Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Optimist

"My biggest dream is to get off the pension and start living a life; instead of watching it, I’d like to be a part of it".
#ahatofmanydreams is slowly gathering a good collection of stories. They are the stories of the people living next doors, people who lead remarkable lives but we wouldn't know about them unless we stop and listen.
It is not unusual that during the interviews, my sitters have an "aha" moment, they relive a memory or have a sudden revelation. I have seen people in the brink of tears, when some of the memories were too painful.
However, this is the story marking the most defining moment in my project’s journey. Because this time it was me, left in tears.
This is the story to remind us all about the beauty of humankind. And about gratitude. It is a timely reminder about how we tend to take things for granted and we forget how easy it is to go from everything to nothing in the blink of an eye.

It is the story of an amazing person who went from being homeless to becoming a talented self-taught photographer.
Peter’s photography has taken my eye for quite a while, even if I didn’t know him personally. His
Instagram account currently has over 1300 followers; a number he built diligently in a very short time; as he perfected his skills. What won me over was not only the amazing detail in all his photographs, but the lovely, optimistic tone of his stories – even when things went pear-shaped.

I met and photographed Peter during a Floriade Insta-meet organised by Visit Canberra last year. But for a couple of reasons, we didn’t get to sit down and talk until now.

Working on this project is the greatest and most humbling experience. Sometimes I find it extremely hard, when meeting a person the first time, to make sure that I managed to capture their true essence. However, in Peter’s case, I think this is one of the greatest stories to date. Because it holds some truths we all need to accept and know.

- When I was 4 years old, I wanted nothing more than to be a Pilot. My father used to fly full scale gliders before I was born and was also an avid Radio Control Aero modeller. We used to go out to a registered flying field each Sunday to fly some of my father's model Planes. By age 5,I was the youngest registered model-flyer. I was determined that one day, I would be a pilot and I almost achieved my dream of having my own private pilot licence. Unfortunately, an unexpected heart attack at age 20 put an end to that. It took me a long time to recover and I could no longer pass the medical.

- My first favourite story would have to be 'The Watchers' by Dean Koontz. My mother introduced me to that book and I have actually read it many, many times. It is a story about a Labrador that escaped from an experimental science laboratory, where it had been genetically altered to be able to communicate with and understand humans.
The Labrador (called Einstein) was found by a guy who was at the end of his tether and was considering ending his life, when they met in the desert.
He immediately realised that there was a lot more to this dog than meets the eye and decided to stick around to see why this dog was so special. He took him home and his life from that moment on was never the same. The dog was not the only escapee from the Laboratory. Another animal escaped that was just pure evil. It was designed to be nothing more than a killing machine...and it was hunting the dog.
I won't spoil the storyline as it is a great read. Everyone I have lent the book to in the last 20 years has loved every second of it and expressed the same thoughts as I had. They never wanted the story to end.

- When I was leaving High School, I wanted to be an Engineer. I got an Apprenticeship in a Coal Mine and spent the next few years buried in a substantial amount of study, but unfortunately, was not able to complete my qualifications and left the job with only 6 months of study left and 1 more year of 'On the Job Training'. I had a nervous breakdown. I was bullied relentlessly at school and at home. I couldn’t do it anymore.
I was working 2 jobs. I had my car stolen and I owed 30 odd thousands - the insurance company never paid out. I was living with my parents at the time and I couldn’t do it anymore, it became impossible. So I moved out and then I lost my job.
I was living in a caravan and I wasn’t eligible for any unemployment benefits. I never have been taught how to look after myself. I have been thought how to iron, how to vacuum, but I was never thought how to pay a bill. Especially when you never had the money to pay that bill. How do you pay a bill when you don’t have the money?

So I tried and failed very badly. I lived in the middle of Blue Mountains and I wanted to get away, as far as possible. I felt that Sydney was the best chance to get back on my feet but it never worked out that way. I went there and then I lost all my IDs.

