Posted by: Jan | 1 May, 2013

Going home another way

Sydney Airport 15.4.13
I’m going home. Am I wiser?
Like the Magi (who were warned in a dream) I’m going home by another way.
Bound to be doing so, because this journey has spun me round the world. The ticket that took me, and the flights that it entailed, were probably the least interesting aspect (because all this flying after years of abstinence has challenged my carbon conscience – and because planes are cramped and airports are banal). But I am very grateful to Wellspring Community, who paid for the ticket, after inviting me to speak at their Gathering in Sydney, because this journey has enabled me to see so many good people and beautiful places, and to learn so much.

Pause for two poems written on one of those many flights – within Australia.
Flight to the Centre
Palm upward to the sun,
this land
is like a human hand:
wrinkled and worn,
burnt by the sun
and scarred;
with unique fingerprints,
and life-lines that run
for a thousand miles and more;
life-lines that have run
forty thousand years and more.

Slow shadows
Clouds like a flock of white sheep
wandering across a land
with little grazing.
As we fly above them,
their slow shadows
look like shallow lakes,
surprising a land
where rain is rare.

For me, on this visit to a continent I never thought I would see, there were many surprises, and refreshment for body, mind and spirit. Much of this is down to the Wellspring Community, and the hospitality of its members. I stayed in eight households and at Campfire in the Heart, a retreat centre at Alice Springs, and experienced the hospitality of people who opened their homes, and their lives, willing to talk about national issues and their local community, their faith and what it meant to belong to Wellspring; there was the hospitality of laughter, of listening, and of space for silence. Thank you, Cherry and John, David and Lynona, Margaret and Neil, Keith and Helen, Margaret and Clabon, Jill and John, Peggy and Jim, David and Sue, Marie and Andrew. And – what’s more – there were all those conversations at cafe tables and kitchen tables. Thank you, Janet, Janelle, Doug, Marion, Linda…

Creative encounters went beyond the Members and Friends of Wellspring, and included many people who share its concerns (in the Community’s own words) for:
Justice and peace – both locally and globally
Spirituality and worship – in an Australian setting
Reconciliation – between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians
The environment – promoting sustainable living for all creation
Ecumenical and inter-faith issues – sharing truth and building trust.

Why did the Wellspring folk invite me, when I know so little about their huge, diverse, ancient and in other ways very young country? I am a Member of the dispersed Iona Community and Wellspring is a younger sister (having been in existence for 20 years). Our logo is the wild goose, a symbol for the Holy Spirit, possibly from Celtic spirituality. Their symbol is the windmill, seen in many places in the Outback, drawing up vital water – living water. Wellspring is also a dispersed community, which in Australia means scattered across a whole continent. They don’t have a gathering point like the Centres in Iona, but they do try to meet for discussion and mutual encouragement in biennial Gatherings.

So in March I set off to meet them – to bring another point of view to their chosen – and vital – theme of The Common Good. I was invited to give three keynote addresses at the Gathering in Easter Week, but to arrive early and visit Members of Wellspring in the places where they lived. That’s what I did, travelling from Perth to Adelaide to Brisbane, to Newcastle (NSW), to Sydney, Canberra, the Blue Mountains and Sydney again for the Gathering, then afterwards, briefly, to the Centre – Uluru and Alice Springs. Glimpses of many different places – some of which prompted blogs on this site.

And there’s so much more I could have written. Not ‘What I did on my holidays’ but poems in passing, images that took me by surprise, questions, quotations, moments of gratitude and wonder. And the obituary of a fly called Alice.
This may be the last blog (I’ve begun it at the airport, as I depart). But there are things I’ve learned, pictures in my mind, conversations I can’t forget, glimpses of a journey that goes on:

life-lines that run for a thousand miles and more;
life-lines that have run forty thousand years and more.

