Thursday, December 29, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Many of you have, no doubt, read the extract from Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother that made so many people so hot under the collar. In it, Chua detailed what appeared to be her absolutely brutal methods for driving her children to technical excellence in school and music. Like so much we read in the newspaper, the extract was designed to polarise and it did so perfectly. It created an absolute furore, a wealth of free publicity which led to mega sales of the book. I certainly found Chua's article appalling; however, I recently sat down and read her book, wherein I discovered a more complex story.

Battle Hymn opens with Chua's claim that she, and all good Chinese (read: strict immigrant) mothers, know how to raise their children properly. They are dominant and controlling, and commit themselves utterly to driving their children to excellence. Growing up, Chua's two daughters had no play dates, no sleepovers, no school camps, no television, and no extracurricular activities except music. Thus they had plenty of time to work hard, get perfect grades, and master an instrument. Satisfaction, claims Chua, is to be found in mastery of something, and mastery doesn't come easily. So her daughters practiced their musical instruments for more than an hour every day, and three to five hours if a performance was looming; and when they were unwilling to rehearse Chua stood over them screaming, threatening to destroy their soft toys and even withholding food and water until they had completed their practice.

This is pretty much where the article stopped and, of course, it was ghastly. We were left with the picture of a psychotic mother brutally dominating her children as they attempted to master the instruments of her choice. This is not an entirely inaccurate impression, but it omits the good humour, the self-deprecating tone, and the way Chua's methods fell to pieces with her second daughter, which are all detailed in the book.

Daughter one, Sophia, was willing to get with the program. She went along with the rules and the practice, and calmly excelled at everything. Lulu, however, was different. Lulu just said no. The battles grew more and more heated until, despite her natural gifts, years of accomplishment and a love of playing, Lulu flat out refused to pick up the violin. The book details how mother and daughter interacted and how Chua eventually admitted defeat, allowing Lulu, at thirteen, to make some of her own choices about how to spend her time. Lulu now sets much of her own agenda and, shock horror, wastes time playing tennis.

Chua relates her ambitions and her methods as well as her rages at Lulu and where she went wrong, and freely admits the things they missed when both of them obstinately refused to give way. The girls continued to practice when travelling with the family; and there were times when the whole family missed one thing or another because Lulu refused to practice and Chua refused to leave the hotel until the practice had been completed. At one level, this is crazy; at another, I have some sympathy for Chua – unlike so many of us with our children, at least she stood her ground.

Battle Hymn is more than a parenting story, however. It is also the classic immigrant tale. The daughter of migrants, Chua had limited opportunities and was determined to be successful in a measurable way. Now that she has made good, Chua is absolutely determined that her own children will have every opportunity made available to them. Utterly predictably, her oldest child has taken up the mantle and excels, while the second child has adapted to the dominant culture and rebels against the strict cultural mores of her mother.

The book is also about family and Chua writes simply and well about her parents and their shift from China to America; the illness and death of Florence, Chua's mother-in-law; and the terrible leukaemia of Katrin, Chua's sister.

Overall, the book is candid, moving and very funny, and Chua has a nice self-deprecating tone. She is an odd mix of extremely sharp and charmingly naive, brutal and fragile, and I found myself loving to loathe her.

On a more personal level, Chua's book raises serious questions for me as a parent. While I will never be the sort of mother who will stand over her children for hours of music practice or drive them all over creation to see particular teachers, I often wonder whether I don't demand enough from or for them. I'm not sure how to balance the needs of childhood – for play, daydreaming and exploration, which my kids excel at – with the fact that they don't seem to be learning as much as I would hope.

At home, my husband and I have focussed on relational demands: respect, obedience, graciousness and kindness; but I wonder if we should be demanding more intellectually. One of our daughters is constantly bored at school; the school fails to stretch her academically. A parent like Chua would be in there, devising curricula and making it happen, while I sit at home, fretting and naively trusting that the school will actually do what it promises. I don't want to compensate for the school's lack by filling my daughter's hours at home with academic challenges – surely that is what the hours at school are for – but I am afraid of her becoming lazy and stupid just through sheer lack of exercising her thinking muscles.

And yet, like most concerns I have for my children, these issues are really about me. Chua writes that letting most kids follow their passion leads to ten hours a day on Facebook as they lack the discipline to become really good at what they love; they need parents to provide the drive. In fact, she goes on, most people really suck at what they love because they are too lazy to practice enough to become good.

Her comment stings. I was bored out of my skull for most of my schooling and doodled around at home, and now I'm an adult who is often not quite sure what I'm doing or why. Were I slightly different or had I more drive, I would have written books or be working on a newspaper or doing something else professional rather than sweeping the floor, wiping snotty noses and making notes on a blog from time to time. In Chua's eyes, I am certainly an underachiever, but I don't know where her drive comes from or how to get it.

On the other hand, I'm not sure that people with great drive are always settled in themselves, or even kind. And there's the nub – what is success? Chua is very focused on measurable success: learning things quickly; being top of the class; earning the praise of well-regarded people; having a prestigious career at a famous institution. But the kind of success Chua dreams of often comes at great cost. Chua's daughters had a nanny (Mandarin speaking so that they would grow up bilingual, of course); and Chua details the many years that she and the girls lived in one city and her husband in another as their careers took them in different geographical directions. Meanwhile, Chua spent her girls' childhoods racing from work to school to home to music lessons and back to work again, desperate to fill every minute with useful activity, which is the sort of behaviour I associate with a certain emptiness in oneself. I can't imagine running on that sort of treadmill, or paying that sort of price, to gain the conventional markers of success. What is life if it is not about raising one's own infants, or spending evenings with one's own husband, or just sitting listening to the silence?

As for the hours her daughters spent practicing their instruments when others would be throwing snowballs or hanging out with their girlfriends – it's hard to know what really matters in this life. It might be rather thrilling to be a musical virtuoso; it might be rather satisfying to be sought after by prestigious institutions; but then again, I have had most of my life-giving experiences when I'm just doing nothing. Reading Chua's book raises the all-important question, what does it mean to live life to the fullest? Is it to cram every moment full of work and family, or is there more? Battle Hymn doesn't claim to answer these questions; in fact, it ends with these questions, and the answers, of course, differ from person to person and shift and change for an individual over time.

As for my parenting style, I can't dismiss Chua's methods all-out. I know far too many kids who seem to spend their lives in front of a screen, and have so little real attention paid to their gifts, interests and development that it is hard to imagine them growing into anything much other than consumers. There is merit in a strict, disciplined and intentional upbringing; and it is great for kids to become so good at something that they are brimming with a sense of accomplishment and pride.

Chua tells a story in which she tore up the birthday cards her daughters had made her. They had been slapped together in five minutes, and she rejected the lack of care they had put into the cards, demanding more from her daughters. The bloggerati was horrified, yet I think Chua was right. We constantly praise our kids for drivel, but it hardly encourages them to stretch out and discover what they are capable of; instead, it tells them that a lazy mediocrity is just fine. And perhaps such a mediocrity is enough in a society in which a major university has plastered billboards with slogans of 'Relax' and 'It's all good' – but it hardly encourages excellence.

As a parent myself of daughters who sometimes make beautiful things and other times churn out horrible slop, I found myself cheering Chua – and when the next piece of crap came my way, I gently raised an eyebrow. I asked whether it was really the best my kid could do, and talked about how presentation and effort communicate a great deal about love and care or lack thereof. I didn't yell and tear the piece up, but it disappeared and something decent took its place.

Chua's methods and goals are extreme; but if they give our parenting a nudge, so that we kindly and gently ask our children to do a little better, then we might just be surprised at what our kids are capable of; and our kids might have the privilege, too, of being delighted by their own strengths and abilities.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Poems for all the Lovely People


When she's not cooking or cleaning or reading aloud or writing or singing, what on earth does a woman at home with kids do with her time? (Yes, I get asked this question occasionally.) Well, one of the other things I do each week is sit in a classroom reading and writing with a bunch of terrific kids, most of whom have a refugee background. It's great fun, and I freely admit I probably get more out of it than the kids do. You can read about one instance of 'more' here.

