Author Archives: Nicole Conner

Reflecting on a Year of Adversity

Adversity is the first path to truth.

– Lord Byron

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As the hush of Advent falls on many hearts over the next few weeks, it is a good time to reflect on and remember 2015. To ‘remember’ means to consciously acknowledge the past – an event, a person, or a series of circumstances, for example. To remember means that we acknowledge the history of our own lives and those around us.

2015 has been a year of adversity for me, more so than usual. Don’t get me wrong, I am no stranger to grief or difficulty. I have experienced my fair share, just like everyone else. However, this year was different. This year I experienced adversity that drove me to a great state of anxiety, turned me upside down, inside out, and when the silence fell – I somehow was still standing. I want to thank Adversity this year.

It started with an interview in April on Joy FM. An interview in which I discussed my observations of the effect of the ex-gay therapy movement (which is still alive and kicking in many Christian organisations and churches) on LGBTIQ Christians with whom I have journeyed over several years. The healing and comfort this interview brought to so many people was surprising. To this day I am contacted at least once a week by someone who has found some form of healing or shalom listening to it. The emails, calls and messages have often left me in tears. I am so grateful for the opportunity and privilege to serve this brave group of people.

imageThe Adversity that followed the interview was not surprising. Hysteria would be the tone I would use to describe it. It came from all directions – religious lobby groups, Christian folks I have never heard of, and also people that I knew, some fairly well. Anonymous letters, emails, calls, some direct, and some, in classic adherence to a silent patriarchal system, who chose to voice their anger or concern to the men in my life that they thought had some form of ‘authority’ over me. To each one of these people who contributed to the rather heavy storm of Adversity in my life, I want to say thank you. You all played a vital role in providing further helpful information in understanding some of the paradigms held in fundamentalist religious circles. You also helped me recognise some of the tightly held idealistic ‘loyal soldiers‘ that I urgently needed to dismiss. Adversity did that – and you helped. Thank you.

Thank you for creating deep empathy in my life for all who suffer anxiety. I never have experienced anxiety to any great level, but your letters, videos, newsletters helped me understand this space and how helpless you feel tossed about in its waves. Unlike many people in my life, my anxiety was not a permanent companion as much as a temporal result of bullying. This was patiently explained to me by a fantastic GP, whose passionate pep talk helped clear the cobwebs and was invaluable in gaining proper perspective. The Adversity I experienced was a key in realising what a paralysing force anxiety can be. Adversity helped shape a much greater respect and recognition of the people in my life who take on this reality every day of their lives with tremendous courage. Without this episode in my life I would still be getting my problem-solving ‘German’ on, failing to really understand. I am grateful to Adversity as I have become a little bit less of a jerk because of it.

But maybe the next three expressions of gratitude are the most important. I want to thank you, Adversity, because my life has been even more enriched by the ever growing LGBTIQ family that I love so very much. Friends that have shown me what courage, love and determination really look like. They imagehave shown me what faith, grace and humility look like while they are the objects of religious marginalisation, slander and persecution. If what I went through this year is a tiny fraction of what my LGBTIQ friends face on a regular basis from a section of the ‘devout’ group, I can only marvel at their resilience. I cannot believe I am so fortunate to have the hand of Providence guide my path in such a manner that it collided with these giants of faith.

Thank you, Adversity, that you again showed me the incredible gift of family and old friends. Like the Rock of Gibraltar they stood by my side – their calls, emails, texts and visits healed the wounds and over and over again showed me that love is greater than fear. I am especially grateful for a life partner who is encouraging, kind and faithful. After 30 years we still hold differences with kindness. You reminded me of that incredible gift, Adversity. Thank you.

But most of all I want to thank you, Adversity, that your presence throughout the year reminded me that Grace trumps all. Grace, that consistently seeks to free me from a religious matrix of fear, intimidation and control. Grace that reminded me that I am God’s beloved and not the object of the opinions of others. Grace that has shown me that I can let go. Grace that enabled me to throw back my head and laugh in your face. It was grace that brought you into my life, Adversity, and transformed it. Thank you for heeding the call of Grace. 2015 will go down in my life as a year of great Adversity and a year of even greater Grace. I will remember this year like Jacob’s angelic encounter – forever limping, forever changed, forever grateful.

But what about you? What will you remember? What will be the narrative you would read to me out of your 2015? Was it a year of great joy and shalom? Or was it a rather turbulent year, like mine? As you reflect on 2015 and the years before that, you will then lift your eyes to the present and the future. May the next chapters be filled with more awe-inspiring adventures. You have one life to live. You are greater than the opinions of others and the Adversity that seeks you out. I know in the midst of the storm it really doesn’t feel like it. Please don’t give up. Get up, sing that new and broken song. Howl at the moon. Stand in awe and wonder. Give your life in making this world just a little bit kinder. And dream big dreams. His Grace really is sufficient. Remember that!

