The rotary clothesline and a declaration of love

In 1971 I was five years old and in Miss Pender’s Kindergarten class at Mount Pritchard Public School. I sat next to, and later got all silly about, Stephen Smith, who had freckles and no front teeth.

(Although he shares his name with the current captain of Australia’s cricket team, mine was a different Stephen Smith. I know – I Googled.)

Stephen’s family moved to Queensland that year. It was with clutching childish sadness that I invited him to my house after school one day, knowing that soon he would be gone. Amazingly his mother let him come.

In the living room we watched (black and white) TV and ate SAO biscuits, expertly squeezing vegemite and butter through the perfectly spaced holes. Then, without warning, my five-year-old self leaned over and tried to kiss him on the cheek. This horrified us both.

We quickly finished our snack and went to the backyard. Every day, play life for me and my younger brother often revolved, literally, around the clothesline and today was no different.

The Hills Hoist was planted in the middle of the grassed area like a modern art installation, as though an open lawn was nothing until it was interrupted.

In those dreamlike days most Australians would have struggled to understand the battle being played out in backyards right across the nation.

swing

On one side were the mums, washing basket on their hip as though they were carrying a child, pleading with us, over and over. to, ‘Stop swinging on the clothesline.” Mysteriously, having likely done the same as children themselves, they had grown up in to the lie that the clothesline was meant only for drying clothes!

The battle lines were drawn.  For us, the child army, the Hills was so much more – a domestic carousel, a poor-kids’ totem-tennis, a friendly babysitter, an exercise machine and the crank shaft of my imagination. (Later, with a tarpaulin tied over the top and colourful lights, it was the focus of speeches at 21st birthday parties).

Part of the fun was listening to the clothesline’s creaking and heaving as it wobbled on its axis. Nobody ever thought it would break, except Mum. I didn’t know the words, ‘galvanised iron’, but the dull grey metal looked like it would last forever.

That day, Stephen and I stood beneath its spidery arms, looking through lines that were empty of washing (except for the ubiquitous tea towel that hung there for about a decade).  I showed him how the clothesline represented the whole world to me.

In those days, my dad, a buyer with a major retailer, travelled overseas several times a year, sometimes for weeks at a time. I visited Sydney’s International Airport more often in one year than most of my peers did in their whole childhood. 

My dad loved writing to his little girl, who was blessed with a skill for reading and was literate even before starting school.

His letters and postcards were magical, addressed to me, with exotic stamps and foreign language postmarks, bearing pictures of castles and Disneyland and Mount Rushmore and snow-capped mountains and double-decker buses and white cliffs.

Missing him was like a postmark, stamped in the background of the exciting places he wrote from.  In each letter he assured me that one day I would go there too. Back then, I just wanted to know that he would soon be home.

Dad’s travel was related to silver and glassware. When Stephen came over, my dad had recently visited a country with a thriving industry in lead crystal glass and I had recently learned how to pronounce it. Czechoslovakia. Now called the Czech Republic.

czech

On the atlas of the clothesline, this country was there in the top left quadrant, near the tea towel and just to the east of East Germany.

Go on – say it out loud. Czechoslovakia.

Check – uh – sla- vah – kee- ya.

My pronunciation was a little different. Poor Stephen. The look on his face when I spun the clothesline around and shouted with all the enthusiasm I could muster: Check – us – LOVE – a – kee – ya!

Stephen’s family moved soon after. I hope he wasn’t too scarred by his time with me, learning the romance of world geography.

In 1993, Czechoslovakia split, to form two new countries: Slovakia and the Czech Republic. As of writing, I still have not visited either.

I did eventually find enduring love, and it did put me in a spin, but it didn’t happen under the old Hills Hoist.

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As years go…

Even without my glasses, there is a book on my bookshelf I can easily identify from across the room, just by its spine.

I haven’t read it for years but this book, and some treasured others, has travelled with me from house to house, bookshelf to bookshelf, since my first year at university in 1984. Like Saul recovering his sight after his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, the scales fell from my eyes when I read this book because, through it, I understood more about myself.

