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The Donald

An unexpected and unwelcome side effect of Donald Trump’s ascent to possibly the most powerful position on the planet is that the fine name of Donald has been profoundly sullied.

Until recently, the most world-famous Donald was a sweet, wholesome, goofy cartoon character. I’ve always had a soft spot for this name of ancient Scottish kings, which apparently (yes, really) means ‘ruler of the world’.

For Australians, the name is most commonly associated with one of our most venerable sporting heroes – Bradman – who was reputedly not just a genius at cricket but also a decent and humble man, a ‘ruler’ in the gentlemen’s game. Aussies also associate one of the diminutives of Donald with that catchy ad ‘Is Don, is good’.

Donald is a common name in my husband’s clan. The family tree, from generations back until the present day, is peppered with Ians, Finlays, Johns and Alistairs, Hamishs, Angus’ and Farquhars. And Donalds. They didn’t have many daughters; the few there were tended to be Marys, Catrionas, Alisons and Fionas. Both my family and my husband’s have Celtic roots, and the names associated with the Celts tend to be strong and uncomplicated and go nicely with surnames that start with Mac.

These names, including till recently Donald, bring to mind bracing winds and soft mists, the ancient forbidding bulk of Edinburgh Castle high on its hill, the wild mountain and seascapes of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, noble warriors and hopeless causes, the haunting tragedy of Culloden, single malt whiskey, brawny men in kilts and what is arguably the most attractive accent in the world.

We have two children of each gender; each bears the name of one grandparent. My father-in-law Donald, (nicknamed ‘The Don’) was a large, big-hearted man who wore his baldness unashamedly and whose impulse was always to be welcoming and compassionate to anyone who crossed his path. One of our sons (understated, thoughtful, smart) has Donald as his second name and now I feel I need to apologise for saddling him with this moniker.

Because Donald, which has up until now had only happy associations for me, is tainted. Now it’s a by-word for misogyny, racism, greed, stupidity, bad taste, bad hair and an even worse fake suntan.

It is a heavy burden to place on those bearing the name, but I hope that the legacy of great Donalds of the past, and the present and future Donalds, can redeem this fine name by associating strength and ruling with humility and kindness.


A new take on a thin place

The phrase ‘a thin place’ comes from the Celtic spiritual tradition and is used to describe somewhere where it is particularly easy to sense the sacred. Most often used in reference to the holy island of Iona, the expression comes from awareness that the veil between heaven and earth is so thin, in such places, it is barely there.

Recently I have discovered a new dimension for this phrase that superficially seems to have the opposite meaning.

My thin place is where you find yourself when you have received the kind of news we all dread. Most people have experienced some form of this: the first time someone you know commits suicide, when a friend’s child dies, when a young man in your circle is killed on the road just as his life is beginning. I felt this disconnect with the rest of the world most acutely when our first baby was in hospital for ten days with an undiagnosed and serious illness. On the rare occasions I poked my head out of the ward, I was incredulous that the rest of the world was going about its business, oblivious to the fact that death is only ever a heartbeat away.

Much of the time, we live as though death were a distant rumour that will never affect us. In these experiences, the membrane between life and death is so thin as to be almost non-existent.

No one is immune from death, but of course we can’t dwell on this obsessively or we would be immobilized by fear and grief. And even after receiving a horrible diagnosis in the family, you dip in and out of hyper-awareness of mortality.

Because that is ultimately what this is all about – being faced with our own mortality which is the most confronting thing there is.

Being a person of faith, however, I believe there is something even bigger and more sure than death, and that is a loving God whose hands hold both the living and the dead. In the months since my husband’s diagnosis of incurable cancer, after each plunge into the despair of sensing the gaping maw of death just through the thinnest of gauzy veils, I have been convinced, over and over, that beneath death, bigger and stronger and surer than all our suffering, are what the writer of Deuteronomy calls the refuge of God’s everlasting arms.

In Romans 8, in one of his most sublime passages, Saint Paul writes from the same conviction: ‘I am convinced that neither death nor life…nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’.

So, in the end, my thin place and the Iona thin place are not opposites after all. A thin place is where you are blessed with sensing that there is more to reality than the obvious. Where you sense death, and also, deeper even than death, the everlasting arms of a loving God.

This was published in the November 2016 edition of The Melbourne Anglican




Those who lift infants to their cheeks

Perhaps the reason most of us find it so very hard to pray is because we go to prayer with a feeling of obligation and guilt.

