Monday, December 30, 2013

Christmas Lights

A couple of weeks ago, I went for a swim. Now, I don’t swim often; I’m a slow swimmer with rotten form; and I can’t swim freestyle for fear of drowning. Usually, I remember these things about myself. But that week at the pool, I noticed a strong, muscular man cruising down the next lane. He had big shoulders and big biceps – and I was keeping up with him! What’s more, he was resting between laps, which meant, I realised rather proudly, that I was overtaking him, and had more stamina! I felt pretty chuffed as I made my way up and down, up and down, racing this big guy, who was, of course, totally oblivious to my efforts.

***

To read or hear more of this Christmas sermon, click here.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Participant observation, with cake

 

My daughter wanted to go to the park after kindergarten. So I walked her over and then, ignoring the knots of chatting parents, went and sat under a tree. I was feeling introverted; I had a crossword in my bag; I thought I could solve a few clues while my daughter played.

Within a few minutes, kids were gathering round. 'What are you doing?' they asked, then 'Look at me! Look at me!' they called. A two-year-old sibling leaned into my side. 'You're her [my daughter's] mother,' she said knowingly. Then she offered me a gumnut.

I thanked her for the gumnut, and we talked about its shape and pretty colour. Then I turned back to my crossword and filled in a few squares. She went for a wander, telling to me to watch her.

'No thanks,' I said, 'I'll do my crossword while you go for a walk.'

'Ok,' she said. A few minutes later she was back, with a pocket full of gumnuts. 'We're making cake,' she announced. I asked what was in her cake. Silence. 'Broccoli?' I asked. 'No!' she said, laughing. 'Beans?' I asked. 'Noooo!' she said again. 'Chocolate?' I asked. 'Yes!' she crowed, 'and sugar! And eggs!'

'Sounds delicious,' I said.

She had a little stick which she was using to stir the 'gredients' in her pocket. 'Mix, mix, mix' she said.

Then she found another little stick and handed it over. 'You stir,' she instructed, holding her pocket open and leaning towards me.

I gave up on the crossword, and gave the cake a good stir. She baked it, cut it up, and gave me a slice. Together, we ate. 'Good!' she said.

***

There are reams written about how to study kids and childhood. There are certainly projects which seek to find out particular things and which require formal methods; but in general I find the suggestion that researchers need special techniques to talk with kids slightly ludicrous.

I'm not naturally good with kids. I'd never make a kinder teacher; I don't like children's birthday parties; and group work will never be my forte. I always find new kids and groups of kids slightly terrifying; and too much time with children drives me batty. Even so, it seems pretty clear to me that kids are just people. They swell up when we remember their names; they like us to speak quietly and with respect; they appreciate it when we join in their games. It's not rocket science – and it's hardly different from adults. I may not mix gumnuts in your pocket, but if I remember your name, take you seriously, and engage in whatever you think is fun – a coffee, a chat, a walk, a joke – chances are you'll think I'm a good egg.

At the park, the little girl and I were just playing; but I have no doubt that, had I asked a few gentle questions while we mixed our cake, she would have told me to the best of her ability whatever I wanted to know. In fact, I didn't need to ask her anything to learn something about my own interests. I'm studying friendships between children and adults; and just the way our interaction unfolded spoke volumes about how kids and adults communicate and share small intimacies.

If I had been wearing my researcher hat, I could have described my role as 'participant observation', and written about the event from an 'autoethnographic perspective'. But she's not a formal part of my project, and I was only wearing a sunhat, so I wrote this post, instead.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

How preparing PowerPoint slides triggered a brief existential crisis

 
Caution: Digging out pictures like this can lead to fear of death. Happily, the people in this photograph are still alive and kicking.

As part of my studies, I need to give a presentation to a group of my peers. There I will summarise what I have learned so far and sketch what I plan to do next. The university requires a PowerPoint presentation and so, like an obedient student, I am preparing one.

But a series of zooming bullet points is the surest way to put me to sleep. I can't bear to present like that, nor to talk about my project in such dry terms. I'm studying cross-age relationships, and operating in a narrative framework, which is a fancy way of saying that I get to collect a heap of stories about friendships between kids and adults, and write about them. In drafting my talk I've begun with a story about a cross-age friendship; it will hardly be enhanced by bullet points.

Therefore, I decided to illustrate the themes of the talk with photographs. For example, when talking about mentors and apprentices, or chosen aunties, I will show people engaging in those very relationships.

So I started going through the family albums. I was skimming the pages, thinking about the themes and looking for particular images, when it suddenly struck me just how many people I love have died. Obviously, my mother, my grandparents, and assorted older relatives have passed away – but so many others, too: Barbara, Roy, Keith, Wal, Lance, Soula. Page after page I turned, seeing the father in his thirties who died of cancer; the dad in his forties who collapsed with a heart attack; the mum in her fifties who got septicaemia; the friend who died in a car crash, leaving her daughter an orphan. Page after page after page after page: Michael, Eddie, David, Ross: death was staring me in the face.

There was I, toddler on an earth ball, and the man who supported me, dead. There was I, little girl at a campsite, and the camper next to me, dead. There was I, buck-toothed at the table, and my fellow diners, dead. There was I, inquisitive teenager, and the professor patiently answering my questions, dead.

Just a moment ago I was a child, held and loved by a great crowd. When did I become the adult with children of my own? And how quickly will I too die, and my children, and my children's children?

In the blink of an eye, that's when.

Completely overwhelmed, I closed the albums and hid them away. It was the middle of the day, but I took to my bed, and curled up in a foetal position under the covers. Death shall have no more dominion over us, I muttered, the words of the Christian declaration mocking my fear.

Yeah, right.

***

I lay there for almost an hour, totally panicked even as the rational part of my mind reproved me for being silly. It took me that long to remember the point which, as I understand it, is not that I'm going to die (which I am), but that I'm alive right now. And there are things to do that won't get done while I'm hiding paralysed under the covers.

Then I remembered what my five-year-old said a little while back: if everyone in the world lived forever, we wouldn't have enough beds. Reflecting on her words and the images they evoked, I almost smiled. Then I stretched out in my bed, gave thanks for five-year-olds, got up, and went back to work.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Where's your jacket?

 

My seven-year-old was getting ready for school. It was 16 degrees. She was going on an excursion to Queenscliff, a picturesque seaside town where the wind blows in from Antarctica. ‘It’ll be freezing,’ I said, ‘wear your ski jacket.’ ‘Ok,’ she said.

In the maelstrom of getting kids out of the house, I didn’t look at her closely. We arrived at school. She was wearing a hoodie. The wind cut through her like a knife, and she started jiggling up and down with her arms wrapped around herself. ‘Where’s your ski jacket?’ I asked. She looked at me blankly. Of course, she hadn’t worn it. Nor had she worn her other warm coat; and it quickly transpired that she had taken her raincoat out of her bag some time ago and had never put it back.

‘I’m wearing my bathers,’ she said helpfully, pulling up her top to show me her tankini.

***

Mostly, I’m a great believer in natural consequences. A kid won’t wear a jacket? Fine, she’ll be cold. But she was heading off on a full day’s excursion, and she was going to catch pneumonia. Worse, the bus was leaving right after the bell; I had no chance to rush home, grab a jacket, and save her.

I berated my daughter, then beat myself up for not double checking and not communicating clearly. Angrily I asked myself what sort of mother doesn’t look at her children properly before they head out the door.

Then, tears of frustration and shame in my eyes, I went and stood with the other parents to wave the kids off on their big adventure.

And there I found the answer to my question: a normal mum. I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t enforced jacket and gloves. One mum was grumbling that her son had snuck out wearing only a light long sleeved top – she only noticed when he lined up, teeth chattering. A couple of kids were in t-shirts; a few were wearing shorts. I was regaled with half a dozen stories of children in inadequate clothing as I watched the ragtag bunch get onto the bus, some dressed for the tropics and others for the snow. I told the story of my daughter and the tankini and everyone laughed, and I felt much better.

I don’t know why I was so angry with myself that day. But I am grateful, so grateful, that my daughter is in a class with a bunch of ragamuffins, the children of parents who are just as scatty as me as they race out the door every morning.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

My wolf, my warning bell

When I was a child, we lived in a house with a big backyard. At the end of the yard stood an old metal slide; the slide ended in a sandpit. To one side was a liquidambar; I could only climb into the first branch. To the other, a small jacaranda; I could climb a few branches higher.

But I was afraid. Sent out to play, I would run from the back door to the slide, scramble up the steps, then sit at the top and watch carefully. I was terrified of the wolf. I could picture its mangy fur, its sinuous muscles, its powerful jaw. It moved like wreathing mist, slinking around the corner of the house. I knew what it looked like, I knew it was coming for me, and I was terrified. So there I sat, waiting, scanning the garden, mouth dry with fear.

I lived in Australia. There are no wolves in Australia. I knew this, but the fear was not rational.

I would tell myself there is no wolf, there is no wolf, even as I watched. Finally, the tension would become unbearable. I’d gather my few shreds of courage, then shoot down the slide, sprint back to the house, slamming the door behind me in what I knew was the wolf’s gaping maw, ready to rip me to pieces. Another near miss.

