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You'd be mad not to go to church

Sometimes I think you’d be mad not to go to church. I have thought this more strongly than ever in the aftermath of the Bourke St tragedy, where, in scenes that are now familiar but I suspect first occurred after Princess Diana’s untimely death, thousands of people visit the site of an accident, laying flowers and soft toys and opening weeping.

I have no way of knowing what historical or current grief is reactivated by an event such as this one. Every human heart holds pain known only to its inhabitant. But to me this public outpouring, which seems at first blush to be out of proportion to the griever’s personal link to the tragedy, speaks of the human need for ritual in times of distress and trauma, even someone else’s.

In the past, when there was a war on, the churches filled. These days, with the appalling abuse meted out by churches coming to light, this is no longer an option most people consider. But maybe it should be.

This is what happens each week in a mainstream church service (and, if you’re lucky, it will be done well, with dignity and down to earthiness, including the great traditions but simultaneously in touch with the 21st century situation).

We gather, we are called to worship God, and we offer praise and also thanks for the many gifts that grace our lives. We sing songs that date from the third century to our own.

We bring to God – to a greater power than us, the beating heart of love at the centre of the universe – the world in all its mess, and us in all ours. Our prayers of confession are not a breast-beating grovel so much as an admission that we have stuffed up during the past week and yearn to do better. 

In the prayers of the people, we bring to God our grief and confusion about the state of the world, from the wholesale destruction in Syria to the homless in Melbourne, to the dramas members of our own family are going through. It is a lament.

We hear a sermon, which is different from a lesson, a lecture or a speech, in that it opens up ancient words for our own situation. We may be lucky enough to have communion, where in some powerful way we take God into ourselves. At the end of the hour, we are sent out, refreshed and unburdened, to be channel of God’s peace in a world that needs peace more than ever.

It seems to me that church is one of the few places in our world where deeply considered ritual helps a person to be fully human, realistically engaged with the world but drawing on resources from beyond ourselves.

Weeping at the corner of Bourke and Elizabeth may be an important thing to do. But there is ritual available every week of our lives. You’d be crazy not to avail yourself of it.

This was pubished in the March 2017 edition of The Melbourne Anglican



Barrack for human happiness. Barrack for India.

Australia smashed India in the latest test match, played in Pune. My resident advisor on all things sport explains to me that this is unheard of. ‘India is unbeatable when they play at home. They’re the strongest cricket team in the world,’ he says. ‘This hasn’t happened since 2004.’

I’m not even interested in sport, but I’m disappointed that there’s been a reversal of fortune this time around.

If it’s a contest between my two homes of India and Australia, I will always be rooting for India. It’s not just that it’s where I was born, the place where I grew up, the country where something deep and visceral in me feels absolutely right in a way that it doesn’t anywhere else. No, it’s a simple matter of mathematics. If India wins, a billion people will be ecstatic. If Australia is victorious, there’ll be a mild case of happiness for a few million. When India triumphs at cricket, the sum of human happiness around the globe is increased mightily, which on some cosmic plane, has to be good for the universe.

Anyone who has spent time in the Subcontinent cannot help but be aware of its love affair with the gentleman’s game. Eighteen months ago I was back, and delighted to see that the national obsession has not waned. Everywhere you look: in vacant city blocks, in dusty village streets, in factory warehouses during lunch breaks, in fields in the middle of nowhere as you trundle past on a long train journey, even precariously on the flat roofs of houses, are little boys and bigger boys and young men playing cricket with an enthusiasm that defies the ferocious heat and enervating humidity.

I was often asked “Where are you coming from?” and when I responded “Australia,” a look of near rapture would come over the faces of my interviewers, because they associate this country with cricket. The fact that this particular Australian knows next to nothing about the game wouldn’t stop them going into rapturous accolades about our star players and theirs.

They revere talented cricketers of every race, even if, like Shane Warne, they commit unforgiveable sins such as taking cans of baked beans to eat in a country that has arguably the best cuisine on the planet.

When there’s a big match on, the country comes to a standstill, and if India wins, the streets explode in jubilant celebration.

So, take a leaf out of my book. Barrack for human happiness. Barrack for India.

Published in The Melbourne Age 3 March 2017


Just my cup of tea

Melbourne might be the self-proclaimed coffee capital of the known universe, but what floats this Melbournian’s boat is the humble, daggy cup of tea.

I can go for days without coffee, and have even (oh the shame!) been known to sneak a cup of instant. Tea, however (made in a pot, with leaves) is a matter of survival. I can well understand why Jeanie Gunn, in the Australian classic, We of the Never Never, written in the early years of the 20th century, describes how vital tea was to the functioning of her remote Northern Territory cattle station. Everything would grind to a halt if the tea ran out; people would risk life and limb to ensure that supplies arrived.

I grew up in the middle of tea plantations in the Subcontinent, where tea is the beverage that keeps the nation on its feet. Any Indian will tell you, it is never too hot for a cup of tea, and there is always, always time for one.

Every time we moved house in India, we packed our crockery in old tea chests. To this day I can picture them: big boxes made of ply, covered in stencils of exotic place names, lined with tin, with traces of the leaves still in the corners and the faintest aroma of tea.

I am a complete tea snob: a drink made from a tea bag will never pass my lips. It’s partly about the flavour. I’m convinced that no matter how fancy the teabags are, they can’t compete with the real thing – a bit like comparing fresh ginger with the powdered variety. But it’s also about the mindful calmingness of the whole ceremony with which tea is made – warming the pot, spooning in the leaves, popping on the cosy, letting it steep, stirring a couple of times, pouring it into pre-warmed mugs. It’s impossible to do without thought and care, without love. The warmth starts as your hands wrap around the mug, and steals gently into your soul.

Through almost four decades together, my significant other and I have taken it in turns, every morning, to make the tea. We can barely function till we have downed that first cup; the sign of weekends or holidays is having a second cuppa in bed over a more leisurely read of the paper than is possible on a working day. Tea bookends our days, it is the glue that keeps our marriage together. Somehow, even the fanciest coffee machine can’t compete with that.

Published in The Age 23 February 2017




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



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