Author Archives: Nicole Conner

Anxiety and Eating Disorders: Tash’s Story

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In the previous blog post, I presented an introduction to anxiety disorders, which affect a large percentage of the general population. I would like to keep the conversation going in the hope of creating further awareness and chipping away at the ridiculous stigma that often
surrounds mental disorders.

Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental disorders in
Australia. One in four Australians will experience a form of anxiety
disorder in their lifetime. Eating disorders often go hand in hand with
anxiety disorders. In struggling with severe anxiety, for instance, being able to control an aspect of one’s life, such as food, weight, and exercise,
indirectly gives the sufferer a false sense of control.

In this post, I am interviewing my daughter, Natasha. Tash is 23. She is a vibrant, passionate, focused and determined woman – characteristics that were always there from an early age. She completed her Bachelor in Health Science with Honours and is currently pursuing a career as a chef. Tash went through an exceptionally difficult time as she struggled with anxiety that outworked itself in an eating disorder. As a family, we were totally unprepared and uneducated in dealing with this.

Several years on from this dark time in her life, she is now well on to the road to recovery. She was prepared to be interviewed for the same
reason I am blogging about this: to create awareness and help destroy the stigma. As a family that cherishes privacy, this has not been an easy post.

1. “Tash, when was the first time it dawned on you that you were struggling with anxiety disorder?” 

“I started dealing with anxiety during my first year out of high school. I was involved in two car accidents in a short period of time. It was the second car crash, only a few weeks after getting my driver’s license, that I slowly began to spiral and develop, what I now recognise as, an anxiety
disorder. In the years that followed the crash, I was conscious of my
anxiety, but I only became aware of it as a disorder when I
acknowledged my eating disorder. As mentioned, the two are often
interrelated.”

2. “Was there anything you think that triggered it?”

“The second car crash was when I began to unravel. However, I think this was merely the trigger, not the cause, of the disorders. Through my last three years in high school, I had repressed a lot. Not only was I repressing the death of my Oma and the near fatal car crash involving my brothers, I was repressing years of unrealistic expectations and forced beliefs/ideologies experienced in a religious church and education
system as a pastor’s daughter. These unrealistic expectations, projected upon me by systems and people (most of them well-meaning, I’m sure), burdened me with an ongoing sense of guilt and shame. I still struggle with this and, no doubt, it was also a key trigger in my anxiety and
eating disorder.

What I have learnt in my battle with anxiety and eating disorders is that triggers are different for everyone and in many situations there are
multiple triggers. My own experience, and also my studies in health at
university, showed me that a person’s traits and characteristics can also determine their likelihood of experiencing a mental illness. OCD and perfectionist tendencies are not uncommon in our family, and, in my non-healthy mental state, they became my enemy and drove me further into my disorders than I could ever imagine.”

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3. “How did it outwork in your life?”

“An eating disorder can be paralysing, suffocating and exhausting. I
consider myself a pretty rational, educated person, but when anxiety hits you, ‘reason’ does not help. Sometimes it hit me hard in the forms of panic attacks, where it felt like I couldn’t breathe. However, most of the time it was just this ongoing sense of dread that I just couldn’t shake. As an introvert, it also made me withdraw more from social events because being around some groups of people only made it worse. I obsessed over whatever was making me anxious and then I crashed emotionally once it had passed. My moods were often up and down and this affected my
relationships, even with my family. I would then feel anxious and guilty for being so moody towards them. I felt as if I was at war with myself, fighting a battle that no one understood.
 
4. Can you describe to people what goes on inside you when anxiety outworks itself in trying to gain control through eating/food?”

“Poor body image is often a trigger that comes to mind when you hear about someone with an eating disorder. My case was very different. My eating disorder stemmed from my anxiety. It was perpetuated through a need to control and a deep self-loathing from years of shame and guilt.”

“What made the combination of the two disorders so detrimental is the strain I put on my body from losing so much weight. I was completely
irrational, moody, cold and exhausted all the time. Battling an anxiety
disorder while being somewhat physically healthy is hard enough, but when your body is malnourished all it’s energy is focused on staying alive.”

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5. “What was helpful during this time?”

