Thirst

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On the 27th of January five years ago I returned to work after the Australia Day Long Weekend as all teachers do. There was nothing particularly special about that day except that my daughter Sam had a teachers’ aide position at the school and had her new staff orientation day. We drove to work together. I didn’t officially need to be there but I was excited to hang my new fairy net in the classroom over the polka dot cushions I had made over summer. I also thought that if I drove Sam that day she would have to follow up on the blood tests the doctor had recommended the previous Friday. She was too busy to bother with blood tests over the long weekend.

Sam had been complaining of feeling dizzy, so I had taken her for ears tests. As a child she had always had complications with her ears but it wasn’t her ears. They were better than ever the ENT said. So I suggested maybe it was time for glasses but the optometrist gave her the all clear. “Maybe all you need is to get to bed earlier,” I suggested, “or join a gym” her dad added when she complained of feeling worn out after moving a small desk from one room to another with him. It never crossed our minds that our daughter could be unwell. Our children were never unwell. Sam had endless energy and a passion for life. She was a leader in our church youth group, a uni student, had a part time job in retail and now a job at school as well.

Sometimes the thing you never expect to happen, happens. You are just getting on with the ordinary mundane events of your life, doing your best to bring colour into your small world with polka dot cushions, fairy nets and a tea party set up for your collection of Felicity Wishes dolls and out of the blue the phone rings. It’s a number you don’t recognise and the first instinct is to silence it. It’s 8am in the morning and the very first staff meeting of the year is due to start. The phone call is nothing but an inconvenience. I remember these events now as if it was someone else’s life. As if I am Alice looking through the glass at something that I am not sure really happened, or whether it was a dream or a nightmare and how I had come to be falling down that rabbit hole that day. Had I fallen asleep by the stream with my book and woken into someone else’s world?

That day is organised in my mind in a series of flashbacks. I remember every little detail like it happened yesterday. I remember that I had no change in my car for the parking meter in the street where I had taken a wrong turn on our way to emergency. I remember the same meter rejecting my card. I remember Sam saying “why don’t you find a park somewhere else and I will walk from here” and her being calm and me wondering what on earth was going on. I remember that Emma slept through her alarm which was something she never did and her being late for work. I remember Reid hanging up on my calls because he was in a meeting. I remember my boss, who is also one of my dearest friends telling me the staff meeting wasn’t as important as me doing what the doctor said and that I should just go. I remember my other friend coming to the hospital to sit with us and Reid eventually turning up too. I remember these events out of order in a haphazard way. I remember the colour of the fluid in the Petri dish when I didn’t want to look. I remember that it was the perfect shade of pink. Quite unlike anything I had ever seen before. I didn’t know that that fluid held the information that would change our lives forever.

Of all the conversations I remember parts of, there is one that I remember in perfect detail. I remember that I was standing holding the last serving of lasagna from the hospital cafeteria. I remember that Sam was lying in a bed with a drip. I remember wondering why they decided to keep her overnight. I remember Reid, my husband, was in the blue Jason recliner. I remember that it was the end of the day but I had lost all sense of time and I wondered if they would give us any indication of what was so wrong with our daughter that they’d decided she needed to be admitted.

I remember that the doctor came in and didn’t suggest I sit down or put down the lasagna or prep us in any way that what he was about to say might be difficult to hear. No, he just nodded at us, her parents, and directed his three sentences at Sam as if we weren’t even there. It went like this:

“You have Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia.
If you don’t start treatment immediately you have three months to live.
You will never have children.”

[Pause]

“Do you have any questions?”

I remember his words just hung there like a thick fog swallowing our reactions making our thoughts invisible, inaudible, numb. That fog wrapped its fingers round our throats, we could not answer, we could not breathe.

So he left us in the poison of the spell.

There are times in our lives when nothing makes sense. It’s impossible to speak. The events of your day start out much the same as they did ever other day and every other year but without warning the trajectory of your life has been transformed in a moment. That was our moment. I didn’t know it then but somehow God had prepared us for that moment though I did not feel prepared.

