Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Manna Matters: Investing in Homes and People

Our financial planner is interested in chooks, gardens, and pizza; he’s a Christian and a solid, dependable member of his church. A couple of years ago, my husband and I met with him to talk about backyard fruit trees, home-grown eggs and how to extract our superannuation from the stock market. We had serious qualms about how the market operates and how our money was being invested. Therefore, we wanted to set up a self-managed super fund...

To read more, click here.

And don't forget to check out the rest of the December 2014 issue of Manna Matters, with articles on the real estate market, household covenants and establishing a health retreat for Yolngu women.

The gorgeous illustration is by Shelley Knoll-Miller.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

‘The nurture of adults by children in family settings’: Birthday cake

Someone we love is ill with depression. He also suffers from social anxiety and struggles to leave the house. When our kids ask why he doesn’t come to dinner anymore, we try to be matter-of-fact. We explain that he is not well. We explain that he has something called depression, which has various effects; among them, it is very hard for him to spend time with other people. But for all our matter-of-factness with the kids, we adults don’t feel matter-of-fact at all.

Because it’s been a long, long absence and I am beginning to realise just how much our relationship has changed. We used to invite him to things; but I realise that now we just invite his partner, and mention that he is invited too. We used to send him texts; but now, we rarely do. We used to ask him to do things, but now we are afraid of asking too much, and no longer make the requests. It’s been a gradual shift, never deliberate or intentional; but I am beginning to realise just how much we participate in and reinforce the social exclusion triggered by the illness.

And for all our tip-toeing, and wondering questions, and reading, and delicacy on his behalf, he is of course still ill. We never see him, and we miss him. We never talk, his burdens and gifts are never shared, and we still don’t know what, if anything, we can do to help.

Recently, it was my daughter’s eleventh birthday. A week before her birthday, she sought out this person’s partner and asked whether he could bake her birthday cake. When I found out, I went to my daughter and asked her about it. She hadn’t seen him for many months, and so I wondered why she had asked. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘I thought it would be good for him to be included in my birthday. And maybe to know that he can give something to me, even if his illness means he can’t come to the party. Is that okay? Do you mind?’

Tears came to my eyes. I gave her a huge hug, and I told her that she was one of the wisest and most generous people I know, adult or child. She had stepped right across an invisible, toxic social line just by asking for a small, good thing; and I recalled the ancient text: ‘sometimes a little child shall lead them.’

Through his partner, our friend agreed to my daughter’s request. He found a recipe, his partner did the shopping, and he baked the cake. His partner brought the cake to the birthday party, and we all sang Happy Birthday. We missed our friend, and wished he could have been there to sing along with us – and yet, in some ways, he was. For in our midst, at the centre of our singing, sat the cake that he had made, that precious thing my daughter had both given and received: a blessing.

And it was delicious.


The title of this post comes from a study by Elise Boulding, who asked young people how they had nurtured adults in their families while they themselves were children. The article is not easy to find, but if you want to go hunting here are the details: Boulding, E. (1980). 'The nurture of adults by children in family settings'. In H. Z. Lopata (Ed.), Research in the Interweave of Social Roles: Women and Men (Vol. 1, pp. 167-189). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Ululating at the graduation ceremony

My little sister has just been awarded her PhD. At the graduation ceremony, most of the audience seemed glued to their smartphones. To my right, young women scrolled through clothes on eBay; in front of me, others updated their Facebook profiles and visited the websites of modelling agencies. I sighed, and settled in for the long haul.

But then, a few rows down, I saw some little kids in pretty polyester dresses and down-at-heel shoes. Grandma kept close watch as they played, gazed round the hall, and peered at the brightly-robed academics sitting on stage. Finally, mum’s name was called, Grandma nudged, and they cheered and clapped. Dad took photos of the stage, where mum stood beaming with her degree, and I was reminded of the powerful effects parental education has on children’s lives. I became a little teary.

The ceremony rolled on. Women in headscarves, men in traditional dress, girls in miniskirts, were all awarded their degrees one by one. An African man’s name was called, and the row behind me erupted. Women ululated, hooting and calling and cheering, while he beamed on stage. A few minutes later, another African was awarded his degree. In front of me, a curvy woman in skin-tight red sequins leapt up and began dancing. Her hips swung in slow, erotic circles; her arms reached out in joy; and her upturned face radiated delight as she swayed.

As an elegant woman of Middle Eastern descent received her degree, all the Facebooking, eBaying, tweeting young people around me looked up from their smartphones to whistle and cheer; her fan club was out in force. A Malay woman in a headscarf received her PhD; an ornate embroidered dress peeked out from under the academic gown. The proceedings rolled on, and children and adults pointed and cheered and took photos. It could have been a citizenship ceremony at Coburg Town Hall, only the people in the ceremony all wore matching gowns.

My sister was third last. For over a decade she has studied issues surrounding forced migration, resettlement, and asylum seeking. She has sought to understand the mechanisms which facilitate the settlement of Iraqi families in Shepparton and Dinka kids in Sunbury; she has interviewed Iranians and Afghanis and Kurds about their experiences in detention. She has investigated the alternatives to immigration detention offered by best practice countries, and has been invited to speak with policy-makers around the world. Her work has been used by the UN and, thanks to her presentations and reports, several countries have released children from detention. Who knows what the ripple effects of her work will be.

I am so, so proud of her. When her name was called, I glanced at the audience. Many may have hailed from groups she has worked with and advocated for, but because her work is in the background, at the invisible but crucial level of policy, and because it is anathema to this country’s current government, nobody knows her name. She walked on stage, and I wanted the whole audience to leap up, whoop, ululate, gyrate, whistle, and take her picture.

Instead, her husband, her father and I sat, grinning like loonies, and politely clapped.

This post, then, is my ululation, my swinging my hips in a tight red dress in ecstatic public celebration. Whoo-hoo! Well done, Rah!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Response: The Tortoise and the Hare

The Tortoise and the Hare

The Tortoise and the Hare, first published in 1956, charts the slow deterioration of a marriage through the eyes of the wife, Imogen. Imogen is young, beautiful, and submissive to her much older husband, Evelyn. In the early days of their marriage, Evelyn found her somewhat helpless charm endearing. But fifteen years on, as his career reaches its peak, his needs have changed: he wants to be looked after. The more she tries to please him by effacing herself, the less regard he has for her. And the less regard he has for her, the more her confidence collapses. Gradually, his affections transfer to their neighbour, the frumpish, dowdy, overbearing Blanche Silcox, whose ‘figure with its bloated waist’ was held up by the ‘slender forelegs that unexpectedly support a bull’. Miss Silcox is effective, opinionated, good at huntin’ and fishin’, and at organising his life and everyone else’s.

For all that things have changed in sixty years, many elements of the story continue to ring true. My own husband is eight years older than me and has a well-established career which, like Evelyn’s, is in the law. I am a late bloomer, slow to understand myself, the sort of woman who has grown up enormously because of my loving husband’s care. In the early years of our relationship, I was overwhelmed by grief and struggled with everyday life. Normal activities like driving, meeting strangers, shopping, and working full time felt beyond me and, like Imogen, I was happy to spend many hours of the week doing very little. Because my husband has been patient, gentle and kind, there are many ways that he has husbanded me into being who I am today. But when I think what life could have been like had my husband been as politely, overbearingly selfish as Evelyn, then, like Imogen, I may very well have faded into invisibility.

There are also elements of Blanche in me. Like her, I can be very effective. These days I run a pretty tight ship, and the house is a reasonably neat, welcoming place. My husband comes home to clean socks in the dresser and hot dinner on the table. Bar the normal irritations of children, he has a comfortable home life. But The Tortoise and the Hare made me think, again, about how much many women, including me, still work so hard to meet the needs of their menfolk. Imogen tries and fails; Blanche tries and succeeds; I try and sometimes fail and sometimes succeed. My husband does not demand this of me; he never makes judgements if the house is grubby or I’m too wrecked to cook; and he does a fair bit of the workload. But I certainly do more than I need to make the house a home, whether cooking from scratch or folding his hankies before putting them away. Unlike Evelyn, my husband is respectful and committed to finding ways to share our lives; even so, the book helped me see some of the power dynamics that we unwittingly live out.

