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The Answer

When tomorrow arrived the apointment-eve nerves’ I wrote about in An Easter Miracle? were gone. It had been a restless night, but the day dawned bright. An exhilerated mood grew as I made my way to the appointment, and as the bus crossed the picturesque  river land between the two sides of our city I felt euphoric. I heard my own voice in my head saying “I am Roderick, I have such and such, and I’m fine”. Corny, I know, but at that moment life seemed utterly under control and I was surging with vitality.

The Neurologist was somewhat less euphoric; in fact he was skeptical at best. But he did agree that my list of symptoms was a good match for Myasthenia Gravis – the condition I had come to think I had. (Including this astonishing one: an absent gag reflex. The ENT specialist discovered this a while back, and since then doctors have delighted themselves sticking those wooden spatulas down my throat and saying, “Well, look at that!”) There was a particular test, he said, that would be conclusive in diagnosis, and he was quite happy to give it a try. All this happened nearly a fortnight ago, and the Final Exam took place on Friday just past.

Despite the Neurologist’s caution in my earlier visit he began Friday’s session with a buoyant comment which I remember indelibly:

“It would be fantastic if it was Myasthenia, because it’s totally treatable”.

Single Fibre EMG testing is not as bad as it sounds.  The Dr puts a couple of needles in your arm, and later your forehead, and sends a current between them. The current pulses and changes in speed and intensity; and the Dr. manipulates one of the needles until he can isolate contact with a single nerve fibre.  Thirty ‘good’ results need to be achieved in each location, and the average of a component called “jitter” provides the answer.  But it did take two and a half hours; more than enough to give you the jitters.

3_pertwee640The machine he used for this is a wonder to behold: it comes straight from the set of Dr. Who, but way, way back when Ian Pertwee was in the Tardis. The thing has a floppy drive, for goodness sake, and a prominent button marked DOS! Its a bit like the time-warp experience of climbing into a single engine Cessna aircraft and finding the interior of an EH Holden, complete with all that chrome trim.  This specialist is a bright, warm man, and it was good fun teasing him, mercilessly, about the antiquity of his machine – while wondering if something so ancient could really be relied upon….

I appreciated that he took the to explain it all to me, and showed me the figures as they emerged from his time machine (which has a printer roll, like a cash register!), and the table of normal results to which they were compared. I think he knew that I needed to be completely convinced about the outcome.

I can’t pretend that the answer was anything but despairing; even though I had tried to prepare myself in line with his skepticism.  During the long procedure I had talked with the specialist about the journey I had taken in convincing myself about this diagnosis. I told him how challenging it is for my wife (but I didn’t mention she is my Favourite) to continually face the unknown; more challenging than it is for me I am certain. For the first time I gave voice to my uncertainty about the future: the inability I have had in recent years to see myself beyond a couple of years ahead. I told him how a bright, long, alternate future had soared, phoenix-like, in my mind when I felt I knew what was wrong. He listened, and understood, but he said nothing at all to contradict my gloomy outlook.

The hours following both Neurology consultations were much the same: fear laden, depressive, angry (at what? who? Ive no idea), and senseless. Senselessness is the hardest by far.

I am immensely fortunate to have something in my character that is both sensitive and resilient. I can fall pretty hard at times, but within a day or three I seem to get back up without effort; time is enough to regain hope,  to find again all of my joy de vivre. I can neither explain this nor take any credit in it: I just know it will happen. I know it as a  sort of disconnected fact, even while feeling that all hope is lost for ever.

So after these turbulent weeks, I can honestly say that tonight I am fine with it all … nearly … mostly … almost. I am sorely tempted to say, “What if? If only……”, but that is such a mistake.  One thing I do fear is that I will ask myself, tonight, tomorrow, one day: “Why?”  Why the Easter Miracle? Why did I go through all this? What was this ultimately futile journey since the weekend of Easter all about?  Because to me the story, the unfolding, is all important.

I read a couple of weeks ago this intriguing line in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (Which Teen Girl and I have been watching):

But being a cheery Hobbit he had no need of hope,
as long as despair could be postponed.                        – JRR Tolkien.

I can’t account for the hope I nearly always feel, except as an aspect of faith.  It is just there, by and large. Reliable, joyful, hope; is just there.



Drop me a line, but let’s keep it bright!.

An Easter Miracle?

This is exactly what happened, without embellishment or exaggeration, told as best I am able.

On Easter Sunday, on our way to church, Teen Girl announced without emotion,

“I found my phone”.

Nobody else in the car was without emotion right then, because the lost phone had dominated family dynamics for three long weeks, ever since the school fete.  No less than two (2) family members (adults both) had come back empty handed from “thoroughly” searching the car, and yet here the phone was, in the side pocket beside the seat that Teen Girl habitually occupies.

