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Monday
Jun102019

Art and wonder

What do writers add to society? What are they here to do? The most obvious, and, arguably the most important, is that they entertain. But there’s more to it than that.

Throughout history writers – novelists, playwrights, poets - have drawn our attention to the evils they see existing or creeping into the society around them. From Charles Dickens to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, from Elie Wiesel to Roberta Sykes, wordsmiths have been ahead of the pack or else lone voices trying to convince their peers of the dangers of everything from fascism to consumerism.

Writers are not the only ones. Artists of every description – painters, comedians, film makers, musicians – have fulfilled this role, often – think cartoons, think satire – with humour.

Artists also teach us empathy by allowing us to enter worlds that are not our own – other times, cultures, social classes.

But I believe there is another role that creative artists of all kinds fulfil which is just as important to the planet and to the human race. It is to reawaken the sense of wonder most people have naturally as children, by noticing and drawing attention to the sacredness of the everyday.

We tend to have a heightened awareness of everything around us if we are in a foreign country. It takes an artist to help us see the wonder of things at home. To notice things – this bright parrot in a Brunswick park, that rock pool, the joyous rattle of that clanking tram, this chunky necklace on that particular shade of skin. Our world is full of wonder, but preoccupied as we are, we so often fail to notice.

Recapturing a sense of wonder is akin to the concept of ‘mindfulness’ that Buddhists talk about. Being aware of each morsel that passes our lips, the texture of soil as we pull out weeds, every shade of colour in an evening sky.

In a passage that is often used to persuade us not to worry, but could just as easily be a hymn to wonder, Jesus is quoted as saying, ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these’. And ‘Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it’.

The thing about mindfulness and wonder is not just that they make people feel good. They are also incompatible with apathy and hate.

So part of the job of writers, artists of any stripe, is to remind people of the wonder all around them. To reveal the ordinary in a new light, so that we start to see differently, and to experience the world like children again. When people are filled with wonder and delight they are incapable, in that moment, of being violent or mean spirited. That’s what artists are here to do.

This was published in the June issue of The Melbourne Anglican

Sunday
May262019

Bracing ourselves

It’s hard rubbish week in our patch. Unlike some places I’ve been – one bayside suburb where we picked up skis and a cappuccino machine – most of the stuff on the pavements around our place is, in fact, rubbish. It gets picked over all right, but there’s not much treasure in this trash.

This year we had a more vigorous purge than usual. A brush with decluttering guru Marie Kondo earlier in the year had sent me frantically chucking stuff and the shed – mostly my husband’s domain, has not escaped.

For years now, six bulky white back braces (thick, hard white plastic, fastened with sturdy Velcro) have taken up space in our shed. They were worn by our youngest, a girl, from the ages of 11 to 15. Her father has been threatening to bin these for a long-time; she and I could never quite bear to part with them. Maybe, one day, I thought, she would include them in some sort of art installation, as she had with her first and smallest brace at high school, coating it with gleaming gold paint and displaying it in the annual exhibition.

It was more than the thought of using them in some funky artistic endeavour, however. Every time I got close to throwing them out, I would be taken back in time to the years of her life that were punctuated with visits to the Royal Children’s Hospital.

I have scoliosis, undiagnosed until I was full grown and it was too late to do anything about it. When I’m clothed, my back isn’t obviously misshapen, but all my life I have suffered from neck and head pain, which is part of living with a condition like that. So I checked each of my children vigilantly as they grew, for any signs that they might have inherited the skewed spine that has made its presence felt for almost as long as I can remember. Looking at offspring number four, I realised we hadn’t escaped – her eleven-year old back showed the tell-tale sign of curving in a gentle S.

There followed visits to the orthopaedic specialists at RCH, some months of observation, X-rays, measurements of angles. News was that her curved spine was worsening. A back brace was in order, if not spinal surgery.

The next five years saw us making regular treks to the Children’s, which we were lucky enough to live close to. It was the old hospital, down at heel but plucky, long, grimy corridors, banks of slow lifts, volunteer ladies selling crocheted goods in the foyer. I had worked briefly as a nurse there in the 80s – nothing much had changed.

