Monday, August 29, 2011

Stories and Death

Image from here
I have a generous friend. She loves to give gifts and cherish those around her. She makes soap and needlepoint, collects old books and loves to watch movies. She has colourful flowers tattooed on her ankles, and wears eye-catching shoes.

Seven weeks ago her husband died and she is busying herself with sorting collected treasures. She is sharing stories of the objects she discovers, the boxes she delivers to the op shop, the friends who come and remember with her. She lays the story of his failing life out before me, too. As she talks, I see the strength in her. Telling is a balm. A millimetre of smoothed protection from the burn of loss.

We meet on Mondays and each one marks another week since he crept away from his worn, overwhelmed body. Today, she smiled just a bit easier, and the shoulder weight of his long illness is lifting. She asked about my baby, and we marvelled the passing time as I said, "He's two and a half."

It is easy to spectate in the story of death. To visit someone who is dying, and expectation makes the room into a mausoleum. To forget to participate in the mingled sad joy of still being alive. I imagine cancer-ridden friends seeing the speechless sorrow in my eyes as I meet their gaze. Am I sad because I do not know what to say? Am I that self-absorbed? The pain of others refracted in my lenses, filtered to become my own pain.

I listen as she shares the story they had hidden. He feared those sympathetic spectators so he made sure they never knew. He dreaded having to bear their distress as well as his failing health. Her story is unadorned, love-worn and hopeful. She carves out life without him - carefully but purpose-gripped. She tells, as he did not, because she must. He lives in her story.

Her story changes me. I vow not to spectate. Not to let my uncomfortable sadness darken the process of dying. In real life, death is not purely dour or hallowed. The howling sadness of death is born out of the shared enjoyment of love and friendship. The laughter and being understood are the absence we miss. It is because we live, that we seek these in the aftermath of loss.

Sharing with Emily at Imperfect Prose,

Friday, August 19, 2011

Declutter (part 2)

It's a late night question. We ask it in the moonlight, when the talk is meandering. Regrets, longings, and the barely spoken plans. 'Can people really change?'
Doubt and hope line my answer. I waver, through the years of asking that question. I love the mornings when the answer rings out 'yes'. Someone said, last Sunday, that he used to think he knew it all but now he hungers to learn the truth. Is that change?

The first step to clearing out my crowded, fickle heart is to see the breadth of what I do not know.
  • I discard the pride of having to be right or knowledgeable in everything.
  • I open vessels ready to be filled with wisdom from another.
  • I let go of anxiety. The anxiety of relying only on myself.
  • I open the door to someone bigger than myself.
I don't have tips for decorating or simplifying your house. But I'm searching for ways to spiritually declutter.

Step #1 - stop needing to be right.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Errant lettuce

Take a packet of seeds and empty them in the garden. That's right, just there on the path, under the clothesline.

Three or four trips to the line before I realise that we have lettuce in our lawn. And it's not long till we'll be enjoying the tender leaves.

Unplanned, impromptu, unexpected. My teeth grit when I'm not in control. I shout and criticise as my grip slips on the situation. The blossoming lettuce laughs at my rigidity.

Anger about spilt seeds - it would not be a surprise. I know it, grateful that I missed that opportunity. I don't want to uproot lettuce because it isn't in a garden bed. I want to stop and see fresh things. To control my anxious reaction and enjoy.

How many fresh joys do I destroy, do I miss, because I frame the world in certain patterns? My small mindedness is a box that needs splintering.

And then I realise that I didn't shout at the seed spillers. That I did give thanks for the buttery round leaves. Perhaps I am learning. Maybe there's a crack in this container, and I can stop catastrophising today.

Saturday, August 13, 2011


Macquarie Fields riots from

Riots in Britain. About a day later, the radio news became more than just background noise. There are riots in Britain. Remember our riots?

It made me think about people living trapped by hopelessness. I read a book that tried to understand the poor, and it still felt like just another judgement. But at least the writer had met the people he described. It is easy to have an opinion about poverty and the poor, but some of the loudest opinions are made without meeting anyone who is poor.

Laurie Penny wrote an insightful piece about the riots and the media attention they have garnered. Peaceful protests have been ignored, but the media can't get enough of riots and looters. And we love simple explanations like - 'a small group of criminals are making everyone else look bad', or 'Twitter is the reason for the spread of violence'.

This extract from Penny's blog is telling,

'In one NBC report, a young man in Tottenham was asked if rioting really achieved anything:

"Yes," said the young man. "You wouldn't be talking to me now if we didn't riot, would you?"

"Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you."

