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Ah, Sydney!

Lord but Sydney’s beautiful! I’ve just had five days there and was blown away by how gorgeous it is.

Granted I was on holiday. What’s more, I was on a silent meditation retreat – an introvert’s paradise – and all I had to do all day was sleep, meditate, eat, walk, repeat. So I was predisposed to feel positive about my environment. It helped that Sydney was all bright blue freezing sky and sunshine, until the day it poured, and that was lovely in its own way. Plus, I was in a scenic part of Sydney. I know Sydney has ugly bits – even Paris has those.

I write this as a proud and contented Melburnian who wouldn’t choose to live for long anywhere else, except maybe Ahmedabad. Or the Isle of Skye.

Sydney, however, is something else if you’re talking about natural beauty. Melbourne has laneways and graffiti, bars and live music galore; Sydney has three things that Melbourne lacks, things that feed my soul: water, hills and bush. It has sizeable national parks smack bang in the middle of the city. Walk to the end of a perfectly ordinary suburban cul de sac and abruptly you’re on a bush track with streams and massive trees and ferns and immense mossy boulders and only the faint sound of traffic to remind you you’re in a major city. Driving from the airport through the CBD there are the magnificent clichés of the bridge and the opera house, and then you’re onto a main road that winds through the kind of landscape you only see in, say, the Dandenongs around here.

The coastline puts me in mind of the children’s classic Where the forest meets the sea. Sub-tropical rain forest comes right down to the water’s edge, unlike the grey, uninspiring scrub that fronts the beaches I’m used to. Every corner you turn, you see a new aspect of a bay, small boats bobbing serenely. Half close your eyes and pretend those boats away, and you are transported back into a painting from the early days of European invasion – twisty white tree trunks against the dense grey-green bush, blinding cockatoos screeching as they fly across the water.

Next time my main man and I are looking for a short break, that’s where I’ll vote for heading. I don’t see why someone who loves Melbourne can’t be smitten with Sydney. Both are afflicted with insane real estate prices and loads of social problems. Both are also fabulous, vibrant cities. It’s not a competition.



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