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The homeless bleed onto our city streets. There are more every week it seems, whole dormitories of them. And it’s so very cold, and windy, so that the rain comes at a slant – fine if you have four walls, not so good if all you have is one and an awning.

It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I realised that housing was more important than food, thanks to reading ‘A bit of a struggle’ - a study of poverty and family life written by Jean McCaughey and published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies. I’d always assumed that food was the basic human need; reading about families living in cars, however, I learnt that if you have a roof to keep you warm and dry and a locked door to keep you safe, you can scrounge food somehow. If you have a secure place to stay, you have a base from which to start on welfare, health, education, employment. If you are homeless, no dice.

I lived in other people’s houses until I was 41. Church houses, for the most part, and sometimes we stayed with relatives. They were good houses, but there were a lot of moves. So I never shared the assumption, common to many Australians of my vintage, that I would have my own place. I was amazed when a convergence of events, a bit of luck and a life time of thrift meant that we could do that very grown up thing and get a mortgage. In the 16 years since, there are not many weeks that pass where I don’t pinch myself - we have a house! It is ours! No one can kick us out!

Not having so much as the humblest rental is a universe of insecurity away from my experience. And every day there are more of these folk, in Lygon St, all over the Hoddle Grid, huddled in their makeshift camps, with shopping trolleys filled with blankets and festooned with plastic bags containing their meagre belongings. They have an upside-down beanie for money and a cardboard sign written in texta; often they have a dog curled up with them, keeping each other warm.

I like giving money away, but I cannot give money to all these people. I go home to my own stout roof and sturdy front door with a renewed sense of gratitude. I am unable to get them out of my head.




Three Ss reveal my recipe for enduring love

As the dating show Bachelor once again graces our screens, I offer you my own criteria for what to look for in a long-term relationship, if that’s what you’re after. Whether you meet your person at a bar, on the internet or at a church youth group, what you need to look for are steadfastness, sex appeal and sense of humour, or SOH as they call it in the personal ads.

Steadfastness is the bedrock for the other qualities. Not just the obvious sexual and emotional faithfulness; steadfastness includes just being there through the ordinary, mundane, tedious and occasionally terrible days that any couple who are together for more than six months will encounter. Steadfastness includes reliability: someone who won’t leave when you are ugly and grumpy and sick and sad, who will do their share of domestic chores and listening to your boring problems when you need them to. Steadfastness includes kindness, and kindness in a partner is almost enough.

Not quite though. The kindest, most faithful person in the world could be, well, boring, which is where the other two Ss come in. Sex appeal isn’t just physical compatibility, it’s the whole package of attractiveness – liking the way your person looks and smells and dresses and spends time and cooks and eats and curls around you in bed. It’s nothing to do with classic good looks as such – it’s the way the entire package of the person makes you feel. It’s the chemistry that can, if you’re very lucky, last a lifetime.

Sense of humour is the icing on the cake. I don’t think I could live with someone who didn’t me laugh, someone who gently takes the mickey out of me when I am taking myself too seriously.

Sense of humour for me doesn’t have much to do with the ability to tell a joke effectively or be a raconteur of funny stories or someone with a quick comeback line for every occasion. Those things are fun, but they’re not what I’m talking about. I know good people who don’t have much of an SOH. They just take things too seriously: life, themselves. Everything is a potential source of grievance, and it’s exhausting.

Having a SOH is mainly a matter of seeing the ridiculous side of life, of reacting with laconic good humour when the chips are down, of reacting to a crisis with calm. There is a time to panic, but not as often as many people think.

Steadfastness, sex appeal, sense of humour. My criteria for enduring love.



Purple candle

Walking to church a few Sundays ago, I became aware of a massive police presence as I approached the CBD. Six cops on motor bikes, blasting past me. Twelve on horseback, heading down Latrobe St. A handful of officers on push bikes and scores of them on foot with hi-vis vests over their uniforms, just in case we hadn’t got the message they were around, in force.

Thinking of Nice and Istanbul, I walked on in a mild panic – what was going on in my city? A bomb scare? A protest turned ugly? Turned out it was all in honour of US Vice-President  Joe Biden, but my instant fear made me realise afresh how the 24-hour news cycle affects even the least panicky of us.

What do we do with our awareness, concern and apparent helplessness in the face of the random violence which has always been present in the world, but which we now hear about instantly, and over and over?

The Sunday after the massacre at Orlando, our minister placed a purple candle on the Communion Table. It was, he said, a way of bringing to God what was on everyone’s mind and heart that morning – the bafflement, the anger, the grief.

In the weeks since, that purple candle has become a permanent fixture. There is the ongoing destruction in Syria. Police officers shot by a sniper in Dallas, at a ‘Black Lives Matter’ march. The bloody attempted coup in Turkey.  A truck mowing families down in Nice, on Bastille Day. Every week, it seems, there is some new horror, on top of all the situations that we know grind on and on.

To a sceptic, the purple candle might look like a lame attempt at making worshippers feel better about themselves. To believers who know from experience that prayer changes things, this simple symbol of the fact that we bring the whole world to God in prayer as we do, Sunday by Sunday, every week of the year, makes perfect sense. In terms of knowing how to respond, we are helpless, nor do we know enough to even know what to pray for. But by bringing the world to God in all its beauty and brokenness, we are acknowledging what we believe:

That when bad things happen, God’s heart is the first to break.

That somehow, when a situation is prayed about, something changes.

