Sunday, July 27, 2008

goodbye grandpa

It had all the necessary ingredients for turning into a disastrous affair - ex-husband and wife rubbing shoulders for first time in nearly three years, mentally ill daughter on day release, unforgiving in-laws, granddaughter with a flare for the dramatic. To be honest I was dreading it, and if the last funerals I attended were anything to go by, with good reason.

Take my father-in-law's affair. Old and new families sat in strained silence on opposite sides of the funeral chapel, one nursing memories of an angry, violent man, the other recalling a kindly soul who loved dancing and always remembered their birthdays. The two extremes of experience were revealed in heartfelt eulogies and the tension was palpable. As we stood around the grave and threw down the obligatory flower my heart ached for the losses of the first family - the loving relationships that had never been and now never could be. It was painful, awkward and all together tragic.

Then there was the funeral Frank and I attended almost a year ago for the son of church friends. He had committed suicide following the breakdown of his marriage. Six young children sat fatherless and crying, yet all his friends could offer to one another by way of comfort were memories of a hard drinking man who loved a good party. Despite the best efforts of the minister it was a bleak affair that matched the grey sky and blustery wind outside, devoid of hope and comfort. He was gone and I could not shake the sense of it all being a tragic waste.

Finally in May, there was the funeral for our young neighbour who drank himself into an early grave. As his two year old daughter danced around the coffin, oblivious to her loss and the sadness of those around her I felt overwhelmed. Another life thrown away, another soul unable to cope with life's pain, lost forever.

It is probably not too surprising then that the thought of another funeral was less than inspiring. Never mind that he was my grandfather, that he had lived a long, full life and made it to 95 - the potential for uncomfortable family confrontation overshadowed all else in my thinking. Of course, me being the granddaughter with a flare for the dramatic, I rather played up the possibility of disaster for the sake of a good story. Nevertheless, the potential was real. My mother decided to travel from Adelaide to say her goodbyes despite her recent divorce from my father. I do have an aunt with schizophrenia and I don't like to predict how she might have responded. My other aunt and another uncle have had no contact with my mother since the divorce and the aunt once deliberately told me not to visit before cutting me off in her letter writing. Who knew how the relationships might all play out in one room together?

As it was I am glad I went. I do not feel overly sad Grandpa is gone. Throughout much of my life we lived far apart and I never really knew him. (What was it like in World War II? What did he think about my parents divorce and my father's consequent remarriage?! What wisdom from such a long life could he pass on to me as I make my own way through the world?) During brief childhood visits I remember the unmistakable smell of their home, but my memory is of an austere man intent on disciplining rather than enjoying his grandchildren. Later, as an adult I visited whenever I was in Melbourne and wrote from time to time. Grandpa always replied immediately to my letters and assured me of his love and prayers before tucking in a little snippet of encouragement from a church newsletter or magazine. He had mellowed in his old age into a gentle man who loved nothing better than to talk about his latest readings on God.

It was impossible not to notice Grandpa's increasing frailty - between broken hips, skin disorders and problems with his gastrointestinal tract he felt his age and was ready to go. For some time he had been voicing his desire to join Jesus and my grandmother in the next world. Death was a release. I feel the loss of his love and prayers for my well being, but I am happy Grandpa is now where he wanted to be, no longer struggling with an old body that could barely do what he wanted it to.

And the funeral? Mum and Dad were perfectly civil and polite and I enjoyed spending time with them and one of my brothers on the drive across the city. My mentally ill aunt did not attend. Due to my need to return to Tasmania for an evening appointment, I missed seeing the other aunt. My uncle struggled to look at or speak to me or my mother, but that is his burden to bear. I loved catching up with my other aunt - and my cousins who I have not seen for more than ten years were delightful company.

Despite all my misgivings it was a good day - a fitting tribute to my grandfather from whom we all came.

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

warm welcome

It's pretty cold right now - we've just endured one of the coldest days I can remember in this part of the world. No snow here, but plenty falling nearby I imagine. To keep warm I've snuggled into a delicious possum and merino jacket and cooked up a pot of parsnip and apple soup.

Then I remembered what took place last weekend and it warmed the cockles of my heart!

Since February I have been working each Tuesday and Wednesday as a chaplain in a local primary school. I love it. This is the most enjoyable, rewarding job I have ever had. In some ways I don't think of it as a job at all... I bounce out of bed feeling excited to head into the school and hang out with the kids. They are beautiful children and we have a load of fun together.

Not that life is easy for them. It's not the richest part of town, literally and figuratively on the wrong side of the tracks, the unfortunate result of long past public housing policies, but often I see more maturity and resilience in some of these kids than I have observed in some of the adults I know on the right side of the tracks. I feel deeply honoured to work with these children, to provide a stable, caring presence who takes an interest in the story of their lives.

So last Sunday I was excited to participate in the official 'Welcome the Chaplain' event we held in the local community hall. People came from local churches, school children performed a couple of songs and a skit and after an official prayer we ate yummy food together.

Before you start picturing an ordered, polished event I should add that this was one of the most riotous, colourful affairs I have attended. One of my friends described it as 'random'. Usually distant children swarmed around me, pulling me hither and thither, offering effusive hugs, clambering to sit next to me for the service. Those who could not fit with me jumped all over Frank and settled into his lap. Out of the blue a group of African refugees sang a gospel song before two girls dressed as chalk and cheese ran out to lead a skit on healthy lifestyles. There was noise, mayhem and joy, spontaneity and laughter. Such a contrast to the regular services I attend. Somehow more earthy and real. A true expression of the community. I loved it.

