Monday, December 21, 2015

Not domestic, not a goddess: Mary the prophet

The gospel doesn’t show us a domesticated Mary, nor are we shown a heavenly queen. Instead, we are shown a woman, a prophet, who is, quite literally, on the road. We see her walking into the Judean hills, visiting with cousins, or giving birth, not at home but in another town. We see her fleeing to Egypt, or on the road to Jerusalem, or outside a house where Jesus is. We see her at a wedding, at the cross, or visiting the tomb. What we don’t see is Mary at home, engaged in domestic duties.

To read more, click here.

Picture by Scott Griessel, found at

Monday, November 30, 2015

Apocalypse Now?

Have you ever been to Venice? Such a beautiful city… But the combination of heavy buildings and rising sea levels mean that this beautiful city is regularly inundated by acqua alta. The waters rise, the sirens sound, and out come the duckboards so the people of the city can walk around. Maps of the projected effects of rising sea levels make the long-term future of Venice look very bleak, indeed.

To read more, click here.

(Picture from,water/Recent)

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Greying, lined, direct, and doing the work of love

Some people I hadn’t seen in a long while came for dinner. “Wow,” said one, “You look so different from when I last saw you. You look so … so … old!”

“Maybe it’s my grey hair?” I suggested.

“Well, yes,” she said, cocking her head to scrutinize my face more closely, “but … it’s also the lines around your eyes.” And then the subject changed and we headed into the kitchen for a drink.

I’ve told the story a few times now, and the response is always the same. “God,” said one friend, “did you poison her dinner?” “What a bitch,” said another. Meanwhile I still think the exchange is hilarious. I do look older than when I last saw her. My hair is turning grey, I do have lines around my eyes. For that matter, I creak when I stand up, my back hurts, my skin is thinning, and hair is beginning to sprout in unfortunate places. So I tell the story because it makes me laugh, and I reckon it’s good to be reminded of my mortality.

I also reckon the story is a good gauge of hospitality. Were my guest’s words such a deadly insult that I should have met them with cold fury? Am I really so needy that everyone must forever pretend that I am young and beautiful? Am I really so important that I should be treated with infinite respect? Well, to all three questions: no, not at all, which is why, when it happened, I laughed. The words weren’t meant as an insult; we don’t need to pretend I am young and beautiful; and I’m not so important that anyone should ever pussyfoot around me and play nice.

Why is plain speaking so rarely acknowledged as a gift? This dinner guest is a dynamo, and has always been blunt. She has spent decades advocating for survivors of sexual abuse, and has regularly crossed swords with the most closed, patriarchal, unresponsive institutions in town. Over time, her words have shaken them up and made them more accountable, and have led to healing processes for survivors. But she has spent so many years talking back to stubborn powerful men on behalf of the marginalised that sometimes she forgets to sugar coat. If that is the price we pay for her to do a heap of thankless, costly, necessary work, then I for one am willing to take it on the chin.

I’m proud to know our dinner guest, glad of her work and plain words, grateful there are people like her in the world. And I’m proud of my grey hair and the lines around my eyes. They’re a record of years lived and babies born and stories told and laughter shared and good work, and she understands this. Like her, I’ve earned my grey hairs, I’ve earned my lines; I don’t need to hide them. And I don’t need my dinner guests to be nice. Instead, I like my guests to be big-hearted people, who are doing the work of love.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

With Open Hands

I would be ashamed to admit just how often I sit in the silence before the sermon and contemplate shoes or ‘shoulds’ or shopping lists. I love shoes, and think about them often; and what with three kids, I am forever making shopping lists. As for what I should do – exercise more, pray more, give more away, call this person, email that person, weed the garden, clean the house, radically change my life for the sake of the gospel – well, what I should do is endless. I will never, ever get through the list of things I should do, no matter how hard I try...

To read more, click here.

Monday, October 12, 2015


So I ordered a latte, and I don’t know whether the barista was having a bad day or whether the coffee shop is going downhill, but I was given a flat white – and the milk was too hot. And if I’m going to spend $3.50 on a coffee, the least they can do is get it right. But, you know, #firstworldproblems...

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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Holy Gossip

Unless we share stories about each other and about ourselves, we cannot know each other. In other words, without gossip, we cannot understand each other’s histories; we cannot forgive each other’s foibles; we cannot form community; we cannot learn to love ... Gossip done well is the glue that binds us...

