Author Archives: Nicole Conner

The Way We Were

There is a deeper voice of God, which you must learn to hear and obey in the second half of life. It will sound an awful lot like the voices of risk, of trust, of surrender, of soul, of “common sense,” of destiny, of love, of an intimate stranger, of our deepest self … the true faith journey only begins at this point. Up to now everything is mere preparation.

Richard Rohr

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Have you ever played Jenga? The block-stacking game that really gets exciting when you start pulling out blocks while trying not to topple the tower? The idea, of course, is not to be the one that pulls out the block that causes the whole structure to fall.

jengaJenga is a perfect example of life. Our life narrative and experience, our family, people in positions of authority in our lives, friends, books, etc, all build up our belief structure and reality. They help frame our life, behaviour, and thoughts of who we are and the world around us. We all live with certain equations of understanding. Yet for each of us there will come a time when some of our jenga towers topple, when these equations no longer add up. Some of our tightly held beliefs are contradicted by life and reality. What helped build who we were in the first half of life, no longer carries us in the second half of life.Colombia-Peru-Jenga1

Richard Rohr calls these jenga block structures our ‘loyal soldiers’ – and there comes a time when we have to learn to dismiss them. When we come to necessary endings. When the tower topples and it’s ok. When we move from ‘ego centric’ to ‘soul centric’:

In post World War II Japan some Japanese communities had the savvy to understand that many of their returning soldiers were not fit or prepared to re-enter civil or humane society. Their only identity for their formative years had been to be a ‘loyal soldier’ to their country; they needed a broader identity to once again rejoin their communities as useful citizens.”

“So these Japanese communities created a communal ritual whereby a soldier was publicly thanked and praised effusively for his service to the people. After this was done at great length, an elder would stand and announce with authority something to this effect: ‘The war is now over! The community needs you to let go of what has served you and served us well up to now. The community needs you to return as a man, a citizen, and something beyond a soldier.’ We call this process ‘discharging your loyal soldier.'”

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In 2009, I wrote a piece that helped me put words to my Jenga experience of the previous several yearsSome of my tightly held ideologies, especially concerning my faith, had fallen on their face. What followed were seasons of unease, discomfort and pain – yet now I would not change any of it. It was time to let go of some of my ‘loyal soldiers’. So here is that piece, dedicated to all whose carefully crafted Jenga Tower has toppled. To let you know that you are not alone, that there is a whole army of toppled Jenga tower survivors who are now thriving,   and to assure you that the Grace that has carried you through your first half of life is still sufficient in this new place:

The Way We Were

When I look back over my life I realise how much I have changed in thought and theology. The journey of life is certainly never boring! And the journey, in and of itself, is probably one of the main things God uses to reveal himself to us.

There was a time when I actually thought God was in sensationalism – in the goose bumps, and the atmosphere of certain songs; nowadays I see him far more clearly in the slums and the ordinary.

There was a time when I thought that the mountaintop is the right and nirvana of every Christian; nowadays I see His footprints in the muddy paths of very dark valleys.

There was a time when I thought that I had clearly mastered and understood most major doctrinal truths; nowadays I walk with a lot more contradiction as I face the fact of how little I really know.

There was a time when my god could comfortably fit into a safe box, or on a flannel board, and he would make everyone smile; nowadays I am content to simply recognise that what I worshipped was a god the way I wanted him, not the God who said his ways and thoughts are beyond mine.

There was a time when I thought triumphant victory was the reward of the strong and courageous; nowadays I feel more at home with failure, and a recognition that God is not freaked out by it either (the freaked out god belonged on my flannel board).

There was a time when I thought that suffering was a strange phenomena; now I stand at the foot of a bloody cross and wonder “what the hell was I thinking?”

There was a time when I thought God depended on my prayers; nowadays I continually pray in the face of my own helplessness.

There was a time when I looked for miracles in the supernatural and gobstopping; nowadays I realise every breath of life is a miracle and gobstopping.

There was a time when I thought that friends should be found in the community of the triumphant and all-together ones; nowadays I feel very at home with sinners, mainly because my own sinfulness stares me in the face.

There was a time when I thought God had cursed the lepers in our community; nowadays I realise He is the leper that our Christian communities often curse.

