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Selfies with an extinct species

I thought I was hallucinating last Wednesday, when I boarded a number 11 tram in Collins Street and saw a cheery, avuncular conductor in his green uniform, complete with cap and heavy-duty leather satchel sprouting old-fashioned paper tickets.

His appearance was in honour of the twentieth anniversary of the day the last connies worked on Melbourne trams and it took me back. Is it just nostalgia colouring my memories, or were tram conductors universally friendly, helpful and upbeat?

The most extreme example was a conductor we called ‘Frenchie’ who worked the Glenferrie Road line. He did circus tricks including swinging from the hanging straps, juggling with his cap and performing conjuring feats with customers’ change.

Not every connie was quite so colourful, but not many were grumpy.  I remember one asking me where I was headed one gorgeous Melbourne spring day. When I said ‘to my boyfriend’s,’ he proceeded to ask how many boyfriends I had to which I responded ‘just the one’. ‘Ah,’ he sighed theatrically, ‘so much beauty and only one boyfriend’. Recalling this decades later, in the era of #metoo, I still think his intentions were perfectly innocent, and I certainly received them in that spirit.

Of course, there were plenty of female conductors too.  And both women and men seemed to add a parental touch to the experience of a tram journey, conducting – no pun intended - the atmosphere of these most temporary of communities. I felt safer on the trams when they were there. A myki machine just isn’t the same, nor are Protective Services Officers.

I have no idea how conductors managed to collect fares on crowded rush hour trams; I suspect they sometimes resigned themselves to missing a commuter or two, but probably fewer than those who fare evade these days. One of my closest friends was a conductor/driver in the seventies (a combination that was called a ‘marmalade’) and says that tact and complicated mental arithmetic were required, the manual dexterity to sort the right change and punch each ticket in correct little square, plus the all-important task of pulling the cord twice for the driver to take off once all passengers were safely on board.

I guess it’s too much to hope for the reinstatement of tram conductors. But on the city tram this week, I was pleased to see that it wasn’t only oldies like me who were chuffed to experience their brief reincarnation, as millennials lined up, grinning, to get a selfie with this extinct species.


 Pulished in The Melbourne Age on 27 May 2018


Good Friday and Easter

‘Great news and happy birthday now and evermore’.

This was just one of the many heart-warming messages of good will that appeared on my Facebook feed a while back when I posted a photo of my husband and me celebrating his birthday and the news that currently, he is enjoying a spell of good health, despite being diagnosed with cancer in 2015.

English is not this friend’s first language. And his quirky and profound turn of phrase set me thinking about Easter.

In this society, we tend to rush too quickly from the horror of Good Friday and the numb confusion and abandonment of Easter Saturday to the reassuring glory and triumph of the Resurrection. It’s easier that way, and for many in Australia, there is little in our day to day lives to remind us of death and despair. Many of us coast along for years wilfully ignoring the fact that the world is a dark place for many human beings and that there is no escaping death.

In our family, the last three years have kind of been the opposite as we have walked through the valley of the shadow of death: facing incurable cancer, its tough treatment and the unforeseen complications arising from that treatment. Good times and blessings have been sprinkled liberally through these years, along with a more profound sense of God’s love and grace than I have ever experienced before. But it has felt as though we’ve been living in a Good Friday-Easter Saturday time, and our friend’s message reminded me powerfully that we worship an Easter Sunday God.

I am inspired that Jesus suffered in many of the same ways that all humans do. He was fearless and authentic and uncompromising. He accepted all the 'wrong' kind of people and opposed those who corruptly used power, so that his murder was the logical conclusion of a life fully, authentically and courageously lived. That he died, feeling abandoned by God, and that as the early Creeds claim, ‘he descended into hell’ is a deep consolation for those of us who have suffered from the cruel disease of depression, chronic pain or arbitrary tragedy.

But that was and is not the last word. The story of Jesus’ resurrection tells me that God, who is love, is more powerful than evil and death. The life and love that my husband and I have created together, messily but well, will not disappear when we die. Love ripples out forever, as does each act of courage and kindness in the world. There is no shelter from suffering and death in this life. But I believe that does not limit the enduring love of God, which holds us from conception to death and beyond.

Easter tells me that God is here with us and also there, on the other side of the dark river we all have to cross at some point. All will be well. And that hope brings comfort and joy in the present. That’s the bottom line of this whole deal.

So, along with our friend, I can confidently say, ‘It’s Easter. Great news and happy birthday, now and evermore!”

This was published in the April edition of The Melbourne Anglican


Oh, India!

Recent media accounts of the rising rape rate in the Subcontinent are chilling. For me, born and raised there, they are profoundly distressing.

India is one of my favourite places on earth. When I step off the plane onto Indian soil there is a deep, joyous, visceral sense of homecoming that I don’t experience anywhere else, not even in Australia, where I have lived for most of my life, and where almost all my loved ones are.

My childhood in India was mainly an abundantly happy one. The generosity of people – sometimes the poorest people, was humbling. We had great friends. The sights, sounds and smells, the ancient buildings, the food, the colour and vivacity in the streets were magical. When we moved to the eastern suburbs of Melbourne in the early 1970s, I thought it was the dullest, greyest, most lifeless place imaginable.