“When I was in the midst of it, I only spoke to my mum about it. At that time, I had no interest in talking to anyone else because I was in denial about how big of an issue it really was. I know now that this would have been quite a burden for her, but it was life saving for me. I knew she couldn’t ‘fix me’. I didn’t expect that. But she was there. She calmed me down when I was hysterical, rationalised with me when I was troubled, and celebrated with me in my triumphs. Most importantly, she didn’t give up on me despite probably feeling very hopeless and helpless many times. It wasn’t a quick and easy step, but eventually I came to accept what I was battling, and this was when I began building my support
system.”

“Once I had acknowledged my disorders, the most helpful, yet painful thing to do was talking about it. I remember telling my oldest brother over dinner. I was emotional, ashamed and embarrassed. I didn’t like showing vulnerability and I felt silly trying to explain what anxiety feels like, especially to my brother. He’s the least anxious person I know, but,
despite having no understanding of what it felt like, he recognised the
torment it put me through. He listened and comforted me. I walked away from that dinner as if I had taken my first breath of air after being
underwater for so long.

“Again, it didn’t happen overnight, I am a very private person, but I began to talk about my situation more with safe people from different walks of life. One of mum’s friends was a saving grace. She understood anxiety and she understood me. She encouraged me to talk to another one of her friends who went through a similar struggle growing up.”

“Eventually, I sought out professional help and that wasn’t without a few failures. I ended up seeing a friend’s doctor who specialised in mental health and it was one of the best things to happen to me. He gave me a proper diagnosis and helped me address it from a psychological and medical point of view. The ongoing support from my family and friends and the help from my doctor was the most helpful and significant step in my recovery.”

6. “What made you decide to seek help?”

“Although I didn’t talk about it for a while, my family and many of my friends could see something was wrong when I began losing so much weight. No one really understood what I was going through and no one said anything, mainly because they were worried I would react. It was an emotional, eye-opening moment when I realised how many people were so concerned about my health and drastic weight loss.”

“As important as a support system is, no one could help me make changes but me. I got to a place where the pain of living like this outweighed the fear and denial. I know of many other people’s situations that become so life-threatening that someone has to intervene. I’m thankful that I came to acknowledge my problem before it got to that state, but that didn’t mean that I was very proactive about seeking help. I wanted to deal with it myself and it felt like I was being dragged kicking and screaming at times. I certainly would not have persevered without the encouragement of my support system.”

7. “What was unhelpful during this time?”

“People trying to diagnose me by reading a book or something they have heard. Books are certainly helpful, but if you are not an expert don’t try and diagnose people from a book or random stuff you find on the
Internet.”

“Downplaying someone’s anxiety is not helpful and can cause great harm. I know that for people who have never experienced anxiety or eating disorders, it can all seem silly and unreasonable, but telling someone that is not helpful. Most of the time we know this and if it was as easy as just shaking it off, believe me, we would.”

Thank you so much, Tash, for being willing to share some of your story. What is a final thing you would like to say to anyone dealing with anxiety and/or eating disorders (or for that matter any mental disorders) reading this, who perhaps is concerned about any stigma/perception from the world around them? 

“Be hopeful about recovery and be kind to yourself in the process. Recovery is not easy and you will battle everyday between wanting to recover and wanting to stick to your habits. Don’t be disheartened. Whether it is an eating disorder or anxiety you are struggling with, there will be bad days and set backs and that is okay. Sometimes you just have to accept that it’s a setback sort of day and that it will be a new day tomorrow. Bad days don’t mean failure. If anything they can give you perspective on how far you have come. What’s important is that you keep choosing life, be kind to yourself and be patient.

The process is not easy either. I tried multiple methods including doctors, focus groups and self research. Many were hit and miss, but it was important that I continued to pursue recovery, even when these things weren’t always helpful.

I also had to let go of the idea that recovery meant going back to who I was before my disorders. I can’t promise you that life after recovery means you will never be anxious again or think about your food or weight. The difference is that you get to a point where you control the power they have over your life rather than them controlling you.”

