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Long, slow fashion

When my mum died, 21 years ago, I inherited a jacket I had always loved. It was a glowing peacock greeny blue, and she bought it when she and my dad lived in Dublin in the 1980s.  Inside it is a cloth label depicting a dinky little cottage nestled under a mountain. Two leafless winter trees, blue sky and wispy clouds are included in the picture, and underneath the cosy scene are these words:

‘Donegal Handwoven

This tweed was handwoven from pure new wool in my small cottage in County Donegal, Ireland. Like my forefathers, I have put something of my own character into this cloth: ruggedness to wear well, softness for comfort, colours from our countryside. Joy and health to you who wear this.’ Underneath is a proud flourish of a signature – W. McNelis.

There have been some profoundly disturbing articles in the media over the past year or so, and some confronting statistics. Such as the fact that 6000 kilograms of clothing are dumped in landfill by Australians every ten minutes. And that the average Australian buys 27 kilograms of new clothing and textiles each year. Our addiction to fast fashion, it would seem, is one of many practices contributing to environmental disaster.

Mum was all class; not conventionally beautiful but always elegant. She was never terribly well off, so she bought very little, but what she did buy lasted.

Like mum, I’ve never had a lot of disposable income. I’m an op shop fanatic, but have also been guilty, on occasion, of a department store shopping spree, bringing home a five-dollar T-shirt or three, something I can’t imagine mum ever doing.

Her jacket has survived serval moves and endless numbers of culls as I have attempted to accumulate less, travel lighter, declutter my wardrobe and my life. Although the lining is slightly torn, the coat is still toasty warm, and every time I wear it, I get appreciative comments. As W. McNelis wished, it does bring me joy. They don’t make garments like that anymore.

I have many of mum’s things still: the dinner set that was a wedding present in 1954, an antique wall hanging and a very old wooden and brass chest, both of which she bought in India. Like her jacket, they are treasured, and will, I hope, be passed on to my own offspring one day, along with the conviction that having fewer possessions and looking after them might go a small way towards saving the planet.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on 25 August 2019


Looking for hope 

This weekend I am taking a train to a monastery in the west of the state, to stay a few days on my own.  It’s the best thing I can think of to do at the moment, ‘weary and worn and sad’ as I am, after a period of physical and emotional challenges to the ones I love the most and at the end of project managing a major conference.

It’s not just tiredness that’s besetting me, however. It’s a deeper malaise. My writing vocation that has brought such satisfaction no longer seems the clarion call it once was. Way more troubling is the state of the world. I am deeply despondent from reading daily of Trump and Brexit, domestic violence and Adani and detention for some of the most traumatised people on the planet. The world has always been a brutal place; the environmental crisis is not simply a game changer, it is likely to be the game ender. I can see no way out of oblivion, and our leaders seem not to give a toss. I almost envy the very old, who don’t have to see what comes next.

At some level, however, I know that the God I follow is the bringer of hope, even, perhaps particularly, out of harrowing situations. Hope that isn’t a cheesy ‘happy ending’, hope that will give me and other people of good will the energy and humour not to give up, to ‘mount up with wings as eagles; run, and not be weary; walk, and not faint’.

I also know from a lifetime of experience that the enemy of hopefulness is sometimes as simple as physical exhaustion. Sometimes the road back to hope starts with catching up on sleep.

For a contemplative introvert like me, hope is also restored by silence and solitude.  I have been on countless retreats over the last four decades; the last time I went to this particular monastery, I was heavily pregnant with a baby who is now 25. It was where I went in order to recoup from a life full of small children, a busy parish in the middle of a bustling country town. It is where I first stumbled upon the writings of John Main, founder of the World Christian Meditation Community, which has been one of the richest blessings on my Christian journey. I have memories of nothing but peace and rest there.

I go back as a 60-year-old knowing that the only thing I need to take with me is trust. I look back at the young woman whose life since my last visit has been chock full of joy and heartache and richness and, through it all, a steadily increasing awareness of the boundless love of God. I need to trust that the God who is love will meet me in the days I set aside, to restore my soul, in the process freeing and energizing me to be a more effective channel of God’s peace.

This was published in the August edition of The Melbourne Anglican



Is it possible to read too much?

Is it possible to read too much?

I get through around 80 books each year. My choice of reading covers everything from thrillers to theology, but overwhelmingly I read fiction.

‘You’re so good, the way you read so much,’ people sometimes say. But there’s nothing remotely noble about this endeavour. Reading for me is like eating chocolate; pure, unadulterated pleasure. I’m just lucky my favourite indulgence isn’t bad for me.

Sometimes, though, I wonder.

Knowing that I have a thing for Scottish Islands, a mate recently lent me a book set on a small island off the west coast of Scotland. ‘Thanks!’ I enthused. ‘I’ve never heard of this author. How is that I read all the time and am constantly discovering wonderful writers I’ve never heard of?’ and proceeded to read Now we shall be entirely free by Andrew Miller.

A week later, I was trawling over my ‘List of books read in 2019’ which I keep religiously at the back of my hard copy diary. Who should I see there but Andrew Miller, whose novel The Crossing I had gobbled up over the summer holidays?

It all came rushing back. Including a conversation with my husband, who had also enjoyed The Crossing when I had said ‘How is it that I read all the time and am constantly discovering wonderful writers I’ve never heard of?’

