Polly’s 14 today. That makes her a Gemini: a nosy parker passing comment on every passerby; curious, optimistic, in perpetual motion.
To her three pups was a capable, diligent mother, but melancholy. The hour the last one left home, she sprang back into her favoured role as my convivial, companionable dogsbody.
Drawing is calming â€¦ the chafe of nib on paper â€¦ the silent object appearing in its untroubled imperfection. I hope you’ll try it. A fine-nibbed pen helps â€“ giving the picture an air of simplicity and confidence that may or may not originate in the drawer. I use water-colour pencils: colour in, then add spit. Or if you’re organised, water applied with a fine brush.
Inexpertise is liberating. Wonkiness doesn’t matter. Whatever appears now exists.
I had fun in town yesterday. I trotted from shop to shop with a list, buying beautiful things for a friend, with her money. Too easy. I needed only a couple of items myself, chief of which was The Knife. The old Knife had snapped (cutting cheese, the culprit insisted). I was tempted by colourful sheathed Swedish models, and by ranks of gleaming chefs’ ware. But right at the counter, displayed like chewing gum or cigarettes for last-minute purchase was my knife: the neat red-handled, serrated Victorinox for $9. This little machine grips and dices onions without a tear being spilt; it carves through fruit, pumpkin, crusty bread, and flesh â€” it’s shaved the tip off my thumb already but so cleanly I didn’t notice until later.
I bought winter sheets, too. I let slip to the shop assistant that I meant to take them them straight home to bed. Surely not! Think who might have touched them, trailed their hands across the fibres. Think of where they might have been! I glanced at the bland cotton in its sturdy plastic wrapping. And anyway, did I know the secret of long-lived flannelette sheets? Add half a cup of white vinegar to the final rinse. Now you little hussy, go home and wash your linen.
I’m thinking I’ll get them on the bed today so we can enjoy two nights of fluffy heaven before nobody ever sleeps again. Yes, to the main business: that venerable 89-year-old American calmly and efficiently dispatching Earth and all its difficulties to oblivion on Saturday. (I occurs to me that, at his age, it’s no wonder he dreams and conjures portents of the end â€” he might well be transferring his personal mythology to the collective. Will he survive the 21st, even if the rest of us do?)
Possibly he’s doing the world a favour with his trumpet call. I think of the impressive film ‘Of Gods and Men’ that I saw in the weekend, where the residents of a small monastery in the Atlas mountains must decide whether to stay or flee under threat to their lives. Questions are concentrated to essentials, chief of which are, What drew us here, and to do what? Unanimously (though not without anguish) they conclude that the presence of danger alters nothing â€” and everything. It heightens their awareness of one another, of the present moment, of the beauty inherent in their daily lives and service.
Those are the pertinent questions, and the ones we’ve been discussing around here â€” as playfully as we can. I doubt we’re going to be let off so lightly as to have the world evaporate around us on Saturday. The preacher is tapping into our mutual great angst when we confront what we’ve done to this planet. We will reap what we’ve sown; we know that, although we can’t face all the horror all the time, or we’ll implode. But we can take care with this moment, and this person, and this small job and the next, doing what makes us glad, what gladdens the people and the air (and earth and water) about us. We can sow love. Then may the scope of our care be widened.
Okay, the dogs. They’re Elena’s and I brought them along because they make me laugh. When I stayed at her home in Jujuy, if they weren’t trying to fish me from the pool, these two clamoured to join me in my room where they would grab socks, shoes, undies to take into the garden. Or simply throw themselves all over the floor while I tried to dress or pack or tie my shoes. Head-butts and slobber-kisses.
Now, can I tie up knives, sheets, dogs and preachers of doom in a final line? Variously they cut, warm, humour and exhort. Sounds like the ingredients for a relationship. Shall I leave it at that?
Each of us in relationship to Life â€” we have to work it out.
I’m still a little in awe of this sunfish Dad and I found washed up on a North Canterbury beach last week. I’d spent a warm month north of Auckland and was making my way home, visiting parents en route. We enjoyed the usual lingering meals, cuppas, walks on the beach and a game of scrabble, in which two of us were almost thrashed by the third who’s supposed to be losing his memory. I thought about the great privilege I’ve had of being brought into the world by good people. Any fights in my life have been with myself, not with them. Their affection, and patience with one another after 55 years, is touching. (Hi, Mum.)
