Monday, December 30, 2013

To consider the cannonball effect

I was browsing through a library book, "A Complaint Free World" by Will Bowen. One anecdote stands out in my mind, perhaps because we are approaching the beginning of another new year. It's about a house painter named Mike who had an idea to dip a standard baseball in leftover paint at the end of each day in his garage, just out of idle curiosity to see how big it would get. The result surprised even him.

Will Bowen and his daughter were invited to come and see it after he had been doing the daily dip for several years. They found a massive thing, the size of a cannon ball hanging from steel girders. He asked them if they'd like to apply that day's coat of paint, and it took them 15 minutes to get it evenly covered. What amazed them all was the fact that each individual coat of paint was about the width of a hair. Visible proof that lots of small actions, if persisted in, result in something formidably huge.

Bowen took it as an analogy for his complaint free world. Each individual decision to stay cheerful and not make an issue of annoyances may result in a transformed personality which automatically leans toward the optimistic option. I started to reflect that the principle applies to absolutely anything we can think of.

We all know that individually, one yummy Lindor chocolate ball or Cadbury Freddo frog doesn't contain enough calories to put on much weight. If you indulge in them a lot, though, they become like those coats of paint, and your waistline ends up much thicker. One jog up a steep mountain path may result in no difference on the scales, which contestants on "The Biggest Loser" have discovered many times, but making a habit of it can get that flab moving. Brain science has shown that one thought, repeated over again several times, results in an entrenched attitude that wears a pathway, similar to the ones we see worn across the paddocks near our house, by lots of pedestrians taking short cuts to the wetlands.

Each late December I hear plenty of negative comments about making new year's resolutions.  "We might as well not even bother. By February, we're back to our old habits, or April at the latest." No, that's a gloomy attitude masquerading as realistic. By February, the baseball hasn't grown very big at all, and it's easy to look at the thinness of each individual coat of paint. It's right about then that we could benefit from reminding ourselves about the huge, impressive cannonball we could create, if only we persevere. I like new year's resolutions and begin a couple every January. I'd encourage everyone to do the same, if there's something in your life you wouldn't mind reversing or changing.

Even if you decide, "I need to accept myself more, and not get into the self-help trap of thinking there's always something wrong with me that I need to change," that's still a resolution, if you're not used to thinking that way. In fact, that may well be one of mine.

Mother Teresa vividly showed this principle with the poor in Calcutta, that thousands of small gestures, repeated over and over, may produce a wonderfully productive and difference-making life. It doesn't have to be that grandiose or self-sacrificing. I'd extend the analogy to blogs like this one. Although our numbers of followers may change and drop-off over the years, each post may result in a thick volume of awesome material which our descendants will love. In this one's case, I hope the number of small, serendipitous thoughts that just occur to me may morph into something bigger with the potential to amuse people who want a bit of simple inspiration.

I wish everyone who may read this a hopeful, healthy and productive 2014.

Monday, December 9, 2013

that we choose our own version of success

I've been reading a bit about this man and his philosophy. It's Henry David Thoreau and he became one of the world's most famous non-conformists.

It seems he'd tried to live as others did. In his twenties, he'd taken on the jobs of teacher, surveyer, gardener, farmer, house-painter, carpenter, mason, day-labourer, pencil-maker and glass-paper maker. He found aspects of each of them disappointing and decided to no longer be included among the 'mass of men who lead lives of quiet desperation' as he put it.

In 1845, aged 27, Thoreau set off to build himself a rough, basic house on the shores of Walden Pond. He intended to work for just six weeks of each year (probably helping farmers get their crops in or something like that) and figured out how to live off just 27c per week for the rest of the year. During the other 46 weeks of the year, he reflected on nature, read, wrote in his journal and walked. Sounds pretty good to me.

He had one bed, a table, a desk, 3 chairs, a small mirror and some cooking utensils in his one-room house. Thoreau studiously avoided anything 'the world' would consider successful. He dodged all forms of work to the greatest extent possible, which turned out to be a lot.

"Joy and sorrow, success and failure, grandeur and meanness do not mean for me what they do for my neighbours," he wrote. Just to make his outlook crystal clear, he added, "If a man has spent all his days about some business by which he's grown rich, has got much money, many houses, barns and woodlots, then his life would have been a failure, I think. Normal society man has no interest that can tempt me. Not one." Ignoring his neighbours and choosing to 'march to the beat of his own drum' came easily to him.

His contemporaries only scoffed at him, including intellectuals like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott, the father of Louisa May Alcott. But as one of my books says, "to a true eccentric like Thoreau, earning the disdain of others, or at least puzzling them, is a sign of success." As for his own personal job description, he called himself the self-appointed and unpaid inspector of snowstorms and rainstorms.

Here is one of his most famous quotes, which I'm sure we've all come across many times. "If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours." We see this splashed over cards and souvenir merchandise in gift shops. It's in the offices of high-flyers on desk calendars and wall hangings. All sorts of business people and VIPs quote it. It's become one of the mantras of wealth creation teachers. How ironic, to think that it came from a man who didn't care a fig for all that, and in fact, stood for the opposite of what they stand for and wasn't afraid to say it.

And how funny to think that so many twenty-first century ambitious go-getters quote it glibly, along with the one about marching to the beat of their own drum, without knowing the background of their creator. They may or may not recognise the name of Henry David Thoreau, but I'm sure they claim that his words resonate with them. I wonder what his reaction would be to the irony that they have latched so fervently onto his sayings. No less, is the irony that tourists from all over the world visit his little house on the shore of Walden Pond to this very day, but possibly shun the fellow down the road who is really living in the spirit of Thoreau, the one who lives in a little shack, clothing himself from Good Will shops, heating his baked beans over a little campfire each night and reading his books by torchlight.

I have to say I find his attitude refreshing. Henry David was the real deal, not part of a group who dress the same, eat the same, surreptitiously study the way people such as themselves are 'meant' to think and wear their supposed non-conformity like badges. He wasn't a burden on the tax payer, because he genuinely earned his 27c per week, and Centrelink payments weren't even an option. This gives us exciting freedom and potential, when it comes to defining what the 'success' in his quote may mean to us. I applaud Thoreau for deciding on his own values and sticking to them without being swayed by what people were saying. The lives of people such as him remind me that, hey, even if I don't look successful, by what criteria am I making the judgment? When I start feeling like a flop, I can remember Thoreau, and he reminds me that I've moved the measuring stick by which I determine my values. That's right, I'm not going by job description, bank account total or academic letters after my name. My personal values are time spent with family, laughing at their jokes, listening to them, reading good books, writing some stuff, noticing things when I go for walks, and encouraging my kids to focus on their own values with the tool of homeschooling. I find it easier to think of myself as successful with these things as my gauge.

I've never been to America, but if I ever do, I'd like to visit that little house, and I've got the book "Walden" on my kindle to dip into sometimes when I feel reflective. 

Friday, November 8, 2013

We brush past an amazing hidden world

We live in a commercial, western world which encourages us to put ourselves forward and get attention. This is understandable when you consider that businesses need customers so that employees can be paid, so that families can comfortably earn a wage they need to survive. But just because that's the way we've been brought up to think things have to be, I've been wondering if it's necessarily the way the world was designed to operate.

A fair bit of photography has been taking place around our house. When we were up in Cairns, my nephew and my daughter both bought themselves good quality Nikon cameras. We've never owned anything with such a decent zoom lens before, and I've been enjoying the close-ups.

On the train back from Kuranda to Cairns, we were looking down at the spectacular Barron Falls and noticed a walking group standing beside the edge. Emma decided to zoom in on them with her camera to get a closer look at what they were doing, and to her shock, one fellow unzipped his fly and started to relieve himself over the edge of the waterfall. Her eyes were popping out of her head. "It's the guy in the yellow t-shirt!" Even though he was apparently still flowing, they all looked like ants to me. Being able to use that camera to pry into things not easily seen with the human eye has its moments of surprise.

On that same ride, a plain looking little bird on a distant sign post turned out to be a pretty kingfisher with delicate shades of blue. We'd never have realised it. Since we've been home in Adelaide, I've continued to be surprised at fine detail we usually miss. The shaggy wings of a close-up little moth are just like Mr Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street, or some sort of fringed garment. A tiny bug on the side of the guinea pig hutch turns out to have amazing detail in each of his wings, finer than any pencil point could draw. It fills me with awe at how delicately and wonderfully crafted the details of creation are, yet we so often breeze past without noticing.

Funnily enough, it's helped me put my writing in perspective. The same probably goes for you, whatever it is you do. If God gets his fine craftsmanship and breath-taking detail brushed past every day, then humans doing creative things don't have to worry when the same thing happens to us. Creativity doesn't have to be admired. That's not its main purpose, whatever we've been brainwashed to think. It's there for its own sake, and if anyone does get a bit of a 'wow' when they get a glimpse into secret places, that's a bonus.

