Saturday, 31 December 2011

Two Highlights from 2011

Two personal highlights from 2011. They even contradict each other depending on the world perspective we take but there you go... this is the world we live in, going into 2012. I hope it is a good one for you and thanks for reading the blog this year. As always, feel free to comment, email or tweet a response.

Number 1 - Minority World Highlight

Flying back to Melbourne from Sydney having attended a two day seminar learning some great content but also witnessing the presentation magic of the brilliant Allan Parker .

Have you ever had one of those moments where all was calm? You felt real peace? You're inspired and quiet inside? I love getting a window seat in a plane. My head is leaning up against the perspex and this magnificent sunset starting to break out over the sky. I took this photo.
I had the earphones on, looked up and saw something on the in-flight TV Channel. Something of beauty (and relevant as this post goes up on New Year's Eve). The subject of this video always gets a pretty good view of the fireworks on Sydney Harbour. I reckon you'll enjoy this (especially if you're a Nick Cave fan).

(n.b.... What I saw on the plane was this ... the half hour documentary on the making of the clip).

Number 2 - Majority World Highlight

A response to last week's post came in from the 'majority' world. It is an extraordinary world we live in when you consider a friend (and mentor) of mine opened up the blog in Vietnam. She emailed back...

Hi Bill,

Merry Xmas. Sitting in Saigon having early Brekky. It's 6.30am here. Just
read your beautiful story. What a lovely way to start my Xmas day...

Saigon at Xmas is amazing. I have never seen so many crowds in the streets
last night... motorbike mayhem! Seems the Buddhists and Taoists are embracing part of the Christmas traditions.

... yesterday rode around on Cyclo - well I sat there while a man who was at least 101 years old peddled! This country is truly unbelievable. Asia and Australia are poles apart and I wonder who is the happier... we have way too much... convinced of that... that is way too much of what has no real value.

Love to you and your family on this Christmas day 2011.

My friend's story evoked straight away, a memory of incredible generosity... received like her, as a visitor from the minority world to the majority world.

Go Back to Where You Came From aired on SBS in June. The ratings back up that it was a television highlight of 2011. The first episode trended as the number 1 discussion in the world that night on Twitter. We are a country divided on the issue of asylum seekers. The documentary was brilliant, it put six Aussies, all with views across the spectrum of the issue, into the shoes of the asylum seeker. They lived their story, only in reverse. Starting from the place of final settlement these people traveled back through detention centres, made a dangerous journey on a leaky boat, lived in transit countries and refugee camps before having the choice to go right back to the war zones from which people have actually fled. One resettled African family (on the link above, you'll see a photo of the Masudi family in Wodonga) welcomed the participants in their home with a customary ritual. This sparked a personal memory.

When I saw this ritual, seven years fell away and in an instant I was transported back to the most humbling experience of my life. Below you see my two kids in 2004 in a village outside of Kampala. Now let's list the ambiguities... I was on Long Service Leave and heading to visit the 'in-laws' in the UK (where they don't have LSL). Dad was working in Uganda as a consultant, so I took the kids to visit him on the way. Dad's work colleagues had the services of a driver, John.

There is John standing next to me. His two girls are in the school uniforms. They showed their perfect copperplate handwriting in their school books to my kids' astonishment. Down below in the bottom corner you can see a plastic basin and a water container.

Just like the Masudi's did for their guests in Wodonga, John's daughter, Joan, later places my hands over the bowl, pours water from that container over my hands and then dries them with a towel. A practical way to prepare for a shared meal.

A most profound ritual of welcome that remains the most gracious hospitality I have ever received. We shared an incredible meal of beautiful spicy pork pieces. John even bought in some soft drink for the kids, conscious how their stomachs might go with the drinking water. Dad explained that John would have spent a week's wages on the feast. It was embarrassing but dad said to just 'go with it' as refusing would greatly offend. John and his family welcomed their guests by washing our hands, they gave all they had to a group of people from the other side of the world who by comparison, had everything.

Happy New Year. Thanks for reading in 2011.

