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Layered griefs and pleasures

I’ve just read Michael Ondaatje’s latest masterpiece, ‘Warlight’. It’s the opposite of a page turner – a novel composed of writing so exquisite you want to linger over every paragraph, savouring the writing. It’s a book to break a writer’s heart; with people who can write like this in the world, why do I even bother?

In one chapter the protagonist, Nathaniel, describes Sam Malakite, a market gardener he works with for a couple of summers as a teenager, in a remote part of Suffolk in the years after WW II.

‘I trusted each step I took with him. HE knew the names of all the grasses he walked over. He’d be carrying two heavy buckets of chalk and clay towards a garden, but I knew he was also listening to a certain bird. A swallow knocked dead or unconscious from hitting a window silenced him for half a day. It remained with him, that bird’s world, its fate. If I said something later that encroached on the event, I’d see a shadow in him… He always knew the layered grief of the world as well as its pleasures.’

Coming into the season where we celebrate the God who we believe created the universe, who we believe chose to live among us, as one of us, this puts me in mind of the Jesus who is recorded as saying, ‘Aren't two sparrows sold for a small coin? But not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father knowing about it already.'

I love this incarnated, human Jesus who noticed the fallen sparrow, the children his followers forbade from bothering the great man, the terrified bleeding woman in the crowd, stretching a trembling hand towards the hem of his garment, yearning for wholeness, the short, despised tax collector cowering up a tree, the woman taken in adultery, the dirt-poor widow slipping her meagre coin into the collection box.

Jesus knew the layered grief of the world, and he rejoiced in its pleasures too, eating and drinking with his friends and with others at whose table no respectable citizen would be seen. He relaxed with his friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus, walked in the fields with his followers, climbed mountains and sailed on vast inland lakes, cuddled children on his knee.

I want to follow this incarnated God who knows not only every sparrow that falls, but also the layered griefs of my life that have almost slayed me these past few years and, of course, all the griefs, far more numerous, more complicatedly layered than mine, that afflict so many of God’s adored children. I want to see more clearly this Jesus who rejoices in my pleasures, the simpler the better, who smiles when I run rejoicing into the surf, hold my beloved or curl, warm and safe and drowsy, into bed.

And I want to be like Jesus, like Sam Malakite, open to my own joys and pain and confusion and also deeply attuned to the pleasures and the layered griefs of the world around me: our groaning planet and its threatened creatures, my family and my friends and anyone else whom the God of love places in my path, to minister to each other.

This was published in the December issue of The Melbourne Anglican



The idea of giving thanks is sprinkled liberally throughout the Bible, from Psalm 103 – ‘Bless the Lord oh my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name’, to 1 Thessalonians: ‘Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you’.

The Psalms taught me that it was fine to express anger and despair to God, but recently, I’ve been thinking more about cultivating an attitude of gratitude, to coin a corny phrase. Because, whenever I start to feel sorry for myself, for whatever reason, a quick look at the nightly news restores a sense of perspective.

Exhausted after a particularly pressured period at work and a death in the family, my husband and I had a much ‘needed’ week’s holiday in Bali at the end of July.

Not long after we flew back to our comfortable existence in suburban Melbourne, the first earthquake rocked and devastated Lombok, Bali’s neighbouring island. And then there was another. And then one more.

While families on Lombok whose homes were destroyed were still waiting for financial assistance to start rebuilding, another part of Indonesia was devastated. I watched heroic attempts on Sulawesi to unearth bodies – both living and dead - from tons of concrete rubble with the most basic equipment. People had no access to clean drinking water, let alone medical supplies.

I was sobered by the natural disasters affecting Lombok just after our idyllic spell close by. Hearing about the carnage wrought by the more recent natural disaster in that part of the world, I am reminded once again of the privileged bubble I occupy.

Looked at by local standards, my family has had a rough ride lately; frequenting the Parkville hospital precinct far more frequently than we’d like. In the second half of last year, we were in and out of the Royal Melbourne and the spanking new, architect-designed Peter Mac for months. More recently, we’ve been sampling the only two health establishments in that area I didn’t know so well – the Dental Hospital and the Royal Women’s. And all I can say about the public health system after this is: it is amazing. Caring and efficient staff, a bed when required, medical technology that boggles my mind: all available when we really need it. For free.

Whenever difficult stuff happens to people like me, it happens within this cocoon of effective infrastructure. Health care.  Ambulance. Police. Fireys. And that’s not even starting on roads and schools, mental health services and what is arguably civilisation’s greatest ever invention, the free lending library. Sure, the systems aren’t perfect, but they seem to work better than most other places on the planet.

Watching the world news is a useful daily corrective to any temptation I might have towards self-pity. Even when my chips are down, in my small corner I am surrounded by care.

And both our Holy Book and our liturgies are full of rich language for this deep gratitude. Another thing to thank God for.

This was published in the November issue of The Melbourne Anglican


Reading: a shortcut to compassion

You could argue that the most important value in life is compassion. You could also argue that the most painless way of growing compassion is by reading other people’s stories.

