Friday, July 29, 2011

Once was a schoolgirl

Recently I visited my old primary school, a place of great pain. It was where I learned to sit down and shut up; where I was bullied by a teacher or two; where I was routinely humiliated in front of the other students. It's a place I still can't talk about without my voice growing strident; I was so scared and lonely there.

For months I have thought to visit and lay a few demons to rest; and one funny Saturday, it felt like time. So we trekked out to the eastern suburbs; my lovely family dropped me off and waved goodbye; and I walked the old path to school. The gates were open, and I ducked in and discovered what a little place it is.

The looming platform where the vice principal used to lecture us has shrunk to the size of a few steps, just enough room for a portly gentleman with a red face to stand as he bawled out several hundred kids. The great banks of the oval, strictly out of bounds and where I used to hide with a book, are barely big enough for a child to stretch out and be invisible from the main schoolyard. The assembly point where I was spontaneously pulled out of line and marched down the hall to a younger grade for the year, thereby losing all my friends and the chance to learn anything, has been subsumed into a new building. The classroom of my most vindictive teacher was shut up, of course; but even from the outside it was clear just how insignificant it was; it even looked cheerful.

Hard to imagine, really. That teacher loathed me, and no day was complete until she made me cry. I used to wake at dawn, sick to my stomach, and sobbed every morning before I left home. That year I broke my writing arm in the first week of third term and so for the thirteen weeks I wore a plaster cast, I was detained at recess and lunch to rule lines on scrap paper; she wouldn't let me write messily in my books. Every piece of work I carefully scratched out was returned with a rebuke; my left handed writing was unacceptable. Most wonderfully, later that same year I caught mumps then measles, and spent the entire fourth term deliriously feverish, and safe at home in bed.

In the centre of the school between two lines of classrooms stands an old eucalypt. When I was a student, lorikeets nested in its hollow and we were forbidden from going near it. Thirty years later it's still there. As I looked at it, remembering, a sudden movement caught my eye. Jutting out of the tree at hip height was a rainbow lorikeet, the great great grandson perhaps of the birds I had known, lurid green and blue and red and yellow, one beady eye fixed on me. I stood still. The bird flicked its head this way and that, assessing the risk; then shot out of the tree like a bullet. I walked over quietly and peeked into the hole; I caught the flash of a bright red beak as a nesting lorikeet turned to look at me. Our eyes met; then it ducked out of view and I let it be.

I walked around the grounds and remembered the humiliations, once so enormous; I recalled the loneliness, and the pain. The school is on a rise, and catches the wind. As I peered into windows and checked out the shelter sheds, the cars on the main road bounding the school roared past. I realised that it has always felt like a school on a cliff. The traffic sounds like the incoming tide, and over the top sings the wind. On this particular Saturday, a gale from the south and the noise of the cars rose up and swept through the school and me, scouring away hurt and leaving a quiet woman washed up on a peeling old bench, a few toy buildings dotted around, and winged rainbows darting overhead.

Once a place to constrict my heart with fear, it is finally becoming ancient history: a setting for stories, nothing more. What happened, happened; what remains are just memories; and time, the great healer, has done its work again.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Small Acts of Courage

These are some of the things I am scared of: drawing, singing, meeting people, doing new things, talking on the telephone, making appointments, ladies in waxing salons, performing in public, nuclear power, global warming, and the zombie hand that might reach out of the toilet and drag me down when I’m sitting on it. It’s true: I am scared of most things. I always have been; I’ve been waiting for the axe to fall for as long as I can remember.

It’s easy to explain. My mother loved me, yet was highly critical of everything I did; I had some abusively bullying teachers in primary school; and between one thing and another I’ve never quite got over the combination. As a child, whenever I stuck my neck out and often when I didn’t, somebody shrieked at me.

Add to that three key caregivers, who looked after me from when I was a baby and who died when I was four, and this little girl learned that the world is not a safe place.

So I became a mouse. Every now and then the lion came roaring out but for the most part the mouse is with me, whispering that I should sit down, shut up, and not move a muscle lest the farmer’s wife come running, carving knife in hand.

