For Vicki

It’s my mother’s birthday today, falling as it always does inconveniently close to Mother’s Day. When we were growing up as far as I can recall, and still now when she gets a bit fired up, she was very clear about us getting her two SEP-ER-ATE gifts. We were not to combine our well meaning thoughts and benign good wishes into one thing, not matter how two-present’s-worth we thought it was. Though, knowing what we were like I’m sure we often forgot, or counted cards as presents, or didn’t take it seriously, and were eventually forgiven.

So on this, the one of two occasions designed for me to remember my ma, I wanted to write something about the woman who has shown me often in unappreciated and completely ignored ways what strength looks like, what the slow and small and humble and faltering giving of yourself to those you love can look like. Then I remembered I’d basically done that for a biography assignment at Uni, so I dug this out from 5 years ago.

To my mum, who loves her kids unconditionally, who has remained proud to be our mum no matter what we do or how we live, who has not once asked me when I’ll give her grandkids, Happy Birth and Splendid Mother’s Days. This is not really a gift, Mum. There are two SEP-ER-ATE presents coming, I think.

The Leaving


“So how did you feel when you saw me driving away?”

“It was sort of… a heartbreak.”

“… Mum, are you crying?”

“No. I’m trying not to.”


My mum started it all.

At 18, my mum is told to leave. She is told by God and it’s good timing because she needs to leave her family but isn’t ready to become a nun like she thought she might. She sees an ad for a children’s home called Bethel in Dalby, Queensland. She asks for a sign, opens her bible up, and reads about Moses being told to leave his family.

Get out of your country,
from your family and from your father’s house,
to a land that I will show you.

Moses was told to go to Bethel, and so is Vicki.

God was probably my mother’s first love. An awkward and self conscious teenager, smiling quietly under a thick black fringe, she doesn’t have boyfriends for years, but she is saved at 15. She sees in her new faith a huge and spacious welcome, an acceptance she didn’t know could exist. She goes on retreats and spends days in silence. She knows God is calling her.

I left her when I was 25. I drove away in an overfull car to Melbourne. I headed off to follow God amongst the homeless and broken and Vicki watched me leave, her heart breaking. As I went she thought two things; that this is what Merle must have felt, and at least it’s only for a year.

I broke her heart a second time when I told her I wasn’t coming home. My leaving was therefore a little more cruel, but Vicki’s was carried across three states.

At home, she is one of six, three boys and three girls. She lives in Port Lincoln among hills and ocean and family. Vicki tells them all about Jesus. Once in the arms of her savior, it had seemed rude to withhold salvation from them.

Like all the saints, this dedication doesn’t do her any good; her father is particularly resistant.

Her mother, Merle can’t understand why Vicki wants to leave. Vicki knows it will be harder for Merle but tries to explain that it is something she can’t not do.

“Why does God need you so far away?” Merle asks. Her daughter thinks they must be speaking different languages.

On the day she leaves to board the first of three planes that take her to her new life, Port Lincoln is green. She looks at the faces of her family, most of whom think her decision is ridiculous. She looks at Merle who says nothing. She looks at her youngest brother, to whom she’s been a second mum, and she leaves.

Three planes transport her from the water, the green and the known, to another world of dry, red, flat dust spreading out to the horizon. She is in a biblical landscape. She’s as far from her home as she will ever be. She is Alice down the rabbit hole, Moses in the promised land.

And so my mum begins her new life. She lives now in a flat looking blue house, with a slanted roof. She is surrounded now by orphans who are only a little younger than her. In their faces she sees the momentum of her decision, the choice she has made.

Two Baptists, kind but severe, run the house where Vicki lives. She is to help with the cooking and the cleaning and the looking after of the children. Soon it is easy to forget to miss home. She is amongst the adventure of her lifetime.

While the children are at school Vicki moves from room to room gathering clothes and bedding. She washes and irons for 16 now. When that is done she cuts carrots for stews, and helps the children with their homework. There is a place out of town where the homes can get a whole cow chopped up. They use it all. Cheap meat and big freezers mean they eat pretty well.

On Saturdays she plays with the kids, and on Sundays she gets a day off. She walks to the dam and looks at the water, she reads books or sometimes the bus goes into town and she hitches a ride to find and walk along the creek. She builds herself a life here, and it seems to fit her well.

Wrapped in my new life, I too cut carrots in a kitchen, and cleaned up after those whose care I was entrusted with. I too saw in their faces the place I was supposed to be. I too didn’t miss my mother the way she missed me.

And 37 years apart, we on occasion remembered our old lives and shook our heads.

Dalby is the perfect container for Vicki. She has function, and a divine purpose, she has many children who need her so she cannot feel bad about leaving her brothers and when she doubts, she remembers Moses.

They organise a walkathon for the children to raise money for the homes. With the proceeds they buy a trampoline and my child mother jumps on it, her dark hair flying.

