That Glossy Red Box.

(This past week I have been thinking a lot about connection, and especially where things from the past enter our present while we are unaware. I found a piece I had started a while back, and reshaped it to suffice for July and August, when my inspiration well was running dry.  In honour of Sister Ambrose RSJ I have called this ‘The Glossy Red Box’. )

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After lunch in Grade Three, Sister Ambrose used to pass around the ‘mission box’. It was a small red cardboard box with a slot in the top. On the front there was a picture of an appealing black baby, and something written along the lines of ‘Save a little baby so it can grow up to hear the Good News’. The box was passed up and down the rows so those children who had money could choose to donate it to the mission cause.

Sister Ambrose was a very young Irish nun, very popular with us with her intriguing Irish accent, and we were eager to meet her approval. She would count the money – mainly pennies and ha’pennies because we were in an area where nobody had much – and tell us how much we had raised. I longed to be one of the children who could put money in that box, but in our household every penny was spoken for. The children who put the money in, had it left over from their lunch money or pocket money.  Mum had to feed and clothe five of us and there was literally no ‘slack’. If we ever bought lunch, it was on a Monday when there was no bread left, and the money had to be sorted out so we each had exactly the right amount to order our sandwich.

We seemed to just accept that this was the way things were, and most of our friends were in pretty much the same circumstances. Many years had to pass before we realized how hard that was for our parents – Mum going without so much herself in her twenties and early thirties to make sure we all had what we needed. Dad, like so many other fathers, worked three jobs, until his asthma got so bad he had to cut it down to two. Very few of ‘our’ mothers went out to work in the early post war years, but it seemed accepted that the ‘New Australian’ kids’ mothers did. Their lives were parallel to ours rather than integrated with them, at that time – and there was little understanding of how difficult it was for them to start all over again in a new country, often not even of their choosing.

One morning a friend of mine left her lunch money home. Mum was on tuck shop duty and lent her the shilling she needed for a cheese sandwich. A few days later, I think her mother probably must have returned it wrapped in a piece of paper and told me to put it in my pocket. That is the only explanation I can have for the miracle that occurred around that time in the Grade Three after-lunch classroom.

As the lovely little mission box came along the row on that day, I felt something in my pocket. I can’t remember any process of thinking or wondering how that came to be or what I should do with it. I knew exactly what it was for. I unwrapped it and slipped that shilling in through the slot, certain that I too had now saved a little baby who could learn about Jesus. I felt very satisfied with that outcome. I had a taste of feeling that I was virtuous, and could consider myself as someone who ‘gave to the missions’.  I never thought about the hypothetical baby again.

Some time later I heard Mum say to her sister that she was surprised that my friend’s mother had not returned the shilling. She said she didn’t think she would be like that.  Any doubts or realization that stirred a little in my mind were quickly outweighed by the remembered satisfaction, and I never said a word. Sixty five years later I can still taste the pleasure of that find in my pocket, but although I have an entirely different opinion about missions and saving babies, I can trace back to that time my lasting awareness of and connection to the people of a wider world.

Last week my husband and I looked at our annual receipt from the Fred Hollows foundation. We counted up the number of people to whom we had been able to give a sight restoring operation and there it was again:  gladness that I had money to give, the powerful feeling of agency, of being able to make a difference to people whose lives intersect invisibly with mine.  I know I carry with me the privilege of post-colonial injustice, but nonetheless I still give my few dollars, and guess that the people who get the operations won’t care that the donor is a bit flawed, and might even have a small sense of being loved through our mysterious connection.

This time, this is the place of grace where I take off my shoes and am grateful for the wonderful complexities of this life, where nothing is ever entirely wasted.

 

Pauline Small

August 2017.

 

 

 

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Blood Revisited.

One of my earliest associations with blood was to taste it by licking my bleeding finger. It was a little bit warmish, and had a metallic taste. The adults around were uneasy and wondered if it would ‘bring germs’. My grandfather was a butcher so I guess there were probably family instructions and concerns about cleanliness around spilt blood.

Blood is a strange word. It is a five letter word that describes a substance, but it is also a word that can carry weight beyond those seemingly innocent letters.  It seems to be a noun of extremes – it drips through terrifying films of both fantasy and dreadfully real war, through plastic tubes to save lives, through meat that we prepare in kitchens without thought for its origin,  through rhetoric that binds people together and that tears people apart.

