The Abbey Up the Hill

I am quite fascinated by the Benedictine tradition. There's something about its quiet humility, its commitment to quietness, scholasticism, learning and permanence - all qualities I find difficult to cultivate, yet so admire in others.
I like to live a Benedictine life vicariously through books by and about monks. One of my all time favourites is, naturally, Kathleen Norris, but I have also become enamoured of a wonderful author called Carol Bonomo, and have just finished her book The Abbey Up the Hill.
It is an account of a year lived as Benedictine Oblate - that is a lay person who commits herself to the Benedictine Rule and attempts to infuse their everyday lives with the spirit of the Benedictine order. A fascinating book, one can't help but feel jealous of Bonomo's ability to make such a serious spiritual commitment. Luckily, she presents herself as no saint - she is grouchy and impatient and inclined to be judgemental of her fellow religionists (reminds me of someone...). I love her honesty, and her willingness to depict herself as an unlikable curmudgeon. Mrs. Bonomo is decidedly real, and her religious life full of the same stretches of boredom, frustration and doubt that afflict so many of us. I was charmed when she decides at last to make cheerfulness her primary spiritual practice - for this is certainly the hardest state of being to cultivate.
Finally, after journeying to her beloved Benedictine Abbey over the course of a year, the author realises the importance of cultivating a true inner spirituality that doesn't rely on the perfection of others or of place in order to inspire a true religiosity. The message is ultimately about creating an 'inner monastery' that can guide our commonplace actions and thoughts, and steer us toward a true humility and contemplative state of mind.
I love this book so much - Bonomo is a brilliant and unpretentious writer, and I think she has gained some seriously profound insight into the spiritual journey. Tempered, always, with humour and self-deprecation. A terrific, and inspiring, read.

Favourite Objects - Diamond Rat

I love objets d'art.
Bibelots, knick-knacks, them what you will, I fill my house with 'em.
I can trace this almost exactly back to the two most influential women in my life - my Grandma and my Great Aunt Audrey. They were both committed collectors of stuff, almost all of it with sentimental value. A trip to Aunty Audrey's house was exactly like going to a museum of popular art and design, and there were always piles of stuff you hadn't discovered before.
In direct rebellion to this, my mother was a great thrower-away. If we hadn't picked it up and used it in a couple of days my mother would toss it in the rubbish, or give it away to someone else. Our houses were zen-like in their austerity. All surfaces were bereft of ornament, and the walls were unadorned. I never really liked my mother's style, and ached for a home filled with ornament cupboards and crystal cabinets and corner what-nots. I ached for dolls dressed in the national costumes of the world and ceramic kittens and Avon perfume bottles in the shape of Geisha girls. I wanted a room to tinkle as you walked through it.
So as soon as I could, I began to establish my own collection. Some may call it kitsch, some tat, some may view it with irony. All I know is that one day they're gonna be naming a museum after me. Or at least a room in a museum.
So I bring you a survey of some of my choicest trinkets.
Exhibit one is a pink metal rat encrusted with fake jewels. It's actually a little box - you can open up the top of the rat and put things in it. I bought it at a market in Hong Kong for an incredibly inflated price, and now only wish I'd bought more. I could gaze at it for days, and stay up at nights thinking of things I could put inside it. I bought this baby to celebrate the year of the Rat. Every year I buy a piece of tawdry statuary to celebrate the Lunar New Year and its matching zodiac animal.

The Incidental Rosary: 2

This is a wooden wrist mala that I bought somewhere in China. It sits upon an antique sewing box that rests on my writing desk. This sewing box is filled with all kinds of treasures that I don't know what to do with.
I like wooden beads - they are invariably the ones I tend to wear. I like the feel of wood against my skin, and I like to touch it when I am chanting. I like the way wood soaks up the various oils that one's body secretes, and gradually becomes shiny and changes colour.
I also like the smell of wood.