For one of his recent birthdays, I took my youngest son and his sister down to the city to visit the museum. There had been school excursions getting hands-on lectures from a group of scientists, and we were lucky enough to arrive at the tail end of a presentation. As the school kids were filing out, one of the demonstrators was at a loose end. He invited my kids to come over and pick tiny particles out of a mound of dirt with tweezers. It turned out to contain lots of hidden secrets.

As Emma or Blake pulled up anything a little bigger than a normal speck of dust, he'd magnify it for them and say something like, "That is the back knee joint of a tiny gnat," or "That's the shoulder socket of an ancient grasshopper," or, "That's part of a marsupial's toe nail." They had him all to themselves for about half an hour.

I'm reminded of my characters, Brooke and Aidan, in "The Greenfield Legacy", the novel I worked on with three other authors. In one of my sections, Brooke tells Aidan about seeing a flower blooming on top of a lonely hill where people rarely go, and that she found herself wondering what purpose such extravagance could serve, to which he replies, "Well, you saw it."

The world is extravagant like that. On our holiday, Blake and I went on a glass bottom boat. It's a vividly colourful, vibrant world down there, but it's usually hidden from human view. Clown fish and turtles were just doing their usual thing, not knowing that several people were getting a peep into their secret world. I'm also reminded of pregnancy ultrasounds, when babies are just wriggling around, doing whatever it is they do at that stage of their lives, oblivious to the fact that they are being observed, and people are saying, "Look at his dear little fingers."

As I said, I don't necessarily think the world was designed for people to be thrusting themselves into the limelight, but we've felt we had to make it that way. I'll keep encouraging the kids to take photos, watching nature documentaries and work on their own creatives pursuits as I do the same. As it is such an incredibly detailed world, it's a shame to live our lives not delving into it and finding out more.

All photos were taken by Emma with her new camera.

Friday, October 18, 2013

That we may have Mount Everest syndrome

I was studying this huge mountain with my younger son. It's so impressive, being the world's tallest, at 8848 metres high. Apparently it still grows by about 0.25 inches each year, even at 60 million years old. It was first identified by a British survey team lead by George Everest in 1841, but not until 1953 did anyone manage to reach the summit. It was achieved by Sir Edmund Hillary from New Zealand and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa guide, making them instantly famous.

I applaud Junko Tabei, the first female to reach the top, not to mention Miura Yiuchiro, the oldest person to reach the top, aged 80, just last year in May 2013. I'm about half that age and just hiking the hills around home gets me huffing and puffing. Flinders Ranges' Mount Remarkable was almost too much for me, at 960 metres. Over time, thousands of people have tried to reach the top of Everest, and many nameless folk have died making the attempt, in the name of thrill seeking or notoriety. My nephew's karate sensei spent some of these last holidays climbing part of it. Even though he has a fitness level of an Olympic athlete, he didn't even attempt to make it all the way up. He told them all stories about the thinness of the atmosphere, and the many stops they would make just to get their breath back and conquer that altitude sickness. Something about a challenge of that magnitude appeals to the adventurous streak that lies buried in all of us, some deeper than others.

Yet it would seem that, from space, it is a different story. From a vantage point of that magnitude, Mount Everest is merely part and parcel of the crust of the earth. In fact, it was even surprisingly difficult to single out. Russian cosmonaut, Valentin Lebedev, said, "How many people dream of conquering Everest so they can look down from it, yet for us up above, it was difficult to locate."

This God's eye perspective, as it were, instantly made me feel peaceful, although I had to think about it to figure out why. Finally, I got it. It's all to do with the fact that it is we humans who label things with significance and importance, by deeming them big or impressive from our vantage point. As it's not at all the same for God, we needn't worry about buying into all that.

We make Everests out of many things. Humans are those who spread the illusion that some lines of work are way more illustrious than others, and that achieving celebrity-hood or stardom in some area must be the pinnacle. I now like to think that from a lofty enough heavenly perspective, all the good we do just becomes part of the earth's fabric. That means we don't really have to bust our boilers, burst our blood vessels and strain our Type A personalities to impress the people walking around down here, who share our limited focus.

I imagine some member of the angelic host from way above whose vantage point is more like that of Lebedev and his fellow astronauts, saying, "What Mother Teresa and Billy Graham have done is wonderful, but it's just part of the fabric of what love-driven servants are doing everywhere. Look at Jane Doe, looking after her sick mother and working hard as a single parent to support her son through college. Or Joe Blogs the bus driver, sticking to road rules and greeting all his passengers cheerfully, day after day. It's all one and the same, and we love it."

If we've ever been afraid of never hearing, "Well done, good and faithful servant," thinking our work is too little or measly to justify the space we take, it might be time to get over our Mount Everest syndrome. When I finish writing this blog post, I'm going to go and clean my kitchen, take my young son for a night walk, then before long I'll be hopping in the car to pick my daughter up from youth group, about 20 minutes drive away. I'll have to remind myself that it's all adding to crust of love-driven deeds that makes the earth a great place to live, even if it's not Mount Everest.

Monday, October 14, 2013

We really should consider the birds

 Emma and Blake at Wildlife Habitat, Port Douglas, with a pair of tawny frogmouths.

 I have to add this albino kookaburra from the Zoom Wildlife Dome, Cairns. He was beautiful.

Two members of our household have been interested in birdwatching recently; my nephew, Jarrad, and my daughter, Emma. They both bought new cameras to help them zoom in really close on their subjects. And next door to our housing estate is a wetlands area which is a haven for birdwatchers. All this probably helped spike my interest. I've just finished reading an interesting book called, "Consider the Birds" by Debbie Blue, and I've been mulling over some of her stories and research. Not only have different birds stood as symbols of different things for aeons, but I've been thinking about how the state of human beings and our priorities may be reflected in the health of our bird populations. Most of the facts I cite here are from that book.

Back in the 1960s, America almost threatened one of its prized emblems, the bald eagle, with extinction. It was all because of the widespread use of the pesticide DDT to spray crops. It seems one of the side effects impacted the eagle. It interfered with their ability to process calcium. As a result, their egg shells were so frail that they'd crack when the parents sat on them to keep them warm. The situation got so serious that there were only 417 recorded nesting pairs across the nation in 1963. Although DDT has long since been banned, it's only been 2007 since the bald eagle has been removed from the endangered species list.

More recently, the massive oil spill off the American coast from the Deepwater Horizon rig had devastating effects on the pelican population. It unleashed more than 170 million gallons of crude oil straight into the Gulf of Mexico. As a result, pelicans were drenched and immobilised, unable to try to stretch their wings without agony. This sort of 'accident' is not OK. It's far more than just a simple "Ooops."

In Genesis, man was given the mandate to be a good steward of that which was entrusted to him. It's both heartbreaking and scary when you consider that birds, which have been linked in their genetic makeup to dinosaurs, with their ancient history on earth, may be threatened by ignorant and thoughtless human activity within a decade, a few years, or maybe even a day in the case of massive oil spills. It would seem that humans are definitely the most dangerous breed of mammals. Some of us Aussies may be old enough to remember our TV personality, Derryn Hinch, shaking his head sadly in the '80s and saying, "We treat this planet as if it belongs to someone else."

I've heard people say, "What's a few bird species, anyway? People are more important than birds. I don't get environmentalists. Let's concentrate on making living conditions better for human beings." And some even consider certain birds a type of pest, and that they are doing the world a favour by getting rid of them. In the light of these further stories in the book, I consider this sort of thinking shortsighted to say the least.

When you look at vultures, you may see creepy-looking opportunists, hovering around to take their bit of flesh without any choosiness at all. They were the subjects of horror stories which gave me the heebie-jeebies. Yet at one time in India, Nepal and Pakistan, a painkiller named diclofenac began to be fed to lifestock from a pharmaceutical company. It turned out to be poisonous to the vultures which fed on their carcasses, and as a result, tens of millions of vultures died from kidney failure.

What people didn't expect is the havoc to the environment which resulted from the loss of the vulture. Festering cattle haboured anthrax, and there were surges of rabies due to an increase in the population of feral dogs, which were thriving without vultures around to compete for the food sources. Harmful diseases began to spread everywhere, and as you'd expect, once humans were directly affected, it became a different story. The drug was banned to save the vultures.

Even common little grey sparrows have an important role. (My daughter, Emma, loves these, by the way. Their ordinariness seems to be endearing to her.) In China, Mao Tse-Tung encouraged people to eradicate the tree sparrow, in his "Four Pests" campaign. The other three were rats, flies and mosquitoes. So the little bird was brought to the brink of extinction by over-zealous followers, and suddenly locusts and other crop-eating insects flourished, which were definitely far more of a pest. There were no sparrows to eat them, so they were free to decimate human crops. The resulting crop loss contributed to the Great Famine which killed more than 30 million people. How amazing, that a disaster of this immensity can be linked to the loss of a drab little grey bird.

It seems Mao ended up taking the sparrow off his hit-list, to replace it with the bedbug.

