An unexpected step in a faith journey

So I went to a church conference for women last weekend.

For those of you who know me well, this is a fairly big deal for me. I have been out of a church environment for a long time, and am only just at the point of dipping a trepidatious little toe back in. I am at a point of having almost completely deconstructed my faith, only just starting to figure it out again in a way that makes sense to me. I have been, as Brene Brown says, in the wilderness, where I have been busy working out how I belonged to myself first, before I could take my place in a community of others.

So, yeah – when my beautiful Minister Ellie (also a dear and trusted friend) encouraged me to attend the Uniting Church Women’s Conference along with her, my initial reaction was – um, I don’t think so! But then I thought on it, and the idea kept nibbling at the edges of my mind, and I ended up saying I would go.

I had set the bar low. As long as no one cast any demons out of me or told me I had to submit to my husband, I’d be OK. (You may laugh – only I have had both these experiences at women’s conferences!) Ellie assured me neither of these things would happen (and I’m happy to report she was quite right).

And I can honestly say I really enjoyed it. I’m still processing my experience, but I thought I’d share some reflections.

I found like-minded people

I hung out with a group of women who discussed things like whether there was too much gendered language in the songs and prayers. I joined a group discussion on how faith can inform a non-fundamentalist view of sexuality. And another one on how complementarian theology intersects with domestic violence. I listened as First Nations women passionately talked about how reconciliation can never be divorced from justice. No topics or views were off limits. No one was rebuked for their opinion. No one felt like they had to control the discussion or the outcome. I felt like I could actually say what I thought. I felt like I could breathe.

I didn’t enjoy every single talk

Some of them I hung on every word, other speakers I didn’t connect with. And what was great about that experience was that it was completely OK to say that not every moment resonated, to vote with your feet, to leave a discussion or talk if it wasn’t for you, or you felt you weren’t contributing or learning.

Everyone’s voices were valued

In the official program, there was a thoughtful emphasis on hearing from a diversity of women, from all cultures, backgrounds and abilities, which I deeply appreciated. But then even in the small group discussions, there was a consciousness of ensuring we were thinking about issues from all perspectives. In one group, it was specifically called out that all of us currently participating in the discussion about a particular issue were white, heterosexual women, and how could we make space for the other voices that are often drowned out by our own.

What I appreciate about the Uniting Church is its commitment to unity in the midst of incredible diversity – from congregations which align themselves a more traditional, conservative theology, to the other end of the spectrum where the LGBTQI community are fully affirmed and embraced. It’s not an easy path, but I admire that these women are trying to walk it, and find strength and connection with each other in the midst of it all.

I’m glad I went, and I’m also looking forward to the next stage of this journey.

Love,

Em

 

Advertisements

What our children teach us

So much of parenthood is about what we teach our children: to be kind, to listen, to like vegetables (hmmm, maybe failing on that one) and to never, under any circumstances, leave those little pieces of Lego on the floor.

But I’ve been thinking lately about how reciprocal parenting is, and thought I’d share some of the things my kids have taught me.

Bookworm

There were so many delightful things about my baby Bookworm. He was super cute and loved books (obviously) and he was whip-smart – full sentences by the time he turned 18 months old. He had a fantastic sense of humour and he really liked day naps (hallelujah). But he was also very anxious and shy, and didn’t like unfamiliar environments or people. We didn’t go to playgroup much because it just wasn’t fun for me to have a child I was literally unable to put down on the floor (with all the other babies who were perfectly happy on the floor). I felt embarrassed every time people would come over, and he’d cry when they walked in the room. I hated the fact that sometimes other people couldn’t see how funny and gorgeous he was, because he would struggle to talk to them, or even look at them. I was young when I had Bookworm – 25 years old – and still very much in the stage of working myself out. I was also in an incredibly judgemental environment, where any deficiency in your child was seen as a reflection on you – like, your baby cries when you leave the room? Clearly your fault for never leaving them with a babysitter/leaving them too much/no daycare/too much daycare  blah blah blah. I knew I shouldn’t care what other people thought, but I did. I wished he was different. I wanted him to be one of the “normal” kids who was running around playing, not cowering on my lap. I was feeling pretty upset about it one day, and asked my mother what I should do about it; how I could change what was happening. And my lovely Mum said, “I just think it’s really important that you don’t emotionally abandon him.” It really struck me, and turned my thinking round about (and right side up). I stopped agonising about what I could do to change him – and started changing myself. By accepting him just the way he was, I let go of feeling like we had to meet anyone else’s expectations.

I’m not saying it happened overnight – I still fall into the trap of caring too much what others think. But I’m much better at it now, and I think it’s because Bookworm was sent to me to teach me the lesson.

