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Tuesday
Oct102017

Guilty pleasures

As far as I can remember, I’ve never read an actual Mills & Boon or equivalent. But when I was a much younger woman, my mother introduced me to something close enough – romantic thrillers by English author Mary Stewart, best known for her brilliant trilogy on Merlin and Arthur. As a side line, however, she wrote ten books featuring feisty, clever and gutsy English twenty-something women in exotic locations. The general formula, with some exceptions, was that the devastatingly attractive bad guy turned out to be the good guy in the end, and together our protagonist and the bloke saved the day against baddies plotting dastardly deeds against everything from small countries to small children.

I adored these books and read them over and over, falling in love, through the printed page, not with the handsome love interest, but with places I had never been – Vienna, Crete, Corfu, the Isle of Skye, Lebanon and Syria, the south of France. As Mum (who had had her fair share of smart-and-feisty-woman-in exotic-locations experiences) used to say, ‘the local colour is marvellous’.

Because Stewart was writing in the 50s and 60s, the sexual action is limited. There are coy lines such as, ‘neither of us said anything for a very long time’. The books are dated in other ways too, of course, but there are fewer wincey moments than I expected. The heroines were physically attractive, sure, but that featured a long way behind their pluck and brain. They run rings around the men. In Stewart’s first foray into this genre Madam will you talk? written in 1955, our girl is a gun driver of fast cars; what’s more, she can disable the bad guy’s vehicle in a jiffy.

I’m not sure how my Mary Stewarts escaped my recent decluttering purges, which included a substantial number of books, but when I was struck down with the flu recently, I was so glad they had survived. Once I was over the worst, all I wanted to do was to curl up in bed with a Mary Stewart. I read five in a row, and when I ran out, as I was away from home for a couple of days, headed to the local op shop is desperation.

Home again, and with vastly improved health, I am still working my steady way through my Stewarts. And – further confession time – I have ordered all the ones I didn’t already own, on book depository.

This was published on 7 October in The Melbourne Age

Friday
Oct062017

Wounded and blessed

Like most of the towering heroes in the Bible stories, Jacob was not what we would call a decent person. A cheat and a coward, he nevertheless had two of the most powerful spiritual encounters described in the scriptures. There was the ladder reaching from his runaway resting place to heaven with angels coming and going – surely a metaphor for divine traffic linking us to God in the direst of circumstances. And then there was the all-night fight with a mysterious stranger – maybe his conscience, maybe an angel, maybe God.

In the story, Jacob, coming back to face the music in the shape of his wronged brother Esau, wrestles all night with an unbeatable foe. Towards dawn, both wrestlers are exhausted, and Jacob’s assailant strikes him in the hip, throwing it out of joint, and asks Jacob to let him go. Jacob refuses to relent until the stranger blesses him, which he does, giving him the new name of Israel, but refusing to reveal his own name. According to the account in Genesis, Jacob thought his assailant was God. A God who, as in Moses’ later encounter at the burning bush, refused to be limited to a label.

Jacob continues into his spectacular story, with a new wound, a blessing and a new name.

This weird and wonderful story resonates powerfully with me. This last year our family has struggled with some new challenges, including dealing with incurable cancer and its treatment. While we are profoundly grateful for this treatment, is a brutal thing to witness, let alone experience. It feels as though we have been wrestling, all year, with forces that haven’t defeated us yet, but nor will they let us go. We’ve not given up, but we are exhausted.

Hearing my husband - the one who has been so very sick - preach on Jacob recently was poignant as I drew parallels with this story from the dawn of time and our own current experience. Like Jacob, we have been struggling through a time that has sometimes seemed like an endless night. Like him, we walk away wounded. We will never be quite the same again – we have lost any blithe assumptions we ever had that life would all turn out well. I have seen my previously indestructible husband completely helpless and staring death in the face. At the same time, we walk away blessed, profoundly so. We are freshly aware of love and grace, both human and divine. We are closer to, more appreciative of, and gentler with each other. The simplest joys in life are sweeter than ever before, friendships more cherished.

All I know, through our experiences this year, is that life takes you on, and you are never quite the same again. But if you let them, the wounds with which you limp into the rest of your life can by God’s grace, be a blessing and the start of a deeper connection with Jesus, the wounded healer.

This was published in the October edition of The Melbourne Anglican

 

Friday
Sep292017

Of health and hubris

‘For once in my life, I’m indispensable.’ I said this to an experienced mother, in the first smug bliss of new motherhood. She smiled wryly. ‘I dunno, there’s always a bottle, and formula,’ she said, bursting my little self-important bubble.

I was reminded of this two weeks ago, when I heard myself saying to my husband, ‘It only happens once every 18 months, but at this time I really am indispensable.’ I was speaking of the big, five-day conference I am event manager for. It was the day before it began – ‘bump in day’ – and I was feeling decidedly fluey. The show was about to start and me, its director, was achey and shakey and barely able to think, or get out of bed.

I forced myself out and did a day’s highly ineffective work, probably being more of a liability than an asset. Next day, when the games were about to begin, I was at my post by 7am, papers in pigeon holes, urns bubbling, tables prepared, welcoming team briefed, computer systems up and running.

