Monthly Archives: July 2010

Sky

‘First the colours
Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things.
Or at least, how I try.

HERE IS A SMALL FACT
You are going to die.’

I finally finished ‘The Book Thief,’ by Markus Zusak.
I started it many times last year but the prose of the narrator, Death himself, was too perfect, too real, describing what I saw everyday in the hospital corridors with such precision and the truth that this might be happening to us was too eerie, too haunting. I put the book away time and again but when I finally picked it up, this last time, I could barely put it down until I had drunk in every word.

Death is not the enemy. Maybe the knowledge of its impending nature is in fact the greatest gift? Maybe we need to acknowledge it more? After all, as Zusak writes, it’s a fact; we are all going to die. Maybe if we were to exist, as if we were dying, we would adjust our focus, pay attention and really live.

Maybe the decisions we make
Each morning would be different.
Maybe we would taste our coffee
And the jam on our toast
Maybe we would hear the bird’s song,
feeling the breeze on our face
As we step outside,
Maybe we would smell the freshly cut, grass
On the school oval instead of complaining
That we were on duty again

Death makes you sit up and notice and hold onto life. To weed out all the things that don’t matter anymore, to make time for all the things that do. You can’t make more time really but you can rearrange your priorities to do what is important. My friend Mick explained to me that in Greek mythology there are two types of time: Chronos time and Kairos time. Chronos time, he says is unsatisfied and ravenous but Kairos time has purpose, it sees time as a gift and instead of asking, “What time is it?” The question is asked, “What is this time for?”

I find myself asking this question now. Instead of being constantly caught up in all the necessary things; even though life is busy, with work, with hospital, with family, with friends, with connect group and church I seek to find the balance to just be still and to see that He is God. He holds the whole world in His hands.

I’ve been raised in a culture that always dreams about tomorrow but now, after this journey; I feel more than anything I have learned how to live in today, moment by moment. Switchfoot sings, “Today is all you’ve got now, and today is all you’ll ever have.” It’s not really profound to say that tomorrow never comes but how many of us live for the flowers of tomorrow without really nurturing the seeds of today?

My Kindergarten children really struggle with yesterday and tomorrow. I laugh when they tell me “Tomorrow I went to Grandma’s house.” Or “Yesterday I am going to start soccer.” They have no real concept of time. “Is it lunch? Is it maths now? Is it time to go home?” they ask me all day long. I try to keep a fairly structured routine, to make their day a little more predictable, to give them a sense of safety and security. In return they give me perspective and delightful insight into the simple wonder of every day.

How long has it been since you last lay on your back and watched the sky? My friend’s 11-year-old son says, “The sky looks like a painting and each day we walk under a new artwork.” My pastor brings this to my attention every morning as he photographs the sunrise and sends it out via Twitter. “His mercies are new every morning.” How good it is to be reminded of this. When we look up and observe the sky we can make many predictions. I watched it every day this week, looking for signs, wondering what it was trying to say?

Driving home from hospital on Tuesday afternoon, my heart was heavy from the things we had found in this week’s blood results. I remembered an expression of the Lakota Sioux people that says, “Sometimes I go around pitying myself. And all the while I am being carried on great winds across the sky.” I looked up and stretched out on a blue sky were puffy white clouds and the bottom edge looked like they’d been soaked in pinkish red. I was reminded at first of cotton balls dabbed with blood, ‘perhaps this is the seeping from my broken heart,’ I pondered but in the next moment I remembered the words of one of my Kindy kids. She told me that the best thing about the school holidays was having her fingernails painted, not once but twice. I could see the cotton balls soaked in the polish and with that image the stain was removed from my heart as well.

The children in my class draw pictures to illustrate their stories. At the top of the page they shade a line of blue and at the bottom of the page, a line of green, in the middle all is white. I take them outside onto the oval and I show them how the sky bends down to meet the earth. We discuss all the colours, we observe the sky peeking through the trees. Sometimes the sky is white, like cotton stretched out, with dark blue clouds. Sometimes the sky is baby blue with white clouds sailing past and though it is always changing, the sky always meets the ground. I try to help the children see that there is a horizon and that there is no empty space. The sky is full and complete and connected to earth. As I tell them this I am aware of how present God is, how full, how colourful, how he doesn’t leave any gaps.

