Category Archives: Books

Job, His Friends, and Disappointment

There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. 
– Martin Luther King, Jr. –
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The book of Job has always fascinated me. One of the oldest books in the Old Testament and most celebrated pieces of biblical literature, it is dominated by two main characters: Yahweh and a wealthy man called Job, who faced utter devastation. The book is loosely divided into five parts: the prologue, the symposium, the speeches of Elihu, the nature poems, and the epilogue. It is a book that raises questions about suffering and directly challenges the idea of karma – that people are rewarded or punished according to their merits.

It is a book of poetic and philosophical depth and beauty. It is a book of suffering and grief. It is also a book that provides an example of how to be a really annoying friend. After Job loses everything, his friends come to ‘comfort’ him. They do well at first because they shut up. However, when Job begins to speak they never really hear him or seek to understand. They simply pontificate their opinions on his suffering and try to fit him into their little boxes of comfortable reasoning. Nothing much has changed … humans just don’t evolve that quickly ?

Eliphaz is convinced that Job has done something sinister to deserve this pain. Bildad suggests that maybe his deceased children were guilty of evil. Zophar really has no idea but is convinced that God has a plan and is on the throne (sound familiar?). Elihu, the zealous youngster, thinks that maybe Job is just a tad arrogant and that his pain is God’s way of humbling him and he will be a better person because of it. In summary, this is a group of Shit Friends or ‘worthless physicians’ as Job refers to them. People who practice triumphant monologue, provide unhelpful answers (accusations) or cliches, and are in on the ride because they cannot cope with the existential angst of not knowing why bad stuff happens to good people. Yes, we have all been in the presence of Job’s friends. We all have been Job’s friends.

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Disappointment is the cousin of grief. Disappointment is tied to our expectations. Our expectation of people, of events, of God, that is if we happen to be someone who holds a faith. When they do not ‘behave’ the way we expect, we become disappointed. Job was disappointed because he had spent his life in faithful devotion to God, expecting God to protect him, and yet disaster and suffering entered his life. He was disappointed in his friends because in the time of his greatest need they were … well they were just shit friends.

There are many lessons we can draw from Job. One would be that the questions we often ask about theodicy seem to have no satisfying answers. Another is that suffering is part of the human existence and disappointment is part of life. We can also learn how not to be a friend!

We will all face disappointment in our life time. If we happen to be one of the people to walk alongside another as they face disappointment, here are a few suggestions:
  1. Let’s stop pretending that we know exactly what they are feeling. We don’t. We  may be able to empathise to a certain degree, but we have not lived their life, walked a single step in their shoes, and we have no idea how exactly they are processing the disappointment that they are facing.
  2. Let’s learn to shut up and listen. If we are genuine about being an ‘alongsider’, then let’s be a sounding board. Don’t let’s use our friend’s pain as a soapbox to practice our philosophical or religious ideals. It’s like rubbing salt on a wound. The greatest gift we can give at that moment is to listen deeply.
  3. We are not the Messiah – and that really is good news. There is an innate urge in each of us to ‘fix’ things and people. The reality of life is that there are some things we can ‘fix’ and many things that we can’t. Mindfulness, kindness, practical expressions of love are most helpful to those facing disappointment. Job’s friends failed at these. Like Christopher Pyne, they were ‘fixers’ – and both Job and Yahweh grew weary of them.
  4. Walking alongside needs us to deal with our ego. People facing disappointment will be angry, grieving, sullen, and maybe rude. If we are in a support role and have not done some serious shadow-work we will find ourselves ‘hurt and offended’. Then the person who is facing crisis now has to deal with our wounded egos … Nicht Gut.
  5. Let’s practice our theology at these times, not preach it. Love in action is the best sermon we will ever preach. The day may come when we will be facing disappointment and will discover how annoying it is when someone, oblivious to our heartache, gets all “God-is-on-the-throne-and-has-a-wonderful-plan-for-your-life” on us. In moments of deep disappointment we won’t really give a crap about anyone’s ideas about God, rather make “me a cup of coffee and feed me chocolate”.

