• Slider Image

Addicted to a Different Type of Speed

road-66776_640

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

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

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

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

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

The book is sobering. It serves as a reminder that these regrets share some common denominators. One of them is the speed at which we choose to live. There is little time for reflection, for mindfulness, or authenticity, when we don’t even have time to walk in the park. Just as speed is dangerous on the road, relentless speed through life kills the human heart. It turns us into a zombie life form and sometimes it is only a life crisis that wakes us up from this state.
beware-the-barrenness-of-a-busy-life-socrates-quote

The great benefit of slowing down is reclaiming the time and tranquility to make meaningful connections — with people, with culture, with work, with nature, with our own bodies and minds,” writes Carl Honore. There is something about the discipline of slow that allows us to be truly human again. The popular Psalm 23 describes a Shepherd who leads his sheep by quiet waters and allows them to rest in green pastures. Unfortunately, this Psalm is often read at funerals, whereas it would serve much better as a reflection for the living.

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

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

rose-969219_1920

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

Leo Tolstoy

In the Name of God: Reflections on Bullying and Religion

Bullying: the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or dominate others. If you are anything like me, you have experienced your fair share of bullying, especially through those ‘delightful’ school years. In the middle of my cyber-bullying-122156_1280first grade in Germany, they discovered I had severe astigmatism, and I became the proud owner of a rather huge pair of round glasses. My latest acquisition made me the perfect target for those seeking to “intimidate or dominate others”. The following year we relocated to South Africa and I was the immigrant kid who spoke no English or Afrikaans. I became well acquainted with the inside of the school library, as it offered the perfect refuge from bullies.

Today everyone is talking about bullying, sadly because we now need to know how to survive, and teach our children to survive, in a culture of bullying. Social media, reality TV shows, talk shows, politics, schools, workplace, the list goes on – every space has its bullies, with devastating results. People bully because there’s a rush that comes with power, they are often encouraged by others which provides positive reinforcement, they have an inability to feel empathy and may even derive pleasure from someone else’s pain, and/or they come from a background that shows no affection and may even model aggression. Bullying is a rampant social problem and I am pleased to see it addressed in many forums. However, what if that bullying is related to God?

There are a few books released on this subject of bullying and spiritual abuse. Bullying is disastrous in all situations. Yet bullying in the name of God is often tolerated for a very long time. Why? Because it is so hard to recognise. When God is attached to the rhetoric of the bully, the victim is being emotionally attacked and manipulated. However, the victim also has a desire to ‘please God’ or be ‘obedient to God’ and may feel that the bully is speaking for, or acting on, God’s behalf. This makes the whole scenario very confusing. More often than not, the person does not even realise they are being bullied. Someone can use the Bible in such a manner that it sounds correct, but rather than bringing life and comfort, the listener is being intimidated or manipulated. In this case, faith has become toxic.
florence-378070_1280
I have a dear friend who spent many years of her life in a cult. A cult that determined how she lived her life and that was involved in all major decisions she had to make. A cult that treated her with absolute abusive contempt. Yet she remained faithful and submissive to this group for many years. Brainwashing is a cult tactic. My friend believed that being submissive was ‘God’s will’ and that disobeying the ‘Fatherhood’ (elders and spiritual oversight), was the same as disobeying God. Never underestimate the power of a bully coupled with faith and religion. Some of you may be interested in reading her story.

Religion and bullying take many forms. The bullies are often motivated by sincere religious ideals. As parents we can coerce our children to believe or behave in ways that line up with our faith ideologies. However, these tactics can be soul destroying. I have been listening to the sad stories of many LGBTI young people who have been bullied by their families and/or faith communities, all in the name of God. The ex-gay moment, in their attempt to ‘straighten out’ LGBTI folk, has often resorted to all forms of bullying with devastating results (please know that if you have been a victim of this movement that there is help and information available). Religious schools can resort to a form of bullying in their disciplinary measures. I recall one of my children’s faith and character being questioned because she talked in class, insinuating her childish behaviour does not ‘please God’. This sort of manipulation on impressionable young minds can have long-term effects on a person’s confidence and self-image.
worried-girl-413690_1280
Perhaps one of the most common forms of bullying is in faith communities themselves. Those deemed spiritual leaders can suggest various things from a place of ‘spiritual authority’ that really is a form of bullying. A friend of mine recently blogged on this topic. He wrote about the harm done to people suffering from mental illness who listen, via sermons or books, to others seeking to ‘educate’ on the subject of mental illness, who have no form of education or qualification: “What is readily apparent throughout The Power of Right Believing is that Prince has no understanding of mental illness and addiction, no awareness of its myriad causes, and no knowledge of the complex medicinal and psychological strategies that will help a person (and their family) to manage (not cure) the lifelong challenge of living with the illness.” This is gross negligence at best, and a form of bullying at its worst.

