“Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.” –Elie Wiesel
“Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.” –Elie Wiesel
Odd, how life makes twists and turns. I never would have guessed that I’d end up where I am now, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I wouldn’t trade this path I’m on for the whole solar system, for that matter. If I’ve learned anything these last several months, it’s that sometimes the most scenic roads in life are the detours you didn’t mean to take.
– Angela Blount –
I was meant to fly back home to the Sunshine Coast yesterday. The alarm went extra early to ensure that we could negotiate Melbourne’s traffic mayhem, and get to the airport in plenty of time for my 10am flight. But, alas, even at 6.30am the freeway had already ground to a standstill. My quick thinking partner took a detour, weaving in and out of tiny streets through sleepy suburbs. Then the phone went with a text message. My flight had been cancelled. I tried to call the airline to change to a different flight and was placed on ‘hold’. We listened to repetitive announcements and the jingle of ‘hold’ music for over an hour. By the time someone eventually picked up we had just arrived at the airport.
The person on the line was not helpful. Referring to the airline as ‘they’ it became obvious that the delicate job of dealing with irritated customers had been handed to some contract group. They showed no mercy. No, I cannot catch another flight that day as they were all fully booked! No, they won’t allow me to detour via another major city! No, they do not compensate in any way or form. You have to find your own accommodation. By the time I put the phone down I was in a frightful fury and we took the long trip home – stopping for strong coffee, as it was too early for wine!
After I managed to downgrade my feelings towards a rude airline encounter from ‘cold hatred’ to ‘loathe entirely’, it occurred to me how much of life was represented in those few frustrating hours. We plan our life journey: how we will travel, what we will do when we get there, and the people we will meet and greet … and then we wake up to life with all its detours, congestion and cancelled travel plans. Have you noticed that?
Sometimes life feels so congested that we need to be reminded to breathe. We frantically look for a different way and venture on a random detour through uncharted territory. Our congested, helter-skelter life has flung us into some unknown suburbs that we have never heard of or thought we would visit – perhaps an oncology ward? Or an interview for a totally different career? Or surrounded by strange tribe of people that quickly become friends and people we love deeply.
There are times we are caught totally unaware. We thought we were bound for an exotic destination, only to have our dreams and hopes ‘cancelled’. We furiously dial the ‘God’ line – but it feels like God has placed us on hold and taken a liking to elevator music!! We desperately look around for a comforting word from the people around us, but they have been kidnapped and replaced with distant, look-alike cousins that mouth robotic, religious cliches that once held meaning.
Life is full of congestion, detours and delays. To expect anything else is to live with constant disappointment or frustration. It is not a matter of whether you will encounter these travelling companions but rather a matter of where and when. At any moment, life can grind to a total halt and we sit on the freeway and wonder whether it will ever go back to ‘normal’ – whatever ‘normal’ means. We cannot force things to start moving again, we just need to sit and wait. What a terrible dilemma for all of us addicted to our own adrenaline in a hurry-sick, congested world.
So I was stranded yesterday. I treated myself to a pedicure and read my ‘Slow‘ magazine. Sitting in the corner of that bustling little store I remembered to be grateful. It was a begrudging sort of gratitude at first, but gratitude nonetheless. As I leant into breathing, being mindful and grateful, I reflected on my life. My whole life has been a set of detours, congestion and delays. I have walked paths I never dreamt of walking, I have met people I never thought I would have the privilege of meeting, I have been in spaces that were thin places – and so many of these encounters happened because of … you guessed it – detours, congestion and delays.
Most of the time we do not know why life can get so awfully complicated. We feel helpless and vulnerable when circumstances come into our lives that we have no control over. But there are a few things we can do. We can remember to breathe. We can practice mindfulness. And we can be grateful. May your delayed, congested and detour-filled life also be filled with unexpected joy, a sense of purpose, wonder and gratitude, dear Pilgrim.
Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.
