Thanks to a dog

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 we might have two more months.

And so we did. 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.


One thing leads to another

Stringing fruit together is about the most straightforward thing I can come up with at present.

As I write, the man of the house is up on a chair behind me, prising bits of plaster from the ceiling and letting water into a bucket as he tries to find the source of The Latest Leak.

The dog lies at my feet with the question (mine) hovering over her: will she (beset with tumours) make it to her 15th birthday at the transit of Venus on the 6th of June? On Sunday her low spirits had me thinking this would be the week to embrace ‘the privilege of offering her a peaceful end’ as one correspondent so graciously put  it. Today she is again hungry, active and curious.

As for the rest, all is shadowed dappled by questions: Should we go on trusting the financial shoestring on which we apparently dangle? Will life go on providing what we need, as long as we go on doing what it seems good to do – whether or not it has an explicit financial outcome (and most of it doesn’t)?  So far so good but who knows if we’re not about to plunge into a great sinkhole of naivety.

Are my current spiritual explorations off the wall/planet/radar of good sense? And does that matter, as long as I find the subject matter fascinating and the mental exercise helpful?

Does it matter (to myself, to anyone else) whether I finish the three or four half-written manuscripts that I’ve scarcely touched in the last two years? Will anyone buy our house? Am I capable of knitting a baby blanket by spring?

How active should any of us be in response to the precarious state of affairs at Fukushima, besides signing petitions for international cooperation, and scanning dodgy-looking websites for information? Should we in the south try to lure our northern offspring home; stock up on lentils, rice and grains before their growing territories are contaminated? The questions around this one are enormous and not readily grappled with. Who wants to entertain a siege mentality when levity and delight are so much better for us all than fretting and fear?

Enough questions? There are plenty more where these came from. That said, I’m not unhappy. There’s no shortage of useful, enlivening ways to spend the hours and days, each of which delivers its quotient of wonder and cause for gratefulness. There’s a towel stuffed in the ceiling. The dog’s eager for her dinner. You and I still share this one life on our beautiful Earth.

So far, one way and another, it’s all holding together.




Afternoon stretches

Since we’ve had our house on the market for six months and failed to find the perfect inhabitant for it (i.e. one who not only loves it, but buys it too) we were a little tired of ‘wait and see’ as the year began to unfold, so decided to go off anyway, for a change of scene. We came to the Victorian coast, house-sitting as we go on with our work, albeit more sporadically than usual. It makes sense to tip ourselves sideways now and then. In the scramble back to upright, there is a span of time in which the world is seen with keener eyes: old problems are touched with fresh colours; novel possibilities appear. Of course we bring ourselves with us, but a different habitat seems to allow for different responses to be made to familiar prompts.

Incredibly, our marriage turned 30. (That’s a pearl wedding, someone said, which explains the huge pearly shell R found on our outing.) That day we walked over headlands and trudged raw gold-sand beaches and marvelled at southern ocean rollers pounding ashore. We talked about why we’re still together; why we’re glad about that; why it’s sometimes hard; what we yet aspire to, each and as a pair. The most important aim seems to be towards suppleness, of mind, body and spirit, for our own sakes and for the sake of the other — so we don’t hinder, frustrate or burden the other unnecessarily before circumstance or age make incursions on our freedom of choice.

Well, that sounds a bit heavy-handed, even compulsory, negatively phrased as it is. Let’s just say we mean to go on encouraging one another and playing at life in every way we will for as long as we’re allowed to.

Bonnie M's sandals


Away from home

House-sitting, we find ourselves in a kind of Australian Florida, where the well-heeled retire. It’s great for walking, and for swimming now the sun’s finally appeared. We had the sea to ourselves today.

The dog we walk is big.

The houses on the beach are small.

Not all dogs have the chance to get sand between their toes. Over coffee we observed the downtown sidewalk cafe dog.




Eating our way through Argentina


A watery moment

Alas, this water sculpture has none of the luminosity and little of the beauty of the photo I was drawing from — except that it’s an utterly pleasing composition — but there’s a treat in store for you by photographer Heinz Meier.

It’s been a lovely, Indian summer, Easter. We walked the beaches and the dog whose biopsy results this week seem to indicate that fifteen or a little under will be her life span. Meanwhile, she’s still perky and bright, but needing to wear a coat of my devising to stop her gnawing at irritated skin.

The second batch of hot cross buns I made was worth eating.

