Standing Up for the Sitting Down

May, 2018

A large portion of all conversations that I overhear whilst on a bus concern the apparently limitless ways my fellow passengers are let down, betrayed, cheated, insulted, abused, reviled, vilified and unbelievably wronged! I sometimes wonder just how it’s possible that a single person could attract quite so much hostility and plain bad luck, but evidently it can be achieved.  For myself, I find the world a largely pleasant place, and I have to think hard to recall an instance when someone has been rude to me in public.  But, it can happen.

This is a letter I wrote a while back to a medical practice:

Dear etc etc,

I visited the practice yesterday for the appointment recorded on the card I have attached to this letter: 1pm on the 12th (etc).

Unfortunately the receptionist could not find an appointment on your system.  I did not have the card with me, as I had transferred it to my diary, but I was able to check my diary at the counter, and I knew with virtual certainty that I was there at the right time.

The appointment had been booked a week earlier, on Monday 5th. I had read some paperwork for the procedure at the counter, and the receptionist had made the appointment and then written it onto the attached card.

My reason for writing is not about the apparent loss of an appointment on your system, but the way in which it was handled. At no point did the receptionist I met yesterday offer anything like an apology for the error, the inconvenience, for the portion of my day that had been wasted, or for the fact that another appointment had to be made.  It was a brief conversation, and at one point the receptionist repeated what had already been conveyed quite clearly, and which I had just as clearly understood, saying, “What I am trying to explain to you is that there is no appointment on our system”, as if the issue were not one of software or human error, but somehow lay in my failure to comprehend the problem. 

I use a wheelchair, and just occasionally I feel the need to ‘go in to bat’ for other wheelchair users. I understand the point I want to make here is difficult to defend with evidence, however please bear with me. I spent my adult life up until a few years ago as a normal, ambulant person with a career and so on, and I feel sure that if I had been standing in a shirt and tie at the counter yesterday, rather than using a wheelchair, the conversation would have taken a different course. Impossible to prove, I admit, and I appreciate you may not agree with my comments, but I would ask you to please give them consideration. 

Becoming less-abled has been a revelation to me, and I see the world from a new vantage point. I have observed both myself and other similarly challenged folk treated in the most curious ways. For example, it is absolutely true that a person will sometimes raise their voice considerably (and even lean in to make extra, extra eye contact!) for people in chairs; I have experienced this curious phenomenon many times, very occasionally even with a health care professional. I sometimes sense a probably unconscious assumption that a disabled person is disabled in a global sense, including mobility, hearing, intelligence, independence and who knows what else. I feel I understand this mechanism to some degree, but I believe it is helpful if it can be carefully considered, particularly by healthcare providers.

Thank you for reading my letter, I wish to add that I am very pleased to be a client of your practice.

Yours faithfully, etc etc.

fullsizeoutput_845To their great credit,fullsizeoutput_844 the practice took my letter seriously and conveyed in a well written reply the steps they were taking to address my concerns. But I can’t help thinking of the many people who do not have the ability, or perhaps the courage, to put pen to paper and assert their right to courtesy. Though I feel the bus-cohort may be ever so slightly exaggerating their complaints, with their endless affront, and their studied victimhood, and their appalling entitlement; I do think there are people who routinely get short shrift, who endure mild and even malevolent disapproval in their ordinary encounters with the public. Most of these will be people who do not fit. They will be disabled or disfigured, perhaps with a wheelchair, but just as likely an indigenous person or a refugee. It might be young person who doesn’t uphold ‘normal’ standards of presentation.  An old person unable to deal with new fangled speed and complexity. It will be someone who falls short in the power dynamic of everyday interaction, the language of dominion.

This is common cruelty, and we should champion each other when we meet it.  

So next time you see someone on wheels overlooked in a queue for service – exactly why this happens is still a mystery to me – stand up for them!



Do write!


April 2018. (This is a long one, 1243 words! But as a monthly essay perhaps that’s permissible?)

“What do you mean ‘accessible’? All rooms are accessible, aren’t they?” 

I was booking a hotel room recently, and this is, verbatim, what the man on the phone said when I asked for an accessible room. Taken aback, I stammered a reply. Though I don’t recall what I said, I do remember exactly how I felt: I felt cowed, timid, afraid, foolish and apologetic. Why on earth?  He was self-evidently the goose, not me!

The answer lies, I think, in an “acclimatisation to imperfection” that I am negotiating this year. Not that I was ever perfect – my Favourite Wife will vouch for that – but compared to former levels of competence, I’m fast transforming into a nincompoop. I’m so accustomed to making really dumb mistakes that I assumed I was the fool, as usual, not the ignorant hotel clerk unfamiliar with Accessibility.

My incompetency list:

I run my wheelchair into doorjambs. This was once the rarest occurrence, virtually unknown, but with prism lenses my depth perception seems to be all over the place.  As do the doorjambs.

I run my wheelchair into just about anything.  See above.  Except pedestrians – there I have an unblemished record, thankfully.

