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Exile and homecoming

Two of my favourite words in the English language are ‘nearly home’.   

I’ve long been preoccupied with the concept of home; maybe because I spent my primary school years in a boarding school so far from where my parents lived that we only got back at Christmas. I moved constantly throughout my life until about 20 years ago, and was infinitely adaptable and quite appreciative of change and the opportunities to experience different domiciles. Wherever I was, though, I very quickly nested, put up my stuff, made a place, well, homely. Always.

Even when I travel, wherever I stay quickly becomes my temporary home, the place I return to with a sigh of satisfaction after a long day of walking or sight-seeing. If I am camping, my tent is my little home. When I’m on retreat, my cell is the place I nestle into like a warm womb. I seldom enter the house where we have lived for 17 years or wake within its sheltering walls without a prayer of gratitude.

At the same time, I never feel completely at home in any country. Melbourne is obviously my home; it is where I work and worship and where most of the people I love best are. At a visceral level, however, I feel more utterly at home in India, where I spent the first 12 years of my life, or the UK, where all my childhood literature came from and where I feel I belong more than I ever will in the Antipodes. So wherever I am, I’m happy, and wherever I am I’m also yearning for somewhere else – deep, sudden, piercing pangs of homesickness that hit out of the blue and that sometimes send me scuttling back to the Subcontinent for a fix.

I’m learning to accept this sense of incompleteness both as a gift - the sign of a rich and complex life - and as just what comes with being human. This side of death, we will always be missing somewhere, something, somebody without whom we feel incomplete.

It’s also part of the spiritual condition of human kind, who are created to long for more. Mostly, in our society, we confuse this with wanting more stuff, and we get more stuff endlessly and are never satisfied. What we are meant to long for is more connection with something greater than ourselves (I am a person of faith, so I call this God), more capacity for self-transcendence, more peace in the world, more peace in our families, more peace in our souls.

No one who gives a toss about anything outside themselves is unfamiliar with the deep longing for a better world, the despair when wars accelerate and powerful people lack compassion and the planet teeters on the brink of annihilation, mostly through our own greed and neglect. We all long for better: for creation, for victims of violence, for refugees, for the starving. This is what forms the burden of our prayers of intercession every week in Christian worship.

Exile and longing for home is a common theme in the Hebrew Scriptures; with foundation stories such as the Children of Israel wandering in the desert for 40 years after generations of slavery in Egypt and the Babylonian exile. The best-known line in the Basis of Union, the foundation document of my own Uniting Church in Australia is The church is a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal.

In a world seething with refugees, the concept of having a home at all is not to be taken for granted. If we are lucky, if we have the right love and psychological care, we carry inside us a sense of home that grounds and protects us through the toughest times. But I believe I will never feel completely at home until after this life is over and I have started the last great adventure, where I see God more clearly, where I will be freed from the baggage that keeps me from loving God and others and myself completely. I believe that at the end of everything, in the words of Revelation 21, 3-4:

God will be with them; God will wipe every tear from their eyes, Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.

I have no picture of what life after life might be like, but I believe that somehow every person who dies becomes part of that great harmonious, praising, open household of God and that everyone I know who has already died is partaking of that great feast of love with the mighty beating heart of love that created and sustains the universe.

The Canticle of St Francis, which we sang at our wedding 37 years ago, includes a beautiful but oft-omitted verse which starts off, And thou most kind and gentle death, waiting to hush our latest breath. I hope that when I am dying, I will have the most complete sense in my life of being ‘nearly home’. If I am lucky enough to be with my beloved at the moment when he journeys from this life to the next, I would like to whisper to him, with utter conviction. ‘Nearly home my darling, nearly home.’

This was published in the June 2017 edition of The Melbourne Anglican



Take a nap

How encouraging to read on these pages last week (Caitlin Fitzsimmons, 27/4/17) that such august personages as Winston Churchill, Ingmar Bergman, Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin were habitual nappers. (One is forced to wonder if high-achieving females also napped; maybe they were too busy.) Darwin, apparently, punctuated 90-minute work intervals with naps and long walks in the countryside. Working longer, it appears, doesn’t necessarily mean working better.