The book also recalled the marriage, and divorce, of several of my friends. Imogen is always polite and careful never to make a scene, even when her husband’s relationship with Blanche Silcox slides into a humiliatingly public, domestic, daily affair. And in one dreadful scene, Evelyn kindly remonstrates with Imogen because she has not tried hard enough to like Blanche.

It may seem incredible that a man could rebuke his wife for not making a better attempt to appreciate his mistress, but again and again I have heard similar stories. The man who left one friend and their newborn child because, since the birth of the baby, my friend had ‘selfishly’ failed to attend to his needs and he felt pushed into the arms of his (previously undeclared) lover. The man whose wife’s ‘preoccupation’ with their young children and her own ill-health ‘drove’ him to nightly consumption of internet porn, and to demanding the more brutalised sexual expression that had become his new norm. The man who left a marriage because his wife’s breast cancer was making his life too difficult. And so on.

These did not start out as abusive relationships. It was only after a long and gradual shift in the terms of each relationship that conversations in which the mostly victim was blamed for the actions of and abandonment by the mostly selfish were possible. Again, this is seen in the book. Imogen takes a long time to recognise what is happening. When she does begin to wonder, and tentatively frames a question, her usually polite husband explodes at her impertinence and lack of consideration for his privacy, and shuts down the conversation. Understanding that he will be considerate, polite, and gentle as long as she never broaches the subject, she leaves it until what was previously unthinkable has become so normal, so reasonable, so much a part of everyday life, that it cannot be challenged. And this, too, I hear from friends. By the time they realise what is happening, it is too late for questions; tentative forays are met with aggression, counteraccusations or blank denial.

The Tortoise and the Hare is an acute look at the power relations between many men and women, or income earners versus homemakers, and it raises interesting questions. Who is the hare, and who is the tortoise? Who wins, and what is the prize? Is the winner the woman who fully shapes herself to the man’s needs; and the rich, powerful, handsome man the trophy? Or is the winner the one who is cast aside and left with nothing but, perhaps, the chance to rebuild a life on new terms?

Questions are also raised about love, power, and work. What boundaries should be kept sacrosanct in a relationship, and how can one keep them or ask another to keep them? How much should one shape oneself or the household to meet the other’s needs? Evelyn works, while Imogen’s role is to be decorative and provide a sanctuary for him. How, then, does ‘working’ versus ‘homemaking’ affect the power relationship? Some things have changed since the book was written; now, both partners often work in demanding jobs. In thinking about Evelyn’s need to be cared for, I found myself wondering how we can find restoration and comfort at home when both partners are exhausted and the kids are ratty and we don’t have housekeepers or cooks.

These are all good questions, with no neat or universal answers. Instead, they need to be negotiated time and again. And while The Tortoise and the Hare does not offer solutions, it certainly describes aspects of many modern domestic relationships, raises questions, and holds clues to possible answers – and provides some beautiful, intelligent, incisive, and sometimes hilariously bitchy, reading along the way.

Monday, October 20, 2014

No suitable help makes it hard to be a minister's wife or even, for that matter, a minister

After all these years of struggling with work and not-work, I’m still struggling. I have days where I take the kids to school, drink a slow coffee, have a slow chat, then wander home and hang out the washing. I work for a few hours before it’s time to pick up the kids and leap on the after school treadmill. On such days I feel a bit guilty for not working as hard as my husband. But, said a friend, perhaps you’re not seeming to work as hard as your husband – and that’s a different thing.

There’s no question that my husband works hard, jolly hard. His hours are packed. Mine aren’t. At least, they’re not packed with ‘work’ things. I’m certainly doing the requisite hours and more of working and studying, but I also do a whole lot of other things, invisible things, that I somehow think don’t take any time. But when I reflect on them, they are actually significant parts of the day.

Take the other day. I razzed three kids up and took them to school, despite their usual shenanigans which required me to leave the room several times and breathe slowly and carefully so as to avoid losing my temper. Then I had a long pastoral conversation. I went home and worked on my thesis for a couple of hours. I ate lunch standing up, then ran out of the house to meet someone and do a couple more hours pastoral work and study. From there, I went straight to school and picked up the kids. One of them did a runner, so I chased her through the schoolyard and go to be That Mother who yelled. We squeaked home in time for piano lessons. I shunted all three through their lessons; brought in, sorted and folded three loads of washing; filled in school forms; washed the vegetable crisper; unpacked the weekly veggie box; prepared a healthy balanced meal; ate with my kids; bathed and de-loused them; supervised readers and homework; played a few rounds of racing demon; did the dishes with my six-year-old; got the kids to put their clean clothes away and their dirty clothes in the wash (which takes much more effort than seems reasonable); ushered them into bed; then sat down, at half past eight, with a cup of tea.

But my husband got home from work after nine. So I felt like I hadn’t worked as hard as him.

There are so many tasks that feel like not-work and like they should take no time. They appear on no balance sheet, and I expect them to fit into the cracks of the day. Filling in school forms. Paying bills. Planning and cooking meals. Buying groceries. Washing dishes. Sweeping floors. Mending. Any form of housework. Buying birthday presents. Most of the emotional work. And yet when you have three primary school aged children, washing, cleaning, admin, mediation, and food preparation take an hour or two every day.

The frustrating thing is that my consciousness is well and truly raised. I’ve read Marilyn Waring’s books. I’ve thought and written about the importance of homemaking, and despite my previous conclusions, I really do think that it’s work – in my head. But my gut still doesn’t really recognise it as work, or that it takes real time.

Last week my father, the historian, told me about a woman who came out from England in the nineteenth century. She complained loudly that there was no suitable help in the colonies, which made it impossible for her to perform her duties as a minister’s wife. It made me laugh, and then rock back on my heels. Because I am not the minister’s wife. I am, in fact, the minister. I am also doing postgraduate study. And I am the cook, the laundress, the mostly cleaner, and the gardener for a family of five.

I know all about feminist consciousness raising and The Wife Drought, and they’re all well and good. But it took a word from the nineteenth century for me to hear, quite clearly, that these other things are work, too. That, and talking with friends, and blogging about it time and time again. I am writing about it now as part of my remedial learning process. But I am such a slow learner. By the time I really recognise it as work, my kids will have all grown up.

The Wife Drought

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

You never know what might happen on a train

My youngest child does not like trains. The other two love them, so much so that on one occasion I was driving with an adult – no kids in the car – and helpfully pointed out a train going by. ‘Thanks, Ali,’ said my childfree friend, ‘I like trains too. But I’m getting quite good at spotting them by myself.’

My third daughter isn’t so keen. Trains are too big and too fast, the other passengers are too unpredictable, and she’s anxious that she’ll be left on a station platform. Given a choice, she’ll avoid the train, skipping outings and staying home if necessary. But sometimes, it's unavoidable; and last week, she needed to catch a train. She complained for a good twenty minutes, then suddenly yelled, ‘We’re going right now’ and marched out the door. I realised she had been steeling her nerve; once steeled, we left.

As we walked to the station, we chatted. ‘Remember,’ I said, ‘trains aren’t like cars. When you drive, you’re in your own little bubble. When you’re on a train, anything can happen.’

I tried not to think of the time on a train last year, when a man beat up his partner in front of their kids and mine; or the screaming woman we had encountered once; or all the other sad and scary things we have witnessed on public transport. Instead, I reminded her that twice recently, we’ve been on a train when friends have come aboard at subsequent stations; and how much fun it had been coming home from the city one night after a school concert, when the carriage had been full of school families. ‘You never know,’ I said, ‘something surprising might happen on this trip, too.’