The relief shared by all was manifold, because this special little phone, which has the photos of five family members on five buttons, nothing else, has been key to expanding Teen Girl’s world this year. She now walks safely to the park and back, keeping in touch with us when she feels the need.  Or, when we do.

At this point my Favourite Wife declared her hand:

“I’ve been praying for an Easter Miracle, this is it!”  

Whether or not a phone found exactly where someone left it, and where nobody looked, is in quite the same class as The Resurrection was a thought that briefly occupied my cynical mind; but an altogether more worthy thought quickly replaced it.

“I think I know a better one”, I said.

Until that precise moment I had not recognised the timing of a personal sequence of events which, to my mind, comes much closer to the category of Resurrection.  See what you think…

Late in March I had been to see the Neurologist for an annual appointment, and a change I was experiencing in my ability to push the wheelchair led him to use the descriptive medical phrase, “Fatiguable muscle weakness”. These three words, as I began to understand them in the following week, were an absolute revelation. Fatigue was a word I had often rejected, because I always feel sharp and energetic; and muscle weakness had been regularly rejected by the specialists because I am still surprisingly strong on examination. But when combined these words are used to describe the function of the junction between nerve and muscle; and how it can work well once, twice, a few times, and then rapidly fade.  After eight years I had, at long last, an understanding of the process that has been affecting my mobility and breathing and much else. I suddenly understood why I can do some things well, and others not well at all. It was extraordinarily helpful, and immediately allowed better management of daily life.  But this is not the Easter Miracle.

If you search online for this phrase it points to a particular condition – a treatable condition! – which I had often been tested for in the past, without result. As I read about this in the week before easter I came across a curious symptom of the condition which I can remember doctors looking for in the past: a change in the shape of the eyelid. Straight to the mirror I went, and I was startled by what I saw, or at least what I thought I saw. By Good Friday I was convinced; and so began a tense mental tug-of-war balancing the possibility of treatment with the obvious pitfalls of self diagnosis. The stakes are high. Throughout the last eight years, to be very candid, I have never been able to see myself any more than about two years into the future.  It sounds morbid I’m sure; quite foolish perhaps, but the spectre of Motor Neurone Disease is tenacious. Small, incidental phrases that doctors use stay with you.  Once a neurologist assured me that I categorically did not have MND … “now ….. but whether we can rule it out in the future I can’t say”.  You don’t forget a comment like that.  Another said, while doing one of many nerve conduction studies with wires and needles, “It’s funny you know (I wasn’t laughing); you can do this over and over again and find no degeneration, and then one day, there it is”. And so with gradually increasing dependance on mobility aids and then mechanical ventilation, and with a complete absence of medical opinion, I have been unable to loose this sense of “a couple of years” as the time frame for my life.

But as the Easter weekend progressed I began to see myself living a decade, two decades, three!  I could see my grandchildren at ages that I had subconsciously not allowed in my thoughts. I saw myself at home, with my wife and family, growing old. I was immersed in euphoria, relief, joy!  And yet …… this was nothing more than self diagnosis. My thoughts became agitated in the weeks following Easter, swinging from excitement one day to the sheer foolishness of second guessing the medical profession the next.

Tomorrow, at the neurology clinic, I may just find out.
I’ve been through this appointment-eve trial of nerves so often in the past; it’s no fun. I probably won’t sleep much tonight, but who knows what the new day may bring?


The Best Line I’ve read this week…

Before each morning has become too cluttered I take a red pen, preferably a red fountain pen, and copy a quotation into the top of a fresh double page in a journal. I look for insight wherever I read, and the chosen thought becomes a meditation of sorts for the day ahead. On a good day I will find a moment now and then to continue evolving my thoughts; and at day’s end, often heading towards midnight, I complete my account of the day past.

Whether because of writer’s block or existential anxiety, Sunday by Sunday I have little to pen for Rejoice!. Instead, now and then, I might share my journalling week’s Best Line.  Beginning with:

“It is not madness, lady”, he answered,
“for I go on a path appointed”.

 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of The Rings.

So speaks Aragorn, Heir to the throne of Gondor, to the lady Éowin, niece of the King of Rohan, on his resolve to pass through the Paths of the Dead. Lord of the Ring readers alone will know, or care, what all that means.  But it is a marvellous book, filled with all manner of deeply considered thought.

To me this line is full of resonance. I wonder what replaces the sense of calling in the life of an atheist? It is not at all unique to Christian thought that there is a purpose to life; a purpose that is in some way marked out, appointed, destined. I find it inescapable: eventually through all life’s ups and downs I return to a profoundly settled sense that I am where I am meant to be.  In that light the decisions I reach and the path I walk feel complete.