If it’s liquid, I will spill it. Tea, sauce, paint, milk, ink. I’d like to blame the glasses again, but I fear it’s just escalating clumsiness.

I can’t remember the next one.

Forgetfulness! That’s it.  You know that thing where you go to another room to get something, and can’t remember why you’re there? I can’t remember which room I was going to, or the one I left. I seriously think this is a breathing issue, which sounds like a lame excuse, but I’ve noticed that as soon as breathing is challenged, all mental resources are subverted to solving the air crisis. I’ll soon have to start listing my lists, that’s how many bits of paper I’m carting around.

Stamina.  For a long time I have had help at home every second day – which I’m not sure that I’ve admitted in these pages before. Well, as of March the workers come every day, and for twice as long. Simple things that I have had sole charge of for years while Favourite Wife is at work, things like washing up, hanging out the clothes, folding the washing … they thoroughly beat me.

Bus bungles. With multifocals relegated to the past by worsening vision, I now have one pair of glasses for following the bus route on my phone, and another pair for looking out the window to see where we actually are, and sometimes a magnifying glass to boot. More than one bus trip has been botched by pressing the bell at the wrong time, having then to call out apologetically to the driver to keep going. On one trip I pressed it wrongly twice!  And this in a significantly public arena.

But, but, BUT!

Do not think for one moment that I am complaining or dissatisfied. Not for a second: this year, my 56th, is without skerrick of a doubt the best year I’ve lived. Not long ago our family of 17 traveled the high seas together, and a week before we set sail we purchased The Karenvan, which has given our family the richest summer in years. Life is extraordinarily good, and yet there is more to say.

“One of the best-kept secrets, and yet one hidden in plain sight, is that the way up is the way down.  Or, if you prefer, the way down is the way up.” 

This resonating quote comes from Richard Rohr, in “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life”. In this thoughtful book Rohr contrasts our early life spent seeking and establishing security in all facets: physical, emotional, financial, spiritual, and so on; with the tender, relaxed confidence that may be found in the second half of life. But the path to that wondrous state lies in loss more often than gain, and who likes to loose? As Rohr says again,

“We do not want to embark on a further journey if it feels like going down, especially after we have put so much sound and fury into going up.”

In the pages of Rejoice! I have run into a dilemma. Some of my readers, particularly friends from school, family and others of a non-religious persuasion comment that I should lay off the spiritual chit chat.  “Shut up”, put more plainly.  But many readers come from the years we have spent in church life; and for them it’s “more, more!” I can’t stand ‘Bible Bashing’ and find the notion of converting someone to my faith problematic.  But to avoid mention of my spiritual life is simply duplicitous. So, heathen, you have been warned!  Read further at your peril.

The joys of my 56th year are not simply material, not just a matter of travel and peaceful days at the lake. I dare to say that in our home and our broader family you would find many of the serious challenges that ordinary folk face. Our budget is tight and my health precarious; our minds often preoccupied with the cares all parents know well. But I enjoy a degree of contentment so expansive that I find it hard to explain. Like Eric Olthwaite’s mother’s Black Putting which was so black “that even the white bits are black”, the world often seems to me so good that even the bad bits are good.

How can this equation be balanced, where the experience of less feels like so much more? I have no glib answer, but can relate an experience.  We pray in our home; Favourite Wife and I begin most days by lifting up the needs of our household, our family and others we know. I pray too in the ‘secret place’ of solitude, and recently an odd thing happened: my prayer became mostly silent. This was not sudden, it’s evolved over some years.  Gradually I found myself less and less sure how to pray in any specific circumstance.  How do I know what is actually best?  Life teaches you that the thing you long for can turn out to be hollow, and the thing you fear brings more life than seems possible. Who am I to tell God what he ought to do? – which I have certainly spent a fair amount of time doing in the past. Added to that, I became absorbed in two aspects of the Divine which seem overlooked.  Firstly God’s invisibility: it’s patently obvious, and yet scarcely acknowledged. Secondly God’s silence. This is more difficult to concede, and I suspect we suppress the truth. In one sense the voice of God is abundant: copious beauty engulfs the observant, and I have said at times that a person only needs to be still to discover the voice of God. But in another sense God seems utterly removed; silent, absent, and unconcerned with the trivial matters of human urbanity. I don’t think this statement is true, but it seems true.

This is where this essay ends, and where it also becomes a little mystifying. My silent prayer in the presence of God’s silence is the avenue of such grace that I find myself joy-filled in the midst of life’s trials; and abundantly content with things I do not understand.



As you know, I’d love to share your experience…


Dearest Library

March, 2018

Dearest Library,

You hold my earliest memories. White rooms with grand high ceilings and so many tall windows, the sunlight so clear that it was obviously meant for reading. And the hush, overseen by librarians who all looked like my great-aunt, a hush so carefully policed because the books needed to be heard. The children’s books were upstairs, up an outside staircase in the days when there were such things. A grand white building in a wide park of grass and Moreton Bay figs. I still go past you now and then, but you are a Library no more.