This sort of story speaks to me. We can apply it further than the birds. We should respect ourselves. Even when we don't seem to be contributing much, (or are even called repulsive or a nuisance in some cases), we are really serving a grand purpose in the ordinary roles we have, of caring for our families, keeping things clean and offering kind words to others now and then. Nature is designed by a wise creator. We meddle with it at our peril. These birds obviously served an important ecological function which was discovered and appreciated almost too late.

An internet quote going around tells us, "A man is judged by the way he treats those who can do nothing for him." And in the case of the birds, it turned out to prove that they really were doing something for mankind after all. It all suggests that we shouldn't underestimate any creature. St Francis of Assisi went around calling the bird and animal kingdom his brothers and sisters. I think he was onto something.

Not long ago, I was walking around my neighbourhood and witnessed an act of heroism. A poor, noisy lorikeet was getting pounced on by a cat. The cat had him, flapping around in his jaws, and then another lorikeet swooped down from a tree and zoomed straight for the side of the cat's head. The action saved his squawking friend, because the cat got surprised, loosened its grip, and both birds flew away.

Those who talk about the 'dumb' beasts may need to re-think their definition of intelligence. Any creature who migrates for miles with their own wing power, without the benefit of maps or compasses, and sits patiently on their nests until the job is done deserves a bit of respect.

One night, my son, Blake, and I were walking in the dark and weren't far from our house when we saw a huge tawny frogmouth sitting on a short pole. These are Aussie birds which look a bit like owls and also a bit like a tree trunk. It let us walk right to it and just stayed, giving us this wise sort of scrutiny from its big eyes. We were even talking to it, wishing it would talk back. I couldn't help wondering what it was thinking, and if it was there as we passed for any deeper reason.

It looked so settled and peaceful, I said, "Would you mind staying there for a moment, while we go home and get our camera? It'll only take about two minutes." We hurried off but when we got back, he was gone. We've never seen a tawny frogmouth out in our part of suburbia again, let alone such a bold one, and I can't help wondering what he was all about.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Traditions are like oranges

Isn't it funny how siblings brought up within the one family can be so totally different from each other? Logan, my eldest, has had a wonderful linguistic memory from the time he was a toddler. Emma, my middle child, has more of a hands-on, creative style. She loves working with textiles and visual images to express herself. Blake, our youngest, is turning out to be more of a factual, mathematical, dry sort of character.

Anyway, Logan, as a toddler, had a wonderful memory and a great flair for words. He used to want me to read him his favourite books over and over again. One of them was Dr Seuss' "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish." Even though he's now a young man of 18, I can still close my eyes and remember his cute, high-pitched voice reciting, "From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere."

I remember the time he sat on my sister-in-law's knee, supposedly 'reading' books to her. Whenever she turned the page, he'd rattle off all the words on them. This happened book after book, and she thought he was amazing. We told her that he wasn't really reading, he'd just memorised all the books because he couldn't get enough of them.But to all appearances, this 18-month-old boy was actually reading words on a page. Even though it looked impressive, appearances can be misleading, because Logan wasn't really reading at all. He was just reciting what he'd heard so many times.

It makes me wonder how often we get the wool pulled over our eyes by people who sound informed, intelligent and even passionate, but are really just spouting stuff they've heard over and over again. How often do we do it ourselves? As a high school and early Uni student, I had a deep desire to know more about God. In retrospect, I went about it the wrong way. Joining like-minded groups seemed a great things to do, but I wanted so badly to fit in, be part of the group and not show up any ignorance that I just listened to the 'Christianese' words, phrases and terminology others were saying, and started copying. I fooled myself into thinking that I knew quite a bit and sounded wise. Nothing more sad than the illiterate who genuinely think they are reading. At least baby Logan knew he couldn't really read.

 I did genuinely believe that as these people had been Christians for longer than I ever had, what they were saying must be right. It took some time before it dawned on me that I hadn't really much of a clue about what I was talking about. Although I still have a long way to go, I've been amazed that a bit of personal further study has revealed aspects of which I'd been completely ignorant. And the scary thing is, during that earlier time in my life, I used to think I knew quite a lot. It reminds me to never get cocky about anything, because in another few years, I may still look back thinking how far I had to go. We'll probably all be doing this until our final days.

Imagine two A-students, Dux-of-the-School types standing together. One of them likes to genuinely think about the content of what he is studying and make informed decisions about the material to the best of his ability. The other is simply a parrot with a good memory who can easily spout off stuff for exams. And you can't tell them apart by looking at them, so you're equally inclined to ask either of them for advice.

It makes me think what a double-edged and potentially dangerous sword tradition can be; both misleading and wonderful. I'm talking about all sorts of traditions, including church rituals, holiday customs and educational institutions. They can be misleading as it is so easy for people to simply switch off their brains and go through the motions, especially after participating thousands of times since they were young. Parents possibly don't teach their children the deeper meaning of traditions, because at the start, they seem too young to understand, then later, because the child has been going along for so often, you assume the answers must just simply be part of their mental fabric. But it isn't.

 You may even find that the parents themselves are a bit sketchy on the deeper meanings of the traditions, because their own parents and teachers assumed the same thing about them. This results in a crazy culture like "The Emperor's New Clothes."  We're all going along saying, "Isn't his suit beautiful?" or the equivalent, "Wasn't that a lovely service?" while others are nodding and saying, "It sure was." Yet it may surprise us to really find out whether we are penetrating the depth of the tradition, or just mouthing the motions, as Logan, aged one year, did with Dr Seuss. Maybe we just don't like to admit to anybody, including ourselves, that we seem to be looking at a big, fat naked guy.

On the other hand, traditions can be wonderful when they really are saturated with meaning. It's great when we take time to peel back some of the layers to get to the juicy flesh. I guess traditions may be a bit like sweet, juicy oranges. I'm positive that when we ask, enquire, research and delve, we'll find that even the inane-seeming traditions are based on true meaning that has lasted for centuries. I'd encourage us all to seek for meaning of all sorts of traditions we may enter into illiterately and mindlessly. Traditions about the upcoming Christmas season, traditions about the old tunes we sing, sayings we quote and nursery rhymes we recite, traditions concerning our church services and school customs.  I like the thought of being literate in regard to the traditions we spout.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

We are like Pavlov's dog

I was getting my breakfast and found myself humming a tune I don't care for. It's one of the jazz numbers Andrew has been practising for his end-of-year performance at Uni. He was sitting at the computer, listening to two random chords being played over and over. He does that sometimes, to fix a tiny little bit of the song in his head. "Boom Boom... Boom Boom... Boom Boom." It's very repetitive, as the kids would agree. At one time, I was surprised to learn that it isn't just elementary music students who need to go over and over this sort of thing, but Uni students who are a matter of weeks away from finishing a Bachelor of Music.

"I don't know why I'm humming this," I said. "There are so many songs I prefer."

He started grinning. "You're humming the chorus to this song I'm working on, and I wasn't even going to play that. The bit with these two notes is from way further back in the song."

"What? That's not from the same song, is it?" If anybody had asked me, I would have said they had nothing remotely in common. What's more, he'd slowed his two notes down so they were impossible to recognise. Then when he showed me where those two notes fit into the song at their normal speed, I had to believe him. I'd been humming the song's chorus because I'd fallen victim to one of those subliminal, unconscious things that hypnotists and advertising agencies like to use to their advantage.

It's sort of unsettling when you think about it. There's a scary, woo-woo sort of quality about it. I remembered a card trick which the kids have been practising recently. You ask your victim to pick a card, any card, but sweep your hands in such a way that they are led to think of hearts. They say it seems to work more often than not.

So there I am, assuming that my mind is totally under my control, when really it's as porous as a cell membrane. It seems it's at the mercy of tiny things so subtle they can't help flying under the radar into my head. How many times a day do we assume that we're performing some action because we've chosen to, when in reality some outside factor is pulling the string? Even our bodies react without our conscious knowledge. If I'd been on Pavlov's table, as partial to meat as his dog, I'd no doubt be slathering with the best of them whenever I heard that bell ring.

But what if we don't want all that stuff the world filters through our minds? There seems no way we can prevent it, when rogue influences are as sneaky, subtle and fine-tuned as that. It would appear we have no choice but to go with the flow, but I hate to accept the ramifications of that. It puts us in a position to be pulled around and manipulated, all the while claiming to be the instigator of every thought that occurs to us. That sounds like the subject of horror stories but it's for real.

I'm sure the only way out of the helplessness is the fact that conscious choices do have impact over time, but we must be vigilant. Over the past few years, I'd got tired of being scared all the time, reacting to vague threats of many things which never turned out to be grounded in reality. I've been trying to counter impressions of intense fear or dread with specific weapons. Mine are selected Bible verses and other quotes which resonate with truth. I'd recite them to myself, or say, "I don't have to worry about such-and-such because Jesus has promised never to leave or forsake me. I'm told by the ultimate authority that all things will work out for good."

For some time, this reminded me of those cheesy affirmations that people place on their bathroom mirrors and car dashboards. I wondered if they'd have any effect, and it turns out, they do. There have been signs that I'm on the right track. In my dreams a few times, some nasty old fears have sneaked up on me, about to pounce and turn my rest into a nightmare. Suddenly, I'm reminded that I don't buy into all this frightening stuff any more, but have something stronger to base my trust on. Although I still have some way to go, I'm pleased with the progress. If you can counteract something in your sleep, you must be doing something right.

