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Borders we can traverse



It was not so long ago that like a rapid-fire domino effect, borders closed around the world. All of a sudden our presumed geographical interconnectedness, which saw plane travel routes create satellite maps of flight paths carrying scores of people, was reduced to freight.

Group of people helping each other across borders. Illustration Chris Johnston

As someone who has spent significant time outside of Australia, including a fair amount of time in northern India, I am now more than ever re-thinking borders and my relationship to them. The word seema in Hindi means border or limit. I learnt this as I often ask the meaning of someone’s name when I meet them. It is a way to start a perhaps unlikely conversation and learn language simultaneously; a way of challenging personal borders.

I think of the millions of migrant workers stuck near the borders of the Delhi National Capital Region and neighbouring states, and how these border closures globally have highlighted so much precarity, including that of migrant workers in India. Then there is the babies born through surrogacy who will not be united with their parents until restrictions lift, an industry that is built on poverty. I think to the free flow of information that I take for granted through the internet, and the digital inequality that has become more prevalent both in Australia and abroad.

In times of unprecedented uncertainty such as this, it helps to have some strategies in place to keep us anchored in what can feel like a wild storm. For me, one of those has been my own breath and paying attention to it. Another has been webinars with poet and philosopher David Whyte. His series in May was entitled ‘Just beyond yourself: the poetry of robust vulnerability’ which has got me thinking a lot about personal borders, the borders we create for ourselves, why we create them and the vulnerability in stepping beyond them. David ultimately talks about vulnerability as facilitating possibility.

Many of my recognised moments of great vulnerability have been very entwined with crossing physical borders, with meeting people who I otherwise wouldn’t and being challenged in ways I otherwise wouldn’t be. In the current scenario, with the collective grief that many of us are experiencing, in this time of great loss and change, I wonder what border crossing will look like going forward; what we it will continue to be and equally, what it will cease to be.

The hypervisibility of national borders reminds me too of how they hold contested and violent histories. How strange it is to gaze at a world map and at many borders that are so angular and contrary to how landscapes are and how water flows. That these borders were progressively becoming more rigid with protectionism on the rise pre-pandemic, yet still presumed to be traversable for some of us until they suddenly weren’t and for some, still aren’t.


'Despite the severe disruption to our lives many of us have experienced, we are also presented with an unprecedented opportunity for positive change, for going "just beyond ourselves"'.


Australian citizens and permanent residents have continued to be stuck abroad due to border closures, with the difficulties of getting a ticket with more demand than seats, as well as the very high prices. Some temporary visa holders are still stuck overseas and presently unable to return, while others are stuck in Australia without any support from the federal government and the impossibility of returning home due to travel bans. For temporary protection visa holders, there is an extra layer of impossibility due to fear of persecution as well as undocumented workers, who also haven’t been considered in the federal response and are unlikely to go for testing.

With borders still closed or with quarantine measures in place within the country and the ongoing tensions between our right to health and concerns for the economy, most of us remain at or close to home. As we are permitted to venture out once more at varying degrees here and around the world, I think also to the borders, to the walls we have been isolating between if we are among the fortunate who have a home. I am reminded how easy it is to become comfortable in both a certain physical space as well as a way of being. How we are creatures of habit and how easily, in reality, we do adapt, although adjusting to such extraordinariness may have seemed impossible initially.

As local doors start to open up again here in Victoria and already have in other parts of the country, such as cafes, restaurants and libraries, we will see ongoing pressure to return to a world which has in essence gone, which had reached its limit, and is never coming back. This also forms part of our collective grief.

Despite the severe disruption to our lives many of us have experienced, we are also presented with an unprecedented opportunity for positive change, for going ‘just beyond ourselves’, to use David’s phrase, and setting new and more equitable limits on what we collectively stand for. It is an opportunity to challenge ourselves, to traverse borders in questioning our own limits too and consider what our respective roles in society might be as we create what will never be back to normal but rather, a new normal.

A friend abroad asked me the other day when I might be coming again and for the first time, I really don’t know. It makes sense then, to give attention to the borders we can traverse and with the help of a little vulnerability, what new possibilities may look/sound/taste/feel/smell like.



Bree Alexander's words have appeared with Enchanting Verses, Westerly Magazine and Australian Multilingual Writing Project. Under pseudonym Lika Posamari, she was shortlisted for the Overland Fair Australia Prize 2018 (NTEU category) and published a poetry chapbook The Eye as it Inhales Onions.

Main image: Group of people helping each other across borders. Illustration Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Bree Alexander, borders, David Whyte



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Existing comments

A moving and timely reflection, Bree. I have often thought, when navigating passport controls, how easily, as an Australian, I can cross borders that for so many others form impenetrable barriers to the promised land. I also see the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3–11) as invitations to allow oneself to be vulnerable in various ways, in order to bring about a more hospitable world.

Brendan | 16 June 2020  

So much of our response to the pandemic has been about 'borders' and in a personal sense about 'boundaries'. When faced with a danger we cannot attempt to control it is a natural effect to retreat to a safe space, be it physical or psychological. For those caught in a desperate situation where safety cannot be accessed the distress would be palpable. For me, boundaries are an ever present need and decision-making is so often based on not subjecting myself to an increased risk of trauma. Recognition of this does not ameliorate the caution. What the pandemic has highlighted is our vulnerability and perhaps that is a better place to be than bullet-proof.

Pam | 16 June 2020  

"The hypervisibility of national borders reminds me too of how they hold contested and violent histories." What a wonderful choice and arrangement of words, reminiscent of and as enduringly pertinent as Robert Frost's sobering lines in "Mending Wall": "Something there is that doesn't love a wall" and "Good fences make good neighbours."

John RD | 16 June 2020  

Bree, For many of us, and I am a regular traveler overseas to visit family, our "border" has been the confines of our home and property.Not able to visit our children and grandchildren living a few kilometres away has been an surreal experience. A recent visit to friends across the border in N.S.W. was absolutely great(We live in Canberra). You don't recognize "borders" until they are imposed on you.

Gavin O'Brien | 17 June 2020  

Wonderful, Bree. It's such an incredibly powerless feeling to not be able to return to places you love due to border closures. I myself have felt this way even before COVID. As an African passport holder, I am not always granted entry to places I love because of the social construct of borders. I am for a border-free world, like you. I hope that this world crisis has shown us how borders hurt us more than anything else and that at the end of the day, we are all human and we all share the same space.

Diana | 24 June 2020  

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