Job faced bitter disappointment. We will also have to handle our fair share in our short life. And when we are comforting those who are disappointed let’s not add to their burden by being shit friends like those of Job.  Bake that cake, cook that meal, mind those children, and let’s learn to listen …

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Honey, I Shrunk the House!

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Freedom, it seems, sometimes comes to us disguised as pain. Perhaps, that’s why it takes us so long to fully embrace it? It has now been several years since I became a fan of the minimalist movement – you know, the idea that you actually need a whole less shit to make you happy? Outrageous! I have also been continuously challenged by how I live, recognising that I need to learn to tread a lot more softly on Mother Earth.

With the pursuit of a simpler life came a change of work circumstances for my partner. He felt it was time to make a shift. In his words, “At age 54, I am at a time in life when I’d like a smaller world not a bigger one, a slower pace not a faster one, and a simpler life not a more complex one.” So we stand at an intersection in our lives that demands us to be honest about what has been brewing in our hearts for a long time: it is time to lose in order to gain.

One of our first steps has been to downsize our house and get rid of a mortgage. Sounds great? Not when this is the spot that has become my ‘thin place‘. Over the last few years, this home as been my place of refuge. I love the garden which has been a massive labour of love. I work from my office and watch the birds busily going about life just outside my window. It is the place where our family and friends have met. So many lives and stories have been shared in the kitchen or sitting on the porch. This home holds untold memories. To say goodbye is not easy. A simpler path comes at a price.

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Everything in life comes with a price tag. To embrace convictions and live authentically sounds wonderful, but, trust me, there are many times you will have to be very brave in order to do so. For us personally, to pursue this simpler life we are learning to fly against so much of what ‘mega’ Christianity has embedded, encouraged and enshrined: the desire to influence, to become bigger, to be famous, to accumulate, to safeguard … the list goes on. However, for my partner and I, this no longer holds any attraction. In fact, for us (and we realise this is not everyone’s story or path), the pursuit of more is full of emptiness. We have been challenged to live a different life … and, in order to do so, we need to let go.

So it’s time to shrink the house! Shrink our footprints. Embrace a different tomorrow. I have always prided myself with the idea that I do not ‘horde’ or ‘accumulate’ stuff. Well, this blog is a confessional. I have spent hours sorting through stuff that I haven’t used or looked at for several years. I am now doubly motivated, as we will be moving into a house half the size of the one we currently live in. Everything I own is being scrutinised before being packed. It is exhausting … and freeing. I can’t really explain it, but there’s something very liberating about deciding to take just one pot of a certain size, not three, or just one set of crockery, not the whole caboodle I kept for entertaining the many large groups we would have through the house every year. 

And before I make myself sound like a minimalist saint … I have failed the packing ideal with my books. O my glob! I am attached to those books. It was fairly320px-Carl_Spitzweg_021 easy to part ways with books that flogged a certain modern religious pop culture or ones that upheld an ideology of colonial, white, privilege under the guise of orthodoxy. In fact, they made great fire starters. But other books … well, they are all coming. Remember, I am a recovering ‘accumulatist’.

I am discovering that shrinking brings joy, that less is definitely more – not just a fancy cliche. Life is found in the word ‘few’ and contentment is a most wonderful travelling companion. Of course, I grieve over what was, I feel the deep loss of what I have here. There is pain in minimising . Don’t underestimate it! However, I also feel the excitement of freedom from debt and stuff … there is no price I can put on that. 

Friend, we all make decisions every day to either simplify our lives or make them more complicated. May you choose wisely. May you choose life.

