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Happiness and despair

This crazy summer I’m starting to feel a little schizophrenic - burdened with minute by minute awareness of insurrection, immense natural disasters and now nuclear meltdown, while simultaneously enjoying a truly lucky life.

I can remember as an undergraduate in the seventies, the fear we had of the nuclear conflagration.  And in the last ten days, this nightmare seems to be coming true.

Not that this hasn’t happened before – Chernobyl, Three Mile Island – but coming combined with earthquake and tsunami and in a long line of devastating world events, it feels as though the end of days has arrived.

The way we learned of the catastrophe in Japan at our place was something that could only have happened in the 21st century. My husband and I were reading in bed when our youngest came in to ask if we’d heard about the tsunami.

We followed her out to the living room where she was skyping her oldest brother in Scotland. He had told her about the earthquake in Japan. On the computer screen, we had him in one corner, grave and beanie-clad, commentating from his flat in Glasgow. In the other corner we had live footage from Sendai.

The juxtaposition of the filthy, wreckage-strewn water destroying everything in its path, with my own kid, half a world away but looking safe and healthy, was almost too much to take in. It took me a long time to get to sleep that night.

This happens so often it does my head in. I read the paper every morning. My heart goes out to the thousands of people whose lives have been shattered in Japan, New Zealand, Brazil, Pakistan, not to mention Libya and other countries where the political situation is dire. I send money, I talk about them in grave tones, I pray. I feel the very least I can do is be respectful enough to preface everything I say with, ‘Shall we spend two minutes silence thinking of our sisters and brothers in Japan’. It seems thoughtless to start any conversation without acknowledging how fortunate I am.

Because in my little life in this corner of the world, I am very happy most of the time. This is as it should be, given that I am not being threatened by nuclear radiation, earthquake, flood or fire, my kids are unlikely to be ‘disappeared’ by sinister security forces or die of a preventable disease, I have clean water and food, books to read and an internet connection.

It feels all wrong though, my full, happy heart on a morning when I’ve just read about the Fukushima power station. Overriding my horror is gratitude that my second son has reached Scotland safely, and that when I talked to him on the phone he was surrounded by two generations of family.

That seems to be the way of life in this time and place. Like many others, I have a constant awareness – a kind of backdrop, a cloud over the sun – of the way the world seems to be going to hell in a hand basket and no one who has any authority seems to give a toss. Alongside that is a heightened sense of joy at the good and simple things that are mine.

On the recent long weekend, we drove to the northeast to stay with our oldest daughter and her partner in their little patch of paradise outside Beechworth. We slept in their old farm house, walked in the deep bush of the state forest that backs onto their place, swam in the silky water of their dam alongside a brood of new ducklings, visited the outdoor dunny in black nights filled with stars.

The air was pristine; we picked apples off a wild tree behind their house, brewed coffee and sat on the long verandah reading weekend papers full of grief and horror.

There’s not much I can do about this coexisting of deep contentment with despair. I know it’s a privileged problem to have and one that will continue if I am lucky enough to escape searing tragedy myself. My head is full of the grief and brutality of the world, my spirit is oppressed by it. And my heart is happy because today, all the people I love most are happy, and know themselves loved.


A deadline is a wonderful thing

 It’s terrifying the way the year speeds on its mad way without my really getting back into the writing routine. Okay, so maybe not terrifying. Terrifying is probably an adjective better associated with really bad stuff like wars, tsunamis, earthquakes.  Blogger Mia Freedman talks about ‘First world problems’ – a neat recognition that although we have a right to talk about our problems, we have no right to compare them with what probably the majority of the world’s people endure every damn day. And this is definitely a first world problem.

So, I’ll start again. It’s scary how we are almost half way through March and my spurt of enthusiasm that resulted in many thousands of words being written in the last quarter of 2010 still hasn’t reappeared.