Have you a good line I can borrow?

Why I wrote that.


Last week’s essay was overgrown, and needed some heavy pruning, as is often the case. But I hacked away one paragraph too many, one that belonged on the vine, not in the virtual bin. The axed paragraph was the crux of the matter: why I wanted to write about loss.

Thankfully none of the replies to last week’s post contained these words: “I’m so sorry to hear about your loss, how awful etc. etc.”, or anything like it. I was relieved, because sympathy is of no value to me whatever. Empathy, now and then, is of some use, but sympathy reminds me of so much sticky red clay clinging onto a bogged truck. Donkey’s years ago in the desert I came across a grader driver who had driven across what looked like a small, damp clay pan; but turned out to be a soak. An unusual feature in a desert perhaps, but this one spot drained moisture from a wide bowl of small hills, something like quicksand I guess. The grader dropped so far that the driver could step straight out his door onto the red boggy clay.  I tried to drive around him – I needn’t tell you what happened…..    but I believe he had to leave the grader there for some weeks until it dried out and a bigger machine could be brought in.  I travelled the same way some time later and the hole in the ground where the grader had been was deeper than me! Sympathy is just like that to my mind: it stops you in your tracks, and only a great heaving effort will take the conversation upwards again, wrenching all involved away from the precipice of self pity.

So, sympathy is certainly not why I wrote last week.  There were two reasons. The first is that throughout the time I have been writing Rejoice, since late 2009, this is where I have come to figure things out. I write to understand myself, and my readers keep me honest.

The second reason is this: Loss is a dying art. It has become a taboo subject in today’s world of unending achievement and limitless progress, where we bust a gut to impress, sometimes deceiving even ourselves. Loss is a subject that is so overlooked that we have become illiterate; lacking both language and opportunity to observe our graceful defeat.

There are several ways I have tried to engage with loss; I share them here with any others who might also tread the downward path. And many do! To live is to loose, after all.

Here we go:

Denial. As useless as it is obvious. Every truth I deny remains utterly untouched by my denial. Like mozzies on a dark night denied truths will hang around as long as necessary, just waiting to sting you and suck your blood! Don’t bother with this one.

Sharing.  This doesn’t work so well either, in my experience. The human subspecies that will listen to your story attentively, (not concentrating instead on their own counter-story which just happens to be heck-worse), is critically endangered. I’ve not seen one in a while! A strange outcome when I do “share” is that I find myself talking down my own grief, reassuring the listener that it’s not that bad after all! I don’t understand this dynamic, although I have felt it often enough. Why do I need to reassure everyone that I’m just dandy?

Writing. I journal every day – in patches admittedly. I go well for months, and then I stop, and pick it up again days or weeks later (or months.…).  A valuable habit, it brings structure and reflection to each day. I try very hard to avoid whining in my private journal. Many years ago I did not understand this rule, and I had a good old whinge about a few things between the covers of my book. I re-read it a long while later, and was flabbergasted at the sorrowing, introspective tone I am capable off.  Never again.

BambooMusic. I love to listen to good music, almost always in the classical genre in which I was raised.  We have a lovely room with a wide view and a cracking set of speakers. Music seems to explore my soul. I still play one wind instrument too, the Shakuhatchi. It’s minor pentatonic scale is a beautiful, wistful and deep way to concede change. Rather than being mournful I find it prayerful. Music is momentary, the expression lasts only as long as a note. Paradoxically, acknowledging my grief this way, bound to the present moment, leads me often towards the greatest gratitude and joy.

Silence. There are two flavours: personal and corporate. It takes concentration to be silent, our instinct is to fill each empty space with something; our phones, screens, television, radio (my own favourite noise); but if I do concentrate on silence and concentrate in silence, I meet myself in the most reassuring way, and the person I meet seems whole and sound. It can take time, and it can take repeated attempts to quiet your own soul; but it is, eventually, reliable and profound

Corporate silence is deeply lacking in our world. In conversation with a pastor from our church this week he mentioned that the one element occasionally included in a service that invariably leads to comments and even letters of appreciation is silence. I think we need to be silent with others, but it is one of the most awkward things to achieve. I’m hopeless with empty spots in a conversation, and it was a long road to learn to sit with people in silence. When I used to meet with grieving families as a chaplain there were very few words I could offer that had more value than attentive silence. Silence: people do it poorly, churches do it even more poorly, we should practice this deep gift.

Encouragement. This is not something you can readily seek, but now and then a friend – or occasionally something more remote, like a passage in a book – will offer you a few words that have power to reshape your outlook, to lift your chin, to bring a smile again to your heart. Be patient, it will come.



