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Christmas at our place and the joys of January

First day back from the bonus ten-day Christmas-New Year break, and I’m chatting to my colleague about our levels of busyness. We’re on the same floor, but it different departments, and we both admitted, in half embarrassed whispers, that there wasn’t a lot of urgent work to be done.

‘Oh yes I love January,’ I said to her. ‘All those public holidays and then you come back to work and it’s usually quiet enough to get sorted for the year ahead.’

My office buddy is from the UK; this is her first Christmas down under. She can’t believe how different January is in the work place here.

‘At home, January is the very worst month,’ she said. ‘You have a very short holiday and then you’re back to work and the weather’s terrible and you go to work in the dark and come home in the dark and spring’s a long way away and people get the winter blues and more workers get sick in January than in any other month of the year’.

We’re so lucky. January, the way it’s done here, is the perfect, slow start to the year in my book. By February it’s all systems go again and we are plunged into the busyness of another working year. January is the cruisey time to have a holiday and then get the filing and tidying, the preparation and the forward planning done.

Same at home. I had nothing on in the last week of 2010, and most of my mob was away to boot. So I tidied and cleaned and threw out. Areas like the attic and the window seat that I don’t have a hope of tackling in the rush and bustle of a normal working week.

Getting really organised makes me feel happy and relaxed – sad but oh so true.

And, much as I love it, it’s always a relief to get Christmas over for another year. Christmas at our place we willingly do a lot of church. The kids’ pageant at 7pm on Christmas Eve. ‘Midnight Mass’ – not that it’s mass nor is it quite midnight, but the alliteration is irresistible. Carols, candlelight, a hushed air of expectation. Great stuff. And then church again at 9.30 Christmas morning.

We wimped out on the regular Sunday service Boxing Day morning. Our excuse was that we were having 20 people to lunch – another wussing out that I’m sure would not have been acceptable to our grand-mothers, or even mothers.

My folks came on the 25th, my husband’s on the 26th. All pretty relaxed except for the fact that His Nibs, who does the lion’s share of the cooking on these occasions, had a flustered moment with the rubbish bin and came down hard, very hard, on the edge of the kitchen bench resulting in a spectacularly split lip.

Two hours, two fainting episodes and several stitches later, we got back from casualty in time to welcome our first batch of Christmas guests and the show went on.

This was our first Christmas without all the kids at home – a watershed. Skype went a long way toward easing the pain of missing the family members in Paris and Edinburgh, and the world didn’t end because we weren’t all together. Being away from the ones you love is a whole heap easier than it used to be, that’s for sure. Except that you can’t hug them. And I do mind that.

So, that was Christmas at my place. A couple of weeks back at work now and then a fortnight at the beach, armed with sunscreen and library books. Not bad. Not bad at all. With luck, I’ll come back to face the real start of the year – February, raring to go.


Staying over

Managed to get another faith piece in The Age this morning. Here it is - a slightly longer version with one important difference. Towards the end of the article I wrote, 'Theologians will say that God became human to reveal to us more clearly God's character and purposes'. This line was edited as '...God became human to reveal to us more clearly His character and purposes'. I've had this before with the paper, and I always mean to ask them not to do it and always forget... Ah well. Maybe next time I'll write a piece on God not being a boy. Regardless, I'm very happy to be published again in what has been till now a very lean year.


There’s no substitute for staying with people. Visiting their patch, sleeping in their house, sharing their food, being there in the weary nights and grumpy mornings.

It’s the basis for immersion experiences such as overseas trips where school kids live with host families. Staying with people lets you in to their world – almost into their shoes – in a way that nothing else can.

I’ve been reminded vividly of this twice over the past 12 months. The first was visiting our eldest, who has set up house with her partner and is happily carving out her own life.

When she comes back home, it’s still our world, and she is, to some extent, still one of the kids. At her place it’s different. I have a whole new respect for her achievements and choices. She is relaxed and confident as we willingly learn her way of doing things. I always come away feeling I’ve learnt a whole lot more about my first born than when she comes home and dosses down in the attic room for a night.

The second experience was very different. It involved spending the weekend with people we love who are in a bad place – deep in the agony of marital conflict. Several times over those days we wished ourselves back home. We regretted ever coming. Ugly, embarrassing scenes, tension, situations where, no matter how well you know and love the couple, you have no idea whether to stick your oar in or shut up.

Uncomfortable as it was, though, we came away profoundly grateful that we had made the effort to spend time with them on their territory. We felt much closer to them, understanding in a more profound way the issues that divide them, more deeply committed to their health and happiness, whatever the outcome of their partnership.

I reckon this is partly what Christmas is about. At this time of year, Christians in every culture celebrate what we call the incarnation – God becoming an ordinary human being.

Theologians will say that God became human to reveal to us more clearly God’s character and purposes. Would it be blasphemy to suggest that through Jesus’ life, God now better understands what makes us tick? Is more deeply aware of the complexities and anguish of human life?  More lovingly engaged with humanity and the whole creation? More committed to this world and all its creatures than ever?

