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Extraordinary machine

Beguiling songstress Regina Spektor put it well:

I’ve got a perfect body

But sometimes I forget

I’ve got a perfect body

‘Cause my eyelashes catch my sweat, yes they do, yes they do

I always thought it was eyebrows that were designed to keep perspiration out of our peepers, but physiology aside, she makes her point, which is that our bodies are complex and wondrous miracles.

The author of Psalm 139 had the same idea:

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

your works are wonderful,

I know that full well

Sometimes I like to sit or lie silently and think my way through my body, feeling my toes and my calves and all the way up to the top of my scalp, tingling and prickling and expanding up to the vast forgiving sky. ‘I have no pain at all today,’ I like to think. ‘And I had a drink of cool water just now and it is inching its way down my oesophagus and into my system and that clean good gift is filling me and plumping out my grateful cells.’

How wonderful are thy works oh God! We have mouths that take in all manner of sustaining and tasty food that breaks down inside us, the good, helpful bits somehow melding with our bodies in a way that builds us up, keeps us healthy and strong and enduring, and whatever can’t be used is neatly expelled at the other end, with no fuss.

My sturdy bones keep me upright and moving and protect my vital organs; my muscles are strong enough to carry me many miles each day and do all the lifting and scrubbing and sweeping and walking the dog that I need to, and my skin protects me from infection. My womb grew four children and my breasts fed them through infancy. My hands can cook, caress and hold a pen and my brain, my brain in the most extraordinary thing of all – remembering and musing and creating and solving problems and changing the way I react to life’s challenges if the way I learnt already is no longer serving me so well.

And all this, this frenetic, incredible activity that is going on is silent, performing all its wondrous acts without so much as a creak or groan, well, most of the time anyway. As another songstress, Fiona Apple put it, I’m an extraordinary machine.

This is what I need to remember when I am wistfully contemplating my aching joints, sagging chin and patchy memory, when I bemoan the fact that I can’t walk as far or as fast as I did when I was younger. The frailest, oldest, sickest human body is a miracle of complex systems that keep us alive, healthy, functioning, thriving.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works [even me!] are wonderful,
I know that full well

Thanks be to the creator God.

This was published in the July issue of The Melbourne Anglican


Motherhood statement

'Childless, happy, no regrets', wrote Wendy Squires in The Age last weekend, continuing the on-going conversation about women and children which manifests anew regularly in various incarnations: ‘working’ versus ‘stay at home’ mums, women who choose not to procreate and who are labelled selfish, women who put their kids in childcare versus those who don’t, women who courageously admitted that they have profound regrets about their status.

If it is worth adding my voice to the cacophony, here are some points I would like to make:

Even the most content mothers will have days they wish they were childless. Quite apart from the fact that the job is not well remunerated or respected, it is one of the toughest and most relentless on the planet, so this should come as no surprise.

I have four adult kids and my experience of 31 years of parenting has been overwhelmingly positive. But I was lucky. I wasn’t at a crucial point in my career. I lived in small country towns, where support was easily accessible and isolation unlikely. I had a partner who was genuinely hands on about parenting and domestic chores. What’s more, his work was largely home-based, so he was able to share the load most days. Equally important – because he was around, he understood how gruelling parenting can be, providing that validation and recognition that is missing from many parents’ lives.

Parenting is NOT for everyone. And if it’s not for you, it doesn’t mean you are any more selfish, limited or superficial than those of us who choose to reproduce. My husband and I chose to have babies not because we were particularly noble. We just wanted them. Looking out for your children isn’t some great altruistic gesture; it’s more like an extension of self-interest. I know a lot of childless people who live incredibly rich lives. I also know parents whose lives seem to be pretty miserable, insular, limited and resentful.

Lastly and most emphatically, why in 21st century Australia, in the name of all that is fair, is it always women who are having these painful, divisive, soul-searing conversations that veer into debate and sometimes all-out vitriol? Is anyone labelling men who chose to be childless selfish? Are fathers who continue in the work force pilloried? Are fathers controversially confessing that they have regrets about their life choices demonised? If they are, I’m not seeing it.