I like the anonymous fellow who said, "Don't believe everything you think." I love the evidence discovered recently by scientists such as Dr Caroline Leaf and Dr Bruce Lipton that even our bodies physiologies tend to change according to the deliberate thoughts we consistently fill our minds with.
I think somebody might have also said something like, "Just because a thought or impression is in your head, it doesn't mean that you put it there," but as I can't think of whoever it might have been, I'll claim that one myself for now.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

That someone has us covered

Near the end of our lovely holiday last month, Emma, Blake and I caught the sky rail from Cairns up to Kuranda and explored this little hippy market town all day before returning on the Kuranda train late in the afternoon. We saw some great things, including a rehabilitation hostel for sick and injured bats and flying foxes. In one stall, I discovered a pretty hat big enough for someone like me, with a larger than average head. Some things, you know you just have to buy.

At lunch time, we came across a nice rainforest cafe, and I told the kids that we'd be able to splash out on a sandwich each, as the menu prices were far cheaper than those I'd seen at other places. A couple of times earlier in the holiday, we'd made sandwiches in the morning to take with us, along with bottles of water. But this time, we could do it. I'd even treat Emma, who'd been spending money she'd saved up from her part-time job.

She chose a gourmet wrap, but Blake kept shaking his head and saying, "I don't want one." Now, I knew it was unusual for him not to be hungry. Whenever we get the chance, sandwiches from cafes and bakeries are his favourites. He even looked interested in the food photos on the menu. We kept asking him if he was sure, and trying to tempt him with yummy items. He kept shaking his head and saying, "I'll have nothing."

By this stage, I was getting tired of trying to talk him into what I knew he really wanted.

"You'll have to tell me right now, because I'm about to go up and order. If you don't come out with something, I'll get you a tub of chips by default, because I can't read your mind."

He kept looking solemn and muttering something about being happy with the plain old sandwiches we'd made. So I ordered chips for him, as I said, although I was sure he would have chosen something different if he was in the right mood. But I was irritated with all those attempts of persuasion, which wasn't working.

Later that night, as is often the way with him, he came out with what was really on his mind. This time, it was after we'd got home to my sister's apartment. "It's just that I was worried we wouldn't have enough money because I've heard you talking about it with Dad over the phone. I didn't want to eat a flash sandwich and then not have money for more important things, like whatever we're doing for the next few days before we go home."

Everybody started assuring him that he doesn't have to worry about that. "If your parents say they can manage, then it's true. You're only nine years old and it's not your job to worry about that sort of thing. If we tell you it's OK, you should just take our word for it and have a good meal."

Poor old Blake. If you're going to be the sort of person who keeps your feelings to yourself, it would help if you weren't a worry-wort over unfounded things. Yet I know he's not the only one.

How easy it can be to give lip service to trusting in God, calling Him our heavenly father. We truly believe that we do trust Him, yet how often do we stress and worry and try to help Him out? When we sit down to pray, we state our belief that, with Him overseeing, everything is bound to turn out fine. But then, as soon as we get up, our minds are already busy trying to work out how we're going to tweak things so we have a bit more time, money, health, or whatever we're worried about. I've done that such a lot. Sometimes I imagine the angels rolling their eyes, just as I did over Blake's foibles.

Once, I might have said that it's harder to figure things out with God, because His methods of communication leave a lot more to guesswork. But when I think about it, that's not true at all. He communicates differently than me standing by Blake's elbow, saying, "How about the ham and cheese foccaccia?" but it's just as clear. When His intentions toward me are written plainly in the book I claim to trust, it really is a bit silly to still fret.

He says such things as "Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things" and "If you know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him." He also says, "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. Consider the birds. They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn, yet God feeds them, and how much more valuable are you than the birds. Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labour or spin, yet Solomon in all his splendor, was not dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and gone tomorrow, how much more will He clothe you."

Those are far better promises than, "We can afford a sandwich from a cafe today, so what will you have?" If I'm going to get exasperated with Blake, I ought to make sure I'm not sharing the same characteristic.

He really did have a lovely holiday, in spite of this little moment of worry. He walked, swum, saw sights, loved his time with our Queensland relatives, and covered a lot of ground. We all did.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

to Remember the Oxen Cart

I was having a chat with my older son, who's 18 years old in his first year of Uni. This will be his first time of voting in the election. Here are some of Logan's feelings about the Gay Marriage Bill.

"They aren't hurting the rest of us, so if they're sticking to their monogamous relationships, why not leave them alone?... Why is it even considered a sin, when they're just minding their own business? It's way different to stealing or murder?... Isn't claiming that it's renounced in the Bible a cop-out? You see people pushing the boundaries of other parts of the Bible all the time. How many women do you see teaching men, for instance?.. I hate seeing Christians behaving like Pharisees, all self-righteous, making us look a bunch of Ned Flanders'. People elevating themselves as critics and judges of others is one thing I can't stand. Do you really think Jesus would have behaved with such disgusting intolerance as some Christians are behaving?"

I could understand all of his points, but reminded him that his antagonistic feelings toward those Christians (which are plastered all over social media generally) may not be too different from the homo-phobia he was objecting about. And I mentioned another thing which may help him try to understand the point of view of those others.

Some people feel wary about shoving aside something that is clearly renounced in the Bible just because it conveniently fits with the popular opinions of society, tolerant and generous as it may seem. When the church flows agreeably with every politically correct stance, maybe alarm bells should be making at least a bit of a tinkle. It is the narrow path, after all. Not the broad road we see every day crammed with people shouting loudly. Once we choose to ignore things because they make us look unpopular and uncool, some Christians get worried. Especially over such definite scriptures as Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Romans 1: 26-27, I Corinthians 6:9 and I Timothy 1:10 (for the sake of keeping this as brief as possible, I'll say look them up, if you care to.)

I remembered the unfortunate episode with that poor fellow in 2 Samuel 6. King David had ordered the Ark of the Covenant to be brought into Jerusalem. It was meant to be a joyful celebration. They set it on a new cart but along the road, one of the oxen pulling it lurched. A guy named Uzzah instinctively reached out his hand to steady the Ark and was instantly incinerated. David was understandably upset and confused. Why would God let such a tragedy happen when they were only acting out of good intentions, wanting to honour Him?

A little bit of research revealed what the problem was. David hadn't thought to consult the Scriptures about the right way to handle the Ark. The oxen cart was his own idea. A careful examination shows that he should have got a group of Levites, Kohathites specifically, to carry it with poles on their shoulders. It was a terrible disaster for Uzzah, but just a cause and effect sort of thing. It wasn't as if God had wanted it to happen and zapped Uzzah with lightning from His fingers. Clear directions had been given to divert such a catastrophe, but these had been overlooked somewhere in the archives and ignored.

I told Logan that's why others may seem nervous with the way things are heading. They may imagine a society in which gay pastors and Christian leaders are embraced, those verses are completely swept aside, yet we still feel our main aim is to honour God and attend to His word. Their concern is that one day, we may find out that we've been using an oxen cart.

It's sad to see so many Christians, who all genuinely claim to love God and want to live by His statutes, polarised by issues like this. It may do well for those with more embracing views to consider that instead of branding everybody with these misgivings as intolerant homophobes and haters, we should consider their honest feelings that as we have a Holy Book to guide us, that's exactly what it should do.They may be correct in saying that in no way does the New Testament negate the strong words of the Old Testament on this issue. Being shamed by people who confess their own faith for simply wanting to do the right thing as they see it is a shame.

 I'd half expected Logan to say that Uzzah's story has nothing to do homophobia, but he just gave one of those thoughtful, non-committal types of grunts that I recognise, after all the years of living with him. It means that he can concede the point.

A tricky issue indeed, but let's keep our Christian civility intact, no matter which way we happen to see it. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

We are not moving forward but 2000 years backwards

I recently finished reading a novel in which the hero teacher was fired by the headmistress because he wouldn't stick to the curriculum guidelines set by the education department, but deviated from the plan for individual students based on their interests and ability levels. This was deemed unacceptable, even though his classes of former rebels always produced fantastic results. Bureaucracy gone mad.

Crazy bureaucratic policies aren't limited to work of fiction. They crop up in life every day. Centrelink hires a staff member especially to tell people in the queue that they only take queries by telephone nowadays. You have to wait on hold for 45 minutes to have your small question answered in a few seconds. Crazy. A little child dies of anaphylactic shock because the staff can't find his epipen, although the identical epipen of another student with a similar allergy is on hand. But they aren't authorised to use that one. Not just crazy but needlessly horrible and tragic. People every day are accused of racism, sexism and all sorts of motives far from their hearts when they make innocent comments or social gaffes. Come on, people, show a little grace. At the TAFE campus my husband attended, a couple of young guys were summarily expelled simply for wolf-whistling at a girl. Boys used to do far worse than that to me in the 80s, without even getting a reprimand. Where do you draw the line? Or isn't there a line to draw anymore, because it would be lost in the ridiculously stringent lines bureaucracy are drawing themselves?