Shortly after that, I was homeless and spent almost 3 years living on the streets and sleeping on trains. While I was on the street, (very shortly after) the laws changed on identification and I never had enough IDs to gain new IDs. I couldn’t apply for Centrelink because I didn’t have enough IDs; the System kept rejecting me – I’d reapply every 2 weeks and the system would reject me every time just before paying me.
I survived. I used to approach restaurants – Chinese restaurants in particular, because they were very generous people – and I would offer to clean their kitchen in exchange for a little bit of food. That is really how I survived throughout all that time – through the generosity of these businesses in Sydney. Nothing in life comes for free. I felt that if I was going to beg for food, it was only fair that I would offer something in exchange.

I have had some of the highest training in Australia, as an engineer; it was only 26 people that had qualifications as high as mine. I don’t think I could benefit now from any recognition of prior study – I’d probably be a liability now for them as an engineer. 

I asked Peter if he would consider drafting or technical design jobs.

- I love being constructive, I loved metal and wood works. I would need a bit of refresher, if I was going to be a drafter, but I can design anything: bridges, buildings…I absolutely loved engineering. As a joke, I call it I was “train-washed” – part trained, part brain-washed, to be an engineer. I would never ever forget it; it has been ingrained in my memory. My father was a mechanic. My grandfather was a very successful builder; he built half the town we lived in.

My biggest challenge in holding any job at the moment is my knee – it gets so unpredictable and some days I can hardly get out of bed. Not having a car also makes it difficult to be reliable in a 9 to 5 job. That is why photography would work out beautifully. I can do my own hours.

Back in the times when I was working, I was being paid quite a lot of money that I was going to use to pay for flying lessons. My biggest dream was to become a pilot. The will to be one has always been there; I think I was born a Pilot as I have always been able to fly both Full Scale and Model Aeroplanes proficiently.

The reason I am here today is really the generosity of a friend and his parents. I would always be in debt to them. The ironic thing about Centrelink is that you need to have a registered address for them to pay you. And you need to be paid, in order to get that address in the first place.
After 2 and a half years on the street, I had a friend and his parents said – “look, this is no good, we had no idea. He could come and live with us”. At the time, you needed to be at an address for a minimum of 6 months in order to get onto Centerlink. So I got to stay with them for 6 months, in Melbourne. Then I got to live back into a house and about 3-4 months later I had a heart attack. That certainly backfired a bit. 

If there was a piece of advice Peter could give another fellow human in distress or on the streets, what would that be?

 - It’s a hard one. Never give up, I’d say. There is always someone who cares.
It is so much easier now to end up on the street – people won’t believe that it can happen at any moment in your life; you could be only couple of weeks from living on the street. The patterns will start as soon as you start missing your first bills; before you can miss too many, it will happen. People start to come and take all your possessions and in the end when you have no possessions left, they will take you to court for money you will never have. It doesn’t stop until you pay your debt and if you don’t have money, it never stops. It’s 7 years before any debt is written off. If it wasn’t for my friends, I’d be on the street for 7 more years. And I still worry to this day that I would be chased up for some bill that I might owe all those years ago. There seems to be this misconception that to be on the street, you did something wrong, you are a bad person. But as I said, there is always someone who cares. Not in the Government departments or any organisations, but you will always find someone who will make the difference in your life – almost always you will find that right person on the street.

It’s an awful cycle: being homeless you smell, you can’t wash or brush your teeth for a long time, nobody wants to come near you. It’s almost a common belief that you did that to yourself, you put yourself on the street and if you are still there, it’s because you don’t want to move up. People don’t want to help you; or people don’t feel that they can help enough so they don’t do anything.

 Keep working at getting yourself out of the streets and please, go to the restaurants late at night and ask for spare food in exchange for work. That is really the only thing I can advise – do not give up. I met people living on the streets for 15 years. It’s such a hard situation because if you go to a shelter, they can only take you in for 3 weeks but then you can’t go back for 3 months otherwise nobody gets in, so they have to cycle you through. And it’s a very demoralising situation in life.

