Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Advent List 2011

Preparations for Christmas are upon us. Sadly, most preparation rituals do not seem to have much to do with the coming of a bearded prophet who recalled to us the poor, the outcast, the refugee, the dispossessed, the imprisoned, the widow and the orphan. Instead, we are bombarded with tinny carols, silly plastic evergreen wreaths strung from the light poles as the Australian summer begins to sizzle, and exhortations to buy buy buy.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about developing some small non-commercial rituals for Christmas with my kids; and, as I am story crazy, they of course involved a pile of picture books. So then I put together a list of some of the books we will read during the four weeks leading up to Christmas; you can read the list here.

However, many of the books on the list are out of print and hard to get. Meanwhile, since then I have found lots more wonderful stories, so I have drawn up a new list, adding the new stories and letting go of some of the old.

These are not Santa stories. Nor are most of them explicitly Christmassy, let alone Christian. Instead, they are stories which honour and celebrate hope, joy, generosity, gratitude, sacrifice, community and love. In particular, several focus on welcoming the stranger into our midst, which has always been a central calling to both Jewish and Christian peoples and would seem particularly appropriate as some of us, at least, prepare to welcome in the form of a baby the most strange and wonderful human the world has ever seen – and a refugee, to boot.


In the Small, Small Night

So let’s start with that. Jane Kurtz has written a lovely book about immigrant children, In the Small, Small Night. Kofi and Abena have recently arrived in America, but Kofi is so worried that he will forget his family in Ghana that he cannot fall asleep. So his sister Abena, recalling the village storyteller so far away, recounts two traditional stories from home: Anansi and the pot of wisdom; and the turtle and the vulture. As Kofi listens to the stories, he is soothed back to sleep.

The story is told without a hint of mawkishness, yet it is very touching as these two young children, so far from home, talk about their fears and what they have left behind. What is just as moving is the way Abena has brought the gift of storytelling with her from Ghana. The wisdom contained in the stories will sustain them as they start at a new school, in a new culture, where everything is different.

The Arrival

Sean Tan’s The Arrival charts the journey of another immigrant. This book without words is for all ages, as the story is told through hundreds of eerie sepia-toned illustrations. The Arrival will raise all sorts of questions about why people flee and resettle, questions which may be extended to the Advent stories or to the refugees in our midst.

Nail Soup

Nail Soup is a retelling of a traditional folk tale which reminds us to welcome in the stranger. A traveller, denied all but the meanest of shelter and sustenance, convinces his host that he will make soup out of a nail. As the 'soup' bubbles away, the host is gradually persuaded to add ingredients that turn it into a generous meal they can share, demonstrating that a little hospitality leads to a rich bounty for all.

The Happy Prince: From the Fairy Tale by Oscar Wilde

Welcoming in the refugee and the traveller is all well and good, but we are also to care for the poor in our midst. In The Happy Prince, Jane Ray retells Oscar Wilde's tale in which the statue of a prince gives all it has – its ruby eyes, its gold leaf – to the city’s poor via an obliging swallow. Ray’s richly detailed illustrations add greatly to the story.

The Quiltmaker's Gift

The Quiltmaker's Gift is similarly themed, as a fabulously wealthy and utterly miserable king yearns for the one thing he cannot have: a patchwork quilt from the famed quiltmaker, who gives her quilts only to the poor. The quiltmaker tells the king that she will only make him a quilt once he has given everything away, and he gradually learns that joy is found not in material objects, but in self-sacrifice and caring for others. The detailed illustrations, which include dozens of quilt squares themed to the story, are absorbing.

The Mousehole Cat

Thinking of self-sacrifice recalls The Mousehole Cat, a tale from Cornwall. When winter storms close the harbour and bring a Cornish fishing village to the brink of starvation, Old Tom and his cat Mowser find a way out and brave the wind and the waves to catch fish for the town, knowing that there is a good chance that they will never return.

Amelia Ellicott's Garden

Old Tom reasons that there is nobody left to grieve for him; it frees him to risk his life to feed others. In Amelia Ellicott's Garden, a more passive older person feels abandoned by Time. Amelia struggles to maintain her beautiful garden and longingly remembers when she had people to share it with. It is not until a great windstorm blows her garden, her chickens and even Amelia over the fence that she discovers the host of neighbours – from all over the world – living in the flats next door who long to share the garden, and their lives, with her.

Rose Meets Mr.Wintergarten

Getting to know one’s neighbour, the first step to love, also features in Rose Meets Mr Wintergarten. In this lovely book by Bob Graham, a young girl moves into a new neighbourhood. When she loses her ball over the fence, her openness and her fairy cakes disarm the miserly neighbour who has terrified the area’s children for decades.

Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge

Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge is a good neighbour, too. He lives next door to an old people’s home and is particular friends with Miss Nancy Alison Delacourt Cooper, who has four names just like him. Miss Nancy has lost her memory, and Wilfrid Gordon sets out to find it for her.

Hop Little Hare

Margaret Wild’s Hop Little Hare is a simple story, also showing the love between the generations. It is not until Little Hare spies sheep nibbling at a curative boffle bush, which will ease his grandfather’s rheumatism, that he feels sufficiently motivated to hop!

Now One Foot, Now the Other

A more complex gift giving between young and old features in the classic, Now One Foot, Now the Other. Bob teaches his grandson to stack blocks, tell stories and walk. When Bob has a stroke, it is the little boy who patiently teaches his grandfather to stack blocks, tell stories and walk again, using the same loving words his grandfather once used with him.

Love You Forever

Love handed down between the generations is also found in Love You Forever, by Robert Munch, which he wrote in homage to his two children who were stillborn. In this story, a mother sings a special song to her son as he moves through the life stages; and as she ages and nears the end of her life, her son takes up the mantle and begins to sing it to his daughter.

A Child's Garden

Of course, we are called to love not just our family, our neighbour, the poor, the traveller, or the refugee; we are called to love our enemy, too. A Child's Garden tells of hope in oppressive circumstances. A boy tends a vine which throws out seeds on either side of a high barbed wire fence; the next season, vines grow on both sides of the fence and intertwine, symbolising hope for a future peace.

For All Creatures

The story of the vine recalls, too, that we are to love the earth and everything in it. For All Creatures uses gliding alliterative language to describe and celebrate all manner of things that creep and crawl, run and jump, slither and slide upon the earth. ‘For spirals, shells and slowness, smallness and shyness, and for scribbled silver secrets, we are thankful.’

Owl Moon

This celebration of the natural world is also seen in Owl Moon, in which a young girl goes out late one night with her father to see an owl. Owl Moon is a hauntingly beautiful children’s book, drenched in awe. An excellent book to read quietly at night, just before bedtime.


In Jeannie Baker’s Belonging, like so many of her books, we are shown one way to be partners in the creation: and outside our very own back window! Like The Arrival, it is told entirely in pictures, making it a book that people of all abilities can pore over.

The Nativity

Let’s finish with two books about Christmas. The first is a lively rendition of The Nativity by Julie Vivas. Drawing from the gospel writer Luke’s account, she illustrates the story in her singular style: the angel Gabriel is a ragged punk and shares a cuppa with Mary; the naked newborn, hands outstretched, is still attached to the umbilical cord; shepherds loom, peering into the cot; and in the final scene, Mary pegs out nappies. In Vivas's interpretation, the Christmas story is not a far-off super-spiritual event, but something immediate, physical and real, that happens even now. I particularly love that Mary is enormously pregnant, pendulous breasts and all, and not a skinny medieval nymph.

Wombat Divine

Finally, what would an Australian Christmas be without a reading of Wombat Divine? Wombat desperately wants to be in the Christmas play, but he is too short, too clumsy, and too heavy for any of the parts. At last, Emu finds him the perfect role and Wombat is, quite simply, divine.

As are all these stories. Read, prepare, enjoy.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Zoo in You

Years ago, I decided to pay attention to God’s feathered friends as one metaphor for God’s presence, and in doing so, I have discovered this: that the Holy Spirit is heard in the kookaburra, who laughs at our pretensions and wrestles with the snake;... she’s found in the white-faced heron on our neighbour’s roof; she’s recalled by little finches at my grandfather’s funeral. When I'm soulsick and sinking, she calls out my name; of Cornish ancestry, I hear her in the language of my heart, which leaps at the crying of the gulls.


Yep, another piece is being published, this time in The Zoo in You, a book exploring the animal imagery of faith. If you can cope with a bit of God in your reading, you should love this book. Each reflection is grouped with a prayer and a poem by Cameron Semmens, and is illustrated by Hamish McWilliam. My reflection can be found in Hope with a Cockatiel.

The Zoo in You is now available for pre-order for $19.95 plus postage here. Orders will be shipped from 2 December, and should arrive in good time for Christmas.

If the God stuff's not your thing, no matter – just wait 'til the next book!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Jones Park / Resurrection

When I first moved to Brunswick more than fifteen years ago, I lived in a share house backing onto a dingy oval. The oval was fenced on two sides by an old tip, a great sloping hill of dirt, rubble and weeds cordoned off by cyclone wire. On a third side crouched a shabby playground, but whenever I thought to go there for a meditative swing I felt so nervy and trapped that I left within minutes.

Now I live five blocks away, and it's one of my favourite places. Ten years ago, the council cleaned up the tip and turned it into green space. They refurbished the oval, took down the fences, and turned the two sites into one enormous park.

