As men like me grow older the comical, and not so comical, physical changes that occur to our bodies, like an increase of bristled eyebrow, hairier ears and vein-roped hands, are sometimes matched by behavioural and psychological changes of the sort described by the poet John Heath Stubbs as follows:
Old men, as they grow older, grow the more garrulous,
Drivelling temporis acti into their beards,
Argumentative, theoretical, diffuse.
Ah yes indeed, it is I, it is I. “Laudator temporis acti”! I become a “praiser of times past”, feeling more and more alienated from the present, and therefore in danger of becoming a grumpy curmudgeon. My children are my only hope of salvation. Very much at ease in the present, they either gently mock me out of my unease and mystification, or else they explain and interpret the present intelligently and sympathetically enough to ward off incipient despair. Heath Stubbs, a very fine poet and stubborn Christian to the end, (he died last year), goes on to finish his terse little gem of a poem thus:
With the poet, not so. One learns
To be spare of words; to make cold thrusts
Into the frosty air that comes.
The final message – a few strokes on the sand;
A bird's footprints running to take off
Into the adverse wind.
I myself, being a mere versifier and no poet, far from becoming “spare of words” retain my garrulity. So hold tight for another promiscuously adjectival Christmas letter, one better likened to lightly scuffed acres of wet sand left behind by the sudden flight of a thousand sandpipers, than to the “few strokes on the sand” of a single bird’s “footprints running to take off into the adverse wind.”
Since last Christmas we’ve certainly been buffeted by adverse winds. In February Margaret was diagnosed as having an inoperable lung cancer which had already metastasised to the sternum and a rib. That someone who has never ever smoked should contract serious lung cancer is most unfair, but then only a fool would claim fairness to be a universal characteristic of human existence. Since the diagnosis and Margaret’s considered decision not to bother with chemo-therapy, which in such cases increases life expectancy only marginally and at too horrible a cost for so minimal a result, she has had a dose of palliative radiotherapy and takes a new drug called gefitinib, for which a biopsy indicated she was a suitable candidate. This appears to be helping to hold the cancer at present. She remains serenely untroubled by the likely imminence of the earthly fate predicted for her, and so we live tranquilly from day to day, enjoying an Indian Summer much longer than doctors expected. Is it medicine, prayer, acceptance or luck? Faith doesn’t bother with such questions, trusting that the great God who underlies all that is, underlies all such possible answers. “All will be well, all manner of things will be well....” A little article on our theological response to the event is posted on my website, for anyone who can bear musings upon such subjects. It is entitled “The Golden Evening Brightens in the West”.
In August two generous and delightful parishioners offered Margaret and myself a free holiday in their lovely unit at Caloundra, on the warm and balmy coast north of Brisbane. This proved a turning point for Margaret health wise, marking the beginning of our Indian Summer. Often short of breath and needing a good deal of rest, the break in such a lovely spot for nearly three weeks did us both an enormous amount of good. Since then and so far, there has been no detectable deterioration at all. Margaret rested well there, knitting, reading, gently walking, and from the sitting room serenely watching large ships sail peacefully by, allowing me to do all the cooking. Elizabeth came and joined us for a week, helping, among other things, to ensure that I celebrated Margaret’s birthday with sufficient style and flair. Elizabeth is expecting our first grandchild in late February, and at the time we thought there was little likelihood of Margaret seeing the infant, hence all that knitting, now it begins to seem a real possibility that the grandchild will have a grandmother to greet it after all. Margaret has unwittingly become something of an inspiration to the whole parish let alone to her grizzled and bristled husband.
Nathan and Elizabeth remain in Canberra for the time being, and Nathan has recently and successfully passed the last accounting exams required to plump out his degree to its full money earning potential. Inert, uninterested and easily bamboozled by matters financial, I was saved from a silly decision recently by a bit of timely advice from Nathan. Elizabeth, having embarked upon a second degree to qualify as a teacher, soon decided that it was not for her and so disembarked promptly and with relief. I always joke that it was teaching that turned me to God, which it wasn’t, but it is a good line. Elizabeth can claim that it was the prospect of teaching that turned her to parenthood, it wasn’t, but it is also a good line. Before the pregnancy became too limiting she did a little casual cleaning and parish office minding for the church they attend in order to keep herself from mischief and in pocket money. Both she and Nathan appear to be preparing for parenthood with diligence and joy and will be excellent parents. Elizabeth has been down several times to support her mother, but she keeps an eye on her hairy-eared father as well. It will be good to have them both with us for Christmas.
Peter remains in gainful employment with “Vision Australia” in Albury, managing the office and in charge of I.T. He now has his driving licence and a car adapted to his special needs and so roams the country deterred and thwarted by nothing. As soon as he acquired his licence he headed off up the wintry mountains with his car’s radiator burping anti-freeze and with snow chains in its boot. He stayed a night or two at snow drifted Falls Creek and then went over the mountains to Omeo and Bairnsdale on the Gippsland Coast. He then headed west to stay with Margaret and myself on Phillip Island where we were spending a week together in June. He still manages my computer at long distance and remains unmarried but girl-friended to someone his sisters approve of, but as yet not risked to parental scrutiny. He continues to read widely, laugh a lot, photograph everything and to fling interesting articles, pictures and questions our way. He too will be with us for Christmas.
David and his wife Rachel appear to be living a busy life in Cambridge full of gustatory, social, liturgical, aesthetic, academic and marital fulfilment. David has now been deaconed and while doing an M.Phil. is attached, in an honorary capacity, to Little St Mary’s parish in Cambridge. Rachel continues to polish up her doctoral thesis and is likely to be deaconed next year. They have decided not to take up the offer of parishes in Ely diocese and so it looks as though they will be offered a pair of adjacent rural curacies in Salisbury diocese’s Thomas Hardy country. If so they will take up the appointments in the middle of next year. David flew out to visit us on hearing the news of Margaret’s diagnosis and plans to do so again in the near future. His calls by way of Skype are always stimulating, full of good banter, theology, books read, and detailed accounts of extravagant and elegant banquets prepared and shared.
The other and original Rachel Neaum, usually distinguished from the American one by the abbreviated appellation “Ray”, has just finished and handed in her Honours thesis at A.N.U.. She now ponders what to do next. She would like to continue studying theology and philosophy, but wonders where, how and when and contemplates other options too. She is a gifted girl, especially with words and in wit, a very thoughtful and intelligent Christian who has written a few poems that I at least consider to show great promise. She sings in the church choir at Ainslie in Canberra and adds much needed youth and beauty to ours here at St Augustine’s whenever she returns to the parental home.
I continue to work far too hard, unable to distinguish work from play, they overlap so much. The parish priest’s lot remains a fulfilling, stimulating and lovely one. The rise of nasty forms of fundamentalism in both Christianity and Islam, and the stupid lumping of such ugly forms of faith into the same category as intelligent, subtle, beautiful and life-enhancing forms by the new atheists, makes life a little more challenging than heretofore, but I remain in good Christian heart. Johann Sebastian, Roger Scruton, Rowan Williams, Rachel, Margaret, Charles Causley, John Heath Stubbs, David Wright, John Austin Baker, Austin Farrer, Dr Samuel Johnson and hundreds more are part of the great company of saints who gladden my life, enrich my devotions, enhance my joy, strengthen me in doubt and hold me fast. God bless them all and you all, this Christmas and beyond.....
God be with you.....Andrew & Margaret Neaum