“Boronia”, once home of Mosman Library, in an old photograph found online. The outside steps (long since removed) are visible to the right of the unknown walking-workman.  Oddly, I can still feel in my arm how high that banister was to my infant self.

And you were in another building too; a stern, concrete monolith to which we took our high school homework … and our smokes (they, not I!). Smoking in a library, it’s inconceivable, it’s barbaric! … but there were ashtrays.

And you were on campus, an architectural wonder amidst New England stone. Your tomes were mostly beyond me, and I was mostly terrified.

And you saw my children come and go, half a dozen. You nurtured them and showed them a world beyond my reach. What a treat it always was, to take them through your door.

And now my grandchildren visit you too, and their world is bigger yet. Their parents take great joy in you, dear friend. They know you are a sacred space where a certain hush still rests on people, even busy ones. A place where truth and wonder hold their own in a world we grownups know to be less pure.

And I love you too, with older eyes but no less awe. And it brings me great delight to add my own small part to all you do.

Thank you,
Dearest Library.



I submitted this to “Love Letter to your Library” on Saint Valentines Day, 14 February 2018, which was celebrated locally as “Love Your Library Day”.  

A highlight of every week is the time I spend as a volunteer in our Library, my task being to prepare new acquisitions for cataloguing. It’s an interesting little job; and I do love being a small part of a talented team working in a very busy public space. There is a ‘bitter pill’ though: somewhat ironically the books themselves are beyond my reach, I can’t read them any more. It’s so tempting to dip into the books on display, and the books that come across “my” desk, but I can’t read much more than a paragraph before poor vision insists I close the cover.  Now and then I find one available as a audio-book, but most remain locked away. The books I do enjoy when they come to be processed are toddler’s Board Books: the very best writers and illustrators manage to capture amazing worlds of thought in so few words.

To contribute, even modestly, is such fulfilling delight. The Librarians always thank me for coming in to help; but I wish they knew that it’s really the other way round.




Do throw me a line or two……

Harbourside Dreaming

February, 2018

Twice, as the Manly Ferry approached North Head, the Captain’s voice came through the loud speakers warning of a heavy swell and high winds, urging passengers to be seated and find something to hold onto, and requesting passengers on outside decks to come inside.


Obviously it was time to leave my spot inside the ferry, and go out!

The grand South Steyne, in her day.

The swell was huge indeed, 6 metres by one report, and winds were peaking at 45km/h on the harbour. The boiling dive and roll of the ferry took me back to my childhood when our father would take us on the Manly Ferry if the seas were high, just for the thrill. The South Steyne was our favourite; the grandest of the old ferries, slightly larger than Cook’s Endeavour, and the largest steam ferry in the world. Today I never visit Sydney without a ferry ride, even if it’s just under the Bridge. Ferries, like trains, are marvellously accessible. The deck hands always want to help me up the gang-plank, but my fabulous chair eats it up and I delight in calling out, “I’ll be right!”

We grew up on the harbour’s edge with the Sydney Foreshores National Park (bigger, I’ve heard, than the world famous Yellowstone National Park) as our back yard. Our street was composed almost entirely of boys, and we could leave home in the morning, disappear into the bush and emerge only on mother’s three blasts of a referee’s whistle that sounded tea time. We knew many tracks that looped and laced one sheltered bay to the next. There were cannons from the 1840s to climb on, old fortifications to explore, even an underground dungeon. The dungeon was perpetually flooded, but we probed the inky black with long sticks; carrying the feeble, flickering torches kids had in the 60s (I can hear so clearly that hopeful ‘smack’ a battery torch needed every few minutes), and gingerly poked our way along wobbly planks and fruit boxes into foetid, dripping, airless chambers, scaring ourselves witless. I imagine it’s extremely child proof these days! We caught fish under harbour wharves, sometimes cooking them straight away on small carpet samples that we soaked in methylated spirits.  No matter what type of fish we caught they always tasted, oddly enough, like metho and burned carpet.

And there was the Zoo.  We knew several ways to get in; the preferred one being through the Bison cage which was quite removed from everything else, and was surrounded by thick, round steel posts and rails, and a back wall that we scaled by climbing a tree.  We climbed easily through the rails, and the Bison seemed disinterested in our barely suppressed fear.  (Although I remember this well, it sounds so improbable that I did a search to see if my memory was deceiving me and found a lively exchange in the Sydney Morning Herald: several locals from the 50s and 60s tell exactly the same story!)  Once we caught an echidna that looked a bit sick, so we took it to the zoo. We had to catch it twice and thrice as well, because it was stronger and more cunning than any cage we could make for it. On weekdays the Zoo opened it’s side gate for early, local pedestrians who were heading down to the ferry, and many trips to the city began with the incomparable views, sights and sounds of Taronga Zoo. What a way to grow up!

The Clifton Street Gang, Christmas 1972
Boys, all of us, from one short street. Photographed by my uncle in 1972.