Picasso

Ah, Picasso. It’s true that the extra difficult kiddoes are also extra gorgeous. My Picasso is exactly like a bear. At times so soft and snuggly, you melt for him. He’s sweet and sensitive and kind and gives you these long, still hugs that are just delicious. And then at other times he’s just so completely intractable. Unmoving, some would say. Stubborn. He’s the kind of person that won’t just accept what you say – he has to know it for himself. The fact that there’s a rule doesn’t mean it’s a rule he has to agree with. The fact you say the bike is too big to fit in the car doesn’t mean he just accepts the fact that you’re a grown up and know that the bike is too big to fit in the car. He has to KNOW that the bike doesn’t fit in the car. He has to waste half an hour trying everything to fit the bike in the car. Only then will he accept that the bike doesn’t fit in the car (in the meantime you’ve had a frustrated meltdown). He has taught me, I guess, about power and respect. He’s not the sort of child you can say “just do it because I told you so.” He needs explanations. And while this is sometimes really, really frustrating, I’m also glad that he’ll be a person who will need to discover things for himself, and not just blindly accept what he’s told. I love that about him – it’s just a difficult characteristic to parent sometimes. Picasso certainly has taught me a lot about patience.

Little Miss

There’s just something about Little Miss that makes your heart smile. She is always dancing or singing, or doing handstands or making something for the fairies; she fills up every second of her life, always brimming with enjoyment of the moment.

With the boys, I could sneak in work emails or a conversation with a friend while they were drawing or playing blocks. This never worked with Little Miss. It just wouldn’t do. If she was drawing, WE had to draw. If we had a conversation, she’d literally grab my face in her hands and make me look into her eyes. We had to ENGAGE. If I was cooking, she was cooking too, and that’s ALL we were doing. She delights in everything she does, and she does everything wholeheartedly. She has taught me so much about being present.

I’ll be honest – I really struggle with this. I don’t know if it’s a personality thing, or a hangover from having worked in media for so long – I naturally want achieve about 18 things at once before breakfast. A friend once told me I have a “very fast tempo”. It’s hard to slow down and just be present in the moment. But I’m so glad Little Miss has helped (and is still helping) me do this.

 

I’d love to hear what your little people have taught you 🙂

miss

Manifesto of a 7-year-old

Little Miss has of late really taken to writing. She’ll write lists, stories, poems and notes, but what I love most are these little ‘manifestos’ that she writes – her heartfelt thoughts about how the world should be. I thought I would share one with you – see below. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all embraced this?

image

Nha Trang and Da Lat

After Hoi An, we caught a plane to Nha Trang. This was around the mid-point of our journey and so we thought a few days relaxing near the beach would be a nice rest, and it was, although the weather let us down a little. I’d read a few posts and forums with tourists decrying Nha Trang as a sleazy tourist destination, but while you certainly don’t see “real’ Vietnam, it was a nice spot to relax. It is true however that you can’t walk about 5 metres without falling over a Russian! There are plenty of activities to enjoy in Nha Trang – parasailing, scuba diving, snorkelling and jet skiing to name a few  – but most of these are not really for kids, so we didn’t do too much. Here are some of the things we enjoyed:

Cham temples

Built sometime before 781, the Cham temple is dedicated to Yan Po Nagar, the goddess of the country, who came to be identified with two Hindu goddesses, and who in Vietnamese is called Thiên Y Thánh Mâu. The temple was interesting, although some of the restoration work has been pretty poorly done, which is a shame.

The beach and Central Park

The main tourist stretch on the beach is called Central Park, and there is a pretty cool set of pools right opposite the beach. You can rent a chair for about $5 for the day and just divide your time between the beach and the pools. The boys enjoyed the beach, although December is not the best season for swimming – its pretty churned up and Little Miss did not like it much – but they all loved the pools. I think we are pretty spoilt with our beaches in Oz 🙂

Vinpearl Amusement and Water Park

Built on an island just off Nha Trang’s coast by a Vietnamese billionaire, Vinpearl is a resort and a huge amusement and water park. It’s not cheap by Asian standards but well worth a visit with kids. We spent a day there and still didn’t do all of the rides and activities. The kids particularly loved the water park, and there were really good water slides for all ages. I even did some! Also, you get there by cable car from the mainland which is heaps of fun.