We attended a Tenebrae service on Friday night — readings from the gospel of John, exquisite part singing, and candles extinguished one by one — and greeted the dawn on Sunday.

I’m reading Nicholas Nickleby, very slowly; NN’s altercations with Squeerses have marked my fallings-asleep several nights running.

There are two Peasgood Nonsuch apples left dangling on the extremity of one branch, and an entire crop of raspberries (the first ever) holding their breath at the very ends of their long wands, hoping the warm weather will hold long enough for them to plump and redden. Meanwhile, today there was A Loganberry.



Before the thunder storm we went to the beach. It was agonisingly beautiful, as ever. The waves were backlit so you could see shreds of seaweed suspended in green before they broke. Since our last visit, the sea had rearranged the sand and all but the most stalwart rocks. Polly was in heaven, which we were glad about since she’s having an operation this week and afterwards will doubtless take to her bed for a few days, quivering with well-earned hypochondria.


Someone should have set up a video camera beside one of the deep little pools that had formed in the lee of the rocks. Polly wasn’t the only dog we saw that expected to go flying through knee-deep water.





I drove three hours north and my three younger siblings drove south for two. They had come from the middle east and the north island and the garden city.

The sun shone. We lunched by the Waihi River.

It couldn’t have been nicer. C laid out the lunch; B gathered firewood; K produced goats’ cheese and fudge; I poured the tea. C had thought to bring a knife. B had thought to bring a proper (not an iphone) camera.

K had thought to bring walking shoes. I had thought to bring sunscreen, which we all applied since none of us had thought to bring a hat. We walked upriver, gazing at the blue hills — past the 1000 sheep and the 500,000 bees, under the trees, over the poop, past the one sheep stung on the nose by one bee and running in circles, through the gully and back — thinking all along, how wonderful to set up camp here till the end of summer.

But we didn’t.

We said goodbye. Until next time.


Come to Puna

Ascend with me a minute to 4000 metres, and whizz across the Andes to  the intersection of Bolivia, Chile and (for our purposes) Argentina: see a vast grassland; terracotta mountains on a Himalayan scale; shimmering salt flats pierced by emerald ponds; tiny adobe hamlets; vicunas, flamingos, vultures and perhaps even a puma. You can be one of the 100 tourists who make it up here this year. This is Puna. (That link is from a travel writer; this one is from Wiki.)

Niños jugando en Santuario de Tres Pozos, Arlen Buchara 2009

My friend Elena Bossi has edited a book called PUNA, that she’s giving away in PDF format. She lives in Jujuy in the north of Argentina, and recently tackled the day-and-a-half drive from Salta into the high Andes, where locals had been interviewed about life in this high and spare environment. Elena edited the interviews to bring alive the voices, mostly of farmers and harvesters of salt.  She’s included in the book folk tales, poems and literary offerings from the region ‘to make a universal idea of the souls of the people’.  The photos are stunning, too.

Photo: Michele Giacomelli, Valtellina, Italy

There’s only one drawback for the fools among us who haven’t taken their Spanish studies seriously enough: it hasn’t been translated into English. Not yet. But I know it will have been beautifully written.

Anyway, if you read Spanish, or know someone who does, help yourself here. You’re in for a treat and I’m envious. Elena would like to see this book ‘diffused’ (I love her wonderfully apt English) so please consider posting it on your own blog, especially if you have a Spanish readership.

And of course if you’d like to translate PUNA, that’d be fantastic. I’d put the English version on Rosa Mira Books, perhaps not for free, but for a small sum so I could reimburse the translator in due course.





Take your pick



Driving back to Dunedin on Sunday afternoon with music playing in one ear (the pup chewed the other ear’s phone, and the car’s radio speakers stopped working years ago) and my thoughts who-knows-where, I noticed a car running up behind me, with a red and a yellow light flashing on its front.  I looked for police markings or a top-light but there was neither. Who was this prankster trying to intimidate me?

I held my course as I realised what a clever ploy it was, to trick a woman on her own into pulling over on a wide and lonely stretch of road . . . a toy pistol, a threat, and she’d probably hand over her wallet in a flash. I looked at the oncoming traffic. Would any of it stop if I pulled over and jumped out, waving my arms?

At the same time as I finally heard the wee-woo, I saw the driver pointing at the verge. I pulled over and he did too.