Our home in my teenage years had a panoramic view of Sydney Harbour from South Head to Rose Bay, and on almost to the Opera House. We were keen students of sea craft, not only reading a ship’s name through binoculars but also identifying it’s nationality and other details from its flags.  I swam in the Harbour most days throughout the year, which is a bracing experience, putting it mildly, as the Tasman Sea drops well below 20 deg C in winter. This spartan ritual was imbibed from family culture, in which certain pursuits such as cold water endurance, handling hot plates without oven mitts and drinking strong, black coffee without sugar were highly esteemed. Merit was rewarded with wordless approval from my beloved grandmother and great-aunt; and I yearned for it.


And the Ferries! As children we were sometimes taken below decks by the engineer to look at the shining brass and copper that adorned the massive, white cylinder heads of the great steam engines as they thrummed across the harbour. On your birthday you were allowed to steer the ferry!  Even more implausible than the Bison story, I recall this vividly: the Captain would invite the birthday boy (we were all boys, until one single girl cousin arrived) through the sliding timber door into the small wheelhouse with its wooden stool, brass speaking tube, a boxed compass, the shiny brass throttle, and the giant (to us!) timber ship’s wheel.  We were allowed to sit up on the stool, and while we “had the wheel” the captain would stand right beside us, keeping the general public safe on our birthday. Like the dungeon, this is a tale from a different era … nothing remotely like it happens today I’m sure.

So, while entertaining such rich memories, I made my way to the outside deck. One of the crew held the door open for me, saying, “You’ll get wet out there!”, but he didn’t stop my exploit. There is a particular spot at the top the steps to the bow of the ferry where the handrail turns back on itself making a nicely secure, triangular spot to stand.  Or, in my case, to kneel. All it lacked was a good place to stow my foldable sticks: a dubious asset in such conditions. I had to keep looking back to where I had parked Bugger, (the chair) below me, secured only by it’s brakes, hoping to goodness it wouldn’t roll or tip over …… or worse. If it got as wet as I was getting my electronic breathing machine might well object. Not for the first time I deliberated the fine balance between thrill and irresponsibility, and my hankering to take Bugger where we shouldn’t reasonably go.

An old, old photo, apparently from deck of the venerable of the South Steyne herself. My view from the bow looked something like this.


And the deck hand was quite right, I did get wet out there.  Ridiculously wet.


Exceptionally, memorably, wet.






Always keen to hear from a reader! ………….

The Lake Cottage

January, 2018 … in 23 minutes

Life has high points and low; most would agree.  But I’m sure that I have had far more than my fair share of the high ones, and few higher than this. This moment, right now.

It’s Christmas Eve. Last week we returned, 17 of us, from several nights at sea.  My Favourite Wife and I, Teen Girl, our five other children and our seven grandchildren. The trip had been almost a year in planning with escalating expectation as the date for our departure oh-so-gradually crept closer.  The weather, a focus of somewhat self-centred prayer, was perfect every day. We sailed down Sydney Harbour on a cool, crystal clear afternoon; we had just enough cloud on Fraser Island to make it a lovely, balmy day; and the sea was mostly calm with a just bit of chop through the night. Even returning through Sydney Heads almost obscured by thick mist and cloud turned out to be ideal as the day was a good 15 degrees cooler than the previous day’s 38℃. Our other petition, for everyone’s good health, was equally fulfilled. Of course, those are only the practicalities around a family reunion, which is where the real joy was found.

And if that weren’t enough, I am, right now, writing from our Lake Cottage. Shortly my best girl will arrive with supplies, and sometime today or tomorrow we will be joined by a couple more of our children and perhaps a grandchild or three.  Truthfully, its more of an oldish caravan with a sturdy annex and shady verandah than an actual cottage. But it is lake-side! From our verandah we can see at least 20 yards of water through a gap between two other “cottages”  …  as long as Lake Hume, once one of the largest dams in the world, is reasonably full.  Today our view is a shrinking 3 yards, but just a short walk reveals the full, majestic panorama of the lake against the hills and mountains that surround it. We know of one spot where we can see alpine snow in the distance … not today, obviously. img_0441-e1514722332594.jpgThe “Karenvan”, as we call it, became ours only days before we left for our sea voyage, and this is our first overnight stay. Our decision to buy was impulsive, and inspired, made within hours of inspecting the cabin, which itself was only two days after my Favourite saw it advertised in the local paper. Fourteen minutes from our home and we are in another world.

The Karenvan!

The park is full of trees, green and lush, and full of lovely, ordinary people that we are already getting to know. Everyone walks, or rides a bike, and we call out hello and discover they are friends of friends, it’s a neighbourly community.  We dream of our children coming here, with us and without us, and it’s terribly easy to picture our grandchildren riding past on their bikes, swimming in the big pool round the corner, laughing, playing and growing up in the years ahead.


KaringalThis photo is a leap back in time, showing my great grandmother, my grandparents and their children working together to build a much loved holiday house from stone and timber.  It’s one of my favourite images, reminding me that homes, and families, are built with care. Just how we came to own a Cottage on the Lake is a curious tale of family connections that will remain hidden, perhaps for years, but one day will be delightful to tell.