Tell me your story…..

Loosing What you Love

What I love, is music.

For much of  last year I fought a loosing battle to keep up enough puff for woodwind instruments which I have been playing, on and off, since I was eight. At that age it was simply the school recorder; but our music teacher was nothing if not keen about recorder playing. By the time I left school a decade later our teacher had progressed from “preparing” the upright piano as a harpsichord with thumb tacks in the felt hammers to bringing a spinet to school in the back of her car; and a quartet in which I played had performed in the Opera House and won a 2nd in the City of Sydney Eisteddfod.

Only a couple of years ago I began taking music lessons once again, and I have written several times in these pages about the joys of playing baroque recorder. Perhaps it was the vaguely realised sense that my musical tenure was inexorably waning that propelled me to play in two ensembles and an orchestra every week, with at least an hour a day practicing the many new pieces our director challenged us with. It was a busy life on the busses heading to and from lessons and rehearsals, and best of all a concert now and then. The humour and intellectual stimulation of each visit to the Conservatorium was glorious. Halcyon days, indeed!


Can you see me in the back row?

Early last year I perfected a technique of playing with the breathing mask in place – not a simple trick balancing delicately tongued diaphragmatic airflow into the instrument with 1.46 KPa of air pressure going up your nose! Afraid that I might finally loose my place in the orchestra I briefly took lessons in two different non-wind instruments, but the sounds were not pretty. Eventually, despite several attempts at denial, reality had to be admitted. By the middle of term 4 I was only practicing on alternate days at home, each rehearsal took several hours to recover from, and a performance set me back for days. It was untenable.

Instinct led me to reach for a decision while we were at sea in November. The thrill of that week gave me a perspective from which I could think calmly and clearly, without the entanglement of maudlin emotion. I put down various thoughts in my journal. I decided that I would finish playing at a point of strength, rather than turning gradually into the bumbling guy in the wheelchair that can’t keep up. I realised that I must be resolute. I set a day on which I would reach a decision, and having done so I wrote an email onboard the ship to the Conservatorium back at home, and drafted a letter of appreciation to the teachers with whom I had shared so much.

This week past, had my path been otherwise, music would have resumed once again. I admit to a temptation to despair, to weep for myself, to indulge in sorrow: there is so much that I miss. I could easily go down that path … but to do so I would have to turn away from something bigger that I feel inside. Just what that bigger thing might be is elusive; but it is hopeful, joyful, and almost always there if I take the time to be quiet. I think it may be gratitude.

I wrote a much better essay along these lines in 2010. The Gift of Loosing Things. This is a brief quote about gratitude, which is, to my mind, the only good way to look backwards:

Gratitude dispels attachment: it’s much easier to face not running on the beach with my kids when I remember the many, many times I have.  In a similar way the choice I make to look ahead and move on is a strong claim on the ground behind me on which I once stood.

Thankfully music is not all that I love,
And I have those that love me.


Always glad to hear from you….

The Joyful Secret

or … How I kept Trump out of Christmas.

I read a heart warming Christmas Email from the minister of a large church in my denomination yesterday, on Christmas Eve. It was one of an avalanche of similar greetings that managed to sneak through the spam filter, and which, after wishing me, by name, in the most personal and familiar terms, a most blessed Christmas celebration, concluded thus:

You may opt out by clicking on the link below:

The slow wheels of my mind began to grind on this surprising post script, searching for a shred of sense. Did the writer mean that I could opt out of the manifold richness that his email had promised me?  Or, did he mean that I could opt out – at this late stage – of Christmas itself; and if so which particular bits of Christmas could I be excused from?

And this clicking word, “unsubscribe”. Is that why Christmas cards appear in our mail box, along with the National Geographic? Do I have a subscription to Christmas? Had I paid for my Christmas subscription? Where could I obtain a Christmas refund?

Dumbstruck, I pondered the Yuletide email’s obscure benediction and little by little began to perceive the deep wisdom of a Christmas Opt-Out. As I spent the afternoon meditating on unsubscription (there being nothing else demanding my attention; all presents wrapped, meals prepared, guest rooms cleaned,  pillows fluffed and thank you letters written, sealed and stamped), mulling over it’s four syllables of mystery, a pure and holy vision grew in my imagination, epiphanous and glorious:

me some
bright, new
Star of promise.
And a vision came
to me of a Christmas
of a different kind, of a
Christmas “opted-out”, a
Christmas that was Peace
and Goodwill to all on earth:
Christmas without merchandise,
Christmas without K-Mart or queues.
Christmas without wheelie bins packed
to the gunnels with wrapping paper and
blister packs, Christmas without batteries!
Christmas without Michael Bublé and profit and
flashing LED things and profit and elves and profit
and Dean Martin and profit and deciduous trees and
profit and fake snow and profit. Christmas without the
clamorous din of commerce. Christmas without Boxing
Day sales.
with Christ! 