– Ghandi –
How fortunate are the ones who at least once a day can exclaim, “I did not know that!” What a privilege to be able to walk with our eyes open, with a sense of wonder, and hopefully with enough humility to recognise that our specific field of knowledge is minuscule, no matter how well educated we are. There is always more to learn.
Most of us have a very broad understanding of the world around us. We may specialise in one or two areas of study, but it is a wise person who adopts a posture of learning that lasts a lifetime. We can all discipline and train our minds to think critically and to ask key questions. Practicing mindfulness helps us slow down, open our eyes, breathe and learn. It is also one of the best things we can do for our health and well-being.
We recently relocated to the Sunshine Coast from Melbourne. In this new place, I am learning something new every day. For example, I discovered that I could have spared myself the freak-out meltdown when I found a tick burrowing itself into my hip. A calm Queensland nurse informed me that this is not of the virulent type I encountered in South Africa. I was ecstatic. I would have hated to have been taken by a tick … that would have just ticked me off (sorry, I had to!)
I learnt that the people who live here are relaxed, compared to this adrenaline-driven Southerner. That they keep pet pigs to keep “the JW’s from knocking on my door” and they say “F..k” really loudly as it keeps their pious, Christian neighbour at bay. I also discovered that they are infatuated with the word “but”. In this sunny part of the world it is placed at the end of sentences. Which sounds a tad strange but.
I learnt that there is a cool breeze that blows every afternoon in this warm, hilly place that I now call home. I anticipate its arrival and welcome my new friend.
I also learnt that there are people who really go out of their way to make you feel welcome in a new place. Thank you to those salt-of-the-earth folk who brought so much love, kindness, food and wine. For someone in major life transition, you have been angels in disguise.
It truly is a wonderful thing to discover that we may have been ignorant in some areas. How easily we allow paradigms and ideals to become deeply embedded in our psyche without question. Especially, it seems, if those ideas are delivered by people we see as ‘experts’. The good news is that we are allowed to do our own research and investigation. We are given full permission.
So what new things are you learning?
According to Dustin Wax, learning something new:
– Gives us a range of perspectives to call on every day.
– Helps us to adapt to new situations.
– Feeds innovation by inspiring us to think creatively.
– Deepens our character and makes us more inspiring (and less arrogant!).
– Creates confidence.
– Helps us broaden our understanding of historical, social, and natural processes.
(His blog also provides tips on expanding your horizon)
So, dear friend, it’s time to become uncomfortable and stretch the brain and the imagination. Maybe cares and concerns have clouded your ability to dream and reflect? I empathise, as I know that feeling well. It is difficult to consider learning something new when we are barely coping with the present and what we do know!
A friend recently said to me, “There are many times in life when we need to be brave”. As you stand tall, adjust your eyes and follow your heart, may you be brave and discover the beauty of wonder. Here is my challenge to you: Learn Something New Today.
Why can’t we get all the people together in the world that we really like and then just stay together? I guess that wouldn’t work. Someone would leave. Someone always leaves. Then we would have to say good-bye. I hate good-byes. I know what I need. I need more hellos. – Charles M. Schulz
It was February 1985 when I loaded up my 1967 Valiant Station wagon, affectionally called “Boris” (the nickname of an old flame), and drove myself from Rockhampton to Melbourne. I was all of 19 years old and, of course, had the world all figured out …!! What took me to Melbourne? Well, I could say it was the leading of the Divine, or a career move, or a whole bunch of other crap, but really I came down because a tall, gorgeous redhead young man had stolen my heart on his short visit to Rockhampton and I was stalking him ?
I had no idea that this guy was also the pastor’s son at a conservative, Pentecostal church in Melbourne. I still remember the first time I set foot in that place. I felt like I had stepped into another planet and I’m sure with my tight jeans, several ear piercings and motorbike-friendly hair I would have looked like an alien to the parishioners. That was over thirty years ago! How time flies! Here we are all these years later with three incredible young adult kids, two amazing daughters-in-law and two fur children, facing yet another major move and transition in life.