Posted by: Jan | 20 April, 2013

In the Blue Mountains

200 years ago the Blue Mountains, with their steep tree-covered slopes and winding valleys, escarpments and sudden cliffs, seemed to present a complete barrier between the coastal plains and the Australian interior. Then the first Europeans crossed them. They opened up first an arduous journey, then a railway with villages and villas that might have been in Surrey, strung out like a necklace, then a busy main highway from east to west. But of course there were people living in these hills long before: the original, indigenous, care-takers. One group were the Darug people, of whom an Elder, Aunty Lyn Stanger, said in a recent interview:
‘We don’t own the land, we belong to the land.’
I learned this and a great deal more at the Cultural Centre in Katoomba – a museum worthy of a World Heritage Site, and the variety of people who live in this region today, and care about it. Among these are members of the local Wellspring group, whose concern for hospitality (for asylum seekers in Sydney, for instance) is intertwined with a strong sense of the unique place where they live, and a spirituality that is rooted in it.
One Wellspring Member, Jim Tulip, took me to the look-out point at Wentworth Falls, where I saw the view that had so impressed Charles Darwin.


Darwin at Wentworth Falls

Blue blue blue blue blue blue blue
Darwin, the world-traveller,
the cool observer, became
almost ecstatic, when he went
into these mountains:
‘This kind of view…
to me quite novel
and extremely magnificent…’
Blue blue blue blue blue blue blue
For a scientist, this was intense –
‘headland beyond headland’ –
a different kind of space;
a writer, too, suddenly
he was almost lost for words,
wading into hyperbole:
‘deep, vast, immense…’
Blue blue blue blue blue blue blue
His mind was drowning
in an alien element,
clutching at straws of memory:
‘If we imagine a winding harbour, its deep water
surrounded by bold cliff-like shores,
laid dry, and a forest springing up…’
far below, and to the horizon, blue.
Blue blue blue blue blue blue blue
His successors analyse
that blue haze: created by dust-motes,
water droplets and a mist of oils
from the eucalypts; those oils, too
pushing chlorophyll in the leaves
across the spectrum, from green to blue.
Blue blue blue blue blue blue blue
For Darwin at Wentworth Falls
it was, first of all, mystery –
deep inland, he could only think of the sea:
Blue blue blue blue blue blue blue

Posted by: Jan | 18 April, 2013

Missing the marsupials already

Before I went to Australia people warned me about the animals: crocodiles, dingoes, poisonous spiders, cassowaries, snakes, sharks, boxing kangaroos, Tasmanian Devils, fire-ants and dive-bombing magpies.
I saw very few of these, and none sank their teeth (or beaks or talons) into me.
But I’m very grateful to the Wellspring Group in Brisbane who, besides some serious events, took me up the river to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary.
Where I saw laid-back kangaroos





(mostly the right way up)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

and even this little fellow, worn out with devilment

But I have no photograph of the most mysterious creature of all, which was alive and well in a tank in a darkened building – so here is a word-picture

The solitary platypus
The platypus in her private world
is dancing in the dusk
between two elements.
Like an otter, she dives
with a deft twist of the body,
but in this upside-down
state of unlikeness,
is blessed with a duck-bill
and nipples to suckle
her egg-hatched young –
if she can find a mate.
Bubbles of air caught in her fur
become a string of pearls,
twirling as she dances –
a flapper with duck feet –
steered by her strong tail
instead of a partner.
O solitary platypus: unique piece of creation.

Posted by: Jan | 17 April, 2013

But where are all the trees?

On the afternoon of Good Friday, I went with Jill and John Robertson, whose generous hospitality I’ve been enjoying here in Canberra, to visit the National Arboretum.

What was I expecting? Kew Gardens?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The National Arboretum – just empty country? Where are all the trees?

  Canberra, the National Capital – 100 years of trees in the cityOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After all, Canberra is a city of trees: planned and laid out 100 years ago (and celebrating that now). The grand plan, which can be glimpsed in this view, of avenues and significant public buildings – like Parliament and the War Memorial – included the planting of thousands of trees, which are now tall and stately, being replaced where they have aged, stands of eucalyptus and casuarinas and indigenous shrubs like wattle, but also many introduced species – like London planes – which are deciduous and just starting to change colour. It is a green city, where you can breathe the air – and if this is boring, who cares?

So I thought a National Arboretum would be more of the same. ‘An arboretum is a living collection of trees cultivated for conservation, scientific and educational purposes.’

But where were all the trees?

The hillsides at first look almost bare. Then, when you look more closely, the trees are there, though sometimes hidden by the plastic guards protecting them from sun, wind and nibbling creatures – seedlings, saplings – 40,000 of them. A few have grown quickly, or were planted earlier, so there are little groves here and there. But most of this huge site – 250 hectares – is laid out under the sun as a dream of things to come.