In the silent, revelatory night of Christmas Eve that followed the Yuletide Email I delved further into the Peace and Goodwill of unsubscription.  In blissful slumber I dreamed of Christmas devoid of mandatory detention, domestic violence, indigenous incarceration and climate change denial. A somnolent reverie of Christmas sans Donald Trump, sans Pauline Hanson, Theresa May, Tony Abbot and … get this … Santa Claus.  Yes, I opted out of Santa, which is such a relief because I saw Santa after hours in the mall last week, half-disrobed, missing his beard and hat, and he was absolutely not someone on whose knee my grandchildren should ever be sat.

I awoke this morning, on Christmas Day, with renewed Hope. Unsubscription is Joy to the World, and the more you opt out, the greater will be your Joy. This is the long forgotten Noel truth: the Joy of Christmas  is not what you gain, but what you cast aside. Christmas is rightly the season of forgetting, the feast of forgiveness, the cancelling of debts, the shedding of burdens, end of anger, cessation of worry, the failure of fear. Why else would a King be found in a manger? Christmas repeals aspiration, negates consumption, humbles pride. So, let go, drop the bundle, run unshackled, dance free!

Join me…
Opt out,



… go on, say hello:

The Stuff of Dreams

I am on Elizabeth St. Pier, in Hobart, Tasmania, at 3 o’clock on an ordinary Thursday afternoon.

Just above me on the pier is a hotel room in which my Favourite Wife and I stayed eight years ago, when we came here for her 50th birthday. Being here again makes my heart soar with gratitude, with satisfaction, with joy. I feel victorious; a rugged, physical, robust sense of triumph that is, perhaps, slightly at odds with circumstance.

Our first trip here, in 2008, was an elaborately concocted surprise that began with a large picture of the Somerset Hotel in the Saturday travel lift-out of a Sydney Morning Herald. The idea of a hotel on a pier on the southern edge of Tasmania, the place of famous Antarctic expedition departures, imediatley caught my imagination.


Somerset on The Pier – surely that catches any imagination!

My daughters, then in high school, quickly collaborated with me to plan a surprise birthday that would end after a week’s holiday with a still bigger surprise. The birthday party was a truly great success, due to the creative talents of my girls, and it was that rarest of all surprise parties: an actual, complete surprise right to the very last second. Driving into the carpark of a favourite cafe a little way out of town Favourite Wife was just a little perturbed, telling me we would never get a table with so many cars there! But the surprise to follow the first surprise was better yet.  After the party we went away for a few days to our favourite beach (Balmoral beach, on Sydney Harbour, where we both played as children, but being boys and girls we naturally stayed at opposite ends of the beach). We had with us carefully forged air tickets for our homeward flight on  Wednesday morning. On Tuesday evening we were in the Art Gallery of NSW, waiting for a lecture which was to be followed by a meal with live music in the cafeteria below, and I gave my Favourite Wife the actual air tickets, with the destination Hobart, Tasmania; rather than Wagga Wagga NSW.  Quite a difference, and for more than half an hour she was quiet; in fact utterly silent. I was on shaky ground not knowing if it was the silence of delight, or of disbelief, or of ….. well, you know that other silence……

A fortnight ago, when Hobart’s weather first appeared on the iPad, today was pegged as a single rainy day surrounded by pleasant, sunny days. We kept our fretful eyes glued to the Hobart forecast every morning thereafter, without much encouragement, but in the event it has been the opposite: a spectacular blue day with cool, clear air and warm sunshine. Perfect weather for a day exploring the history of Hobart, and for retracing our 2008 steps along the waterfront to Salamanca. Our ship leaves in a couple of hours, and I have only a few more minutes on this pier to savour our astonishing conquest. Favourite Wife has gone aboard already, warning me of the sternest reprisals imaginable, should I fail to board before the ship leaves.


Mt Wellington (the snow was the other way!)

Arriving in Hobart in 2008 we hired a car and drove to the snowy top of Mt. Wellington, then made our way along the waterfront into the city, and then turned left at Elizabeth Street, right onto the pier. Another surprise! Waiting in our hotel room was a large bowl full of 50th Birthday postcards which I had been posting to the hotel for several weeks from Central Australia and from small towns in several states as I had journeyed out and back. I think there were forty odd. So many surprises, what a blissful  week we spent together.


Then …..