I liken it now to that moment when Jesus met the woman at the well. He reaches into our world when we need him to touch the base nature of our humanity. He reminds us that he became just like us so that we could have relationship with him. Though we are parched, unable to breathe, unable to speak, in need of refreshment; He comes to sit beside us. You might not notice Him at first. I remember that at first I didn’t notice He was there. But He was there on the side of the bed, sitting at her feet, careful not to pull the blankets too tight over her legs. His presence filled the room in that moment and Sam decided that we should pray.

It’s easy to think that maybe our circumstances are too big for God. That prayer is far removed from the problem we face. Even if Jesus turns up, what good is living water when He has no bucket with which to draw? Does He not know that our well is deep and we need a practical solution? (John 4:11)

We did pray. Praying was the only thing we knew to do.

I guess it’s only now, all these years later that I really do understand prayer and all the ways it impacts our world. For me prayer isn’t a religious habit, or something I do at the start of a meal. I’m likely to forget to say grace at the table in the same way I might forget to ask the children how was there day. Prayer is no longer something we do because we probably should. For me prayer is a conversation that is fluid, ongoing, unending. I guess I’ve come to know that he really does lean toward us with favour and regard. (Leviticus 26:9).

He doesn’t use human methods. He doesn’t take our advice. He doesn’t live in our realm. He offers us living water because it lasts for eternity and even if our thirst isn’t quenched initially he stays with us until it is. He prepares us to live with him forever and He wants us to know that He is there for the long haul. He cares for our relationships much more than He cares about anything else. He isn’t overwhelmed by our sin. He isn’t even shocked when we are ill.

Sometimes it seems like He has no idea what it’s like to be us, but His Word reminds us that He was thirsty too. He needed the woman to draw water. Like us, He needed to drink and in everyone who thirsts He sees an opportunity. Silently He slips into our space. I think about that now all these years later, how He gently placed His hand on my daughter. How He sighed. How He cried.

As I was reflecting on all this I stumbled onto these words in the novel I was reading by Alice Munro, “Lives of Girls and Women.” In the chapter titled “Age of Faith,” the young girl who narrates the story records “after the long psalm with the prophecies in it about the raiment, and casting lots, the minister went up into the pulpit and said he would preach a short sermon on the last words of Christ on the cross. The very thing I had been thinking of. But it turned out there were more words than the ones I knew about. He started with I thirst, which showed, he said, that Christ suffered in body just as much as we would in the same situation, not a bit less, and He was not ashamed to admit it, and ask for help, and give the poor soldiers a chance at obtaining grace, with the sponge soaked in vinegar. Woman, behold thy son…son, behold thy mother, showed that his last or almost last thoughts were for others, arranging for them to be a comfort to each other when He was gone (though never really gone). Even in the hour of His agony and passion he did not forget human relationships, how beautiful and important they were.”

Though the well is deep and He had nothing with which to draw water, Jesus has water of a different kind.

“As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.” Psalm 42

“Let not your heart be troubled.” John 14:1

Sometimes we are completely unable to comprehend that God is able to minister to us in our time of need. We think His resources won’t cut it, that the well is too deep even for Him. We must remember that He is the Almighty God and He is able.

Sam never returned to become a Teacher’s Aide on the 28th of January 2009 but tomorrow she returns as a qualified Primary School Teacher. She did not die. When our resources ran out a complete stranger was found on the ABMDR. Two years previously he had donated some blood in the hope of being a match to a friend of his wife who was also dying of Leukaemia. When his unexpected phone call came, he followed through his commitment, donated his stem cells and saved my daughter’s life. Sometimes our thirst is quenched by a stranger we’ve never met. Just like Jesus was to the Samaritan woman. It goes against convention that she now lives because of his blood. And while it is not without complication because the “Graft Versus Host Disease” affects her eyes, her ears, her lungs, her liver, her joints…it has not affected her courage.

Against all odds, Sam returned to university to become a Primary School Teacher and tomorrow, five years since that horrendous day, she starts at the school where I used to teach.

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Learning to be effortless

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This year my goal is to have no goals. I’m trying to “learn the unforced rhythms of grace, to walk with Him and work with Him—watch how He does it.” (Matthew 11:28-30 – The Message). Even though I’m trying hard I’m more aware than ever how I seek to gain control. I noticed this first early in summer. I took an ocean swimming lesson at Shelly Beach as a step to overcoming my fear of the ocean. Some fears you don’t find on the page, you find them when you’re way out of your depth.