And just as, a year or two ago, I wrote a set of poems incorporating names from the classroom, over the last month I have again written a set of poems which include the class list, and collated the poems into a little illustrated book. It is no great poetic work, just a heap of lovin' fun to make some fantastic kids belly laugh. The book was debuted in class over the last two weeks; and each kid has taken home a copy to keep and read over the holidays. You, I am sure, have enough books to keep you occupied over the holidays, but here's a couple of the poems for the child in you.


Faiza (pronounced fay-zah)

Faiza plays a
Game of catch.
Away rolls the ball
Into a patch
Of shadow where the light grows dull.
Faiza runs and finds her ball.
Faiza gaze a-
cross the green.
Here comes a man with a mowing machine!
Faiza runs off with the ball
And bounces it against a wall.
Marbles, four square,
Hopscotch, hey!
Faiza plays the
Days away.



Ziad's name means 'more than enough',
But enough of what? Well, that's a bit tough.
Is it dozens of smiles? An abundance of brains?
Plenty of sunshine? Or showers of rain?
Does he have a herd of elephants
To carry him through the streets?
A great big pile of umbrellas and hats
To shade him from the heat?
Outside his window perhaps he sees
A fleet of shining cars
Or looking up above at night
A universe of stars.

Or could this 'more' be what he gives
As he fills our lives with joy?
Whatever it is, however he lives,
Ziad is our abundant boy!



How does it feel, Jibreel, to be
Climbing the branches of a tree,
Pushing through leaves way up high,
Arms reaching out to touch the sky?

How does it feel, Jibreel, to run
Round the oval in the sun
Through the grass or kicking a ball
And hearing it thud against the wall?

How does it feel, Jibreel, to rest
Down in the shade with one of your best
Friends in the world, chatting away?
How do you feel, Jibreel, today?


Why did I start reading with these kids? Click here to find out.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Moving Pictures


I was sitting in my grandfather's chair, a daughter curled in my lap. She was watching a video with her sisters and had asked me to join them. As Eloise scampered around the screen, I glanced out the window and saw that the butterfly bush was in full bloom. Great sprays of purple flowers swayed and danced in the breeze.

Then I saw the butterflies. One, Two and Three were on the bush, sipping at nectar; Four and Five circled each other in a great lazy spiral upwards; and Six flitted in and out of my field of vision. One and Two drifted up and swapped places and Six had a rest on a leaf. Four and Five descended again and paused for refreshment. Three floated over the fence and, finding nothing but a line of carports, soon ducked back to a cluster of flowers.

'Look!' I said to the girls, 'look! Butterflies!' and all three turned and stood to get a better view. Butterflies darted past, butterflies rested on flowers, butterflies drifted over the fence. The moving picture on the small screen trundled on, unnoticed, while we gazed at the living moving picture framed by the lounge room window.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Praying into the Night

This piece first appeared in Zadok Perspectives No. 112 (Spring 2011). The Summer edition is out now, with my reflection on a visit to a witch doctor. To subscribe to Zadok, click here.


Many ancient traditions prescribe prayers for waking, for eating, and for going to sleep at night. I think this is great. I’d love to be the sort of person who formally prays at these times, but I never really manage it. In the hurly-burly of family life, when waking means being kicked in the kidneys at half past five by a restless two year old; when eating means sitting down to a child’s ‘no like that’, popping up a minute later to fetch milk in the pink cup, no the green cup, and having someone’s crusts flicked onto one’s plate; when sleeping means staggering to bed at the end of the day after half an hour’s respite lying flat on the couch... well, I just can’t manage a long structured prayer at those times; and this bothers me.

Is formal prayer necessary? Perhaps. It’s certainly something I do every week at church, and have used at various stages to help structure and guide my thoughts; but now I have three young children, it feels too hard. I spend some time most days sitting quietly and listening, but the effort of words is too much.

Yet I’ve started to realise that, for all my concern, I do pray constantly. It’s just not particularly consciously nor in the long wordy way so many suggest. When I wake, the first thought that usually comes to mind is ‘thank you’. Thank you for this day, my gentle husband, those hilarious children, the crisp winter mornings. For a thick coat and my red woolly arm warmers, for things large and small, I am grateful. It’s not a deliberate prayer, nor is it carefully articulated; instead, as I lie in bed and ponder getting up, I am momentarily flooded with gratitude.

Later, as I make coffee and hover over the toaster, I give thanks for this drink which smells so good, for hot toast and cold butter, for enough in my belly and the bellies of my kids. I remember the children who are hungry, and ask ‘please’. Please feed them, please teach us how to share, Lord have mercy on us all.

On the walk to school, a driver in a hurry shoots around the corner; I yank back my kids. Then I yell at the car and wave my finger in the air. A minute or two later, the fright and anger ebb to be replaced by a wave of ‘sorry’. Sorry that I cannot control my temper, that I have not yet learned the ways of gentleness. Sorry that I am aggressive in my fear; sorry that my children had to see it. I apologise to my kids, and to the One who is always present, I apologise also.

At a dozen points during the day – a swirl of yellow leaves dances through the air; a toddler announces she loves me; a sweet mandarin segment explodes in my mouth; the perfect word slots into place – I am momentarily overcome with sheer gratitude at being alive.

When the moon is up and the house is quiet, I slide back into bed. I soon grow warm nestled into my husband; and in the darkness I drowsily think ‘thank you’ once again: for this bed, this family, this house, this day, for the things that have gone well. Thank you too for the gracious presence at the places where I stumbled.

As I drift off, it becomes less a conscious thought and more a way of being. I am no longer just a tired woman falling asleep. Instead, this very ordinary person is becoming a small miracle, a conduit of gratitude, as with each slow breath I exhale my prayer deep into the night: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Spider, A Gift


I never thought of myself as a wise woman until a spider came to live above my kitchen sink... I chat with her as we do our housework: me at the dishes, Arachne at her loom. As water splashes into the sink, I contemplate webs and weaving, fear and friendship, and whatever else her presence evokes.


You can read more of my reflection on a friendly spider in Barefoot Magazine's Summer 2011 issue. This is a bittersweet announcement since it is, very sadly, the last issue of Barefoot.

You can find Barefoot Magazine at all good newsagents, or order your copy here.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Advent List 2011

Preparations for Christmas are upon us. Sadly, most preparation rituals do not seem to have much to do with the coming of a bearded prophet who recalled to us the poor, the outcast, the refugee, the dispossessed, the imprisoned, the widow and the orphan. Instead, we are bombarded with tinny carols, silly plastic evergreen wreaths strung from the light poles as the Australian summer begins to sizzle, and exhortations to buy buy buy.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about developing some small non-commercial rituals for Christmas with my kids; and, as I am story crazy, they of course involved a pile of picture books. So then I put together a list of some of the books we will read during the four weeks leading up to Christmas; you can read the list here.

However, many of the books on the list are out of print and hard to get. Meanwhile, since then I have found lots more wonderful stories, so I have drawn up a new list, adding the new stories and letting go of some of the old.

These are not Santa stories. Nor are most of them explicitly Christmassy, let alone Christian. Instead, they are stories which honour and celebrate hope, joy, generosity, gratitude, sacrifice, community and love. In particular, several focus on welcoming the stranger into our midst, which has always been a central calling to both Jewish and Christian peoples and would seem particularly appropriate as some of us, at least, prepare to welcome in the form of a baby the most strange and wonderful human the world has ever seen – and a refugee, to boot.


In the Small, Small Night

So let’s start with that. Jane Kurtz has written a lovely book about immigrant children, In the Small, Small Night. Kofi and Abena have recently arrived in America, but Kofi is so worried that he will forget his family in Ghana that he cannot fall asleep. So his sister Abena, recalling the village storyteller so far away, recounts two traditional stories from home: Anansi and the pot of wisdom; and the turtle and the vulture. As Kofi listens to the stories, he is soothed back to sleep.

The story is told without a hint of mawkishness, yet it is very touching as these two young children, so far from home, talk about their fears and what they have left behind. What is just as moving is the way Abena has brought the gift of storytelling with her from Ghana. The wisdom contained in the stories will sustain them as they start at a new school, in a new culture, where everything is different.