Adversity is like a strong wind. It tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that we see ourselves as we really are.
– Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha

 

 

 

The Advent Tradition

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our Spirits by Thine Advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Advent

Advent is all about anticipation and preparation. It comes from the Latin word ‘Adventus’, which means ‘coming’. It is a tradition observed by many Christians around the world and marks the beginning of a new liturgical year for many Western churches. It covers four Sundays and begins on the Sunday closest to 30 November, which is the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle. It is a season of anticipating the birth of Christ and looks to the time when he returns. It is a season of great joy.

Advent probably had its beginnings in the 4th or 5th century in Spain and Gaul, when new Christians began to prepare themselves for baptism. During the Middle Ages people began to associate Advent with the second coming of Christ – the Greek word for ‘Adventus’ is ‘Parousia’, which holds theological concepts of Christ’s return. In more modern times, Advent is mainly associated with the anticipation of the Nativity on Christmas Day.

My early childhood memories of Christmas time would always include an Advent Calendar, even though ours was not a religious household. The calendar is like a large poster with twenty-four little doors, one is opened every day starting on the 1st December, revealing a picture that points to the Nativity. Importantly, each one that I opened also contained a chocolate. The Advent Calendar tradition began in Germany in the 1800s and from there spread to the rest of Europe and North America.

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The Advent wreath also emerged in northern Europe. In the icy winter nights people would bundle evergreens into a circular shape, symbolising eternal life. Candles where lit on the wreath, bringing cheer, and wistful thoughts of Spring. By the sixteenth century, people were making Advent wreaths like we know them today. Advent wreaths hold four candles: three purple and one rose coloured. The three purple candles symbolise hope, peace, and love, and are lit on the first, second, and fourth Sundays of Advent. The rose coloured candle, symbolising joy, is lit on the third Sunday. Some people place a fifth candle in the middle of the wreath that is lit on Christmas Day. It is white and recounts the story of the angels and the birth of Christ.

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Some people fast certain foods during Advent. Others get to baking. My grandparents spent hours preparing German Stollen and Advent Biscuits. There are many recipes available. Others see the month of December as sacred and use Advent to reflect and journal. Over the last few years, I have enjoyed a quiet retreat at the start of Advent. For those who would like some recommendations for Daily Advent Meditation:

1. Preparing for Christmas written by Richard Rohr.
2. Advent and Christmas Wisdom written by Henri Nouwen.
3. God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas written by Dietrich    Bonhoeffer.

and for Narnia fans …
5. Advent in Narnia: Reflections for the Season written by Heidi Haverkamp.

This year Advent begins on Sunday the 29th November. If you have never done so, why not consider establishing some of your own Advent traditions and reflections? If you are not religious, perhaps perceive this month as the Grand Final of the year – spend some time planning and anticipating a coming year?

Advent is a season of joy and hope. In a world where violence assaults our senses every time we engage in social media or watch a graphic news description, God knows we need Advent. A season that reminds us to anticipate a different tomorrow and to be grateful of the stunning Good News of Immanuel – With Us Is God.

Waiting — that cold, dry period of life when nothing seems to be enough and something else beckons within us — is the grace that Advent comes to bring. It stands before us, within us, pointing to the star for which the wise ones from the East are only icons of ourselves.
– Joan Chittister
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Welcome to the Table

If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with them … the people who give you their food give you their heart.
– Cesar Chavez
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The dining room table is a most significant and symbolic piece of furniture in my life. It invokes childhood memories of joy and lament, of delicious meals, of arguments, jokes, intense debate and tantrums. It recalls the many different faces that shared the table with my parents and I, and the lives and stories they represented. My parents welcomed many people to the table.

Today we have a large, circular, red gum table that dominates our dining room. It is so heavy you can’t lift it. It is round to remind those who gather there that there is no hierarchy. Many nights it has family, friends and strangers crammed around it. The conversations are as diverse as the people that hold them – laughing, joking, angry, opinionated, silent, sullen, quiet, peaceful, heart-felt and sometimes simply exhausting. Mouths crammed with food with water and wine being passed from one to the other, we defy every meal etiquette. Politics and religion, no doubt, will always be discussed! I often stop and look around with deep gratitude. There is no better place than to be seated by a table, sharing a meal, sharing our lives.

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Tables have been around for literally ages. Different designs were used by different civilisations. Egyptians used wood or stone and their tables were fashioned like pedestals, the Assyrians used metal, Greeks used bronze, others used marble. The use of tables evolved over time and it was in the 16th century that the dining table really came into its own. The earliest Western tables were simple wooden boards on trestles that were set up for eating and then packed away. Today tables come in all shapes and sizes and man-made materials like plastic or fibreglass.

The dining table has held emblematic significance throughout the ages. It symbolises unity, celebration, togetherness, belonging, and acceptance. Cultures across the world view the dining table as very significant. It is tPeople_eating_in_Tunisiahe heartbeat of a home. The importance of sharing meals features in many religions, like the sharing of the Shabbat meal amongst Jews, or the house-hopping and sharing of meals during Eid al-Fitr for Muslims, or the sharing of the Lord’s supper amongst Christian faith traditions.

