Say a Little Prayer for You.

I never really enjoyed church when I was growing up. The church experience comprised:

hard wooden pews, shiny and still smelling of polish.

itchy wool tights, and patent leather shoes.

few or no other children to play with afterwards.

hours out of my Sunday, which could have been better spent reading.

It was a boring, lonely, and uncomfortable experience, during which the priest would issue that invitation – ‘Let us pray’ – and everyone would bow heads and close eyes. I tried to pray, but it never seemed very real. Even then, I didn’t really feel like anyone was listening to me. Perhaps I was in the wrong church? Perhaps I was saying the wrong prayers? Or perhaps there really wasn’t anyone listening?

For whatever reason, I never found the relevance in church, so once I was able to, I stopped going. I don’t miss it, and I haven’t stepped inside one for some years, but for all the boredom and irrelevance, Easter was, I think, the one religious ceremony I actually enjoyed, mostly likely because we got to light a fire.

(Also, chocolate.)

Nowadays, I appreciate the long weekend, and hot cross buns, and Easter Egg hunts. We often spend some time with my sister and her family. I’m aware of the religious aspect, but it’s far in the background, more a memory than anything.

Then recently, my friend Kate offered to say prayers for her friends during Triduum. I had a moment’s contemplation about that, before I asked her to include me in her prayers.

I had a moment’s contemplation about it, because obviously I’m not part of her church, or any church. I don’t believe in the Easter mystery, and while I’m willing to cede that Jesus may have been a real person, I don’t think that he would have been an incarnation of a deity. It seemed not only odd to ask for prayers, but somehow fraudulent. Why ask for prayers at all, given my own ambivalent attitude towards them, and gods?

I remember as a child, family friends telling me that they would keep me in their prayers, or that they would be praying for me. That didn’t bother me so much. I did find it a bit weird when complete strangers said it. It seemed like it was almost an impingement on my right to not pray, or that they were trying in a roundabout way to convert me. Obviously, I was just that cynical, even in my youth.

Later, when I was in the high school chapel, or in church at home during the holidays, I would use the time we were supposed to be praying to tick off ‘to-do’ lists in my head. I’d think about the English essay I needed to write, or the boy I had a crush on, or what I was going to do on the weekend. I’m not sure if I used the word atheist to describe myself. But I railed against the idea that I could reach any kind of god simply because I was in the appropriate environment, and I didn’t feel strongly enough to pray on my own, when I was out of that environment.

Prayer has not been part of my life, in the way that I know it’s been part of others’. Perhaps I lamented that once, but I have certainly made peace with it. I do take time to sit, to breathe, even to practise some kind of meditation, such that it is. I need to ground myself in that way, to keep my patience. And that is the extent to which I can relate to prayer: the quietness, the stillness. But my meditations are just about me, breathing and finding my calm, not about a higher power.

And yet, for all that, I don’t dismiss the power of prayer. I think that there is a lot we don’t understand about belief and how it influences actions – and reactions – to the world around us. I still think there is something beautiful and wonderful to be found in rituals, whether they’re religious or not, and it is possible that rituals are the only things I miss about going to church.

But in the end, I came to a conclusion about what it really means when people tell me they’ll keep me in their prayers.

It means they’re taking time out of their day, devoting time from their busy lives, to think of me. It is a reinforcement of my value as a person – as a friend – to them. And as intangible as it is, there is new hope and energy in the world on my behalf, because they have cared enough to put it there.

Regardless of anyone’s beliefs, that is a precious gift indeed.

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How My Life Ruined Video Games.

I’ve never really been one for labels, so I don’t think I ever really described myself as a ‘gamer’. It wasn’t as if I had no other hobbies. But playing games was up there in the top five. From Tetris to Sonic the Hedgehog, to Diddy Kong Racing, to Crash Bandicoot. I played games to the detriment of sleep, work and study. I’m sure I would have finished my Masters thesis at least 12 months earlier, had it not been for Diablo 2. I could sit down to a game after lunch and easily not get up again until it was time for dinner. After all, why stop for food when there were ever more caves to explore and demons to vanquish?

