Turning 61. Life is still its old paradoxical self. (Why does the notion persist, that one day it will fall into order?) Taking it all in is the thing. Muskets and flowers. Trucks and colouring pencils. The presence and the absence of loved ones.
Have been reading Anne Salmond’s Two Worlds, coincidentally as Aotearoa reckons with the fact of 250 years since Cook et al turned up and bungled the first exchanges: nine Māori dead by the time they sailed on. An inauspicious start. Amends are made slowly; there will never be any laurels to rest on. There will only be doing better. And better again.
Spring flowers under gloomy skies. We hoist a swing in anticipation of the grandsons’ visit, and their parents — they’re in the country, but not here yet. Pangs. I swot up the road code for a class two heavy vehicle license. Passing the theory has proved the easy part.
Maiden, the film, is galvanising (98% on Rotten Tomatoes). Patently women have scarcely begun to unearth and exhibit their capacities in the world — in the case of the boat race, for determination, strategy, endurance, comradeship under pressure, courage … For a power-boost, women young and old, go and see it.
I was given a flowering Pulsatilla Vulgaris whose homeopathic signature is moping and weeping. A sweet reminder that it’s okay to do so – it’s only human – but ten minutes might be enough, okay?
Then it’s time to go back on deck, even if the deck’s slippery now and then, with ice or spume or tears.
Talking with a friend recently whose time is freer than it was. She notices a tendency to fret on her now-unscheduled days. That’s why people go to work full-time, I said. No time for fretting. I was going to be ‘at work’ this week, but without snow, my role as hut manager was postponed along with the ski-field opening. An ’empty’ week. I’ve completed the novel I’d been writing and fiddling with for the last 8 years. Finished my editing jobs and tidied up various loose ends. In this unscheduled week, I can do what I like (get onto the tax return, start a new writing project?) but without the sense of urgency and preoccupation that ‘work’ brings. There’s time to fret.
This morning I’ve read about the million-plus Rohingya people anticipating months of monsoon rain on their villages of plastic sheeting, bamboo and mud. There are around 66 million refugees perched or wandering precariously in our world. I read about the misogyny, racism and slavery mindset inherent in the sex-trade worldwide, which is millions of children and women living in poverty traps every bit as ineluctable as monsoons and mud. And I watch videos of a southern right whale frolicking (if that word can be applied to so many tons of limbless mammal, but it really does seem to be playing) in Wellington Harbour, enjoying the spectacle, but the question lurks: how much plastic is it likely to be imbibing from our coastal waters, along with plankton and krill? Our oceans are rapidly becoming Plastic Soup.
Fretting! Futilely — unless I find ways to contribute to the improvement of these huge problems. A small donation. A letter in defence of. A wish or a prayer. A trip to Bin Inn to buy groceries not packaged in plastic. Is this the best I can do?
Also these days, world attention has been riveted on the 12 boys and their coach holed up in the flooded cave in Thailand. We felt prickly with anxiety over their plight and the agonised decision-making of those capable of getting them out. The navy seals became heros, gods with the power of life and death. Why were we so mesmerised by this story? Because we’re all cave-phobic to one degree or another. Because children were involved. Because it had all the elements of a thriller movie, but with more at stake. Because it resonated with our human plight: we have worked our way into a tight corner. The flood waters are rising. We might find ways, like the meditating boys, to keep ourselves steady in the short term, in our local setting, but we imagine we’ll have to rely on people with more expertise and prominence than we to get us out of the worldwide fix. Is that how it is?
Waiting again this afternoon for a report from the mountain. Perhaps a winter escape.
Three and a half years since I wrote here, in the hot Northland summer of 2015. Now I’m stock-piling stuff for the cold. For a winter playing lodge manager (‘hut mum’ if the age or behaviour of the ski-schoolers calls for it it) in the Southern Alps. I’ll go fortified by kindness and comfort from friends and acquaintances: slippers crocheted by dear hands; cosy ski pants and thermals given by a member of our local ‘Buy Nothing’ group; boots lent by a friend in whose footsteps I’m proud to walk; skis, boots, goggles (albeit outmoded) from my father-in-law who possibly hasn’t quite given up skiing at 95.
