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Vale Mary Oliver

Walking almost always cheers me. But on Christmas Eve, not even a saunter through my neighbourhood could lift my spirits. It was a gorgeous day. And I love Christmas: the worship and the music, the food and the gathering of the clans. I was at the start of more than three weeks off work and I was looking forward enormously to this spell of rest and time in the open air.

But I was down. Blue in a way that tends to happen at the end of the year, when I am simply worn out. Once again it had been a year with what felt like more than its fair share of death, illness, bad news and intimidatingly complicated tasks needing urgent attention.

I did one of my usual local perambulations through the string of parks we are lucky enough to live near, up bustling Sydney Road and along small suburban streets. When I was almost home, I was halted in my tracks by a flowering gum at the edge of an oval: the brightest, most iridescent orange I had seen for a long time.

‘Oh!’, I exclaimed out loud, involuntarily. I stopped and gazed at the cheery, outrageous display of colour and saw another wonder contained within it; an aptly named rainbow lorikeet. I was only two feet away, but the bird was not threatened. Head on one side, it regarded me quizzically and long.

‘Hello’, I breathed, which seems to be the word that springs unbidden to my lips whenever I am surprised by the sight of an animal or bird. ‘Hello’, soft and gentle and delighting.

I stood there for a while, the bird and I taking each other in, and then the creature was off, and I went on my way, rejoicing.

When I am sunk in despair, grief, deep weariness or self-pity, sometimes the antidote is as simple as soaking myself in the natural world. This can take two minutes on a Brunswick street, as happened on Christmas Eve. Or it can be a longer immersion. In the new year I spent a fortnight at the beach, when I spent hours each day wandering on the sand and swimming in the ocean. Each moment, I felt profoundly held by mother nature and the Creator God, being healed and restored.

It is a wonderful thing to take solace in the created world, which the Creator declared good. But it is not all about me. Bearing witness to wonder is work in which the Creator God takes delight, because where there is wonder, there cannot be cynicism or violence.

One of the best witnesses to wonder I know of is legendary, Pulitzer Prize winning nature poet and Christian Mary Oliver who died recently. In one of my favourite of her works, Messenger, she writes the lines:

My work is loving the world…

Let me keep my mind on what matters,

which is my work

which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.

 Vale Mary Oliver

This was published in the February issue of The Melbourne Anglican





Listen to the weather

Doesn’t seem that far back when we Melburnians used to whine when the thermometer hit 32°. ‘What a stinker!’ we’d exclaim, looking fretfully, in those long-ago days before weather apps, for a sign that the wind had turned and was coming from the south at last.

These days, 32° sounds positively balmy; we’re not shocked till it gets into the 40s. A few days ago, on a brutally hot (although still ‘only’ in the high 30s) day, our fine city was blessed, right on 5 o’clock, when your average punter was heading home from work and hadn’t thought to bring a brolly because we had almost forgotten what rain was, with a deluge. As I walked up Bourke St to my tram, I was tickled by the infectious and patent delight of everyone around me. No one was complaining about getting drenched. People were laughing and smiling and saying, ‘isn’t this amazing?’ to complete strangers. Folk were standing uncomplaining on exposed tram stops, staring up at the heavens in wonder.

It put me in mind of the start of the monsoon in India, where people of all ages dance in the street with sheer happiness and gratitude at the coming of life-giving rain after months of ferocious summer. Maybe it was growing up in the Subcontinent that has made me so fond of Melbourne weather. Living for years through four months of hideous heat followed by four months of flooding rains followed by four months of pleasant weather, year after year, made the four seasons in one day of my adopted home town an endless source of fascination. You can never get bored here, at least not weather wise.

Of course, the changing weather patterns the world around are cause for grave concern. We’re a soft lot in the city, merely inconvenienced by the heat or cold or rain; in the country the elements are a matter of life or death, as Tasmania burns on and drought ravages farms across our state. And there is the further degree of desperation experienced by our Pacific neighbours who stand to lose their very homeland, thanks to global warming and the rising of the seas.

I will continue to delight in our four seasons in one day. And try, rather than treating the weather as a nuisance, to be more responsive to what it is trying to tell us and our obtuse politicians about what humanity needs to do, urgently, to preserve life on this fragile planet.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on 3 February 2019


Watch this space

Decluttering guru Marie Kondo, who took the world by storm with her 2016 international best seller The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, now has her own Netflix show.

I have been a fan for a while, and although I have long since stopped trying to fold my knickers in exactly the origami shape stipulated, and never quite managed to thank my socks each time I took them off, I have regular seasons of enthusiastic Kondo-ing, and each time, my house and my life does become a little more pleasingly spare.

Travelling lightly through life is something I aspire to increasingly as I age. All my most recent trips overseas were made even more delightful and carefree than they might have been anyway thanks to my adoption of the principle of taking carry-on baggage only. My longest time away was seven weeks, in both hot and cold climates, and it was easy to limit myself to one small bag. When I returned home, I was discombobulated by the number of clothes and footwear I had to choose from every morning. Life was simpler and sweeter when I only had a couple of outfits for summer or winter temperatures.