Priorities, right?

I think it may have been when I began full-time work that I realised I had a problem, although to be fair, I was able to balance them both quite well at the start. I’d get home and eat, have a shower and maybe some TV, and then I could easily fit in a few hours of my game du jour.

Happy days.

Unfortunately, as my duties increased at work after a promotion, I’d end up so tired that I would often have entire days where I wasn’t playing a game. At all.

A return to study was a chance to push reset on my gaming. The great thing was that games had advanced and there were even more from which to choose! Plus, doing a post-graduate degree by research meant… no classes.

I lost several days’ worth of study to some rather intriguing puzzlers, and then The Handsome SIdekick got hold of some time management and hidden object games, and I was in my element. And then there were the many variations of match-3! It was as if casual gaming had been made for me in mind.

Entertained?

Yes I was.

Looking back, I suppose the fun could only last so long. It happened slowly at first — I graduated and began teaching. I got pregnant. I had the baby. I went back to teaching.  I got pregnant… and amidst it all, my time for games began to trickle away. So this was My Life, was it? Too busy, too tired to even engage in a little point and click once the children were in bed?

However, once I readjusted and settled into a routine at home rather than at work, there were a few times where I could sit and play. And at first, returning to my old favourites was a welcome distraction. Until it wasn’t…

I found myself haunted by My Life whenever I delved into the gaming world. How could I enjoy Diner Dash when I was already dashing around my own kitchen for most of the day? Tending to the plants in my zen garden in Plants vs Zombies ended up just giving me a guilty conscience for not spending more time with my real plants in my real garden. And Babysitting Mama was like the stuff of nightmares.

Even gorgeous-looking RPGs like Skyrim appealed strongly, until I began to spend any length of time in them. Once I’d got past the first mission, there were suddenly more missions, and then every single person I talked to had a mission for me and oh, good grief, what do you want from me? Another mission? Where am I supposed to find the time to do them all? The pressure, the pressure!! Won’t you all just leave me alone so I can go and look at the flowers?!!

Games just didn’t provide the escapism they once did. My Life skewed my priorities and my anxieties. I was so easily able to slip into worlds unfamiliar when I was younger. But then, My Life became ever-present, dragging me back, an undercurrent of responsibilities and time constraints. I was too busy, too preoccupied to enjoy a game for what it was, anymore.

I’ll admit, for a while, that was depressing.

But two recent realisations have given me some hope. First, my young children are getting older, which means they’re less labour-intensive, and more importantly, they’re starting to play games themselves. Already the oldest has proven himself a formidable gaming partner.  The second-born is negotiating right-handed mouse-control from a left-hander’s perspective, but she’s getting the hang of things, too. And the toddler is obsessed with anything electronic.  I can foresee some interesting times ahead for us as a gaming family.

And the other thing? One day, they’ll grow up and move out, and The Handsome Sidekick and I will once again have the house to ourselves. By that stage, perhaps I’ll have beaten My Life into some kind of manageable size, so that I can at least close the door on it for a few hours, while I smash a jewel or two, or slay some demons, or race against a princess and a couple of plumbers.

I mean, I’ll need to keep my skills honed, so I can hold my own against the grandchildren.

State Politics and the Big Picture

It was our state election on Saturday.  There were no real surprises in the results, and I knew it was probably going to go that way before I voted.  But I walked down to the local primary school and stood in line anyway, youngest child strapped to my front.

An older woman stepped into the line behind me.  I was busy people-watching and didn’t pay her much attention until I heard someone say, ‘You won’t be able to take that into the voting area.  It’s considered electoral material.’

I turned around to see the young volunteer for the Greens talking to the woman behind me, who was also wearing a vivid green t-shirt with ‘The Greens’ printed on the front.

‘You’ll have to change your shirt,’ the younger woman said, not unkindly.

The older woman looked confused.