The Arrival

Sean Tan’s The Arrival charts the journey of another immigrant. This book without words is for all ages, as the story is told through hundreds of eerie sepia-toned illustrations. The Arrival will raise all sorts of questions about why people flee and resettle, questions which may be extended to the Advent stories or to the refugees in our midst.

Nail Soup

Nail Soup is a retelling of a traditional folk tale which reminds us to welcome in the stranger. A traveller, denied all but the meanest of shelter and sustenance, convinces his host that he will make soup out of a nail. As the 'soup' bubbles away, the host is gradually persuaded to add ingredients that turn it into a generous meal they can share, demonstrating that a little hospitality leads to a rich bounty for all.

The Happy Prince: From the Fairy Tale by Oscar Wilde

Welcoming in the refugee and the traveller is all well and good, but we are also to care for the poor in our midst. In The Happy Prince, Jane Ray retells Oscar Wilde's tale in which the statue of a prince gives all it has – its ruby eyes, its gold leaf – to the city’s poor via an obliging swallow. Ray’s richly detailed illustrations add greatly to the story.

The Quiltmaker's Gift

The Quiltmaker's Gift is similarly themed, as a fabulously wealthy and utterly miserable king yearns for the one thing he cannot have: a patchwork quilt from the famed quiltmaker, who gives her quilts only to the poor. The quiltmaker tells the king that she will only make him a quilt once he has given everything away, and he gradually learns that joy is found not in material objects, but in self-sacrifice and caring for others. The detailed illustrations, which include dozens of quilt squares themed to the story, are absorbing.

The Mousehole Cat

Thinking of self-sacrifice recalls The Mousehole Cat, a tale from Cornwall. When winter storms close the harbour and bring a Cornish fishing village to the brink of starvation, Old Tom and his cat Mowser find a way out and brave the wind and the waves to catch fish for the town, knowing that there is a good chance that they will never return.

Amelia Ellicott's Garden

Old Tom reasons that there is nobody left to grieve for him; it frees him to risk his life to feed others. In Amelia Ellicott's Garden, a more passive older person feels abandoned by Time. Amelia struggles to maintain her beautiful garden and longingly remembers when she had people to share it with. It is not until a great windstorm blows her garden, her chickens and even Amelia over the fence that she discovers the host of neighbours – from all over the world – living in the flats next door who long to share the garden, and their lives, with her.

Rose Meets Mr.Wintergarten

Getting to know one’s neighbour, the first step to love, also features in Rose Meets Mr Wintergarten. In this lovely book by Bob Graham, a young girl moves into a new neighbourhood. When she loses her ball over the fence, her openness and her fairy cakes disarm the miserly neighbour who has terrified the area’s children for decades.

Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge

Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge is a good neighbour, too. He lives next door to an old people’s home and is particular friends with Miss Nancy Alison Delacourt Cooper, who has four names just like him. Miss Nancy has lost her memory, and Wilfrid Gordon sets out to find it for her.

Hop Little Hare

Margaret Wild’s Hop Little Hare is a simple story, also showing the love between the generations. It is not until Little Hare spies sheep nibbling at a curative boffle bush, which will ease his grandfather’s rheumatism, that he feels sufficiently motivated to hop!

Now One Foot, Now the Other

A more complex gift giving between young and old features in the classic, Now One Foot, Now the Other. Bob teaches his grandson to stack blocks, tell stories and walk. When Bob has a stroke, it is the little boy who patiently teaches his grandfather to stack blocks, tell stories and walk again, using the same loving words his grandfather once used with him.

Love You Forever

Love handed down between the generations is also found in Love You Forever, by Robert Munch, which he wrote in homage to his two children who were stillborn. In this story, a mother sings a special song to her son as he moves through the life stages; and as she ages and nears the end of her life, her son takes up the mantle and begins to sing it to his daughter.

A Child's Garden

Of course, we are called to love not just our family, our neighbour, the poor, the traveller, or the refugee; we are called to love our enemy, too. A Child's Garden tells of hope in oppressive circumstances. A boy tends a vine which throws out seeds on either side of a high barbed wire fence; the next season, vines grow on both sides of the fence and intertwine, symbolising hope for a future peace.

For All Creatures

The story of the vine recalls, too, that we are to love the earth and everything in it. For All Creatures uses gliding alliterative language to describe and celebrate all manner of things that creep and crawl, run and jump, slither and slide upon the earth. ‘For spirals, shells and slowness, smallness and shyness, and for scribbled silver secrets, we are thankful.’

Owl Moon

This celebration of the natural world is also seen in Owl Moon, in which a young girl goes out late one night with her father to see an owl. Owl Moon is a hauntingly beautiful children’s book, drenched in awe. An excellent book to read quietly at night, just before bedtime.


In Jeannie Baker’s Belonging, like so many of her books, we are shown one way to be partners in the creation: and outside our very own back window! Like The Arrival, it is told entirely in pictures, making it a book that people of all abilities can pore over.

The Nativity

Let’s finish with two books about Christmas. The first is a lively rendition of The Nativity by Julie Vivas. Drawing from the gospel writer Luke’s account, she illustrates the story in her singular style: the angel Gabriel is a ragged punk and shares a cuppa with Mary; the naked newborn, hands outstretched, is still attached to the umbilical cord; shepherds loom, peering into the cot; and in the final scene, Mary pegs out nappies. In Vivas's interpretation, the Christmas story is not a far-off super-spiritual event, but something immediate, physical and real, that happens even now. I particularly love that Mary is enormously pregnant, pendulous breasts and all, and not a skinny medieval nymph.

Wombat Divine

Finally, what would an Australian Christmas be without a reading of Wombat Divine? Wombat desperately wants to be in the Christmas play, but he is too short, too clumsy, and too heavy for any of the parts. At last, Emu finds him the perfect role and Wombat is, quite simply, divine.

As are all these stories. Read, prepare, enjoy.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Zoo in You

Years ago, I decided to pay attention to God’s feathered friends as one metaphor for God’s presence, and in doing so, I have discovered this: that the Holy Spirit is heard in the kookaburra, who laughs at our pretensions and wrestles with the snake;... she’s found in the white-faced heron on our neighbour’s roof; she’s recalled by little finches at my grandfather’s funeral. When I'm soulsick and sinking, she calls out my name; of Cornish ancestry, I hear her in the language of my heart, which leaps at the crying of the gulls.


Yep, another piece is being published, this time in The Zoo in You, a book exploring the animal imagery of faith. If you can cope with a bit of God in your reading, you should love this book. Each reflection is grouped with a prayer and a poem by Cameron Semmens, and is illustrated by Hamish McWilliam. My reflection can be found in Hope with a Cockatiel.

The Zoo in You is now available for pre-order for $19.95 plus postage here. Orders will be shipped from 2 December, and should arrive in good time for Christmas.

If the God stuff's not your thing, no matter – just wait 'til the next book!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Jones Park / Resurrection

When I first moved to Brunswick more than fifteen years ago, I lived in a share house backing onto a dingy oval. The oval was fenced on two sides by an old tip, a great sloping hill of dirt, rubble and weeds cordoned off by cyclone wire. On a third side crouched a shabby playground, but whenever I thought to go there for a meditative swing I felt so nervy and trapped that I left within minutes.

Now I live five blocks away, and it's one of my favourite places. Ten years ago, the council cleaned up the tip and turned it into green space. They refurbished the oval, took down the fences, and turned the two sites into one enormous park.

Let me take you on a tour. At the top of the hill is a platform. The oval and the old playground lie behind us. To the east roll hills, a hazy grey; to the south, city towers stretch up small and hopeful under the wide blue sky.

Heading down the gently winding path, you see groves of young trees. A mother and her baby picnic under the casuarinas, where the breeze flowing through the needles recalls the sound of the sea. To the left, a woman shoots hoops and you can hear the basketball chick! through the net, then thud to the ground.

Further down winds a dry creek bed. But turn towards the new playground, instead, with its concertina tyres; they wheeze notes when we jump on them. Hit the colourful mushrooms with the mallets; listen to them toll. Climb the spider web with me; at the top, hook in your feet and reach for the sky; the spider web gently sways. Below us, the creek bed curves into a large pond; let's run down the steps.

