I only have one brother, and last week we went on a road trip. He uses his retirement to repair and service wind instruments, everything from huge tubas to tiny piccolos. Instead of engaging a trucking company, he chooses to deliver the instruments personally to the many schools, bands and conservatories of music. And, not unlike the piano tuner that plays a piece or two to celebrate his work, my brother has many old people’s homes that he calls in to play for the residents. With a fine sound system and classic pieces to accompany him, he plays his tuba, and according to the supervisor that welcomed us, its deep resonating sound somehow calms and appeals to the residents like nothing else. His repertoire is wide and on this occasion it included Ave Maria. I was surprised at the staff recording, not my brother and his tuba, but an old man in a wheelchair singing along. We learned later that the old man has been mute for years, but the power of the music transported him to another country and another time – he sang the entire piece in Latin.

My brother had a law practice, the only one in Balranald, far west NSW. And driving those vast distances to towns like Hay and West Wyalong, he gave a running commentary of stations changing hands, pointed out homesteads where he helped elderly clients put complex wills in place, court houses where magistrates adjourned proceedings to suggest a struggling defendant without counsel talk with Mr Edmunds for some advice. Pro bono of course. And before you think privileged up-bringing showing some easily afforded charity to the battlers, let me point out some backstory.

You see my brother left school early to take an apprenticeship in something that, if you know what it was, you are showing your age. A time when the insides of electric motors were stripped of their miles of wires and re-wound. A tedious and time consuming task that was taken for granted in an age when things were fixed instead of replaced. And like most of his mechanically-tasked peers, motorbikes and cars summed up his interests. Well, not exactly, his parents still insisted he take piano lessons, an activity he kept concealed from his mates. Then something happened, and I was with him when it did. Returning from a weekend away late at night just over a crest stood two black angus cows. We killed them both, and his highly modified pride and joy was a write-off.

It changed him. It was a change that gave him a new direction for his life. He moved from the workshop to a law office across the street. And there he met a lawyer whose life trajectory took him from a bakery to an acclaimed concert pianist, then moving into law late in life. This man became a mentor, and my brother began the slow process – read more than twenty years – of becoming qualified to practice law, all by correspondence study fitted around full-time work and raising a young family. Not online learning, this consisted of reams of notes requiring detailed responses, a course set and assessed by retired lawyers. And exams with upwards of 75% pass required. He failed many, including one notoriously difficult subject three times, meaning his entire work thus far would be lost for regulations prevented him attempting it again. His mentor had some influence and managed to have that requirement waived to allow a re-sit. He passed, and sometime later Dad, Mum, and us four kids went to Martin Place in Sydney to see him admitted to the bar as a barrister. It was a big deal for us.

On our road-trip we passed the old building in Hay where the NSW Law Society have their bi-annual meetings. When my brother retired the president of the society said a few words for the occasion. He said that “If one was looking for a lawyer that would ‘go for the jugular’ and not let go, there are several members that come to mind, but our colleague here is not one of them.” “If however you were in deep trouble and your only chance of staying out of jail was advocacy of the highest order, this man has no equal.” What a tribute.

About mid-way across the Hay Plains I asked him what triggered his passion for law, what kept him on track for so long without giving up. Without hesitation he replied “Remember when we studied To Kill a Mockingbird at school – I’m Atticus Finch”. The similarity is striking, for this tall self-effacing lawyer provided the only legal service over a wide area of western NSW. He told me he didn’t win many cases “because I didn’t have many innocent people, but I made a lot of friends and kept people out of jail”. Like Atticus, he was too modest to refer to the many indigenous people in that vast area that did not die in custody because they had an Atticus Finch.

As I said, I only have one brother, but a fine one indeed.

Island of Iona

The Abbey on Iona

Robyn’s people came from the Isle of Mull off the west coast of Scotland. Probably driven overseas by the ‘clearances’ that reduced the island population from more than ten thousand to about three thousand in a couple of years. Just off the southern tip of Mull lies a small island called Iona – described on the tour-bus itinerary as ‘the beginning of Christianity in the British Isles’ bought here by an Irish monk named Columba around 300. I was keen to try and find out what he actually brought to the island and after about five hours walking around the abbey, listening to the audio guide, reflecting in the cloisters and the burial grounds, reading the museum guides, I have a limited idea of what he brought, and a better idea of what he didn’t.