The book is The Transit of Venus, by Shirley Hazzard (pictured here as a young woman). I have read other books she wrote and have enjoyed them but they did not impact me to the same degree. Shirley Hazzard died on 12 December 2016. She was 85. Although I love her writing, the truth is that I won’t actually miss her.

The curse of 2016

So many words have been devoted to lamenting 2016 and what a terrible year it was. And what was it that had the mainstream conversation so incensed? The death of ‘celebrities’ whose careers had put them in the public eye at some time in their lives.

Radio, TV, Internet, Social Media – by December so many were talking about 2016 as a beast with a life of its own. Some of these ‘celebrity deaths’ in 2016 have brought sadness, shock, outrage, conspiracy theories and pessimism. Quite rightly, people have felt that it isn’t fair. It’s true. Death is not fair (and neither is life, in many ways).

In some cases, added details made the passing even more poignant. Anne Deveson died just a few days after her daughter, Georgia Blain. Debbie Reynolds died just a day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher. On the day Zsa Zsa Gabor died, her adopted son had a motorcycle accident that led to his death just days later. Surely there’s something going on.

There sure is, and I’ll spell it out for you: Death happens. To everyone. Without exception. Sooner or later.

Oh no, not them!

Speaking truthfully, who will you miss more: Debbie, Anne, Zsa Zsa, Georgia, Carrie or Oliver? Which is more tragic: death from cancer, heart disease, dementia, drugs or motorcycle collision? (No disrespect is intended here. I know that death by any cause is wrenching and traumatic.)

If you have any sense of genuine grief about the deaths of these or other ‘well known’ people, it may be because the person who left this life was someone you personally knew: a relative, a friend, a lover, a colleague, an old schoolmate. Celebrities have all these people in their lives, people who know the person and not the image. If so, I am sorry for your loss.

However, most of the public mourning and lamenting that went on last year whenever a well-known, or once well-known, identity died, was done by people who had never met them, worked with them, lived near them or cleaned up after them. Most of the outcry came from voyeurs who watched the ‘celebrity’ from a distance and projected emotions and experiences on to them.

But no more Prince music!” True. “But Alan Rickman is such a wonderful actor!” True. “But Florence Henderson! I used to watch Brady Bunch all the time.” Me too.”

The cause of death

Without doubt, the number 1 cause of death around the world is BEING HUMAN. Across history and in every culture, this is the one and only common risk factor. Humanity has a 100% morbidity rate!

But it keeps taking us by surprise and we mourn deeply. Death is a completely ordinary experience and yet, in our souls, it feels completely unnatural.

The reason we grieve someone we know only from their publicity is that they are somehow part of us, or part of our history, or part of our dreams or part of our future. They mean something to us because we find ourselves reflected somehow in them.

When we mourn them, we mourn ourselves.

Singer, George Michael is, for me, a reminder of myself in the 1980s. Wham! existed for me, didn’t they? Just as David Bowie is a collection of moments from the soundtrack of my life, an unknowable force, as compelling as youth and the orbit of the planets.

Cricketer, Max Walker is, for my husband, a reminder of himself as a young guy with long hair and a talent for sport. Maxie Walker (nicknamed Tangles because of his bowling style) symbolises good mates, good fun and a bloody good yarn during some of Australia’s cheekiest cricket eras.

These men all died in 2016, too early, too sick, too far away, too human. And it will happen to us too.

A positive note

As years go, 2016 was not that bad, death-wise. Yes there were lots of ‘names’ we recognised which kept appearing in mainstream media obituaries and tribute reels –  it might have seemed there were so many personalities dying that soon there’d be none left. But overall, the global death rate actually came down. *

In the year 2000, the crude death rate was 9 deaths per 1000 people. By the middle of 2016, that number had come down to 7.8 people per 1000.

In the USA, the country where most of 2016’s celebrities lived and died, that rate was 8.15. Australia came in well below average at 7.07 and the UK up at 9.34.

