I want to

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It’s like climbing up a mountain, or trekking across a vast plain. Whichever way you look at it the point is your feet get sore. It feels a long way. You wonder, is this all there is? Is this it, this ongoing business of sameness, one foot after the other? Will anything ever change?

She’s ten and she sings Katie Perry in the shower; louder than a lion, dancing through the fire. She’s so loud you can hear her clearly in every part of the house. The fact that she manages to hit the right note almost every time is testament to her attitude and determination, rather than any sign of prodigious talent. If she’s going to be heard, she’s going to get it right. You’d better believe it.

I wonder sometimes about how we become ourselves. I marvel at the people who know what they want to do with their lives from fairly early on and then go and do it. They suffer a reasonable dose of common-garden interruptions and hurdles (how else do we ever learn anything?) and then go about doing, creating, being the thing they saw themselves doing, creating, being all those years previously. Of course that doesn’t mean it’s easy, since when was anything worth doing easy? But they’re doing it.

If I was going to sit here and write to you all night, stay up into the small hours and inhabit that black and silent space where time is elastic, I would tell you about when I was twenty and a student and I came down to Dunedin to visit a friend. I’d tell you how we walked for hours on the dark streets at night, and when we came back to the house I was staying in, found it freezing cold and filled with students partying. I couldn’t see anyone I knew. I panicked and walked straight out. Went with my friend to his flat. Slept in his bed, top and tail with my fur coat on, an orange bar heater glowing strangely on the wall.

Let’s call him Cren, the one whose bed I slept in with my fur coat on. And my other friend, the one I’d flown down with and should have gone looking for amongst all those people that night, let’s call her Stella. Stella was angry with me the next day, understandably. She hadn’t known where I was. Should she have been out searching? Was I in danger in any way? I went into her room later on and saw a half-written letter on a notepad on the desk. I read it. More angry words. So this is what the trip was all about. A boy! We came down because of a boy.

How little anyone knew back then. How little anyone understood. Time was a thick heavy mixture; it could take days to wade through an hour. We thought our eyes were working perfectly, but we were blinded by youthful optimism. We could barely see a foot in front of us. At some point, something was bound to go wrong. Someone was going to make a faulty calculation.

Stella was beautiful. I realised this about twenty years after I saw her last. Her eyes were olive and shaped like almonds. There was a poem of hers I would ask her to read just so I could watch her mouth as she read it. What a crush it was, that crush I had on her. That invisible unnamed untouchable unspeakable thing. How adorably tender and naïve and innocent and repressed I was. Dear girl. Who could have seen it?

But Cren I loved like a brother. Like a twin brother, as if we were born out of the same skin. When I read the words he wrote to me it felt as if I was reading words of my own. As if I could see straight into his brain – which was impossible, he alone was master of his murky complexities. But his words were windows, telescopes, a satellite dish from his end of the country to mine. We were thousands of miles apart except when we were reading the letters we wrote to each other, week in, week out.

I wonder how things would have gone back then if I’d known what I know now. How would it have been if I’d  been able to own my own mind, my own body, my own words? I thought I was on the edge of something. I felt it kicking inside of me as I flew home from that strange trip to Dunedin. I thought that any moment I’d write the thing I’d been waiting to write since I was seventeen. I thought I was about to do it, I thought I was pregnant and becoming progressively overdue.

But how long the miles have been since then. Twenty years, twenty years. And how many wistful realisations have had to be faced since then, for all the years, all the years.  For all the ways I held myself closed, all the ways I let myself be tight and wound up and cold. All the days I was mute and panicked and mistaken. What can I say but that I’m sorry and I’m sad.

So she’s ten and she sings in the shower so loud its ridiculous, half the neighbourhood can probably hear. And she’s the kind of girl who wears her heart on her sleeve, who puts her hand up for anything, who wants to do it all. She’s fragile in ways that only I can see and yet there’s nothing I can do but watch and wait. And when it’s time she’ll fly and fall and fail and find her way again. And that will be her story, how she had an inkling early on and god-willing, with a good dose of common-garden scrapes and mistakes, she got on with it.

And I’m forty-two and I want to sing so bad its ridiculous. I want to tell you everything, the whole sordid broken tragicomic mess. It’s been twenty years since I was convinced that I was about to write the next great thing, and I haven’t forgotten a day of it. My legs are tired and I’m bored of the same plodding trek, day in, day out. But it’s my story and it’s the only one I’ve got.

 

 

All the clocks

3salvador-dali-persistence-of-memory.jpgThe Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dali

All the clocks in the house are telling the wrong time. Greer has lost her watch. I am in this funny surreal space where I feel like I am re-making my life. I know I said a similar thing a year ago, that I’m back at the beginning again, but it’s true. I actually do get to start again. Every week I learn something new, and it’s a process that continues to unfold. This ‘growing’ business is ongoing. Why would it ever stop?

I went up to Auckland last week and got a brain implant. High school statistics, plus a few extras. My supervisor is gifted with the ability of teaching with the barest minimum of spoon feeding, and in the kindest and most gentle way spent almost a whole day explaining to me what comes as naturally to him as tying his shoelaces. The brain implant was successful: I am now immersed in analysis of the data from my Master’s research, and there are numbers everywhere. I’m swimming in them. After previously having almost zero faith in myself as a mathematician, here I am doing maths.

I’ve never been more aware of the gaps in my brain. Great gaping holes I’ve allowed to stay wide open and vacant for so long. Although it might have seemed otherwise, deep down I’ve always had very little confidence in my intelligence. Everywhere I looked there were people more coordinated, more organised, and more consistently performing than I ever was, and somehow along the way I decided they were the smart ones. They were the ones who studied law, or held down full time jobs at the same time as bringing up their babies, or had letters after their names. I was convinced I couldn’t do any of that. So I strenuously avoided my gaps and weaknesses – anything to escape the shame of them.

