Elizabeth

Elizabeth (by Penelope Volkofsky)

Preface to Elizabeth

A young art teacher alights from a train in western NSW in a floral dress and long white gloves. She has come to find her man in the outback. They marry and have four sons. She battles a spinal disease and becomes quadriplegic.

For five years she is confined to a wheelchair as a mostly silent mum on our sheep station. She loves it when we brush her hair. I usually see it as a chore but sometimes I catch myself looking at those lustrous black locks and want to run my fingers through them.

Our homestead is planted on a purple ironstone ridge. We are in the heart of forty-six thousand acres of box trees, hop bush and mulga scrub near a tiny village called Byrock. To the west is a small mountain peak. Long droughts scorch the earth into powder. When good seasons come the land is a waving blanket of corkscrew grass.

As a young boy, a favourite summer thing is to lie in bed at night and listen to the wind in the leaves of an old box tree outside my bedroom. A favourite winter ritual is to get up at dawn, walk across the frosty grass of our back yard and through the orchard of orange trees to our back fence where I watch the sun rise and pray for mum. The prayers grow, and I find myself praying for all of us.

I’m unable to look at mum’s face anymore—the verdict is too obvious. I look at her fingers instead. In them I imagine healing colour and life spreading back up into her face. But they’re only swollen. She dies in the Bourke Hospital in my first year of high school.

This woman had a sweet defiance. In her slow, deliberate way, she spoke to us often about faith, hope and love. Like the beautiful, wild and frightening world around her, she became a treasure.

Elizabeth

Thank you for a home
Where there was soft powdery red dust
And a mountain peak for the sunset at dusk.

A cool summer
With a bedroom near a box tree
And the moonlight watching over me.

The silver music
Of box leaves dancing as they will
Under the stars in the summer while I am lying still.

But now a deep purple chill
Over an ironstone ridge horizon
Brings a new day with new surprises.

A huge red sun blazes and burns
Defiant in brilliant blue
Singing the hopes and dreams of the mother you gave me to.

But that purple ridge of earth
Now wears her silver coat of ice
Of shimmering corkscrew grass.

For this is a frozen season
With the crunch of ice under my feet
As I walk through a dark green grove of orange trees.

The sun sets.
A cold wind blows
Even the stars in heaven seem to know.

That the mother you gave me is frozen too
In a wheelchair of despair
And I am brushing her shiny black hair.

I hope to rescue her with hope and hope and prayer
Look! … I’m sure
The ice in her fingers is starting to thaw.

But no! … she rescued me
Just like the soft powdery red dust
And the mountain peak for the sunsets at dusk.

She kept my sanity
When the world was a very dark night
Like those silvery dancing leaves
Of the old box tree in the moonlight.

She blazed and burned
Sweet defiance in brilliant blue
This mother you gave me to.

Her golden beams
Over a purple ridge shot past
And found me at last.

Your flower
That only grows in the dungeon of despair
She found me while I was brushing her hair.

(Peter Volkofsky)

Dark Nights and Wonders Part V: Wesley

Dark Nights and Wonders

‘Wesley was persuaded by George Whitefield—that field preaching (open air) was the best way to reach people, especially the working classes, who had almost nothing to do with the church. Consequently, the next day, a thirty-six year old Wesley stood by his father’s grave and preached his first ever open air sermon. What is now knows as The Great Awakening was born … ‘ but for the Wesleys and their friends it was going to be a baptism of fire.

‘For the next three decades, magistrates, squires and clergy turned a blind eye to the drunken and brutal attacks by mobs and gangs on Wesley and his supporters … Time after time, the Wesleys and Whitefield narrowly escaped death and several of their fellow preachers were attacked and their houses set on fire.’

‘Thousands of times Wesley suffered both verbal and physical attack but never once did he lose his temper. If he was hit by a missile he would wipe the blood away and respectfully continue preaching. He was known for loving his enemies and try as they might they were unable to make him discourteous or angry.

‘Hundreds of anti-revival publications appeared, as did regular, inaccurate and scurrilous newspaper reports and articles. But the most virulent attacks, not surprisingly, came from the priests, who referred to Wesley as “That Methodist,” “that enthusiast,” “that mystery of iniquity,” “a diabolical seducer, and an impostor and fanatic.”

‘After a few years, wanting to set out his wares in plain, rational, and scriptural terms, Wesley wrote a pamphlet in which he declared, “It is the plain old Christianity that I teach.” His paramount purpose was to make men and women conscious of God.’ And he was convinced that the library of sixty six book full of stories we call the bible was a major instrument in that process because it’s main purpose was to show sinners that they could find their way back to God via the sacrifice and resurrection of Easter.

In his book The Book That Made Your World, Mangalwadi says ‘Wesley understood that individual redemption leads to social regeneration.’ Soon what Wesley called ‘Societies’ were formed but he did not see these as a substitute for the church. He remained an Anglican clergyman for most of his life until he began to ordain ministers of the Methodist Church.’