Orthotics and prosthetics – the department we frequented - was in the basement, down a gloomy subterranean passageway. We spent many hours in the waiting room there, idly watching kids shows on the telly high on the wall, leafing through ancient women’s mags, watching other, younger kids playing with the boxes of broken toys.

‘Jeff’ was the technician who treated our girl, and he was great. Vastly experienced (he had spoken about back braces at international conferences) there wasn’t much he didn’t know about the condition and treatment of scoliosis and he was down to earth, old-school, strict and reassuring.

Every few months there would be a visit to X-ray, then to the orthopaedic registrar to interpret it and tell us (we hoped) that things were improving, then down to ‘Jeff’ before the treat of a Macca’s flurry and the tram ride home.

Every six to nine months she would outgrow her brace and need to be fitted for a new one – a process that involved being stretched on something that looked like a medieval rack, as ‘Jeff’ wrapped her torso in bandages and then covered her with plaster of Paris which set and was then cut off, as the mould for her new brace.

The service in the hospital was wonderful and we never paid a cent. Our daughter’s back will never be straight, but it is much better than it would have been without treatment.

There are memories aplenty attached to those objects that resemble a straight-jacket from a 19th century lunatic asylum. But our girl has moved out long since, and there are limits to how long you can carry around your kids’ stuff, especially when you have four of them.

Looking at them reminded me of so much – of the care at the Royal Children’s, of the conflict we had in the final years of her brace-wearing when she found it extra tough, of the hot summer nights when I felt terrible for insisting that she simply had to wear it, of strapping her in after a shower – the one time, apart from playing sport, when she was allowed to take it off - of her courage over so many years of wearing what must have felt like the hardest corset, like a suit of heavy armour.

So before I throw them out, I line them up, in order of size, and photograph them and ponder health care and privilege and the care of medicos and the stoicism of patients and my strong, straight daughter, now 25 and starting on adulthood. I sigh and place them on our nature strip. Next day, the rest of the rubbish is still there, but the back braces are gone. Maybe we’ll see them in some avant garde art gallery after all.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on 26 May 2019

 


Wednesday
May222019

The last garden

This time of year, the ornamental vines on our west-facing verandah are a glorious riot of scarlet and every possible shade of deep pink. Our entire living area is bathed in glowing red light, especially late afternoon, when it feels as though there is a bonfire in the back garden.  

Since we put the clocks back, I am barely at home in daylight hours during the week. On Saturday and Sunday, however, I have been trying to stop my chores, make myself a mug of tea and just sit and take it in, this wild extravagance of colour, which only lasts a week or two before the branches become bare.

My enjoyment of our creeper is particularly heartfelt this year, as it may be our last autumn in this house where the family has lived for the last two decades. It might be our last autumn with a garden at all.

Like so many other baby boomers heading for retirement, we are downsizing. This time next year, we will be, if not actually in a small apartment, then in the throes of moving there.

The building site is two kilometres away, and I wander up each week to keep an eye on proceedings. The first sod has well and truly been turned and the corner block is a cacophony of cranes and trucks, earth movers and pile drivers.

It’s exciting and terrifying in equal measure. This next 12 months, my main task, when all the urgent things have been attended to, is to work through every object and item of clothing and piece of paper in the house and decide whether it is a keeper, or something to give to the offspring, the op shop or the tip. It will take a year; I want to do it thoughtfully and we need to get rid of a lot of stuff.

But no matter how organised I am, I know it will be hellish towards the end, as all moves are – an emotional and physical ordeal. I know I will get to the new place and unpack the boxes and wonder why on earth we kept this possession or that. I know we still have too many things, that we won’t fit into the comparatively tiny spaces.