More than thirty years later, there are still times when I see the wolf run past my peripheral vision. When I see it, I realise that I am feeling threatened, and that I need to stop, take a breath, and reflect on what is going on.

Who would have thought that a middle European mythic symbol could so thoroughly enter the psyche of a little Australian girl, who grew up under wide blue skies and white bright sun? Who would have known that it would continue to intimate danger to that girl thirty years later? And who would have guessed that, in its very threat, the girl now receives it as a gift, and takes it as an invitation to reflection?

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A hot shower takes me right back to childhood

 

I love a hot shower; my husband likes it cool. Sometimes in the morning rush, my husband jumps in as I'm getting out. And every time he yelps, steps back, and reaches for the cold. 'How can you have it so hot?' he asks, looking at my bright pink skin.

Let me tell you, my dear. When I was a girl, we had an outdoor laundry; as well as the washing machine, it housed an ancient hot water system. My father would get up at six to light the boiler, and I, who had been mooching around since five, would often go with him and watch.

A brick bunker ran down the side of the laundry, full of hard black coal humped in hessian sacks from a Bedford truck. Mr Wright, the coalman, had twinkling eyes, a crinkly face, a snow white beard, and a big smile for me. Each morning, dad would fill the coal bucket from the bunker and I'd think of Mr Wright; then we'd go into the laundry.

There my father would kneel in front of the boiler, and open the metal door. His large brown hands would carefully lay the fire: first twists of paper, then firelighters, then a careful pile of coal briquettes. When it was built, he would strike a match, reach in, and gingerly touch it in several places. Very gently, cold breath wreathing, he would blow at the fire. Tentative flames would lick up once, twice, then, becoming more sure of themselves, take hold. We'd sit quietly and watch until we were sure the briquettes had caught. Then he'd close and latch the boiler door.

Hands black with cold dust, he'd run the water through a skinny folding spigot into the concrete laundry trough. The boiler was still heating up; the water was always freezing. My father would rinse his hands, then roll the yellow soap around and around. He'd rub his hands one inside the other, until his nails were clean and the ridges in his skin were clear; he'd send lather up to his elbows. Finally, he'd sluice his arms, and dry them on an old ragged towel.

More than anything, my father hated a cool shower. For all the care that he took, he was so anxious to ensure that his shower was hot that he'd sometimes overload the boiler. Twenty minutes later, it would boil over, rattling and shaking to waken the dead, shooting steam and scalding hot water all over the laundry roof, ready to take off like a rocket.

'Jooo-oooohn!' my mother would scream, a regular morning wail, 'you've done it again!'

On those days, the water was so hot that steam bumped through the pipes. Instead of warm water, we'd get jets of icy water interspersed with gusts of scalding steam. Impossible to wash in, we'd wait anxiously watching the clock, sniping at each other, until everything had cooled down a bit; then we'd rush through our showers and race out the door.

Whenever I remember this, my face cracks into a loopy grin – and there is my answer to my husband: a hot shower takes me right back to childhood.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Response: Mr g

Mr g: A Novel About the Creation

The creation wars. If you believe the newspapers – and some execrable American school boards – Christians believe that God is ‘up there’ somewhere tinkering away with the creation (one imagines some bearded whitefella fooling around with mud); and physicists believe that it all started with the Big Bang. Never, apparently, shall the twain speak except abusively, and without respect or understanding.

Me, I’m a Christian; I relate to the universe and my place in it through the lens of the Christian story. I also accept the Big Bang as the best scientific explanation of how the universe came to be, and evolution as the best explanation for how life began and takes the form it is now. I don’t see this as a contradiction, because I have faith in something bigger than can be encompassed by one religious framework, or one set of faith stories; any religion can offer only a partial glimpse. It is arrogant to the point of hubris to suggest that any human being or religious system has full knowledge, or can begin to fathom the size and extent of the universe, let alone the vastness and nature of what I, in my religion, call God.

And that is why I paradoxically loved the attempt of one human being to communicate the size and extent of the universe, and the vastness and nature of God. Mr g, by Alan Lightman, is a novel about the creation. After countless aeons wandering around the Void with Aunt Penelope and Uncle Deva, Mr g becomes a little bored. He is tired of nothingness; he feels like it is time for something. And so, in a playful mood, he dreams up Space. Out of this whim spin countless universes; and with Space, comes Time. Mr g and his relatives explore these new and interesting dimensions, until Mr g decides even more is needed. Therefore, in one universe, he invents matter – and then sits back and watches what happens.

As well as being an author, Lightman is a theoretical physicist, and the story of creation is beautifully described: the Big Bang, the expansion of matter, the development and collapse of stars, the slow movement of atoms into planets and solar systems, and, to Mr g’s surprise, the gradual development of animate matter out of inanimate particles. Even more surprising is the arrival of three new presences in the Void, particularly Belhor, a conversational sparring partner for Mr g.

These developments provoke many conversations in the Void. Will the animate matter have a soul? Will it experience suffering? What is the role of Mr g: to intervene, or to stay away from the creation? Animate matter longs for eternal life; can Mr g grant this? The conversations bring out different religious assumptions: Uncle Deva represents the Eastern; Aunt Penelope, the Greco-Roman; and Mr g, the Abrahamic faiths. Through all, Belhor plays Devil’s Advocate, arguing, for example, for the necessity of evil and ugliness now that goodness and beauty have come into being.

These thoughtful conversations are never turgid or heavy; rather they are brief exchanges interrupted by somersaulting demons and Mr g’s need for a long meditative walk to think things through – but they cut straight to the heart of the big questions. And just as the Christian scriptures tell stories of God evolving in response to human need, the eternal Mr g finds that he too is being affected, even changed, by his own creation.

Lightman is a beautiful and lucid writer, playful and evocative, and manages in this novel to convey, to some extent, the unimaginable vastness of Space and Time. If you are a rigid, conservative Christian, there is no question that you will find this book and the representation of God highly offensive, even blasphemous; you have been warned. But if you have a bigger idea of God, or if you are open to the idea of a curious, thoughtful, experimental supreme being, then you too might fall in love with this wonderful novel, and the way it allows scientific and religious stories of creation to lie not in opposition, but nested gently into each other, right where they belong.

Friday, September 27, 2013

A honeymoon period

A little while ago, my husband damaged his back. This has meant a stay in hospital, followed by therapy and rest. After six weeks, he's finally returned to work full time, but he's still exhausted; this healing business takes time.

You'd think that I've been upset, anxious and afraid – not to mention exhausted, frustrated, and annoyed. But to my surprise, I wasn't, not at all. Cool, calm and collected more accurately described my state of mind. 'Right,' I thought, 'honeymoon's over. Time to get to work.' So I ran the household. We usually split the childcare, but I took on his kindergarten and school runs, and the hanging round the park between pickups. He usually cooks one night a week, but that couldn't happen, so I've done that too; and he usually does the grocery shopping, but not this month. The cleaning, washing and everything else are my responsibility anyway; and to cap things off the kids first got a virus, then threadworms, which meant washing extra linen and scrubbing the house.

On top of that I read a bunch of books and articles and wrote almost 5,000 words for university, and penned a couple of columns, and drafted and recorded half a dozen short pieces for a new project. So you could say I've been busy.

And it all felt fine.

Our relationship kicked off fifteen years ago, during a time of tumult. He was getting divorced, my mother was dying, we fell out with first one church then another, I had an abusive employer, he stepped up to a major new role at work, and so on. The first couple of years we were together were really, really hard. Things were just settling down when we had a couple more significant deaths, and our first baby, which really knocked us around; but the last seven years have been a breeze!

And at some level, I've been waiting all this time for the next thing to happen, because living on an even keel can't be normal. Now that something has happened – thankfully nothing too major – I realise I've experienced the last half decade as a honeymoon period.

So instead of being upset, all I can think is, what a lovely thing to realise about one's relationship!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Washing the dishes by hand

 
When my second daughter was almost a year old, we bought a dishwasher. I had chronic eczema on my hands, related to the many forms of washing that come with raising small children; using the dishwasher made a huge difference to my skin. I was pathetically grateful to be able to shove the baby bottles in and have them washed while I got on with other tasks. For five or six years, I sang its praises.

Now my kids are older, and we have moved to a house with a dodgy dishwasher. The machine fits relatively few dishes; then thunders away for an hour or so only to render the dishes less than half clean. We soon decided we had to replace it with an efficient, effective model. However, we haven’t had much spare cash this year; so until we can afford it, we have been washing up by hand.

To my surprise, we have discovered that it’s no big deal. Now we’re well past the stage of three little kids eating five meals a day, and the dreaded baby bottles, the washing up is no longer onerous. I’m beginning to realise that I don’t want to replace the dishwasher; instead, I just want to rip the faulty one out.

When we had the dishwasher, I used to spend a long time loading it, arranging and rearranging to fit the maximum in. It was like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. Then I washed whatever didn’t fit. Now, I spend no time loading the dishwasher. The time I once used to load it is now spent just washing up. The things that went in the machine – cups, plates, bowls, cutlery – are quickly washed in the sink. The things that didn’t go in the machine – plastics, saucepans, knives, bread boards – I always washed by hand anyway. So rather than spend ten minutes loading the machine, then doing the leftover washing up, I now spend fifteen minutes doing the washing up, full stop. If anything, it’s quicker.