First it was bush. Then the land was cleared for dairy farms. Then people planted trees for profit, ranks of dark pine trees like the Douglas fir of our forestry plantations. Then, in 2003, there were devastating bush fires, and the plantations were destroyed. Now the plan is to reclaim the land in a different way. To plant not just specimen trees, as you might find in an arboretum in the UK, but forests, each formed of a different species – 100 forests with 100 rare, beneficial or symbolic trees in each. It is a grand scheme – like the original plan for Canberra. That design took 100 years to become a concrete reality (concrete and brick and woodland and water, and people living and moving, working and playing among them).
Here, there were still signs of the massive clearance and reshaping of the site, that happened after the bush fires and all the planning. The site must still have looked very sterile when the first trees were planted. Then grass began to grow. And then, a panel in the Arboretum Visitor Centre records, in March 2010, the call of the spotted grass frog was heard. This sign of regeneration against all the odds, a small voice of hope, was one I quoted in a Bible Study/Contemporary Witness for the Uniting Church NSW Synod on Sunday 14 April. (I was given an Old Testament passage, Isaiah 49: 8-13, to work with, and linked it to Luke 13: 18-21, where human activity is a way of seeing God’s work. The Arboretum seemed to me a good example, too).

National ArboretumWe walked and sometimes drove around this site, on a memorable afternoon, taking in the view from Dairy Farmers Hill (where the rusty eagle has nested) seeing the cloned Wollemi pines, being brought back from the edge of extinction, reading about the cultural significance of plants like the banksias, looking where a ‘waterwise garden’ will be laid out, seeing one valley being prepared for the ceremonial planting of trees by dignitaries from all over the world, enjoying words from a poem about Australia, ‘wide brown land’ displayed in sculpture along a hilltop. And watching children running and rolling down hillsides that are now bare, but where, in 100 years, their grandchildren may play in the fragrant shade of trees where birds nest and frogs are calling.

Posted by: Jan | 16 April, 2013

Next time I’ll bring a dongle

I am sorry that this blog has been so sporadic. In an astonishingly interesting month – more than a month – in Australia, internet access has been patchy. There’s been less wi-fi around than I thought. I’m grateful that my hosts let me use their computers to check my mail – but lurking in their study blogging didn’t seem polite – when there was so much interesting conversation to have over kitchen tables from Perth to Newcastle, Adelaide to Alice Springs. And public computer access is time-consuming, and costly when – as often – it goes down before the message is actually send, the blog posted.

Today is my second Monday. It started in a friendly household in Sydney, and after I got on the long-haul flight eastwards at midday, time became rather shapeless, and there was a night in there somewhere (but disappointingly no celebrations when we crossed the International Date Line…. and now, somewhere over the rainbow, I’ve had Monday afternoon and evening all over again in San Francisco. Next time I make a journey like this – if I do – I’ll try to be more independently connective. A dongle sounds like one of those rare Australian bush creatures – and there might be a poem in that

I have been looking at things I wrote in Australia, which might still be worth sharing. So in the next few days I intend to do some retro-blogging. But for now, among all the serious and noteworthy things that have been happening, and on my mind ….some lines about a small persistent presence, in the last few days.

A fly called Alice
I sat under the trees: you dropped by to say ‘Hello’.
I went for a walk: you wanted to come too.
I put on a sun-hat: you came to admire it.
Sun-cream, fly-repellent: you seemed to desire it.
I poured out a drink: you said ‘Time for a swim’;
Opened the screen-door: you rushed to come in.
Spoke to you sternly: ‘Oh push off, steer clear!’
But you looked me in the eye, had a word in my ear.
Made me so welcome to your hot, dry home;
Made me so welcome: wouldn’t leave me alone…
So I left for the airport: for a no-fly zone.
Walked on to the tarmac, still waving: ‘Shoo! Shoo!’
When I got to the plane, you said ‘I can fly too.’
O fly called Alice, I know it’s hard,
But I’ve squashed you flat, with my boarding card.