And the garden. Last time we were without one was 35 years ago. It’s hard to imagine not having the pressure and the delight that comes with a little patch of dirt to call our own. It’s hard to imagine no longer being curtained with a fiery waterfall every autumn.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on Monday 20 May

Monday
May062019

Spiritual decluttering

As I turn 60, decluttering seems to be the theme of my life. Marie Kondo, bless her painstakingly folded cotton socks, is my patron saint. Several important parts of my life are in the process of a radical cull: the church where I worship, my workplace and the family beach shack.  And, in preparation for a move to an apartment, my husband and I are packing up the family home of 20 years.

It's hard to ignore the suspicion that the universe is trying to tell me something! As I list all the avenues for my inner Kondo to my spiritual director, she gently suggests that God might be revealing something profound to me as well – the need to strip back spiritually, till only the essentials remain.

I ponder what this might mean in my situation. I’ve long been attracted by the Hindu notion of stages of life. The first is the youth/student, where a person sets themselves up, learns, experiments and explores. The second is that of householder – jobs, maybe a family, possessions and complications with all the joy and work they entail. The third stage is where one sheds the trappings (interesting word that) of a complicated life and simplifies, focusing on the inner journey, the spiritual quest.

This calls to me powerfully. I am still loving my job and will always be joyfully committed to my clan. But I yearn for less drivenness, for an end to my endless striving for perfection. Maybe God is gently telling me to calm down, slow down, simplify, get rid of the accretions and ambitions of a life time and, and what? And just see what happens. See what bubbles up. See what new phase of life this might usher in. Maybe even see that the best way to live right now is to keep doing what I do, just with less possessions and less pressure on myself to produce and succeed and be perfect.

John Main, founder of the World Community for Christian Meditation, talked about the simplicity of the mantra – the one small prayer word that the Community teaches as a radical and effective way to connect with the divine. Sit still for 20 minutes, quiet yourself, breathe, and come back from the myriad distractions in your ‘monkey mind’ by returning to the simplicity of the mantra. It’s a metaphor for what Jesus called ‘the one thing needful’ – to spend time with God. Elsewhere in the Gospels Jesus is quoted as saying, ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you.’ Take time to do the God-stuff and the other stuff will work out.

On Good Friday, Jesus was stripped of everything, even life itself, resulting ultimately in life abundant. I think on this as I slowly sort through my life and my stuff, reminding myself that the only essential thing is to endeavour to seek to see God more clearly, love God more dearly and follow God more nearly, day by day.

This was published in the May edition of The Melbourne Anglican

 

Monday
Apr222019

God is love and love is stronger than death

Four Easters ago, my husband was diagnosed with cancer. This time of year, I am often unaccountably weepy and a bit fragile. Once I recall that it’s an anniversary, of course, I get it. Bodies bring anniversaries to mind, even when minds try to forget them.

The appointment with the haematologist was on Maundy Thursday - the day before Good Friday. For Christians it’s a solemn kind of day and in the evening, we go to a sombre church service of deepening shadows, where we remember the night before Jesus’ execution, when he was betrayed and endured all manner of anguish and humiliation.

The cancer my husband has is multiple myeloma, which is treatable to a degree, but not curable. The specialist didn’t sugar coat his news. Walking out of the surgery, not surprised but shocked and dazed, the only real information I retained was that we might only have him for another five years.

Dazed we might have been, but the show had to go on. My bloke is a Minister, and Maundy Thursday evening church was imminent. We called our adult kids; they descended from various parts of the state, gathering for dinner at our place without the man of the moment, who was at church doing his thing with an unsuspecting congregation and coming home, utterly spent, for hugs and a glass of red.

I made it to worship the following morning, and Good Friday has never felt so apt, so real. Our oldest and I sat holding hands and snuffling into sodden hankies. No one at church knew yet. Several parishioners commented afterwards that it was the most moving Good Friday service they had been to.

My clearest memory of that event was seeing my husband standing at the foot of the big cross in front of the sanctuary, looking very alone, and thinking, ‘This is the one journey I cannot accompany him on’. And I remember him quoting from one of my favourite passages in the Bible, from the book of Romans chapter 8, which reads, ‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ I remember he stopped, recovered himself after a moment and repeated, ‘Nothing, no-thing can separate us from the love of God’.