To read more, click here.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

There should be more dancing

A friend threw a ceilidh for her birthday. She organised a band and a caller, and a big hall, and food and drink, and a heap of friends. The music started, the caller called, and many people danced. It took me a while to warm up. I had a few glasses of champagne, and chatted with a dozen people. But finally my daughter dragged me in and I danced, and I remembered. I remembered going to barn dances when I was a kid; clubbing in my early twenties; and dancing at school trivia nights in my thirties (sad, I know). I remembered a friend’s wedding, and dancing in red heels until it was well past time to carry sleepy children home. I love to dance around my kitchen, but I had forgotten how much fun it is to dance with other people.

We did the heel-and-toe polka, a square dance, and a reel or two. By the end of the night, adults were skipping and giggling and throwing each other around by the elbows as we shot up the reel, and the kids were almost getting good at it. On the way home, my daughters said, ‘We should do this every week,’ and I agreed. There should be more dancing.

Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a wedding banquet”. But I’m not convinced it’s like the stuffy middle class Anglo Christian wedding banquets I’ve had to attend, with lame speeches and bland food and dealcoholized wine. Jesus was Jewish, so I reckon that if heaven is like a wedding, it’s like a Jewish wedding. A friend once told me that one of the good things about being Jewish is that she had to learn to dance. At every wedding there is dancing, and absolutely everyone dances, young or old. Anyone who tries not to looks like an idiot. They are squashed against a wall as the party goes wild, until some old lady grabs them by the hand and drags them into the fray.

So, the kingdom of heaven is like a Jewish wedding. Or, perhaps, a ceilidh. At my friend’s party I watched balding men dance with their young daughters, and a two-year-old totter up the reel, and girls on the verge of puberty dancing with each other, and people in their sixties who couldn’t count to four and did every step wrong but kept dancing anyway. There were friends from other countries and friends with intellectual disabilities and straight people and gay people and country people and city people and Christians and atheists and a pagan priestess. Together these people laughed and danced and communicated across the boundaries of age and sex, culture and capability; and I saw the kingdom of heaven.

I look around the churches, so full of people who find it hard to dance. Like me at times, they sit against the wall and watch, but turn down invitations to participate. And I wonder whether we will enjoy the heavenly wedding banquet, and what we will say when Jesus puts out his hand and requests the pleasure of this dance.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Must I always remember my mother by my failures?

Here we go again: the anniversary of my mother’s death. This year, like every year, it has crept up on me and has been marked not with gentle ceremonies of remembrance, but by my failures.

Friday: I forgot my middle daughter’s athletics carnival. We arrived at school to find athletes buzzing – and my daughter in tight jeans. “Go home,” she said in panicky tears, “go home, and get me some shorts!” I ran to the office and checked when the bus was leaving: three minutes. I asked if they had anything she could wear. They found a pair of bike shorts in her size: brilliant. Eight dollars and two minutes later, my daughter was dressed and ready for the bus. Problem solved; but in the initial forgetting, I felt like a failure as a mother.

Saturday: “I have an itchy bottom,” said someone. “Me too,” said someone else. Worming tablets, eight loads of washing, a whole house cleaned, and five showers later, I was exhausted. And this inability to impress upon my children the importance of washing their hands felt like a reflection of my crappy parenting: yet again, failure.

Sunday: We went for a swim at the pool. Afterwards, my oldest daughter and I decided to stroll home separately from the others. I hadn't brought my bag, just some money in my pocket. I thought we could pop into an op shop and a café, and have a little mother-daughter time. But the bright low sun caught in my eyes, and the whirling sparkles of migraine began. Without my bag, I had no phone to call for help, and none of the pain medication that I usually carry. We staggered home with me on her arm, blind, and I collapsed into bed. So much for op shops, cafés, or mother-daughter time. These things happen; but what a failure.

Monday: We arrived at school. My youngest daughter’s friends were all holding books. Everyone had attained the required reading level, and their teacher had declared a class party. They were bringing in their favourite books and some food to share; we had forgotten. My usually calm daughter looked shocked, then began to weep. I lifted her seven-year-old self into my arms, and crooned and rocked. She wouldn’t come to the library and find another book; she wouldn’t borrow a book from a sister or a friend; she just clung onto me, and wept. The bell rang and I gently lowered her down. I left her in line, a fat tear rolling down her cheek. Fat tears rolled down mine, too. Three hugs from three friends later, and I’m still tear-y.