In Luke chapter 11, we have a very concise version of what has been known as ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ for centuries. Long-term worshippers are deeply familiar with the words.

What interests me in Luke’s account is the parable that Jesus is recorded as telling straight after he has given his disciples these words in response to the request to teach them how to pray. He tells the tale of a person caught short at midnight and hammering on her friend’s door asking for a loaf of bread with which to feed an unexpected guest. Eventually, Jesus reckons, even the laziest friend will let her in and give her the bread. My favourite part is the end of the parable, where Jesus says, ‘Is there anyone among you who, if you child asks for a fish, will give your child a snake? Or, if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

This passage says one thing to me: you know how much you love your children? You know how you wish only good for them? That’s how God feels, only more so. God’s love is so immense that it makes your love for your children look ‘evil’ by comparison.

This is mind boggling stuff. Having my own kids helped me start to get an inkling about how God feels about me, about every human. Jesus describes God as being better than the best parent, always wanting good for God’s human children, always responding with patient, faithful love.

A lesser known passage from the Hebrew Scriptures says it beautifully. Hosea 11, verses 1 and 3 say, ‘When Israel was a child I loved him…it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.’ And then, with breath-taking tenderness: ‘I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.’ Anyone who has smelt the back of a baby’s neck with delight, will get this powerful metaphor of a God who longs to be with us and takes delight in us.

The fact that Jesus paints a picture of God as an endlessly loving parent immediately after the prayer he gave his disciples makes me think that this is the God we would do best to ponder when we come to prayer. And maybe if we did – anticipating that God awaits our attention like a parent or our dearest friend - prayer would become less arduous, less of a grim duty, more of a joy.

This was published in the October 2016 edition of The Melbourne Anglican


Swallows and Amazons for ever!

I went to see the latest movie version of Swallows and Amazons with my dad in Edinburgh two weeks ago. Both of us were brought up on these books by Arthur Ransome, which were first published in 1930, when dad was a boy of 6. (For those who haven’t been exposed to these classics, they tell the holiday adventures of six kids from two families, as they sail and camp, mainly in England’s Lake District).

It was a pretty good adaptation, although purists might have had trouble with the addition of a major subplot involving sinister Russian spies; the fact that Captain Flint was young, trim and good looking instead of ageing, rotund and bald; and the way that everybody’s favourite character, Titty, had her name changed to Tatty, presumably for reasons of political correctness. In fact, the Russian spy addition was apt in a way, given Ransome’s marriage to Trotsky’s secretary, and his somehwat complicated activities with M15.

As a kid, I adored the books in the Swallows and Amazons series, mainly because they are simply rip roaring kids’ adventure stories, and provided fuel for endless fantasies and make believe games for my sister and me, for whom this vicarious experience of camping was the closest we would get to the real thing.

With the hindsight of an adult and a parent who spent hundreds of happy hours reading to her own children, I can see that the books, despite when they were written, had some great role models for girls. I identified both with ‘Mate Susan’ the responsible older sister who was the main reason they were allowed to head off on all these adventures without benefit of parents. 'Their mother knew Susan would always make sure everyone was fed and warm and that the younger ones had a decent bedtime,’ the narrator explains. Susan is forever shooing everyone off to swim so that she can get the camp shipshape before Mother arrives for a visit. But I also identify with Titty, who is often in a fantasy world of explorers and cannibals, savages and natives, and who is forever scribbling in her notebook. The two other impressive female role models in the stories are the fierce pirates Nancy Blackett, the ‘Terror of the Seas’ and her sister Peggy, who wage war, shoot arrows and force people to walk the plank. Nancy and Peggy (who, Dad tells me, are the first girls they had heard of to weat shorts) are aptly called the Amazons; the four Walker siblings are the Swallows. 

The main reason for visiting the Lake District recently was that I had so enjoyed reading about that area in the books, and had always longed to see it for myself. Once I got home, I located Swallowdale on my shelves thinking I would just read the first chapter or two for fun, and before I knew it, I was 100 pages in, the old enchantment as strong as ever, and now I could picture it all so much more clearly.