Sometimes the story God is writing over my life is not the one I want to read. I need him to be my teacher, kneeling down beside me at my desk, helping me decipher all the little bits I don’t get and helping me to create a story out of all my random words and thoughts. “What do you think it says?” I hear him ask me in the same way I question the children. He listens patiently to all my spoken words. He smiles at me, looking again at my page. “Yes,” he says, “I can see you have included that word and you have almost created another one there, that’s a great effort, enough for today.” He isn’t mocking me. He is working with me, helping me grasp all the little bits that I do understand. It is enough. There will be more time tomorrow and there will be a fresh page and another story to record.

Sometimes there are signs in the sky. My dad always told me that ‘a red sky at night was a shepherd’s delight but a red sky in the morning was a shepherd’s warning.’ Sometimes there is meaning in the sky but maybe the signs are there to simply make us look up, to take time to notice all of creation. My friend was taking her daughter for tests on Thursday and the sky was soft blue, innocent and clear. I prayed that this was an indication that all would be well.

In Matthew 16:3-5, Jesus said, “When evening comes you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.”

So what does the sign of Jonah mean? I am no Bible scholar but I can see that Jonah tried to avoid doing the thing that was hard, the thing he did not want to do. Yet when he was obedient, though he suffered, through spending time in insignificance, God used his life. He became a type for Christ, who also spent three days in the belly of the earth, just as Jonah spent three days in the belly of the whale and both learned obedience through the things, which they suffered. This was the will of God. Ultimately it was about resurrection, redemption and doing God’s will. Sometimes what He requires of us makes us angry, sometimes it is not fair. Sometimes death comes at the end of a long, satisfied life but often it comes without warning. It aches in the core of our being, it eats us away, we wring our hands, we curl over in disbelief. With time the memory fades a little but grief never completely goes away.

“To everything there is a season, and a time for every matter or purpose under heaven; a time to be born and a time to die” but it’s not as simple as it sounds.

T.S. Eliot writes

“And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.”

But J Alfred Prufrock was a fool, plagued with procrastination.
What if there is not time?
How would you live today?
Would you do life differently?

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Butterfly

“I went to the osteopath again today,” Sam tells me over the phone. “My muscles, the ones that were once so strong from ballet, are like knots twisted, tense and tight. He says it’s mainly around the area where all the lumber punctures and bone marrow biopsies were taken. He suggests I try another Pilates class, one that is more specialized, one that can help me build my core again” and with this she begins to cry. “It’s too hard mum. Its like every part of me needs to be rebuilt but I feel I can hardly move.”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about all the things that weave their way around our hearts, entangling our thoughts, rendering us motionless. As I think about this I’m reminded of that passage in the gospels where Jesus told His disciples to take nothing for the journey except what they were wearing. It interests me how specific he was in this scripture.

“Take no gold or silver nor (even) copper money in your purses. And do not take a provision bag or a wallet for a collection bag for your journey, nor two undergarments nor sandals, nor a staff…”

When I read this I think He is trying to tell us that He will be enough. He doesn’t tell the disciples to go without, he doesn’t tell them to sleep on the streets, quite the contrary in fact. He tells them “And into whatever town or village you go, inquire who in it is deserving, and stay there [at his house] until you leave that vicinity.”

It’s like God is telling us, pack light but expect help. It sounds simple, but its not until you have no choice but to leave your job, the one that has paid the mortgage while your husband establishes his business that you really begin to discover what it is to live by faith. Every now and again I have to remind myself of the miraculous provision that came to us last year, from real people who came alongside us to help. I remind myself because even now, even though it feels that we have come so far, even though the help was incredible, I still feel terrified at times. The relentless nature of this condition is unceasingly hard, there are setbacks at every juncture and under the grey sky of winter; I feel the knots that have formed around my mind. I want to be light but instead I am motionless from the losses, the disappointments, and the humiliation of broken dreams.

It seems that the knots have tangled their way around my courage, pinning me down, too close to the ground. I have become ‘Leptosia nina’, which is the Latin name for a small butterfly otherwise known as the Psyche. This butterfly is weak in flight and erratic and though they flap their wings, it is mainly their body that lifts up and down. They hover over the grass but rarely leave ground level.

