Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Taste of the Kingdom

This piece first appeared in Zadok Perspectives No. 114 (Autumn 2012). The Summer edition is out now, with my reflection on learning to live with enough.


A few months ago, my husband and I had that rare and precious thing: the spontaneous offer of a babysitter. We decided to go out for dinner. We lucked upon the last table at a lively restaurant and shared a fantastic meal, with wine to match each course.

As the evening drew to a close, I sat there turning my glass in my hand and reflecting on how well we have eaten over the years. Before we had children, we dined out several times a week. Since then, we have visited Europe twice with young kids and eaten our way around Italy, Germany and even, surprisingly deliciously, Great Britain, while at home we buy nectarines, mangoes, avocadoes and all sorts of other foods that neither of us had much as children; they were far too expensive back then.

Flooded with gratitude, I said to my husband, “I have had so many good things to eat in my lifetime, it really wouldn’t matter if I never ate another decent meal again.”

As is the way of fate, a couple of days after I made this claim I went to a natural therapist to try and tackle years of fatigue and constant illness, and in particular the development of debilitating arthritis; and, as I wrote in last quarter’s Zadok Perspectives, I was immediately placed on a very restrictive diet for four months (no sugar, gluten, fruit, dairy, alcohol or caffeine), with the additional caution that I should strictly limit my intake of these foods for the rest of my life.

The timing was impeccable. I had just made a big claim about food; here was my opportunity to test it. In any case, I was so desperate to feel better that I quickly adopted, and have largely stuck to, the diet; but I soon found myself wondering what to do about eating with others. How would we celebrate a birthday if I couldn’t eat cake? What would we have for a friendly afternoon tea if I wasn’t eating scones? Who would come for dinner if I didn’t make dessert or pour out the wine?

Clearly, hospitality wasn’t going to work if the sweetest thing on offer was a carrot stick. On reflection, however, I realised that the restrictive diet was only about eating. I could still cook whatever I liked; whether or not I ate the food was a separate issue. So I stuck to my usual pattern of whipping up banana loaves on Mondays, when Grandpa comes to visit; baking cakes on birthdays and grumpy days; and making cookies to take to friends.

I thought I might resent cooking food that I could not eat myself, but I also thought it would be a good test of my generosity. To my surprise, however, far from resenting the situation, I have discovered that I still love to make special things. Previously, I hadn’t realised just how much the act of preparing and offering food gives me pleasure; I had thought a great deal of the pleasure was in the eating. But seeing friends and family savour and relish what I have cooked, and watching them grow expansive after the second glass of wine, makes me tremendously happy; and, as my taste buds shift to a more savoury palate, my desire to eat the food myself grows less and less.

It’s the opposite of most advertising messages, which encourage us to satisfy ourselves and make ourselves happy because, we’re told, we’re worth it. Instead, as I chomp my way through yet another handful of nuts or celery sticks, or perhaps crunch into some rice crackers which are, I admit, growing rather tiresome, I recall that others are worth it; and in seeing them respond to the loving care that is communicated through a slice of cake or a basket of scones or perhaps a pot of soup I cannot eat, I find myself expansively happy and deeply satisfied, having never even taken a bite.

PS - For those who are curious, a year or so later I am now drinking wine (you gotta live) and caffeine (which helped me limp through the debilitating fatigue I experienced during a month of eating gluten prior to a test for coeliac disease). I aim to wean myself off caffeine again when things have settled down. I still eat very little cane sugar, fruit, gluten and cow's milk.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Silence Speaks Again: Next Year


Next year, I've been invited to undertake some postgraduate research in a field I am passionate about. I am over the moon. Well, part of me is. That part of me has spent hours reading in the area months before I plan to enrol. That part hears my potential supervisor saying that something I have already written would make a fine start to a thesis. That part has already joined a research group, and met some delightful people doing interesting things. That part of me can confidently say, I know how to structure my time; I know how to write; I am very self-motivated: I can certainly do this.

That part of me can also recognise the great gift of the invitation. After nine years at home with kids, I am more than a little bored. I still have fifteen months before my youngest starts school, and while I am happy to be home with her for some of it, the thought of staying home full time until then is, to put it bluntly, excruciating.

I had been wondering what I could add to next year's mix – more volunteer work? more writing? a course? – when out of the blue I was invited to study. It's everything I could want: a reason to read and write, mentors asking difficult questions and pointing me in new directions, training in how to structure a large piece of work. The project is perfect, the timing is perfect: what a gift! I should be over the moon – and part of me is.

But there's another part of me, too. It's the part which is dragging her feet on the enrolment; which worries about how to fit it all in with a little girl still at home; which looks at the PhD students she knows and wonders how on earth she thinks she can do it; which gets a churning stomach at the very thought. And now that the initial excitement of the invitation has worn off, this part is making itself heard. It is so convincing that I have wondered about turning down the invitation.