He brought religion with a focus on paying penance of some sort. Iona has been the destination of pilgrims for centuries, many of them, according to the recording, on their hands and knees leaving a trail of blood on the rocky path. The word ‘repentance’, such an important idea in Christian thinking comes from this idea of ‘paying penance’ a sort of painful grovelling in order to gain a level of acceptance (called ‘being worthy’). Pity the translators didn’t use the Greek word that just means ‘change of mind’. It would have saved these poor beggars a lot of pain and effort.

Columba bought icons, and interestingly, it was on Iona that the cross first became an icon. For the centuries prior to Columba, the Christians could not bring themselves to use the cross in any of their art, the memory of that dreadful event was still too raw. But that changed on Iona, huge stone crosses were everywhere, even a museum area dedicated to the earliest carved ones. In the same way, Columba bought a passion for decorating scripture texts, intricate decorations that must have kept the abbots busy for months, even years. The Book of Kells in a Dublin library is the most famous example from Iona.

But the most significant thing bought to Iona at this time, in our minds was celibacy. I say significantly, because, in Robyn and I individually musing on Iona, we came to a singularly spectacular lack, no families and no children. A theology lacking the centrality of family means God becomes a distant deity worshiped by acts of piety. Penance is all important because the notion of ‘father’ is absent and icons and texts become replacements for anything like a living loving relationship.

But clearly the most significant thing Columba didn’t bring to the island: not a single reference to Jesus anywhere. Hard to believe, and while I may have missed something written or said, it appears to be the case. Even the nuns housed some distance away gathered each morning to hear the teachings of, not Jesus, not the Apostles, but Augustine. The teaching of a man who, perhaps more than any other figure, derailed the movement, a new direction that left the beautiful simplicity and purity of the first century believers a distant memory eventually forgotten. And in its place, an institution characterised by the unholy alliance of church and state emerged and is with us still. But worse than that, the notion of heaven and hell was consolidated, driven by a ruthless Roman-style efficiency in converting the world to its view. Believe, go to heaven; remain unconvinced and go to hell, and this too, sad to say is with us still.

What I would have preferred to celebrate on the island was someone bringing what the first century believers had, a conviction that Jesus was who he said he was, introducing them to a view of God as father that changed everything. The Gospel* to them was good news indeed. They weren’t side-tracked by the six views of hell running at the time and were comfortable with the first defining creed because it didn’t mention any of them. What did make the later believers uncomfortable was Augustine, at the Emperor’s request, formulating a single view of God’s judgement and hell as eternal conscious torment. As I said, he derailed the Jesus movement.

A movement that knew a period of growth and spread of the Gospel the like of which the world had never seen and has not since. Almost the entire Mediterranean Basin in a few decades, and most notable, without churches as we know them, without ministers, and without the Bible. They met in homes, under the loose oversight of a member/elder, and with a few fragments of the words and deeds of Jesus, and a few Apostolic letters and an occasional visit from an Apostle. Most were illiterate and they had little interest in the Hebrew scriptures apart from the Psalms (one can still buy a New Testament and Psalms today), and from the fragments and letters, they took what was helpful in the encouraging each other in the love of Jesus. Teachers arose, many of them ‘false’ and in the words of the last apostolic writer, John, referring to their ‘anointing of the Spirit’: ‘You have no need for anyone to teach you’.

Had that last Apostle been on the tour bus to Iona he would have seen a lot that we have no need of – icons, penance, crosses, and abbeys. He would have asked: “Where are the families?” Perhaps he would have started some clearances of his own to make a place for what Jesus intended.

* I like Bruxy Cavey’s definition of the good news: Jesus is God with us come to show us God’s love, save us from sin, set up God’s kingdom, and shut down religion, so we can share in God’s life. See:

Different in every sense

In these Covid times with international travel a distant dream, the Northern Territory is enticing would-be travelers to their state. One frequently seen ad is captioned: ‘Different in every sense’. Robyn and I beat each other to say ‘sure is’ every time we hear it, for we spent a couple of years in the territory at an indigenous boarding school miles from anywhere.