Bill Jennings

Saturday, 24 December 2011

The Man Who Never Forgot

The major block of colour is maroon. Boys in school blazers, in their hundreds, are crossing the street, streaming from trams and buses towards the requiem mass for Father John Carnie. Appreciate that the boys have been given the day off and the choice, by their school, to attend this funeral. Father John had been their chaplain at Marcellin College - a post he held for 25 years. I first met John just prior to him starting in this defining ‘work of his life’, when I was a young bloke in 1984, in Year 12 myself at another school. We became fellow team members of a youth community that ran Stranger Camps for young people. The essence of the experience was that the Year 12 students came from many different schools (hence the name ‘Stranger’) and had the opportunity to share their own story and hear the precious stories of others. A friendship started from there, despite our age difference. It lasted down the years even though we hadn’t managed to catch up much in recent times.

Whenever we caught up though, the little quips would start flowing like we’d seen each other yesterday… I could remember his old jokes and would get them in there, before he could say them, to his delight. John always laughed and said “you are like the Borbons” (his paraphrased reference to an old European royal house), “they didn’t know much but they never forgot”. As this Time & Space work grew, Marcellin embraced these experiences for their boys and parent community. That meant that I could catch up a bit more with John on his home turf. The last time I saw him was at a Time & Space for Stepping Up night at Marcellin in 2011. We stood together looking out across the 160+ Year 8 boys and their dads and mentors. John marvelled at how they were deeply engaged in one to one conversations, encountering things they might not have known in each others’ story. The shining faces reminded us of what we used to see over a quarter of a century ago on those Stranger camps. Here’s the last photo I took of John at a Stepping Up night.

This is a classic John Carnie shot because it shows him (in his beloved Marcellin jacket) doing something he did brilliantly – ‘turning up’. He was famous for turning up or ‘gate-crashing’ as he liked to call it. The trust and rapport he had built was so high, that Year 12 students would enquire expectantly with him saying he was welcome to gatecrash their eighteenth birthday party on an upcoming Saturday night. Back in the 80’s when John was in his mid-fifties, I can assure you, he was gate-crashing back then. We loved him turning up to our parties. The mums and dads loved it. With his repartee the man was an ageless rock star!

The stories I have heard told by Marcellin boys, families and staff affirm the fact that he never lost his capacity to connect with people of all ages. A brilliant, quick wit... he had the ability to have the surliest teenager in fits of laughter. John's swag of qualities was extensive and whilst he had that timeless capacity to connect with the current crop of students, it was his 'old school' traits, the way he went about what he did, that tell just as much about his commitment and care. Without fail - every year, I would get a phone call or a card on my birthday. A mutual friend got a phone call early in the morning every year for the last seven years on the anniversary of his mum’s passing. John used to joke I was the ‘Borbon’. I am telling you… he was the one who never forgot!

At Marcellin, John got into the rhythm of doing the same, ‘never forgetting’ for every boy at the school. There would be a knock at the classroom door. A student is called out and there's Father John wishing many happy returns to that young man. He did this faithfully for 25 years. He interviewed every boy when he arrived in Year 7 and on the birthday classroom visit in Year 12, the young man would receive a card from John as well. He never forgot that the simple things are precious to people. As new technologies evolved, John embraced some that he could help him in his mission. He spoke with wonderment about the electronic timetable program that he could look up, to find where a student was at any given period, so he could go and make those birthday visits. The ‘remembering’ and John’s trademark effect of making each person feel special, had some replete ‘old technology’ methods underpinning it.

After he died in August this year, the College Principal, Mark Murphy and a colleague went to respectfully clear out his office. They found a filing card system so organised that the honour and care sang off every record. Little notes about the first interview with a Year 7 would describe a joke that was shared or particular dimension of the conversation that helped John to remember that special detail the next time they met. If a young fella was going through a tough time, a card might have an annotation like, "make contact in two months” and sure enough that card was filed with that date. The cards had lines through them when a new birthday greeting had been honoured. New notes were made for each meeting. In chatting to Mark Murphy, I got the sense of his appreciation of the incredible commitment and sheer hard work that was evident in John’s system.