But it would be a half-truth to say that my lack of confidence was the sole reason for those gaps. My insecurities were well and truly enabled by the religious framework I was brought up in. A framework which conditioned me to see the right answers as situated outside of myself, which convinced me that others were the experts in my life, and which valued a body of knowledge that could only be accessed through those same experts. And more than that, it was a framework which denigrated reason and discouraged any learning that was not of a religious nature, and a very narrow version of religion at that.

I grew up in the bosom of Pentecostal Christianity.  Pentecostalism is the “happy-clappy” version of Christianity. It’s always evangelical and often fundamentalist. Its roots are blue-collar, and its emergence at the turn of last century was in part a push-back against the traditional dominant structures of religious power of the day which were strict, ritualised and top-heavy. It began because a group of ordinary, uneducated people wanted more than the current Protestant orthodoxy had to offer. They were convinced they were part of something bigger than themselves and that that something was available to be experienced; to be touched, felt, heard, and seen. Even more than that, they were convinced that such an experience should have an effect on their lives. Whatever their need was – physical or otherwise – they brought it with them. Their spiritual experience was borne out of the reality of need.

I think it’s important to understand that the birth of the Pentecostal movement, while it had detractors  both from inside and outside the traditional church, represented an important rejection of the racial segregation and sexism that prevailed at the time. Those ordinary people who came together to seek a tangible experience of God were from marginalised communities. The leader of the movement in its early days was William J. Seymour, an African American and the son of former slaves. Many of the people who joined him were from immigrant or lower-class families, and women were free to preach and lead. These were people without social status or wealth and in this new experience of God they found belonging, security and a new kind of freedom.

It’s not surprising then that the Pentecostal denominations which grew out of those very unstructured beginnings became staunchly anti-intellectual. The ordinary people who flocked to Pentecostal meetings were rejecting not only the orthodox church as it was, but the education that went with it. The education that was available either by becoming one of the elite ministers themselves (if they were male) or by sitting in the pews each Sunday. That, alongside the social class of the majority of those first Pentecostals, meant that the leaders and dominant voices of the movement were largely self-educated.  In itself, this was not necessarily a dangerous thing. But when combined with the power structures of the church – which ironically evolved to mimic the structures of the traditional church – it created a powerful minority who were suspicious of higher education. These leaders valued experience and personal belief above all else. This has been a hallmark of almost all Pentecostal churches up until the present day.

I realise you don’t want to read an essay about power and the church, so I’m trying not to write one. But what I do want to say is that the dominant theme of my religious upbringing was that experience outranked thinking and education by a long shot. I was taught to be suspicious of my own ideas, and to consider them automatically inferior to the ideas and teaching of those in power in the church. The experts were always right. If I disagreed with them, it was because there was something wrong with me, not because there was something wrong with them or their ideas.

It’s been fifteen years since I began my slow journey to the very outer edges of institutional religion, and it’s taken me that long to even begin to understand how damaging those early years were. I’m aware that the way I’ve described my religious upbringing makes it sound like I was in a cult. I wasn’t. But it’s very easy for a religious organisation (or any organisation) to have cult-like characteristics without actually being a cult. And being in a cult-like organisation is almost as damaging as being in actual cult, as far as I can see.

But here’s the clincher. My religious upbringing didn’t just happen in church. My religious upbringing happened at home. And all the messages I got at church about distrusting my own thinking and relying on the experts for the right answers were amplified there.  In fact in many ways, home was cult-like too. There was very little room for me to develop my own thinking in either place. By the time I turned twenty-one I was pretty sure of one thing: that there were right ideas and wrong ideas, and if left to my own devices I was more likely to come up with the wrong ones. It wasn’t a winning strategy for life.

I’m not writing this to garner your pity. I’m writing this because I’m in a strange time of life, the clocks in the house are all different, my daughter’s lost her watch, and I’m starting again. Writing helps me get my head straight. These are things I’ve thought at various times and in different ways for a while now. But it wasn’t until I began to believe in myself as a thinking person that I realised it actually all makes sense. It makes sense to me, anyway.

So here it is: despite having seen religion at its worst, I remain a fan. And in these strange times, when in the same week Turkey’s president claims the military coup was “a gift from God”, and televangelist Pat Robinson has a vision of Donald Trump sitting at the right hand of God, I actually believe we need religion more than ever. Because we can’t talk about religion without religion. And we can’t even begin to understand that fraught intersection between religion and human experience without at least some understanding of religion itself – it’s language, ideas, symbols and practices – as strange as they may seem.

After all, that’s what religion is about – human experience. In other words, people. People with longings and desires and needs. Underneath the dogma and the power-play and the flawed organisational structures are a bunch of humans who have this crazy and yet quite sane idea that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. And I can’t argue with that.

seven, ten

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I had a dream the other night. I was in the passenger seat of a large bus, and my daughter Greer was driving. We were trying to get to the bus stop where she was going to take another bus to school. But she was having trouble stopping. She turned down the wrong road. Went left when I was trying to tell her to go right. I was worried she was going to miss the bus and it was frustrating to watch. Yet she was doing a pretty good job of driving, for a kid.

I’ve dreamt a lot of buses in the last year. Buses, cars, boats. My dreams have been punctuated with transport imagery. I’ve dreamt conversations in cars, long journeys through changing scenery. I’ve travelled alone, I’ve travelled with companions, I’ve had my companions change within the same dream. One minute I’m travelling with my sister, and then all of a sudden I’m not.  The cars are always going somewhere, the buses are always huge. Sometimes I’m trying to get large numbers of students all on one bus. Sometimes I’m in the dark.

