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Tuesday
Nov132018

Reading: a shortcut to compassion

You could argue that the most important value in life is compassion. You could also argue that the most painless way of growing compassion is by reading other people’s stories.

An ancient copy of Testament of Youth, the 1933 best-seller by Vera Brittain, has sat on my bookshelf for decades, surviving any number of culls of varying degrees of brutality, maybe because I knew at some level that this was a classic that I really should read one day. But it wasn’t until my interest had been sparked by seeing the latest movie version of this tale that I got around to picking it up.

This memoir of the years between 1914 and 1925, the decade containing World War I, cannot be rushed. It was written in an era when, harsh and full as life was, a writer seemed to have all the time in the world to explain things in great detail. It’s not for one minute boring, it just takes a while to read it.

Brittain tells the story of her harrowing war experience. A bright young woman who fought fiercely for the right to attend Oxford, her sheltered upper-middle-class English world was thrown into chaos by the war. All the people she was close to were killed and she worked for years as a highly capable VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse) in various wartime hospitals, including right behind the front lines in France.

Brittain went on to become a well-known novelist, poet and public speaker; feminism and pacifism were the causes dear to her heart. She belonged to that generation that believed, for a little while, that they could shape the world so that it learnt the lessons of the ‘War to end all Wars’ which turned out, of course, to be nothing of the sort. At the end of the book, written in 1933, she laments the fact that more horrific conflict is on the horizon, that her children will be exposed to carnage of the sort she hoped to never witness again.

Brittain grew up at the end of the Victorian period, in a world of extraordinary privilege. Reading accounts of such lives, I always marvel at the leisure and boredom of the existence of comfortably off women whose job was simply to organise servants and go visiting. I look at my life and that of my peers, both women and men – we hold down jobs, bring up children, run households and fulfil community commitments without any assistance from servants whatsoever. Not that I would swap – Brittain’s struggle was largely one to escape precisely such a set up.

Nothing enables me to live in worlds other than my own more than good writing. Brittain’s devastation as one after another of her beloved peers are killed is heart-rending. She talks about her ‘doomed generation’ and they were. I cannot begin to imagine the weight of grief upon grief that most people suffered in those years, although several contemporary situations compare – families of asylum seekers the world over, certain Indigenous communities, nations like Syria and the Sudan in an ongoing state of conflict. I belong to a generation who has never had to live through war. My parents’ generation, on the other hand, lived not only a through war but through six long years of the terror of fearing that barbarism might well take over the world. We live in complicated times, with pressures our forebears cannot imagine, and the threat of global-warming is the greatest our planet and our race has ever known, but I cannot begin to imagine the sheer courage that women and men living through a war needed simply to get up each morning and face what had to be faced.

Testament of Youth is refreshing because it is a women’s war book, so, to this reader infinitely more interesting than the many war tales penned by men. The experiences of women at home, making do despite war time shortages and waiting for the dreaded telegram that would tell them of the death of their husband/lover/father/brother/son are way beyond anything I have had to endure. The lives of nurses on the front lines were inhumanely exhausting and distressing as they dealt with daily carnage without benefit of much in the way of medical supplies or even clean water.

Another striking thing in this long tale is the very different style of relationships young people engaged in and the way letters formed the basis of how they became close. Brittain falls deeply in love with a young man and they become engaged, but they have only had a dozen or so times actually together, most of these accompanied by a chaperone. But the letters they wrote, sometimes several a week! A large part of her book consists of quotes from letters to and from her parents, her adored brother and her fiancé. They are long, poetic, honest, deep, philosophical, yearning. There was time to write this way, back then, war notwithstanding. Her brother Edward regularly scribbled pencilled notes from the trenches that made their way safely to his family; at one point he complains that it takes a day and a half for his letters to travel from the front line in France to his family in London. Australia Post eat your heart out!