I suspect lots of people asked me questions that morning, and I have no idea what I replied, or if it made any sense whatsoever. BY lunch time I was running a fever and on the point of collapse and I headed for home, where I didn’t leave my bed, except to go to the doctor, for ten days.

Each morning I planned I would go back to work, each morning I woke and stumbled to the shower where I nearly passed out. Each morning I emailed reminders to the team about the various things that had to be done that day.

Needless to say, they were all over it. Needless to say, the conference went off without a hitch. We were well prepared; the team were wonderful, and I re-learnt a life lesson. No one is indispensable, not even a mother, not even an event manager. The show goes on, and if it goes on slightly differently than it might have, that’s fine.

I hated being so unwell and missing my event. But there was also something liberating about sinking back into bed, knowing there was not a damn thing I could do. I could not save the day and it didn’t matter – others were well able to.

What we each do is important, of course it is. But one day I will retire, and then another day I will die, and the world, and the jobs I’ve done and even the people I’ve loved will keep on going. It’s a good lesson to learn.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on 25 September 2017

Wednesday
Sep062017

Made for walking

We make a big fuss about shoes. Not the fancy kind, with sky high heels and prices to match; I’m just talking plain old walking shoes here.

I first realised that you can walk a long way in rubbish footwear riding a camel in the Thar Desert in western India; our guide schlepped competently along all day in a pair of busted sandals.

In the epic solo trek along the Pacific Crest Trail described in her book Wild, Cheryl Strayed walked for much of the 2000 kilometres with boots a size too small. Then one of them fell off the mountain anyway, and she walked to the next supply stop in sandals bound up in packing tape.

In Born to Run, author Christopher McDougall who is an advocate for barefoot running, points out that in the past, Olympic runners got about in unpretentious canvas footwear. He quotes figures proving that foot injuries have multiplied alarmingly since we all started paying megabucks for elaborate running shoes that are actually bad for our feet – feet that are constructed precisely to cope with rough terrain with their dozens of tiny, moving parts.

I’m no Cheryl Strayed, but when I went away for a week recently I only took one pair of footwear, and they fell apart on my second day. The walking boots that I bought 15 years ago and have worn endlessly in city, country and bush have been resoled, relined and stitched up numerous time by my local cobbler Greg who is cheery and never suggests I ditch old shoes and buy myself a new pair. In our throwaway society Greg is a treasure. Last year I was in the UK and Europe for seven weeks with just these boots and a pair of Birkenstocks, walking many miles a day, and they came home in one piece.

But this time I fear they might be beyond repair. The whole of the top has come away from the bottom in the right-hand shoe, and all the back seams are unravelling too. It grieves me, but I think they’ll have to go.

I walked all week in my broken shoes with no mishaps. On my third day, however, it poured. As the rain crept in and around my socks and the wind blew up and my toes never quite warmed up that day, I realised that low-tech, minimalist footwear is all very well, but when it’s pouring, shoes with no holes are a smart idea.

This was published on 7 September 2017 in The Melbourne Age

Monday
Sep042017

The motley, inter-generational crew that make up church

In a big city, you can spend your whole life with a cohort who fit precisely into your demographic. Churches, like country towns, come with the gift of exposing you to people with whom you have very little in common.

This is one of the things I treasure about belonging to a church community. Far from the stereotype of a cosy club of like-minded and self-satisfied folk, the churches I know are a motley mix of sinners and saints; a rich range of races, abilities, socio-economic levels and ages.

Where else in a modern city do your kids get to interact with old people, week after week, festival after festival, through baptisms and funerals, through trauma and conflict, in lament and in celebration?

When we moved to Melbourne, we attended a church in the inner north, which was populated largely by university students, many of whom were living in the city for the first time. We dug in with these interesting individuals whose ages ranged from 18 to 23, catching up each Sunday, occasionally having them around to our place, accepting their offers of babysitting our mob, to whom they were the epitome of cool. When our kids didn’t want to talk to us about something, it was sometimes this group – half way between their generation and ours – that they turned to.

We have remained close to a number of these good people – now approaching middle age – attending several weddings over the years and one funeral. Many of them have produced a family who are giving them the joys and challenges they observed us navigating years ago. (Our kids, as they grew up, babysat theirs.) They are running businesses, completing PhDs, working at jobs, paying off mortgages. Some are involved in church, others aren’t.

It moves me deeply, the opportunity to watch generations being born, growing up and making their way in the world and, at the other end of the spectrum, caring for people who we first knew in vibrant middle-age and who are becoming frail, walking with them as they enter the valley of the shadow of death.

The health practitioner I attend most regularly is an impressive woman I first met as a shy 18-year-old, freshly up from the country for tertiary education. She now has babies of her own, a thriving business and still does the hands-on work she loves. Once or twice a month she works her magic on my warped and ageing back and neck, keeping me comparatively supple and mobile, skilfully, firmly and tenderly caring for me. As she works on me, we chat endlessly about our common community, the new babies and the grim diagnoses, the struggles and the joys. I remember her so clearly, not long out of childhood, and now, I am literally in her hands.

With all its frailties and frustrations, being part of a church community has given me this - the privilege of being part of lives different from my own.

Pubished in the September issue of The Melbourne Anglican