The Golden Rule of Christmas

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.  Maya Angelou.

A new year begins.

There is a wonderful book by Anne Tyler, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and that title describes how I often feel when Christmas comes round each year. Having been imprinted on a cold, snowy Christmas for years as a child, I have now, for many, many years  been living in a climate where Christmas is usually sweltering hot and somehow it still never does feel quite ‘right’.  For me, along with the current joys, this time of year is also always a time of unexplained ‘homesickness’ of Christmases past.

This Christmas was special with a new baby and a toddler to share the joys of our family’s Christmas and it is comforting to know that I am now contributing to the future memories of these little people …and how important it is in making good lifetime memories of love and happiness of how Christmas is supposed to ‘feel’, just as I experienced with my family all those years ago when I was a toddler having my first Christmases.

It seems to be popular nowadays for people to denounce religion and wear their atheism as some sort of badge of courage or perhaps, identity. Meanwhile, Time Magazine has declared Pope Francis as the Person of the Year in its annual feature issue for the closing of 2013.

And Christmas, too, seems to have a life outside religion with these declared atheists joining in Christmas cheer, Christmas holidays and Christmas gift giving. So far, Christianity is holding its own against the political correctness that tries to remove Christmas cheer from our classrooms and streetscapes in some sort of misguided attempt to sacrifice a country’s religious customs for fear they will ostracize non-Christians.

We went to the children’s Christmas Eve service of our local church. It was a lovely hour of children re-telling the Christmas story with humour and good will, and the church was packed with people and families of all ages, and all colours in a welcoming environment of Christian song, prayer and fellowship. It felt good to be there. It’s hard to explain but there is a ‘niceness’ to that experience. I felt sorry for the many little children in today’s society who won’t get a chance to experience a church service because their parents will never take them.

At the end of the day, religion is not about hellfire and brimstone, or about insisting that religious parables must take precedence over scientific fact. Religion is more about teaching the ethic of reciprocity, the golden rule that we should treat others as we would like them to treat us.

My daily newspaper today had a disturbing story about the rising statistics of primary school aged children now involved in crime in our State, from graffiti to theft, arson, home invasions, even a murder. The worrying statistics are being blamed by poor parenting, violent video games and children growing up ‘too fast’ with adult concepts.

There seems to be an anger, an unrest, and a spitefulness across much of our society and I think the golden rule goes a long way towards addressing this dilemma. We need to give kids (and adults, too) the skills to get outside of their own heads and understand the feelings of other people so that they can understand and relate to the consequences of their actions.

In my community we have pathways and roads that have to be simultaneously shared by pedestrians, cyclists and cars. If all these groups approach their journey with the golden rule in mind, I suspect we would not have the element of selfish rudeness and recklessness that sometimes occurs.

In my community we have wonderful playgrounds for children to enjoy. One day I had to go to three different playgrounds to avoid ignorant dog owners exercising their dogs  and ignoring the signs which declare their pets should be on a lead at all times. If these people were familiar with the golden rule they would instantly appreciate that their pet should be on a lead with small children present at a playground.

It’s now a new year and it holds a wealth of promise for us all.

Let’s be grateful that our hearts can hold love, let’s try to listen and learn more than we ‘tell’, let’s be good parents, grandparents and friends, and let’s always do unto others as we would have them do unto ourselves in the cathedral of our being.

As the piece of string gets shorter as we travel life’s many roads, let’s move away from those self-centred people who are only about themselves, focussed only on their own achievements and needs, and instead find the many kind, truthful, and thoughtful people who are driven by ideas, creativity , helping  and sharing with others.

Let’s identify the ‘good people’ in our lives and then try and help our little people create the qualities those good people have.

Oh would some power the gift to give us, to see ourselves as others see us.

Robert Burns, poem To a Louse

Jan Smith

Calling in Well

There was an endearing 1980s novel Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins which remains unlike any other novel I have read since then.

The late singer songwriter Dan Fogelberg was inspired by this book to write his song  ‘Make Love Stay’, the group La Dispute wrote a song ‘One’ which consists of quotes from the novel, and the Drew Barrymore character is reading this book over and over each morning over breakfast in the comedy/romance film, 50 First Dates.