‘Or maybe cover it up, somehow?’ suggested the young volunteer as the other shrugged and held up her hands.

‘Aha.  You need one of these!’  I joked to them, pointing at the baby on my front.

Both women laughed.

‘I can probably use my bag,’ the older woman offered.

It was agreed between them that that would likely be acceptable.  The line moved forward.

I spent the next few minutes looking over the political posters on the walls and feeling a little cynical about the whole situation.  Voting in Australian state and federal elections is compulsory; you are fined if you don’t show up to have your name marked off the list.  I’ve always thought that this was a kind of enforced democracy, and I can never decide if Australians’ lack of enthusiasm for politics was due to an innate apathy or simply because they didn’t need to even bother thinking about showing up.  When it came to decision-making, at least the decision whether or not to vote was taken out of our hands?

As I pondered my electoral freedoms, the baby began to smile and coo at the woman behind me, who responded in kind, and I turned around to make small talk with her.  Usually, it’s a little weird to talk to other voters, while waiting in line, because you never know if they’re going to be completely opposed to your political perspective.  However, I knew her persuasion already, so we chatted a bit about the election, and the weather, and she mentioned that she was going to volunteer at another Polling Place after she had voted.

‘Last election,’ she told me, ‘when I was volunteering, a man from Iraq came up to me, and said, ‘Are you the party for peace?’  And I just smiled and said, ‘Yes.’’

I wondered about this as The Handsome Sidekick and I drove with the children to a park by the beach later that morning.  I tried to imagine what it must be like to come to Australia from a place like Iraq.  The infrastructure, the health and legal and education systems — coming from a nation which has seen so much conflict, especially in recent years, they must find it ridiculous, how much we take for granted.

Whenever there is an election on the horizon, all sorts of issues come out of the woodwork.  This or that interest group pays for ads to sway the public in one direction or another; there are complaints about how the government doesn’t do enough for roads, or hasn’t been tough on crime or drugs, or isn’t paying teachers/nurses/police officers enough.  

It’s not that these issues are invalid or unimportant.  We *should* be concerned that our government is listening to us, and they should be ensuring that our roads and communities are safe, and that those who serve us are getting paid fairly. Politicians should be accountable to us — we are electing them on that premise and we pay their salaries.  It’s just that we should also ask where they stand in the big picture.  What is their party doing to prevent hunger and homelessness?  Where do they stand on climate change?  How are they promoting peace?

We have so much here, that we can afford to busy ourselves with the daily minutiae.  So we should also take some time to remember that it’s not just good luck, but good management, which keeps something like peace as a constant backdrop.  It probably rates a mention, now and then.  Especially around election time.  

Horses for courses.

The recent furore over the discovery of horsemeat in food labelled ‘beef’ in Europe has obviously highlighted several issues with the modern foodchain, from how we treat animals we’re going to eat, to where we source those animals, to what other unknown substances might be present in these kinds of meals.  It’s fair to say that there have been some smug vegetarians around the place lately.

A predictable outcome of this is a call for people to eat more whole foods and to source those foods locally.  Buying burgers from a fast food chain, or frozen ready-meals from a supermarket means we’re removing ourselves from our link to the food itself.  When you have the opportunity to buy directly from the supplier, you can discuss with him or her what you want the meat for, and give feedback on the quality the next time you visit.  Sure, if you buy a frozen meal and it’s not up to standard, you can talk to the manager of the store and you might receive your money back, and an apology.  But it’s unlikely to set real change in motion, especially if the person of the person who’s slaughtering the meat (or preparing the vegetables, for that matter) is several thousand kilometres away.  So it does make sense to try and buy food from the people who grow it, or at least to try and close the gap as much as possible between producer and consumer.  

Therefore, it’s argued, in an ideal world, people would grow their own food, or barter goods or services with others to get what  they needed.  Having purchased or harvested their food, people would then cook it themselves or together with others, and share it with families or friends.  Or eat alone, if that’s what they chose.  