Are these higher figures worrying? No. Because in developed countries, with better health systems and longer lifespans, people reach older ages and skew the death rate as a result.

Should we be worried about the death rates anywhere? Oh yes. On the same ranking of death rates by nation, six of the top 10 countries are in Africa where I know that old age is not the main contributor.

On any one day in 2016, for every one celebrity who died, we need to remember to mourn the babies, the mothers in childbirth, the soldiers and civilians, the displaced, the terrified, the hungry, the trafficked, the nameless and the destitute, the aged, the sick and the brave as well as the glamorous, the well-fed, the comfortable, the talented, the charismatic, the educated, the employed and the popular.

Over to you

If you’re reading this, you are alive. Here are a few things to do:

  • Embrace your life and actively live it. You know, drive it instead of setting in on cruise control.
  • Embrace the lives of others. Play Leonard Cohen’s music, watch Gene Wilder’s movies, take your kids bike riding, hang out with your grandparents, spend a bit longer listening to people, turn off your phone occasionally.
  • Write down your wishes for your own death and how your life is celebrated. Make sure you share these wishes with a couple of people.
  • Recycle your organs. When you die, parts you no longer need could help up to 10 other living people. Australians can find out more here.
  • Shift the Social Media focus from people who die in the limelight, to the millions of humans lost each day in horrendous conflict or poverty or captivity, whether overseas or closer to home. In most places on Earth, a mother and daughter dying within days of each other is not unusual at all.
  • Deal with your feelings about life and death and the reality of your own situation. If you are struggling in life, please talk to someone sensible. Friend, partner, Facebook, parent, pastor, doctor, counsellor, teacher, Lifeline 13 11 14 … If you don’t know what to say, start with, “I’m struggling.”
  • Lastly, I urge you to consider this one big question: why does death feel so wrong when it happens to us all. This is a fundamental question and the answer, if you find it, will enrich your life.

 

* CIA word fact book, http://www.indexmundi.com

Catch up

It was totally unplanned and, for me, out of the norm but last week I spent almost a whole day on the couch, with my kids, watching catch-up tv shows. And we were all wearing our pyjamas, all day.

This would be a truly shameful confession for me, even without the added incredible and basically dishonourable detail that we watched multiple end-to-end episodes of just one program: The Bachelorette.

Although my children had seen some of the program while staying at their grandparents’ house, I had purposely eschewed the whole experience, as I have done with every previous iteration of the Bachelor/ette franchise, plus every Married at First Site, Nude Dating, Wife Swap, Ridiculous Situation (insert inane title here)…

But it was school holidays and raining outside so a day on the couch was almost mandatory (not being cashed up enough during this part of December for a trip to the movies.)

This is what I learned during these ‘hours-I’ll-never-get-back’:

  • It was silly (expected).
  • It was engaging at times, (not expected). In the day or two after the binge-fest I found myself thinking back to specific moments.
  • It isn’t about the woman (bachelorette) – most of the interplay, entertainment and intrigue happens between the blokes who are supposedly there to meet the woman of their dreams.
  • The richness of the men’s relationships with each other shows up the emptiness of the stage-managed courtship competition which is engineered to produce ratings success. In the hours and days between events, the men joke and play and chat and resolve conflict: truly getting to know each other during the best bucks party of their lives.
  • As more blokes were eliminated from the contest, the program became less interesting. I think the least interesting moments were the to-camera ‘revelations’ of the bachelorette who, frankly, should have known better than to appear on a program like this which did her no favours. As if, “Yes I love Disney movies too!” is the basis of a lasting relationship.
  • Thanks to social media on 28 October I already knew which man ultimately ‘wins’ the woman. I watched the action differently as a result, and was able to be more detached than, say, my daughter who cheered for contestants as though they were Olympic swimmers, “Come on Cam. Come on. No, not him, Cam. Go Cam!” (Cam ended up coming fifth. My daughter’s disappointment was palpable.)
  • No matter how much time a man had already spent with the bachelorette, they always wanted more time. “If I could just have more time with her…” was repeated many times each episode. (Who knew that time together was so important! Insert facepalm emoji here.)
  • It made me think of the lead-up to my own engagement, 14 years ago, with time and space to really get to know Jeff and no other men in the picture. It was brilliant even without perfect hair, makeup and wardrobe, helicopters and chauffeurs, unlimited expense accounts and gallons of champagne. We even managed to focus on each other while handling dreary details like housework, paid work and family commitments. In fact, our courtship was so brilliant I think they could make a tv show about it.