According to the Christian story, God in Jesus from Nazareth became an ordinary person. He cried, became weary and angry and fed up, laughed and told stories and loved people and stood up to power and corruption and was painfully killed.

In Jesus, the God who, we believe, somehow created the universe, has been to our place, slept over, in the most involved way possible – by becoming one of us.


That fresh feeling

To my mind, one of the loveliest words in the English language is ‘fresh’.

Every connotation it has is a good one. Even the only possible negative way the word is used has an old-world quaintness about it. ‘Don’t you get fresh with me!’ The word hasn’t been used thus for decades and has a sweet sense of the kind of flirtation (and there is such a kind) that is harmless and safe and fun.

Fresh fruit. Fresh vegetables. Fresh flowers. There is no substitute for fresh ingredients. Indeed not. Fresh tomatoes. Fresh nectarines. You can almost smell and touch and taste them.

Best of all maybe – fresh air.  Sea air. Mountain air. This drought-ridden decade, how we have longed, summers, for the freshness of a cool change. How we throw open our windows, when that change does finally blow through, filling our stuffy houses with a sweet breeze from the south.

Freshness is epitomised for me by one of my favourite moments in the day when I walk out of my house first thing, the toothpaste minty on my tongue and take a deep, open-mouthed breath of new morning air.

Fresh water – what so many in the world don’t have. What we are newly aware of, our almost empty dams filling up again in a year of bumper rains.

Even the way the word is used in contemporary slang is happy and free and light hearted. ‘Fresh!’ say the teenagers at our place, and it means cool, terrific, wonderful. Fresh.

Singer Eels – he of the Ned Kelly beard and the funny, sad, self-deprecating love songs uses the word beautifully in That fresh feeling, the stand out track of his album SoulJacker. He is talking about love, of course, happy love, love that feels good and right, maybe, the subtext is, after love that felt all wrong.

Fresh is a feeling. For me it conjures up the first line of an old hymn we used to sing as kids: ‘New every morning is the love, our wakening and uprising prove’. Despite this very hymn being used to devastating effect in the movie Kes, where bullied, deprived and harried kids were forced to sing it at school, I still love the sentiment of love being new every morning. Fresh.

I used to think about this on a daily basis when our four kids were very small and I was in a permanent state of exhaustion and often fed up. I would fall into bed at night, desperate for a break, for the welcome oblivion of sleep so that we could have a fresh start in the morning. And we did.

Still we do. Teenager-parent blues fade overnight and become something you can apologise for, laugh over, hug about. The benison of sleep changes everything that was wrung out and at the end of its tether; it makes every morning a fresh start.

We are not always like that, of course. And I know there are so many places where each new morning just brings more of the same anger, pain, hunger, fear, frustration or boredom. But in this miraculous world, the potential for a fresh start is always there.

Fresh makes me think of forgiveness, of the fact that relationships can heal and mend and change for the better. That no matter how old we are, we can change and grow. That real, long-term love can stay fresh.

Lastly, as a writer, I love the thought of writing fresh words daily. Years ago, when I had just started to write seriously, one of my dearest friends sent me a card. On it was a Michael Leunig picture of a little man with a van, or was it a cart, travelling over the hills, looking content. On the side of the vehicle was ‘Fresh words daily’. All those years ago, I wrote a poem that still expresses for me what it is I long to do in a world full of weasel words and worse.


Fresh words daily

The last thing we need in this place

is more words.

God knows, our life is clogged,

our peace shattered

with words enough already.


Neon words, flashing words,

techno words, loud words, lying words,

sound-bite-quick words,

sweet false seductive words,

head battering, heart hammering words.


But mine are different:

fresh words daily.

Chiseled out of the mountain

of my rich, sad, joyful life,

polished like stones,

shot through with holiness

and the power to stir and to heal,

offered with love.

My words are different:

fresh words daily.


Relearning wonder - how writers can make the world a better place

Not sure if the blog is giving me luck, but once again I had a piece in The Age over the weekend. Twice in a month after barely any publication all year!

As far as the blog itself goes, I am trying, after a few people asked, to work out how to make it possible for readers to subscribe i.e. click a button which means they get an email telling them every time I put a new post up. So far, I have not managed to work out how to do this, but I'll keep trying, so look out for a subscribe button some time in the near future.

Till then, send me a comment so that I know some one is actually reading this thing.

Here's the faith column from last Sunday, 21 November:


What do writers add to society? What are they here to do? The most obvious, and, arguably the most important, is that they entertain. But there’s more to it than that.

Throughout history writers – novelists, playwrights, poets - have drawn our attention to the evils they see existing or creeping into the society around them. From Charles Dickens to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, from Elie Wiesel to Roberta Sykes, wordsmiths have been ahead of the pack or else lone voices trying to convince their peers of the dangers of everything from fascism to consumerism.

