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Of Gods and men

Scored a faith piece in The Age this morning. Here it is:


Here’s a film that everyone should see. 

Of Gods and Men is set in a remote and mountainous region of Algeria in the mid 1990s when a military government ruled the country and terrorists plagued it.

It is based on the true story of eight French monks – middle aged and elderly – in a Cistercian monastery just up the hill from a poor, mainly Muslim village. The narrative tension is provided by the sudden, troubling presence of a band of terrorists in the area. As the monks decide how best to act as pressure from both the terrorists and the government intensifies, their personalities are revealed, as is the depth of their faith and their commitment to the people of their village. 

What has stuck with me is not this drama, however, but the fact that the film captured the nature of faithful Christian living: work, love of neighbour, and prayer.

The monks are poor. They get about in moth-eaten cardies and old woolen hats.  Their rust-bucket of a car keeps breaking down. But they find satisfaction in the mundane tasks that are required for survival and that make us all human. They grow veggies, bottle honey and sell it at the local market. They mop the floors, chop the wood and wash the dishes (and how refreshing to see men in a movie doing these things!)

They love and serve the people they live alongside, without trying to convert them. Although their poverty means they are constantly running short of medicine, their dispensary is open every day. They provide what little they can – a pair of shoes here, a listening ear there, to ease the lot of the villagers.

They offer non-judgmental companionship. The abbot studies the Koran as well as his own holy texts. The monks attend a local Muslim ceremony, listening respectfully as it unfolds and the prayers are intoned.

Most importantly, through all their hard physical work is woven the business of prayer. Even when a military helicopter is hovering threateningly above their tiny chapel, all but drowning out their songs, they sing, defiantly, gloriously, putting me in mind of the wonderful old hymn, popularized by Eva Cassidy, How can I keep from singing? 

Like the life of Jesus portrayed in the gospels, the film, to me, was a vivid picture of what it is to be a Christian. Discovering meaning and beauty in everyday tasks. Loving and serving our neighbours, with no strings attached. Being steeped in prayer, no matter what else is going on around.

In a time when Muslim-Christian conflict dominates the news, I wish every Muslim and Christian in the world could see this exquisite film that captures so beautifully something of what makes truly faithful lives.


Why I don't read non-fiction

Here’s a confession – although a good ninety percent of what I write is non-fiction, I rarely read other people’s. I force myself to from time to time, but medicinally: as little as possible and because I know I should.

There are exceptions. I enjoy anything by Helen Garner. I gobble up her non-fiction as though it were fiction (ironic, given that her fiction is supposed by many to be non-fiction). On occasion I read devotional books and theology with fervour.

But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. I have a voracious appetite for fiction. I always have a novel on the go, and although I am powerfully caught up in whatever world I am immersed in, like a chain smoker, the minute I put one novel down, I’m looking desperately for the next.

My mother was an avid reader, but my memories are of her with biographies or poetry. I can’t remember ever having read a biography in my life. As for poetry, I’m sure it’s a good thing, as long as I don’t have to actually read the stuff.

In theory, immersing myself in good poetry, quite apart from any enjoyment it might offer, will make me a better writer. Such economy! Such richness! Such love of words! But although I don’t mind hearing poetry read, I seldom pick up a poetry book myself. As for writing it, I did that with grim enthusiasm through my depression years. Since I got happy, I haven’t written a word of poetry, nor really wanted to.

I have read a memoir or two, but I had to force myself to finish them. Like poetry, the writing can be beautiful, but there’s something missing. I have been writing a memoir cum family history myself for several years but I know something is lacking there too: something to do with narrative drive. Most memoirs just don’t have it.

It’s the narrative drive, or lack thereof that is the key to why I don’t read non-fiction. When I read, what I want is a story. It’s the promise of story that gets me in: plot, mystery, suspense, the development of characters that I have come to know and feel an interest in, even if I don’t particularly like them.

Story is what has captured human beings as long as they have been around. Gathering at the campfire, in the temple/mosque/synagogue, on their mothers’ laps, story is what people wanted and still do. Jesus knew that; it’s why so many of his recorded words are parables.

