Film and Book Reviews

Where Christian faith engages with humanity

BookTender: Stories that Lean into Kindness, by Julie Perrin (MediaCom Education, 2019)

By Cath Connelly

What a marvellous book! From the tactile front cover to the ache of the love of a mother bird in the final essay, this collection of stories invites the reader to see the world through the eyes of compassion and love.

Through 60 stories, each no more than three pages long, Julie Perrin traverses topics as diverse as opening oneself to kindness rather than fear, choosing a life of radical simplicity, the humour of finding her dog in the compost bin, and the delight that Earth Hour elicits in rediscovering the practice of learning poetry by heart.

With most of the stories set in Melbourne, Perrin walks through Queen Victoria Market in gratitude for the egg-seller and the man selling The Big Issue; she takes us to a Book Bank at an inner suburban park reminding us that “sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.” On meeting with a friend in a city café, she understands that it is “best not to come on like a great tidal wave if you want to dwell in the joy of telling and listening … When I think of Jesus in first century Palestine, the formal meals taken in reclining position, I wonder if this posture allowed a flow of conversation and moments of silence.”

Most of all, Perrin places a story in front of the reader and says in effect “this is where I find life; this is where my Christian faith engages with humanity”. On Maundy Thursday, Perrin hears the words of Sam Baker’s song Broken Fingers knowing that not every pain finds healing: “Suddenly I am weeping in the supermarket car park. Some things don’t heal. There is a respectful knowing that doesn’t try to force healing or hope on people. I do the shopping slowly, with a new sense of gratitude … (That night at church) prayers are spoken by candlelight in the darkened church. I am offered water for my feet, and fragrant oils, then towels to enfold them. I am offered wine to drink and bread to eat. In the quiet darkness I remember people who carry wounds that don’t heal.”

Tender is the perfect title for this book. Each story is exquisite in its gentle weaving of incidents witnessed with a call to compassion and justice. On watching a man mending his clothes at the Fitzroy swimming pool, Perrin writes: “I felt a love for this moment and for this mending man. The way he was paying attention to reconnecting the weave of threads that had been broken or frayed. Lapping in my slow lane, I watched the man with affection, his shoulder length strawberry blond hair, his darker red beard, his hair falling across his face as he leant forward slightly, to better see his work. I was fascinated by his quietude … I wondered at my gratitude for this moment – for people who will labour with love. Somehow by mending even such a small thing as an item of clothing, they are taking part in the mending of the world.”

Perrin speaks of doubt, of leaving behind a faith that is ugly in its certitude: “At 25 I gave myself permission to pull back from ticking all the boxes of compliance. It was then that I found fellow pilgrims who called me onto roads less travelled. Doubt was allowed and even welcomed, leading to deeper engagement and understanding of God. I wince now when I hear refusals to doubt. It’s too easy to wound people with sureness, and mistake certainty with faith.” Yet as a person of faith, Perrin stands transformed by the rituals, the beauty, the Liturgical cycle of the church she loves. When Brother Graeme of the Breakwater Community outlines the ceremony of Baptism, “the call and response between the community and the candidate, the wash of the water, the splash of immersion – I felt myself shaken, shivering almost, like a new candidate. I was only listening, but it was as if I was soaked to the skin. I stood on the stone floor with tears streaming down my face. I was captured by that powerful flash of insight, where the religious construct you have carefully built suddenly collapses. I felt like the prodigal returning home. I felt claimed again by the beauty of baptism, the drama of immersion … Standing on the stone floor I knew that I was seen and known, that this was my tribe, and that the word ‘Christian’ had a whole new resonance.”

Read this book; share it with friends. Cry at the memorial to asylum seekers who died trying to come to Australia: “you could have lived in our beautiful valley. You could have had a happy life. You could have been my friend.” Give thanks for the taxi driver who turned off the radio so that Perrin would not hear broadcast the news of her husband’s accident: “the Irish word for shelter can mean shadow or shade. We can be each other’s shadow or shelter.” Come with Perrin to the Port Fairy Folk Festival where “there are moments when the integrity of a performer is so present it is as if the whole gathering is lifted with an intake of breath. Something deeply reciprocal has been witnessed … I think of people sitting on rocky ground in hot sun with no food, listening to the ungilded words of a Galilean preacher. Something compelling caught them – an ancient song echoing, a new song beginning.” Yes, these stories do indeed lean into kindness.

Cath Connelly is co-director of the Living Well Centre, a spiritual director and retreat facilitator. She is currently studying for her Doctor of Ministry in Spirituality. Cath is also a professional Celtic harpist.