Back at home I plunged into work as the damp weather wrapped itself around the city. In turn I was wrapped (much more cosily) by a handful of meetings with friends. When else can you cover so many meaty topics in the course of an hour as face to face over a table, with cider, soup, or a bread-cup? We start with the biggies and go from there: love, death, and the whole calamity. Earthquakes, the resilience and tenderness of children; how and where we want to live; whether and how our work satisfies; what we’re reading; gods, goddesses, and dreams; psychology â€“ our own in particular; what’s for dinner; how was your wine and who’s that crossing the road? Tell me about that brooch, have we paid, and shall we walk to the corner?
Another sunfish was found near Kaikoura this week. I wonder what’s going on within this rare community of surface swimmers? I read that they’re curious about humans. Perhaps they each saw two women yakking on the beach over a dog-walk or a thermos of tea and, craning to listen in, were caught and tossed . . .
Poking around up at the local village today I had one of those shopping-glamour fits. You know the one, when just for a few seconds you feel you might be entitled to a gorgeous dress, long smooth legs, a beauty clinic face, shoes to die for, a crystal-and-candles restaurant dinner with a mysterious Someone, after which you sink into the the warmed leather seat (of the sort of car that has that sort of seat), look at one another meaningly and dot dot dot. These fantasies don’t last long because a) they’re a horrible clichÃ©, and b) you remember that in fact you’re happy already, most of the time. You have plenty of serviceable clothes, even a few pretty ones, legs that work, a face that tells your own story, ten times as many shoes as you can wear at one time; and you recall that eating good food at home with favourite friends, with wine out of mismatched wine glasses, a fire, and a dog at your feet, is almost always far more delicious and satisfying than going Out.
It’s not hard to see where the glamorous notions come from; check out any magazine, TV ad, shop window, or (dare I say it?) certain Auckland suburbs, and you can quickly start to feel inadequately clad/wooed/fed/conveyed. Feed these images to the little girl inside who believes she’s destined to catch the eye/heart of a Hero/Prince, and you can trip yourself up any time.
Still, it doesn’t happen often now. I’m old enough to laugh at the illusion of the Other Life, to appreciate the great goodness of the people and circumstances I have already, and to know that a warm bum on a leather seat is no substitute for a warm, true and compatible man in a dented station wagon.
In the first few days up here I couldn’t keep my hands off the greenery â€” had to test out the strange varieties of leaf form, seed pod, fruit and flower. But the grass left my hands red and itching; the pod I broke open released a dozen glass-like hairs into fingers, wrists, even through the weft of my jeans. I became circumspect. Still, I can’t resist these sunlit toi-toi spears, or patting hard young kauri in passing. I’m still amused by opportunistic mangrove seeds, delighted by avocadoorrangespassionfruitfeijoasguavalimes that grow here, without cold to balk at. I wonder if I would become as lush, living in the north.
Evidently not all natives revel in the flora; some is downright dangerous, damp and plastered underfoot. This morning the calm bowl of the bay was disturbed by a vapid droning. Walking up to the shop, we saw the culprit, a woman my age (in her prime, fit and able) poufing leaves off her deck with a leaf blower. A leaf blower. What’s wrong with us moronic consumers? I feel all my vexation at the world’s woes coalescing around the innocuous plastic wind-bag.
Why would someone with two arms, two working legs and a set of abdominal muscles forgo the light and lovely motions of the broom for that soulless and noisy accessory? And then who’s going to remove the leaves from the driveway below, and how?
I’m not writing much these days, although I’m always at the keyboard. I edge hesitantly and rarely along fiction’s overgrown pathways. The novel I’m two-thirds through seems to have lost it relevance, and nothing else is clamouring for attention. However my own past assertion keeps me questioning the silence: the assertion that when I spin fiction, in some sense I spin my own life forwards. Well, that has seemed so in past years. I’m not sure if it still holds true. Is it enough for now to stretch myself in other directions: building my organisational, editorial and liaising muscles; learning to be calm and clear and with any luck effective?