Da Lat

After Nha Trang, it was a taxi ride up the mountains and into Da Lat. When we were refining our itinerary, we nearly dropped Da Lat – we have packed a LOT of travelling into the Vietnam leg of this trip, and I wondered if Da Lat was an extra stop that would push it a bit too far for the kids. I am SO GLAD we didn’t! We just loved Da Lat. The city was built by the French in the early 1900s in beautiful alpine country, and so the city has quite a European feel. The cooler climate means there are gorgeous flowers and gardens everywhere. There is a lot of interesting cultural history too, with many minority groups in the area. I think though what made Da Lat so awesome was an Easy Rider day-tour we did with local guide Hung. This was probably the best day we’d had, and I think Da Lat was the perfect place to do it. The highlights for me on the day trip were:

Datanla Falls

The Elephant Falls are more impressive, but these smaller falls had an alpine roller coaster you could ride to and from the falls, which is the best thing ever. There was also an archery range which we all thought was pretty cool.

Coffee Plantation and Silk Factory

Da Lat has coffee plantations everywhere, and it was very interesting to learn more about the coffee making process. And even more interesting was visiting a coffee house where the beans are passed through a weasel’s digestive tract before being used! We even tried a cup – I quite liked it 🙂 Seeing the silk factory was awesome as well – I hadn’t realised it takes 8kg of cocoons to make just 1kg of silk. it was fascinating to see the process and how the silk is spun from the cocoon – and I also liked that nothing is wasted. The silkworms inside the cocoons (who are boiled during the silk making process!) are used for cooking, and the silk that is not of good enough quality to use in cloth is used for stuffing pillows.

The Crazy House

I could try and describe the Gaudi-inspired Crazy House, but a picture is worth a thousand words:

IMG_3320

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is truly Alice In Wonderland-esque, a wild mass of wood and wire fashioned into the shape of a giant tree house and smoothed over in concrete, with hundreds of tiny winding staircases and little odd rooms. The eccentric owner/proprietor and chief architect, is Ms. Dang Viet Nga, daughter of aristocracy, with a degree in architecture from university in Moscow. Needless to say this was a total hit with the kids! Truly crazy and wonderful at the same time.

If anyone out there is considering a trip to Vietnam, a highly recommend a stop in Da Lat!

Things to do in Hanoi the whole family will love

So I’ve decided to do some travel blog type posts to inspire you to visit Vietnam 🙂 We really loved Hanoi and I think it’s a great city to get your feet wet in this very large and complex country. Here are some of the activities and sights we really enjoyed.

The Old Quarter

Definitely stay in the Old Quarter near Hoan Kiem Lake. Here you get the best atmosphere and streets – crazy traffic, sidewalks cluttered with people selling food, cooking, washing, riding bikes, welding metal – tons of market stalls selling everything you could possibly imagine. Some streets are dedicated solely to one type of item and are aptly named – for example, “shoe” or “toy” street. Lots of fun to look around, although the manic pace will get tiring for young kids after a while. We found a great cafe and sat on a second-storey balcony sipping passionfruit juice just watching it all go by.

The Water Puppet Theatre

The kids LOVED this. We went to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre (located at the Hoan Kiem Lake) which is probably pricey, seeing how you can see it for free at various places including the Museum of Ethnology. But I think it was worth it because the show we saw was inside and they could do more with fireworks and lights and other effects. And anyway the tickets were less than $6 each – so cheap as chips really.

Hoan Kiem Lake

This is a beautiful lake and has the Temple of the Jade Mountain (worth a visit) and the Turtle Tower. Its nice to just walk around as well, especially at night when it’s all lit up.

Museum of Ethnology

It might sound dry as dust but this is a fascinating place as it contains both indoor and outdoor exhibits detailing the history and culture of the 54 ethnic groups which comprise Vietnam. The kids really enjoyed the outdoor exhibits – reconstructions of the types of houses various ethnic groups lived in, like this one:

IMG_0423

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Truly fascinating. And right over the road is…

Cong Vien Nghia Do Park

A fantastic park in Hanoi. The kids loved it here. It has a beautiful lake, a clean and huge play area with lots of equipment, including a zipline, and motorised cars for hire for less than $1 each. It was a good way to spend a few hours and let the kids burn off some energy.

Thu Le Park 

We drove by this park on our way elsewhere and hilariously could not find out how to get back there for some time. We initially thought it was Lenin Park and went there (much to the surprise of the taxi driver), but that was pretty disappointing as it was just a square with a statue of Lenin (although it did lead to some fascinating conversations with the kids about Communism). Anyway we finally found the right place and it was great, although I will say I found the zoo a little sub-standard, which I guess is to be expected (it was hard seeing the tigers in such a small cage). Loads of rides, roller coasters, paddle boats etc etc all for about a dollar each. Little Miss was asked to pose for photos with tourists everywhere she went and one Chinese couple asked Souljourneyboy if he would hold their baby for a photograph! Oddly, we saw hardly any western tourists.