Abigail, my youngest, turned seven yesterday. Wow. It is a little number and she is a little person and yet seven is a whole lifetime. I remember being seven and how long ago babyhood seemed to me even then, how it felt like I’d been alive for an age. I was no longer in my infancy, no longer completely dependent. I was dreaming and planning and reading and imagining and escaping; writing little poems in the exercise book my teacher gave me especially for words. Poems about pigs and daffodils and books.

How will she shine, this newly seven year old girl of mine? What will light her up? What will she do that makes her heart sing, that makes her shiver on the inside? It’s too early to tell. Like any parent, we want her to enjoy being herself, to grow into herself, to become comfortable in her own skin. We nudge her in certain directions, provide opportunities, take note of her interests, but in the end only she can possibly know. Who she is. Where she wants to go. What paths she wants to take.

I don’t always write about my daughters here. I’m aware of the obvious; not everyone has children. I don’t presume that all who read here identify with or are interested in parenting stories. And yet I see mothering and fathering in the broadest possible sense, as roles we can all embody at different times, if we choose to. I love what French feminist philosopher Irigaray wrote about mothering; that we are always mothers once we are women.  And perhaps that same sense of universal father-ness is available to men too. But more than that, I believe the best way to understand ourselves is to reflect on our family of origin. Our first family.  When I write about my children I’m connecting with the child I was.

Greer, the middle sister, is about to turn ten. She’s a feisty, fiery young woman, and every day she gets a little more sure of herself. That dream I had of her driving a bus, a ridiculous vehicle for a child to be driving, seems to remind me of what I know instinctually about her life. That she is in the driver’s seat. That her life belongs to her. I’m close beside her, watching every move, but I’m not driving. No matter how challenging the road gets, the bus is hers. And as much as I take my responsibilities as a parent seriously, other than in an obvious emergency it’s vital that I don’t take the wheel.

When I was her age, I didn’t know what it felt like to be in the driver’s seat of my life. I didn’t have that kind of control or agency. There are reasons for this, and I’ve reflected on all of them over the last few years as I’ve become aware of the ways in which that lack has played out in my adult life. I’ve witnessed chilling depths of powerlessness within myself, and in the moment I saw the worst of it I had two choices; either collapse in on myself or change. So I changed, slowly,  almost everything about the way I live. I’ve seen, with frightening clarity, what my life would have looked like if I didn’t step into my own driver’s seat.

I had a pretty ordinary childhood. You probably experienced some of the things I did. Maybe we watched TV at the same time after school, maybe we were both brought up on the DPB. Maybe you lived on a street lined with familiar state houses too, with a rusty car on the grass verge five houses down. Maybe you packed your bag to go and see your dad like I did. God knows there were and are great hordes of us who did that. It’s nothing so unusual.

But for all the reasons, for whatever reason, for all the whys and wherefores and ways I was and wasn’t and would never be, I grew up broken. So when I dream that my daughter is in the driver’s seat of her own bus and I’m right there, and even though I can see how much she has to lose if she gets it wrong my hand doesn’t reach out even once to grab the steering wheel, I’m a happy woman. Every day I get to start again.

 

building plans

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We went for a walk along the harbour the other weekend. The girls rode their bikes ahead of us, wheeling off into the distance and then coming back again. It was a beautiful day, warm and clear, although over on the edge of the harbour the wind was cold. On the way home we stopped at the section we’re planning to build on, to pick apples from the trees at the very top. It was amazing to be there in the full afternoon sun, looking down over the valley and the hills on the other side. It’s a little piece of paradise, and one day we’ll live there.

The apples we picked sit overflowing in front of me here on the table. Two bowls of them;  red and tart and real. I look at them and I am amazed. Apples from our own trees! We’ve been eating them crisp and fresh every day, and cooking them with cinnamon and ghee until they are soft and unctuous. We are producing, it seems, after some lean years. The fruit may be tentative, but it can’t be denied. There it is – hanging off the north facing trees of our future.

This is how it is you see; we’ve lived through a long winter. It’s been three or four years now of harsh weather. The worst weather I’ve seen, a full range of extremes. Gale force winds, heavy blasts of rain, low grey clouds for months at a time. I’ve learnt how to batten down the hatches, how to step in and shut the door behind me. I had no alternative but to pay attention to my interior spaces. Sometimes it takes us a long time to learn how to give ourselves what we need the most.

I’ve been off facebook for a while now and one of the reasons I left was because I got sick of all the rubbish that kept filling up my feed. Superficial ten point nothings about how to have a successful relationship, blah-blah-blahs about how marriage is nothing to do with what you need it’s all about what you can give the other person. These are particular views, hailing from the evangelical headquarters of the world, and once upon a time I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at them. But I can’t stomach that kind of garbage anymore.

There was a time early on in the stormy weather, when the fierceness of it was still bewildering, that I thought fixing our relationship was what needed to happen. Financial difficulty had triggered the storms, as it often does, but it was the fundamental weaknesses in our relationship that were uncovered almost immediately. Whole sections of roof lifted off in the wind and what we’d managed to avoid noticing was now plainly clear.  There were rooms missing entire exterior walls, and half the house needed re-piling. We’ve never liked the idea of giving up, so we worked at it. We sought professional opinion, made game plans, developed strategies. There were late night dramas, bags packed and unpacked, ultimatums delivered, and whole sections of the house abandoned, deemed completely unliveable. Everything was negotiable.

But as soon as we patched up one corner, another blew out in the wind. The repair list didn’t seem to be getting any smaller, no matter how many things we crossed off. And the weather wasn’t letting up. It was the longest winter. One day I stepped out of the house and looked at the surrounding land. It was good, flat land with a northern aspect, and there was so much more of it than either of us had realised. I picked up a shovel and started digging. Before I knew it, I had the ground prepared for the foundations of a small house. I ordered concrete, supervised the delivery, and then kept building. Once Pat saw what I was doing, he did the same thing a few paces away. We got on with the difficult but completely necessary job of building ourselves.