 What about the people who do want to help? What can they do to help ease the homelessness situation?

- Don’t give them money. Give them an opportunity. The only time you give them money, make them work for it because working for the money you earn, gives you a sense of good self-worth. Without that sense of self-worth you will stay on the street forever, because you are just a ghost. Nobody wants to look at you – they’ll look straight through you; there is no department that would recognise you. 

Who are you now?

- Now...I would call myself a Disability Pensioner. Not exactly the path I chose for life. But you can only make the best of what you have got. I was walking home late one night when I was 21 and was set upon by 3 guys who robbed me and beat me quite severely.

During this, my left knee was smashed beyond repair and as a result of the damage, I have lost over 20% mobility in that leg. About 20 years ago, I have had 2 surgeries on it, in order to stabilize the knee joint so that I could walk. Realistically, it needs a total joint replacement to make it any better so technically, I still have a broken knee.
Unfortunately, due to my height (6 foot 2 inches), the success rate for total knee replacement was extremely low. The artificial knee joints only lasted about 8-13 years before it would need to be replaced. This made the fact I am so tall and skinny, even worse. Generally (at that time) replacement knee joints in people my height, age and weight had a very low success rate. Often, the bone that holds the joint in place would fail before it wore out, which would leave me unable to get another knee joint put in. The only thing to do then, is to put in a straight bar with no knee joint (walk permanently stiff legged), or have it amputated as the only other choice.
My surgeon recommended I wait until I am in my mid to late 40's to get the replacement surgery done because the success rate was far higher at that point in life, because of a slowdown in personal activities and lifestyle.

I absolutely HATE being a Pensioner. I have tried my hand at countless jobs since my knee was damaged, to try to get off the Pension and back to being a contributing member of Society. It’s hard to get out and about - without realising they do it, many people look at me like I am a fraud and a dole bludger because - upon immediate impression - nothing seems to be wrong with me and I should be working.
I can't blame people for thinking that way because everyone has to work mighty hard for every dollar they get these days; and to see someone just taking handfuls of cash for doing nothing – that’s bound to annoy anyone.
In this life, nothing is free. It always ends up costing somebody down the line. I too would rather be working than handed a small amount of money each fortnight for nothing.

On my income, you just get to watch everyone else enjoy life and be successful, while I had to spend 2 years saving to buy a cheap TV because my old one died 2 years ago. You never eat at a restaurant without tightening your belt for the other 41 meals that fortnight.
No matter what you want to do, you always have to settle for what you can afford, instead of having something nice to be proud of, like many workers do.

I don’t think being on a pension truly defines a person or their dream. So I asked Peter whether he could see other dimensions of himself. Even if it’s simple affirmations like “I like to fly” or “I love photography”. 

- I don’t know who I am. I am me. I take each day as it comes – I am extremely grateful for each day. 

Many times I have been asked to take photos of people and I always got comments like “Jeez, you take nice pics!” even if I was using their camera, their settings. My parents used to have lots of books about Australian Photography, mainly landscape and wild life and I always admired the genius behind those photos. I used to dream about being able to do the same. I never knew who it was until a few years ago I met Steve Parish and it clicked – good God, that’s the guy from the books, the guy who takes those amazing photos. I recognised him from the pictures.

The rare opportunity finally came up – I have overpaid my electricity bill for a few years and they reimbursed the money. Over the last 3 years, I have bought some extremely expensive camera equipment in an effort to get off the Pension. But to do that, I had to make the items I currently own, last as long as I could.
That being said, over the last 2 years, I have watched many electrical items around my home, expire without the money to replace them. I'm now down to a fridge, a washing machine and a PC. And all 3 of them are on their last legs as well.
A disability pension is not a great place to be.