Lie on the boardwalk and peek over the edge. See the water beetles scoot through the reeds, wings flipping so fast they blur! See the tadpoles, with their translucent tails and the bulge of budding limbs! An aquatic ladybug, fat and red, bumbles and rolls on by.

Above us skitter large dragonflies, grey and fat like army helicopters; tiny dragonflies dance, blue as sapphires and impossibly slender. Every few minutes frogs start up, creaking like a hundred thumbs pulled across a hundred combs, then just as quickly fall silent again. Larger frogs add their deep popping bass notes; crickets rasp; the pond sings.

Rushes tower, ten feet tall; and behind them, the Serbian Orthodox Church soars, turrets ablaze with gold.

It will never be as it was two centuries ago, a place of untouched wilderness sloping up from the Merri Creek. But from town dump to this: a place where mothers and babies picnic in shady groves; joggers run puffing up the hill; kids shriek with laughter at the top of the spider web; men sprawl in the grass with books; women shoot hoops; couples nestle in quiet spots; and tucked right down in the far corner lie I, flat on my stomach and peering through the boardwalk at the golden light and watching and listening as the frogs and dragonflies and honeyeaters and wattlebirds and finches and lizards and beetles and countless other small creatures whose names I do not know get on with things -

Life has indeed returned to this part of the city.

Incidentally, in trying to learn about my local corner I discovered there are 324 known species of dragonfly in Australia! Who would have thought?!

The Complete Field Guide to Dragonflies of Australia The Waterbug Book: A Guide to the Freshwater Macroinvertebrates of Temperate Australia Native Plants of Melbourne: And Adjoining Areas

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Don't Kill the Birthday Girl

Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life

'Hi, I'm Fred.' Really? Well, I'm Alison, and I have a wicked temper and slightly depressive tendencies; I'm allergic to this, that and the other; and I have a weird and pathological fear of looking beautiful, thus the extremely short hair, the lack of makeup and jewellery, and a wardrobe almost completely devoid of skirts.

Fred is edging towards the exit by now, as well he should be: such an opening is hardly the path to a little light conversation, let alone the beginnings of a beautiful friendship. And yet it is common. I certainly have been guilty at times of identifying myself primarily by my weaknesses: Little Miss Asthma, Lady Mother Dying, The Homesick Chick. But now I prefer my primary identification to be something other than my neediness, so I prefer my vulnerabilities to be largely invisible in social contexts. I prefer it to be mostly invisible in others, too.

One thing I like to be invisible about is allergies (except, obviously, in this post). Before we talk more, we need to clean up what allergies are. The word 'allergy' is often used carelessly; I hear people say that are allergic to wheat, meaning that they get a bit windy when they eat a sandwich. What they suffer is an intolerance; this is not the same as an allergy.

Bundling allergies in with intolerances risks linking them with food fads and Hollywood diets; and this, I reckon, is part of what leads people to think that allergies are kind of funny, certainly annoying, even imaginary. Yet if people don't take them seriously, and then have anything to do with the food we eat, people with allergies get more than a bit of wind; they get a full blown reaction as their immune system goes berserk trying to rid their body of the allergen. I'm allergic to a few things, and by allergic I mean that I react to eating them by wheezing, vomiting, and, occasionally, going into anaphylactic shock.

Of course, trying to act nonchalant as a young teenager when everyone else is stuffing their face with prawn crackers – and I grew up with a crowd of south east Asians – is not easy. I have vivid memories of eating those crackers in full knowledge that they would make me sick, but hoping so much that this time it would be okay. I just wanted to fit in, but of course the dry mouth, thick tongue, itchy throat and major stomach cramps hardly helped with that little project.

As a young adult, one birthday was particularly memorable: someone bought me a Drambuie, a hitherto untried drink. I took one sip, and felt that telltale tickle – the beginnings of anaphylaxis – at the back of my throat. But I didn't want to mention it, or be rude. So I took another sip and, of course, immediately started hawking and coughing and spluttering as my throat closed up and I could no longer breathe. Not cool, Alison.

Many allergy sufferers could tell similar stories of risking their health if not their life for the sake of trying to appear normal; and I am sure many allergy sufferers would have made the same decision as me time and again, of not using or even carrying the dreaded EpiPen and risking the hubbub, the nausea and the trip to the emergency room that follows. Instead we try to flush out our systems with water and Benadryl, and hope for the best.

So it was with a mixture of trepidation and interest that I picked up Don't Kill the Birthday Girl, a memoir about living with allergies. I was afraid it might be an annoying whingeathon by someone who identifies herself primarily as 'Allergy Girl', but I was pleasantly surprised.

Sandra Beasley is allergic to many things, making it very difficult to navigate eating out in any context in a culture where eating out is the norm. But to my great relief she opens with the statement that "those with food allergies aren't victims. We're people who – for better or worse – experience the world in a slightly different way", and that attitude carries, more or less, through the book.

Beasley mixes up personal anecdote with social observations and a great deal of information. I learned how the body forms an allergic reaction; why a friend's son had a second, stronger, reaction to peanut oil hours after his first reaction; why the American food landscape is so infested by soy; how food labelling laws are the result of allergy lobbyists; and what it's like to be an allergic mother to children who are allergic to different things. She dispels some of the myths surrounding the current explosion in allergies, and uses her experience as an entry point to explore many aspects of American food culture. Much of what she says is interesting, and she is up front with how her personal agenda is sometimes rattled by what she learns.

Beasley asks some particularly good questions about ritual, especially communion. Communion is the high point of the Christian religious service and involves, in one way or another, the sharing of bread and wine. At my church, we have wine and water available (the latter for those who are allergic to grapes and for recovering alcoholics); and wheat bread with a rye embellishment (the rye is for those who are allergic to wheat). Many congregations have similar practices. But some, notably those Catholics who follow the explicit directives issued by Ratzinger, are forbidden from using any alternative to the Papal-sanctioned wheaten wafers, thus excluding many congregants from communion.

She is not a churchgoer, but she raises important questions about the nature and purpose of ritual, asking "Is it inclusiveness that makes rituals valuable? Or is it maintaining the ritual's integrity that matters, even if that leaves someone out?" She writes about being the child who never got a birthday cupcake when they were handed out at school, and being the young adult who could never accept a slice of wedding cake, or shake hands with or kiss anyone who had, and how painful those exclusions were.

In the same way, it is intensely painful for Christians to be excluded from communion, and Beasley's observations on communion and church policies are helpful for the general reader. (I will add that it is clear to me if not the Holy Father that, since the greatest commandment is to love, what the communion wafers are made of doesn't matter one iota; what matters is welcoming people in.)

She also asks good questions about the current hysteria surrounding keeping children safe. Is it really necessary, she asks, for entire schools to go nut free? Surely children must learn to manage their food allergies and use a little common sense. She cites idiotic news stories, such as the evacuation of a school bus because a peanut was rolling around on the floor (apparently a threat, even though no one was planning to pick it up and eat it), and asks whether it really takes a whole village to protect a child from a peanut.

Don't Kill the Birthday Girl is sensible, thought provoking, and also darkly funny in its tales of anaphylaxis at the most inconvenient times. One thinks of people with allergies as being so terribly, terribly earnest, but Beasley has a refreshingly self-mocking stance.

The book wobbles a little as it navigates between personal anecdote and more general information – I would have preferred the information to be less bound up in Beasley's personal experience – but overall it is a good read. What I found especially valuable was the normalisation of my experience: stories of anaphylaxis and its aftermath; and stories of not managing one's allergies well because of peer pressure and the desire to join in.

More than anything, however, I valued Beasley's stance that our weaknesses – whether allergies or, and I'm extrapolating here, other health and wellbeing problems – are only one part of our lives, and they are far from the most interesting part; nor do they warrant special attention. They need be mentioned only when necessary and can otherwise stay in the background. Don't Kill the Birthday Girl is a call to understand the particular problem of allergies, then move on.

As Beasley writes, "Not every page is meant to tell your story. You are not the focal point of every canvas. This town is busy... My job is to center on staying safe in this world, but my job is also never to assume the world should revolve around keeping me safe. We have more important things to worry about. Don't kill the birthday girl. The gifts are wrapped and the piƱata waiting. We have a party to get to." Hear, hear.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Small Ghosts

Small ghosts trail behind so many families, invisible to the naked eye or the quick hello.