To say we ditched the flimsy edifice that was this relationship we’d tried to put together, is an understatement. All that is left now of that weather-beaten building are a few piles of old bricks, a corner of concrete poking out of the earth. We keep it there as a reminder, a warning for our children. We’ll tell them the story when they’re old enough to understand, and hopefully it will mean something to them. But it’s more than just a cautionary tale. It’s a testament; a bold monument to hope and to the possibility for change than exists within all of us.

Meanwhile, I’m still building. It takes work to go right back to the foundations of our lives and start again. I’ve had to make some hard calls, and there are parts of my life that may still look ugly to the outside eye. Everything I do now is intentional, I do it because it works for me, because it helps me to to build. I have no interest in keeping up appearances, or in putting energy into what is superficial or false. I’ve lost friends, allowed formative relationships to lie fallow, abandoned a million “shoulds” and “must-do’s.” I’m finally learning how to look after myself – I wouldn’t have survived otherwise.

And it’s very nice to have company as I build. It’s a miracle, in some ways, that Pat and I still love each other. But it’s even more of a miracle, I think, that we are friends. Even better friends now than we were before. We have fifteen years together, which is long enough to create history. We share a tall stack of memories, haunting and otherwise. I know not everyone gets to start again together, and for many, separation is the only way forward. But the building requirements are the same. In the end, all we can do is build ourselves.

twelve years old

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My big girl turned twelve last month. How about that. She’s growing, lanky and long, trying on curves for size. A was-child’s body barely containing the woman within. She’s waiting to break out.

What will that woman be like? I watch her and wonder. Kind, above all else. Thoughtful and sensitive, without a doubt. Inquisitive and searching, definitely. Light hearted and fun-seeking, yes. Growing in confidence and attitude, in gut feelings and feisty reactions, I pray so. Developing a voice that speaks without hesitation, that says, “this is me, this is who I am, and this is how I expect to be treated.” Come on girl!

It’s my moment, I know, I can feel it in my bones. This is where I get to play my most important role. Everything else almost pales in comparison. The babywearing, the midnight feeds, the cuddles, the songs, the stories, the trips to the beach the zoo the park flooded with autumn leaves, they’re all in the past, their time is gone. This is where I get to take on the role of airfield officer, to put on my high-vis vest and get down there and clear the runway.  It’s a very serious job.Watch out anyone who tries to get in her way! And what can’t be moved, of course, we talk about. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover.

I’m in the middle of a Masters in Education, about to carry out research in the area of twice-exceptional students (students who are gifted and have some kind of disability). It’s a fascinating subject because it brings together so many different areas – giftedness, learning disabilities, disability studies, educational psychology, neuroscience, pedagogy, and all those important self’s: self-knowledge, self-concept, self-efficacy, self-awareness. I’m surrounded by case studies – at home and at school – so everything I read is real. I sit here in my tiny box of a study, piles of journal articles wherever I look, and I laugh, I cry, I talk back to the researchers I disagree with. I’m in heaven.

Part of my reading has been looking at the role of the family in talent development. It’s heavy going in places, sobering and inspiring at the same time. It all boils down to one very obvious fact – the influence of the family can be a determining factor in the development of a child’s potential. Whether their ability is developed to a high level or not can depend on the family context. Of course there are always exceptions. History gives us plenty of examples of highly successful individuals who succeeded despite their family background rather than because of it. But research has highlighted some interesting factors in the way a healthy family works to support the child’s development, and I find it fascinating.

Paula Olszewski-Kubilius points out that a disability in a child can set in motion within a family a psychological process that either helps or hinders the child’s development.  A disability combined with giftedness (which is exactly what I’m studying) can result in reduced opportunities for the child’s development, or in a disproportionate focus on the disability, to the detriment of the gift. However, she very interestingly suggests that any characteristic of a child that results in rejection by their parents (such as a disability), can help free the child from “strong psychological identification” with the parents, thereby supporting the development of the child’s own unique identity.

It reminds me of Jung’s idea of individuation. I’ve written about it before, I talk about it often. I’ve lived it, better late than never, and I believe in it wholeheartedly. Individuation; the process by which we become our own unique selves, is a process contra naturam. Meaning, against human nature. To individuate we go against every force within us and without us that would will us to comply, to fit in, to keep the peace. Separating from our parents, defining ourselves as ‘other’ in relationship to them, is the first step. It’s teenage rebellion in a psychological frame. But it’s more than that too. It’s the hard work of pushing back on the world when the world tries to tell us who we are and how we should be behaving. It’s the risky, enormously brave step of standing up and saying “this is me, this is who I am, and this is how I expect to be treated.”

As far as my role in these teenage years goes, I realise the tarmac metaphor is limited. When the time comes for my twelve year old to take off into life she might rather dance than fly. Or paint, or sing, or yell. You get what I mean. But however she decides to do it, she’ll have my full support. It won’t all be, well which cliché shall I use? Fun and games? A walk in the park? Plain sailing? At some point I’ll be the thing she fights against with every ounce of her strength. I’ll represent everything she’s not, as she does the work of discovering what she is. I’m wincing at the thought, but I’m also kind of excited. It’s an amazing season to be in, full of potential and possibility, and I get to watch it unfold. The least I can do is get out of the way.

 

searching for the universal

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The Crucifixion by Andrea Mantegna

I sat in church on Good Friday listening to the narrative of the crucifixion from chapters 18 and 19 of the Gospel of John. I’d never heard the whole passage read straight from the text in a church service before, and there was something pure and uncomplicated about it. It was the most appropriate thing to be doing on Good Friday, to be reading the story of an event you could say precipitated the birth of the Christian faith. The choir was magnificent, as it always is, but I wasn’t interested in the music. The building was vast and ponderous, as it always is, but it was the story that captured me.