- My innermost dream is actually quite a simple one these days:
Be Happy
Be Helpful
Be kind
Be thoughtful.

And of course, to win Lotto. It doesn't have to be a million dollars. To me $50,000 is the same thing. I could do so much with that amount of money, that I swear I could earn the other $950,000 myself. And if not, I'm sure I would have a lot of fun trying.

-I would have to say that my biggest dream is to get off the pension and start living a life; instead of watching it, I’d like to be a part of it. It’s a very simple dream but after 20 years, I had enough. I would like to move forward in life. That’s my biggest goal. I always believed that if you work hard enough, it would get you there. If you have no talent, no skill, it would be apparent pretty soon and you would need to chance course. But if it starts getting you somewhere, then go hard at it.

I really don't think I have any close-guarded dreams. I'm a pretty open person and I am often not shy to hold back. Other than my lifelong dream of flying, like Peter Pan, most of the achievable dreams I have are pretty much out in the open. I work towards them every day. I may never get there, but I would much rather try my best and fail, than spend the rest of my life dreaming about something and never make a move to get there.
Like my photography. I have dreamed of being a photographer for a long time but never made an attempt because of the huge investment needed and no guarantee of success. Many years I walked away from places, frustrated because I could not capture a photograph to show my friends and family.

But, 2 years ago, I finally bit the bullet and bought a Professional Camera and equipment. Since that day, my life has never been the same. It has been a wonderful journey with so many rewards along the way and I have met some wonderful people who have made this journey much more enjoyable than I could ever have expected.

In many ways, I am the happiest I have ever been in my life, so anything on top of that, is just magic.

What is the one thing that keeps Peter going?

- Coffee, Lots of it. Apart from that, life itself. As I get older, I appreciate the smaller things in life and often think about my parents, who worked their knuckles to the bone so they could retire happy and travel the world. But before they reached the age of retiring, they realised they are not going to be as healthy as they hoped and would not be able to do much of the travelling they had hoped to do. In effect, they regretted not traveling with my sister and me when we were younger.

I have never wanted to get in a position where I regretted not doing something when I could have. It would be so disappointing to retire and be wealthy enough to follow your dreams, but not physically able to do many of the activities you had hoped for.
Unfortunately, I have lived like that for 20+ years and it’s a lot like the movie 'Groundhog Day' with Bill Murray. I want more out of life, than getting up each day, turning on the TV and turning off my brain for the day. So, I do whatever I can to learn a new skill or experience something new. I believe this is the key to a long healthy life and an active mind.

What motivates Peter?

- The thought of one day, being able to throw out my Pension Card, because it no longer applies to me. I certainly hope I do get to see that day.

I always like to ask my sitters a question that gives them a timeline: “Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time”?

- Assuming I am still able to afford camera gear, I would love to be a paid nature photographer. It's a lot of hard work and effort, but that's the way I like it. I am constantly challenged by new scenes and experiences which help me to grow both personally and professionally every day. To me, that is all I would love from life. Travel, work and have an income I can be proud to earn.

How would Peter use those 15 minute of fame?

- I would use my '15 minutes of Fame' to encourage people to follow their dreams. I feel like I was born a Pilot. Instead, I have been a cook, and an engineer, a radio DJ, a car washer, a fruit picker and many, many more. Yet in my heart, I had nowhere near the success or enjoyment as I would have had being a Pilot.
I think we have too many Plumbers who want to be a Doctor, but couldn't afford the costs of training. We have too many shop assistants, who would make great teachers, mechanics and trusted professionals, but they are a shop assistant because that was the only job they felt they could get. Too many people settle for a 9-5 job that does nothing to satisfy their desires, nor compliment their natural skills.
Hardly anyone these days is passionate about the job that they do. And the ones that are passionate, are very successful and happy. I think we need more people to be passionate about the job they are doing to make the world a different place.

