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An hour in the city

Not that long ago, I wrote a blog post about three things I had pondered or noticed that week. More than once I’ve heard or read an admonition to recollect, each evening, three things that have made you happy that day. It’s not a bad idea. Partly because it makes you realize it’s not all gloom and doom. Partly because it’s a good exercise in mindful reflection. 

The Jesuits traditionally perform their ‘Awareness Examen’ at the end of every day. Thinking through, and in their case, offering to God, all that has happened that day – the tough things, the actions or words they regret, others that have brought them satisfaction or happiness. 

I suppose any practice that makes us pay attention in this frazzled, short-attention-span world has got to be a good thing. And as a writer, it pays me to pay attention to the minutiae of everyday life – both the unusual and the very ordinary.

One day last summer, walking to work parallel to Royal Parade, I noticed that jacarandas and agapanthus are exactly the same colour. In one of the lovely gardens in The Avenue, a branch of jacaranda hung down low, almost touching the rich purply-blue star burst of an agapanthus blossom standing up proudly just beneath. The colours were identical.

Returning home that afternoon, I saw what looked like a young man walking in mid air, between two slight trees on the edge of Royal Park. It wasn’t until I got close that I realized that he was, in fact, tightrope walking in soft, chalked slippers. I stood and watched him for a while and then I told him and his mate that from a distance it looked as though he was sauntering through thin air.

Just last week I went for a wander at lunch time and saw three strange or funny things in the bustle of the city crowds.

First, I went to a theatre to buy tickets to a show. There were two people behind the desk. One was a very pretty young girl who appeared, from watching her interactions with those in the queue ahead of me, to be both efficient and personable.

The other, who I didn’t see properly until I got to the front of the line, was a very big and hairy man with wide, pale blue eyes. He had several strings of tiny purple glass beads around his neck, chunky silver rings on most of his fingers and, most surprising of all, baubles like small Christmas decorations hanging from both ears.

I was noting all this with interest when I realized that, mid conversation, the man was falling asleep. His big blue eyes began to close, then shut completely and his head nodded, then lolled. Once his head went as low as it could, he roused himself and continued talking as though nothing had happened.

Our transaction took a long time. The young girl next door had processed four would-be patrons in the time he had taken to absorb my request – the show, the dates, the seats I wanted. The queue having been dealt with, the girl let herself out of the booth and wandered off, came back after a while and I was still there, trying to explain to Noddy what I wanted.

He kept falling asleep. He kept asking me which date I wanted again, and which seats and how many and which artist. And then he’d doze off again.

Should I have asked him if he was all right? He didn’t seem in the least embarrassed by what was happening repeatedly, so I assumed all was well and checked my tickets very carefully when he at long last handed them over.

From there I went to Myer. There was a sale on, and anyway, I like traveling up and down the escalators, staring up at the high, airy space in the middle of the shop. I took a dress to try on and as I was waiting (queues, like beaches, are great places for people watching) outside the ladies change rooms, I noticed, on the strategically placed chairs outside the rooms, four middle aged to elderly gentlemen, two of whom looked an odd combination of bored and embarrassed and two of whom were sound asleep.

Wandering back to my office, I came up behind a stocky lady with short grey hair. She wore a pleated beige skirt with a pale blue cardigan, black tights, bobby socks and old lady bowling shoes. In her hand, she carried a floral bag with cane handles. Stopped at traffic lights, she turned, revealing her profile, and I saw that she had a thick grey beard and a face that obviously belonged to a mature man.

I had seen her in the city before, this man-lady, so I wasn’t as surprised as I might have been. As the lights changed and pedestrians streamed past both of us in the opposite direction, however, I saw several of them startle, do a double take, try hard not to stare as she strode on her brisk and jaunty way.

Then I was back at my computer, typing up the minutes of a meeting. Wondering at the strange things you can see without even trying, in an hour in the city.


Doing what comes naturally

Okay, enough with the deep stuff, let’s talk about something that’s more fun. I read an article in last weekend’s paper that gladdened my heart: big hair is on its way back in. Hair straighteners are out.

