I sold almost all of my belongings on the street in Laddakh in 1982. Laddakh is a dramatic mountainous desert. The people are Tibetan. I kept a shoulder bag with a journal, a book (it was Hesse or Nietszche), a black cotton suit an Indian tailor made, a black dress embroidered with white cross stitching from Sumatra and a single pair of sandals for going through airports. I also had a tobacco tin with a piece of lapis lazuli, a political badge, hairpins and a few pieces of jewellery in it.
I also kept three translucent cotton Indian scarves — one black, one rusty brown and one red. I guess I looked like a white girl pretending to be a bandit. Concerned Indian ladies would stop me on the street and tell me to put shoes on so I didn’t get worms.
I was wearing the same red scarf a year later in Alice Springs. “Where do the Aboriginal people drink here?” I asked the barman, with 21-year-old chutzpah. “Well, it’s not really like that,” he said nervously, “But you’ll find the Aboriginal people drinking in that room over there.” The uncarpeted room without air-conditioning. I introduced myself to a pair of gentle-looking senior men. I guess they were in their forties.
I’d just come from the women’s Peace Camp at Pine Gap and was in a weird state of mind — shocked by my experiences. It didn’t help that I felt like these men could read my constantly chattering mind.
“You know that system we keep talking about?” asked one the men, I’ll call him Michael, after we’d been talking a while.
“What, like capitalism, imperialism?” I ventured.
“Yes and colonialism and the whole greco-roman judeo-christian dualistic framework,” he continued.
“Er, yeah, I suppose so,” I said.
“You’re riddled with it!” he said. “Everything you say, every response you make, the whole pattern of your thoughts is constructed out of that system.”
“Oh,” I said, stopped in my tracks.
“That red scarf you’re wearing, that’s the headband for initiated men. Men go through things you can’t imagine to be allowed to wear that colour on their heads.” Michael himself wore a red bandana.
“You should take that off. Go on, take it off.”
I did so.
Michael’s companion that day was Harold Thomas, the old-souled artist who designed the Aboriginal flag: Red for the earth, black for the people, the yellow sun in the centre. “We all come from the Sun,” he said to me that day. Later, along the road, Harold used a stick to help him walk with a painful knee. “It’s only material,” he said dismissively, looking through me as I observed his discomfort.
That night, sitting in an Alice Springs back yard with the magnificent stars tumbling around us, I tried to find a way to quiet my noisy mind. “What can I do?” I asked Harold. He looked at me gently and thoughtfully. “I suppose the place to start is by loving yourself,” he said. He wasn’t trying make money out of me, seduce me or control me in any way, so I earnestly considered his suggestion. It was the beginning of healing.
Thirty years later I was working as a doctor in a Central Australian Aboriginal community. We had a wise woman working in reception. She didn’t stay long because the job was too poorly paid for all the love she put into it but before she left, she reminded me of that conversation.
“I know not to wear the red, y’know. Where I’m from in Queensland we love to wear it, but I understand the men here don’t want you wear it. So I don’t.”
My first response was to bridle. How could a culture ban a colour? Especially such a powerful and energising colour? Thinking more deeply, I reflected on what the people I cared for in that place offered me: in particular their hearty, unconditional acceptance and often love. The opportunity to learn was huge. So, I left my red clothes and scarves in the back of the cupboard or the bottom of the suitcase for a year or five.
Did I miss it? Yes.
Something interesting happened over time, though. I became sensitised to red. Nobody in the community (and others like it that I worked in later) wore red, except blows-ins who knew no better (or didn’t care) or the senior men participating in ceremony, who were usually painted with ochres at the same time. The latter was rare, the former transient.
When the red desert flowers bloomed in the red flower season — after the white and yellow, before the blue — they struck me like the opening passage of a Beethoven symphony. I knew the scarlet Desert Pea had a dramatic story about a Creation Being speared in the leg as punishment. The flowers spoke of blood.
What does it mean to be a fertile young woman who bleeds every month in one of the world’s most arid areas? It marks you an oasis of moisture, meaning and desire. It reveals your potential as a bearer of children — that profound, important, dangerous human experience. Young women don’t have to wear red. Red takes them and holds them for the middle forty years of their lives.
The men who wear red in that place display their hard-won and important knowledge of deep mystery. They deserve it. I’m glad I listened to Michael and took my scarf off in that bar thirty years ago. It was the beginning of listening. When I began listening, I didn’t lose myself, but began loving myself more freely and fully.
I wear red selectively now. I wore it to speak at the UN in New York earlier this year. I have bright red gloves that I wear riding my bike. Even now I wouldn’t wear a red scarf on my head around Anangu. It’s a bit like a man wearing shorts in Bali — just makes you look ignorant and silly.
Think of red the sacred colour when you see it in nature today. Tell me about what red means in your culture, if you'd like to leave a comment below.