Although bullying in faith communities is often discussed in regards to abuse from spiritual leaders, I have also observed bullying by congregation members against religious leaders. Most often, both sides believe they have God on their side and therefore the despicable behaviour and/or words are justified. Religious bullies often think themselves as ‘prophetic’, bearers of the truth, and apart from feeling persecuted, they are generally angry with this ‘wicked’ world.

Some signs of religious bullying can include:
– criticism and belittling
– intimidating others
– spreading rumours, gossip and lies
– excluding and isolating others
– never admit any wrong
– refusal to show remorse or seek forgiveness for any wrongdoing
– zero empathy or understanding of what the other feels like
– aggression (this can be in words or even print)bible-879085_1280
– domineering
– martyr complex

 

There are many helpful ideas on how to cope with religious bullies. One of the top rules: Give them no oxygen. Trust me, that sounds a lot easier than it actually is. I faced some serious bullying from religious lobby groups earlier this year and everything in me just wanted to take them out … but then I would become just like them: a bully. When we are the target of religious poison everything in us wants to dexify. Don’t. Let it go. That is horrible punishment for bullies who, often suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, crave our reaction.

In conclusion, maybe a most uncomfortable truth. Most of us, at some stage, have acted like bullies. We have intimidated others. We have coerced and manipulated others to do our bidding. No genuine conversation about bullying can happen without this recognition. I look back on my life and recognise many moments when I was the bully, when I was the oppressor, when I inflicted pain on others. To truly see social change in this area we need to recognise the human malady of insatiable hunger for power and dominance. This distorted survival mode does not exempt anyone, including, and maybe especially, religious folk who also have a God to bring into bullying tactics. We all need to be aware of the bully within, to move our lives from an ego-centric focus to one of love and grace.pogo-enemy(Please note: Links are underlined)

 

Teisha’s Story: A Life Interrupted

I met Teisha in 2012. It does not take long to recognise that behind this kind, funny and intelligent woman also lies incredible strength. There is no doubt that part of this strength was fashioned because she had to face some major curve balls that life threw at her.

11149719_1647835412102731_6579425741576113700_o

Teisha was just twenty-two and on a fast track to corporate success when her life was interrupted by a huge and unexpected hurdle. For the next four years she grieved for her lost dreams, caught in an avalanche of endless hospital ordeals and gruelling rehabilitation. Her devastating physical condition came to dominate her identity… until she decided to turn her hurdle into hope.

She committed herself to finding joy where it seemed impossible. Turning an existence of debilitating lows into a life of exhilarating highs, she left her homeland to travel the world. She left creature comforts to help orphans overseas. She left corporate life to become a social worker among the homeless and lonely. She found new gifts, new perspectives, new homes, new friends and in an amazing set of circumstances she found love.

She says this: “My life is unrecognisable to years ago. Today I’m no longer filled with negative energy nor overwhelmed by a life filled with uncertainty. Instead I’ve been able to find joy in my everyday life and have a genuine excitement about my future.

Early in my journey I experienced many aggressive relapses. But faced with poor health, I was hesitant to make changes in my life. I was living the life I had always planned. I’d finished university, commenced a corporate career and engrossed in Melbourne inner city living. 1423726695699

In my mind making changes to my life, altering any plans I had for the future, signified defeat. Even if I had wanted to make any life changes, I didn’t know what to change or how. As a consequence my health suffered and I felt stagnant; unsure how to move forward.

For me the key to moving beyond the darkness and frustration of living with MS has been momentum. I’ve been able to move beyond the negative energy by actively seeking new perspectives that challenge the way I think about, interact with and approach my illness and life.

Travelling overseas, studying social work, volunteering in Romania, living in a country town, exploring different approaches to wellbeing opened my world. I began to think about my life differently.