Hallelujah. ‘Time to release your inner bouf-head’ was the title for the wonderful Maggie Alderson’s Sunday column. I’ve never been into high fashion, but I seldom miss Maggie’s weekly advice. I love it. She combines up to the minute fashion news with sound common sense and humour. And she’s a brilliant writer. Anyway. I was excited to read this because I am a natural bouf-head (except that I could have sworn it was spelt boof-head). My husband is magnificently almost-bald with a buzz cut; the contrast between our heads of hair is a family joke.

I moult profusely, but on my scalp there seems to be a never-ending supply of exuberant growth. (How does that work? I’ve always wondered, never more than when I’m emptying the vacuum cleaner bag every fortnight.)

Pretty much as soon as I hit my teens, my hair went wild – thick and wavy and everywhere. ‘Hmm,’ goes every hairdresser I’ve ever had on the rare occasions I’ve tried to tame the beast, ‘it’s got a mind of its own, hasn’t it?’

It’s always been in the messy middle – not glorious corkscrew curls nor immaculately straight and glossy. Just unmanageable. 

Of course I know that what dear Maggie A is on about is not just me being relaxed about my unruly locks. She’s talking serious hard work when she writes: ‘…it will be absolutely normal for us all to be embracing big rollers, setting lotion, backcombing, hair pieces, and gallons of hairspray, to get our hair the way we want it. Humungous.’

The thing is – I’ve never managed to garner the slightest enthusiasm for spending time, money and energy on my hair. Life’s too short. Nor, for that matter, have I ever spent any of the above resources on makeup. And probably most people who know me would say, it shows.

I do care what I look like, I care a lot. But I honestly believe that most of us look best in the colour and texture of hair we were born with, or grew into. Naturally straight hair is a beautiful thing, but hair straightened to within an inch of its life looks, well, dead. Most people sporting that style look like boiled eggs.

I did have my hair professionally straightened once – for an occasion, and it did look elegant I suppose, and certainly neat. But not me. I have a round face that looks better balanced by plenty of hair.

Ditto colour. For years I dyed my hair, until I realised that coloured hair around an ageing face looks harsh. I befriended my greyness years ago and have never been tempted to return to the brassy browns and reds of hair dye. Grey suits the age of my skin. It looks soft and natural.

My mum, who had olive skin, went completely grey in her thirties, and I never knew her as anything but white. She had magnificent, slivery hair which she wore in a French roll. It looked great and matched her elegant style. 

Both my daughters have straight hair; the older is a blue-eyed blonde, the younger a green-eyed redhead. Their hair looks just right for them. Before I went grey, I had chestnut brown hair that matched my hazel eyes. Most people look best with what they’ve been given.

The irony, of course, is that most people want what they don’t have. I grew up in India, where one of the most desirable attributes is fair skin. I moved to Australia, where everyone was trying to get a tan. How rarely are those gorgeous creatures with curly red hair, green eyes, white skin and freckles that everyone else envies, happy with their genetic lot? And the rest of us are the same. 

So, what I say is, out with the hair straighteners and the rollers and hairpieces and the tins, tubes and tubs of product. Let’s be happy with what we’ve got, hair wise, trusting that chances are, that’s how we look best.



Two of my best mates are a quarter of a century apart in age. One of them was born the year my husband and I started dating. The other was married the year I arrived in Australia, an awkward and unhappy not-quite-twelve-year-old.

One of the many good things about getting older is that you have a bigger pool of potential friends. And age absolutely ceases to matter.

My mother was 41 when I was born so I was always accustomed to having older people around. As a young mother, living a long way from my own parents, several older women became important mentors to me. They showed me that it was possible to get through the early parenting years and out the other side with one’s sense of humour, enjoyment of life and relationship intact. At times they kept me sane. They are still an inspiration.

As I eased into my middle and late thirties, however, I realised that there was a bunch of enticing people fifteen years younger than me. Their youthful enthusiasm was energising, their ideas were sometimes challenging, their appreciation of me as an older person was affirming.

These friends are now in their thirties and many have children of their own. Some of them have the relationship with my kids that I did with them: part-mentor, part someone who is older but not their parents, so has an element of cool. As their babies grow, I hope my kids will be a similar part of their lives.