Rena bustles around her son's birthday party, passing food and welcoming guests. During a lull, we chat. 'Did you ever think of having a second child?' I ask. 'Oh, we did,' she says, 'but he died. He was eight weeks old. He got an infection, it entered his heart, and he died.' I place my hand on her shoulder; there are no words.


You can read more of this All Souls Day reflection published in Eureka Street here.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Writing Avoidance Techniques, or What I thought about last Thursday

In Bed with the Boss (Mills & Boon Special Releases)

Did you know there is an entire Medical Romance series within the Mills & Boone cadre? I have stopped drinking for a few months, and since I feel like an idiot sitting for hours in my usual writing space – a bar – with only a mineral water to justify my presence, I have had to resort to the local library. And in our busy library full of chatty people, the quietest corner is tucked into the romance section.

I must admit that Doctor Delicious, a large print medical M&B romance, caught my eye. So did The French Doctor's Midwife Bride, an elliptical title that leaves me longing to know more. The Surgeon's Pregnancy Surprise was surprising, indeed, for who if not a doctor knows how babies are made – but then, I suppose we all forget things in the heat of the moment.

Up until now I have been fairly happy as a WOLGER*, and indeed the house is being painted and the plumber has just fixed our hot water service. Looking at these titles, however, makes me wonder if I am missing something.

Would I have more fun as The Sheik's Blackmailed Mistress or as The Sheik's Wayward Wife? Or would the desert sand irritate my buttocks? Perhaps being At the Greek Tycoon's Bidding might be more comfortable; a yacht with clean linen sounds nice.

I'm probably too leathery to pass as The Millionaire Tycoon's English Rose, but I might enjoy being Pleasured in the Billionaire's Bed or, more submissively, Bedded at the Billionaire's Convenience. Yet the latter title has an off-putting lack of alliteration; Bedded at the Billionaire's Behest would have worked better for me.

It's certainly a bit late to be The Desert King's Virgin Bride; to be honest, I'd have to say that I'm more The Lusty Lawyer's Lovely Lay type.

But wait! It seems I have lived a M&B romance. For on spinning the rack I see The Boss and His Secretary, nestled right next to Accepting the Boss's Proposal. And many years ago, I did.

Though come to think of it, I proposed to him. I'll have to write my own book. How does The Secretary's Saucy Suggestion sound?

*Wife of lawyer getting excited about renovations.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Just one bed

'When I grow up,' announced my three year old, 'I want a house with just one bed in it. I don't want to live with ANYBODY. And I don't want any kids!'

I was shocked. I found myself wanting to yell, 'No! Having kids is the best thing you'll ever do!' because it is, it really is. It just comes at a price, and that price is solitude.

Right now, I am keenly aware of this price: my sister has recently moved into a flat all by herself, and I am ever so slightly sick with jealousy.

No one touches her stuff. No one turns on her bike lights and leaves them to go flat; no one scribbles on her crossword with bright orange texta; no one leaves fridge magnets strewn across her kitchen floor. No one has fist fights while she's trying to concentrate, and no one throws a tantrum when she gets off a tram. She doesn't have to talk first thing in the morning, and she never has to remind people to pack their lunch, practice the piano, or use their inside voice. She can cook what she wants; and if she doesn't feel like cooking, she can have a bowl of cereal. There are never piles of corn flakes under her kitchen table, let alone day-old spaghetti strands glued to the floor.

More than anything, she doesn't have to listen to chatter twelve hours a day. Yes, it's delightful; yes, it's revealing; yes, it's funny. It also drives this reflective introvert completely and utterly insane.

There are hours, even days, when I long to have a little place of my own, just a room with a bed, a table, a chair and a great big pile of books; and perhaps a pot of geraniums to brighten the window sill. And yet of course I feel guilty for wanting that, when I have an airy house, an affectionate family and the chance to read every night when the kids are asleep.

So when my three year old articulated my secret longing, which I am so careful never to voice aloud, I was shocked.

Yet it was such a wonderful thing to hear her say. She's the youngest of three, and her whole day is dominated by other people's rhythms: school drop off and pick up and reading with the class; eating when I'm hungry and resting when I'm tired; going shopping when she wants to stay home and catching up with friends when she wants to play with mum.

When they're not at school, her two older sisters try their best to boss her; meanwhile her parents insist she use her manners and wait for them at every single road crossing. No wonder she dreams of a time when she can set her own agenda and be left in peace, and it was lovely to hear her articulate that.

Too, I was encouraged to realise that at least one of my children can imagine a life that isn't exactly like mine. Of course I'd love her to experience the joy of having children; but if she wants to live alone before or even instead of having them, how wonderful that she is not so dominated by me that she feels my life is the only option.

So instead of protesting, I breathed out my shock and asked, 'would you like to live all by yourself one day?'; 'oh yes!' she cried, nodding emphatically, 'all by myself.'

Then she took my hand and asked me to come have a cuddle in her bed.

I guess solitude is something that she, like me, is prepared to wait for.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Guess Who?

I was poking round a traditional op shop, dark and tiny and located at the back of a shopping strip, when I found a Dutch version of Guess Who? – Wie is Het? – with the beguiling hand written label Improve your German! ‘Tee hee hee,’ I thought, and picked it up to give my kids. They can play Guess Who? just as well with Philippe and Lucas as they can with Richard and George, and with any luck they might even play it in German or Italian or any of the other languages in which they know half a dozen phrases – sadly, like whoever wrote the label, this doesn’t include Dutch.

Then I turned my attention to the stacks of linen, and there, carefully folded, was an Onkaparinga blanket. These gorgeous blankets, incredibly soft and warm, were once manufactured in the Adelaide Hills; they are the stuff of my childhood. This particular one was pink and green and absolutely perfect, so I snaffled it up. On the coldest nights, we sleep under a hodgepodge of picnic rugs and crocheted lap blankets; whenever we have a family stay, we are a blanket or two short; there was no question that we would use it.

Thrilled, I paid for the game and the blanket, then tottered around the corner to pick up something for dinner. At the grocery store, the assistant asked me if I had found the blanket at the op shop. ‘Oh yes,’ I gabbled, ‘I’m delighted – I have three girls and this will be perfect.’

‘I’d hope you’d give it to the homeless,’ she snapped as she totted up the bill.

I stood there gasping, my mind racing in frantic guilt overload – was I really such a thoughtless bitch? – and found myself right back in an argument with my mother, who has been dead these eleven years.

Op shops are for those who need them, she said, and you can afford to shop somewhere else. Stop being so selfish!

But there’s too much stuff in the world, I muttered, and anyway, far more is donated than the op shops can ever sell; the rest has to be shipped overseas or sent to the tip.

The homeless are freezing to death, she said. There are people on the streets who need that blanket!

My kids are cold too, I said, and anyway, the homeless wear their blankets until they are fetid and then throw them away. This is too beautiful to throw away!

So the homeless shouldn’t have beautiful things?, she asked.

And on and on it went. We debated whether op shops are fundraising stores for charities or opportunity shops for the poor; we agreed on the need to limit manufacturing waste and share resources but argued about what that really means.

I couldn’t win. Her voice runs round my head like a broken record.

On the other hand, she’s long dead; perhaps, I thought, I might have the last word on this one. So I tossed my head, stood up straight, and said rather briskly to the shop assistant, ‘We give thousands of dollars to charitable organisations every year; I feel quite good about taking this blanket home.’ Then I grabbed my change and the groceries, gathered up the blanket, and stalked off.

Later, when I unfolded it, I discovered to my delight that it was a double. I have been sleeping under it ever since, tucked in safely with the comforting heaviness I remember from childhood. My daughters are asking to nap under it, and in less than a week it has become a fixture of our household, one of those items that will be used for decades, an object of nurture and care.

And even I can now see that this a good enough use for my mother, their grandmother; she must be pleased. As for those voices in my head who masquerade as her, like the predictable characters in a game of Guess Who? they have yet again been unmasked as demons; they can just fly away.