They poured out their very souls in these letters, in a way that I suspect contemporary lovers rarely do with their instant messaging and their moving in together five minutes after they ‘hook up’. The sheer longing for each other in these epistles is a world away from the instant gratification we have come to expect in everything, including sex. I’m not wishing myself back there exactly – I do wonder how marriages panned out when these heightened times were over and a couple had to settle down to jobs and housework and the daily irritations that are a part of a long love. But the contrast with current practices is staggering.

Testament of Youth is a long, slow read, so exquisitely written that I wanted to savour every page. I loved Brittain’s acerbic humour and her fierce, unapologetic feminism (impressively, even after marriage, she kept the name of her family or origin) which is captured in such passages as this one, which litter the volume:

…all girls’ clothing of the period appeared to be designed by their elders on the assumption that decency consisted in leaving exposed to the sun and air no part of the human body that could possibly be covered in flannel. In these later days, when I lie lazily sunning myself in a mere gesture of a bathing suit on the gay plage of some small Riviera town – or even, during a clement summer, on the ultra-respectable shores of southern England – and watch the lean brown bodies of girl-children, almost naked and completely unashamed, leaping in and out of the water, I am seized with an angry resentment against the conventions of twenty years ago, which wrapped up my comely adolescent body in woollen combinations, bulky cashmere stockings, ‘liberty’ bodice, dark stockinette knickers, flannel petticoat and often, in addition, a long-sleeved, high-necked, knitted woollen ‘spencer’.

They don’t write like that anymore.

Reading Testament of Youth powerfully strengthened my conviction that entering another’s world, by engaging deeply with stories not our own, brings a compassion, sympathy, learning and wonder more effectively than just about anything else. If Hitler had read The Diary of Anne Frank. If Trump could read – really read – the stories of people desperately fleeing across the Mexican border. If Peter Dutton could immerse himself in a book written by an asylum seeker. If Malcolm Turnbull could get into a story of someone who has never had quite enough money to buy their kids shoes or go on a decent holiday. If Harvey Weinstein could read a book about a woman who has been sexually exploited. If we could, all of us, read and weep, read and resolve to never let carnage and abuse happen again, read and feel compassion for our planet and its people. Read.

 

This was published on the website Art/s and Theology Australia - http://artandtheology.net 

 

Thursday
Nov082018

Cup Day: Let it rain

‘Let it rain, Let it rain, Let it rain, Let it rain, Let it rain, Let it rain, Let it rain.’ So sings Bruce Springsteen in Mary’s Place, and I was singing it on Cup Day, as Melbourne was blessed with more rainfall in two hours that she had received in the previous two months.

The fact that it was Cup Day, and that the deluge might just have ruined a few fancy suits and fascinators or made it extra hard for those stilettos to navigate the lawns didn’t worry me a whit.

Iconic national day notwithstanding, why call it ‘bad weather’ I want to know. Sure, Victoria has experienced devastating floods in the last decade, but these days, drought is the natural disaster that dominates the news and, it seems, is set to do so for the foreseeable future.

Regardless of whether or not you are a racing person, we need the rain. We need it desperately, all over this state, all over the country.

As the storm broke on Tuesday afternoon and my small, parched, suburban garden rallied within a matter of minutes, I hugged myself in delight. The sound on our quintessentially Australian tin roof was deafening.  The almost-horizontal rain slashed over our wide back verandah, right to our door. When we went out for a walk that evening, the park over the road was full, not only of puddles, but of veritable billabongs of muddy water, where the local dogs were splashing and cavorting happily, and two days later, there has been a fresh new greening over the entire area. In the north-east, where devastating bush fires are both a recent memory and a constant fear, the dams on my daughter’s property filled just a little. The tanks were topped up.

I grew up in India, where at the coming of the monsoon (when it didn’t fail) after four months of ferocious heat, children and adults alike danced in the streets. Rain is a matter of life and death on our planet; it has always been so. If we city dwellers see it as an inconvenience, especially when we are all dressed up with somewhere to go, we need to get over ourselves. I’m with The Boss on this one. Le t it rain, Let it rain, Let it rain, Let it rain, Let it rain, Let it rain, Let it rain

Wednesday
Oct242018

Jesus and me. The A Team

A recent SMS exchange between my husband and me:

Husband: What enneagram number am I?