Yesterday a friend sent me a text: If only your mum could see what an amazing person you are. Weird, I thought. Almost everything I ever did was wrong, according to my mother. Just imagine how she would have ripped into me these last few days, as I failed and failed and failed.
And then I realised my friend had sent the text because it was the anniversary of her death: yet another thing that I had forgotten.

It’s been fifteen years since she died; and fifteen years of me trying to learn that I’m a good enough parent, and a good enough person, for this world. But at this time of year, every year, I forget these lessons along with everything else. All I do is fail, and notice and remember my failures.

Will there ever come a time when I mark this anniversary with the good things about our relationship, the things we held in common? The love of stories? The hours spent in galleries? The relishing of small jokes? When will I remember our joint passion for nooks and crannies and creaky old houses? For serious conversations held with small children? When will I rest in the pleasure we shared sucking the marrow out of lamb chops, and out of life?

Monday, August 24, 2015

Sometimes you forget to take off your dancing shoes

I wrote this in 2009. It was published in the Summer of 2009, in Zadok Perspectives #105. I went to a party a couple of weeks ago, and was reminded of it.


Sometimes you forget to take off your dancing shoes. At least, that’s what my three year old says. She has a pair of pink sparkly ballet shoes which I bought for a dollar fifty at a car boot sale. She calls them her dancing shoes, and she wears them whenever we’re home. When we go out, she wears black Mary Janes. Ballet shoes are no good for running or climbing or doing much other than spinning around the kitchen.

But the other day I found her pink shoes caked in mud. ‘Whoops,’ I said, ‘What happened here?’. She said she’d worn them to the park with Daddy by accident. ‘But,’ she said, ‘sometimes you forget to take off your dancing shoes.’ And I melted.

I desperately wanted gorgeous shoes when I was a kid, but my parents wouldn’t have a bar of it. No patent leather, no white, no pink, no sparkles. After all, such shoes are useless at the park. They get dirty in minutes, and wear out quick.

Of course they were right, and I inherited their values for me. My daughters may wear pink sparkles, but I have only sensible footwear. Of these, I admit, some are fun. One pair of Birkenstocks is printed with flowers; my Crocs are bright green. But they’re certainly not dancing shoes. No matter how funky, even my strappiest Birkies could never be described as fripperies.

How did this come about? Well, if you’re like me and try to apply your theology to every area of life, then footwear and clothing become incredibly difficult. Most are made by workers in terrible conditions, and buying them maintains the situation. Advertisements featuring emaciated fifteen year olds threaten many adult women’s self-esteem so that we become dissatisfied with how we look. Even so, we are manipulated to desire more and more. Shopping becomes a leisure activity rather than a response to necessity, and houses fill with unnecessary goods. So many of us have multiple wardrobes of clothing and piles of shoes, when just a few items would do. It’s abusive, it’s wasteful, it’s greedy, it’s vain.

But having identified these problems, I react. I buy clodhoppers which last for years; and I buy most of my clothes second hand or made at a local workshop. And I buy very little, too little. I live in other people’s cast off jeans and t-shirts, and when I absolutely have to dress up I slip on a pair of black designer pants, very worn and shiny now, and fret anxiously about which of my op shop tops I can get away with. I buckle up my very sensible shoes, and stomp on out.

Yet sometimes we are invited to weddings. I’ve just been invited to two. And I can’t bear to wear, yet again, my old black pants and an ill-fitting top. I can’t bear to wear, yet again, my black Birkenstock shoes, so reminiscent of Olive Oyl; or my ancient crumbling (but almost strappy) Birkenstock sandals.

I find myself thinking about Jesus at wedding feasts, and fetching out the Moet. He loved a good party, and he told parables about them. In one, a king was so disgusted with a guest who failed to dress for the feast that he threw the guest into outer darkness. Sure, the parable is a metaphor for the kingdom of God – and yet just as surely, if we are to celebrate important human festivals which are signs of the kingdom, then we are to dress the part.

Failing to dress well because I’m too worried about being ethical or modest or frugal is just vanity in a different form. It’s saying that my personal theological hang-ups are more important than the vitality of the party. Yet dressing for a wedding is not about me or for me. The clothing helps celebrate something special, a real occasion. We dress up for weddings to mark the solemnity and the joy of witnessing two people pledge to share their lives until death - something that I believe God takes great delight in.