I've been going round in circles for weeks. Finally, I decided to sit with the idea in silence, that infinite scary place where things bubble up that are difficult to hear. So I sat, took a deep breath, exhaled, and began to listen. My mind chattered on. I thought about dinner and a new idea for packed lunches, and put the thoughts on a mental shelf. I wondered about a sick friend, and put her on the shelf, too. I had an image of me teaching at a tertiary level. I wondered where that lunatic idea came from, and as I was putting it up next to the food and the friend, a voice came to me clear as a bell: You're almost forty, and you still believe you are not capable of such work.

I burst into tears; as usual the silence spoke truth. I don't believe I can do it. Yet I'm hardly an idiot. I love ideas and people and talking and writing. Most of my friends have higher degrees, more than a few are academics, and among them I usually hold my own. Of course I should be able to study and write and teach at that level.

Even so, the internal soundtrack which says I'm not competent is still very powerful, and it's been reinforced by decisions we made about how to raise our children. I chose to stay home and suddenly I'm a decade out of the workforce. Everyone else has forged ahead, and I'm left with a head full of ideas, reasonably happy kids – and an incredible lack of confidence. Sure, I'm getting pretty good at the washing and shopping, cooking and cleaning. At some deep level, however, I'm not convinced I could do much more.

Now, being competent at domestic tasks and child raising is no shame. These are important things, necessary to a family's health and wellbeing, and there is dignity in sustaining one's household. In and of itself, it is good work. Yet other work is good, too. And here am I invited, by what feels like the right person and at what feels like the right time, to engage in something more, and I am reluctant. I am sure I cannot do it, and I want to opt out.

Thanks to the silence, however, I now recognise my reluctance for what it is: old soundtracks and fear. And so, since a life ruled by such masters is no life at all, I am going to have to listen to the other voices, the ones which recognise what I might be able to do and urge me to give it a go.

As for what I want to do? Well, the silence showed me an image of me teaching. Perhaps it was a clue.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

New House, New Neighbours


Somewhat oddly for a blog devoted to the idea of home, I haven't mentioned an enormous change in my own home life. Events happened too quickly for me to assimilate and write about them before now, but this is the news: we have moved. Yes, moved.

I know this comes as a shock to many who know us; it certainly wasn't something we had planned to do. So how did it come about?

I have written before about our street, and how I have struggled to make much headway with the neighbours. I have one excellent neighbour; one neighbour who is civil when we bump into each other on the street; and that is the extent of it. Everyone else is emotionally absent. I say, rather brightly, 'hello!' and the other neighbours duck their heads and avoid my eyes – even the ones with kids.

They don't seem to talk with each other, either. I have come up with all sorts of justifications for their behaviour; I have wondered if there's something wrong with me; finally, I have decided they are just city dwellers – or rude.

Meanwhile, for years we'd floated the idea of buying neighbouring houses with close friends, but it never panned out. It was something I had given up on; and when I gave up, I found the energy to fix our own house. In the last twelve months I have had the eternal leak in the roof fixed; painted the house; and even put in a big veggie garden.

And like the couples I know who relinquished the dream of conceiving a child and adopted, only to fall pregnant minutes later, once the garden was finished a house came up for sale in our friends' street. We looked at it out of curiosity, thinking there was no way we'd move – especially now our roof was fixed and the garden done.

But we fell in love. The house was old, ramshackle and airy, with roses in the front and fruit trees out the back. We looked again with family and my father said, 'Now is the time to decide what you value more highly: your nicely renovated house and garden, or friendship.' Nothing like putting our values on the line, dad.

We looked a third time. I wailed to one friend, 'surely I am supposed to develop relationships with the neighbours that I have, not become neighbours with my friends'. She pointed out that I had tried for over a decade in my street, and encouraged me to move on.

My husband and I worried and fretted and moaned for a fortnight, going back and forth. It was closer to some friends, further from others. It was smaller than our house, and not in such great condition. Our fridge would never fit. We could walk to the library and pool, but no longer to our favourite shops. Perhaps the floor plan would work better for us? Every night we talked and teetered back and forth like one of those wobble toys. Then the house went to early auction and, hearts thumping wildly, we bought it.

We moved just over a week ago. Within two days I had met eleven neighbours, not counting the friends I already knew. The neighbours on one side have a very large extended family which convenes regularly for meals. During last week's gathering, my kids climbed up the fence and peered over at the party, had a good chat with whoever was down there, and were handed fragrant shishkebabs over the fence. (Rather irritatingly, although they usually gag and moan at anything new, especially meat, they demolished them and begged for more.)

