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The Questions Kids Ask

Holidays are over and my boys headed back to school this week filled to the brim with adolescent reluctance.  Now they are in high school there is less drama and screaming in getting back into routine, but there’s certainly a whole lot more sighing and rolling of the eyes.

Just as they have grown taller over time, so too have their questions evolved. It can be daunting as a parent to be asked certain questions.  When they were very young, the questions about sex were difficult, but at least they had their funny side – “Mum are those lions on TV fighting?” (son 1) – “No, they are just playing!” (son 2).  Phew, that time I didn’t need to say anything at all, just quickly change the channel!  But I have found the theological questions are often the hardest to answer.  As little guys, there was the “So who is God?”  This one was easy enough.  But then came the brutal follow up question: “But who made God?” and things started to go downhill from then on.

Recently another theological question arose during a car trip to the local shops.  “Why do Christians believe different things, and why do they disagree so much?”  Now where do you begin answering a question like that?

The first thing that came to my mind was a day long ago when I was home alone as a fifteen year old.  A sweet looking elderly lady with a woolen skirt, sensible shoes and a wide welcoming smile came to the front door.  She was clutching a booklet with what looked like happy people in a tropical garden on the cover and began talking animatedly about paradise on earth and God’s kingdom.  She seemed friendly and harmless enough so I told her I had recently become a Christian myself and shared with her how happy I was with my new-found faith.  Strangely, my enthusiasm for God seemed to dial down the radiant smile on her face.  She continued with her heaven on earth spiel and I continued telling her about my discoveries about God.  As we talked, it became glaringly obvious that we were both coming at this Christian thing from a very different angle.  I was willing to accept our differences and call it a day, but she continued relentlessly, becoming less friendly and more red in the face as she went on.  Eventually, when open hostility took over and the sweet-looking lady turned very sour, I shoved her back out the front door, closed it with a thud and stood feeling stunned, confused and shaken. A few minutes later the tears came.

That was the day I discovered that not everyone professing to be a Christian is full of the unconditional love and acceptance we expect, and that beneath certain inviting smiles lurks a whole truckload of secret agendas and control issues.

Recently I attended a Christian Women’s Conference in Sydney. The keynote speaker was an entertaining and intelligent woman and I enjoyed listening to her words of wisdom.  But towards the end of her final talk, she made a comment that jarred against my spirit.  Describing how we listen to God and are guided by Him, she encouraged us to read God’s Word, but to guard against such things as listening for his voice in other ways, seeing him at work in circumstances, or of taking notice of mystical things such as dreams and visions. Now I’m sure we have all met people who have gone a bit too far down the “mystical” path and have left reality far behind, but her tone was verging on mocking and allowed no room for those who may have had genuine mystical encounters.  As she spoke I recalled the heavy sprinkling of mystical experiences throughout the Bible  – for example the promises in Acts 2:17 that: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams’.

I sat squirming at this point as I just happen to be one of those slightly weird Christians who do have the occasional mystical encounter – a sentence may pop into my mind at just the right moment to steer me out of trouble, or a dream predicts a pivotal event which is ahead and prepares me for it, or I meet a new person and inexplicably know about a secret battle in their life which helps me treat them with an extra dose of sensitivity.  During times of illness, stress and grief, these “mystical” experiences have given me the strength and hope to keep on going. I know not everyone experiences God the way I do, but I suspect some of you reading this will relate to what I’m describing. We all have our own stories to tell and it’s captivating to listen to each story with an open mind and a gracious and humble heart.  Our stories are as diverse as we are –  and are uniquely ours.  To listen to a well educated and well meaning woman of faith denounce these experiences as silly in a room of a few thousand left me feeling utterly deflated.   I half expected everyone sitting around me to hear the undignified slow squeak of a balloon losing its air.

So I gazed at my son with his important question, sharing his concern for the confusion and pain that arises between those of us who profess to share a common faith.  I answered along these lines:

“You know when we go out together, we head down to the bookstore and buy a book each and then go and chat in the café?”

“Yes” he replied.

“And you know how your brother hates bookshops, and when we get together we go for a walk in the bush and look at all the different types of birds, and take some photos?”