We travelled into the city. Her hand stayed clasped in mine as we wove our way through the crowds and did our errands. Then we sniffed tea at the tea shop and tried a free sample, examined all the pens at the stationary store so trendy with the primary school set, discussed how she’d like to spend her pocket money, and shared sushi for afternoon tea. Finally, it was time to go. She sighed as we headed back to the station, back to the dreaded trains. I ushered her through the turnstile, and we rode the escalator down.

At the platform, her eyes widened. Three young women were standing there, chatting. They had suitcases at their feet, and one of them was holding a huge helium balloon emblazoned with the characters from the latest Disney movie. My daughter tugged my arm, and pointed at the balloon. The young woman noticed, and smiled at her.

The train arrived. We piled on board, and as it pulled out of the station, the young woman came over. ‘I’m going to the airport,’ she said, ‘and I don’t think they’ll let me take this on the plane. Would you like it?’

My daughter was almost speechless. She whispered her thanks, then took the balloon and held on tight. ‘It’s so beautiful,’ she said to me quietly. She carefully turned the balloon this way and that, showing me the characters and telling me all about them.

When we got home, she let it float above her bed. The next morning I found her lying there, a shaft of sunlight slanting across the blankets, her eyes gazing lovingly at the balloon. ‘So beautiful,’ she murmured again as we had a cuddle.

I’d like to think my prayer for a good journey was answered, even before I recognised that I had been praying. But there is too much violence in this world, and too many unanswered prayers, for me to rest comfortably in that. Instead I’ll say only that I am grateful for a small act of kindness that obliterated one little girl’s fear –

And you never know what might happen on a train.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Just wasting time

I once saw an engraved name badge in shop which read, ‘Hello, I’m VERY BUSY VERY IMPORTANT’. I laughed myself sick, and then rather stupidly didn’t buy it.

Because at my stage of life there is an awful lot of rushing about. Compared to many others in our circle, we’re not super-busy; even so, every week we hustle our kids to school, church, piano lessons, swimming, soccer and dance. While they’re at school we work and study. On weekends we work and study some more, and shop and clean the house; then, if we’re organised, we catch up with friends. Then the week starts and we’re off and running again.

It’s easy to feel the urge to fill every minute. Eating breakfast? Read the paper. Sitting on the loo? Plan the day. Dropping a kid at a dance class on a Saturday morning? Well, that’s an hour and fifteen minutes I can sit in a nearby café and study, and often I do just that.

I can be swept up in the culture of busy-ness, trying to form an identity by how Very Busy Very Important I am; but it’s very ego-driven. And if it’s all about ego, then no matter how much I do, I will never feel satisfied.

Do I have value apart from all my doing? Our society and my ego say no, but my faith says yes. So as a spiritual discipline, I practice doing not much at all. I waste time. Most mornings, I sit in the weak winter sun at the school canteen, nursing a coffee and chatting with whoever’s around. We talk about gardens and books and families and religion and politics and work and death. Then I tootle home on my bicycle, a different way just for fun. I hang out the washing, then hit the books.

I collect my daughters from school. We cycle home via the local park, and stop for a play. They shoot across the monkey bars while I pull out the newspaper and tackle the crossword. I catch the train when driving would be quicker; I stroll to the shops. On my way I see interesting gardens or a puddle mirror-bright, or just my own breath steaming in the air.

There’s not much to this spiritual discipline. It’s just about being present: with people and with gardens, with the sun warming the top of your head, with your cold hands and the way your back moves when you’re pumping the pedals uphill. It’s being present with your step and present with your breath and not worrying about what you’re doing at all.

And gradually you realise you’re not very busy, not very important – and how liberating that can be!

Monday, July 28, 2014

How to cut down a school tree

Before you cut it down, get two opinions. Ensure you can’t save it before arranging to have it felled.

While it’s still standing, visit each class. Explain what is going to happen, and why. Let the children ask questions. Answer them. Send a letter home to each family and let them know. Offer to answer their questions, too.

Hold a short ceremony at the base of the tree. Let the children tell stories. Honour the tree. Name the gifts of shade and clean air, and the place for birds and bugs and butterflies to rest. Acknowledge the countless times children have played among the roots, leaned against the trunk, and gazed into the branches. Say good-bye.

Have it felled. Have the branches sawn into six foot lengths, and scatter them around the grounds. The children will build them into cubbies. Have the trunk sawn into logs, and leave them in the schoolyard, too. Children will walk, climb, balance and sit on the logs, and watch the shadows dance.

Keep a special disc. Sand and polish it, and hang it in the front office for all to see.

Use a good arborist. He will leave a five foot trunk, and carve it into a throne.


A large old tree had to be removed from my daughters’ school recently. This is how it happened. Given the deep connections that many children form with special trees, it seemed just about right. Thanks Trevor and Chris and everyone else involved in the process.

Monday, July 21, 2014

We wasted money on a family holiday...

Hats off to all those parents who love the school holidays! Me, I enjoyed the first week. My daughters’ friends came and went; we spent a lot of time outside; and I was pretty calm. But the second week was something else. Because there is nothing my husband likes more than to go away As A Family, we went away As A Family to the goldfields. It was freezing, it was raining, and we were mostly trapped inside with no other kids to distract ours. My kids bickered and I sniped and it really wasn’t pleasant at all.

On the seventh day, I threw a tantrum. We were walking down the main street in Kyneton when I suddenly stamped my foot on the pavement and told the kids to go away. They shuffled off, then looked on anxiously from half a block away while I asked my husband why, exactly, we had had children. ‘I hate kids,’ I moaned into his chest, ‘I should never have had them. I was born old. I’m an adult’s adult and I like adult things. I like to look at pretty things in shops. I like to sit round in cafés and eat nice things that I didn’t cook and not have to tell anyone to sit down. I hate being kicked by careless feet under the table. I want to wear good shoes and have nobody step on them and I’ve had my toes stepped on eight times today already and I haven’t even had lunch yet and anyway we’re going to that stupid café because the kids keep jostling each other and I can’t trust them in the smaller one and why can’t they just leave each other alone…’ and blah blah blah blah blah.

He held me close while I pulled myself together, and then we went to that stupid café which is really quite okay. I ordered a double shot latte and hot chips with lime aioli and Spanish eggs. I had my toes stepped on two more times and was kicked repeatedly under the table and my kids clattered their cutlery onto the floor once or twice but thanks to the coffee, chips and eggs (such a classy gal) I almost felt okay.

It’s not that I don’t love them. My kids are terrific people, funny and gentle, creative and kind. And it’s not that I don’t love children; I enjoy chatting and playing with other people’s kids. But when it’s just me and my family, we squabble. The kids are at each other’s throats and I ignore it for a while. When I can’t stand it anymore, I give them options. Then I separate them. Then I explode. Then they get even grumpier and the cycle begins again.

As a family, we rarely bring out the best in each other. We need other people for that. Neighbours and relatives, work, family, church and school friends: when we’re with other people, we all thrive. We spend a couple of weeks each year holidaying with a family of six. With the five of us that makes eleven people in a house with one bathroom, with children aged from a young baby to a teenager – it should never work. But the last time we spent a week together I realised on day six that I was yet to rebuke a single child. Somehow, in the crowd, everyone just got on with things. Sometimes I did stuff with kids; sometimes I did the shopping and cooking; sometimes I went for a walk by myself. At the end of the week, I felt like we’d all had a break. My kids were lovely people, and all was right with the world.

Maybe the nuclear family works for some people. My husband certainly seems to enjoy it more than I do. Me, it’s something I’m stuck with, so I try to find ways to live differently. We eat with neighbours and relatives; we spend time with other families; we holiday with friends. But a couple of weeks ago we travelled As A Family, my kids bickered endlessly, and I blew up.

I reckon you could say I went nuclear.