My arrival at the school was different. The school was in crisis: too few students to make it viable and too many students enrolled that didn’t want to be there. The principal had been fired and house parents were sending trouble-makers home. And then I show up knowing very little of the background, and no clue as to where ‘home’ might be. Two boys were walking across the oval with their bags, so I asked them where they were going. ‘Home’ was their reply, so I rode my bike alongside them thinking I can accompany them home, teacherly duty like. Where is home? I asked. Ngukurr (sounds like nooker) they replied. ‘Is it far?’ ‘No’ was their answer. Then I asked if we will be there before dark. No, it will be a few days they said. At that I persuaded them to come home and stay at my place with the promise to sort things out tomorrow. Next morning I find out that ‘home’ is more than nine hours drive away. So, the expelled kids live with us, and when a few more join us the full wrath of the house parents’ comes crashing down. Not pretty, but necessary. Not my first exposure to that judgment/punishment vs compassion/tolerance dilemma, and also not my first time as defender of those who need somebody in their corner. Guess who became principal.

Nearly all schools have camps, but these were different – a boys camp and a girls camp. One highly organized, many topics of major significance (sex education), guest specialist speakers, great food, good accommodation, and of course hot showers and little gift bags of perfume goodies. The other was, well the word that comes to mind is ‘blokey’. Yes, we covered the sex bit, but hardly made it the focus. Showers, no. Bags of goodies, yes, chips. Guest speakers, no but watched a great movie. Our focus as stated was: ‘Fishing and Fun’ so we all knew why we were there – to do what these boys do best. One thing that amazes me is the boys’ approach to fishing. They catch fish to eat, not later when they have caught enough, but there and then. No gutting or scaling, but straight on the fire, turned a couple of times then the skin peeled off and the flesh eaten. Equally amazing, their expression of fun is to do a forward roll and land on their feet, sometimes several in a row. So sand dunes and river banks make a perfect gym equivalent. And no, I didn’t try it.

Sport is common to all schools, but here again our school was different. Robyn, myself and another teacher took a group of students into Darwin to play inter-school soccer. We didn’t win many games, mainly because some schools take their sport very seriously. We had just come from a camp of fishing and fun, and the fun aspect carried over onto the soccer field. Competition demanded girls in each team. Most schools had a token two girls; not us. Our girls are used to mixing it with the boys and played as good as the boys. Barefoot and fast, kicking and all. Oh what a delight to see such lithe supple young people enjoying themselves and scoring amazing freakish goals. Discipline poor; teamwork barely; strategies non-existent; captain/leadership none; coaching next question; having a good time and spending too much energy chasing each other, yes. It was the only time I saw a group of players decide to have a little chat in the middle of the game, completely oblivious to the action around them, then with an amazing burst of energy join the game again. They play the game of life by their rules.

And I remember the excursions. Yes, we used the college bus and took a cut lunch, but in most other respects it was an excursion with a difference. They were mustering at Twin Hill Station, an indigenous owned and run cattle property just twenty minutes from the college. One of our house parents was a senior figure in the company and we were there at his invitation. We took the four-wheel-drive bus, a great lumbering beast that allowed us to really look down on the world, and on the cattle. Fourteen hundred of them.

We saw the vehicles first, a row of utes and quad bikes to slow the cattle down. You see these Brahman cross animals are part wild and you can’t just ‘drove’ them quietly. When they go they run, and would lose too much condition and exhaust themselves if let go. Then a row of utes following the giant herd and when they saw us, they stopped, and next thing the bus was empty and all our kids were up on the backs of the utes shouting and laughing. Not sure I gave permission for that, but like the animals they were following – part wild. And the helicopter, it was something else. I tried to film it, but half the time it was lower than the trees and I couldn’t see it. I was hoping it didn’t fly that low near the kids, or they would be swinging from the skids for sure – they wouldn’t be the only ones on the skids if anything happened. A day of cattle, noise, dogs, quad bikes, utes, a helicopter, men in big hats, and four huge road trains lined up. No wonder Robyn and I had to drag them away: “Aw Miss, can’t we stay here …”

Those tempted by the ad campaign won’t get to experience what we did of course, but they will see barrel-chested men on Harley Davidsons wearing nothing more than navy singlet and shorts; four-wheel-drives jacked up high with pony-sized hunting dogs in cages on the back, and they will experience a frontier approach to life unlike anywhere else in Australia. Yes, the Territory is different in every sense.