On that first evening in Hobart we ate fish and chips and drank wine right here on the pier, so as soon as we were permitted to disembark last night we headed for this same spot. Once again we bought fish and chips (what beautiful fish you eat in Hobart!), remembered the past and toasted the future. Beside us was a tall ship – a smallish tall ship – on which we had sailed up the Derwent river for the princely sum of $15.00. The price has doubled since, but the Lady Nelson looks exactly as we left her.


….. and now (with the Lady Nelson beside us and the Golden Princess looming behind).

That moment last night, side by side on a bench on the pier, eight years later, was the stuff of dreams.

With all that has come into our life since 2008, the very idea that we could repeat our great journey would have seemed a faint hope, even a false hope, had we thought to look this far forward; and yet here we are. I recall that on the following morning on our previous visit I awoke with the physical sense that something was wrong, as I had on numerous mornings around that time. Within a few weeks I would begin to struggle with my work at our church, and within six months of that morning in Hobart we had lost our employment and our home after a diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease. This day, eight years on, might not have been; indeed I myself might not have been by now, but I am, and we are, and it is!

indeed Rejoice!


Drop me a line!

The Hazards

One doesn’t expect problems; at least not problems beyond remedy.

I am writing eight km east of Tasmania’s rugged wild east coast.
East of east!
Wind is whistling through the nooks and crannies of the ship’s steel superstructure. I am on the deck outside our stateroom under a ragged grey sky that perfectly suits the wild, rocky coast, the thickly timbered hills and lines of blue green mountains hiding way to the west.

But I’m tied down. On a short leash.

While my Favourite Wife has traversed all decks, familiarised herself with the ship’s (to me) incomprehensible deck plan, and explored in detail all the shops and several of the dining and entertainment areas onboard, I have been right here, shackled to a powerpoint; reading and writing “far from the madding crowd”. While I like this sort of day very much in theory, especially staying away from shops, being physically tethered to a powerpoint is tedious indeed. And it is intimidating. I am amazed how such a change can dampen my resolve, growing tendrils of doubt around my robust hope for today, and tomorrow, tomorrow’s morrow (did Shakespeare say that?….) when we plan to go on shore in beautiful Hobart.

The problem:
Long before paying for our tickets to Tasmania on the Golden Princess I had researched the possible hazards of voyaging with a wheelchair and ventilator; consulting with our GP, the travel agent, the Princess Line, and reading accounts of other travellers.  We booked, we waited months, then weeks, then days, then hours …. and came onboard yesterday. All seemed well, overwhelmingly well, superb even! The ship left Melbourne in the late afternoon and we were setting up our room before heading out to explore a couple of the ship’s 15 decks when I discovered that none of the three chargers for my ventilator batteries would respond to the ship’s voltage. This was a fright like no other I have ever had. People talk of experiencing a vehicle collision in slow motion, and it was something like that: in a blink of time I calmly saw the degree of the problem, the possible consequences, the immediate implications for our holiday, a range of possible paths through the dilemma, and resolved that none looked too promising.

When the new wheelchair arrived four months ago the imperative  task was to design and build a new housing for the breathing ventilator, power supplies and batteries. This box now sits compactly under the seat rather than hanging behind as it did previously, greatly enhancing the chair’s centre of gravity. Inside are three batteries, three battery chargers of two different types, and capacity to run 12, 18 and 240 volt supplies. The essential first and last job of every single day is checking batteries. I endeavoured to make this set up foolproof and able to cope with any emergency. There is even a second complete ventilator under the seat, along with various spare parts and a tool kit with a small gas soldering iron. But none of my careful designing addresses running for six days without a battery charge. Fortunately the ventilator itself is perfectly happy with the ship’s power, but how can I make four batteries, 17.5 Amp Hours of stored power, enough for one and half days at home, last six days? And still have enough battery power to travel home from Melbourne by train?

The only answer is to find a 240V powerpoint on day three at the dock in Hobart, and spend most of the voyage right here, fettered to the powerpoint in our stateroom. Fettered, that’s a good convict word, especially as we head for Port Arthur. This isn’t how we had imagined our maiden voyage, and we both find it more than difficult to accept.

Yesterday evening I decided to use some of the remaining ration of battery power to look for a solution. I visited the customer service desk, sought out our room steward, and asked other crew we met. Early this morning I went 6 floors below to the medical centre. No one, understandably enough, could see through this technical issue. I asked if I could meet a technical officer, and instead was directed to the “executive housekeeper” for our deck.  I learned from her that the ship has eight electricians, (eight, imagine!). The electrician responsible for stateroom issues is not available until later today, but an appointment has been made.