I don’t love the cold, but I’ll be well prepared for it, and it will be in keeping with the quality of the air at 1400 metres and the wrap-around snow-peak panorama. It takes an hour or more to walk from the car-park to the hut where I’ll be living with 7 other staff members half my age. From the bullet points on the website, the skifield:
* is not for the masses, you won’t find the white Spyder pants type here.
* comprises big and raw alpine terrain, very different to other NZ ski fields. You can see glaciers from the lodge windows …
It’s ‘rad’ and friendly and besides my other duties, I’m the bar-person Yikes. I’ll keep you posted.
I listened this morning as two women discussed the concepts of Hannah Arendt, who wrote, among other books, The Human Condition, and The Origins of Totalitarianism, and who coined ‘the banality of evil’. All of which are pressingly relevant in our century. I was freshly struck by the assessment that a person who flees their own country, and is thereby made stateless, loses also their human rights. Which is a hard condition to fathom. Basically, they’re no longer entitled to any of the things that make your life and mine worth living. To quote Arendt concerning the plight of the 20th century refugee stripped of their statehood: ‘The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.’ It seems we struggle to understand that unless we (the world) realise and honour the something sacred in every human (of whatever persuasion, origin or circumstance), our current experiment called human life on Earth will end in failure, soonish.
Conversely, when every person on the planet is granted the same rights as every other human, nothing will be impossible — except war, starvation and the exclusion of our human kin from the essentials (and the joys and comforts) of life.
Mundanely speaking, it seems worth considering how I unintentionally subtract from the humanity of those I’m in contact with: taking someone for granted; treating another in utilitarian fashion; failing to look and see, listen and hear; failing to think and imagine on behalf of another …
And it helps to realise that by remedying the failures listed above, I can add an iota to the sum of our humanity.
Woke this morning in another new house, with a full view of the Pacific and a fat Abyssinian who seems indifferent to our presence unless we’re stroking his ginger sleekness.
Over the road, we swim in waves which, in the south, would knock you flat. Up here they churn over you aerated and playful; it’s like being in a benign washing machine.
After four days in the bush, I’m out of touch with the world out there more in synch with the world in here. I feel more useful and productive than when I’m hearing the news and it’s making me agitated. How to do both: know the worst yet stay calm and productive?
Meanwhile I dip in and out; advance and retreat; listen and stop listening; inspire, expire.
Two years on, still house-sitting, still loving it. ‘Dolphins!’ comes the call from the beach. This month we’re perched between two bodies of water; such dynamism is alluring. In a roar of wind the estuary turns to ink. So, too, is the idea of home: vegetables we shepherd from seed to plate; trees we watch grow; rooms with our loved objects, clothing in drawers, real desks … sun again: a stripe of milky jade sweeps the bay … friends who know where to find us.
We’re perfectly okay ‘in the moment’, as long as we rest there. It’s the mind that races about and causes panic: what if we miss out on this or that house? what if the market gets away on us? can we live in a hut in the north? do we really belong in the south? will our friends forget us? why can’t we decide? A gannet glides past the window, gleaming wings spanner-tight. Still, we talk to the bank. The real estate agents. We’re keeping a finger to the wind. The pohutukawa shakes its head as shadows race ashore and gulls lift and cry.
There’s a fine line (there are many fine lines, including those in my favourite shirt) between objectively and wisely questioning what you think and do, and starting to wonder if it’s all wrong: what if I’ve taken the wrong turn here; made a poor choice there; spent my time badly; responded inadequately; pegged my life to a flawed set of premises … especially when every problem out there looks so big and insoluble while what’s in front of me is comparatively tiny and manageable. We’re strange creatures. If it ain’t broke, some of us look for cracks anyway.
It’s time to feed the dog. Pack up the house. Post this. Go and eat dinner with the man I’ve eaten dinner with most nights for 32 years.
It takes a while (55 years or more) to learn and trust that life is rhythmic, to learn not to be thrown by the big shuddering in-breath or the (occasionally dis)gusting out-breath. Not to be dismayed by the sometimes-too-long pause between these two when it’s tempting to think something has died and gone forever.
