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Missing the washing

At the risk of being thought certifiably insane, I am going to come right out and admit that as an empty nester, I miss the washing. Partly, I suspect, because it used to put me in mind of that spiritual classic The practice of the presence of God, by Brother Lawrence.

Twenty-five years ago, we had four children under 71/2 and only ever used cloth nappies. Most mornings involved two loads of washing. Vast quantities of laundry bookended our days, including the folding of nappies which I suspect is a skill that has gone the way of navigating by the stars.

But I rarely minded. I’ve always enjoyed the morning chore of lugging the heavy wash basket out on one hip, squinting up at the sky, connecting with what the day is doing, inhaling the lemony scent of clean clothes.

I also used the pegging out time to think about whichever little body normally occupied the damp garment I was hanging out. How blessed to have a baby girl to tuck into an adorable pale green jumpsuit. How lucky to have tough little denim overalls and mini flannies for the older girl and the boys. How cute their little socks and jocks.

Okay, I’ll be honest, it wasn’t always idyllic. On many occasions I thought that socks - a dozen a day, inevitably mismatched and with some missing - would be the straw that broke this frazzled mother’s sanity.

But a lot of it was joy – and, now that the pressure of those busy years is long over, I fight my husband for the privilege of hanging out the clothes. Bringing in armfuls of fresh sheets and towels and underwear, folding them in neat piles, filing them away where they belong is a deeply satisfying task.

Brother Lawrence, a French 17th century friar, was mainly a cook and dish-washer and his Practice of the presence of God reads like a Christian version of mindfulness. Cultivating the practice means that in the most mundane task we can find the presence of the Divine and consequently, deep satisfaction and contentment.

Some people seem to do this more easily than others; I have found it a gift that has developed steadily as I age. It is also a skill that can be cultivated; the most effective tool for learning the practice of the presence of God in my experience is contemplative prayer. If I manage to set aside time for wordless prayer most days, I am far more likely to sense the presence of God in each part of my day, whether it is difficult, fabulous or dull. The practise of wordless prayer reminds me that I am here, in this particular situation, so this is where God meets me and can use me as a channel of God’s love. That clear sense can come, as it did for Brother Lawrence, working in the kitchen. It can come cleaning the toilet. It can certainly come hanging out the washing.

This was published in the September issue of The Melbourne Anglican



Wait a minute, who's the PM again?

The last time the highest office in the land changed with bewildering rapidity, my husband had a neurological incident in the middle of the night; blacking out in the bathroom, giving himself a hefty knock on the head on the way down. To be on the safe side, despite having been a nurse myself in a previous life, I rang ‘nurse on call’.

She took me through the familiar drill. No, I didn’t need to rush him to an emergency department at this point. Yes, I should check him through the night; take his pulse, shine a light in his eyes to check his pupils were responding appropriately, ask him who the Prime Minister was. Really?

It’s one of the questions they ask not only of people with possible concussion, but as a tool for diagnosing Alzheimer’s. These days, however, it’s not just those with dementia who forget who is at the wheel in this fine nation of ours. Six PMs in nine years has got to be some kind of record, at least for stable democracies.

On Friday, the family What’sApp group was running hot. Our two older offspring were watching the whole drama unfold, laying bets for who would win. Our oldest, a high school teacher, wrote, ‘I’m watching it with my year 12 class, riveting!’

‘Julie more popular, smarter, and more likely to have a chance at avoiding complete international ridicule’ she continued, to which her brother responded, ‘She’s also a woman though. And these people are absolute dinosaurs.’

Our youngest, who works in a job where you run all day and have less opportunity to tune in to current events, weighed in at this point. ‘By the way. Wtf? I only just started remembering that Turnbull or whatever was Prime Minister. Do we have a new one?’ I’m with her. I’m still stuck in antiquity – whenever I hear the words, ‘Prime Minister Malcolm,’ I expect them to be followed by the name Fraser.

Late afternoon, my other What’sApp group, my step-siblings in the UK, woke up and chipped in.

‘What’s going on in Aus politics?’ was the opening remark, and the final line was ‘What can Australia teach us about how to change a government?’

I guess, thanks to Donald Trump, we won’t be the biggest laughing stock in the democratic world. But it’s a close thing.

Meanwhile, the circus in Canberra continues. And in this county, we really need to devise some new questions to diagnose brain damage.


This was published in The Melbourne Age on 29 August 2018


Subtle signs put a spring in my step

While the northern hemisphere swelters and burns its way through a broiling summer, Melbourne is still deep in the cold season. I continue to resort to my trusty hot water bottle at night, and in the city church where I sometimes go to sit quietly of a lunch time, there is still a population of homeless people sheltering themselves and their meagre belongings from the elements; their gentle snores punctuate my meditations.

But signs of spring are everywhere if you care to look.

I’ve been acutely aware of these this year, having spent five of the last 12 weeks in other countries. I buried my father on the Summer Equinox in Edinburgh; the dawn chorus woke me at three, but there was no dawn really, and no dark, just a pale green kind of luminescence that bordered a pale sky between the hours of midnight and four am.