These days, through leukaemia, we have entered a new relationship to that word. It is a world of blood tests, printouts of results, injections, hospitals, bags of blood – of anxiety, fatigue, reassurance, new learning, and medical skills we learn to trust. We fumble along, negotiating our way to learn the vocabulary of our new life, but pleased with our progress.

For my husband, whose blood is in question, it is a totally different experience than it is for me. I know the life limiting aspects of all this, and I am at times overwhelmed by them, but I have also developed an ability to acknowledge them and then put them aside to deal with when time makes it necessary.

I have to shamefully admit that for me, along with the pain, it also brings a new fascination with the microbiology that has been going on inside of us for these seventy plus years, while we lived unaware of it. At each specialist visit I sneak in a question or two about the chemistry of blood, and each answer adds to my sense of wonder and to my general excitement at the whole expansion of mind that science brings to us.

(At the last visit the haematologist did say he was glad at least one of the three people in the room was having fun. Perhaps I should revise that adjective to ‘shameless’.)

I have discovered with a certain joy that in our own blood and our very marrow, literally trillions of microscopic processes of life-building and entropy continue without us knowing they are sustaining us – and without them knowing what they are part of, either.

In my later years, I have marvelled at the opposite perspective of the previously unknown existence of whole new galaxies expanding outside of our small world and our small knowledge.

Now somehow, this intricate mutuality takes me to awe and wonder as our precious vital lives are contextualised in something so exquisite, so creative that just the idea of it opens us – and leaves us open to things beyond imagining. It is so good to know that there is more – that we as an enterprise are more than just what we can know and control and box up and nail down.  As we realize our part in the energy of the great wave of unending life, hope carries us.

The Catholic world of my childhood, it has to be said, was a bloody one. Many religions connect blood with life in their imagery and rituals. I am not saying that was a bad thing, but it was disconnected to the meaning of real blood, and was too early an introduction to a serious depth of powerful imagery that could not be understood by a child – particularly by a city-child, who did not understand anything at all about the place of blood in sustaining and giving life.

blood of the lamb, blood flowing from the side, blood dripping from the face of the one we had helped to crucify by our sins, blood that made a woman unworthy and needing to be shriven after childbirth, the chalice of my blood, DRINK the chalice of blood, and that most mysterious feast day: the Circumcision of the Lord, explained to uncomprehending Christian girls as the first shedding of the blood of Jesus; certainly no feast day for the first menstruation of Mary….

Now in my growing age, I understand much about the place of blood in life and in culture, in birth, in war and in sacrifice. I perceive the inheritance we receive and then give again, both in body and in memory. As I see my husband, my dear husband, receiving the blood of another and regaining his life-energy, I am brought to thankfulness for this gift of blood, this gift of life. Blood and body. Body and blood.

A primary school friend once asked me to be sworn friends for life with her. We achieved this by pricking our fingers and transferring the blood to each other. (I wonder if she too remembers doing this). Those little girls in their innocent ritual were unconscious that they were ritualizing the physical exchange of the life force, and the bonding of one being to another, that today is delivered in hospital from a plastic bag through a tube, the gift of a stranger. In all the years I donated blood, I never realized how personal this gift is, how intense the gratitude for it, but it pleases me that in fact something of me lives on in another.

I am no longer able to give my own blood, and I am dependent for my happiness, and forever bonded and befriended with people I have never met and will never know. I take off  my shoes here, where we are all held and hold together in grace. Every common bush afire with God.

I am just saying – Red Cross Blood Service 13 14 95.   http://www.donateblood.com.au

please

 

 

 

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An Armful of Grace on Our Table.

File 25-4-17, 4 37 40 pm   On the Saturday before Easter Sunday, Holy Saturday to many, our adult grandson and his lovely partner brought us an armful of long flower stems loaded with giant white lilium buds. I had never seen them such a size before, and even unopened their scent was heady and strong, redolent of the lush tropical foliage that captivated us in North Queensland on holiday. (In fact it was so strong we had to sit the vase on the outside table where we could see it through the kitchen window.) I snipped their ends, set them in water with added sugar to feed them, and put them where we could watch and wait for them to reveal themselves.

