Tuesday, September 25, 2012

City Life, and a Conversation


I have lived in the city my whole life, and it has made me defensive. I avoid people’s eyes when I’m walking down the street; I avert my face from the stranger on the train. You never know when you will be asked if you have been saved (correct answer: yes, thank you, and hallelujah! This is my stop...); asked if you have a dollar; or told at great length about tedious grandchildren. Perhaps this is why so many of us drive – it’s a great way to stay in one’s bubble.

This regular practice of avoidance takes its toll, however. I’ve done it for so long that it has become a habit of mind; and I realise that, rather than it being a deliberate strategy I adopt when necessary, it has become my starting point. I now find myself avoiding people when I have no need to: in the playground, on the footpath, sometimes even at home without really meaning to. It’s not that I don’t want to talk. It’s just that somehow it’s all a bit hard, and the sense of risk outweighs the possible benefit.

Not long ago, I climbed onto a bus. There was a vacant seat next to a crinkly old man. His crumpled face was dotted with liver spots and skin tags. He had grown too small for his clothes and they hung from his skinny little frame. One glance, and my alarm bells began to ring. Would he insist on telling me about his long life? Would he be smelly, perhaps even incontinent? Would he be very strange?

I didn’t know, but I am sick of that constant companion, trepidation. So I sat next to him – coward that I am, however, I armed myself with a book.

But buses and books don’t agree with me, so I soon shut it again. And the man, whom I had felt reading over my shoulder, asked me what I thought of it. ‘I knew the author,’ he said, ‘when he was at Melbourne University. His wife and mine were great friends. But I haven’t read that one.’

‘Oh?’ I asked, ‘and what did you study?’

‘I was a teacher,’ he said. ‘I taught a lot of new migrants. Had a terrific time. They called me il Professore!’

I read with refugee kids each week, so I mentioned that. And we suddenly launched into one of those great big life-giving conversations, ranging from refugee kids, ghetto schools and educational practices, to the process of writing and action research. ‘Life,’ I suggested, ‘is one big action research project’ and he nodded emphatically, and laughed.

He told me about volunteering with older boys at the youth remand centre. He encouraged them to write stories about their life ‘behind the roller door’, and arranged to have their work published. ‘You’re authors now,’ he’d say to them, ‘so write more! Write more!’

‘What a man!’ I thought. It was the best conversation I’d had in weeks, the sort of I’d hope for at a good party.

The burden of living in a city is also its great gift: the daily interactions with strangers. It takes time and energy, and the bypassing of caution, to engage in these friendly encounters. But when I do, there is one thing I’ve learned: I am surprised and delighted time and again, even on the local bus.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Reaping the Inner Harvest

Gardens are bountiful places, and more things grow than just plants: gentleness, perhaps, and patience, and the bright green shoots of hope.


To read more, click on the embedded link below and flick to the back; or click here and follow the link to download the issue to your iPad.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Witch Doctor

This piece first appeared in Zadok Perspectives No. 113 (Summer 2012). The Winter edition is out now, with my reflection on the houses in my dreams.


What would it have been like to be healed by Jesus? I have largely regarded the healing stories to be about the restoration of people to their community; but more recently I have had such a strange experience of physical healing that I find myself revisiting them.

For many years now, I have been tired, very tired, so that I always feel like I am wading through molasses. I have mentioned this to several GPs, who have all patted me on the head and told me it's grief / I have young children / it'll go away.

For many years, too, I have had mild twinges in my joints whenever I stood up, brushed my teeth, or turned around too sharply. I have put on weight; felt bloated; caught every bug that went around; and experienced many other small niggles, all of which I dismissed as signs of aging. Until recently. Recently, the twinges in the joints became screaming pain, so that for a few days I could barely turn on a tap, pick up a pen, or go up or down a step. This was clearly not right for someone in her middle thirties, so I went to the doctor.

Blood tests established that I didn't have rheumatoid arthritis, or any of a dozen other conditions. The doctor announced it must be viral arthritis, handed me a script for anti-inflammatories, and told me to prepare for the next few months as the virus slowly worked its way through my system.

But the diagnosis didn't fit. I explained that this pain wasn't new; instead, it was an exacerbation of my normal. I had experienced aches and pains in my joints for years, and blaming a virus didn't make sense; however, the doctor was unmoved. So off I went, clutching my script and wondering.