“Mmm”

“Well I think it’s like that with God too.  Each of us are different.  He loves us all, and he knows exactly how to communicate with each of us.  Some of us are academic, logical and structured  – others are emotional, creative and messy.  He relates to each of us where we’re at.  Different churches reflect these different ways of relating with God.  The problems start when people of one style of faith begin to judge and criticize people of the other types.  If we could only accept our differences, get on with our own journey (or as I read in Romans recently “tend to your knitting”) and leave others to tend to theirs, we would fully express what it is to be a Christian.”

It was the most honest answer I could come up with on the hop and I hope it reflects some of the truth around this complex issue.  He seemed satisfied with that for now. I’m sure another question will come up soon and I will try to answer.  In the meantime, I will keep on listening for the answers, which I know will arrive in their own unique, quirky and God-inspired way.

So where does that leave you when you criticize a brother? And where does that leave you when you condescend to a sister? I’d say it leaves you looking pretty silly—or worse. Eventually, we’re all going to end up kneeling side by side in the place of judgment, facing God. Your critical and condescending ways aren’t going to improve your position there one bit…  So tend to your knitting. You’ve got your hands full just taking care of your own life before God.  Romans 14:10-12 (The Message)

 

 

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Our Spiky Visitor

echidna-visitorHave you ever had a day of good intentions and set plans that goes horribly wrong? Last Tuesday was ‘one of those days’ for me.  I was the mad woman, disheveled hair, bulging eyes, trying to juggle all the pieces of her life.  Flying in the air were all my roles: mother, wife, sister, nurse maid, house cleaner, PA, friend spinning dangerously out of control.  About to collide in the muddle were the to-do lists, my daily work calendar brimming with tasks and my sick son who needed me to take him to the doctor straight away.   I shut my eyes breathlessly hoping that somehow it would all miraculously fall into place  – but instead it all came tumbling down with what felt like an almighty crash.  It felt so quiet and still after all the juggling stopped.

So I sent some emails and made some calls to excuse myself from life. I convinced the doctor’s receptionist that it was urgent and after the dash to the surgery I quietened the noise in my head and cared for my son. As I checked emails throughout the day I was surprised to see the world functioning quite happily without me.

But amidst the peace and quiet was  a gnawing feeling that I had failed somehow, and that all my heroic efforts in juggling my life had resulted in nothing more than a mess. I hadn’t even managed to get to work. That little voice inside was telling me what a hopeless failure I was.

Late in the afternoon  I heard my husband arrive home and call out to me. ‘What now?’ I thought…  But as I trudged out the door I saw that he wasn’t alone.  We had a visitor – very small, very spiky and quite amazing.  An Echidna had waddled up our driveway from the bushland across the road, right up to our front door, as if to drop by for some afternoon tea. He tolerated our cooing and rude staring as we introduced ourselves and  carefully carried him across the road back to his bush home, gloves protecting fingers from spikes poised ready for a stabbing.  His pointy nose and beady eyes gazed at us as he curled his impressive spiky self, long claws waving in the air.

dropping-by

Despite his threatening spikes, I was awestruck. Something about a random visit from this exquisite creature – so unique and striking – filled me with that crazy joy that bubbles up and is far more common in young children than the middle aged.  Along with the sense of joy came a sense of freedom.  So what if I couldn’t  control my day.  Perhaps my little friend hadn’t controlled his day too well either, misjudging his afternoon stroll in the bush on the hunt for some ants.  The need to control, to stress, to rush, to worry, to get everything done, no longer mattered.  Something about the wonder of our visitor allowed the chains of being human to slip away.

So if you’re having a bad day too, can I recommend spending some time with a four legged friend? Tell your dog or cat all about it and they’ll understand. Or take a walk in the bush and tell the gum trees and the lorikeets about your dreams and disappointments. Escape your electronic devices and reality shows and get outside to where nature is.  God’s fingerprints are all over the natural world.  It has a beauty that speaks joy to us and shows us a compassion so lacking in concrete and steel.  Nature teaches us the art of freedom – without the need for any words.

“But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.”  –  Job 12: 7-10

Mirror Mirror

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Have you noticed that some seasons of life are filled with action, adventure, parties and people? Others are not. Over the past month I’ve been living the life of a hermit.  Winter has felt cold and grey, and I’ve caught the never-ending flu virus, which has led to quiet weekends and plenty of solitude.