In ancient traditions, eating together was a way of forming and forging relationship. It was a sign of acceptance and reconciliation. Ancient Israel had strict dietary laws and maintained clear social and religious boundaries – it was very important to obey laws surrounding what you ate and who you ate with! No wonder Jesus was so irksome to a religious establishment that saw his total disregard of meal protocol and tradition as dangerous. He invited himself to the table of ‘filthy’ tax collectors! This wasn’t just a little step over the etiquette boundary. It was the flipping of the proverbial middle finger to the carefully constructed boundaries that ensured racial and religious purity. This rebel seemed to think that all were invited to God’s table – what a ridiculously scandalous idea. A table without boundary or exclusion?? One commentator suggested that Jesus got himself crucified by the way he ate.

In our hurry-sick world, suffering from a loneliness epidemic, it is time to bring the table back to centre stage. It is time to remind ourselves that we become better people when we welcome others to the table. People from all walks of life, people who are different to us, who may not share our views or faith. Something miraculous happens around a table, whether in a home, restaurant, workplace, a table carved of sand on the beach, or flimsily thrown together in small huddles in our faith communities. That moment of sharing food and stories deepens us like no social media network ever could. In times of violence and sadness in our world we need to remind ourselves of our shared humanity and refresh ourselves with new hope and courage in each other’s company. Around a table we don’t just nurture our bodies with food, we heal each others soul.

I want to live my life with a welcome sign on my table. A place where the stranger can find refuge, where the hungry can be fed, where the marginalised can be affirmed and accepted, and where the sad heart can find hope. I often fail in this endeavour but I will not give up. To me that round red gum table reminds me of welcome and belonging, it reminds me of amazing grace, and most of all it reminds me that love is greater than fear. Welcome to the table.

And Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, because he always ate at the king’s table; he was lame in both feet … II Samuel 9
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A System called Patriarchy

Sometimes we need to stop and question the social structures and norms that we are part of and contribute to. Why? Because society and how it operates becomes so much part of our every day life that we do not even ask ourselves why it exists the way it does or consider alternate possibilities. We simply accept what is.enhanced-30445-1400968529-2
When you look around today you will notice that the domination of women is somewhat of a global reality to varying degrees. Patriarchy is a social structure in which men have a monopoly of power and women are expected to submit. It is a system of inequality organised around gender categories. “The crucial thing to understand about patriarchy or any other kind of social system is that it’s something people participate in. It’s an arrangement of shared understandings and relationships that connect people to one another and something larger than themselves.” There are some who claim that there have been early civilisations that were matriarchal. However, no anthropologist or archaeologist, feminists included, have found evidence of such societies. “The search for a genuinely egalitarian, let alone matriarchal, culture has proved fruitless,” concludes Sherry Ortner.

This male-defined culture has not always been so fixed. The hunter-gatherer or foraging society is believed to have had fairly equal relationships between men and women. It was the division of labour that began to introduce domestication, civilisation and global domination. Suddenly the care of offspring was no longer a shared responsibility, as seen in the early hunter-gatherer societies, but became a specialised role in isolated family settings. Women fulfilled that specialised role, while men focused on provision – which meant hunting, raiding and waging war. Historian Gerda Lerner argues that patriarchy is therefore neither natural or biological, rather, it is a historical development that began in the second millennium B.C. in the Ancient Near East. She concludes with the idea that as it is a structure created through historical process it can also be ended that way (summary).

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Carol P. Christ would agree with Lerner, “The system I am defining as patriarchy is a system of domination enforced through violence and the threat of violence. It is a system developed and controlled by powerful men, in which women, children, other men, and nature itself are dominated. Let me say at the outset that I do not believe that it is in the ‘nature’ of ‘men’ to dominate through violence. Patriarchy is a system that originated in history, which means that it is neither eternal nor inevitable. Some women and some men have resisted patriarchy throughout history.” Early human history shows a shift from women experiencing autonomy and relative equality in small, nomadic groups, to being controlled and considered property, in large, male-dominated settlements.

Today, the effect of patriarchy is evident when you spell it out like this. Patriarchy is:
  • The rule of the father or patriarch, in a sense, rule of men.
  • Existing at ideological and material levels.
  • An ideology of women’s subordination.
  • The underlying basis that men are superior to women and women are part of men’s property.
  • Interacting with other systems (economy, class, race, ethnicity, caste and gender) in the construction of social institutions like culture, the state and law.
  • Establishing male dominance and control in personal relationships, the family and society at large.
  • Based on a material basis that benefits men.
  • Perpetuated through institutional beliefs and structures, which are kept in control through violence.
  • Not static, keeps changing over time, varies historically, in different socio‑econ‑political contexts, and with different classes, race and ethnic groups, etc.
Patriarchy has been the source of inequality and abuse in many parts of the world. Especially when you couple these ideals with religion. Conveniently, the three major religions – Christianity, Islam and Judaism – all have had a tendency to support this patriarchal power structure. Many women have been told exactly what the Bible says about women, how submission to a male authority figure is a ‘godly’ virtue, and how this pleases God. There is ample evidence to show how a theology that upholds patriarchy has been a source of domestic violence, abuse, and domination. Patriarchy ties this violence to God.

