Ordinary Wednesday: Nature’s Hat-stand

Today would have been the 100th birthday of one of the most important people in my life: my maternal grandfather James Savage, known to his friends as Jim and to me and my cousins as Pep. Born in 1921 to an Irish Australian father and Scottish Australian mother, he grew up in working-class Sydney during the Depression, and the death of his father when he was nine due to the after-affects of mustard gas in the trenches of WWI saw his mother raise him and his two sisters alone with very little to live on. When she remarried and he clashed with his step-father he ran away to fight in WWII, flying in Number 10 Squadron with the RAAF. Returning to Sydney after the war, he eventually started working for a photographic company and as a result also became a respected photographer, especially for his architectural work for the National Trust. Forced to leave school young, he never realised his desire to be a History teacher but he inspired me with four of his great loves: history, great books, good tea (always Twinings) and photography.

My grandfather, inside the old copy of Ulysses that I inherited from him.

Pep piled photographic equipment on me like he showered me with books. He introduced me to Dickens, Orwell, Camus, Brave New World, Joyce and Hemingway. And he taught me something that never made sense to me at the time: a picture needs something to hang its hat on. An enthusiastic reader of early Richard Dawkins and angry at the Catholic Church of his childhood, Pep subscribed to the “blind watchmaker” view of the cosmos, but believed up to his death that God was love and saw order and beauty in nature that was not easily explained by his scientific determinism. The way I look at the world has my grandfather’s stamp on it. When I see a dazzling array of light and grab my phone to capture it, Pep has prompted that sense in me. When I photograph an interesting doorway or the curious shape of a tree, Pep again. He taught me to see all the places where God hangs His hat in the world’s form and wonder, though he would never have put it that way.

Bible scholar John Walton speaks of the seven days of creation as a process of God building a home for Himself. The first six days He spends ordering His home. On the seventh day, He comes inside, hangs up His hat, switches on the lights and puts His feet up. In every arm-like tree bough I see God carving a dwelling for Himself with us. I do not know where my grandfather stood before His creator when he died – in his last days he took great comfort in remembering the Lord’s Prayer – but I know that he taught me how to see God’s world with an eye attentive to beauty and order. And my faith is the richer for it.

Valedictions

Once the new year came
in a traffic jam, at Borneo's mouth,
when the crowds who'd fled early to escape the rush
now bid each other a happy one
between their cars across the street.

Another time it came while I
and a friend were lost in the midst of things,
driving from one house to another where
the champagne was chilled
and the view guaranteed.
Instead we drove
through a ditch and came
out at a set of lights where the lights
skipped across the shop rooftops.

Now I try convincing my
three boys that there's no party on,
while they fight through bedtime, crazed
from a day of irregular food and cars.
And where many can't wait to see it go
and say good riddance to the year that's been,
I suspect I'll say good night and catch
the fireworks from my sleep.

But after years and years and years
of deserts, each new year the same,
fighting to smile while others raved,
to see the evening slip to sleep
while my children slowly do the same,
I cannot say good riddance, only,
Thank You, thank You Lord.

Wednesday

Learning the names of days, my son
asks each morning for the signs that distinguish
one from the next: is this
the day the rubbish truck comes?
Does Dad go to work?
Is it music class today?
And this day, one without
any special markers, leaves me
bereft of news to give him, only
the name - Wednesday - and the thought
that days like this are needed, when
we simply live, and get on with life,
while trees do their daily work
and cells respirate, we too
find grace in the normal,
and the chance to try
again what we left
undone as yesterday's sun went down.
All this I cannot say, only
that these ordinary days
bring their own small gifts.

Avalon Sunrise

In memory of Kathleen Mary Savage, 1929-2020

Beside thistled paddocks I make my way,
sun nestled in grey,
faint light peeking through.
These paddocks contain
the means of my flight,
and when I arrive where the fruit trees grow
I shall see what's lost of home.

When final breath is breathed in the night
and what faces we knew
we scarce recognise,
when all that we've lost
is in memories of home,
we will return, though some
shall not.