Happily my powerpoint manacle, made with two extension leads, is just long enough to reach our private balcony, which is a delightful spot. It’s about mid afternoon now, and we have just sailed slowly past this:

Four stark, granite mountains plunging sheer into the deep channel that approaches Wine Glass Bay. Known as The Hazards, they were a danger to be skirted by sailors who used the bay as a whaling station a century ago. The Hazards are a stark witness to my tethered soul searching, as my adventurous spirit gives way to fear, and I wonder if I am simply foolish. I can’t shake of the possibility that the ventilator, as well as the battery chargers, might have failed to work on the ship’s current. How irresponsible have I been; and have I exposed my family to absurd risk by heading to sea? It’s odd, the way our thoughts and emotions can swing, tethered in their own way to the momentary experience of life. What is the appropriate balance of adventure, hope, responsibility and caution? Am I reckless beyond belief to be running the ventilator – vital medical life support – on cordless drill batteries and a bundle of switches purchased on eBay? As the Hazards drift slowly out of view these anxieties, hazards of the soul, seem to me as critical as the problem itself.

Version 2

The Hazards


Later that afternoon the electrician arrived, looked over all my gear, and showed me that most of my equipment, the ventilator itself and the SmartDrive transformer,  was happily running on the ship’s 110V system. But the Ryobi battery chargers were all rated at a minimum 220V. He said the ship had a second, 220 volt system; and there would be an outlet here in our room, although it took even him some little time to locate the point hidden behind a bed. He returned a while later with an adaptor marked MUST BE RETURNED TO ELECTRICAL WORKSHOP, and all was well. The batteries began to charge, winking their reassuring green lights in place of alarming red. Almost twenty four hours after discovering the problem, with 40% of the battery storage already spent, the relief was extreme. Life returned in a heady rush of exhilaration.

The Hazards of the Soul, though each needing to be addressed, were no match for the call to explore the ship and begin our long anticipated adventure together.





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Faux Bassoon

With thrill and mild terror I am waiting at the back of an auditorium while the able bodied members of the orchestra – everyone else, it seems – set out chairs, move the grand piano, assemble instruments and pass out music. The piano lid is propped up high; the big double basses come out of vans and are wheeled in the side door. I’m hiding against the back wall, looking studious and hoping my inactivity is not too obvious. I’ve never in my life performed in an orchestra, this is exciting!

The conductor wanders past muttering numbers. Not the usual count, One-two-three-four, he’s up in the 70s. Chairs, I realise. He has the difficult decision: how many are coming?

The audience begins wandering in. All ages, but many are clearly parents with younger siblings in tow. The grey ones are grandparents, casting around the room for a grandchild that has grown half and inch and changed their hairstyle. Half the orchestra is my age, give or take a decade or two, and half are enormously talented school kids.


The Faux Bassoon

I will be playing bassoon, a very close relative of the beloved oboe. Oh, Oh Oboe! Strictly speaking, in the interest of full disclosure: it says bassoon on my score, I am playing the bassoon part, but not quite the bassoon itself. When it comes to the matter of actually blowing, it will be my bass recorder. None the less!

Ten minutes before we begin an extra row of chairs is put out. And another! Very promising.

Five minutes left and nearly every seat is full. Favourite Wife and Teen Girl have been shopping while we prepared (no surprise there) and now they are back to find a seat. There is a gentle murmur in the hall, gradually rising to a buzz of anticipation.

I’ve been to many concerts, but I have never felt like this. My childhood was peppered with concerts, or “the symphony” as my grandmother called it. I lived with my grandmother and great aunt for some of my teen years, and on the first Friday of every month they hosted a dozen or more of their school friends; having spent their whole lives closely connected. I sat in on the gathering now and then. We ate cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off. My grandmother used to freeze sliced bread, and then cut each slice in half, through the crust, to make the bread thin enough for this delicacy. Most of these older folk had season tickets to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and on account of their advancing years there was frequently one who could not attend. Which was my opportunity. I can’t easily forget the many long taxi rides into the city, wedged in the middle seat between fox fur and lavender. But arriving beneath Sydney Opera House and joining the dignified throng milling up the grand staircases dispelled all discomfort. Men wore dark suits, some carried silver topped canes, even the odd top hat was still to be seen.

But no orchestral concert felt at all like this one. This time I am utterly invested in each tiny detail. I cant believe how good we all look! And the inspired sparkle in the instruments warming up is impossible to miss. The opening item, a young string group, play beautifully; and the odd poorly tuned bar hardly rates attention as I feel so keen that they should succeed.

