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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.



Art and wonder

What do writers add to society? What are they here to do? The most obvious, and, arguably the most important, is that they entertain. But there’s more to it than that.

Throughout history writers – novelists, playwrights, poets - have drawn our attention to the evils they see existing or creeping into the society around them. From Charles Dickens to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, from Elie Wiesel to Roberta Sykes, wordsmiths have been ahead of the pack or else lone voices trying to convince their peers of the dangers of everything from fascism to consumerism.

Writers are not the only ones. Artists of every description – painters, comedians, film makers, musicians – have fulfilled this role, often – think cartoons, think satire – with humour.

Artists also teach us empathy by allowing us to enter worlds that are not our own – other times, cultures, social classes.

But I believe there is another role that creative artists of all kinds fulfil which is just as important to the planet and to the human race. It is to reawaken the sense of wonder most people have naturally as children, by noticing and drawing attention to the sacredness of the everyday.

We tend to have a heightened awareness of everything around us if we are in a foreign country. It takes an artist to help us see the wonder of things at home. To notice things – this bright parrot in a Brunswick park, that rock pool, the joyous rattle of that clanking tram, this chunky necklace on that particular shade of skin. Our world is full of wonder, but preoccupied as we are, we so often fail to notice.

Recapturing a sense of wonder is akin to the concept of ‘mindfulness’ that Buddhists talk about. Being aware of each morsel that passes our lips, the texture of soil as we pull out weeds, every shade of colour in an evening sky.

In a passage that is often used to persuade us not to worry, but could just as easily be a hymn to wonder, Jesus is quoted as saying, ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these’. And ‘Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it’.

The thing about mindfulness and wonder is not just that they make people feel good. They are also incompatible with apathy and hate.

So part of the job of writers, artists of any stripe, is to remind people of the wonder all around them. To reveal the ordinary in a new light, so that we start to see differently, and to experience the world like children again. When people are filled with wonder and delight they are incapable, in that moment, of being violent or mean spirited. That’s what artists are here to do.

This was published in the June issue of The Melbourne Anglican


Bracing ourselves

It’s hard rubbish week in our patch. Unlike some places I’ve been – one bayside suburb where we picked up skis and a cappuccino machine – most of the stuff on the pavements around our place is, in fact, rubbish. It gets picked over all right, but there’s not much treasure in this trash.

This year we had a more vigorous purge than usual. A brush with decluttering guru Marie Kondo earlier in the year had sent me frantically chucking stuff and the shed – mostly my husband’s domain, has not escaped.

For years now, six bulky white back braces (thick, hard white plastic, fastened with sturdy Velcro) have taken up space in our shed. They were worn by our youngest, a girl, from the ages of 11 to 15. Her father has been threatening to bin these for a long-time; she and I could never quite bear to part with them. Maybe, one day, I thought, she would include them in some sort of art installation, as she had with her first and smallest brace at high school, coating it with gleaming gold paint and displaying it in the annual exhibition.

It was more than the thought of using them in some funky artistic endeavour, however. Every time I got close to throwing them out, I would be taken back in time to the years of her life that were punctuated with visits to the Royal Children’s Hospital.

I have scoliosis, undiagnosed until I was full grown and it was too late to do anything about it. When I’m clothed, my back isn’t obviously misshapen, but all my life I have suffered from neck and head pain, which is part of living with a condition like that. So I checked each of my children vigilantly as they grew, for any signs that they might have inherited the skewed spine that has made its presence felt for almost as long as I can remember. Looking at offspring number four, I realised we hadn’t escaped – her eleven-year old back showed the tell-tale sign of curving in a gentle S.

There followed visits to the orthopaedic specialists at RCH, some months of observation, X-rays, measurements of angles. News was that her curved spine was worsening. A back brace was in order, if not spinal surgery.

The next five years saw us making regular treks to the Children’s, which we were lucky enough to live close to. It was the old hospital, down at heel but plucky, long, grimy corridors, banks of slow lifts, volunteer ladies selling crocheted goods in the foyer. I had worked briefly as a nurse there in the 80s – nothing much had changed.

Orthotics and prosthetics – the department we frequented - was in the basement, down a gloomy subterranean passageway. We spent many hours in the waiting room there, idly watching kids shows on the telly high on the wall, leafing through ancient women’s mags, watching other, younger kids playing with the boxes of broken toys.

‘Jeff’ was the technician who treated our girl, and he was great. Vastly experienced (he had spoken about back braces at international conferences) there wasn’t much he didn’t know about the condition and treatment of scoliosis and he was down to earth, old-school, strict and reassuring.

Every few months there would be a visit to X-ray, then to the orthopaedic registrar to interpret it and tell us (we hoped) that things were improving, then down to ‘Jeff’ before the treat of a Macca’s flurry and the tram ride home.

Every six to nine months she would outgrow her brace and need to be fitted for a new one – a process that involved being stretched on something that looked like a medieval rack, as ‘Jeff’ wrapped her torso in bandages and then covered her with plaster of Paris which set and was then cut off, as the mould for her new brace.