An ancient copy of Testament of Youth, the 1933 best-seller by Vera Brittain, has sat on my bookshelf for decades, surviving any number of culls of varying degrees of brutality, maybe because I knew at some level that this was a classic that I really should read one day. But it wasn’t until my interest had been sparked by seeing the latest movie version of this tale that I got around to picking it up.

This memoir of the years between 1914 and 1925, the decade containing World War I, cannot be rushed. It was written in an era when, harsh and full as life was, a writer seemed to have all the time in the world to explain things in great detail. It’s not for one minute boring, it just takes a while to read it.

Brittain tells the story of her harrowing war experience. A bright young woman who fought fiercely for the right to attend Oxford, her sheltered upper-middle-class English world was thrown into chaos by the war. All the people she was close to were killed and she worked for years as a highly capable VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse) in various wartime hospitals, including right behind the front lines in France.

Brittain went on to become a well-known novelist, poet and public speaker; feminism and pacifism were the causes dear to her heart. She belonged to that generation that believed, for a little while, that they could shape the world so that it learnt the lessons of the ‘War to end all Wars’ which turned out, of course, to be nothing of the sort. At the end of the book, written in 1933, she laments the fact that more horrific conflict is on the horizon, that her children will be exposed to carnage of the sort she hoped to never witness again.

Brittain grew up at the end of the Victorian period, in a world of extraordinary privilege. Reading accounts of such lives, I always marvel at the leisure and boredom of the existence of comfortably off women whose job was simply to organise servants and go visiting. I look at my life and that of my peers, both women and men – we hold down jobs, bring up children, run households and fulfil community commitments without any assistance from servants whatsoever. Not that I would swap – Brittain’s struggle was largely one to escape precisely such a set up.

Nothing enables me to live in worlds other than my own more than good writing. Brittain’s devastation as one after another of her beloved peers are killed is heart-rending. She talks about her ‘doomed generation’ and they were. I cannot begin to imagine the weight of grief upon grief that most people suffered in those years, although several contemporary situations compare – families of asylum seekers the world over, certain Indigenous communities, nations like Syria and the Sudan in an ongoing state of conflict. I belong to a generation who has never had to live through war. My parents’ generation, on the other hand, lived not only a through war but through six long years of the terror of fearing that barbarism might well take over the world. We live in complicated times, with pressures our forebears cannot imagine, and the threat of global-warming is the greatest our planet and our race has ever known, but I cannot begin to imagine the sheer courage that women and men living through a war needed simply to get up each morning and face what had to be faced.

Testament of Youth is refreshing because it is a women’s war book, so, to this reader infinitely more interesting than the many war tales penned by men. The experiences of women at home, making do despite war time shortages and waiting for the dreaded telegram that would tell them of the death of their husband/lover/father/brother/son are way beyond anything I have had to endure. The lives of nurses on the front lines were inhumanely exhausting and distressing as they dealt with daily carnage without benefit of much in the way of medical supplies or even clean water.

Another striking thing in this long tale is the very different style of relationships young people engaged in and the way letters formed the basis of how they became close. Brittain falls deeply in love with a young man and they become engaged, but they have only had a dozen or so times actually together, most of these accompanied by a chaperone. But the letters they wrote, sometimes several a week! A large part of her book consists of quotes from letters to and from her parents, her adored brother and her fiancé. They are long, poetic, honest, deep, philosophical, yearning. There was time to write this way, back then, war notwithstanding. Her brother Edward regularly scribbled pencilled notes from the trenches that made their way safely to his family; at one point he complains that it takes a day and a half for his letters to travel from the front line in France to his family in London. Australia Post eat your heart out!

They poured out their very souls in these letters, in a way that I suspect contemporary lovers rarely do with their instant messaging and their moving in together five minutes after they ‘hook up’. The sheer longing for each other in these epistles is a world away from the instant gratification we have come to expect in everything, including sex. I’m not wishing myself back there exactly – I do wonder how marriages panned out when these heightened times were over and a couple had to settle down to jobs and housework and the daily irritations that are a part of a long love. But the contrast with current practices is staggering.

Testament of Youth is a long, slow read, so exquisitely written that I wanted to savour every page. I loved Brittain’s acerbic humour and her fierce, unapologetic feminism (impressively, even after marriage, she kept the name of her family or origin) which is captured in such passages as this one, which litter the volume:

…all girls’ clothing of the period appeared to be designed by their elders on the assumption that decency consisted in leaving exposed to the sun and air no part of the human body that could possibly be covered in flannel. In these later days, when I lie lazily sunning myself in a mere gesture of a bathing suit on the gay plage of some small Riviera town – or even, during a clement summer, on the ultra-respectable shores of southern England – and watch the lean brown bodies of girl-children, almost naked and completely unashamed, leaping in and out of the water, I am seized with an angry resentment against the conventions of twenty years ago, which wrapped up my comely adolescent body in woollen combinations, bulky cashmere stockings, ‘liberty’ bodice, dark stockinette knickers, flannel petticoat and often, in addition, a long-sleeved, high-necked, knitted woollen ‘spencer’.

They don’t write like that anymore.