1423726745749Teisha’s story, in someway,  resonates with so many of our lives. We all face different hurdles. Teisha used hers as a way to discover that life itself is greater than whatever may interrupt our dreams. I wanted to highlight her story and the discoveries she shares in finding hope and a future, amidst difficulties.

Teisha, to me, is one of those everyday heroes that has not allowed extremely difficult circumstances to rob her of living life to the full and being fully present. She is a huge source of inspiration to so many around her. There are so many lessons we can learn from her story, perhaps most importantly, that our often interrupted lives and the hurdles we face can lead us to hope and a new beginning.

Check out Teisha’s blog at Lives Interrupted.

The Wonder of Mint

“As for the garden of mint, the very smell of it alone recovers and refreshes our spirits.” Pliny

IMG_2062

I have been overseas and arrived home just in the ideal time to pick and dry the mint I have growing everywhere in my garden. In Spring, the leaves are bursting with vitality and goodness. Mint is an aromatic herb that has its origin in Asian and Mediterranean countries. It is used both for cooking and healing. It is  packed with vitamins and minerals, especially carotene, Vitamin C, magnesium, copper and iron.
Never thought about mint? Most of us depend on it everyday. From toothpaste to lotions, medicine and health or hygiene products, everyone benefits from this fantastic herb. It’s a brilliant healer for painful joints, headaches, sciatica and IMG_2063inflammation and research has shown that
menthol is hugely beneficial in aiding digestion, which is why it’s so popular in teas. Mint plants contain an antioxidant known as rosmarinic acid, which has been studied for its effectiveness in relieving seasonal allergy symptoms. When applied topically in oil, ointment or lotion, mint has the effect of calming and cooling skin affected by insect bites, rash or other reactions.
A few words of caution. Remember that peppermint oil in large portions can be toxic. Pure menthol should not be taken internally. Some medication can react with mint or mint oil. If you’re unsure check with your doctor. Do not use mint oil on the face of an infant as it can interfere with breathing. Also, be aware that digestive issues relating to gastric reflux may be exacerbated through large consumption of mint.
ross-mint-60094_1280
Some fun facts about mint:
  • It derived its name from the nymph, Menthe, who, according to myth, was turned into a plant by the goddess Perserpina when she found out that Pluto was in love with her (ultimate revenge … turn your rival into a herb).
  • Greeks used mint in their baths.
  • Romans used it in sauces to aid digestion and also brought the herb to Britain.
  • It was used in medieval times for its culinary and medicinal properties.
I have a large garden and grow mint everywhere. It is one of those ferocious growers and will take over a garden bed if not restrained. One way to contain mint is to use an old bottomless bucket pushed into the ground. The mint won’t be able to put its roots out sideways, so will take longer to spread. If grown in a pot, mint needs to be watered regularly to keep it healthy. It prefers damp, partly shaded areas and once established will grow for many years. Mint dies down in Winter and sends up new shoots in Spring. It really is the perfect plant to begin with, as you build your herb garden. It’s easy to grow and is really fun to add to many recipes – whether breakfast, dinner or dessert.
There are many different types of mint: Peppermint, Spearmint, Pineapple mint, Apple mint, Ginger mint, Horsemint, Catmint, Chocolate mint, Lavender mint (a personal favourite), etc. Obviously, not all mint varieties are used for culinary purposes. Some are better utilized for their aromatic properties or aesthetic appearances while others, like field mint, are normally treated as medicinal plants. Different mint types should be planted as far apart as possible – like opposite ends of the garden, to avoid cross pollination which affects taste and unique characteristics.
I dry the mint in bunches, in a cool, dark storage cupboard. When dry (brittle), I just shred it into a container and, presto, it’s ready for tea. On a hot, sunny day there’s nothing better than ice tea – with only homegrown ingredients: mint, lemon and/or lemon balm.