Posted by: Jan | 31 March, 2013

Easter Egg Hunt

Is it here, at the Scotland Cairn in Rawson Park, Sydney?
There are stones from every parish in Scotland – with Ulva providing the capstone. Stones of every geology and shape and size. It was a delight to find the cairn about which Bill Pollock wrote in The Ulva Stone – but we didn’t find an egg.

Is it here – in the Eagle’s Nest at the National Arboretum?
A huge nest and bird, made from scrap metal, on a hill overlooking Canberra. Worth visiting – and the view – but no egg.
Is it here – outside the Art Gallery in Canberra?
Among the surprising and sculptures that greet visitors – this one, Thapich, by Gloria Fletcher of the Thaynakwith people, its smooth surface breaking into life with Aboriginal symbols, is almost an egg.
Is it here – in the centre of the labyrinth at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture?
A silent walk deepened awareness of many things, sounds of the surrounding city, echoes of the Easter story. There was a beautiful pine tree by an ancient stone at the centre – but no egg.
Is it here?
Well certainly there was an egg at the joyful Easter Sunday morning service at Kippax Uniting Church. An 8 kilo egg, zestfully broken up by the children – providing enough chocolate for the whole of Australia….
so, for now, Happy Easter!

Posted by: Jan | 29 March, 2013

Kippax Kitchen Sculpture

I’m in Canberra, as guest of Jill and John Robinson for Easter Weekend. So on Thursday evening we went to Kippax Uniting Church, where Jill, who arranged my travel for this whole breathtaking visit, is a member. Canberra is much cooler than Sydney, which was simmering for the last few days.
I’ve come up here for Easter weekend. Last night in the dusk there was a slight breeze stirring the trees round the church, in an area that is very mixed socio-economically. People of all kinds and age groups were drifting in, and just outside we met a man at a barbecue, grilling lamb. As the service progressed, with thoughtful words and music from a group playing a variety of instruments, the lamb became part of a real shared meal, with bread and tabbouleh and water – and later pitta bread and wine. We told each other the story of the Last Supper.
This congregation have been telling a longer story throughout Lent, celebrating the theme of hospitality in Luke’s Gospel. Week by week they built up a ‘sculpture’ on the Communion table of pots and pans, egg-whisks and cups and graters and lemon squeezers and chopping boards with a kitchen clock – symbols of hospitality.

So of course the Last Supper was part of that theme.

As the stages of the story darkened, candles were put out, song carried us into the loneliness of Gethsemane and then betrayal, the sanctuary was stripped of flowers and ornament, or covered in black cloths.

This morning, Good Friday, we walked into a sombre space with just one focus – the sculpture in the, on the Table. People were familiar with it, identified with it and what it was about. The liturgy unfolded, until a point came when Gordon, the minister, stepped forward and reminded the congregation, of about 200, what their sculpture represented. Then he and one other took the corners of the cloth on the communion table, and brought the whole sculpture crashing down.

That was when I had been invited to reflect (and which of the Words from the Cross would follow). So I thought I could share that reflection – which is a story, not an explanation – with you.
***************** ***************** *************** *************** ***************
On a hillside outside Jerusalem the sun beats down. After the bulldozers have left, there is silence. A house has been demolished. A very ordinary house – someone’s home. To get near, you will have to walk over broken branches, palm fronds and what’s left of the family’s olive trees. The leaves are dusty and dying. There was a vine trained over a trellis, making a cool shade for welcoming guests. The trellis is matchwood, the vine torn down. There will be no more grapes.

In the rubble lie smashed crockery, pots and pans, torn curtains, schoolbooks, a computer, shoes, broken glass. So much broken glass.

This was someone’s home. Bread was baked here. A family ate together, children played. A working man came back tired at the end of the day. A student daughter returned from college. When neighbours, or strangers, passed by, or stopped at the courtyard gate, friendly voices called ‘Salaam Alaikum – Peace be upon you! Come! Come’ And folk would come into the yard, and sit down in the shade, and be offered tiny cups of strong sweet black coffee, from the pot on the brazier, or glasses of mint tea. Take this cup. The cups are in pieces, the glass is shattered.

This was not an ideal home. There was never enough money to smooth all the rough edges, make everything just so. But there was enough. With its walled garden, an oasis of green in the sunbaked landscape, with its olive trees and fruitful vine and the hospitality of its people, it was a little taste of paradise. A safe place, on a human scale. It has been destroyed – deliberately – as part of a ‘collective punishment’ by the occupying army.

