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Il aime les caresses

Psalms such as 148 are full of images of the whole of creation singing praise to God. They are all there: stars and waters, sea monsters, fire and hail, mountains and hills, wild animals and cattle and more. St Francis of Assisi, whose feast day we celebrated recently, had the same idea in his Canticle of the Sun, where he refers to Brother Sun and Sister Moon.

Sometimes I think that animals, of whom Francis is the Patron Saint, do a better job than humans not only of glorifying the creator but also of loving their human companions.

Last year I was staying in a small town in the south of France, and took to walking down a particular street purely because there was a dog there that I was powerless to resist. He was solid and intimidating – a white bull terrier with a heavily studded leather collar, and he leaned against the front wall of his house, basking in the sunshine and looking scary.

He didn’t fool me for an instant. I clicked my fingers at him and crouched down to his level and he melted; not just his tail but his entire body quivering with delight as he responded to my overtures. It wasn’t long before his owner emerged, appearing every bit as fierce as his dog: a wiry, mean looking guy with multiple tatts and body piercings. But the international society of bull terrier lovers is a powerful thing; he could see that I was smitten with his pet, and we were instantly on friendly terms.

‘Il aime les caresses’, he said, describing his dog, which seems to me to be an apt description of the condition of all creatures on this planet, human and animal. Everybody has a hungry heart. We all want to be loved.

Now back in Melbourne, we have our very own caress-lover; an American bullterrier/bulldog cross: warm brown and clean white, 30 kg of pure muscle. I have never seen such a ripped creature, and I’ve never met such a sook.  He positively adores les caresses. He is a rescue dog of uncertain provenance, so we were prepared for some aggro, some unsettledness, some obvious signs of his complicated and unsatisfactory past. All we got was an endless, deeply gratifying need for affection. Mr Bruce cuddles and smooches, he rubs his massive head up against us, puts his paw plaintively on our laps if we aren’t paying him enough attention, rolls over to have his belly rubbed. At a recent live music gig at our place, he worked the room, approaching each young person sprawled untidily on the floor for hugs and kisses, and getting them every time.

In the CBD every day I see homeless people, many of whom have a dog curled up trustingly beside them, protector and companion. A month after the Feast of St Francis of Assisi, I thank God for the millions of animals the world over who reflect the love of their creator.

This was published in the November issue of The Melbourne Anglican


Walk a mile in their shoes

We humans are so stuck in the grid of our own experience. I’ve realised this anew watching SBS show Sunshine, a four-part series that follows the fortunes of a struggling basket-ball team in Sunshine, Melbourne. It’s out of character for me to watch anything about sport, but this show is so much more.

It’s a whodunnit - one of my favourite genres, and although the subject matter is difficult, and it doesn’t flinch from racism, sexism and the consistent way human beings behave shoddily, it doesn’t stop with bleakness, but contains hope, forgiveness and redemption.

Three of the four lads central to the tale are from South Sudan. The main character, Jacob, is in trouble with the police and, although he maintains his innocence throughout, he assumes that he will end up being incarcerated, because that’s what happens to young black guys who wear hoodies and are in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The week I watched Sunshine, I also read The Mother, by Yvette Edwards. Set in London, it is another story about young black men. Much of the action takes place in court, and as I steeped myself in these two powerful fictional accounts, I tried to imagine myself at a police station or in a court room as a young black guy.

If I was accused of something, and ended up in court, being white, educated and middle-aged, I could expect the benefit of the doubt.  I have always lived inside this socially acceptable skin. But if I were a black teenager for a day, just about anywhere in the world, and I happened to be in the vicinity when there was a robbery or a mugging it would be an utterly different story.

I’m a bit shocked at how complacent I can be, having grown up in a country and city where I was in a tiny minority; everyone was a different colour, race and religion from me. And still, I need reminding that simply by virtue of the situation I was born into, life is always going to be easier for me than for many.

This is one of the reasons I treasure story. It is one way I can approximate walking in someone else’s shoes. I can get into their head, see through their eyes. In a world of increasing polarisation, a tiny thing I can do to stem the tide of intolerance is to try and imagine myself out of my own head, if only for a while.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on 8 November 2017



The eyes have it

On the morning of the first day of a week’s holiday, I get something in my eye. Something that won’t come out, despite the usual ploys – eye drops, blinking madly in warm saline solution in an upended eyebath, peering uncomfortably under my eyelid, lying with my eye closed for a long time.

My plan for the holiday was simple: sleep, walk, read. With this thing in my eye, I could do none of these. When it was open, my eye felt okay. When closed, not so bad. But every time I blinked, it felt as though a tiny claw or piece of broken glass was scraping across my eyeball.

I rang the local medical centre – no appointments available. I popped in to the chemist, where a kind woman sensibly suggested I go to the optometrist in the next town.

Eventually, in some distress, I did just that. An optometrist, the soul of calm professionalism, sat me down, had a good look, and pulled what appeared to be a few grains of sand from under my eyelid. The relief was so heavenly, it was almost worth the extreme discomfort.

As always, when something trivial, temporary and easily fixable happens to my health, I am filled with reflections.

How incredible that even in the tiny hamlet where I was staying, there is a health professional in the next, slightly less tiny town, who was able to fix me up with no fuss and no cost, apart from paying my taxes. How surprising that I don’t get things in my eyes more often – I am so often cleaning, beach walking, burning off. How fortunate that I live in a place where I can procure spectacles perfectly calibrated to my particular eye problems. How cleverly we are made, with organs of such exquisite sensitivity that the tiniest grain of sand caught in them is unbearable, so that we are forced to look after them.