She visits Lincoln maybe once a year. It’s a long bus ride back to South Australia, and she doesn’t have a lot of money. Vicki was close to her mum before she left. They had spent a lot of time together when Vicki’s Dad was drinking. They grew together, bonded by the absence of one man. She still knows that her leaving has made some things more difficult for her mother and she sometimes feels the twist inside that all who are torn feel, that I felt every time I saw her again.

I decided to stay in Melbourne for a number of reasons, chiefly because I felt to go back would be a reversal. I was thrilled by the anonymity of my new city; that it was mine and mine alone. I felt my mothers prickled resignation but could ignore it.

Merle Ransom aches to see her middle daughter but it is not like her to gush. She remembers Vicki’s certainty and still doesn’t understand why a loving God would pull her child away.

Vicki visits Port Lincoln for Christmas in ’74. Her Father is a different man now; a stroke has robbed him of his ability to be cruel and has left him fragile and old. She doesn’t know to balance the man who made her want to leave with the frightened and broken man left in her home. He dies that January while Vicki is still around. She is 24. She does not stay and it might be this leaving, or any of the others, or none at all that Merle remembers when 40 odd years later, it is her turn to go.

Merle was old and longing for her home, she didn’t know that her leaving was contrary to how things were supposed to work: Vicki had by now come home to her, for her. They needed each other- this was the time they had been denied. Merle told Vicki leaving was something she needed to do, Vicki thought they must have been speaking different languages.

After her father’s dying, my Mum spends another year in Dalby. She then migrates to Newcastle and Bible College. After three years of learning to hate college food via too many sausages and learning to hate rules via the wearing of skirts, my mother meets a man called Colin. He is tall, black haired, much older and already divorced. He is to be a minister and he surprises my mother by marrying her. She has left the girl with the fringe behind it seems. They have wedding on the beach and move on back to Queensland.

They head back to Dalby where Vicki is reunited with the children’s homes again. This time she is a house parent- she has a minister of her own now.

They stay that way long enough to look after many more orphans in one house, to foster at least five children in two more, and to bear two of their own and adopt one, across five towns in two states. Colin stays for seven more years but leaves the four of us in Gladstone, at a two story house with a poinciana tree and a puppy. It is this that drives my mother finally, back to her family. She longs for their known shapes, for their safety in a way she never has. 43, broke and broken, she packs us into a car and trailer and pulls herself down to Adelaide, her mother, her brothers and sisters. On the trip my mother and I grow closer, bonded by the absence of one man.

We arrive in Adelaide and I cry at the new house. It is ugly and red and I am too young to care that as much as I hate the house, my poor bruised mother probably hated it more simply for being hers and hers alone. She does not let us know how weary she is, that something has gone wrong at the end of her story. She sees this arrival as a bridge of sorts, I think. She sees herself coming home to Merle, and maybe this means she can have never left.

By the time I left, my mother had long been the one my grandmother relied on. They argued, Vicki told me things Merle had said and sometimes longed for freedom, for a weekend without their usual shopping trip, for a night free of phone calls.

And for a while there, I am in Adelaide, and Merle and Vicki, and we all exist in codependence, grounded in one another.

But then- it is my turn, and I tell my mother I have to leave, it’s something I need to do. She knows.

The day I leave Adelaide it is bright out, a few puffs of cloud in a perfect blue.

Merle, whose last few months back in Port Lincoln are widely known to have been a success, died in September of 2011. Vicki is wracked with guilt over not supporting her move back home, and I tell her that Grandma would remember all the times she was there for her, not the one time she wasn’t.

“I remember her saying I know it will be hard but I have to do this for me-

I remember saying the same thing to her.”

In which I visit a church with mixed results

A disclaimer: my interests have become, of late, rather church and religion adjacent. This is due largely to my choice of vocation and also due to, well, my interests. If you don’t dig on or have any care for the whole church thing, or give a shit about how they do what they do, this may not be your cup of tea. Feel free to disregard, or to read solely for the bits where I’m openly mocking some Christians (sorry). I started writing this for an assignment but it got too fun and so I wrote an assignment and a seperate thing for me and this is the result. It comes off angry, but I can deal with that.

Swathes of inexorably cool young things mill about on the pavement outside the Athenaeum Theatre. A-frame signs bearing the Hillsong logo tell us we’re in the right place and two lots of welcomers make sure we know they notice us. As I approach I say “please don’t leave me- I’m afraid” to a departing friend and I am only half joking. I am attending Hillsong Melbourne City Campus ostensibly to write a case study for an assignment but also to assuage the slight guilt I carry with me for feeling, as a lot of folk of a certain age who are into small and manageable emerging worship type churches do, as though I know all I will ever need to about anything that can be described as a mega-church. If I dislike something, I want to be able to do this with integrity thank you very much.