I understand that there are those who love reading non-fiction. I have a friend whose sole diet is self-improvement books. People enjoy journals and newspapers – a beast I have learned to love over many years, although what I turn to first are always the book and film reviews.

But I cannot resist the lure of fiction – pretty much any kind.  At the end of the first half of this year, I reviewed the list of books I’ve read thus far in 2011. Thirty-four books, two of which were non-fiction and thirteen of which were detective novels.

Detective fiction is what I read when I really want to relax. And it just keeps getting better. These days, there’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to beautifully written whodunits and variations thereof. I have discovered with delight the usual suspects – Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Elizabeth George, Susan Hill, Garry Disher, the list could go on and on.

Recently, though, I’ve returned to some of the old girls, of whom we have several shelves at our beach shack. Not just Agatha Christie, but also Margery Allingham, Patricia Wentworth, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh. Great stuff, and a lot more escapist than the Rankins and McDermids with their bleak, black, despairing view of the world. Which is probably a far more accurate depiction of life, but not necessarily what I want to immerse myself in at a rare break at the beach.

On my bedside table, there is always a selection of books. A book on the mystics, or meditation, maybe a memoir, or some sort of self-improvement tome. They sit there reproachfully, these poor non-fiction rejects, and rarely get a look in. It’s the novel I reach for, longingly, mouth almost watering with anticipation, every time I get a chance to read.

Maybe that’s why, despite only ever having had non-fiction published, I still haven’t lost the dream of writing a novel. In fact it’s been written, several times over. First time, thirteen years ago, a reworking every few years. Never quite good enough. I had given up, really, until this year, when I enrolled in a mentorship program in an attempt to give it one last burl.

If this shot doesn’t work, will I give up the dream? Probably not. Reading novels is one of the things that gives me greatest pleasure in life. So the pinnacle of achievement for me would be having a novel published, and read, and loved. So, back to the laptop I go. Chapter 41, draft six.


Does choosing not to have children = selfish?

I rattled this off one lunch time last week, having read a piece by Clem Bastow in that morning's Age. I sent my response to The Age and they said, 'Like it a lot, but can't use it'. I proceeded to send it to a popular blogsite I have been trying to crack for months; same response. Dear readers - this is pretty much the story of my life. If I didn't have a day job, family and a bunch of other things I enjoy, I would go stark raving bonkers trying to make a go of writing.

The good thing about having my own blog, however, is that they can't turn me down.  And I get to inflict everybody else's rejects on my family and hard core fans. Thanks guys!


Are people who choose not to have children selfish? Do parents have the right to judge them?

A young Melbourne woman raised this perennial issue in The opinion pages of The Age last week when she wrote eloquently about the barrage of questions, advice and criticism she unwillingly attracts when she says that she will probably never have a baby because she’s just not interested.

It always takes me by surprise when I hear of people judging each other in the ways she quoted in this article: ‘Do you hate kids or something? You’ll be sorry when you’re old and there’s no one to look after you. My taxes shouldn’t have to support your single lifestyle.’

My life circumstances have been different from this writer’s. I married my childhood sweetheart at 21; 31 years later we have four grown-up children. Naturally we have had our moments. There has been a bit of anguish and a ton of hard work. Most of it, however, has been great. I love our kids to bits and appreciate deeply what raising and living with them has taught me. They are among the people in the world I most enjoy spending time with.

But parenting is not not NOT for everyone. And if it’s not for you, it doesn’t mean you are any more selfish, limited or superficial than those of us who choose to reproduce. 

My husband and I chose to have babies not because we were particularly noble. We just wanted them. Looking out for your kids children isn’t some great altruistic gesture; it’s more like an extension of self-interest.

In this society, the majority of people have a choice about what they do with their life, including whether or not to have children. We all make choices for reasons. What other people choose is up to them.

I wonder about these parents who are outraged at others not wanting what they’ve got. I suspect those who protest loudest and shrillest are the ones who secretly, maybe without even knowing it themselves, wonder if they made the right decision. Insecurity is usually what makes us harshest in our judgement of others.

I know a lot of childless people who live incredibly rich lives. I also know parents whose lives seem to be pretty damn miserable, insular, limited and resentful.