For a moment I considered telling the handsome young police officer that I was on my way home from a funeral (true) — but I was feeling far from glum after a rich and happy time with whanau. I suppose I was mildly relieved to see him, too, even if he was telling me off for ignoring him and his siren for so long as I sailed along at 113 kph.

I told him off for creeping me out in his bright green, unmarked car.

I accepted the fine and 20 demerit points without a murmur.

My first-ever speeding ticket.


Angsty cat

Clouds stream overhead from north-east to south-west, dissolving and morphing as they go.

Lilies in the tub outside the window have begun to brown and curl and drop their skirts.

The peasgood nonsuch apples cling to their branches and fatten, and silver bean-slivers emerge from fiery flower sheaths.

Clouds, lilies, beans and apples do what they do, no questions asked.

Only humans wonder whether what they’re doing makes any sense. Sometimes, when I’m feeling more than usually sense-less, I come back to what God is reputed in the book of Exodus to have said when Moses asked for his identity: ‘I am that I am’. Another rendering of ‘ehweh‘ is: ‘I shall become who I am becoming.’ And if it’s good enough for God . . .

Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether I choose this course of action or that. Is it possible that, in the way of apples, beans and clouds, the human organism goes inexorably on, growing and auto-correcting until it resembles a well formed . . . human being?

Settle down, puss.



How to make concrete

Assemble your tools and an able assistant.

Dampen the area to be covered, which preferably includes a crack.

Tip most of the cement into the barrow. Keep some in the bag in case — as with icing — you make the mixture too sloppy.

Gloves are optional. I like drawing them.

Pour water by cupfuls into the cement, stirring as you go with a spade and, if you like, a piece of kindling.

To test for consistency, fill a cup with the mixture then invert and empty it, as you do a sand castle. The slurry should slump to half its original height. Add more cement or water accordingly.

Seize the ready moment and tip the mixture into the corner.

Pounce on it with your trowel. Shape and smooth the concrete into place. Admire its gleaming surface.

Hunt around the house for beads and buttons.

Sit in the sun beside the concrete puddle and idly stick them in. When your pattern is complete, poke the beads down a little harder. Let them be gripped.


Eat or be eaten

It rained hard last night. We noticed the damp patch in the ceiling above the table but it was dark outside and the roof space too cramped for entry or even torchlight. This morning I realised I’d had a lucky escape. The laptop is still functioning. R. has been up on the roof. He’s bought and used a pair of tin-cutters. The builder has been summonsed

FB message of the morning: ‘Eat the day or it will eat you.’ I think it’s fair to say we ate each other. Here’s my small mouthful:

Starting with the blue thing and moving clockwise: that’s a recycling bin, bought this morning from the city council office, to replace the one we ran over several years ago (it worked but it was wonky). Also a roll of 100 city council doggy-doo bags, reputedly biodegradable (but not before you’ve carried them home in your hot little hand). I do think that wrapping dogshit in any kind of plastic is a retrograde step: it’ll compost quickly if flicked into the green belt or under a hedge. However, sometimes bagging’s the only way to go.

I collected 100 beautiful business cards (from Ezyprint Solutions) for Michael to hand out as the author of Road Markings. I sewed them into 4 cloth pockets in order to make the package flat enough for ‘letter rate’, and posted them off to the USA in a recycled envelope bearing its original potato-cut hearts (how to alarm an author).

While out and about I bought an article not shown here for someone about to turn a year older than me. In the same shop I indulged  in another fine-nibbed pen, used for the above. Then I went to fill up the petrol tank. This cost exactly the same as 100 full-colour, two-sided business cards.

A. was here so we sat one each end of the table to do our drawing and colouring. He was making a vivid recruitment poster for a new Dunedin-chapter Harry Potter Club. I was trying to make eggs ovoid.

We ate egg and chive sandwiches for lunch then, for our sins, J. had to make a chocolate cake without eggs. It turned out moist, dark and flat as a pizza base. Good though. Outside the sun shone on Peasgood Nonsuch and trumpeting lily alike.

E. and Z. joined us all for  cake and summer tales. We laughed and cried a little because life is both hard and good and you have to chew it up as best you can.




The revised atlas

Our PM John Key referred to New Zealand on the radio today as a cork bobbing on the ocean, which I think shows a lack of imagination.

Polly went out on the smorgasbord tonight. She sneaked off and chomped her way around the neighbourhood bins and compost heaps. Tonight she’s stunned, rotund, and leaking queasy gases.