That praying for distant situations changes us, makes our hearts bigger, so that we become a little more compassionate in situations we can influence.

Purple is the colour of pain, grief and penitence, used liturgically in Lent to evoke Christ’s approaching suffering and death. It is also used in Advent, for hope.  Lighting a purple candle lifts us above our own comparatively pretty concerns. It links pain and hope. It reminds us of what we believe about God’s presence in our sometimes brutal world, as expressed in John 1, 5: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it’.

Published in The Melbourne Anglican, August 2016 edition


Trash and treasure

I so rarely lose things that when I do, I feel unreasonably angry with myself. I bought some black leather gloves a couple of years ago; a necessity for my early walks throughout the Melbourne winter. I must have left them somewhere last spring; come the cold weather this year, they were nowhere to be found.

I glumly put on my crappy old gloves each morning – you know the kind where the tips of your fingers are still freezing – shoved my hands in my pockets or pulled my sleeves down over my hands like a teenager in a sloppy school jumper.

Then last weekend, we were doing what we’ve been doing a lot of lately – de-cluttering. The kids have left home; my husband has had a mongrel diagnosis, it’s the ideal time to start ridding ourselves of the detritus of 35 years.

The impetus for this latest purge was emptying our big upstairs room – traditionally a dumping ground for the household as it is out of sight and out of mind – for our older son and daughter-in-law to move back in briefly between overseas adventures. Their tiny CBD apartment was about the same size as our upstairs room; they shifted their futon and their desk and sofa and their lamps up there and fitted perfectly.

We got rid of most of what was there. Drum kit belonging to our other son went to his place (major score!) Big leather fold-out sofa went on gumtree. Two bookshelves and a chest of drawers went on the nature strip, and because it is Brunswick, they were gone in a matter of minutes. A box of old VCRs went to the op shop (yes, I know they will soon be valuable collectables, but life’s too short to hang on to stuff just in case).

One of the wonderful things about de-cluttering is that, as well as getting rid of things you haven’t looked at for five years and will never use again, you find some forgotten treasures. In this case, it was a cache of gloves that must have belonged to my mother, that I’d ignored in the last clean up thinking they were dress-ups for the kids.

Some of the gloves were falling apart, as I discovered when I lifted each one out for examination. And then – bingo – I pulled from the bottom of this mess of intertwined and disembodied palms and fingers, a beautiful pair of black leather gloves, a perfect fit for me, and way nicer than my previous Target pair. What’s more, they were lined in the creamiest white rabbit fur. Genuine leather. Made in Italy. Rabbit fur lining (which, at least in this country, I imagine is politically correct). Needless to say, I have worn these beauties every day since, revelling in having un-frozen hands on my way to work and back home again.

Meanwhile, the kids have moved back in and we have had an Irish houseguest for ten days and we feel like empty nesters no longer. It has been so much fun having the house buzzing with young-uns again, seeing at least two of the next generation of our family every day for a catch up, being reminded of how thoughtful and funny and domesticated they are.

Chucking out junk feels so good, I am freshly motivated for a new burst of sorting. There are a few more cupboards that need emptying, some boxes that wait to be gone through, my filling cabinet needs a good prune. And who knows, I might even unearth another old treasure.


From the Opinion Page of this morning's The Age

"The slow road to nowhere" read the recent headline in this paper. The piece recounted that Vic Roads has released a list of Melbourne's slowest roads, revealing that peak-hour traffic moves at average jogging speed. "Melbourne motorists," the journalist wrote, "it might be time to consider investing in a really good pair of walking shoes."

I've been walking to work for 10 years now, and cannot understand why anyone who lives six kilometres or less from their work place would do anything else.

People enjoy the late afternoon autumn weather in the Carlton Gardens, located in one of Melbourne's most walkable ...

The time it takes is a non-issue. For the many thousands of us who live in the inner suburbs and work in the city, it adds barely any time to your daily commute at all.

Here's how it works for me. I live in West Brunswick and work in the eastern part of the CBD. Six-and-a-half Ks door to door and it takes me 65 minutes. If I drive, it takes a minimum of 30 minutes at peak hour and costs a fortune to park. If I catch the train or tram it takes me three-quarters of an hour. I have to write off 45 minutes every morning for my commute anyway; add 20 more, and I have done a large part of my exercise for the day.

You soon get used to carrying in a change of clothes, you leave your work shoes in there and have a wash when you arrive. As for weather, in a decade of this routine, I have had to resort to public transport about a dozen times. It just doesn't seem to rain heavily between 7.30 and 8.30 in the morning.

There are a lot of pluses. It's free. It's good for the planet and it's good for you. For an outdoorsy person whose work involves sitting at a computer eight hours a day, it keeps me sane and cheery. When I walk, it helps me process things, gain a little perspective.

On my way to work, and it's a lovely route – through Royal Park, past the zoo, along the edge of the Melbourne University colleges and down Lygon Street – I catch the birds, the flora, the early morning golfers, the cafe owners setting up their tables for the day. I see grim-looking commuters crammed like sardines on the trams and trains that hurtle past and I think, you poor buggers. Cars overtake and I catch them up at the next traffic lights.

Unlike jogging, walking is painless, gentle on the body and a realistic exercise option for a wide range of human beings.

It's a great alternative to the time and money spent in the gym. There's a big, fresh world out there to be exercised in and it's beautiful and it's good for you and it's free. Best of all, your daily commute will never be affected by peak-hour traffic again.

This was published in The Melbourne Age, 27 July 2016