Reading this I feel vindicated, as I am a fanatical walker and napper. It probably started growing up in the tropics, where people are more likely to nap after lunch (many shops and facilities in India still close for two or three hours in the heat of the afternoon), and continued when I was up at night feeding babies and a daytime nap, when achieved, became a matter of survival.

These days my kids are long gone, and I work from 9 to 5 in an office in the city, but only four days a week, and from Friday to Sunday, unless something very unusual is happening, I nap after lunch. Sometimes I conk out completely, waking dopey and disoriented after an hour of deep sleep. Other times I read for a bit and then drift off without actually sleeping – mind in low gear, body utterly relaxed. Some days I simply lie staring at the ceiling rose above our bed, a profoundly restful non-activity.

Granted, I will never be a Churchill, Bergman, Dickens or Darwin. But I have a gut feeling that their practice can be gainfully adopted for ordinary old run of the mill human beings like me. I know from decades of experience that taking a walk at lunch time on a work day, and sometimes sitting utterly still in a city church for a while, makes for a more productive afternoon at my desk. I know I have more writing ideas and deeper reserves of patience and humour when I rest adequately, which, for me includes regular siestas.

Also, I find the practice of napping is a failsafe guard against hubris. I love that Churchill was ‘apparently rigid about taking a daily afternoon nap followed by a bath, even during the darkest days of the war’. If the world could do without Churchill in the 40s, it can certainly do without me. I am not remotely indispensable, I am not particularly important. When I retreat to my bed after lunch, I am reminded of my small place in the universe. And I am reinvigorated to do my small part.

Published in The Melbourne Age 25 May


Two worlds collide on the 58 tram

The tram I catch from my place into the city, which has always read ‘Domain Interchange’ now says ‘Toorak’ and it’s doing my head in.

At one level it makes perfect sense. The number 55 tram from West Coburg trundled its way through Royal Park, past the hospitals and the Victoria Market, down William St and ended up near the Shrine, at the aforementioned Domain Interchange. The Toorak tram, number 8, used to start there and finish up at Glenferrie Road, Toorak. So they might as well join the two up.

It freaks me out though, as it is joining two of my worlds that I thought would never meet, Toorak and West Brunswick. I spent the last few of my teenage years living in Toorak, until, aged 21 years and six weeks, I married and escaped to the northern suburbs, where I’ve remained ever since, apart from overseas stays and ten years in the country.

I didn’t really belong on the Southside, and only lived there on account of my dad being a minister in one of the big churches in Toorak Road. Needless to say, there are many wonderful people who live in Toorak, and I was lucky enough to meet some of them, but I was never happy there. I have lived in a lot of places all around the world; I think that Toorak was the only place I felt completely ill at ease.

It was the money: the huge blocks of land, the private gardens like small parks, the high gates and walls and security systems that guarded these parks and the mansions hidden deep within them, the lonely, uninhabited streets, the fancy, overpriced shops. Moving there from the colour, chaos and crowds of India was like flying to another planet. I barely ever have reason to visit that side of town; when I do, I feel a residual discomfort.

But maybe it’s time I got over myself. Toorak is not a place I was happy, but it’s just a place. The people who live there belong in a variety of socio-economic categories, and, more than that, they’re just people. Maybe it’s time I got over my intense uncomfortableness with the very rich. Maybe it’s time I acknowledged that for most of the world’s inhabitants, very rich is precisely what I am. Maybe it’s time I took a ride on that new tram line – number 58 – from end to end, bringing my two worlds together and becoming a more integrated person in the process.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on 16 May 2017




Passing through the health precinct

On my tram ride between home and work, I pass through what must surely be the most heavily populated health precinct in the southern hemisphere. There they all are – hospitals old and new. First the super-flash Royal Children’s, opened by her Maj, no less, all colourful and artfully angled shutters, and, if you venture inside, acquariums and meercats.

