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Keeping it short

Nine o’clock on a lazy holiday morning. I stumble out of bed to put the dog out, and meet my cousin, who has the house next door, before I have so much as washed my face or put the kettle on. She looks as though she’s been up for hours, pottering on her part of the family block.

She asks me back to her place for a cup of tea; I demur. ‘I’m still in my PJs,’ I say apologetically. ‘There’s not much difference down here though, is there?’ she says, laughing.

How right she is. On summer holls, I wear shorts and a T-shirt all day long, and change into boxers and a T at night. I enjoy frocking up for an occasion as much as the next girl; I also like donning grown up clothes to go to work. But one of the things I treasure about summer holidays is the fact that I can wear the same daggy, comfortable gear 24/7.

I wonder if sartorial formality has any correlation with cold weather. I have it on good authority that medical consultants in far north Queensland go on their ward rounds decked out in shorts, Hawaiian shirts and flip flops. But then why are Indians among the best dressers in the world; immaculately turned out no matter what the occasion or lack thereof, no matter what their socio-economic status?

I suspect Aussies are among the more casual dressers in the world. Sydney is known for its young men wandering city streets topless; Melbourne is a little more circumspect. Working in the city, I see the more formal side of Aussie-wear. Take a walk down Collins or Williams St any weekday lunch time and you see them streaming past: perfectly coiffed, besuited, well-shod legions of city workers. But I wouldn’t mind betting that even these intimidatingly glossy creatures dag out when they’re at the beach.

When it comes to packing for my summer holidays, I inevitably bring too much, just in case. Just in case we have to go somewhere fancy. Just in case it gets really cold. Just in case our antique washing machine finally pops its clogs.

I never learn. All I need is bathers, a couple of shorts and Ts, trackie dacks and a hoodie for cooler evenings, and PJs. My cousin is right, I ponder, as I head back to make my pot of tea and swap my night attire for my interchangeable day wear. It doesn’t make much difference here.

Published in The Age 15 January 2018


Old school cool

Members of my family have been known to bag me (gently and with affection I’m sure) for my summer-long obsession with regulating the temperature of our place without benefit of electricity.

It’s not rocket science, but it is old fashioned. Every morning, if it’s going to be remotely warm, I go around shutting every last window and pulling down the blinds. I keep an eye on both the internal and external reading on the thermometer and the second it is cooler out than in, up come the blinds and the windows.

My grand-mother, I’m told, loathed the strong north wind. On a day when it was blasting Melbourne, she would sit at a window disconsolately keeping an eye on what direction the trees were blowing so that she could tell the instant the cool change arrived. Like her, on the hottest days I am on the constant lookout for signs that the wind has swung around to the south, whereupon, I whip everything open and the cool air floods our house.

I suspect my fanaticism stems from growing up in a ferociously hot place where inadequate ceiling fans were the only artificial method of cooling. In our house, which was built to withstand temperatures of over 40 degrees for four months each year, the walls were thick, the ceilings high and the verandahs wide. High up on the wall of the living room was a hole where, for decades before the advent of electricity, a rope passed through, attached on one end to a punkah – a large, flapping rectangle of canvas that hung from the ceiling, moving the stifling air. At the other end, it was attached to a small boy, whose job it was to pull the rope. It was an utterly different world, when I was growing up, from that of the British Raj, but these little reminders of past practices were everywhere, and I was very glad that our cooling depended on an intermittent electricity supply rather than the labour of a child who really should have been in school.

My detractors claim my manic manual temperature regulation doesn’t make that much difference,. ‘Maybe a degree or two,’ my husband grudgingly concedes. But I beg to differ.

In a world where we all consume too much electricity, I feel that maybe I occupy the moral high ground on this one. Try using the age-old methods of keeping cool before you flick on your aircon. Your hip pocket will thank you, as will the planet.

This was published in The Age on 8 January 2018





Okay, I’m aware that I have said, in these very pages, that hot weather gets me down. But. Retraction coming up. Or maybe just a modification. The two to three weeks of high summer that I spend at the beach are heaven. That long string of carefree days is what sets me up for the rest of the year.

On the first morning of the holls. I sleep till quarter past nine and have two cups of tea in bed as I finish my book. I put on bathers, slip, slop, slap and head beach-wards – a five-minute walk from our place. At main beach, I make my way through the impressive and charming mayhem that is the ‘Nippers’ program – thousands of lithe, hot-pink rashy-clad kids being taught by volunteers (bless ‘em) how to be safe and responsible in the surf. I reflect that I have been walking along this busiest of summer beaches my whole life, and have rarely heard a voice raised in anger, or even irritation.

A few hundred metres takes me off the main strand and onto miles of beaches where, in the height of the summer holiday season, there are no crowds. A cyclist goes past on the hard sand of low tide, then a jogger, and then it’s just me and the glistening sea.

I will walk for three or four ks , depending on the heat of the day and what takes my fancy before I turn around. Have a long swim on an uninhabited stretch, then head for home to put the kettle on. There will be reading in the shade for an hour or three, a bit of lunch at some point, a nap maybe, another walk and swim as the sting goes out of the sun, then a long cold cider, or maybe a Pimms (my latest drink discovery) chock a block with fresh summer fruit on the deck, before dinner and conversation with my love, and any of the adult offspring who come and go through the summer.