Change is painful. Pain causes us to wake up to the matrix, once woken we really don’t want to go back …

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Confessions of a Bibliophile

“There is no friend as loyal as a book”

Ernest Hemingway

I am an only child. From time to time people ask whether I missed having brothers or sisters. This is rather a peculiar question. It’s like asking someone who has never tasted eggs whether they miss quiche. In short, no. I did not miss having brothers or sisters. I am sure siblings are a marvellous treat for those who possess them, but I didn’t, and so I never missed them the slightest. How can you miss annoying homo sapiens that you have to share things with? Imagine if I had to share my books?!

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My obsession with books started at an early age. Amongst my collection of childhood books I specifically remember an ancient edition of Grimm’s Fairytales that sat on my bedside table. It was printed in Old German Fraktur font. Both my Omas could read the book at lightning speed. My book collection grew as my reading skills developed; from books on animals to old castles, fairy tales, poetry, children’s novels, and, of course, the whole collection of Asterix & Obelix. When we migrated to South Africa I learnt English and Afrikaans. This opened up a whole new set of books! I distinctly recall the first time I read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, and bawling my way through Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. There are some books that haunt us for a lifetime.

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Providence would have it that my path would cross with a rather tall redhead, whose love for books matched mine. He considered browsing through encyclopedias a favourite pastime in his childhood. It was a match made in heaven. The lack of a shared ‘book love’ would have most certainly been a deal breaker. So between us, we started collecting a humungous amount of books. All sorts of books. “Read all sorts of books that wound and stab us,” advises Franz Kafka (The Metamorphosis). This is good advice. Books open our thoughts and hearts. They take us to a different world and for a moment we can become part of a fantastic adventure. “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only one.” (A Dance with DragonsGeorge R.R. Martin).

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It would be extremely difficult for me to list the most important books to read or my most favourite books. That would feel like I am selling out on old friends by comparing their worthiness or value. I have, however, thrown out a bunch of stupid books. Most often, modern-day schmuck about how to be better in leading, speaking, praying, or peeing – yeah, the self-help genre is my least favourite. *Rant Alert*: self-help books remind me of people who have discovered some gold (to their credit), but now they are convinced that the whole frigging world will discover gold in the same place, at the same time, with the same set of tools if they dig in just the right way, whilst chanting mantras. Yes, I know, it’s an awful generalisation and I probably just managed to offend some of my blog readers … but it is a pet peeve.

Now if you are a bibliophile, or more importantly, if you have a bibliophile living under your roof, the following observations may be very helpful:

  1. Bibliophiles feel lost without books. The Apostle Paul is in a dark, damp Roman prison, writing a letter to Timothy. “Bring my cloak,” he says (ver5127556-ancient-map-scroll-Stock-Photo-map-pirate-parchmenty important), “and my scrolls, especially the parchments” (most important). Who would have thought that Paul was a bibliophile? He was having massive withdrawals from his ‘books’ (2 Tim. 4:13).
  2. Bibliophiles will take great joy in ‘cleaning’ their bookshelves. Think it nothing strange if your book addict declares they will sort their books and then spend hours taking every book off the shelf, gazing lovingly at it, cleaning the shelves, and then putting them all back in a different order. If you are lucky, they emerge with one or two books that can be given away … you never really throw away books, unless they are extremely stupid books (please refer to ‘rant’ section above).
  3. You will often lose bibliophiles when you shop – they can be retrieved from the nearest book320px-Carl_Spitzweg_021shop. If, however, that bookshop is a second-hand bookshop, you have zero chance of getting them out of there in less than three hours.
  4. Bibliophiles will judge you. They will not judge you on your clothes, looks, education, house,beauty-and-the-beast-belle-book-books-Favim.com-616270.jpg food or pet. They will judge you on your bookshelf and on the books you are reading. Prepare for judgment.
  5. They press rewind every time the Beast unveils the library in Beauty and the Beast.
  6. Most often introverted, bibliophiles are happy for you to jabber on about all things regarding ‘normal’ life until it comes to books. God help you if you misquote a book. God help you if you make a derogative comment about a classic novel. God help you if you do not ask them at that time what they are reading and why. To be forewarned is to live in harmony.
  7. Bibliophiles will have certain books they read repeatedly. This is a most bizarre behaviour for anyone who is not a book addict. It’s really hard to explain why we do this. Perhaps it has to do with relieving the experience or the feeling we received from reading the book, or simply to make triply sure that we did not miss a minute detail of the story. My repeat reads include Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin GospelRichard Rohr’s, Breathing Underwater, and, of course, Tolkien’s, Lord of the Rings.