Yet I don’t want to grow into a querulous and fearful old woman. But unless I practice being brave now, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. So, timid as I am, I’ve spent the last decade working on my fears, and addressing those voices which tell me that I’m no good at anything and that the world is fundamentally dangerous.

How?, you ask. Well, to begin with I found myself a nice pen, and at least once a week I’m doing a drawing in which no line can be erased. I’ll never be an artist, and that’s fine; the exercise has other purposes. It’s to remind me there’s nothing to be afraid of: I’m an adult now and no teacher is hanging over my shoulder and telling me what I can’t do. It also reminds me to observe closely and look, really look, at the world. I enjoy the feeling of my brain shifting into another gear and my hand cruising across the page; I enjoy laughing at the terrible drawings that result. It’s been a small exercise in bravery, and I think it’s making me bold.

Because the other day, as we were eating our lunch, my youngest daughter and I heard ‘fresh new potatoes!’ blaring through a megaphone. For years I’ve heard this call once or twice a month as a white ute cruises slowly through our suburb. I’ve been intrigued, but am too cowardly to flag it down. I worry that the veggies might be sprayed with pesticides, or the sellers rude or annoying... what if they hammer on my door every time they come into town?

How ridiculous. The worst that will happen is I spend a couple of dollars on some bad potatoes that can always be thrown to the chooks. But the other day, having done half a dozen drawings lately, I was feeling heady. I grabbed my daughter; we ran out and waved the truck down. We met a lovely couple, husband and wife, who run a small organic farm and trundle through the suburbs of Melbourne to sell their produce direct; and we bought the best apples and potatoes I have seen this year. We had eaten most of the apples by the end of the day.

The apples gave me such a burst of courage that I left the house on my Thursday ritual thinking about other fears. I can’t shave under my arms; I get terrible rashes. I don’t mind being hairy, but it does make me sweaty as I power walk to school and back. My lovely waxing lady, found in a previous burst of courage, moved to a small island off the coast of Scotland late last year and I’ve been shaggy ever since. But filled with good apples and knowing there were new potatoes on the kitchen bench, I strode straight into a convenient salon to make an appointment. It was quiet, and a woman could see me immediately. I’m pretty scary under there, I said; and the woman, taking a look, said ‘I’m not running away yet’ and started to giggle. Somehow our eyes met and the giggles turned to a shared belly laugh. I relaxed; she smeared on hot wax and ripped out the hair; and that was that. No big deal, after all.

While I was putting my clothes back on, my mobile rang and I felt compelled to answer it. As I chatted, I reflected that despite my fears I’ve been practising this telephone business for years now, and I feel like I’m starting to get good at it.

All this courage! I certainly need it. Although I am scared of singing anywhere other than at home, a few years ago I joined a choir full of strangers. Truth be told, I chose my children’s school not because of any recommendations but because of the parent’s choir. After my own primary school experience, where teachers were deliberately cruel and parents sidelined to the point that I seriously contemplated home schooling my own daughters, this seemed to be a healthy sign. And the choir, and the school, have been good.

Being in the choir’s scary enough, but we’re rehearsing more seriously than usual; our cheerful group, normally focussed on red wine and gossip, has been asked to perform at a public event and I feel sick at the thought. I was anxious about rehearsal; then again, I was full of new apples from the potato man; I was freshly exfoliated; I had chatted on the phone; and I’d just done a drawing. It was pretty bad, but one or two lines have signs of life that are slightly encouraging.

I may not be able to do much about my fears of nuclear power, global warming or the hand that lurks in the s-bend, but it’s about time I performed in public. So despite my anxiety, off I went to choir practice; and at some stage, as always, I began to enjoy it.

That’s the funny thing about small acts of courage: they almost always make me happy.

And look! I posted some drawings of mine... wildly imperfect, but another small act.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

How two chicken-loving enemies became neighbours once again

Not so long ago, I had a bit of a rant about our unfriendly neighbours. We have one spectacular neighbour, but most of the others are cool veering on cold. And for years, our most immediate neighbour has appeared to hate us. When I greet her, she ignores me; when I see her in the street and smile, she turns her back. It has made me scared and fearful and anxious and angry and defensive. I have always tried to acknowledge her even when I feel bad; and I have always spoken well of her in front of our kids, but it's really ground me down. I have thought, from time to time, of dropping in and asking what the problem is, but I have been too cowardly. It's hard to know how to ask someone why she hisses through her teeth at you; and it feels slightly pathetic, like a jilted teenager begging 'But why don't you like me anymore?'. So the frostiness has continued.