Have you observed the butterfly?
How it lifts effortlessly in flight?
How it rises and falls?
How it hovers delicately, tempting you to follow it,
Slowing down just enough to persuade you that
You can position your camera lens long enough to
Capture its beauty on film. Then taunting you,
It disappears into the undergrowth,
Weaving its way through the green.
The photo is completely out of focus,
The moment feels like it’s gone,
You sigh,
Regretting that you won’t be able to share
The magic of this moment with anyone else,
Reluctantly you move the camera from its position
In front of your eyes and allow it to rest against your chest,
Suspended from its heavy strap and you search again,
Hoping the butterfly might make another appearance,
A last encore!
And it does,
It flirts its way back out of the garden,
Making its way across the path,
The blue sky is its backdrop
And it flutters off towards the beach
In the scorching sunlight
Then closing your eyes you see the image
Perfectly formed in sepia,
Framed on your retina
You discover that this moment was just for you.
Like a gift from your Maker,
Like capturing thoughts,
Like sweet felicity,
Like the enchantment of fairytales,
Like clandestine hope,
Like a silent inner voice absconding with your heart
“Remember me, I’m with you on this journey, you have everything you need.”

When Sam and Emma were small we used to take them to the Melbourne Zoo and no enclosure held their interest like the butterfly house. Pushing our way through the door, not allowing the heat to escape, then up the ramp with Emma in her stroller, we would find our place on the bridge. It was warm inside the butterfly enclosure; so warm I would remove their beanies, scarves and their tiny mittens. The whiteness of their baby cheeks would turn all rosy red. They would watch mesmerized, pointing and ducking and sharing sisterly love. “Look Emma!” Sam would say. “All the lovely colours.” And Emma would look up from her stroller with as much admiration for her sister as they both had for the butterflies. Then after a while we would rug up again and make our way out the other side back into the chill of the Melbourne weather, completely satisfied with our little journey through paradise.

We all come to forks in the road, presented with choices and paths to take. Like when you graduate from high school and need to decide what to study at university, or when you graduate from university and try to find a job. All the information, the marks you didn’t get, the interviews that seemed to go so well until the letter came announcing you’d been unsuccessful. Rejection and failure weave knots around our psyche, we cramp up, we stand back from life. Perhaps it’s the hearts way of protecting itself. We think that if we stay inside and keep to ourselves we may avoid being hurt again. So how do you unravel those knots? How do you loosen them? How do you relieve all the tension and cramps? What do you do with your jarred personality and newly discovered neurosis?

The fact is that sometimes you have to find a way to take time out from the gruelling grey gloominess. You need to find a butterfly enclosure. Somewhere that is warm and colourful. An escape from the everyday!

I used to do this with Jack when he was in Kindergarten. Some mornings he would climb into my bed and holding each side of my face in his little fat hands, he would say, “I love you, mum and I don’t want to go to school. Let’s go for coffee instead.” He was speaking the language of my heart, so we would make our way to the waffle bar at Manly wharf and start our day propped up on stools, our legs swinging as we sipped our ‘chinos’ in rhythm with the ocean that lapped at the pier. After breakfast we made our way around the seafront to Manly Underwater World where we spent the day looking upwards, standing on the conveyer belt that took us for a journey far beneath the sea.

How the colours of the fish would revive our senses, how we marvelled as we watched the divers feed the sharks, filled with wonder we would stare at the giant gills of stingrays. We loved poking at shark eggs in the touch tank, observing the miniature seahorses in the fish tanks and the seal show made us laugh, even though after a few trips to the aquarium the jokes of the trainer were so predictable. By 2 o’clock when its was time to go to get the girls we would make our way contentedly back to school, Jack falling asleep in his car seat and me feeling like the most wonderful but rebellious of mums.

Every now and then you must break a few rules, just little things like indulging in bullets and coca cola for breakfast, just for fun. When you run out of ideas, or the pain gets too great or you become more paranoid than you can bear. When your own ideas and pep talks no longer cut it then you need to find a great orator who can remind you how to get free. I like to surf the web for quotes, or read from “Speeches That Changed the World: The Stories and Transcripts of the Moments That Made History” by Simon Sebag Montefiore or flip through a notebook where I once recorded great sermons and speeches.

My favourite ones always involve metaphors and the other day I found a little talk that I’d been privileged to hear from Dr Briony Scott. It was many years ago when I was teaching as a casual at the school where I now work fulltime. Dr Scott had gathered her year 10 students who were still considering their subject choices for years 11 and 12. I was there to help hand out information sheets, just filling in the gaps, wherever I was needed but while I was listening I decided to pull out my notebook to record her words.