Christmas Eve, we agree in our family, is much superior to Christmas Day, and infinitely preferred over Boxing Day. Christmas Eve is the day of anticipation, one of our language’s most delicious words. A day so abundantly full of what-might-be! A relentlessly hopeful day; year by year I experience a sense that anything at all is possible.

Enter Winter in Fáskrúðsfjörður, Iceland.

Heavens, perhaps Trump will resign, move to Fáskrúðsfjörður, and the western world will forsake fossil fuel! Dreams more personal, of course, are the ones most cherished. I recently listened to an interview that challenged my very strict “anti-Santa” leanings of the past, when I regarded Mr. Claus as a false doctrine, if not the antichrist, set to undermine the truth of Christian faith – as if faith could so easily be lost. The speaker had analysed Christmas movies from many countries and several decades, concluding that the vast majority contained strong, spiritual themes: prayer, expressed in letters to Santa and in the wistful longings of grownups; grace in some form or other, often in the reuniting of a family, a community, or forgiveness of the past; gifts freely given; and miracles performed, often for the poor, and frequently for the utterly underserving.

It is now 11.37pm. Our noisy not-so-young children have finally failed in their annual attempt to stay awake till midnight.  Mrs. Claus (my Favourite Santa) and I have outlasted them yet again, and now the serious work of setting gifts under our makeshift, gum-leaf Christmas Tree can begin. Then I must finally outlast Mrs. Claus, so I can put a small but unexpected piece of jewellery in one of the stockings I had earlier hung under the kitchen bench.  However I look at it, our lake cottage, our family, life itself, is wondrous.




PS.  Now it’s New Year’s Eve, and here we are once again, in the Karenvan. Uppity Kate has read this page to me in her rather superior way, and life is still wondrous. 


As always, I would be delighted to hear your thoughts.

Things I’ve learned at 4’6”

December 2017

My height changed abruptly in 2010. Until then I had been the tallest person in every room, at every event, in any setting at all, with only the rarest exception. If I ever had to meet someone I didn’t know, at an airport for example, I would tell them to look for the tallest person; and this never failed to be true. I would go years and years without meeting anyone taller than me. It is a very odd thing to be distinctly different from everyone else. My work as a carpenter regularly took me into public schools and I was acutely (and uncomfortably) aware of a ripple of quite audible (and often unprintable) comments in my wake.

The full height of my erstwhile self on our family Tall Wall – now happily filling with little people.

Now it’s somewhat the opposite, I very rarely meet anyone shorter than me, unless it is a child.  And once again, I occasionally hear the hushed comments people make as I pass. But these days they are complimentary, …in the main.

The change from six foot seven to four foot six came, of course, with my introduction in 2010 to a wheelchair named “Bugger”. The world viewed from 4’6” is startlingly different.  It’s “all bums and belt buckles” as one friend poetically observes. But there are subtler observations that have renewed my view of life.

At 4’6” I’ve learned…

…that much of the world belongs to somebody else. 
I rolled off a tram in Melbourne last week, did a little zig-zag through the pedestrian barrier, and a sporty little car kindly waved me across the road.  But there was no ramp to climb the gutter.  With a lane of cars building up I looked up and down to no avail, and had to retreat to the tram stop once more. My eyesight is officially mediocre now, but I’ve taken to carrying a small scope in the city for such occasions, and I was able to conduct a thorough visual search from the tram stop – no ramp!  There are ramps almost everywhere of course, and an occasion like this is rare. Nonetheless, I know what it is to be in a minority. For the first time in my life I regularly experience being the one who doesn’t belong, and this is the foundation of a new worldview: moving from the main stream of able-bods to a by-water of odd-bods.

…that people are nice.
I must look dreadfully helpless.  Everywhere I go people offer to help me. I don’t leave home without it happening. Doors, obviously, are the main event. Now and then it is helpful to have a door opened, although there are only two doors in our town that I can’t do unaided. One – absurdly – is the front door of our school, a school for disabled children. The next help-arena is the self-serve supermarket checkout, which is more challenging because I’m tempted to feel annoyed that people think I can’t manage those machines. Nobody can manage those machines! The other time I regularly attract helpful offers is if I stop. When I’m sitting still helpers find me irresistible. But everywhere I go I meet people who are just so very nice.

…to avoid my own reflection.
When I was tall I found my reflection amusing more than anything else, after all it’s good to be tall. But when I see myself reflected in a shop window nowadays, I cringe. I’m quite used to the look of the world at 4’6”, but I don’t know that I will ever get used to the look of me.

.…that I am a sacred cow.
People are horrified if they think they have offended me. I find it amusing when receptionists say to me, “Please take a seat over there.” Sometimes I challenge this simply by holding their gaze a moment, with a raised eyebrow. I don’t generally need to say, “I brought my own”, and when they realise what they have said they are flustered, devastated, only occasionally amused, but I am quick to reassure.  I am a sort of local treasure, everyone looks out for me. Teen Girl, who has down syndrome, is loved by everyone too, and I feel this is a huge credit to our society: generally it is a scandal to treat a disabled person badly.