Our former machine was relatively quiet. Even so, you could hear it in the background for the hour or more it took to run through the cycles. Every evening was punctuated by swishes, gentle whirrs, and gurgles from the sink. Now, once the dishes are washed, the house is silent: no humming, no machine noise, no gurgles. I am enjoying the quiet.

We don’t have a dishes roster. Some nights, my husband and I do them after the kids are in bed. It’s not a bad thing, because of instead of going straight to our separate books or screens, we have a chat over sink and tea towels. It grounds us, and helps me feel like we are sharing the tasks of homemaking in a small, but not unimportant, way.

Other nights, we do them with the kids. We put on dance music and the kids wiggle their bums around as they dry. Sometimes, my nine-year-old washes. There are evenings when everyone grizzles about having to contribute, but they always step up in the end; ultimately, they can’t resist the music and the chance to dance with mum and dad in the kitchen!

Studies have shown that kids who have chores around the house tend to have good outcomes; it really is character-building. I reckon this makes sense: there’s nothing more demoralising than feeling useless. Yet we live in an age of labour-saving devices, compounded by a culture of perfection; and this seems to mean that many kids make no practical contribution to their households. At the extreme are the kids I know (aged 6, 7, even 8) who have looked at me blankly when I put out bread, butter and fixings; they have never been entrusted to make their own sandwich and don’t know how to start, let alone hold a knife.

My partner and I are too disorganised to assign formal chores to our kids. Occasionally, in a burst of good intentions, we give them specific tasks, but we rarely enforce them (and to those of you who have functioning rosters, I salute you!). However, the dishes have become something that the kids can do. It’s hardly the level of responsibility many children have, but it makes them feel useful, and communicates that they are contributors to family life.

The kids also set the table. With that job comes a privilege: to choose which plates we will eat from. I inherited a pile of old English crockery from various family members. The pile is constantly added to by my slight crockery addiction; I am forever picking up plates at op shops. But when we had the dishwasher, we rarely used the old stuff. It didn’t stack well in the machine; and I couldn’t bear to have the hand-painted designs worn off by the heat and powerful soaps. The crockery became a collection. However, since we began washing up by hand, we eat in vintage style. My kids prefer plates ringed with roses, or marigolds, or mixed bouquets - everything tastes better on a pretty plate!

The plates get me telling stories: about grandmothers, and families, and other houses I have known. Later, as we wash up, I keep remembering: the extended family and the meals we have shared; the view out the kitchen window of my childhood home; the sight of my father washing up every night; different group houses and their grotty kitchens; church kitchens and tea towel fights. And here am I, far down the great current of time yet still surrounded by a host of loved ones as I run water, squeeze soap, swish plates and scrub pans as has been done for time immemorial.

It may not be for everyone. But for me at this life stage, for the quiet, the ease, the opportunity for contemplation, the conversations I have with partner and kids, the dancing round the kitchen, the pretty plates, and the richness of the memories: well, I have fallen in love with washing the dishes by hand.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Failure and success

I never feel ‘successful’, whatever that means; instead, a vague sense of failure dogs me. It’s my own doing. Over and again, I have made choices to do what felt like the right thing, and which almost invariably moved me further away from conventional definitions of success. I’ve stayed home with kids for almost a decade; I’ve studied for love not employment; I’ve puttered around on blogs with no ambition or marketing plan; I’ve submitted writing to other outlets only occasionally and have barely tried to get published; I’ve never written a book or something ‘proper’; and now, when my youngest is almost ready to start school, I’m still not looking for a real job. Instead I’m studying again, this time for a higher degree in a field which I find fascinating but in which I see no prospect of further work.

Meanwhile, when I’m not studying, writing, cooking, or hanging out at the playground with a little one, I’m usually to be found in a classroom reading with kids. I’m not a trained reading recovery aide, just one of the countless mums who help out. Or I’m chopping veggies in the school canteen, or writing materials for my church community, or gardening, or doing something else for free.

As the feminist daughter of a professional woman, boy am I a failure. Despite my class, education and training, I’ve joined the great invisible unpaid workforce that keeps the world going. I don’t doubt that this is good work, but I am regularly assailed by the thought that I should have Achieved Something by now. Surely, to be a ‘successful’ person I should be earning a solid income, have results to show for my efforts, have a professional name. And I don’t. This idea of being ‘successful’ plagues me. Time and again I grapple with it, and time and again I reject it. But the rejection is never complete; slowly, the hunger builds once more, and I have to face up to it again. But why?

Perhaps the answer is found in religion. Garry Deverell, a brilliant thinker and theologian, has observed that we live in a deeply religious society. He isn’t talking about ‘Christianity’ or ‘Islam’ or ‘secular humanism’ or any of the other major faith-based observances. Instead, he understands religion to be the upholding of the cultural myths and assumptions that shape our values and our lives. In our society, one of those myths is ‘success’. More precisely, it is to be more successful – more highly educated, better paid, living in a bigger house with more stuff and a nicer car – than one’s parents; and this is what so many of us strive for.

My husband’s family is a classic example. Papa was a milkman who left school at 14 to accompany his dad on the milk run. His wife, Nana, worked as a tea lady to put their girls through high school and Dorothy, my husband’s mum, continued training to become a teacher. She married, and both my husband’s parents worked to put their boys through private school. My husband went straight to university, climbed another rung on the professional ladder, and became a lawyer. By most standards, this is a story of a successful family; and the story has, in fact, suited my husband well.

But when one lives differently, through choice or otherwise, the powers that be try to force you into conformity. Sometimes they attack from the outside, through the snide, diminishing comments of others; through the admonitions to get on board from conservative politicians and pulpits; though the social pressure of a particular milieu. Other times, they work from inside; the dominant powers become internalized, and they can do their most powerful work from within.

And this is, I think, what happens to me. Both my parents had postgraduate degrees. Moreover, my mum was a feminist trailblazer; and I must have been told a thousand times what a brilliant, incredible, gifted, prophetic woman she was. Then she died young: a life cut short, a tragic loss, God’s gift taken away too soon, blah blah blah.

I can’t possibly live up to her standards, let alone exceed them. To step out of her shadow I’d need to have written half a dozen bestselling books by now and have a fan club of thousands, and that sure ain’t happening! So I haven’t tried. I have deferred a career, if indeed I ever develop one, and instead I have tried to become a whole person, ‘living my prayer and praying my life’ as we say in our weekly church service.

It is, I think, a good way to live, but it comes at a cost: the cost of feeling like a failure; the cost of having to face up to that feeling again and again and tell it where to go; the cost of being criticized by others for not being a paid up participant in the workforce; the cost to my self-esteem (a sense of failure can be corrosive even when I understand how and why I feel this way); the cost of negotiating power and responsibilities in our marriage when my husband is very busy very important very paid and I’m not; and, of course, the cost of less household income.

These costs are the consequences of my choice to live in a way that is not improving on my parents’ lot and is not based on acquisition or wealth. I’m hardly a radical hippie, but even my small step off the hamster wheel has its price. A failure? In our society, with my background, how could I feel like anything else?

Yet life is full of paradoxes. The other day I studied for a few hours. I had ordered a book through an inter-library loan; surprisingly, it turned up as microfilm. So I had to re-teach myself how to use a microfilm reader, which was fun. Then I read like a mongrel. Book gutted, I headed to the shops and bought a swag of groceries; then I collected my youngest from kinder and we went home for lunch. Some good ideas swirled round my head as we hung out the washing and she chatted. We picked up her sisters from school, came home again, fooled around, cooked dinner, read stories, and went to bed.

As I lay there, I reflected that this smaller, less successful life suits me well. I move so sweet and fast that I often feel like I am dancing; even as I type, my hands float over the keyboard in swift and skilful play. According to my own lights and that of the world, I may be a bit of a failure; even so, I am surprisingly, even ridiculously, happy.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Love your neighbour with dollies and eggs

I was in the backyard with my youngest daughter, pegging out the socks, when my neighbour’s head suddenly popped up over the fence. Her eyes were just visible as she told me that she had been given two dolls, dust collectors, and she wondered if my girls would like them.

***

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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Childcare and takeaway are not enough for me

You know, I have this illusion that I’m the normal one around here. But every now and then I have a conversation which makes me realise that I dance to the beat of a different drum. Maybe you also dance to its beat; maybe you struggle to hear it amid the chaos of life – but if it’s not your drumbeat at all, you probably don’t read this blog!

Anyway, six months ago, we moved house. We didn’t move far; two miles, to be exact. But we moved from an unfriendly street to a friendly street; and, in particular, we moved to be a few doors up from some special people. Other friends, who hear our drumbeat, cheered us on; but many couldn’t understand it. And at the old school, which we attended for the last few weeks of term after moving, I was standing with a group of mums at pick up time when one of them asked me about the new house. ‘It’s great,’ I said, ‘we’ve been there a month and already we’re sharing a meal or two a week. The kids go back and forth a bit between the houses and so they’re more engaged and asking less of me.’ I was ready to say more – about Friday movie nights (for the kids) and wine (for the adults), say, or about sharing the lawnmower or the rice cooker or babysitting – when a woman interrupted. ‘What’s so great about that?’ she asked, slightly contemptuously. ‘Childcare and takeaway, that’s what you need; why would you want to get involved?’ And half the women in the group nodded, and looked at me as if I were the strange one.