PS – And yet again, The Idle Parent is shown to be right. From the Manifesto: ‘We don’t waste money on days out and family holidays.’ One day I will learn. Sigh. For my response to that most excellent book, click here.
The Idle Parent: Why Less Means More When Raising Kids

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Response: The Free

The Free

We hear a lot about American extremes, whether it’s gossip about the extremely wealthy, or reports of violence among the extremely disaffected. But what of those who will never be successful, but are neither on the rampage nor quite on the skids? For that, we once relied on Joe Bageant; but since his untimely death a couple of years ago we have needed to look elsewhere.

One serious contender is Willy Vlautin. Vlautin, who has worked in warehouses and at painting houses, is also a gifted and elegant writer. He writes essays and novels and, as songwriter and vocalist for Richmond Fontaine, songs; and he has just released a novel about ordinary people in the mess that is America.

The Free opens when Leroy, an Iraqi veteran suffering brain injury and posttraumatic stress disorder, wakes in the night. To his astonishment, he is having a rare moment of clarity. It has been so long since he has experienced this, and he is so profoundly grateful for the gift and the beauty he perceives, that he cannot bear to descend again into darkness and confusion. He decides to liberate himself, and attempts suicide. This is a framing device for the character-driven novel which goes on to describe small, good things (as Raymond Carver once put it) done by small, good people who are themselves on the brink of collapse.

Leroy lives in a home for servicemen with acquired brain injuries, and Freddie, the nightwatchman, finds him. Freddie tends his wounds, calls the ambulance and Leroy’s mother, and gently helps the other servicemen back to bed. As the story progresses we learn that Freddie is crippled by medical bills. He works in a paint store by day and in the group home by night; even so, his house is twice mortgaged and his power is about to be cut off. Despite these pressures, he finds kind words for the counterwoman at the donut shop each morning, and drops by the hospital between workplaces each evening to sit with Leroy and leave small gifts on his nightstand.

Coming in and out of Leroy’s room is Pauline, a nurse. Pauline becomes particularly attached to one patient, a young teenage runaway; and she also cares for her mentally ill father who spends his days on the couch watching TV. We also meet Leroy’s mother and ex-girlfriend, and numerous other minor characters.

Their interwoven stories are studded by Leroy’s PTSD-driven nightmares. In his mind, Leroy and his ex-girlfriend are on the run from the super race. Having been marked as cowards, they are being hunted down for slaughter. Images of war – hangings, shootings, bloodbaths – pepper his visions, which gradually reveal his self-understanding as someone who is unable to integrate his experience of war and is permanently damaged as a result.

It is difficult to write about decent people without mawkishness or naïveté, but Vlautin manages it with rare grace. These are no saints, just people getting by – but choosing to get by as well as they can, given their crushing circumstances. His spare style recalls Carver’s lean prose, spliced with Leroy’s Orwellian dystopic dreams.

Although it is a story about individuals, The Free also illuminates the toxic effects of untrammelled capitalism. Leroy joins the National Guard to impress his boss and keep his job, not knowing it could lead to overseas service. Freddie is bankrupted by private healthcare and criminally low wages. Although he flirts with potentially lucrative illegal work, the timing of other events means he is still shunted into sub-standard housing. Pauline’s father lives in cold filth for fear of heating and water bills. Others live on the streets or in squats, or get involved in endeavours that lead to prison. The Free touches on these and many other issues as it describes life in the corporatocracy and ponders where people on the margins find freedom. And while Vlautin has no paradigm-shattering answers, he does offer small and precious glimpses of grace.

The High Country [Digipak]

Friday, June 6, 2014

Response: Eating Heaven

I may be biased, but my friend Simon wrote a terrific book last year, Eating Heaven. And I loved it. I read it very slowly and savoured every bite.

Each chapter focusses on one table: the kitchen table, the backyard table, the café table, the restaurant table, right up to the table of communion. And each chapter has stories, interviews, history and reflections on that table: eating with mum and dad in the kitchen, sharing a meal with marginalised men and women at a free lunch, having a coffee with a chef between shifts, and so on. Each chapter then ends with a recipe reflecting the type of eating that happens at that particular table.

The book is layered and rich, reflecting Simon’s background as trained chef, sociologist, theologian, and Baptist minister. It also reflects his love of Melbourne in the descriptions of laneway cafés and linen-topped restaurant tables; the juxtaposition of social inclusion and fancy pastries at one downtown church; and the transformative power of eating together in a multicultural city. Whether reminiscing over crowded kitchen tables or backyard barbecues, or savouring the perfect café latte or fancy restaurant dinner, Simon is always thoughtful. In a culture of empty food porn, his voice nourishes and refreshes. He not only enjoys the food, but also contemplates how poverty and wealth, hospitality and exclusiveness, celebration and mourning, and many other issues play out when we sit down at the table. His gentle questions and tentative suggestions are always thought-provoking.

More, they have an effect. Eating together is central to being human; and Eating Heaven reminds us of this gift. In my own household, reading it has triggered a couple of changes. For one, we have returned to a more intentional saying of grace. Despite trying various things over the years, grace had become a rushed magic formula that one or another kid would gabble as they reached for the serving spoon. It was worse than if we had not said it at all. But after reading this book, I have asked that we return to saying grace properly. Now we move between a candle and a responsive prayer; a minute’s silence before the meal; or held hands and a song depending on the mood – and we are loving this grateful pause at the end of the day, this moment of being together before we eat our dinner.

Eating Heaven has also recalled us to simple acts of hospitality, which we largely left behind in the maelstrom of having a third child. A few years on, we’re again able to make time for a coffee with friends, or invite others to eat with us in our home; and Eating Heaven has been a catalyst for thinking about why we eat together and how to do it well.

The stories, reflections and very good questions make this a book to savour, and slowly digest. Thank you, Simon.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Theodicy, empathy, and a 5-year-old

We drove to school. When we arrived, my five-year-old daughter asked, ‘Where’s my backpack?’

‘Don’t you have it?’ I asked. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I left it on the footpath for you to put in the car.’

‘But you didn’t tell me,’ I said, ‘and I didn’t see it. Wasn’t I in the driver’s seat already?’

Her face began to crumple. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said, ‘let’s go in to class. And then I’ll drive home and get the backpack and bring it to school.’

Inside I fumed. I was meeting someone at 9.30; and I had better things to do than drive back and forth between home and school. But I gave her a hug, explained what had happened to her teacher, grumbled to another parent, and headed home.

No backpack.

I checked the house. No backpack, and I remembered having seen her carry it out of the house that morning. I checked the car again, and the veranda, and the front garden, and asked the neighbours. Still no backpack. So I made a second lunch, filled up a spare water bottle, found another dollar for the canteen, put it all in an old bag, and dropped it at school. Then I went to my meeting, half an hour late.

Later that day I searched again, to no avail. If it had been stolen, I thought it would probably have been emptied out and dumped near the railway line. So I walked to the dodgiest spot and there on the ground among the broken glass lay two forlorn loom bands. They were from a pack that she had wanted to share with friends at school. I checked a dozen or so dumpsters, hoping to find the bag itself, before I gave up.

What sort of person would steal a little kid’s backpack? It had the name of our primary school emblazoned on it; there was no way it belonged to a teenager, let alone an adult. And as I began the inventory of what had been lost, I felt more and more bewildered. What had they gained? A scuffed school backpack, useful for one school only. A dented water bottle. A grubby lunch sack. A gluten free soy free lunch: corn cakes with cheese, and a mandarin. A prep reader. A school library book. A bike lock. A little girl’s raincoat. Her favourite, irreplaceable, cardigan. And a dollar for the canteen.

It would cost us well over a hundred dollars to replace everything. And for that, someone gained a single dollar.

My bemusement turned to fury before dwindling into sadness. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be so desperate, and have so little empathy, that I’d steal what was clearly a young child’s bag. The thief had big issues to deal with. We, on the other hand, could easily replace what had been taken, and even find a new favourite cardigan. The only thing that mattered was how we handled it with our kids.