Following panic, calm. Following antipathy, a warming smile. Following (self-)recrimination, acceptance. After the burning question, (possibly not an answer but) acceptance. After visitors, fruitful hours or days alone (if you’re old enough and not too old to be allowed those). After days or hours alone, welcome visitors. After bread and vegemite, an anniversary lunch.
(Following The Collapse, The Reintegration but how soon and in what form no-one knows.)
After the high, brimming tide, the emptied mudflats. And a dog waiting to run across them. Okay, we’re off.
It’s over three months since I last wrote or drew here. In spite (or because) of that, the Intertidal Zone has received this award:
Thank you, Bookie Monster. If nothing else gets me posting, this does. In fact, as a condition of accepting it, there’s homework in several parts. The first is eleven random facts about me. Without forethought:
1. I’m sitting on a cushion in the window. Outside yellow dusk is settling over the grapevine at the bottom of the rectangular lawn where two wild rabbits chew at the grass. We’re a week into a two-month rural house sit.
2. My feet are dirty from gardening this afternoon in jandals. I pulled grass and nightshade from the herb garden and picked the last tomatoes from their damp and dessicated vines.
3. Sewing implements are scattered at my right hand from my attempt to turn op-shop shorts into a skirt. I’ve done the easy part — cutting them open — the next will require skill.
5. The birdsong here is myriad. Myriad. Looks odd here, but in its meaning of having very many elements it stays. Native and imported music.
6. Better get a move on. It’s suddenly dark.
7. My heart has been a little unsettled lately. So has my belly (see above). That the mind has, too, goes without saying. Knowing it helps. So many of our bodies’ gentle maladies pass under the radar.
8. I’m going to try out the rice cooker tonight. I’m skeptical but the householder’s enthusiasm for it was compelling.
9. I’m reading a book I picked up from the Napier Library’s sales table: Francis Petrarch’s My Secret Book:the account of the 14th century poet’s inner dialogue with St Augustine on ‘suffering, desire, fear and joy’.
10. The red yoga mat is rolled up on my left, ready for tomorrow’s morning ‘yoga quickie’.
11. I’m going down to cook dinner, all of it except rice from the garden. I’ll come back in a day or two to complete my assignment.
I’ve been tagged as Emma Neale was tagged so, while the title may not be apt, if tag’s a game, I’ll play along at this “weird self-interview blog-meme thing” (although II still don’t know what a meme is). I’ll adapt the ten questions to answer my own ends.
What is your working title of your book project?
Let me see … (gazing out at the sky, macrocarpas, wheeling gulls) … how about Making Books Fly Faster?
What genre does your book project fall under?
Cyber-nonfiction … How-To for Dummies … a travelogue, perhaps.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I have trouble remembering actors, and I have left unwatched those movies I ought to have watched, so I nominate instead our three children as they might have been 20 years ago on a lawn with the grandparents’ movie camera: S as pernickety, alternately irascible and affable publisher; A as brilliant renegade designer; J as publicist extraordinaire, axing his way into the wallets of readers.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book project?
I think the provisional title says it neatly but I’ll add: ‘freeing the book from its material trappings’, or more prosaically, ‘working from a traditional publishing model to issue exceptional and original writing digitally’.
Will your book project be self-published administered or represented by an agency run by others?
Rosa Mira Books is entirely self-inflicted. Although many play a valuable part in its activities, I take final responsibility. However, I’m definitely open to finding a like-minded partner, preferably with PR and entrepreneurial dynamism, who is willing to share the joys and vexations of epublishing for an indeterminate income. Enquire in the comments or track me down as you will.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript get your project started?
From the winter’s night when two stars tangoed across the sky above our house and the idea arrived fully formed (the idea, not how to carry it out) until the launch of Rosa Mira Books, two and a half years. The first 18 months I was floundering: I didn’t know a PDF from a Word document and there was little sense of urgency. I had a great ally in Carolyn McCurdie, who attended digital seminars with me and brainstormed, but we gained little traction. When my job with a traditional publisher ended abruptly at the end of 2009, the wheels began to grip. I had a website designed, got the name trademarked, read up, visited business consultants, fretted, negotiated with Dorothee, edited her fine novel, and took the many now-invisible steps that begin a brand new enterprise. Rosa Mira Books and The Glass Harmonica were launched together on 11.1.11.
What other books projects would you compare this story to within your genre one with?