…that miracles abound.
There are some who are forever “hoping for a miracle”.  But what if the miracle is already here? What if the miracle isn’t restoration to health,  winding back the clock, but discovering the grace to live life as it actually presents itself? I’ve learned so much at 4’6” that I don’t want to go back even if I could. I’ve gained far more than I have lost, and discovered that the miraculous realm is so close at hand that it’s hard to avoid.

that I still have the White Gaze.
I will never forget the moment an Aboriginal man turned away from me when I went to enter a clothing shop in Alice Springs. He told me he could not go in, that he would not be welcome inside. I was 18 and this man had embraced me as a faltering teenager and taught me his language, his faith, (and how to clean paintbrushes with a rock). We had been travelling together for several days, sharing our meals and the driving of a large lorry that neither of us could properly operate, and over the months we had become good friends. I had no idea, not a clue until that moment, that Australia was a divided nation. But it was not until the decade I am living in now that I perceived how deeply rooted in my own cultural mentality the divisions of race still are. I learned at 4’6” that I am still a racist. Years of struggling to overthrow this ugly facet of my character have achieved little. In becoming one of a minority I began to see how unthinkingly I align myself with the majority. I think of myself – and this terrifies – as one of the true and the good, the master race. I saw my friend of so long ago on my last trip to Central Australia in 2010, and it was a shared joy. But it does not change what I know to be true of myself: I am still ridiculously quick to judge someone simply because of the way they speak, or the way they look. I judge people in wheelchairs, for goodness sake!

…that noses look far worse from underneath.
I sometimes wonder if the betrayal of my own physical body has left me distrustful of all things physical. I think of people, myself especially, purely as biology. As animals really, zoology. Noses, necks, knees, bellies, bottoms – it’s all too much! Everything human now looks fragile, unsightly and vulnerable. I seem to be preoccupied with potential or evident failings, and I can no longer see remotely the grace that Leonardo and Michelangelo saw so readily. This is one part of my current experience that I really, really dislike!

…that God comes to you disguised as your life.
This is the most illuminating thing I have read this year, and I think would be profound whatever your view of God. There’s not a lot to say, just that eventually you realise that it’s not a different life that you need; that all the “what ifs?” and longings for alternate versions of yourself lead you nowhere at all. It is the actual, physical, painful, joyful, terrible, tangible, particular and immediate experience of your very own life that leads you to peace. If you allow.

…that l’m not as smart as I thought.
My changed perspective has brought me to new insecurities; it has forced me to reconsider. So many things are not what I once thought. Is it merely youthfulness, or does having a fit, capable physique also feed the sense that we know it all?

…that depression has it’s place.
This thought is controversial, and I mean no offence. Not for a moment am I referring to the medical condition of depression; I mean occasional depression as a part of normal life. Our mood inevitably swings down as well as up, but our cultural expectation is upward, upward, upward.  If we aren’t having fun, we just aren’t trying. I disagree, and at 4’6” I’ve had many opportunities to look inward and downward. Introspection is a balance to exuberance, which I find more natural, and although I don’t relish the times my mood sinks I am learning to value them. I have gleaned precious somethings, occasionally, at the black dog’s kennel: a reality, a fellowship, a check to my other extremes, an empathy, a grace perhaps.


I think it is the experience of reduction, not just in height but in so many facets, that has taught me most.  I’m grateful for it.  I’m very glad I have come to taste a different life, to the side of the main stream, away from the confidence of the majority. I’m truly very glad.



PS. A week from today I will be at sea, on a ship, with all of my children and grand children. Seventeen of us! That should be something worth writing about in January, next time we meet.

The Lost Art of Sitting … still.

November 2017

Many people replied to my last post, and I felt buoyant and edified hearing from dear friends. If I’ve not replied forgive me, I’m working through the list.  Everyone who wrote spoke to me in the same voice: a somewhat superior, not to say pompous, but decidedly english accent. This is Kate, heartless Kate, robot Kate, the computer voice who reads my mail.  Kate – uppity Kate – competes a little too much with the actual voices I know, in fact she overwhelmes, which is sad. One of the joys of long friendship is that when you read you sometimes hear the warm and welcome voice of the one who wrote.

There was a tendency in some of the correspondence that I wanted to resist: sympathy. I’m alarmed when I sense it’s presence, I want to run from it as one might run from a predator in the wild (what an odd sentence that is, passing myself off as intrepid!). I dislike sympathy because it smacks of defeat. The sympathy of another, though well meant, drags you downward into the pit. Fight or flight: I fend it off or I flee, but I will not admit to it’s verdict or give an inch. I also feel quite afraid, perhaps ashamed, if my writing about vision loss called out for sympathy; perish the thought. And there is this: most of those I heard from I know quite well, some very well indeed.  And I know that more often than not their lives are no easier than mine. In years of pastoral counselling I discovered that nobody I sat with was free from deeply challenging circumstances one way or another. No one.  I feel strongly about this, that my load in life is not exceptional. Unusual perhaps, but we are all unique. Going one step further it often seems to me that my own set of challenges are fortunate ones, they have so far proved to be of the manageable kind, outward irritations that do no damage to the soul. How immeasurably harder it must be to face a black dog within, or to live under injustice, or in poverty, or as a victim of awful crime; and so the list goes on, and on.