Then there are those whose lives revolve around their children to such an extent that when these grown children leave home, the parents go into a decline. Or the ‘kids’ stay home well into adulthood, with mum and dad looking after them as though they were five-year-olds.

There’s something skewed here. Children are wonderful, and as a parent you try to love them unconditionally. But they should never be under the impression that they are the centre of the universe. We all of us, parents included, need other things to build our lives around: community service, social justice, philanthropy, creativity, friendship, religious faith, our significant other – the list could go on.

As our youngest turns 18, I am revelling in the new stage of life this heralds. A dramatically lightened domestic load. A chance to throw myself into my two occupations with a little more abandon. More uninterrupted time with the father of my children. Maybe even some travel.

So, if you choose not to have children, don’t let the parent brigade get you down. You are not weird or unnatural. And maybe all of us could just get on with doing what we’ve chosen to do, and lay off other people.


Perfect weekend

Okay, so here’s my idea of a perfect long weekend. Head off Thursday evening after work, with the dog and the laptop, a warm jumper, pyjamas and food for one. This means that although I fall into bed exhausted as soon as I arrive, I get to wake up to nothing but the sound of surf and bird song. Plus I get an extra night down there, and there’s nowhere on earth I sleep so well. 

Anglesea. Where I’ve been going for breaks and holidays all my life, where my mum’s family have been going for over 100 years. To the weatherboard shack that my grandparents started building in 1917, that has had its most recent makeover in the last year, courtesy of my hard-working and project-loving other half.

It’s a great place to write. It’s a great place to do most things. It’s wonderful to come here with just my husband, or with the entire gang, or bits of it, or friends or cousins. This year though, with three-quarters of our kids having left home and said husband travelling half the year, it’s a place I come to mainly on my own.

My days adopt a certain routine, which consists of writing, walking, eating and a ridiculous amount of sleep. It seems as though I catch up on the missed sleep of months in Melbourne when I come down here. 

I set the alarm for eight, feed the dog and make myself a cup of tea, which I take back to bed. I cradle the warm mug, gazing out the window at the twisted trees and bush on our big block. I start the day slowly: meditating, having breakfast, setting the fire for the evening, bringing a wheelbarrow load of wood up from the shed to replenish the supplies at the house.

A long walk is the first serious item of the day, with a trip to the corner store on the way back to pick up the paper. It’s at least half past ten by the time I settle down to write, which I do with another cup of tea. Two hours of solid work, then a break for lunch, then a nap. Two more hours of writing, another, shorter walk (did I mention that the dog loves this place?) and a bit more work before lighting the fire. A gin and tonic followed by dinner and then reading until I fall back into bed around ten.

There’s a lot of mucking about, but I find it hard to write for more than five or six hours a day. And a big part of coming here is to rest, to relax away from the constant, noisy traffic of our street and the chores that are always waiting to be done at home. Away from the phone, casual droppers in and, most conducive to creativity of all – away from the internet.

The hours spent walking the beach, sitting on the long verandah or staring into the open fire are, I’m convinced, as important to the creative process as is the actual tapping out of words on the keyboard.

I only eat at mealtimes, as there are no cupboards full of snacks, so everything tastes wonderful. Carrying the split logs up from the shed and scouring the block for kindling is deeply satisfying. Not speaking for nearly three days gives me a deep inner calm that lasts well into my week once I’m back in town, which is a life I also love, but which is utterly different.

It’s so basic. Other than having electric light and running hot water, it’s pretty much how my grandparents would have spent their visits here. Apart from buying the paper, I spend nothing.

It’s basic, and it’s an immense privilege – having not just one but two homes in a world where so many people have none. And it’s more than just a charming rustic shack. Six generations of my extended family have been coming down here. Our dogs are buried on this block. Several of my mum’s generation have their ashes scattered here and mum herself is buried close by. As I write, photos of my forbears look down at me. I am surrounded by friendly ghosts when I come here. I have the strongest sense of ancestors smiling as they recognise my features and the way I spend my quiet days.

Next time I come down will be with my husband (volcanic ash permitting) and it will be great. I miss his companionship, his energy, his sense of humour and his touch. But this time, all I need is my own company, the written word and the place that is more home to me than anywhere else.


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.