I seem to be the only publisher in NZ doing just this, although all publishers except those working on heirloom, handbound volumes, are digitising new lists and back-lists and even, if they can retain or regain rights, out-of-print lists. I suspect I’m not the only publisher beginning to put out shorter works, like our 10,000-word series of short stories, novellas and essays — catering to the reader’s shortening attention span, true, but also freeing myself to tackle two or thee projects at once; the editing and preparation of a 100,000-word manuscript makes for a long engagement.
Who or what inspired you to write this book undertake this project?
Several vital and hugely capable women have fired me along the way. When I first began to write, and discovered the wondrous comfort of being amongst writers, I heard Paula Boock speak to a group about walking for the first time into a publisher’s office — what a fabulous place to work, she thought, and so I felt, viscerally, as she told the anecdote. ‘One day,’ I told myself. Paula, by then at Longacre Press, was my first editor, for the children’s novel Three’s a Crowd. Barbara Larson, her partner and publishing director of Longacre went on to put out seven more of my books and to employ me as editor. I shared an office with Emma who instigated this post. Longacre (in 2009 subsumed by Random House) was a model of good publishing, a fact I appreciate ever more as my involvement in the industry deepens. Relationships with writers were cordial and respectful; editors and designers were given the time required to do a thorough job; books were beautifully turned out. Barbara was a multi-tasking model of cool efficiency and warm encouragement to staff and authors alike, while to work alongside an editor and writer as skilled, meticulous, funny and brilliant as Emma added to the privilege. Gosh, what am I writing here — testimonials? And why not. These are terrific women, as are invaluable friends Claire and Pam who have never doubted my choices, always encouraged, and who run their own chosen endeavours to the hilt. Coral Atkinson has nourished me with enthusiasm, flowers, apt quotations, apt urls, good sense and sage publishing advice. There are other fine men and women with their fires burning at every turn of the road. Self-started it may be, but this is a truly collaborative enterprise.
What else about your project might pique the reader’s interest?
Rosa Mira’s five shimmering titles (did I say, RMB publishes terrific writing, which means 30 terrific writers represented thus far); Ratty who swans, dangles, swoops and splashes about on the Rosa Mira Blog — employed a year or so ago as the PR Dept, he’s done hardly a hand’s turn since.
The fact that I’m ever on the lookout for exceptional writing, particularly right now essays of around 10,000 words, also that I’m pondering a second list this year, of pre-published books given new life in digital form.
In the six or seven weeks since I last wrote here we’ve packed up our home of 17 years, said many fond farewells, long and short, and headed north with A, fresh from Edinburgh, in our laden wagon.
We’ve come to roost for a few weeks at the Whangarei Heads where we lap up the daily swims and eating outdoors. It’s been good to get back into our work, to see that we can knuckle down in a strange environment, and be open to its fresh ambience and opportunities.
The garden here is a marvel — full of bright, brash and succulent plants we don’t see 900 miles south. This china Kingfisher watches the steps. Apparently, a flesh-and-blood replica turned up within a day or two of his posting, stared long and hard, and (one supposes, mournfully) went on its way.
I’m not finding it easy to capture the frilly, curly, spiky plethora of detail in the plants here so bear with me as I practise, making wan and narrow hibisci, less-than-serene water lilies and things . . .
… such as this, which puts me in mind of the manuscripts I regretfully turned away this morning for being, well, a little too obvious. We have hearts in the south, but we speak of them in hushed tones. It’s said that we have sex and suchlike but we paint them in sober colours, abstractly. (Fifty shades of grey — how did she manage to nab that title?)
We of the south might be like the small transparent moth below, simple, monochrome—black lace and glad-wrap. However, put it on a hibiscus flower and colour glows through. Well, it might when I get the hang of colouring in the North.
We’re looking after four ducks and six hens (along with the house and gardens of their usual minders). Today I woke before dawn and fretted. The hens are kept in a shed with all hens need for survival: a pellet dispenser, water dispenser, clean dry wood shavings, laying boxes, a perch and room to move. But when we go to collect the brown eggs and throw in a handful of greens, the hens crowd the doorway. Their heads are high and swivelling, their eyes alight with urgent curiosity. Won’t you let us out?