I managed to avoid (possibly by looking abrupt and scared) the first lot of welcomers who were stood about near the large doors, cool and professional in printed T’s and rehearsed, earnest smiles. The second lot, inside the doors, offered me a murmured “hi” but none of the perfectly designed cards they clutched in their hands. The foyer was wall to wall Hip Young People, and I realised I had no way of knowing where I needed to be for the churching itself. I stood near a table, trying to convince myself that despite my immediate internal default position I was not the most awkward person in the room and that I had every right to be there amongst people possibly 15 years my junior. I set about getting the lay of the land, repeating my surveying of the room and the buoyant kids talking animatedly to one another for ten minutes or so until I saw movement across the foyer; through the throng a small trail of people was headed in a direction that seemed likely to be the church-event, so I set off to follow. This trickle led me to the downstairs doors. As I reached them though, a set of Hillsong T-wearing helpers shut them almost directly in my face saying to one another that “they’re not all going to get chairs anyway”. They did not look at me. I did an immediate U-turn, muttering to myself like a crank and they called after me that I should try upstairs. Not a great start, but I made my way up the stairs as I am fairly robust emotionally and was there for a purpose gosh-darn it.

The theatre itself was mostly dark upon entry. I filed into the large upstairs balcony area in a hush that matched perfectly the theatre setting, and saw the lower portion which is free of chairs at least at the front, brimming with young bodies moving around excitedly, pressed towards the stage the way I used to at gigs. A video was playing on a screen; well-fonted biblical text, images of quasi-spiritual significance, flashes of colour. It was very well made. At some point a band filed on in mostly silence and continuing darkness. They started playing something mounting and electronic betwixt sets of white lights installed in matching patterns either side of the screen, drums rolling us along towards a crescendo. The video and the band worked together, building a mounting feeling within the room, we were all involved now, we all were wondering where this train was going, the images flickered into each other rapidly, colours and shapes jarring together with louder and louder keys, drums and guitar until the music dropped at its peak just as the video stopped on the image of a red cross on a white background. The crowd went frigging nuts.

As the applause for the rock-star cross raged on a solitary woman took to the stage. The lights gradually focused on her and the band, and they began playing a song. On the three large screens began another video clip. The clip involved a lion wandering through an art gallery, and a violin player seated near a sculpture, and other bits and pieces, some lyrics. The song built and with it the singers’ voice, which was quite lovely. It was quite affecting and though I found the accompanying video to be baffling nonsense, I did get goose bumps at the appropriate points as I am not made of stone.

This song finished in a flare of lights and the solo singer left the stage. She was never seen again. To replace her, a troupe of eight very stylish and young singers ran on and one who looked suspiciously like Adam Levine took the lead. The band was very, very well rehearsed, and the initial song a very good copy of the horrible, feel-good, we’re-all-just-going-to-save-the-world-by-dancing-and-being-in-love-on-a-road-trip-to-the-desert pop that is around right now. Simple verses leading to a chorus of Adam singing “I just wanna be where you are” followed by a manipulated keyboard sound trilling a cute little melody while all eight singers jumped around like little wood nymphs kicking their feet, twirling on the spot, spinning in place and full of obvious delight to be worshipping. This went on for some time, three or four songs -an eternity, who can tell- eventually the upbeat songs being replaced with thoughtful and emotive power chords. All around me my compatriots engaged in combo worship manoeuvres; hands up head down, eyes closed arms low, hands outstretched, the sway, the twist on the spot.

A Pastor appeared after approximately four songs to introduce a video link- it seems we were to join Hillsong Sydney for their worship. We saw their band, and our band began playing and singing with them meaning we were watching dozens upon dozens of people by now, all engaged in the same exultant, blissed out mannerisms. This carried on for an additional 2-3 songs. The Pastor had wandered off then appeared again later bopping awkwardly to the music presumably so we’d know he was the Pastor, then wandered off again. He wasn’t seen again till a vaguely racist “pastoral word” he delivered at the end of the thing. But we didn’t need him because… Brian Houston took to the stage in Sydney and began a sermon! Brian! The man himself! In Sydney!

He talked about the Holy Spirit for what felt like forty-five minutes but may have been less. As he talked I realised a great many things. One was “oh I really enjoy structure in a sermon”. Another was “you really believe the Holy Spirit is a man, don’t you?” yet another being “I have truly awful handwriting”. I sat, erratically jotting notes that must have made me seem as if I was finally engaged with what was going on but that in fact hinted at the various emotional reactions I was having to the sermon. I wanted to love the preaching. I longed to be pleasantly surprised by a man who has built an empire and amassed millions of followers because, as certain pockets of the church are fond of saying with a shrug and a sad smile that implies they are bravely acknowledging the truth, “they must be doing something right”. However much I was theoretically ready to be taught something, to have the Word explored and expanded in front of me though, this was not to be.