Like all good contests, there was one man left standing. And I liked him a lot. In fact, I googled the couple and am genuinely glad to see that they are still (apparently) going strong and had even posted a cute-couple-dork-photo to social media. Perhaps they are enjoying real life. That brings to me to the last thing I learned.

Despite the unreality of Reality TV, it actually is like real life: it all comes down to the editing.

In the club

The five women waiting at the station chatted excitedly and laughed often. They were all ‘of an age’ and wore deliberately ostentatious purple dresses and bold red feather-laden hats. I stopped to compliment them on how wonderful and happy they looked. One told me, “We’re going on a harbour cruise today because we’re celebrating 10 years of our club.”* They beamed with pride.

I wished them well and moved on to the sunshine further along the platform. I thought about clubs.

Not the places of lurid carpet and mysterious gaming rooms with furtive smoking areas and lots of raffles.  Not even sporting clubs which, although they are about passion and shared interests, seem so much to be about winning as well, sometimes at any cost.**

No, the clubs that are just about really liking something and doing it with others who share the same like (or love,  or passion or weird-but -harmless*** obsession).

At various times I’ve been part of formal or informal clubs, societies, teams and peer groups devoted to papercraft, appreciation of M*A*S*H, The Beatles, Orchestral Manoevres in the Dark (an 80s synthesiser band, not funny business) and pub trivia.

Some clubs last just for a brief poignant time like the purposeful weeks a bunch of us spent writing ‘We love you Shaun’ hundreds of times on hundreds of sheets of paper, all in the hope that Shaun Cassidy would one day come to our school. We had as much fun counting how many times we’d written the message in our rounded, loopy adolescent handwriting as we did imagining that he might one day reward us with a visit.

The first club I ever joined boasted a membership of two 9 year old girls who briefly idolized Suzi Quattro and spent hours after school putting up posters and playing Devil Gate Drive on a portable record player, repeatedly. It didn’t last long but left a significant impression on us (and on our bedroom walls once we stopped idolizing Suzi and took her posters down.)

At the moment I participate in online word games with people I’ve never met and number among the financial members of an Australian political party – a dwindling resource apparently. Being the mum of twins, I continue to belong to a national association for the parents of multiple births. I was once involved heavily in my local chapter’s committee and attending events. These days I love reading the newsletter and doing nothing else.

I’m also very much part of my local church and, as someone who knows Jesus as my king, helper, rescuer, teacher and brother, I’m also part of the worldwide church which just means his gang.

People see ‘church’ as a club – and often in a bad way. Many see church as a closed social group – designed for insiders and inaccessible to outsiders. This is a natural confusion because the Bible was originally written by people of the Jewish faith where there are insiders and outsiders. Church is very different.

Most people see church as a building as well, which is exactly not what is described in the Bible.

These are the ways in which the church is a club:

  1. All the members follow one person – Jesus – and have this is common.
  2. The club is defined by its passion. Love is the most important thing.
  3. The club has a handbook. It’s the Bible, a collection of 66 individual writings including letters, law, history, poetry, dreams, warnings, singing and Jesus’ words. There are a few rules but if members break them, Jesus will pay the fine. It includes some instructions for how to conduct club meetings but there is a lot of leeway.