Let me take you on a tour. At the top of the hill is a platform. The oval and the old playground lie behind us. To the east roll hills, a hazy grey; to the south, city towers stretch up small and hopeful under the wide blue sky.

Heading down the gently winding path, you see groves of young trees. A mother and her baby picnic under the casuarinas, where the breeze flowing through the needles recalls the sound of the sea. To the left, a woman shoots hoops and you can hear the basketball chick! through the net, then thud to the ground.

Further down winds a dry creek bed. But turn towards the new playground, instead, with its concertina tyres; they wheeze notes when we jump on them. Hit the colourful mushrooms with the mallets; listen to them toll. Climb the spider web with me; at the top, hook in your feet and reach for the sky; the spider web gently sways. Below us, the creek bed curves into a large pond; let's run down the steps.

Lie on the boardwalk and peek over the edge. See the water beetles scoot through the reeds, wings flipping so fast they blur! See the tadpoles, with their translucent tails and the bulge of budding limbs! An aquatic ladybug, fat and red, bumbles and rolls on by.

Above us skitter large dragonflies, grey and fat like army helicopters; tiny dragonflies dance, blue as sapphires and impossibly slender. Every few minutes frogs start up, creaking like a hundred thumbs pulled across a hundred combs, then just as quickly fall silent again. Larger frogs add their deep popping bass notes; crickets rasp; the pond sings.

Rushes tower, ten feet tall; and behind them, the Serbian Orthodox Church soars, turrets ablaze with gold.

It will never be as it was two centuries ago, a place of untouched wilderness sloping up from the Merri Creek. But from town dump to this: a place where mothers and babies picnic in shady groves; joggers run puffing up the hill; kids shriek with laughter at the top of the spider web; men sprawl in the grass with books; women shoot hoops; couples nestle in quiet spots; and tucked right down in the far corner lie I, flat on my stomach and peering through the boardwalk at the golden light and watching and listening as the frogs and dragonflies and honeyeaters and wattlebirds and finches and lizards and beetles and countless other small creatures whose names I do not know get on with things -

Life has indeed returned to this part of the city.

Incidentally, in trying to learn about my local corner I discovered there are 324 known species of dragonfly in Australia! Who would have thought?!

The Complete Field Guide to Dragonflies of Australia The Waterbug Book: A Guide to the Freshwater Macroinvertebrates of Temperate Australia Native Plants of Melbourne: And Adjoining Areas

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Don't Kill the Birthday Girl

Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life

'Hi, I'm Fred.' Really? Well, I'm Alison, and I have a wicked temper and slightly depressive tendencies; I'm allergic to this, that and the other; and I have a weird and pathological fear of looking beautiful, thus the extremely short hair, the lack of makeup and jewellery, and a wardrobe almost completely devoid of skirts.

Fred is edging towards the exit by now, as well he should be: such an opening is hardly the path to a little light conversation, let alone the beginnings of a beautiful friendship. And yet it is common. I certainly have been guilty at times of identifying myself primarily by my weaknesses: Little Miss Asthma, Lady Mother Dying, The Homesick Chick. But now I prefer my primary identification to be something other than my neediness, so I prefer my vulnerabilities to be largely invisible in social contexts. I prefer it to be mostly invisible in others, too.

One thing I like to be invisible about is allergies (except, obviously, in this post). Before we talk more, we need to clean up what allergies are. The word 'allergy' is often used carelessly; I hear people say that are allergic to wheat, meaning that they get a bit windy when they eat a sandwich. What they suffer is an intolerance; this is not the same as an allergy.

Bundling allergies in with intolerances risks linking them with food fads and Hollywood diets; and this, I reckon, is part of what leads people to think that allergies are kind of funny, certainly annoying, even imaginary. Yet if people don't take them seriously, and then have anything to do with the food we eat, people with allergies get more than a bit of wind; they get a full blown reaction as their immune system goes berserk trying to rid their body of the allergen. I'm allergic to a few things, and by allergic I mean that I react to eating them by wheezing, vomiting, and, occasionally, going into anaphylactic shock.

Of course, trying to act nonchalant as a young teenager when everyone else is stuffing their face with prawn crackers – and I grew up with a crowd of south east Asians – is not easy. I have vivid memories of eating those crackers in full knowledge that they would make me sick, but hoping so much that this time it would be okay. I just wanted to fit in, but of course the dry mouth, thick tongue, itchy throat and major stomach cramps hardly helped with that little project.

As a young adult, one birthday was particularly memorable: someone bought me a Drambuie, a hitherto untried drink. I took one sip, and felt that telltale tickle – the beginnings of anaphylaxis – at the back of my throat. But I didn't want to mention it, or be rude. So I took another sip and, of course, immediately started hawking and coughing and spluttering as my throat closed up and I could no longer breathe. Not cool, Alison.