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Let’s Talk about Anxiety

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Anxiety disorders are one of the most common class of mental disorders, affecting a large percentage of the general population. There are six main types of the disorder, including post-traumatic stress disorder,
phobias and panic disorder, and they tend to be more prevalent in women than men. Anxiety disorders affect 9.7% or 1.3 million adult
Australians
, from all walks of life. The causes of the disorder are likely to be complex. However, assistance and recovery is possible with
specialised treatment, education and support.

It is most unfortunate that even in this day and age, people with mental illness remain stigmatised around the globe. This stigmatisation can
result in sufferers not seeking the professional help that is available
because of the fear of rejection. It can also result in misdiagnosis and mismanagement: Misdiagnosis in not taking the symptoms seriously, which in turn results in mismanagement, as there is a reluctance to
investigate the symptoms fully.

Religious ideologies have played a major role in shaping the values and morals of many societies, including perceptions about mental illness. It is sad that patients who come from religious backgrounds are often the ones who fail to receive proper medical care. Although modern
Christianity has taken some steps forward in recognising and addressing mental health issues, including anxiety disorders, there is still a long way to go in recognition and education, as well as in discarding the
tendency to blame the victim.

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My experience with anxiety and anxiety disorders has been fairly minor and I operated out of sheer ignorance for many years. However, a few years ago my daughter developed an eating disorder, something which goes hand in hand with anxiety (an interview with her will be the focus of the next blog post). Suddenly, our family was confronted with the
relentless torment faced by so many people suffering from anxiety.

In retrospect, I would also say that my mother, who passed away suddenly in 2007, suffered from undiagnosed anxiety disorder all her life. As a young child she vividly recalled the horrors of World War II –
running to the bomb shelters, the sounds of Gestapo boots, and her
balcony being blown off by a bomb. Unfortunately, the hyper-vigilance that was part of her everyday life and pointed to post traumatic stress,
remained untreated. Anxiety disorders only began to be recognised in 1980.

Last year, I had to face  anxiety in my own life, which was a result of
bullying. Anxiety is difficult to describe. Everyone experiences it
differently. For me it felt little like being hopelessly tossed around by a giant wave, unable to gain footing or control, feeling like I will never come up for air. I recalled the naive ideas I held over the years and the imbecilic comments I had made – they came back to haunt me!

In this blog post, I simply wanted to present a short introduction to a
disorder that affects so many people. I want to make it very clear that I am not a therapist and I am only blogging my own observations and
experiences. The advice I would give to anyone suffering from anxiety is to seek professional help. You would think nothing about taking yourself to the hospital to have a broken arm tended to. Please do not allow
perceived or self-stigma
from seeking treatment and a better quality of life.

To the family members and friends of people suffering from anxiety
disorders, and anyone in a position of influence (social, religious, etc.), please do not shoot from the hip in ignorance. Educate yourself about
issues surrounding mental health and anxiety disorders. Keep updated and informed. Consider the words that come out of your mouth and be especially careful about silly, religious cliches, that are often simply
recycled, ignorant ideas from someone’s book who holds no qualifications. Instead, read some of the excellent and researched resources available and become proactive in establishing a safe and informed support system.

I finish with the words of blogger Heather Rayne:
 
Living with anxiety and/or depression can feel like constantly
trying to climb out of a deep, muddy hole with an armful of sandbags. Everything seems so much more difficult – even getting out of bed in the morning can be a monumental feat. The simplest tasks can be a dreaded challenge. Nobody
 wants to feel this way. And they are not doing this TO anyone. It is happening TO them and sadly, others are caught in the crossfire. But eventually the bullets will stop flying, the smoke will clear and blissful, fulfilling lives and relationships could appear just beyond the horizon. Together, it can be reached.”

Next Post: Tash’s Story – Recovering from Anxiety and Eating Disorders.

My 2016 Challenge to You: De-Clutter Your Life

I can imagine that this heading may create a fair amount of angst and protest amongst readers: “Are you kidding? Have you seen my cupboards? Have you seen my garage??” or “I will keep my clutter and I will keep lying by the pool!” I hear you. I am not suggesting that you spend all your precious free time turning your house upside down. Perhaps just try some simple steps into de-cluttering. Start with those cupboards that you cannot open because you could cause yourself injury as junk hits you on the head – the cupboard that you like to keep tightly shut. You may be surprised at what such a simple exercise as cleaning out a cupboard at a time can do to for the soul.