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Reflections from Shabbat: A Call to Rest

“Our relentless emphasis on success and productivity has become a form of violence. We have lost the necessary rhythm of life, the balance between effort and rest, doing and not doing.” Wayne Muller

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If you happen to find yourself in Israel on a Saturday you may encounter this peculiar phenomenon when using the elevators: they automatically stop on every level. And if you want to learn from this post, and not make an idiot of yourself like I did, do not go up to the receptionist and tell them that their elevator is out of order. Have compassion on this poor human. After all, how many ‘tourist ignoramisus’ can one person bear?! On Shabbat, many of the elevators work in a special mode to allow Jews to observe Shabbat and abstain from operating electrical switches. It is a day of rest. And in a speed-crazy world we have so much to learn from our Jewish brothers and sisters.

The Jewish tradition of keeping Shabbat stems from the Creation narrative and the Torah (Law). It was a day of rest and worship for the ancient Israelites. Violating Shabbat had serious consequences as the day was considered holy, dedicated to G-d. It established and bolstered Jewish identity amongst other nations and cultures as it was an expression of Jewish faith, a national identity marker. Today Shabbat is considered the most important day in the Jewish calendar and often referred to as “Shabbat HaMalka”, the Sabbath Queen.

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Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Polish-born American Rabbi and leading Jewish theologian and philosopher of the 20th century, writes this about Shabbat:

“The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world … When history began, there was only one holiness in the world, holiness in time.” (The Sabbath)

Whether we are people of a particular faith or not, we can all learn from Shabbat. It calls us to mindfulness. It reminds us that rest is to be celebrated. It is not something to be ashamed of or forced. The centrality of keeping Shabbat is to remind Jews of the release of slavery from Egypt. The Egyptian exile is a metaphor for any enslavement, says Rabbi Becher, be it physical or spiritual. By ceasing work and resting we demonstrate that we are not enslaved to the physical world. When a person is incapable of refraining from work, then they have indeed become a slave!

Walter Brueggemann writes, “In our own contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods.”
(Sabbath as Resistance)

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Shabbat confronts us with our own restlessness and constant addiction to activity and engagement. For people of faith, Shabbat is a space that is holy and blessed, and beckons us to connect again with creation and the Creator.

In our modern, success-driven, technology-addicted world we stand in danger of loosing our souls in a zombie-like trance of mindlessness. We stand to loose connection to the rhythm of life. Rhythm is the heartbeat that G-d has put as a sacred marker throughout creation to remind us of the sacredness of time and the importance of being mindful of our days. Whether Jewish or not, or whether we are a person of faith or not, considering and learning from Shabbat makes us mindful of this rhythm. It teaches us to listen, to hear, to see … to breathe!

Dear friend, I trust this blog may be helpful in jolting you out of entrenched mindlessness. We are the people of ‘ruach’ and life. All around us is rhythm. May your ears hear its gentle sound and not the hypnotic lies of a fear-mongering, power-hungry, consumer-addicted ideology that blares at us through the various media channels. Rather, may you free yourself from those chains … may you rediscover rest and rhythm … and may you dance …

“Everything has rhythm, everything dances.” Maya Angelou

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(If you are interested in listening to an address I gave at a church on ‘The Sabbath’, please click here.)

What can we learn from a Hobbit?

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea …

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Our family is Tolkien possessed. My deep appreciation of the writing of this wonderful author has fortunately spilt over to my partner and
children. So when Peter Jackson put the Lord of the Rings series and The Hobbit to film, you guessed it, we watched it … over and over again … extended version, of course.

So, we have just finished watching The Hobbit … again. It is always interesting how these books and films speak to us in certain significant
seasons of our lives. As I watched Bilbo Baggins, the unlikely travelling companion of a company of dwarves and a wizard, take the hazardous journey to the Lonely Mountain, I took away some reflections on what we can learn from a hairy-footed Hobbit …

1. Always be ready for an Adventure

Bilbo is rather reluctant to leave the comfort of his home in the Shire to travel into the unknown. His conversation with Gandalf reveals his
apprehension:

Gandalf: “I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am
arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.”