book-61So, mugwumps, who of you want to raise your hands and join me in my book addiction confession moment? What books are you reading right now? Oh, and is this a good time for me to tell you what I am reading? I thought you’d never ask! On the novel side I am ploughing my way through Philippa Gregory’s excellent historical novel series, The Cousins’ WarI love historical novels and Gregory is an outstanding writer as she sheds light on the three important women of the Wars of the Roses. I am also re-reading David Gushee’s book, Changing our Mind. Gushee is the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. Widely regarded as one of the leading moral voices in American Christianity, he is the author or editor of 20 books and hundreds of articles in his field, including Righteous Gentiles of the HolocaustKingdom EthicsThe Sacredness of Human Life, and, most recently, Changing Our Mind. What a read! Here’s a quote: “Better is one day in the company of those bullied by Christians but loved by Jesus than thousands in the company of those wielding scripture to harm the weak and defenceless.” (Review)

Yes, I am afraid I am a bibliophile. I love big books and I cannot lie. But now it’s your turn – what books are you reading and what do you love/hate about them?

“When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” 

Desiderius Erasmus

 

 

In Honour of the Humble Nasturtium

Nasturtiums, who coloured you, you wonderful, glowing things? You must have been fashioned out of summer sunsets.

Lucy Laud Montgomery

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It has been nearly six years since we moved into our newly built home in the countryside. I remember looking at the scraped clay all around the house, the many slopes and awkward corners, and thinking what a daunting task lay ahead in the shaping and establishing of a garden. Today, as I sit in my office and look out the window, I see a mass of flowers and trees, with king parrots and tiny finches flitting through the branches. One of the most prominent colours in this garden of mine is orange. The cheery faces of nasturtiums smile at me from every corner. You see, when I set out to plant my garden, I bought 5 packets of nasturtium seeds, and this turned out to be one of the best, cheapest, most rewarding garden decisions I made.

2014-11-19 15.55.56A local with his/her nasturtium home.

Nasturtiums have delighted both gardeners and cooks for centuries. They bear the botanical name Tropaeolum majus, meaning prize or trophy. The ones you find in most gardens today descend from mainly two species native to Peru. According to Jesuit missionaries, the Incas used nasturtiums as a salad vegetable and medicinal herb. They were introduced to Europe by Spanish conquistadors in the late 15th century and became known as Indian Cress or ‘Capucine‘ cress, as the flower shape resembled the hooded robes of Capucine monks. Leaves and flowers were consumed in salads, and the unripe seeds and flower buds were pickled and served as a substitute for capers. From Europe they made their way to North America as early as 1759 and into Thomas Jefferson’s garden. He listed them as a fruit, along with tomatoes.

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Nasturtiums are happy flowers. My mother had a German word to describe the ‘attitude’ of these sort of plants – she said they were dankbar, meaning they were grateful or thankful. They grow nearly anywhere in Australia, even the most terrible soil does not seem to daunt them. However, they take exception to the very cold mountain ranges. If space is limited they will trail over pots on a balcony. Not only do they look magnificent and make you smile, they are seriously good food.

These humble super plants provide significant amounts of Vitamin C, B vitamins, iron, calcium, phosphorus, manganese, flavonoids and carotenoids. They are an immunity booster and medicinally they have been known to break down congestion, provide relief from colds, encourage the formation of blood cells, and they can be used as a blood purifier. Historically, they have been used to treat liver, kidney, bladder and skin disorders. They are an expectorant, as well as an antibiotic, anti-fungal and antiseptic. It’s very easy to make an infusion. As they promote menstruation, they are NOT SUITABLE FOR PREGNANT WOMEN.

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Even the pug has developed a love for nasturtiums!

But there’s more! Nasturtium seeds can be made into an oil and used to varnish furniture. In the garden the trailing plants form outstanding living mulch, reduce weeds and retain soil moisture. I plant them around fruit bearing trees and my veggie patches, as they repel pests such as mites and aphids. They attract bees and secrete an essence into the soil that is absorbed by other plants, helping them to resist pests and disease.

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So, folks, what are you waiting for? Plant some nasturtiums and fall in love with these green friends.

Nasturtium Vinegar

1 cup nasturtium leaves, flowers, and buds

1 pint champagne or white wine vinegar

Place the ingredients in a clean, clear glass jar or bottle. Tightly seal. Let sit for at least 3 weeks before using. Place a new nasturtium in the finished bottle for decoration, but you should make sure the vinegar always covers the flowers or they will mould. Makes 1 pint of vinegar to use in salads, sauces, and flavouring in other dishes.

