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.


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.

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