Funerals and Ghosts

I overheard the funeral service of Prince Phillip on Robyn’s phone. The hymn ‘for those in peril on the sea’ was what caught my attention. Churchill requested that the hymn be sung during his meeting with Roosevelt on board a battleship in 1941. I requested the hymn be sung during a memorial service mid-way across Bass Strait by a group of my senior students in 1985. Now remember my teaching role was to take school resisters and offer them something resembling a worthwhile learning experience in their final years. But hymn singing you ask? I can still picture those brawny youths standing around the piano at home while Robyn tried to get post-choir-boy voices into something like harmony.

Yes hymn singing. Well only one hymn, couldn’t let my music-teacher wife get carried away, and besides these school resisters had had a lot of practice at marching to the tune of a different drummer. Football was their thing not religious music, and it occurred to me that an activity that built upon their physical capacities would engage them, and the idea of crewing on two large ocean-going yachts had immediate appeal. It had also occurred to me that kids can learn surprisingly well if it is in a context, so sailing became a context for swimming and first aid qualifications, and a whole host of new skills for the trip. The hymn was to be part of a dawn service to honour the hundreds of lives lost on the coasts either side of a narrow strait between King Island, Tasmania, and Cape Otway, Victoria.

Nineteen eighty five was the 150th anniversary of the settlement of Victoria as well as International Year of Youth, both events offering funding for state or youth activities. The funding provided each crew member with a state-of-the-art life jacket, and a sweat shirt with the anniversary logo across the chest. Fortunately the life jackets were worn but never needed, and unfortunately the sweatshirts were worn and resulted in the entire memorial service ending up on the cutting room floor. The morning of the service was shrouded in a heavy sea mist, and the white sweatshirts meant that everyone looked like ghosts making a white trail on the film with every movement. Not a good look at all. Twenty odd ghosts in the mists at a service for lives lost at sea looked too perilous indeed.

Does the world need another blogger?

Seems like I have answered my own question with this; a new blogger with his first post.

In a restaurant with a group of friends last week, the conversation revolved around the question: Why have people become so uptight? … just a minor upset and WOW they think it is full-on war. Good question, no simple answers.

My response was to explain what emotions are. Useful if we are discussing a general level of heightened emotion and an increasingly common response that does not fit the situation.  I noticed someone reaching for a pen; writing on the paper serviette, “Say that again slowly”. Before saying ‘it’ again slowly, another asked if I had a blog, to which I replied ” Does the world need etc …” Both affirmed that a blog providing this sort of information was surely needed. I was chuffed – and it sure beats trying to write on a serviette.

What sort of information is seen by my restaurant friends as useful? Well this blog will probably focus on emotions, and the way they influence everything we do. I guess I can claim some authority on the topic having won state and national awards for designing and implementing curriculum programs that have the development of emotion management at their core, and more recently becoming the first Australian qualified in a revolutionary approach to emotional health from the UK. Being in private practice as a therapist/counsellor gives me opportunity to keep current in what information is useful for people interested in keeping emotionally buoyant. Information that you may find useful in your contact with ‘up-tight people’.

Emotions are a preparation for action with an expectation that the action will meet a need. This is a ‘given’ – no argument, no exceptions. Future blogs will flesh-out the implications of this definition, sufficient to say here that emotional arousal is linked with getting needs met, and it is possible to conclude that in a society with many vital emotional needs unmet, emotions will remain high. And as emotions are designed for action not thinking, chances are that clear-headedness will be absent as simple events trigger an outburst more appropriate in a war zone or the jungle than a city street.

There you have it. The world has another blogger whether it needs it or not.