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We have come a long way from our nomadic ancestors, who spent most of their time on the move, carrying everything they owned. Nowadays, it is fashionable to purchase the largest possible house in order to store stuff. Stuff we seldom or never use. But we keep it … just in case! Hoarding stuff affects many humans, especially those in capitalist societies, relentlessly bombarded by clever marketing slogans, convincing us that we need even more than we already have. For some, the collecting of stuff has become a chronic problem and it can be totally debilitating. Stuff is not only cluttering our homes, it’s cluttering our soul.

These holidays, I started de-cluttering my cupboards – a habit passed on to me by both my mother and grandmother. Moving houses many times, including moving to different nations and continents, has made me more aware of humanity’s hamster tendencies. Yet I still fill boxes and suitcases with stuff: Clothes, kitchen utensils that I have never used, pots, old linen. It never ceases to amaze me how much stuff I manage to accumulate in a year! As I get older, I become more intolerant of stuff. I have noticed how little I actually need. I still fall for slick marketing ploys, but not nearly as often.

Something happens when you clean out cupboards. You have time to think. You make a conscious decision that you are not defined by your ‘haves’ or ‘have nots’. Rather, you realise that you are a pilgrim on this earth. You have one short, magnificent life to live. How sad when we allow stuff to burden us from being truly alive. When you clean out cupboards, you make a silent protest against a stealthy campaign that tries to convince you that you need all this clutter … and more. You don’t, dear friend, you really don’t. You are so much bigger than stuff and anyone who judges you by the quality of your stuff really is not worth your company. Perhaps that’s why Jesus always felt so sorry for rich people?

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Clearing clutter is an elixir for the soul. The enormous social move towards minimalism is an indication of how many people have discovered that de-cluttering your space has a mysterious effect on your emotional world. A de-cluttered space speaks of freedom. A de-cluttered space de-clutters the soul. When you de-clutter your environment, you begin to seriously question what else makes your life complicated. What habits, ideas and relationships keep you bound to the hamster wheel of the toxic familiar?

In 2016, don’t let stuff own you. Don’t permit yourself to be burdened by imagined social norms that continually demand of you to buy the latest, greatest, fastest or sleekest temporary piece of junk. Don’t allow yourself to continue in webs of toxicity. Discover the power of a de-cluttered life. Discover the joy of living simply, with little or no debt, and without the fear of getting your stuff stolen. Discover the joy of sleep and wonder that comes when we de-clutter our lives. For you, my friend, I pray the blessing of a simple life.
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Leaving 2015 behind …

Industries-in-2015-landing-page-imageIt is hard to believe that another year has come and gone. Maybe it’s because I am getting older, but it certainly feels like time is not just flying under the normal law of aerodynamics, but at the speed of light. I look at my children – wasn’t it just yesterday that they were running amok in toddlerhood bliss? Now they are all adults, ready for their own batch of freshly-baked toddlers (no, this is not a hint – just in case one of them is reading this blog!)

The end of a year on our Gregorian Calendar is celebrated with gusto in many nations. Fireworks mark the end of a year and ushers in the new. New Year Resolutions are as old as Babylon. They are most often discarded with the same haste that they have been made. New habits look fantastic on the 31st December and frightening on the 1st January, when the alarm goes off to remind you of your new jogging routine.

No matter how you view the end of a year, or whether you celebrate or not, it is a great time to do some deep inner work and shadow boxing. I know it is a luxury for many, but if you can find some time to reflect on the year that is gone, it will certainly be helpful on your future decision-making and the things that you say ‘yes’ to. So as you survey 2015, here are some starter questions:

1. What brought you joy?
2. What brought you pain?
3. How have you contributed to both?
4. Is there a pattern that you see between the two?
5. What do you regret and why?
6. How would you do things differently?