The trouble is, even such a simple scenario relies on several elements.  Obviously access to local food is the most apparent, and this is perhaps where most of the focus is placed — if everyone were able to source locally grown food, then something like the horsemeat scandal wouldn’t have occurred.  In fact, this kind of accessibility would solve many problems.

However, it’s not just whether the food is available.  There are several other issues.  Can the consumer travel to get the food?  How expensive is it?  Does the consumer have the ability to store the food until it’s ready to prepare and eat?  And perhaps most importantly, does the consumer have the skills and the time and the energy to cook a meal from that produce?  It is all too easy to assume that, given the ingredients, people will be able to cook a meal from scratch.  And for all the other variables which prevent people from achieving the ideal scenario — a meal cooked from scratch with locally sourced ingredients — I believe it is the lack of knowledge which is the greatest problem, because it is the one which is most often overlooked.  

Overwhelmingly, food is becoming more expensive.  It’s cheaper in some places than in others, but for most of us, it costs more than it used to, and people on a fixed income must find ways to split their finite financial resources more ways than in the past.  How then, to ensure that the population stays healthy and that the produce available to them is sustainably produced?  How to ensure that the people growing and manufacturing our food are fairly paid, fairly treated, and that our food is what we think it is?

We can attempt to make food more affordable, yet this often results in farmers being paid even less than their current moderate wage.  Indeed, there is currently an investigation by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to find out if our two major supermarkets are using underhand and/or illegal tactics in their dealings with suppliers.   Meanwhile, both supermarket chains are promoting themselves as affordable and saving money for families. We need to ask ourselves where we sit in this foodchain — we call for cheaper food, but we also want it to be organic, fair trade, free range.  Are we part of the problem, as well?  

I wonder if we need a new approach to food in general.  It really is crazy that we should be eating food which is manufactured thousands of kilometres away, in another country.  This model is both nonsensical and unsustainable; however, any alternative probably involves some lifestyle changes that many would be unwilling, or in some cases, unable to make.  

Ready-meals fill a gap in the market.  They are there for people who are not able to cook a meal from raw ingredients, either because they can’t, or they choose not to, or they don’t have the time or knowledge to do so.  In some circles, there is judgement about this — and I’ll confess that I’ve been a food snob in the past (and probably still am, to some degree).  Then, when my youngest child was a week old, I fell and injured my wrist, and ended up in plaster up to my elbow.  Everything was difficult; everything required a re-think.  Especially cooking.  Ready meals became my friend, and all at once, I cursed my former dismissal of pre-prepared food.  Still, I felt as if I were eating second-rate food, and wished there were a way around it.  

In stepped my family and friends.  We lived off soup and lasagne for a week, courtesy of my sister.  Another friend dropped over with a homemade salad and fresh bread.  Our community really came through for us.  We needed help — and food — and they were there without us even having to ask.  

And that’s perhaps what’s missing.  That attractively photographed meal (and let’s face it, the food inside the box never seems to look like the picture on the outside!) fills a hole; it stops us from going hungry.  But it’s not the same as a home-cooked meal.  When we eat packet, ready-made food, we’re removing ourselves from the reality of food preparation, and when we rely on them for sustenance, we lose touch with what it is to be a human animal.  There are those who don’t have the ability to prepare their own meals, and it should be a priority that they don’t have to rely on second-rate food.  There are those who don’t have the time or the knowledge, and I believe that is a small tragedy in itself, too.  Because while I definitely understand the meaning of time poverty, I also cherish the value of keeping alive the knowledge of how to create something whole out of so many parts.  

Community, skills, knowledge.  It is all part of the same complex mix.  Buying pre-prepared food is a choice people are able to make, and we certainly need to ensure that there are enforced regulations to prevent contamination in the food we buy.  But we also need to ask ourselves what is important to us, what kinds of foods we want to eat, and to realise that if we’re leaving the preparation and cooking of our food up to someone else, then we’re not going to necessarily know — or like — what they’re putting in it.