The service in the hospital was wonderful and we never paid a cent. Our daughter’s back will never be straight, but it is much better than it would have been without treatment.

There are memories aplenty attached to those objects that resemble a straight-jacket from a 19th century lunatic asylum. But our girl has moved out long since, and there are limits to how long you can carry around your kids’ stuff, especially when you have four of them.

Looking at them reminded me of so much – of the care at the Royal Children’s, of the conflict we had in the final years of her brace-wearing when she found it extra tough, of the hot summer nights when I felt terrible for insisting that she simply had to wear it, of strapping her in after a shower – the one time, apart from playing sport, when she was allowed to take it off - of her courage over so many years of wearing what must have felt like the hardest corset, like a suit of heavy armour.

So before I throw them out, I line them up, in order of size, and photograph them and ponder health care and privilege and the care of medicos and the stoicism of patients and my strong, straight daughter, now 25 and starting on adulthood. I sigh and place them on our nature strip. Next day, the rest of the rubbish is still there, but the back braces are gone. Maybe we’ll see them in some avant garde art gallery after all.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on 26 May 2019



The last garden

This time of year, the ornamental vines on our west-facing verandah are a glorious riot of scarlet and every possible shade of deep pink. Our entire living area is bathed in glowing red light, especially late afternoon, when it feels as though there is a bonfire in the back garden.  

Since we put the clocks back, I am barely at home in daylight hours during the week. On Saturday and Sunday, however, I have been trying to stop my chores, make myself a mug of tea and just sit and take it in, this wild extravagance of colour, which only lasts a week or two before the branches become bare.

My enjoyment of our creeper is particularly heartfelt this year, as it may be our last autumn in this house where the family has lived for the last two decades. It might be our last autumn with a garden at all.

Like so many other baby boomers heading for retirement, we are downsizing. This time next year, we will be, if not actually in a small apartment, then in the throes of moving there.

The building site is two kilometres away, and I wander up each week to keep an eye on proceedings. The first sod has well and truly been turned and the corner block is a cacophony of cranes and trucks, earth movers and pile drivers.

It’s exciting and terrifying in equal measure. This next 12 months, my main task, when all the urgent things have been attended to, is to work through every object and item of clothing and piece of paper in the house and decide whether it is a keeper, or something to give to the offspring, the op shop or the tip. It will take a year; I want to do it thoughtfully and we need to get rid of a lot of stuff.

But no matter how organised I am, I know it will be hellish towards the end, as all moves are – an emotional and physical ordeal. I know I will get to the new place and unpack the boxes and wonder why on earth we kept this possession or that. I know we still have too many things, that we won’t fit into the comparatively tiny spaces.

And the garden. Last time we were without one was 35 years ago. It’s hard to imagine not having the pressure and the delight that comes with a little patch of dirt to call our own. It’s hard to imagine no longer being curtained with a fiery waterfall every autumn.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on Monday 20 May


Spiritual decluttering

As I turn 60, decluttering seems to be the theme of my life. Marie Kondo, bless her painstakingly folded cotton socks, is my patron saint. Several important parts of my life are in the process of a radical cull: the church where I worship, my workplace and the family beach shack.  And, in preparation for a move to an apartment, my husband and I are packing up the family home of 20 years.

It's hard to ignore the suspicion that the universe is trying to tell me something! As I list all the avenues for my inner Kondo to my spiritual director, she gently suggests that God might be revealing something profound to me as well – the need to strip back spiritually, till only the essentials remain.

I ponder what this might mean in my situation. I’ve long been attracted by the Hindu notion of stages of life. The first is the youth/student, where a person sets themselves up, learns, experiments and explores. The second is that of householder – jobs, maybe a family, possessions and complications with all the joy and work they entail. The third stage is where one sheds the trappings (interesting word that) of a complicated life and simplifies, focusing on the inner journey, the spiritual quest.

This calls to me powerfully. I am still loving my job and will always be joyfully committed to my clan. But I yearn for less drivenness, for an end to my endless striving for perfection. Maybe God is gently telling me to calm down, slow down, simplify, get rid of the accretions and ambitions of a life time and, and what? And just see what happens. See what bubbles up. See what new phase of life this might usher in. Maybe even see that the best way to live right now is to keep doing what I do, just with less possessions and less pressure on myself to produce and succeed and be perfect.

John Main, founder of the World Community for Christian Meditation, talked about the simplicity of the mantra – the one small prayer word that the Community teaches as a radical and effective way to connect with the divine. Sit still for 20 minutes, quiet yourself, breathe, and come back from the myriad distractions in your ‘monkey mind’ by returning to the simplicity of the mantra. It’s a metaphor for what Jesus called ‘the one thing needful’ – to spend time with God. Elsewhere in the Gospels Jesus is quoted as saying, ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you.’ Take time to do the God-stuff and the other stuff will work out.

On Good Friday, Jesus was stripped of everything, even life itself, resulting ultimately in life abundant. I think on this as I slowly sort through my life and my stuff, reminding myself that the only essential thing is to endeavour to seek to see God more clearly, love God more dearly and follow God more nearly, day by day.

This was published in the May edition of The Melbourne Anglican