And that, folks, is the moment I realised that we dance to different drums; and the drums are so different that I couldn’t answer her. While I stumbled for words, another woman cut in. ‘I can’t stand the idea of neighbours,’ she said, ‘I ignore mine, and always keep my big gates shut and locked.’

Thank goodness the school bell rang and the kids poured out, because I was flabbergasted. I just can’t imagine not sharing my life, especially as a parent. I feel suffocated at the idea of living with just partner and kids; the nuclear family is not enough for me. And when I think back to how important so many adults – friends and neighbours – were to my childhood, I can’t imagine raising my own kids without the same crowd of people in their lives.

Even more, I can’t see that purchased supports are any substitute for the shared life. While I’m not against either childcare or takeaway, and use them from time to time, they’re not enough for me. I also want old friends and new acquaintances and neighbours who hand food over the fence; I want to eat with many different people, and often.

Many Friday afternoons, the kids all play here while my friend-now-neighbour works from home and I cook up a pot of something; then the kids run down the street and flop in front of a movie at the other house. I follow a bit later carrying my big pot, and my friend and I tell stories of the week over a glass of wine while dinner cooks and we wait for our partners to come home. Together, then, we all eat and talk about work and writing and ideas and politics, and remind the kids of their table manners; then my partner and I whisk our kids home to bed.

Childcare and takeaway vs a glass of wine with a friend, an interesting conversation, and a two-household mutual admiration society? They don’t even begin to compare!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Work, Study, Housework, Homemaking: Some definitions

 

In my last post, I wrote about work-life balance. I've spent my whole adult life wondering about the nature of work; yet in that post I used the word without definition or clarification. Now I'd like to unpack it.

The day I wrote that post, I used the word to mean 'activity which is not directly related to managing children or the household'; that's what I always mean when I say 'work'. My husband works: he goes out of the house and does stuff which is not related to spending time with children, cleaning the house, washing clothes, or buying, preparing and serving food. Certainly the money he earns contributes mightily to the upkeep of the household, but when he is 'at work', he is not engaged in a hands-on way.

When I say that I 'work', I mean that I am studying or writing. I don't differentiate, when I speak, between all the aspects of 'studying' and 'writing', such as reading, mining bibliographies, meeting with supervisors or other students, attending seminars, collecting library books, sighing over crappy drafts, or gazing out the window wondering what the hell I'm trying to do. Nobody needs to know precisely what I do in those hours, just as nobody outside accounts needs to know when my husband meets with a client, drafts a document, ducks out for sushi, or gazes out the window wondering what the hell he's trying to do, too. Like him, I just say 'work'. It's easier that way.

So for me, 'work' is industrious activity outside the orbit of the household. Because I study, it's not financially remunerative; maybe one day it will be.

Why do these words matter? Quite simply, because language is powerful. I have found that if I say 'it's my study time', someone will always suggest meeting for coffee or doing an errand; and when my study times are measured in three hour blocks, this is disastrous. On the other hand, when I say 'it's my work day', nobody asks anything of me. We take 'work' much more seriously than 'study', even if the person using the word 'work' really, secretly, means 'study'.

It's magic! And it's crazy. Meanwhile, an old friend of mine recently worked out how much time she has spent breastfeeding her very young baby; it was many more hours than full time employment, and didn't take into account the time she has spent changing nappies, washing, or caring for her two-year-old. Yet her activities don't fall into our economic or political models of work, despite being physically and emotionally demanding, very time consuming, and of enormous benefit to society. Why do so few of us describe caring for young children as 'work'?

I cannot count the times I wanted to punch someone when they asked me, the mother of three pre-schoolers, when I was going back to work. If, as regularly happened, they went on to say 'it's such a privilege to be able to stay home', I'd have to sit on my fist. Caring for three young children always felt like work enough for me, especially as I often also cared for an extra child or two. If, however, I had been employed as a childcare worker – and put my own kids in paid care to do it – everyone would have given me a pat on the back for re-entering 'the workforce'.

Many mothers I know privately describe their paid work as 'time off'. When they're 'at work' they can concentrate with no interruption; they can grab a coffee and have a few minutes' peaceful contemplation; they can use their minds and training and see the fruits of their labour; they earn money and status because they are 'employed'; and they can pee alone. Once they collect the kids, they're feel like they're on a hamster wheel of taxiing, cooking dinner, listening to readers, washing dishes, bathing kids, tucking them into bed, putting on a load of washing, sweeping the floor, hanging the washing out, and preparing lunches for the next day.

I used to think these friends of mine were being funny when they described their jobs as 'time off', but now I have more time for 'work', that is, study and writing, I see how right they are. It is so affirming to do things which use a bigger skill set; I am beginning to feel like a fully-fledged adult. Study and writing and meetings and seminars do feel like time off (not to mention that blissfully empty time, the commute); even so, I jealously protect the time with the powerful word, 'work', to describe it all.

So what are the activities I rarely describe as work? Unlike my old friend, I'm no longer breastfeeding or changing nappies, thank goodness, but there's still the cooking (don't run in the kitchen, I'm using the big knife), cleaning (I only mopped yesterday, just look at this floor!), laundry (that's two outfits for the day young lady I don't care if it's dirty you're wearing it again tomorrow), washing up (how many cups did you use today???), taking children to and from kinder (where's your lunchbox?) and school (where's your helmet?) and piano lessons (didn't you practice???), braiding hair (I asked you to brush it), working in the school canteen (no you can't have a cupcake just because I'm here), reading with my kids (use a bookmark, not my shopping list/your shoe/a used tissue for god's sake!) and school kids, organising playdates (no you can't watch YouTube when you have a friend over), telling my kids to sit up straight and chew their food properly and put your knees down at once!, shopping for food and shoes and birthday presents, organising church suppers, pruning the roses, telling my kids to use a tissue and put it in the bin!, changing the sheets, overseeing tooth brushing, scrubbing muddy handprints off the walls, combing out nits (sit still!), calling and waiting for tradies, wiping down the benches, taking kids to the doctor and dentist and hairdresser, planting, weeding and watering veggies, reminding kids to put your damn clothes in the wash/away/does this floor look like a laundry basket?, managing multiple food allergies and intolerances (is that really worth eczema and stomach cramps?), feeding the school chooks and guinea pigs (don't squeeze the poor creature!), doing the family paperwork (when did your teacher give you this form?), fixing things (exactly HOW did you break it?), paying bills (do you think we're made of money?), and a thousand other activities.

Some want to describe all this as 'work' – and there are times when I do, too – yet I am largely reluctant to use that word. It's an uphill battle to reframe language. Most people use 'work' to mean 'job' or 'employment'; it's not automatic to use it for household duties. In any case, all these activities are about our primary relationships, and I don't want to reduce the enormous richness and complexity of running a household and caring for children to a set of economic activities, which is what 'work' usually suggests; family life is so much greater than that. Finally, paid work is not 'time off' or a pleasure for many people; it's the job they do so they can afford a roof over their heads and kids under the roof. To describe maintaining that home and caring for children as 'work' when those activities are experienced as a great privilege and a pleasure is, to many people, bizarre.

So I feel the need for another word. 'Housework' doesn't begin to cut it; to me, the word evokes a low heeled woman wearing a frilly apron and carrying a feather duster, and it completely overlooks all the relational aspects of caring for children and maintaining other household relationships. 'Housekeeping', too, doesn't quite fit because, like 'housework', the word is focussed on the physical structure of the house and doesn't provide for the people within it. If you employ a housekeeper, you also need a nanny; housekeepers don't care for children or anyone else.

Another possibility is the word 'homemaking'. It's a word that largely connotes women's work because of a social history in which women have spent the last however long as the primary workers in the home and carers of the people in it; in fact, some dictionaries go so far as to define it as a role some women (not men) adopt. And yet, on reflection, homemaking is not a verb which is intrinsically gendered: every man, woman and child engages in homemaking in some form or another.

Just think of the child who carefully places a pretty snail shell on a shelf; the man who takes out the garbage; the woman who sweeps the floor; the kids who build a cubby; and the baby who by her cries draws the household near. They are all homemakers, building the place where they live and shaping the relationships they have with the other people there.

So the home includes the place, and the objects and people within it; the members of the household co-create and maintain the place they call home through physical labour and relational work; and I can call this activity 'homemaking'.

I've found a word I can work with. I will continue to call any industrious activity outside the house 'work'; and all the things I do in and for the household I will call 'homemaking', instead.

Re the picture: Query: Are the dishes work? Answer: Not for me. They're homemaking. And I must admit, I rather enjoy splashing round in the sink! But as for scrubbing the loo... blech. Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women are Worth

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

How I came to own the philosophy of work-life balance naked, wet, at seven o’clock in the morning

 

I was in the shower, steam everywhere, when someone walked into the bathroom. I twitched open the shower curtains to peek and there was my four-year-old, sitting on the loo and swinging her legs. 'Hi Mum,' she said, 'we're going to the zoo. Are you coming?'