This was when I began to wonder if a person can over-read. I perused the list of books I’d read in the last six months and could barely recall the plots of any of them. I devour books (no coincidence that so many of the words used to describe reading – devour, insatiable, voracious, consume – are eating words) like a kid eats fairy floss, desperately, as though there were a risk that someone might forbid me. Like a chain smoker, if I don’t have my next book ready to go when I close the last page of the current one, I feel edgy and incomplete.

Of course, there are volumes I linger longingly over, the details of which are clear in my memory and will remain so. There are works I return to again and again. Mostly, though, I’m unable to stop myself tearing through fiction like there’s no tomorrow.

This is no virtue; it simply proves that if you love doing something enough, you’ll find the time to do it. As for whether it’s good for me to read quite so much, like any addict, I’m willing to risk it.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on Sunday 4 August



Bearing the sorrows

In this part of the world, Mothers’ Day comes hard on the heels of Good Friday, which seems apt to me.

I’ve no truck with the theory of substitutionary atonement. I can’t believe that a God whose other name is love required a blood sacrifice to render God’s own creation acceptable and no longer repellent. That’s not how I read the Gospels, nor is it the God I have experienced in a lifetime of faith.

So I’m not sure what to make of the language about Jesus on the cross ‘bearing the sins of the world’. The suggestion, however, that Jesus was bearing the sorrows and griefs of the world, makes perfect sense.

As I have said before, over and over, when the creation and its human creatures are in pain, God’s heart is the first to break. This is what I believe. And the closest I have come to this divine characteristic is in relation to my own offspring.

I remember as a teenager being distraught about a breakup with a boyfriend and saying to my sympathetic mother, ‘It’s alright for you, you’re happily married and you never have to go through this!’ Admirably, she restrained herself from commenting on my infantile notions of what a long marriage entailed. What she did say was, ‘We go through it all with you. That’s just as bad.’

Now I know what she means. One of the things you sign on for, when you become a parent, is the anguish of witnessing the suffering of your children without, usually, being able to do a damn thing about it. When they are little you can protect and shelter them to some extent. When they are grown, all you can do is try and be there when and as they need.

Now that all my offspring are well and truly adult and responsible for themselves, this grief intensifies. Over the last decade, when they have endured the normal, agonising slings and arrows of misfortune that even the most fortunate life dishes up, grieving for them has been the most painful thing I’ve had to do, more crippling than my own sorrows.

Not long ago, when another drama shook our family, I wailed to a close friend, ‘I don’t want to be a mum anymore. It hurts too much.’

Pain is not the emotion I primarily associate with parenthood. For me, overwhelmingly, mothering has been an experience of laughter and love. Furthermore, I’ve learnt profound lessons through the dark periods, and these have given me an insight into the way the God who is love feels about every last one of God’s creatures. And I am grateful for that insight.

There are as many ways to learn about God as there are human beings. The way of motherhood is no more sacred than any other. But it is a significant part of my calling, so it is one of the ways I learn about God’s love.

This was published in the July issue of The Melbourne Anglican



Post-election blues

I spent election weekend at the beach by myself. On the Sunday morning, when the news had well and truly broken, and my spirit with it, I walked by the ocean in an attempt, maybe, to gaze upon eternal things and remember that the God who made the sea and all that is in it is a giver of courage and hope.

I passed so many groups of people – it was a glorious day – and all were chatting happily about inconsequential things. I felt like shaking them. ‘Don’t you know what just happened? Don’t you realise that now the Adani coal mine will go ahead and the souls languishing in detention who have endured so much will have even less reason to keep enduring?’

As I walked, my friend, who is an asylum seeker living in the community, called me in distress. He has lived in limbo for almost a decade. His resilience and bravery have humbled us and his whacky sense of humour, in a language not his own, has filled our life with richness and delight. But today he sounded defeated and I wept for him.

Twenty-one years ago, Paul Kelly wrote these words: I’m so afraid for my country…I was born in a lucky country, every day I hear the warning bells, they’re so busy building palaces, they don’t see the poison in the wells. In the land of the little kings, profit is the only thing, and everywhere the little kings, are getting away with murder.

Time is running out for my friend and so many in situations similar and worse than his. On an even bigger scale, time is running out for our planet. I want my children and theirs to experience life in its diversity and splendour, but every year that passes, that seems a more naïve expectation. Just last month, a report from the UN claimed that one million species face extinction and that it will likely take millions of years for the earth to recover from our current biodiversity crisis.

I don’t want to be party political here. Neither of our major political parties has much to admire when it comes to policy on refugees or climate change. But I am devastated that once again, greed, self-interest and fear have won out over compassion and the long view.

Scott Morrison claims a miracle – presumably wrought by the God to whom he prayed for rain. The God I know from the gospels, the God I seek to follow is the one who consistently sides with the powerless, the poor, the despised, the underdog, those who cannot speak for themselves. Today, that includes asylum seekers, our planet and its disappearing species.

Post-election, in a world that has already given us Trump and Brexit, it is hard not to despair. I’m so afraid for my country. But I pray for resilience and hope, for the wisdom to rest in God so that we can rise up with wings like eagles, filled with energy enough to follow the God of the powerless and voiceless.