I know the story. I’ve heard it every Easter since I was a child. It’s a story I’ve analysed for veracity, that I’ve used as ammunition in religious arguments, a story I know so well that at times I’ve lost its meaning. But this Good Friday I shut my eyes and saw it happening in front of me. Jesus the Christ, sentenced to death. I saw myself in the crowd as Pontius Pilate, the representative of the Roman authority the Jewish people were ruled by at that time, presided over Christ’s trial. Before him was Jesus Christ, and beyond that the throng of people. The Jewish priests wanted him sentenced to death for blasphemy and sedition. He had refused to pay taxes to Caesar, so they said. He had called himself the King of the Jews.

“Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate asks.

“Do you say this for yourself, or because others have said it?” Jesus replies.

“Am I a Jew?” Pilate answers. “Your own nation has brought you to me. What have you done?”        

“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus responds. “If it was, then my followers would be fighting to free me.”    

So Pilate goes to the priests. “I find no fault in him,” he says. “Shall I release him? Shall I give you your king?”

And right there, as I was listening to the story, my heart sank. I could have had a king. Pilate offered us our king. He offered to set Christ free. It was the time of Passover, a religious festival that Pilate traditionally released a Jewish prisoner in honour of.  But the crowd yelled out, “we have no king but the emperor!” And when Pilate asked about Jesus, again, trying to understand, they cried “crucify him!” At that time, Christ represented an enormous challenge to the status quo. His message, if followed en masse, would have resulted in the upturning of the systems of the day, in a deep unravelling of self and society. So the crowd chose the emperor over radical change. They  chose the embodiment of their oppression over a new kind of freedom. And Pilate, according to the Gospel of Mathew, washed his hands.

No one can say exactly what happened in those moments after Christ took his last breath. The Gospels all vary slightly but have some historical reliability. In the Gospel of John we picture the soldiers breaking the legs of the two hanging either side of Christ, but not his, because he was already dead. We see the blood and water running down his body as the soldier’s  sword pierces his side. We imagine his body being lowered down to the waiting Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy man who was a secret follower of Jesus and who had a tomb ready. How did he carry the body? Weeping? Stumbling?

He was joined by Nicodemus, a member of the religious elite who had earlier come to Christ under the cover of night and questioned him. Nicodemus brought a hundred pound weight of myrrh and sandalwood for the burial, the most expensive spice available in that day. The body was placed in a tomb in a nearby garden, wrapped in linen and spices by the two men and laid to rest. As John 19 reads: they took the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury. There is no more meaningful an expression of devotion than to prepare a loved one’s body for burial.

I’m interested in these two men. They weren’t disciples of Jesus. They hadn’t made any outward sign of faith in him, they hadn’t joined his support group, they didn’t sit at the front of his public appearances. They had watched from a distance and had quiet conversations with themselves. They had allowed what they saw and felt to sit in some deep place and seep in. And when he died, they were there.

I read the two figures of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus as archetypes. The first, Joseph of Arimathea: the secret believer. He rejected outward signs of faith in Christ, yet carried some sense of who he was in his heart. He was the one who watched and wondered and came to belief in his own way. He wasn’t a joiner. He never signed up to anything. And yet when Christ died, he was there to give the most tender, most appropriate act of worship.

The second figure, Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, the ruling religious: I call him the questioning priest. Steeped in orthodoxy, he knew every religious law inside out. And yet one night, hidden under the cover of darkness, he went to visit Christ with his questions. He was the one who stepped out on a limb. Who risked the censure of his religious colleagues. Who was willing to question his own assumptions and fixed ideas. Who articulated questions that unlocked worlds of meaning. And when Jesus died, there he was, waiting with arms full of extravagance.

What do these two figures offer us? New possibilities for believing? If religion offers the world anything right now it is in the power of a story. The power of a story to offer rich nuggets of meaning, symbolic elements, truths beyond any literal interpretation, application beyond any one single place or time or group of people. The beauty of a universal archetype, in Jung’s use of the term, is in its meaning for all of us, across all time and all places. When we sift through the story of Christ’s death searching for the universal rather than the specific, we find treasure. Two figures who suggest that there is something in here for all of us. Two figures who represent new possibilities and new ways of seeing the world.

I think it’s fair to say that we are all pretty angry about religion right now. The violence. The senseless, disgusting violence. The mistreatment of vulnerable people. The drawing of lines, the insistence on a world based on us and them. But is it really just about religion? Don’t we all have a primal drive that leads us to protect our own at any cost? And how is it, after all these years of science and philosophy and technological advances far beyond our predecesors’ wildest imaginings, that we are still completely unable to find a way of living that benefits all?

The kingship Christ represented was not of this world. Meaning, in my understanding, that he represented truths of the heart, a wisdom that was less than tangible, that spoke to the mysteries and complexities of life. Not a rule book, nor a political regime, nor a new cultural norm. I happen to believe, despite the fact that I lost any ounce of evangelical energy I ever had a long time ago, that his invitation still exists. It exists and is open to us when we see it as a metaphysical reality – a reality that is present in some way today, in the way that everything is present on the time-space continuum, as the reverberations of the past echo into the present. Christ’s offer becomes real to us as humanity when we finally see that we are both who we are and who we were. We cannot divorce ourselves from the past.

And there is the crux of it. An answer to the guttural “why?” that fills us as we turn off the TV news or put down our phones because we can’t take it any more. The crux of it lies in the past – in the legacy of violence we have all created. We can’t wash our hands of it. So we need new ways of seeing. We need a universal wisdom that speaks to our awful complexities. We need new possibilities for being and for believing, we need a way of the heart.