They aren’t let out. A reason was given but it seems inadequate, lacking in imagination. Sure, the chooks are healthy and vigorous. They lay daily and eat heartily. But I can’t help imagining that, like you and me, they aspire to a richer existence. Hens love to fossick about. They love to explore and find their own morsels. And they love the dust bath. I’ve heard hens purr as they nestle in and shower themselves with sun-warmed dust. In order to go back to sleep, I resolved to make a petition. It will be in the form of a drawing, of caged hens dreaming. I’ll get the girls to sign it — six muddied claws — and we’ll post it on the hen-house door for the owners’ return.
Dawn had broken and the lawn was silvered with the night’s rain. The little black rabbit (wild) was grazing just beyond the bedroom window. It sat up suddenly and shook water from its paws — far too cute for an agricultural pest.
I traipsed over the wet lawn to the duck pond, swinging a pannier of pellets. As I approached their wooden trough, a slim brown something shot along the water’s edge and leaped into the tussocks nearby. The tussocks shrieked and squealed in reply.
Only three of the four ducks were present. They dabbled listlessly at the pellets while I called for their unseen mate. Suddenly their heads shot up and as one they launched themselves into the pond and paddled away. Quacks rose from the reeds and their yellow friend swam out to join them. The tight-knit quacktet returned to the pellets. The yellow one leaped into the trough and shovelled up food while the others stood back and waited for it to take its fill.
I went inside and wrote on the daily log: ‘Rat or stoat nest? 5 eggs.’
Someone, sometwo or somethree have been sneaking onto my blog and registering as users when my back was turned. I’ve swept them out the door and removed the option to register from my log-in page. The lesson, I think, is to spend a little more time in the blog-garden myself. Unmown lawns and clambering weeds have always looked enticing to strays.
What do you think about when you swim up and down lanes? I realised this morning that for me it depends on the stroke. My friend and sister-in-law recently passed on tips from her lessons so doing overarm I’m fully absorbed imprinting the new technique, drawing the straight arm and lightly cupped hand across the midline and all the way down to the outer thigh, rolling rather than twisting for a breath, trying to relax so I don’t sink. Backstroking, I think about raising the thumb first, then swiveling the arm so that the pinky re-enters the water then — revelation! — rather than throwing the arm back and scooping, pushing it directly to one’s side, . You can feel the acceleration. Breaststroking, I just bob along. I haven’t had the lesson tips yet so my mind goes wandering across the lanes (gosh, hairy shoulders! I wonder if my cap’s as bunched as a cook’s turban, like hers; eergh! sticking plaster; R’s stroke’s improving; uh-oh, here comes The Splasher with his three-foot flippers). Deep stuff.
Yesterday I had a meeting with a dog that shook me up I realised when I woke this morning with the sense that it had entered my dreams as well. I was at my aunt’s when a friend I hadn’t seen for years turned up with her two-year-old female Rhodesian Ridgeback, a slight, muscular animal (very small for her breed, said J) with black eyes that burned above the muzzle holding her in check as they entered the room. ‘The thing with this breed is not to make eye contact,’ J said. Too late. I’d been scorched. Amber was ready to tear my throat. Nevertheless, I sat while J brought her to meet me. ‘They don’t like being touched, either.’ But my hand had already responded to the soft, enquiring snout. Stones rumbled in her throat. I sat still, willing myself to relax as Amber walked around me, sniffed once more and went to lie down. ‘She’s never accepted someone so readily,’ J said. ‘Thanks for allowing the experiment; most of my friends are too scared.’ This was a very different beast from the lamb in dog’s clothing, the Ridgeback-Lab cross, that we’d minded in April. Amber must be a constant liability to her carers; she would allow for no casual visitors, no careless walking out with dog unrestrained. And yet that something in her, so raw and fierce, so well beyond the timbre of everyday, left its mark on my psyche and I find myself almost hankering to meet her again.
In the absence of ideas, I’m hoping that the fact of opening up a new post here after six weeks away will strike fire, and the flame run will run across the page, leaving interesting scorch marks in its wake.
I had to make up a new password to enter my own blog just now. Was it anything to do with the email I recently received from someone anonymous named as a User on the site? I deleted the evidence, and on I go. Let’s see what happens.