It is also helpful to explore the inner core – your values, your belief system, and how your actions and behaviour compare to who you really are. Our fast-paced social construct rarely allows time for these sort of uncomfortable, deeper musings. In a hurry-sick world, blame is the easy way out. Yet growth and change happens when we own who we are: Our thoughts, our behaviour and the decisions we make. The world owes us absolutely nothing – the sooner we can get rid of blame and a false sense of entitlement, the better!

We become conflicted when our inner values are violated. For example, we may say we value people, but if our role at work causes us to treat people as commodities, then we are continually violating what we claim to value. This causes inner conflict and stress. The end of a year provides a good time as any to press the ‘pause’ button and reflect on whether, for a myriad of reasons, we are violating our true self by not adhering to our value system.

At a recent retreat I took time to journal some thoughts on the year gone by. I reflected on what I value above other things and how I want to spend this second-half of life leaning more into this space. Here is a tiny snippet of my journal – I am sharing it to provide some ideas as you take time to reflect:

“In the future I will face many decisions. I want to make these decisions in line with my values, not just what seems good or beneficial on a surface level. I want to lean into my inner values:

– Quiet above Noise
– Kindness above Pragmatism
– Gentleness above Control
– Questions above Answers
– Wonder above Absolutes
– People above Ideals
– Honour above Shame
– Vulnerability above Ego
– Simplicity above Complexity ….”

The list goes on. I then used this list to evaluate some of the goals I hope to accomplish in 2016. No, not a 10 meter list of long-term, short-term goals – just a handful of goals. I want to learn from my values and from my history – from the year that was 2015. As I leave it behind, I want to look to the future remembering these lessons and reflections.
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What about you? As you leave 2015 behind, what do you want to take with you? What do you want to change? How do you want to change? And what will it take for you to become more aligned to your true self and the values that motivate you? Take the time to consider. Take the time to remember. Write them down and make them clear.

I know it is customary to wish people a Happy New Year and I do wish that for you. However, what is happiness? Is it found in more stuff? Promotions that require longer working hours? An ever increasing mortgage? I don’t think so. I think ‘happiness’ is found when we live authentically, with kindness and generosity towards others, when we do our part in making this world just a little bit better. It is that sort of ‘happiness’ that I wish for you, my friend.

Shalom.

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So it is Christmas …

 

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As a child, I loved Christmas. I loved the snow, ice skating on the frozen lake near our home, and the sled rides with my patient grandmother pulling me around our tiny North German village. I loved the smell of roasting almonds, of Stollen baking in the oven, and of spicy mulled wine. I loved the secrecy and whispers between my mum and dad, who would then glance at me and smile. I loved the wild and woolly German fairy tales, from Brothers Grimm to the stories my grandparents told of Christmas elves and monsters.

It would be many years later, as a teenager and now living in the Republic of South Africa, that I would first encounter the idea behind Christmas. The ridiculous and wild notion of a child being born in an oppressed Middle Eastern country. A child sent by God to bring hope and peace to this world. This child was born in poverty. His origin was frowned upon. His parents became refugees, as a king, mad with envy, sought his life.

Perhaps most stunning were the claims of his identity: the Son of God. Really? The Author of life would send his Son into poverty, cloaked in humility and utter frailty? This Son of God, who the Prophet called Immanuel … “With Us is God”… would bring peace?

Today, I peruse the news headlines of destitute people seeking refuge, of violent people from all parts of the world killing and maiming, of our wondrous planet being tortured by greed, with animals driven to extinction in record numbers. If this newborn was to bring peace, it doesn’t seem that evident. Am I meant to find comfort in the assumption that it is an ‘inner’ peace that this Christ child has brought? Should I not care about what feels awfully like a world spiralling out of control? As a youngster I loved Christmas, but as an adult it has lost some of its sparkle amidst existential despair. Sometimes I am simply riddled with doubt.

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I wonder about Christmas. A sleeping baby in a manger – not a celebrated General who can wage a ‘just’ war against our ‘enemies’. This humble figure who spoke of those on the margins being honoured – not a glorious genie-in-a-bottle, ready to bestow on us our best life now. This travelling rabbi, sharing some astonishing beliefs of a different kingdom – not some first-class politician able to promise all sorts of benefits to a gullible constituency. This child who became a man that exposed the fraudulent religious elite – not some superhero figure who used supernatural powers to create a happy society. Someone who did not hold on to power, even in the most difficult circumstances – not a power-hungry, border-secure, patriotic theocrat. Christmas is all about a defenceless baby. Can this child really inspire peace?