Watching 2012

The new year is underway. We have little idea what it will hold. We have hopes and qualms, loose plans and quiet intentions. We will all be watching what unfolds and will play our part accordingly.

Tonight I made tom kha pad thai yum.

I heard Aung San Suu Kyi answer questions from a class of American students. I admired her dignity, intelligence, and radiance of being.  At last in Burma, democracy looks possible again: that precious blend (to quote The Lady) of freedom and security.


Maman, squeeze me a lemon






2011: words failed me, but the cutlery was staunch.


Nice work if you can get it

Perhaps in order to prevent collisions with its plate glass windows, the local swimming pool has near-life-sized transfers on the glass, of young swimmers frolicking. This morning, we watched the window cleaner charge his squeegee and make the first bold sweeps.

I walked into plate glass once. We’d just finished walking the Milford Track and I went to soothe my aching feet in the bathroom of the tourist information centre at Milford Sound.  Coming back out, I stared at the sea and mountains straight ahead and smack. This might have been the cause of my otherwise unexplained deviated nasal septum. They should stick dolphins on the windows, or something that trampers crave and would never walk right through, like a bowl of fruit salad.


Walking home from the pool



Monday’s shoes


Now, I’d better get on with some work.


Evening miscellany



Things don’t always turn out the way we mean them to

I was poking around the sunny vege garden on Friday when I noticed I wasn’t alone. A  black rat was also sauntering and sampling, grasping and nibbling on salad greens.

In fright, I leaped into the nearest room and snatched the cat from the bed. She sat where I planted her on the flagstone, dazed and befuddled and ten inches from the rat, who carried on munching. Cat stared blindly at rat. Rat stared at spinach. Then cat’s head jerked as her nose lifted and she sniffed left, right, straight ahead, then — ah! She raised her front end and fell on the rat. I turned away in shame.

Could I not have left the rat to its indolent vegetarian meal (and backyard breeding programme)?

Anyway, rat gave cat the slip and half an hour later cat was still weaving in and out of the beans, lettuces, spuds and long grass, hunting. At day’s end she ate jellimeat.

In the morning, though, I found her gift outside the bedroom door.

Of course, the cat might not have committed the crime. The rat might have fallen from a biplane. I sure hope not. I hope it wasn’t this rat.

Rich pickings from the blogroll this week:

Claire commits alchemy with Emily Dickenson and a cheese grater.

Talking of rats, Isabel‘s miracle cat-in-exile makes a second comeback.

Helen analyses a healthy writing group.

Talking of cats, the paradoxical one writes up the launch of Sue Wootton‘s new poems, By Birdlight.

and I've been disappointed.


One woman, many mountains


It strikes me, writing this, what a flimsy vessel a book is for recording the plethora of exploits Pat Deavoll has put herself through over the last thirty-five years. Nonetheless, in this handsome volume published by Craig Potton, Pat’s fine, unobtrusive writing makes vivid her favourite places on earth: wild, remote, very high places reached only by great financial, physical, and mental effort.

I met Pat when we were eleven or twelve, on her first day at secondary school. Her quiet and quirky determination to do her own thing and be her own person met with affection and respect. She got on and did things, sometimes extraordinarily; she was a voracious reader and brilliant at subjects that interested her, more or less ignoring (if I recall rightly) those that didn’t. My only claim to fame (besides my anxious resolve from day one that we’d be friends) is that I was there with Norman Hardie and Sal, trailing a little behind, when Pat made her first high-school ascent of Mt Binser in 1975.

Over the years I’ve been a watcher from the far wings as Pat has become arguably NZ’s most skilled woman climber — whether on rock, on Canada’s vertical ice, or on high and technically demanding peaks here and abroad. When she took a break from climbing in the nineties, she quickly became expert in extreme kayaking. Instead of going up, she made first descents of grade 6 falls and Himalayan cataracts.

 The book opens with a whisk through Pat’s rural Canterbury childhood and youth, then lingers over the year or so when she learned to climb. She avoided the popular school-leaver’s route through holiday jobs then university, going instead to Mt Cook to take a series of climbing courses. That summer she became irrevocably embroiled in a life-long string of affairs with challenging mountains.