The Incidental Rosary: 1

Like I said, I have a thing for rosary beads.
I grew up protestant in a small North Queensland town that was about 60% Italian, and everyone around me was Catholic and having so much fun.
They got to have confirmation parties and first communions and were constantly being given things in the name of their religion - things like Holy Cards and rosary beads.
We Methodists got zilch. Nothing at all to show for our time and prayers.
So I would go over to my cousin's house and lovingly finger her vast collection of rosary beads. She had the good fortune to possess an Italian father, and life for her was one long gift-fest. She had all the latest Barbie dolls with accessories - my all-time favourite being the Barbie Perfume Factory, which let you create your own colognes from a limited repertoire of scents. I seem to remember that they all smelled like strawberry at the end, and finally my aunt banned us from using it because the stench we produced gave her a migraine.
So over time I secretly and guiltily built up my own little collection of religious jewellery. This was mostly through the auspices of our local outlet of St. Vincent de Paul, which provided rosary beads, scapulars and religious medals at a very reasonable cost. I would save my pennies and trundle down every couple of weeks to see what was new under the counter at Vinnies. I was always secretly terrified that the Catholic ladies would call my bluff and refuse to hand over such sacred merchandise to a child so obviously protestant.
Fortunately, Madonna (the pop star, not the Mother of God) came onto the scene, and rosary beads became a fashion item just as I was beginning to reinvent myself as the most fashionable guy in town (it really wasn't hard). So out came my years of booty - worn ironically, of course. I would positively jingle as I walked down the street adorned with dozens of sets of rosary beads.
I've never really been able to beat my fascination with the rosary, and as I grew up and travelled I discovered the importance and ubiquity of the Buddhist and Hindu rosaries, and so only added to my collection. Wherever you turn in my home there is a set of prayer beads, ready for emergency use should I feel the need to sit down and offer up a supplication or ten.
So I thought I'd attempt to capture the incidental rosary beads as they are discovered in Walter's world.
This set comes all the way from Notre Dame, and were a special gift from Thang when he visited France some years ago. I have always treasured them, and they are always somewhere in my study, ready for me to take a break from my labours and start in on the Ave Marias instead. They are sleekly elegant, and nice and cold to the touch. Here they are abandoned on a research folder for my Honours Thesis, obviously left there in a time of crisis.


Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, love is where it falls, etc. etc.
So many cliches, all of them so true.
This object was brought home by Thang after some official visit to China. His delegation visited a ceramics factory in some obscure regional city with a population greater than that of Australia and New Zealand combined. Each member was presented with a gorgeous case, and inside it was this thing. Thang said that some people flinched visibly. It's quite enormous and heavy, but Thang carried it home in the confident knowledge that I, of all the people in the world, would love it. All the other members of the delegation threw theirs out at the hotel.
As an object it is hard to describe - a life-sized bonsai tree trunk festooned with monstrous chrysanthemums and bamboo leaves and some other, unidentified, flora. And if you look at it long enough you will discover other, unexpected, features. A tiny little panda is in there, and a bee. And, inexplicably, a bell that tinkles.
When people visit they point and laugh at it and ask what on earth it is.
It is quite extraordinarily good at collecting dust, and whenever I dust it or wash it several pieces fall off. Like the Magic Pudding, however, it seems to regenerate, and I can never identify from where the broken pieces have come. It looks as pristine now as when it came out of its ornate case, despite having lost half a kilo of porcelain pieces.

Hello Kitty

I hate to be one of those people who claims to have liked things before anyone else, but honestly, I have loved Hello Kitty for 20 years now, back in the days when people were perplexed to see a grown man using stationery embossed with a bright pink little kitty cat.
Now, of course, no-one blinks an eye.
And it seems that Kitty's star is on the rise, with Paris Hilton embracing the mouthless feline as her own personal totem.
When I was in Taiwan I lived right across the road from a big Hello Kitty shop, and from week to week I would wait for the new window display, exposing a whole new range of Kitty products. One week it would be a Kitty television, the next a Kitty rice cooker. If one delved deeper into the shop one would discover a whole world of other creepy Japanese cartoon characters who seem to exist only to sell branded products. Among my own pantheon of favourites includes Monkichi, Kero Keroppi and the exquisite Tare Panda.
Sydney once had its own Hello Kitty stores, but they both closed down, victims of a vastly over-estimated expectation of the Australian enthusiasm for tat. Sometimes I thought I was the only customer. I mean, why didn't Sydney embrace hyper-inflated plastic items emblazoned with insipid cartoon characters? Where have we gone wrong as a nation?
I actually once wrote a paper on Hello Kitty, using her as an example of the globalisation of Japanese culture. And it's true that, no matter where you go in Asia, you will find quantities of Hello Kitty paraphernalia, much of it pirated. I seem to remember that the conclusion of my paper was that, in centuries to come, Hello Kitty will be elevated to the rank of divinity, and people will be making offerings to this enigmatic icon.
My third book is going to be about Hello Kitty - I am going to follow her around the world.
Watch this space.