That afternoon, when they were home from school, I explained to my daughter that someone had stolen her backpack. We’d have to replace it, and everything that had been inside.

She had a cry, and a big cuddle. ‘Meanie bum,’ she said. I agreed, and said that it was right that she was angry. Nobody should take anyone’s stuff.

She was quiet for a few minutes. Then she asked, ‘Why are bad people made?’

And so I told her how I understand theodicy. All of us are sometimes good and sometimes bad, I said. Every time we make a choice for good, we strengthen that part of us. Every time we make a choice to be mean, or dishonest, or violent, we strengthen that part of us. The person who stole her bag would have made lots of choices for bad, and so that part of them was very strong; they probably just took her bag without even thinking. It wasn’t personal, I said. It wasn’t about her. And we don’t know why they made those choices; maybe things had happened in their lives that made it hard for them to choose good. I told her we could be angry at what they did, but we didn’t have to hate the person who did it. In a few days or weeks, we might even feel a bit sorry for them.

She thought for a while. Then she said, ‘Maybe they took it because they miss their mummy. Or maybe because my bag reminded them how happy they had been at primary school. But they’re still a meanie bum.’

‘They sure are,’ I said, and gave her an extra squeeze and a kiss on the top of her beloved head.

The next morning, as they were getting dressed, one of her sisters pulled out a hoodie that was getting a bit small. She turned to her younger sister and asked if she would like to have it. My five-year-old beamed and pulled it on, and it immediately became the new favourite. We bought a new backpack, lunch sack, bag tag, and everything else, and life has moved on.


Well, almost. I had left my daughter’s loom bands where they lay among the broken glass; they are slowly fading. Now I walk past them several times a week, and whenever I see them, I think about the person who stole the bag. I wonder if they miss their mummy; I wonder if they were ever happy at primary school. I give thanks for my youngest daughter’s empathic nature, so ready to think about why someone would be mean. I give thanks for my middle daughter’s thoughtful and spontaneous handing over of a hoodie when her sister needed to wear a hug. And I pray that one day the thief will experience such empathy and generosity, and be able to recognise it as gift.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Response: Life Drawing: a novel

Life Drawing

It is rare that one reads a soliloquy on a long term of relationship, but Life Drawing is just that. Gus (short for Augusta) and Owen have been together for a quarter of a century, and their relationship is coloured by grief, a betrayal, and their inability to have children.

The novel begins with the fact of Owen’s death, then goes back in time to tell the story which lead up to it. A new neighbour has moved in, disrupting their rural solitude, and the resulting relationships have deep ramifications. This structure gives the book the shape of a thriller, if a rather beautiful and sedate one. (And I predicted the ending less than halfway through: not very thrilling, perhaps.)

However, the plot is not the point of this book. What makes it special is the portrait of a long marriage, seen through the eyes of Gus. Intimacy and solitude are woven together; the partners negotiate with and allow for each other in a careful, thoughtful dance. Gus observes her husband and herself with an acute eye, moving between love and anger, guilt and frustration, affection and jealousy. At times she has the eye of a lover, at other times, a maternal eye. Their sex life ebbs and flows, from non-existent to raunchy; from passionate connection to ‘the sex that’s like the decent enough music you listen to because the drive is so long and it’s the only radio station you can pick up’. Like every marriage, they navigate difficult emotional terrain; they interpret each other’s behaviour; they talk and keep quiet; they makes mistakes and choose kindness; they eat lunch.

As well as the marriage, Gus’s relationships with their new neighbour, Alison; a former student, Laine; and her father and sister are charted with intelligence and restraint. So too are the long-term effects of betrayal, guilt and grief. These depictions felt very true: closely observed, honest, and wise, and it is for this that I recommend the book.

My only wish was that it had ended differently. The denouement felt unnecessary, pandering to the more sensational expectations of a television audience rather than hewing to the quiet wisdom of the rest of the book. It detracted from what was otherwise a very thoughtful meditation. I’d have loved to have read this book one page short of chapter 21, and had the preceding story shaped accordingly. However, in the final chapter, Gus posits different ways the story might have continued. This reader, then, suggests reading this otherwise moving novel, but deciding on one’s own, preferred, outcome. I’d go with the last paragraph of the novel, perhaps.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Winners and losers in kids' sport

My daughters are losers. They play for a soccer club which focusses on teamwork, fair play, cheerful attitude and making up really cool chants – and neither of them has yet won a game.

Recently one of my daughters played against a side that was surprisingly tall. My daughter’s team kept things to a nil-all draw for the first half, but in the second half, they ran out of steam.

Losing didn’t seem to bother the team too much. Instead, they congratulated each other on keeping this bigger team to a draw for the first half. But the parents and coach looked at the other team, and sighed.

Quietly, the adults applied to the football federation for an assessment of the other team. The federation found that the other team contained a number of older girls, and so that team was re-graded. When the decision was made, our club notified us calmly, with a hint of an eye-roll and a smile. No railing at the other team, no suggestion that things were unfair, just a note that this was so and which way the ruling went.

I wondered to my husband whether the other team had made a mistake. He looked at me disbelievingly. Then he told me that when he was 11, he had been in a team which regularly played against teams stacked with older kids. Even in his own team, there was some suggestion that kids might lie about their age so they could play down a grade and win more. And, like my daughters’ teams, his team too always lost.

But imagine what sort of parents they have, he said, and what sort of adults those kids will grow up to be: taking advantage at every step, lying on their taxes, cheating on their partners, all driven by their pathetic egos.

I thought about the girls on the other team, and their coaches and parents, and felt sad. What sort of world do we live in, that the outcome of a child’s game matters so much to adults? Why is winning so important to parents that they ask the kids to lie? And what sort of hollow victory is that?

Surely it is much more important for kids to learn fair play, and teamwork, and how to keep your chin up when the odds are stacked against you? Surely they need to learn how to deal with frustration and disappointment? Because if they do it well, they will also learn to be steadfast, resilient and honest, qualities that will stand them in good stead as human beings.

And as for losing all the time, well, if either of my daughters’ teams ever win, you’ll hear the victory dance from here to Timbuktu. It won’t be some empty victory which leaves a bitter taste in their mouths. Instead, it will be something really worth celebrating.

Neither of my daughters has won a game yet, and because of the vagaries of the fixture, my older daughter’s team had to play the surprisingly tall team a second time before the re-grading took effect. My daughter’s team put on a good show, but of course they were beaten. Even so, I reckon I know which team was losing out.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The gift of not striving

It’s my birthday, and has it been a busy year! My third child is finally at school. I am working part time and studying part time and running a household and doing all the things that people my age do. But today, being my birthday, it is time to take stock and reflect.

Yesterday, I met with my professional supervisor. ‘What are you going to give yourself for your birthday?’ she asked. ‘Think about a gift you can give, from deep in yourself to yourself, and tell me about it next time.’

This morning I woke up and knew what it would be: permission to stop striving. There’s nothing wrong with working hard, but there’s sometimes wrong with endless striving. I get up in the morning, organise three kids out the door and ride them to school. Then I turn around and ride home. I work and study for five or six hours, stopping only to eat and pee, then hop back on the bike and pick the kids up from school. We cycle home, I feed them, then I bring the washing in, tidy the back table, organise piano practice, listen to readers, cook dinner, and do all the things every parent does every night of the week. My partner comes home and asks me how my day was, and I say, ‘I feel like I haven’t done anything.’ He asks me what I have actually done, and I say things like, ‘Well, I did a first draft of a book review for a journal, and wrote up the minutes of a meeting and made a heap of phone calls and met with my supervisor and sorted three loads of washing and cooked dinner and actually, there was a bit there after all, wasn’t there?’. He looks at me and smiles, yes.