Over this time my main companion has been Bobbie, my son’s blue budgie. Even when my voice is only a croak and my hair is beyond a mess, he is always delighted to see me, chirping along merrily with his ‘Hello Bobbie’, ‘Who’s a Pretty Boy?’ and ‘I Love You’s.  He’s always ready with his surprisingly gentle peck on the nose when I lean in for a kiss.

Bobbie’s companionship has sustained me through many lonely and bleak days, but despite his reliable nature, now and again he does disappoint me. Just as we are conversing happily, he catches a glimpse of his little blue face in his hanging mirror, and becomes transfixed by his reflection.   He is mesmerised by the gorgeous bird before him, and instead of offering his enthusiastic words and loving pecks to me, they are suddenly all directed at the bird in the mirror.  On it goes – ‘Pretty Boy’ and ‘I Love You’ along with his selfie-kisses, beak tapping madly on the mirror. Our conversation is suddenly over and I’m left talking to myself too.

Bobbie amuses me because his mirror-gazing fixation isn’t a trait limited only to budgies. People do it too.  Have you noticed?  Humans have their our own form of ‘mirror-gazing’.  It may range from a Facebook page populated heavily with selfie-shots, to an obsession with special projects and personal agendas, where little interest is shown in anything other than these particular projects and agendas.  A tell-tale sign I’ve noticed is a particular “glazed-eye look” which comes over a person which seems to prevent them from any shift in their focus. I’m sure most of us can relate to the Non Stop Talker in meetings, who ploughs on and on relentlessly, talking right over anyone brave enough to try to interrupt them. They are so focused on the reflection in the mirror that they can’t see or hear the people sitting right in front of them. Social media promotes this mindset, with all the: ‘Look at ME and all the fun I had today!’ mentality. There’s a temptation to turn away from the people right in front of us and gaze into our own little mirrors.   I fear that one day the human race may become so stuck in selfie-mode that we have with no connection at all to one another and the world around us.

Recently I met with two friends for morning tea. We had cups of tea in elegant yellow and black cups and saucers, rice paper rolls and delicious cake cut into little pieces.  Months had passed since the three of us sat together, and there was so much to discuss.  Each of us spoke in turn, sharing deeply about our struggles – laughing, crying and nodding in agreement.  The only thing that exceeded all of the talking was the quiet listening.  I felt listened to and heard each time I spoke, and spent a long time intently listening.  We each had our turn.  After three solid hours of free-flowing, authentic communication we held hands and prayed for each other.  Nothing banishes a mirror of self-interest like praying for someone else. It’s like emotional health food – building up our spiritual core strength and restoring the inner balance of joy and peace better than any Pilates class or detox shake.

Now I’m not too sure how Bobbie feels after a long session of mirror-gazing, but I know it leaves me feeling anxious and heavy-hearted.  The reflection in the mirror looks okay to begin with. Let’s face it, we’re all fascinated with ourselves to a degree.  At the start I’m like Harry the Mosquito in ‘A Bugs Life’, flying toward the bug zapper:  “I-can’t-help-it. It’s-so-beautiful”.  But once I spend some time gazing at myself all I can see are my failures, imperfections, problems and frustrations. Sometimes a coffee with a friend, listening, laughing and lightening up, or reading a chapter of a good book is enough to lift the heaviness. Other times I walk outside to look up at the wide expanse of sky and breathe in the cool fresh air.

Reflected in the mirror is a distorted egocentric world, but just outside our door are the wide open spaces, the big picture that exists beyond our selves –  painted by our Creator with humble love – a masterpiece of beauty, authenticity and promise.

 

 

Amazing Grace

Some mornings I think buying the newspaper should come with a warning:  “This publication may distress sensitive readers.  Read at your own risk, and NEVER before coffee.”  Is it only me, or does the daily news often leave you speechless and despairing at what we humans are capable of doing to one another?

The breaking news today reveals another act of hatred in France.  We watch helplessly as terrorism flexes its grotesque muscles once again – using violence to enforce extreme ideas and beliefs on the innocent.  Some days reading the  paper or watching the news feels like gasping for breath, drowning in waves of sadness and waste.

Over the holidays I’ve been reading Phillip Yancey’s book: ‘What’s So Amazing About Grace?’.  This book grabbed my attention with its brutal honesty and offer of hope. It provided a positive sequel to the usual tale of disaster the media serves up. Phillip’s stories illuminate a different side to human nature,  a porthole we can peer through to see kindness and wisdom rise up above those waves of sadness.