The kids and I also spent an hour with the family across the street, drinking tea (me) and climbing on the cubby house roof (the kids). And we've been invited in by two other households. Meanwhile, we've eaten with our longstanding friends twice in a week, meaning we've each had a night off cooking and our kids have run around very happily together. And our friend's son, an only child, has come over after school.

Boy, is this street different. I've spent more time in other people's kitchens after a week here than after a decade in the old; I already know more people's names.

When I looked at the new house, I felt shaky. I was uncomfortable with the idea of change; I didn't want to pack up my house; everything was changing focus and it felt very difficult. And yet for many reasons, moving felt like the right thing to do. Our kids loved the house and wanted to be closer to their friends; we loved the house and wanted to be closer to our friends; and, although it is further from the city, the new house is more convenient for almost every aspect of our family's life.

An astute friend suggested that my collywobbles were like birth pangs, overwhelming and painful, but not to be confused with real doubts. Instead, he thought they were the harbinger of new life to come. A week after the move, I am sure he was right. We fit with this house very, very well; we have roses in the garden; and, without a doubt, we have neighbours.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Christmas Shopping

Christmas looms and I'm beginning to worry about presents. Our house is already full of stuff: dolls and blocks and textas and jigsaws and marbles and puppets and books. We have so much more than enough. We certainly don't need another pile of toys; it's just more to pick up at the end of the day.

I hear other parents talking, even complaining, about the latest electronic gadget or plastic toy they've just bought their kids. Because I've never quite worked out how the giving of expensive and unnecessary things made for the most part in appalling conditions relates to the birth of a man who said 'Blessed are the poor', I refuse to play this game, and resent the pressure to acquire the latest thing. Even so, failing to participate in the excess can make me feel mean: my kids are kids, after all. They like to unwrap things; they like presents.

Stepping off the consumer treadmill is easy enough with adults. I make jam, put together a mix tape, or pass on a choice op shop plate to someone who likes a bit of retro. Yet my kids are another story. Do I deprive them of the overabundance that they see in other families? Do I withhold expensive gifts from them and stand my ground? Well, to some extent, yes – especially while they're young. And yet I am also of my culture; I like to give gifts. The difficulty is deciding what.

It seems to me that for the giving to be any kind of celebration, then the things I give must be celebratory – and this means that there's no guilt attached. So I'll avoid items made in unregulated factories and sweatshops wherever possible; avoid ostentatious status symbols; and avoid useless things that will wear out quickly. More positively, I'll look for things which are practical, second hand, fair trade, homemade, or charitable, and which together give a sense of that most intangible of concepts, 'enough'.

When I think back to earlier Christmases and what my daughters have most enjoyed, I recall them running around a park where we have held Christmas lunch. A friend had given them new umbrellas, and they spent the afternoon dancing around spinning their brollies; holding them up and pretending it was raining; and wandering off to the far reaches of the park together, chatting under their portable shade. One brolly had an elephant trunk; another, panda ears, and they hid behind bushes, holding them up and roaring as if wild beasts were lurking. Those umbrellas provided hours of fun; and years later are still in regular use.

Remembering this, I know my girls will survive without Wii and a DS, even if they want them. I can stand firm. So Christmas for my three will be as usual: a few trinkets from the kinder fete to fill our foot-not-pillow-sized stockings: pretty hair bands, a nice pen, a little notebook. I'll get them a new fair trade hat and a pair of bathers each to replace the faded things they've grown out of. I'll get three favourite books, borrowed time and again from the library and now ours to keep; and buy some songs online and burn a new CD with music we'll all enjoy. Together, we'll choose a few gifts from a community development agency: a goat, perhaps, or some chickens.

And so each child will get bathers, a hat, a book, a hair band, a theoretical goat and a bit of dancing round the lounge room: practical, fair trade, homemade, charitable, joyful. To celebrate the birth of a man two thousand years ago who loved kids and told us to look out for the poor, it may still be an imperfect list, but for three little girls living in the here and now, it feels just about right.


Can't think of a gift?

*Pass on an unused treasure (lamp, book, rug, canisters, wine glasses, leather jacket, bracelet, platter).

*Make something (frame a photo, bottle some chutney, get baking, collate a recipe book).

*Give a plant (pot up lavender, pelargonium or daisy cuttings, or hen and chicks, or sow seed).

*Spend thoughtfully (dedicate a gift to charity, draw names instead of buying for everyone in a family, shop second hand, buy an edible fair trade gift (coffee or chocolate), buy something necessary but fun (bathers for kids, organic fair trade underpants for adults!)) For a list of fair trade places to shop which I have used, click here.

For more good ideas on how to celebrate Christmas without the ostentatious consumerism, visit

(Of course, you could just get them a really cool cardboard box; it can be a shop, a car, a cubby, or even a little bed!)
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