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Wednesday
Dec062017

Silence

It’s not everybody’s idea of a fun time, but one of my favourite things to do is to go on a silent retreat for a day or two or seven. If I tell anyone this, nine out of ten respond with utter incredulity. (Mothers with little kids get it, their eyes close in utter bliss at the concept.)

‘What, like, silence. You don’t talk?!’

‘Not at all, no.’

‘What about meals, surely you chat over meals.’

‘Er, no. It’s a silent retreat.’

Most people express the view that they absolutely could not do that. But they might be surprised.

I attend Christian meditation retreats, as that is my religious commitment and it feeds me deeply. But people of all religions and none are starting to wake up to the power of silence. All the major world religions have a strong tradition of contemplation, of withdrawal from the hurly burly in order to do a variety of things: become closer to the Divine, gain perspective, regain peace, exorcise one’s demons, make an important decision. Mindfulness meditation is a secular version of this. And in our hyper-busy, hyper-connected era, the practice of solitude and silence is more radical than ever.

I’m an introvert, so the thought of not having to interact with people, even if I am sitting across the breakfast table from them, brings immense relief. But silent retreats are not only for introverts. We probably find practicing silence easier, but a dear and utterly extroverted mate of mine is a recent and complete convert to spending big chunks of time on one’s own, without benefit of verbal communication.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that the purpose of such a time is simply to chill out, to bludge; that’s good too, but it’s different.

When you go deeply into silence (and some guidance is wise, particularly if you are a novice) it is hard work. Occasionally it feels peaceful and easy; often it is dry and difficult. You wonder what on earth you’re doing. What the Buddhists call your ‘monkey mind’ swings gibbering from the trees, darting from one distracting thought to the next. Confronting issues that you successfully avoid addressing by filling your life with busy stuff arise and demand to be dealt with.

But if you persevere, there are rich rewards. Over time, silence, and the practice of meditation is the most powerful tool for growth in myself, in my creativity, in my relationships, that I know. You should try it sometime.

 Published in The Melbourne Age on 3 December 2017

Tuesday
Nov212017

Wrinkles

An absurdly young and good-looking man accosted me as I hurried back to my office at lunch time. His line was a good one, and stopped me in my tracks – "You have the most amazing skin".

He stood in the doorway of one of those airy, posh boutiques that line our end of Little Collins Street. Mostly they are clothes shops; this one sold make-up. He held out his palm on which trembled pale blue petals of, was it soap? It was. Fancy soap, that he wanted to sell me. "Thanks," I said, wondering where such fragile and sweet-smelling cleaning agents would fit in my life, and moving on.

But he wasn't going to let me go so easily.

"Do you mind me asking what skin product you use?" That was easy; I've used the same modest and affordable cream on my face for 40 years, and I told him so. He looked at me as though he couldn't quite imagine how someone who had been alive that long was still striding around without a wheel chair, or at the very least a walking frame.

I was hoping for another effusive compliment to propel me back to work, but instead, he said, "I could really help you with those wrinkles you know. And the bags under your eyes."

As the saying goes, pride comes before a fall. I threw back my head and laughed, which alarmed the young man a little, but he pressed on, undaunted. "No really, I could. Just pop into my shop for a minute."

"No thanks mate," I said. "I'm fine the way I am."

There followed a silence that felt like the pause on the phone when the cold caller asks would you like to decrease the amount of tax you pay madam, and I respond, no thanks.

I had him stumped, so I smiled as sweetly as I could, bags and all, said, "I don't mind my wrinkles," and headed back to my desk.

Would I go back to being young and nubile and wrinkle-free? Not on your life. Things were good back then, but they're so much better now, ageing and health issues and life's exhausting complexity notwithstanding. I wouldn't swap wisdom and self-acceptance for the smoothest skin in the universe.

In a society that worships youth and a narrow stereotype of attractiveness, I prefer the line from the Indigo Girls: "And every lesson learned a line upon your beautiful face." That's more like it.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on 20 November 2017.

An absurdly young and good-looking man accosted me as I hurried back to my office at lunch time. His line was a good one, and stopped me in my tracks – "You have the most amazing skin".