Yet again, it is women taking the load of responsibility and guilt.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on Friday 30 June




Exile and homecoming

Two of my favourite words in the English language are ‘nearly home’.   

I’ve long been preoccupied with the concept of home; maybe because I spent my primary school years in a boarding school so far from where my parents lived that we only got back at Christmas. I moved constantly throughout my life until about 20 years ago, and was infinitely adaptable and quite appreciative of change and the opportunities to experience different domiciles. Wherever I was, though, I very quickly nested, put up my stuff, made a place, well, homely. Always.

Even when I travel, wherever I stay quickly becomes my temporary home, the place I return to with a sigh of satisfaction after a long day of walking or sight-seeing. If I am camping, my tent is my little home. When I’m on retreat, my cell is the place I nestle into like a warm womb. I seldom enter the house where we have lived for 17 years or wake within its sheltering walls without a prayer of gratitude.

At the same time, I never feel completely at home in any country. Melbourne is obviously my home; it is where I work and worship and where most of the people I love best are. At a visceral level, however, I feel more utterly at home in India, where I spent the first 12 years of my life, or the UK, where all my childhood literature came from and where I feel I belong more than I ever will in the Antipodes. So wherever I am, I’m happy, and wherever I am I’m also yearning for somewhere else – deep, sudden, piercing pangs of homesickness that hit out of the blue and that sometimes send me scuttling back to the Subcontinent for a fix.

I’m learning to accept this sense of incompleteness both as a gift - the sign of a rich and complex life - and as just what comes with being human. This side of death, we will always be missing somewhere, something, somebody without whom we feel incomplete.

It’s also part of the spiritual condition of human kind, who are created to long for more. Mostly, in our society, we confuse this with wanting more stuff, and we get more stuff endlessly and are never satisfied. What we are meant to long for is more connection with something greater than ourselves (I am a person of faith, so I call this God), more capacity for self-transcendence, more peace in the world, more peace in our families, more peace in our souls.

No one who gives a toss about anything outside themselves is unfamiliar with the deep longing for a better world, the despair when wars accelerate and powerful people lack compassion and the planet teeters on the brink of annihilation, mostly through our own greed and neglect. We all long for better: for creation, for victims of violence, for refugees, for the starving. This is what forms the burden of our prayers of intercession every week in Christian worship.

Exile and longing for home is a common theme in the Hebrew Scriptures; with foundation stories such as the Children of Israel wandering in the desert for 40 years after generations of slavery in Egypt and the Babylonian exile. The best-known line in the Basis of Union, the foundation document of my own Uniting Church in Australia is The church is a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal.

In a world seething with refugees, the concept of having a home at all is not to be taken for granted. If we are lucky, if we have the right love and psychological care, we carry inside us a sense of home that grounds and protects us through the toughest times. But I believe I will never feel completely at home until after this life is over and I have started the last great adventure, where I see God more clearly, where I will be freed from the baggage that keeps me from loving God and others and myself completely. I believe that at the end of everything, in the words of Revelation 21, 3-4:

God will be with them; God will wipe every tear from their eyes, Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.

I have no picture of what life after life might be like, but I believe that somehow every person who dies becomes part of that great harmonious, praising, open household of God and that everyone I know who has already died is partaking of that great feast of love with the mighty beating heart of love that created and sustains the universe.

The Canticle of St Francis, which we sang at our wedding 37 years ago, includes a beautiful but oft-omitted verse which starts off, And thou most kind and gentle death, waiting to hush our latest breath. I hope that when I am dying, I will have the most complete sense in my life of being ‘nearly home’. If I am lucky enough to be with my beloved at the moment when he journeys from this life to the next, I would like to whisper to him, with utter conviction. ‘Nearly home my darling, nearly home.’