Then something happened that made me furious: we had a visit from the council about our lovely chickens. Apparently, there's been a complaint. Now, we have met the council guidelines listed on their website and when I spoke with the officer she said they were satisfied – for now – but I was really angry. It's not the first time that we've had a complaint against us, and always from the same person, our neighbour.

But I don't want to be like her; I want to be an exemplary neighbour. So while I simmered, I asked people I trust for the support I need and thought about what to do. As much as I wanted to throw eggs and shout and yell, I'm tired of living with a sense of deep hostility bristling from next door, a house which is so close we can see in each other's side windows. I couldn't bear to make it worse.

The next morning I had a few hours without the kids, so I took myself out for a fast wintry walk. I marched around and found myself heading to our local hill, built over the old rubbish dump; it felt like a fitting place to yell. I did a few muttering laps of the oval first, then up the hill I went to say my piece to the wind. When I was done I ran down the hill like a little kid, loose and gangly and arms windmilling through the grass. The rage was abating, so I strode homewards, still wondering.

I passed a centre for spirituality, and in the window were the usual accoutrements: gentle words in flowing calligraphy, soft scarves, and candles. All these things may be helpful to a regular spiritual practice, but it suddenly occurred to me that any spirituality that runs deep will be nothing like a beautifully draped silk scarf. Instead, it will be hard and messy; and it will be about the most mundane areas of life: how we act when we're afraid; how we respond to people when they are cruel or rude or thoughtless; how we meet a thousand different challenges in the small exchanges of the household, the playground, or the local shops. And I realised that, no matter how afraid I was, I had to go talk with my neighbour.

So I went home and collected the day's eggs, still warm. Then, feeling sick to the stomach, I boxed them up and headed next door.

When my neighbour answered, the first thing she said was 'We are enemies.'. I wanted to cry. Instead, heart thumping, I asked why. It turns out that she perceived a serious slight five or six years ago, and the council and her son did their best to maintain that slight - the story is long and complicated, and the details are irrelevant. Enough to say that, at the end of it, we had unravelled a serious misunderstanding, and I apologised profusely for my part in the episode; then we talked for a good ten minutes about this and that, like normal neighbours do. She started to smile and then laugh, and finally, finally she agreed to accept the eggs to feed her grandkids who, she reckons, have never tasted really fresh ones.

Ironically, when I asked her if she had any concerns about the chickens she said 'I like the chickens!', and that's when her face really softened. Apparently they remind her of her childhood; she enjoys hearing them move around our garden. So for all my fear that it was one more thing she didn't like, I was wrong about that; and for some reason, I am not worried about who else objects to the chooks – as long as it is not her.

Before I left, she said that there is nothing to be enemies about; and I begged her to drop in if anything ever bothered her - or even if she just wanted to join me in a cuppa.

I'm sure this is not the ending. Something else will come up – we are all so far from perfect – and I will need to work to maintain this new civility. I still don't know if the council has anything further to say about our hens. But I feel like a scouring wind has swept through the street and made it clean. A once frosty neighbour smiled at me and told me a few stories, and I felt my fear slowly trickle away; for now, that's ending enough.

Monday, July 4, 2011

From Heavy Heart to a Sense of Hope

What follows is a reflection presented to the South Yarra Community Baptist Church on 3 July 2011. Not quite the usual post, but some of you may find it interesting. The text referred to is Matthew 11:25-30, which goes like this:

Jesus broke into prayer, saying: "Father, Lord of earth and sky, thank you for keeping the religious experts and the sophisticated intellectuals in the dark about these matters, while at the same time making them as plain as day to the average toddler. But of course, Father, such reckless generosity is typical of the way you like to do things!"