I think of all the people with compromised eye sight. People like my scholar dad who has had debilitating macular degeneration for years, but who manages still to get around and, with the help of various devices, to read. Of all the people partially or completely blind who live independently and uncomplainingly, while the rest of us whinge about the most trivial things.

I look at my eyes in the mirror, with all their wrinkles and redness and age, and think how fabulous they are, how well they have served me all these years. Long may they continue to do so.

Published in The Melbourne Age on 29 October 2017


Of book launches, creativity, life choices, Elizabeth Gilbert and me

The week I launched my third book, I finished Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert. I’m not a reader of non-fiction and tend to be irritated by self-help books, but I’m a serious Gilbert fan. I liked Eat, pray, love a lot, and I adored The Signature of All Things, which I thought was a masterful novel – meticulously researched, unputdownable, deep and funny and true.

Big Magic (subtitled Living Creatively without fear) spoke to me. Gilbert has a playful, tough, honest approach to courting creativity. Not one for the myth of the tortured genius, she implies that although it is hard hard work, and disappointments are virtually guaranteed, the creative life is supposed to be fun. You do it because you love doing it, whether or not it brings you renown or financial rewards.

By creativity she means everything from taking up ice skating as an adult because you enjoyed it as a kid, knitting, singing even if your voice will never be brilliant, writing a book, tinkering on a guitar, taking an art class. She says that no matter how hard it is, despite the fact that you can rarely make a living from the creation of beauty, people will always keep doing it, because it is part of what makes us human.

Gilbert has no time for people who use their creativity as an excuse for shirking their responsibilities, for being an asshole. It is no excuse to neglect your partner or children she says. Most liberating of all, for me, she advises artists not to burden their art with the pressure of having to earn them a living. Don’t give up your day job, she writes, create on the side. ‘I never wanted to burden my writing with the responsibility of paying for my life,’ she says. ‘I’ve always felt that this is so cruel to your work- to demand a regular paycheck from it, as if creativity was a government job or a trust fund.’

My book launch was a moment of gratitude, amazement and profundity in my life. For decades now I’ve been writing relentlessly, mostly with very little ‘success’ as the world sees it. I’ve often felt a bit apologetic about it, seen it, as best, as some kind of charming hobby.

And then, suddenly, somebody wants to publish my stuff in the paper, and people say it helps them, and another person wants to collect my stories and put them between the covers of an actual book. At the launch, my family, friends and well-wishers were – literally – applauding me for what I have been quietly, often frustratedly, often on-the-verge-of-giving-up beavering away on. They were saying, with their broad smiles and their clapping and their cheers and their spending money on my book: we honour you for doing this thing you feel called to. We are happy that you have done this. It is a good thing in our lives.

Reading Big Magic makes me feel more like a real artist. I have read so many writerly books that imply, if they don’t outright say it, that if you don’t risk everything for your art, you’re not taking it seriously. Give up paid employment. Risk hurting the ones you love.

I’ve always written alongside a day job. Partly because we needed the money, but more because I love having a day job. And my husband and children have always been a priority. Although this was sometimes frustrating, mostly it has worked well for me, or I wouldn’t have kept doing it.

I’m learning that although I make as many mistakes as the next person, mostly I have made good choices in my life. I have done things my way, and it has been good for me, for my family, for the little pool of humanity on which I have an effect. For so long I felt I wasn’t a real writer because I persisted in working four days a week in a job I loved and put a lot of energy into. But maybe, if Gilbert is to be believed, that’s okay. I still got the work done.

The wonderful thing about nearing the age of 60 is that I can see that on the whole, I did okay. I put time and effort into relationships. I put in at work. I was absolutely dogged with my writing.

The irony of all this isn’t lost on me. Maybe one day I won’t need a guru to tell  me to trust my own instincts, my own choices. Till then, I will take Liz Gilbert’s affirmation gratefully, and keep living the way I’ve chosen to do.



Guilty pleasures

As far as I can remember, I’ve never read an actual Mills & Boon or equivalent. But when I was a much younger woman, my mother introduced me to something close enough – romantic thrillers by English author Mary Stewart, best known for her brilliant trilogy on Merlin and Arthur. As a side line, however, she wrote ten books featuring feisty, clever and gutsy English twenty-something women in exotic locations. The general formula, with some exceptions, was that the devastatingly attractive bad guy turned out to be the good guy in the end, and together our protagonist and the bloke saved the day against baddies plotting dastardly deeds against everything from small countries to small children.

I adored these books and read them over and over, falling in love, through the printed page, not with the handsome love interest, but with places I had never been – Vienna, Crete, Corfu, the Isle of Skye, Lebanon and Syria, the south of France. As Mum (who had had her fair share of smart-and-feisty-woman-in exotic-locations experiences) used to say, ‘the local colour is marvellous’.

Because Stewart was writing in the 50s and 60s, the sexual action is limited. There are coy lines such as, ‘neither of us said anything for a very long time’. The books are dated in other ways too, of course, but there are fewer wincey moments than I expected. The heroines were physically attractive, sure, but that featured a long way behind their pluck and brain. They run rings around the men. In Stewart’s first foray into this genre Madam will you talk? written in 1955, our girl is a gun driver of fast cars; what’s more, she can disable the bad guy’s vehicle in a jiffy.

I’m not sure how my Mary Stewarts escaped my recent decluttering purges, which included a substantial number of books, but when I was struck down with the flu recently, I was so glad they had survived. Once I was over the worst, all I wanted to do was to curl up in bed with a Mary Stewart. I read five in a row, and when I ran out, as I was away from home for a couple of days, headed to the local op shop is desperation.

Home again, and with vastly improved health, I am still working my steady way through my Stewarts. And – further confession time – I have ordered all the ones I didn’t already own, on book depository.

This was published on 7 October in The Melbourne Age