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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’.


Winter - bring it on!

Why does winter get such bad press?

In popular songs, summer is the time of love; winter is when your sweetheart leaves you. In literature and theatre, winter is the metaphor for all that is barren, tragic, oppressive and melancholy.

On the street, in homes and offices, most people whinge about the cold. Few of us are game to complain about rain these days, even after the floods of the last 12 months, but it’s open season on winter.

I’m glad I don’t live in Canada; I would resent having to put on multiple layers every time I head out the door. And I know even an antipodean winter is very tough for some: the elderly and isolated, the arthritic, those at home with a bunch of little kids, most of all, the homeless, for whom winters must be bitter.

But in Victoria, for those of us lucky enough to possess four walls to keep out the elements, I propose a new take on what is my favourite season.

For starters, this decade, even in Victoria, summer is the most brutal and relentless season. Rivers run dry, parks and gardens wilt, cities are torrid and airless and it’s impossible to get cool. Worst of all, there is constant worry for those living in bushfire prone areas and sometimes devastation when their worst fears are realised.

Winter is when the natural world looks lush and green again and when human beings can be active without expiring in a sweaty, breathless swoon.

This time of year I get excited at the prospect of several months of cold. The chilly snap this last week has had me cheering – bring it on!

Why do I love winter? Partly it’s a question of genetics. My Anglo-Celtic-Germanic DNA means that I am energised by cold whereas heat leaves me listless, lazy, pathetic and cranky to boot.

Upbringing is a factor too. I spent my primary school years in a boarding school at an altitude of 8000 feet. There was no heating of any kind, and we were only allowed three thin blankets on our beds. The fleeces and down jackets and thermals that protect us these days hadn’t been invented. So I don’t really feel the cold. I rarely use a heater on winter mornings.

Another factor is that I love being out of doors especially if I’m walking. In summer, I’m forced to take my constitutional early in the morning or late at night. Even after dark, it’s sometimes unpleasant – when blustery north winds keep temperatures in the high 20s all though the wee hours. I walk to work, and can’t bear getting there flushed and sweaty. Whereas in the winter, doesn’t matter how cold it gets, a k or two of brisk walking will always warm me up.

Then there is the sheer cosiness of winter, and all the delicious things that come with it. Sure, there’s something magic about long summer evenings and spilling out onto the verandah for a gin and tonic before the barbeque. But it can’t hold a candle to an evening beside the fire, curtains drawn, pitch, freezing black outside, hands curled around hot mugs of tea, or, better still, hot chocolate.

Or coffee on a cold Sunday afternoon with all the bits of the weekend papers lying haphazardly around as you work your way through, the laundry on the clothes horse steaming gently by the heater, creating a fragrant fug.

The winter clothes that, unlike their flimsy summer counterparts, cover a multitude of sins: jeans and boots and thick socks, scarves and gloves and woolly beanies.

What about the romance of cuddling under a doona when it’s six degrees outside? Summer as the season of love? I don’t think so. Beds are so much better in the colder months, whether you’re kept warm by a partner or a hot water bottle. Summer nights are horrible – I toss and turn on sticky, crumpled sheets and can’t sleep. On a cold night, I feel like a little kid again – surrounded and protected by warmth.

And of course, the rain. This year has been a wonderful aberration, but over the last ten years, all year round, I have longed for rain. The sky pouring bountifully on the garden. The sound of rain on a tin roof, its patter on my bedroom window, driven against it by a bitter wind, with me safe and warm inside. Nothing makes me sleep better.

So even if you’re a summer person, see if you can change your mindset about winter. You’re stuck with it every year after all. You might as well enjoy it.


The original Kettle

Having taken six months to work out how to get a subscriber button for my blog, I am still fine tuning the facility (when I say 'I', I mean my son Paddy - I am doing precisely nothing.)

Anyway, after this week's post about revisiting The Kettle in the Apricot Tree, I thought I'd put up the origianl article, written 12 years ago - the first of nearly 100 pieces I have had published in The Age since 1999. Happy reading!


The Kettle in the Apricot Tree

Last week I went back to a house I lived in until four years ago. It is a big house in the main street of a country town, but no one lives there now. After we left, it was used as a day-care centre, but that didn’t work out. Although it is not used for anything now, they keep it well enough. It doesn’t look abandoned.

In the back garden, I noted with satisfaction that most of the native shrubs we put in were flourishing. Then I saw the apricot tree. This tree was a favourite playing place for our kids. They spent hours up there, picking the fruit, reading, sailing the seven seas, building treetop cubbies, spying on the neighbours and giving cheek to the passers-by.

The tree was laden with big, luscious, orange fruit. And one old brass kettle.

How could I have forgotten the kettle? I bought it on one of my pre-children India jaunts and the kids, deciding it was magic, commandeered it. It did lots of exciting things: it contained magic potions, it was boiled over pretend campfires, and, finally, it ended up strung off one of the branches of the apricot tree, stuck up there during some game and forgotten. And there it will stay, probably until the tree comes down. The branch it is on, once slender, has thickened and now, short of lopping the entire limb, it would be impossible to get the kettle off.

