A great leap year for reconciliation

KalamataAs a child I was confused by the concept of a leap year. In my mind it was muddled with the 'Twelve Days of Christmas' and the ten energetic lords a-leaping. In my infantile imagination, leap year took off in a great bound. But where to, I had no idea. People did not bother to explain the arithmetical point.

My grandmothers added to the muddle by explaining that the leap year was very important for women. As it was unthinkable that women should propose marriage to men, this was women's only opportunity: every four years, on 29 February, they could broach the subject with the man of their choice.

But what happened if the man did not want to marry? 'Ah,' intoned the grannies from the height of their infinite wisdom, 'of course, any gentleman had to behave with the utmost courtesy and not hurt any lady's feelings. And so it was mandatory to present the rejected person with a pair of white gloves.'

I imagined serried ranks of desperate females, and hoped that shopkeepers bore a possible glove shortage in mind, and that confirmed bachelors were well-equipped.

And now I think that in many places around the world, women propose to men on St Valentine's Day or whenever they like, and that white gloves are never a consideration.

Proposals involving human hearts and the making of a very necessary apology were made to John Howard by indigenous and white Australians over many years, and were always rejected. Howard saw no need to issue white gloves, either. Black mourning gloves would have been more appropriate, anyway.

Howard's own gloves seemed to be well and truly off. They still are: he was the only living PM to stay away on Sorry Day. But perhaps the resultant earthquake of astonishment would have been off the Richter scale if he had attended.


I eventually got my head around the concept of leap year, but it continues to exert a fascination. The Ethiopian ecclesiastical calendar, for example, assigns each of the four years to one of the Apostles, so that a leap year belongs to St Luke.

I eventually learned about the Chinese Great Leap Forward. Like many of my contemporaries, I often used the phrase as a metaphor for various decisive and usually unscheduled steps in my own life. And then came Neil Armstrong ...

I was in Kalamata, Greece, when Australia made its Great Leap Forward in this leap year. But I had the ecstatic emails of relief from my friends, and thanks to the wondrous invention of the internet I was able to tune in. By then it was St Valentine's Day here, and it seemed to me that Kevin Rudd's speech came straight from the heart. He was also apologising for the multitude of broken hearts that White Australia has been responsible for.

I regret that in my prolonged absence from Australia, I have had to observe the flowering of consciousness regarding Aboriginal Australians and the steady drive towards reconciliation from afar. But I have observed both, and my friends have helped me do it. One commented on the great swell of complicated feelings on Sorry Day: regret, shame, loss, compassion, hope and solidarity.

It seems to me, looking through expatriate rose-coloured glasses, that Australian society has been in a state of euphoria since the last elections. And that the euphoria reached a peak on Sorry Day. Yes, there has been a Great Leap Forward for reconciliation in 2008. Elder Herb Patten actually said so, but he also added that nothing could compensate for the pain that has been suffered: a truth we must never forget.

But now, with the leap having been taken, it is time for steady steps, perhaps slow and measured ones, but ones that must always continue forward.

There has been criticism of Sorry Day as being, among other things, an empty spectacle. I don't think it is. My other thought on St Valentine's Day was that sometimes we need gestures; sometimes humans need ceremony.

Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an Australian writer based in Greece for 27 years. She has had eight books published, including six for adults published by Penguin Australia. Her most recent is No Time For Dances. She has also worked as a journalist since 1980 and has been published in five countries.
Flickr image by voreas.




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Existing comments

Thank you Gillian for your excellent article. I love your idea of the Great Leap Forward, and of the importance of the symbol of "sorry". Let's keep working for equality for all Australians in every way we possibly can.
Christine Wood | 05 March 2008

Thanks Gillian for putting into words what many people think and believe in a way guaranteed to capture interest and provoke thought. I loved the tie-in with leap year and childish understanding of same.

We can only hope that saying sorry is indeed going to help with the healing process after a wrong that can never be set right. Having said that, all anyone anywhere can do is try to live in the present without looking back at past injustice. Resentment and hatred are not good food for a long and happy life and we do only have one life to live.
Coral Petkovich | 06 March 2008


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