Most of the book’s themed chapters are shaped around a climb or series of climbs, and variously discuss: the critical need for the right climbing partner; learning to front-point up vertical ice on Canadian waterfalls in temperatures far below zero; the euphoria of climbing huge, remote Alaskan peaks; the tragedy of losing friends to the sport, and how, personally, to square with those risks; the history of women in the NZ mountains and why there are so few top female alpinists (biology or conditioning?). As Pat makes evident, women can manage extreme conditions as well as men, and often with greater courage and endurance.

There’s a chapter, too, about the black dog that’s followed her since her twenties, which she’s determined at last to speak about, rather than hide. Always the climbing feats (and occasional defeats) are woven through with Pat’s questioning of motive and worth — signaling the self-doubt that led to the eventual diagnosis of and treatment for depression. Pat’s willing to admit at last that as a climber she’s good … better … even best, but that knowledge — entwined as it is with her sense of self-worth — is very hard won and in the past could be entirely destroyed by a climb that didn’t turn out optimally i.e. with the summit included.

Around the middle of the book Pat ducks back to the mid eighties when she and husband Brian discovered India and Himalayan Asia. They spent months on end exploring, carrying huge packs to far-off mountains — living on reduced rations, will-power, and their love of wilderness. (Reviewer goes off to shuffle through huge plastic bin of old diaries and correspondence and comes up with the following from Kathmandu, dated 30 March 1985, the day before our Alex was born, the baby referred to in the letter as ‘?’)

In the new century, Pat rediscovered the mountains of Central Asia; she has made numerous forays and done some monumental climbing, including first summits, one in Pakistan — of Karim Sar — alone. Pat makes it clear that the hours spent creeping like a fly up exposed Himalayan faces are what the effort’s all about. The months of planning, training, earning, applying for funding, coordinating expeditions from afar, and getting there by fair means and fraught, are all simply preparation for the cold, exposure, terror, extreme toil and — hope against hope — utter elation of the climb itself.

The most intense passages in the book are classic fare of the sort I used to pore over in NZ Alpine Journals — blow-by-blow accounts that gave you clammy feet and heart palpitations. But those exuberant, meticulously narrated events often took place a few hours from home. Magnify the distances, heights and stakes to international proportions, add a dose of Pat’s stoical understatement and you get an idea of reading Wind from a Distant Summit.

I looked at an early draft in which Pat elaborated on her love of Pakistan and her grasp of its history and politics; in the interests of her own compelling story that seems to have been edited back to a few concise paragraphs, but she’s evidently chewing on the question of what she might contribute in years ahead to a region that’s has given her so much joy and satisfaction. Pat’s rightfully proud of all she’s done and is still doing in a body now into its sixth decade of hard yakka, but there seems no question that, even if it does wear out (did I mention the knee replacement, or the broken back?) to the point that carrying huge packs and making multi-day ascents are out of the question, in some sense Pat will always be ascending; for one, she has this great love for Pakistan and Afghanistan to work out, and it’s obvious from her story that she’s developed extraordinary mental and emotional capacities that can be steered along any avenue she chooses. Then there’s her writing — as stylish and riveting as all she undertakes. I look forward to the next book, whatever it tackles.

But I feel compelled to add, Pat, if you decide to curl up in a corner for the rest of your days with a cat, and a pile of books, cakes and knitting, you’ve totally earned it. Besides, you’ll be no less admired or loved if you ever choose to grow plump on a cushion.

Wind from a Distant Summit is available from Craig Potton Publishing.

Here’s Pat’s website and the FB page for her book.



Bones, beans, beds

    The day started with a lit candle that I sat and didn’t look at while I tried not to think either.

A nice young man cranked my arm and shoulder into positions it was reluctant to adopt. However, progress is being made.

I blogged over at Rosa Mira Books, wondering where in a sex shop an author might position herself to deliver a talk about erotica in the old days, the bits that didn’t fit into her novel.

I proof-read the final chapter of Michael Jackson‘s anthropological memoir Road Markings, which Rosa Mira will publish soon. The cover will be by a collaboration of  daughters. And it will look a lot flasher than the image above.

These seedlings found homes today: beans beside path, basil in pot, pumpkin ringed about by rainbow silverbeet.

                           I admired the freshly painted doorstep and freshly oiled door.

  Our son comes home tonight. The bed is welcoming but not wide. It’s all set up for early rising.

                    It was 27 degrees C here today. The vased peonies silently exploded.


Now it’s Key versus Goff.  Glib and smug versus honest and earnest. Take your pick.