One story that stood out to me was the story of Gordon Wilson, who was caught in the 1987 IRA bombing near Belfast, when a group of Protestants had gathered to honor the war dead on Veteran’s Day.  Tragically, Gordon’s 20-year-old daughter, Marie, was killed when she and Gordon were buried under five feet of brick and concrete after the bomb blast.   Phillip Yancey says of Gordon – ‘His grace towered over the miserable justifications of the bombers’.  Speaking from his hospital bed, Wilson said: ‘I have lost my daughter, but I bear no grudge.  Bitter talk is not going to bring Marie Wilson back to life. I shall pray, tonight and every night, that God will forgive them.’.   Gordon Wilson went on to crusade for Protestant-Catholic reconciliation, wrote a book about his daughter and spoke out against violence often with the refrain ‘Love is the bottom line’.

Even in the aftermath of senseless violence, we see there is another way of reacting – an attitude that builds a pathway leading us through the debris and decay.  This pathway is the way of grace.

Grace sits quietly in the midst of chaos – stoic and faithful in the storm.  Closely akin to forgiveness and unconditional love, it calls on us to surrender our rights and let go of our desire for revenge.  Grace invites us to behave in ways quite contrary to our human nature.

The Cambridge Dictionary describes grace as “approval or kindness, especially (in the Christian religion) that is freely given by God to all humans.”

How do we exercise grace in our lives?  It may be as simple as letting the pushy driver merge into my lane in heavy traffic and smiling at them rather than speeding up and swearing.  Or it may be more costly, such as forgiving a parent who has hurt us, letting a friend off the hook when they have let us down, or realising that it doesn’t matter if people don’t agree with us, share our beliefs, customs or ideas.  We accept and care for them anyway.  Just as God loves and accepts us, flaws and all, we offer our love and acceptance to others.

The way of grace is the higher road but it may also be the hardest and most painful way.  Bitterness and hate don’t require us to go against our human nature the way grace does.

But it is only grace that offers the freedom and healing we all crave.  It is a way of standing against the waves of hatred threatening to roll into shore and engulf us.

John Newton, who wrote the well-known hymn “Amazing Grace” published in 1779, knew what it was to find grace.  His discovery of grace led him away from his life as a slave trader, to become a Christian Minister and to advocate for the abolition of slavery.  Grace transformed his life, and we have been singing about this miracle ever since.

Grace is available for all of us – no matter how much we have suffered or how far we have fallen. It is the answer to our prayers and the healing balm for our many disappointments.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.    (John Newton)

Menopausal Mama

Today I want to lift the lid on a phase in a woman’s life which is often considered ‘secret women’s business’. As a consequence many are left to suffer in silence. My hope is that by sharing my experience, someone else may relate and feel a little less alone.

As women we constantly evolve, grow, change and move on to the next chapter. Just as we become comfortable with the current version of our selves, along comes another phase.  Our bodies are both beautiful and miraculous in their capacity to bring about new life. We are strong and powerful.  With a flash of cleavage we can leave men speechless.  On a good night when we are in our prime, we can stride into a party and know that all eyes are on us. We are clever too – just as capable of getting the top job as any of our male counterparts.  We can do it all.  I am woman, hear me roar.  We are confident, productive and ready for anything.  But then along comes middle age…

As 50 approaches it’s as if a thick fog mysteriously rolls in and settles around us, rendering us colourless and, at times, completely invisible. As our ovaries sink into their gradual decline, the tide of hormones recedes and the woman we once were seems to vanish.

It’s around this time that we enter a phase of life which rarely features in glossy women’s magazines or reality programs.  I remember Mum whispering behind her hand that some unfortunate woman was acting strangely as she was ‘going through The Change’.  I recall the mysterious fanning of flushed faces and moodiness, but saw little other evidence of what this perplexing time in a woman’s life was all about.

So today I will lift the veil of mystery and talk a little about what it is like to be a ‘Menopausal Mama’. At 51, I’m right in the thick of it. If you (or your partner) are there too, you’ll know only too well what I’m talking about.