Sitting in the corner looking drab isn’t going to mark the time as holy, or help the festivities along. Sensible garb may be good for parks, but it’s not so good for parties. One cannot dance in earthbound Birkenstocks. They’re just going to make me feel lumpy and grumpy.

So rather than obsess about the abusive aspects of the fashion industry, or the fact that I have no idea where to buy beautiful ethical footwear - issues which keep my wardrobe stiflingly sober and small - I should dispense with my rules here and hope for grace. I should ask myself instead, How can I help celebrate this party more fully, this gathering of God’s people to witness vows, this manifestation of the kingdom? And then do the best I can, accepting God’s forgiveness for what I can’t manage in our society.

So it’s time to head down to the local workshop and find something gorgeous; then hunt down some strappy sandals or pretty ballet shoes to match. Because when my daughter said to me that sometimes you forget to take off your dancing shoes, I realised with a pang that most of the time I forget to put them on.

(This daughter is now 9, and very fashionable indeed! And I now own a pair of red party heels, a pair of blue heeled boots, and a pair of brown heeled sandals. Wow! Change is possible!)

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Goodbye, lounge room! Hello, study!

I have a job which calls for a lot of reading and writing. I don’t have an office; I read and write at home. And when I’m not working, I study, which is also all about reading and writing. And where do I do this reading and writing? Well, until very recently, like so many writers, I worked at the kitchen table.

And so every morning I’d clear up the breakfast dishes and dump them in the sink. I’d wipe the butter smears off the table, and push the ever-growing pile of craft to one end, or perhaps add it to the teetering heap on the spare chair. If the crumbs under the table were too bad, I’d get out the broom and sweep, and if the dishes were left from last night, I’d probably do the dishes, too.

Once the space was bearable, I’d fetch my stuff: laptop from a drawer in the little room off the kitchen; papers from the filing cabinet in the same room; books from the lounge room at the other end of the house. I’d set up and start. Five minutes later, my elbow would find a patch of sticky where someone spilled the jam, which I’d missed while wiping the table down. I’d get up, rinse the cloth, wipe the table once more, and dab at my elbow. Feeling exasperated, I’d make a cup of tea, then sit down again. It’s a miracle I ever started work!

At three, I’d pack everything up. Some days, everything would be put away, and I’d pick up the kids from school. Other days, I’d shove what I needed into my backpack and head to the local library, then return in time to cook dinner. Some evenings, after dinner, I’d go through the whole rigmarole of clearing the dinner dishes and wiping down the table, and setting up again, in order to read and write some more; then putting everything away ready for breakfast.

A few weeks ago, though, we had a minor revolution. A friend is setting up her own place for the first time. She texted and asked where we bought our couch. She said that she’s always loved it and had promised herself that, when the time came, she’d buy the same.

Hmm, I thought. We bought it fifteen years ago, pre-children. Being idiotic DINKS we chose an elegant cream linen couch stuffed with feathers. This beautiful couch is mind-blowingly comfortable. It also shows every speck of dirt and requires punching and fluffing after every sit to reintroduce air into the cushions. It has driven me crazy through eleven and a half years of children; at times I became one of those madwomen who tells her kids not to sit on the couch, and never sat on it herself. This couch has been nothing but a burden to this family: yet another job in a household where the work never ends.

I checked with my husband, then “Take it!” I texted back. “It’s huge and grubby and high maintenance: but if you want it, please take it!” Childless woman that she is, she said she’d love it, and set a date for collection.

I looked at low maintenance couches. Nothing grabbed me. Then I thought more about the lounge room and realised that we don’t actually use it. It’s not just the couch. We don’t watch TV; we rarely watch movies; we don’t read in there. The kids like to read up in the tree house, or on their beds, or flopped on a threadbare couch on the front porch where they can see friends and neighbours go by. My husband reads in the small room off the kitchen; it is lined with novels, and furnished with two wing-backed chairs. I read standing up. And I began to realise that, for all the people who come to our house each week, I can’t remember ever sitting with friends in the lounge room. We’re just not a lounge room family.

As I was thinking this, someone who had a big old desk of ours called. They no longer needed it: should they sell it, or did we want it back? Hmmm, I thought. Maybe we don’t need a lounge room at all. But I do need a study. And the desk was available for collection on the same day that the couch was going out the door.

