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Life after life

‘Going to heaven’ or ‘avoiding hell’ has never been a reason for my being a Christian. What happens to us after death is something I don’t worry about. Whatever occurs is wrought by the God who loves us more than the best parent, so it will be okay.

But ponder it I do, from time to time. Like now, when I have just lost my last remaining biological parent – a lovely man who lived a rich, full life and died at the age of 94, knowing, if not where he was going, then certainly who he was going to.

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled,’ John has Jesus saying. ‘In my father’s house are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?... so that where I am, there you may be also.’

I have no idea of the shape of life after life. I like to imagine it as somewhere that all the people I have ever loved, and all the places I have ever belonged and felt homesick for are together and accessible, with no time constraints. My idea of ‘heaven’ in unashamedly taken from C.S. Lewis’ beguiling portrayal of the next life in The Last Battle, final book of the Narnia series. But I’m aware that’s plain old wishful thinking.

I think of life after death as a state in which we can perceive, commune with and be filled by God more easily – a lot more easily. A state where we can simply be with God in sheer delight, the way a child sits on a loved grandparent’s lap and doesn’t have to say or do a thing except enjoy being with them. I like to think of it as an existence in which all not only are our griefs and heartbreaks healed and every tear dried, but our hang-ups disappear. I love to think of Mum minus her formidable reserve, Dad no longer plagued by inappropriate guilt, able to revel in the fact that he is utterly loved by the God he served so faithfully through his long life.

Of course, I have no idea what happens after death. But I am convinced that the God who made us and became Jesus loves us so much that God will not simply snuff us out, once this life is done.  All I can do, for my departed loved ones and as I prepare for my own demise, is to trust that the God whose unstinting love I have experienced all my life, will keep loving us after death.

One of my favourite Bible passages in any circumstances is particularly apt when we are thinking about death and what comes after. ‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life… nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’. That’s all I need to know.

This was published in the August issue of The Melbourne Anglican





The zen of the long-distance jetsetter

I seem to have hit a sweet spot in my ability to travel with equilibrium. I’m talking here particularly of plane travel, including the dreaded long-haul flights we all love to complain about.

I travelled a great deal as a child, teenager and young woman and then, submerged in jobs and children and strapped for cash, I went nowhere un-local for two decades. The first time I travelled to the other side of the world after this hiatus, I emerged shattered and sick, wondering if I might just stay in the Great Southern Land for evermore.

In the intervening 18 years there have been a few trips and, contrary to expectations, each seems to be easier than the last. I suspect this is an attitudinal shift more than anything, as I grow up (not before time!) and start appreciating how incredible life is.

Okay, so you have 24 hours plus in cattle class. Reframe it this way. You get on a plane one afternoon in Melbourne, and after one day – one day – you emerge for breakfast in Edinburgh. This is a voyage that, not so very long ago, took three months, and you were likely to die of the plague, or shipwreck or some other nasty on the way. So, you’re weary for a couple of days. That seems a small price to pay for the miracle of modern travel.

Also, as I meditate more, I am better able to disappear into a zone, into a little zen bubble as I strap myself into my cosy airline seat. No one can reach me here, no one can expect anything of me, there is not a damn thing I can do for anybody. There are movies. There are pleasant people bringing me meals at regular intervals. I don’t sleep, but then, when I get to the end of my trip there is that blissful falling into deep, deep, exhausted slumber which is one of life’s most luxurious experiences.

About that sweet spot I mentioned. I’ve grown out of youthful impatience and am not yet ancient. Before too long, I imagine I will start to feel my age, something I rarely do yet. Everything will slow down and start to ache, and travel to the other side of the globe may well become a trial again. Although the genetics are promising. My dad only stopped long haul trips when he turned 92. So, maybe I have a few more years to practice my jet setting zen.


Don't be a duffer, wear a puffer

The Winter Solstice is almost upon us, and Melbourne has just had the coldest start to June in three decades. Time for the annual appearance of the Melbourne winter wardrobe staple, the ubiquitous puffer jacket, so iconic that Michael Leunig featured it in a recent Saturday cartoon.

At first, the vast majority of puffer jackets were black. They still are, as befits our black-clad city, but gradually some grey crept in. This year there is a welcome change; a bevy of fuchsia pink, burnt orange and sunshine yellow puffers have appeared like a flock of tropical birds to brighten our gloomy streets.

For a long time, I resisted the acquisition of this handy garment. It was everywhere, it was boring, it was less than flattering (particularly the ones that reach almost to the knees), I don’t feel the cold, Melbourne isn’t that cold anyway. But then I got older and my metabolism slowed, and I started suffering more in the winter months. And began to see why just about everyone possesses one of these feather-light, warm as toast pieces of clothing.

A puffer jacket is perfect for someone like me who walks endlessly. These early mornings, I start off shivering, zip my puffer to my chin and after a kilometre or two, when I am warming up, I take it off and shove it in my backpack, where it takes no room and contributes no weight whatsoever. The days of either freezing at the start of my walk or carting a heavy garment over my arm, are gone.