Until it's time for the next round.

Guess Who?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Zero History, and other style notes

Zero History

I am lolling on the couch in my favourite denim, a heavy right hand twill, but not, I'm afraid, selvedge. Nor is it slubby, unlike my partner's long sleeve t-shirt, an irresistibly slubby item.

I know all about slubby thanks to William Gibson's latest novel, Zero History, which has as its major (ahem) thread the search for the maker of a secret brand of jeans, Gabriel Hounds – and no doubt like every other slightly obsessive William Gibson fan, I now find myself googling slubby denim and wondering where I can get me a pair of those mythical Hounds.

Which is fascinating. I am not one of those women who usually spends a great deal of time thinking about clothes. I have my uniform – black or blue jeans; black or blue scoop neck top with or without subtle horizontal stripes; grey or blue jacket; coordinating scarves and sleevies for chillier days – which I almost always wear. These clothes are rarely from the high street or the mall; instead, I buy them second hand, fair trade, or from local makers. I'm hardly the stereotypical fashionista.

Yet I do have fantastically strong opinions about what I will and will not wear. I hate it when clothes fall apart or stretch out of shape; and I loathe the way garment makers are so often treated as slave labour, rather than as skilled workers. Too, I must admit that when my clothes are well made and suit me, I feel good; and when they aren't and don't, I feel self-effacing and grumpy.

So I spend time searching out clothes that are sturdy and timeless; and when I can't find or afford them – which is usually – I look for quality second hand. Then, of course, I often give up and head to the mall; but I dream of finding clothes which are made to last.

In his magnificent book Local Wonders, Ted Kooser writes about the experience of putting on a shirt his mother made for him when he was 14. Sixty years later, it still fits and still has wear in it, unimaginable to this child of the throwaway generation. It is, however, imaginable to the maker of Hounds, who is fascinated by the clothes that once were commonplace in America: 20 oz selvedge denim, and shirts and jackets so sturdy that they endured for decades; these are the clothes she is re-inventing.

Zero History is about the power of this secret brand, which has as its only advertisement the quality of each garment. It is also about the hunger of an advertising agency to find the genius behind such a simple yet powerful marketing tool; and the way even this brand is taken on board, in the end, by the fashion mavens. Concurrent themes include the way US military style has so deeply informed street wear; the phenomenon of pop up shops; and the cross over between the worlds of music, art and fashion. Just to keep it all ticking along, there are also eccentric private hotels, a few high speed chases, corruption in high places, and a performance art skydiver.

William Gibson's last three novels have investigated in one way or another the influence of branding on our lives and the infiltration of the military on general society, and while Zero History is perhaps not quite up to Pattern Recognition, the first of the three, it is still a thought provoking read and a terrific romp.

I must say, too, that it gave me quite a fillip when one of the characters revealed that he had bought his Hounds at the Rose Street Market in Fitzroy; I have bought a heap of clothing, bags and notebooks there over the years. Nice to know that one of my locals gets a mention in a novel set in London, although it gave me a jolt to realise I may be very slightly cooler than I thought.

On another fashion note, I had a weird moment this week. Having just read Zero History, I was trying to work out why some outfits make me feel terrific a la Hounds and others make me slope around. I was thinking, too, about how I almost always wear the uniform mentioned above, and so I found myself flipping through Secrets of Style at my cousin's house, To my astonishment, I discovered that the editors of In Style magazine think a uniform is good, and that it is better to have a few quality items in one's wardrobe than a mountain of ordinary clothes. They also recommend buying up big when an item suits one well, and I puffed up in pride at the thought of my three identical t-shirts and three identical black singlets sitting in the wardrobe.

The main difference between their wardrobe and mine appears to be sticky fingers and budget. Thus I wear not cashmere turtlenecks, but wool; not tailored pants, but denim; and not low heels, but amusing flat shoes. But it was an odd moment when I realised the editors of a style magazine were on the same track as William Gibson and his imaginary maker of Hounds, and me.

It was especially surprising given the waste of an industry which has as its focus the generation of desire, which leads to our insatiable and destructive hunger for the new. But once I recovered from my astonishment, and my general embarrassment at reading a style guide, I must admit Secrets of Style was very helpful, not least for giving me permission to stick to my grey, black and blue wardrobe of things which are not particularly fashionable. It was full of good tips, too, on which cuts suit which features, and what to look for when buying clothes (fabric, shape, length, stitching, seam width, and more).

Spring is here, and if you're like me you'll have just discovered you have about three things to wear. My modest tips, diffidently proffered given the lamentable state of my own wardrobe, are to read Zero History and have a think about fashion (anyway, it's great fun); flick through the style guide, which will help you send all the clothes that make you feel awful to the op shop, and understand which clothes may suit you; scroll through the ethical shopping guide I put together here; then forgive yourself for anything you have to buy new from a sweatshop reliant chain store. Just buy the best quality you can afford, so you only have to buy it once.

And look out for something slubby.

(I have decided to crosspost my notes on books from Lost in a Story here. They will still appear at Lost in a Story, along with all the previous reviews.)

The New Secrets of Style: The Complete Guide to Dressing Your Best Every Day Pattern Recognition Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps (American Lives)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The power of a sleeping baby

Picture this: a young baby sleeps peacefully in the arms of someone who, we know, feels no peace... the sleeping baby is the medium of God’s passionate and pastoral love. It communicates a powerful message of acceptance and worth to a fractured adult. In so doing, the baby is engaged in pastoral care. (The Priesthood of All Believers: An exploration of the ministry of children to the church and its implications for congregations, Paper S186, Zadok Papers, Spring 2011).


If you need a little light holiday reading, the Zadok Institute has recently published my paper on the ministry of children to the church, all 12,729 words of it (plus a few more for endnotes).

Interested in such things? You can order a copy for the princely sum of $4.00 ($2.50 for the pdf copy), plus $2.50 for postage and handling, from Zadok; this is less than .0003c a word, a steal at twice the price! Download an order form here.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Mortimer, Mohammed and Me

This piece appeared in Zadok Perspectives No. 111 (Winter 2011). The Spring edition is out now, with my reflection on praying into the night.


Mortimer, Mohammed and Me

Every Friday, I spend a few hours reading with kids at a local school. I listen to each child read their reader, and then I offer them a choice: they can go back to the classroom activity, or they can have a story read to them, which they choose from the books I bring in. Mostly, they want to listen to a story; and mostly, they choose a little book by Robert Munsch, called Mortimer.

Mortimer can’t sleep, so instead he sings loudly (‘Bang-bang, rattle-ding-bang, Gonna make my noise all day’) and drives his family crazy. Person after person comes upstairs to tell Mortimer to be quiet, but as soon as they reach the bottom of the stairs he starts singing again. Eventually, the family becomes so agitated that they start yelling at each other; and while Mortimer waits for someone else to come up, he falls fast asleep.

As you can imagine, it is a very loud book. I have to sing Mortimer’s song four times; and mimic the sound of lots of people coming upstairs and shouting at him; and evoke the noise of Mortimer’s mother and father and seventeen brothers and sisters and even the police yelling downstairs – this book is a riot.

Meanwhile the listening child sits, spellbound; sings Mortimer’s song along with me; and almost invariably gets the giggles.

I read Mortimer aloud fifteen to twenty times each week; and at times I find myself wanting to rush. They’ve all heard it before, many times. There are very few volunteers and lots of kids, and I would like to read with every child every week – but I can’t. I find myself thinking that if we hurry this story or read less of the reader or maybe even give up reading stories but focus on the readers instead, then I’ll get to one more, and one more, and one more, child.

Yet the whole point is to give these kids, mostly refugees with very few books at home, the opportunity to wallow in stories just as my own children have wallowed. We can’t do that in a rush.

So I work hard to breathe deep; to sit on the class list so it doesn’t catch my eye; to read fast when the story begs to be read fast; to read slow when the story begs to be drawn out; to make room for quiet spaces and expectant pauses; and to look at the face of each child and etch it onto my heart.

One Friday, I was reading Mortimer for perhaps the seventeenth time, as always achingly aware of the kids I wouldn’t get to and wrestling with the impulse to race. I glanced at Mohammed, listening with rapt attention, and I suddenly realised that we were on God’s time.