It was many years ago that I first read the Bible. It was the book of Luke. I quickly became engrossed in the story of a remarkable revolutionary. In the words and life of Christ, I found a compelling blueprint for societal and cultural transformation. The words of Jesus, to me, were not some wise sayings of a benevolent Jewish rabbi. They were dangerous words – subversive and highly political in his context. This Gospel of Jesus’ kingdom was the great equaliser. This revolutionary attacked the very heart of political and religious powers that dominated others. Over the years many interpretations and hierarchial structures have made the Bible impossible for many. “The Bible tells me so” has become the catch cry for all sorts of ugliness, including the justification of patriarchal ideals. However, there is a growing chorus of theological voices that protest these ideals and interpretation.

I am hopeful for a different tomorrow. A future where people will begin to recognise these imagined structures and the power they wield. I believe in equality and in freedom. I believe in mutual respect. I believe in responsible care for our planet. As a follower of Christ I also agree with a man called Paul from a different era, who wrote a letter to believers in Galatia: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ.” The essence of a revolution lie in those words.
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The Sound of Silence

“Speech is silver, but silence is golden.”

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The older I become the more I yearn for silence and the more I am aware how noise suffocates our lives and our world. For many of us, from the time we wake up to the buzzing, cantankerous noise of an alarm, to the time we fall exhausted into bed, with the neighbourhood dog serenading us to sleep, we are accosted by noise. Pleasant noises, loud noises, terrifying noises, annoying noises at home, work, school and restaurants. Noise surrounds us. Most of the time we are not even aware how noise has defined who we are.

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Most of us contribute thousands of words to the atmosphere every day. We also have thousands of words come at us. Words that tell us who we are, how we are, why we are. Words that shape us. The noises that we have listened to from a young age have greatly contributed to the people we are today. The noise of our environment – our family, friends, the space we live and work, entertainment and media (and let’s not forget the very loud, non-decibel noise of social media), all shape our thoughts and actions.

Psychologist Marilyn Price-Mitchell is concerned about the noise and lack of silence in the lives of a younger generation. She writes, “The reason we should ask the question, and encourage teens to explore silent spaces, is because we know that self-reflection is important to human development and learning. John Dewey, a renowned psychologist and education reformer, claimed that experiences alone were not enough. What is critical is an ability to perceive and then weave meaning from the threads of our experiences. The function of self-reflection is to make meaning. The creation of meaning is at the heart of what it means to be human.” The discipline of silence assists in learning and in discovering meaning. Sadly, this is often missing from many of our lives. For a younger generation growing up in the hustle and bustle of modern life, noise is as natural as breathing.

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I suggest that our modern world is actually addicted to noise. Silence, the idea of being left with our own thoughts, often terrifies us. The sense of loneliness or melancholy that we may feel, yet dull with noise, becomes deafening and acute with silence. However, if we learn to negotiate and immerse ourselves in the discipline and pleasure of regular silence it has great benefits, including preventing burnout. Silence and solitude provides a much needed break from productivity. It heightens our sensitivity and addresses our anxiety, which often stems from worrying about the future. Silence bring our awareness back to the present. Silence improves memory and cultivates a form of mindful intention that later motivates us to action.

In silence and solitude we became self-aware and begin to take ownership and responsibility of our lives and actions. Some of the brightest ideas are formed in silence. The discipline of learning to face something as uncomfortable as silence has great benefits for the rest of our lives. It takes courage as it does expose our muted pain and helps us reflect on our past. Silence also fosters compassion because it equips us to be patient and mindful of the other.

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Many religions have embraced the discipline of silence in one way or another, although it is rarely a common practice in much of modern-day Christianity. In my own faith tradition, silence is rarely practiced in a communal sense and when it is, it is most often accompanied by instrumental music. Silence makes us feel awkward. If we manage to push past this awkwardness and begin the slow journey of regularly allowing for silence during our day, it will change us. Silence brings peace. Silence allows for God to speak. Silence transforms us. However, it should not be entered into carelessly because silence is confronting. Henri Nouwen writes, “Solitude is not a private therapeutic place. Rather, it is the place of conversion, the place where the old self dies and the new self is born …  In solitude, I get rid of my scaffolding: no friends to talk with, no telephone calls to make, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just me – naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful, deprived, broken – nothing. It is this nothingness that I have to face in my solitude, a nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions so that I can forget my nothingness and make myself believe that I am worth something.”