Writers are not the only ones. Artists of every description – painters, comedians, film makers, musicians – have fulfilled this role, often with humour.

Artists also teach us empathy by allowing us to enter worlds that are not our own – other times, cultures, social classes.

But I believe there is another role that creative artists of all kinds fulfil which is just as important to the planet and to the human race. It is to reawaken the sense of wonder most people have naturally as children, by noticing and drawing attention to the sacredness of the everyday.

We tend to have a heightened awareness of everything around us if we are in a foreign country. It takes an artist to help us see the wonder of things at home. To notice things – this bright parrot in a Brunswick park, that rock pool, the joyous rattle of that clanking tram, this chunky necklace on that particular shade of skin. Our world is full of wonder, but preoccupied as we are, we so often fail to notice.

Recapturing a sense of wonder is akin to the concept of ‘mindfulness’ that Buddhists talk about. Being aware of each morsel that passes our lips, the texture of soil as we pull out weeds, every shade of colour in an evening sky.

In a passage that is often used to persuade us not to worry, but could just as easily be a hymn to wonder, Jesus is quoted as saying, ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these’. And ‘Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it’.

The thing about mindfulness and wonder is not just that they make people feel good. They are also incompatible with apathy and hate.

So part of the job of writers, artists of any stripe, is to remind people of the wonder all around them. To reveal the ordinary in a new light, so that we start to see differently, and to experience the world like children again. When people are filled with wonder and delight they are incapable, in that moment, of being violent or mean spirited. That’s what artists are here to do.


Wet weekend in Yackandandah

You can forget, living in the city, about the importance of rain. You don’t depend on your own tanks and dams – ever-present, visible reminders of how low the water levels are. You’re not as vulnerable to bushfires. You can be almost oblivious to the elements – scurry from a heated or cooled house to train to office and barely realise what the weather is doing.

I spent last weekend happily immersed in awareness of rain in a small cabin a few ks out of Yackandandah in God’s own country – the northeast of the state.

Every time I go to Yack, it rains. Or rather, it pours, torrentially. I visit a bit these days, ever since my oldest daughter and her partner moved there, first to study, then to work.

It’s where she was born – not Yack itself, but close enough. We were living in Mount Beauty at the time and my labour started off there. After thirty hours the pair of us – she still firmly inside – were moved to Wodonga, courtesy of an ambulance in a midnight dash up the highway.

It was raining that night too. My husband followed in our car, trying to keep up with the speeding ambos. He said later that he was crying so hard he didn’t know which were tears and which was slashing rain on the windscreen.

So I know how it can rain in the northeast. How cooped up you can feel, locked in the Kiewa Valley, after days of it, especially if you are at home with a new baby and a toddler. Twenty-five years later, when I visit Mount Beauty, which is one of my favourite places, I still have a faint sense of claustrophobia.

In the last decade, though, everywhere in the state has been dry. Tess and her Will moved to Yack at the beginning of 2009 on the weekend of the February bushfires. It was 42 degrees at three in the morning. They went to all the fire preparation meetings in the town and wondered what they had come to.

It’s a very different story now. On the farm where they rent their cottage, there are billabongs where billabongs haven’t been seen for ten years. Everywhere that can store water in the northeast, from the humblest little tank to the massive Hume Weir, is full to overflowing. The land itself is as saturated as a big, soaking wet sponge. The cows and horses and sheep are fat and happy. Dainty wildflowers stud the bush everywhere you look.

At Tess and Will’s we sleep in their carport/shed – blissfully surrounded by the elements and yet dry. Through the wet night I wake and listen to that most comforting of sounds – rain on a tin roof. I peek out to where the world is a deep grey, punctuated by deeper grey, heavily dripping trees.

When the rain stops briefly, I slip on my clogs and venture out to sniff the sodden air. I swear it looks as though the paddock nearest the cottage is completely flooded. In the morning it’s dry, and I wonder if I imagined the whole thing in the darkness, sleep befuddled as I was. Apparently not. Their neighbour tells us the creek did burst its banks, spreading rapidly over the paddocks towards the house and receding just as quickly before first light.

On our first day there, we had stripped off and splashed in the creek, in waist high water.  After the overnight deluge, Tess and I don jackets and gum boots and slosh over to see a watercourse four times the size it had been – right up to the top of its steep banks, cloudy brown, flowing so fast I wouldn’t have dared venture in.

In the paddocks themselves, the two foot long grass is completely flattened and coated with topsoil in which my little dog rolls happily – turning from white to completely brown.

Growing up in a country that depended on monsoons that sometimes didn’t come, I’ve never assumed the continuing presence of rain. Now I rejoice to see my beloved northeast wallowing in deep, long rains that have filled it up with verdant lushness.

Despite the long drive, travelling back to Melbourne on Sunday afternoon, I feel refreshed, the part of me that needs open air and green things replenished. Like the creeks and the dams, I feel filled up. I feel as though I’ve had a long drink.