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Reel to reel

When we were kids, reel to reel tapes were the very latest in technology. It was the 60s, we were in India; things might have been a little more sophisticated in the ‘Western world’. Mum and Dad listened to the BBC news on a little ‘trannie’, but the only music we could access came from reel to reel tapes.

These were painstakingly created for us by one of our Uncles back in Australia, who taped classical music, packed the big reels in their orange and white boxes and posted them out, surface mail, in a big, slow boat to the Subcontinent.

Mum loved those tapes. Music abounded on the radio in Ahmedabad, the bustling city where we lived, but most of it was of the Bollywood variety, and Mum was more a Bach, Beethoven, Mozart kind of gal. I remember, in the years after The Sound of Music came out, being on a picnic, surrounded with happy crowds of locals listening to a boom box belting out movie tunes and mum saying, grimly, ‘The hills are alive with the sound of music’.

Our tape player (I don’t think it was called a tape recorder back then, as recording was not one of it functions) was big and boxy, metallic green and silver. I loved threading the blank end of the tap around the empty, right hand spool, slotting it into the slit in the middle and rotating it until the tape held, then pressing play. There is a distinctive metallic smell that I associate with those ancient tape players that I’ve never smelled since, but it tantalizes in my memories, evoking a powerful falling back into the feel of my childhood.

When my older sister left for boarding school I was three and had to learn to entertain myself. I would put on the classical music tapes and dance, dressed in one of mum’s oldest frocks, which reached my toes, making me feel like a princess. On my head, I draped an old nappy (which we kept, for rags – for dusting and polishing) which made me feel that, princess-like, I had long, flowing locks, not the short back and sides I actually possessed.

I would dance for hours, floating around the room in my outsize dress and nappy-hair. One time I remember suddenly realising that I was being watched, and whirling to see Mum, leaning quietly on the doorframe, gazing at me with silent pleasure.

As the sixties progressed, my sister and I became aware of movies. Three, to be precise; in my childhood I can only ever recall three films. They were My Fair Lady, the Sound of Music, and Mary Poppins, and we knew every word of each by heart.

We did see them at some point – these films were so universal they even made it to Ahmedabad (I can remember the local lads whistling and hooting at the very tame love scene between Fraulein Maria and Baron von Trapp) but even better, mum and dad acquired tapes of all the songs.

Maybe at this point in our development, my sister and I wanted to branch out from the classics, in any case, we took to these musicals with wild enthusiasm. I don’t know how those tapes survived, we played them so often, singing along. All these years later, I still know all the words to every song in those three movies.

We didn’t simply sing; we acted out entire scenes. One of our favourites was when Liesl, the oldest von Trapp, meets her boyfriend Rolf in the summerhouse and, holding his hand, runs lightly around the seats at the side in her frothy pink dress. Being smaller, I was Liesl, my sister was Rolf and I ran around on wobbly benches, holding my sister’s hand and trying to imagine I was a beautiful teenager.

We extracted weeks of pleasure and entertainment from those three old tapes. In the 70s, when we moved to Melbourne, it was the hit parade on 3XY that became the sound track to my life, and it still surprises me how well I know the words to hundreds of trite songs from that period.

Sometimes I wish my head were full of the psalms, or Shakespeare, or TS Elliot, something a little more highbrow. Mostly, though, I treasure the fact that in a girlhood that was pretty earnest, and at times lonely, I had these charming bits of fluff to keep me happy and light-hearted.

In an era were millions of movies and shows and songs are available to anyone at the touch of a button, I marvel at the delight two little girls mined from oft-repeated renditions of a total of three clunky reel to reel tapes.



There is nothing so much like God in all the universe as silence

‘Words words words, I’m so sick of words, I get words all day through, first from him, now from you, is that all you blighters can do?’ So sang Eliza Dolittle in My fair lady, the 1964 movie I loved best as a child.

I wonder if God sometimes thinks that. (Or maybe God is just so happy to hear from us at all that she isn’t likely to be complaining!) If you search the internet for quotes about the holiness of silence from religious legends around the globe and throughout history, there is a plethora of results, and sometimes disagreement about attribution.