Great discoveries have been made in the past because people sank their teeth into their job and did not give up, even when all odds were against them. But these days, we take any job we can get so we don't end up penniless and living on the street, and we just watch our dreams and ambitions drift and fade into the distance.
If that job no longer meets their needs, they move onto another job that does the same thing.

- My first role model would be my Grandfather. He instilled many of the beliefs I have today, just by watching the way he lived. He refused to get older and just never stopped; he was always working on something. He lived until he was 89. At 86, he suffered 2 massive stokes, a heart attack, and septicaemia...and still did not give up, even though he was paralysed. Though his body was failing, his mind was sharp as a tack. He ate nothing but healthy food, did not smoke and never once sipped alcohol. I think these are key ingredients to living a long healthy life.

He was the first man to ever walk unassisted across Australia and back taking 2.5 years, during the Great Depression, and he never once believed that he couldn't do it. Even though, it was thought to be impossible at the time by all medical standards, and is still regarded as almost impossible to this day.
You have to admire anyone with that much courage and commitment. He did it because his doctor bet him 20 pounds he could not do it. That was on a Wednesday; he left 3 days later and didn’t return for 2.5 years.
But when he did, he claimed his 20 pounds and proudly showed his doctor he was wrong.
He is still my hero. He was an amazing man who took on life like he was 10 feet tall, instead of his actual physical size of 4 feet high.

What does Peter like to read?

- Over the last couple of years, I haven't had much time to sit and read anything other than Photography books and magazines (I'm a bit O.C.D in that respect). And I really don't watch a lot of movies as I find they have very little substance and very low morals.
In many cases, they are really just a Get Rich Quick Scheme for the Producers and entertainment for people who don't like to think much.

However, I love Documentaries about anything. If I can't travel the world and learn about these things for myself, I would rather sit and watch a good documentary about it any day. David Attenborough has always been King of the Documentaries in my life and I have to admire his amazing career. The world has learnt so much from this amazing man, that without him, we would still be wondering what the rest of the world looks like.

- My biggest regret is becoming estranged from my family. It was mutual, but still not an easy thing to live with, even after 20+ years.

Is there a place where Peter feels at peace?

- I'm not sure I feel at peace anywhere. Up until I am able to check a few things off the old bucket list and form some sort of career for myself, I don't think I will ever be at peace. I'm quite a socially awkward person which is probably why I hide behind a camera these days. It’s a separation device that allows me to drop my guard and just enjoy the moment. This, in turn, has allowed me to meet many people and have a great time.

But, I can say openly that I am most happy when I am busy and constructive. I can't stand sitting and doing nothing. I have had many years of that and sitting at home all day is not at all what people think it is like. Honestly, it's enough to drive you out of your mind.
I have to stay busy and work hard to be happy. Maybe that is what peace is: just being happy and content with where life has taken you. I'm not sure. But I certainly hope to feel at peace one day. Certainly before I rest in peace.

Perhaps - to some - my story will sound dark. But in truth, my past has been exceptionally dark and withdrawn, and as strange as that sounds, it really only started to improve after I had my knee crushed.
It gave me the determination to get life moving. Before then, I still didn't have a clear path or structure to my life. I was in trouble with the law, hanging out with really bad people and being massively in debt. I never believed I would amount to anything better than that.
After my knee was crushed, I realised that I could end up spending my life crippled and unable to do any of the things I still dreamed of. I made a plan to get out of my hometown before it killed me and start creating a life I could be happy with, before it was all taken from me by an aging body.
I moved to Canberra and my life has improved in leaps and bounds ever since because I work on it every day.
When I think back to where I have come from, I find it very hard to believe that is my story. Many times while re-telling certain parts of my life, I stop and think "Did that really happen to me?" My life is so much better now, that my past seems like a nightmare I had once, but no longer suffer from it.

As we parted, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the next chapter in Peter’s life should be a new approach, offering photo-walks and macro “how-to” courses.


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