So this master of remembering, of ‘turning up’ and old technology caused the most amazing crowd to gather at and pack out St Pat’s cathedral. The maroon blazers filled the vast sides in their hundreds. There were other young men, a bit older in their suits, all around where I was sitting and I noticed something in common that, like John’s birthday system, could not have just happened by chance. Each of them were wearing an Old Collegian’s tie. To a man, each had his ‘old boys’ tie on. How did they do it? I learned that one of them had utilised the technology of their generation, Facebook. On the Father John tribute page, one young old boy had put it out there to wear their Old Collegian’s tie. It had got hundreds of ‘likes’. They all turned up in their old school ties to honour the man who had turned up for them every day they were at school.

Priests, young people and Facebook all get their share of bad press. Obviously some of it is deserved (I would never minimize that) but surely sometimes the criticisms block out the good.

This post is being sent out at Christmas time. I can’t think of a better story to tell this year about a man who lived a sense of what Christmas is all about... every day.

As the story goes, a baby was born in a manger and in that moment humanity and divinity were combined. This was Father John’s life work, his delight, his vocation – he sought out the divine spark in every person he encountered.

Happy Christmas everyone… feel free to share your thoughts below.

Bill Jennings

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Road Trip

The two of us loaded our overnight gear into the boot at the front of the old 'Volksy'.

Just the two of us.

That meant that the little red headed kid got the prime front seat propped up right next to dad. In 1973, dad took me on a journey up the old Hume Highway to Glenrowan in North East Victoria. We were going to visit his old mate Tony, who had been best man at mum and dad’s wedding in 1966. I must have been all of five or six years old. It is funny hearing dad tell the story – it is a vivid memory for him too.

It was deep into summer and the day we left, was a scorcher. Dad’s account is that five minutes after leaving the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, we had to stop for a cold can of cola at our local servo. I was asking for lunch by the time we got to Broadmeadows.

It is my earliest memory of having time one-on-one time with dad.

Tony ran a farm. Big tractors and machines, fields of wheat and old corrugated iron buildings. Dad and I stayed in the old ‘sleep-out’. There were louvre windows with rectangles of thick glass. I remember the sound of the cicadas well beyond dark. The mosquitoes were more the size of dragon flies and buzzed around us all night. I rang dad to get his memory of this. He reckons a cool breeze floated through for few minutes around 4am and then it was hot again. But you know what? I was loving it. This was my time with dad.

I reckon Dad did something else by taking me on that trip, he embedded the value of one-on-one, parent-child time. That six year old boy from 1973 is now a dad himself. And just because he runs programs for young people and their parents/mentors doesn’t give him any special claims on perfection (just ask my two teenage kids). No parent is perfect. In making the time, however, Dad made me feel special, a feeling that lasts through time. No-one can take that away from him, from us. It is something that he taught me to do with my own daughter and son. The warmth of the memory is offered as evidence to support the idea that one-on-one time strengthens a child’s resilience.

The lesson from dad has come in handy this year. My son, now fifteen years old is well in the depths of rampant adolescence. He asked if we could repeat an overnight bike ride we had done a few years before. To be invited by him, at this stage of his life, was an opportunity not to be missed. So in the second term holidays we rode the Warburton trail… stayed in a room at the pub, had a counter meal and rode back the next day.

It’s the little things, I’m sure, that will stick through the years. We had taken a footy with us on the ride and a hell of a game of kick-to-kick evolved… nothing unusual there, only that we played it in our room in the pub. We were seeing how many marks we can take in a row without dropping one. It was so much fun. Sometimes in raising kids through the adolescent years, it is hard to believe there is anything remotely funny about that task. We laughed on this trip… saying stupid things and just laughing. It was an oasis.

Then, in the third term holidays Jack and I headed off on a road trip. My brother lives in Queensland and my wife and I agreed that it might be a good thing to give his older sister some quality quiet time in preparation for her Year 12 exams. The Mighty Lisa would stay with Amber and the two fellas headed off on an old fashioned road trip… we packed the car… and headed north.