Sarah, our teacher told us we had to learn ‘to become one with the ocean; like dolphins, like fish. Learn to be effortless,’ she said. I was hopeless at this. I wanted to pull my way through the water but every time it was my turn to demonstrate what I was learning, she came and held my outreached hand and held it in place.

“Patient front hand,” she said. “You bring it through too fast, leave it in front, feel the glide.”

If I leave it out front to feel the glide I won’t go anywhere I thought. I was confused. Then she showed us how to swivel our hips, how to have “dry shoulder, dry hip,” then slowly, with practise, this began to make sense. Then my neck injury flared and instead of driving to Manly to swim in the ocean as I had planned to do at least three mornings a week over January, I found myself driving to Manly to see the physiotherapist.

As part of my treatment there are exercises. “Oh good, I need to exercise,” but it wasn’t what I thought. “You need to relax,” the physio said in her South African accent. “The movement is gentle, minute, not one you control.”

I pay attention to her words. It’s good to hear them in an audible voice instead of that whisper I hear in my head. I’m always wondering if it is God’s voice leading me or my obsession with children’s books giving me pictures of fireflies. I practise these pathetic little exercises convinced I’m wrong and check again the illustration she’s drawn for me. I check that my neck ‘strings’ ( as she refers to them) are soft and that my nose can draw a circle on the imaginary piece of paper above me, then I do 10 lots of 10 seconds and relax. It’s not strenuous but it’s boring and pathetic and I feel old before my time. These exercises mock me but I make myself do them knowing that obedience and paying attention makes God happy.

I do want to make God happy. I want to relinquish my control and live for Him but I tell Him in my morning journal that it does seem a little unfair. I whinge about my inability to swim, especially on the day that my friend phones to tell me there were dolphins! I tell her that I am happy for her and I genuinely am. I think to myself that even if I were there in the ocean I might not get to see them, I would be too anxious to get my feet firmly back on the sand. Besides, my friend is a dog magnet and sensing her love of animals it seems only natural that the dolphin would swim with her.

Instead of swimming I decide to get up early to walk and photograph the morning sun reflected on the water. I realise that this is exactly what I am meant to be doing after all. As the dark of night passes there is remarkable stillness over the world. I talk about this with another friend one morning at Bondi Beach. I’ve convinced her to get up early with me to dip our feet in the pool at Icebergs. It’s an adventure and as we look out over the expanse of sea we marvel at why we would ever choose to stay in bed.

Oswald Chambers writes, “there is a darkness that comes from too much light – that is the time to listen. When God gives you a vision and darkness follows, wait.” So I learn to wait, to surrender control and to trust. Through the lens of my camera I discover things you can’t see with your natural eyes. The focus is changed and there are a thousand little details you don’t notice when your looking at the big picture.

I see the birds on the wire, the reflection of an egret in the still lake, the many shades and hues of the sea. I see children with their nets in the shallows and fisherman knee deep with their lines. God has my full attention. I am learning to be still. Then it’s as if I’ve been set up on the morning my devotional quotes Matthew 6:28 “consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they do not toil or spin.”

I’m slightly offended by this. “I’m listening,” I tell Him, “I get it.”

But He shows me all the ways I’ve missed the point. The ways I continue to strive, even to be still. Slowly I see that it’s not so much about sacrifice, or letting go but it’s about looking with new eyes. He wants me to be silent, to make time to just be. When I look long enough I realise that he is working on my behalf to make great things happen.

“Why indeed must ‘God’ be a noun? Why not a verb – the most active and dynamic of all.” (Mary Daly)

So I wait and I watch. I stand on the bridge between ocean and the lake to take it all in. It’s the splendour of adornment He wants to show me. The way he clothes the grass of the field, the way he feeds the birds of the air – the abundance that comes with surrender. The shift from me to Him. Not because he wants to control or limit me. Rather He wants me to see the limitless possibilities that extend from walking with Him who is the God of more than enough.

There is nothing essentially wrong with any of my plans, it’s just that they are too small. He isn’t saying that the lilies have enough, that the birds have enough…He has never been the God of enough. He doesn’t tell me to delight in the sacrifice or the suffering but rather to awaken to the realm where He is. His ways are higher than my ways, His thoughts are higher than my thoughts. He is teaching me to live in the unforced rhythms of his grace. His grace is Sufficient for me, it fills my cup, it runner over..and one day soon I will swim again – patient front hand – I will glide – I will be one with the water.