I'd be scared to venture out in the corporate world or workplace because there are so many rules to keep track of, such a lot of politically correct nuances I'd be nervous to accidentally break. It's beginning to remind me very much of a system that was set up in Israel around 2000+ years ago. We give derogative laughs when we hear some of their extremes, but aren't we heading in a scarily similar direction in the 21st century? Theirs was called Phariseeism.

I guess you might say the biggest difference, is that their system was based on religion while ours isn't, but hold on, doesn't ours infiltrate the whole of society, including the sacred Christian sanctuaries you might think shouldn't be touched? Yep, sadly, crazy bureaucracy is seeping into Christian places too, necessarily they say.

Several years ago, I attended BSF (Bible Study Fellowship) down in the city with my mother and Primary School aged children. I'd been happy with my class at Stirling closer to home but ventured down from the Hills because I heard they had an excellent children's program at Norwood.

One evening, we navigated the traffic well and arrived about twenty minutes early. My 6-year-old saw some of her friends already in their little classroom, playing games of hang man on the blackboard and jigsaw puzzles on the floor. They were the children of the teachers and discussion group leaders, who had to be there early each week. Being as enthusiastic and friendly as she still is, Emma ran in to join them, and the other children were pleased to see her.

One of the regular teachers, who was supervising this free time, came and tapped my shoulder. "You'll have to take her out. Only the children of leaders are allowed in here before starting time." I'd put it to you that this example of protocol gone rampant is not an example of Christian love. Having to fetch Emma out of there because she wasn't allowed to play with her friends for another 10 minutes might not seem a big deal to some, but being a sensitive soul, it stung and hurt me enough to have to blink back my tears. Especially when she was confused and miserable about having to sit, twiddling her thumbs instead of joining her friends.

Interestingly, our time with that particular BSF group ended due to another bureaucratic reason. I got a phone call from the lady in charge, telling me that because my older child, Logan, has a peanut allergy, they no longer had a place for him. "We don't have a proper procedure set up for that sort of emergency."

I said, "But we have our own procedure set up. I carry an epipen everywhere. And you never give the kids snacks anyway, so I can't see that it would ever be a problem."

"Just the same, without a policy in place, we feel the easiest thing is to tell you that we'd rather Logan didn't attend from now on. But Emma is still welcome in the younger class."

Well, you mean, she's welcome as long as we don't arrive too early. "That's OK, your phone call has helped me to make a clear decision. None of us will be coming anymore."

Sometimes I've thought we might have even had grounds for taking this further, if we wanted to. It's got a bit of a Current Affair sort of a tang to it, don't you think? "Young boy is denied the chance to attend Bible Study because he has a peanut allergy." Surely that's some sort of 'ism' on their part. Then it occurred to me that we wouldn't want to get sucked in to the world of craziness, playing the same game and getting all bureaucratic on them. We didn't care to find out, and the truth was, Logan wasn't all that upset about having to leave.

It's such a shame when things done in the name of Jesus must bow to this type of bureaucracy. When I wonder how he might have taken it, I think I can make a reasonable guess. Do you remember what happened when he healed the man with the withered hand in the synagogue on the Sabbath? The Pharisees put on a big song and dance because he did the healing on the wrong day. He told them in effect, "The Sabbath was made for man, not the other way around. Stop your ridiculous carry on and just be glad that this man who God loves has been made whole."

As a helper in Sunday School, I was just given a Child Safe Environment Policy to read through. You can't give piggy back rides or have little ones sit on your lap. Nor can you give a child a small, impromptu gift. The only physical contact you can make is from knees down or on the arms and hands. Pats on head and High Fives are fine, but not play wrestling or tickling. Although I wouldn't dispute any of this, it's a bit sad to think of somebody having the need to sit there and write it all out, and equally sad to think of someone who innocently forgets and breaks one of these breaches having to be reprimanded. But the world of bureaucracy demands that this must be so. It's the world we live in, so we have to attend the meetings, sign the forms, say the right things, do our best to keep abreast of it all.

Yes, even though it's all about Jesus, I can't imagine him tapping anyone's shoulder to say, "Your little girl isn't allowed in with her friends until the big hand of the clock is firmly on the twelve."

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

that I've got to get out of that river

OK, this blog post may appear long, but I'm sure you'll get through it in a flash. It's like a stream of consciousness, which is funny, considering the subject matter.

I've just returned home from visiting Cairns with my daughter and younger son. It was so great and relaxing up there. Even though we were physically doing lots of active stuff every day, I had plenty of time to reflect on the direction my life seems to be heading. The quietness and idyllic rainforest surroundings were perfect for that, especially when I was sitting on the fourth floor balcony of my sister's apartment in the mornings and evenings. I realised there's a deep current of sadness and frustration associated with my life back home that has me trapped in its tendrils like some deep river plant, sucking the life blood out of me, making me loath to return. I had to examine it to figure out where it was coming from, since many aspects of my life are good. It didn't take me long to work it out.

All writers, especially of fiction, are told repetitively that unlike the old-timer authors of the classics we admire, our job in the twenty-first century is far more complex. We can't sit back and expect our publishers to do it all for us. Nor can we expect publicists and promoters to help, unless we pay them a hefty fee. We have to tackle the business of P.R., promotion and business skills, all in the name of making our names prominent and getting sales for our books.

Yes, it's this that makes me feel as if I'm sitting in a canoe, using all of my strength to paddle against the current, lucky if I stay in one spot let alone make any progress. I know that if I stop to catch my breath, I'll be swept toward a steep precipice with a great waterfall, like Barron Falls, the one Emma, Blake and I just saw in Queensland from the Sky Rail and Kuranda train. Then I'll be swept over to disappear from sight and be wrecked at the bottom.

God knows I've been facing that current all my life. I'm not as good at paddling these particular rapids as other rowers are, but I've been trying with all my might. I've been taking the advice of books I've read, trying to set up book signings, talks, appearances with many people who aren't really all that interested in what fiction authors are doing. "We'll call you if we're interested," they say, and many never do. I've set up stalls at various events, trying to catch people's eyes with a broad smile and sell them on my books, which they had no idea existed five minutes earlier. I've contacted media to organise fleeting little newspaper articles. I've painstakingly tried to work out the best words for catchy press releases, titles, blurbs and announcements. I've made frequent little announcements on social media, just trying to remind people that my books are good, which involves being careful to work out whether I'm coming on too strong. I've tried to do all this with the intention to make buyers want to purchase my books for their sakes rather than to help me out, which involves salesmanship. I've been vigilant to search for other avenues such as guest blog posts and free giveaways. I've examined other promotional websites which have been drawn to my attention. With the help of my husband, I've tried to set up an interesting website of my own. All these things are my way of taking large strokes with my oars.

I've had to listen to plenty of well-meaning advice from spectators, lots of it edged with reproach. "You're not staying in the race properly. Look at all those authors who are far out ahead of you." Yeah, well, there are more quality athletes at this game. Some of them even thrive on all this. It doesn't mean I'm not still doing my very best. "You don't have the right sort of equipment to be rowing on this river. Your personality is that of an introvert." I know that, but if I stop paddling, who's going to do it for me? "You're losing ground. Back in 2000, Christian bookstores helped you sell 2000 copies of Picking up the Pieces. Now you'll be lucky if Koorong are willing to take 10 copies of your books. The falls used to be way further back and now they're just behind you." I know, I know, but with the emergence of eBooks, you never know what might happen. I have to keep paddling. "You're staying in the same spot. Your number of reviews on Amazon haven't changed for months now." That's why I have to keep paddling hard to keep ground. But boy, my muscles are getting tired.

Over the years, the scenery along the river bank has changed a bit, but the main topography is pretty much the same. Instead of the massive cliff of Christian bookstores to row past, there is now the challenge of getting Amazon sales among millions of other eBooks. That involves figuring out the perfect key words in categories and keeping track of sales. Equally daunting terrain and treacherous mountains.

So that's the sort of course I've been rowing. It took twelve days of lying on the bank for a short rest to make it obvious that it's really getting me down. During that time, whenever I logged on Face Book, I noticed my friends all still doing the rowing game as hard as they can. I feel very loath to get back in my canoe and pick up my paddles. My fingers cramp up and my hands have got blisters of RSI and strain. My bottom is sore from the narrow little seat. My spirit is broken, crying out, "Please don't make me climb in there again."

I have to consider its pleas as I step back into my old life at home. I have files of pictures and words urging me to never, never, never give up, and that rewards come to those who press on. I've kept my focus firmly fixed on them for all these years, but my holiday forced me to wonder if setting my face to get back on with it all is really the right thing to do on all occasions. Is it worth climbing back on board the canoe, at the expense of my happiness?

