Monthly Archives: October 2010

shell

Every morning I open the door of my classroom to greet two lovely lines of children beaming back at me under blue panama and felt hats. After the formalities of morning hellos, they dash to their trays to deposit those very same hats and then a last dash for front row seats – or rather floor space in front of my chair. One little guy wants the front row so he can stroke my shoes, others want to be noticed and receive stars for the star chart. Regardless of motives they are all wiggling for that spot at the front, a birds eye view of stories in picture books, flash cards and the chance to be chosen for errands.

On Friday I was at my desk connecting my interactive smart board to my laptop before I made my way to my chair. I felt the presence of a small child to the right of me.

“What’s up, sweetie, why aren’t you on the mat?” I asked propping his chin up with my fingers so those big brown eyes could meet mine.
“My hermit crab died,” he sobbed, “He left his shell and never returned and now he is dead.”
Taking his two little hands in mine, I looked back at him and agreed that it was just so sad.

We’ve been learning all about living things in Kindergarten, discussing lifecycles, new birth and death. We have watched chicks hatch from eggs in an incubator; we’ve planted sunflower seeds, we’ve talked about life, love and loss. Children are not afraid to talk about death; they are full of questions and share openly what they know.

I sit in the café early in the mornings trying to make sense of life, love and loss myself. Just like the children I am full of questions and my heart is heavy.

My thoughts hang in space,
I cannot record them.
Instead I describe what I see
A table full of women
With dogs on their knees
Shouting coffee orders
Laughing too loud
Boasting of games of golf
A tall slender girl sails past
In black leggings and Doc Martins
Silky black hair
She is beautiful
Life is surreal
A slide show of unrelated images
Flashes before me
Overlaying my thoughts
I see the dust flying in the light
Of the projector
The images of my childhood
The voice of my mother
Her elegant hand
Holding up the tiny frames
Trying to choose the next image
“Ah, here it is…”
And in the projector it goes
Then on the wall the giant image of
A hamster and the story again
Of how she accidently buried the poor hamster
Not knowing it was in hibernation.
My coffee has gone cold.
Why is life sometimes cut short?
I wonder. What does the future hold?

At school the kids gather in a circle to pray. One girl starts, “Dear God, I pray for my flower that I picked, that it would bloom because it died before it was ready.”

‘Tell me about your prayer,” I ask her when all the children have finished. She tells me that she gave her mum a flower from the garden but her mum was busy and so it withered on the bench because it was not put in water.
“I know that flowers die after they are picked,” she said “but this one died before it was time and God can still make it live.”

Her words inject me with faith. I decide to have the faith of a child and to believe that all things are possible.

“The grass withers, the flower fades but the word of God lives forever.” Isaiah 40:10

We edge forward. Like hermit crabs, sneaking from our shells. We have made it to land, escaping the depths of the sea. As Sam comes off prednisone we adjust to a new space. This is a miracle. An old skin is shed and completely consumed. We need a new shell so that we can fill a larger, different space. There we will grow.

Like the sunflower dropping its head, relinquishing life, I too let go of the things that once defined me. It is death but it is not final…new life abounds. I see the new seeds fall to the ground – there will surely be another harvest. A new crop will be established, in the days or years to come.

I don’t know what is next but I am going to attempt to write our story, maybe it will become a book. I am not writing here in November but then I will be back – I think? Who knows…so much has changed.

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dots

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace -
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
Alice is marrying one of the guard.

“A soldier’s life is terrible hard,”

Says Alice. 


(A.A. Milne)

Life is hard, torturous! The guard needs to change. The still air suffocates.

“It is the fixed that assails us with tremendous force of its mindlessness.” (Annie Dillard)

As you sit on the edge of her bed, you gather the pieces of your lives, you look at what you have and you make two groups. What has been saved and what has been lost.

You share out the pieces trying to make sense of what remains. The groups are uneven, unfair and unbalanced. You start again, is there some good in this that you cannot see? You scoop up all the bits and lay them out before you again and again. It will be okay, it will be okay… but it isn’t okay.