“When you are trying to work out what you want to study it’s a bit like untangling a ball of wool. You just sit quietly and sort through till you find an end. Any end will do. Then you begin to tease it out, gently tugging, weaving it around, following thoughts through to their logical (or sometimes not logical) conclusion. While this happens, you chat with your parents, play tennis, read books, learn to drive, hold hands with your boyfriend, study and go to work. But whenever you get a spare moment you go back to gently teasing out the ball of wool, forming an ordered ball from the knots. Sometimes it all flows so easily and sometimes you might seem to take forever softening the wool, gently easing it backwards so the knot comes undone. And in time it does. I’ve never known a knotty mess that cannot be resolved with time and patience. But it’s all in the process. If you want the jumper presented, already done, you have no pleasure or satisfaction in the end result. So enjoy the journey, work with what you have in front of you. You have everything you need – it’s now just down to the hard, patient, time consuming, consistent job of sorting through your wool and turning it into a masterpiece.”

“You have everything you need.”

It’s just like Jesus told the disciples, they were equipped because they knew Him and with that they had enough to “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, drive out demons.” Sometimes it enough, just for someone to believe in you and even though they know the journey will be full of impossible situations (like tangled knots) they send you anyway. They offer words of wisdom, reminding you not to give your heart away to just anyone, they remind you to keep moving when it looks like its over, they warn you about the wolves and tell you to be wise. When things go from bad to worse they tell you “not to be anxious about how or what you are to speak; for what you are to say will be given to you in that very hour and moment. For it is not you who are speaking but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”

The words from a great speech, the Holy Bible or the resounding echo that’s been buried in the catacombs of your soul reawaken hope. Hope is the quintessential quality for getting through and from there builds faith and love. Love, of course is the greatest of all.

Hodding Carter says, “There are only two lasting bequests we can give our children. One of these is roots, the other is wings.”

I listen until the tears have been cried for a while. I validate them. I tell her I know that it’s still incredibly hard but then I remind her that we will get through this. It’s going to be okay. I’ll help her make the phone call, make sure she has enough money for the Pilates class and in time, she will be stronger and as I hang up the phone I see the mighty hands of my Creator, they are cupped around me. He lifts me upwards, he opens his hands and with a gentle blow of his breath I am free again. I have found my wings and I fly.

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Journey by Mary Oliver

I’m not writing today…I’m taking a little break for me but I think you will enjoy this!

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.

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Snowdrops

“Did the snowdrops survive? Mine are just beginning to flower.”

The text message came from my friend Silvia, my friend who kept us in pasta sauce for the duration of Leukaemia. I had forgotten about the planting of snowdrops. So much of last year is a blur in my memory.

“Where do I go to look?” I wrote back.

Then after following her directions I discovered the foliage all along the fence line. They survived.

‘Planting bulbs sounds like a romantic and fun thing to do, but it never is,’ writes Anne Lamott. ‘The earth is rocky and full of roots; its clay, and it seems doomed and polluted, yet you dig little holes for the ugly shriveled bulbs, throw in a handful of poppy seeds and cover them over again – it’s death and clay and shrivel. Your hands are nicked from the rocks, your nails are black with soil…then…the first bulbs begin to bloom…when this finally happens in late winter every year, I’m astonished.’

I’m like Anne. I’m astonished by anything that grows in my garden. Between my black thumbs and Reid’s passion for clearing the yard, nothing much does make it and Silvia’s fear for the snowdrops was completely justified.

My niece got married yesterday; she’s only 19, the same age that I was 25 years ago when Reid and I exchanged vows on a sunny, winter day in Sydney. There is always talk before weddings, isn’t there? People are discussing whether the young couple will make it, whether the marriage will survive. They consider the lives of the bride and groom dubiously, weighing up all that is stacked against them; they speak in hushed whispers, out of earshot and then parade confidently and politely in front of them, proffering platitudes.

Ever since my niece, Kate was born she has shown that she is a great judge of character. Apart from her mum, I’m her favourite female in the world. Since she was small she has told me, ‘I’m going to grow up just like you Auntie Clare. I’m going to decorate my house all in white, just like you. I’m going to go into ministry, just like you. I’m going to get married young, just like you.’ No amount of warning her could save her from becoming just like me and yesterday she walked down the aisle to marry the youth pastor of her church.