I always take January off. That’s fine, in fact it’s a good discipline, I reckon, to take a complete break from writing over the lovely slow month of summer holidays.

But then suddenly it’s February – this shouldn’t surprise me, but it does, and there’s a list of start of school tasks (for the last time ever this year) and getting everybody organised again and work plunges back into busyness and I’m tired and have a nap on my writing day instead of composing another chapter.

There are medical appointments that seem to eat up an entire morning, and the dentist reminds me I haven’t been for at least a year, my dad and step mum are arriving soon to stay for a month which is lovely and I can’t wait, but it’s also a brilliant excuse for continuing to avoid doing any writing of substance. By the time they head back to Scotland, it’ll be Easter.

But by Easter, in fact by the middle of April, I’ll have no excuses anymore, or none that will work, anyway. Because, starting mid April, I have an entire, terrifying, wonderful year of fortnightly DEADLINES. And a deadline is a wonderful thing.

Last October I attended a week-long writing workshop with Canadian writing teacher Barbara Turner-Vessalago. It was the second time I'd done one of her courses, and it resulted in my digging out the crappy novel manuscript I first started 13 years ago and giving it a burl. Not just tweaking and fiddling, as I’d tried to do so many times before, always petering out in frustration, but actually taking the entire thing and rewriting it – inspired by Barbara’s skill at helping her students tap into their imagination.

From then until I got busy with Christmas, I continued to churn out reworked chapters, chapters that each had more life in them than the entire, tired, flat, dull old novel did.

I was determined to finish it – regardless of the herculean task of getting a first novel published in Australia. It was just something I had to do.

Wisely, knowing my own immense talent for procrastination, I signed up for a 12 month mentorship with Barbara, starting mid April 2011 (yes, I know, that is only four weeks away).

The way it works is that every two weeks I send her a few thousand words by email. She reads them, marks them up in the way that I have learnt about, comments and emails them back. By which time – if not before – it’s time to send the next instalment winging through cyberspace to Canada, or wherever Barbara is weaving her magic at the time.

Three to four thousand words a fortnight is perfectly manageable. But every fortnight for a whole year? What about September, when I’m event managing a big conference? What about the mad, pre-Christmas rush? Or January, where I am deeply committed being a lazy slob ?

Scary stuff. But at the same time, wonderful. Because if there’s one thing that gets me going, it’s a deadline. And self-imposed deadlines are good, but the fear of letting someone else down is a much better incentive to produce some writing, whatever else is going on in my life.

For a month now I have been planning to start the process – to get ahead, get a few chapters down so that the wheels won’t fall off if I get sick or busy or something unexpected happens along the line. But I haven’t written a word. Because it’s not a really truly deadline.

Once the real deadline looms, however, I’ll be pounding that keyboard like there’s no tomorrow. I don’t honestly know if I’ll ever get the novel Mark II completed – much less if it’ll be anything other than the inadequate rubbish it is now. But the only way I’ll get close to achieving this is by the imposition of those wonderful things. Deadlines.


Hippy haven in WA

Less than two weeks ago I had a few days in WA. I’ve never spent time in Perth but our family had most of three months in the West 13 years ago. A prolonged camping trip that took our whole mob up the guts of the country, barely stopping till we reached Kakadu, and not there for long either, pushing on till we reached Kununurra, on the edge of the Kimberley, where we finally slowed right down.

The bulk of the three months was spent on the Gibb River Road, a taste of the good life in Broome after the austerity of the road (ice creams, outdoor movies) Exmouth, the Pilbara, Karajini, down to the southwest corner of the state and home across the Nullarbor.

This time my husband and I were alone. We had both been asked to speak at a conference in Perth (a first for us), which we did, and the people were gracious and generous and appreciative and lovely.

The minute it was over, we hopped in a little hire car and beetled down the coast to Yallingup – a hamlet about three hours drive south of Perth and just a bit north of Margaret River.