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You know me, don’t you!

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Before I returned to teaching full-time I used to take casual days. Often I would teach my friends’ children because I worked at our local school. Mostly these children didn’t care to acknowledge the fact that their mothers were my friends but it was not the same with Millie.

 When I walked into the classroom and the children stood up to greet me, Millie beamed.

 “You know me, don’t you!” she stated.

 “I do know you,” I replied trying to acknowledge her joy but not make too much of a scene. The regular teacher sat at his desk typing. ”Tell them,” she continued looking around at her peers, “tell them how you know me.” I was conscious of how this interaction made the regular teacher react. Would he think I wasn’t professional if I responded truthfully? Would he think I was unkind if I brushed her off and went on with the lesson?

This Friday Millie turns 18. It is eight years since that encounter in the classroom. For her birthday Millie’s mother, my friend, has asked the women in Millie’s life to pen some words of wisdom for her future. You see, I do know Millie. I’ve known her since she was born and her sisters as well.

 She sat at my kitchen bench as a child eating my biscuits when her mum came for tea. Millie has always been bold, unashamed and held no remorse for requesting yet another ‘TimTam’ even though she was supposed to go home to eat dinner. I loved how she used to ask if she could stay for dinner as well because “Auntie Clare was such a good cook.” Flattery gets you everywhere!

 She splashed in puddles with Jack when the rain left them deep and inviting in my driveway. This delightful ‘tomboy’ playful side of her nature positioned her well for invites to play. I never forget the day she phoned to ask to come over and I overheard Jack (as he covered the phone with his cupped hand) and said to his mate, “can my friend Millie come as well? She’s a girl but quite like a boy.” He said this as a huge compliment to Millie.

She sat on my lap in a tutu when she was two, wishing she could dance on the stage at the eisteddfods with her sisters and my daughters and all her other ‘big girl’ friends (and some tap-dancing boys as well). Millie was always prepared. I’m sure that even at two she thought, if I’m dressed for the occasion they might just let me up there.

She carried my cat and walked with Jack, parading around the assembly hall on Book Day when they were “Milli, Jack and the Dancing Cat.” Millie has always thrown herself whole-heartedly into everything she does. She didn’t settle for the ordinary dress-ups on Book Day. After all anyone could be Alice…or Wally.

 She caught the Palm Beach ferry with Jack to my parents’ house in the holidays and called them Grandma and Grandad in the same way that my children call her Grandma, Granny. Why settle with being merely friends when you can be family!

Millie was the youngest of all the children of my friends. In the beginning that was fine. She was cute and the centre of attention. They all carried Millie when she was small and fussed over her as she grew. They cycled with her in the cul-de-sac when she got ‘cats whiskers’ on her teeth, reassuring her that she already looked like a teenager. Then overnight the others grew. They did become teenagers and in so many ways Millie got left behind. I’ve watched her adapt to this over the years. I’ve seen her take it all in her stride, make new friends; dance at her own eisteddfods, change schools.

Jack returned to her side when she was 16 and escorted her to her formal. They made a gorgeous couple; we took photos, swallowed tears and could hardly breathe for wondering where the years went.

Now here we are, two years later and I’m supposed to write wise words!

So here we go, Millie. This is my best attempt:

Pay attention to the little light in your thoughts that’s like Gus the Firefly in P.D. Eastman’s children’s tale. Use that little light well and let it shine the way you always have. Continue beaming rings of kindness around people you meet. Put others first, shower them with all the love and attention that comes so naturally to you. Enjoy the way the place shines around you when you do and try to not be tempted to turn that attention back to yourself. Learn from Gus that the light was a gift God gave you to use for good and to help others to see the way. Or like the boy who discovered the “Lost Thing” in Shaun Tan’s book, never get too busy to notice all the incredible, unexplainable good things that happen in the world.

Continue to live wholeheartedly. Decide to live everyday as if it’s your last, one day it most certainly will be. Do what you love. Listen to your favourite music, find beauty, take photos, laugh, and dance and explore. Be yourself. Your bold, beautiful, unashamed self! Have a sweet biscuit occasionally before dinner, pay compliments to the chef! Your gift for words of encouragement will take you places.