It has now been several years since I first started the discipline of silence. First, I made room in my day, then I ventured to silent retreats. At first I found them terrifying – I was fidgety and anxious about all the things I needed to do! Now, years later, I yearn for silence. It has changed my life, my perspective and my journey with God. In a few weeks I will again go to a place of silence for several days. It no longer holds any fear. I drive into its gates and it welcomes me like a loving friend. I rest in its embrace – the sound of Silence is a healer.

Psalm 46:10
Be still and know that I am God
Be still and know that I am
Be still and know
Be still
Be

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Those Fascinating Melbourne Lanes

The beautiful city of Melbourne is home to over four million people. It’s the ‘youngest’ of all the world cities. It is hard to imagine that this sprawling capital of Victoria, Australia’s second largest city, did not exist 180 years ago.
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In 1835, John Batman, an Australian grazier and entrepreneur from Van Diemen’s land (modern day Tasmania), signed a transaction with eight chiefs of the local Wurundjeri tribe, along a quiet stream, possibly Merri Creek in Northcote. He bought 500,000 acres in exchange for a few household goods. This transaction, although later rejected by the government, was the foundation of Melbourne. It became the only major Australian city established without government sanction. By 1836, the settlement had reached 177 settlers.

In March 1837, Governor Sir Richard Bourke proclaimed Melbourne a town and chose the name in honour of the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Lord Melbourne. During his visit he was joined by Robert Hoddle, a senior surveyor for New South Wales. Hoddle had less than a month to peg out allotments to allow for government land sales. He designed wide main streets with narrow laneways.

The grid that Hoddle planned proved problematic as the lanes became crowded, dirty and a breeding ground for criminals, while the wider streets were prone to flooding. Despite these troublesome beginnings, Melbourne’s grid has become an iconic feature of the city and is a reminder of the ambitious goals of the settlers.
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Melbourne’s lanes originated at Governor Bourke’s insistence to provide access to buildings from the rear, service lanes for horses and carts. Many of these lanes did not exist in the original layout of the grid, but began to emerge out of necessity as Melbourne faced a huge influx of immigrants during the Gold Rush era of the 1850s. There are many fascinating stories of how Chinese and European immigrants helped shape the cultural landscape of the city and the philanthropic organisations, which were active in offering assistance to the poor.
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The laneways, which were once notorious for crime, homelessness and prostitution, have today become places of enormous cultural, historical and social significance. Today they bustle with restaurants, one-off shops, galleries and bars. Every lane brings its own style of gothic-like ambience, quirkiness and charm, never failing to delight locals and visitors alike. Of course it is also an undisputed fact, that the best cup of coffee in the world will be brewed in one of these narrow alleys.Hosier_Lane_Installations_Melbourne-1
Melbourne is recognised as one of the world’s street art capitals. Hosier Lane is one of my very favourite. The inspired and beautiful art pieces bring life and soul to the city. Forget any ideas about graffiti tagging or vandalism, this is sophisticated urban art.
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There are over two hundred laneways (alleys, arcades, places, lanes, walks & ways) in the Central Business District alone, many of them are under threat as they do not fall into the strict heritage precinct. So take some time out and wander. Wander the lanes before they move into their next phase or are totally lost. Get off the main street and take a marvellous detour – you won’t regret it. These lanes tell stories of yesterday and they are always full of pleasant surprises.

Some Recommendations:
Serious about coffee? Try Manchester Press on Rankins Lane.
Serious about art galleries? Try these on Flinders Lane: Flinders Lane Gallery, Arc One Gallery or Karen Woodbury Gallery.
Serious about spices? Try Sichuan House in Corrs Lane or Gewürzhaus in the Block Arcade.
Serious about tea? Try Lupecia Fresh Tea in Artemis Lane.
Want a huge choice of food in one tiny lane? Try Degraves Street.
All this exploring will make you very thirsty – in which case you will need a decent  German beer in Market Lane.
Prost to Melbourne and it’s fascinating lanes.

Those Wonderful Irish: Reflections on Irish Poetry


Hearts are not to be had as a gift, hearts are to be earned.

William Butler Yeatsirish-995924_1920

Three years ago we visited Ireland. I fell in love. In love with a countryside so spectacular it takes your breath away. In love with the people whose melodic, lilting accents had me so fascinated that I stared at them in a rather creepy manner. In love with a people who knew how to laugh and celebrate.

Ireland has gifted our globe with a fascinating history. It has also produced some of the finest poets. Irish poetry has developed distinctively from the 6th century, to Jonathan Swift in the early eighteenth century, to contemporary poets such as Seamus Heaney.

It is a poetry that has been shaped by the struggle to define Irish identiy. Irish poetry has a history of two languages: Irish and English, richly interwoven. The Irish language has the oldest vernacular literature and poetry. In the middle ages, the Gaelic order that supported some of the old professional bards, broke down. This resulted in the Irish language becoming marginalised and entering the realms of folk art. However, in the 19th century, Irish poets set out to reinvent the Gaelic tradition in the new language. The best example of this is the early work of W.B. Yeats.

