Life’s Most Ignored Partner: Death

“It is hard to have patience with people who say, ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ There is death. And whatever it is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter.”
– C.S. Lewis –

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My sprightly father has been researching the price of funerals in the Sunshine Coast. Or should I say, he has been exploring the cheapest possible way to dispose of his body when he dies. His Melbourne plan to donate his body to research at a local university was sabotaged when we moved to the Coast. Never fear, he just discovered that he can save a whopping $2,000 by using a funeral home near Brisbane and he reported his finding to me with a smug sense of satisfaction! As you can tell, I grew up in a home where we talked about death. It was as natural as talking about life. I only discovered that talking about death was a social taboo when I moved to Australia, and strangely enough, especially in church.

It remains somewhat of a mystery to me why people avoid this subject at all cost. Last time I checked, the death rate of Homo sapiens was pretty high – sitting very close to 100%. Death is inevitable. Considering this, why wouldn’t we ensure that we have a will in place (no matter what age) and clear instructions for end-of-life care? “DO NOT RESUSCITATE”, for example, has been emphasised to me by my father. If he could, he would have that clause tattooed on his forehead. I know it’s hard, but we need to talk about our mortality and death with our loved ones.

Our society’s strange avoidance of death is really quite insane. It seems like we fear death so much that we have convinced ourselves that by not talking about it we can dodge it. Anyone grieving the loss of a loved one in such a cultural “Truman Show” is normally met with awkward comments, a change of subject, or, a total lack of contact and care. By refusing to see life and death as part of the human existence we have created hell for those touched by death.

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One of the most famous historians of death, Philippe Ariès, claimed that death became a shameful scandal in modern society, that the dying were hidden away in hospitals and that grieving survivors were silenced to repress this scandal of death: “We ignore the existence of a scandal that we have been unable to prevent; we act as if it did not exist, and thus mercilessly force the bereaved to say nothing. A heavy silence has fallen over the subject of death.” Ariès is amongst a growing chorus of voices calling on society to stop this nutty denial and recognise and humanise death, “Death must simply become the discreet but dignified exit of a peaceful person from a helpful society that is not torn, not even overly upset by the idea of a biological transition without significance, without pain and suffering, and ultimately without fear.” Ignoring our mortality does not make death go away, rather, it creates even greater fear and hysteria about this unavoidable life event.

Looking back it also seems rather strange to me that for the many years I spent in church I only ever heard one whole sermon dedicated to death and preparation for dying. I know not all faith traditions avoid the subject, but in the Pentecostal/Charismatic scene a sound theology of suffering and death still remains fairly undeveloped. In fact, talking about death in these places is taboo. An almost superstitious-like fear hangs in the air, coupled with an often over-emphasis on healing (understood in the limited context of physical symptoms), miracles and positive confessions. The disappointment that an individual who had invested into this ideology encounters when touched by death or suffering cannot be understated. It can take someone years to recover from the toxic idea that God has let them down or they did not have enough ‘faith’ to avoid disaster.

My life and the life of our family was irrevocably changed with the sudden death of my mother in 2007. She played a key role as a very loved matriarch in our family structure. Her absence is felt to this day. C.S. Lewis wrote a most poignant journal where he recorded the death of his beloved wife, Joy, in A Grief Observed. He writes, “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything” and “The death of a loved one is like an amputation.” So I am not for a moment suggesting that talking about death is easy. The very idea of losing the people we love is too sad for words. Yet life requires us not to ignore its partner, death. If the consequences of someone’s absence are so monumental and devastating, we have to be able to talk about our mortality and the decisions that await us or another person in such a tragic event.

Friend, take courage. We do not have much say into life choosing death as its partner. We do have a choice about ensuring that we have things in place for our departure. We also have a choice to talk about death, to discover the wishes of loved ones, and discover the details surrounding wills, accounts, legacy plans, etc. The stories we hear of the distress of people left in chaos when this unpleasant topic has been neglected should be enough to convince us that it is time to defy this silly social taboo and become vocal about mortality. Life is a journey, so is death, and both need our attention.

 

“End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien “Return of the King” –

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Assumptions: The Noxious Weeds of Relationships

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” 
– Isaac Asimov – 
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The front garden demolition has started. Since moving into this house in November, I have been eyeing the garden beds, overgrown with weeds and noxious plants that have taken the liberty to propagate in the fertile soil. After several months of hectic commuting back and forth from Melbourne, the time has come to get stuck into these green runaways.