It was school holidays. My husband had taken two days off work to be with the kids and free me to study; apparently he was taking them to the zoo.

As the water pounded my back, I shook my head and said, 'No thanks, today I'll stay home and do some work.'

'Because it's more important,' she said wisely, then gave me a kind smile.

Such a dagger to the guts. I grew up in a house where my mother's work was more important than everything else, and didn't we know it. As children, we were given to understand that we were highly treasured and highly privileged; as such, other less privileged people needed her time more than we did, and we were never to complain. I often dreamed of having a stay-at-home mum, the sort of comfortable person who enjoyed being with me and who baked cookies. And yet, when I spent time with other people's stay-at-home mums, I often didn't feel very comfortable; and it wasn't actually something I wanted from the woman who was my mother. If she'd stayed home, she would have gone berserk, and driven me crazy in the process. She drove me crazy enough as it was.

But I resented the primacy of work in her life; everyone else knew her better than me. And my sister and I spent so much of our childhoods just waiting. We'd hang round church for hours, waiting for her to be done, and not allowed to leave without her; we'd hang around the house waiting for her sudden gallop through the hall, clutching a pile of papers and yelling at us to hurry up. We'd sit on the back step after school, hot, thirsty, and busting to pee, waiting for her to come home from wherever she was and let us in; for years, we couldn't have a key because she worried about 'latchkey kids'. (As to whether being a 'doorstep kid' is worse, I'm not sure; I certainly was happier when I could let myself and get a glass of water.)

I can see that the stressors on her were enormous. She was a ground breaker in her field and worked far more than full time, yet she was also never able to relinquish the idea of the 'proper mother'. Despite her work hours, she also tried to iron the sheets and make pizza from scratch and pretend that work had no impact on her children. I can see this and I feel sad for her; but I'm still not at peace with her choices. I have no problem with parents working, but they have to make good arrangements for their kids. So when my four-year-old asserted, very comfortably, that my work was more important than wandering around the zoo with her, I felt sick.

Was it true? I wondered. Did I really think my work was more important?

Well, when it came down to it, probably yes. She hardly needed both parents walking her through the butterfly house, and her dad would do a good job. I had spent the last three days fooling around with her, her sisters, and their assorted friends, and now I needed to do something different. On the other hand, working wasn't more important than spending time with her, per se; it was just more important right now. Such old scripts and philosophical knots one has to untangle in the shower while a four-year-old is staring fixedly at one's breasts!

All this reflection happened in a second or two. Then I said that work wasn't more important; but that what was important was to have balance. 'I need to play with you and read you stories a bit, and I need to work a bit, and I need to cook, wash and clean the house a bit. I've done lots of playing and reading and cooking and cleaning and washing this week, so now it's time for some working. And I can do this while you're at the zoo.'

'Okay,' she said, as her eyes travelled curiously up and down. It's too cold for regular nakedness in my house and I realised that it had been a while since she'd seen me undressed. She hopped off the loo, flushed, washed her hands, took one last good look, then wandered out of the bathroom.

So that was how I came to own the philosophy of work-life balance naked, wet, at seven o'clock in the morning. Meanwhile, with any luck, my four-year-old learned two things. One, that balance is important. And two, that some adult women have pubic hair.

Thanks to her dad for the photo of the hand and the butterfly!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Learning to live with enough

 

Studying, school holidays, blah blah blah: sadly, I have nothing new for the blog. Instead, here's a piece I wrote for Zadok Perspectives No. 117. It was first published in the summer of 2013. The picture shows a selection of this week's gleaned fruit: persimmons, grapefruit, lemons, and cumquats. Another two kilos of grapefruit are in the veggie crisper. More than enough, even for grapefruit-loving me!

***

As a teenager I lived in the US, and I never became accustomed to the waste so many North Americans took for granted. It was epitomised by my youth group breakfasts. A boy would pick up a donut, take a bite, and throw the rest in the trash. A minute later, he'd pick up a second donut, a different flavour perhaps, take another bite, then throw that donut out, too. It never occurred to him that there was a cost involved in the donut, bigger perhaps that the dollar someone else had paid for it; or that there was a moral duty to eat it up; and when I, an awkwardly self-righteous Australian and newcomer in their midst, raised the issue, everyone looked at me askance.

He was, of course, only mimicking a wider society where restaurant servings were often double or triple what I considered enough, and where food – and everything – was thrown out with impunity. I recently read that 40% of all food produced in the United States is discarded, and that certainly tallies with my informal observations.

Before we become too smug, however, FoodWise estimates that Australians also chuck out a great deal: 180 kilograms of food waste per person per year. And it's not just food. How often do we send clothes to the op shop because we are, quite simply, sick of them? How often do we update our technology, our furniture or our cars, for no real reason? How rarely do we use things up, or wear things out?

And how much is enough? The population issues that place so much pressure on our planet circulate around this question. How much food, and what type? Is clean drinking water enough or must we drink filtered water from plastic bottles? How many cars, computers or lounge rooms do we really need? I know many women with forty or fifty pairs of trousers; could two or three pairs suffice?

At least until recently, there has been more than enough in the world to go around as long as the rich – and anyone reading this is rich – are willing to live with less. If we learned to live with enough, rather than the gross extravagance we take as the norm, then perhaps population wouldn't be such a pressing issue.

The Christian tradition offers a challenging perspective. The early church lived out a radical fellowship in which people lived from a common purse and learned to be content with enough. To each according to their needs, from each according to their gifts: this didn't originate with Marx but with the Acts of the Apostles. Yet most of us in the Christian church, let alone our society as a whole, have moved so far from this way of life that it is seen as deeply suspect.

Perhaps, though, it is time to revisit it. I am not advocating a radical communism instituted through violence from on high; but perhaps there are ways that we can practice sharing, and practice acknowledging that we have enough. Let me give you some examples from my family's small efforts.

My family eats many gleaned foods, and little meat. We are called to stewardship which implies a careful management of that which has been entrusted to our care. Thus I prioritise 'gift' foods – grapefruit overhanging a laneway, greens found on the roadside, a box of plums from a friend's tree – over bought foods; and when I am shopping, I prioritise local, sustainable or fair foods over others. We also grow what we can in our garden: leaves, nuts, fruits, herbs and, of course, eggs.

Our clothes are mostly second hand or made from organic or recycled fibres. As for how many, I am trying to find the point of 'enough', that is, where I still need to launder very regularly but do not have an underpants crisis!

We use bikes and public transport to get around. We do have a car, which we use as little as possible; over the years, we have been involved in informal car share networks so that other friends feel less pressure to purchase cars of their own.

Most of us own big possessions that are rarely used. Years ago, I belonged to a church with a resource directory. The family-sized tent, the trailer, the food dehydrator, the holiday house – whatever people were willing to share was placed on a list for others to borrow. It not only reduced the amount of stuff everyone owned; it also raised questions. Did neighbours need a deep freeze each or could they share one? Could they share a clothes dryer? Our society's wealth means that many of us have never had to learn how to share anything much more significant that the last slice of cake, but perhaps we could look back to the early church and teach ourselves again.

It's certainly easier to share when possessions are held lightly. For example, we have dozens of wine glasses: they are an annual gift from my husband's workplace and very useful. Friends feel they can borrow them when they have a party, and if some are smashed, then so be it. We also have many books, and years ago I realised that it was better to give them away, and be delighted if they came back, than to be hung up over their return.

These are just a few simple ways we can experiment with 'enough'. Few of us are ready for, or even called to, a radical discipleship where we sell all our possessions and give what we have to the poor; but we may as well practice sharing, right now, just in case the call comes.

And I'll let you in on a secret. Once we realise we have enough, something strange happens. A life which may have seemed short of just one or two things – always one or two things – is suddenly overflowing with riches. We may own fewer items, perhaps, but we learn to be grateful for them; and we become linked into a new community by engaging in the difficult and countercultural practice of sharing. Gratitude and friendship: what more could we ask? The truth of the matter is indeed counterintuitive: 'enough' is the real pathway to abundance.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

From isolation to a crowd

The problem with having three kids is that for eight or nine years you get absolutely no time to yourself. Every moment is spent attending to somebody else's needs and, unless you are disciplined and supported, you will never be alone.

Thanks to my supportive and disciplined partner, we did make time every week for me to read, write, think, study – or just potter round an op shop in the hopes of finding equilibrium, or at least a pretty plate. Time alone was immeasurably precious, and absolutely necessary for me to keep my sanity.

This year, my youngest is in kinder for fifteen hours a week, my partner is still doing some school pickups, and I have more time than I can shake a stick at. Meanwhile, my kids have passed some threshold of childhood and, rather than spend all their time with me in the kitchen, now play together outside or at the other end of the house; and so even when there are kids around I often find myself alone.