Bilbo: “I should think so — in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them …”

Gandalf: “You’ll have a tale or two to tell when you come back.”

Bilbo: “You can promise that I’ll come back?”

Gandalf: “No. And if you do, you will not be the same …” 
 
Bilbo overcame his fears to take part in a life-changing adventure. Many years later, he would warn a young Frodo about the hazardous nature of adventures:

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.
 
Bilbo would advise us to always keep our walking stick within reach – ready for an unexpected adventure.

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2. The Adventure is always bigger than You
 
Amidst a group of seasoned warrior dwarves, Gandalf’s choice of Bilbo to travel with the company was rather odd. Yet he managed to outsmart trolls, spiders, goblins, elves and dragons. He faced grave dangers. He was also carried on the wings of the eagles of Gwaihir to safety. Gandalf saw in this ordinary hobbit something else:

“Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo
Baggins? Perhaps, because I am afraid, and he gives me courage.”

Bilbo himself saw this as an adventure much bigger than himself.
Despite being desperately homesick for the Shire, he was on a quest:

“Look, I know you doubt me, I know you always have. And you’re right. I often think of Bag End. I miss my books. And my armchair. And my
garden. See, that’s where I belong. That’s home. That’s why I came back,
because you don’t have one. A home. It was taken from you. But I will help you take it back, if I can.
“ 

Bilbo would tell us that “even the smallest person can change the course of history”. The adventure we are called to is always bigger than ourselves.

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3. It simply isn’t an Adventure worth telling if there aren’t any Dragons.
 
“Well, thief! I smell you and I feel your air. I hear you breathe. Come along! Help yourself again, there is plenty and to spare!”
 
Smaug! The mountain had been left desolate, no one would venture near it, because amidst all the gold and glitter, lay a sleeping fire breather. How dull Bilbo’s tale would have been without this magnificent, cranky dragon.

Life was so pleasant in the Shire. A peaceful rhythm of life. Yet for Bilbo, just like for each of us, there may come moments when, often by no choice of our own, we are called from the Shire to go on an adventure and to face adversity. Staring into the face of our fear we wish it wasn’t so – but we are the people we are today because somewhere in our lives a dragon came calling.

The lesson we learn from a hobbit other than to “speak politely to enraged dragons”, or to “never laugh at live dragons”, is that our adventure is all the richer because of dragons.

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4. There is a bond with the Friends you make on an Adventure.
 
“Goodbye and good luck, wherever you fare,said Balin at last. “If ever you visit us again, when our halls are made fair once more, then the feast shall indeed be splendid.”
“If ever you are passing my way,” said Bilbo, “don’t wait to knock! Tea is at four; but any of you are welcome at any time!”
 
There is a ‘fellowship’ and an ‘unsaid knowing’ amongst friends who share in an Adventure. There are many dark and perilous journeys that we will take in our lifetime. How fortunate the person that gets to share it with friends. 

The lesson we learn from a hobbit is that to share our adventures with friends is “more than any Baggins deserves.”

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So, dear friend, take some time to reflect on the wisdom of hobbits. And just for you, the words of Thorin Oakenshield:

“There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

This post is dedicated to my travelling companion and adventure partner, who also happens to be the love of my life.

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This is My Story

“We cannot wish old feelings away nor do spiritual exercises for overcoming them until we have woven a healing story that
transforms our previous life’s experience and gives meaning to whatever pain we have endured.”

Joe Borysenko

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When was the first story ever told? We do not know. We do know that storytelling has been an intrinsic part of every society and culture.
Before we could write, we told stories. Stories shape our world. Stories are everywhere: in songs, books, news, religions, art – wherever we look we are being told a story. Stories resonate, we remember stories. Most historians and psychologists would assert that it is storytelling that defines and binds our common humanity.