Then, turning to the crowd again, Jesus said: "My Father has put the whole show in my hands, and it all hangs on the strength of our relationship. No one really knows what makes the Son tick except the Father, and no one really knows what makes the Father tick except the Son. Anyone else can only know if the Son chooses to let them in on it. If you are worn out and overloaded, come to me, and I will let you put your feet up. Come and work for me, and take a leaf out of my book. I am gentle on people, and down-to-earth; and with me your whole being will be able to relax. The job I will give you is piece of cake. The load I will ask you to bear is a feather-weight."

(Australian paraphrase © Nathan Nettleton,


Tonight's gospel passage holds a somewhat hideous fascination for me. I've always been told that I'm pretty smart, and I've studied theology. Yet in the reading from Matthew, Jesus says that God has hidden many things from the intelligent and wise, and instead revealed them to children. It's a reminder that cleverness is not the be-all and end-all, and that God's wisdom may often look foolish to our minds – but of course, it makes me very nervous about preaching!

So rather than engage in a big theological exposition, unravelling the text using historical, socio-political, linguistic and liberation-theological tools, I will instead talk a bit about my own journey as a member of this church, and how I think it relates to this passage.

Here I should add that I see church participation as the primary expression of faith. I have been influenced by Elizabeth O'Connor, who argues that the first work of the Christian is to participate in the formation of the church; in fact, she describes it as the only task. "In it," she writes, "we can find ultimate meaning. We are not looking for that thing which may happen next week, next month, or next year. We believe ourselves to be engaged this very moment in that which is the hope of the world... because [Christ] is how we can learn to live in a new way." (Elizabeth O'Connor, The Only Task).

Yet like Jesus' words, O'Connor's claim too has a fairly awful fascination to me. I hate joining things, I hate being part of groups, and at some slightly pathetic level I have to admit that I think I'm a little too good to be linked with a bunch of strangers in a Christian community; it's not very cool, after all. I've been told too many times how fantastically clever and gifted I am, and there seems to be little use for that in the church. So there's a voice that tells me that I'm wasted here; I should be out doing amazing things with important people somewhere else, always somewhere else. In a coffee house in New York, at a conference in London: somewhere important, I could be doing something important and feeling good. At least, that's the myth.

Yet I also know that turning up to church here week after week, month after month, year after year, is the primary discipline that has helped me grow and mature, and which has enabled me to articulate what my gifts are. So what do I do with that?

Well, going back to tonight's text, after putting Miss Clever-pants back in her place, Jesus invites her to link up with him; and he says that his yoke is easy. Preachers often suggest this means we can pretty much put up our feet and rest – even our paraphrase has words to that effect – but I don't really buy that. The bullock driver doesn't harness up the animals only to have them sitting around the barn all day! What I hear is a call to work, but not the work that seems important to us and to the world. Instead, we are to engage in the work that Jesus wants us to do; and I've thought a great deal about what that is.

Since I've been a part of this congregation, I've slowly identified that I am a writer, by which I suppose I mean that I can weave words together with relative ease. One dominant myth in our society is that our profession forms our primary identity, and this can be especially true for a writer. When you read writer's manuals, they usually say, in effect, that the writing is more important than anything else; if you're a serious writer, life has to fit around the writing. This may mean not having children, or choosing to have just one. This may mean holing up in a garret and writing for hours every day. This may mean sacrificing a marriage or other significant relationships if they get in the way of the craft. And this may all be true if one is to write Great Works of Literature; I don't know because I haven't written any great works yet!

So our profession is usually understood to be the same thing as our vocation, perhaps especially for any sort of artist; and the two words are often used interchangeably, even by Christians. In my life, however, I find myself living a paradox. On the one hand, it is through living out the Christian life that I find myself becoming a writer; on the other, following God's call in its myriad aspects, which is the Christian vocation, seems to compromise my attempts to write.

This is because the work Jesus calls me to only sometimes looks like writing. Sure, I have a couple of blogs, and write for various publications; and sure, I try to infuse a sense of the holiness of the everyday into most things I write – and when I manage it, it feels like I am doing something good. And yet I am often called to do work that doesn't look like writing at all, work which, in fact, seems to detract from the writing.