Reading Testament of Youth powerfully strengthened my conviction that entering another’s world, by engaging deeply with stories not our own, brings a compassion, sympathy, learning and wonder more effectively than just about anything else. If Hitler had read The Diary of Anne Frank. If Trump could read – really read – the stories of people desperately fleeing across the Mexican border. If Peter Dutton could immerse himself in a book written by an asylum seeker. If Malcolm Turnbull could get into a story of someone who has never had quite enough money to buy their kids shoes or go on a decent holiday. If Harvey Weinstein could read a book about a woman who has been sexually exploited. If we could, all of us, read and weep, read and resolve to never let carnage and abuse happen again, read and feel compassion for our planet and its people. Read.


This was published on the website Art/s and Theology Australia - 



Cup Day: Let it rain

‘Let it rain, Let it rain, Let it rain, Let it rain, Let it rain, Let it rain, Let it rain.’ So sings Bruce Springsteen in Mary’s Place, and I was singing it on Cup Day, as Melbourne was blessed with more rainfall in two hours that she had received in the previous two months.

The fact that it was Cup Day, and that the deluge might just have ruined a few fancy suits and fascinators or made it extra hard for those stilettos to navigate the lawns didn’t worry me a whit.

Iconic national day notwithstanding, why call it ‘bad weather’ I want to know. Sure, Victoria has experienced devastating floods in the last decade, but these days, drought is the natural disaster that dominates the news and, it seems, is set to do so for the foreseeable future.

Regardless of whether or not you are a racing person, we need the rain. We need it desperately, all over this state, all over the country.

As the storm broke on Tuesday afternoon and my small, parched, suburban garden rallied within a matter of minutes, I hugged myself in delight. The sound on our quintessentially Australian tin roof was deafening.  The almost-horizontal rain slashed over our wide back verandah, right to our door. When we went out for a walk that evening, the park over the road was full, not only of puddles, but of veritable billabongs of muddy water, where the local dogs were splashing and cavorting happily, and two days later, there has been a fresh new greening over the entire area. In the north-east, where devastating bush fires are both a recent memory and a constant fear, the dams on my daughter’s property filled just a little. The tanks were topped up.

I grew up in India, where at the coming of the monsoon (when it didn’t fail) after four months of ferocious heat, children and adults alike danced in the streets. Rain is a matter of life and death on our planet; it has always been so. If we city dwellers see it as an inconvenience, especially when we are all dressed up with somewhere to go, we need to get over ourselves. I’m with The Boss on this one. Le t it rain, Let it rain, Let it rain, Let it rain, Let it rain, Let it rain, Let it rain


Jesus and me. The A Team

A recent SMS exchange between my husband and me:

Husband: What enneagram number am I?

Me: Three. The nasty one. They can all be pretty nasty actually. Especially ones, which would be me.

Husband: Definitely a redeemed one then.

Me: Jesus and I are working on it.

Husband: The A-Team.

 As my 60th birthday fast approaches, I am aware of a gentle but profound revolution in my heart and soul. For much of my life, the last way I would have described myself was as a member of any A-team. Despite being surrounded by loving people and good things, I have been plagued by self-doubt and even self-loathing. There were – as there always are – good reasons for this. A complicated childhood largely spent a long way from parents. Exposure to a certain kind of religiosity. Growing up as a nice Christian girl in the 60s and 70s; not allowed to be sad, certainly not allowed to be angry. Self-negation was the way to salvation. Jesus came first, others next and ourselves barely at all. I had a strong, smart, loving parents but even so, self-acceptance was not part of my psyche and any real sense of the unconditional love of God was foreign to me.

But over decades, a combination of a few things has gently, slowly, agonisingly, wonderfully, changed me utterly. These things have been:

  • ·         Seasons of counselling, off and on, over the last 25 years;
  • ·         Spending time with a great many wise people, of various religions and none;
  • ·         A gifted spiritual director;
  • ·         The lifelong practice of weekly worship;
  • ·         Forty years of love by a good man, 32 years of love from our children, love that I have finally learnt it is my birthright to accept and return, joyfully;
  • ·         Decades of contemplative prayer; and
  • ·         Suffering.

These days, like the oft-quoted monk asked what they do in the monastery all day, said ‘We fall over and get up again’. Falling simply makes me human, not evil.

These days:

  • ·         I acknowledge that my instincts are mostly sound, so my first impulse is to trust, not suspect them.
  • ·         I know that I’m hopeless at some things, but that that doesn’t make me an idiot. I am good at others.
  • ·         I have stopped weaselling out of things because ‘I’m no good’. I realise that I’ve been around a while and done a lot of stuff, and I have a lot to offer – my work place, my friends, my family.
  • ·         It’s not my job to fix anybody else, but I can work on my relationship with them.
  • ·         I acknowledge that mostly I have made wise and decent choices, and that my life has been shaped accordingly, and trust that I will most likely continue to live that way.
  • ·         I have learned that deep grief will not destroy my faith, my sense of humour or my openness to wonder, or not for long.

 Thanks be to God, Jesus and I are working on it. The A-team.


 This wa published in the October issue of The Melbourne Anglican