Children are crying among the rubble. A man and a woman try to comfort each other. People look on in shock. But this is not the only home to be destroyed. There are others close at hand who know what it feels like. They are not saints. Sometimes they lash out. sometimes they cry out asking where God is, when things like this happen. They are just about hanging on in there – living from day to day with sumoud – long-suffering, endurance, steadfastness. Now they reach out to their neighbours in silent compassion. They offer water to drink, shelter from the sun. There will be a place to weep and to sleep, at least tonight, even though hope seems dead.

‘I promise you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Luke 23: 39-43)

Posted by: Jan | 28 March, 2013

Re-united with Newcastle!

Newcastle – that’s where I was when I wrote this (since then this blog has been lost and found….and I’m in Canberra…blogging is so immediate!). Newcastle, you know, the one with Wallsend in one direction and Hexham in the other, with Jesmond and Wickham and Lambton and Sandgate and Stockton.
With banksias and bougainvillia and frangipani and palms in the gardens. Newcastle NSW, that is.
With barramundi and snapper and swimming crab in the Fisherman’s Co-op (we bought mullet for lunch today).
With beaches close to the city and cottages where coal miners used to live in neighbouring streets. A hundred years ago they worked down pits very like those they left on the other side of the world. They came here bringing their skills and the names of home.
But now the coal is mined on a huge scale further up the Hunter Valley, and brought down to the coast by rail. Out at sea freighters queue up to come into port. We watched one coming past the old lighthouse, escorted by tugs, and turning into the Hunter River, dwarfing the other boats and the people fishing from the shore. The next day we saw it at one of the three coal terminals, which line the road for miles, with mountains of coal constantly being added to, the freighters loading up before heading off across the ocean again.
Much of the coal is being exported to China, to add to the smoke of its industrial revolution. People here know that their bustling port is contributing to global warming. And they are angry about plans to build out onto land where migrant wading birds gather – to create a fourth coal terminal. I’m staying with Keith and Helen Weavers, who last weekend joined a large demonstration against it.
The cranes and conveyor belts keep heaping up the coal. The huge ships come in and go out, crossing the oceans of this world which Greenpeace reminds us is so fragile. Last night the lights went out briefly, in Sydney among other places, for Earth Hour. Someone there said, ‘We could see the stars’. But it was only an hour. The ships keep coming…and going…carrying coals from Newcastle.

Posted by: Jan | 25 March, 2013

Puddings! A story for Lent

I’m not sure what happened to the previous blog.
It was all written and illustrated, and has disppeared into the ether.
But I have a copy, and when other conditions are right you will hear about Coals from Newcastle.

Meanwhile I thought some readers might be interested to know that on a very hot day in Australia, I was given a gift-wrapped Christmas pudding.
Adamstown Uniting Church, which has a whole lot of interesting things going on (while I was there an exhibition of Palestinian art, an EAPPI talk (me), a classical concert, movement classes, Scottish Country dancing (none of these me), a Prayer Breakfast and a writing workshop – not to mention Palm Sunday services – this Uniting Church also has an interesting and ongoing project.

40 years ago, a member of the congregation welcomed her son home from the Vietnam War. She thanked God for his safe return – and decided to do something positive – something that would benefit the church.
So she started making Christmas puddings – to her own family recipe.
And they sold and sold.

Now, 40 years on, they are still selling. Just behind Adamstown church is a purpose-builty workshop/kitchen with a large sign Pudding Shop. For four months of every year, in the run-up to Christmas, three paid staff and several volunteers mix, cook, shrink-wrap and label puddings, of various sizes from mini to over-the-top. They make, I think 10,000 puddings a year (I have been withholding this story while trying to check my facts).
They (the puds) go all over the world.

And (after the Prayer Breakfast, at which I spoke about the Justice and Peace Commitment of the Iona Community) I was given one to take home.

I can’t comment yet. The proof of the pudding….
But it all makes a sustaining story: Justice, Peace and a community-made pudding.
In Lent.

I hope this blog gets through.

Posted by: Jan | 24 March, 2013

Coals from Newcastle

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