Me: Three. The nasty one. They can all be pretty nasty actually. Especially ones, which would be me.

Husband: Definitely a redeemed one then.

Me: Jesus and I are working on it.

Husband: The A-Team.

 As my 60th birthday fast approaches, I am aware of a gentle but profound revolution in my heart and soul. For much of my life, the last way I would have described myself was as a member of any A-team. Despite being surrounded by loving people and good things, I have been plagued by self-doubt and even self-loathing. There were – as there always are – good reasons for this. A complicated childhood largely spent a long way from parents. Exposure to a certain kind of religiosity. Growing up as a nice Christian girl in the 60s and 70s; not allowed to be sad, certainly not allowed to be angry. Self-negation was the way to salvation. Jesus came first, others next and ourselves barely at all. I had a strong, smart, loving parents but even so, self-acceptance was not part of my psyche and any real sense of the unconditional love of God was foreign to me.

But over decades, a combination of a few things has gently, slowly, agonisingly, wonderfully, changed me utterly. These things have been:

  • ·         Seasons of counselling, off and on, over the last 25 years;
  • ·         Spending time with a great many wise people, of various religions and none;
  • ·         A gifted spiritual director;
  • ·         The lifelong practice of weekly worship;
  • ·         Forty years of love by a good man, 32 years of love from our children, love that I have finally learnt it is my birthright to accept and return, joyfully;
  • ·         Decades of contemplative prayer; and
  • ·         Suffering.

These days, like the oft-quoted monk asked what they do in the monastery all day, said ‘We fall over and get up again’. Falling simply makes me human, not evil.

These days:

  • ·         I acknowledge that my instincts are mostly sound, so my first impulse is to trust, not suspect them.
  • ·         I know that I’m hopeless at some things, but that that doesn’t make me an idiot. I am good at others.
  • ·         I have stopped weaselling out of things because ‘I’m no good’. I realise that I’ve been around a while and done a lot of stuff, and I have a lot to offer – my work place, my friends, my family.
  • ·         It’s not my job to fix anybody else, but I can work on my relationship with them.
  • ·         I acknowledge that mostly I have made wise and decent choices, and that my life has been shaped accordingly, and trust that I will most likely continue to live that way.
  • ·         I have learned that deep grief will not destroy my faith, my sense of humour or my openness to wonder, or not for long.

 Thanks be to God, Jesus and I are working on it. The A-team.

 

 This wa published in the October issue of The Melbourne Anglican

Sunday
Oct142018

Motherhood and God

This was published in the October issue of The Melbourne Anglican, in a column called 'A book that changed me'

A friend sent me a copy of Margaret Hebblethwaite’s book Motherhood and God in the post. It was the beginning of 1988; we had two children under two, and I read it with fascination and wonder. Some time in the next year or so, I preached my first sermon at the country congregation where we worshipped at the time. It was Mothers’ Day; my husband, the minister, organised for mothers to lead the entire service. Afterwards he said to me, ‘Well, I think some people were expecting Motherhood and Apple Pie, but you gave them Motherhood and God’.

It changed me, that book and I recently reread it, reflecting on how and why it had.

Hebblethwaite, an academic and theologian, had recently had her third baby when she wrote this, which is impressive in itself. I would be interested to read what she might write all these decades later, now that she has endured early widowhood and the inevitable ups and downs of parenting teenagers and young adults.

The book changed me because, although I had been a devoted Christian all my life, I had felt, if I ever thought about it at all, that theology should be left to professional theologians who tended to be people who had spent long years in academia, and were mainly white, privileged and male.

Motherhood and God showed me that any believer can do theology, which is simply reflecting on our experience in the light of what we know about God and reflecting on God in the light of our experience. It showed me that my utterly ordinary lot of being a mother could teach me about God just as surely as could undertaking a degree in theological college. It also made me think seriously about how the mother metaphor for God, rather than the traditional father one, might be a whole lot more useful for a whole lot of people.