I felt deeply called to have children, not one but three; and I have no doubt that it was the best thing I could have done. Yet trying to write with three children in the house is infuriating. Writing is a slow, contemplative, solitary endeavour, requiring a sharp and rested mind; children are messy, noisy beings who require frequent and immediate attention, often in the middle of the night. So solitude and rest, two things a writer needs, are rarely to be found in my house.

As well, I feel called to be part of church life. Belonging to any community involves commitment and work; here, I do the notice sheet and the kids' sheets. I don't mind the work, in fact I quite enjoy it, but any writer's manual would have hysterics at the precious hours of solitude I spend every week on those jobs.

I feel, too, that being part of a church is often hard work emotionally. Not only do I have to turn up when I'm in a foul mood or exhausted or just plain bored, but I have to work to resolve conflict and engage with all sorts of people. As you all know, it's difficult at times. Getting along with one another, learning to love one another, is hard. It is the work of long commitment: showing up, and biting one's tongue, and saying sorry – and at this church it often feels especially difficult. We live far away from each other, so we rarely bump into each other and have those spontaneous conversations that can be so life-giving; we are all different ages, so there is no big peer group that I can slot into and pretend that, with these cool people who affirm my lifestyle choices, I am forming church. Instead, I have to engage with everyone, not just the easy people; and I have to work on the relationships. This is not to say that the relationships aren't enjoyable – but they're certainly not always easy.

Most of these efforts – the conversations, the conflict resolution, the kids' activities, the notice sheet, the child raising, the laundry and the floors – don't look much like work in the eyes of the world. No one would call them my profession; and few understand how they can be part of my vocation. Yet they all arise out of invitations I have experienced at times of prayer. At my core, I have no doubt that they, along with the writing, constitute the work I am called to do; even so, this lack of cohesion or a dignified title can make me resentful.

That's when I need to hear the second part of Jesus' call. Not only am I called to do his work, but he says that his work will suit me, and the burden will be light. It is an invitation to joy – an invitation to find the work that leads to growth and maturity and delight in life.

There are times that I think I want a bit of acclaim as a writer; I dream of being a lonely artist making it in the big city. However, I am actually a very fragile person with all sorts of tendencies towards compulsive behaviour, depression, and self-hate. Loneliness and stress – which loom large in the highly stylized writer's life – are, for me, doors to a downward spiral, the sort of spiral which results not in Great Works of Literature, but in self loathing and the crumbling of any ability or desire to write, or indeed do much at all.

So what I need, that is, what suits me and has matured me and made me into someone with enough resilience and courage to begin to write, are the stability of a good marriage and loving children; the regular demands of family life; the steadiness of a church community; the practice of doing small jobs for others with faithfulness and humility; and the understanding that this life, too, is valuable. Staying true to these disciplines is part of my calling as I follow the way of Jesus Christ; and engaging in them has indeed eased my burden considerably.

Looking back at the disparate aspects of my vocation, I sense that they have had a great refining effect. The last decade has taught me all sorts of lessons about patience, humility, faithfulness, kindness, gentleness, hospitality and forgiveness. I have a great deal to learn, but I can also see that there's been a huge shift. I'm no longer the churned up and largely furious person I once was. Although those elements are still with me, I no longer feel dominated by them – and for this I am deeply grateful.

So in a nutshell, then, responding to the invitation of Jesus to take on his yoke does involve work. It may not be the sort of stuff we think of as work; and it may not lead to great respect or professional fulfilment or any of the other rewards we often think we should receive in return for our labour. In fact, there may be times when the work of Jesus feels absolutely tedious, like a bullock walking circles in a mill pit. But Jesus never promised we'd be ploughing fields with nice views, or that we'd see the fruit of our labour; perhaps our job is just to grind away. It doesn't matter.

What does matter is that this work, this acceptance of a yoke that, for me at least, means a quiet and largely invisible life built around personal relationships not professional acclaim, is slowly turning my heart of stone into one of flesh, the sort of flesh that can experience not only hurt and anger but also a wildly soaring joy. I used to experience life with a heavy heart, as if it were an enforced long march, or something to get through; now I find myself strolling along with a powerful sense of hope. Accepting Jesus' yoke and its various disciplines has led to my burden being lightened, indeed. And that, of course, is worth writing about.

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