Portrait of Saint Dominic (Meister Eckhart), 1515. Fine Art Images / Getty Images

“If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.”
― Meister Eckhart

Walk into any newsagent and you are likely to find a ‘Gratefulness Journal’, to record what you are grateful for each day. This might be feeling thankful for the important relationships in your life or the small, often overlooked, details such as noticing a bee land on a flower. It is a centering practice to help us focus on the beauty of life rather than fixate on our tribulations.

While it may look as if this is a fad which has come to us from the positive psychology movement, there is a far longer and much deeper history to consider. Gratefulness has been a religious practice for eons and not just in the Christian faith. It is present in Buddhism, in Judaism and Islam.

While it is easy to be grateful for the wonderful things we come across in life, it requires a much deeper practice to be grateful for our trials. When tragedy strikes or when things simply don’t go our way, it is difficult to see what to be grateful for. How can you be grateful for the death of a loved one or bushfires burning out of control? These are questions which have plagued humanity from time immemorial.

This is where I turn to people like Viktor Frankl and Etty Hillesum who have gone through the most horrific ordeals and could still be thankful for the small joys in their life. Viktor Frankl survived Hitler’s concentration camps, but Etty Hillesum didn’t.

My lived experience has been so much easier than theirs, but I too have had my share of grief and sorrow, as no doubt you have too. I look to Viktor and Etty and to people such as Brother David Steindl-Rast for spiritual guidance. I admire their resilience and depth of practice in difficult times. If Etty could be grateful for the beauty of life whilst in a concentration camp, I can be grateful for the small irritations that assail me daily.

This morning, late for work, I found I had a flat tyre. My first instinct was to curse and be annoyed. I drove to the local mechanic who kindly pumped it up so I could get to the next town where there was a tyre shop. Once there, I couldn’t be helped until much later in the day but I had to get to work. I took my chances and drove the 100km on what I thought was a dodgy tyre. I then left my car at a tyre shop expecting to get a whopping bill that I couldn’t afford. Instead, I was told that the problem was simply a valve, and it had been fixed when it was inflated by the mechanic. No charge.

Looking back, was I feeling stressed this morning? Of course I was! Did I get to work late? Yes! Was I grateful for all the people who helped me? Absolutely! I wanted nothing more but to say a heartfelt thank you to my colleague who was willing to cover for me, to the mechanic in my village who pumped up the tyre, to the salespeople in Cowra who wouldn’t charge me for their inspection. From what I perceived to be a miserable start to my day, I can only look back with gratitude to friends and strangers who have helped me along the way.

I strive to be thankful for each day and for whatever it may bring. I am grateful for my existence, that chance event that has bought me into this world. I know my life is but a brief flicker in the expanse of time and I am ever so grateful to have been given the opportunity to shine for that briefest moment that is mine.

Tap dancing

I’m always up for something crazy. When my friend Kellie asked me to join her in tap dancing lessons, I decided to play Cinderella. She had bought a pair of tap shoes that were too small for her.

‘If your shoes fit me, I’ll come,’ I said.

They fitted perfectly.

I went along to the first lesson trying to work out my left from right, and when I did, the others were already five steps ahead. I did my best attempting to imitate the shuffle, scuff and ball-change, often on the wrong foot, in the wrong tempo and in the wrong direction. Still, it was fun. At least until I attempted a brush and step on the highly polished wooden floor. I fell backwards, landing on my rear end before the force of acceleration did the rest. My head hit the floor with a thump. While everyone around me ran to my aid, I was on the floor in fits of laughter – my usual reaction to embarrassment and pain. The following week, I bought rubber grips which I fitted behind the alloy taps. Much better!

As each week went past, I remembered more of the steps. While I still need to watch the teacher like a hawk, I am getting better. At least I understand the instructions now, even if I can’t yet follow them with much precision. But I am learning, and the electrical impulses in my brain are venturing into regions they haven’t explored in decades. As a teacher, it is good to be reminded of the cognitive overload students can experience when presented with considerable amounts of new information.

Our dance instructor, Jaz, is a petite powerhouse who teaches ballet, tap, Jazz and for all I know, could just as easily teach breakdancing. She segues from one dance style to another without missing a beat and her mission is to ensure that her classes are accessible to all students. Is it any wonder that she won the prestigious award of Dance Australia’s Regional Hero?

‘I can find a work around for almost anything,’ is her motto. By this she means that she can modify dance steps so that everyone can participate. She is passionate about dance, teaching and inclusion and never turns anyone away.

Will I ever become really good at tap dancing? I doubt it. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Every Tuesday night, I head up to the local hall, spend time with my friend, get some exercise and improve my balance. I learn a few dance routines which I will probably never ‘perform’ and as a bonus, I get to have the best belly laughs when my feet take off from under me.

The graduation

My university days were spent walking from lecture halls to tutorials in the offices of academics, filled with chairs and beanbags, where small groups of students discussed ideas. We were challenged to think critically, pushed to do our best and always walked away with more questions to ponder.

I look back at these halcyon days and wonder what memories my daughter will have of her university life which, in part, was spent in a pandemic. She was lucky enough to have the first few years on campus before lockdowns entered our vocabulary. This gave her the freedom to explore subjects and courses before she found her true calling. She met students and lecturers, followed her heart, and eventually completed two degrees before embarking on her Honours year. Since Covid, however, she has had to attend lectures and tutorials on Zoom and has missed the face-to-face contact with her supervisor as well her fellow students.

I can’t imagine what that would be like for students who are just starting out at university and who have never known anything else but online learning. I do wonder whether there is a higher dropout rate since those social connections have been lost.

To her credit, my daughter persevered. She likes to finish what she has started, and I am amazed at her determination. Times have been tough, but she kept showing up and completing each assignment, even when she thought she had nothing left to give of herself.

