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The graphics are better out the window

Did anyone else notice the weird, sulphurous light that flooded Melbourne on Thursday morning as the sun shone through blessed rain pouring down after a relentlessly hot night? I nearly missed it, as I had my nose in the newspaper, reading a salutary article by Carolyn Cage about the destructive effects addiction to social media can have on a vulnerable person’s psyche.

I suspect that my contemporaries - people in their 50s and 60s - don’t suffer as much as Cage’s generation do from the potentially devastating effects of social media on self-esteem. Anecdotal evidence, and my own use of Facebook, would suggest that we are less likely to make others feel inadequate by portraying perfect lives on social media. My FB friends tend to be surprisingly open about their struggles.

There is another fallout, however, from habitually burying our noses in smart phones and iPads: the loss of the ability to notice and marvel at ordinary life.  This was captured years ago in a Michael Leunig cartoon showing one of his little men sitting with a child on his lap, watching transfixed as a sunset lit up his TV screen. Outside, the real sunset was blazing in all its glory, but he didn’t notice it. As one of our kids said to a sibling when they were absorbed in a Gameboy as we drove through the country, ‘the graphics are better out the window’.

How do we hone our powers of observation and of wonder? There are three practices that I have found invaluable in becoming increasingly aware of the quirky, the humorous, the shocking, the beautiful and the miraculous in real life, not what is being pedalled to me on the tiny screen.

The first is some sort of mindfulness practice. For me this takes the form of Christian meditation, but meditators of all faiths and none will attest to the fact that when they are regular in this discipline, their powers of observation increase.

A second is always choosing to walk rather than drive if it is at all possible. Walking provides the perfect pace to notice the little things – a rainbow lorikeet in the trees in Royal Park, the smell of lemon scented gums after rain, the never-the-same-twice cloud patterns in the sky.

The third is minimising my use of devices. Getting my eyes and ears away from the fancy food pics and the puppy videos, enticing as they are, and becoming attuned to the more subtle but infinitely more satisfying wonder all around.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on 17 March 2017


I'm an introvert and wouldn't have it any other way

Forget men being from Mars and women from Venus, the real divide in the world is the one between introverts and extroverts.

I have several dear extroverted friends, and they and I view each other with utter bafflement. I find it hard to explain to them how powerful my introversion is. I have completed a marathon, worked 16 hour days in my job as an event manager and birthed and raised four offspring, but there is nothing on earth like the bone-deep weariness, the utter depletion I experience when I have to spend much time with groups of people.

Apart from interacting (preferably over food and drink) with my family and very small groups of friends, all the things that recharge my batteries are solitary pursuits: reading, walking (alone), writing, playing the piano and meditating. I would honestly rather lie on my bed and stare at the ceiling than go to a party. And my room (with the door firmly shut) is where I retreat to on the occasions where I find myself turning, as though a switch were flicked, from a gracious hostess to the bitch from hell, just wanting to yell at everybody to get the hell out of my house. When this point is reached (and it happens in an instant) if I am out, I either go home or, if that’s not possible, I spend a great deal more time than is necessary in the bathroom.

We live in a society that rewards and celebrates extroverts – the big personalities, the sociable ones, those with the gift of the gab and an endless appetite for company. But after a lifetime of feeling guilty and apologetic for my anti-social nature that felt like a disability, I am starting to claim some introvert pride.

I am profoundly grateful for a life-time spent with a big-hearted, hospitable extrovert who has taught me the rich joys of spending time with other human beings. But still, I wouldn’t swap who I am, including a social orientation that seems to grow more pronounced the older I get. I consider myself lucky. Because the world is filled with people who can’t stand their own company. We introverts love it. We are seldom bored or lonely. Our inner life is so rich, our inner resources so plentiful that we can survive almost anything. Finally, in my sixth decade, I am very happy to be an introvert. In life, it pays to get along with the only person you can count on not losing – yourself. 

Published in The Melbourne Age 14 March 2017



You'd be mad not to go to church

Sometimes I think you’d be mad not to go to church. I have thought this more strongly than ever in the aftermath of the Bourke St tragedy, where, in scenes that are now familiar but I suspect first occurred after Princess Diana’s untimely death, thousands of people visit the site of an accident, laying flowers and soft toys and opening weeping.

I have no way of knowing what historical or current grief is reactivated by an event such as this one. Every human heart holds pain known only to its inhabitant. But to me this public outpouring, which seems at first blush to be out of proportion to the griever’s personal link to the tragedy, speaks of the human need for ritual in times of distress and trauma, even someone else’s.

In the past, when there was a war on, the churches filled. These days, with the appalling abuse meted out by churches coming to light, this is no longer an option most people consider. But maybe it should be.

This is what happens each week in a mainstream church service (and, if you’re lucky, it will be done well, with dignity and down to earthiness, including the great traditions but simultaneously in touch with the 21st century situation).

We gather, we are called to worship God, and we offer praise and also thanks for the many gifts that grace our lives. We sing songs that date from the third century to our own.