Melbourne has been home for over three decades. As we move to the Sunny State we say goodbye to a city that has held our great joys, amazing triumphs, disastrous failures, disappointments and seasons of what felt like intolerable grief. We say goodbye to family and friends who, when you boil it all down, really are all that matters in life. We say goodbye to communities we love. We say goodbye to a home that has been our haven and most pleasant place. And before I can talk about a different tomorrow, I have to rest in this hauntingly painful place of goodbye. Goodbye sucks!
Is there an elegant way to let go? Can you really say goodbye without anxiety, grief, fear, and horribly ugly crying? If so, I haven’t figured it out. In the past, I have heard people speak lightly and with great excitement about closing a chapter and beginning a new one. I have also heard people talk about living life without regrets. I have not mastered either of these. I find letting go and closing chapters extremely painful. And if you are short on regrets – please come and see me, I’m happy to share.
So I sit here in this liminal space. I am not sure what tomorrow holds. As a person of faith I trust the guidance of Providence. I reflect on my life and like Jacob would say, “You have been here all along, and I didn’t even realise.” I choose to trust this Divine Presence in this place of great unknown. However, I do not deny the tears or the grief. For these are all part of what it means to say farewell.
So, Melbourne, thank you for opening your arms to me. Thank you to my faithful and loving friends. I could not imagine life without you. Thank you to my family – you are my greatest joy and sense of fulfilment in this short life. Thank you to my adversaries – from you I have learnt that I am stronger and have more courage than I ever realised. I’m forever grateful. Thank you to the Spirit of Life that lives in and through me, forever pushing me beyond the edges of safety and comfort.
For all of you, who for many reasons have had to say goodbye – you know this feeling well. Goodbye really does suck. We need to learn to feel, rest and trust the seasons, even the sucky ones.
Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes. – Henry David Thoreau
“Wholeness does not mean perfection; it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life” – Parker J. Palmer
Spring has come to the world’s most liveable city. You would be forgiven for doubting this. As I write, Melbourne is in the throes of arctic-like weather conditions and it is pouring down gallons of water that are creating havoc across the State. But when you look outside, Mother Nature calms our fear and produces the evidence – Spring is here! My garden is thriving. Amongst the many plants bursting with new life is a tree that stands taller than all the others: a birch with a peculiar story.
When we moved into this house we had many generous people give us plants to help establish this ginormous garden. We also kept our eye on any nursery ‘specials’. We planted a small birch grove because a nursery was shutting down and they were selling birches as part of a ‘super’ special. They also gave us a birch for free. Someone had accidentally broken it whilst moving it to a new spot. It was a quarter of the size of its birch brothers and sisters and frankly, looked miserable.
In hindsight, birches were not the best choice for clay soil, but hindsight is not always helpful. Our birches struggled to establish. They needed extra tender loving care in those hot summer months. Except for the broken birch. We all expected it to die. It did the opposite. Defying birch-law, clay soil, brokenness and the misery of its tribe, it grew and flourished. Within three years it outgrew its birch siblings. Today, it is a magnificent tree that provides shelter to so many other plants. It is easy to forget that this was a broken birch once …
You see, friend, in life you will face many circumstances and situations that will cut you off at the kneecaps: personal failure, the betrayal of friends, financial hardship, death of a loved one, illness, loneliness, changes – the list goes on. When you walk through these shadowed valleys it may feel like everyone else around you is standing tall, growing and flourishing. Everyone else, but you. You feel broken on the inside and no amount of positive thinking and meditation seems to cure that nagging pain within.
There are many times in life that we are that broken birch. It’s no use trying to tell ourselves some pseudo-narrative to dull the pain. There is no way ‘around’ these valleys. We have to learn to walk through them. Religion that calls you to growth without suffering, without pain, without heartache and without experiencing brokenness is no true religion, but simply a decorated band-aid for grievous wounds. In life you will experience brokenness.