All these years later, passages from it are still quoted http://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/1105809-still-life-with-woodpecker

Woodpecker was written at the tail end of the LSD generation and in an age when people were more comfortable surfing their own minds than they are in today’s internet-friendly age.

I haven’t read the book since the 1980s and am reluctant to revisit … it is a bit like not wanting to go back to a place for fear that what delighted you then will leave you cold now – or worse — what you remember is not really what is there. This happened to me when I re-read The World According to Garp by John Irving, which was written around the same time as Woodpecker. The ending of the Garp book was not at all the way I remembered it to be, turns out I had rewritten a much ‘happier’ ending in my mind’s eye!

However, several of the many quirky sayings of Woodpecker have stayed with me, including Calling in Well. Robbins tells his readers he knows about calling in sick, but asks us to one day consider Calling in Well.

At this time of year, of holiday peace and goodwill and New Year promises, it is timely to remember that we all have the ability to ‘call in well’ and change our landscape.

Life is short so don’t waste time on negative or mean-spirited people. Call in Well to those people!

At a neighbourhood party the other day, several people were perturbed by a newsletter that was being circulated by a local councillor, full of opinionated misinformation that this man is renowned for distributing. I keep wondering if this fellow can possibly get shallower, and he never fails with yet another example.

This man is not going to change and, as I saw at this party, people were genuinely annoyed and unhappy with him. So what is the point of this?

Our local community should just call in well, vote him out of office and let their conversation be full of fun, imagination, ideas and inspiration rather than be drawn into a web of  negativity.

I provide this Tom Robbins quote for the councillor:

If you believe in peace, act peacefully; if you believe in love, acting lovingly; if you believe every which way, then act every which way, that’s perfectly valid – but don’t go out trying to sell your beliefs to the system. You end up contradicting what you profess to believe in, and you set a bum example. If you want to change the world, change yourself.

I provide this Tom Robbins quote for the rest of us who are letting ourselves get drawn into the councillor’s web:

We are our own dragons as well as our own heroes, and we have to rescue ourselves from ourselves.

For myself, I find it far better to smile and think a happy thought and Tom Robbins gave me pages and pages of that more than 30 years ago.

I thank Robbins for that – it stays with me.

Jan Smith

LOVE AMONG THE RUINS

When is enough, enough?

A few news stories these past weeks and a swag of emails debating the rights of an ageing building have aroused a strange synergy, for me, with the on-going euthanasia debate, narrowly defeated yet again, this time in Tasmania.

In the 1990s I wrote passionately for our politicans to support euthanasia in a letter in a national newspaper and was amazed at the responses I received far and wide, even overseas, from people who agreed.

My father had just died, at the time.

There is a black humour joke that goes something like this:

A man goes to his doctor and the doctor  says, Do you want the good news or the bad news, first?  The patient says whichever comes first. Well, says the doctor, you have terminal cancer but the good news is, you also have Alzheimer’s, so you will forget about both after I’ve told you.

That was the fate of my father, and I can assure you it was not a happy, nor a forgetful, ending for those of us who loved him. I still ache with the remorse that someone who had led such a kind, generous and distinguished life had to leave the world in such undignified and unkind circumstances.  The long years of being a handsome pipe smoker had come at a terrible price. The doctors had pushed my mother to buy time, what turned out to be less than four months, with disfiguring and pointless mouth and jaw surgery to avoid ‘the stench of rotting cancer’, yet his nurses were still lighting candles in his room to cut the stench in his last days when we visited the confused stranger we still called, ‘Dad’. My mother had a brave and positive few more years, but when alone churned herself inside out that it was she who had somehow let him down, no matter how we reassured her. She died within weeks of a  terminal diagnosis of a body that was riddled with cancer and we then learned just how brave and ‘never again’ determined she had been, long hiding her symptoms from us, so that she could at least spare us the heartache and die ‘her way’, and with dignity.