Jump in puddles, get dirt between your fingers, remind the men in your life that you are every bit their equal. Do it with grace and a smile. Keep turning up ready for anything, whatever is needed. Pack the tutu and the overalls or the evening gown. You wear them all so well. Don’t be perturbed if everyone else turns up dressing the same as each other. You were born to stand out, never created to go along with the crowd.

Keep finding your way into peoples’ hearts. Ask them questions about them, listen, care, act on what you say you will do. Just like did for me last night when you rang to say you got into your course at Uni. I am so proud. I knew you would but I know that you would have found a way to follow your dreams even if the door didn’t open, even if things didn’t go to plan. I know this because when you were 13 and Sam was diagnosed with Leukaemia you ordered cartons of chocolate koalas and sold them to help her with her treatment. Never stop being a problem solver. Keep making new friends, continue being brave when it feels like you’ve been left behind. Sometimes life doesn’t go in the direction we hoped but trust in the One who holds your future in His hands. Friends come and go but family are forever. Hold them close and watch how even your adopted family come to stand beside you on your most important days.

Like you said that day many years ago, “I do know you.” What I love about you Millie is that you too, know you. So keep being you and don’t ever strive to ever be like anyone else, or worry about how you should respond (like I did) because you think that someone is watching. I don’t know how I responded that day in the classroom…maybe you remember? I hope that I chose to be kind over being professional because kids like you made the world a wonderful place. God knows we need adults like you too.

 

Happy 18th Birthday Millie

 

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Goals

Prayer is an expression of who we are…We are a living incompleteness. We are a gap, an emptiness that calls for fulfilment. Thomas Merton

The last mistake I made in 2013 was to read “A Praying Life” by Paul E. Miller. I was eager to complete my reading goals for the year, it looked like an easy 270 page read, the first page read well and the reviews were compelling. So I nestled in my hammock and drank it in. All went well until the 29th Chapter when Miller told of a summer when praying through his goals for the following year He felt God say: I don’t want you to have any goals this year. I’m going to work on your character.

 Interesting, I thought. No goals. Imagine that!

But I did not want to imagine. Ever since that summer of 2009 I have not wanted to enter a new year unprepared. It would seem irresponsible to do so. Every year I make time for goal setting. I cover all the bases: diet, exercise, education, spirituality, and socialising. For the first few weeks of January I go about setting up a habit, hoping that by the time I return to school things will fall into place.

I started the year well with an early night on New Year’s Eve and another ocean swim at 7am on New Year’s Day. It was glorious being in the water after conquering the fear. Over coffee afterwards however my vision blurred and the ache I’ve had in my neck since an accident at work seemed to tighten. By the end of the day it felt like my brain was pulsating in the back of my head. Later that week an MRI showed further complications, things that can be fixed, nothing terminal but for January I cannot swim. So much for that goal, I thought to myself suddenly remembering Miller’s words. What if God doesn’t want me to set goals either, I thought. What if he wants to work on my character as well?

When Emma arrived for our weekly catch up she posed the question she usually asks.

“So what’s God been saying to you mum?”

I explained my predicament with Miller, the goals and letting go. She leans in with understanding.

“I think maybe God is talking to you about the idol of achievement,” she responds.

Harsh though it sounds, the proposition is plausible and I nod in acquiescence.

”It’s tricky being me,” I confide. “I have so many incredible, high achieving friends.”

“You have nothing to prove,” she smiles, sounding just like they do.

Her words ring true. When she leaves to head home I find myself in Miller again. I had planned to spend the afternoon finishing novel number one of my 50 books in 2014 challenge but as I cleaned up our dishes from lunch the conversation rolls in my head and I abandon an afternoon with Ian McEwan to return to my book about prayer.

When you stop trying to control your life and instead allow your anxieties and problems to bring you to God in prayer, you shift from worry to watching. You watch God weave his patterns in the story of your life. Instead of trying to be out front, designing your life, you realize you are inside God’s drama. As you wait, you begin to see him work, and your life begins to sparkle with wonder. You are learning to trust again. Paul E. Miller

Though in my mind I hadn’t thought I had stopped trusting any more than I had stopped praying one thing feels certain, this year I give him permission to shape my character and while I keep moving forward I surrender my goals to Him.