‘It is no exaggeration to say that Wesley (along with his brother Charles and friend George Whitefield) instilled into the British people a new concept of heroism. His tranquil dignity, the absence of malice and anger, and above all, the evidence of God’s spirit working in his life, eventually disarmed his enemies and won them for Christ.
Soldiers, sailors, miners, fishermen, smugglers, industrial workers, thieves,’ and all kinds of men, women and children in their thousands would listen attentively, take off their hats and—overcome with emotion—surrender their lives to Jesus as Messiah. For more than fifty years Wesley fed the bible … to drink-sodden, brutalised and neglected multitudes.’11

‘Wesley travelled a quarter of a million miles on horseback, in all weather, night and day, up and down and across England … During these travels he composed his commentary on the bible verse by verse, wrote hundreds of letters, kept a daily journal from 1735 to the year before his death in 1791, and wrote some of the 330 books that were published in his lifetime.’

‘He composed English, French, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew grammars. He edited many books for the general education of his preachers and congregations, which became the fifty volumes of his famous Christian library: republished by the Wesley Centre online.’

‘This cultured man, keen theologian, and esteemed intellectual warned his preachers that one could “never be a deep preacher without extensive reading, any more than a thorough Christian.” Every preacher was made a distributor and seller of books and was expected to have mastered the contents. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says of Wesley in this regard that “no man in the eighteenth century did so much to create a taste for good reading and to supply it with books, at the lowest prices.”
Wesley’s book Rules for a Helper gives a sampling of the cultural influences he diffused in Britain …

‘ “Never be unemployed for a moment; believe evil of no one; speak evil of no one; a preacher of the gospel is a servant of all; be ashamed of nothing but sin; be punctual; you will need all the (common) sense you have to have your wits about you.”
‘Thirteen years before the Abolition Committee was formed to end the slave trade, he published his thoughts upon slavery: a graphic, vehement, and penetrating treatise denouncing this “horrid trade” as a national disgrace. He kept up his attack upon slavery until the end of his life. The last letter he wrote being to William Wilberforce, an evangelical member of parliament who led a lifelong campaign to abolish the slave trade.’

‘By the same token, Wesley deplored the stupidity of war, especially Britain’s war with the American colonies. He frequently wrote about the use and abuse of money and privilege. He wore inexpensive clothes and dined on the plainest fare, not spending more than thirty pounds a year on his personal needs. But his clothes were always spotless, his shoes were always shined, and he never wore a wig.’
‘Wesley supported fair prices, a living wage, and honest and healthy employment for all. There is no question but that he was more familiar with the life of the poor than any other public figure of his age … “Give none that asks relief an ill word or an ill look. Do not hurt them,” he would say.

‘He strongly campaigned against bribery and corruption at election time … fearlessly criticised aspects of the penal system and prisons. Thereby paving the way for reformers John Howard and Elizabeth Fry. He depicted prisons as “nurseries of all manner of wickedness.” He campaigned against the near-medieval methods of medicine and agitated for funeral reform.

‘He worked for vocational training for the unemployed, raise money to clothe and feed prisoners, to buy food, medicine, fuel and tools for the helpless and aged; founded a Benevolent Loan Fund and Stranger’s Friend Society.’

With the help of his brother Charles he “caused England to sing”. Charles wrote between eight and nine thousand poems, of which eight thousand became hymns, which were set to popular tunes of the day. ‘And hundreds of thousands of those who sang his hymn, “My chains fell off, my heart was free,” were singing not only about their salvation but also about the chains of alcohol, abuse, hunger and poverty.’

‘The Great Awakening gave to the entire English speaking world its richest ever heritage of poetical and sacred songs and an understanding of hymns as literature, as history, as theology. Other fine poets also emerged during this period and during the nineteenth century, including William Cowper, Isaac watts and John Newton … ‘

‘The bible, which during the early eighteenth century had been a closed book … became the Book of Books. Britain was saved from lapsing into infidelity.’ ‘John Wesley died as he had lived … no coach or hearse was needed for his funeral for he had given instructions that six poor men—in need of employment—might be given a pound each to carry his body to the grave.

‘In the first decades of his service, his arrival and that of his followers in any town or village was the signal for a violent uprising. But for the last ten of his eighty eight years, it is no exaggeration to say that Wesley was the most respected and beloved figure in Britain.’12

11 Managalwadi V. The Book That Made Your World p:266 – Thomas Nelson 2011

12 Ibid pp: 270

Telling Family Secrets

Beautiful Secrets

Julia Cameron says that ‘the act of making art exposes a society to itself: like telling a family secret.’1 And the darker the family/society secret the more vigorous its efforts at squashing genuine art. Diversionary ‘art’ is what they want. But what if the family/society secret is beautiful? We don’t know what to do with it. It will be laughed at.

Why? Because we live in a society full of blocked-creatives. And ‘most blocked creatives have an active addiction to anxiety’2, which ‘manifests as an addiction to fantasy’.