And there is something else too. Self Help books are full of aphorisms about turning “scars into stars”, and innumerable similar jollies. Personally, I find all that sort of thing quite irritating in the way it reduces the soul’s journey through trial into sometimes idiotic triviality. And for some reason it’s hard not to think of such cliches having an American accent, uttered by someone with implausible teeth. But there is the valid underlying truth that hardships truly can conceal a gift. Underneath the undeniable trauma of loosing (some) sight of the world, I am aware of a beckoning toward quietness. Quietude.

Many years ago a bore mechanic (windmills, water bores and such) stayed for a few nights in a home I shared on a community in the Gibson Desert. I remember him as a tall, tanned, mild-mannered man with a possibly Indian aspect to his face. He had a remarkable habit which has remained strongly in memory all these years: after dinner he would leave the table and take a seat in the living room, fold his hands, and … that was it.  There was no TV and little music out there, but he seemed completely content without anything at all, no books, games, not even conversation unless you tried particularly hard to draw him in. This man could happily sit. He didn’t twiddle his thumbs, his eyes didn’t wander around looking for distraction, he didn’t get up after ten minutes to keep himself busy. He could just sit, for a long time. I admired it then, and do still. This is sharply in contrast to my own vein of distraction, which is to do something constructive with my hands whenever possible. I fix, I mend, I clean, I do whatever I can find to do; I read, write, converse, play music, listen to music, listen to the radio, torment my children … but never, for goodness sake not, just sit. (Speaking of which, I have finally finished my picture).

Pyrography and watercolour, and image I copied from a vintage wildlife illustration.


The most powerful prayer, one well-nigh omnipotent, and the worthiest work of all is the outcome of a quiet mind.
              – medieval German mystic, Meister Eckhart, quoted on ABC radio this week.

Sometimes you have a sense in life that a lesson is being offered to you, an enlightenment, that small corrections might be made at your core if you would welcome the teacher. The teacher comes in countless guises, and it takes years and years to recognise her presence. Even longer, perhaps, to take instruction. But, now and then, we listen.




I will be back here on the first Sunday of next month; that’s my new plan.  In the meantime I’d love to hear your thoughts … so would uppity Kate.
PS: is the bigger font (for my benefit) good or bad for the reader?






Forward Looking

The brain churns away like an old electric concrete mixer, going endlessly around and around, just now and then tipping out something useful. My brain at least, your’s may be a purring, whizzing wonder. Little by little, I find myself thinking of new ideas, new ways to see.

The trick to typing is this: Use one eye only, and pretend you are writing by hand. Look only at the word you are typing, and having finished a paragraph DO NOT re-read it.  Tripple Click on the finished thought, and use Text to Speech to read the paragraph aloud.  Avoid looking down to the keyboard if at all possible – fortunately I can “touch-type”. This is the method I’ve discovered to avoid eye strain.  As long as I keep my eyes still, not scaring left to right, left to right, left to right …. I can see reasonably well.

This is this week’s discovery, and if it goes to plan this post may just work.

For the first time since my physical health turned south, just over nine years ago, I’ve found myself for most of almost three weeks to be despairingly sad, a deep shade of blue. The “grumpy” episode I wrote about last time turned out not to be one off. It was not, as I had thought, just disappointment at a delay in a long awaited optometrical solution. I realised this when the glasses with prism lenses duly arrived, made a huge difference to my sight, but little difference to my mood.

I am not by nature a sad person.  I am sometimes rather shocked by the stern, vaguely sad look on my face in a mirror, but it does not at all mirror the general feeling of my soul which is glad and bright more often than not. The despaired feeling of these few weeks was not completely unknown of course: being human brings you inevitably into contact with every emotion. But the persistence of the feeling: the unshifting, pitying, bleak-black soul darkness was unlike anything I could remember.  Sadness was everywhere I looked. Thoughts that seemed unable to rise above impending doom on every front. When the Liberal government failed to endorse the recommendation of Australia’s Chief Scientist to implement a Clean Energy Target I felt as though the future of mankind had been sealed and doomed for ever and ever.

So I took my blighted heart to my regular GP appointment this week and asked her if this was normal. “What”, I asked, doubting that anyone could give me an answer, “is wrong”. I have a terrific doctor. She listens carefully, follows up every thought and lead, and is not afraid to offer advice or a reframed view of the situation. After a few more probing questions she said it sounded like grief, and asked me,

“What are you missing? Is there something you have lost?”

I replied without a moment to process the question. I didn’t think at all, the answer was immediate:

“I miss my eyesight; I can’t read”.

