewhere. It is to produce sentences with the lexicon of the mortal, in proximity to and even within the space of death. … In this respect, the writer is also a dying man who is trying to speak. But in the death that his footsteps inscribe on a black (and not blank) page, he knows and he can express the desire that expects from the other the marvellous and ephemeral excess of surviving through an attention that it alters.”



This is from a three minute excerpt of a slightly longer documentary made with Myuran Sukumaran in conversation with educator Ivar Schou, in 2014

You think about all these tangents that your life could have gone on. And you think how could I have got there, how could I have got this, if I had done this differently, you know everybody does this when they’re sitting in their room with nothing to do for five years, you know you do a lot of thinking. … I accept what I did was wrong and I know that I should be punished for it but I do think the death penalty is excessive and I should be given a chance. I have demonstrated that I can do good and be good. I think I could do a lot of good in the outside if I ever did go free. It’s not like I’m just going to just go back after all this and just sit.”


Every day this week fresh, wet artworks have been ferried from Nusakambangan in the hands of Myuran Sukumaran’s family, frienScreen Shot 2015-04-29 at 10.42.48 amds and lawyers.

Along with other prisoners on death row, he refused to sign the papers for his own execution. Instead, he painted this picture, inscribed “Satu hati satu rasa didalam cinta – (one heart, one feeling in love)”, and the other prisoners signed it, including Mary Jane Veloso, who wrote “keep smiling”.

When the family representatives brought to the island as part of official proceedings heard the volley of gunshots just after midnight, no one had told Mary Jane Veloso’s sisters that she had been removed from the list.

In the Phillipines, the woman who took her to Malaysia, and organised for her to be given a suitcase, has been found. Mary Jane Veloso is still living, and will be returned to her original prison.

There are still over 40 prisoners sentenced to death execution for drug-related offences in Indonesia, including Mary Jane Veloso.


The Roy Morgan company has surveyed Australians every year since 2008 to discover which professions are held in the highest and lowest regard for ethics and honesty. We like nurses and, oddly, pharmacists. We really don’t like people who sell us things. (University lecturers come in around the middle, with lawyers.)

We hold journalists and television reporters low in our esteem; in 2014 they were ranked 18th out of 30, a consistent downward slide.

Australian journalists who worked this long, painful shift in Indonesia, living alongside the families of the prisoners in Cilacap’s hotel, deserve better. Their words have often been all we’ve had to follow, and their exhaustion and trauma must be extraordinary.

And now, where do educators go with this? What do we do with what we learned about ourselves, our world, its rapidly changing media infrastructures and networks, and the thoughts of others around us? If our attention were to be truly altered, as de Certeau puts it, by these deaths and all the words and paintings that this burning puzzle flung out—what would we see, what should we do?

6 thoughts on “Words for the way we talk

  1. The “Bali Nine” story barely made it into our consciousness in the US – perhaps because we’re so used to killing, it seems sadly routine, and more likely because there are no Americans in the group so it just doesn’t make the news here. But oh my God, that first poem is amazing, unforgettable.


  2. Kate,

    Your tweets alone have brought this story to my attention. I researched it and thought about it quite a bit because of you. Today I scrolled by so many comments about the horror of the Bali Nine and that of Baltimore, Maryland burning. I tweeted mindless things. I wrote my To-Do list. I tried to research. I read a book. I prepared for presentations I am going to do this week. Mundane tasks really.

    While I was on a run, I saw a goose with four goslings, so I stopped to check them out. The babies were gorgeous! All fluff and light. I was about to snap a photo when suddenly from behind me another goose started to charge at me–these were Canadian geese–huge in weight and half my height. The mother hissed and so I started to run away a lot faster than my normal pace. I felt like I intruded on a scene that wasn’t for me. Wasn’t for me to look at. I felt really bad for interrupting to their lives. This got me thinking about topics I can’t really comprehend and that I try to avoid like a coward–like what happened today–and all I know is I want the horror to end. Then there is writing from somebody like you that makes me pause. Makes me think. Makes me think about things I tried to avoid. How do I counteract my inner-coward? I tipped a waiter more than I should have. I gave a busker $5 when I really should have given him twenty-five cents. I smiled back when a strange man smiled at me. I held the door for an old woman and told her I liked her jewelry. I chatted with somebody on an airplane when I usually ignore people. I said I was sorry for acting like a complete ass yesterday to somebody who loves me.