The peace that is ushered in with this tiny infant is not something that is laid upon us by a passive-aggressive deity. It is not the peace of an empire, forcefully imposed like Pax Romana. It seems like the path of peace has been shown to us in a manner that is so very foreign to an impatient and intolerant humanity. It is a peace that is forged with kindness, with humility, with compassion, with justice, with understanding. Most of all, it is a peace that is realised when we begin to recognise ourselves in the ‘other’, and that they, just like us, are made in the image of the Divine. It is a peace that comes to us through letting go, through sacrifice.

I no longer hold to my childhood Christmas fables, but I still smile at them. I have also discarded many of the uncritiqued ideas that I readily absorbed in my first-half-of-life, religious-zealot era. I still believe in Christmas with a happy-sad feeling. I believe that the little child in the manger is who He claimed to be. I believe that He is the path to peace, and every day we make decisions – individually, in a tribal sense, and in our collective global humanity, whether to follow the outrageous, counter-cultural claims of Christ. The path of peace has to be chosen every day.

So it is Christmas. I look around at the many photos friends are posting of their beautiful babies, and I recall this sleeping baby, carefully placed in a dirty feeding trough, many years ago. A baby who allows us to celebrate Advent, not just at Christmas, but every day. This Christmas child did bring hope to the world – the hope of a different tomorrow. I see it in certain moments: When courage overcomes fear, when kindness overcomes indifference, when joy overcomes despair, when love overcomes hate. When humanity rises beyond a survival mentality to truly love our ’neighbour’. In moments like this, I remember the promise of a child in a manger and I find peace.

Christmas can be a difficult time for many. Whatever your life and circumstances are right now, I trust you can take some time to reflect on this astounding event that unfolded in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago. May you find hope as you do. “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given … and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”

Shalom.
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Some Perfectly ‘Normal’ Christmas Traditions from Around the World

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Christmas is all about tradition – beliefs and customs that have been handed from one generation to the next, readily adopted without any question or comment. As a child, my family always had a ‘real’ Christmas tree, decorated with ‘real’ candles, that were lit on Christmas Eve so that the smell of pine needles would waft through the house. It was very, very confronting to visit my friend as an impressionable eight year old and for the first time discover a horrific intruder: The FAKE Christmas tree. How can you have a fake Christmas tree? With fake Christmas candles? Of course, years later I would have my own bogus shrubbery, because this counterfeit made life just a whole lot easier.

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My shock over the discovery of fraudulent firs was the result of not realising that other folk have different traditions. I assumed everyone celebrated Christmas like our family – the perfectly normal family with the normal, real Christmas tree. To this day,  people around the world celebrate Christmas in their very normal homes, thinking that everyone else will be doing exactly the same thing.

If you live in Ethiopia, you would shrug at the commotion that happens on the 24th and 25th December in some of the Western nations. Your Christmas is observed on the 7th of January and is called Ledet or Genna, stemming from the word Gennana which means ‘imminent’. You would be dressed in white and Christmas activities include a lot of dancing and games.

If you visit Slovakian relatives at Christmas time, there’s a great likelihood that you would have to wrangle the carp that is swimming in your bathtub into a bucket, before showering. Carp is  often on the Christmas menu and bought alive at the market. When you sit down for dinner on Christmas Eve, try not to act surprised when the father of the family casually throws a huge spoon of pudding at the ceiling. He is trying to ensure a bumper crop the following season. Remember, this is normal! Meanwhile, in neighbouring Ukraine, they have a whole love affair going with spiders, who, according to legend, spun beautiful webs on the Christmas tree of a poor family that could not afford to decorate it. Ever since Ukrainians decorate the Christmas trees with, you guessed it, masses of arachnids and webs … that would go down so well with some of my friends.