Eavesdropping from among the onlookers, I looked around. A dozen TV crews and newspaper reporters interviewing the young men everywhere ‘’’

What sort of behaviour does media attention reinforce? Perhaps those who feel powerless and ignored will try anything to be heard.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What is poverty?

I recently finished reading Life at the Bottom: the Worldview That Makes the Underclass by Theodore Dalrymple. He's an English author and psychiatrist who has worked in Africa and in Birmingham. After returning from Africa, to work in England, he wrote these essays reflecting on the culture he encountered in the slums of Birmingham.

One reviewer wrote that "he found what he considered to be true barbarism—the cheerless, self-pitying hedonism and brutality of the dependency culture". I found this article which describes the life of a patient he treated in the slums. It has some similar reflections to 'Life at the Bottom', which is also peppered with vignettes of patients.

I had a few gut reactions to this book...

I was really confronted that I meet patients like this frequently. Crime, poverty, domestic violence, drug and alcohol use, dysfuntional relationships, abuse, mental illness, welfare dependence, homelessness and the failure of government services are all right here in south-west Sydney. We have an underclass like the one Dalrymple describes in Britain. And we have created the same cultural traps that bind people in poverty and powerlessness.

Dalrymple is extremely critical of the middle class and the way we have used welfare, social structures and liberal thinking to rob the poor of a way out of their dilemma. He believes that when someone can use their addiction or their history of deprivation and trauma (for example) to explain their criminal or abusive behaviour, they can then avoid examining their own role in creating their current predicament. Rather than empowering broken people to hope, and strive, for a better life, we are telling them there is actually no escape.

Not only that, we reward extreme dysfunction. The more chaotic a person is, the higher they climb the list for priority housing. So people who work hard but start with little, wait longer for any assistance because there is always someone who is having a more impressive emergency, perhaps even as a result of their own carelessness or refusal to participate in the system.

I can see the points that Dalrymple is making, but part of me longs for him to be wrong. I don't want us to be harsh, or punishing of brokenness. I don't want us to abandon grace and compassion. I want humans to be better than this - but we are so not. I felt sad as I read.

There's a saying - 'If you're not a leftie in your twenties, then you haven't got a heart. If you're not a conservative in your forties then you haven't got a brain.' I don't want to abandon my heart, even though my brain whispers quietly to do so. And we walk this tenuous balance of compassion and pragmatism. We need to struggle here, because there cannot be a solution without grace and transformation.

A tight fear grips my heart - I hear lives told, and they leave me incarcerated with no key. If I feel trapped by the tale, how must the one who tells feel. How can they see possibility or hope if I can't?

The step of faith I need to take is this - Insist there is hope. Talk about change and rescue and redemption even when I doubt the possibility.

This is Dalrymple's sobering reflection on true poverty, comparing Africa and Britain,

"Yet nothing I saw—neither the poverty nor the overt oppression—ever had the same devastating effect on the human personality as the undiscriminating welfare state. I never saw the loss of dignity, the self-centeredness, the spiritual and emotional vacuity, or the sheer ignorance of how to live, that I see daily in England. In a kind of pincer movement, therefore, I and the doctors from India and the Philippines have come to the same terrible conclusion: that the worst poverty is in England—and it is not material poverty but poverty of soul." from What is poverty? Dalrymple, 1999.

Monday, August 1, 2011


Lunchtime conversation at work can be interesting. Depending who's at the table. Today I ate with the psychologists. Always thoughtful, slightly kooky and very welcoming. They have a fantastic food co-op in the staff room fridge.

Today I jumped in with a comment about #whitepeoplesproblems, ie. comfortable people talking about life's little unfairnesses. It delivered a bit of a laugh and agreement. I acknowledge that most of the whinges in my life come right down to this ... #wpp. And it fit right in with the mood of the moment.

Later I had a rerun in my head. Yes, I replay conversations later and regret being outspoken. Doesn't everyone do that?

What if they thought I would say that to one of my patients? I wanted to go back and explain - 'you know I'm only harsh with my friends, not with patients of this service.' Wait, that has problems, too. So I let it go. Well, until I sat down here anyway...

Where is that balance between being compassionate and being clear-sighted? Not mutually exclusive, I know. How can I listen attentively and give consolation for minor irritations while having the perspective to see that they are minor? How can I hear heartbreaking loss and not become blase about skinned knees?

I want to be wise as a snake and innocent as a dove. But I don't want to be naive. Sometimes complaining does need to be gently corrected. Sometimes it just needs a patient ear. And suffering is a broken-ness of heart that happens all over the place - comfortable middle-class people meet tragedy, too. Listening is harder when it is tempered with discernment and wisdom. There is not a response that works everywhere, instead I need to carve each one fresh. Shaped by the unique story that draws it out of me.

I struggle to find my balance.