Because I work in a church, I always work on Sunday evenings; and because I’m often preaching, I’ll write for a few hours many Saturdays, too. Because the kids are at school all week, I feel like I can’t ‘waste’ that time, and so I also work Monday to Friday. Because Easter is a big work week, with services on Thursday, Friday and Saturday night and a gathering on Sunday morning, and because my husband had to work over the school holidays, I didn’t get a break these Easter holidays from either my work or the kids. And so in fact I have worked for some hours at least of very many days in a row; and also been busy with children.

All things considered, I’m hardly twiddling my thumbs. Yet despite this activity, I often feel like I’m not doing enough. There are so many ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ that I find it hard to do the things that aren’t at the top of the list – like write a blog post, for example.

But today is my birthday, and I have given myself permission to stop striving. So I took the kids to school and went to the canteen. I usually work there for an hour on Tuesdays, but today, because I was not striving, I stayed longer. I sat on the deck with other parents and chatted over coffee about trees and gardens. Then I headed into the kitchen, where I made spinach and cheese pastries, and learned how to roll pastry like an empanada. I talked with my friend who runs the canteen: about parenting and housework, meditation and the meaning of life. She gave me a new cookbook, written by a friend of hers. In a quiet moment, we flicked through it and I was so inspired that I went home via the shops to buy the ingredients for a warming soup.

Because I wasn’t striving, I called a friend and had a birthday chat. Then, feeling decadent, I ate my birthday chocolate as an entrée to my vegetable lunch. I thought of ten jobs I should do, but I stood at the window and gazed at the pear tree, instead. The tree is turning from green to red, and the top is crowned in blazing leaves. I remembered a post I wrote years ago, about another pear tree, and dug it out and read it. And then, because I wasn’t striving, I decided to write this.

Happy birthday.

And to all you gardeners out there, yes, the photograph is of a crab apple leaf; the red leaves on the pear tree are too high for a good photo just yet! And this book is my most excellent birthday present - thanks Kris!

The Blender Girl: Super-Easy, Super-Healthy Meals, Snacks, Desserts, and Drinks--100 Gluten-Free, Raw, & Vegan Recipes!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

A lump, and quiet wisdom in the night

Not long ago, I found a lump. Not only that, but my breasts were sore and ached as if deeply bruised. To women of my age, that means only one thing: panic! For a week I shuttled between medical services. My doctor felt the lump and raised her eyebrows. She sent me off to the hospital. I stripped down in a tiny cubicle and put on a freezing, open-backed gown. I was shown into a dark room where a brisk woman ground an ultrasound wand into my aching breasts. She decided I needed a mammogram, and so I moved to another dim room where a different brisk woman pulled and kneaded my tender breasts into place, lowered the great weight of the machine until they were nearly flat, and took some shots. When it was over, I dressed and wandered out through a crowded waiting room, feeling sick.

The next day, the hospital called me. The pictures didn’t give them enough information; I had to go back. Again, I waited in a crowded room, stripped off in a tiny cubicle, and had my breasts kneaded into place. Again, the machine squeezed them into pancakes and took shots. Again I dressed, and left feeling sick.

And all the while, I panicked. Calm on the outside, I went through the motions; but inside, I was in turmoil. I couldn’t sleep. Instead I lay in bed each night beside my husband, kneading my breasts, feeling the soreness, getting the full measure of the lump, and thinking about death. Not yet forty, the mother of three primary school aged kids: I was not prepared to die.

About three o’clock one morning, something shifted. I realised that life was good. I didn’t want to be married to anyone else; I enjoyed being a mother; I loved where we live; I loved my work; and I had recently understood my life’s trajectory, a big deep satisfying revelation which filled me with a sense of home. And I realised that there was little more one could expect from life than to come to understand oneself, to be happy with one’s situation, and to be flooded with gratitude for all that has been. Even if this life was coming to an end, it had already been so much more than enough; I had already experienced abundance.

A couple of days later, I discovered that the lump was not malignant; it was just a lump; and the sensation of bruising was just the latest symptom of the candida that has raged through my system for years.

If the results had been different, I don’t know whether I would have been able to hold onto that early-morning moment. The quiet wisdom of the small hours is hard to remember in the full light of day; in the face of work and study and children; in the reality of sickness; in the waking awareness of all the things a person my age is still expected to do and be.

But I want to record it here, to remember that at one time I knew deep in my bones that already my life has been more than enough; already, it overflows with goodness and mercy; already, my life is abundant.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Response: Kith: The riddle of the childscape

Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape

When was the last time you encountered the word ‘tatterdemalion’? I have just read one of the most playful, exuberant, relishing encounters with language that I have ever come across: Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape, by Jay Griffiths. The author loves language and odd words; she plays with meanings and roots and etymologies; she relishes alliteration and other musical tricks; and the cadence of her writing is positively lyrical. Or, as she writes (in relation to the metaphors we have for feeling and knowing, but which equally pertains to her modes of expression), ‘Language…, a beautiful partisan, waits with rifle and song to ambush us into remembering what we used to know as children.’

Yes, the writing is beautiful, drawing the reader in; but the point of the book is not language. Instead, in the course of writing her last book, Wild, Griffiths visited many indigenous tribes and found herself wondering why the indigenous kids she observed were so cheerfully grounded, while the Western kids she knew were so unhappy by comparison. Kith is her attempt to answer that question.

Her answer is long, opinionated, and unabashedly Romantic. In brief, she argues that kids in the West rarely get what they really need: secure early attachment followed by extreme freedom; a relationship with the woods and the wild, including wildlife; a big tribe of kids and adults; stories packed with metaphor which allow for the expression of a child’s emerging sense of self; lots of free time; rites of passage into adulthood; freedom from consumerism; a rich, responsive education; and so on.

Instead, what they get is ‘controlled’ crying and the physical isolation of cots, prams and car seats, followed by helicopter parenting and little nuclear families; constant surveillance; highly structured schedules; media outlets and politicians which portray them in a constantly negative light; stop and search laws, curfews and dispersal orders for the crime of being young; lives trapped indoors; hollow stories; no rites of passage; and industrial-style, heavily politicised education.

None of these observations are particularly original. In recent years, Skenazy encouraged parents to let their kids be more independent; Louv urged kids into the great outdoors; Hodgkinson called for tribes and freedom and faerie stories; Robinson advocated for an education which drew out the unique gifts of each child; and many, many writers begged us chilly Westerners to be more physically affectionate with our babies and toddlers. It’s obvious stuff.

What sets Griffiths’ book apart is the way she brings these themes together under the umbrella of Romanticism. She compares the childhood experiences of Romantic poets – Wordsworth, Blake, Clare, Whitman – with indigenous practices of childcare, arguing that they have much in common; and goes on to suggest that these approaches will lead to happier children. Further, she argues, we lack (but need) a Western philosophical framework to describe our parenting practices; Romanticism fits the bill.

I love her writing; I agree with many of her observations regarding how kids could be better raised; and I find many of her arguments regarding Romantic and indigenous ways of raising children reasonable. However, this book is so passionately one-eyed, and so flawed, that Griffiths fails to convince overall – and this is a pity.

To begin with, despite identifying what Western kids lack – such as secure attachment, a big tribe, and rites of passage – Griffiths offers few practical suggestions as how to get these things into kids’ lives. How do we make parenting easier so that parents have the emotional capacity to forge deep strong attachments to their children? How do we balance the needs of parents with the needs of children? How do we widen people’s perceptions of their role in the lives of other people’s kids, so that parents aren’t required to fulfil all the adult roles in a child’s life? In a post-church society, who develops and conducts rites of passage? And so on. These questions are all raised by the text; yet Griffiths offers no solutions, and it is simply not helpful to identify what is needed (and indeed to criticise harshly how we parents, of which Griffiths does not appear to be one, do it wrong), but to offer no suggestions for change. It is left to the reader to imagine what could be and then put it into place – and yet many of the necessary structures are almost impossible to tackle family by family: they require cultural change.