Nasturtium Salad

2 nasturtium flowers per person, washed and dried
cream cheese (depending on how many flower heads)
black pepper, freshly ground
2-3 cloves garlic
1 small kos lettuce
½ red radicchio lettuce
4 tomatoes, roughly chopped
4 spring onions cut thinly into slivers
1 tbsp capers
black olives
fresh parsley sprigs to decorate
white wine vinegar
olive oil
Method
Mix the cream cheese with the garlic and freshly ground black pepper, then stuff the flowers with it.
Use whole leaves of the lettuces and decorate with other salad ingredients.
Mix 2 parts olive oil to 1 part white wine vinegar.
Add herbs or a little red chilli powder, or cayenne or paprika according to your preference.
Shake well and use as a salad dressing.
Top with the stuffed flowers.
…or just use your imagination…
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The ‘Others’: Ideas that Shape Australia’s Attitude and Policies on Asylum Seekers

This past week our world was again reminded of the stark and devastating reality that we are facing a crisis of displaced people, due to war and natural disasters, unparalleled since World War Two. The image of a tiny Syrian boy, drowned at sea whilst seeking refuge, whose body had washed up on the idyllic shores of the Turkish resort town, Bodrum, sent shock waves through the global village. Tony Abbott, the current Australian Prime Minister, in his rather predictable manner, used this heart-wrenching moment to drive home his political ‘tough stance‘ on asylum seekers: “I would say, if you want to stop the drownings you’ve got to stop the boats.” As many parts of the world are frantically seeking to adjust in order to help a multitude of destitute and vulnerable people, Australia continues to take an austere approach to those seeking asylum, drawing harsh criticism.

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Australia’s current policies and attitude towards asylum seekers is built on a certain set of ideas. Ideologies that have developed over time, and which originated amidst the hardship, scarcity and survival fears experienced by the first European settlers. Ideologies are all about a set of beliefs about the proper order of society. Shared ideologies communicate beliefs, opinions and values of a particular social group, society or nation. So what are some of the ideas that have shaped the Australian collective psyche and causes so many people to support the extremely harsh measures towards ‘boat people’?

I would contend that there are four major propositions that have shaped Australia’s social conscience towards asylum seekers. Unless we find ways to address these deeply embedded paradigms we will not see a change of the current felt antagonism and indifference. Following is a brief summary of the ‘Big Four’ that politicians and those in power have used for their advantage (a link to a full discussion paper is provided below):

1. Nationalism

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Two foundational blocks upheld Australia’s imagined ideals of  nationalism. Firstly, the refusal of colonisers to recognise the Traditional Owners of the land. European settlers declared Australia  terra nullis on their arrival, dismissing the many Aboriginal tribes as barbaric and entirely destitute of even the rudest forms of civil policy. Henry Reynolds estimated that at least 20,000 Aboriginal people died as a result of white settler genocide. The full degree of atrocities will never be fully known. Yet Australia continues to celebrate its National Day on a day of mourning for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – the celebration of a race at the expense of another.

Secondly, they saw themselves very much part of the British Empire and the ‘British race’. These perceptions continue to linger to this day.  Recently reinforced by Tony Abbott when he addressed the Australian-Melbourne Institute of Economic and Social Outlook: “Our country is unimaginable without foreign investment. I guess our country owes its existence to a form of foreign investment by the British government in the then unsettled, or, um, scarcely settled, Great South Land.

Nationalist ideologies that are built on Anglo-Celtic ideals do not bode well for those seeking asylum on Australian shores as they create negative imagery of ‘otherness’.

2. Racism

In 1901, the new Federal Parliament passed the now infamous Immigration Restriction Act, excluding all non-European migrants. It became the foundation of the ‘White Australia’ Policy. This policy would shape Australian national imagination for the next six decades as it sketched images of the ‘ideal’ Australian citizen that would fit with Australia’s national character. Racism is a most effective political tool in that it enables the material and intellectual fear and greed of dominant groups.