We stayed in a tiny stone cottage a few ks out of the town – hand built by a lovely ageing hippy surfie dude with a Hindu name and Buddhist prayer flags fluttering around his property. In the morning he meditated (we were welcome to join him but slept in instead) and then at midday, because, he said, he just felt that by then he needed a top up.

He had constructed four buildings over several years – felling as few trees as possible in the process. He meditated for three months before he cut down anything, he told us, just to get the feel of the place.

There is a stone cottage and a wooden cottage for people to stay in.  These were fully booked at the time we visited, but he offered us the miniscule cottage that is really an annexe to his own place, and which he doesn’t usually rent out. The only problem, he had said on the phone, was that it had an outdoor shower.

When we got there, we realised that we had to share it with him. It was the loveliest shower I’ve ever been in: an old bathtub, surrounded by a flimsy lattice graced with bougainvillea. Standing under the cascade of solar-heated water, I looked past the papery pink blossoms to verdant tomato and pumpkin plants.

We had a lazy couple of days. We found the loveliest bakery in tacky Margaret River – WA’s answer to our favourite local, The Brunswick Green – complete with sagging seventies brown velour sofas, kitch memorabilia on the walls and a patchwork of doilies hanging at the edge of the verandah, offering protection from the hot sun.

We had a large lunch at a winery and went back to our cottage and slept. We swam at the more sheltered beaches – Gracetown and Smith’s Beach – in water as clear as glass, looking down to fine silver sand. There was no rubbish. There were hardly any people.

We walked on surf beaches where I felt as though I was caught in a Tim Winton novel. I’m used to Anglesea, which, notwithstanding its proximity to Bells Beach, never looked like this. Fierce breakers curling in in perfect formation and smashing violently down close to shore.

Our cottage was filled with stained glass windows created by our host. Glass that looked like mother-of-pearl, glass with flecks and ripples and seams of colour running through it – glass the like of which I had never seen before. Our windows, salvaged from a local chapel, were filled with flowers, with birds, with dolphins, with shining suns.

On our last evening we had a long talk to the creator of this little haven, as the night drew in, surrounded by his fledgling fruit trees and his statues of the Buddha. When he discovered we were Christians he asked a little anxiously if we belonged to a brand of Christianity that thought other religions were evil.

We reassured him and the talk rambled on – over children and divorce, Jesus and meditation, surfing and adolescence, anxiety and therapy and vegetable patches.

Next day we were off by six, for the long drive to Perth Airport, the flight back home and the very slight jet lag that accompanies one from the other side of this big country.

We’ll probably never be back there again, or speak to our host who sees part of his mission in life to provide a peaceful place for souls who need time and space to reconnect with themselves, the environment, God. But it is these brief encounters, which are some of the surprising gifts life dishes up, that I remember long after they occurred.


Suffering and a God of love

A new piece in The Age faith column this morning. Here it is:


It’s a question that gets lobbed at Christians constantly. One that’s probably on the minds of many Australians in the wake of bushfires, floods, cyclones and earthquakes. How can anyone believe in a loving God in a world where there is so much suffering?

Any easy answers render God arbitrary and capricious at worst, at best, aloof and uncaring. Neither of which inspire my devotion.

Part of what I can say as a Christian is that I don’t get it either.  But there are at least some things I can assert about the problem of suffering and a God of love.

There has always been appalling suffering. The only reason we are more aware of it this summer is because it is happening to people like us.

Much of the current crop of natural disasters are arguably the doing of humankind, who (and every one of us has contributed to this) have been mindless consumers for too long.

Awful things happen in this world and it does not for one moment mean that the victims deserve it or are being punished. In the gospel of Luke Jesus is asked, when a tower fell killing several random people, what they had done to make God so angry. God had nothing to do with it, he says. Stuff happens. Suffering is not God’s judgement on people.

Perhaps the most important thing a Christian can say is to respond to the question, where is God when humans are wounded, dying, grieving, afraid?