Over the recent summer break, I did my first bush-walk in a few years, with all my clothes, bedding, food and water on my back. One of the best things about the trek was the simplicity inherent in having one sleeping bag, three sets of clothes, and the most basic of meal provisions. Unencumbered by too much stuff, my heart and mind were free to take in some of the spectacular natural beauty that surrounded me on those four days.

I’m not a complete Kondo convert. Although I have recycled hundreds of books, I will never reduce the number of volumes on my shelves to 30, as she recommends, because I love the things. They are as precious to me as the art on my walls, they reveal part of who I am, they are my treasures. To speak in Kondo-ese, they spark joy, and I am perfectly content to keep a lot of them.

But the rest of the baggage that fills my life and my house could be drastically reduced without losing anything precious. And in the next couple of years, when my beloved and I move from a sprawling family home to an apartment, we will need all the inspiration we can get from Marie Kondo. Watch this increasingly decluttered space!



Tempers evaporate in the great outdoors

Is it my imagination, or are people less cranky at the beach?

There they are, thousands of random people packed into a limited space, and is anyone arguing, or yelling or throwing a tanty? Not as often as you’d expect.

I think the reasons are threefold.

First, there are more adults around, and they are under less pressure. In two parent families, both parents are on call; right on hand to admire that sand-castle, provide a bottle of cool water, venture into the waves with their kid atop their shoulders. Often, a bunch of families holiday together or meet on the shore and the adults can take it in turns to hang out with the littles. There’s a lot more attention to go around, away from laptops and domestic chores and the tyranny of getting out the door in time for creche, school, work.

Secondly, a surprising absence of devices. Sure, there are besotted parents videoing their little darlings every move on their iPhone, but mostly what you see is grown ups gazing philosophically out to sea, counting little heads in the surf, chatting to their mate over a cup of take away coffee while corralling kids, digging trenches or applauding a small person’s first attempts on a boogie board. In the city I’m often grieved by the number of parents ferrying children to school or the shops or the park with their head buried in their damn device. There’s a cute little person just waiting to talk to you here I want to say.

Thirdly, no kid I’ve ever had much to do with, and that includes a goodly number – my own four, numerous friends and cousins, a bunch of foster children - has failed to be charmed by the great outdoors. Take a fractious child away from the TV in a darkened room and show them some space, some grass, some trees, some natural water, and they change; becoming calm and agreeable in less time than you can say ‘fresh air’.

Ross Gittins, in these pages on Wed 2 Jan, quotes Hugh Mackay as saying that being connected to nature is a traditional source of relief from anxiety and adds that ‘grass time’ is vital for the health and well-being not only of children but adults too.

Not all families are lucky enough to spend time at the beach or camping. But there is grass time to be had most places. Leave your device at home and take your kids into the big outdoors. And watch the bad tempers evaporate.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on 6 January


Sun, sand, sea and solitude

The propensity for humans to huddle should no longer surprise me. But surprise me it does, especially every summer, when I head to one of the most popular seaside towns west of Melbourne; the main beach is like a tin of sandiness while one just a few metres away is practically deserted.

Maybe it’s laziness. Most people can’t be fagged to walk a few minutes for a bit of space. You see this in tourist spots in remote parts of Australia, where visitors stray no further than a stone’s throw from the other hordes at some stunning gorge or waterfall, when a short stroll would give them the forest or the river to themselves.

At Anglesea there are good reasons for people congregating the way they do. The nippers program. The flags that we should all swim between. An abundance of lifesavers. And the promise of an endless supply of social interactions.

Mum’s family started coming here at the end of the 1800s and built a shack here 101 years ago. Back then, they were one of the handful of families who summered here, and they knew everybody. Mum and her siblings would spend the morning swimming and my granny let them know lunch was on by blowing a big conch shell. When my grandfather arrived at night after a week of work, they knew he was coming because his were the only headlights winding down the hill on the other side of the river.

In my childhood, mum would mutter darkly about all the people on ‘her’ beach and march resolutely to what my kids have always called ‘Snobs’ Beach’ for obvious reasons. And even at my bubbliest as a teenager, I was the same. I was rich with wonderful girlfriends and more than a little interested in boys, but I would pick my way across the rocky outcrop to the west of the crowds and walk as far as I needed to get away from everyone. Knots of other teenagers, clusters of bronzed young men would loiter meaningfully; I would respond by pulling my hat down a little further and burying my nose a little deeper in Crime and Punishment or Madame Bovary.

It still takes very little effort to find a beach to walk, swim, sit or read on alone, or almost alone. Even at Anglesea. Even at the height of the high season. And I’m so glad everyone else chooses the flock option. It leaves the gloriously deserted beaches for me.

 This was published in The Melbourne Age on 3 January.