 

IMG_2065

Why not give mint a go?
Here are some recipes to get you started:
Fresh Mint Tea
A large handful of fresh mint leaves (I also add fresh ginger and/or lemon balm to vary the taste)
A kettleful of filtered water (about 2 to 4 cups depending on how strong you want your tea)
Honey to taste
  1. Roughly tear the leaves with your hands and place them in a small strainer placed over a teapot or glass bowl.
  2. Bring the water to a boil and pour over the leaves.
  3. Gently bruise the mint leaves with the back of a wooden spoon or a muddler to release the oils.
  4. Cover the teapot or bowl and let the leaves steep for at least 5 to 10 minutes, then remove the strainer pressing on the leaves to extract as much liquid as possible.
  5. Pour into tea cups or mug and sweeten with honey or sugar to taste, if desired.
For iced mint tea: Follow the directions above adding sweetener if using while the tea is still warm. Cool the infusion to room temperature, then store in the fridge. Serve over ice with an additional sprig of fresh mint.
peppermint-tea-352334_1280

Pearl Couscous with Mint and Pecans

Serves 2 as main, 4 as a side

1 medium-sized red onion, cut into slivers
1/2 cup pearl couscous
1/2 cup (plus 2 tablespoons) water
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup fresh mint, chopped (reserve a few whole leaves for garnish)
1/4 cup pecans, roughly chopped and toasted
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large pan on medium heat, sauté the onion in 2 tablespoons of olive oil for approximately 20 minutes. The onion should be soft and slightly caramelized, but not completely reduced. Sprinkle the onions with a dash of salt.

In the meantime, chop the pecans and toast in a smaller pan on a low flame for about 5 minutes. Nuts should be aromatic, just lightly toasted. Stir frequently to prevent burning (they can go from toasty to burnt in just a second, so keep an eye on them the entire time). Chop the mint, reserving a few leaves for garnish.

Place couscous in a medium-large bowl. Boil water, measure it to 1/2 cup mark and add one more little splash. Pour water into bowl with couscous. Cover with foil for about 12 minutes. Remove foil, then add cooked onion, toasted pecans, fresh mint and a tablespoon of olive oil and vinegar. Stir until evenly mixed, and sprinkle with a little fresh mint on top.

506af8bfd9127e30de001595._w.540_h.600_s.fit_

Mint! Explore the wonder!

 

Victims of War: The Wolf Children of East Prussia

“The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them that they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for the lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

Hermann Goering, Nuremberg Diaries

image

I hate war with every fibre of my being! The nationalistic imagined rhetoric, the meglamaniacal leaders, the terrible suffering and the untold casualties. Tracing my heritage in this beautiful country of Poland, reminded me of some of the horrors faced by the most vulnerable …

They called them the Wolf Children – thousands of orphans left behind in the panic and exodus of East Prussian Germans with the Red Army advancing. There were about 20,000 such children from East Prussia alone, not counting other affected areas. Around 5,000 of these children reached Lithuania where they disappeared into orphanages, families and cheap labour … and there they forgot their names, their language, and their childhood.

image

Some of the youngest of these are now turning 80 years of age and after all these forgotten years there is a sudden resurgence of interest in the terrible hardship that they faced. Many experienced the death or their parents and their siblings. Many were abandoned. They faced illness, hunger and horrific abuse. Many have blocked out all early memories.

Under fear of persecution, there was no choice of remembering names and language. They were given an alias and that became their reality. It was only after 1990 that Wolf Children were able to freely pursue any memories they had. The support group, Edelweiss-Wolfskinder, was formed to help these now elderly people, who receive a tiny pension from Lithuania and no support from Germany, unless they can prove their heritage. Lack of language skills and education makes this virtually impossible for many of them.

image

Not all the children made it to Lithuania. Some were put in homes around Koenigsberg (now Kalingrad) by the Soviet military administration from 1946-1947. Later they were transported en masse to homes built for that purpose in the newly established GDR (East Germany). But the children in Lithuania who were too far away never realised this was even an option. Many believed that Germany, like their families, no longer existed.

image

The Wolf Children are a stark reminder of the victims of war. Nowadays people hear their stories and are horrified at the abuse and negligence. However, we need to only remind ourselves that at this very moment we are facing a global crisis of displaced people, mainly women and children, due to war and natural disasters, like we have not experienced since World War II … How will history remember us? We all have a choice in how we respond to the suffering of the traumatised and destitute people that have to flee their countries. May the horrors of history and the lessons they hold not land on ears that have gone deaf because of fear or indifference.