Hoa Lo prison

Nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by American POWs during the Vietnam War (or the American War as it is called in Vietnam), the prison was initially used by French colonists for Vietnamese political prisoners, and is now a museum.

It details the lives, torture methods and barbaric practices of the French against the Vietnamese and is probably not for young kids. Ours were OK, although I did keep Little Miss out of the room which houses the guillotine used for executions. Picasso and Bookworm were old enough to handle it and again, the visit lead to interesting and important conversations. There is one room dedicated to explaining how the Vietnamese treated their American prisoners which is propaganda at its finest. If you believed the DVD that was playing it would be hard to see why any Americans wanted to go home, as they were treated so well as POWs 🙂

Night Markets

To be honest you can probably get better souvenir type items at the regular day shops but nothing beats the atmosphere of a night market. The kids absolutely loved it and Souljourneyboy even tried some street food.

Halong Bay

Even though this is some hours from Hanoi, most people visit Halong from Hanoi as a two-day one night or two-night side-trip. Absolutely spectacular. The limestone caves were amazing, as was sailing around the floating fishing villages in bamboo boats. The cruise ship we were on also had fun things like a cooking class where the kids learned to make Vietnamese spring rolls, and a spa where I had a massage – winner. We were glad though we just did the one-night trip, I think with the kids that was enough. And we also made some really nice friends – a couple of fellow Aussies who were travelling from Melbourne.

All in all, we really enjoyed Hanoi. I think I really liked that it was a nice way to start – you don’t get hassled so much by people trying to sell you things, so you can ease into it slowly. Souljourneyboy and I would have liked to have seen the The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum but travelling with kids sometimes means you have to choose the park over the museum 🙂

If anyone else has travelled to Hanoi, I’d love to hear your favourite spots!

Watching, reading and playing

I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve been doing lately.

I’ve been watching HBO drama Oz. While it’s over a decade old now, really good scripting doesn’t age, and Oz is a testament to brilliant writing.

 If I could describe this show in a word, it would be “relentless”. Relentlessly good. Relentlessly violent and confronting. Relentlessly bleak and tragic and uplifting and astonishing. It was the first of the HBO dramas that broke the traditional television mold – paving the way for shows like Game of Thrones – and I think it remains the best.

If there’s any setting which truly allows for a deep exploration of themes like love, hate, redemption, forgiveness and punishment, it’s prison – here we see life at its most raw, stripped of all civility. There were times throughout the 6-season show that I wondered if the portrayal of sex, gangs and violence was over-fictionalised – and then I watched a Louis Theroux documentary about life in a maximum security prison. I was disturbed to see that there was actually not very much creative license taken at all in Oz.

Probably the most astounding aspect of the show is its brilliant characterization. In Oz there are no grabs for audience sympathy – these prisoners are guilty, some of heinous crimes. They are violent and murderous and manipulative – we are fully aware of who these men really are; and yet, we are dared to see the humanity as well as the crime. It’s disturbing and unsettling as we are forced past our mental attempts to categorize and stereotype.

I read an article where Dean Winters, who plays scheming manipulator Ryan O’Reilly (incidentally my favourite character) said that once an actor begins to play a character to win audience sympathy, they fail to be true to that character. None of the characters in Oz are played sympathetically – they are brutal and violent and at times sociopathic. And yet we are drawn into their lives and care about what happens to them.

Oz isn’t easy to stomach – but if you can, its well worth it.

I’ve also been reading Gone Girl.

I seem to have this habit of buying popular books in the bookstore just before they become popular. I did it with Twilight, then Hunger Games, and now Gone Girl, which I purchased being blissfully unaware it was about to become a bestseller and a Ben Affleck movie. I’m actually glad, because it gave me a chance to read the book without any preconceived ideas. And I really enjoyed Gone Girl. The writing is so taught– incredibly descriptive and yet not an unnecessary word throughout the whole novel. The plot thrummed along at a cracking pace and I found myself wanting to skip ahead several times to “see what happens” because I couldn’t stand the tension. I also found myself reflecting in quiet moments on the novel’s central theme – the idea of whether you can truly every really know anyone. I highly recommend you read the book before the movie comes out.

And, finally, I have been playing a lot of chess. Bookworm is obsessed with this game at the moment, and I’m sad to say I’m not able to beat him anymore. He recently went to a chess tournament and won the bronze medal. And now he says things like “I’ve got you in a pin and a fork” and I have no idea what that means, only that I am about to lose. I really have to brush up on my skills, otherwise he’s going to get cocky 🙂

I’d love to hear what others have been reading and watching – any good books or shows or games to share?