It only gets better, and richer. In my early fifties, I now have yet another generation of people I consider friends and enjoy spending time with. There are my own young adults and their partners and friends. There are also the offspring of my oldest and dearest friends – the ones I grew up with, the ones who had babies the same time as me.

Those babies are now irresistible young adults with whom I share text messages, emails and phone calls and sometimes lunch or coffee. I learn so much from them. I care about them in a way you can only care about someone you have known since they were in utero, that you have watched grow. They are like part of my extended family.

One of the things I have always treasured about belonging to a church community is the access it gives you to friendship with people of different generations. There aren’t many places in our society where you are exposed, week in week out, to everyone from babies to great-grandparents.

Living in a country town had some of the same advantages. In Melbourne, I tended to hang out with people who were very like me. We were the same age, socio-economic level, had often been to similar schools or grown up in the same suburbs.

Living in small county towns, contrary to what I expected, I was exposed to a wider range of human beings. There weren’t many there with my kind of background, so I had to explore friendships with people I might never have spent time with in Melbourne: builders, business people, farmers, some who voted for the country party or thought the Bible was meant to be taken literally.

Work can be another place where you get close to people quite different from yourself. I have a dear colleague who was muttering just last week about his low opinion of Greens leader Bob Brown. I said to him, ‘You know, you are the only friend I have who doesn’t revere Bob Brown. In fact, you are one of the few friends I have who is even remotely right wing, and I treasure you for it’.

Friendship is one of the things that make life worth living. I am very self-contained in many ways, and love being alone, but I couldn’t live without my friends. Both the intimate ones I have shared anguish and joy with at great depth, and also the larger circle of people I don’t see all the time but I know would always be there for me or for my family.

It’s a cliché, but friendship and community are two of the things that will help me survive if life goes pear-shaped, and that will be there as I grow old. Now, while life is rich and full and mostly wonderful, friendship and community give me joy and broaden my horizons. Like a good book, my friends of different ages and backgrounds help me understand points of view and enter worlds other than my own.

So, I have coffee with my two mates; hear about one’s grand children and the other’s toddlers and move on to other topics: books and God, relationships and death, work and the environment. And count myself lucky to have such a varied array of human beings in my life.


Faith piece in The Age

Last Sunday I managed to get another faith piece in The Age. And even better - thank you Paddy - it seems my subscriber button glitches have been worked out. Fingers crossed!

Here's the Age piece:


As a young Christian, I was often frustrated that while I was exhorted to pray, no one seemed to provide practical details on exactly how to do this. As an older believer I can understand that even fervent pray-ers know that prayer is different for everyone, and don’t want to impose what works for them on others.

It changed my prayer life, however, and consequently everything in my world, when I encountered a group who were willing to share ways of connecting with the Divine that they found helpful.

The World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM) was founded by John Main, a Benedictine monk.  As a younger man, he spent time in Malaysia and found that he was better able to pray using the disciplines of Hindu meditation than the Christian ones he grew up with.

Returning to the West and taking religious orders, he discovered that despite the popular perception of meditation as an Eastern spiritual technique, it was in fact also an ancient Christian practice described by John Cassian and other Desert Fathers and Mothers in the fourth and fifth centuries.

He proceeded to spread the word, and the WCCM now has branches all over the world. Their basic teaching is simple. You spend 20 minutes, twice daily, sitting still in meditation. And you use a mantra.

The mantra they recommend is ‘Maranatha’, an Aramaic word meaning, ‘Come, Lord’. I prefer to use the name of Jesus, repeated in threes – ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.’ Using this way of prayer regularly has changed me.

Sitting still, breathing steadily, centring myself and saying the mantra reminds me over and over, in an almost physical way, that God loves the world and everyone in it, and that I want to be a part of that big love. Through the filter of the mantra, pain, anger, jealousy, joy, pride, confusion – all the emotions that used to render me helpless – are contained within the knowledge that God loves me too.