Between two words, I dropped into that great yawning space, that vast universe where there is more than enough time for love however long it takes; and in this spinning dizzying sense of the infinite I was surrounded by a great rumble of belly laughter, a deep chuckling, love wiping its eyes in hilarity at the story of Mortimer and at all the little boys and girls who drive their parents crazy, and at all the crazy adults who think that love can be scheduled or rushed.

And then I was back at school, where I found myself sitting on the carpet singing ‘Bang-bang, rattle-ding-bang, Gonna make my noise all day’ and beside me Mohammed was now singing, his face aglow, and I started to hoot and he got the giggles and a classmate joined in and another picked up the thread of song, and surrounding us all were the floating filaments, the echoes of heavenly laughter.

(The boy’s name has been changed. Robert Munsch has a fantastic website where you can look at his books and listen to stories; Mortimer is here.)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Armfuls of roses

There were many things my stubborn and self-righteous old grandfather did wrong. There's no doubt about that; even he admitted to and apologised for many of them. But I'd like to remember what he did very well indeed: he made a marriage last for 64 years; he saw himself as his wife's husband even when she was almost completely silenced by Alzheimer's; and he was faithful to the end.

There were many things this child never saw or understood, but these are the things that remain: he was surprised and delighted every time she brought out the violet crumbles, rubbing his hands together in anticipation before tucking in. He thanked his wife every night when he sat down to dinner, and always remarked on how delicious the food was. He patted her arm and called her 'pet', and meant it with great affection.

A person could do worse than to be grateful: for his sweet but vague wife, for the meals that appeared with clockwork regularity, for every shiny foil wrapped sweetie. A person could do worse than to plant a garden so his wife could have armfuls of roses whenever she did the church flowers.

A person could do a lot worse than to cherish someone for decades. As they aged, my grandfather seemed to became more affectionate towards my grandmother. He had always been thankful for her to some degree, but in later years, after a lifetime of gratitude, he expressed it in small ways every day. As she became more and more forgetful, I watched him wrestle with his frustration and choose to be protective, instead.

The choice ran deep, so that for the last couple of years, my grandfather sat with his wife at a nursing facility hour after hour, day after day, as she gradually lost all her faculties. He refused other options, seeing it as his duty to stay by her side, keeping his familiar face in sight, and acting as her protector and advocate. As her memory faded, her speech disappeared and her reflexes returned to those of an infant, still he sat, her husband to the end.

The man who had been angry and judgmental, even violent at times, the man who my parents' friends from student days, now grandparents themselves, still refer to as 'Father Abraham' in slightly awed tones, learned late in life to curb his temper and his tongue. At some stage he opted for patience and gentleness; and with regular practice, he mastered them.

A person could do an awful lot worse than to soften as they age. He gives me something to aim for.

Photo shows my grandmother: what a woman!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Keith Milne

A few words for a beloved family friend, Keith, who recently passed away.


Seventy years could not hide
Eyes and grin like a little boy
Who stole a plum from the neighbour’s tree
And twinkles still with remembered joy.

His gnarled hands, one nail snapped short,
turned an eggcup from huon pine
so fine it seems too good to use.
On tapering leg
it holds my egg
and memories of those hands,
that grin, the van the yellow of soft boiled yolk,
sparkling eyes that loved a joke,
a little boy in old man’s skin,
a loyal friend, one of those men
who loved and served and lived life well.
Finished now, like my eggshell.

What I will miss most
Is how he always turned his head,
Cupped his hand behind his ear,
And leaned near me
As if everything I said,
And you said and she said,
As if everything we all said
Was worth hearing.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

More than enough

As I stride along in my big red boots, an early spring breeze ruffles my hair. I swing the bag holding pink and purple wellies, a birthday present for my youngest daughter, and I can't help but laugh aloud. It's Thursday night, and I'm out and about with a bit of money in my pocket, heading to my favourite bar. There I'll chat with the barmaid about her new hat, then order a glass of wine and a toasted sandwich and call it dinner. Warm and fed, recharged by an hour or two alone at the back, I'll wander off to choir and sing.

How delightful it is to have a few dollars in my pocket! How lucky I am to have an hour or two out! How glorious it is to meet up with friends! How fortunate I am to have money, time, companionship, love!

Rockefeller was rich as Croesus; yet when asked 'How much is enough?' he replied, 'a little more, always a little more' or words to that effect. But a good pair of boots and a thick blue jacket; a glass of wine and a bit of toasted cheese; the joy of three daughters; the company of friends; and a husband warming my bed at night – what more could I possibly want?

Whatever was Rockefeller thinking?! So much more than enough, this is life in abundance. In the late afternoon, as the sun dips low and sets the sky alight, even the shabby streets of Brunswick are paved with gold.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Once was a schoolgirl

Recently I visited my old primary school, a place of great pain. It was where I learned to sit down and shut up; where I was bullied by a teacher or two; where I was routinely humiliated in front of the other students. It's a place I still can't talk about without my voice growing strident; I was so scared and lonely there.

For months I have thought to visit and lay a few demons to rest; and one funny Saturday, it felt like time. So we trekked out to the eastern suburbs; my lovely family dropped me off and waved goodbye; and I walked the old path to school. The gates were open, and I ducked in and discovered what a little place it is.

The looming platform where the vice principal used to lecture us has shrunk to the size of a few steps, just enough room for a portly gentleman with a red face to stand as he bawled out several hundred kids. The great banks of the oval, strictly out of bounds and where I used to hide with a book, are barely big enough for a child to stretch out and be invisible from the main schoolyard. The assembly point where I was spontaneously pulled out of line and marched down the hall to a younger grade for the year, thereby losing all my friends and the chance to learn anything, has been subsumed into a new building. The classroom of my most vindictive teacher was shut up, of course; but even from the outside it was clear just how insignificant it was; it even looked cheerful.

Hard to imagine, really. That teacher loathed me, and no day was complete until she made me cry. I used to wake at dawn, sick to my stomach, and sobbed every morning before I left home. That year I broke my writing arm in the first week of third term and so for the thirteen weeks I wore a plaster cast, I was detained at recess and lunch to rule lines on scrap paper; she wouldn't let me write messily in my books. Every piece of work I carefully scratched out was returned with a rebuke; my left handed writing was unacceptable. Most wonderfully, later that same year I caught mumps then measles, and spent the entire fourth term deliriously feverish, and safe at home in bed.

In the centre of the school between two lines of classrooms stands an old eucalypt. When I was a student, lorikeets nested in its hollow and we were forbidden from going near it. Thirty years later it's still there. As I looked at it, remembering, a sudden movement caught my eye. Jutting out of the tree at hip height was a rainbow lorikeet, the great great grandson perhaps of the birds I had known, lurid green and blue and red and yellow, one beady eye fixed on me. I stood still. The bird flicked its head this way and that, assessing the risk; then shot out of the tree like a bullet. I walked over quietly and peeked into the hole; I caught the flash of a bright red beak as a nesting lorikeet turned to look at me. Our eyes met; then it ducked out of view and I let it be.

I walked around the grounds and remembered the humiliations, once so enormous; I recalled the loneliness, and the pain. The school is on a rise, and catches the wind. As I peered into windows and checked out the shelter sheds, the cars on the main road bounding the school roared past. I realised that it has always felt like a school on a cliff. The traffic sounds like the incoming tide, and over the top sings the wind. On this particular Saturday, a gale from the south and the noise of the cars rose up and swept through the school and me, scouring away hurt and leaving a quiet woman washed up on a peeling old bench, a few toy buildings dotted around, and winged rainbows darting overhead.

Once a place to constrict my heart with fear, it is finally becoming ancient history: a setting for stories, nothing more. What happened, happened; what remains are just memories; and time, the great healer, has done its work again.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Small Acts of Courage

These are some of the things I am scared of: drawing, singing, meeting people, doing new things, talking on the telephone, making appointments, ladies in waxing salons, performing in public, nuclear power, global warming, and the zombie hand that might reach out of the toilet and drag me down when I’m sitting on it. It’s true: I am scared of most things. I always have been; I’ve been waiting for the axe to fall for as long as I can remember.