The way things fell into the place, it was obvious. Even to pause and ponder feels a little silly: first world wondering gone mad. I need a study; we don’t need a lounge; the furniture is practically arranging itself. What’s the problem? And yet it feels slightly daring: Australians have lounge rooms. Everyone I know has a couch and a telly. Does not having them make us too different?

I began to realise that I’ve never thought much about the lounge room; I’ve just assumed we should have one. But this doesn’t take into account who we actually are, and what we actually need. It’s taken several years of crazy-making, and one friend taking the couch and another offering the desk, to realise that things could be different. It makes me wonder how else we live that is not about who we actually are, but is instead just a reflection of our middle class assumptions, shaped by advertising and glossy magazines and other people’s houses.

So we got rid of the lounge room. We now have a study. And today, I didn’t do the great pile of dishes in the kitchen: I couldn’t see them. Instead, I worked, and then wrote this. The desk runs into the middle of the room, with a view to the garden. Books form a comforting wall behind me, and on my right is a battered chair. Once it was the breastfeeding and story chair, but since we moved to this house a couple of years ago, it has been crowding a daughter’s bedroom. Now it is back in the common space. As I write, my oldest daughter arrives home. She wanders in and asks how my day was, then curls up in the chair and begins to read companionably. And I begin to think that this tiny countercultural act – no couch! no lounge room! – might just be a success.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

When children push the limits of our generosity

A couple of years ago, we wanted to encourage our kids in the spirit of giving. We had had a number of conversations with them about comparative wealth (yes, we don’t have many electronic devices, or two cars, or the biggest house in the suburb, but compared to most people in the world we are insanely wealthy); and we wanted them to identify other people’s need, and give something back. So my husband pulled out a TEAR Catalogue and invited each of them to choose something that we, as a family, would buy in their name

To read more, click here.

Friday, June 5, 2015

How do you educate an 'above-average' girl?

Sermons and study take all my words. You can always read a sermon! (Just click on a link in the sidebar.)But I have nothing new for the blog. Instead, here's a piece I wrote for Zadok Perspectives way back in March 2014. I thought of it again as we have recently filled out the forms for high school.


“Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above-average.” With these words, Garrison Keillor hit the nail on the head: I live in a suburb where most kids are treated as above-average!

We expect big things from these ‘above-average’ kids; and so we are regularly caught up in conversations about high school. For decades, Victorian state government policies have pushed middle class families into private schools, with the result that rough boys and troubled kids make up a disproportionate part of the public school population. Parents of above-average, quiet girls know this, and are running scared.

As the mother of a bright and gentle ten-year-old, I experience this fear all the time. Surely, say friends, you wouldn’t send her to the local high school? Surely you wouldn’t sacrifice your daughter to your principles? When are you doing the private school scholarship exams?

And I waver. Of course I want her to have the best education possible; of course I want to give her every opportunity to thrive – and in our system, that implies private school. I have no doubt that she would be pushed harder and further at an excellent private school than at the local high, and I am also worried that classes at the local high will be more about discipline and less about teaching – so I feel scared, too!

But Jesus asks us to live in love, not fear; and when I set my fear aside, I remember that I have other concerns, too. I am concerned about the deep injustice of a two-tier system, where those who are privileged have access to private school, and those who are not, get a lower-status education. I am concerned that friendships with children who have a sense of entitlement and an assumption of privilege will affect my daughter’s expectations, and her soul. And I acknowledge that my daughter is deeply grounded and resilient; she’s not going to let a few rough boys push her around. So, holding these things in mind, I am trying to make a decision that best coincides with our faith, our values, and my daughter’s needs. And several things occur to me.

First, all children are precious in God’s eyes, not just my own kids. I can’t level the playing field and guarantee equal opportunity for all kids, but I can choose not to prioritise my own child’s access to education. Using the public system feels fairer.

Second, my daughter is already salt, light and yeast in the world. She brings her qualities – keen intellect, calm self-assurance, warm hospitality, quiet maturity, a sense of fairness – into every classroom she enters. These gifts will be valuable anywhere, but especially in a place where they are in shorter supply. Instead of removing yet another bright, gentle girl from the public education system, what is needed is for her, and many others like her, to stay.