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The stories that we are told or tell ourselves dramatically shape our world. Both sets of my grandparents were wonderful storytellers. My Oma, from my father’s side, would recall memories of what it was like to live in East Prussia. She would paint pictures with her words of lush forests, mushroom picking, and the giant lake of Lyck (now Elk) that was synonymous with ‘home’. My Oma, on my mother’s side, would
reminisce about what it was like to be one of nine children, the tragic loss of her brother in WWI, and describe the lives of everyday people of Northern Germany. Their stories defined them, how they lived and their interaction with the world. Their stories impacted my life. So, in a sense, I tell my own story, but the stories of my ancestors live on through me.

There are some stories we live by that need desperate revision. We may find that there are a few life experiences that remain attached to the recording device in our head. Our perspective of those experiences, or the words directed at us through those seasons, will determine how we view ourselves and how we relate to others. David Denborough writes, “Who we are and what we do are influenced by the stories that we tell ourselves  herold-letters-436502_1920e are many different events in our lives, but only some of them get formed into the storylines of our
identities. Whatever storyline we have about our lives makes a
difference in who we are and how we act.
  There are some narratives that need revising in our lives because they paralyse us or affect us in a profoundly negative way. It is time to take back those false memoirs and say: “No, that is not true, but this is my story.”  Perhaps it is time to give yourself permission to rewrite those toxic lines into a healing
autobiography?

Stories are one of the things that make us human. They help explain the world and make sense of what, at times, seems nonsense. For people who are grieving, stories provide a way of coping with loss and assists in healing. Telling one’s story has proved to have significant health benefits as it contributes to creating a sense of meaning and belonging, because we feel both seen and heard. One of the greatest gifts we can give each other is to listen. Listening is the gift of kindness. It is a modern tragedy that we have so many elderly folk now sitting in isolated care homes, with a rich tapestry of life and adventures, with no one willing to listen to their story.

So maybe it’s time, dear friend, to take a pen, or your computer or iPad, and begin to write your stories down. Live them as you write them.
Describe them in intricacies and with a sense of wonder. Reflect on them as you read and re-read your story. What does your story tell you? How do the whispers of the past beckon you to consider your ways today?
Remember, this alone is your story and your story matters, because,
after all, no other human being will see things, dream things or
experience things just the same as you. This is your story – it is time to remember.

“Don’t let anyone tell your story. Pick up a pen and write your own.”
– Majid Kasmi

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The Colours of Autumn

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Autumn burned brightly, a running flame through the mountains, a torch flung to the trees.
– Faith Baldwin

I love Autumn. I love watching the light change to thick, plush gold as our planet tilts on its axis while we orbit the sun. In our Southern Hemisphere, the temperature begins to drop in March. Well, that is in most years! This year of 2016, Melbourne is achieving record high temperatures. It seems the Summer Diva is throwing a tantrum as she has to exit center stage to make room for Sister Autumn.

With Autumn comes the changing colour of the leaves. The stuff of poets and artists. “Autumn … the year’s last loveliest smile,” writes William Cullen Bryant. John Donne chimes in, “No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace as I have seen in one autumnal face.” French author,
Albert Camus, saw autumn as the second spring, where every leaf is a flower. George Eliot was totally smitten, “Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.” Emily Bronte discovered that every fluttering
autumn leaf spoke of bliss to her. The colours of autumn are indeed one of those spectacular reminders of a rapid fading season of warmth and light.

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Stanley Horowitz wrote, “Winter is an
etching, spring a watercolour, summer an oil painting, and autumn a mosaic of them all
.” Autumn, to me, is the great crescendo of the seasons. As we observe this dramatic display, we can also take time to ponder the colours and seasons of our lives. Autumn can teach us many things, perhaps one of the greatest lessons is the certainty of change.