We bring to God – to a greater power than us, the beating heart of love at the centre of the universe – the world in all its mess, and us in all ours. Our prayers of confession are not a breast-beating grovel so much as an admission that we have stuffed up during the past week and yearn to do better. 

In the prayers of the people, we bring to God our grief and confusion about the state of the world, from the wholesale destruction in Syria to the homless in Melbourne, to the dramas members of our own family are going through. It is a lament.

We hear a sermon, which is different from a lesson, a lecture or a speech, in that it opens up ancient words for our own situation. We may be lucky enough to have communion, where in some powerful way we take God into ourselves. At the end of the hour, we are sent out, refreshed and unburdened, to be channel of God’s peace in a world that needs peace more than ever.

It seems to me that church is one of the few places in our world where deeply considered ritual helps a person to be fully human, realistically engaged with the world but drawing on resources from beyond ourselves.

Weeping at the corner of Bourke and Elizabeth may be an important thing to do. But there is ritual available every week of our lives. You’d be crazy not to avail yourself of it.

This was pubished in the March 2017 edition of The Melbourne Anglican



Barrack for human happiness. Barrack for India.

Australia smashed India in the latest test match, played in Pune. My resident advisor on all things sport explains to me that this is unheard of. ‘India is unbeatable when they play at home. They’re the strongest cricket team in the world,’ he says. ‘This hasn’t happened since 2004.’

I’m not even interested in sport, but I’m disappointed that there’s been a reversal of fortune this time around.

If it’s a contest between my two homes of India and Australia, I will always be rooting for India. It’s not just that it’s where I was born, the place where I grew up, the country where something deep and visceral in me feels absolutely right in a way that it doesn’t anywhere else. No, it’s a simple matter of mathematics. If India wins, a billion people will be ecstatic. If Australia is victorious, there’ll be a mild case of happiness for a few million. When India triumphs at cricket, the sum of human happiness around the globe is increased mightily, which on some cosmic plane, has to be good for the universe.

Anyone who has spent time in the Subcontinent cannot help but be aware of its love affair with the gentleman’s game. Eighteen months ago I was back, and delighted to see that the national obsession has not waned. Everywhere you look: in vacant city blocks, in dusty village streets, in factory warehouses during lunch breaks, in fields in the middle of nowhere as you trundle past on a long train journey, even precariously on the flat roofs of houses, are little boys and bigger boys and young men playing cricket with an enthusiasm that defies the ferocious heat and enervating humidity.

I was often asked “Where are you coming from?” and when I responded “Australia,” a look of near rapture would come over the faces of my interviewers, because they associate this country with cricket. The fact that this particular Australian knows next to nothing about the game wouldn’t stop them going into rapturous accolades about our star players and theirs.

They revere talented cricketers of every race, even if, like Shane Warne, they commit unforgiveable sins such as taking cans of baked beans to eat in a country that has arguably the best cuisine on the planet.

When there’s a big match on, the country comes to a standstill, and if India wins, the streets explode in jubilant celebration.

So, take a leaf out of my book. Barrack for human happiness. Barrack for India.

Published in The Melbourne Age 3 March 2017


Just my cup of tea

Melbourne might be the self-proclaimed coffee capital of the known universe, but what floats this Melbournian’s boat is the humble, daggy cup of tea.

I can go for days without coffee, and have even (oh the shame!) been known to sneak a cup of instant. Tea, however (made in a pot, with leaves) is a matter of survival. I can well understand why Jeanie Gunn, in the Australian classic, We of the Never Never, written in the early years of the 20th century, describes how vital tea was to the functioning of her remote Northern Territory cattle station. Everything would grind to a halt if the tea ran out; people would risk life and limb to ensure that supplies arrived.

I grew up in the middle of tea plantations in the Subcontinent, where tea is the beverage that keeps the nation on its feet. Any Indian will tell you, it is never too hot for a cup of tea, and there is always, always time for one.

Every time we moved house in India, we packed our crockery in old tea chests. To this day I can picture them: big boxes made of ply, covered in stencils of exotic place names, lined with tin, with traces of the leaves still in the corners and the faintest aroma of tea.

I am a complete tea snob: a drink made from a tea bag will never pass my lips. It’s partly about the flavour. I’m convinced that no matter how fancy the teabags are, they can’t compete with the real thing – a bit like comparing fresh ginger with the powdered variety. But it’s also about the mindful calmingness of the whole ceremony with which tea is made – warming the pot, spooning in the leaves, popping on the cosy, letting it steep, stirring a couple of times, pouring it into pre-warmed mugs. It’s impossible to do without thought and care, without love. The warmth starts as your hands wrap around the mug, and steals gently into your soul.

Through almost four decades together, my significant other and I have taken it in turns, every morning, to make the tea. We can barely function till we have downed that first cup; the sign of weekends or holidays is having a second cuppa in bed over a more leisurely read of the paper than is possible on a working day. Tea bookends our days, it is the glue that keeps our marriage together. Somehow, even the fanciest coffee machine can’t compete with that.

Published in The Age 23 February 2017