These are the ways in which the church is not like most clubs:

  1. No specific meeting place, day of the week or time of day, just wherever makes sense for that time and situation.
  2. No specific uniform, just whatever makes sense etc.,
  3. No specific language, just whatever makes sense etc.,
  4. No specific members, … you get the message.
  5. Club officers aren’t elected, they are chosen by God and given what they’ll need in order to do the job.
  6. Anyone can join or just come along if they want.
  7. Membership is about following Jesus. Nothing else is required.
  8. No money need ever change hands.
  9. Someone who’s been in the club for one day is of the same value as someone who has been in the club since birth.
  10. Someone could be a full member without ever having visited the clubhouse but they would really want to if they had the chance.
  11. It’s possible that, apart from Jesus, the members have nothing in common with each other.
  12. Nobody wins anything except spending forever and ever with Jesus, the ultimate winner.

Anyway, like the women I saw on the train platform, being part of a club ought to bring joy and the pride of being part of something good.

I like church. Maybe, if you’ve always dismissed the idea of checking out a group of God’s people, you’ll decide to have a look? Remember it’s not about the building and nobody is an outsider.

*The Red Hat Society in case you were wondering.

** I’ve nothing against winning, except when it becomes the only acceptable outcome.

*** If the activity is weird-and-harmful it’s no longer a club, it’s a crime.

The feature image is of the play, The Club, which I studied at high school in 1982.This was the cover image on the copy I used.

Curiouser and curiouser

In the dictionary, next to the colloquial phrase First-World Problems, there is a photo of me taken at 5.00pm yesterday.

Beneath the photo is this caption:
Mother of 10-year-old girl slumps in resignation upon learning that the Alice in Wonderland costume, ordered online in desperation after No Other Suitable Costume Could Be Found, will not arrive in time for Book Week 2016.

How did it come to this? Indeed how does it come to this every year?

My long-suffering husband, who waited at his workplace until 5.00pm (having arrived that morning at 6.00am), where said costume was to be received, was philosophical about it.

“You did your best honey. That’s all you can do.  Hey didn’t we end up at K-Mart the night before Book Week last year? At least we’re consistent.”

Consistently foolish perhaps.

In that same dictionary, next to the phrase First-World Solutions, it could read:

  • Jump online
  • Pay ridiculous amount of money
  • Involve as many people as possible
  • Placate child
  • Race down to K-Mart

images
In this instance we didn’t find anything suitable there either though we did get some Alice-like shoes as well as shoes for my other 10-year-old’s costume (they are twins) so it definitely wasn’t a wasted trip.

In the end, the previously unsuitable costume using things we already had at home stopped  being Stupid, Embarrassing and Are You Serious? and became It Will Have To Do.

And when the 10-year-old put it on (she had obstinately refused to even try it on before this), she suddenly loved it because she felt great and looked like Alice.

And that’s a First-World Ending isn’t it – complete with money, access, resources and options as well as a mother who can shield her (generally ungrateful) child from disappointment and a child who can’t imagine what true disappointment is like.

Where do I live? In the First-World of course. But just as Lewis Carroll poignantly reminded us: life in Wonderland can be very confusing. And scary too.

tdee

My only post about the Rio Olympic Games

An inspirational and emphatic win  (43-7) by Fiji’s Rugby Sevens team has made history for this beautiful place of more than 330 islands and fewer than 900,000 people.
This resulted in Fiji’s first ever Olympic medal (gold is a good place to start) since becoming a nation in 1970. Wow! That heaps scorn on the nations who spend the Olympics watching the medal tally jealously and feeling somehow cheated if they don’t get the gold they had expected!
 