 

three

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The dream was about collecting things from the past. We were visiting a strange city and I was looking in a cupboard for something that would give us a clue as to where we should be going. Was it a scrap of paper? A tourist brochure? I found a pile of papers, things I’d saved. An envelope full of little toys one of my daughters had left behind somewhere when she was younger. My mother-in-law had collected them up and posted them to us.

I got up and walked through the dark house to the kitchen while everyone else was asleep. It was the darkest morning we’ve had all year, and when I stepped out the back door to get chives for my lunch the light was grey and shadowy. I kept remembering things, everything echoed, everything was layered with memories, time was stacking itself up. I drove to school under a muted sky, feeling like I feel when I know I am a writer. A strange feeling of being full and floating at the same time. As if there are a million things waiting to be written. That if I only just sat and wrote, they would be revealed.

The other night in a dream I lost my boots. I thought, this is a dream, if I re-trace my steps I’ll find them. I walked up a curving staircase looking for the restaurant I thought I’d left them in, and as I walked I saw on every step, on either side of me, a myriad of small objects. Little ornaments, shells, small things filling every space on the stairs. And in the dream I was amazed. I knew I was dreaming, and I looked down at all those tiny things and realised every one of them was a symbol.

I’m so aware of time passing. My daughters were babies, once. I held them in my cradled arms, later propped them up on my left hip. That was the way they were carried, soft bums resting on the pelvis that made them, small backs tucked into the crook of my arm. The pose so natural that when I pick up someone else’s baby it all comes flooding back. How many things could I do with a baby on my hip? So many.

At the time I thought it would last forever. Youth, when we are in it, is an endless stretch. An expanse of time that seems to keep renewing itself. Age is a horizon so distant the eye can’t register the pace with which we travel towards it. And yet I see it now. The babies are sprouting, gangly and feisty and full of life. Their interior worlds proliferate. Daily they add new experiences, new skills, new awareness. She is swimming on her back. She moves, without anyone holding her. She has joined the orchestra, she knows how to stop and wait for the next bar when she makes a mistake. She has no spelling words this week, she got them all right the first time.

I am itching to tell them the stories. How I watched them play in the back garden of the house they were born to. The jacaranda tree in the middle of the yard was wide and whispery and underneath it was a blue cube playhouse bought second hand from a kindergarten. There was a plank from the roof into the tree, and a ladder to climb up to the roof. It was a convergence of worlds, each layer a new territory. There were piles of sand, leaves, branches, purple blossoms, books, plastic trowels, a family of soft toy animals, the trike with the trailer at the back. They were always busy, my daughters. They made things, they went places. I could barely keep up with them.

One warm September day we went for a walk and came back with the roof of the red canvas buggy covered with spring’s bounty. Yellow kowhai blossoms, seed pods, bold stalks of green grass, red leaves, tender pale petals. We made art that afternoon, outside on newspaper spread thick because I couldn’t fight the worry about the mess they were making. Later in the day she planted her precious kowhai seeds and watered them. She was sure they’d grow. There’s a photograph of her pale head bending down over a pot of soil, small fingers pressing into the dampness.

I took so many photos. I was desperate to remember. I took so many that in the end, with the limping thing that my brain often is, I couldn’t do anything with them. They wait patiently, digital versions of themselves, for me to attend. Thousands of photographs, each one a marker, a sign on the way to something, a symbol. I walk up the stairs of my mind searching them out, longing to find their meaning, to put them into a story for my three daughters.  There are gaps to fill, errors to compute, failings to apologise for. I am waiting, waiting for them to be old enough to tell.

the truth right now

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This is my question: what is the truth right now?

In her lecture “The Value of Not Understanding Everything,” Grace Paley instructs writers to remove these lies:

  1. The lie of injustice to characters.
  2. The lie of writing to an editor’s taste.
  3. The lie of writing to your best friend’s taste.
  4. The lie of the approximate word.
  5. The lie of unnecessary adjectives.
  6. The lie of the brilliant sentence you love the most.

Which lies am I guilty of? I am guilty in part of writing to an invisible editor’s taste, yes. I am guilty of the lie of writing to my best friend’s taste – if you replace best friend with “audience of IRL people who I’m aware read my blog sometimes.”  The lie of the approximate word? No. Tell me if I have ever done this and I will rectify it immediately. The lie of unnecessary adjectives? God I hope not. The lie of the brilliant sentence, chapter, section, character, event, you love the most? Absolutely.

So I am learning to be cutting with my work. To be my own worst critic. Not before the thing is written, not during the writing of the thing, no, then the critic is in solitary confinement, all doors and windows locked. But afterwards? After the thing is written? Critic I must be. I must be ruthlessly after my very best. Nothing else will satisfy.

So what is the truth here?

The truth is this. I was lost for a long time. I didn’t know the sound of my own voice. I didn’t know what I was capable of. I was driven to please.

About Goya, Andre Malraux writes:

“To allow his genius to become apparent to himself it was necessary that he should dare to give up aiming to please.”

I have been driven for approval. Thinking that as long as I finished the novel I would gain it. That somebody would like the story and validate me, and then my whole, desperate, life-long search for approval would be over, once and for all. Ha! What was I thinking? It also happens that I was burdened with a false sense of importance. Oh dear. What a contradiction. To completely lack self-belief and at the same time be weighed down with self-importance. I thought the world needed me. I thought my story would fix things, make a small corner of the world better, even in microscopic amounts. I thought I had the power to ameliorate. Ha.

The truth is, I need me and I need this story. The truth is, I do have the power (by the grace and mystery of God) to ameliorate  myself. I can help myself, in microscopic, incremental amounts. That is all.

So this is the truth: I write for an audience of one. I have known this deep, deep down, for a very long time.