We stopped in motels… bought Chinese take away in Narrabri… stayed with my brother and old friends over ten days and nights on this road trip up and down south eastern Australia. They were big drives.

Much of the time we were quiet… then one of us would ask a question, we would talk for a few minutes then go quiet again. I wonder how Jack might remember our adventures down the track. A few clues have already been picked up. I know he really valued those quiet times and rhythms. I know because he told his grandfather about the trip on the phone and how much he had loved the time together – just the two of us. His grandfather then told me.

Can you see the story turning full circle here? My dad taught me something by taking me on that road trip. Have I ever let him know how much I cherish the memory? I have now.

Thanks for reading. Do you have a road trip memory? Feel free to share yours in the space below.

Bill Jennings

P.S. You can find this article, called just the Two of Us, in the Parenting Ideas e-Magazine Christmas Edition amongst a whole bunch of other great articles by clicking here

Thursday, 1 December 2011

The First Pill

If you don't come from Brisbane, how often do you look up the BOM website to get a weather forecast? For this blogger it is at least once a year and a comforting traditional prediction is there for today... showers and thundery rain. Huey has not disappointed. Mother Nature's roulette wheel is spun around this time of the year, every year on the first day of the Brisbane Test.

If you are not a cricket fan, please endure this indulgence (the point is expanded soon). This day has memories flooding back through 40+ years of trying to find a way to see or at least hear live, the first ball of the First Test match of the Australian cricket season. Today's first ball of the first day of the First Test (affectionately dubbed the first pill by cricket tragics) happens to coincide this year with the first official day of summer.

I've got memories down through the years of the long summer days watching a Test up at my grandparents' house where they had an orchard in the Yarra Valley. All of the cousins had their special time to stay at Grandma and Grandpa's place. Mine was the long school holidays for two weeks some time in December or January. Back then, cricket was on ABC TV and there was only a budget for one straight-on camera down the pitch. So you saw the batman face-on one over and then the next over was from behind the wicket, so you would see the bowler coming in and the batsman's back. The first day of a season was often when we were still in school. One year the first pill happened at recess and the radio broadcast was piped out onto our playground on the loud speaker. I think by lunchtime Australia was nearly all out and Rodney Hogg (a fast bowler, not a recognised batsman) was our top scorer with 36 runs. As a teacher for 20 or so years, if the timetable had me scheduled for class when the first ball was bowled, my kids would see me frantically enter the room with a coat hanger. Shoved into the back of the telly that coat hanger became a makeshift aerial and together we'd watch a grainy picture of another opening to the international cricket season.

So, thanks for hanging in there - my expanded point is? Well, here's some questions for you. Think of the patterns in your year. What are the things that punctuate your year, that when they happen, great memories burst open? Is it the Myer Christmas windows? Is it an annual holiday place that even when you say its name quietly to yourself, you are taken back there?

At the heart of this, is that intangible feeling of warmth and security. I don't take it for granted. I can see a little kid sitting on a wooden bench seat in the old Southern Stand at the MCG for the Ashes Boxing Day Test of 1974. I was really grown up - seven years old (and like, nearly eight) there next to my dad. I don't even have to close my eyes to transport back to that time. What memories do you have from your childhood days that make you feel warm? Dad took me to my first day at the cricket and a life time obsession with today was born, of wanting to see the first pill flung in anger for the long summer ahead.

You're a young person reading this? Can you guess what special things you do right now, every year, that will be the memories that make you smile when you are forty, fifty or ninety-seven years old?

People who layer our memory, with good experiences, are giving us a gift that may help us to feel secure for perhaps even, a lifetime. We can give back by doing that for our kids now and in the future. At 11am today, Melbourne time, guess what I'll be doing?

What are the memories that make you feel warm when those times and places come back around? Who made them happen for you? What are the funny little details you remember?

Feel free to share your own thoughts and memories in the space below.

Bill Jennings