But. Even as a child, I was aware of India’s dark side. In 1969, when I was ten, our home city of Ahmedabad was riven by communal conflict. Muslims and Hindus slaughtered each other in the street: many hundreds of people were murdered in a few days. It wasn’t until the army imposed a 24-hour curfew and shot anyone who broke it that the carnage ceased. Of course, the hatred, fear and mistrust went on for decades.

A few years earlier, my mother and I were on a long train trip that took us through an area torn apart by language riots – people in the south protesting the imposition of Hindi – the lingua franca of the north - as the national language. The train we were travelling in was stoned by rioting mobs.

And everywhere you look in India, poverty and disability are displayed. The homeless, the hungry, the breathtakingly disfigured, are all paraded in the street. The animals you see are often bone thin and cowed. For a dog lover, India is purgatory.

Currently, Islam and Christianity are the most criticised of world faiths, with militant extremism and child abuse prominent in our awareness. But every religion and ideology on earth has its dark side – has practitioners who distort or ignore its teachings in horrific ways. Mahatma Gandhi abhorred the caste system. Any belief or system – sexism, nationalism, racism or caste, that posits that some people are worth more than others, is twisted.  Good beliefs, healthy religions are the ones that grow our hearts, rendering us more compassionate and sharpening our awareness of injustice towards those outside our circle.

This was published in The Age on 23 April 2018



The secret to happiness

I’m convinced that one of the secrets to happiness is understanding that you can’t control things.

At the end of one of Melbourne’s heat waves this summer, we had four friends around for the evening. We are all Christians, and we do this every couple of months – sharing food, checking in with how everyone is, talking about God stuff and how we try to live out our faith, sharing a simple Eucharist, praying for each other.

This particular evening, I was to lead a meditation, which I had prepared and timed to the second, as is my way.

And then the rain came.

At first it was tentative – tantalizing spits of half-hearted precipitation, and we willed it to pour. Then it started in earnest, and we stood together on our tin-roofed back verandah, speechless, gazing out in delight as the parched and drooping garden revived before our eyes.

Later, as we sat around the table, when one of our group was asked how she had been since we last met, she asked if, instead of listening to her, we could simply sit in silence and listen to the rain for a while.

This we did, eventually slowing our breathing, closing our eyes, relaxing into the moment but all the while listening intently to the drumming on the corrugated iron, the gurgling of pipes and gutters, the occasional rich growl of thunder, a car hissing past on the road outside.

I have no idea how long we sat like that. At first I fretted a little. How long was this going to go on for, I wanted to know. And how was it going to jell with the more formal time of silent meditation I had planned for later in the evening? Should I relax into this spontaneous gift of unstructured time, or should I keep half an eye open, to see what others were up to? Were they getting right into it, in which case I could follow suit, or were they as anxious and distracted as I was, half hoping this unexpected detour would wind up quickly?

I wasted a good few minutes with this kind of internal carryon, and then told myself to get over it and just enjoy the moment, however long it lasted. And the moment was sublime.

When we eventually brought our attention back to the candlelit room and each other, I said, with a contented sigh, ‘I think we’ve had our meditation’.

I’m a slow learner, but life keeps serving me up these lessons. It’s fine to make plans, but it is best not to be so invested in them that you miss the unexpected gifts that life delivers to those who are open to grace.

Once again, I was reminded that one of the secrets to happiness is accepting that you can’t control everything. And in the moments I can’t control, I might just meet God.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on 15 April 2018


Putting away summer

Autumn is almost half over, and daylight saving has come to an end, as all good things must. But the forecast for the next few days includes more than one 29 degree day, so it’s clearly not yet time to put away the accoutrements of summer.

These are the post-Easter, seasonal tasks in our household.

Re-ignite the pilot for the heater in our family room, hoping it doesn’t smell too pungently of dust the first time we use it. Pack away the trusty pedestal fans that make sleep possible all through the summer months. (I slip bin bags over the fans before storing them in the attic; they look like a sinister gathering of Ku Klux Klan members or something gruesome from Abu Ghraib.)

Open the blinds in the morning to let warmth in, rather than shutting them to keep it out. Bring in the garden furniture and harvest the last of the basil, converting it into enough pesto to keep us going well into the colder months.

I cover my legs for the duration. From October till April my lower limbs are unconfined; shorts are my weekend garment of choice, and at work it’s frocks. My legs need to breathe, and get claustrophobic in pants or tights unless the weather is decidedly chilly.

My reluctance to drag out the winter wardrobe doesn’t mean that I don’t like the cold weather though. Indeed, winter is my favourite season, when Melbourne comes into its own.

There’s the footy, of course. But for those of us completely uninterested in that particular brand of religion, winter is the time for fires and robust soups and creamy hot chocolate. A time for reading and watching fabulous television series (of which there seems to be a never-ending supply) without feeling guilty that I’m not outside enjoying long summer evenings. Winter is for experiencing hygge – that Danish word for cosy and so much more – for being early to bed and snuggling under the doona.

Winter is a time for live music gigs in tiny, grungy Brunswick bars where they serve mulled wine, for forays into art galleries, for movies and concerts, for all the indoor things that Melbourne does so well.

So yes, I do love winter, and I enjoy the clothes associated with the season too – beanies and scarves and gloves, jackets and jumpers, jeans and boots and furry slippers. But I can wait. This year, we might be into June before my summer wardrobe goes into hibernation. Before I put away my summer things and batten the hatches for the cold ahead.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on 8 April 2018