Like the children, you just don’t get it. “What do two groups of four look like?” You look around the room to see what the others are doing with their counters. The blood drains from your face as the teacher makes her way around the circle to see what you got. You heard the question but it made no sense. You hold all the counters in your hands and you shrug your shoulders. “I don’t get it.” You whisper, terrified because everyone around you does. They are drawing circles with the textas on their white board, for them the penny has dropped but not for you.

When the teacher says to have a go, you don’t even know where to start. It has been a week on this topic but still you are confused. What is a group? How do you sort what goes where? How do you decide what to do with what you’ve been given?

In Kindergarten the lessons we learn have numerical value, you discover a formula and if you get it and learn to apply it, one day you will solve great equations. Yet life is more like literature, sometimes things do not add up.

It’s a passionate, tragic memoir of regret and you cling to the words because they feel like they define you. You read late into the night until your eyelids droop and you can’t see the words. You wait until you are completely exhausted so you know that you won’t have to lie there thinking of what could have been. You test sleep for a while. You try to read more words but they are blurred so you switch off the light and you sleep until the dreams come. Until the battle finds its way into your subconscious thoughts, until you see the army of fear marching on your chest, pounding their feet on your heart. The rhythmic steps of marching, those heavy boots they smash their way through your chest and you sit upright desperate for water.

You sit and stare into the hollow space of disillusion, into the dark of the night and you hear the activity of bandicoots in the yard. They are making holes as well. They are looking for food for their babies, they are carrying them on their backs, and they are making their ‘chuff- squeak’ sounds, keeping you company in the relative silence of night.

You line up your fears like toy soldiers. You see that not every dread is real, not every enemy is undefeatable. You rise to write, lining up thoughts on the page. In this way you create order and symmetry, a splendid array. You make groups and plans and goals. You decide how to sort the options afforded you. This is child’s play and you are back in control, not completely, but at least in control of your thoughts. You write the questions and you seek out answers.

“Who am I but a pawn in the hand of my Maker?” you wonder. “Who am I, but a single life?” you sigh again. Yet this you know, your life is necessary. He purposed it to be so and with that purpose you seek to define the truth of who you shall become and how you might use what is left in your hands to serve Him.

You try to join the dots to make the links, to find the numbers that will direct you so you can work out what the picture is supposed to be. There are no numbers and no directions. You get to choice which path to take but it’s all dots, like counters in front of you on the floor, there are no instructions, guidelines or rules. It is up to you.

Things are not clearly defined. Like the lanes at the pool, no one is checking the guidelines. The day you decide to swim in the medium lane you get stuck behind someone who is so slow you must upgrade yourself or you will never make progress. Then as you upgrade yourself into the fast lane you discover a squad of teenage swimmers who don’t really welcome you into the lane.

Sometimes it is an issue of self-esteem, your self-conscious thoughts seek to hinder you but you must rise to the occasion, ignoring the arguments in your head. “You have focus, if you keep going you will out lap them,” this is what you tell yourself and finally you do. When you get to the end of the lane they have stopped for a chat and you think they are talking about you. You want to give them your resume, to tell them what you have overcome, to defend yourself. Though your arms might sag, though your goggles press into your head like a raccoon but you say nothing, instead you tell yourself, “You are cool, keep going.”

They come up beside you and pass you making you feel fragile and vulnerable but still you swim. You breathe and you decide that the little bubbles from their youthful kicking is beautiful. You decide to enjoy the light that reflects beneath the surface of the water onto these little dots, like a celebration, like champagne. Though you are intimidated, you enjoy it anyway.

“Experiencing the present purely is being emptied and hollow: you catch grace as a man fills his cup under a waterfall.” (Annie Dillard)

It is true, you have come to know grace and you put that grace into the group that is good. Not all of the hollow is bad. The hollow has taught you to see. It has taught you to look further and deeper, to see possibilities that were not there before cancer. Or maybe they were there but life was so good then, so full of laughter that you never went looking to see. But you see it now… all the disconnected dots in front of you and you know that in time the links will come, there will be clarity.

