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Friday
Feb172017

Seize the day; leave the phone at home

If I might be permitted a small Luddite rant, now that term has started, something that grieves me daily is the sight of parents talking on their mobile phones while walking their children to school.

I get that a parent alone with a baby or toddler might need a phone conversation on their walk to the park. They are with the littlies all day; that call might be the only adult company they have to look forward to for hours. The parents that make me cranky are the ones who are obviously on school drop-off: the kids are in little checked uniforms with gloomy oversized hats and cute backpacks. If you’re going to school, it means you’ll be without interruptions from these offspring for at least six hours. You don’t need to shut them out for the fifteen minutes it takes to get them there.

I mean, really, what can be so important? The safety of the kids that might justify you leaving your phone on 24/7 isn’t an issue: they’re right here holding your distracted hand. How many of us are in jobs that are so important that something can’t wait for attention?

When our kids were all at high school, and half my life seemed to involve transporting them to and from sporting events, a fellow parent of four shared some wisdom with me, a reframing of my situation. ‘It’s a pain having to spend so much time ferrying them around,’ she said. ‘But I realised that it was the only time that I got one-on-one conversation with them, with no interruptions and no competition. It became precious time.’

I didn’t have the temptation of a mobile when I was taking primary kids to school each morning. But although I own a smart phone now, I try to leave it at home when I go walking, so I can pay attention to my thoughts and to the ever-changing world I walk through as the seasons pass.

All most people want, the experts tell us, is to be heard. So-called quality time with children – with anybody - doesn’t need to involve words, but at the very least it needs you to not be conversing with someone else. For a while, when they are in their teens, your kids may not want to be seen with you, and when they are adult, you will have all the time you want for those calls you think are so vital that they can’t wait. Seize the day. Leave the phone at home.

This article was published in The Age on 14 February 2017

Sunday
Feb122017

Mulberry

The mulberry bushes near my place are city creatures – understated and confined, weeping gracefully onto the little patch of pavement that hems them in, the concrete apron around the square half metre in which they have been allowed to take root. They are lovely nonetheless, their green still fresh after the month of January in which Melbourne is like a ghost town, before the daily traffic ramps up to coat them with dust and exhaust fumes so that they no longer look elegantly weeping, more just plain exhausted.

The mulberry I recall was very different, a grand-mother of a tree – a family could camp under its sheltering branches.

It belonged to friends of our who lived at Bridgewater Lakes, outside the western district town of Portland, where we lived and worked and from which we needed to escape sometimes with our tribe of kids.

They lived in a house built by her grand-father, surrounded by a cottage garden that seemed to grow effortlessly, and, a little distance from the old house, a massive mulberry tree.

We swam in those lakes, we had picnics and boat trips and camped the night and had dozens of cups of tea in their kitchen. Late summer, though we had a special excursion to their placae to pick the mulberries.

We went clad in our oldest clothes, armed with empty ice-cream containers and a step-ladder. The kids didn’t stay in their clothes for long, the little ones stripping off to nothing. We parents ate a few and stashed most of our crop prudently away in our containers; the kids gorged themselves utterly, covering themselves in the process with livid purple juice. Juice all around their little mouths, up their dimpled arms, all over their chunky thighs and rotund bellies. We have a photo of our third, aged about two, perched on the top of the step ladder, covered in mulberry splotches, cramming a mulberry-full fist up to a baby mouth that is grinning from ear to ear, nose wrinkled in ecstasy.

We ate those fabulous berries fresh, we had them with cream, with ice-cream, we made pies and tarts. Best of all, we froze some so that way into autumn and winter we could thaw them out, fill a pastry case, pop them in the oven, take a bite and be wafted back to high summer, kind friends, a ravishingly beautiful place and children who were safe enough to cavort in the shade of the generous old tree, clothed in nothing but mulberry juice.

This was published in The Age on 9 February 2017

Tuesday
Feb072017

The joys of an ordinary Australian summer. 

Thanks be to God for the joys of an ordinary Australian summer.

For the sad-eyed kangaroo that grazes beside our woodshed. For magpies carolling in the dawn, raucous sulphur-crested cockatoos making a mess of manicured lawns, wattle birds dangling practically upside down on an agapanthus head to extract a drop of nectar. For the purply blue of said agapanthus, the way it lines driveways like a guard of honour.

For the endless variety of ages and stages, sizes and shapes at the beach: heavily pregnant women in bikinis; tiny kids in microscopic wet suits, squatting, fascinated beside a rockpool; elderly couples – some stringy and leathered, others crepey and pale, walking hand in hand along the beach, all out enjoying the free gifts of clean air and water. For joggers and beach cricket and the fact that hardly anybody seems angry on the beach.

