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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.


The joys of an adult only Christmas

Sure, it’s lovely to have littlies around at Christmas. An actual baby is delightful, for those of us who are religious as well as for everyone else. One day I imagine babies and toddlers will once again be a part of my Christmas and I may wonder how I ever managed to enjoy it without them.

Right now, however, in the restful hiatus between my own littlies growing up and the arrival of any next generation they may produce (no assumptions!) I am revelling in the relaxedness of adult-only Christmases.

Believe me, I was a serious lover of Christmas back when we had a houseful of children. I revelled in the stockings full of chocolates and undies, fancy pens and toothbrushes and always an orange at the toe; the tree laden with baubles, the tinsel and carols and fairy lights; the crackers and the silly hats, even the piles of wrapping paper that festooned the living room once the gift giving was done.

But adult-only Christmases have their advantages.

The whole present thing becomes manageable. All our grown ‘kids’ are in agreement that none of us needs any more stuff in our lives. No one is under pressure to spend money and anxiety-fuelled hours trawling shops thronging with harried consumers, full of expensive tat and slick with tasteless muzak. Those who want to give ‘a little something’ do –these tend to be small, practical items or something made – generally of the edible variety. Others choose to give a donation in lieu of gift. Sounds random, but it works.

In terms of what is one of the biggest stressors at Christmas, the expense and effort of food production, that becomes easy too. We love our food, but the prep is divvied up so that no one spends days toiling over a hot stove. My husband makes the Christmas puddings weeks out – that’s his thing and we all reap the benefits of his commitment; the rest of us chose what we can contribute. The vegetarians are responsible for providing their alternatives. The son who doesn’t enjoy cooking provides vast amounts of summer berries – one of the joys of having the festive season in the southern hemisphere.

Most importantly, maybe, no little voices demanding breakfast wake you up the morning after you’ve had too much plum pudding and one too many glasses of sparkling shiraz. I can sleep in until I’m good and ready to get up for that kick-starting first cup of tea. That alone is worth celebrating.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on 24 December 2018



'Tis the season to be tacky

The Australian ugliness, perhaps architect Robin Boyd’s best known work, was a critique of Australian built landscape, published in 1960. It could just as well have been written about the Christmas decorations that bedeck our city streets 58 years later.

Every year I wander disconsolately around the CBD in my lunch break wondering who decreed that Christmas had to be tasteless. A world traveller who was dropped into Melbourne at this time of year might be forgiven for thinking they had arrived in the tackiest part of Vegas.

The Bourke St mall, graced by the magnificent refurb of the Myer building, is strung with large plastic bells interspersed with large plastic stars. Also in the mall is a giant plastic throne, an extravagance of red and gold, sitting squarely (no idea why) on a block of fake grass. Collins St, on the other hand, specialises in green plastic stars and red baubles. Shops dangle bigger than life-size plastic Santas and reindeers over their verandahs.

Lygon St has ten-foot-high Christmas crackers, red and green of course, with a crude picture of Santa Claus on each one. They look like the decorated cardboard cylinders from the middle of toilet rolls that my kids used to bring home from kinder only less original.

Surely we can do better than this? There are countries (Germany springs to mind) where Christmas decorations are understated and elegant. Sure, the short days in that hemisphere make everything that little bit more magical and mean you can use light in lovely ways. But the fact that we have so much daylight at Christmas time makes it all the more vital to have attractive decorations in our streets; there is no darkness descending mercifully down to cover the ugliness.

 And don’t even start me on the Christmas light displays around my suburb. Did no one get the memo that less is more?

At last, however, on my despairing search for Christmas beauty, I had some joy. Outside the grand and gracious old Town Hall on the corner of Swanston and Collins, somebody had the right idea. Brilliant red and white petunias and pink begonias have been planted in multiple small pots to make the shape of Christmas trees. Simple. Perfect. One of the great things about summer Down Under is the sunshine and the plethora of flowers in abundance. Instead of ugly plastic mass produced decorations, why don’t we just ditch the junk and go for what comes naturally?

This was published in The Melbourne Age on 14th December


Layered griefs and pleasures

I’ve just read Michael Ondaatje’s latest masterpiece, ‘Warlight’. It’s the opposite of a page turner – a novel composed of writing so exquisite you want to linger over every paragraph, savouring the writing. It’s a book to break a writer’s heart; with people who can write like this in the world, why do I even bother?

In one chapter the protagonist, Nathaniel, describes Sam Malakite, a market gardener he works with for a couple of summers as a teenager, in a remote part of Suffolk in the years after WW II.

‘I trusted each step I took with him. HE knew the names of all the grasses he walked over. He’d be carrying two heavy buckets of chalk and clay towards a garden, but I knew he was also listening to a certain bird. A swallow knocked dead or unconscious from hitting a window silenced him for half a day. It remained with him, that bird’s world, its fate. If I said something later that encroached on the event, I’d see a shadow in him… He always knew the layered grief of the world as well as its pleasures.’

Coming into the season where we celebrate the God who we believe created the universe, who we believe chose to live among us, as one of us, this puts me in mind of the Jesus who is recorded as saying, ‘Aren't two sparrows sold for a small coin? But not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father knowing about it already.'

I love this incarnated, human Jesus who noticed the fallen sparrow, the children his followers forbade from bothering the great man, the terrified bleeding woman in the crowd, stretching a trembling hand towards the hem of his garment, yearning for wholeness, the short, despised tax collector cowering up a tree, the woman taken in adultery, the dirt-poor widow slipping her meagre coin into the collection box.

Jesus knew the layered grief of the world, and he rejoiced in its pleasures too, eating and drinking with his friends and with others at whose table no respectable citizen would be seen. He relaxed with his friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus, walked in the fields with his followers, climbed mountains and sailed on vast inland lakes, cuddled children on his knee.

I want to follow this incarnated God who knows not only every sparrow that falls, but also the layered griefs of my life that have almost slayed me these past few years and, of course, all the griefs, far more numerous, more complicatedly layered than mine, that afflict so many of God’s adored children. I want to see more clearly this Jesus who rejoices in my pleasures, the simpler the better, who smiles when I run rejoicing into the surf, hold my beloved or curl, warm and safe and drowsy, into bed.

And I want to be like Jesus, like Sam Malakite, open to my own joys and pain and confusion and also deeply attuned to the pleasures and the layered griefs of the world around me: our groaning planet and its threatened creatures, my family and my friends and anyone else whom the God of love places in my path, to minister to each other.

This was published in the December issue of The Melbourne Anglican