That afternoon I experienced several hours of grief and despair so harrowing I could not get out of bed.  There was no shock, no denial, just raw pain. The words Jesus allegedly said while he hung dying, ‘My God my God, why have you forsaken me?’ played on a loop in my mind. One of the good things about being religious is that most faiths have a rich vocabulary for suffering and lament, as well as for life’s peak experiences.

But then I got up, washed my face and had a meal with a couple of the kids. Next day I helped another clean the house she was moving out of and life continued.

Four years on, we have had much waiting and anxiety and months of treatment and its medically complicated aftermath. But, while gruelling, the chemo and the stem cell transplant therapy have been effective – keeping the cancer at bay and giving us a bit more time, no idea how much. Life will never be the same, but is also strangely normal. And the time since Easter 2015 has been shot through with an abundance of wonder, delight, blessing and laughter.

Every religion has its own approach to the universal human experiences of suffering and death. I can only speak of my own experience of my own Christian faith. The story at the heart of Christianity is of the life and death of a first century Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. He revealed that the God who created the universe is the great, beating heart at its centre, the source of all beauty, wonder and love, and is also in and around us, in deep relationship with the planet and all its creatures.

The thing I treasure about the Good Friday-Easter Christian story is that it holds together the human experience of brokenness and beauty, of anguish and joy, of death and life. Good Friday and Easter are inextricably linked. You can’t have one without the other.

Good Friday, as a mate of mine once said, is where the rubber hits the road. It’s tempting to rush through the confusion and agonising wait of Maundy Thursday, the desolation of Good Friday and the fear and bewilderment of Holy Saturday to Easter morning with its proclamation of new life, its triumph of love over death. In a world that cries out for a grounded, realistic hope, however, that would be to sell the story short.

It’s hard for us, always viewing Jesus’ death through the resurrection grid, to imagine how lost, misled and terrified his followers must have felt.  Not to mention Jesus himself. I imagine Jesus had the profoundest faith in God and a sense that if he was faithful to his calling, that was all that mattered. But I doubt he went to his death thinking, ‘I just have to wait three days and it’ll all be fine’. If he was human, he would have felt confused and despairing. He wasn’t simply acting out a charade of death. He died. I find this picture of Jesus more helpful than an all-powerful, all-knowing divinity. When I read about the latest gun rampage or yet another earthquake in Indonesia, this is a God I can worship. A deity who isn’t up in the sky, benignly or indifferently looking down, but whose heart is the first to break when human beings suffer.

When people in my community are knocked sideways by early death, by the sundering of a marriage, by the mental illness or drug addiction of a teenager, I want to share with them this wounded, vulnerable God who has tasted some of the depths of human pain. When I myself have been plunged into the abyss of depression, I need to be reminded that the God I worship has descended into hell.

So, we need Good Friday. But we need Easter Sunday too. Jesus’ resurrection isn’t simply a continuation of the beautiful and miraculous cycle of life we see every time there is a bush fire – the new little pale green shoots bursting out of the charred wood of the eucalypts. Easter is a radical break with the life cycle. It is God saying not simply that life in some form will continue, but that God is stronger than death itself.

Clearly, God does not reach down and rescue one family from a flood, or shield one person from the blazing gun of a maniac. But I do believe that in the end, God will bring it all in, drying every tear, healing every hurt, making us whole, enabling us, at last, to be completely loving.

The message of Good Friday is that God is there with us in the worst that the world can dish up. The message of Easter Sunday is that God, who seems so powerless in the day to day tragedies of human life, is ultimately the end point of creation, of every life, every striving, every suffering and every human heart.

When the rubber hit the road for our family, when I lay weeping after my husband’s diagnosis, I needed a Good Friday God. But ultimately, we need an Easter God as well. It’s not as though we progress through Good Friday to some sort of permanent and triumphant Easter. Our lives are shot through with both Good Friday and Easter, over and over. The good news in that God in Jesus has been to both places. The good news is that the whole of our lives: the Good Fridays and the Easters, are encompassed by God’s love.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on Easter Sunday