Elderflower champagne. I took the long-handled lopper out to the neighbour’s elderflower bush today while the sun was full upon the flowers which were fully open and fragrant. I lopped about 8 flower heads, then took them in and dropped them unwashed onto a light syrup made of 1 1/2 cups of sugar in 3 1/2 litres of water, 2 1/2 dsp of cider vinegar and the juice of one lemon. I put the pot in the sunroom where it will sit for 24 hours and begin to ferment. Before all this, I bottled yesterday’s batch in small corked glass bottles and larger plastic soda bottles, leaving an inch or so for expansion, and dropping a raisin or two into each. When the raisin rises . . . hmm, I’ve forgotten what it is about the raisins rising. It means bubbles. It means something desired has happened. Anyway, the ‘champagne’ is ready to drink when the top of the plastic bottles go hard with air pressure. Chill and open gingerly.
Auction. That’s the bald wording on the sign we found nailed to our fence yesterday. The agent’s name and details are the only other clues. Is it for a house? Is it nice? Does it have desirable features — contented inhabitants; broad beans sprawling across one corner the garden; a nest of thrushes in the clematis where it climbs the telephone pole near the front door; an old cat wondering where she’ll go when it’s all over; rhododendron flowers scenting the living room; a sun-warmed sofa; a pot of elderflowers fermenting in the corner? Yes to all that. Like the cat, we don’t know what we’ll do if the auction works as it’s supposed to.
The end of the world as we know it. The brouhaha about the end of the Mayan calendar seems to have died down. It was one thing to make movies and jokes about it when December 2012 was still a fair way off but lately interest seems to have died away, or gone underground. I read a prediction the other day, that soon most of us will go under water, that the moon will begin to move in an orbit visible to only a few of us, with a new little moon of its own, that it will be as if the earth is straightening up like a new pupil of the Alexander technique. Well, I’m still making plans for Christmas and the days after it. I still anticipate publishing a few ebooks in 2013, seeing a daughter home from Edinburgh and a grandson into the next size of baby outfits. But I’ll probably join forces with friends who believe that the 21st of December will be a good day, the best day in a long while, to focus attention, with possibly millions of others, on our hopes and longings and, most potently, our intention to see peace and light and love rule in the place of greed and fear and conflict — in ourselves and in our common living room called Earth.
The rat. Has been elusive. I’m off now to try and flush him out.
My laptop hard-drive crashed the other week, so when the call came, it seemed an apt time to put the work on hold and spend a few days with my father while Mum was away. Dad and I get on pretty well so most of the time we happily tinkered about in house and garden, walking down to the village for supplies, or heading into the city. That part wasn’t so easy for Dad. He hasn’t been allowed to drive for a couple of years and he doesn’t quite grasp why his license was revoked. Previously a surveyor (given to accurate assessments) with an impeccable driving record, he would guide me out of the driveway: ‘Easy does it; turn now; don’t clip that car”; onto the highway and across multiple intersections: ‘Not yet, not yet, now go!’ I don’t suppose it matters to him that I’ve been driving for 35 years.
Dad’s fine as long as he’s in the moment. It’s going beyond the moment that’s tricky: remembering what happened five months, five days or five minutes ago, and anticipating what is about to happen in the next day or the next half hour. It was hard for him to recall when Mum was coming home so we gnawed on that question several times a day. There were some funny moments — when the number of knives required for our simple meal kept growing; when I decided not to remind him how to eat a boiled egg (perhaps as a child he gouged the yolk out one end with a knife) — sometimes tinged with irritation (mine): ‘No, I don’t know why there’s tea coming out of the hot water kettle’; ‘No, as I said, you don’t need the overnight bag’ (packed with its wild medley of items); ‘we’ll be back in a couple of hours.’ Now and then, when we were hungry and one of us was clumsy, there was exasperation.
The best times were when Dad was absorbed in the garden, whistling as he planted out spring veges, or mowing the lawn; the start of our Scrabble game, when Dad was making bold, logical moves, and before he started forgetting that he’d already thrown in the last hand, and the hand before that.
Also, walking companionably along the wild, shingly beach which offers its finest gifts to those who know only this moment now.