I suppose we each ask ourselves such questions from time to time (if not daily, hourly): What is it imperative to keep in my life? What do I need to ditch? What is my best service to others? My best creative effort? What keeps me alert and growing? And of course each question has to be lived, pushed at, experimented with, turned inside out (what if I do? what if I don’t? how do I recognise my own yes or no?) because no one else can answer it for me.
Do people exist who are not nudged and gnawed at by such deliberations? Blessed are they.
Shoot. I was going to write about how the cat’s in the dog’s basket again, and the dog’s taken the cat’s place on the sunny carpet while outside the Peasgood nonsuches waggle about in the morning breeze . . . and I’ve ended up writing another sermon. Sorry.
Go forth in peace.
Steep, dusty, fur-wrapped stairs; a Burmese girl roaring about on a motorbike; jack-hammering wood-milling machines â€” the stuff of dreams. Yes, Freud, I know.
Half an hour back and forth in the pool down the road, and five minutes blissed out against the second best jet in the spa pool.
Porridge with raisins and dates, topped with walnuts and brown sugar.
Emails, in-laws, phone calls, discussions and decisions. (I will blog more often.)
The thick, warm mouthfuls â€” morning coffee.
This ridiculous Youtube: Who’s a guilty dog then?
Wondering (always) what is means to open, soften, say yes more, let go, be alive here, now. Breathing.
Is it nothing? Is it everything?
Venus hangs fat and gold. The old ring-barked sycamore gleams white under a pale blue sky. Leaves fidget in the first breeze. I sit on a cushion and light a candle in the window where a fine-limbed spider makes delicate purchase, trying to climb the glass. The tree, the spider and the star are reassuring, each in its own way, steadfastly doing what its species does: living and dying, web-making, burning bright.
Reassuring because I feel increasingly uncertain whatâ€™s required of me on a planet thatâ€™s quivering with its own potency and undermining centuries-old assumptions about our place upon it.
Usually we spend a lifetime assimilating the facts of our frailty, realising the provisional nature of our dwelling on earth. On Friday the whole world realised it together, in the 12 or so hours it took for all sleepers to awake and take in the images of Japanese cities scraped up and thrown into monstrous heaps.
In a calamity we see for a moment that we will all die; that although we weave into our lives vast complexity, the final fact is very simple. We are faced with the knowledge of a finite number of days remaining to us â€” whether ten or ten thousand.
At a time like this we ask ourselves what makes life meaningful: our loved ones (but what if theyâ€™re dead or disappeared?); the beauty and comfort of nature (but what if your place is lost amongst towers of mud and debris, and itâ€™s beginning to snow?); work (but of what relevance is that if the air is poison and anyway the workplace no longer exists?) A Japanese woman says on a youtube video: I donâ€™t know yet if it is a good or a bad thing that I have survived.
At a time like this we fear that we donâ€™t have enough love or resources to help and heal whatâ€™s broken; that beauty will fail to console because nature has bared her destructive arm; that work is merely an escape from our own deep unease.
Although I canâ€™t recall their detail, my dreams this week have been benign and comforting. I wake feeling soft and warm towards life â€” until I start to remember whatâ€™s happened in Christchurch and Japan, and start trying to work out what is still important to do (even though life goes on quite normally in this placid city).
I can only conclude that the things that gave meaning yesterday are those still called for today â€” but in greater measure.
May our love be enlarged.
May nature be honoured, restored and restorative, starting with the first spring greens of Sendai.
May we each do the work we find in ourselves to do â€” heartfelt, dignified and creative work â€” our particular offering to the quivering world.
Speaking of heartfelt, dignified and creative, Claire Beynon is still gathering art and donations for Christchurch with her fine initiative, Many as One.
We were hoeing into a lovely mess of eggs and tomato on toast just before one o’clock last Tuesday, when the tin shed we’d been holidaying in suddenly leaped east, west, east again, and made a long shuddering, swinging sigh. Perched on a stool beside the fire, I set my plate on the table and laughed as R hot-footed for the doorway. A bottle with candle dropped from the mantelpiece and the dog looked at me.