    All really small things that matter very little in the overall horror. But it’s all I’ve got. All I had today. I somehow felt the need to atone. Reflecting on the day I felt a bit silly for being so serious. Then I stumbled on this post. Now I don’t feel that way.

    I don’t always comment on your posts or tweets but I read every single one. You are one of my favorite writers. So here’s what I’ve been trying to get to–what I’ve been trying to say.

    In two days, I’m going to read a short speech for an eLearning award at a conference which will go to an educator who is doing amazing work for prisoners. When I first read his nomination, he was an instant winner for me due to his thoughtful workarounds against a prison system built to support recidivism. He’s making a difference in the lives of people by working around all of the restrictions of prison online education. For instance, he loads iPads with OER materials so that when there is a lockdown, the prisoners won’t get behind with their courses. They can continue reading off-line. He chooses information carefully because they do not have access to the Internet outside of the LMS. These small anecdotes in the nomination made me weepy– it’s so brilliant. So time-consuming. So thoughtful. So outside his job description. So beyond the everyday consideration of an OL educator. Uncompensated time that will make all the difference to those who want to learn. It’s one of the many ways OER has helped the truly disadvantaged in my corner of the world. It’s not a sexy OER anecdote–people do not like to hear tales about prisoners, the working poor, and those without support networks. When I do mention this demographic, I’m left to feel that these topics are not polite conversation. Not worthy data. Not acceptable to report up the chain of command. Too vulgar. For this reason, I had decided to edit out this iPad OER anecdote from the words of the nominators because I don’t want to get teary-eyed in front of people. I wrote a speech that I thought sounded polite. More acceptable. I also don’t want people to think I’m using this award as away to talk about my affinity for OER. I’m now rethinking this strategy and I’m thinking about how to blog about it. Again a small gesture, but it’s all I’ve got. I can also say I witnessed you gave the Bali Nine all you had with your kind gestures of thoughts, tweets, and posts. Thank you for this post, Kate.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for putting those stories side by side and linking them to words and writing. At times of grief, words are so difficult and so important. I hadn’t realised that the Challenger friends and families had gathered together in such numbers to witness what became a tragedy.
    And thanks for telling me in our conversation about the bureaucracy of execution that the families would witness by sound – then Mary Jane’s sisters experiencing grief only to discover that she was still alive. On holiday in Deia, Mallorca in March, we visited Robert Grave’s house, now a museum. There I found out that he was listed killed in action, only for his parents to discover months later that he was actually alive. This must have given him some hope when his son was listed missing in WW2 but sadly he was really dead.
    Here’s how Graves wrote of the death he feared but escaped http://www.bartleby.com/120/35.html

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thank you so much, Kate, for these words — and thanks also Alyson and Frances. I find them healing this morning. My heart is heavy and my thoughts are everywhere. I lived in Dunblane when the terrible school shooting happened there in 1996. My daughter, just 3, was with her childminder near the school that morning. When I heard of the shooting, life slowed down. There was only the slimmest chance that she could have been at the school, but What If? It was no more than 10 minutes before I could reach my friend by phone to learn that she was safe. But other parents got the worst news imaginable. I know that I carry that unnameable dread, and grief for all that was lost that morning, with me still. Sharon Olds’s poem is a touchstone.

    Through all you’ve shared, Kate, I’ve had a window into the lives of Andrew and Myuran and Mary Jane, and the others. My heart breaks for their families and friends, for all they have gone through and will go through. As it does for families in Baltimore, and Nepal. What to do? Then I read your post and your vital question, Kate, about this burning puzzle: “And now, where do educators go with this? What do we do with what we learned about ourselves, our world, its rapidly changing media infrastructures and networks, and the thoughts of others around us?”

    Alyson, I’m inspired by the story you shared and the decision you’ve made to share this in your speech this week. These are the acts that matter. Our connections matter also, so thank you all. I’m still working, walking, thinking, but will bring this together, and into my own actions and being — in no small way inspired by the dignity and compassion of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. Knowing you all, and knowing you are doing the same, is a source of great comfort and inspiration.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Australia needs to accept its part in the death of these men. The Bali9 never caught the countries interest as they were not pretty like Shapelle Corby. No one raised millions for them. We tipped of the Indonesians as to what they were doing. So we are responsible. Another reason for Australia to hand its head in shame. We have let down our own country men.


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