On Monday we walked in the regenerating kauri forest of Titirangi. Our daughter was in labour. On the way home I called in to a little church. It was as simple and still as a pond without ducks, frogs or dragonflies. I prayed for our daughter to be strong and well, full of light and stamina. I wanted the same for her baby, and for the man at her side.
I looked up at the simply patterned window filtering mauve light and thought about our frailty, how lives disappear (this was the ‘soldiers’ memorial’ church) and how those of us who stay alive, who seek depth and meaning, see that life grows increasingly complex, both strong and fragile in turn and simultaneously. The more notice we take of life’s quiet movements and nudges, the more we sense how narrow is the path we walk, the path between now and eternity. We see how all things (plants, people, jobs, things) are both breaking down and striking out anew, how they continuously disintegrate and re-form.
I thought about how uncomfortable life feels some hours, some days, especially when we find ourselves without certainties — between places, between jobs, between roles — which is where life struggles to reconfigure itself, to regenerate. To give birth.
On Monday, our daughter and son-in-law were on the cusp of parenthood: any remnant childishness gone forever. Very soon we would become ‘elders’ to the first of a new generation.
Over the last few years I’ve found the astrological zodiac a helpful sort of map of the inner terrain. A person needn’t believe in the efficacy of astrology as a system to find that it nonetheless elucidates many of the tasks we master and the psychological ground we traverse on our way to becoming self-aware, self-determining people who can work out our own salvation (albeit ‘with with fear and trembling’). It also makes useful representation of the dilemmas we face serially, cyclically and/or simultaneously.
The archer I was thinking of is the centaur taking aim with his bow and arrow, which is the symbol for Sagittarius. On the zodiacal wheel, it sits opposite Gemini, represented by the twins whose dual energy is perpetual restlessness. Looking at both signs, a dilemma is immediately apparent: is it better to choose one thing or two? Better to keep all options open, or narrow down the focus to a single point?
Ideally, a person would find a way between the horns of the dilemma by acknowledging the lure of each, and giving each its due, but that’s easier said than done.
I’m feeling the push and pull at present as I consider how to proceed in my work with Rosa Mira Books. My objective is to create a sensitive conduit for writing that (in my estimation) needs to be published; writing that would leave us poorer if none of us had a chance to read it. My means of doing that is to publish digitally, which allows (potentially) for immediate global circulation of the work.
That objective is the bull’s-eye. The rings around the bull’s-eye might encompass my secondary objectives: bringing notice and income to the author, and over time providing myself with a trickle, or even a stream, of income.
Preparing that work for publication is costly and time-consuming and at this early stage is far from recompensed by subsequent sales. So I find myself casting around for alternative ways to meet costs. The rat and I have a pretty happy relationship. I enjoy drawing him, and it seems that he’s a poser and dresser-up from way back … and yet, and yet … I can’t help wondering if my happy evening doodlings are the best use of my time. Does it mean the arrowhead is swaying wildly about and likely to miss the target by a merry mile? It’s ebooks I mean to circulate, not rats.
Perhaps it’s a road I’m on, as well as a flight path (and kinks in the road add interest to any journey). Perhaps I can do two things (or more) in aid of the one thing; play with pencils by night then stand up and take aim at the reading world by day. What do you think?
It seems important to write something although I have no idea as I open this page what it will be. I’ll stick in my latest drawing and see where I go from there.
When I was young and very idealistic, I would be seized by intense longings (weren’t we all?) and one such ‘seizure’ concerned the sense that there awaited a realm of experience beyond anything I’d known thus far, that was immediate and quintessential, independent of past conditioning or forward planning. I’m trying to recapture the gist of it. It was akin to the desire to head off into the world/the wilds with a few dollars, a notebook, and a spare t-shirt, and just see what happened. Just seeing what happens is probably what I mean. Mightn’t that still be the simplest, most potent state we can experience?
I don’t mean a passive, helpless state. I mean the one that might be one thin veil away at any given moment: a state of vibrant, expectant just seeing what happens. Like being a baby again, but a baby who sees and knows itself also. And if something happens, then you’re ready to participate. If nothing happens, you can go on with the status quo.
