Keneally on fathers

Coffee 3284‘The son wants his father to declare him a friend, a creature of equal valour. That’s why they go fishing together or to sporting events: to encounter each other in the presence of champions, and to absorb as equals the gallantry of opening batsmen. It doesn’t make a difference if the father is a quivering mess of self-doubt. His purposes and manifestations are as mysterious as those of a Greek or Hindu deity. Whatever the effect on us, they all mean something transcendent. And to be included in any of his impulses of kindness and enthusiasm is a sublime privilege.’

Thomas Keneally, ‘Independence Days’ in My Mother, My Father: On Losing a Parent, edited by Susan Wyndham, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2013, 27-41.

Home: An Australian Dream?

I feel like a grump.  An urban grouch.

Here I am sitting in my city apartment, listening to the happy sound of empty bottles being dumped into the industrial bins below my bedroom window and wondering why on earth people would chose to live anywhere else. I like it here.  The city centre has been my neighbourhood for a long time now.  Though I am a product of suburbia, I can no longer imagine it as a place to live.  Home is here, tucked in at the corner of Russell and Flinders.

Apparently, though, I shouldn’t be so content. As a dweller, I’m abnormal. Marginal. Out of step with real Australia.  Here in the most ‘relentlessly suburban’ nation on earth, my residential ideal should include ‘the buzz of bees, the sweet smell of mown grass and children playing in the garden with a dog yapping at their heels.’  Because it doesn’t, I am dismissed as one of those central city elites, the ‘affluent minority’ that knows nothing of the aspirations of ordinary Australians.  There is, apparently, a stark social divide, and here I am standing on the wrong side of the fence.

You think? Really?

I’ve just finished reading the beautifully produced book Home–Evolution of the Australian Dream: An Illustrated Review of Housing in Australia.  Written by three notable architects / urban planners, it’s an exploration of the ‘dwelling’ as the basic element of our cities.  As such, it presents an interesting picture of residential life in Australia and its overwhelmingly suburban forms.  Further, it highlights the challenges we face in meeting the ever-increasing demand for housing across the nation.

I am grumpy, but not because this is a bad book.  Granted, it’s not as revelatory as I had hoped when I first saw it, but I bow down to the combined expertise of these three voices, most especially for their insightful review of the history of housing types in Oz.   I am grumpy because, yet again, I feel as though my own housing choice is treated as some sort of apparition, and one that illustrates a cultural divide rather than a legitimate alternative for healthy neighbourhood living.

It’s true: the authors don’t intend to do this.  In fact, they argue for accepting a range of housing choices in Australia, but along the way the ‘normalisation’ of suburbia leaves all other choices somehow marginal or insignificant when seeking to understand Australian residential culture.  In my view, it’s the diversity that is much more telling about the health and well-being of our cities than the normalising of one housing type over all.  The truth is, while city apartment living may still be a minority choice, the staggering growth of residential life in Melbourne’s heart over the past two decades is nothing short of extraordinary.  This is opportunity, not apparition.

And as for that ‘affluent minority’ that calls the city home … I can only say the writers really should get out more!


The man in orange

As I often do on Mondays, I sat today in the domed reading room of the State Library. It’s one of my favourite places, full of ‘presence’, and one where reading and writing feel much more significant. Not long after my arrival, a young man walked by and sat just metres away. With a closely shaved head, he was dressed in the orange garb of a Buddhist monk. He looked out of place at first but after time I noticed he was not reading, writing or even gazing up at the architecture. In fact, for several hours he sat motionless, eyes closed, hands clasped loosely in his lap. He was meditating.

Though from a different religious tradition than my own, this young man is a contemplative in the traditional sense. His stillness—a well-rehearsed calm—was mesmerizing. In between my own activity, I watched him, partly intrigued, partly envious. As a natural introvert, there has always been something oddly attractive to me about a vocation like his.

Rudely, my aspirations were interrupted by the sound of my phone. A text message from my daughter: panicked questions and pressing needs. I quickly gathered my wits and belongings, glanced one final time at the motionless monk, and made my exit. The call to idyllic stillness would have to wait.

I have long thought that the disciplines of contemplation and the demands of family life are awkward companions. How does one nurture the inner stillness of the Spirit while living amidst the ebb and flow of household commitments? Is such a thing desirable, or even possible?

In her book Seasons of a Family’s Life, the Catholic theologian Wendy Wright argues that not only is it possible, it’s vital. In the sequal to her earlier Sacred Dwelling, Wright explores the means through which we can do so. As a spouse, mother, and busy academic, Wright does not come at this challenge romantically. She does so with her spiritual feet planted firmly on the ground. Following the lead of early Christian writers like Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux, Wright contends that contemplation is not a means of escaping the world and the realities of daily life, but a way of perceiving it, a ‘listening awareness that allows the Word to take root where we are.’