My long-suffering husband is heartily sick of hearing me saying how much more at home I feel in the UK than in Australia, but it’s true. Although almost all the people I love most are here, plus a great job and the best mates and life a woman could wish for, I don’t find the Australian landscape, urban, rural or wilderness, soothes my soul in the way that the British Isles do. My recent re-exposure to Swallows and Amazons makes me wonder if the reason is that almost every book I loved as a kid was set in the UK. Okay, I was obsessed with the Moomintrolls, from Finland, but apart from that, it was British Isles all the way. We didn’t have Enid Blyton in our house (‘there are better things to read’ Mum declared firmly) but there were all the Ransome books, the Borrowers, the seven books of the Narnia series, Paddington Bear, E. Nesbit with her Railway Children, Mary Poppins, Beatirix Potter, Frances Hodgson Burnett and The Secret Garden, Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. Once I was a bit older, there was Jean Plaidy with her swashbuckling historical novels about the Tudors, Georgette Heyer, and the swooningly romantic D.K Broster novels of the Jacobite Rebellion in the Highlands of Scotland (spiritual ancestor to the Outlander series for sure). Even Tolkein, although he creates a whole new universe, as did C.S Lewis, is firmly in the English world. Australian books for children and teenagers didn’t feature; my sister loved Mary Grant Bruce’s Billabong books, but for some reason I didn’t read them.

If you are very lucky, some of your fondest memories will be of being read to by a loved adult. For me, separated for much of the time from my parents, my most precious memories of feeling safe, cocooned, and led into magical other worlds, was being read to by both parents, but mainly by Dad, who had the most wonderful reading voice. In tough times, my escape was fiction – being read to at first, and then reading the books to myself, over and over and over. Reading is still my great love and my great escape.

So I think that’s why, despite having lived in this lucky country for most of my life now, I feel most at home in the cold and damp and green of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, the Antrim Coast Road or the Lake District. It’s all about childhood imprinting.

In the post-1958 editions of Ransome's books, there is an introductory Author’s Note which says it better than I ever could. Here it is, in its entirety:

‘I have often been asked how I came to write Swallows and Amazons. The answer is that it had its beginning long, long ago when, as children, my brother, my sisters and I spent most of our holidays on a farm at the south end of [Lake] Coniston. We played in or on the lake or on the hills above it finding friends in the farmers and shepherds and charcoal-burners whose smoke rose from the coppice woods along the shore. We adored the place. Coming to it we used to run down to the lake, dip our hands in it and wish, as if we had just seen the new moon. Going away from it we were half drowned in tears. While away from it, as children and grown ups, we dreamt about it. No matter where I was, wandering about the world, I used at night to look for the North Star and, in my mind’s eye, could see the beloved skyline of the great hills beneath it. Swallows and Amazons grew out of those old memories. I could not help writing it. It almost wrote itself.’




Responsibility and control

I am convinced that one of the secrets to happiness is giving up being a control freak. I am one, so I know what I’m talking about; Enneagram type 1 for those of you who speak that language. Perfectionist is another way of putting it. My choices of profession haven’t helped: nurse, mother, administrator, event manager. I am highly organised and would like everything in my life to be just so. I wish my home and office were in a constant state of ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’.

But the grace of God and the winds of the Holy Spirit have a way of leaking into the most controlled of lives and liberating them.

Giving a Christian perspective on the ancient personality type system ‘the Enneagram’, Franciscan Richard Rohr maintains that the best treatment for the shadow side of each personality type is contemplative prayer, which tallies with my experience. Decades of daily prayer practice are freeing me, little by little, from the burden of perfectionism.

Learning of grace through silent prayer has taught me that that God loves me no matter how far from perfection I am. In fact, God can work with me better when I simply let God meet me where I am, which is often in a weak and messy place. As Saint Paul said, ‘God’s grace is sufficient for you, and God’s strength is made perfect in weakness’.

At this time and place, we are able to feel more in control than ever before in human history. We have the illusion of control, with our medical technology, our insurance schemes, our armies of people involved in the ‘risk minimization’ industry. In past centuries many people died young and in chaos; no one could kid themselves they were in control of anything much. Our outrage at the new scourge of terrorist attacks is only because we forgot for a while there that there is no way we can risk manage against death.

Accepting that we don’t have much control, however, does not mean we don’t take responsibility. In fact, it’s quite the reverse. Taking responsibility means that I do the things I can control with as much integrity as possible: endeavouring to be kind to others and myself, to work hard and to rest well, to make time for God, to use humour to give me a sense of perspective.

I try to work hard at my job and then stop thinking about it. It’s not up to me to save the world, or even to rescue the church. It is not my task to keep my adult children happy. I do what I can as well as I can and then try to let it go. It’s not easy for a natural control freak. But the more I manage to do this - and it gets easier each decade - the happier and calmer I am. The clearer I am about what is my job and what is up to God.

This article was first published in The Melbourne Anglican, September 2016 issue