I’ll start with the ‘hot flushes’ which commonly accompany menopause. Firstly, they are not just hot, they are like being ignited from the inside out, particularly when they frizzle you awake at 3am.  It’s like encountering the Towering Inferno in your intestines.  The word ‘flush’ is way too pleasant a word and doesn’t come close to capturing the intensity.  For me it’s like being on fire, and then add feeling dizzy, disoriented and having difficulty remembering your own name.  The word ‘hot flash’ is sometimes used also, giving the impression that there is something akin to super hero status about this symptom. Believe me,  there is nothing akin to Wonder Woman happening here! On top of this there is the irrepressible desire to burst into tears about anything from the latest terrorist attack to the lid being left off the toothpaste and oozing all over the basin just cleaned that morning. If a ‘hot flush’ takes hold during a business meeting or even at the supermarket checkout, there is no hope of saying anything that makes any sense or of retaining any of your composure.

Then there is the issue of ‘moodiness’…. For most of my life I’ve prided myself on being a ‘nice’ person. I live in fear of upsetting anyone, do all I can to please others and mostly accept others as they are. However, during this Menopausal Mama stage, the niceness has left the building. People are becoming so intolerably annoying.

Cruel, thoughtless, narcissistic type-people have always disappointed me, but now I have to hold back from giving them a good slap and consciously avoid any close contact. Plus now the Smarty Pants I Know Everything types infuriate me too.  Particularly the ones who have had little life experience in a certain area but have done a course and proceed to dish out advice about issues they know little about at a heart level.  I’ve developed an animal instinct for sniffing out dishonesty, a superior attitude and falseness. Along with this, is an insatiable longing for authentic souls, who are brave enough to say what they really think, who genuinely care about other people and who are humble and kind.  The habits and expectations I’ve tolerated in others for years no longer seem to fit and sit around awkwardly like my discarded size 10 red jeans at the back of the wardrobe.

There is also the Complete Mental Blank moment which hits without warning. One moment you’re conversing intelligently and informatively on a subject, and then, whammo, all thoughts are inexplicably wiped from my mind and there is nothing there but blank space. Menopause doesn’t just kidnap your attractiveness, it abducts your mind as well, leaving you with intermittent dementia and dwindling confidence.

Living as an invisible, perspiring and angry woman is challenging, to say the least. If only Happy, Cool and Serene Me could re-appear and live in harmony with the world again.  If only well-meaning people could once again pass me by without attracting such violent reactions.   But is there anything to learn from this difficult yet inevitable phase of the female life?

It’s early days yet for me, but one thing I’m learning is that being a Menopausal Mama forces you to face the truth about your life and your relationships. It’s a time for taking off the rose-tinted glasses and taking a good hard look at your life in the glaring sunlight of truth.  Cracks and hidden doubts are fully visible, in all their confronting ugliness.  I know that the friendships I retain during this period will be true friendships, built to last the test of time, and all of those relationships fractured with dishonesty, deceit or lack of respect will simply fall away.

I’m also learning that being ‘nice’ isn’t always the best path to walk. It may be the easiest and the one which causes less conflict, but ‘nice’ can at times be another word for fear, avoidance, denial and dishonesty. Menopausal Mamas are no longer pretty young girls who bat their eyelids and wait for the world to pay them attention.  They are fearsome ladies who already know their value, whether or not anyone else agrees, and who inhabit their life and make their own fun, regardless of who sings their praise or strokes their egos.

And on the days when looking at life without the flattering filters becomes downright depressing, I tell myself that ‘this too will pass’. It’s a passing phase just as puberty and pregnancy were, and one day the fog will lift.  In the meantime, I hold tightly to the people I love the most and to God who created we women with all our uniqueness and wonder.  I hope that those I love will keep on loving me through this storm and that God will extend an extra measure of grace and understanding to all of us who are living life as Menopausal Mamas.

 


As Long As Your Eyes Are Blue by Banjo Paterson (first published in 1891)

Wilt thou love me, sweet, when my hair is grey

And my cheeks shall have lost their hue?

When the charms of youth shall have passed away,

Will your love as of old prove true?

For the looks may change, and the heart may range,

And the love be no longer fond;

Wilt thou love with truth in the years of youth

And away to the years beyond?

Oh, I love you, sweet, for your locks of brown

And the blush on your cheek that lies

But I love you most for the kindly heart

That I see in your sweet blue eyes.

For the eyes are signs of the soul within,

Of the heart that is leal and true,

And mine own sweetheart, I shall love you still,

Just as long as your eyes are blue.

For the locks may bleach, and the cheeks of peach

May be reft of their golden hue;

But mine own sweetheart, I shall love you still,

Just as long as your eyes are blue.