In the liturgical year, Holy Saturday is an essential part of the Easter cycle of death and resurrection: it is a quiet time when nothing happens. After the storms of Farewell and Death, there is a nothingness in the air that gradually reveals itself as a sharp still point of loss, of letting go – of hope, of knowing what is happening, of having a clear path forward.  The liturgies are meant to take us deep into what it means to be fully human and live the human experience in completeness. The times of turmoil and pain are not to be dismissed or glossed over, as they too contain treasures if we turn them over softly when we ponder them.

This year (and I know some were shocked) I chose not to go to any of the Easter ceremonies in church. I felt very vulnerable and dreaded going so much that I was quite agitated and fearful, and so I trusted in my own wisdom and decided to stay at home in intentional solitude. I knew that this year we have been living the cycle in all its intensity right here in our place of grace, our homely Cheltenham lives.

Inner turmoil has been a theme as we learn to cope with our new life stage,  building up enough experience of this illness to know when to worry and when to stay cool, when to speak and when to refrain from speaking, how to be hopeful and also deal with loss of how things were. There have been many challenges and realizations that confront and demand attention, and wisdom sometimes seems too hard to find.  It was a matter of trusting that grace would be here to carry us, to give us the way to proceed together.

Jack and Elly’s abundant gift of quiet white closed buds slowly revealed themselves as metaphors for the understanding that we searched for. Gradually, one by one these flowers silently opened out, delighting our hearts and gently instructing us with their perfect beauty. They sat in the heavy clear vase (itself a precious gift from a sister) releasing their perfume and displaying their intricate pollen coated stamens that will initiate the propagation of the next generation. They can only ensure the continuing future of their kind by opening to being totally themselves, flaunting their sexuality and becoming wide open in vulnerability.  Each one did it in its own appointed time, and the work was not completed for fourteen days. For us, that was fourteen days of intense pleasure.

In the classical tradition of still life painting, there is always an intimation of mortality – a piece of fruit that is spoilt or blossom that has fallen and withered. Looking at these exquisite flowers as a work of art, sprung from the Source of life itself, at first I thought that disturbing hint was in the fine speckled colour that brushed the creamy petals, but on observing more closely, I saw that this was the pollen caught on the air and falling, cast to the chance of the elements as to whether it would bear fruit, or even in its decay still add its part to the cycle of regeneration.

By the time the last bud was ready to tentatively open, some of the other flowers had brown soft patches on their petals, one stem had spilt and broken in two and been discarded, and one flower had fallen in a wilt of soft green leaves on the table. Yet the lesson that gladdened my heart and spoke hope to me on a very bleak and teary day, was the unfolding and unfurling of the last flower. It still had its work of bringing beauty to accomplish, and it stood tall and clear in its place just above the others and did it perfectly.

Its face open to the light of the sky, it spoke to me of life still to be lived and love still to be loved – and yes, late beauty still to be flaunted. I stand barefoot and grateful.

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Gladness and Learning to Float.

There were not many dry eyes when we saw George proudly waking his daughter…

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Gladness and Learning to Float.

There has been a lovely wedding in our family. Three beautiful people – a mother, a father and a little son – were married in a park overlooking the sea. It was gentle and joyful, reflecting the nature of this family, and the love they all bring to us. There was a summer storm the night before, and it refreshed the air and the grass, leaving sparkling leaves and soft clouds in its wake.
There were not many dry eyes when big ones Archie and Edie led the way, and George walked Rachel down the slope to Steven waiting in the gazebo that stood at the edge of the beach. It was at the end of chemo #1 for George, after a bumpy few weeks, and the doctors stopped it early so he could be well for the big event. Seeing him proudly walking his daughter was just the outcome that everyone was hoping for – George most of all.
After the champagne and cake, and when a TigerAir drama had been circumvented by extra airline tickets to Bali being purchased (in the hope of later recompense), the three set off for their honeymoon.
Four year old Ben had been a bit afraid of the water and swimming, so we sent him away with a wedding present of a little flotation vest to use in the pool. (This was mainly to reassure a certain grandma that he would be safe in the very attractive but unfenced pool in the accommodation brochure – too many years of OH&S training as a teacher, I suspect.)
You don’t normally send your parents emails from your honeymoon, but when you need updates on your dad’s health, you are allowed some flexibility in the rules.
So email one told us that Ben had learned to float. He has a wonderful way of expressing himself that can show you all sorts of levels of meaning, if you listen to his words and ponder their richness. This time he said to his mum with great satisfaction “Now I am a person who can float.”
I wonder what those words hint at – was he despairing that he ever would be able to float, did he long to be able to, did he watch other kids do it and wonder why he couldn’t be one of them, does he love the feeling of trusting the water, does he feel as if he has graduated into a new ability level in life? The satisfaction with his expanded identity, and his ability to recognise it, gladdened my heart. It calls to mind the three-fold wisdom of our nature: being, consciousness and joy. Or as I have heard it said, the Hindu scriptures express this as existence, knowledge and bliss.
When you want a second update on your dad’s health, why not add a video clip to your email? The clip shows that Ben has already integrated this new ability into his self-concept, and is now demonstrating both his new ‘doggy paddle’ and comparing it to his ‘old-fashioned paddling’ – I presume this refers to his former style that was pretty well a lot of thrashing around in the water.
Well, Ben, for the grown-ups our life lessons have been pretty similar as we learn to cope with the ups and downs, the unpredictability of life with leukaemia, the lessons and skills we need for chemo, for adjustment, for absorbing new knowledge about ourselves and our life stages. Like you we are surrounded and supported by love, and we are moving from thrashing around to some smoother sort of integration.
Once again I won’t speak for George – his journey is not mine, nor is mine his. We are anchored in each other’s love, and for me, this is the grace where I take off my shoes. Sacred time, sacred place.
In fact, this grandma can say that like you, Ben, now I am feeling like a person who can float. Like you, that makes me very happy.