You'd think this would be fantastic; and don't get me wrong, I'm not ungrateful. And yet, after almost a decade of feeling mobbed, I suddenly feel quite isolated. I spent so many years seeking out and cherishing those precious minutes of solitude that I assumed I am an extreme introvert – but now I finally have the time I thought I longed for, my own company is driving me crazy. I am going round in circles in my head and am assailed by doubt and when I see friends I feel socially awkward – how anyone can do a higher degree without going right out of their mind, I don't know!

Today I was affected to the point that I struggled to concentrate, and I had to wonder if studying is for me; instead of reading and living in my head for five hours a day – something I'm not sure I'm terribly good at – perhaps I should get a job and interact with people. And yet, I didn't come back to academia lightly; it took six months of conversations and discernment with family and friends to decide that, while it may not be the easy thing, it is the right thing for me to do, for now.

So rather inchoately and desperately I prayed something along these lines: 'God, you are asking me to do this and I have no idea why – but I have agreed and will do it. But how will I cope with the loneliness?'

Five minutes later, my phone beeped. It was an invitation to dinner on Friday night. Half an hour later, it beeped again: do I want to go to a concert on Thursday? I finished reading a chapter and opened my computer, expecting no more than the usual slew of subscriber and advertising emails, but an old friend I haven't seen forever had read my blog, and sent a message; another long lost acquaintance had emailed out of the blue; and a close friend was touching base about our Skype date on Sunday. A bit later, my phone beeped yet again: still another friend, reminding me of a gathering tonight that, while not social per se, promises some dynamic conversation with a group of interesting and thoughtful women. And then I received an invitation to a relevant seminar from a lovely woman I knew last year, who thought I might be interested in going along with her, 'given research is a lonely job'. I haven't seen her for six months, but here she was reading my mind.

From total isolation to feeling ever-so-slightly mobbed: I think God was having a little joke.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Nothing to fear

Sometimes I am appalled by my fear. Take Tuesday. Tuesday is my big study day: I have the whole day to read, write and think. Because I study at home, I don't have to get anywhere before I can start work; and because my husband takes my kids to school and kinder, everyone is out of the house before eight o'clock. I don't want to waste time, so there I am at eight, in my pyjamas, reading at the kitchen table. I read hard, wrestling ideas out of academic articles, and making notes about which school of thought their ideas originate from, whether their arguments make sense, and what theses I can think of that might better fit their observations. I mine bibliographies, and track down articles which cite the articles I have read. I troll academic databases trying to locate research which might be interesting or useful; and I am always searching for the 'wormhole' article which will open up a whole new – but highly relevant – way of thinking, and conveniently list everything I need to read in its references. By noon I'm beat. My eyes are rolling uselessly in my skull; my brain is mush; my tummy is rumbling; and I realise I am still sitting in my smelly old pyjamas, at the kitchen table, yet feeling pressure to do more.

I take a shower, eat soup, and think about what to do next. Often I do read and write a little more, but let's be honest: after a four hour stint, I'm not taking much in anymore. The sun is shining, the breeze has a delightful autumn chill, the leaves are falling off trees and the avenues of our city, even in my suburb, are the stuff of picture postcards. I think sadly that I really must stay inside, reading; I have no right to enjoy this beautiful day…

Oh bother that grey old Protestant who pokes me in the ribs with her pointy umbrella! I am not trapped. Anyway, my brain is porridge, and we have run out of gluten free bread. There is one exceptional gluten free baker in Melbourne, and the nearest outlet is a few suburbs away. I ponder an elaborate scheme: I can get to the university library by bus and tram, thus justifying a late tram ride to buy bread before catching two busses home in time for tea. Then again, we're rather short of cash this year and I baulk at paying seven bucks for public transport… everything feels too hard.

But wait! I have a bicycle! I need exercise! I could take a lunch hour and go for a ride! But what route should I take? And then I am stalled again. Because I don't know how, exactly, to get there; I'll have to make it up. And this is too hard.

Every time I think of doing some even slightly out of the ordinary, my brain leaps ahead to worry about this and that; it shows me how difficult, even well-nigh impossible, it is. I dream up schemes, then block myself. Have you ever wondered what it's like to be naturally conservative? This is it – despite a lifetime of reflection, and despite a deep intellectual commitment to change my behaviour as necessary to reflect my ever-evolving values, I still feel anxious about the tiniest new thing: even riding to a place I have only accessed previously by car or public transport. I'm the person who'll meet you for brunch, and will eat to be polite; I won't tell you that I already ate at 7.30 the way I always do because I couldn't cope with skipping breakfast. And if such little things scare me, imagine how much moving house or changing school or learning about the way different people live make me feel anxious and afraid!

I have great empathy for other natural conservatives, even when I profoundly disagree with their ethics, their politics or their efforts to control the lives of others. People like us feel scared, even threatened, by difference and change; and this is why we can get aggressive about matters that are none of our business. It's no excuse, but maybe it helps if you understand that we are often acting out of fear, even when we are using the rhetoric of love. If you see a hint of aggression, an attempt to dominate, a truth claim brandished like a weapon, or violence, you will know: we are afraid.

The thing we conservatives rarely realise is that when we act out of fear we are doing damage not just to you, but to ourselves. When we box ourselves in time and again, we feel suffocated; yet out of fear we keep doing it, forgetting that new situations might be joyful, or helpful, or life-giving. My own truth claim, which I hope I share gently, is that we are called to act in love: love and respect for others, love and respect for ourselves – and we do this well when we step out of our comfort zones. What could we learn by stretching our wings a little? Perhaps we may learn a new respect for other people and how they do things. Perhaps we may learn that the world is far bigger than us and in that wonderful expansiveness there is room for many points of view. And perhaps we may simply learn that the sun is shining, our bodies are strong, life is joyful and we don't have to sit at the kitchen table in our pyjamas all day; we have time to do more than Get Things Done.

This Tuesday, I finally realised fear was trying to trap me, again; and then I admitted to myself that sore eyes and a mushy brain were not going to help me learn anything more. The sun winked through the window and then poked me in the eye, laughing; the wind called my name. I whistled at my fear, grabbed my panniers, jumped on my bike, and headed off. I rode through quiet streets, surfing over speed humps, then veered off into a great avenue of deciduous trees. For once, I wasn't towing a child; my bike flew through the orange and brown leaves dancing in the streets. I headed towards the creek and trundled along the bike path, standing on my pedals to power up each hill and then cruising down the other side. I rode past a school. All the kids were out, playing, and I grinned as I realised I was having so much fun, I had overshot. I turned off the bike path, and slipped back through a couple of streets to get to my destination.

I was heading to an independent natural foods supermarket. At one o'clock, it was packed, and I was elated to see that not every cent in Australia is going into the duopoly that dominates grocery spending. I roamed the store, greeting familiar staff and picking up bread, cheese, yogurt, cucumbers, and a few other things besides. Panniers stuffed to overflowing, I headed home a completely different, also beautiful, way. I realised I could ride there every day for months and go a new route every time; there was so much to see!

Less than an hour after I had left, I arrived home breathing hard and beaming. The sun on my back had relaxed knotted muscles; the wind had blown away all cares; my mind was as clear as it gets; my eyes were rejuvenated and ready to read; and I was in love with my life once again as I realised that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, to fear.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The State Library and the Great Unwashed

I'm sitting in the State Library reading about public health, but it's hard to concentrate. Something smells, really smells: it is the penetrating odour of the great unwashed.

Stomach-churning tendrils ease their way up my nose and I push my breathing high to bypass the olfactory nerves. I look around, but there is no homeless person to be seen. No dreadlocks, no stained old coats, no sleeper at a desk hinting at the origin of the smell.

Annoyed, I turn back to my book. I have a few hours without my kids, and I'm using the time to learn about health and its relationship to social status; but this stink makes it impossible. How can I concentrate when the room smells of urine and muck? And where is the smell coming from?

I keep reading, and breathing carefully, and furtively looking round. Finally I realise that the person is long gone; only the smell remains. It rises from my chair. As my thighs warm the padded seat, the unleashed odours float upwards.

Revolting.

There are no other seats, and I need to read. My jeans are thick and easily washed, so I curse and turn the page.

There I sit: nice jeans, styled hair, warm leather boots, ethically made t-shirt; my heavy winter jacket is draped over the back of the chair; and I am reading that a poor black man in Washington DC can expect to live 20 less years than a rich white man living a dozen miles up the railway line in suburban Maryland.

As I tut-tut over the dying men of DC, a few real DC faces flash before my eyes. Uri, the lean Russian man who slept on the steps of our church. Miss Rosa, the recipient of a food charity program with whom I often chatted in a putrid stairwell. Melvin, the security guard, shot in the shoulder while patrolling our church car park, an injury so common in his milieu he never thought to mention it to his employers.

What a hypocrite! Here am I with all the money, leisure and opportunity in the world, thinking I have compassion because I will read about the social factors of health; but the latent smell of homelessness makes me outraged. Yet until I recognise that the smell belongs to a real person as individual as Uri, Miss Rosa, or Marvin, and as precious in God's eyes as one of my own children, my readings in public health will be little more than a self-congratulatory exercise; very much worse than useless.