Hearing Voices

Every now and then I experience something quite mysterious. Sometimes it’s a strong sense of knowing what is about to happen, a sense of impending doom or nervous anticipation depending on what is ahead.  Sometimes it’s a still small voice, fresh, surprising and way outside the boundaries of my usual  flow of thoughts.  At other times it’s a dream holding a startling truth I haven’t been brave enough to face, or just a vivid picture in my mind in my waking hours.

Quite often I ignore these mysterious happenings altogether, wondering if I’m going mad.   But then in hindsight I kick myself, realising the crazy little voice was actually a glimpse of something quite extraordinary and I missed the mark when I ignored the prompting.  I suspect you may read this and relate. Possessing a ‘sixth sense’ or strong intuition is far more common than we may think.

We are currently in the latter stages of a large renovation to our home.  Now we are about three-quarters of the way through, I’m getting impatient with the waiting.  The first couple of months were exciting with the house growing by the hour and our dreams unfolding before our eyes, but over the past month things have slowed down.  The scaffolding which at first looked to me like a symbol of promise and growth has become stifling, like prison bars encircling us.

At Christmas we had a much-needed pause from the noise and dust, but after a brief re-appearance in January, our builder vanished again.  He is hard-working, professional and reliable, and when I was told he had gone away on holiday without mentioning it, I was a little taken aback.  On hearing the news that crazy little voice whispered to me “He’s had a death in the family – he didn’t plan on this”.   I enquired further with the building team and was told again that no, everything was okay, he had just decided to take a holiday.

My impatience has risen over the last week as my list of questions and building ideas has lengthened and still no returned emails or telephone calls.  This morning he was nowhere to be seen and I again asked the question of his team of builders.  However, this time the answer was different.  A family member had passed away and he had been forced to rush off overseas unexpectedly.  Aha! Once again, the crazy little voice had been correct.  Thankfully my nagging suspicion that the voice may hold some truth had prevented me from venting my anger, leaving the ranting and raving voicemail message which was on the tip of my tongue at one point.

This story may seem trivial, but so many of the misunderstandings, conflicts and fall-outs in our relationships stem from trivial things – an unkind word, a thoughtless gesture or being so focused on our own issues that we can’t see the other person’s point of view.

I often wonder if God gives me extra assistance in this way because he knows what a mess I can make of things when I overreact to situations and fail to see the problems of other people and the whole ‘big picture’ view.  We all wear blinkers to a degree and see only our unique little corridor of the world.

My note to self today is to keep listening to that intuitive inner voice and to remember that there is often more to peoples’ actions than meets the eye.  The pain and struggles of others so often aren’t immediately visible.  It takes an extra measure of grace,  kindness and crazy little voices to notice them.  God walks ahead of us just as he walks beside us.  His wise promptings can help us avoid unnecessary problems, pain and hassle.  It’s always worth pausing, taking a breath and being brave enough to listen to that crazy little voice.

 The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.   Deuteronomy 31:8

The Caravan Community

Early days in our caravan

Early days in our caravan

There is nothing quite like holidaying in a caravan.  It is an adventure, an escape, an excuse to be lazy and an opportunity to immerse yourself in nature.  When I arrive at our van, I feel like I’ve collapsed on a soft bed of feathers.  Finally, I can relax, breathe and laugh out loud.  It is so close to the beach, you can taste the salt water on the breeze and hear the waves crashing in the distance, the gritty sand between your toes as you kick off your sandals and slip on the rubber thongs.  What it lacks in luxury it makes up for with friendly neighbours, a lack of pretense and the daily promise of wine, nibblies and a good chat.  The relaxed atmosphere is palpable, like the scent of Aerogard at dusk.

This past fortnight at our caravan park I realised there is just one thing missing from the idyllic caravanning holiday. It isn’t something I usually even notice, but the lack of it left me slightly frazzled. I found it most days in the bathroom, but rarely anywhere else. With togetherness everywhere, the one thing missing was my privacy – the quiet moments, the space to think, and the luxury of being alone. There are family, friends, acquaintances and complete strangers, their extended families and all their kids, pet dogs and extensive scooter collections everywhere during the busy holiday season. This communal living brings its own special challenges, particularly for the slightly introverted like me.