In modern times, the racist rhetoric of Pauline Hanson resonated with a nation that held a deep-seated ideology from its settler inception. John Howard seized the election opportunity to fuel the fear of economic competition and fear of the ‘other’ by successfully dehumanising those seeking refuge. This dehumanising exercise was executed to perfection by creating slanderous lies of Middle Eastern asylums seekers supposedly throwing their children overboard in order to be towed to the safety of Australian waters in October 2001. He said: ‘I don’t want, in Australia, people who throw their children into the sea.’ Despite the warning of the falsehood of these allegations by navy personnel, both Howar1346432400000d and the Defense Minister, Peter Reith, stuck to this distorted version until after the 2002 election. Hugh Mackay observed that, “the ‘children overboard’ incident…shows us how vulnerable Australians have become to political spin.” I would argue that the vulnerability of the Australian society to racist spin is a direct
result of racist conditioning and ideology; an ideology that continues to shape the attitude and policies of both sides of government in a race towards the bottom when it comes to asylum seekers.

3. National Security

National security ideology and attitude towards asylum seekers hold a close connection in a country that nurtures fears of invasion and economic competition. In a global context of economic and social mobility that has laid waste to financial security, paranoid Australians look to the government to protect them and provide assurance. National security rhetoric therefore holds appeal for any government seeking legitimacy and approval. The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., on 11 September 2001, provided an opportunity for the Howard government to not only suggest that some who sought to come to Australia ‘illegally’ had criminal records, but that terrorists might have been smuggled on the boats. Racist ideas may have been a key factor in the Tampa crisis, australia-653164_1280but it is the intertwined ideas surrounding security in those circumstances that robs people of agency, choice and freedom. In cases like Tampa or the World Trade Centre attack, citizens look to their leaders for guidance and assurance, and if they believe their security is at risk they will accede to ideologies based in fear and prejudice. By alluding to asylum seekers as security threats the government was, and is, able to portray a defence of autonomy and sovereignty, while turning society into pliable and passive subjects.

4. Insularity

In 1937, Arthur Henderson, a British Labour member of the House of Commons, visited Australia and New Zealand. He criticised how geographical insularity had created a feeling amongst Australians that they were so far from the rest of the world affairs that they need not bother over them.

Suvendrini Perera probes the effect of geographical insularity on Australian thought and identity, linking it directly to historical violence in order to impose white insularity and exclus640x392_55457_152696ivism: “The plotting of Australia as an insular formation both expels the ‘foreign’ bodies around its edges and encloses Indigenous peoples more closely within clearly demarcated borders.” She forms a strong case to demonstrate that it is ideas of insularity, sustained by colonial myths of terra nullis and ‘Robinsonian fantasies’, that undergird the violence, racism and exclusion that are at work in events such as the Tampa crisis or the brutality of detention centres.

In conclusion, ideologies shape a nation’s policies and worldview. Modern day Australia has a constructed set of ideologies still inherent in its convict past. These shared perceptions have been shaped through hardship and survival fears, and propagated through political rhetoric and mass media. Last week we saw the horrendous image of a little boy, representing thousands of refugees, who lost his life trying to find a better tomorrow. Australia cannot continue this path of national delusion and escapism. We have to lay aside ideological fallacies, step up and become responsible global citizens.

(Read the complete document: “The ‘Others’: How have ideologies, shaped by Nationalism, Racism, Insularity and National Security, influenced current Australian attitude and policies towards ‘Boat People’?”)

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For the Love of Bread

I love bread. There is something about the smell and taste of freshly baked bread that turns me into a three year old doing a happy dance. In my German tradition we shared Abendbrot (literally translated ‘evening bread’). The very word ushers in memories of sharing the last meal of the day with my parents, sIMG_1178eated around a small table in our old farmhouse in northern Germany. Bread was always the centrepiece of Abendbrot. Not just any bread, it had to be Schwarzbrot (‘Black bread’), made without yeast, full of grains and rye – tough, austere and delicious. Over the years, as we moved between countries and continents, there was always a rush to discover a shop that would sell somewhat of an equivalent to this  cultural comfort food. This simple bread brought to our family a sense of identity, reminding us of who we are, and tying us to our past and tradition.

There is something about bread that reaches beyond barriers of culture and language. Humans find connection in the making and breaking of bread. In our fast-paced, instant society, bread creates a sense of shalom, a sense of togetherness. There is nothing ‘hurried’ about well-made bread. Bread brings a sense of comfort. “All sororws are less with bread,” said Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. The smell of baking bread brings a sense of joy and innocence.

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Bread speaks of welcome. “A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou,” wrote Omar Khayyam, the great Persian philosopher and poet. Bread is symbolic. It features in many faith traditions including Judaism and Christianity. As a follower of Christ I am reminded that he said, “I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will not hunger.” Bread is about sharing our stories and lives.