And this is what I tell myself: shut the door, turn off the phone. Shut down every highway that brings you information and comment from afar. Turn away from every source that leads you away from you. Turn down the volume to the world until all you hear are whispers and quiet songs and ancient murmurings. Close the curtains on the peripheral – the constant, blinding movement of other people’s lives. Narrow your focus until all you can see is your own sacred present. Leave all else in shadow, it is not your concern.

Now, when everything is almost silent, present yourself to yourself. Step out of the shadow of your own obscurity to yourself and take a good look. You are not what you expected. You are neither as good as you hoped, nor as broken as you feared.  You are not the knight in shining armour you thought you needed, not the vision from afar you were waiting for. You are no more and no less than you. And there aren’t any options. You did not come with an exchange card. You are irreplaceable, a unique composition. Available and useful primarily to you. The beginning of everything. Look up at the mirror and say it: here I am.

Now what will you do with yourself?

I will take care of myself. I will listen to myself. I will write the words that I most need to hear. I will harness the stories I most need to listen to. I will ask the questions I need answered. I will seek the learning I lack. I will not cover my wounds. I will not hide what is broken. I will not walk when I should be limping, will not run when I should be walking. I will not move when I should be still, will not be still when I need to move. I will not stay when I should go, nor go, when I should stay. I will treat myself with tenderness and kindness. I will go ferociously after my own best interests. Which I believe, in the end, are the best interests of all of us. Honesty. Safety. Quality. Nurturance. Growth. It’s not rocket science.

Will you let me go? Will you help me to release myself from the heavy bonds of loyalty I gave to everyone but myself? Will you hear me when I say no, not now, not yet, not ever? Will you let me be silent while I wait for new words to come, because the old words didn’t always serve me well? The old words kept me heavy and bowed down. God knows they kept you bowed down sometimes too.

I thought I mattered to the world. I was misinformed. I matter to myself. Now, to see to that.

mountains

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I have been hanging out with mountains. That’s just what I have been doing.  I live in their neighbourhood now, I am local with them. I walk out of my house, get in the car and drive a few hours – three or four at the most – and there I am. Walking along the street while mountains tower ahead and behind.

What is a mountain if not the very core of the earth reaching up to the sky? It is the land from its deepest centre stretching towards heaven. Our truest reminder of those earliest days. When papa our mother and rangi our father, as the creation story goes, were wrenched apart and reached for each other ever after. And we were born in the empty space of their longing. We inhabited their loss. These craggy peaks and soaring ranges remind us; something is not as it was. The land wants to be one with the sky again.

I can’t take my eyes off those layered folds. The way one curve of green gently rises out of the one before. Standing on the edge of the lake looking out, the layers are uncountable. Ridge after ridge folds down from peak after peak, as far as I can see. Each one nestled into the company of others. A community of mountains, sitting in regal conversation, presiding over our small lives. Continuing the dialogue they began all those millions of years ago. We come, have our moment in the light, and then, at the end of our days, fade away. While they remain.

And that doesn’t make us any less consequential. If anything, it spurs us to do something with this tiny but unknowable piece of time we have been given. This stretch of days we call a life; what are we going to do with it? How are we going to live out the longings that lie at the core of us? How are we going to count our losses and learn from them? How are we going to take care of ourselves? What stories are we going to tell ourselves?

I have been swiftly covering ground, moving backwards and forwards in time at great speed. Answering questions that had gone unanswered for all four decades of my life. This is enlightening and devastating at the same time, thrilling and disturbing. It takes courage to face the things that haunt us. Turning away from them is easy. Ignorance and denial are temptingly sweet. Reality is far harsher and yet it is a sure foundation, the only way we can truly know ourselves.

We demolished the old garage that sits down from the house on the edge of the footpath, as is common in Dunedin. The roof leaked and the door was rotting, stiff and awkward on ancient hinges. It wasn’t fit to be a garage, it housed the things we had no where else to put. Old bikes, boxes of tools and random things still waiting to be unpacked from the move. The water pooled in the corners when it rained, and the floor was a sandy base covered, some time ago, in a layer of black polythene that was now ragged and torn. We talked about what to do with the garage from the moment we arrived. A year later, we took action.

The iron roof was carefully peeled back, the sheets cut in half with tin snips and thrown into the rubbish skip that sat waiting on the side of the road. Then the roof bracing, rotting in places, was strategically demolished and the heavy door taken off its hinges. Finally, the polythene was lifted up and the floor swept of debris. Now all that remains are three concrete block walls and a pale sandy floor. The open space is tantalising in its simplicity, hopeful in its possibility, completely stripped back, a blank slate.

The process of deconstruction was more complex than my description portrays. There was a lot of shifting involved. Things had to be moved out before anything could happen. I said good-bye to some of it, there was grieving to do. The rest was ferreted away wherever it could fit. New spaces surprisingly presented themselves. Unused corners came to light. Spaces that had been ignored were given attention. And there were people involved besides us. A student we’ve got to know, my Dad, the next-door neighbour. Each of them intersecting with the process in unpredictable yet vital ways.

This process is not unlike the one we all go through periodically, when we allow ourselves to see things as they are and find the courage to do something about it.  We shed light on dark corners, explore what had been hidden reaches, find new ways of seeing the familiar, discover untapped resources within ourselves. We’re all on our own timeline when it comes to this internal deconstruction. There is no one-size-fits-all, no cookie-cutter recipe or perfect mathematical equation. There’s no point in comparison either, or in thinking that what worked for us will necessarily work for someone else. But we all need to do it, at some point in our lives. We were born into loss, in some way or another, as those mountains remind us.

I go to church

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I go to church. Not the way I used to. Not three times a day, not desperate, not believing blindly. Not storing treasures in heaven, not trying to save people from hell, not piling up discrete answers to discrete questions. Not following behind myself with a clipboard and a pen and a checklist of required actions, a list of never-must-do’s.