Several years ago the Irish Times surveyed its audience and asked for their favourite poets. The top two were W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney. So here are some samples of these famous poets … I have also included one of Oscar Wilde as I found this poem so beautiful. If you have never tried to read poetry, this is probably the best place to start. Feed your soul, read it slowly.

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When You Are Old
By William Butler Yeats

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine and fifty swans.

The nineteenth Autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold,
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes, when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

(William Butler Yeats was the most famous Irish poet of all time. “The Wild Swans at Coole,” is surely one of the most beautiful poems ever written, in any language.)

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When All the Others Were Away at Mass
By Seamus Heaney

In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984

When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.
So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives –
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

(Seamus Heaney (13 April 1939 – 30 August 2013) was a poet, writer and lecturer from Northern Ireland. This poem is taken from Clearences, a sonnet sequence which he published in 1987 on his mother’s death.)

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Requiescat
by Oscar Wilde

Tread lightly, she is near
Under the snow,
Speak gently, she can hear
The daisies grow.

All her bright golden hair
Tarnished with rust,
She that was young and fair
Fallen to dust.

Lily-like, white as snow,
She hardly knew
She was a woman, so
Sweetly she grew.

Coffin-board, heavy stone,
Lie on her breast,
I vex my heart alone,
She is at rest.

Peace, Peace, she cannot hear
Lyre or sonnet,
All my life’s buried here,
Heap earth upon it.

(Born on October 16, 1854 in Dublin, Irish writer Oscar Wilde is best known for the novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray and the play, The Importance of Being Earnest. Sadly, he was arrested and imprisoned. His crime? Being gay. He died shortly after his release).

You don’t love someone for their looks, or their clothes, or for their fancy car, but because they sing a song only you can hear.
Oscar Wilde

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Remembering Sophie: Reflections on Courage

“Stand up for what you believe in even if you are standing alone!”

Sophie Scholl

If you take a stroll through beautiful Munich, Germany, it is hard to imagine that this place was the official and ideological stronghold of the NAZI Party (NSDAP) leading up to World War II. For visitors who are aware of the historical shadows that the city holds, the reminders are never far away. On the pavement, outside the main building of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, one of Germany’s oldest universities, is a strange memorial of what looks like the hasty scattering of papers inset into the pavement. When you walk inside the atrium you will find  a statue of a girl: Sophie Scholl.
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Sophie, born on 9 May 1921, was the daughter of the mayor of Forchtenberg, Robert Scholl. She enjoyed a fairly carefree childhood, raised in a household that held to a Christian faith which recognised the dignity and equality of all people. Her father’s words would play an instrumental role in shaping who Sophie was becoming: “What I want for you is to live in uprightness and freedom of spirit, no matter how difficult that proves to be.” Her father and brothers were critical of Hitler and the regime. Nevertheless, Sophie joined a Nazi organisation, the League of German Girls, where she became a squad leader at the age of twelve. Her initial enthusiasm began to wane as she became more immersed in understanding the ideology and motivation of the Nazi party and as she began to observe the treatment of Jews.
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Sophie graduated from Secondary School in 1940 and worked as a kindergarten teacher at the Frobel Institute. In 1942, she enrolled in the University of Munich as a student of biology and philosophy. Undergirded by her studies and her faith, she joined her brother and his friends who held similar political views and who increasingly opposed the Nazi regime. Humanist and writer, Theodor Haecker, was a major influence on her resistance ideology.Unknown-2
In 1942, she became part of the White Rose student resistance that was founded by her brother, Hans, along with Willi Graf and Christoph Probst. The group sought to awaken an apathetic Germany to the Nazi tyranny and its genocidal policies. The group wrote six anti-Nazi resistance leaflets and distributed them across Munich. Sophie played a key role in the distribution because as a woman she was less likely to be stopped by the SS. Using a hand-operated duplicating machine they produced between six to nine thousand copies of each pamphlet, which also appeared in Stuttgart, Cologne, Vienna, Freiburg, Chemnitz, Hamburg and Berlin.
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Here are some excerpts from these pamphlets:

The first of the six leaflets produced by The White Rose movement opens, “Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be ‘governed’ by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct.” The White Rose became a relentless voice that endeavoured to awaken the apathy that had come over Germany in the face of such heinous governmental evil.

The second leaflet asked, “Why do the German people behave so apathetically in the face of all these abominable crimes … so unworthy of the human race?” And this: “Since the conquest of Poland, 300,000 Jews have been murdered, a crime against human dignity … Germans encourage fascist criminals if no chord within them cries out at the sight of such deeds. An end in terror is preferable to terror without end.” The White Rose was desperately trying to incite people to action, to awaken a nation to to the fact that the combined collective of the Germany people was greater than the evil they faced.