You see new growth emerge out of a barren desert of nothing. Green life comes, pushing its way up in the place where hope was stripped away. It doesn’t happen quickly but over time, with water and sunlight it does come. Your roots go deep, deeper than you even remembered and they anchor you for the next stage, the place where you will rise.

You are chloroplast, contained and trapped in a cell. You are the tiniest molecule, just a dot inside a plant that no one has noticed but beneath the surface you are there, pulsing and pressing and thronging. You will not give up until life is full and complete again. You hold onto hope like chlorophyll clings to protein. It may be haphazard, and complex but you hang on because from it stems new life and there is photosynthesis.

And this you know, “That the Lord will pass through the sea of this distress and affliction and the sceptor or rod of the enemy will pass away.” (Zechariah 9:11)

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trees

In the hallways at St Vincents between Oncology and The Private Hospital the walls are used as a gallery. I wrote about this in my post The Dance
I really love some of the art work that is on display. This week it is an exhibition by Miguel Castro. There is a warning that there is adult content on this site but if there is i didn’t find anything offensive. Forgive me if you do!

So often the art works seem to encapture the things we are facing and to remind me of the promises I hold deep within me.

When I was a young bride (seriously I was 19) we moved to San Diego, California with the opportunity to be involved in a church plant in Delmar. To pay the bills I got a job carving ham in a small deli, I learned to speak American, to eat ambrosia salad (which is really a dessert) and I learned Psalm One. I learned the Psalm walking along the freeway while Reid was on a mission trip in the Phillipines. It has always been one of my favourite passages and last night as the tears stained my pillow I found myself reciting it.

The first few verses go like this:
Blessed is the man
who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners
or sit in the seat of mockers.
But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season whose leaf does not wither. 

Whatever he does prospers.

Sometimes in life, you just have to hang on to the promises…

Some of the stuff we are praying for is written about here…it’s quite journey!

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breathe

On Saturday at the pool there were six English men in the lane next to me, five of them diligently trying to teach the sixth how to swim. They were younger than me, late twenties perhaps or early thirties? It was delightful. All these grown men in a lane with fabulous accents each giving advice and coaching, then up and down the pool they would go, all swimming badly but tremendously proud of their friend for his efforts and determination to master freestyle.

I wanted to interrupt and give advice, to break it down into manageable bits. I wanted to suggest first they start at the wall and master the breathing, then to loan them a kick board to practise the kicking but it wasn’t my place, besides who says I am the expert? I am not, I am just a schoolteacher who sees an opportunity and wants to get involved.

Instead I listened to their conversation and smiled. As I swam up and down beside them I remembered things about my childhood and learning to swim. Maybe it was their accents, similar to my own father’s that took me on this journey back in time.

I think I must have learned to swim in Singapore when my father was based in Changi as a chaplain for the Royal Air Force. I was really small then but I vaguely remember those chunky rubber ‘water wings’ (as my mother called them) blown up tight around my arms. I have always loved the water whether it is the sea or the swimming pool, to be submerged, surrounded, supported and safe.

I swim more often now than I have in years, enjoying the relative silence of the water, the repetition of the movements and the air in my lungs seems to expand for the whole day after the task is over. This very sensation of breathing and being conscious of it somehow empowers me in a way I can’t explain.

Sam and I often talk about our breathing. Who would think that something that once came so naturally could be such an effort? Why do those who suffer hardship understand this and remind one another to breathe? Have our thoughts become so anxious that even the very thing we have done all our lives without effort suddenly becomes something we fix our attention on?

Lately this has become a real problem for Sam. Her throat locks and she panics as she gasps for breath. Her eyeballs expand, her face turns red and I pass her water to sip. ‘Something is stuck in my throat,’ she whispers, ‘I think it’s the foil from one of the tablets. It keeps getting stuck, I think I swallowed it by accident.’

