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Saturday
Jan062018

Summer

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

Tuesday
Jan022018

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

Sunday
Dec242017

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

Tuesday
Dec192017

Bring on winter!

SAD is a thing, apparently; an apt acronym for Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known colloquially as the Winter Blues. People get more depressed over the winter months; they get less sunlight, don’t socialise or exercise as much, things spiral down.

I suffer from SAD myself, but for me it’s the hot weather that gets me down. Come the first of the really hot days (and in Melbourne that seems to be happening earlier each year), the first hot nights and my mood plunges.

I grew up in India, so logic would suggest that I thrive in heat, but that’s not the case. I’ve lived through the brutality of life in one of the hottest cities on earth and it’s not very glamorous. Not sure if it’s global warming, but Melbourne seems to be following in Ahmedabad’s footsteps.

I blame my Anglo-Celtic genes for my love of the cold. Though willing to admit that I might not be as enamoured of bleak weather if I lived in Scotland full time, the minute I emerge from the plane into the grey, grim drizzle that is so typical of Edinburgh, my heart soars, as do my energy levels.

A recent article in the paper maintained that the optimum temperature for human activity and happiness in 22 degrees. And sure, it’s easy to love days when the mercury reaches only the mid to low twenties. Anything over 27 degrees, however, renders me too sluggish to do much. I love to be physically active; in the heat that’s hard. By 8.30am when I arrive at work after my walk in, I am already a sodden, sweaty mess. When it’s cold, I am energised, I naturally want to walk faster, work harder, be more creative.

Of course, hot nights are the worst. Breathless midnights, fans that labour heroically but manage only to circulate the leaden air, damp and twisted sheets, a complete inability to get comfortable. Few sensations are as blissful as pulling the doona around my ears on a frigid night and burrowing into the warmth of my bed.

People light up when they talk about long evenings, barbeques and cold beers on the deck, parties in the park, picnics by the river, bars spilling out onto pavements on balmy nights. Bugger that. Give me fires, mulled wine or cocoa, inside companionship, best of all, a long cosy evening with a good book.

You can have your hot weather. Right now, all I want to do is hibernate till autumn.

Published in The Melbourne Age 20 December 2017

Sunday
Dec172017

Preparing for Christmas

One of the first things we did when we bought our house, 17 years ago, was to plant a lot of creepers. Over our west-facing back verandah, my husband trailed ornamental vines that are vivid green in spring, shade-giving in summer, brilliant scarlet in the autumn and bare in winter, letting the gentle, welcome sunlight through to our big living area.

 Those first creepers have long since died and been replaced, and they continue to create an outdoor room, where we are protected from the elements but almost part of the garden.

 I love to sit out there, doing nothing much, not even praying, often with my hands clasped around a mug of steaming tea, watching the birds in the bird bath, the dog lazily stretched in the sun, the dappling of leaves and sunlight on the walls.

 As a Christian, I don’t believe that being busy brings you closer to God. The relationship I build with God, by taking time, being silent, reading the Bible, paying attention, being present in the moment will often result in periods of action as I do my tiny bit to tackle the needs in our broken world. But it’s not the starting point.

 All the great religions have mystics and contemplatives who gently remind us that chasing our tails in busyness, no matter how worthy the pursuit, will not bring us closer to the divine. Christians believe in grace – the fact that no amount of doing good will make God love us any more. God loves us endlessly and unstintingly, no matter what we do or don’t do, ‘good’ or ‘bad’. When we allow ourselves to stop running, we are confronted with our terror that if we stop ‘doing’, we will lose our worth in the eyes of other people, ourselves, God. It is extraordinarily difficult, in our society, to admit to not being busy. It’s especially challenging when a loving partner asks at the end of his busy day what I did in mine and I have to confess, ‘nothing much’!

 Traditionally Advent - the weeks leading up to Christmas - are a time of reflection for Christians, as they contemplate God’s love so immense that God somehow, mysteriously, became a baby and lived here with us.

 In our secular society, the lead up to Christmas is the opposite – a crazy time of spending, festivities and winding the year up. Maybe the best thing I can do as a follower of the Jesus whose birth we celebrate is deliberately not fill up my hours. To take time to sit on my verandah, nursing a mug of tea and watching the shifting patterns of the vine leaves against the sky. Reminding myself of the given of God’s love. Basking in grace.

This was published in the December issue of The Melbourne Anglican