For example, to take the example of a tribe, it took nine years of talking and parenting before we found a family who was genuinely interested in and able to live in the same street as us, and, more than that, willing to get involved in our kids’ lives in ways that eased the pressure on our child-parent relationship. Griffiths writes rather breathlessly that, in one tribe, parents never discipline their own children; that is left to others so that the affection of the parent-child relationship is never damaged. That sounds bloody wonderful, but it would require a seismic shift in how we as a society take responsibility for other people’s children for it to be even remotely possible here.

Another weakness of the book is how Griffiths glosses over the hardships of life for indigenous children. Sure, traditional ways of childhood sound great for those who survive, especially boys: roaming, hunting, fishing, and untold freedom for kids. But traditional ways also involve high infant mortality, infanticide when the rains don’t come or too many girls have been born, the ‘betrayal’ (as it’s described in the book by a young victim) of female genital mutilation, the sexual trade of young girls to forge connections or strengthen associations between tribes, social controls which require high levels of conformity, even child sacrifice for religious purposes. In over 350 pages of praising indigenous childcare practices and criticising ours, Giffiths devotes a scant couple of pages to listing some of the downsides of being an indigenous kid, and offers no explanation or justification for these less than happy practices. This is deeply unsatisfactory, and feels unfair. At least kids in the West get to live when the rains don’t come; most Western girls don’t have their genitals hacked off with rusty razor blades; and the sexual trade in young girls is looked upon as an aberration and a crime. For these aspects of the Western approach to childhood, I am grateful.

Because I have never lived with an indigenous tribe, I find it hard to judge the veracity of Griffiths’ account of indigenous lives. Even so, I found myself questioning it. For example, in one place Griffiths writes that after spending an afternoon with over a hundred indigenous kids, she realised that she hadn’t once heard a kid cry, and that she couldn’t imagine the same situation with Western kids. Having just spent three weeks of the school holidays with two different tribes of kids, aged between 6 months and 15 years, I can vouch that even Western kids rarely cry when they’re running around in a pack. They get busy, and work things out; and so I’m not convinced that this lack of crying is a unique feature of indigenous life.

To the contrary, in fact. One of my friends lived for two years in an indigenous village in Papua New Guinea. When she returned, she told me that one thing she will always remember is the crying. It formed the constant soundscape; she said she could not remember a time when she couldn’t hear a child crying, and that coming back to Australia was a great relief from this point of view. Was this village, eight hours’ travel by small boat from Rabaul, ‘less indigenous’ than the people visited by Griffiths? Or, in her visits with indigenous people, did Griffiths excise weeping children from her experience and hear only what she wanted to hear? I have no way of knowing, but I am sceptical that the lives of indigenous children following traditional ways of life are always so blissful. (As for the lives of indigenous kids whose traditional ways of life are being torn to shreds, that is, most of them, I weep.)

This blanket enthusiasm for indigenous practices coupled with a blanket criticism of Western practices grates; and it also leads to ridiculous inconsistencies. Griffiths is scathing of the way Western children are penned up indoors, locked away from the wild spaces that they need for their development. Yet in a chapter devoted to the importance of imagination and metaphor, Griffiths writes positively about the Kogi people in Colombia, who identify a boy as a future spiritual leader. This infant is taken from his mother, and shut in a dim cave for the first nine years of his life; his only exposure to the wider world is through the stories told to him. After nine years, he emerges as a spiritual leader (or, I suspect, completely mad). Of this practice, Griffiths admits only that some Westerners may feel ‘ambivalence’. Horror is more like it. One is left with the impression that it’s not okay for Western kids to be inside playing the piano, learning to cook, reading faerie stories, building cubbies, or playing hide-and-seek; but an indigenous kid can be locked away in a dark cave for nine years. Oh, please! Clearly, this is absurd; yet Griffiths seems cheerfully oblivious to both the brutality of some indigenous practices and the inconsistencies within her text which lead her to condemn in the West that which she extols in other cultures.

Griffiths also suffers from the hopeless sentimentality towards children that one sees in non-parents from time to time. As a parent, I do find it helpful to be reminded to let my kids take risks, to get them outside, to let them have their privacy and secret spaces and special dens. I like being a little breathless about the idea of childhood, and I know that when we relax our family culture, everyone is happier and more cheerful. But I also know just how much of childhood is about shit and sex and fighting and greed and fear, not only in my own children or the children I spend time with, but in my memories of childhood; and it seems that there is little room in Griffiths’ worldview for such normal kids. Not all kids are large-spirited hearty adventurers or passionate artists. Griffiths seems to be unaware of the variations in personality which are found, I suspect, across all cultural styles.

Her one-eyed view also means that Griffiths fails to see the opportunities for wildness and secret places that city children find: on the subway, up the fire stairs, under the stoop, in a cubby, or in the branches of a tree at the local park. Not every wild space or secret den needs to be a rural idyll. She seems to miss the ways city kids lose and construct themselves, and make little nets of privacy, not just in folk tales but in music and dance and sport, and dreaming in the back seat of the car. Her unabashed primitivism lacks subtlety; and there is so much good about being a Western kid that I find it hard to perceive the crisis of childhood to which she constantly alludes.

So I have lots of issues with the book; still, I recommend it. Griffiths’ observations about what makes kids thrive are good sense, overall; and the great exuberant eloquence of her writing is such a delight, such a gift, that I am prepared to forgive very many of the flaws. Cat-shadows in beetroot patches will win me over, every time.

‘Obedience is deadly, will is divine and the vital wildness of the human spirit is purring, over there, like a cat-shadow in the beetroot patch.’


PS: If you’re not really up for a long, loquacious, one-eyed, deeply flawed rant – though why not, I can’t imagine! – but you still want to think about how to parent generously, I’d recommend Hodgkinson’s utilitarian The Idle Parent. My longer response to it is here, but, in short, it advocates freedom and choice; is packed with suggestions for ways to maximise love and affection and minimise the rage and frustration of parenting; and urges parents to seek ways of making family life fun. It’s intelligent, enjoyable, good-humoured and opinionated, and lacks only cat-shadows and beetroot patches. And who has a beetroot patch, anyway? The Idle Parent: Why Less Means More When Raising Kids

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Farewell to school reading

For nearly five years, I have spent a couple of hours each week reading with kids at a local primary school. Most of the kids at that school are from a refugee background; many of their parents had very little schooling themselves; and books and reading are rarely part of their home life. Many of the kids come from large families, and so even those parents who might be able to provide reading support in the classroom tend to be at home caring for younger children.

Yet children need assistance to learn to read, preferably one on one. A teacher in a classroom doesn’t have time to read with every student every day; this is where volunteers come into play. Most middle class schools have a host of parents who volunteer in the classroom. At this school, because of the family situations of the students, other adults step in.

We volunteers can’t provide the daily reading with each child that is recommended; and yet even our few hours are something. What, I’m not always sure. There are many weeks when the reading is the point – I see a kid make a leap in fluency, or really understand a concept. Other weeks, the relationship is the point, and I was given the bangle in the photograph to prove it! Still other weeks, the point might be nothing more than to show through our actions to a group of kids that not all Australians are hostile to refugees.

They are all good reasons to be there, and yet I feel like it’s time to wind up my involvement. Stop reading with these fantastic kids, stop traipsing down once a week for even that little while, and start doing something else with my time. The problem is, having once committed, I struggle to step away – especially since I have no pressing reason not to.

Moreover, I am aware that I am the powerful one in these relationships. I can choose to be involved, or to move on; whatever I do, people will still be grateful for the paltry efforts I have put in. Meanwhile, the kids turn up to school week after week without the educational consolidation that many other kids’ home lives provide; they have no choice in the matter. For several months now I have grappled with these entwined feelings – that I have had enough, and that I feel guilty about stopping – as I try to decide what I will commit to this year.