‘Like a circle in a spiral
Like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning
On an ever-spinning reel
Like a snowball down a mountain
Like a carnival balloon
Like a carousel that’s turning
Running rings around the moon
Like a clock whose hands are sweeping
Past the minutes on its face
And the world is like an apple
Whirling silently in space
Like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind.’

My father closed the ceremony with a fabulous speech. He and my mum are about to celebrate 50 years of marriage. “Have I any advice for you?” he commenced, “my wife would say I have none.” In his delicious, dry wit, he had us laughing until we all cried and he sat down just before he joined us in a well of tears as well.

It sounds so romantic and fun to be getting married, just like planting bulbs but the truth is that the pain of living with someone and having babies together and trying to live in community with people is going to break your heart. It starts out so innocently and full of hope. At 19 and 21, Reid and I thought we could save the world.

I lay awake at midnight thinking about this. I had fallen asleep early, worn out from all the emotion of a day made up of proud, satisfying moments but woke up again to check that Emma and Jack had returned from friends houses and were tucked safely into bed. There is nothing like family, no matter how dysfunctional or broken they are. When you come together at the same table, it’s all awkward and polite at first but if you push past the surface you remember that there is a life long sense of belonging. You look at the milky skin of your niece’s complexion, you listen as your nephew sings, as she walks down the aisle, you hug your younger niece who is already feeling the loss of her sister and your hold your own sister’s hand, squeezing it because you cannot find the words to tell her that she has done the most magnificent job raising her family against all the odds.

There is a raw beauty in each moment of the day that none of the guests fully understands. It is a secret that only flesh and blood and kin can know. It’s watching Emma helping her cousin into the car, and listening to Sam at the lectern reading the first lesson, its Jack in a suit, tall and handsome. It’s the battles you have faced and won, wrapped up with all that has been lost and the pieces you are still working to salvage. I think back to the day when we said our vows, 25 years ago. I could never have imagined back then all the things that life would present us with. We decided then that we were committed for the long haul no matter what and somehow that commitment has carried us through.

Like a tunnel that you follow
To a tunnel of its own
Down a hollow to a cavern
Where the sun has never shone
Like a door that keeps revolving
In a half forgotten dream
Like the ripples of a pebble
Someone tosses in a stream

At midnight I was wishing I had learned to play the piano because I wanted to get up and sing the ‘Windmills in my mind.’ Then I randomly remembered going with my dad to the house of some old people when I was a child. He used to take them communion because they were too frail to get themselves to church. Suddenly I felt like I was 10 years old being propped on a cushion for high tea, being smothered with kisses that smelt like biscuits dipped in tea. I remember observing those old sisters and brothers, some in wheel chairs, others slightly mad, still others fussing over my dad and I making sure we had enough to eat.

I remember choosing a song roll for the pianola and being told that the indentations in the page made the music. I remembered leaning against the piano stool so that my feet could reach the peddles and being shown how to hold on tightly to the underneath part of the keyboard so I could peddle with all my might making the piano play by itself and the keys would dance as if it were my own fingers making the music.

As I lay there remembering I thought about all the rotations of life and all the little holes that get etched into our hearts. It’s these dark, raw moments that the needles of life sweep across creating the melodies. Sometimes the only reason we survive is because people decide to come over and kneel in the soil on our behalf. They pray prayers, they plant snowdrops, they get their hands dirty, and they gently press the soil around our hearts so we don’t feel the frost or the cold or too exposed. They water our lives with their tears and coax us to keep on going. They bring us Holy Communion when we feel too frail and fragile to take ourselves to church. They tell us what the future looks like when it’s gotten so dark in the cave and we fail to see.

On Friday, Reid proudly announced, ‘I’ve done the lawns and I’ve got rid of the onion weed all along the fence.’

‘What onion weed?’ I asked. So he took me and showed me all the healthy bulbs of the snowdrops that he had weeded out and thrown on the compost.

I phoned Silvia and she laughed telling me she would come over later to see what could be salvaged. They are back in the soil now; those snowdrop bulbs that Reid thought were onion weeds and we are hoping that some of them might still survive. We packed them back into the little holes with cow manure. We patted them down, holding our noses from the stench of the manure. The truth is that the dark, smelly holes of life produce the most beautifully resilient flowers. Soon they will be hanging their heads, gracefully adorning our garden, reminding us that we will survive as well.

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