Brian rasped his meandering thoughts in varying stages of passion and quietitude, occasionally referring to a bible verse to back up his opinions of the Holy Spirit. He paced the stage, not our stage of course, but the stage on our big screen TV, his voice rising and falling like an auctioneer. The Holy Spirit is our advocate. The Holy spirit is our Cheerleader. He had the sense to say at least that the spirit is not just a resource at one point, oh that’s big of you, I thought, though at another he said it is “cheaper than therapy”. This particular point I found vastly troubling, not least because of the murmured responses that came floating up from all over the theatre- our crowd were not, it seems, deterred from encouraging Brian by his not being in the building- got louder at this point as they had at many others, as people sensed he had said something Very True and or lyrically resonant. If, I thought, the Holy Spirit is our therapist, what does that say to the statistically probable whole bunch of folks here who have clinical depression or anxiety or any other myriad reasons one could have for talking to a therapist and which in no way mean they’re not a vessel for the Spirit of God? This Spirit, I was to learn, walks with you to encourage you, and is better looking than Brian, with ‘powerful arms’. This Spirit, I came to understand, was around to Help Me With My Goals. Which, sure, Bri did say should be “about building the kingdom”, but though that got another boat load of affirming murmurs from Melbourne which our preacher will never know about, what I would love to know is, how the fuck the Kingdom is understood if the Holy Spirit is sold to me as an aide to making my life better.

How many times we were told “just to invite him in” – him in this case being the Holy Spirit, lest you had forgotten- I couldn’t say but I was left very confused as to just what exactly that meant. Brian did specify that we already had the Spirit, thanks for that Brian, but there was a clear call to get more somehow? A greater influx? More Spirit less No Spirit if you will, which really amped up at the end of the rambling and sporadically hyper homily when we were encouraged I think to invite him in but this time the band will play and you guys just pray and just invite him in and I wanna feel the spirit moving tonight I do feel the spirit moving tonight I think the spirit is going to move on you powerfully tonight (also by the way the Spirit will help me with my financial endeavours so perhaps I should have tried harder to up my Spirit quota when instructed) all this being assisted ably by the band who were urging us to feel the Spirit move with the perfect combination of chords and rolling drum solos.

Look. I know I’m being crass and unkind, and I know I could be accused of not really going in with an open mind at all, but honestly after a month or so reflecting on this, I don’t really want to be kind. I think that kind of theology is at best unhelpful and at worst dangerous. I think using all male pronouns for all names of God is dumb and outdated and can’t and shouldn’t be supported and to do so with so obvious a lack of consideration, such a blithe assumption of what you know about God makes me mad. I think implying that all you really need for your emotional health is to worship harder is negligent. I think worship shouldn’t just be a big feel-fest to get you all amped up and ready for the week. I think churches should be talking about what the Holy Spirit has empowered us to do in the world around us. I think a lot of churches get things wrong, but that to suggest we should be seeking to emulate certain other movements because they get the kids in the seats and raising their hands is naïve and missing a large part of the point because I don’t want a theatre full of kids raising their hands and hearing tidbits about what God can do for them and whipping themselves into a frenzy aided by spirit keys and repetitive calls to ask Jesus into your heart to be what church boils down to.

I will say this: they run a tight ship. If I had felt so moved, I know I could have found a dozen ways to be “connected in”, though I would have had to be the one initiating contact. I somehow missed the ‘welcome zone’ which I found out was near the doors I was tragically barred from, but they made it clear that I could have talked to anyone in a Hillsong T-shirt and been welcomed and joined up to all manner of helpful groups and lists. I was super bothered by the sermon being streamed in but maybe that doesn’t happen all the time. I hope not. I’d like to believe that they have the resources to find preachers if not to help youngins from their enclaves to try their hand at it. All the volunteers, of which there were many, and the attendees were literally the most representative bunch I’ve ever witnessed in a church. All the colours of the rainbow. Lack of cultural diversity clearly is a problem they’ve left for us, the more staid, less branded congregations.

So anyway, they get the kids in, they get them excited, and who knows, maybe I’m just an asshole and they all go out from there wanting to learn more and see God in the face of a stranger. Or maybe no one ever does and I should get off my high horse. I don’t know, as I’m increasingly convinced no one does, the perfect way to do church. And I don’t want to. Perhaps this service was more than a big old feel-fest, perhaps it doesn’t matter. I did learn a little about myself in there, aside from how much I don’t enjoy Brian Houston’s preaching. The woman who used to be able to engage in some sort of internal surrendering of self during sung worship, is gone. At least for now. She’s been replaced by someone who thinks a LOT about different parts of church, about what people say, about how boring so many church songs are to her, who does not want to lift her arms. She can be a bit of a dick. And she knows that Hillsong, chirpy vibes and friendly volunteers aside, is definitely not for her, and that this is fine.