 

Girl power

I’ve been on a bit of a Veronica Mars marathon over the past week. For those of you who don’t know the show, it aired about 10 years ago and ran for three seasons – they’ve just brought out a movie that ties up all the loose ends of the show and puts to rest all of the questions us die-hard fans had (like – who finally gets the girl? 🙂 ) It’s about a kick-ass chick who helps her Dad in his private eye business. Anyway, it got me thinking about fictional girls/women who I think rock – and why. Like Anne of Green Gables, Elizabeth Bennett (Pride and Prejudice), Lynda Day (Press Gang), Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Max Guevara (Dark Angel), C.J Cregg (West Wing),  Jo March (Little Women)  and, of course, Veronica Mars. I hear you ask – what on earth do Anne of Green Gables and Buffy the Vampire Slayer have in common? I’m glad you asked – because I’ve come up with a list.

They’re smart.

Whether it’s book smart or street smart, these girls know the value of using their minds to get ahead. They’re not afraid to graduate top of their class, solve the problem before anyone else, or back themselves when everyone else thinks they’re wrong. Anne took competitive to a whole new level when she was facing down Gilbert Blythe to come first at Queen’s Academy. CJ backed herself against all her male counterparts time and time again, more often than not proving them wrong – and eclipsed them all in Season Six to be named Chief of Staff to the President. Elizabeth Bennet knew the value of literature in “refining the mind” and Veronica’s whip-smart intellect regularly solved the case and brought in the bad guy before anyone else had got out of bed. They all knew that being smart gets you where you need to go.

They’re funny.

Humour looks good on a girl. I loved, loved, loved Lynda Day’s acerbic wit and piercing sarcasm. Every time she faced off against Spike it was pure scriptwriting joy. Veronica and Max’s sassy come-backs helped them get the better of hundreds of bone-headed dim wits who tried to knock them down. And Buffy’s one-liners were an integral part of her vampire-slaying armoury. In a gentler fashion, Anne, Jo and Elizabeth all knew  how to see the humorous side of life, no matter how grim the circumstances.

They’re self-assured

One thing that really breaks my heart is seeing what happens to some girls as they become teenagers. These bright, fearless young women who bossed their brothers and bubbled with confidence suddenly crumble under the pressure of bikini bridges, perfect skin and the need to be popular. What I LOVE about each and every one of my heroines is that they couldn’t give a damn about being popular or living up to someone else’s expectations. That isn’t to say they didn’t care about other people’s opinions – I’m always suspicious of platitudes that proclaim we “shouldn’t care what others think”. I know people who live their lives like that, and they’re not very nice people. I wish they would pay a bit more attention to what others thought of them, they’d probably become a bit more self-aware. But what I love about these girls is that they stayed true to their own selves despite the forceful current of the crowd. Elizabeth refused to marry Mr Collins when everyone thought she should, and married Mr Darcy when everyone thought she shouldn’t. Lynda Day continued to publish controversial stories despite being ordered otherwise by the powers-that-be. Veronica brushed off the cruelty of those around her and the pressure to conform in her pursuit of truth. And Anne knew better than to care what the Josie Pyes of the world thought about her.  More than anything I hope for Little Miss, I hope she never lets herself be defined by others.

They’re not all about the boy

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE a romance narrative. All kinds of stories – action, thriller, sci-fi – should have a romance in there somewhere, in my humble opinion. But when I was thinking about all my fictional heroines, I realised they all – every single one of them – did not pursue romance as their primary objective. CJ was too busy running the world, and Buffy too busy saving it. Elizabeth, Anne and Jo were far more interested in their own lives and interests to be setting themselves the rather mundane task of finding husbands. Lynda Day was doggedly in pursuit of her life’s ambitions to worry about dating, and Max and Veronica had to really try hard to find time to squeeze in any romance between catching bad guys and getting on with their lives. I know I probably don’t have much a right to talk about this issue – after all, I found Souljourneyboy at 16, and married him at 21. I don’t know what singleness is like, and it probably looks like I was one of those girls who grabbed onto a relationship and marriage as soon as it became available. But to be honest it really took me by surprise when it happened to me at such a young age. I grew up thinking  I’d finish school, move overseas, travel, have a career – I honestly thought I’d probably meet someone in my late twenties or early thirties, like my Mum did. Anyway I don’t think it’s an age thing, but an attitude thing – when I was little I was far more interested in my potential career than when I’d find a boyfriend or husband.   I’ll always tell Little Miss – don’t make your life about finding the boy/man. You miss out on so much.

So that’s my list – why I love these super cool chicks. I’m sure you’ve all got your favourite heroines – I’d love to hear about them 🙂