What really sold me on the puffer jacket, however, is my penchant for travelling, no matter how long the trip, with cabin baggage only. Mostly I travel to Scotland – a notoriously chilly country, for which I couldn’t possibly travel light if I depended on leather or wool for protection from the elements. With my puffer jacket scrunched up into a miniscule, almost weightless ball in my hand luggage, all I need is to wear a heavy jumper on the plane, and I’m set.

So, I have eaten humble pie in my assessment of the puffer. I’m a complete convert; their convenience and efficiency utterly outweighing the fact that they are as daggy and as common as muck.

And when I’m in the UK, I notice that there too, the puffer jacket has become de rigeur. If they’re good enough for my cousins, direct decedents of generations of hardy kilt wearers, they’re good enough for me.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on 22 June



I like my footy, but only once a year

For some years there, I was a card carrying member of the other AFL – the late Keith Dunstan’s Anti-Football League. In my defence, my footy-tragic husband had joined me up as a joke, but it was a good joke, and I wore the T-shirt and the orange, square-shaped football badge with pride, particularly when I went to watch him play.

It may be un-Australian, but sport has never floated my boat, although if you added up all the time I’ve spent watching my partner and our offspring play, you’d think otherwise. It was always about the family member, though, not the game, so that I often missed crucial moments in the match as I was watching my loved one in their little corner rather than the main action.

When my beloved heads off to ‘The G’, I prefer the nap, long walk, read a novel option. Once a year, however, I like to get in touch with my deeply-buried inner Aussie and join him. And the Queen’s Birthday long weekend, with its gorgeous extra 24 hours to play with, seems like a good time to do it. So off I went to the match between Melbourne and Collingwood, with my packet of chips, apple and thermos of coffee.

This year is a bit different for our family as the Demons – the passionately supported team of most of us - is actually doing well for the first time in living memory. It seemed as though there was a chance beating the Magpies, and who doesn’t like doing that?

Sadly, that was not to be, not this time. Blokes in black and white were everywhere; it looked as though they had twice as many players on the field. They were a pleasure to watch – and that comment alone shows just how pathetic a supporter I am.

I was reminded, on Monday, that the things I enjoy most about footy are nothing to do with the footy itself. The ballet of the swirling seagulls descending in the last quarter. The thrilling vertigo of sitting on the top level of the southern stand. The wonderful fact that, unlike soccer fans in Europe, supporters of opposing teams can sit alongside each other without committing violence.  

And that for me, it’s always about the people, not the game. Try as I might to become more interested, I only watch sport if people I love are playing it. I rejoice when the Dees win because it makes some of my favourite people happy.

This was published on 15 June in The Melbourne Age





Coping. And not.

Are you a ‘let go and let God’ kind of person? Or a ‘God helps those who help themselves’?

I’ve always been a determined little thing. My mother used to tell the story of a holiday we had when I was four. My older sister was already at boarding school in this town; we rented a cottage at the top of what was called ‘Missionary Hill’, on account of the many missionaries who took their summer holidays there.

Carless, we would go for walks or picnics, or to the local market for food, and trail up the long hill back to where we were staying. According to Mum, I would toil stolidly up the road by her side, muttering under my breath, ‘Clare manage, Clare manage’.

I thought wryly of this recently when I was climbing Mount Bogong for the fourth time in my life. I did it twice in my twenties at a blistering pace. Last time I did it was 18 years ago, with our three oldest children. As we drove home, I said to my husband, ‘Well that was fabulous, but I am never doing it again’. Into my sixtieth year now, the opportunity came up for one last connection with Bogong, and I couldn’t resist.

Crikey but it’s a brutal climb though! The aptly named Staircase is eight kilometres of relentlessly steep ascent. By the time we were almost to the summit, I was having to stop every couple of hundred metres, leaning on my walking poles, drawing deep breaths, trying not to throw up. And all the way I chanted to myself, channelling that gutsy four-year-old: ‘Clare manage, Clare manage’.

It’s not a bad mantra for life. It’s good to be a coper. Life’s a long haul, if you’re lucky; a marathon, not a sprint. Mostly it’s not glamorous or triumphant, and the deepest joys and satisfactions are often the smallest, simplest, quietest, most intimate things. But you keep plugging away, knowing that it doesn’t matter if you’re not flashy, as long as you have a go and give it your best shot.

In the last decade, however, as I age and face new challenges, I am learning something else as well. Sometimes, Clare can’t manage, and when that happens, it’s quite okay to curl up and howl, to sleep, to rail at God, to call on my besties in floods of tears, to say out loud, ‘Clare can’t manage, she needs some help here!’

My family, my friends, my church and my community carry me in these times, and when I am feeling stronger I do the same for them. It’s great to be a coper. But life is long, and we are not called to cope by ourselves all the time.

There are two images from the animal kingdom that illustrate the two approaches to our relationship with God. A kitten hangs passively from its mother’s mouth as she carries it around, contributing nothing. Baby monkeys, however, cling for dear life to their mothers. I’d like to think that with God, and with my people, I can sometimes be a baby monkey, sometimes a kitten.

This was published in the June edition of The Melbourne Anglican