I stood in my old back garden, childless this particular weekend, and felt a lump gathering in my throat at the sight of that abandoned kettle. I was reminded of our tenth wedding anniversary, when my husband and I had gone to considerable trouble organising a minder for our children so that we could have two days on our own. We had looked forward for so long to this time. When we got to our little unit in the Grampians, I went outside to sniff the clear air and get a feel for the place.

There was a clothesline, a Hills hoist with one lonely little bootie hanging on it, left behind by the previous holidaymakers no doubt. I promptly burst into tears.

Well, I was pregnant at the time. But I’m not now, and I still cry at the sort of thing. I’m still prey to waves of fierce nostalgia when I see little reminders of the babyhood my children have left behind.

This year, my baby, child number four, started school. Not long after, I turned 40, and life began for me in a new way. Thirteen years I have been at home raising children and, at times, the exhaustion and sheer relentlessness of the many tasks have almost driven me to madness. I have looked forward for so long to having six hours a day I can call my own, to having time for writing after years of fitting it in during babies’ sleeps or complicated childcare arrangements.

But on the first day of school I was a bit of a mess – as I was last week when I bundled up all our old bibs and put them in a St Vinnie’s bin. Motherhood is a rich and wearying dance between bliss and despair, and I am painfully aware that this will continue as long as I live.

But back to the kettle. Why do we feel this powerful pull of the past, even when it is a past we may not particularly wish to return to? Much as I loved it, I have no desire to go back to nappies and night feeds, babies and toddlers. But there’s this ache, just as there probably will be twenty years from now when I look back on the kids’ teenage years.

Perhaps it is the awareness of death that gives nostalgia its power and makes it such a universal emotion. All things pass. In no time at all, I myself will be no more than a pile of photographs and letters and jottings in old notebooks. Perhaps that is why we ache for the past. Because it is all going so quickly. And hard and all as life is, it is all we know. So we grieve fiercely at the thought of letting it go.

And I see a battered kettle hanging in a fruit tree and am glad no one is around to see me cry.


Nostalgia be damned – the kettle in the apricot tree revisited

Not so long ago, we spent a weekend in a place where we had lived for six years in the nineties; a small coastal town in the west of the state. I reckon it’s eight or ten years since I was there last.

A visit a dozen years ago had inspired The Kettle in the Apricot Tree – the first article I ever had published in the Age, on 9 May 1999, and the opening piece in my first published book.

Kettle was a reflection on nostalgia triggered by going back to our old home and seeing, despite all the changes, an old brass kettle hung in the apricot tree in our back yard, where our kids had left it years before.

This time, 21 years after we moved there and 16 years since we left, the apricot tree is long gone. Indeed, our entire back garden has transmogrified into an Aldi carpark. Our family home is now a café and art gallery, nicely done, with decent coffee. A plus for us, as we were able to poke around every last room, slowly, pretending to be admiring the artwork when what we were really doing, of course, was indulge in memories.

My husband and I stood in front of art pieces, from an immense carved wooden eagle, to delicate water colours, to tacky mirrors encrusted with sea shells. But what we were really doing was saying, ‘Remember when we had the kids’ bunks in this corner?’ and ‘We used to light the fire in here when it was your study sometimes and tell bedtime stories,’ and ‘They’ve still got this cruddy old lino – do you remember when my waters broke all over the floor right here?’

We agreed it was the weirdest feeling – poignant and funny and happy and sad. It was like looking at a barely recognizable version of ourselves, through the wrong end of binoculars. I feel so utterly different from the young mother who lived and often struggled through those years. I guess it was nostalgia of a kind. But not the kind that had me longing to go back.

In fact, I can never remember yearning to go back to past eras in my life. On the contrary, as we shared the long drive home, I listed for my husband a litany of gladness.

‘I’m so glad it’s now,’ I started, ‘and we don’t have tiny kids anymore. I’m so glad I’ve had therapy, that I’m no longer depressed. I’m so glad I discovered writing and have a day job I love. I’m so glad you and I are so much kinder to ourselves and each other than we used to be.’

It’s not as though there weren’t many good times, happy times. Mostly, I thrived on the fresh air, the lack of traffic, the long walks, the friendly community. I was besotted with the children and grateful for the years I was able to spend at home with them without the pressure of a job or much concern about a career I might have been missing out on.

But now is the best time. It always is. So far, I’ve never resented getting older. Even in my darkest times – what I think of as my depression years – I didn’t want to go back in time, because at least I was becoming aware of problems that had always been there and was learning to tackle them.

A lot of people hark back to some bygone golden age. School days for instance (my primary school years weren’t a lot of fun). Or when their kids were little (I prefer them as young adults, or even teenagers).

I’m aware that there may be a time when it all goes pear shaped. If a member of my family dies. If my partner or I fall prey to some awful, progressive disease, to Alzheimer’s, to any of the heartbreaking afflictions I see in so many of the older people I love. So far, I have been lucky in health and in relationships, and that may not always be the case.

But right now, there is nowhere else I’d rather be than here, and no one I would rather be than my 52-year-old self with all her limitations. I go back to our old house, full of shoppers drinking coffee, and our old garden covered in asphalt and strict white lines and parked cars. I look at where the apricot tree and its resident kettle used to be, and I am grateful for those times. But I have no wish whatsoever to go back to them.