It’s easy to explain. My mother loved me, yet was highly critical of everything I did; I had some abusively bullying teachers in primary school; and between one thing and another I’ve never quite got over the combination. As a child, whenever I stuck my neck out and often when I didn’t, somebody shrieked at me.

Add to that three key caregivers, who looked after me from when I was a baby and who died when I was four, and this little girl learned that the world is not a safe place.

So I became a mouse. Every now and then the lion came roaring out but for the most part the mouse is with me, whispering that I should sit down, shut up, and not move a muscle lest the farmer’s wife come running, carving knife in hand.

Yet I don’t want to grow into a querulous and fearful old woman. But unless I practice being brave now, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. So, timid as I am, I’ve spent the last decade working on my fears, and addressing those voices which tell me that I’m no good at anything and that the world is fundamentally dangerous.

How?, you ask. Well, to begin with I found myself a nice pen, and at least once a week I’m doing a drawing in which no line can be erased. I’ll never be an artist, and that’s fine; the exercise has other purposes. It’s to remind me there’s nothing to be afraid of: I’m an adult now and no teacher is hanging over my shoulder and telling me what I can’t do. It also reminds me to observe closely and look, really look, at the world. I enjoy the feeling of my brain shifting into another gear and my hand cruising across the page; I enjoy laughing at the terrible drawings that result. It’s been a small exercise in bravery, and I think it’s making me bold.

Because the other day, as we were eating our lunch, my youngest daughter and I heard ‘fresh new potatoes!’ blaring through a megaphone. For years I’ve heard this call once or twice a month as a white ute cruises slowly through our suburb. I’ve been intrigued, but am too cowardly to flag it down. I worry that the veggies might be sprayed with pesticides, or the sellers rude or annoying... what if they hammer on my door every time they come into town?

How ridiculous. The worst that will happen is I spend a couple of dollars on some bad potatoes that can always be thrown to the chooks. But the other day, having done half a dozen drawings lately, I was feeling heady. I grabbed my daughter; we ran out and waved the truck down. We met a lovely couple, husband and wife, who run a small organic farm and trundle through the suburbs of Melbourne to sell their produce direct; and we bought the best apples and potatoes I have seen this year. We had eaten most of the apples by the end of the day.

The apples gave me such a burst of courage that I left the house on my Thursday ritual thinking about other fears. I can’t shave under my arms; I get terrible rashes. I don’t mind being hairy, but it does make me sweaty as I power walk to school and back. My lovely waxing lady, found in a previous burst of courage, moved to a small island off the coast of Scotland late last year and I’ve been shaggy ever since. But filled with good apples and knowing there were new potatoes on the kitchen bench, I strode straight into a convenient salon to make an appointment. It was quiet, and a woman could see me immediately. I’m pretty scary under there, I said; and the woman, taking a look, said ‘I’m not running away yet’ and started to giggle. Somehow our eyes met and the giggles turned to a shared belly laugh. I relaxed; she smeared on hot wax and ripped out the hair; and that was that. No big deal, after all.

While I was putting my clothes back on, my mobile rang and I felt compelled to answer it. As I chatted, I reflected that despite my fears I’ve been practising this telephone business for years now, and I feel like I’m starting to get good at it.

All this courage! I certainly need it. Although I am scared of singing anywhere other than at home, a few years ago I joined a choir full of strangers. Truth be told, I chose my children’s school not because of any recommendations but because of the parent’s choir. After my own primary school experience, where teachers were deliberately cruel and parents sidelined to the point that I seriously contemplated home schooling my own daughters, this seemed to be a healthy sign. And the choir, and the school, have been good.

Being in the choir’s scary enough, but we’re rehearsing more seriously than usual; our cheerful group, normally focussed on red wine and gossip, has been asked to perform at a public event and I feel sick at the thought. I was anxious about rehearsal; then again, I was full of new apples from the potato man; I was freshly exfoliated; I had chatted on the phone; and I’d just done a drawing. It was pretty bad, but one or two lines have signs of life that are slightly encouraging.

I may not be able to do much about my fears of nuclear power, global warming or the hand that lurks in the s-bend, but it’s about time I performed in public. So despite my anxiety, off I went to choir practice; and at some stage, as always, I began to enjoy it.

That’s the funny thing about small acts of courage: they almost always make me happy.

And look! I posted some drawings of mine... wildly imperfect, but another small act.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

How two chicken-loving enemies became neighbours once again

Not so long ago, I had a bit of a rant about our unfriendly neighbours. We have one spectacular neighbour, but most of the others are cool veering on cold. And for years, our most immediate neighbour has appeared to hate us. When I greet her, she ignores me; when I see her in the street and smile, she turns her back. It has made me scared and fearful and anxious and angry and defensive. I have always tried to acknowledge her even when I feel bad; and I have always spoken well of her in front of our kids, but it's really ground me down. I have thought, from time to time, of dropping in and asking what the problem is, but I have been too cowardly. It's hard to know how to ask someone why she hisses through her teeth at you; and it feels slightly pathetic, like a jilted teenager begging 'But why don't you like me anymore?'. So the frostiness has continued.

Then something happened that made me furious: we had a visit from the council about our lovely chickens. Apparently, there's been a complaint. Now, we have met the council guidelines listed on their website and when I spoke with the officer she said they were satisfied – for now – but I was really angry. It's not the first time that we've had a complaint against us, and always from the same person, our neighbour.

But I don't want to be like her; I want to be an exemplary neighbour. So while I simmered, I asked people I trust for the support I need and thought about what to do. As much as I wanted to throw eggs and shout and yell, I'm tired of living with a sense of deep hostility bristling from next door, a house which is so close we can see in each other's side windows. I couldn't bear to make it worse.

The next morning I had a few hours without the kids, so I took myself out for a fast wintry walk. I marched around and found myself heading to our local hill, built over the old rubbish dump; it felt like a fitting place to yell. I did a few muttering laps of the oval first, then up the hill I went to say my piece to the wind. When I was done I ran down the hill like a little kid, loose and gangly and arms windmilling through the grass. The rage was abating, so I strode homewards, still wondering.

I passed a centre for spirituality, and in the window were the usual accoutrements: gentle words in flowing calligraphy, soft scarves, and candles. All these things may be helpful to a regular spiritual practice, but it suddenly occurred to me that any spirituality that runs deep will be nothing like a beautifully draped silk scarf. Instead, it will be hard and messy; and it will be about the most mundane areas of life: how we act when we're afraid; how we respond to people when they are cruel or rude or thoughtless; how we meet a thousand different challenges in the small exchanges of the household, the playground, or the local shops. And I realised that, no matter how afraid I was, I had to go talk with my neighbour.

So I went home and collected the day's eggs, still warm. Then, feeling sick to the stomach, I boxed them up and headed next door.

When my neighbour answered, the first thing she said was 'We are enemies.'. I wanted to cry. Instead, heart thumping, I asked why. It turns out that she perceived a serious slight five or six years ago, and the council and her son did their best to maintain that slight - the story is long and complicated, and the details are irrelevant. Enough to say that, at the end of it, we had unravelled a serious misunderstanding, and I apologised profusely for my part in the episode; then we talked for a good ten minutes about this and that, like normal neighbours do. She started to smile and then laugh, and finally, finally she agreed to accept the eggs to feed her grandkids who, she reckons, have never tasted really fresh ones.

Ironically, when I asked her if she had any concerns about the chickens she said 'I like the chickens!', and that's when her face really softened. Apparently they remind her of her childhood; she enjoys hearing them move around our garden. So for all my fear that it was one more thing she didn't like, I was wrong about that; and for some reason, I am not worried about who else objects to the chooks – as long as it is not her.

Before I left, she said that there is nothing to be enemies about; and I begged her to drop in if anything ever bothered her - or even if she just wanted to join me in a cuppa.

I'm sure this is not the ending. Something else will come up – we are all so far from perfect – and I will need to work to maintain this new civility. I still don't know if the council has anything further to say about our hens. But I feel like a scouring wind has swept through the street and made it clean. A once frosty neighbour smiled at me and told me a few stories, and I felt my fear slowly trickle away; for now, that's ending enough.

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