Finally, I want her to keep loving across boundaries in the particular, not in the abstract. I don’t want her to love ‘those refugees’ or ‘those poor people’ or ‘those indigenous kids’ out there somewhere. I want her to love like Jesus: to love her neighbour, and for her neighbour to be, quite often, unlike her. I want her to stay with her friend for whom she takes a piece of fruit every day; her buddy who doesn’t speak English; those kids she’s friendly with who have low IQs or Asperger’s syndrome or who otherwise make her classroom interesting. Our local high school includes upper middle class to sub working class kids; kids as thick as two planks and kids who are well above-average; kids from 52 nationalities; and kids with various mental health problems. I reckon it’s a pretty good place to practice being a Christian.

Private school may be able to provide a fast-track to university and access to those who will one day be powerful; private school may grant more opportunities for extension; private school may be both more empowering and kinder than the local high. On the other hand, the local high will grant my daughter more opportunities to be a Christian: to be salt, light and yeast in the world; to love across boundaries; to be closer to the margins.

And Jesus never asked us to maximise our opportunities or to race to the top of the ladder. Instead, he told us to love God and one another – from this, everything else flows. So if learning to love is the be all and end all of our life’s work and calling, the local high might be the better choice. Even for an above-average girl.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

My beef with the supermarkets

A friend of mine grew up on a beef farm. I recently asked her whether she thought buying meat direct from a farmer was a good idea. ‘Hell, yes!’ she said. Then she told me how much it cost to buy a cow and feed it, and what it earned at auction. Answer: not much. She had attended many auctions, and watched time and again as the buyers for the major abattoirs and supermarket chains arrived in the same car. Together, they would walk around the yard and quietly decide who would buy which pen. And then, as each pen came up for auction, only one would bid...

To read more, click here.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Oh Christ, is it you again?

It is possible that I drank too much at dinner on a weeknight. Friends were staying, more friends came to eat, and I had cooked for twelve. And a little boy had died. So there was wine to be poured and stories to be shared amidst food and grief and children and confusion.

It is possible that we all stayed up too late, drinking and talking and shedding a few tears. And then we headed to our beds, leaving the dishes for the morning.

It is possible that I woke with a hangover. My husband had left early for work. I crawled out of bed at 7.30, and crept down the hall to confront the mess. The debris of dinner covered every available surface; even the floor was a rice-scattered mess. My six-year-old was crying, ‘I don’t want to go to school.’ One houseguest stood at the sink, chatting, while his one-year-old clung to his leg, wailing. His three-year-old upended something noisy: no better way to get attention in a very full house. I grimaced and began clearing space to make school lunches.

At twenty-five to eight, there was a knock at the door. I knew that my other houseguest was being picked up for work, and so I ignored it. But then, as I stood there in a holey old singlet and saggy pyjama pants, bags under my eyes, hair standing on end, neither washed nor dressed nor caffeinated, I heard footsteps come briskly down the hall.

There was nowhere to hide.

And into the chaos bounced a bright-eyed woman, smiling, introducing herself, and naming our mutual friends.

A brother came to see a certain hermit and, as he was leaving, he said, 'Forgive me abba for preventing you from keeping your rule.' The hermit replied, 'My rule is to welcome you with hospitality and to send you away in peace' (The Desert Fathers).

I read these and similar stories, and I wonder. Did those monks exercise hospitality with children screaming at their ankles? Did they accept visitors with sinks full of dishes and eyes full of sleep and heads pulsing with hangovers?

Were I a spiritual giant, all vanity conquered and magnificent in my hospitality, I would have reached out my hand to greet this woman, and offered her a coffee. But I am not. Instead, I was a mother in a hurry, grotty, embarrassed, surrounded by chaos and clutter and screeching kids, who needed to get to school. And so I said, ‘I’d be delighted to meet you another time when I’m not in my pyjamas’, and turned my back. There was an awkward silence and a few muttered words, which I ignored, and then the sound of footsteps retreating back up the hall. Magnificent in hospitality? Not quite. Rather, it seems that I am magnificent in my rudeness.

I don’t really know what a spirituality of hospitality looks like for a family woman. We are charged with seeking Christ in the stranger, and welcoming all those who come to our door; but so many of our models and stories are monastic in origin. There is no question that I failed that morning, as I have failed so often. But compared to the humiliations and chaos of family life, I reckon the rigours of monastic life look like a walk in the park. How much easier to welcome someone when one's house is not overflowing with friends and shrieking kids!