It wasn’t just a great win or an excellent example of a sport well-played. It was a lesson in honour.
Many have noticed that the victorious team, rather than ripping off their shirts, flying like airplanes around the stadium or drenching themselves in alcohol, formed a close circle and broke into song. Not the kind of song performed (usually in private) by the Australian Cricket Team (and which we would probably not let our kids sing) but a song that the media has described as moving, emotional.
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This is the chorus of the song they sang, in two languages I think.
We have overcome
Halleluiah, Halleluiah
We have overcome
By the power of your name
Jesus you’re the one
Halleluiah, Halleluiah
The one who made a way for us to triumph in this day
 
At the medal presentation each member of the team knelt when receiving their gold medal from the presenter, Princess Anne.  They are big guys, that’s for sure, but the kneeling and the accompanying hand clap was part of showing respect according to their tradition.
Whether or not you are a monarchist, a Christian, a rugby fan or an addict of any sport as long as it’s part of the Olympics, (I think I’m only one of those things), it’s hard to go past this occasion as one of the most heartwarmingly real moments of true victory we will ever see.
A quick Internet search reveals that Fiji’s national motto is :Rerevaka na Kalou ka Doka na Tui
/ Fear God and honour the Queen.
Seems that Fiji is a nation that actually knows what it’s about. I know it’s not a perfect country – there is no perfect country at this time – but I think Fiji might have a clearer idea of itself than many other, more ‘developed’ nations. Oh and it is ferociously good at rugby. Fiji’s women’s team hasn’t had the same Olympic success as the blokes but if it shares this view of true victory that may not matter too much.
Aside

What we stand for

As you head out of the Kapooka Army Recruit Training Centre (ARTC) four white signs spell out the Army’s four key values: Courage, Initiative, Respect and Teamwork. CIRT.

I know this because I was there on Friday and Sunday to be part of my stepson’s graduation from basic training.

At Friday’s March Out Parade he and his platoon-members literally stood for these values, for almost two hours, in the cold, wet Wagga morning. He was dedicated to upholding these ideals, as well as upholding himself, his gun and his rakish slouch hat.

I’m so glad we were there to witness it.

After successfully enduring 80 difficult days, he is no longer a recruit but a soldier and now approaches something like full human status.

I am not sure how long it will take him to relax – if ever. As far as I can assess, he has been on edge for every minute of every day since 10 May. (There he was on Saturday, with free time and surrounded by his family, looking perplexed: “Nobody is telling me what to do, so I don’t know what to do”.)

It appears to me that the four values work out like this:

  1. Courage – to face the weight of history, the staggering number of rules, mystifying abbreviations, arbitrary traditions and the seeming limitless number of people who have power over the recruit.
  2. Initiative – to do only what you’re told and when you’re told to do it.
  3. Respect – to learn that what you thought was respect was something else altogether.
  4. Teamwork – to suffer in a group, to accept every one’s weaknesses, to be terrified of a wrong step and to be constantly afraid that you’ll be made to pay for someone else’s mistake.

The 7th Pattern Rising Sun Badge

Our boy has finished and he can not conceal his pride (and possibly amazement) in that achievement. He has new language, new clothes, new habits, a new cohort and a new sense of belonging. He looks in to a new horizon, with the beginning of a career and a future he can almost taste. He takes with him new skills, new questions and a few answers, new reasons for doing what he does and new ways of making choices.

He is now at a new location, commencing Initial Employment Training (IET). I wonder if it will feel different? I am sure we’ll see new aspects of Courage, Initiative, Respect and Teamwork emerging in him over time.

soldiers

In the drizzle of Sunday morning, as we stood outside the base’s front gate waiting for the ADF bus to take us to chapel, I had plenty of time to consider what list of CIRT values I would choose.

  • Comedy, Improv, Repertory and Talk show perhaps. (my dream career)
  • Challenging, Impractical, Ratty and Troublesome. (me in the morning)
  • Chocolate, Ice-Cream, Rocky Road and Toffee. (some of the foods I like a lot.)
  • Champagne, Irish Coffee, Rum Daiquiris and Tia Maria.(drinks I like a lot.)

Or

  • Christ, Immortality, Redemption and Truth.(four things I totally believe in.)
  • Colossians, Isaiah, Revelation and Timothy. (four books of the Bible that I like.)

How about Care, Integrity, Realness and Trust. I like that list.

I think I’d be useless in the Army.