I once stood in front of a full auditorium and earnestly declared “we all need Jesus.” It was a heart-felt plea, a genuine profession. I believed whole-heartedly that my faith was everything. My sustenance, my guide, my reason for being. I thought I couldn’t live without it. And I presumed that meant neither could you.

You may have been in the audience that day. You may have squirmed uncomfortably; perhaps you looked down and picked at your trousers when I made my earnest proclamation. You were sitting there at my invitation, your presence there in that bright school hall all the evidence of your unconditional support I’d ever need, not that I’d see it at the time. I was trying to win you over. I wanted you to see how much life I had, I wanted you to see the glow of the light I could feel burning me up on the inside. I was trying to convert you.

I could apologise, right here. I could come clean. I could tell you how sorry I am. That I’ve regretted that day, and all the days like it, for a long time. I could re-count my sins in a list as long as all four of our arms put together. I could repent. Oh the litany. Of all the things I could repent of. The assumptions, the narrow-mindedness, the fear. The fear. But I know you don’t need it.

You saw right through me. You saw how small I was, how afraid. You saw how the light glanced off my eyes and blinded me. You knew my world view was a shaky construction, held up by dogmatism, the most flimsy of flimsy supports. You knew, somewhere deep inside you, that if my faith was a building, it would fail every building code out. That I had not tested anything. I had put no weight on it at all.

And so you kindly tolerated my enthusiasm. You took my cheerful positivity at face value. I was happy, I was finding my way in the world and you were proud of me. You were interested in my life. I turned up at your house one night, ostensibly for no other reason than to say hi, and you were very glad to see me. At the end of the evening I asked you to pay for my bible college fees. I had believed the money would come, as everyone else around me did. And when it didn’t, I came and asked you. You said yes, of course.

It took a long time for everything to fall apart. Self-deception is the true world super-power. There were several bouts of depression, more than one round of mild burn-out, and still my story stayed the same. If I could just do the right things, and pray the right words, or get the right people to pray the right words, everything would be fine. I knew that something was wrong with me, but I couldn’t admit that something was wrong.

Life has an uncanny way of presenting us with the exact circumstances needed for us to learn exactly what we need to learn. Almost twenty years after the day I stood in front of you under the glaring lights of that sterile school hall, the day I graduated with the bible college diploma you had paid for, I finally found myself in the dark. Looking into the murky reality of my completely unknown self. Everything was steadily becoming undone, and there was nothing I could do about it. There was no area of my life that had not been touched by chaos. And it was the beginning of everything, the pre-labour of my own re-birth.

I’m waxing metaphorical here, I know. But hear me out. I thought I was already re-born. The story I’d been told, that I had absorbed and recounted a million times, was that I began again the moment I believed. It seemed so simple. It seemed to make sense. Some kind of metaphysical interaction had occurred on the night that four-year-old me asked the holy spirit of God to look after me forever. Forever and ever and ever. I have this feeling I was being efficient. A shred of a memory tells me I thought I was praying once so I’d never have to pray again. But my mother, opportunist and recent convert that she was, saw eternal potential. “Do you want to ask Jesus into your heart?” she asked me sincerely. I did.

If I could go back to that tender night I would not change a thing. Children see where adults do not. They understand things we find obtuse. They believe, where we scoff. My conversation with God that night, aided by my mother, was the real thing. I wanted something more than this world had to offer. I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. I wanted to believe.

I could look back on the years since then as one long loss. My simple four-year old faith was quickly tarnished. It wasn’t long before I was convinced I was right and everyone else wrong. I read the world through newly converted eyes. Even at four I had opinions about what Christians should do and shouldn’t. The day I found out that our closest church friends ate white bread, I was horrified. Christians ate brown bread! I was a prodigious fundamentalist.

You can fill in the gaps between four and fourteen, and fourteen and twenty-four. The desperate prayers for myself and the entire world. The missions trips. The youth groups. The compulsive bible reading. The conferences, the sermons, the mega-healers on TV. My heart was full to bursting, or so it felt. But my mind had checked out a long time ago.

I’m not here to recount the evils of organised religion. You know them all. I can’t even bring myself to hint at them; the horrors beggar belief. But I can tell you why, after all these years, I still go to church. I go to church because I like to go to church. I like to sit in the quiet of the one hundred and fifty year old stone building we worship in and think about my life. I like to look up at the rafters towering above me, and imagine the people all those years ago who put so much energy and resource into building something soaring and magnificent, something so impractical. I look up to the balcony floor and wonder what the days were like when most people went to church on a Sunday. When this old building was full and bursting with life. I think about the Reverend Wallis, a character in my novel, who preached in buildings just like this one, to a full house. And somehow, sitting in that building, partaking in the ritual and the community it offers me, my life makes sense. I go to church to understand.

I used to go to church for you. I thought that if I did the right things, and prayed the right prayers, that you would have your moment of transcendence too. I wanted you to be happy. I wanted you to be free. I wanted you to know that sweet indescribable feeling of being loved by something bigger than you. I wanted you to find something soaring, magnificent. I wanted you to know that you are beloved, end of story. I still do.

You are welcome to join me at church any time, but I’ll never invite you like I invited you before, all serious and hopeful. Every precept I once held, tightly as if it were a rock and I drowning in a sea of uncertainty, has crumbled. What’s left is beautiful. But it’s beautiful to me. I won’t presume you’d feel the same way. The children will probably want you to come and hear them sing in the choir, and I’d recommend it. The sound of their clear and steady voices pierces the still air, and above them the morning light streams in reliably through ancient glass in a myriad of colours. There’s nothing like it.

You see, I still want more than this world has to offer. That’s why I go to church. Not like before, when I was so unaware. I go like the new-born newly-adult self that I am, everything fresh and undone. It’s the best way I know to begin again.