Then we have my tribe: The Germans. If we are not driving our cars at insane speeds on the Autobahn, or drinking copious amounts of beer, or designing some kick-ass new technology, we also like to traumatise our children. If Brothers Grimm doesn’t do it for you then just remind your wee offspring of ‘Knecht Ruprecht’, who is a sort of dark sidekick to Nikolaus (St. Nicholas). A charming, horned monster that scavenges around the countryside looking for the bad children to punish and then present them with a birch inKnecht Ruprecht[1]stead of presents. Other parts of Germany do not fancy Knecht Ruprecht. They prefer a delightful cherub called ‘Schwarzer Peter’ who carries a whip. Our Bavarian brothers and sisters, suffering from ‘Anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better’ syndrome, cover themselves in straw from head to toe on St. Nicholas day.
They cover their faces with fur masks and roam around Bechtesgadener Land with cow bells hanging from their waist to drive out evil spirits. This normal tradition is called ‘Buttnmandl’ run. On the 1st and 4th Sunday in Advent, in the same place, they dress up in Lederhosen and shoot thousands of rounds of ammunition into the air to awaken nature from its winter slumber … they are yet to analyse how effective this method really is.

Slide further south and our thrill-seeking Italian cousins like to ski down slopes carrying torches after Christmas midnight mass. They also don’t stop partying until the 6th January (the day of Epiphany) and finish up with a great feast (I love Italians!). Up north, our Norwegian friends hide their brooms on Christmas Eve, just in case a witch swipes it and take it for a joy ride. Frankly, I would not hide my broom – happy for them to have it and burn all the wheelies they like. It’s interesting that in Guatemala they can’t get enough of brooms on Christmas Eve. Neighbours sweep their houses, then create a sense of community by building a huge pile out of the combined dirt and burn an effigy of the devil on top of it.

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In Gävle, Sweden, patient folk have been building a Yule Goat every Christmas. Nearly every year the goat is destroyed by vandals, Volvo drivers (absolutely no surprise there) and arsonists (I suspect that would be the adrenaline-high, caffeinated witch on some stolen Norwegian broom). The peace-loving, non-assertive Brits, who hate to talk about war, have an age-old tradition of making sure every member of the family stirs the bubbling Christmas pudding in a clockwise direction, while making a wish. They also hide a silver coin in the pudding. This is a touching, nostalgic reminder of the sheer delight in the finding and keeping of treasure. But it’s Christmas – so the activity is limited to the pudding, not other nations.

donald_trump_2016_classic_design_with_photo_snowflake_pewter_christmas_ornament-re959202d654941b9bad1d8af1462f134_idxcc_8byvr_324donald_trump_2016_classic_design_with_photo_snowflake_pewter_christmas_ornament-re959202d654941b9bad1d8af1462f134_idxcc_8byvr_324*Sigh* … so much blog already, so many more countries. In China, people don’t really give a fig about Christmas, but they do give each other apples, because the Chinese words for ‘Christmas Eve’ is ‘Ping An Ye’ and the word for apple is ‘Ping Guo’ … the connection is obvious. In Japan, it is all too hard. You need to make reservations at Kentucky Fried Chicken so you can celebrate Christmas eating your tortured feather friends. Meanwhile, over in the US of A, people are reverently hanging their precious pewter Donald Trump Christmas Snowflake on the tree. That would be the tree that stands as a focal point in the house, right next to the safe filled with assault rifles, and the nativity scene of Middle Eastern Refugees seeking asylum.

And Australia? Well, we’re the lucky country, you see. We don’t give a rip about everybody else’s tradition. We are tough. In a global refugee crisis, we ‘store’ hapless humans on islands. And at Christmas we throw ourselves into the sea to find crustaceans that have run out of luck, and we throw them on the barbie. But don’t worry – our beaches are perfectly safe. We have a whole suppository of previous Prime Ministers who would don Speedos as a lifestyle choice, ready to defend this unsettled, or scarcely settled, nation against marauding lamnidae families … because “Shit happens!” All good, all perfectly normal.

Homo Sapiens do it again: We are the evolved, intelligent, normal species with wonderful traditions. Merry Christmas!

“One can never have enough socks,” said Dumbledore. “Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn’t get a single pair. People will insist on giving me books.”

– J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

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
o-come-Emmanuel
 

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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