The new Women’s, then my alma mater the Royal Melbourne, somewhat tarted up but inside still reassuringly and nostalgically recognisable. And just opposite that, the mothership as my son calls it, the new Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre, like a mighty ocean liner standing proud and tall against the waves of traffic beating up from Haymarket roundabout; a whole other species from the old-style heath institutions with their orange bricks and industrial chimney. It is all swirls and curves and roof gardens and inside it has an atrium where buskers play music that trails up the light well to all the floors where people are waiting patiently – it is a public hospital after all – for their oncologist, their X-ray, blood test, pills, whatever. You sit in one of the funky cafes in the VCCC and look around and realise that everyone sipping their coffee has intimate dealings with cancer – either as a patient, a loved one, or a worker in the field. It’s humbling.

I’ve been involved in most of these hospitals in one way or another. I trained at the old RMH in the 80s, garbed in old-school starched cap and apron. In the 2000s we were in and out of the Children’s for six years with our youngest. And I am about to become very familiar with the VCCC as my husband enters his inpatient phase at that impressive institution.

My familiarity with hospitals has perhaps made me more aware than most of what goes on inside their walls. As my tram trundles past, I can feel the welter of emotions emanating from them – fear and grief and despair, sure, but also camaraderie and triumph sometimes, joy (all those babies!) relief, gratitude, love. All those life and death (literally) battles going on just a few meters and one thin wall away. How can commuters, noses in their mobiles, not feel the great wash of human endeavour and endurance they are passing?

Maybe they do. Maybe everyone in my tram is thinking similar thoughts to mine. As I pass each day, I salute everyone within those walls, am grateful for good health care and am reminded of the fragility of life.


Worship in a foreign tongue

Two congregations share the worship space at the Uniting Church I attend: one is Cantonese, the other, which is very multi-cultural, is held in English. Mostly we worship at different times, but every so often we come together in a joint service that is held in both languages. Prayers are offered in both, the sermon is translated, one reading is delivered in English while the Cantonese version is up on the screen, and vice versa.

It can make for a long service, although the leaders do try to be concise. I’ve noticed, too, that regulars tend not to show up for these, as they do require a bit of effort. Oddly enough, I love these duo-lingual occasions.

It’s really good for me to be lifted out of my comfort zone. My Chinese fellow-pilgrims outnumber the English-speaking congregation by about four to one and it is a salutary reminder of what life is like for countless immigrants around the globe, surrounded by signs and sounds that make no sense to them. I grew up in this situation, but have been part of the dominant cultural group for a long time, and it’s easy to take for granted our automatic understanding of instructions and systems.

When I worship entirely in my mother tongue, there’s a feeling or urgency – of having to attend to every single word in case I miss something. When half is in another language of which I know nothing, not one word, I switch off and float into a peaceful space where I pay more attention to non-verbal things  – the beauty of the stained-glass windows, the deep pulsing chords of the organ, the mad variety of human beings around me. I connect with the Divine in a different way.

It takes me back to a happy childhood spent in a country where I was the foreigner and it didn’t matter and I felt entirely at home. It transports me to many hours spent sitting in Gujarati church services (and they were inevitably long, and hot) where the language was familiar but I couldn’t really understand much, so that it washed over me like a soothing wave, like a lullaby familiar from babyhood, making me feel like a pre-verbal infant who doesn’t understand the words but feels secure and surrounded by community.

The clergy select hymns that can be sung to the same tune in the two languages, and there is something profoundly moving about singing my heart out alongside others singing the same meaning with different sounds. Ditto when we all say the Lord’s Prayer ‘in our heart language’. I am reminded of the communion of Saints around the world, that I have fellow-believers throughout space and not simply time, that there is this great chorus of Christians in every corner of the globe, praising and longing and wanting to grow in grace and yearning to be closer to our Creator and to be channels of God’s love.

This was published in The Melbourne Anglican, May edition