Wright describes the experience of the monastic as primarily vertical and one-on-one: ‘it implies a going apart, a renunciation of the life of intimacy with spouse and children, a relinquishment of property and the burdens of caretaking; it implies a certain marginality, a view from the critical distance that silence and solitude and spacious time allows.’ In contrast, a spirituality of family life is intensely horizontal and has to be worked out in the in-betweeness of persons. In the end, it’s much more about ‘the busyness of tending and providing, about the stewarding of property; it allows for very little of the distanced perspective that silence and solitude offer.’  The challenge of contemplative spirituality in the home is cultivating an awareness of God in the midst of the everyday, not away from it. ’I have come to the conclusion,’ Wright says, ‘that the fundamental art of the spiritual life is the art of paying attention.’

Among the multiple things we need to pay attention to are these:

The sacred places of family life: In every family, Wright says, there are those concrete places in which we’ve experienced ‘the more’ in our lives and relationships. Perhaps it’s a dining room table, an annual vacation spot, a grandparent’s farm, a backyard or a graveside. The possibilities are numerous and rich with formative moments. Pay attention!

In the big and little stories of our lives: Stories frame, sustain and interpret our lives. The ‘big stories’ are provided in part by religious traditions or cultural and family heritage. The ‘little stories’ are those that we share in immediate families—the ones told around the dinner table, over and over, and often exaggerated as time passes. Together, Wright says, the big and little stories provide meaning and coherence to our lives. And in them we may well hear God’s presence. Pay attention!

In the contrasting disciplines of availability and Sabbath rest: The call of Christ is to surrender ourselves to the fact that family life is most fundamentally being present for and available to each other. It’s demanding, tiring and often costly. At the same time, the call of God is to a deep and periodic rest: a drawing of boundaries and a coming apart. Sounds great in theory, yet working out the balance is as challenging as it is important. Pay attention!

In the act of welcoming and letting go: Wright calls these two acts the twin dynamics of family spirituality. Family life is a constant movement between these two and learning to discern which is the call of God in a particular moment is one of the most consistent challenges. What do I embrace and what do I release? Pay attention!

In dwelling: If stability is a gift of parental care, then a spirituality of dwelling deserves more thought. Spirituality is not only about relinquishment and withdrawal, but living deeply into the places and tasks of our lives as they are. ‘If the spiritual life has often been imaged as journey, pilgrimage, or exile, a spirituality of family must balance this imagery with an attentive consideration of dwelling.’ Pay attention!

In the act of forgiveness: Wright describes it as the central dynamic of a healthy family life, and yet one of the most costly in our daily interactions. It’s in the daily acts of forgiveness we experience both the pain and the liberation of the gospel. Pay attention!

There is much more to Wright’s book than I’ve inferred here. As with her earlier book, it’s worth reading. Wright’s gift to people like me—those who will never wear orange and rarely sit motionless—is the reminder that the contemplative life is as much my calling as it is anyone else’s. It simply looks different.

Gardens & Suburbia

I don’t have a backyard. Nor do I want one. Not for me the blokey back shed and the weekly round with the lawn mower. No, my sixth floor city balcony suits me just fine. But from the reaction of friends and acquaintances, I’m routinely reminded that my housing choice, while fascinating to some, is viewed with narrow-eyed suspicion by others. Inner-city vertical neighbourhoods like mine may well have sprouted left, right and centre, but they’re still marginal. As cultural commentator Bernard Salt says, the backyard barbecue is still ‘the main game’ when it comes to understanding mainstream Australia.

It’s true. Suburbia’s mythological ‘quarter acre block’ continues to host some of our deepest and most ingrained social longings. Though recent versions may well have shrunk, the suburban backyard is still gathered up in our cultural expectations of the good and decent life.

A great read on all of this is Peter Timm’s Australia’s Quarter Acre: The Story of the Ordinary Suburban Garden.  It’s been out for a few years now, but it remains a fascinating defense of the suburban backyard at a time when suburbia and its sprawl is under considerable attack. Timms wants to say that while there is much to be critiqued about contemporary suburban forms, there is much about the suburban garden that is worth maintaining.

Timms begins by tracing the origins of our infatuation with the suburban block and the numerous ways we’ve invested meaning in it. Through both backyard and front, Timms traces the subsequent changes to the Australian way of life and the ways we function privately and communally. He argues that despite the changes, our suburban gardens are still embedded with values important to what’s good about our way of life. Along the way he calls into question ‘the homogenising, rationalist approach to urban consolidation’ that, he says, ‘fails to take into account the subtleties and varieties of human experience’ embodied in the backyard.

