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A month of the good stuff

Any one who’s been a parent for more than five minutes knows that you soon learn to revel in the great times, as there are inevitably plenty of others where you wonder what on earth you are doing and if you’re ever going to get it right. Recently I’ve had a full month of good stuff, and I’m still basking in the memories.

I’ve heard a lot about how blissful grandchildren are – and I’m sure that’s true. What you don’t hear as much is how satisfying it is when your kids become adults and you realise that despite your bumbling efforts, they have grown into decent human beings.

After years of babies and precious little sleep, the exhaustion of toddlers and the challenge of teenagers, I feel as though I’m emerging on a plateau of sanity. The kids are all grown up. They are good company, they are doing good things. They are completely different from each other, utterly themselves. Crumbs, I even love their partners.

My years as a mum have mostly been happy ones. Healthy kids, supportive husband, friends and local community. But over and over I felt that I was getting it wrong. I yelled, I resented, I manipulated. All that stuff. These days it’s much less complicated, much less demanding.

This last month I’ve been struck in a fresh way by the pleasures of having a grown up family, as we’ve had three generations in residence. My octogenarian dad and step-mum have been visiting from Scotland for a month, mainly staying with us. It has been a joy having oldies in the house. They are delightful – funny and engaged, affectionate and smart – and our kids adore them. Our two sons have lived in the UK this year, partly to be close to their grandpa.

During their stay I took them to spend a weekend with our oldest and her partner who live in the country and Dad got to see a grandchild in situ – her own home, job, life and way of doing things. As I watched our daughter cooking glorious meals for her grandparents, taking them around, showering them with appreciation and time, I felt that life couldn’t get much better than this. 

At home, our youngest, who was a bit of a ratty teenager last time dad was in the country, spent hours sitting on the sofa chatting to them, making the most of their company and letting them into her world. To have a generation each side of me enjoying each other seems to be as much as anyone could ask for in this life. 

Of course, the down side of them living in Scotland is putting them on a plane at the end of their stay. Every time I do it I wonder if it will be the last. But the evening when they left, I was struck by the general mood at our place. We were matter of fact and sincerely cheery. I think there comes a stage where, even more strongly than feeling sad about their going, I just feel thankful for the bonus of these years. 

Anything could happen of course. Accidents, illness, the ravages of age, even fallings out. I know that. All the more reason to rejoice in the good stuff.


Full dams and spring renunculus

In the week when the small, beleaguered island of Tuvalu is running out of water, friends brought me a bunch of ranunculus from their own garden. I’ve never seen such flowers. Like the gum trees on our bush block, they are twisted and angled in all sorts of weird and lovely natural shapes; straight up, forty-five degrees, almost horizontal. Some bend down from lip of the vase like a woman leaning over a balcony, stretching towards someone below. 

Ironically for these spring flowers, the colours are the shades of autumn. The bold scarlet of Remembrance Day poppies; the deep saffron of a Hindu holy man’s robes; a blushing, orangey pink. Fierce colours on the most delicately thin petals; a small cluster of black at the heart of every blossom. Where they sit on the kitchen bench, they catch the late afternoon sun and look as though they are on fire, a cascade of flame.

Despite having declared repeatedly and publically that winter is my favourite season, spring has got to me. I suspect it’s partly because this year we have been blessed with an abundance of the water so tragically lacking in much of the rest of the world.

We don’t hose our driveways down these days, but walking the dog around my suburb this weekend, everyone seems to be washing clothes. In back yards, Hills hoists hold aloft wardrobes worth of jeans and jumpers, T-shirts and socks. In the tiny front garden a few doors down, a young woman is delicately placing undies on an old wooden clothes horse. Her dog barks as we saunter past, but half-heartedly. The spring has got to him too.

Water is everywhere. Filling our tank. Running down the gutters in the street. In vast puddles at the local park. It’s a long time since spring looked this fresh. My Scottish step-mum who has been visiting cannot believe that the grass is, well, green for once. When we drive to Beechworth, Dad points out that the gum trees usually look green against the silver grey of the paddocks. This year, the paddocks are lush; it’s the gum trees that look grey. 

Floods notwithstanding, water is the most precious thing. I drink tall glasses of it every day, and as I swallow I imagine I can feel it seeping into my cells, keeping them plump and healthy, keeping me alive. The sight of our dams filling up, of the mighty overflow from Jindabyne flushing out our Snowy River fills me with excitement and hope. 

It’s been a week since I got them, but I can’t bear to throw my ranunculus out, even though their petals are weeping in drifts onto my wooden floor. I’ll throw my windows open to the sweet spring air and let them light up my kitchen a little longer. Reminding me of how lucky I am to live in a part of the world where there is enough water.


Stumblers who believe love rules

Had another faith piece in The Age this morning. Here it is:


Big Al and I have been mates for about sixteen years, ever since I moved into his neighbourhood and started going to his church.

We are about as different as two people can be. He’s a big bloke with a personality to match; I’m smallish and quietish. He is as funny as a stand-up comedian; I couldn’t be funny to save my life. He wears the loudest shirts I’ve ever seen; I tend to get about in black, grey and sombre blue. He has a voice like a black man, can play a lot of instruments and harmonises effortlessly and on the spot; I sing tentatively at best.

Most obvious of all, though – he is a party animal; I’m an introvert. Just entering a crowded room can make me feel quite ill. The best part of Sunday morning for him is the after-worship cuppa; I sometimes leave before the benediction is over, just so I don’t have to talk to anyone.

Early on in our friendship, we had a conversation about why each of us went to church, despite the fact that not many do these days.

