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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.


A taste of fine dining

I’m sure we enjoy experiences more intensely if we have to wait for them.

I haven’t, over half a century of life, had much experience of ‘fine dining’. Unless you count the hundreds of family meals we have had, complete with gorgeous food from all sorts of different countries, accompanied by great wines and good conversation. And I do, count those I mean. They are my very favourite kind of meal.

This week, however, I experienced a different kind when our older son and his girlfriend shouted my husband and me to dinner at a legendary Melbourne eating establishment to thank us for letting her live at our place. We felt that we were the ones to benefit from this living arrangement, but we accepted with enthusiasm, including their stipulation that we had to have three courses and wine.

I was expecting something a little starchy, the bowing and scraping of wait staff, stiff linen on the tables and heavy silver cutlery. What we got was very different. An industrial type of space, crammed with tables, arty light fittings, and cutlery none of which matched.

Obsequious staff would have made me a bit uncomfortable. Here, they were anything but – they were courteous, so knowledgeable about the myriad dishes we consumed that I wondered if they had whipped them up themselves, and provided just the right amount of attentiveness. They took our wine bottle away between refills (the convenience of not having to juggle around full bottles on a small table!) and appeared at our elbows, as if by magic, every time our glasses looked as though they might need a top up. They were there when we wanted them, actually just before we realised we wanted them, and not there when we wanted privacy.

It didn’t feel snobby and exclusive; I felt spoiled and comfortable. They provided a hospitality style that seems to me uniquely Australian – helpful and polite with just a hint of cheek. It wasn’t about poshness; it was all about the food.

Something I have wanted to do before I die is to sample a degustation menu (although I have problems with this word, which is too close to ‘disgusting’ for my liking) at a really good restaurant. I decided this was the night, and we both went for the menu selection where you get a dozen or so tiny courses – several appetizers, a few entrees, two or three mains, a couple of desserts.

I wish I could remember enough about the dishes to do them justice. There were flavours and textures I had never dreamed of. Something that looked like a delicate, white prawn cracker and tasted of parmesan cheese. Pumpkin seeds with a sweet and salty crust, in a tiny silver dish. Warm abalone soup with frozen sweet corn. The most miniscule slice of Mandarin duck, perfectly pink and succulent. A small nugget of Wagyu beef. Baby beet salad. Rhubarb and strawberry sorbet on sheep’s milk yoghurt. A rich chocolate Grenache with violet ice-cream and clove meringue.

For all they were so little, each dish had four or five different components. And the spacing of the many offerings was just right – plenty of time between to chat and to savour the flavours.

We were there for four hours. We had an absolute ball. We were like a couple of kids in a candy shop, and our lovely waitress wasn’t at all snooty or condescending about our excitement; she seemed to take pleasure in it.

We were intrigued, however, by the clientele. One, they were young. Really young. What were they doing there – how could twenty-somethings possibly have saved up enough money in their short lives to go to such a place? There must be a lot of young adults around with plenty of disposable income.

Two, they didn’t look as excited as we felt. The two young women at the table next to us looked positively bored and spent the entire evening texting on their mobile phones.

There was no part of me that envied them. At the risk of sounding like a complete old sour puss, if they eat at a place like this now, what have these young people to look forward to? I positively glowed all next day and will never forget our big night out. And later in the week when we went to one of our local cheapies (cheap eating establishment in Brunswick, tautology, I know) to celebrate our younger daughter’s birthday, I had just as much fun. And at the end of a long day, my bowl of rice and dal at home gives me almost as much enjoyment as the Wagyu beef.

I wonder if people who are so loaded they can have anything, the minute they fancy it, really enjoy it? When our kids were little and we did a lot of camping, my husband had a line that he would deliver when we were sleeping under the stars or swimming under a waterfall. ‘Bill Gates eat your heart out’. He has a point.



Back in The Age with a piece about Iona

A few readers have asked how people will know when I have a new post up, given that I don't do twitter or face book. So here's the plan. I hope to post most weeks, generally towards the end of the week when I have my writing day/s. That's the plan - we'll see how it goes. Thank you to those who have visited, responded and sent emails. It's great to know there's somebody out there.

Keeping up the momentum, for the first time since May, I was in The Age last Sunday, with a faith column. Here it is:


The phrase I heard most often used to describe Iona is that it’s a “thin place” – where heaven and earth are separated by the barest membrane. I’ve never quite got this, but I’ve been hearing about Iona all my life, so I half expect to be disappointed when I finally get to see it for myself.

It’s a tiny island off the west coast of Scotland. At various times it has been home to St Columba and his monks (sixth century), site of a magnificent Benedictine abbey and nunnery (thirteenth century), and scene of the rebuilding of said, ruined abbey, from the 1940s till now.

It continues to be a place of Christian pilgrimage, with an ecumenical community based there that works in tough areas on the mainland and writes beautiful prayers and music used all over the world.

The aura of Iona is enhanced by the effort it takes to get there. From Edinburgh it takes two trains, a ferry, a bus, another ferry.

During the few days I am there, I join a group for a ‘pilgrimage’, walking 10 k’s around the island. There are only two roads, so we soon strike into the trackless bogs and cliffs and hills. The rest of the group is chatty, but I don’t want to have to make conversation. There is too much to drink in. The soggy ground that sucks at my blundstones. The tiny wildflowers scattered generously in the springy grass. The shaggy brown bull that straddles our path defiantly and the silly, black-faced sheep. The reservoir of peat-brown water the colour of tea. The cliffs that plunge into a sea that sparkles in early summer sun. Beaches – some of which are made up of tiny cowrie shells, others of fine silver sand, still others of smooth pebbles made of marble (allegedly the oldest rock in the world) that fit snuggly in my palm and find their way into my pocket and then my suitcase and end up on my desk in Melbourne.

The twice-daily worship in the Abbey feeds my soul. The history of the buildings fascinates me. But the strongest, strangest magic I find there is in the land itself. Despite having lived most of my life in India and Australia, it feels as though I have come home.

I’m still not sure what “thin place” means. What I do know now, though, is that walking alone on the edges of the island, across wide-open grasslands to the beach, I felt as though I had finally made it to Narnia – CS Lewis’ fantasyland I spent my entire childhood trying to stumble into, the world I still think of when I try to imagine heaven.

And so I travel back to life in Melbourne, with my Iona pebbles and my memories of soaring delight. Sometimes, going on pilgrimage to a thin place, a holy place, is what it takes to remind us that joy, breathtaking beauty and foretastes of heaven are to be found wherever we are.