I first heard this orchestra, the junior orchestra at the Conservatorium in our city, on a cold, wintry evening only ten weeks ago. Woodwinds are becoming more taxing to blow as the months pass, and I was so energised by the performance that I conceived a whole new musical chapter playing 2nd violin. You may perceive a pattern here, harking back to a certain woodwind beginning with O. Having rashly purchased the O instrument outright, this time around I more cautiously hired a violin, enrolled at the Con, and got the shock of my life. I have been playing instruments and working with all manner of tools and machines most of my life, but I have never held in my hands anything as alien and awkward as that violin. The second violin part suddenly looked much less promising, and there being no call for a seventh or even an eleventh violin section, I packed the awkwardness of horse hair and cat gut back in its box. But I had, at least, given it a go.

My teacher – I am so grateful to him – was not the least concerned by my erratic flights of musical fancy, and simply suggested instead that I play Faux Bassoon. I’ve been practicing with the orchestra for just a few weeks now, entering an entirely new world of counting rests for a dozen bars, playing a flying run of semiquavers in very strange intervals, resting five counts, playing six and a half minims, and so on. The joy of being immersed right in the midst of this live, thrumming, beautiful sound is overwhelming.

Just a few minutes more and I will be sitting two chairs away from the oboist, and I will play the bass part for Gabriel’s Oboe, the haunting, glorious Enrico Moriconi piece from The Mission. The orchestra, our orchestra, will play ten pieces. It will be euphoric, I wish you were here…

And suddenly the audience is quiet, something is about to happen.



Can you see me in the back row?

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Atop a Mountain

Two years studying Baroque Recorder culminated last Friday in a student concert. A small affair really; about 20 students, most still at school; and an audience of mums and dads. I turned that upside down: parent performing and two of my children in the audience. A small affair, but …

… my goodness!

“There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.”

A highly inappropriate and profane use of Matthew’s description of Christ transfigured on the mountain, no doubt, but nothing comes to mind that captures so well the transporting, fulfilling thrill of that concert performance. It was a shining, glorious moment; time seemed suspended, and for days I walked on and on in the light of that moment.  In fact I can still immediately summon the brightness of the recital and bask in its joy.

Lest you think I am boasting too much; this will bring us all back to earth: Just a dozen bars into the first tricky phrases of a solo piece I stumbled badly, completely stopped playing, and apologised to the audience. Not classy at all. Fortunately my music teacher had drilled me in beginning the piece over and over from several different ‘rehearsal marks’ for just such a moment; and so I was able to pick up again and from then on the piece went very well. Except for one other little two year old detail.

My grandson was in the audience. In our home he often travels on my lap as I roll up and down the hall doing tasks about the house, so when I rolled down the aisle to take my place behind the music stand, he wanted to come too. Furthermore, at home when I play recorder I give him a plastic descant to toot along with (he’s very good!); and so during my solo piece he had two points of grievance with me.  As I played on after my false start I was vaguely aware in a minuscule pocket of concentration not required for music that my daughter was trying to keep him quite. I could vaguely see her, just above flights of semiquavers on the score, standing up with him and eventually walking straight toward me, turning left in front of the music stand, and leaving the room. On I played!

And the solo finished well. It was a technical piece, introduced with an enthusiastic preamble by my teacher in which he mentioned that the piece, Telemann’s Fantasia 1 for Recorder, is commonly chosen by students sitting for their A-Mus. examination. No pressure though…
Here it is, played by a master, Aldo Bova.

It really did go well, and it was well received. Towards the end of the piece I felt my concentration shift towards listening to the sound, rather than the technical task of creating it. I have heard musicians describe this experience of intense concentration seeming to move them to being observers of their own performance, sometimes even from above. The following day the teacher sent me the most generously worded review of my performance, which I won’t reveal, but which will stay with me as a gold medal of sorts.  Deeply satisfying.

Following the solo I played the bass part in two Telemann trios; one with another adult recorder student who is a highly accomplished sax player and teacher at the Conservatorium. He was brilliant, superb.

The great trouble with most mountains is that they seem to place themselves, for reasons I don’t understand, right beside valleys. So problematic! But not the mountain I am on. Perhaps it’s a Mesa, one of those enormous flat topped giants, and the cliff edge is out there somewhere, waiting for a careless step. But I think not. It was transfiguration, and it came not just from two years of daily, often lengthy instrument practice, nor from the tuition of an excellent teacher, nor from a generous audience – though all those things contribute. It was bigger than all of that. A flawless performance of a Telemann Fantasia performed in private would not have remotely the same reward. It interests me that Christ met his transfiguration in the company of three friends, and tellingly the heavenly voice speaks from above the mountain, “this is my beloved son…” Transfiguration, whiter that white, belongs in a myriad of different expressions to people who live, work and strive together; family, friends, community; combining talents and effort, pursuing something grand, discovering something boundless.


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Rejoice! from 2009

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