‘God’s first language is silence, everything else is a poor translation,’ is attributed variously to 13th century Persian mystic and poet Rumi, and 16th century Christian mystic St John of the Cross. Mother Theresa says, ‘God speaks in the silence of the heart; listening is the beginning of prayer. Then there’s the German theologian from the 13-14th centuries, Meister Eckhart, who apparently wrote ‘There is nothing so much like God in all the universe as silence’.

There is the famous story in the first book of Kings where the prophet Elijah, who is in hiding for fear of his life, experiences a great wind, an earthquake and a fire, but God was not in these mighty things, but in ‘the sound of sheer silence’. And Jesus allegedly spent a significant amount of time on his own in prayer.

Of course, there are different kinds of silence. Silence can be the refusal to acknowledge abuse, can be coverup of corruption, can be lack of courage to name wrong doing. And it’s not enough to say there is nothing in the universe as much like the Divine as silence. We need our stories, our traditions, the sharing of our experience to flesh out our picture of God. Christians are a community gathered around the character of Jesus of Nazareth, through whom we claim to most clearly see God. One of our best-loved metaphors for Jesus is, in fact, the Word.

Might I venture to suggest, however, that in our religious traditions, we might have had a surfeit of words. This Lent, well on its way by the time you read this, consider giving up some of your words. Practice listening to each other, with calm attention. Listen to your own deepest longings, which may well be in complete harmony with what God wants for you. Listen to the sounds of the created world.

Most of all, take time to listen to God: to the dear, loving, inner promptings of the Holy Spirit. There are tried and true Christian ways of doing this, many of which are explored in the pages of this publication from time to time. Centring prayer, focus on the breath, use of a prayer word – many devout Christians find these things invaluable.

This Lent, consider giving up some of your words. And be surprised at the God you may meet in the silence.

This was published in the March edition of The Melbourne Anglican


God the crazy creative

Twenty years ago, a mate and I were chatting idly over a drink at a beach resort where we were attending a writing workshop (as you do). We gazed appreciatively over the sparkling waters of the bay before my friend said, ‘It’s a shame the water doesn’t come right up to the shore. It would look even prettier’.

I asked her if she was serious, when she said yes, I told her that if she just waited six hours, the view would be better with all the mud flats covered tidily over, nothing but turquoise wavelets as far as the eye could see. ‘Really?’ she asked. ‘How does that work?’

My friend was a city girl (doubtless she had a whole bunch of street smarts that I lacked), unfamiliar with the ever-constant, ever-changing pattern of the tides.

Observing her incredulity got me thinking about how remarkable the system of the tides is; something I ponder every time I walk beside the sea, as I’ve been doing for at least two hours each day in my Christmas holidays.

Who would have thought of tides – where the view of the ocean alters utterly every six hours, so that if this morning the waves are big and close in  and full of exciting churn and power, this afternoon they will be are way out and benign, leaving a vast expanse of gleaming sand to walk and play on?

And that’s just the ocean. What about the seasons? For weeks we shelter from the sweltering sun, worry about bush fires, enjoy the balmy evenings. Next thing you know, the parks and paddocks are rich green again and we are donning scarves and lighting fires to be cosy.

And what about the endless variety in the length of days? As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote:

In winter I get up at night

And dress by yellow candle-light.

In summer, quite the other way,

I have to go to bed by day.

Then the there’s the mad variety of colours, sounds, smells and species in the natural world. Every night in the history of the planet, the sunset has been unique. We have flowers of every hue imaginable, far more than is strictly necessary.

God must be crazily creative. We tend to imagine God as stern and proper, but maybe God is like a kid with a new set of finger paints just going nuts, mixing colours and trying designs that no one else could begin to imagine (kangaroo anyone?)

Now that I’m back from holidays, in the office each day, running the household, reengaged with friends and commitments, I hope to retain the sense of wonder that is easier to cultivate when you have no time pressures and are profoundly rested. The sense of wonder that sees a flowerbed, or a cloudy sky, or a beach and thinks how incredible it is that God made it all so extravagantly, wildly beautiful . To be filled with wonder, gratitude and awe.

