Know thy Friend: Anne-Maree Johnston

Anne-Maree Johnston, New South Wales Regional Meeting

Six years ago Elaine Polglase of Wahroonga Meeting gave me a small booklet “Yarns and Threads- a gathering of stories of a lifetime. “

Her way of writing struck a chord with me, not a historical rendition of her life but rather snippets and vignettes, fragments of times and experiences that were meaningful to her.

What follows are some of those moments in my life: 

I grew up in a farming community inland from Byron Bay surrounded by relatives. Family was, and still is, very important; second cousins, third cousins, anyone remotely connected to us was embraced into the fold. Scottish, Irish, German and Scandinavian genes were all pooled together but the prime influence was Celtic. Entertainment consisted of dances and musical evenings in the local School of Arts and the beauty of Scottish and Irish folk songs resonate with me still. I hear this music, the cells in my body vibrate, and I am home.

While we were mainly of Anglo-European ancestry, there was also a large Sikh community in the area. One of those was Ram Singh, an elderly man dressed in traditional clothes and a turban.  We were told as children he was the King of the Indians and was to be treated with the utmost respect. He sometimes hitched a ride into town and was the only hitchhiker my family and relations ever picked up. We regularly attended the local Methodist church and one eventful Sunday a visiting lay preacher asked us to pray for these doomed, wayward local Indian souls. I was very indignant and perplexed. “But what of Ram Singh? Heaven’s doors would definitely be open to him”. My parents agreed. On that day I felt the idea of that of God in everyone was firmly planted within me.

Mine was a “free range” childhood; hours were spent in the bush and roaming the countryside.  My father divided the garden into small plots and every year I grew pansies in my little patch alongside the garage.  He had a natural affinity for gardening “look at these flowers and they will tell you what they need” he advised. Sadly my garden is still rather shambolic, and I often remain deaf to the entreaties of my plants.

It was a safe environment for a child. The community cared and supported each other, loved music, encouraged a love of nature and underpinning all was a deep Christian faith that nurtured and sustained us in times of joy and of trouble. 

The war in Vietnam raged when I was 19 and a chance encounter with a stranger at a party planted another seed which started to flourish. I was intrigued to hear him talk of the injustices of this war. He quietly explained his point of view and I went home feeling something inside me had shifted. I often think back to this night when discussing politics. How, rather than haranguing and arguing, gentle listening and respectfully teasing out of issues can be a much more effective way of changing hearts and minds.

The following year I was studying teaching in Armidale and attended the Methodist (now Uniting) Church.  Described by a politician as a “hot bed of radicalism”, it was here that I began supporting the anti-war movement. 

Having completed my studies and teaching in Sydney a small newspaper advertisement caught my eye, an invitation to the Quaker Meeting House, Devonshire Street, Surry Hills to hear a speaker named Donald Groom. The year was 1970 and Donald had been appointed as the first full time Secretary of the Society of Friends.  He had journeyed with Gandhi in the struggle for Indian independence and worked with Vinoba Bhave.  Bhave conducted the Land Gift Movement and persuaded Indian landowners to hand over five million acres of land to landless villagers. I listened as Donald spoke of peace and “letting your life speak” and started to immerse myself in Quakerism. 

Years later I dabbled in Buddhism for a short while. it was a Buddhist Monk who encouraged me to remain within Quakerism and to re-examine the spirituality and mysticism within my own culture.

Yearning to explore the world, in 1973 I travelled overland from Darwin to Turkey with Joanna Pearsall and Neil Barltrop.  In what was then Portugese Timor (now Timor-Leste) we meet young Timorese freedom fighters who spoke passionately about their desire for independence. I felt a great deal of compassion and sadness both for them and for the young Portuguese soldiers we encountered. Homesick and lonely they had been sent from Portugal to complete two years of National Service in a country far from home.  Everywhere the insanity of colonialism was evident.

 We travelled on and 10 months later arrived in warm hearted, snowy Istanbul.  Spontaneously and in search of the sun, I flew to Israel, for a six-month stint on a kibbutz. Fortuitously I landed at kibbutz Shefayim and Amos Gvintz, a kibbutnik, became a friend. He was deeply involved in the Israeli Peace Movement and a passionate advocate for justice for the Palestinians. I learnt much from him and remain filled with admiration for those who choose to stay rather than leave their homeland.  They remain committed to spending their lives, often misunderstood by many around them, working for change.

As summer drew to a close I flew on to London. Amos suggested I attend a film directed by a Jewish friend of his. The National Front was at the height of its activity in 1974, a right wing and virulently antisemitic organisation.  They chose that night to attack the theatre. How terrifying it was to see young men kicking and punching, in steel capped boots, with fanaticism in their eyes. How relieved I was to escape unscathed and make my way home. To this day neither the “far” right or the “far” left has any appeal. I have seen the pain it can cause.

After many adventures and travels I returned to Sydney to study nursing and to complete an Archaeology degree. Working in research and education in a Haematology Department I resumed my travels, collecting bone marrow from donors around the world.

When I started travelling years ago I was ignorant of the ways of the world. I look back with gratitude at the kindness of strangers who reached out and cared for us along the way.  Travelling for work I was overcome with a different type of gratitude. Deeply grateful for those thousands of people who reach out to strangers and donate their bone marrow. They give to those they will never meet the only chance they have to be healed and to have a fulfilling future. I still feel humbled by this experience. 

My involvement in Quakers has been diverse; I have received much more than I have given and learnt much along the way.  I have learnt the value of silence, and of listening to that still small voice within.  I have served on a number of committees over the years.  Perhaps because of my love of the bush it seemed a natural progression to become involved with Werona in Kangaroo Valley. I am thrilled that this year most of the property has been handed over into the care of the Biodiversity Conservation Trust to be kept in perpetuity for the protection of native plants and animals.

As we travelled in the 1970s we had very few books. We did however have a copy of the some of the words of The Incredible String Band. Words I will always treasure.

May the long time sun
shine upon you,
All love surround you,
And the pure light within you
Guide you all the way home


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