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


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.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Vacations, or why going on a holiday is a really good idea!

This piece first appeared in the December issue of Equip.


Ah, vacations. Pack the car with kids and pillows and bathers and towels; shove in the cards, a box of dice, half a dozen pencils and a bundle of scrap paper; throw in a rounders bat and a few balls, a paintbox, a guitar. Pull on a faded old t-shirt and a pair of baggy shorts, and head to the beach. Or the mountains or the plains or a river somewhere... wherever takes your fancy, wherever you can put up a tent or park a caravan or hire a house. Somewhere simple, somewhere cheap. Leave the computers, the electronic games, the television at home. Forget about your emails, your nice clothes, the urgency in your tone. Get away. Put your feet up. Relax.

Why? Because God calls us to three things: worship, work and play. And while most of us give work a red hot go, filling even our leisure hours with a sense of pressing busy-ness, and while many of us make the time for worship, most of us rarely play. Worse, many of us have largely forgotten how; what so many of us do for recreation doesn’t even begin to restore us.

Most Australians watch three hours of television a day. Television, which bombards us with corporate conceptions of the good life which few can resist; which floods our homes with vacuity and violence; which fills the room so we don’t have to listen to our doubts and fears or the quiet voice: this is not play. The smartphone, so pretty with its bells and whistles, so indispensible, rendering the user so emotionally absent that they may as well not be in the room: this is not play.

Recreational shopping, a relic of Victorian times when the only socially legitimate public places for wealthy women to be were church or the shops; which fills our houses and stretches our budgets with unnecessary junk made from finite resources; which defines us not by who we are but by what we buy: this is not play.

So what is play? Play is not about consumption. It is never really competitive. It’s not another thing to excel at, or to get wrong. Instead, it’s all those pointless unproductive things which absorb you on vacation: gazing out the window; doodling in the dirt; going for a stroll; building a sandcastle; chewing on a grass stem; fooling around with totem tennis; tickling a three year old; reading fiction and children’s books. It’s playing parlour games: beetle, hangman, fan tan, 500. It’s learning to sing rounds, and getting it all hopelessly, hilariously, wrong. It’s preparing a fancy dinner just because you want to, or eating nothing but cheese and dips because nobody feels like cooking.

Play is all about re-creation and restoration. When you play, you are present in the moment; you can let go of your worries about tomorrow, and your ambitions, anxieties and fears. You can allow difficult crazy questions to bubble up and let them hang there, unanswered. Play puts things into perspective. It shows you what is really important – usually less than you think – and leaves enough room for God.

So take a break! Go away! Don’t bother with plane tickets or theme parks or exotic locations. Instead, find a quiet corner of the state with a forest, a creek, or a beach and re-learn how to play.

Teach your kids French cricket. You can’t be puffed up and important when you’re puffed out and you’ve just missed the ball and the kids are running rings around you, giggling. Leave the duties of home. You can’t feel so precious about cooking when the fanciest thing on the menu is sausages. Forget the dishwasher. Show the kids how much fun it is to splash bubbles in the sink as they wash dishes, and dry them, and put them all away. Leave them to it, and they will delight in your trust, and glow with the pride of being useful.

Don’t worry about the camera; you will remember what is important. Instead, just sit. Tuck yourself against a dune, sun your legs and watch the children paddle in the shallows. The sound of the waves, the shirring of the sand, the shiver of the grasses: listen, and in them you may hear the voice of silence.

Go for a walk with your eyes open. You’ll soon see a small thing: a cicada shell, a sun-bleached bone. Recognise the invitation and ponder the brevity of life. Watch the sky and realise how small you are. Give thanks for the time you have on earth. Wonder how you want to fill your remaining days; what would you like to look back on? It’s easy to fill a life with working, watching screens, looking for the right shoes, striving to impress. But is this enough?

Perhaps you’d rather look back on a life filled with gratitude. Do you yearn for pools of calm, those precious times when you were entirely in your own skin and deeply content? Would you like to remember long nights of stories and shared laughter? Quiet cuddles when nobody’s in a rush? Slow minutes observing birds, or trees silhouetted against the sky? Hours of silliness when everyone laughs until their sides ache?

What is worth putting energy into? What is worth remembering? What is worth paying attention to? And how then will you live? When you have pondered these questions, you are ready for home. Forget the souvenir t-shirts and key rings; you have enough stuff. Instead, bring back your new resolve. Unplug the tv, turn off the phone, give away the junk which clogs your house and weighs you down. Sit quietly for a few minutes each day, letting go of what you haven’t done and what you will fail to do; feel the oceans of time ahead of you, instead. After dinner, play a card game, or read, or knit. Write a letter to an old friend. Go to bed early. See what unfolds.

A vacation, taken slowly, can show you how destructive your choices can be: the big house and all the stuff in it; the drive to seek promotion or the next fancy gadget; the impulse to be busy busy busy and never rest. It can give you a healthy distance from the manipulating politics of the workplace, the media, the schoolyard, the extended family. It can liberate you as you realise you are not a demigod, appointed to fix everything; no Atlas, the world doesn’t rest on your shoulders.

More, a good vacation will remind you that you are not a barren person needing to be entertained; you are not a fragile person needing to prove how good you are; you are not an empty person needing to stuff yourself with the empty promises of consumerism. No, in the rest, in the silence, in the playfulness of a proper vacation, you will discover that you are a child of God. You are valued not for what you do, but for who you are; you have far more than enough; and you are deeply satisfied.

So pack your bags with no more than you need, and turn off your phone. Square your shoulders, take a deep breath... and go! Parlour Games for Modern Families Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul

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