Making time to say the mantra every day isn’t easy. Even harder is the praying itself, during which my mind flits around, distracting itself with thoughts about the day just gone, the day ahead, the shopping list, the idea for a faith column. And I bring it gently back.

That’s all that happens. Some days I will have been sitting for fifteen minutes and I realise I have said the mantra precisely once. That’s ok. What matters is setting aside the time to centre on God, who understands our busy, worrying, human minds. 

The wonderful thing about the mantra is that I can take it anywhere, any time. Concern about the world, conflict with a loved one, exhaustion, happiness, a daily walk, all can be folded through with the mantra, infiltrated by the reminder of God’s love. Helping me, in a tiny way, to be more loving myself.



Three things for the week

Three things I’ve noticed or pondered this week.

One: autumn colours. There aren’t a lot of deciduous trees in the suburb where I live, but I still couldn’t help noticing that this year the colours seemed particularly bright. The liquid ambers look luminous; silver birches like something from Rivendell. 

Earlier this week I read on the front page of the paper that our ‘autumn leaves have turned richer in colour, more swiftly, than in previous years…experts say a sunny summer followed by good rains and a cold snap means Victoria’s deciduous trees are producing vivid reds, oranges and browns.’ It wasn’t just me then.

In previous, drought stricken years, the autumn leaves, far from boasting vivid colours, looked as though they dropped off their branches in sheer, dull brown exhaustion. It seemed as though they’d simply given up; this year they are going out in a blaze of glory. Another reason to rejoice in the rains we have had, at least for those of us lucky enough not to have been flooded. 

Two: the angles of seats. Not something I’d spent a lot of time pondering until I bought a nifty and elegant little meditation stool recently. I prefer to meditate sitting cross-legged, which is all very well, but I tend to slump, and I know that a straight back aids contemplation.

At a meditation class I went to earlier this year, I learnt that it is easier to keep your back straight if your bottom is elevated so that your crossed legs are angled down from your hips. The way I’d always sat, either on the floor or an armchair, my hips were down low with my knees jutting upwards.

Investing in my cute little stool has made a world of difference to my technique and to my aching back. The stool is comfortably padded and is on a slight angle, so that my weight is balanced evenly on my tail and my knees: a lovely, solid triangle that grounds me firmly on the earth.

Since then, I’ve noticed that other types of seats angle forwards. Some piano stools, for instance. Seats where you are intent on some task, almost tipping forward in your eagerness – to pray, to play the piano.

In the oldest chapel in the Benedictine monastery in New Norcia, WA, the hard wooden pews the monks sat in to chant and pray are angled slightly forward like this. The reason, the monk showing us around said, was so that the younger monks wouldn’t get too comfortable and fall asleep during their many hours spent in worship. I tried sitting in them and it was true. I felt so insecure, as though I was about to tip out onto the floor if I didn’t keep pushing myself back up, that I was in a constant state of alertness.

Unlike the pews for the poor monks, comfy chairs, of course, are angled slightly back. They ease you into rest, they almost force you to relax into their embrace. Even firm sofas and armchairs do this.

Dining chairs tend to be flat, as do work chairs. Although these days, with ergonomics a burgeoning science and industry, office chairs can pretty much be at whatever angle you fancy. Which I don’t often think about until I get to work and find that, like the bears and Goldilocks, someone’s been sitting in my chair, adjusting heights and angles so that it’s impossible for me to start work till I’ve fiddled the levers to my satisfaction.

My late father-in-law, who spent time in the army, once told me that during the war he and his mates thought that the absolute height of luxury and comfort was a folding director’s chair. Which is about how I feel when I go camping. And is maybe why one of my favourite things is to sit on a director’s chair on my back verandah, looking through the sparse but still ravishing autumn leaves on our creeping vine.

Autumn colours and the angles of seats. The third thing I noticed this week was something that made me laugh. In a quiet street I walk along every morning on my way to work, there has been a light blue, well-sprung double-bed mattress lying on the pavement. On Thursday, it had been propped up against the row of letter boxes belonging to a block of orange brick flats. And on it, in beautiful cursive script, this graffiti: ‘Dick head! Hard rubbish was last week’.