Must be the newly opened Waikuku fault-line jostling underfoot, we decided. I finished my lunch and let Polly lick the plate. There were a few more boomph-judder-judders over the next hour as we packed our bags, as intended, and prepared to drive the 20 minutes into Christchurch. Then our daughter rang on the cellphone, from Auckland. “Where are you both? Are you okay?” and my brother in Christchurch texted: “As big as the first one but more damage”.
My brother’s home was a hub of calm and commonsense for streams of visitors. He dispensed warm welcomes, chai, and food from the fire in the garden, while hunting down a lost colleague by phone; meanwhile my sister-in-law had biked away into the city to exercise her own brand of calm strength and life-saving medical skills in the most challenging of circumstances.
Other family members have been harder hit; two are down south with us â€” but all are coming to the common realisation in this disaster: whatever was lost, we’re alive and we have one another. Of course not all the beloved others are alive, and that’s where the pain and guilt lie â€” for almost everyone I’ve talked to. The question scrapes at even those who have escaped by the skin of their teeth: why am I so ‘lucky’? Why do I still have my life/home/livelihood?
Well, that’s the question of all our lives, pressed home with force by the earthquake. Some will make radical changes of direction â€” the fabric of our NZ society has been torn, and is already being stitched into new configurations, as teams and helpers fly into Christchurch and families leave the city in droves â€” and others will deepen their commitment to the course they’re on.
Those of us whose lives are substantially undisturbed wonder how we should help. I think that until we have a clear sense of direction about that, we’re best to go on with our daily tasks, as fully and happily and healthily as we can. We will be called upon â€” whether to listen, or house, contribute, or actively help â€” but in the meantime, the more love and calm and well-being we can generate and share from our own homes, the more we have to offer when we visit those careworn and depleted, or when they come to us.
At times like this, we find ourselves in one another’s arms. At least for a little while, neighbours meet and hold one another; family rifts are bridged; compassion overcomes reserve. Like the animals in the photo above, we may be surprised at our new alliances, but I dare say they’re exactly right for now. These are privileged hours of vulnerability; let’s hope we can come away from them with bigger hearts.
Touched by Vespersparrow’s reflection on lacrimae rerum (the tears at the heart of things), the posting itself a wondrous lachrymal urn, I thought of a passage from Island where a few more are shed.
“Soon afterwards Mrs Pearson announced that there would be no more deaths from diphtheria â€“ and there were not. In the ward each day, heads were newly raised from pillows and gaunt bodies separated themselves from mattresses. They sat up and stepped away from the beds and went about like humans again, although coughs and retchings still smudged the atmosphere of calm that was like the aftermath of a storm, its survivors dazed and wondering if the flotsam strewn about them held any residual meaning.
Sorrow again lay balled and heavy at the base of Lieselâ€™s chest. In the ward she joined in the efforts to raise the morale of the convalescents. There was time at last to attend to matters of the body that affected more than mere survival. She cut knots and combed lice from childrenâ€™s heads, and washed and re-shaped hair that had been shorn, or matted by weeks of neglect. She trimmed and filed toenails and fingernails, and massaged borax and glycerine into sheet-roughened elbows, knees and hips. She filled bathtubs behind screens and knelt to wash backs and feet. Here tightened faces relaxed, and sometimes grew wet as the press of warm water on thirsting skin drew, by strange osmosis, answering tears. There was time to find clothing that fit and sometimes even belonged to its wearers, to help those who wished it to shave, or to take a pipe or a slice of sun at the sheltered end of the verandah. Later there would be shaky walks in the bright air, across the hilltop and down to the graveyard where grasses, leaves and paper flowers were pinned to wooden plaques, pathetic gifts pitched at the caverns of loss.”
As I transfer this image from the camera ontoÂ iPhoto, from iPhoto to the desktop, from the desktop to this blog, I wonder what I might have to say that could possibly gild the lily.
It puts me in mind of the effort I’ve expended this year on the enterprise called Rosa Mira Books. And I’m made awe-fully awareÂ that what I’ve produced, while it looks pretty good in certain lights, is yet ‘seared with trade; Bleared, smeared with toil; And wears (my) smudge and shares (my) smell’.