So I need to balance the stories of hospitality with other stories: stories of monks who fled deeper into the desert; who closed the doors to their cells and ignored the knocks of visitors. I find comfort that they too could be rude, and abrupt, and ungracious. I need to remember that it is okay to assert some boundaries, to claim a small circle of privacy in the mess, particularly when the mess is caused by hospitality already offered to travellers and grieving friends. And I need to remember forgiveness: I can seek out that person soon, and explain, and apologise.

In any case, even those monks who are masters of hospitality experience ambivalence sometimes. In one of her books, Kathleen Norris tells a story that is close to my heart. A monk, charged with perfect hospitality, sees yet another person heading his way. As they approach, the monk seeks to welcome Christ in the stranger. But he is tired, and his heart sinks, and so he can’t help but mutter, "Oh Christ, is it you again?"

The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith

Monday, February 16, 2015

A gift from me to you

My daughter and I were riding down to Carlton on a Saturday morning. Every now and then, as we were riding, I felt a tickle above my left ear. Each time I’d give a quick scratch, trying to set right the choppy piece of hair that was so irritating.

We arrived and parked the bikes. While she went to her dance lesson, I ran errands. An hour later, I picked her up. We got back on our bikes and rode to our favourite café. As we were riding, I felt another little tickle. I scratched. We arrived, parked and locked up our bikes, then went and enjoyed our Saturday chat over coffee and hot chocolate. We went back to our bikes. I unlocked the bikes, put on my helmet, and felt a little tickle. I scratched. And flicked out a cockroach from my hair.

It landed on the footpath in front of half a dozen people, and ran around in dizzy circles while I hopped out of its way, scrubbing at my head and cursing.

My daughter is very kind. Had the situation been reversed, I would have collapsed laughing. She didn’t. Instead, she took a step back, then offered to hold my bike while I shook my helmet and swore and leapt to avoid the cockroach, which had some sort of perverse tracking device which drew it running back towards me over and over again.

This same daughter recently told me that I was indiscreet when we last had head lice. When I found them, I mentioned it to a couple of friends so they could check their kids’ hair. But when one of the mums said, ‘Oh! I thought it was the new shampoo that was making my head itch’, I got the giggles. And then I told lots of people, with great roars of laughter, and my daughter became quite cross. I explained that it was important to laugh at the minor indignities of modern family life. She said I was embarrassing her and her sisters, and I had to stop talking about it.

But now I’ve had a cockroach in my hair. How do I feel? Well, half a dozen strangers and my daughter saw me flick it out of my hair and onto the footpath, then hop around shrieking. I feel slightly humiliated, and sullied and unclean. So I am trying to think about it in terms of how she might feel about head lice. But, ‘You had lice?’ I want to say to her. ‘Well, I had a cockroach! Beat that!’

And actually, I don’t think the cockroach is my fault. So we have occasional roaches? That’s life in a warm city. That one wandered into the crevices of my helmet, then made little forays into my hair, is disgusting, but hardly a moral failing on my part. I find it hard to sympathise with my daughter, who has asked that I never mention head lice again. So we have occasional head lice? That’s life in primary school. That they occasionally make forays into my children’s hair is hardly a moral failing either.

But this is an opportunity to offer up my humiliation as a gift to my daughter, and as an opening to you. So I am telling you about the cockroach, that inch-long light brown glistening beastie, that I flicked out of my hair. I admit that it’s a plan which will probably backfire. When I tell her that I wrote about it she’ll blanch, and say I’m humiliating her all over again. She’s a very kind girl, mature and calm; but she’s also becoming a teenager. And what teenager wants a mother who is known for having cockroaches in her hair? How embarrassing!

Meanwhile you too may blanch and think, what sort of woman has cockroaches in her hair? Isn’t she embarrassed? Well, yes. But that’s the thing about tucking vulnerability into the crevices of stories: one must actually become vulnerable. And even if you blanch and I feel embarrassed I will keep on telling them, because the stories and the vulnerability build bridges which link together you and me.

Yes, this cockroach of mine is a funny sort of gift: a little bit weird, a little bit gross. You are free to ignore it, or to leap out of its way. As with all gifts, I can only offer it. Acceptance is up to you.

This post has been approved by an eleven-year-old.

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