Because it is the south coast, there will be overcast, cool days, but my routine varies very little. The water is always warm, and is the element where I feel most delightfully like a little kid again.

My great-grand-parents bought our bush block more than 100 years ago and my grand-parents built a shack here. Very little has changed, apart from some welcome additions such as electricity and an indoor, flush toilet. My forebears were clergy, so they probably spent their life savings on this land that cost £15. Six generations of extended family have had daggy holidays here, full of fresh air and books and games and each other. We have been a nomadic mob; this place draws us back, the only constant in our lives. I hope those ancestors have some sense, wherever they are, of the enduring gift they bequeathed to their clan. At the end of one year, the start of another, I bless them.

This was published in The Age on 1 January 2018


Rich young ruler

The story of Jesus and the "rich young ruler", told by both Mark and Matthew, has haunted me for as long as I can remember.

A man runs up and kneels in front of Jesus, asking what he needs to do to lead a good, full and abundant life. Jesus answers with the conventional litany of what consists of living well: Don't commit murder, adultery, robbery. Don't cheat or bear false witness. Honour your mum and dad.

"I've done all this, all my life," the young man responds. The story continues: "Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said, 'You lack one thing; go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me'." The man walks away "shocked and grieving, for he had many possessions".

I identify powerfully with that young man. All my life, I've been a good girl, I've done the right thing. 

I've fulfilled the Commandments and all the rest of what is thought to be part of a life well lived. 

According to Jesus, though, that's not enough. There's got to be more, and it really needs to hurt. 

For this young man, that means giving away everything he owns. So, I have always assumed that to be really good I need to do something along those lines. Give away most of what I possess. Fill my house with homeless people. Work in a soup kitchen.

Of course, compared to most people in the world, I too am rich. I could stand to give away a great deal more than I do. I could manage with a lot less stuff.

Lately, however, as I travel the hard path of learning to understand, really understand, deep in my bones, that God loves me and that I need to learn to love myself, I wonder if the one thing that keeps me from living fully and abundantly might be a different one from our rich young ruler.

I suspect the barrier for me is to accept the central Christian belief in grace; to accept that I am utterly loved by God, whether I give everything I have to the poor or not. 

Maybe if I could ask Jesus the young man's question, he would say to me, "Yup, you've done all that obvious good stuff. You've obeyed the rules. Mostly, you've made good choices. Now, just relax and know yourself loved, and then you will be filled with such energy to do whatever else needs to be done, whether that is giving more away or something else entirely".

I know that on the occasions where I do "get" that God delights in me, I am flooded with joy and gratitude and filled with a new energy. Maybe that will lead me to give more away; maybe not. But it is sure to lead me to a life-giving place, for me and for those around me.

This was published in The Age 31 December 2017


A reflection on Christmas

If I listed the Series of Unfortunate Events that have happened to me and mine over the last 12 months, you might not believe me.

And this is not touching on the global stuff that eats away at every human being with a heart for others: the continuing car crash that is Donald Trump; North Korea; the carnage and destruction of culture in Syria; the famine and the unbelievable blocking of supply ships to Yemen; the grim revelations of the Royal Commission; our leaders’ bipartisan support for inhuman treatment of refugees and ignoring of the global environmental crisis; most sullying of all, somehow, the never-ending stream of sexual harassment allegations. 

The sadness I have experienced this year is all comparative, of course. My brushes with incurable disease are experienced within the cocoon of free cutting-edge health care. My family dramas occur within the framework of a clan and a community that has each other’s backs no matter what. Last week I read about a Rohingya woman who witnessed her husband and seven children being butchered. When it comes to anguish, I know nothing compared to the vast majority of all the humans who have ever lived.

But this is my reality. I feel our losses, conflicts, and ongoing health challenges keenly. Some mornings, as I walk to work – a practice that normally gives me energy and delight - I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders and it is all I can do not to weep with weariness. I, for one, cannot wait to see the back of 2017.

And yet. It’s Christmas, and that’s not nothing. I am a Christian, so for me this season’s rich story is a metaphor for God’s loving involvement with humanity and our planet. My belief that there is a great loving heart beating at the centre of the universe informs and breathes life into everything I do and am. 

Even for secular souls, however - most of us in this country - Christmas can be a reminder of so much that is important:

  • Relationships are what matter most. Stories of yuletide family tension abound, but the fact is, most continue to choose to gather in groups – families, friends, communities – to eat and drink and celebrate together because human connections are what we most value.
  • For all the nauseating excess that prevails during the festive season, at the heart of Christmas is a practice of giving – to our dear ones and also to those outside our circle.
  • Holidays are vital; they refresh us and remind us that we are not indispensable, that the world turns just fine when we opt out for a while.
  • Most of all, the Christmas story is a reminder that humankind’s staggering capacity for cruelty and greed is matched by its endless varieties of creativity, compassion and wonder. That for every murderous King Herod, there is a baby who will grow up to live out radical inclusiveness and lay their lives on the line for peace.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on 24 December 2017