It’s evident Timms does not have much respect for apartment dwellers like me. Nor much hope. He is critical of the move to consolidation and bemoans the local development of ‘the sort of housing estates that blight the outskirts of Seoul and Beijing, where thousands of identical high-rise apartment blocks line up in military formation … and where one’s only contact with the natural world is a half-dead ficus in a plastic tub on the balcony.’

While my ficus is doing quite nicely thank you, I am happy to concede that Timms main argument is not really to do with me or my balcony. In the end, Timms is a great believer in what the suburban garden represents. He grieves the gradual internalizing of suburban life as residents retreat within, primping their gardens only as displays of status or expressions of urban lifestyle.

Timms calls politicians, architects and urban planners to take suburbia more seriously as an environment to be nurtured for the best that it can be rather than simply a ‘plague’ that has to be stopped. Given that it now covers some 70,000 square kilometres Australia wide and shows no sign of abating, ‘perhaps it is time we started to treat suburbia as something more than the vast accumulation of little private Edens spreading like a plague, and to realize [its] environmental and productive potential.’

All in all, this is a fine book. If you have any interest at all in gardens, suburbia, or even a potted ficus, this one’s worth a read.

Renovation Nation

We’re about to launch into a small reno at our house.  Nothing too serious: move a wall, add a door, a few new cupboards etc.  It’s all part of the great Aussie tradition.  In fact, home renovation is close to a national obsession.  According to a recent study, more than 90% of us are actively engaged in it at some level, from the simplest paint job to the more radical rebuild.  On average, they say, the Australian household has five improvement projects on the go at any one time.  And if we’re not doing it ourselves, we’re probably watching it on TV.

It’s this phenomenon that Fiona Allon explores in her fascinating book Renovation Nation: Our Obsession with Home. As I continue identifying books that have made an impact over the last couple of years, this is certainly one of them.

It’s not just the domestic obsession that Allon is concerned with.  For her the narratives of the domestic home and the nation are connected.  In each context, she argues, we’ve become infatuated with security, investing our primary energy and resources into guarding our prosperity and padding our own cacoons. In the process we’ve cemented the idea of home as an island of refuge and retreat. Allon reflects on the consequences of this compulsion, for ‘our obsession with home not only transforms the houses we live in and the cities, places and communities around us, but has profound consequences for how we understand our sense of identity (who we are) and our place in the world (where we belong).’

Allon acknowledges that the instinct to feather the nest is a human one, hardwired into the psyche. Shelter, security and identity are basic human needs tied irrevocably to the notion of home. To make home is to be human.  What rings the alarm bells for Allon is that this legitimate human need has morphed into a obsession built on the ‘logic of avoidance and fortification.’  Our drive to raise the domestic drawbridge is only heightened by the commentary on the potential threats to domestic and national security, ‘from indigenous Australians seeking Native Title rights threatening our backyards, illegal immigrants coming in the back door, terrorists on our doorstep and, most recently, interest rate rises menacing our mortgages.’

According to Allon, the ‘psychological retreatism’ of 1950s suburbia has made a dramatic come back.  Her concern, both domestically and nationally, is that our idea of the home as ‘a haven in a heartless world’ is unsustainable and ultimately destructive to our individual and communal wellbeing.  While it’s true–in an increasingly globalized world–neighbourhood and locality have never been more important, words like home, place and belonging all infer relationship with what lies beyond. Each one speaks deeply of who we are, where we fit and how we relate to others. They are not words of withdrawal and exclusion, but words of relationship and community.

Allon: ‘In the end, our home should provide us with a fundamental feeling of security and belonging. It should be a place where we not only learn to look after ourselves but also learn to care for others; a place where we discover the meaning of obligation and test our limits of commitment; a place where we find out about the nature of responsibility, not just to family but also to strangers. The home is, of course, our main means of shelter. It’s a place we need for our security, safety, identity and attachment. It’s something we need for our wellbeing. But it’s also a place we sometimes need to declare open, a place where we invite others in, and offer them hospitality.’

Though it’s been out for a few years now, this really is an excellent and provocative book. What I find most compelling is Allon’s conclusion that what is most needed in suburban Australia is ‘a new ethics of connection, a new understanding of home and our neighbours.’ Though not motivated by any religious conviction, Allon’s words have a surprising resonance for those who are. This ‘new ethics of connection’ is so closely aligned with that ancient commandment Jesus identified as central to the life of faith: ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ Perhaps it’s time for a rebirthing of that principle with the folks next door.

Stones upon stones


‘Parents rarely let go of their children, so children let go of them. They move on. They move away. The moments that used to define them—a mother’s approval, a father’s nod—are covered by moments of their own accomplishments. It is not until much later, as the skin sags and the heart weakens, that children understand; their stories, and all their accomplishments, sit atop the stories of their mothers and fathers, stones upon stones, beneath the waters of their lives.’

Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven. New York: Hyperion, 2003.