So on this day, dear reader, I share with you the blessing of bread and a very unconventional recipe. If you choose to take the 9 day journey of creating it, may you practice mindfulness. Remember amidst the many sorrows that we absorb every day in our world, there is also much good. And for a moment we celebrate that good and we are grateful.

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My father’s idea of Sour Rye Bread: Dedicated to man who always bode welcome to the stranger and taught me the importance of ‘sharing bread’.

You will need 100% rye flour – I purchase mine online in bulk. The water I use comes from our rainwater tanks. The difference in using this pure water in the making of bread, kefir and kombucha is remarkable.

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Day 1: Take 3 heaped tablespoons of the flour, place in a glass jar and add enough  warm, pure water to create a thickened cream consistency. Place the lid loosely on the jar and keep in a warm spot.

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Day 2: Check on the contents towards the end of the day. You should be able to see some small bubbles starting to form.

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Day 3. Add another teaspoon of rye flour. Stir and smell the mixture. It should start to smell slightly sour. If it smells ‘rotten’, start again! Something has gone wrong in the souring process.

Day 4: Check on the contents … bubbles, smelling sour.

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Day 5: Add another teaspoon of rye flour.

Day 6: Take 400gm of rye flour in a glass or steel bowl. Make a well in the middle and add your sour leaven, covering the top with some of the rye flour. Cover bowl with moist cloth and keep in a warm spot.

Day 7: Add enough warm water to create a very thick dough. Add your seeds/kibbles then cover with moist cloth and keep in a warm spot.

Day 8: Kneed the mixture, adding more rye or water, if necessary. Remember to keep the cloth over the bowl moist.

Day 9:  Knead mixture and add 2-3 teaspoons of Celtic Sea Salt. Let it rise for a few hours. Prepare bread tin, put mixture in tin and allow to rise again. Bake in 180C oven for 35 minutes (top should be golden brown).

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 Enjoy!

 

Of course I’m a Feminist!

 

woman-850525_1280“Feminism isn’t about making women stronger. Women are already strong. It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength.” – G.D. Anderson

I am a feminist. No, that does not mean I hate men. In fact some of the most influential people in my life have been, and are, men. No, I haven’t burnt a bra, but looking at my collection that sounds like a really awesome idea (out of interest, there is ample myth behind the much-peddled stories of ‘bra burners’). And, no, I do not buy into the rhetoric of extremism, which includes conservative fundamentalism that shrouds itself in religion and espouses ideas about a woman’s place/role in society. Recently Calvinist Baptist speaker, John Piper, offered his opinion about women in the workplace and what role women should or should not aspire to?! Women’s work roles, according to Mr. Piper, should be preferably ‘non-directional and non-personal’ towards men, so as not to ‘compromise profound biblical and psychological issues’! Just … no … words … Folk like Piper also have set ideas about what it means to embody the feminine way of life, using the Bible as a means to authorise their fundamentalist perceptions. Thankfully, these types of gender ideas draw critique and protest from a variety of camps. Trust me, I know the speel of people like Piper. Years ago I even tried to adhere to their notions … but not very successfully. It felt a bit like dancing the salsa with concrete platform heels! But the purpose of this post is not to discuss the mind numbing thoughts of gender roles from patriarchal Praetorians, but rather, to offer a very brief history of the women’s movement and why we need feminism more than ever.  We seem to be taking backward steps: “Reassertions of an idealised past and a restored ‘women’s place’ are occurring, from Kabul to Cambridge, at a time when the international community has concurred that women’s rights are a global good.” – Kavita Ramdas

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I firmly believe in equal rights and legal protection for women. There exists diverse sociological and philosophical theories that drive advocates to campaign for the rights of women in political, cultural and economical spheres. Feminism can be viewed as ‘social’ history, but the primary feminist claims are political, and therefore it is better considered a gendered narrative of political history.

MTE5NTU2MzE2MTg0MDg2MDI3One of the great pioneers of the feminist movement was the french poet and author, Christine de Pisan (1364-1430). According to Simone de Beauvoir it was “the first time we see a woman take up her pen in defence of her sex.” Christine’s most revolutionary work included, Epistre au dieu d’amour, in which she discusses and critiques society and the status of women. But it was La cité des dames (1405) that profiled her as one of the pioneers of the women’s rights movement in history.