Just like my birch, you may also find yourself planted in places that are less than ideal. Environments that should hamper your growth and well being. But my broken birch tree didn’t seem to take that much notice of that. It grew anyway. The environment was not its defining moment or its core identity. The reflection I take away is that sometimes we simply have to ignore the masses and the circumstances, put our head down and grow anyway. The opinions and ignorance of others does not define you.
In the end, dear friend, only you can live the life given you. And you have been assigned to live it amidst all the ups and downs and ‘accidents’ that come your way. Only you hold the integrity of your narrative. Only you can tell your story. No one else. People may try. They may refer to you as that ‘broken birch’. Don’t argue with them. Smile and wave and get on with your life. And when your inner core and strength overshadows their fear and judgement, show them much kindness …
“The Wound is the Place where the Light enters You” – Rumi
They are wrong. Words can kill you.
Words are powerful. They shape our perception of the world around us. A single word can make us feel sad, mad, happy, or dissatisfied. Sometimes the words of others can pierce our heart like a sword. Words can wound. Some of those wounds we never really recover from.
With the skill of an artisan weaver, politicians, religious leaders, media, friends, family and our own minds, can weave words together that dramatically affect how we see another person or people group. Or how we see ourselves.
The delusional words of fanatics have led to some of the greatest crimes against humanity. While the words of wisdom of a young woman, shot in the head by her enemies, can mesmerise a room of powerful world leaders.
The words of artists can tap into our souls like no other. The gift of poets and lyricists amongst us help us express our deepest fears, prejudice, and longings.
Words are never expressed in a vacuum. And when the context of jokes and jests are made in a social atmosphere that is charged with violence, tension, or trauma, these words cannot, must not, be ignored.
The Orlando massacre was not simply a deranged man killing the innocent. It is the action of a man living in a world filled with many words of hatred, religious elitism, prejudice and ignorance, towards those who are deemed as ‘other’.
The words of a mob mocking an Australian Indigenous footballer are not heard or made in a void. Rather, they are a declaration in a historical context of racism, violence, genocide, and wounding.
The words of jest about killing a woman are not made from a position of non-violence. They often come from the mouths of the privileged, made in the context of a growing body-count of women killed, or maimed, as a result of violence.
The words of disdain towards those who choose not to eat the flesh of animals are not heard or absorbed by people who have not seen suffering. Rather, from a place where human hearts are broken as we bear witness to the horrific reality of abuse and cruelty towards our gentle earthling friends.
Words can wreck lives. There are so many words I wish I hadn’t said. So many words I can never take back. So many words that were just the product of internal strife, anger, ignorance, arrogance, or presumption.
If we want to be proud supporters of Freedom of Speech, then we should also hold a compulsory license of compassion and understanding.
If we view any curtailing of ‘free speech’ as an imposition or even ‘persecution’ by the ‘tolerance police’ then perhaps we should also consider that the words spoken from positions of power and influence, that marginalise or slander others, can be viewed as a form of bigotry and hatred.
Perhaps our very word-filled world needs to take breaths of silence? Imagine if we used that silence to walk in the shoes of another, to feel their pain, their heartache …
Sticks and Stones may break your bones but Words … ?
Words are thrown at you every day. Please know that you do not owe them your homage.
And words are also given to you, dear friend. Consider how you use them in our vulnerable world.
A Repost from last year:
It was November 2007. My 11 year old German Shepherd staggered into the kitchen and collapsed. His heart had failed. We called a mobile vet and it was on this day we said goodbye to Simba. I grieved that dog. Those who love their animal friends will understand the pain of losing a fur child. A couple of weeks later, after I had come back from a retreat, the phone rang. It was my dad, informing me that my mum had been taken to hospital. She died three weeks later. It was just before Christmas. Mum had been undergoing treatment for a thyroid condition, which turned out to be a misdiagnosis. My world stopped. Just a week after we said goodbye to mum, early on New Years’ morning, we received another phone call. That type of phone call that any parent who has ever received one, never really recovers from. All our three children and two of their friends had been involved in a horrific car crash. All were injured and the next few days became a nightmare of emergency and intensive care wards. It was all a blur and it felt like somewhere in November I had opened my front door and Grief walked in, uninvited.