I try to stay calm.

I don’t recall leaving foil in her drug dish but I consider that it is possible so I suggest she goes for an x-ray. Nothing shows up on the screen, ‘not even my thyroid,’ she laughs. All is clear and after days the problem seems to go away. For two weeks everything is fine and then it is time again to drop the dose of the prednisone and the problem of the blocked throat manifests again. Could it be psychosomatic? Could it be fear? Or is her throat really blocked, is something really wrong? How can I know?

At times I feel like I have come to the end of my capacity to grasp this complex existence of trying to live a normal life. Nothing is normal anymore though I establish as much of a routine as possible to convince myself that it is. For the first six months of last year my throat was blocked too. I remind Sam of this and we laugh about all the ‘Anticol’ lozenges I sucked on, keeping the little shop at the entrance to RNSH in business. Then there was the swine flu epidemic and we had to wear masks to hospital. That was when we discovered that you couldn’t suck a lozenge and wear a mask because it makes you eyes sting! Who would have thought?

Somewhere into the sixth month of her illness I found my breath again, a new rhythm. I realized that this was going to be a very long journey and I gave myself permission to focus on the only thing that really mattered, Sam’s survival. This required deep, thoughtful breaths and to allow myself the focus required for this I abandoned so many other things.

My ability to manage my former commitments and social engagements fell apart. I recognized too that my capacity for faith completely changed, that to survive this ordeal I needed to go to a deeper level, a solitary place where it was only God and I. In a sense I abandoned the things that I had previously been enamoured with, battened down the hatches and got ready for war.

Primo Levi describes it this way, ‘There comes to light the existence of two particularly well differentiated categories among men – the saved and the drowned. Other pairs of opposites (the good and the bad, the wise and the foolish, the cowards and the courageous, the unlucky and the fortunate) … One has to fight against the current; to battle every day and every hour against exhaustion, hunger, cold and the resulting inertia.’

I am standing on the shore of the ocean while the sand shifts under my feet. I am living on the edge, waiting for the tide to turn, wondering what the future holds. As I look out I hear my Dad singing his merry tune:
‘I do like to be beside the seaside,
I do like to be beside the sea.’
I see the twinkle in his eye. Here is a man who has known grief and learned to sing in its face. I pray that like him I will be saved, and wise, and courageous even if we are the unlucky.

‘You are doing tremendously well.’ My Dad tells me, just as the men at the pool encourage their friend though his strokes are awful. Though he lifts his whole body out of the water just to draw breath he has everything he needs and somehow with his friends cheering for him I am sure he could swim the English Channel if it were required.

It’s incredible what you can achieve when people are cheering for you. Though you are drowning, though you can barely lift your head for breath, though you take in water and cough, though your head is submerged so deep and your thoughts so concentrated on survival, somehow the voices reach you, the ones who are determined, they find a way, they don’t take their eyes off you or tell you to be happy. They don’t pretend that everything is fine. They see the situation for what it is. It sucks! Its unfair and any good that might come from it is so far in the future they don’t demand that you rejoice. This is friendship, short and long, plain and enigmatic.

The truth is, there may have been a better way to cope. There may have been sensible steps you could have taken, an ordered progression, task analysis but you had never planned for cancer, it came unexpectedly and you are thrown in the deep end flapping, kicking and gasping for breath. The only thing that will save you is your determination. None of this is elegant or dignified, it is not even certain.

Graham Swift writes, ‘sometimes casually, sometimes critically, the familiar surrenders to the unknown, the tangible to the illusionary, the present to the past, the solid and safe to the uncertain and confused…Don’t we all live more or less, in this perpetual borderland?’

In reading, as in writing, we lay structure over the flatness of life enabling ourselves to deal with some radically dislodged worlds, to penetrate the barrier of the unknown future and seek out hope and to discover other voices that echo our thoughts so that we feel less isolated and afraid and unsure.

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