He stood in the doorway of one of those airy, posh boutiques that line our end of Little Collins Street. Mostly they are clothes shops; this one sold make-up. He held out his palm on which trembled pale blue petals of, was it soap? It was. Fancy soap, that he wanted to sell me. "Thanks," I said, wondering where such fragile and sweet-smelling cleaning agents would fit in my life, and moving on.

  • I've used the same modest and affordable cream on my face for 40 years... I've used the same modest and affordable cream on my face for 40 years... Photo: Artfully79

    But he wasn't going to let me go so easily.

    "Do you mind me asking what skin product you use?" That was easy; I've used the same modest and affordable cream on my face for 40 years, and I told him so. He looked at me as though he couldn't quite imagine how someone who had been alive that long was still striding around without a wheel chair, or at the very least a walking frame.

    I was hoping for another effusive compliment to propel me back to work, but instead, he said, "I could really help you with those wrinkles you know. And the bags under your eyes."

    As the saying goes, pride comes before a fall. I threw back my head and laughed, which alarmed the young man a little, but he pressed on, undaunted. "No really, I could. Just pop into my shop for a minute."

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    "No thanks mate," I said. "I'm fine the way I am."

    There followed a silence that felt like the pause on the phone when the cold caller asks would you like to decrease the amount of tax you pay madam, and I respond, no thanks.

    I had him stumped, so I smiled as sweetly as I could, bags and all, said, "I don't mind my wrinkles," and headed back to my desk.

    Would I go back to being young and nubile and wrinkle-free? Not on your life. Things were good back then, but they're so much better now, ageing and health issues and life's exhausting complexity notwithstanding. I wouldn't swap wisdom and self-acceptance for the smoothest skin in the universe.

    In a society that worships youth and a narrow stereotype of attractiveness, I prefer the line from the Indigo Girls: "And every lesson learned a line upon your beautiful face." That's more like it.

    Tuesday
    Nov142017

    Il aime les caresses

    Psalms such as 148 are full of images of the whole of creation singing praise to God. They are all there: stars and waters, sea monsters, fire and hail, mountains and hills, wild animals and cattle and more. St Francis of Assisi, whose feast day we celebrated recently, had the same idea in his Canticle of the Sun, where he refers to Brother Sun and Sister Moon.

    Sometimes I think that animals, of whom Francis is the Patron Saint, do a better job than humans not only of glorifying the creator but also of loving their human companions.

    Last year I was staying in a small town in the south of France, and took to walking down a particular street purely because there was a dog there that I was powerless to resist. He was solid and intimidating – a white bull terrier with a heavily studded leather collar, and he leaned against the front wall of his house, basking in the sunshine and looking scary.

    He didn’t fool me for an instant. I clicked my fingers at him and crouched down to his level and he melted; not just his tail but his entire body quivering with delight as he responded to my overtures. It wasn’t long before his owner emerged, appearing every bit as fierce as his dog: a wiry, mean looking guy with multiple tatts and body piercings. But the international society of bull terrier lovers is a powerful thing; he could see that I was smitten with his pet, and we were instantly on friendly terms.

    ‘Il aime les caresses’, he said, describing his dog, which seems to me to be an apt description of the condition of all creatures on this planet, human and animal. Everybody has a hungry heart. We all want to be loved.

    Now back in Melbourne, we have our very own caress-lover; an American bullterrier/bulldog cross: warm brown and clean white, 30 kg of pure muscle. I have never seen such a ripped creature, and I’ve never met such a sook.  He positively adores les caresses. He is a rescue dog of uncertain provenance, so we were prepared for some aggro, some unsettledness, some obvious signs of his complicated and unsatisfactory past. All we got was an endless, deeply gratifying need for affection. Mr Bruce cuddles and smooches, he rubs his massive head up against us, puts his paw plaintively on our laps if we aren’t paying him enough attention, rolls over to have his belly rubbed. At a recent live music gig at our place, he worked the room, approaching each young person sprawled untidily on the floor for hugs and kisses, and getting them every time.