wedding-vows-for-blog

 

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What you didn’t want to find in your Mum’s wardrobe just before Christmas.

This Advent, a more disturbing gift has lain in wait for us.

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What you didn’t want to find in your Mum’s wardrobe just before Christmas.

As a child, I was one for sneaking into our parents’ bedroom and feeling the mysterious parcels at the bottom of Mum’s wardrobe, in the weeks of Advent. Even when I knew exactly what was in a parcel, the anticipation of opening it brought future joy forward to me. Mum and Dad had a wonderful way of taking the ordinary and making it special by withholding it and thus filling it with mysterious delight.

This Advent, a more disturbing gift has lain in wait for us. We are beginning to feel its shape and size and bit by bit, understand the meaning it brings into our lives together. You certainly wouldn’t call it delight, but it was more relief when we finally had a name for it, this shadowy thing that was hiding just under our conscious knowledge.

We have known for some time (a year or two) that George’s health was ‘not right’. It was a vague feeling, nothing you could exactly put a finger on, something we tried to explain to ourselves as ageing, or unnecessary worrying. Last Christmas he had a serious infection that did not respond to antibiotics, and eventually had to have a bowel resection. His health seemed to pick up for a while after that, but a few months later he was again exhausted much of the day. This is quite uncharacteristic of him, as he is a fit man and an avid gardener.

One day I went down the backyard and noticed that weeds were running through everything and taking over. That told me something really bad was happening. A short time later he got an infection in his thumb and was on the merry-go-round of medical tests grumbling that the doctor was overreacting.

I am sure you are now getting the shape and size of what was hidden but waiting for us. He has now been diagnosed with Chronic Myelomonocytic Leukaemia. As it is at the intermediate stage, he will start chemo in the new year, once the follow-up tests are completed and a program made. If he responds well, this will become the ongoing rhythm of life for us.

It is a tumultuous time, and I don’t want to speak for him, but I do want to say that we are finding it is bringing us together in an intimacy that is redolent of our earliest times together, where we set out the kind of way we wanted to live our lives, what our values and beliefs were, and how we wanted to be together.

Many things in the parcel along with the unsought devastation, fear, concern and forced changes have been real and precious gifts to us: our family with whom we shared the news over takeaway  pizzas and several bottles of red wine, or by phone for those away,  are our lifeline and our comfort. We are so proud of each one of them, and so grateful for all the kindnesses and practical ways they have shown their love for us.

Friends and extended family members are our good fortune too. Mum’s heart is sad, in her love for us wishing we did not have to face this future, but the way she has lived her life is our model of courage and trust.  We have a sense of being loved and sheltered as we rearrange our understandings and perceptions in response to opening the wrapping paper.

There is much life to be lived yet, and we are blessed and held in the deep peace that lies below the stormy waves.

Strangely enough, this is where I take off my shoes and find the common bush afire with God.

 

georges-garden-dec-2016

George’s garden. December 2016

 

 

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