A couple of painful weeks later, someone recommended a natural therapist who had a knack with odd conditions. In desperation, I arranged a visit. The therapist greeted me but asked no questions about my symptoms. Instead, he looked into my eyes with a torch for about thirty seconds, then said that I had a deeply depressed adrenal gland. So, he said matter-of-factly, I expect you've been having severe arthritis; lethargy and fatigue; chronic dermatitis; weight gain; lots of colds, flus and gastro; bloating especially after eating wheat; heavier periods; anxiety; and perhaps depression. You've been suffering most of these symptoms for years now. What was the traumatic event five to ten years ago that triggered it?

Once I had scraped my chin off the floor, I confirmed that I had all the symptoms bar full on depression, although I had certainly lost my spark; and that, among a cluster of major events about a decade ago, my mother had died.

'That would be it,' he said, 'but don't worry, this is easy to treat', and he prescribed a four month program of meditation, stringent dietary restrictions, herbal tablets and exercise; he told me I'd be right as rain in no time, with more energy than I'd had in years.

I went home and ate forbidden bread and butter, then polished off some forbidden chocolate. That evening, I sucked down a pint or two of forbidden beer, and reflected on the course of treatment.

What I began to realise was that I was reluctant even to try it.

Of course I longed to feel energetic, of course I didn't want to feel joint pain, of course I was fed up with being sick, of course I wanted to lose weight. And yet how much of my writing has come out of a slow approach to life that is a physical result of lethargy? How much of my reflective nature is a gift that comes out of pain? How many of my friendships are based on a personality which is shaped, to some extent, by being in this particular body that feels this particular way?

I was scared to follow the regimen because I didn't want it to work. I knew how to be an exhausted, flat, mildly depressive person who feels slightly sick every time she eats a sandwich. I barely remembered the playful, mischievous person I once was; and I didn't know how to integrate her into my relationships with my husband, my children, or anyone else.

I had felt old for such a long time. I didn't know what it would be like to feel young again; long ago I had accepted that I was aging, and modified my life and expectations accordingly.

Too, I'm a cook with a blog about local food. I knew how to use spelt and apples and cream; I didn't know how to cook and write about a gluten free, fruit free, dairy free, sugar free diet necessarily reliant on grains from thousands of miles away.

The concerns were ridiculous, of course – how much more joyful would life be if my energy and playfulness were restored? – but knowing this didn't make them go away.

It made me wonder about the people Jesus healed: was it all plain sailing for them? Or did they, too, struggle to give up some aspects of their self-definition as a cripple, a bleeding woman, a blind man, an outsider? And it caused me to reflect on other aspects of life. How often do we compromise or even refuse healing – physical, emotional or spiritual – because we're too scared of change, even if it's change for good?

I couldn't answer these questions, but I needed to make a choice. Would I opt for the comforting familiarity of pain and fatigue, and the person I had become; or would I take a punt on the mysterious promise of naturopathic healing and all that might unfold?

A day or two later, I grit my teeth and went shopping, stocking up on nuts, corn cakes and vegetables. At the time of writing, I've been on the program for a week and am already feeling a little better: like a crippled man throwing away his crutches, I have hurled the anti-inflammatories into the deep recesses of the medicine cabinet and am running up and down the stairs again.

As a child, I longed for Jesus to cure all my ills. Now I wonder if the Great Healer is to be found in an uncanny iridologist nicknamed the Witch Doctor. He looked into my eyes and perceived my pain, both physical and emotional; he saw me as an integrated whole. It is possible that what was promised has come, once again, to pass: I have encountered Christ in the stranger, and a very strange one at that.

(To those lovely people who first read this in Zadok and wrote to me about coeliac disease – put your minds at rest. I have had a gastroscopy and I do not have coeliac disease, just a nasty gluten intolerance.)

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A short conversation which makes it abundantly clear why we need to spend time with different people

The kid: Not many Muslim teachers, in fact only one at this school.

Me: When you and your cousins and your friends grow up, some of you can become teachers and then there will be more Muslim teachers in the schools.

The kid: Yes! And then one day they will all be Muslim teachers inshallah.

Me: Well, that rules me out.

The kid (long pause as he cocks his head to one side and looks at me, then): Maybe we could work together.

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