Hebblethwaite’s reflections on parenting have power because she is brutally realistic about how demanding it is, even for people like her and me who had children by choice with a loved and supportive partner. After a euphoric and blissful time with her first child, following the birth of her second the older became so difficult that she simply could not take him anywhere. Her account is harrowing, as is an unforgettable six-page passage in which she describes, detail by torrid detail, a fairly ordinary evening with two small children. Nothing too terrible happens – no one dies, no one is maimed, but when I read this, I am catapulted back into the frequent tedium and exhaustion of parenting little ones, the overwhelming knowledge that their very survival depends on my vigilance.

It was Hebblethwaite who introduced me to the feminine images of God in the Bible. Prompted by her observations, I started perceiving God-ness in what I did every day. When I became pregnant with our third child, I thought of the little stranger inside me, living, moving and having his being in the utter safety of my womb. When I was feeling vulnerable and desperate, I started to visualise myself in God’s womb – all my needs met, surrounded by sustaining love - even when I was unaware of it. After he was born, I was sitting in church one Sunday, breast feeding him when the elders came around with the Eucharist and the extraordinary words, ‘This is the body of Christ, feed on him in your hearts with thanksgiving’. There was I with my son feeding on me, as I was feeding on Christ. The language of broken body and spilled blood that ultimately gives life put me in mind of what happened to me every time I birthed a baby.

It was eleven years after I read Motherhood and God that I had my first article published. My second was a faith column about how I loved going to stay at monasteries, and that was it for me. I discovered something I felt deeply called to, a vocation, which was writing about ordinary life in the light of what I had learned – through worship, learning, tradition, conversations and also from my own lived experience – about God. The hundreds of pieces I have written in the years since (the majority of which are not ostensibly religious but which I hope are shot through with a sense of wonder and mystery) have given me the most joy and satisfaction in my life apart from the love I have forged with my husband and our now adult offspring.

I am grateful to Hebblethwaite for giving me a vivid picture of the motherhood of God. I am profoundly in her debt for planting the seed of the idea in my mind and heart that an ordinary person could do theology, thus helping others in their relationship with God.

 

Sunday
Oct072018

Beyond words

My dad was a scholar, so words were his thing. He knew them, loved them, understood their history, realised their power.

He was also a man of profound faith, and he lived on the opposite side of the globe from me.

Not so long ago I visited him and his wife for two weeks and we had a whale of a time, travelling, eating, drinking, seeing family, revelling in the magnificence of a northern spring, celebrating his 94th birthday. The night before I flew back to Australia, my step-mum asked if there was a reading from the Bible that our family traditionally used on such occasions.

That was an easy one. Psalm 121, read at mum’s funeral, read each time we were about to part, something we did a lot through my childhood, teens and young adulthood. I jumped up to fetch a Bible, but Dad said he didn’t need one and delivered the Psalm, word perfect, including the killer last line, ‘The Lord will preserve your going out and your coming in, from this time forward and for ever more’. Then he offered a prayer.

Soon after my return to Melbourne, dad had a major stroke. Already somewhat blind and deaf, now the man of words could no longer speak, although for a few days he understood instructions, and his eyes lit up when family visited.

My step-brother arranged for me to call Dad, and held the phone to his ear as through tears I poured out my love for him, my grief at this latest misfortune, my deep gratitude that we had had two wonderful weeks together so recently. In response, I could hear his dear, measured tones, so familiar from hours of childhood story-reading, no longer making any sense but so recognisably his. In his rambling, two sounds emerged repeatedly. They sounded like ‘grateful’ and ‘bless’.

These were his last words to me. I can think of none better to capture how he lived, how he felt about me and what he wished for me.

A week later, the man of words had a peaceful end. The incapacity had been very hard, but he was not afraid of death or whatever lies after. There are no longer words for dad, but what he had at the end transcended words; the love, both human and divine, with which he was surrounded and held, in life and beyond.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on 16 September 2018