Feminism, as an organised movement(s), fighting for the equality of women, has been active for well over 100 years. Historically, the movement has been described in ‘waves’. The first wave feminists focused their struggles primarily on gaining legal rights such as the right to vote (women’s suffrage) and property rights. The second  wave feminists focused on a broad range of issues in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, including discrimination in the workplace. The third wave feminism arose in the 1990’s primarily because of the backlash and perceived failures of initiatives created by the second wave feminism. Less galvanised over issues than the previous two waves, the the third wave enlisted women from every age, race and class, as equality was anything but realised.

When I look around the globe today I am deeply grateful of the difference women and men who have gone before us have made in paving the way for women’s rights. Yet we also recognise that each generation needs to take up the cause for a better tomorrow for we have a long way to go:

  • Every 90 seconds a woman dies during pregnancy or childbirth. Most of these deaths are preventable, but due to gender-based discrimination many women are not given the proper education or care they need.
  • As many as 1 in 4 women experience physical or sexual violence during pregnancy.
  • Women make up 80% of all refugees and displaced people. Instruments of genocide such as sexual violence and rape are often directed at women and girls.
  • Women are seldom included in formal peace processes. Women are usually not represented among decision-makers and military leaders, the usual participants in these processes.
  • As of January 2012, women held 15.1% of all presiding officer posts in governments in the world.
  • More than 16.4 million women in the world have HIV/AIDS.
  • The US government estimates that 600,00 to 800,000 victims (mostly women and children) are trafficked globally each year, and 14,500 to 17,500 are trafficked into the US.
  • Women account for 70% of the population living in absolute poverty (on less than $1.00 per day).
  • Over 60 million girls worldwide are child brides, married before the age of 18.
  • 603 million women live in countries where domestic violence is not yet considered a crime. (SOURCE)

Here is an interactive link providing information about women’s rights country by country.

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Historically, Australia was somewhat progressive when it came to women’s rights. Shortly after the Federation the government passed an act to allow women to both vote and stand in the 1903 Federal Election. It was the first country to allow women to run for Parliament. Sadly, Indigenous women were not given the vote until 1962. On that point, Australian feminists need to broaden the narrow constructs of predominantly ‘white’ equality and include racial equality. There must be intersectionality in feminism to ensure no one is left behind in the conversations.

Today, violence against women is one of the most widespread human rights violations in Australia, with one in three women over the age of 15 having experienced physical or sexual violence. Discrimination is the source of this violence, and there is growing pressure on the government to adopt preventative and protective measures, and to prosecute and punish perpetrators. Women in Australia also remain significantly underrepresented on boards and at senior management levels and the gender pay gap continues to widen, with women earning on average 82 cents in the male dollar.

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Yes, there is much work to be done both on this sunny isle and abroad. The oppression of women is not an unfortunate aberration, but is systemically entrenched in culture and society, reinforced and powered by patriarchy (which interestingly undergirds the 3 dominant religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam … but that discussion will await a future blog post). The next set of feminists have their work cut out for them as they seek to challenge patriarchal notions and continue to advance women’s rights. But we stand on the shoulders of giants, people who toiled endlessly and refused to bow to injustice. I honour their memory today. And, yes, of course I’m a feminist. It would be ludicrous to live a life claiming the benefits of relative freedom that others have forged without making every effort to contribute to a better tomorrow for women.

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Origins

In a few months time I will be trekking via a hellhole, known as economy class, to the home of my patriarchal ancestors. I will be visiting a part of Poland which was once known as East Prussia. Arriving in Warsaw, the beloved and I will hire a car and navigate the Polish roads to the city of Elk, once known as Lyck. It was here, around 1944, that all sorts of horrendous dramas unfolded for my grandmother and her children as they fled the Red Army at the end of WW2 (my grandfather had died in the battle of Stalingrad).

IMG_0152 (1) My grandparents: Ilse & Leo Meyer

I have found the genealogical research a very troublesome process, not just because of the countless documents that have been destroyed. It has also been difficult to read the heart wrenching, historical narrative of desperate people caught up in the horrors of WW2, no matter what ‘side’ they were from.  The more I dig, the more I wonder: “Why am I doing this?” Hours of work may result, if I am fortunate, with a minuscule detail of information that may or may not further the progress of discovering some of my heritage.