For the busy red chopper that warns of sharks, and the intrepid life-savers that keep us safe.

For time for that second cup of tea in bed in the morning. For seven kilos of detective novels, gleaned from library and op shop, filling my head and imagination with escapist pleasures. For the drifting scent of barbeques, for New Year’s Eve parties next door that weren’t as rowdy as expected and for the almost-deserted beach the next morning.

For the fact that, unlike my family in the UK, I know that we will always have at least some hot days; that the ocean will always be warm enough for swimming.

For the fact that when I am in the surf, I feel like a little kid again – bouncy and frolicking and free. For the churn when I dive through a breaker, and the buoyancy when I bob to the top of a big wave just before it is about to break. For the pewter of wet sand at the start and end of the day, for the fact that even at the height of the holidays, there are beaches a plenty with only a handful of people on them. For the Nautilus shell, delicate as the finest porcelain, that awaited me on one of these beaches.

For a stubby of crisp cider before dinner. For a fridge so full of Christmas left overs that you don’t have to go to the supermarket for a week. For the Christmas circulars that arrive late, so that I actually have time to read them properly.

That for a few weeks I can forget emails and agendas and politics.

For my forbears who built this place 100 years ago, so that its modest walls have sheltered six generations since.

For the ever-changing, never-changing sea that is my favourite metaphor for God: as accessible as the tiniest ripple on the shore and as fathomless, vast, deep an unknowable as Leviathan's playground . That it puts me in mind of Genesis and Job and the Psalms and St Patrick’s breastplate.

Thanks be to God for the ordinary joys of an Australian summer.

This was published in the February 2017 edition of The Melbourne Anglican

Thursday
Feb022017

Serial addiction

‘How many TV series do you reckon we watched this past year?’ An idle question for an idle moment, asked of my beloved in the quiet week after Christmas. This is the couple, mark you, who didn’t possess a television for a big chunk of their married life.

‘Hmm. Ten?’ He hazards a guess, and when I shake my head, ‘fifteen?’

When I tell him the correct answer – 21, he is as shocked as I was when I counted up the names on the list I keep obsessively at the back of my old-school paper diary, just over the page from the list of the books consumed this year (total 73, in case you’re interested.)

At this point you may be wondering, with all this show watching and novel reading, how I am able to communicate with my loved ones, let alone hold down a job, clean the house and visit a supermarket occasionally.

It’s a fair thing to wonder. When I lived in Portland over 20 years ago, I had a lovely unpaid job at the local library. Each month the librarian would give me 6-12 of her new books, and I would write a review of them for the Portland Observer. I’d read one or two thoroughly, browse a few others, the rest would sit in my pile beside the sofa and I’d kind of get the feel of them by osmosis. I’m not sure how it happened, but each month a theme of some sort would naturally emerge, I’d pen a little summary of the fabulous new riches available for readers, and the paper was kind enough to publish my offerings.

When I was at the Portland hospital having my last baby, a nurse making my bed one morning, (and knowing I had four small children) said to me, ‘Love reading your book reviews. Must be so nice to have so much time to read.’ The fact is, if you really love doing something, you will make time for it. At that stage in my life, being deep in a good book was the only thing that made endless breast feeding through the night bearable.

I’m still devouring books, and as well, now I consume TV series with my husband of an evening; it has become one of our favourite together things to do. What did we watch in 2016? We started with The Missing, a tale of a couple whose young son goes missing. Gripping, compelling, a bit annoying too. Exile – a bleak tale of old age, Alzheimer’s and a dysfunctional family. Borgen 3 – having gobbled up 1 and 2, we graduated to 3, the final, and it did not disappoint. I don’t get politics, never have, but the characters and human dramas in Borgen gripped me from the first five minutes.

DSI Allan Banks followed. Having read several of the books in the series, it was disconcerting to find major differences in plot, but I am learning to see books and movies as different beasts and not be too anal about these things.  Then there was Wanted – a local take on Thelma and Louise, which was both fun and poignant. Janet King 2 – we hadn’t seen 1, but that didn’t seem to matter. Grantchester 2 – lovely stuff. Always cheers me to see depictions of clergy that are not caricatures.

For something completely different, because I tend to steer clear of American shows, figuring that we have enough US culture in our lives thank you very much, we watched three series of Friday Night Lights. Not only is it American, it is also about sport, in which I possess not one skerrick of interest, but to my great surprise I got right into it. It is a show about a small-town football club in Texas, featuring the coach and his family; we loved the striking similarity between their lives and ours when Alistair was the minister in a small country town.