Then there was the letdown. There have been no graduation ceremonies for the past two years, so instead of the Chancellor of the University, it was the postie who handed her the first two degrees. This year, finally, she could have her Honours Degree conferred at a graduation ceremony. It was done with all the medieval pomp and ceremony but with modern touches which included facemasks for all. Academics and graduands alike wore their regalia, including gowns, mortar boards or Tudor bonnets with hoods in the colours of their faculty. I loved watching the new graduates walk up in their academic dress, some with high heeled sparkling shoes, some in Doc Martens, while others wore their sneakers under the age-old attire. Then, as they tipped their hats, purple or pink hair made its appearance to reveal fashionable 21st century students under the ancient dress code. It made me smile to see them express their untamed individuality within the constraints of this formal occasion.

Then it was my daughter’s turn. I was so proud of her accomplishments as she made her way across the stage wearing her stepfather’s RM boots while thinking of her father whose heart would have swelled with pride. Sitting next to her boyfriend, my own heart felt ready to burst as we clapped enthusiastically the moment her name was called, and her achievements were listed.

She has done well. She has done very well. And so, I pray that the two wonderful men who graced our lives far too briefly, continue to guide, and nurture her along the way. As for me, I hope she stays true to herself and never stops listening to that wild call of her heart.

Seppi the crocodile man

My parents were refugees from Hungary. They left their home country in 1956 with my sister who was six at the time. She still remembers running through forests with gun fire echoing around her. They made it across the border to Austria where they were placed in a refugee camp. My parents never spoke about their experiences of 1956 in the same way they hardly ever spoke about the war years unless it was some amusing anecdote. Whatever happened then was in the past and there was an invisible red line drawn across the page to separate it from the present. Everyone in my family abided by this rule. It was only when I began to search for information of these years that I discovered that Luxembourg had accepted 250 Hungarian refugees. My parents and my sister would have been part of that elite group. This had happened four short years before I was born.

By 1957, Luxembourg could boast that the refugees they had accepted had quickly found permanent employment, specialising mainly in handicrafts. My father was one of these skilled workers. He quickly established himself as a leatherworker who could make bespoke leather handbags of the finest quality. By 1960, he had his own shop which he ran with a silent partner. It was one of the finest boutiques in Luxembourg, specialising in crocodile skin handbags.

The individually crafted handbags he made were placed ever so carefully in the shop window or hung from hooks along one of the wood-panelled walls. A large crocodile skin hung on the opposite side. I loved looking at that crocodile skin and the shapes I could see and feel when I ran my fingers along the bony scutes. I felt the bumpy ridges and smoothness in between. The skin was black and shiny and didn’t look anything like the small stuffed crocodile on the gramophone cabinet in our lounge room. That crocodile was a baby crocodile with short feet and sharp teeth. Its skin was a dull grey and quite bumpy to touch. It was a present from Seppi, the crocodile man.

Seppi only came once or twice a year to sell his crocodile skins and I couldn’t wait until he bounced into the living room, full of stories of the Sahara and the Nile. He spoke of faraway lands in Africa where he saw nothing but sand for days on end. When he was in Africa, he drove a jeep and hunted crocodiles. He told captivating stories about being thirsty and constantly almost running out of water. I sat on his lap and listened to his stories until they mixed with the stories I invented for him. When Seppi was away, I came up with my own adventures for him in that mythical place called Africa. Whenever I saw him, he always chewed gum and I began to save sticks of chewing gum I sometimes found on the kitchen table. I loved Seppi with all my heart and told him that I couldn’t wait to grow up and marry him. He laughed and said,

‘You’ll have to do a lot of growing, young lady,’

and gave me a bear hug before leaving on another one of his long trips. I often thought of Seppi chewing gum as he drove his jeep over sand dunes, looking for the next oasis. At night, I saw the crocodiles he would hunt, swimming in the river of my dreams.

Love Stories

Published by HarperCollins

Every now and then, I come across a book I wish I had written myself. Trent Dalton’s Love Stories is a book like that. It rests the simple idea that everyone has a love story to tell. His story starts with an act of love. A close friend’s mother dies and bequeaths a blue portable Olivetti typewriter on which she had typed thousands of letters of protest, determined to make the world a better place. He is touched by the love this woman has shown him and decides to use the typewriter to type up the ordinary stories of love which turn out to be extraordinary in their magnitude.

Dalton takes the typewriter into the heart of Brisbane and sits at a card table with a hand-written sign, asking passers by to share their love stories. And they do! Over a couple of months, he collects their stories, polishes these gems until they spark so much love that my heart aches and tears flow with equal measure of joy and grief.

I listened to the book on Audible on my long drives through the country travelling between schools. I have cheered for bold young lovers and cried at the sublime love stories of couples who have been together for longer than I have been alive. My heart has ached for those who had lost their loved ones and I remembered the men in my own life, whom I have loved just as fiercely.

I was struck by the eloquence of the men and women who spoke candidly about their deepest feelings, who bared their soul to a stranger with a typewriter so that their story could heard. I thank them for it. I fell in love with each one of them.

Dalton cleverly weaves his love for his own wife and children, extended family, and friends into the story. There’s no denying that the book is sentimental, but it is never syrupy or gushing. Anything but. What makes the love stories work is their honesty, however painful that may be. Difficulties are not glossed over, and pure joy isn’t reduced to clichés. The emotions are raw and real, beautiful and tragic, joyous and always, always life affirming.

This is book is a rare gem. Simple yet not simplistic and so full of love that I forgot about the cares of the world for the time that I spent at the magical place on the corner of Adelaide and Albert Streets with Trent Dalton at his Olivetti typewriter.

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