    In the CBD every day I see homeless people, many of whom have a dog curled up trustingly beside them, protector and companion. A month after the Feast of St Francis of Assisi, I thank God for the millions of animals the world over who reflect the love of their creator.

    This was published in the November issue of The Melbourne Anglican

    Tuesday
    Nov072017

    Walk a mile in their shoes

    We humans are so stuck in the grid of our own experience. I’ve realised this anew watching SBS show Sunshine, a four-part series that follows the fortunes of a struggling basket-ball team in Sunshine, Melbourne. It’s out of character for me to watch anything about sport, but this show is so much more.

    It’s a whodunnit - one of my favourite genres, and although the subject matter is difficult, and it doesn’t flinch from racism, sexism and the consistent way human beings behave shoddily, it doesn’t stop with bleakness, but contains hope, forgiveness and redemption.

    Three of the four lads central to the tale are from South Sudan. The main character, Jacob, is in trouble with the police and, although he maintains his innocence throughout, he assumes that he will end up being incarcerated, because that’s what happens to young black guys who wear hoodies and are in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    The week I watched Sunshine, I also read The Mother, by Yvette Edwards. Set in London, it is another story about young black men. Much of the action takes place in court, and as I steeped myself in these two powerful fictional accounts, I tried to imagine myself at a police station or in a court room as a young black guy.

    If I was accused of something, and ended up in court, being white, educated and middle-aged, I could expect the benefit of the doubt.  I have always lived inside this socially acceptable skin. But if I were a black teenager for a day, just about anywhere in the world, and I happened to be in the vicinity when there was a robbery or a mugging it would be an utterly different story.

    I’m a bit shocked at how complacent I can be, having grown up in a country and city where I was in a tiny minority; everyone was a different colour, race and religion from me. And still, I need reminding that simply by virtue of the situation I was born into, life is always going to be easier for me than for many.

    This is one of the reasons I treasure story. It is one way I can approximate walking in someone else’s shoes. I can get into their head, see through their eyes. In a world of increasing polarisation, a tiny thing I can do to stem the tide of intolerance is to try and imagine myself out of my own head, if only for a while.

    This was published in The Melbourne Age on 8 November 2017

     

    Thursday
    Nov022017

    The eyes have it

    On the morning of the first day of a week’s holiday, I get something in my eye. Something that won’t come out, despite the usual ploys – eye drops, blinking madly in warm saline solution in an upended eyebath, peering uncomfortably under my eyelid, lying with my eye closed for a long time.

    My plan for the holiday was simple: sleep, walk, read. With this thing in my eye, I could do none of these. When it was open, my eye felt okay. When closed, not so bad. But every time I blinked, it felt as though a tiny claw or piece of broken glass was scraping across my eyeball.

    I rang the local medical centre – no appointments available. I popped in to the chemist, where a kind woman sensibly suggested I go to the optometrist in the next town.

    Eventually, in some distress, I did just that. An optometrist, the soul of calm professionalism, sat me down, had a good look, and pulled what appeared to be a few grains of sand from under my eyelid. The relief was so heavenly, it was almost worth the extreme discomfort.

    As always, when something trivial, temporary and easily fixable happens to my health, I am filled with reflections.

    How incredible that even in the tiny hamlet where I was staying, there is a health professional in the next, slightly less tiny town, who was able to fix me up with no fuss and no cost, apart from paying my taxes. How surprising that I don’t get things in my eyes more often – I am so often cleaning, beach walking, burning off. How fortunate that I live in a place where I can procure spectacles perfectly calibrated to my particular eye problems. How cleverly we are made, with organs of such exquisite sensitivity that the tiniest grain of sand caught in them is unbearable, so that we are forced to look after them.

    I think of all the people with compromised eye sight. People like my scholar dad who has had debilitating macular degeneration for years, but who manages still to get around and, with the help of various devices, to read. Of all the people partially or completely blind who live independently and uncomplainingly, while the rest of us whinge about the most trivial things.

    I look at my eyes in the mirror, with all their wrinkles and redness and age, and think how fabulous they are, how well they have served me all these years. Long may they continue to do so.

    Published in The Melbourne Age on 29 October 2017