‘I don’t really go much for all the God stuff,’ explained Al. ‘I just keep hanging in there because I love the community.’

I laughed. ‘I’m exactly the opposite,’ I said. ‘I find groups of people, no matter how lovely they are, really hard. But I stick with the community because of the God stuff.’

The good thing about church is that both the Als and the Clares have a place. As do the contemplative Marys and the busy Marthas, the blustering Peters, the doubting Thomases and the argumentative Pauls. The church is a broad church, and that’s how it should be.

Another good thing about church is that it’s not even just for people who have their act together. I’ve heard it said that church people are holier-than-thou, self-righteous hypocrites, but I don’t think these critics can have been to church in a long time. Most worshippers these days go precisely because they know they need teaching and companionship on the way of trying to follow Jesus. 

Nor is church just for believers. Church is where the doubting (and isn’t that all of us from time to time?), the cynical and the confused can find a welcome and a home. As the beautiful old communion prayer says, ‘Come if you love the Lord a little and would like to love him more…’ 

The incomparable Bruce Cockburn has a line in his song Mystery that captures for me what being part of the church is. ‘Come all you stumblers who believe love rules, stand up and let it shine’.

Big Al and I are both stumblers who believe love rules. Who need each other, the community and the God who calls us all together.


All over red rover

It’s over, the big conference I organise. All done and dusted for another eighteen months. It’s a strange thing, in a professional life, working towards something big that, once over, is really over. Sure, there’s a bit of cleaning up, revising the procedures manual, collating the evaluation forms and writing down what you’ll do better next time, but that’s all done without a looming, utterly inflexible deadline. 

I have a week off – time in lieu, and I wander my house feeling a combination of relief, elation and flatness. I’m not sure what to do with myself. I miss my colleagues. I feel a bit lost not working alongside them from seven in the morning till ten at night. All I want to do is sleep, but I continue to wake at two am, writing lists in my head, worrying about things I’ve forgotten.

The first day after the conference, I want to be busy. I want to clean the house, cook (almost unheard of for me) get stuck back into my neglected writing, walk the dog more than she really needs. I force myself to nap after lunch, to read a novel, to sit around. I have to get off the treadmill.

By day two, I’m starting to enjoy this immense luxury of time, which reminds me of how I used to feel after a big swag of exams.

Exams tend to finish as the weather began to get warmer.  This conference finishes in spring – as the world is waking up after winter. I am waking up too – emerging from a tunnel of exhaustion and preoccupation.

I haven’t been home in daylight for a couple of weeks and see that the birch trees in my garden are newly decked out in baby leaves, that the vines covering our back verandah are in bud. Everything is a fresh, clean, pale green. The creamy wisteria blossoms on the side pergola look so abundant and heavy I wonder the old timber can hold them up. 

I know from experience that given another couple of weeks, my time will mysteriously fill again, that I will once more feel busy and rushed. Right now, though, I feel like a little kid waking up on the first day of the long holidays.  Once I get over the panic of no longer having thoughts and tasks filling every waking second, and interrupting my dreams, I feel this great spacious sea of time – to write, to read, to take slow walks, to catch up with my family and friends.

It’s worth the craziness, just to emerge on the other side, blinking in spring sunlight, dazed and weary, satisfied and newly sane.


Accidents happen

On Friday morning, approaching the corner of Bourke and William, I was standing up to get off at my stop when the driver braked abruptly. The tram was unusually empty, so there were no people packed beside me to fall into. Instead, I hurtled down the aisle of the tram, measured my length on the wet floor and cracked my head on said floor for good measure.

There was a sickening crunch, but it sounded worse than it was. People all around me fussed and fluttered, asking if I was okay, telling me to sit down, wanting to know if I needed medical help. They were lovely.

‘I think I’m fine,’ I said vaguely, rubbing the back of my head. Walking the few blocks to my office I thought I was going to burst into tears, but I didn’t even feel sore. The next day was a different matter, and in a routine visit for acupuncture, discovered I had whiplash.

Accidents happen. For me, they seem to happen more when I’m under pressure. 

I am into the final week before a big five-day conference that I’m the project manager for. In the lead up to this same event last year, I had three ‘accidents’. I spilt boiling soup on my hand. A car reversed into me in Sydney Road and sent me flying. And the day the conference began, I was cutting up fruit for a snack and sliced through the tendon in my left thumb, ending up in hospital for a night, with plastic surgery the next morning.

Some people maintain there’s no such thing as an accident. I beg to differ. There is evil in the world and there are also accidents that happen to the best and to the most careful people. 

In my case though, and I suspect this is true for many, accidents happen more when I am not taking care, when I am distracted, when I am not mindful.

Recently a group of us at work talked about what we found helpful when stress levels were high. Where did we find peace at those times? One person cleaned the house, another focused on his breathing.

When the pressure is on, I try to maintain my usual routines and disciplines. I get up early to pray, walk to work, nap at weekends, read a novel at night. The minute I think that I am too busy to do these things, accidents happen. 

It is so hard, sometimes, to do this. Inside a little voice is saying, ‘You haven’t got time for this, hurry, hurry, hurry, for god’s sake, Clare, panic!’ But the more I hurry, the less I get done. The length of my to do list immobilizes me and I go round in circles.

I’m learning to do the first little thing on the list and then the next. Then the one after that.  Take time to breathe, be mindful, do all the daily things that help me pay attention.

Writing this is a reminder to myself to do this, because I’m a slow learner, living in a world of mindless hurry.

This year, I’m hoping to get better at doing this. So that maybe I won’t end up in hospital. So that this year, maybe, I’ll only have one pre-conference ‘accident’, and not three.