Years ago I wrote a post in Rejoice! titled, The Gift of Loosing Things. I had lost my driver’s licence, and a number of other important things in life besides. It’s a good essay I think, there is wisdom there that I still draw from – I hope that doesn’t sound immodest, but sometimes a person can write to themselves as much as to others. But none of that wisdom was adequate to my experience of vision loss. It has far eclipsed the challenges of mobility, my early terror of wheelchairs, the pining I feel at times for useful employment, even loosing the ultimate joy of running wildly in the park with my little girl. Vision loss is the toughest of them all.

But months have passed since this began, and much has been regained. The prism glasses first and foremost – they are such a help, even though the world I see through them has an oddity about it that defies description. I’ve filled books – small ones – with handwriting, discovering that writing is the perfect activity because your eyes don’t

A current Pyrography project

really move much.  I’ve spent a great deal of time on a newish hobby: Pyrography, burning designs into wood, which is very similar because your eyes stay fixed on one part of the pattern for a long time. After many attempts I think I’m learning to listen to audio-books. Initially I found it impossible to concentrate in the way that you do when reading, and I could not retain anything much that I heard. Perhaps it’s a wonder of neuroplasticity, but for some reason feel I’m using my brain differently now and audio-books are starting to make sense. Looking for things, roving your eyes around a room to find that missing item, is one of the hardest tasks and my biggest problem. So I’m organising, being very deliberate. I have a corner of the kitchen bench carefully laid out which nobody else is allowed to touch! Theoretically.Sincere thanks to those readers who read right through my hand-written post and told me they had.  It was needed communication, and so rewarding. Thank you indeed!

Life is irresistible isn’t it? It must go on, we must find a way.

I’ve written too much, and I will not re-read. In the past I have read every phrase a dozen times at the very least, and the whole essay a dozen more to find the best word and the smallest mistake. So this may be a right mess!



Vision Splendid

Vision SplendidVision Splendid 2

If you made it this far, thank you.

As always, you can write, and my iPad will read it aloud.

The Remarkable Fresnel Prism


A thin sliver of plastic has repaired my outlook and restored my sanity.

I had spectacular vision, once. (There is a pun there, so faint that it will be missed altogether by all but the most astute if I don’t point at it.) My Optometrist was always most impressed and said that with spectacles (referencing above pun) my vision was significantly better than 20/20. Do you know, by the way, what 20/20 vision actually is? The top 20 refers to the smallest line on an eye chart you can clearly see at 20 feet distance, compared to the maximum distance at which a person with normal sight can read the same line … or something like that.  Odd, isn’t it? It sounds a rather messy way of measuring to me.   Until Easter I could read signs at long distances and the finest print (except for fine print, which of course nobody reads); but it all ended in less than a fortnight, replaced by fuzziness and double vision.

The Ophthalmologist (= eye specialist, although one almost needs a mouth specialist to pronounce it) had two things to say.
The expected: he concluded it was “probably systemic”, meaning whatever is wrong with me is also wrong with my vision, (in other words, no idea) and
The unexpected: he said he thought he could help.
He sent me down the corridor to the Orthoptist (= double vision specialist, a word that would be easy to say if you hadn’t first been practicing saying Ophthalmologist). The Orthoptist had me peer through a great many holes in various gadgets, and then took a flimsy piece of plastic from a sealed box, cut it to size with scissors, and stuck it on the back on my glasses. This curious film, less than 1mm thick, is the remarkable Fresnel Prism.  It puts double vision back together again. While it doesn’t solve my problem altogether – I still find much of the world too fuzzy, and occasionally too two-y – it does greatly reduce eyestrain and makes the unbearable quite tolerable.

You might have seen a Fresnel Lens if you have visited a Lighthouse. I remember when I first saw one, and in a rare moment of scintillating insight I actually understood how it worked.

The Lighthouse lenses designed by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel

Each ring of glass is a triangular lens or prism, all working in chorus to send the light from the lamp in a parallel beam far out to sea, greatly enhancing the intensity of the light. If a single lens had been used it would have been of impossible size and weight, so a series of smaller lenses are used instead. I now have a miniature fresnel prism on the inside of my glasses: many tiny, vertical triangular prisms lined up across the lens.


Without the prism I think I may have fallen into some sort of depression, I could feel my eyesight dragging me to a dark place. Perhaps the suddenness with which it arrived is a factor, but I find it much harder to accept than other problems. A bit like the flu, which always seems to me worse than a broken bone, vision problems are right inside your head; intrusive, unavoidable, overwhelming, horrible.

Yet again I find myself the beneficiary of recent innovation. Although  Fresnel built his lenses in the early 19th century, the PVC prism I have is a modern application. Every day I rely on technology to breathe, to propel my wheelchair, and now to see, that is only a few years old.  Some of it just a couple of years old!  I commented on this to my GP recently, saying that I thought that a decade ago I would be much worse off; and she added something like, “or not here at all”.  That’s true I think. It is astonishing to live today in a first world country, benefiting constantly from science and invention.