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My research took me to a “Church of ‘Jesus Christ’ of Latter Day Saints” near my home, which provides access to thousands of documents to assist those tracing the footsteps of their ancestors. I was welcomed by a lady who bore an uncanny resemblance to Professor Trelawney. In the course of conversation she mentioned that she spends nearly every day of the week here and has managed to trace her family history to the 7th century. It was a strange conversation as she gushed forth detailed information about her lineage with that mad gleam of a genealogical zealot in her eyes; eyes that were boring into my soul, wanting me to grasp the magnitude of the importance of her obsession. Desperately trying to remain interested I kept being distracted by the giant teacup by her computer, wondering whether there were traces of tealeaves at the bottom? In my head I was thinking, “A friggin’ name, lady, I am just after one elusive name.”

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So what exactly drives someone like this charming, ancestral extremist to embark on this magnitude of research? And what has made genealogical research one of the most popular hobbies and a global phenomenon?

The fascination with our lineage seems to go back into antiquity. Some have argued that it is a sense of feeling connected to others that is the motivation behind the hours of research work. Eviatar Zerubavel, in his book, ‘Ancestors & Relatives: Genealogy, Identity and Community’, challenges the way we look at genealogy. Rather than simply documenting who our ancestors were, it is a process of constructing a narrative to link ourselves to our ancestors.

Genealogies, he argues, aren’t simply a straightforward account of our ancestries, rather they are the heavily curated social constructions of our imagined values.”No other animals have ‘second cousins once removed,'” Zerubavel points out, “or are aware of having had great-great-great-grandparents”. Only humans have the ability to expand family trees and accrue large numbers of ‘optional’ relatives. We construct our genealogies by choosing, out of a nearly endless array of possibly important or interesting ancestors, the ones who matter to us.

So is our search for origin simply a search for meaning? And do we use distant relatives to construct a narrative that in some way feeds the need to discover meaning in our lives?  I would say this idea certainly plays a factor into my research. That, and sheer curiosity. If Zerubavel is correct in his argument, then is it any wonder in a world of disconnection, suspicion and tribal disintergration, people take to studying their ancestors – looking for stories that bring meaning to existence? Do genealogical studies provide a little bit of comfort for the existential angst that gnaws in each of us? And perhaps that is why, generally speaking, we have a love affair with fairytales? Because like our own historical narrative, they help us dream and imagine stories of greatness and mystery.

Since water still flows, though we cut it with swords,
And sorrow returns, though we drown it with wine,
Since the world can in no way satisfy our cravings,
Let us loosen our hair tomorrow and go fishing. 

–Li Po

Concerning Mugwumps

Perhaps most readers would associate the word ‘mugwump’ with Albus Dumbledore of the much loved Harry Potter series. Dumbledore was the Supreme Mugwump, head of the Wizengamot, the International Confederation of Wizards – except in the fifth book where his cohort suspects he is totally nuts (don’t worry, he is restored to his position by the end of the book).

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The word ‘mugwump’ originates from the Algonquian dialect of Native American in Massachusetts and means ‘war leader’. It was first used as a humorous word in English, depicting a bigwig or grand panjandrum. During the US Presidential elections in 1884 it was used to describe Republicans who changed sides (God forbid); they became known as little mugwumps or turncoats. The most notorious of these was Mark Twain who famously said: “I was a mugwump. We, the mugwumps, a little company made up of the unenslaved of both parties, the very best men to be found in the two great parties – that was our idea of it … Our principles were high, and very definite. We were not a party; we had no candidates; we had no axes to grind. Our vote laid upon the man we cast it for no obligation of any kind. By our rule we could not ask for office; we could not accept office. When voting, it was our duty to vote for the best man, regardless of his party name. We had no other creed. Vote the best man – that was creed enough.”

– Mark Twain’s Autobiography (North American Review, Dec. 21, 1906)

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Today, the word mugwump is most commonly used in reference to someone removed from party politics and somewhat of an independent thinker – which makes them rather dangerous on many levels, not the least in that some observers would say they are nuts…just like dear Dumbledore.

So welcome to the mugwump blog of the independent, slightly offbeat, thinkers 🙂 This blog will serve as a place where a mugwump with attitude will throw some stuff on the table; reflections on history, spirituality, political bollocks, human rights, things that grow in my garden, animals, the merit of red wine even when you have developed an allergy that could kill you, the wonder of myth and ‘thin places’, and how annoying some people can be.

Look forward to our discussions – as mugwumps we will attempt to not kill each other in that process, but practice the art of listening closely and engaging keyboard response with respect.