Just before the most recent vote, on the Tasmanian bill for legalizing euthanasia, I thought a poignant story on the TV news, did a good job of answering the question, when is enough, enough?

A gracious and obviously intelligent lady, suffering from Motor Neuron Disease http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/motor_neuron_diseases/detail_motor_neuron_diseases.htm    was straightforward and unemotional in her argument for her desire for assisted suicide to be legalised.

She was aware that MND can be an unforgiving disease and had already lost the use of one arm. She argued that when the disease progresses to her other arm she will lose her independence, and it is her choice not to end her days being dependent on someone else and suffering the indignity of not being able to attend to her own intimate body functions. She argued that unless there is a form of legal assisted suicide while she is of sound mind and body to make the decision, it will be too late, and deprive her of her right to die with dignity.

And fair enough, say I. Just as she has been in command of her life up to now, she should be able to continue to be in command when she has a terminal and incurable illness.

Contrast this story with another reported about the same time, of the woman who contracted a rare bacterial infection and against all odds, survived, but had her arms and legs amputated as part of that survival. She is rejoicing that she is alive and, unlike the MND lady, is up to the challenge that the loss of all her arms and legs for the rest of her life has presented. However, she is young and she has a loving young family. She has everything in her life to live for, particularly seeing her children thrive into aduthood. Her story might be different if this happened to her when she was 75.

Neither of these stories changed my stance on supporting euthanasia, but curiously a little parish pump squabble did… through a swag of emails about saving a local heritage building.

Many in my local community want to treasure this first public building in Brighton built in 1869. However, despite the structure being ‘local heritage’ listed, and a Strategic Plan for our city that contains a myriad of motherhood references to protecting and celebrating heritage, the  City of Holdfast Bay Council wants to strip the Original Brighton Town Hall’s community land status and sell it, with an adjacent parcel of land, to a developer. Outrageously, the Council suggests to the community that the historic Town Hall building will be better cared for, when in a private developer’s hands.

One councillor, in particular, seems to be obsessed with his need to ensure this building is sold off the Council’s ledger. If you study his voting record on any culture or heritage issues in his six years on Council it clearly demonstrates his bias against cultural history and prejudice for money over substance.  In the above mentioned swag of emails, he bullies, displays his ignorance, and spreads half-truths with little sense of fair play in his attempts to control any informed debate on this issue. He is only a ward councillor elected in another part of the city, not where the threatened building stands, yet he has appointed himself the ‘Walter Mitty’ mouthpiece of the Council and its Administration, without portfolio.

Disappointingly, it has been left to a  passionate member of our local community to seek State Heritage listing for this building, as a means to further protect it, with the Council again not matching its actions to the lip service words it uses in its Strategic Planning documents.

Despite a community public meeting voting unanimously in support of keeping this community land, and despite petitions supporting protection of the building, the Council ignores the community voice… because it can.

This is what happens when the wrong people stand for election to Councils, and when people lose sight of who they are meant to serve. This is what happens when people who are incapable of seeing any reflection except their own are given a taste of ‘power’.

If this lack of compassion, intelligence and empathy is so evident in our parish pump politics that it can eradicate in one ignorant action, unique local history that has stood the test of time through 144 years of previous Councils, it sends a strong message to err on the side of caution in future.

I can just imagine if someone in high level Government,  with the personality type akin to these sorts of councillors, had control of legalised euthanasia it wouldn’t take long for the terrifying prospects of sales of body parts to the highest bidder, and the local nursing homes would have to ‘knock off’ those residents who had outlived their usefulness, to make room for those prepared to pay more, and so on.

Yes, I’ve changed my mind on euthanasia and now think politics should stay away from legalising euthanasia. We should err on the side of caution and euthanasia should continue to be a moral issue between people and their God.

And at the local parish pump…we’ve had enough! We need to examine more carefully the calibre of people that  we want to represent our community voice when elections come around again.

For thought-provoking readings on these themes, I highly recommend:

Moral Hazard by Kate Jennings

Love among the ruins    by Evelyn Waugh

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

Jan Smith