As we are pulling out barrow loads of weedy squatters, we began to notice the richness of the soil and the very happy earthworms that call this place home. Under the tangle there are decorative rocks and stepping stones – someone once loved this garden. I had suspected that the ramble of weeds was a sure sign that no one ever bothered to care for the garden, but that was not the truth. I had simply assumed it.

Assumptions are such toxic and interesting brain critters. We all tend to create a narrative that we live by and from which we view the world. This narrative affects our relationships – our families, friendships, and workplace. We assume things of people and often these assumptions can be negative. We jump to conclusions that are not only wrong, but hurtful. We may assume how someone would like to be treated in a certain circumstance, but fail to realise that we are simply processing a situation from our vantage point, assuming that our friend or partner thinks the same.

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Assumptions are a bit like those noxious weeds that I am digging out of my front garden. They take over. They create perceptions that are false and before long the beautiful garden of relationship has been invaded by these uninvited, paranoid guests.

It is so easy to create stories in our heads and assume the worst. Someone does not respond to our text and before long we have a complete seven volume series written in our heads about the drama that has unfolded in their world, what we may have done to upset them, and how we can never trust them again. In the meantime, our friend has dropped her phone into the toilet, her husband has the man-flu, her children are late for school, and someone has blown up their letter box. Assumptions are not helpful.

We can assume things from our dearest and nearest. We can assume that they should know what we are thinking and in turn behave in the appropriate manner like a telepathic teletubby or Martian Manhunter. When they fail to read our minds and, alas, show total disregard to the untold story in our head, we become resentful. We assume they are hurting our feelings on purpose. In the meantime, our partner is wondering what has brought on the storm clouds! So if you do not verbally communicate your feelings or make your requests known, please understand that there is a 0% chance of your partner or family member knowing what you want!

Oh, and then there’s indirect assumptions! For instance, second hand information that sounds so true and reliable, we simply have to buy it hook, line and the darn sinker.  Second hand information is not beneficial. People hear what they want to hear and will re-write and re-tell a story from that perspective. We all have lenses through which we look at the world and all of our lenses are slightly distorted. Learn to be sceptical about things you hear second hand. You can save yourself a lot of trouble and you can save your relationships.

We all have learnt the treacherous trait of assuming, dear friend. It benefits us to regularly put on the garden gloves and do a decent weed through the fertile furrows of our brain and radically clean up our assumptions. It is amazing how good the world looks after such an exercise.

“The explanation requiring the fewest assumptions is most likely to be correct.”
– William of Ockham –
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Saying Goodbye Sucks!

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

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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

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In the Path of the Storm

“We live in a world that is beyond our control, and life is in a constant flux of change. So we have a decision to make: keep trying to control a storm that is not going to go away or start learning how to live within the rain.” 
– Glenn Pemberton
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Ten days ago we had a huge wind storm here in Melbourne. The effect of this storm was felt for days afterwards as trees came crashing down, blocking roads and cutting of power supply to hundreds of homes. Bushwalking with my fur children this morning, the pug became very engrossed in inspecting the huge root system of a massive gum tree that stood in the path of the storm and now lay smitten across our regular walking track. There is a whole separate, tiny ecosystem that lives under these wooden giants.

The storm that came brought winds of over 100 kilometres per hour. It seemed to come out of nowhere. No one could predict its path accurately. Storms come when they want to, how they want to, and where they want to. Even our most modern societies stand little chance when Mother Nature thunders with terrifying magnificence.

Every year we witness all sorts of storms which beat up a part of our planet. Somewhere, someone will be in its path and the result is never pleasant. Superstition and extreme religious views often fuel the misery. Storms have been considered as God punishing innocent people for hundreds of years. The marginalised and oppressed people groups, according to some, are always to blame for the heartache that storms bring. And people, afraid of disasters, buy the complete voodoo spiel!

Perhaps it is easier to blame someone for storms than to face the fact that storms are part of life? Perhaps, when people buy into a religion that tells them that no bad things will ever happen to them and that their God always protects them from storms, the natural reaction to disaster is to look for a cause? How easily we revert to karma; the idea of some angry, retributive ‘god’ that needs appeasing. It is very uncomfortable to think that just like my gum tree friend, now lying by my feet and being inspected by the pug, we too will find ourselves in the path of storms not of our own making but simply because storms come when they want to, how they want to, and where they want to. Storms, dear friend, are a part of life.