 

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Ocean swimming

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One day Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side of the lake.” So they got into a boat and set out.  As they sailed, he fell asleep. A squall came down on the lake, so that the boat was being swamped, and they were in great danger.

The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!”

He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm.  “Where is your faith?” he asked his disciples.

In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him. Luke 8:22-25

I must have studied this passage a thousand times. I talk to the children about it in class. Even my Kindergarten students know that Jesus’ power to transform a situation came through His words. They draw the comparison with when God first created the heavens and the earth. They tell me that God said, “Let there be light” and light was. They remind me that if Jesus says something then it will happen because “He is God.”

No wonder the Bible tells us to come like a child!

Before the storm even comes, Jesus made His intention clear. They were going to the other side of the lake.

When we lean in, when we listen to His voice, we hear His plan before the storm comes. Though the storm may catch us off guard, he winks at us through the lightening; reminding us we will never be alone.

This summer I set myself the goal to become an ocean swimmer. It was not a grandiose goal, no plans to race, no plans to win. Just the desire to get from Manly to Shelly and back, it didn’t seem impossible at the time.

Since my childhood I have been a swimmer but having grown up in suburbia (not the beautiful beaches suburbs where I live now), ocean swimming has not been my forte. Moving myself from the calm of the Olympic pool with ropes and lines to the ocean pool at North Narrabeen satisfied my desire for adventure until now. Suddenly the pull to conquer the elements drew me to Manly for the Bold and the Beautiful, 7 am swim. Hundreds of people do it every day. Some do it twice. All those pink caps bobbing in the water!

When you sign up for your first swim you are surrounded by kindness, camaraderie and courage. Everyone believes that you will make it. They share their stories of how hard it was for them at first, they tell you to take your time, to rest at The Point, to swim in at Half-way Beach if you are overwhelmed or to get out at Shelly and walk back. Their words buoy me like my new wetsuit does and to begin with I believed that if all else failed I would float.

The first time I swam all was fine until I got to The Point. Treading water with all the other participants I stopped to see how far I had swum and how far I had left to go. Without warning irrational fear swept over me. “I can’t do this.” I said to my husband, “you have to get me out.” It was only then that I realised that during Sam’s treatment for leukaemia I spent the year visualising myself in an ocean trying to keep my head above water. Without warning I was back in the ward trying to make sense of the situation, mustering up faith that we would not drown under the diagnosis. Here I was in a literal ocean and suddenly too far from shore. It no longer mattered that I had made it to The Point without hesitation, that I wasn’t out of breath, that I was surrounded by support. I felt like the disciples must have felt in that boat. I forgot about Jesus faithfulness to me and His reputation to be by my side. In my mind it was over and I was going to drown. I sought an escape route but there was none to be found. My only option was to calm down and to keep swimming.

My husband’s voice was calm. “Let’s do 50 strokes together, then we will pause.” Somehow we did this until I got to Shelly. I was shaken but relieved to be on dry ground.

Since that day it has taken me many attempts to get back in the water. Once I left Manly, swam half way to The Point and turned back. Another time I got in at Half Way Beach and swam to Shelly and walked back to Manly; then yesterday I managed to stay calm all the way from Manly to Shelly. This morning I planned to sleep in when my husband decided to surf, I texted my friend to ask her for coffee instead. She said she would meet me after she swam.

I grabbed my things and jumped in the car arriving at Manly at 7am. I was challenged by her courage to go it alone and decided that I would do it too. Together we negotiated our way through the waves to The Point. I lost her as we passed Half Way Beach and found her again at Shelly. Without thought we headed back side by side all the way to Manly to find another friend on the sand cheering me on.

Hundreds of people swim in the ocean every day. For them it is easy. For me it was hard. Through it all I was reminded:

Jesus knows our destiny.

He knows the storms will come.

He gave us His word so that we could put our faith in Him.

He does not leave us to drown.

He is with us in the storm.

He sends people to come alongside us.

He is with us always, all the way to the other side.

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December 31, 2013 · 5:51 pm

Hagar

The grief bubbled up
From the pit of her gut
It had been laid dormant for a while.
All her busyness had pushed it down,
Blocked it in,
Impacted it.

It became clay within her.
A solid mass.
It lined her core.
The lightness of activity
Was poured on top,
Like soda water.
Effervescent, trivial, lovely distractions.