But the lily, its flowers rain-flecked and ogling me through the window as I write, pressed up out of an unprepossessing potful of soil, with somehow in its bland stalk these blooms encoded, which, within a few days, broke open, displaying all their ‘dearest freshness deep down things’. There ain’t a darn thing wrong with them.
I’m weary and short of words, but praise be for Muriel Rukeyser. . .
THIS PLACE IN THE WAYS
Having come to this place
I set out once again
on the dark and marvelous way
from where I began:
belief in the love of the world,
woman, spirit, and man.
Having failed in all things
I enter a new age
seeing the old ways as toys,
the houses of a stage
painted and long forgot;
and I find love and rage.
Rage for the world as it is
but for what it may be
more love now than last year
and always less self-pity
since I know in a clearer light
the strength of the mystery.
And at this place in the ways
I wait for song.
My poem-hand still, on the paper,
all night long.
Poems in throat and hand, asleep,
and my storm beating strong.
(Make it Friday, okay? That’s the day before Saturday.)
‘Please come on Monday
The day after Sunday
And mind that you start with
Something to part with;
A fire shall be ready
Glowing and steady
To receive it and burn it
And never return it.
Books that are silly,
Clothes outworn and chilly,
Hats, umbrellas and bonnets,
Dull letters, bad sonnets,
Whateâ€™er to the furnace
By nature calls â€œBurn us!â€
An ancient bad temper
Will be noted no damperâ€”
The fire will not scorn it
But glory to burn it!
Here every bad picture
Finds refuge from stricture;
Or any old grudge
That refuses to budge,
Weâ€™ll make it the tomb
For all sorts of gloom,
The out-of-door path
For every manâ€™s wrath.
All lying and hinting,
All jealous squinting,
All unkind talking
And each other balking,
Let the fireâ€™s holy actions
Turn to ghostly abstractions.
All moth-egg amassers,
All gloves and old feathers,
Old shoes and old leathers,
Greasy or tarr-ry,
Bring all you can carry!
We would not deceive you:
The fire shall relieve you,
The world will feel better,
And so be your debtor.
Be welcome thenâ€”veryâ€”
And come and be merry!’
A handwritten party invitation sent to their friends by George and Louisa MacDonald in 1885.
Most people I know have had a turbulent year. And then Christmas was suddenly upon us. Plenty have decided to flag it altogether: no cards, no gifts, no relatives, no fuss. I let it slide to a certain point and then suddenly I want: carols and oratorios, the scent of pine needles, tinselly evenings full of quiet expectation; my family. Some of that’s pure sentiment, or the longing for what won’t come again, but something vital endures in this festival that celebrates a new baby on the earth.
Whatever we make of the rest of Jesus’ life and death and after-death, with his birth a seed was planted in the soil of humanity, a seed of great pedigree, in whose growth was invested great hope.
And that’s the archetype that makes Christmas worth considering. Each new life calls forth a measure of that same royal hope and expectation â€” that the child will grow and thrive and live out the fullest expression of which it is capable â€” even if it takes 100 years.
Potent ideas and initiatives call for the same spirit of hope, and the same investment of time and attention, which might be called love.
I think that’s all I should say. I don’t want to make a sermon. Happy Christmas, friends. I long for your simple, essential, lovely hopes, plans, dreams (and where necessary, babies) to take root in the coming year.
Getting away is always worth it. I don’t know how I forget to, caught month after month in the loop of routine. Mt Peel was waiting just a few hours up the road and a friend joined me for the day walk, no, tramp, for which we were glad we’d chosen boots over gymshoes â€” for mud, roots, and a hill that rose and rose. Somehow we both managed to ignore the bold DOC sign telling us we’d taken the steep south ridge route.
Clouds rolled back as we climbed a hill mantled in Dracophyllum, Spaniard, celmisias, hebes and, pictured here, korari burning in the mist. Crickets flipped about and two women breathed heavily.
Back in Peel Forest we pitched a tent, threw a meal together and one of us nipped back to the village for two small lagers â€” quite enough to set us on our ears for the night.
The stars out there are a river of light. They fell and flared and seethed.