More Prayer Beads

I told you I've been obsessed lately.
A couple of weeks ago I went along to the wonderful Space for God evening, and we all contemplated theology while doing some charcoal drawings.
I was absolutely stumped, though everyone around me was scribbling away at abstract masterpieces.
Finally I just let myself be led, and out came this little sketch of a wrist mala, all stretched from overuse and lots of prayers.
I think it has charm, and it kinda says something about my life.

Sun-Rosary Mandala

I have been obsessed with rosaries lately.
I have always been a fan. I think that prayer beads are immensely useful , and I always keep them around me. I tried to make a mandala late last night, and this is what I managed. I know it's a little rough (I never claimed to be an artist) but I still kinda like it.
I want to make prayer beads. I have for a long time now, but this year has been so busy that I've just never managed to get myself enrolled in a beading class so that I can learn the basics.
Making this mandala has inspired me.
When I come back from Vietnam next year I am going to start making beautiful prayer beads, and shall scatter them far and wide. It will be my own humble prayer ministry.

The Sign of the Cross

I have a confession.
I don't know how to make the sign of the cross properly.
I mean, I know how in theory, but every time I go to do it in reality I can never remember which side comes first, so then I just don't do it. I'd rather not make an ass of myself, or unwittingly expose myself as a devil worshipper or something.
You see, I grew up a Methodist, and good Methodists have no truck with such popish nonsense as making the sign of the cross. But I spend some of my time with people who are Catholic or High Anglican, and for them making the sign of the cross is as common as breathing. And not doing it at the appropriate time along with them makes me feel rude, or as though I'm making some kind of post-modern religious point at their expense. I'm not! I just get confused about which shoulder comes first. I'm not good with directions at the best of times. I didn't get my drivers license till I was 35!
It's something I'm really going to have to commit to memory. Apparently if you don't do it properly you are committing the most wicked sin, and I've got enough of those under my belt, thanks very much.
And after that I'll start on learning how to genuflect properly. Which knee?!?

My Current Top Played Songs

Well, this is probably one of the most embarrassing things I'll ever do!Here is a peek into the soundtrack in my life! That's right, the current "Top Most Played" songs on my Ipod. The amount it says about my life, my history and my state of mind is just terrifying!

American Boyz by Boy George
This is an album track from his amazing Tense Nervous Headache Album from 1988. This is George at his most New York, a sleek, soulful ballad about getting lots of sex in America. It tells a story, has a terrific sound, and obviously I listen to it a lot!

Got To Be Real by Cheryl Lynn
A disco classic, this rally has substance. And I'll never forget it as the leitmotif for that wonderful movie Paris is Burning.

Me And I by ABBA
A little known album track from their Super Trouper album (my favourite). A dancy pop tune about psychoanalysis!

Head Over Heels by ABBA
This is Abba at their wonderful 80s weird best. They had such a kooky sound by then - really Euro and quite avante garde, in its own peculiar way.

Something Strange Called Love by Boy George
Another album track from Tense Nervous Headache - obviously I love this album. C'mon - I was 18 when it was released - these were my glory days! A smooth, Philly sound, with touches of Stevie Wonder.

I Can't Go For That (No Can Do) by Hall & Oates
Ha! What can I say! I love the boys. The best crypto-queer band in the world.

Whisper by Boy George

A big, macho sound from the boy. He probably never looked more beautiful than when he released this. An enormous flop, but I think it's gold.

I Love You by Boy George
Playful and upbeat, makes me smile.

UFO by Sneaky Sound System
Hey, something that's been released in the last 10 years! I love this song - makes me proud to be an Australian. And they are keeping the dream alive by retaining that quintessential Australian quirkiness.

Ordinary Girl by Alison Moyet
A big flop from the fabulous Ms. Moyet circa 1986, now it seems wistful, clever and terribly sad.

I Don't Care by Eartha Kitt
Eartha doing disco and doing it well.

Asereje (The Ketchup Song) by Las Ketchup
The most annoying song ever written? I can't get enough of it!

When I Kissed The Teacher by ABBA
Every schoolboy's fantasy.

Ashes And Diamonds by Feargal Sharkey
Obscure Feargal Sharkey track? On high rotation? Only in Walter's world.

Santa Maria by Tatjana
Stock, Aitken, Waterman at their very best. This reminds me of living in Vietnam in 1999.

Magic Rhythm by Christie Allen
A true Australian classic. If you don't know this one you should be ashamed of yourself.