Though to be fair on fantasy writers, most of us (me included) love fantasy. So what’s the issue. The issue is probably what Steven King was talking about when he told writers to ‘stay off the glass teat’. Aka, the amusement screen.

And there’s a voracious appetite for that, which is why if you create good ‘diversionary art’ for the screen you might even get to be as famous as the Playstation. But what you need to weigh up here is the price- tag of your diversionary art.

Cameron says ‘The cost of a thing is the amount of life required to be exchanged for it.’3 In that case a Playstation (for some) would have to be valued at the price of a human soul. But there’s another way of thinking about this. If you are well down the road of diversionary art for example, the price might be the cost of abandoning the habits of your ‘blocked-creative’ addictions. Those things you’ve been doing as a substitute for genuine creative work.

If you embark on this journey try to be patient with your friends because ‘expecting your blocked friends to celebrate your recovery of creativity is like expecting your friends at the bar to celebrate your sobriety.’4 For you are now a threat. Which is why Cameron says in another place, ‘In an artistic career, thinking about the odds (of success) is a drink of emotional poison.’5

Lastly, beware emotional incest. Cameron explains that ‘Teachers, editors and mentors are often authority or parent figures for a young artist. There is a sacred trust inherent in the bond between teacher and student. This trust when violated has the impact of a parental violation. What we are talking about here is emotional incest.’6 Beware the ‘candid friend’ (GK Chesterton says), ‘He is not candid … when he says, “ I am sorry to say it, but we are all doomed” he is not sorry at all.’ He has a vested interest at heart.

One more last thing. People, their families and societies are never quite as wicked or as good as we tend to make them out to be. There’s always lots of grey, and grey can be the first colour of dawn if you let it. What if for example, when you plumb the depths of your tragic family/society story you find astonishing treasures down there underneath the dirt?

  1. 1  Cameron J. The Artist’s Way p. 67 Souvenir Press 1994
  2. 2  Ibid 143
  3. 3  Ibid – quoting Thoreau p.68
  4. 4  Ibid p.43
  5. 5  Ibid p.142
  6. 6  Ibid p. 130

 

Dark Nights and Wonders Part IV

Dark Nights and Wonders

‘The baiting of bulls, bears, badgers and dogs—with fireworks attached to them—was typical of the third and fourth decades of this century (England in the the 1700’s). Most of those tortures took place in public house grounds, on village greens, in village church grounds, or in cathedral closes. The animals were often baited to death to provide greater excitement.’

‘And another “sport” was cockfighting with metal spurs. Many eighteenth century clergymen bred fighting cocks and sometimes had church bells rung to honour a local winner. The setting of trained dogs on ducks in lakes was another favourite recreation, as was fox-hunting, cudgel-play and pugilism—boxing without gloves—for men and women, which sometimes went on for hours. Prize-fights between male bruisers who battled bare-fisted attracted mobs of twelve thousand or more.

‘Gambling was a national obsession for all classes, bringing appalling ruin to thousands. In London and other big cities, promiscuity became a sport, from court masquerades to fornication in broad daylight on the village green, or selling one’s wife at a cattle market.

‘There was an abundance of openly pornographic literature. Donald Drew quotes Irish historian William Lecky: “The profligacy of the theatre during the generation that followed the restoration (of the monarchy) can hardly be exaggerated.” Likewise, a judge remarked, “no sooner is a playhouse opened in any part of the kingdom, than it becomes surrounded by a halo of brothels.”9 The bible became a closed book, and the result was ignorance, lawlessness, and savagery. And until the advent of the Sunday School movement toward the end of the century, little of no provision was made for the free education of the poor, except the church system of charity schools, which were invariably a farce: most teachers being half-literate.

‘As for lawlessness, thieves, robbers and highwaymen, Horace Walpole observed in 1751, “one is forced the travel, even at noon, as if one were going to battle.” Savagery showed itself in the plundering of ships lured by false signals onto rocks, and in the indifference shown to the drowning sailors. This was regular activity along the entire coastline of the British Isles.

‘Into this spiritual and moral quagmire stepped John Wesley … One of nineteen children, he narrowly escaped death as a little boy when one night the rectory caught fire and was burned to the ground … He went through school to Oxford, where he was elected as a fellow and tutor of Lincoln College. Devoutly religious, he and others ministered to the poor and down trodden, but their peers despised them for it.’
John was ordained to the Church of England, after which he sailed to America and embarked on an embarrassing attempt at being a missionary. Having failed miserably and even gotten himself into an awkward romance that almost led to a duel, he sailed back to England saying, ‘I went over to attempt to convert them but who will convert me?’

This experience led him to conclude that he had misread or even missed something altogether. After talking things over with some Moravian missionaries and attending one of their services in 1738, he wrote, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust Christ, Christ died for my salvation and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine … I testified openly to all there what I now … felt in my heart.”10

See Dark Nights and Wonders Part V on John’s second attempt at offering God’s love to the world.

9 Managalwadi V. The Book That Made Your World pp: 261-262 – Thomas Nelson 2011

10 Ibid p 263