Next day we talked and read, walked through the kahikitea and over the Rangitata riverbed, cooked lunch on a fire, had a final coffee in Geraldine and said goodbye. She went north, I went south.
If you get a chance, do it. 36 hours is all it took.
Perhaps I’ve spent too long on the same project, too many hours in my own head, had too many weeks of routine. I didn’t know how susceptible I was.
Last night at the Dudley Benson concert I almost drowned. Inundated by wonder.
After the opening performance by Cat Ruka with a metronome, a chair, heavy black ropes about her neck and the presence of a goddess, Dudley introduced the Dawn Chorus: four achingly beautiful, clear-eyed young men mixing golden, grainy harmonies like a dunking in Demarara sugar. For the repertoire of Dudley’s own songs and Hirini Melbourne’s bird and insect waiata, beat box champion Hopey One joined them with her mesmerising array of percussive oral sound effects. Then Dudley and his sister Jessica sang a duet. Don’t you sometimes find that beauty threatens to undo you?
We clapped and cheered and stamped for more â€” and they gave it to us, includingÂ a heart-wringing tribute to the 29 men lying in the mountain at Pike River. Perhaps that’s another reason for the loveliness: our sensory membranes are worn thin just now by collective sorrow.
All this took place before a huge canvas backdrop painted by Nigel Brown, of a sombre and splendid river valley probably not unlike the one where the nation’s thoughts have been brought to bear.
Dudley’s moving to Dunedin. Lucky us. See him if you possibly can.
There were a lot of sticking plasters in the pool this morning. My new togs aren’t as comfy as the old ones but it was a good swim. I came home and read a woman’s story of how she tried as a child to kill herself.Â The cat curled up in the dog’s basket. I fretted a little about the challenges of the week ahead. I made coffee. The dog lay down at my feet. I thought of the discussion with Claire last night about how, whether and when we need to revisit the past, and when we might just let it be. Many old things are beautiful before they dissolve into another form.
I don’t know that that applies to other people’s sticking plasters, and harsh or horrific experiences. But I know that life is hastening us onward. There seems little time to look back. Everything is being changed.
Aaah, there’s nothing like a lovely object. I’ve spent so much of this year tinkering with words and ideas on screen, in order to create a book that I’ll never hold inÂ my hands* â€” and I accept that this is how it is for now. Anyway, it was delicious to go and buy 12 boxes the other day, to have book cover stickers made up, and to peel them gently onto the box lids â€” then to hold these vibrant things, to stack and stroke and admire them.
Sometimes (often) we who live at our laptops need to go and touch things: earth, fur, vegetables, water, skin, and maybe now and then a book.
You can find out more about the lovely objects at the Rosa Mira blog.
* print on demand’s a possibility next year
Zac, 10 months, takes the world by mouth. Visiting the other day, he was unfazed by brass on the tongue as he alternately licked and tinkled, one bell in each hand.
The lilac’s just coming out, reminding me of the poem I wrote some years ago.
On this day of gifts
my motherâ€™s familiar hand
remembers my birth
in the time of norâ€™westers
The nurses fed her whitebait;
my father made shortbread.
Her card takes liberties,
vasing up together
helebore, anemones and erlicheer.
I make my own posy:
Granny pegging underpants
huge and white
beneath the violet arc of sky;
a sailor dress from Ballantynes;
Victoria Parkâ€™s dark track;
a hot wind
and the mountains
propped at the end of the plain.
Calafate, Patagonia. You might not be able to discern the pink bird in left midfield. A flamingo: I was stalking it across the wastes. Elena followed loyally until she stepped in up to her ankle. She mightn’t want to come to NZ, she said, if this was the kind of thing we did there. Nevertheless I found a pink feather and tucked it into my camera case thinking I’d remove it (or not) before I went through Customs. It’s above me as I write, pinned to the wall and faded to the softest shade of salmon.
Back then I wrote home: what a place. Wild with the big cold wind blowing across it, and beautiful like Canterbury but everything 50 times larger . . .Â we were befriended on the streets by dogs like loving wolves . . . now to bed, full of lamb and red wine.
Today I’m missing Elena and her big, wild country.