Say this life ends when we're somewhere between the ages of 80 and 100. I'm already approaching the middle, having devoted the best of 40+ years to this dream and this rowing course. Way back in school I declared that a writer was all I wanted to be. Can I really go on though, when it means keeping this deep sadness and anxiety rooted? I have nowhere to go when I do scramble up on the bank, but pull myself out I must. I can't stay in that water any longer. I'm weary. I don't have the Olympic quality which I see in others. At least it won't be much of financial setback to take a break, when all I've ever earned has been virtually nothing.

I'll still be sticking my feet in to paddle, of course. I love writing too much not to. If you want to, you can still keep track of me. I love maintaining this blog. I'll still dabble with promotional opportunities without getting all intense and burned-out about it. For example, we want to get my Quenarden fantasy series ready for Amazon kindle.

The thought of settling to be a spectator instead of wanting to shoot for the moon terrifies me. I'm well aware that a funny paradox has happened. In a way, continuing to paddle against that strong current in my canoe feels more like 'going with the flow' than climbing out will be. I really need a fresh change in my life. If something is wrong, you have to fix it. Is it a cop-out to want to climb out of that canoe? It feels more like a brave, blind step of faith than a wimpy move at this stage. But I don't know what will be on the bank.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

that I think better than a genius

I always thought of myself as a normal sort of a person with strengths and weaknesses. I think I can tell a pretty good story because I love my books, but I'm thick in other ways. I feel confident at reading character but would certainly flounder in a Year 12 Maths or Physics exam.

I was reading a book called "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell, and a few chapters suggested that geniuses who soar sky-high in IQ tests often have limitations of their own. A crowd of intellectual students were once given the sort of challenge they weren't used to, a divergence test. They were asked to name as many functions for a brick and a blanket as they could think of.

Well, straight away, I thought what a breeze that one would be. I'm pretty confident I could rattle off several for either of them. You don't have to hone in on some elusive correct answer. You can come up with any silly thing such as doll's house table (brick) or substitute wrapping paper for a large present (blanket).

Apparently, one student could only come up with the following. Brick - building things, throwing. Blanket - keeping warm, smothering fire, improvised hammock, cover for sleeping. Now, the amazing thing is that this fellow is a prodigy with one of the highest IQs in his school.

So wow, geniuses aren't necessarily creative or imaginative. This guy's sharp brain may be able to grasp all sorts of minutiae that would boggle me, but I'm happy being able to think of 100+ random uses for bricks and blankets. A totally pointless skill to have, maybe, but it could add colour to the world I look at. I can't help thinking how boring it would be if I could solve incredibly twisted mathematical equations but never thought of any plots for possible novels.

Not long ago, my husband and I both did a long test compiled by Dr Caroline Leaf, measuring which of the seven pillars of the brain we are strongest and weakest on. These were the results.

Paula - Linguistic, Intrapersonal (I got even scores on those first two), Musical, Interpersonal, Logical/Mathematic, Kinesthetic, Visual/Spatial

Andrew - Logical/Mathematic, Musical, Visual/Spatial, Kinesthetic, Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, Linguistic.

So if our two brains were to be slapped down on a butcher's marble bench, they would look like similar grey blobs, but little could anyone tell how differently they fire up and work. Once, the two of us did a silly online IQ test and he supposedly came up two points ahead of me, which he teases me about to this day. I used to get mad because, honestly, I thought he was pretty dense in many ways. Our eldest son and I can be laughing over some subtle innuendo, while he's still scratching his head, not getting the semantics. He has to ask me how to spell things and surely wouldn't come up with many ideas for the brick and the blanket. Balderdash is his least favourite game and he couldn't thresh out a blog post or write a book.

However, he's a whiz at remembering directions to places, and returning in a bee-line a second time without having to consult maps. He picks up computing and mathematical concepts in a flash and often has to help me out with computer glitches, which he sometimes says are only glitches in my head. He knows a lot of information about all sorts of things, making him the ideal person to run possible plot twists past, or say, "I dunno, go and ask Dad."

He gives the kids advice like this. "Whenever I come across a word in a novel I can't pronounce, I just call it 'wheelbarrow' and whenever it comes up again, I say, 'Oh, there's wheelbarrow again.' You go and do the same."

But I get myself all flustered over diagrams in instruction manuals, while he hardly needs to refer to them at all. And I'd far rather play Balderdash than Chess or Othello.

The brain is a strange and mysterious organ. When I think of all this, and also how astronomically talented autistic people may be at different fields, I'd hesitate to judge anyone's brain as better or worse than anyone else's, despite the facetious title of this blog post.

Monday, August 5, 2013

She was a tragic princess

Fairy tales are full of princesses whose stories end happily, but reality shows there have been many tragic ones. There was poor Princess Diana, with her marital sadness and untimely death, and Princess Grace of Monaco, who had an equally premature death on the road. Then there was Little Princess Anastasia, casualty of the Russian Revolution, along with her whole family. Further back, there were some of the unfortunate princesses who were chosen by British King Henry VIII to be his wives. But the princess I'm thinking of lived years before any of these. She was Michal, daughter of King Saul in the Old Testament.

We first see her as a beautiful young woman who has fallen in love with David, her brother's best friend. Like many other girls, her head is turned by his heroism, dexterity, good looks and humility. At this point, Michal seems to be luckier than any of the other girls, because she's in the position to win the man. Her father is the king, and he can pull strings, especially when using her fits his plan. You may remember, David won her with one hundred Philistine foreskins.

Then comes the part where she shines as a heroine. When the life of her beloved hero husband is threatened by her jealous, aggressive father, she helps David to escape, inventing the ruse that he's sick in bed.

She gets taken away to be the wife of one of her father's generals, named Paltiel. Then some time later, after King Saul's death, David, now king, decides, "I'd like my wife back" (although he had plenty of other lovely spouses, such as Bathsheba and Abigail).

In Hollywood, this may make a great story. We'd all be cheering, thinking it's just how it should be. The heroine helps save the hero's life and now he has rescued her and they are back in each others' arms. The problem for Michal is that it is no longer this simple. Things have changed.

We see her new husband, Paltiel, following along after the chariot in tears, pleading for his wife back until David's men forced him to turn around. It's easy to surmise he must've been a sensitive guy who was deeply in love with her. Although the Bible doesn't delve into their life together (because after all, David is the main man), I imagine that life with a fellow who was so gutted over her departure may have been mutually romantic and satisfying. Would Michal have returned Paltiel's feelings?

She's no longer the girl who lovingly helped David escape. She's turned tight, bitter and resentful. She stands at the palace window watching him dance at the head of the procession while the Ark is brought home to the city, and feels scorn in her heart. She might have thought, "Look at him, going on about God's goodness. God never helped me or made things turn out well for me." Then she makes that sarcastic comment about how His Majesty has esteemed himself, dancing around like a silly lunatic, scantily clad in front of all the onlooking females. Her feelings for David seem to have changed over the years, reinforcing my opinion that maybe she did love Paltiel.

David rebukes her, saying that he has a right to celebrate, seeing how God rejected her father as king and chose him instead. Then scripture gives the impression that Michal was punished by God for this incident, and remained barren all her life. (I've read the theory that David might have ensured that she had no children, keen to eradicate all of King Saul's bloodline from his own lineage.)

I felt sad for her, because she was obviously in a very dark head space. If anyone had anything to be darkly resentful about, it was Michal. Being used as a political pawn rather than a person, torn from two husbands without her feelings being considered either time. And her beloved brother was dead. I like to think Jonathan and Michal might have been close, in their mutual regard for David way back in those early days in their father's court. If there had been psychiatrists couches back then, she would have seemed a person with a perfect right to lie on one, venting about the others, who were responsible for her bereft state and her deep depression.

I wondered why God didn't do anything for Michal? I wish he had. Those things that happened to her were not her fault. If we know enough to piece her tragic story together from scattered references in the Bible, God would have surely been aware of her plight. Yes, he could've helped her! Why didn't he?

The fact that no divine help seemed to be forthcoming makes me stop to think. What if God is always willing to provide help and comfort, but our attitudes put a wall in front of our hearts, blocking us from receiving it? Surely that snarky comment she made shouldn't have been enough to bring down the punishment of childlessness upon her head. (I can even imagine myself saying something similar, in her place.) But what if that comment was the result of a pressure build-up, just a sign of what she'd been brewing in her heat for a long time? Perhaps it was a sad matter of free will. She'd deliberately chosen the sour attitude behind the cutting comment. She'd nurtured the bitterness, resentment and grief until it was something huge. She might have wrapped it all around herself like a blanket she was loath to shed.

 Arguably, she had a right to cling to all that, but if she thought she was hurting anyone else by doing so, she was wrong. David had his other wives to console him. She was only hurting herself. Insisting on brooding about the past instead of facing the future never seems to bring happiness. Michal called David ridiculous, but maybe she unwittingly made herself pathetic too, becoming something like an ancient Miss Havisham from Great Expectations. I feel very sorry for her.