This was published in the February edition of The Melbourne Anglican


Power outage outrage

Following the most recent heatwave, there were the usual disgruntled complaints about having to endure power outages and exhortations to power suppliers to upgrade their infrastructure.

Privatization of power may be an issue, but there’s something else going on here. Apart from people on life support systems, most of us could stand a few hours with no electricity.

Yes, it’s inconvenient and hot without air con and fans and some of your food may need throwing out if your fridge is off for long enough. It’s hardly life threatening.

Anyone who is older than 50 or has lived in a ‘developing country’ knows that for much of the world, power is an unpredictable amenity, even a luxury. Where I grew up, black outs, and the occasional brown out, were a nightly occurrence.

In the privileged west, we consider unfettered access to power a basic human right. We assume that we can cook, work, entertain ourselves and keep warm or cool at the touch of a button. If the power to that button is unavailable, even for one night, we are at our wits end.

It’s okay, relax. Next time there’s a power cut at your place, try these basic things.

  • ·         Make your cup of tea on the gas, if you have it. If not, no one has cut off your water supply, which makes you luckier than a lot of people on the planet.
  • ·         Forget the warm shower and have a cold wash. It’s a heatwave, remember?
  • ·         Your phone has run out of charge. Try not to worry. It is unlikely anyone will die from this.
  • ·         Your computer’s run out of charge. Ditto. Think how liberating it is to have an evening where you don’t feel obliged to check emails.
  • ·         Cool down with one of those elegant Jane Austenesque hand fans or, failing that, a folded piece of paper. Spray yourself with a bottle of water and feel it evaporating deliciously from your skin. Sit with your feet in a basin of cold water – magic.
  • ·         Read a book by torch or candlelight.
  • ·         Chat to a housemate, partner, friend or neighbour. In person.
  • ·         Enjoy the quiet. No fridge humming, no machines beeping, no dishwasher churning. Bliss.
  • ·         Sit quietly and watch the dying of the light.
  • ·         Light candles. They are romantic, contemplative, atmospheric, calming. You’ll probably sleep better than when you are up till all hours with bright lights and machines.

Who knows? You might even get a taste for electricity-free living.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on 1 February




Sport v music

When my significant other and I moved to a small Victorian country town in the mid-80s, he was set, socially, being something of a sports tragic and a determined and ferocious footballer. He also happened to be the Uniting Church minister, but because he played footy for the local team, he was in.

Not so much his wife, who was, at the time, a paid-up member of Keith Dunstan’s Anti-Football League. In a desperate effort to meet kindred spirits, I joined the local recorder group (the fact that I didn’t actually play the instrument wasn’t going to stop me), because it seemed to be the only organisation in town that didn’t revolve around sport or children.

Times have changed. Even the tiniest hamlet these days seems to have a book group, an expresso machine and a film festival. In a recent issue of the Age Entertainment Guide, Marty Boulton wrote: ‘Yes, we love our sport in Australia, but more people go to live music every year in this country than sporting contests’.

That’s surprising and encouraging, but for someone like me, Australia still feels like a sports mad nation. Over the last fortnight, in the blistering heat of a Melbourne summer, we have hosted the Australian Open, where the temperature on the surface of centre court alledgedly hit 69° on one day. Asking players to continue under such conditions surely constitutes some kind of human rights infringement, but on they go.

If you tire of the tennis on television, there are two types of cricket on offer: Big Bash and One Day (male and female), now that Test Cricket is done for the season. Aforementioned husband’s idea of chilling bliss is to sit on the couch, flicking between the tennis and the cricket. In the winter months, of course, it’s all about footy (and with pre-footy these days, the season seems to last about nine months). A multitude of other ball games is on offer, especially for those with a dedicated sports channel on tap.

I missed out on the competitive games gene. I’m woefully uncoordinated and I don’t enjoy watching, although my love for our offspring exceeded my lack of interest as I trailed around watching them undertake various sporting endeavours. I was genuinely happy that they were keeping fit, meeting other kids and learning the physical skills I so embarrassingly lacked. I am chuffed that my family is sporty, as long as I don’t have to join them. Along with a good many Australians, you’ll find me at a music gig instead.