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Better than a mountaintop experience

I’m trying to remember the last time I had what you might call a ‘mountaintop experience’. Maybe they are phenomena more associated with youth and its enthusiasms. Which sounds a bit sad, but it’s not; mountain top times were too often ephemeral, followed by troughs, disappointment and despair.

I’m not long back from the foretaste of heaven that is a five day silent retreat. Each day we had free time during which I walked a great deal. We ate and rested well. We had a daily talk from Fr Laurence Freeman, director of the World Christian Community for Meditation, we had short liturgies, and we had times of contemplative prayer, or Christian meditation. Five a day, each 25 minutes long, sitting in complete silence, all 160 or so of us, quietly breathing and saying our prayer word in our hearts.

The experience of sitting in a room with so many people silently communing with the divine is powerful. You are carried along in the stream of prayer flowing from so many faithful hearts to their Maker, Redeemer and Sustainer. Christian mystics have long maintained that when we pray, we open ourselves to being caught up in the current of love flowing between the members of the Trinity, and it certainly feels a bit like that.

It’s not all beer and skittles, not all floaty feelings of peace and harmony. As happens when I’m meditating on my own at home, most of the time my thoughts fly from one inane thing to another, as thoughts do, and I bring them gently back to God. In fact I try not to think, but to focus on my prayer word which somehow helps to by-pass rational thought and takes me to a deeper place of communion with the great loving power we call God.

The point of the whole exercise is not to feel good, it is simply to set aside time to be with God, thus increasing our openness to God’s grace and healing, widening the part of ourselves that is a channel of God’s love into the small bit of the world immediately around us.

It’s certainly not a mountaintop experience, or has never been for me. It’s just something I do each day that I trust will open my heart more effectively to the loving God who is always seeking to be closer to each one of us.

I come home at the end of the five days, simultaneously weary and profoundly rested. My own faltering prayer practices have had a shot in the arm. I have a deeper reservoir of compassion for others and even for myself; I believe a tiny bit more that God delights in me. I am conscious of a welling up of joy. I’m reminded that the love that I plug into every time I pray will see my through every season of my life.

Maybe it’s the middle-aged equivalent of a mountain top experience. It’s certainly steadier and more lasting. It’s good enough for me.

This was published in the August 2017 edition of The Melbourne Anglican.


The joys of snuggling with my hottie

In a world where technology continues to develop beyond our wildest dreams and nightmares, one archaic piece of domestic equipment continues to provide warmth and comfort, both literal and metaphorical.

I’m talking about the humble hot water bottle, what we used to call a ‘hottie’ for short, until that term was commandeered to mean something else.

Despite decades of electric blankets and all manner of trendy wheat packs and the like, nothing seems to have replaced the HWB, if the shelves in chemists and supermarkets are any indication.

Tummy ache, backache, neckache, headache, period pain – just about anything feels better with a hottie clutched close. These bitter winter nights, there are few things more delightful than extending your feet between your sheets and discovering – oh joy – that your partner has done the HWB duty.

Once I’m in bed, the hottie goes on heavy rotation. It starts by warming my popsicle toes, to quote an old Michael Franks song from the 70s, then makes its way north to lodge cosily between my knees. From there it is hoisted to my abdomen, and once that is thoroughly warmed, it nestles against the small of my back.

There are tricks to maximising the heat retention of a hot water bottle, as any devotee knows. Warm it well first, with just-off-the-boil water. Once it feels toasty, fill will freshly heated water, not so full that you risk bursting it, but full enough that it keeps its heat into the wee small hours.

Then of course, there is the cover, without which HWBs can be dangerous. If you’re really stuck, you can improvise with a pillowcase or an old T-shirt, but it’s much nicer to have a custom designed cover, of which there are all manner of soft, colourful and quirky versions on sale. I decided my boyfriend was a keeper when he knitted me a hottie cover with my name knitted into it; when said keeper and I started reproducing, I did the same for our kids.

Hotties, like decent cups of tea, take time to prepare. Made for yourself, they are a sign that you are about to relax, just as the slow steep of tea in a pot is. Made by someone else, they are a sign of the kind of love that shows itself in practical care. No matter if your need for comfort is physical or emotional, a hot water bottle helps. I defy technology to invent anything half as effective.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on 31 July 2017


Mr Bruce meets the ocean

At the end of a week where my husband spent six days in hospital – half of these expected, the other half not - we escaped to the beach for three nights, grabbing some normality before the next hospital admission. With us came Mr Bruce, the three-year-old rescue dog we adopted from the Lort Smith Animal Hospital a month ago. He’s an American Staff (AmStaff to the initiated); 30kg of pure muscle and boisterous affection. We are besotted with him, and the feeling appears to be mutual.

Because he hasn’t spent time with other dogs, however, when we are in town, we cannot let him off the lead, even in our local dog park. So, one of the main reasons for our beach mini-break was to liberate Mr Bruce from leads and collars and let him run wild and free on generous expanses of sand. We wanted to introduce Mr Bruce to the ocean.

The experience more than lived up to expectations. At first he was bemused - looking cautiously around – what is this – this wide expanse of gleaming dampness, this crashing water on one side, this high cliff on the other? He quickly got the hang of it, however, as we ran around, encouraging him to race from one of us to the other, picking up speed, exercising his mighty muscles, tearing happily after seagulls, plunging into the waves, leaping and cavorting, coming out and shaking the sea from his sleek coat.