The third leaflet boldly welcomed all to the movement, declaring that  “Everyone is in a position to contribute to the overthrow of this system.” Please note, they never called for a violent rebellion, rather, for a passive resistance, a peaceful sabotage. “Why do you allow these men who are in power to rob you step by step, openly and in secret, of one domain of your rights after another, until one day nothing, nothing at all will be left but a mechanised state system presided over by criminals and drunks? Is your spirit already so crushed by abuse that you forget it is your right – or rather, your moral duty – to eliminate this system?”

The fourth leaflet appealed to the religious instincts of the German people with a defiant call to action: “I ask you as a Christian … Has God not given you the strength, the will to fight? We must attack evil where it is strongest, and it is strongest in the power of Hitler.” The fourth pamphlet’s concluding paragraph also became the motto of the resistance: “We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!

On the 18th February 1943, the Scholls distributed leaflets in the Munich University, leaving them in empty corridors and lecture rooms. Sophie stood on the top level of  atrium and threw handfuls into the hall below. They were immediately arrested and after a three day trial with no jury, found guilty of treason. On the 22nd February, Sophie, her brother Hans and their friend, Christoph Probst, were condemned to death and beheaded in Munich’s Stadelheim Prison.
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Sophie’s last words were to declare that God was her eternal refuge and, “Die Sonne scheint noch” – “The sun still shines”. Hans Scholl was remembered as saying, “Es lebe die Freiheit” – “Long live Freedom”.

The final White Rose leaflet was smuggled out of Germany and intercepted by Allied forces, with the result that, in the autumn of 1943, millions of copies were dropped over Germany by Allied aircraft. I wonder what a defeated Germany thought as these papers rained from the sky, the voice of prophets and martyrs, begging them to take courage? I can only imagine the regret as they realised that they would be remembered as a generation that remained quiet in one of the darkest moments of history.

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The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves — or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honour, truth, and principles are only literature.”
– Sophie Scholl

The Wisdom of Elders

Elderberry Soup with Semolina Dumplings! Just the thought makes my mouth water and evokes childhood memories and nostalgia. This was a staple dessert during Elderberry season, whilst we lived in Germany. Elderberry picking was a compulsory past-time and my grandmothers would process this precious purple berry for both culinary and medicinal purposes. No one complained about taking Elderberry syrup as a medicine against cold and flu. Sadly, I find this highly nutritious fruit remains somewhat neglected and overlooked on our sunny continent. So allow me to share some Elder wisdom.

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This tree was once considered sacred and linked to the ancient vegetation goddess, Hylde Moer. It was believed that the Elders were inhabited by tree dryads, who were benevolent if properly cared for. So Elders were planted around homes as people sought protection from witches and evil spirits. To cut down an Elder tree, in order to process it for the many medicinal uses, permission had to be sought from the tree dryad: “Lady Ellhorn, give me some of thy wood, and I will give thee some of mine when it grows in the forest.” With the rise of Christianity, tree worship was forbidden, and the Elder tree was depicted as a tree of sorrow. The narrative changed to imply that it was an Elder tree from which Judas hung himself and it was Elder wood that was used to make the cross on which Jesus died.

Many herbalists would consider the Elder as one of the most useful plants. Modern medicine is rediscovering this potent plant. Elders were listed in the Handbook of Medicinal Herbs (CRC Press) in 1985 and in the 2000 Mosby’s Nursing Drug reference for colds, flu, yeast infections, nasal and chest congestions, and allergies. The Hasassah Oncology Lab in Israel is using the plant to treat cancer and AIDS patients as it stimulates the body’s immune system. Further studies at the Bundesforschungsanstalt in Karlsruhe, Germany, show it is so effective against disease because it boosts the body’s production of cytokines; a unique protein that helps regulate immune response. Elderberry extract also reduces oxidation of low-density (LDL) cholesterol, and therefore has been effectively used to combat high cholesterol. Hippocrates reportedly referred to the Elderberry bush as his “medicine chest”.elder-59745_1920

The Elder is officially known as Sambucus, a species that comes as tall shrubs and small trees, and is part of the Honeysuckle family. Most species of Sambucus are edible when ripe and cooked. However, most uncooked berries and other parts of the plant are poisonous. Sambucus nigra, the one I have planted and is flourishing in my garden, is the variety considered to be non-toxic, even when not cooked, and is most often used for health benefits. Several species are native to North America and Europe. The Black Elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis) is the one used by many Native American tribes: “Used traditionally in Native American herbalism, Elderberry has been used by many tribes as a tonic medicine and food to promote health and vitality, as well as to fight pain and swelling. Used to clear lungs and ease breathing and to fight rheumatism. The flowers and berries of the Elder plant are now being researched as herbal remedies for bacterial sinusitis, bronchitis, high cholesterol, and management of the flu.