One morning late last year, as I was preparing to head down, I received a text from the school reminding me that it was mini-Eid. This meant that almost no kids were at school, and so there was no point in me going. I unexpectedly had the morning off. So I dropped my daughter at kinder, then basked in the freedom. I didn’t do anything amazing: I hung out the washing, wrote a blog post, checked my emails, read a chapter of a book, and picked up my daughter again. And it was fantastic – an unexpected gift, a few hours to centre down in what had been a busy week.

More, I felt deeply relieved. I was glad to be home, glad not to be negotiating books and behaviour, glad not to answer the same questions that I am asked every week. ‘Can I call you Alice?’ (No, my name is Alison); ‘Where’s your little daughter?’ (at kinder, you know that!); ‘How will she go on your bike?’ (on the trailer, which is parked at kinder); ‘Why you cut your hair short like a boy’s? Tsk, so ugly!’ (I like it that way); and so on.

The deep relief I experienced when I stayed home is a clue, I think, that my involvement in the school should come to an end. My low grade annoyance at the weekly questions is another. If I am tired by these kids and this situation, I am not giving them my best; there are many days when I struggle not to get cranky.

It’s not that there isn’t a pressing need; it’s just that, for whatever reason, I am no longer the one to meet it. In this world, there are billions of pressing needs, and billions of people to meet them. I am not indispensable. I have to trust that, if I let this go, someone else will step into my shoes – with any luck, someone more gentle, more humorous, and better with kids. And I have to trust that, if I let this go, something else will arise to which I can offer my time, and my self.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

How to prepare for a hot day


The night before, water the plants. In the morning, erect a temporary shade cloth over the seedlings using an old red curtain and ropes; get the girls to hold the corners taut while you tie the knots. Place milk crates over any small plants that could use a bit of shade.

Fill the chooks' water container. Place it under the fig tree. Water the terracotta pots surrounding their dust bath. As long as you water them every few hours, they'll keep the chickens cool.

To rig up a shade over the back door, you'll need the ladder. Fetch it, extend it, and make it steady. Climb up, and tie a length of old clothesline to a veranda post. Thread the rope through the loops of another red curtain, then run it through a metal bracket on the opposite post. Knot it firmly – the wind will be strong. Pin the curtain wide on the rope with bulldog clips. Climb down and put the ladder away. Tie the bottom corners of the curtain to the veranda posts with short lengths of rope. Unroll the canvas awnings over the back veranda and make them fast. Kick yourself that you haven't ordered awnings for the front veranda, go inside, and add it to the list of jobs.

Close any windows. Draw the curtains. The bathroom is the hottest room, so shut the bathroom door. Notice the trickles of air coming in. Block them with a door snake at the front door, a green pillow at the back. Plug the disused keyhole with cotton wool. Climb up on a chair and fasten a sheet of aluminium foil to the window over the front door, shiny side out. Think about rigging up another old curtain between the front veranda posts to shade the front door, and decide it's inhospitable.

Fill the ice cube trays and put them in the freezer. Peel the bananas and freeze them in bags for an afternoon snack. Drop some cucumber into a jug of water and put it in the fridge.

Get out the fans, the jigsaws, the textas, the board games. Tell the kids to stay inside. Choose a book and stretch out in the big green chair; throw your legs over its arms.

Lose yourself. Around you, the house is a cave on a Greek island, shady, dark and cool. The house is a memory of rainforest light, dappled green and gold. The house is a ship. The awnings billow and rattle, the rafters creak. The red curtain has filled like a sail, the clouds, glimpsed through high windows, are scudding along, and you're sailing away to sea.

The Summer Book Master and Commander

(Books reviewed here and here.)

Monday, January 6, 2014

Is there a 'real' me waiting to be unmasked?

In my last post, I provided a link to a sermon I gave at Christmas. In it, I said “...one step on the journey is to start living as if we trusted because, like most things, if we practice long enough then eventually it will become second nature, and shape who we become.”

Someone wrote to me and asked:

You have said that in behaving like you already believe something, you eventually found you did believe in it. When I try to do that, part of me feels like I'm not being honest. Is it possible to be true to yourself, to the ‘real’, ‘unmasked’ person you are, and yet act out another persona totally? I really don't understand how one can. To me, it seems that in order to act the way one ‘should’, one is suppressing how one really feels, thinks and even believes - and so is not being the ‘real’, ‘unmasked’ person at all. I'd really like to know how you came to understand this as a way of changing, and maybe even ask if the questions I raise with myself are ones you have already raised and resolved.

Perhaps others have similar questions, so here is my response.


You raise some really good questions, fundamental to what we believe a human being is, because behind your questions is a big assumption that our culture makes: that there is a ‘real’ person underneath, waiting to be ‘unmasked’. There may have been some confusion in the sermon, as I suggested there are ways to unmask or reveal the light that is already shining within us, and you may have assumed this meant the ‘real’ person. However, I was calling for the continuing revelation of the divine spark within us, the gift from God. This spark is a part of us, but it is not some ‘real’ us.

As for some ‘real’ us, well, I don’t buy the myth that if we all did enough psychotherapy or drumming rituals then we’d know who we really are. How we live reveals exactly who we really are: our values, our histories, our wounds, our beliefs, our choices. How we choose to live, how we respond to what life dishes out, whether we value our wounds or our healing and so on makes it clear who we are, what we hold dear, and what values we prioritise.

Our society venerates ideas like ‘being true to oneself’ and ‘authentic ways of living’, but when I observe people who base their lives on these concepts, I often see very selfish and dishonest behaviours. For example, I think of people I know who have justified extra-marital affairs because they claim that by expressing the passion they feel for their lover they are being true to themselves. They cannot admit the dishonesty they engaged in when they allowed their heart to stray so far from someone to whom they have pledged faithfulness, nor the dishonesty they practiced when they met covertly with their lover.

More personally, I think that if I had lived in a way that was ‘true to myself’, you would have seen a wounded little girl who sought refuge and comfort in sex and alcohol, and who tried to feel powerful through hurting others. Those, at least, have been my instincts; but I never wanted to be that sort of person, so I haven’t had affairs or drunk way too much way too often; and I have practiced holding my tongue and learning some self-control and gentleness. After a decade or two of these disciplines, the little girl has grown up a lot and her wounds are healing; she no longer needs to be destructive to feel powerful.

Instead of being true to myself, then, I try to be true to my Christian calling. Sometimes the expression of this will look like being true to myself, or ‘finding’ myself; other times, it will look and feel like the very opposite, as I engage in the hard and painful drudgery of learning to be faithful. The times when it appears that I have found or recognised something essential about myself are often the result of years of patient, tedious, largely invisible practices which, through repetition, have altered my approach to other people and the world, shaping which values I live out and what sort of person I have become.

Being true to the Christian calling won’t ever require me to act out an entirely different persona; but it will require that I take a good hard look at my persona and work on the bits that aren’t Christian. Christianity – like any faith discipline – is like a rock tumbler: what goes in is a rock, what comes out is a rock; it’s the same thing, only all the rough edges have been knocked off and it is now something beautiful. And the rough edges are knocked off our persona by practicing the disciplines of faith.

Professional athletes and musicians and cooks practice their passion for hours every day. They learn to change a grip or a posture or a habit, and at first it feels unnatural; but then it becomes second nature and part of how they do what they do. Faith is the same. If it’s our passion, we practice it every day, yet there will always be habits that feel uncomfortable and ‘fake’ because faith is so countercultural. For example, when I decided to be Christian, I felt very fake going to church, singing, praying and talking to members of the congregation, but I identified these disciplines as part of the tradition that I wanted to belong to, I practiced them, and eventually they became second nature. So too with trust and all the other disciplines of faith. They feel fake, then they feel real because they have become part of the person we are becoming, part of the mix of choices and habits and practices and beliefs and attitudes that constitute our growing and maturing selves.

I hope this answers your questions – and maybe raises a few more!


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