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There will be days, months, years, when it will feel like your life is directly in the path of an unyielding, merciless storm. Most of the time we don’t have a clue why this is so. Guard your heart against the ‘counsellors’ that will attempt to pontificate from their perceived moral high ground or soap box into your life. You don’t need to take their rhetoric board. You see, friend, storms come when they want to, how they want to, and where they want to. They come into the lives of the just and the unjust, they will rage in palaces and the poorest hovels, they will find a path through the most modern city and the deepest jungle. Storms are what storms are … and now and then we will find ourselves in the path of a storm.

Faith does not guarantee the ceasing of storms in your life. Storms come and go. Trying to create a religious ideology that ‘storm proofs’ our lives will only bring deep disappointment and resentment. Faith recognises that the Divine walks with us ‘through’ the storms. You are not anymore loved, holy or special because you have not experienced many storms. Neither is there anything ‘wrong’ with you if you happen to find yourself in the path of a storm.

Storms, after all, come when they want to, how they want to, and where they want to … and you, dear friend, are still loved.

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The Broken Birch


“Wholeness does not mean perfection; it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life” – Parker J. Palmer

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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 …

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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

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Those Fascinating Melbourne Lanes

The beautiful city of Melbourne is home to over four million people. It’s the ‘youngest’ of all the world cities. It is hard to imagine that this sprawling capital of Victoria, Australia’s second largest city, did not exist 180 years ago.
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In 1835, John Batman, an Australian grazier and entrepreneur from Van Diemen’s land (modern day Tasmania), signed a transaction with eight chiefs of the local Wurundjeri tribe, along a quiet stream, possibly Merri Creek in Northcote. He bought 500,000 acres in exchange for a few household goods. This transaction, although later rejected by the government, was the foundation of Melbourne. It became the only major Australian city established without government sanction. By 1836, the settlement had reached 177 settlers.

In March 1837, Governor Sir Richard Bourke proclaimed Melbourne a town and chose the name in honour of the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Lord Melbourne. During his visit he was joined by Robert Hoddle, a senior surveyor for New South Wales. Hoddle had less than a month to peg out allotments to allow for government land sales. He designed wide main streets with narrow laneways.

The grid that Hoddle planned proved problematic as the lanes became crowded, dirty and a breeding ground for criminals, while the wider streets were prone to flooding. Despite these troublesome beginnings, Melbourne’s grid has become an iconic feature of the city and is a reminder of the ambitious goals of the settlers.
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Melbourne’s lanes originated at Governor Bourke’s insistence to provide access to buildings from the rear, service lanes for horses and carts. Many of these lanes did not exist in the original layout of the grid, but began to emerge out of necessity as Melbourne faced a huge influx of immigrants during the Gold Rush era of the 1850s. There are many fascinating stories of how Chinese and European immigrants helped shape the cultural landscape of the city and the philanthropic organisations, which were active in offering assistance to the poor.
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The laneways, which were once notorious for crime, homelessness and prostitution, have today become places of enormous cultural, historical and social significance. Today they bustle with restaurants, one-off shops, galleries and bars. Every lane brings its own style of gothic-like ambience, quirkiness and charm, never failing to delight locals and visitors alike. Of course it is also an undisputed fact, that the best cup of coffee in the world will be brewed in one of these narrow alleys.Hosier_Lane_Installations_Melbourne-1
Melbourne is recognised as one of the world’s street art capitals. Hosier Lane is one of my very favourite. The inspired and beautiful art pieces bring life and soul to the city. Forget any ideas about graffiti tagging or vandalism, this is sophisticated urban art.
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There are over two hundred laneways (alleys, arcades, places, lanes, walks & ways) in the Central Business District alone, many of them are under threat as they do not fall into the strict heritage precinct. So take some time out and wander. Wander the lanes before they move into their next phase or are totally lost. Get off the main street and take a marvellous detour – you won’t regret it. These lanes tell stories of yesterday and they are always full of pleasant surprises.

Some Recommendations:
Serious about coffee? Try Manchester Press on Rankins Lane.
Serious about art galleries? Try these on Flinders Lane: Flinders Lane Gallery, Arc One Gallery or Karen Woodbury Gallery.
Serious about spices? Try Sichuan House in Corrs Lane or Gewürzhaus in the Block Arcade.
Serious about tea? Try Lupecia Fresh Tea in Artemis Lane.
Want a huge choice of food in one tiny lane? Try Degraves Street.
All this exploring will make you very thirsty – in which case you will need a decent  German beer in Market Lane.
Prost to Melbourne and it’s fascinating lanes.
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