Many allergy sufferers could tell similar stories of risking their health if not their life for the sake of trying to appear normal; and I am sure many allergy sufferers would have made the same decision as me time and again, of not using or even carrying the dreaded EpiPen and risking the hubbub, the nausea and the trip to the emergency room that follows. Instead we try to flush out our systems with water and Benadryl, and hope for the best.

So it was with a mixture of trepidation and interest that I picked up Don't Kill the Birthday Girl, a memoir about living with allergies. I was afraid it might be an annoying whingeathon by someone who identifies herself primarily as 'Allergy Girl', but I was pleasantly surprised.

Sandra Beasley is allergic to many things, making it very difficult to navigate eating out in any context in a culture where eating out is the norm. But to my great relief she opens with the statement that "those with food allergies aren't victims. We're people who – for better or worse – experience the world in a slightly different way", and that attitude carries, more or less, through the book.

Beasley mixes up personal anecdote with social observations and a great deal of information. I learned how the body forms an allergic reaction; why a friend's son had a second, stronger, reaction to peanut oil hours after his first reaction; why the American food landscape is so infested by soy; how food labelling laws are the result of allergy lobbyists; and what it's like to be an allergic mother to children who are allergic to different things. She dispels some of the myths surrounding the current explosion in allergies, and uses her experience as an entry point to explore many aspects of American food culture. Much of what she says is interesting, and she is up front with how her personal agenda is sometimes rattled by what she learns.

Beasley asks some particularly good questions about ritual, especially communion. Communion is the high point of the Christian religious service and involves, in one way or another, the sharing of bread and wine. At my church, we have wine and water available (the latter for those who are allergic to grapes and for recovering alcoholics); and wheat bread with a rye embellishment (the rye is for those who are allergic to wheat). Many congregations have similar practices. But some, notably those Catholics who follow the explicit directives issued by Ratzinger, are forbidden from using any alternative to the Papal-sanctioned wheaten wafers, thus excluding many congregants from communion.

She is not a churchgoer, but she raises important questions about the nature and purpose of ritual, asking "Is it inclusiveness that makes rituals valuable? Or is it maintaining the ritual's integrity that matters, even if that leaves someone out?" She writes about being the child who never got a birthday cupcake when they were handed out at school, and being the young adult who could never accept a slice of wedding cake, or shake hands with or kiss anyone who had, and how painful those exclusions were.

In the same way, it is intensely painful for Christians to be excluded from communion, and Beasley's observations on communion and church policies are helpful for the general reader. (I will add that it is clear to me if not the Holy Father that, since the greatest commandment is to love, what the communion wafers are made of doesn't matter one iota; what matters is welcoming people in.)

She also asks good questions about the current hysteria surrounding keeping children safe. Is it really necessary, she asks, for entire schools to go nut free? Surely children must learn to manage their food allergies and use a little common sense. She cites idiotic news stories, such as the evacuation of a school bus because a peanut was rolling around on the floor (apparently a threat, even though no one was planning to pick it up and eat it), and asks whether it really takes a whole village to protect a child from a peanut.

Don't Kill the Birthday Girl is sensible, thought provoking, and also darkly funny in its tales of anaphylaxis at the most inconvenient times. One thinks of people with allergies as being so terribly, terribly earnest, but Beasley has a refreshingly self-mocking stance.

The book wobbles a little as it navigates between personal anecdote and more general information – I would have preferred the information to be less bound up in Beasley's personal experience – but overall it is a good read. What I found especially valuable was the normalisation of my experience: stories of anaphylaxis and its aftermath; and stories of not managing one's allergies well because of peer pressure and the desire to join in.

More than anything, however, I valued Beasley's stance that our weaknesses – whether allergies or, and I'm extrapolating here, other health and wellbeing problems – are only one part of our lives, and they are far from the most interesting part; nor do they warrant special attention. They need be mentioned only when necessary and can otherwise stay in the background. Don't Kill the Birthday Girl is a call to understand the particular problem of allergies, then move on.

As Beasley writes, "Not every page is meant to tell your story. You are not the focal point of every canvas. This town is busy... My job is to center on staying safe in this world, but my job is also never to assume the world should revolve around keeping me safe. We have more important things to worry about. Don't kill the birthday girl. The gifts are wrapped and the piƱata waiting. We have a party to get to." Hear, hear.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Small Ghosts

Small ghosts trail behind so many families, invisible to the naked eye or the quick hello.

Rena bustles around her son's birthday party, passing food and welcoming guests. During a lull, we chat. 'Did you ever think of having a second child?' I ask. 'Oh, we did,' she says, 'but he died. He was eight weeks old. He got an infection, it entered his heart, and he died.' I place my hand on her shoulder; there are no words.


You can read more of this All Souls Day reflection published in Eureka Street here.

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