By that time I needed something Scottish, and got exactly what I was craving with Outlander. Having read the book, I knew what to expect, including, when there was a prolonged episode of gut-churning violence half-way through the series, how much worse things were going to get. I persevered, however, and grieved when we reached the end. Fabulous stuff.

Barracuda for some more Australiana – not a bad exploration of what might happen to the majority of highly talented sports people who don’t quite make it to the top. At about this point in the year we got Netflix, and were about to head to France, so we watched Marseilles, which was bleak and scary and good for brushing up our French (especially if we wanted to get some vocab for doing drug deals on the docks, or arranging for an enemy to be literally or metaphorically stabbed in the back).

The Fall 1 and 2 is a detective series set in Belfast, where my dad comes from, so I was naturally drawn to the locale. Dark and creepy and disturbing and brilliant. Wollander is set in Sweden but is in English, but works none the less. Then there was the first series of Call the Midwife, which was far and away the most heart-warming show we watched all year, with the BEST nuns in television – tough and funny and realistic and faithful and human. Then Shetland, because I was pining for Scotland again, and there’s nothing like a remote Scottish island, even if a surprising number of people on it are getting murdered.

Happy Valley – another detective show from the UK, set this time in a small village in Yorkshire. I was upset to see my lovely vicar from Grantchester as a cold-blooded psychopath, but he was pretty convincing. The main cop is captivating, and the relationship between her and her sister was the most powerful portrayal of sisters I’ve ever seen. Midnight Sun – set in the remoter parts of Sweden and in a mixture of Swedish, English and French was flawless television. And we finished with BBC cop show The Level which wasn’t bad.

I was struck by the increasing number of satisfying roles for women in several of the shows we watched – Borgen, Friday Night Lights, Outlander and particularly The Fall, Happy Valley and Midnight Sun. Complex, human, strong, fascinating women you love, even while they frustrate you with some of the things they do. We’ve started 2017 with the first series of The Good Wife, which falls into the same pattern (although I find Alicia Florrick just a little too good to be true).

I often use eating verbs when I talk about my reading habits – consuming, devouring, gobbling up, mouth-watering anticipation – which indicates the endless human appetite for story. There are few things that consistently make my heart lift as much as the thought of picking up a book or logging on to the next episode in a wonderful show. When I ask my co-watcher, at the end of this year, how many shows he thinks we saw, I wonder what our tally will be.

Wednesday
Jan182017

All about the tan

I was lucky, I suppose, that I never spent an entire summer in Australia until I was 15,  growing up as I did in the country where only mad dogs and Englishmen went out in the midday sun, and fair skin was considered beautiful. Otherwise I might have been like my husband, who maintains that every summer holiday of his childhood he sunburnt till he blistered. No slip slop slap back then.

At 15, though, at the start of 1975, it was all about the tan, and I took to this tanning business like a lizard to a hot patch of rock.

It was a competitive sport. The girls most envied at school were those dusky beauties who coloured smooth and even and deep brown. Long before the flawless porcelain of Nicole Kidman’s skin became desirable we felt sorry for the redheads and freckle-faced among us. I was somewhere in the middle – a mix between my olive-skinned Melbourne-bred Mum and a ginger-haired, fair-skinned Dad from Belfast.

As soon as I hit the beach each year, I dedicated serious hours each day prostrating myself before the sun. On overcast days, I fantasised about having a giant spatula to scrape every skerrick of cloud from the sky. At one point, I used to smear myself with baby oil (yes, really) until I saw sense and invested in a dark brown bottle of Coppertone SPF 4, which made me feel like the soul of caution.

The last summer I donned a two-piece was, when I was expecting my first baby. My big belly tanned a deep brown: after our daughter was born, the stretched skin shrank back to normal and looked like dark chocolate.

By the time we had our own tribe of kids, of course, the application of gallons of sunscreen was de rigeur. I estimate I have spent months of my life slathering small bodies in sun protection, trying not to miss a millimetre of vulnerable skin; I used to wish there was a kind of sheep dip at the beach where you could dunk your kids.

Now, happily, all colours of skin are acceptable, and I am older and more sensible than I was at seventeen. But I admit I still buy sneaky bottles of SPF 15, when 30 or even 50 would be wiser. Because I still love to come back from my summer holiday with a bit of colour. It takes me back to when summers were endless. And it was all about the tan.

First published in The Age on 18 January 2017