Every part of the Elder tree can be used. I pick the flowers and infuse it into a tea. People also use the infusion in bathwater and as an eyewash. The leaves can be turned into an ointment, treating wounds and bruises (even haemorrhoids). The berries are delicious and there are many recipes that are dancing with goodness. The bark and branches have served in dyes, tool-making and insect repellents. If, for whatever reason you cannot plant Elders in your garden, or you don’t have a garden, don’t despair. I order dried, organic Elderberries online and make the soup out of that. The trees in my garden are still growing and developing.

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Like any plant that is used for medicine or culinary purposes, caution needs to be applied. Please inform yourself about allergies and side effects. Elderberries are not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women.

So, why not listen to the wisdom of Elders and try something new that comes with excellent health benefits? I respectfully disagree with zee French Soldier in the Monty Python’s Holy Grail. King Arthur was quite right in asking whether there was someone else he can talk to up there. To have your father smell of Elderberries, is after all, not really an insult!

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Addicted to a Different Type of Speed

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If someone asked me how I spent the last 25 years, I would have to say, “In a hurry.” That is not a statement I am really proud of. In fact, it is one of the things I deeply regret about the last two decades. My husband and I were married in 1986 and very involved in a larger faith community in Melbourne. Three children later and life continued to get more and more hectic. My husband was (and is) the Senior Minister of this church, and I was on staff fulfilling various roles. Everything moved fast. I never questioned this breakneck speed because in my mind this was all part of ‘God’s will’. This pace was also something I was used to from my childhood, where both parents worked and hurry was the norm.

It takes a very long time to become conscious of the fact that the way we charge through life at great haste, is not ideal. It takes even longer to begin to start to recover from this modern malaise. We eat fast, talk fast, walk fast, hit the elevator button twice and get irritated while waiting in traffic. We have become the experts in ‘multi-tasking’ and our conversations often center around how busy we are. Look around you, especially if you live in the city, notice how everyone seems to be doing life with a great sense of hurried urgency? Even in this ‘jolly’ Christmas season, tempers flare as shoppers are on a hurried hunt to find the ‘perfect’ presents for their loved ones.

Here is the bad news: this hurry thing is killing us. Hurry sickness has been defined as ‘a behaviour pattern characterised by continual rushing and anxiousness: an overwhelming and continual sense of urgency.’

time-92897_1920Do we tolerate this rather second-rate way of life because it takes us such a long time to be truly honest with ourselves? We believe the slogans that slick marketing machines throw at us. So we work harder and longer to buy more stuff that we don’t need. Stuff, that causes us untold anxiety as we work relentlessly in order to repay the debt that we owe on the stuff we don’t need. For a split second we get a feeling of ‘pleasure’ from our possessions and this, in turn, feeds hollow ideals of ‘happiness’. So we have successfully created a contemporary world of hurry-harrowed people with bling and zing … and empty lives. Our consumer habits have won the day, or as William Wordsworth put it: “Habit rules the unreflective soul.” Slowly, like Truman Burbank, we begin to wake up to our false hyper-reality and realise the trouble we are in. No wonder there’s such an enthusiastic move towards minimalism.

Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent years of her life working in palliative care. She outlines some of her reflections in a book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. The five regrets she listed were:
1. I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself to be happier.

The book is sobering. It serves as a reminder that these regrets share some common denominators. One of them is the speed at which we choose to live. There is little time for reflection, for mindfulness, or authenticity, when we don’t even have time to walk in the park. Just as speed is dangerous on the road, relentless speed through life kills the human heart. It turns us into a zombie life form and sometimes it is only a life crisis that wakes us up from this state.
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The great benefit of slowing down is reclaiming the time and tranquility to make meaningful connections — with people, with culture, with work, with nature, with our own bodies and minds,” writes Carl Honore. There is something about the discipline of slow that allows us to be truly human again. The popular Psalm 23 describes a Shepherd who leads his sheep by quiet waters and allows them to rest in green pastures. Unfortunately, this Psalm is often read at funerals, whereas it would serve much better as a reflection for the living.

It took me a long time to acknowledge that I was addicted to a different type of speed. Change was painful. But my life is different today. I have made choices that reflect my desire to live a more contemplative and attentive life. As a recovering hurry addict, I still at times hear the voices of my addiction. They try to tempt me back to that place. Sometimes they can be quite persuasive. But I have tasted a different life. It is in the ‘slow’ that I have learnt to see and it is in the unhurried that I have found joy. I don’t want to go back. So I have set some things in place that I practice. They include learning to listen more deeply, savouring the various moments throughout the day, expressing gratitude, saying ‘no’ without feeling guilty, freeing myself from religious cliches that promised life but brought ashes, throwing away unrealistic ‘to do’ lists and watching the sunset most evenings.

Friend, I am not here to tell you how to live your life. This blog is simply a tiny voice to point out that you have one magnificent life to live. Does your life truly reflect what you say you value? Maybe, like me, you have to make some changes – after all there’s a whole world of roses out there. Imagine if you didn’t make the time to smell even one?

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“A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor — such is my idea of happiness.” 

Leo Tolstoy