In his book on the Holocaust, Night, Elie Wiesel writes of an experience in Auschwitz where he and his fellow inmates were forced to watch the slow death by hanging of a young boy. As the man in line behind him asked, ‘Where is God?’ Wiesel answered, ‘God is here, God is hanging on this gallows’.

One reading is that in this brutal, senseless death, belief in a God of love also died. For Christians, that terrible story has another resonance because our central narrative places God literally on the gallows, when Jesus of Nazareth who was somehow, mysteriously, God, was misunderstood, betrayed and abandoned by his friends and tortured to death by corrupt political and religious authorities.

But the evidence for God’s solidarity with suffering people is there long before the life of Jesus. In the Hebrew scriptures God is often portrayed as being the liberator of the oppressed, lover of justice and mercy.

If Jesus was showing us how God feels about us, the message was clear – God cares about human suffering. God, Jesus said, is aware of every sparrow that falls dead. He described God as our loving father. The word he used was the equivalent of ‘Daddy’.

I don’t believe that God causes terrible ‘acts of nature’. The world is the way it is. But when bad things happen, it is clear where God is. God is there. In the pain and chaos, the confusion and the long clean up, God is there.


Another year begins

First proper entry for 2011, unless you count posting a published article, which is cheating, really. I had planned to post in January, just as I had planned to do lots of creative and deeply reflective journaling and rewrite a few chapters of the novel.

Did I do any of these? Not on your life. I didn’t so much as open my computer. And I’m glad I didn’t. Sometimes you just gotta do nothing, and find out that the world doesn’t grind to a halt. In fact, probably no one even notices, unless you are say, Anna Bligh. And that’s a good reminder of how irrelevant each of us is in the scheme of things.

So, I had a pretty lazy holiday. This last week, back into the routine of early starts and tight schedules, school and work and lists of must-do things, I feel the benefits of that laziness – renewed energy and enthusiasm for the people and the tasks that fill my days.

Wonderful as holidays are, however, in some ways I find them difficult and I suspect I’m not alone in this. For one thing, there’s an expectation that you’ll have fun, so you feel vaguely guilty if you’re not having a whale of a time.

When we had a houseful of toddlers and babies, I found holidays a mixed blessing. On the one hand, we had two parents around full time, which halved my load. On the other, we had none of the routines and activities that helped us through our days. And we were often in places where the facilities were a lot less efficient those at home.

But even once the kids were older, holidays could be fraught. It wasn’t so much that the kids or their dad irritated me. I irritated me. In normal life, there is lots of busy stuff for me to hide behind. Work, commitments, friendships, all of which I am reasonably good at.

Holidays are confronting because you are with the people who know you best 24/7, and often the me that is revealed isn’t very pretty – grumpy, weary, just wanting to be left alone. Mother and partner are the roles I’ve always felt worst at, and on a family holiday they are the only roles available to me.

If I can get through this feeling of panic and inadequacy, and I always do, I am rewarded with increased self-acceptance and closeness to the ones I love the most. But for a few days there, it can be pretty torrid.

This year was a bit poignant too, as it’s the first year we haven’t had all the kids around. We are on the cusp of being empty-nesters – a state I mostly look forward to.  We’re not quite there though – a phase I find awkward, a stage that takes some getting used to. We have had decades of holidays spent with large broods of offspring and hangers on – laughter, chaos, massive meals and the positive energy generated by a large and mainly happy family. This year, the first few days our ‘family’ consisted of one bored and sulky teenager and two fed up parents. Our family seemed almost unrecognizable – miserably tapering off with a whimper, after 25 years of glorious bangs.

Things looked up. More of our kids came down. Their friends did too. Everyone cheered up. And in the face of what is happening in parts of Victoria, in vast tracts of Queensland, in Brazil and Afghanistan, I am just grateful to have the whole gang alive, our house intact, a job to go to and a functioning city in which to live.

Another year begins.