Upon my return, the first thing I notice is that I now walk to work in daylight, and when my train deposits me at Brunswick station each evening, it is no longer pitch dark. Which is good, as it means I can see the deep pink magnolia tree that is budding there, prompting me to notice my neighbours’ white one, and then I see them everywhere, those so-briefly blooming trees that are so spectacular but that you miss if you fail to pay attention for a fortnight at this time of year.

Once I’ve noticed the magnolias, I start seeing jonquils poking their little blunt heads up into the sky and their big cousins the daffodils are appearing too. The blossoms of various fruit trees are making their presence felt as well – all over city streets delicate white and pink flowers dust leafless branches. My tiny front garden is a carpet of violets.

The harbingers of spring in Melbourne are less showy than their counterparts in the UK and other countries where everything seems dead and grey until, almost overnight, the earth explodes with green and colour. Here the transformation is much subtler and more gradual. Sings of spring start as early as July with the heavy gold of wattle and continue, little by little.

So, particularly in late winter, it pays to be attentive to the natural world that is so evident, even in our bustling, concrete-heavy, traffic laden city. Before the calendar decrees the official start to spring, spring is on its way. It’s worth keeping an eye out for its shy and subtle signs.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on 20 August 2018



Life after life

‘Going to heaven’ or ‘avoiding hell’ has never been a reason for my being a Christian. What happens to us after death is something I don’t worry about. Whatever occurs is wrought by the God who loves us more than the best parent, so it will be okay.

But ponder it I do, from time to time. Like now, when I have just lost my last remaining biological parent – a lovely man who lived a rich, full life and died at the age of 94, knowing, if not where he was going, then certainly who he was going to.

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled,’ John has Jesus saying. ‘In my father’s house are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?... so that where I am, there you may be also.’

I have no idea of the shape of life after life. I like to imagine it as somewhere that all the people I have ever loved, and all the places I have ever belonged and felt homesick for are together and accessible, with no time constraints. My idea of ‘heaven’ in unashamedly taken from C.S. Lewis’ beguiling portrayal of the next life in The Last Battle, final book of the Narnia series. But I’m aware that’s plain old wishful thinking.

I think of life after death as a state in which we can perceive, commune with and be filled by God more easily – a lot more easily. A state where we can simply be with God in sheer delight, the way a child sits on a loved grandparent’s lap and doesn’t have to say or do a thing except enjoy being with them. I like to think of it as an existence in which all not only are our griefs and heartbreaks healed and every tear dried, but our hang-ups disappear. I love to think of Mum minus her formidable reserve, Dad no longer plagued by inappropriate guilt, able to revel in the fact that he is utterly loved by the God he served so faithfully through his long life.

Of course, I have no idea what happens after death. But I am convinced that the God who made us and became Jesus loves us so much that God will not simply snuff us out, once this life is done.  All I can do, for my departed loved ones and as I prepare for my own demise, is to trust that the God whose unstinting love I have experienced all my life, will keep loving us after death.

One of my favourite Bible passages in any circumstances is particularly apt when we are thinking about death and what comes after. ‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life… nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’. That’s all I need to know.

This was published in the August issue of The Melbourne Anglican





The zen of the long-distance jetsetter

I seem to have hit a sweet spot in my ability to travel with equilibrium. I’m talking here particularly of plane travel, including the dreaded long-haul flights we all love to complain about.

I travelled a great deal as a child, teenager and young woman and then, submerged in jobs and children and strapped for cash, I went nowhere un-local for two decades. The first time I travelled to the other side of the world after this hiatus, I emerged shattered and sick, wondering if I might just stay in the Great Southern Land for evermore.

In the intervening 18 years there have been a few trips and, contrary to expectations, each seems to be easier than the last. I suspect this is an attitudinal shift more than anything, as I grow up (not before time!) and start appreciating how incredible life is.

Okay, so you have 24 hours plus in cattle class. Reframe it this way. You get on a plane one afternoon in Melbourne, and after one day – one day – you emerge for breakfast in Edinburgh. This is a voyage that, not so very long ago, took three months, and you were likely to die of the plague, or shipwreck or some other nasty on the way. So, you’re weary for a couple of days. That seems a small price to pay for the miracle of modern travel.

Also, as I meditate more, I am better able to disappear into a zone, into a little zen bubble as I strap myself into my cosy airline seat. No one can reach me here, no one can expect anything of me, there is not a damn thing I can do for anybody. There are movies. There are pleasant people bringing me meals at regular intervals. I don’t sleep, but then, when I get to the end of my trip there is that blissful falling into deep, deep, exhausted slumber which is one of life’s most luxurious experiences.

About that sweet spot I mentioned. I’ve grown out of youthful impatience and am not yet ancient. Before too long, I imagine I will start to feel my age, something I rarely do yet. Everything will slow down and start to ache, and travel to the other side of the globe may well become a trial again. Although the genetics are promising. My dad only stopped long haul trips when he turned 92. So, maybe I have a few more years to practice my jet setting zen.