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

Elie Wiesel

image

 

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.”

image

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 …

image

The Magic of St Petersburg

It is somewhat difficult to find the right words to describe the city of St. Petersburg in Russia. I feel a bit like Alice, who was fortunate enough to tumble down an aviatic rabbit hole and land in this magical place.
image
A city of over 5 million people, rich in culture and history, it is hard to believe it is only 300 years old. Founded by Peter the Great, it has caught the imagination of every Russian leader since, and took centre stage during the Russian Revolution in 1917. In 1712, Peter the Great, declared the new city the capital of Russia, displacing Moscow as the seat of government. It remained the capital until 1918, when under Lenin, Moscow was restored to its original primacy. St. Petersburg bore several names: in the 1900s it was called Petrograd, under Lenin it changed to Leningrad, but resumed it’s name of St. Petersburg in 1992.

image

The history of this city is filled with remarkable lives. The founder, Peter the Great, was one of the greatest leaders of the modern world. His wife, Catherine , became the first woman to rule the Russian Empire upon his death. The Romanovs leave an incredible legacy.
When it comes to the world of literature, Russia has produced some of the finest authors and poets of bygone times, and many lived in St. Petersburg: Alexander Pushkin, Nikolay Gogol, Alexander Blok, Anna Akhmatova, Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Brodsky and, of course, Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Unfortunately, our schedule only permitted us to stay for 3 nights, allowing for 2 days of sightseeing. Anyone planning a visit please note: this is simply not long enough! We managed a short visit to St Isaac’s cathedral, the Church on Spilled  Blood, the Cathedral of our Lady Kazan, and St Peter and St Paul Cathedral. Each of these churches tells a distinct story. Their architecture is breathtaking and if time had allowed I would have loved to just sit and absorb the prayers uttered here through the corridors of time. The visit to these churches was included in a 3 hour city tour – worth every dollar.
image

The second day we were met by a new guide; Mr. Michael Fokin, who is a historian, linguist, university lecturer and concerto violinist. A wonderful, intelligent and eccentric man who came alive once he discovered he had two attentive students at his disposal for a whole day 🙂

Out first stop was the summer palace of Catherine the Great. Unfortunately, this luxurious palace is a reconstruction. The first palace was utterly destroyed by the Germans during the siege of World War II – a tragic reminder of the untold number of historical artefacts and buildings annihalated or stolen during the war. Before my visit, I watched the SBS documentary on the Amber Room – most helpful in understanding the story behind this major attraction in the palace. Yet nothing prepares you for the sheer opulence that flows like honey from every available wall space!
image
From the palace we negotiated the traffic to the Hermitage Museum. Unless you are a stress addict, do not try to drive in this city, it’s insane.  The museum is the fourth largest in the world, with over 3 million artefacts, including original works of Monet, Picasso, Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Michaelangelo. By the time we reached the French Impressionist section, I was too tired to truly appreciate the beauty of these works and the unique contribution that the Hermitage offered to my favourite art movement.

image

Our day finished with dinner at the A.C. Pushkin restaurant, the very place where the famous poet drank his last cup of coffee before losing his life in a duel with Georges-Charles de Heeckeren d’Anthes. He was very touchy about his honour and this was his 29th duel!

image

Unfortunately, the time came to say goodbye to this beautiful city and board the train for a 4 hour trip to Russia’s capital, Moscow. I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to visit … and I would come again in a heartbeat!

Tips on visiting St Petersburg:

  •  Inform yourself on the history of the city and what places you would like to visit. Some prior research will only enhance your experience.
  • Go as a student, not an expert.  Embrace the gift of listening and seeking to understand.
  • English is limited. Prior understanding of the Russian alphabet will assist in deciphering shop and street signs and menus. The Google Translator App is a life-saver.
  • Join a tour – the knowledge that an experienced tour guide brings is worth the cost, never mind the relief of not having to organise transport or negotiate long entrance lines.
  • Be aware that Russia is the object of western media stereotyping. Your trip will be far more enjoyable if you go with an open mind and be prepared to be surprised.
  • I can recommend the Hermitage Hotel – very comfortable, quiet and elegant, yet moderately priced by Australian standards.

image

St. Petersburg is a gem of world culture and Russia’s most European city.
– Valentina Matviyenko 

 

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

 P1150601 (1)

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.'”

soldier-750x330

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 …

maxresdefault

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?!

book-2869_1920

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.

person-857021_1280

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).

intelligent-books-to-read-1

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

nasturtium-686987_1280

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.

nasturtium-184990_1280

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.

2013-10-20 15.54.59

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.

IMG_1377

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…
Nasturtium-plate-decorations