The bubbles rose,
Tickled her nose.
Denial set in.
All is well.
Relax.
All is well.

But somehow the fizz
Seeped through the mass of solid clay.
Slowly it chipped it away.
And up it came.
The heaviness
It tightened and stretched
Across her chest,
It snatched her breath,
It filled her eyes.
She cried, and she cried, and she cried.

And then He came with His question.

“What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid ;
God has heard the boy crying as he lies there.
Lift the boy up and take him by the hand for I will make him into a great nation.
Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.
So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.
God was with the boy as he grew up.
He lived in the desert.
He became an archer.”

And though it looked like it was over,
God still had a plan.

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Childhood icons – How do you remember them?

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Photo found on Flickr by Colesworth

There were many iconic symbols of my childhood. I noticed them mostly through the eyes of my mother and the way she wished to conceal them. It wasn’t anything she said but I knew as a child, for her, leaving England was hard. I knew this when she painted the outside dunny can (toilet) blue, having read somewhere that spiders are repelled by blue, and placed it inside the shower. We were English and so we took baths, not showers. Most of the events of my childhood were recorded in my journal. I still have those journals even though I am well into my 40s now. Recording stories has always been my favourite thing to do.

As a child, I was always entranced by relationships. I loved to watch the way people interacted with one another, how they responded, how they survived. I can remember recording the details of my observations in an exercise book that I kept with my pen in a plastic bag in the fork of the enormous jacaranda tree in our backyard. My mum who is an English lady, in every sense of the word, preferred to think of the back yard as a garden but apart from her trellis of sweet peas, her rockery and the jacaranda, it was really a yard and in its centre, under the spotlight of the Australian sun was the ‘eyesore,’ the bane of her existence, an iconic Australian – the Hills Hoist. This metal structure dominated the yard.

We lived in a rectory on the main intersection of two highways, directly across the road was a night club. On Saturday nights our house vibrated to the beat of the music. I learned to sleep through the drumming, the farewell conversations and the car lights. My parents never did. My father made his way to the pulpit bleary-eyed every Sunday morning as my mum collected broken glass from our driveway. I recorded these details as if I were Harriet the Spy. Mum’s complaints were inaudible, muttered under her breath, impossible to catch. I watched and though I was only 8 years old, I knew this wasn’t the life she’d hoped for.

Our house was surrounded by car yards and industry. The neighbour over the back had wild parties, the one a few doors down, behind the church hall, had a pet ferret. Mum feared that the ferret would attack our ducks which she kept in an enclosure around the Hills Hoist. I’ll never really know why mum kept ducks? I think she was attempting to rebuild her memories from childhood holidays in the Lakes District. My sister, the practical helpful sibling, would dance as she hung out laundry trying to avoiding the pecking ducks as they nipped at her heels with their rubbery beaks. I recorded this too.

While mum tended her plants and the ever growing menagerie in the backyard, I wrote the facts and turned them into stories. Sometimes, I created imaginary places of my own. Places far from the chaos of home, away from the drunks that arrived on our doorstep, away from the telephone where the man from Rookwood rattled off names for Monday’s funerals. Late in the evening, I watched the shadows form; as the sun began to set the Hills Hoist grew. It stretched its towering arms across our yard. It was no longer a rotary clothes line but a terrifying monster mocking my mother’s dreams. She had not traveled to Australia to live in suburbia with a ‘fibro’ house and a concrete path that led to a clothes line. She had dreamed for more than this.

Over time she adapted to the expectations of what it was to be Australian. She baked cakes from the Women’s Weekly Birthday Book and before long she added a Hills Swing Set and a Clark Rubber pool to our collection. In that awful rectory my mum showed me how to pick myself up when life got hard. It wasn’t what she said but what she did. Like the way she made cucumber sandwiches for the drunken men who came begging for change.

Sometimes life is ugly. For mum, the dream she had of living abroad was not quite what she thought it would be. Yet in spite of it all she  learnt to plant a garden. Even the ugly Hills Hoist with its metal frame proved to be brilliant for drying clothes. Between the piles of washing she picked us up and taught us how to grasp the metal bars and then spin us around. Mum always remembered to enjoy the moments, to do what was in front of her and to see the opportunities that abounded.

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