And when the clouds part into light,
shall we see what the morning brings?
A grandmother young,
a conquering king?
In thistled paddocks,
still tied to ground,
the flight has not shown
what one day will be shown.

But this we know: the fighting shall cease
and when we set foot once more on ground
we shall be young among apple trees
and love upon love will return.

Advent 21: Neither slumber nor sleep

In a creaking house for family feasting, I sat
as summer light streamed through leadlight doors and
cracks in curtains,
fairy lights twinkling on pine tree while
I rocked my youngest, disrupted by
the change of place, his older
brother’s noise and the stubborn light,
and tried to make a darkness conducive
to an eight-month child’s much-needed sleep,
and fancied the Father
keeping vigil by my fretful side
neither slumbering nor sleeping
until true day arrives.

And so this is Advent

Today is the first Sunday of Advent – and of a new church year! Having just launched my book “The Swelling Year”, I’m a little behind in my own plans for how to mark the season here at The Consolations of Writing, but I thought I’d begin by sharing some of my favourite Advent resources for those who are on the lookout for a devotional resource for themselves or their families.

1. Names of Jesus Advent Calendar (from Sweet Honeycomb)

This gorgeous hand-made calendar is a lovely alternative to chocolate and Santa. Each day, turn over a number to see a name for Jesus and read a passage relating to it. You also get daily devotionals emailed to you with online purchase. Great for families or individuals alike.

2. Biola University Centre for Christianity, Culture and the Arts’ Advent Project

Twice a year these people do a seasonal devotional series, in Lent and Advent. They combine art, music, poetry and scripture to create a visceral devotional experience that I always appreciate.

3. Young Oceans – “Advent” album

Many bands claim to release Advent albums that are basically Christmas albums. There’s a few that capture the longing that Advent is all about. This is one of the best.

4. Walter Wangerin Jr – Preparing for Jesus

Wangerin is a gifted storyteller, especially when it comes to capturing the magical everydayness of the Bible story. These devotions open up the many stories contained in the Advent story in delightful and profound ways.

5. Rachel Mann – In the Bleak Midwinter: Through Advent and Christmas with Christina Rossetti

This one is brand new for Advent 2019. I’m just about to start it so can’t vouch for it entirely. But I know Rossetti well enough to be confident.

Know some other great resources? Drop me a comment to let me know. I’d love to hear about them.

Meanwhile, have a blessed Advent everyone. Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus.

The dishes you will always have with you

and the laundry, piled up
in crevices and corridors as though to say,
“You can hide me, but you cannot do without me.”
Toys underfoot and books scattered wide
amongst other toddler treasures:
a measuring cup, a rooster,
a brochure considered la mode before
some other fancy flitted through the growing mind.
Some things are permanent, like
dishes, some new –
an Amen! after grace.
Unsettled nights and
teary mornings only serve to say
that all this may pass, but God
it is good that it finds me at all.

Learning Father (II): For Eli

…it was I who taught Ephraim to walk…
(Hosea 11:3)

In truth, I teach this child very little.
So much is sheer instinct, determination,
what HR would call “get up and go”.
But there’s little of HR, more of
the deep-sea diver
or the alchemist at his art,
to how this small enthusiast takes
to his knees, then feet, then –
where next?
I did not teach him this.
No, this has a deeper logic,
one taught to joints and sinews,
flowing in marrow, raising from soil
to soul, teaching the human spirit
to walk.
Best is the Father who says, Let it Be, and all Is.
Best the Father who teaches Baby Father me
to bounce the pensive child and sing
a song in the night for dreams.
For I too, often reduced to a crawl,
must also learn, down in the sinews and the marrows of the self
the truth that says, Rise up and walk.

Poetry for new dads

Grand plans will have to wait.
Time works differently here:
sometimes it hums,
sometimes skips, sometimes
vanishes.
You will think, “There’s a thought;
I’ll write about that-”
Only – catch the thought, before
nappies and necessity
make it dissipate
in baths at 8
and all that joy – the total joy
that nonetheless necessitates
that all grand plans will have to wait.
At end of day, the poem is this:
the breathing child
upon the chest.
Catch the moment while you can:
stardust spark in the grandest plan.