In a constructed social culture that generally measures success through growth, influence and numbers, you would be forgiven to think that a ‘Summer Witch’ has taken over ‘Narnia’. Summer speaks of vibrancy, happiness, and growth: the mantras of today’s modern world. Yet, as charming as it is, an unending summer would destroy us. Autumn stops us in our tracks. It reminds us that Winter is Coming. In its flaming glory it tells us to rejoice and stop wasting our energy in the pursuit of a fantastical, everlasting summer.  

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schedule. Walk through a magnificent deciduous forest and take in nature’s masterclass on change. Notice the grace and ease with which trees let go of what once was. Discover the easy rhythm with which they embrace transition. There is no frantic panic, for in these magnificent woodlands, change is celebrated.

Autumn colours also have a sobering reminder of death, something our western culture is so ill prepared for. Autumn advises us to live with humility, for nothing is permanent. We need to consider our days carefully, for they are indeed fleeting. Autumn beckons us to surrender ourselves to this divine dance of change. It whispers to us with hope. For there are a few things that remain – Faith, Hope and Love … and the greatest of all is Love. Perhaps this is an indication of how we should colour the leaves of our lives? 

There is a harmony in autumn, and a luster in its sky, which through the summer is not heard or seen, as if it could not be, as if it had not been!
Percy Bysshe Shelley
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Those Wonderful Irish: Reflections on Irish Poetry


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

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

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

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

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

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When You Are Old
By William Butler Yeats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When All the Others Were Away at Mass
By Seamus Heaney

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

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

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

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Requiescat
by Oscar Wilde

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From Russia with love

It is better to have dreamed a thousand dreams that never were, than never to have dreamed at all. – Alexander Pushkin

The love of poetry runs in my family. My father knows endless renditions of beautiful German poetry, especially that of Goethe and Schiller. Travelling through Russia reminded me of the gifted poets that this vast country produced, and their invaluable contribution to the world of literature.

The early part of the 19th century was known as the Golden Age of Russian Poetry or the Age of Pushkin. Alexander Pushkin is regarded as the father of Russian literature and the greatest of all Russian poets. He is not as well known in the West as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, mainly because his works, including his novel, Eugene Onegin, was written in verse and difficult to translate.

imageHere is one of his well known poems, The Infinite Journey: 1829 

If I walk the noisy streets,
Or enter a many thronged church,
Or sit among the wild young generation,
I give way to my thoughts.

I say to myself: the years are fleeting,
And however many there seem to be,
We must all go under the eternal vault,
And someone’s hour is already at hand.

When I look at a solitary oak
I think: the patriarch of the woods.
It will outlive my forgotten age
As it outlived that of my grandfathers.

If I caress a young child,
Immediately I think: farewell!
I will yield my place to you,
For I must fade while your flower blooms.

Each day, every hour
I habitually follow in my thoughts,
Trying to guess from their number
The year which brings my death.

And where will fate send death to me?
In battle, in my travels, or on the seas?
Or will the neighbouring valley
Receive my chilled ashes?

And although to the senseless body
It is indifferent wherever it rots,
Yet close to my beloved countryside
I still would prefer to rest.

And let it be, beside the grave’s vault
That young life forever will be playing,
And impartial, indifferent nature
Eternally be shining in beauty.

Poetry is so important – it builds culture and community, promotes literacy, and speaks to the soul. Poetry is rhythm, something we have lost in our fast-paced, technology-driven age. Through poetry we embrace the gift of speaking and listening, expressing love, joy, grief and dissent. William Butler Yeats said, “It is blood, imagination, intellect running together … It bids us to touch and taste and hear and see the world, and shrink from all that is of the brain only.”

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If you have never given any time to appreciate poetry, why not try something new? Start slowly, don’t try and analyse, deconstruct, find some hidden meaning in the poems you are reading. Read poetry that wakes you up and makes you want to laugh or cry or punch a wall.

Poetry awakens the soul! Russian poetry is truly beautiful and a gift to the world. If you have never opened this gift, isn’t it about time? From Russia with love …

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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