How do you begin to describe this uninvited guest? Maybe by the way it affects us. Sadness, so overwhelming that you can’t even cry. Illogical anger and rage. Guilt, resentfulness, regret, panic, depression and fear. It was C.S. Lewis who wrote about this in ‘A Grief Observed’: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” Lewis’ wife, Joy, had passed away from cancer and he had kept a journal observing his grief. This journal was later published. I have found it to be one of the most helpful books on this topic. Grief feels so much like fear because when we have lost a loved one we stare into a future where someone has turned off the light switch and it is utter darkness. Nothing brings back who we have lost. We live in a constant dread that life will never be the same.
“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to.”
~ Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and John Kessler
In a haze of shock and numbness, I recall friends and family doing their best to help make this journey through the valley of tears a bit easier. Please don’t ever underestimate the importance of your actions and words towards someone who is grieving. Your kindness through this time brings a tiny bit of warmth into someone’s world. A world that has not only gone dark, but has frozen over in pain. “The death of a beloved is an amputation,” observes Lewis. I would add it feels like an amputation of the heart.
Grief calls on all of us throughout our lives. This unwelcome visitor does not knock. It just walks right in and for the next few weeks, months or years, you are left to entertain it, as you struggle through the various stages. Grief, that suddenly rushes at you, even years down the track. Grief, that makes you feel so alone in your chronic pain. “In my distress I groan out loud and am reduced to skin and bones,” laments the Psalmist (Psalm 102). Grief, that plays out its visit on every life in a different manner. Grief, that does not stick to any rules. “Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape,” writes Lewis. Our grief, just like our life, is a unique journey.
Grief bombards us with every emotion. We cry to the point that we are convinced we will never shed another tear. We may feel guilty as we look at a hurting world around us. “There are so many people worse off than me,” we tell ourselves to try and downplay our reality. Comparing grief is not helpful. It is what it is. Our loss, whatever it may be, is real and hurts like hell. We need to accept it. As we journey, let us try and surround ourselves with loving people. Friends who come, who sit, who talk about our loss, who listen, who are not absent. Don’t do this alone. “The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of confusion or despair, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing … not healing … not curing … that is a friend indeed.” – Henri Nouwen
During grief, you are dealing with a muddled mind. If you can, avoid making any major decisions at this time. Be kind to yourself: remember to eat and sleep. It’s bizarre how we forget basic human needs and rhythm in times of trauma. Cry when you feel to and find a place of solitude where you can yell if you want to – or howl at the moon, as a friend of mine recommended. Be patient with yourself. “Grief is not a disorder, a disease or sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.” (Rabbi Earl Grollman)
Grief changes us. It changes how we look at things and how we relate to people. Grief, armed with a fiery torch, burns compassion into our souls. In the darkest night our ego dies, and we look at things we once held as so important and wonder what we were thinking. Like Harry Potter, we all of a sudden notice that our carriage is pulled by Thestrals. We are quite sure that we are going nuts because others don’t seem to notice. Thank God for the Luna Lovegoods of this world, who remind us: “You are not mad, Harry. They can only be seen by people who’ve seen death.” Grief, this uninvited guest, it turns out is also an eye surgeon … and one day, however long it takes, the tears will slowly subside and you, my friend, will look at the world with a whole new set of eyes. Life will never be the same again – but peace, and even joy, do return like the prodigal.
The thought of my suffering and homelessness is bitter beyond words. I will never forget this awful time, as I grieve over my loss.
Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this:
The faithful love of the Lord never ends. His mercies never cease.