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



Take a nap

How encouraging to read on these pages last week (Caitlin Fitzsimmons, 27/4/17) that such august personages as Winston Churchill, Ingmar Bergman, Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin were habitual nappers. (One is forced to wonder if high-achieving females also napped; maybe they were too busy.) Darwin, apparently, punctuated 90-minute work intervals with naps and long walks in the countryside. Working longer, it appears, doesn’t necessarily mean working better.

Reading this I feel vindicated, as I am a fanatical walker and napper. It probably started growing up in the tropics, where people are more likely to nap after lunch (many shops and facilities in India still close for two or three hours in the heat of the afternoon), and continued when I was up at night feeding babies and a daytime nap, when achieved, became a matter of survival.

These days my kids are long gone, and I work from 9 to 5 in an office in the city, but only four days a week, and from Friday to Sunday, unless something very unusual is happening, I nap after lunch. Sometimes I conk out completely, waking dopey and disoriented after an hour of deep sleep. Other times I read for a bit and then drift off without actually sleeping – mind in low gear, body utterly relaxed. Some days I simply lie staring at the ceiling rose above our bed, a profoundly restful non-activity.

Granted, I will never be a Churchill, Bergman, Dickens or Darwin. But I have a gut feeling that their practice can be gainfully adopted for ordinary old run of the mill human beings like me. I know from decades of experience that taking a walk at lunch time on a work day, and sometimes sitting utterly still in a city church for a while, makes for a more productive afternoon at my desk. I know I have more writing ideas and deeper reserves of patience and humour when I rest adequately, which, for me includes regular siestas.

Also, I find the practice of napping is a failsafe guard against hubris. I love that Churchill was ‘apparently rigid about taking a daily afternoon nap followed by a bath, even during the darkest days of the war’. If the world could do without Churchill in the 40s, it can certainly do without me. I am not remotely indispensable, I am not particularly important. When I retreat to my bed after lunch, I am reminded of my small place in the universe. And I am reinvigorated to do my small part.

Published in The Melbourne Age 25 May


Two worlds collide on the 58 tram

The tram I catch from my place into the city, which has always read ‘Domain Interchange’ now says ‘Toorak’ and it’s doing my head in.

At one level it makes perfect sense. The number 55 tram from West Coburg trundled its way through Royal Park, past the hospitals and the Victoria Market, down William St and ended up near the Shrine, at the aforementioned Domain Interchange. The Toorak tram, number 8, used to start there and finish up at Glenferrie Road, Toorak. So they might as well join the two up.

It freaks me out though, as it is joining two of my worlds that I thought would never meet, Toorak and West Brunswick. I spent the last few of my teenage years living in Toorak, until, aged 21 years and six weeks, I married and escaped to the northern suburbs, where I’ve remained ever since, apart from overseas stays and ten years in the country.

I didn’t really belong on the Southside, and only lived there on account of my dad being a minister in one of the big churches in Toorak Road. Needless to say, there are many wonderful people who live in Toorak, and I was lucky enough to meet some of them, but I was never happy there. I have lived in a lot of places all around the world; I think that Toorak was the only place I felt completely ill at ease.

It was the money: the huge blocks of land, the private gardens like small parks, the high gates and walls and security systems that guarded these parks and the mansions hidden deep within them, the lonely, uninhabited streets, the fancy, overpriced shops. Moving there from the colour, chaos and crowds of India was like flying to another planet. I barely ever have reason to visit that side of town; when I do, I feel a residual discomfort.

But maybe it’s time I got over myself. Toorak is not a place I was happy, but it’s just a place. The people who live there belong in a variety of socio-economic categories, and, more than that, they’re just people. Maybe it’s time I got over my intense uncomfortableness with the very rich. Maybe it’s time I acknowledged that for most of the world’s inhabitants, very rich is precisely what I am. Maybe it’s time I took a ride on that new tram line – number 58 – from end to end, bringing my two worlds together and becoming a more integrated person in the process.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on 16 May 2017