In shame I say a prayer for compassion, inhale deeply, and stay seated.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

An evening ride

The other night, kids in bed, I went to visit a new acquaintance. We had things to talk about over a pot of tea. At 8 o’clock it was becoming dark, and I wondered about driving. But for reasons neighbourly, political and environmental, I try to minimise my use of the car. I’ve given up waiting for everyone else to drive less. Instead, as much as possible in a city built for car travel, I ride or catch public transport to get about.

But when it’s dark out, I often find myself wavering. Too many of my friends have been hit by cars for me to ever feel entirely safe on a bicycle; yet the pot of tea awaiting me was a bit too far away for me to walk.

I thought of the car with longing: so quick, so comfortable, so safe. But with a sigh I recalled my commitment. I affixed my lights, strapped on my helmet, and headed out.

The night was cool. As I rode down the street, pedalling steadily, my limbs began to loosen up. The heat of the day was dissipating in a slight evening breeze coming in from the south. I rode along in a perfect state of warm body – cool air: utterly comfortable.

The night was quiet. Once or twice a car cruised by; once, I overtook a man on a squeaky bike. A couple of pedestrians were out walking their dogs. I passed a jogger and heard him puff. A fruit bat erupted out of a tree and flew away heavily. But mostly, it was just me. Me and the night and my thoughts.

The night was fragrant. Every block I rode into a new wall of scent, inhaled deeply once or twice then left it behind. Jasmine, fig, eucalyptus, and many I could not identify. I had ridden the same streets earlier the same day, and had smelled nothing; now, the air was redolent.

I arrived at a softly lit house pregnant with the hush of sleeping children. I parked the bike and locked it up – no engine noise, no big headlights, no electronic beep; then I softly knocked and tiptoed in. The mother made an evening tea. We sat and allowed the conversation to unfurl from the shadows. Small tendrils of talk floated into the lamplight then gently dispersed. It was good.

The night deepened and I left. I rode home a different way, zigzagging past the streets and homes of friends and acquaintances and nodding a blessing towards each one. A sense of exhilaration filled me as bone, muscle and sinew worked together to whisk me along. I revelled in the quiet and the dark, and my olfactory nerves delighted in every rich fragrance.

This, surely, is prayer embodied: gratitude and joy and delight; attentiveness to my body, this bike, and the world all linked in perfect union; and the sure and certain knowledge that I was in the right place at the right time, as I cycled through the night.

Insulated in the ton of metal that is my car, I would have travelled quicker. And the headlights would have seared into the darkness; the intake would have filtered out the scent of jasmine; the comfortable seat would have given me no sense of strength or embodiment; the speed and need to concentrate would have prevented me nodding blessings on my way.

They say life is a journey. I say the journey, done well, gives life.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Response: Little Bee

Little Bee

I don't know about you, but I am tired. I am tired of our government locking up men, women and children in immigration detention here and abroad; I am tired of our customs and naval services being implicated in the drownings at sea of desperate people who have risked death in a leaky boat over certain torture in their own countries; I am tired of having bits of our country excised into special zones no longer eligible for asylum claims; I am tired of members of our government calling people who make legal claims to asylum 'illegal' even as the government itself continues to break international laws and treaties to which it is a signatory; I am tired of hearing people who should know better telling me that asylum seekers are criminals in their own countries, and that they throw their children overboard; and I am tired of reading about it all. I have written letters and signed petitions and volunteered at charities which provide services for asylum seekers; I have written about media portrayals of asylum seekers in the newspaper; I have preached on the ancient prophetic call to care for the refugee; I support family and friends as they study and work with asylum seekers and refugees; I spend time each week with refugee children myself; I pray – and I am so tired.

I have been ground down. I still care, but I feel hopeless. And hopelessness leads to despair, and despair leads to passivity – and that's not a good place to be.

But last week, I read Little Bee. It is the story of two women: Little Bee herself, the teenage survivor of genocide who has fled to England seeking asylum; and Sarah, the Englishwoman Little Bee met on a beach in Nigeria and whom she has come to find. The novel alternates between their voices as their lives become intertwined; and it is the saddest, funniest, most compulsively readable story I have read in a while.

Little Bee is luminous. She has been through the fire; she is deeply traumatised; and yet she has decided to seek beauty in the world's scars. Meanwhile, Sarah is also deeply traumatised by the events of their first meeting and what ensued; but her trauma has been largely blanketed over by the comforts of wealth. Their reunion cracks her mask, and allows Sarah to return from moral death back to life.

Sarah doesn't particularly want to make this journey. When they first met, she made a significant sacrifice for Little Bee, but she does her best not to think about it. As the editor of a fashion magazine, she wishes fashion and make up were enough for her; she would prefer her life to be pleasant and fun. Despite her efforts to be frivolous, however, her deeper moral compass continues to bind her to Little Bee in ways that make her life decidedly more difficult. The novel is both the telling of Little Bee's story, and the chart of Sarah's journey.

The book is very hard going in places, particularly when Little Bee recollects what happened to her village. Horrific events are recounted calmly, but are, of course, deeply distressing. What makes the book manageable is Little Bee's generosity of spirit, and a good dose of black humour. As a coping mechanism to deal with her very reasonable terror of what will happen when 'the men' come, Little Bee works out how to commit suicide in any setting; many of her plans are decidedly comic. For example, she is fixated on Queen Elizabeth II, and in one scene imagines how she will commit suicide at the Queen's garden party.

A further note of humour is provided by Batman, Sarah's four-year-old son, who lives in the costume of the caped crusader and will only answer to that name. Like any four-year-old, he erupts into the most serious moments with 'mine done a poo' and other tricks; and any parent will recognise Sarah's voice as she struggles through a devastating conversation spliced with instructions to her son not to spill cornflakes on the floor.

This humour, and the human side, give the book the voice of authenticity. The story isn't perfect, and the dialogue is somewhat hackneyed at times, but it is a great read. Little Bee's story could easily have become a treatise on the experiences of asylum seekers, both abroad and in Western detention centres; and while these stories must be told, they are easily ignored and don't make for bestsellers. Splicing the story in with conversations about cornflakes on the floor make it both more shocking, and more real, because it brings it home.

As mentioned above, there are several very distressing scenes; as I read in a café in the spare hour between writing with refugee kids and picking up my daughter from kindergarten, I wept over my café latte. It aligned me uncomfortably closely to Sarah, also fond of a coffee, also the mother of a four-year-old – and it was a good place to be taken.

One of the curses of privilege is that one can fall into the trap of thinking that one has somehow earned it, and that one has the right to protect it. One can also feel affronted when other, less privileged, people make one's life uncomfortable – such as when one feels tired, so tired, when one thinks of asylum seekers. Me, I'd prefer they didn't make me so uncomfortable. If they need to come, then of course they should, but it would be so much more pleasant if we could just welcome them and they could then assimilate and become invisible. I am fed up with being made to feel morally uncomfortable because I belong to a society which treats asylum seekers like sub-humans, and has normalised that attitude to such an extent that when I wrote about refugee children in the newspaper, I received letters from people saying it was the first time it had occurred to them that they were just people (!). But somehow my feelings of frustration have spread from government, elected officials and the media to asylum seekers as well. Such are the poisonous times in which we live.

However, Little Bee makes the story of seeking asylum personal; and Sarah brings it home to the comfortable suburbs. As a reader, I am reminded that as a person of privilege I don't have the moral option of feeling despair. I think I'm tired? I should go live in a detention centre somewhere and fill in a form every time I need a new sanitary pad; I should try to sleep when I am tormented by violent memories of what happened to my village and my loved ones; I should live in detention year in year out with no visa and no hope; and then I might know something about fatigue and despair. Or I could read Little Bee again, experience life through her eyes, and then recommend her story to you. Any novel which makes nice middle class women laugh out loud and then weep and lie awake at night, confronted by their own complacency – well, that can only be a good thing. Read it.

(If you've already enjoyed Little Bee, you may also like Wizard of the Crow.)

Wizard of the Crow

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Happiness

On a recent day off, I pottered around. I finished a novel, made soup for lunch, wrote for an hour, weeded the veggie patch with my sister, baked a cake with a daughter, blitzed some chickpeas into hommos for a school stall, and cooked dinner for friends. Late in the afternoon, surrounded by dirty dishes, I was suddenly suffused by warmth, and the words 'I love myself' filled me up like honey. Very surprised, and deeply happy, I ran the hot water, squeezed in the suds, and did the washing-up.

The moment came about not because I sought happiness or self-acceptance, but because I spent the whole day doing things I love for people I love: chopping and cooking, reading and writing, chatting and laughing, and anticipating dinner with friends. I felt competent, relaxed, and cheerful at the thought of the things I was making and those they would serve.

I tell you this because, a month or so ago, I was invited to be a blogging advertiser sorry pioneer for a new website. The website is devoted to making people happy. How ridiculous, I thought at the time; as if life is really about being happy, and as if one should seek happiness out. But I had a look, and my curiosity was piqued.

The site is a subscription service which guides the user through various mindfulness activities. As one works through the exercises, further activities are 'unlocked'. Activities include guided reflections, quizzes, and simple games. I signed up; and I'm writing about the experience because the sort of people who might use this site might overlap with the sort of people who read this blog.