So now I am officially a chaplain... I think for tax purposes I might even be considered clergy. Wild. Here is some (hideous) photographic proof. (Never let it be said I am vain...)

Now that all the energetic hoo-ha has settled down I am even more convinced of how much I love this job, how glad I am to be in there loving those kids, and that my role is as an instrument of God's love.

As I said... warms the cockles of my heart!

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

busy living life

Some seriously good stuff has been happening and I really want to write about it but just can't find the time. Then there are all those photos of the trip I want to share, and the stories I want to tell. Same thing - not enough time.

Truth is I'm busy living, and it's good. Real good. Would just be nice to have a snippet of time to tell the tale though.

I will, I really will. This weekend maybe.

(I really only posted tonight so it isn't more than a week since my last post. Sad. I know. But I'm a blogger!)

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

life in a small town

It's a funny thing living in a small city - at once warm, friendly, comfortable and yet restrictive, frictional (yes, that is a word), awkward.

I remember when I first moved here, walking through the mall with a new friend. I could not believe how many people she knew. Every which way we turned she was bobbing her head in greeting, waving or calling out a cheerful hello. Coming from a large city where I might bump into one familiar face every week or two, I could only shake my head in wonder at her obvious popularity.

Of course now I know differently. After a few years of small city life I too walk down the street and bob my head every which way in greeting as I cross paths with friends and acquaintances from multiple social arenas. I doubt I would win any popularity contests, this is just life in a city populated by only a small pool of people. And it is nice - seeing people I know in the shops, supermarket, gym and park gives a wonderful sense of belonging. Warm, friendly, comfortable.

The down side is managing those fractious relationships that one finds everywhere there are people. In London they might have created barely more than a ripple - turn away from the heat of disagreement and thousands of people crowd around, fill the space, distract the mind from the hurt. Where I live now, turn around and you just might bump into the partner or best friend of the one with whom you exchanged words. Even more likely, you will spy them across the street when you least expect to. That is the way it goes. Restrictive, frictional, awkward!

My mind drifts back again to my arrival in this place. The mother of my 'popular' friend described what she considered to be an effective coping mechanism for life in a small town. "People have a lovely way of ignoring past altercations. When you bump into each other at the supermarket you smile blandly, exchange pleasantries and move on as if nothing untoward ever happened."

Being someone who values truth and honesty, I was horrified. Ignore the past? Pretend nothing happened? Exchange pleasantries despite failing to see eye to eye? How artificial! Dishonest! Almost criminal and certainly lacking in integrity! One should confront the issue, resolve it and always approach the supermarket with a clear conscience.

Ah the idealism. If only life were so simple.

Here I sit some years later able to recognise some issues are just not reconcilable. As I wade through the situation I spectacularly created in my workplace I cannot avoid meeting people I know at the butcher, the greengrocer, on the street corner. In truth even in London the issue might hang in the air, only there I could change course and walk towards a fresh relationship uncontaminated by disagreements. Here there is not so far to walk and it would not take long to run through every person in town in search of the perfectly peaceful friendship. So while I despise my disingenuous attitude, I too now reconcile where possible and where it is impossible, I ignore the issue, smile and exchange pleasantries. And if they choose to look away or pretend they do not see me - I will call out no greeting and make no effort to cultivate an artificial conversation. It's easier that way. More honest somehow. An acknowledgement all is not right and perhaps never will be. A concession to the truth we are all just broken people muddling our way through the best we can.

Perhaps my friend's mother was right. Pretending is the best way to survive life in a small town. Certainly it is the easiest.

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Saturday, July 05, 2008

loving london

Here I sit, waving a tissue doused in Karvol beneath my nose and experiencing a moment of deja vu. As I sniffle, snuffle and cough my way through the day I keep remembering London not that many weeks ago when I sniffed Karvol and snuffled my way around it's stately streets.

I have something of a love affair happening with London - living there, flirting with its history, relaxing in its glow, dreaming of it when apart. Being back in its embrace was comfortable and altogether delightful and I proudly shuttled Frank around the major sites as if I had never been away.

In truth, once I had us change Tube trains too early and another time I led us astray around endless streets before I remembered it really was too far to walk to our destination. Still, there was something homelike about being back in London, and in my mind I found myself retracing steps from those days when I was young, footloose, fancy free. Poor Frank found himself tagging along with my memories.

Not that we did not do fabulous things together! In a few short days we managed to fit in all the main sites plus a few extra outside of the city. And the time with my friends David and Ruth? Ah... another home coming.

So here are some of the places we went a-sniffling and a-snuffling:

The Natural History Museum, where the building housing the magnificent displays steals the show with it's even greater magnificence, inside and out! Incredible. So were the queues, but that's a whole nother story.

Like I said - there were some magnificent exhibitions inside the Natural History Museum. This slab of Giant Sequoia was just one.

Of course we did a whirl around the obligatory sites - who has been to London and not visited the Queen or Houses of Parliament, St Paul's or the Millennium Wheel? No one! Well not us anyway.

Then we dipped our toes in modern art at the Tate. I don't know, videos of jumping naked people or Sir Paul McCartney having sex aren't really my thing... and I can't quite see how they are art. But the squashed, suspended cutlery display was pretty cool.

Canterbury Cathedral with it's seemingly floating ceiling.

And the cute, cute buildings. Are they really real?! Apparently so.

Our friends David and Ruth took us touring in Kent for a day. I love Kent and all it's charming houses and gardens. This is Chartwell, home of Winston Churchill...

... and Stockney Castle Gardens.

Of course we saw so much more than this - but how to fit it all in a post I ask? The world is too large and wonderful for me to contain!

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