Black Money by Culture Club
An album track, but much loved and admired. George and Helen Terry singing the blues.

Say I'm Your Number One by Princess
This was brilliant. This is why I loved growing up in the 80s.

Freedom by Boy George
An album track from his absolutely terrible solo debut album Sold in 1987. Quite awful, but it has a "right on sister" gay rights kinda charm.

Tina Arena

I don't know what it is that draws gay men to Tina Arena. A less kind person could say that its all part of the infantilism of popular queer culture, and adoring a woman best remembered for being a child-star is par for the course. Think Judy, think Kylie, think Elizabeth.....
And perhaps there is something to this. A person - particularly a woman - who has grown up surrounded by the machinery of popular culture creation is bound by adulthood to have a slightly skewiff perception of what it means to dress, to sing, to perform - to undertake everyday life, even. It is almost inevitable that such a person should carry with them everywhere an indomitable element of self-conscious performativity, which is never more than a breath away from camp.
The glorious Ms. Arena is by now a bona fide diva, a state of being exacerbated by her insistence on living abroad, her personal interest in campy torch songs and the album releases that never quite make the big time.
I'm in love with her most recent album, where she covers a whole host of queer favourites, including The Look of Love and Kate Bush's The Man With the Child in His Eyes. The thing is (and this is a measure of the woman's innate diva-dom), I don't think she cynically chose songs that would appeal to the gay men who must overwhelmingly make up her target market these days. No, she actually likes these songs herself, proving that the lady is camp personified, and worthy of world-wide queer adoration.
My lifelong Tina highlights? Revelling in the high-drama s&m lyrics of Chains, and years later watching the sublime Paulini do the same on Australian Idol. And one drunken evening at the Imperial boogying away to Soulmate # 9 and deciding that this was the best song, ever. And I still stand by that judgement.
A few years ago, while working as a functionary in the entertainment industry, a very dear and very heterosexual workmate was offered some free tickets to a Tina Arena concert at the State Theatre. Naturally, I was the first person he telephoned, and I jumped at the chance. It was an hilarious evening, the audience being filled with gay men and B-List Australian celebrities (including my favourite Geraldine Turner). My poor young friend blushed at all the knowing looks he was subjected to, and a couple of middle-aged bears sitting in front of us seemed to have consummated their relationship to every single one of Tina's hits, so amorous did they get as the evening went on.
But divas don't survive on adoration alone. Ms. Arena was once engaged to perform at the Italian Festival at my hometown of Ingham, North Queensland. Being unused to the inclement weather of the tropical North, Ms. Arena became furious when it rained in the afternoon, and refused to perform till the skies cleared up, leaving scores of honest country folk damp and hot and desperate to hear a few bars of Now I Can Dance. Ever since then her name has been mud in North Queensland.

Take This Bread

I've just finished reading Sara Miles' Take This Bread, and it's one of the best books I've read in a long while.
I am confined to bed, recovering from surgery. Naturally I decided to read for pleasure rather than plowing on with my enormous academic book list. In quick succession I read Lindsey Crittenden's The Water Will Hold You, and then this one. Strange that they are both books about Anglican ladies living in San Francisco. Miles' is the better book, probably because she is more representative of the free-wheeling and rebellious spirit that I admire.
A middle-aged, atheist lesbian, Miles found herself transformed when she took Communion at the amazing-sounding St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. I love how she finds a place for herself in her religion and maintains her own integrity in the face of a religious establishment which all too often rejects those who don't fit into the neat pigeonholes of what it is to be Christian. She has a passion for authentic spiritual experience and, like me, is genuinely bewildered by most of what passes as 'church' and 'liturgy'. Her lifelong connection with food sees her setting up a pantry for the poor right inside the church, and it is through this work that she discovers her own path of ministry.
She is just so wise, unpretentious and genuinely in love with her religion. This book is immensely valuable, and essential reading for anyone who questions the future of church in our society.
My favourite quote: "I'd been raised to reject religion, but I was finding that people often wanted more of it than the church was willing to give: more sacraments, more rites, more prayer and healing and blessings."
Hear hear!
This is something I've observed for a long time - the modern church bemoans the lack of people willing to engage with church, but at the same time says: "We're only going to be open for a couple of hours on a Sunday, when you'll have to do everything according to our terms, and then only if we think you deserve it..."
Miles gives us a more radical vision of what church can be, and of how we can help re-introduce the sacred into everyone's lives.
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