I must admit here that I lasted only three weeks on the site. By that time, I was so infuriated that I chucked it in; but perhaps there are benefits that only a more extended trial would reveal. With that proviso, I will say that I think the site is deeply flawed, and in a number of ways.

First, the site encourages all users to do the activities publicly. When you sign up, you are given a profile drawn from your facebook account (and there are problems inherent in that, of course). Then your responses to and comments about the activities are public, listed facebook style under your facebook badge. So, for example, an exercise might ask you to commit to doing something for somebody else that day; do it; and then write about your experience. Other site users can read what you have committed to, and make comments. They can follow your progress, and if they like what they see they can follow you; thus it is possible to build up a fan base. (I gather there is a private option, but as a blogger pioneer I was pushed into the public stream.)

The problem is that I believe one of the things that make so many people deeply unhappy and dissatisfied with life is that they are constantly comparing themselves to others. The idea that people could comment on my responses, and follow me if they like what they read, made me nervous. I began to think about how to appear cute or intelligent or wise, and then loathe myself for that crawling obsequious bit of me that worries about what other people – strangers! – think.

I found myself self-censoring. As mentioned, one activity was to commit to doing a favour for someone. The thought crossed my mind that I have been pretty grumpy with my husband lately, and perhaps I should grant him a sexual favour. But I was hardly going to write that for all to see, so I put down something else – and then did that other thing, which was to cook dinner for a friend. My husband totally missed out (although he did share in the dinner!). Another activity asked me to list what I was grateful for. At that point, I was delighted that all my effing kids were out of the effing house; but I wasn't going to admit that. Instead, I wrote something completely anodyne: that I was grateful for my kids – which is also true, but not the truth of that moment, and hardly the type of revelation that bubbles out of good honest reflection.

Of course, the act of self-censoring, which was triggered by the public nature of the site, undermined the usefulness of the exercises. Readers of this blog will know that I can be blisteringly honest at times, but on that website I started trying to look like everyone else.

I also began fretting about readership. One of the ways that the site managers encourage bloggers to participate is the promise that early users will get lots of new readers. Now, my blog readership has always been relatively been small, and I'm fine with that. I'm not interested in reading hundreds of other blogs and regularly making soulful or witty comments in order to try and entice readers back to my blog. I pretty much fail Blogging 101 because I don't find social media sites very interesting, and fail to leverage them to create publicity for my blogs. I have never invested in a decent camera or learned how to take great photographs, and I don't really plan to. The blog is what it is, that is, independent, word-based, with the occasional happy snap at the request of some dear friends; and the cost is fewer readers, like it or not.

But here, I began to be tempted by the idea of more readers. I began making thoughtful comments on other people's activities and checking out their blogs; but really, I didn't care about them. I just wanted that elusive sign of 'success': a bigger readership. And then I felt ashamed of myself. In my experience, shame is not something that leads to great happiness; and it was when I recognised the shame that I signed off the site.

The thing is, I can't manufacture genuine relationships with constructed and highly edited identities on the internet. Sure, I have a couple of e-friends that I've never met, but the people who really matter are those who know me well, who like me when I'm striding out in confidence and sit by me when I'm crumpled in a corner of the pub, overwhelmed by my doubts and fears and that ill-advised third glass of wine. What also matters is that those same people trust me enough to tell me what's really going on in their lives and don't feel the need to edit, to make themselves seem more funny or intelligent or kind than they really are.

So I'm not interested in commenting on the reflective activities of people I have never, and will never, meet; nor am I interested in what they think. It's impertinent. We know nothing about each other's background, upbringing, values, or daily struggles; we have no idea if the other is being genuine and have no way to call them to account if their online presence has no continuity with their daily life. It is unreal and dissatisfying and makes me uncomfortable; I really only trust flesh-and-blood, warts-and-all, relationships.

The website sets a minimum quota of activities for the week. In good faith, I will suggest it is to inculcate the habit of daily reflection (I could be more cynical); practically, it means visiting the site at least three or four times a week. I found myself worrying about when to do another activity to get the week's quota, and it became another Should in my life, which is the last thing a mother needs. Worse, each time I turned on the computer to do those 'couple of minutes', I turned away from real people and real activities. It wasn't that the site itself takes much time, but once the computer was on, I would quickly move from the site to somebody's blog, and thence to… the massive time suck that is the internet. Best to stay away from the computer, and to use those five minutes for a quick cuddle or folding the laundry, a job I've always enjoyed.

My final point will sound like a quibble, but I think it's more than a stylistic difference: when you do an activity on the site, you get a little message like 'way to go!' or 'well done!'; you gain points for doing activities; and if you earn a certain number of activities in a week, you get a higher status. And this is ridiculous. I am nearly 40; I am highly self-motivated; I hardly need an electronic message of encouragement. I found these 'rewarding' aspects of the site infantilizing. Whereas some of the activities themselves could have been helpful, even maturing, exercises, when I was rewarded for doing them I felt like I was back at primary school. The very process of engaging in a reflective exercise holds its own reward; but the encouragements and gold stars built into the system undermined the potential benefits of doing the activities.

After all that, I must mention the plus side, which is that there is nothing wrong with mindfulness exercises in and of themselves. Anything which encourages people to stop and reflect has some merit; and so this particular website could be useful for someone who has no habit of reflective practice, needs some basic skills, and doesn't know where to look. If you feel in that category, a quick google should reveal the site and you might like to check it out (or check out the links below: simple reflective practice is really very easy). If you do use the site, I would urge you to use it only in private mode. No comparing yourself; no looking at other people's exercises; no commenting on other people's progress. You cannot do the reflections properly unless you feel safe, and that means keeping them to yourself; and you do not want to flirt with the demon of envy, which is fed when you compare what you do with the work of others.

If you feel the need for encouragement, sign up with a flesh-and-blood friend or neighbour, then catch up once a week over a coffee and have a chat about how you're both going. Real people, real relationships, real reflections that are difficult and surprising and make you angry and cause you to weep: these are what will make you feel connected and help you to grow up. This hard work can go on for months and years with no bright and shiny rewards in sight; but from time to time, in my experience, you might just stumble across happiness.

***

Reflective practice is very simple. Notice what you're doing or thinking, and sit with it. Practice saying thank you – to the universe, to friends, to God if you so believe. Listen to yourself and to others. Pay attention to the surprising thoughts and images that bubble up from your core, and ponder them. Be kind to yourself. Be patient with yourself. Tears are healing. There is no need to judge.

Many posts on this blog grew out of reflective practice; the following pieces are among the clearer examples. They do not form a manual. Instead, I hope they give you some hints or pointers as to how you might develop a practice of your own. I write from a Christian perspective and the pieces reflect that, but the methods – sitting, listening, feeling grateful and so on – are open to everyone.

Practicing Gratitude

On silence

Why not love

The voices in my head

Worship, work and play

Praying into the night

Folding Cloth

Peeling Chestnuts

Monday, April 15, 2013

Dreaming of home

I’m still here, still thinking, but the reflective writing has taken a backseat lately thanks to the combination of tomatoes, figs, uni, and school holidays. So here's something from the archives, a whimsical piece reflecting on a dream I had last year. It was first published in Zadok Perspectives No. 116 (Spring 2012).

***

One night recently I dreamed I was in my house when, just for a lark, my sister went for a swing on the ceiling fan. But the ceiling was rotten and fell in; and that is how I discovered that my house was built in the shell of a much larger house, eight or ten times as big.

I found myself in a magnificent dark timbered old hall. Wide creaking stairs rose to a mezzanine which ran around the building. The mezzanine was lined with timber bookshelves filled to overflowing with leather bound books; and glass topped display cabinets held stuffed birds, interesting bones, strange artefacts and other curiosities. Broken rafters dangled down, and through gaping holes in the roof I could see the sky.

I said we should rip out our house and live in this much larger space. How wonderful it would be!

But, said the everyone of my dream, we couldn’t possibly afford it; instead, we should just fix the ceiling of our little house, and ignore the big house in which our house stands. I was left with the sad feeling that this was sensible, but then I thought, Why not do it anyway?

Why not reach out beyond the ceiling, the roofline, the house I thought I had, and find something large and beautiful? Why not rip out the new little neat little clean little house and make ancient history habitable? Much better to have rooks in the tower and holes in the floor in an expansive old house than be limited by a tidy low ceilinged safe suburban home.

Upon waking I found myself wondering, have I made of my soul a suburban home? A pristine place with nothing to make me uncomfortable? Have I ignored the rumblings of loose rafters above my clean white ceiling, the quarrelling of ancient birds just out of hearing, the centuries of history and learning and stories that were in the old books? Have I settled for less?

This is a question of trust, of course; and I suspect that, for the most part, I have chosen to live comfortably rather than push out and discover just how deep is the Christian story, how vast is God’s love – and how exuberantly I could respond.

I don’t really know how to live in the house of my dream, but the vision grips me so fiercely I want to try. My hope is that if I read the old books and examine the bones; if I sit on the stairs and gaze at the sky; if I remove all the rot and listen for birds; and if I reflect on what these things have to say, then through dreams and play and work and silence, I might just find a way.

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