I’m not new to caravan life. I grew up holidaying at such prestigious parks as the “Banana Bowl” in Coffs Harbour, at a little seaside town called Dalmeny on the South Coast of NSW and even beside the Tumut River in the picturesque Snowy Mountains where Dad believed it was possible to drop in a line and catch a trout from a deck chair in our canvas annex.

Mum even managed to organise Christmas in the caravan one year, complete with a bottle of Cold Duck bubbly, delicious roast dinner and plenty of tinsel.

Christimas in the Van

During the 1970s we wore terry towelling hats with matching terry towelling shorts. These were the ‘good old days’ of sunbaking on the beach all day with no sunscreen, only a little baby oil to help fry the skin to a crisp brown. I loved my tanned body and after the inevitable skin peel following the first day in the sun, I just grew browner and browner by the day.

One of our favourite pastimes while not lying flat-out in the sun was people watching. There were so many interesting people to watch. There was the strange man who had a silent companion who never emerged from the van but travelled everywhere with him in the passenger seat of his car. There was the “woman who loves herself” who paraded by our van in her daring bikinis and mini skirts. We rolled our eyes in united jealousy: “oh, doesn’t she love herself!”.  After many weeks of watching the silent passenger, we realised that she wasn’t a person at all but a life-sized dummy. I remember being told that he had the dummy with him so strangers would not think he was travelling alone. Perhaps there was more to it than that but whatever the reason, it certainly added to the caravan park intrigue!

I don’t really remember feeling frazzled by all the togetherness when I was a child. The need for isolation and my own space has grown stronger over the years. So many in the world do not enjoy the luxury of ‘their own space’, so why is it so important to me? For many, living in a small home with extended family members is part of everyday life. I envy those who can live in harmony in this way without the emotional anguish I sometimes feel.

Although a need for privacy is quite natural, and a certain amount of alone time is good for you, I do think the caravan park community has something to teach many of us. For those travelling with extended family, this may be the most precious time when grandkids spend time with grandparents and three generations co-exist under the one roof. There are the inevitable tensions, resentments and clashes in most families, but when you have lost your parents as I have, the wisdom of getting over the obstacles, gritting your teeth and looking for the good in your family members seems a wise way to go. They won’t be with you forever.

Spending time with your caravan friends is interesting too. Often the only place you meet is at the park and a unique relationship develops. There are the hours spent on the beach, watching the kids, talking on a range of topics, the long evenings sipping wine and slapping away the mosquitoes, solving the problems of the world, or strumming guitar strings, singing badly and conjuring dreams and schemes.  With caravan friends there are few schedules or appointments, just a flow of spontaneous togetherness.

There are the special moments too when the caravanning community spirit shines brightly such as one afternoon when a 3-year-old girl went missing. As the Mum and Grandma began their wild-eyed panicky dash around the park calling her name, everyone aged from 5 to 85 got the message, dropped what they were doing and joined in the search for the little girl wearing the red top. Beach Mission members rushed over to help and before long every row of vans had been searched thoroughly and several people clambered down the storm water drain. You could hear the collective sigh of relief when the girl was eventually found hiding under a bed in her caravan. But the vision of everyone rushing to help is a warm reminder of the good side of humanity. There is a tendency to distrust our neighbours, when they may really be our greatest allies.

I still like to “people watch” at our caravan park. There is always the stunning woman who ‘loves herself’ and I still roll my eyes and feel jealous, but thankfully I’ve never seen another life-sized dummy displayed in public. The people I watch, and the people I’ve befriended, have their happy days, but also their challenging days. Relationships which at first appear shiny and perfect tend to reveal a few weak spots and cracks on extended observation. In fact, the very issues I’ve been troubled by are frequently played out before me in someone else’s life. I know I’m not really alone in anything I go through.

So while I long for privacy and order, immersion in the life of others reminds me of how deeply we are all connected. Avoiding the noise and mess of a life shared with others risks missing some very important lessons, special friendships and precious memories.

So tonight I say thank you to my humble heritage of caravanning life – for the freedom and fun, the quirkiness and the challenges. I’m thankful for the holiday away from my ordered life and pedantic privacy. I’m so grateful to the community of colourful and kind-hearted characters from all walks of life I meet there who teach me about living in the moment, going with the flow, staying honest and never hiding away from living life to the full.

 God’s dream is that you and I and all of us will realize that we are family, that we are made for togetherness, for goodness, and for compassion. – Desmond Tutu