Mr Bruce is an animal, mostly a content one, so he dwells in the moment in a way that even the most enlightened humans find difficult. I’ve recently read the spiritual best-seller ‘The Power of Now’ – a strange, esoteric, dense but compelling book.

I need to read it again to even begin to grasp it, but I think the essential point the author, Eckhart Tolle, is making is that we human beings spend so much energy fretting over past and future, when in reality, all we have is the present moment. He weaves quotes from all the major spiritual giants, most from Jesus of Nazareth, into his thesis.

Mindfulness is the flavour of the month (literally in May) with people of all religions and none touting its healing properties. Right now in my own life, the future is scary, as my husband is in the middle of heavy duty cancer treatment. My anxiety levels can sky rocket with very little effort and I am having a crash course in savouring moments whenever I can – moments of togetherness, beauty and contentment that are perfect in themselves.

Watching non-human creatures helps me do this. I am inspired by the birds fossicking in our garden beds and singing their little hearts out in the trees, the possums merrily scampering along the electricity lines in my street. Most of all, watching Mr Bruce meet the ocean was a lesson in utterly focussed and uncomplicated delight.

Published in The Melbourne Age on 23 July 2017


Ah, Sydney!

Lord but Sydney’s beautiful! I’ve just had five days there and was blown away by how gorgeous it is.

Granted I was on holiday. What’s more, I was on a silent meditation retreat – an introvert’s paradise – and all I had to do all day was sleep, meditate, eat, walk, repeat. So I was predisposed to feel positive about my environment. It helped that Sydney was all bright blue freezing sky and sunshine, until the day it poured, and that was lovely in its own way. Plus, I was in a scenic part of Sydney. I know Sydney has ugly bits – even Paris has those.

I write this as a proud and contented Melburnian who wouldn’t choose to live for long anywhere else, except maybe Ahmedabad. Or the Isle of Skye.

Sydney, however, is something else if you’re talking about natural beauty. Melbourne has laneways and graffiti, bars and live music galore; Sydney has three things that Melbourne lacks, things that feed my soul: water, hills and bush. It has sizeable national parks smack bang in the middle of the city. Walk to the end of a perfectly ordinary suburban cul de sac and abruptly you’re on a bush track with streams and massive trees and ferns and immense mossy boulders and only the faint sound of traffic to remind you you’re in a major city. Driving from the airport through the CBD there are the magnificent clichés of the bridge and the opera house, and then you’re onto a main road that winds through the kind of landscape you only see in, say, the Dandenongs around here.

The coastline puts me in mind of the children’s classic Where the forest meets the sea. Sub-tropical rain forest comes right down to the water’s edge, unlike the grey, uninspiring scrub that fronts the beaches I’m used to. Every corner you turn, you see a new aspect of a bay, small boats bobbing serenely. Half close your eyes and pretend those boats away, and you are transported back into a painting from the early days of European invasion – twisty white tree trunks against the dense grey-green bush, blinding cockatoos screeching as they fly across the water.

Next time my main man and I are looking for a short break, that’s where I’ll vote for heading. I don’t see why someone who loves Melbourne can’t be smitten with Sydney. Both are afflicted with insane real estate prices and loads of social problems. Both are also fabulous, vibrant cities. It’s not a competition.



Extraordinary machine

Beguiling songstress Regina Spektor put it well:

I’ve got a perfect body

But sometimes I forget

I’ve got a perfect body

‘Cause my eyelashes catch my sweat, yes they do, yes they do

I always thought it was eyebrows that were designed to keep perspiration out of our peepers, but physiology aside, she makes her point, which is that our bodies are complex and wondrous miracles.

The author of Psalm 139 had the same idea:

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

your works are wonderful,

I know that full well

Sometimes I like to sit or lie silently and think my way through my body, feeling my toes and my calves and all the way up to the top of my scalp, tingling and prickling and expanding up to the vast forgiving sky. ‘I have no pain at all today,’ I like to think. ‘And I had a drink of cool water just now and it is inching its way down my oesophagus and into my system and that clean good gift is filling me and plumping out my grateful cells.’

How wonderful are thy works oh God! We have mouths that take in all manner of sustaining and tasty food that breaks down inside us, the good, helpful bits somehow melding with our bodies in a way that builds us up, keeps us healthy and strong and enduring, and whatever can’t be used is neatly expelled at the other end, with no fuss.

My sturdy bones keep me upright and moving and protect my vital organs; my muscles are strong enough to carry me many miles each day and do all the lifting and scrubbing and sweeping and walking the dog that I need to, and my skin protects me from infection. My womb grew four children and my breasts fed them through infancy. My hands can cook, caress and hold a pen and my brain, my brain in the most extraordinary thing of all – remembering and musing and creating and solving problems and changing the way I react to life’s challenges if the way I learnt already is no longer serving me so well.

And all this, this frenetic, incredible activity that is going on is silent, performing all its wondrous acts without so much as a creak or groan, well, most of the time anyway. As another songstress, Fiona Apple put it, I’m an extraordinary machine.

This is what I need to remember when I am wistfully contemplating my aching joints, sagging chin and patchy memory, when I bemoan the fact that I can’t walk as far or as fast as I did when I was younger. The frailest, oldest, sickest human body is a miracle of complex systems that keep us alive, healthy, functioning, thriving.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works [even me!] are wonderful,
I know that full well

Thanks be to the creator God.

This was published in the July issue of The Melbourne Anglican