Of course we’re each an amalgam of our past experiences and choices, of our current commitments, activities, and beliefs known or unknown, and of the trajectory that all of these have set us upon, but . . . it’s there still, glimmering: that longing for the footloose moment of pure possibility. We approach it when we write or paint, or set out on a walk with no aim, or when we hunker down to watch an ant or a bird in its intricate manoeuvrings. I suppose it’s what ‘mindfulness’ aims at, and meditation or contemplative prayer. But these names suggest technique and practice and I wonder if this notional state depends ultimately upon any of those.
The young and idealistic person who still inhabits this house of the self reminds me that just seeing what happens still represents, for me at least, an ideal, and therefore a possibility. I don’t know who wrote the words pinned on my noticeboard but they are not unrelated: Put aside conceptions of who you are and where you’re going. Open to the unknown and to being lived by Life. Invite the call of the future to speak to you.
Yesterday afternoon, I put on a thick jacket and scarf, plunged my hands into the pockets, and walked across to my aunt’s. Walking without a dog has a different texture. Oddly, I feel bolder, more alert, and I walk faster. Polly had slowed down a little in her last year, just a little. Rain, wet grass, or cold asphalt made her drag on the anchor. Our walks had become ruminative. Anyway, I miss her, but she turned up in a dream the other night, happy.
Back to the walk: a couple of young women climbed from their car with bags of groceries, chattering as they went in their gate and up to the front door. A cat ran along the footpath, following them. Suddenly the girls were shouting. The front door slammed shut. Puss reappeared.
In real life, one eye was missing but I don’t want to scare you.
My aunt was out but her trees were singing. She keeps no cat and she puts out seeds and sugar water for the birds. The trees have grown wild and full of shelter. Tuis and bellbirds clacked and chimed and chortled. Finches, waxeyes and sparrows chattered and chirped. I stood for a while as the music rained down. It must have been like this once, here on earth. Not very long ago.
Today I put a wet weetbix on a slice of gib-board on the corner of the deck. A couple of waxeyes made streaking reconnaissance flights directly over it. Within a few minutes the whole whanau were there, scoffing as fast as they could go. When a blackbird dared land on the board, they rose up in a body and threw him off.
I like to think that Polly and I chose each other fifteen years ago when we met. Considering the litter, I was drawn by her colouring and sweetly curious nature. Perhaps she recognised in me the answer to her own nervous excitability. We soon found that she had a very big voice: at eight weeks, every bark blew her backwards over the floor by an inch or two.
Still young, Polly delivered a litter of outlandish pups on R’s birthday. She was a devoted but dejected mother and the day the last pup left home she leaped from her milky bed and back into her own prolonged puppyhood. She only ever wanted to be my companion.
Photo by Christine Dalley
Her life was uncomplicated, punctuated here and there by my absences and one horrible incident. Polly had always shown ridiculous aggression towards big black dogs and men in black, but her greatest fear was of Weimaraners with their sleek pelts and piercing green eyes (one lived next door and a quiet chat with its owner was never possible if we met out walking). One day the nor’west was howling through, felling branches, when we came upon two strange dogs, one, as it turned out, a Weimaraner. Polly smelt danger and fled into the bush. Silent as stealth, the dogs followed and I did, too. Down in the gully, she was screaming. They’d rolled her in leaf-litter and the black brute was shaking her as if she were a mouthful of moss. I heard myself roar, a deep, primeval bellow that made the dog throw up his head. He recalled the century and that he was no longer a wolf.
I clasp her; frail with fright she is momentarily lighter then back it comes, her full weight and the wet-iron smell of blood.
The years slid by. Children left home. Polly’s favourite places on earth were Naseby in the Maniototo and the beach at Doctors’ Point — as long as I was there, or one of her mother substitutes.
Last summer she developed a skin irritation where the dog once punctured her. By the time we had it biopsied, she also had another cancer. The vet suggested she might live two more months.
And so it proved. Right on the transit of Venus Polly turned fifteen. We celebrated with her in the snow above Akaroa. Two days later it became clear her life was almost spent so I made the appointment with Atropos and her merciful syringe.
Dog is love.
She’s buried where the beehive was, beneath a circle of Polly-anthus and spring bulbs.
Polly has flown back to the great dog-spark in the sky where it’s perpetually rubbish day on a beach edged with rabitty tussocks and freshened by a keen spring wind.