It would seem Princess Michal was not a person like Victor Frankl or Corrie ten Boom. They made the choice to forgive the perpetrators of their grief and move on into a clear future. They didn't deny their terrible memories but allowed them to make themselves better and stronger. Frankl and ten Boom were more like coffee beans, while poor Michal was more like an egg. Boiling water softened and brought goodness and flavour out of them, while it hardened her. Michal was a person who set her mind to believe that God didn't see her or care about her, and that attitude helped make it seem real for her.

Hers is not the happiest story in the Bible and I guess the best way to honour her memory, if we feel sympathy for her, is to keep a guard on our own attitudes, which are so easy to creep up on us, as Michal's did on her. As Victor Frankl said, no matter how desperately things may appear or actually be, we always have the ultimate freedom to choose our attitude.

Here's a post about another brooder, who probably even rubbed shoulders with Michal. This young guy had issues
And this one is about another young man who had a good attitude. Do the right thing just because it's the right thing. 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Perfect things aren't always easy to swallow

Several weeks ago, we had a lovely visit to Victoria. On one outing, I asked my husband to follow a sign that promised perfectly balanced spring water straight from the depths of the earth. He doesn't always go along with spantaneous whims, but this time he did. We drove for miles down a country track full of virgin Australian bush and fearless animal life. Just when we were thinking of turning back, we found ourselves in a deserted car park with a hand pump. We figured that was what we'd come to see.

The rusty metal plaque on the pump's base confirmed how ultra-healthy the water is. It contains the perfect balance of minerals for the ideal health tonic. I wanted to get straight into it, having images of people from the Regency era flocking to Bath  and other spa towns for similar restorative water.

We had to prime the pump several times. Just when we were beginning to think nothing would happen, a trickle appeared, and soon a torrent gushed forth. We filled a bottle which I offered to the kids first. I watched Emma's and Blake's faces change as they took their sips. Something about the way they said, "Mum, it's really nice water," seemed a bit fishy. As I brought the bottle up to my lips, they burst out laughing.

The stink alerted me first. It was like sulphur, rotten eggs or what I'd imagine smoke from a dragon's nostrils to smell like. The flavour was bitter and very metallic. I couldn't take a proper sip but just wet my lips. I hope not to offend anyone here, but our little boy liked this analogy - it was like a robot passing wind.

Even knowing how healthy that water is supposed to be, we couldn't force ourselves to drink much. Our taste buds rebelled. Emma thought she'd like to take a bottle home to her best friend, for a joke, but the sediments in the bottle turned crazy shades of colour and I began to dread the whiffs when we opened the lid. We tipped it out back at the caravan park, thinking that if we aren't allowed to take fruit back into South Australia, I wouldn't want to take that either.

It's been on my mind. A beverage that's supposedly so perfect, it's unpalatable. I've heard of similar things in nature before. The durian fruit is said to be wonderfully healthy, but its stench wafts out the sweat pores of those brave enough to eat any. I wondered if this observation is the same with perfect people? Are they hard to swallow?

That seemed to be a silly thought. Surely the more perfect people are, the more they must be well-loved by everyone they come into contact with. Look at Jesus, who many of us declare is the only truly perfect person who ever lived. Straight away, I saw not everyone in his time thought he was perfect. He offended some and confused others. Some of the words people probably used to describe him were abrasive, elusive, confrontational, deluded, a stirrer. Many left in droves, shaking their heads and muttering that his teachings were too hard to swallow. He ended up getting himself crucified by people who reacted to him as we did to that water. If he returned to earth, he'd probably get the same reaction from many people, because humanity doesn't change.

Then I thought about other renowned people we may think as close to perfect as possible. How about Mother Teresa? She was a legend. Yet, photos reveal the toll her lifestyle took on her in her stooped shoulders and weather-beaten, wrinkled face. It seemed that majoring on one area of her life detracted from another area which many celebrities think is extremely important for perfection. She didn't have the time, means or inclination to go to beauty parlors or cosmetic surgeons. And maybe many who do these things, do so at the expense of other areas of their lives. Perhaps the fictional perfection of Barbie, whose cartoon movies show her to be super beautiful, generous and good in one package, is less accurate. In reality, personal goodness (and everyone is different) may not always be what we think easy to swallow.

So is being well-loved by everyone we come across a reliable gauge that we are closer to 'good' than 'bad'? I used to think so but now I think differently. So many heroes through history had moments of being severely criticised for their choices and habits, which many now applaud. When we're making waves, or at least a few ripples, and some people are mumbling about us, this is not necessarily a sign that we're getting off track, but maybe a clue that we are right where we are meant to be, doing what we are meant to be doing.

For authors like me, if our books get some low reviews, that doesn't mean that the stories aren't just how they are meant to be. Maybe when a few others find us hard to swallow, it may show that we are on the right track with our callings. Whatever it is that you do, consider that when a few people react unfavourably to you, it doesn't mean that you are not in the perfect place, doing the perfect thing for you.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

That Mary is still being shamed and criticised by Martha

I've seen lots of literature urging Martha-like women to slow down and be more like Mary. It seems to me, because these books are so prolific, there must be far more Marthas in the world than Marys. At least their activity thrusts them more in the limelight. Hard-working, self-sacrificing ladies who see just what needs to be done, plow ahead and do it, then crash in their beds each night. They sometimes snap with exhaustion and sob, "I'm doing all this good work and nobody even appreciates it. Look at her, doing nothing. I'm burned-out and fed up. If anyone deserves to have a nervous breakdown, it's me." I imagine those in the medical and counselling professions may be burned-out too, from being inundated with these Marthas as clients.

Well, today I'm here to talk from the other side. I always identified more with Mary in the first place. I'd be the one with my nose stuck in a book, busily scribbling notes or trying to figure out how this new idea gels with what I've always understood. All the while, I wouldn't have a clue about all the things that required practical attention around me. I'm the sort of person who needs to ask what I may do to help, because it doesn't pop out at me, as it would to a Martha.

I'm not a good person to have in traditional 'helps' jobs and ministries. This is not because I'm not willing to help but because I often don't tend to notice things that seem to stand out as glaringly obvious to others. I'd be the one to say, "Another working bee? The place looks pretty good to me," while others roll their eyes and my husband comes straight out and say, "You've got to be joking! There's enough work to keep an army going." That's sometimes made me feel really guilty and upset.

I'm the person who gets looked past for any 'important' role, because, of course, I'd be no good. Too dreamy and dithery, like an 'arty' person. I've had that accusation flung at me as an insult more than once. This also, has made me want to retreat into my shell and cry, at times, wondering what I'm good for.

While I never thought I was useful for much, I knew what I enjoyed. That's reading, listening, mulling over ideas, pondering, trying to express something I feel fresh and new. But I've felt a lot of guilt because those things seemed self-indulgent and of no use to anybody else.

I wonder how Mary felt when her sister, at the end of her tether, snapped that famous remark to Jesus. In effect, Martha said, "Can't you see I'm doing everything out here. Please tell her to get off her lazy backside and help me." The Bible says nothing about Mary's reaction to this, but I can imagine how it might have been. If I'd been her, I would've flinched before doing anything else. Then I would've started scrambling to my feet, fully expecting to hear, "Yes, first things first. Your sister needs help. We can save this for later, when the more pressing and urgent things are out of the way." I would've started trying to speak humble apologies, wanting to explain that I genuinely didn't know how badly needed I was, fully expecting the others to scoff, "Oh yeah, that's a good one." The reply Jesus did make would have stunned me.

What I would've found most of a shock was the last part of what he said. "Mary has chosen the better thing and it will not be taken away from her." Hey, what? He didn't say it was equally as important as all the cleany, cooky stuff (to which we may add paper work and whatever else keeps our 21st century heads and hands occupied). He said it was better!

The fact that I've grown up with this sort of guilt complex because of my priorities indicates that there must still be other Marys out there too. I'm certain I'm not the only one.  I think we need liberation as much as the New Testament Mary did. We still live in a world where Marthas are lauded and praised while we are chastised and rebuked. I've read about children with Protestant work ethic type parents who who, on seeing them reading a book, would ask, "Don't you have anything to do?"

We see people parading how busy they are on social media, fully expecting pats on the back, which are sure enough forthcoming. The Marys of the world, represented by people more like me, still contend with shame, feeling belittled, wondering if we're just being lazy, silly and selfish.

I love Jesus' response to Martha because it reminds me, at times, that I'm doing okay. Of course I know that those who don't work don't eat. The Bible is also clear about that. But we need to remember that Mary's default choice, and that of people like me, isn't laziness at all. That's just us taking on the erroneous opinion of all the Martha-types who elevate all that busy work to a high position it shouldn't have. (Hey, I'm not the one who said it shouldn't be highest. Jesus did).

A world without sitting back to reflect, to study the words of Jesus, to read about the opinions and experiences of other thinkers, to try to think and process our own experiences, would be a poorer world indeed. It's not as 'in-your-face' as the Martha-work, but more important. (Once again, I was going to type the word 'equally', but he said it, not me.) I do clean my house and look after all the household members. If I didn't who would? But I don't always struggle to get it out of the way first. A sudden idea to jot down, or a conversation about spiritual or world issues with the kids will come first, even if it is sunny enough to hang another load of washing.

My aim is not to criticise the Martha-mindset of others, but just to encourage other Marys to not let it get us all down. Sure, Martha needed to learn that lesson, but I'm sure her sister did equally. It seems Mary did take it on board, because she had the right understanding and frame of mind to make that lavish gesture of worship later, when she poured the bottle of beautiful smelling lard over Jesus' feet. At least, I've read that attributed to Mary of Bethany several times. If so, I believe she wouldn't have necessarily felt the desire to do this, if she hadn't made getting to know him and ponder his words her priority over cooking and cleaning for his visits.

Mary-ladies, even though our natural inclinations may seem useless, they won't be taken away from us. So anyone who reads this, in the midst of all the Marthas who may be running around and organising as usual, don't forget that several Marys may be feeling equally bad and need their own type of encouraging feedback. Even though Marthas get overloaded with stress and need sympathy and understanding, Marys also need to feel as if we're valuable people and not essentially space-takers.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Which of two kings I may be like.

It has sometimes occurred to me to honestly wonder which of two kings I may be most like. They were the first two kings in the history of Israel's monarchy, King Saul and King David. We'd all like to think that we'd be most like David, but is it always the case?

I've got to admit, King Saul's downfall fills my heart with a bit of sympathy. He started off so well. Not only did he attain sudden celebrity status but back in those early days, he seemed to do it in a very humble and courteous way. He was one of the people the Bible bothered to describe as good looking. Not only was he handsome but head and shoulders above most other men. Probably every Hebrew girl's crush, the sort of guy who would be splashed across the covers of many magazines if he'd been alive in a much later era.

When you read through his story, you see that many of his big mistakes had to do with personal relations, keeping up his desire for looking good in front of the people and not slipping in the popularity polls. Without actually having it stated in the Bible, he was one of the first of many P.R. casualties who have crashed and burned.

I think it's good to put ourselves in his place and challenge ourselves to honestly assess whether we might not have at least considered making the same moves in his place. There is the incident in 1Samuel 13, when he was under military pressure and Samuel, the priest, hadn't showed up to make the prescribed sacrifices. With his soldiers slipping away right and left, I can imagine the desperation that urged Saul to say, "Bring the burnt offering and the peace offering!" I can also get his explanation, when he told Samuel, "I was losing my army... you hadn't come when you said you would... I didn't know what to do... the Philistines were about to come upon me and I hadn't asked for God's help, so I took it into my own hands." In fact, if I'd been him, I might have even added, "Where were you, anyway? How about keeping your word and getting here on time?"

Without padding this out with any more examples, of which there were many, we see there was one crucial difference between Saul and David, his eventual replacement. Saul did things to please people and desperately try to hitch up his popularity, whenever he perceived it might be sagging. David's normal motivation was to please God, not people. His Psalms are full of it. Saul sought the gifts, David sought the giver. Saul wanted answers, David wanted the Answerer. Saul wanted to maintain his own reputation intact, David didn't give a fig for all that, if it meant that his relationship with God would be compromised. I want to be a David, but in many ways, Saul is still easy to relate to.

I see him not as a villain but as a promising hero who made wrong choices and spiralled downward. A man who wanted to cling so tightly to the good things he had without losing any of them that he let his judgment and perspective get skewed. A man who allowed the lesser emotions of jealousy, envy, rage and resentment drag him into deep melancholic depression. Then in the end, he reminds me of a little boy who wanted so badly to preserve his ice-cream that it melted in his hand. How sad that the humble young man who was found hiding among the baggage at the beginning of his inauguration became the same man who was busy erecting a victory monument in his own honour toward the end.

I came across these passages from Thomas Merton's letter to a young activist, which make me think of King Saul's deep attitute, which I think is often easy to recognise in ourselves too.

"You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work and your witness. You are using it, so to speak, to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God's love. Think of this more and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without you knowing it."

"Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not, perhaps, results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself."

Modern author Joan Borisenko, had this to say in a book about burnout. "Here's a thought worth contemplating. People who have the greatest investment in projects and ideas are much likelier to burn out than those who are less attached to the outcome of whatever they're involved in. Although commitment to a cause , a job, your children, may seem selfless and virtuous, there's often an underlying ambition and motivation to prove your importance and worth that predisposes you to becoming fried." 

I sometimes find myself tired out and frazzled, and must admit that when I contemplate this possible reason for it, I often do have to admit a deep desire to impress and an anxiety about the results of whatever I'm doing that makes me feel as if I'm tied in knots. How refreshing, to take on boards the attitudes of King David and Thomas Merton.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

That I've been carried away promoting a conspiracy theory

I'm sure we've all shaken our heads over weird conspiracy theories at some time. Some of them are well known. When my son, Logan, was studying with Open Access College, his Science teacher always got riled up whenever somebody suggested that the moon landing might have been a conspiracy theory. A student would only have to say, "Surely the atmosphere would have killed them," or "Somebody saw Neil Armstrong going into a fast food joint back then," to set the teacher off, ranting and fuming for ten minutes. The students used to do it on purpose, to postpone their work and enjoy baiting him.

We'd never be part of silly conspiracy theories, right? Just last Christmas Eve, it occurred to me that I was going along with one of the hugest, most well-kept ones ever dreamed up. It was my birthday, and instead of enjoying it with my feet up, I was driving around with an enthusiastic little boy, pretending to look out for a reindeer-drawn sleigh in the sky. Then when we got home, he logged onto a website which was supposed to track its progress. "Santa is only just heading over the equator now and he'll be visiting New Zealand and the eastern states of Australia before he gets to us."

I have to ask myself, why do we buy into all this? Is convincing our kids that something is real only to rip it away even a good idea? Logan gradually grew out of the idea of Santa Claus and Co. but Emma had a rude awakening. Andrew once announced to all his relatives, while she was within earshot, "I wanted to stay in bed but I had to get up and do the Easter Bunny thing." At the moment, Blake seems to have almost wised up, and I'll be relieved, in a way, when he does twig.

Why do we do it anyway? I remember loving the fantasy and fairy-tale quality of the whole thing when I was a kid. I guess I automatically went along with the conspiracy theory because I didn't want to deny my own kids a dose of the 'special magic', but why bother keeping some made-up farce going? There is such a lot I believe is true and legitimate which we can teach our children in good conscience that should make them even more excited.

God's love and care of us, Jesus' Resurrection, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, guardian angels protecting us, the immense spiritual realm of which we only glimpse the tip of the iceberg at times. All that is far more awesome than an old, fat guy in a red suit who owns a magical toy shop in the North Pole. As it is, I've got to wonder, does our promotion of these fables as absolute truth make real truth harder to take on board? Are we doing our kids a disservice instead of a favour?

When they hear true stories of miracles, healings, unmistakeable answers to prayer, angel sightings, near-death-experiences when the curtain between our realm and the next is lifted, the fulfilling of prophetic words and the slotting together of seeming coincidences into a serendipitous God-incidence, beyond all odds, do they shrug their shoulders and relegate it to the same class as Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, the tooth fairy and all their cronies? If we stretched the truth over that, might we not be capable of stretching it over these too? That may be a fair question for them to ask.

As I said, Blake, aged 9, is almost through with the Santa Claus myth. He was telling me all the reasons he's beginning to doubt. "How can everyone be asleep in the same district at the same time? If his workshop is in the North Pole, how come some of the presents are clearly marked as coming from particular local shops? Why do I sometimes see the same wrapping paper we've had before?" I'm through with trying to convince him. Maybe it's just that I've had years altogether of going along with this inherited farce, ever since his siblings were small too. I just grinned at him and said, "You're getting suspicious, are you?" The truth is, I'll be relieved when it's all through. Conspiracy theories get hard and irksome to keep up.

One of the least favourite questions I've had to deal with is, "Why did (insert some lucky friend's name) get the (insert some ultra-expensive gift) I wanted, and I asked Santa for it too but he only gave me cheaper stuff? Doesn't he like me as much?" Once, I even heard Andrew joke that Santa may take their parents' pay checks into consideration. Truth be told, I'm not sure I even like having to scrimp and save in December, then having to explain that we're broke while the old fat guy gets the credit for the largesse found beneath the tree. "Mum, I know you get worried about spending too much at Christmas but you don't have to get much for me. You can just let Santa take care of it."

Maybe if I had the chance to do it all over again, I might have done it differently. One thing I'm not going to change is to emphasise all the wonderful things I've listed above which I believe are genuinely true. There are all the great works of fiction too, whose themes are full of the sort of truth we want our children to take on board. We can even tell them the historical factual tale about the real Saint Nick without stretching it to the extent we have. And of course, way above all, is the reason why we celebrate Christmas at all, that Jesus was born for us. How great that we live in a world which is full of such marvellous and awesome truths that we really don't have to make up any extra embellishments.

But I guess we'll still be watching people like Tim Allen and Vince Vaughan each Christmas, hamming it up in movies such as 'The Santa Clause' and 'Fred Claus.'
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