reading lament

Huia Bird Intaglio print by Kapiti artist

“The Huia Returns” 

So time moves swiftly on.  Only three weeks left at school, four weeks until we go. What began as a playful wondering in our minds a year ago is fast becoming real. I almost can’t believe it. And yet I can. Because a house is waiting for us. A little house in the suburbs waits, with trees across the road and a wide sky above it. The open road waits, with stops and adventures thoughtfully planned. And a new life waits,  one that is open and spacious and unhindered in so many ways. We can’t wait to go. We are eager to move.

The novel waits too, waits patiently for the warm space of time that will be mine over summer. It waits for my full and knowing attention. Which it has not quite had yet, not in the way it will have very soon. We will spend time together, that story and I, and talk about all the words that sit on its periphery, the words that are waiting, the ones that were too hard, or too raw, or too uncomfortable to be written in the first time around.

An unexpected conversation about lament happened this week. My sparkling year 11 class and I found ourselves reading Hone Tuwhare’s No Ordinary Sun, that poem of poems. At first they were bemused, but with a bit of prompting they stretched themselves out amongst the words. One of the students thoughtfully asked whether the narrator of the poem is telling the tree to give up.

“Tree let your arms fall:                                                                                                                                                                                 raise them not sharply in supplication                                                                                                                                                       to the bright enhaloed cloud.                                                                                                                                                                         Let your arms lack toughness and                                                                                                                                                     resilience for this is no mere axe                                                                                                                                                                   to blunt nor fire to smother…”

I shook my head without thinking much but then as we read it together I realised she was partly right. The tree is no match for the “monstrous sun” of a nuclear blast and the narrator is keen to ensure the tree is under no false illusions regarding its durability. Its “end at last is written.” It will not survive. The poem is a lament, I found myself saying.

“Your former shagginess shall not be                                                                                                                                          wreathed with the delightful flight                                                                                                                                                               of birds nor shield                                                                                                                                                                                                     nor cool the ardour of unheeding                                                                                                                                                               lovers from the monstrous sun…”

Lament. We wrote the word on the white board. Talked about lament as a song of sorrow, a song that recounts what has been lost as a way to honour and remember it. Talked about how the bible, which some of them know well, is full of lament. And then I realised that a lament can be a form of protest. That Tuwhare’s much loved poem is lament in protest.  Loss is envisioned in such a way as to caution against further loss, in such a way as to communicate the pressing need for change, in such a way as to bring about change. Which is the essence of protest.

And then that novel, the one I’ve been telling you about for so long now, came to my mind. I saw something I hadn’t seen before. The Last Huia is lament in protest. It is a lament for things that have been lost and must be remembered, for things that have been lost and must be honoured, for things that have been lost and must never be lost again.  And my eyes filled with tears.

They were ok with that, those sparkling students. They’re used to me getting carried away occasionally, and they humour my sensitivities. I play the role of eccentric teacher in their lives, and every good learning career has one of those, doesn’t it? So the tears were smiled at and then wiped away as we read our way through the poem. But I carried that word with me for the rest of the day. Lament.

It has taken me from sixteen to forty to find my voice in life and on the page, and I am sad about that. There are a multitude of factors that I think of as accessories to this loss, but I am the principal charge.  I allowed myself to be silenced, I yielded when I should have fought, stayed when I should have walked out, conformed when I should have rebelled. I understand, in part, how this happened. Individuation as Jung has described it is a process contra naturam. To follow it through we must go against the forces without us which would have us conform, and the inclinations within us which hunger for acceptance. It was not a road I was capable of taking until now.

Sorrows gone unheeded fester, they weigh themselves down in dark corners and distort our perceptions. They sit waiting for us to see them, to put voice to them, to lament them. The song that arises is shadowy, at first uncertain. But it gathers strength as it recounts the loss, and the bittersweet notes themselves, by weaving a cautionary tale, become firm ground, a pathway for new possibilities. A pathway of growth, and of vital change. I know about this.

how to write

pic school roofline

I stayed late at school with my Year 12 students earlier in the week. Their writing portfolio was due at four o’clock, and I sat at my desk after the bell had gone and watched them typing furiously. I could have left them to it, but it was satisfying watching them work. After a year of English four periods a week, they were finally discovering themselves as active agents in their learning. They had decided they were actually going to try and nail this thing.

I’m a reluctant writing teacher. I don’t like making students write about things they don’t want to write about. I’ve never enjoyed contrived writing exercises and I rally against the notion that if you throw a bunch of adjectives and adverbs into a description you’ve improved it. I see writing that shows evidence of this faulty thinking all the time. It is not pleasant reading.  And I resent the expectation that fifteen and sixteen year olds should be able to “craft” a piece of writing into a polished product. I couldn’t have, not at that age. I could write, certainly. But I couldn’t tell you exactly what I did that worked. I just wrote.

If it was sixteen year old me sitting in that class, I’d be the one who bombed out at the last minute. I would have written one inspired piece, something that arrived perfectly formed on the edges of my consciousness. I would have been overjoyed with my creation, as attached to it as a mother is to a newborn. But the second piece needed for the portfolio would have had me stumped. My muse never performed on command. It wouldn’t have mattered how many different writing tasks the teacher gave me, something in me would have rejected all of them. No one could tell me how to write.

This resistance to being taught to write lasted well into the third year of my BA when I took the only creative writing paper offered. In the midst of what was a mixed experience at university I had been looking forward to taking that paper. But when the time came I was disappointed. I did not want to write a poem for homework. I did not want to write a poem with the same five words as the rest of the class. I did not want to write the first chapter of a novel, or the last chapter of a novel. As far as I was concerned, if I had the ability to write said beginning or ending of novel I would be writing the novel.

I must have been a difficult student. The feedback and grades I received that year reflect that. I probably presented an uncomfortable mix of arrogance, petulance and insecurity. I had begun my university degree clueless as to what I really wanted to do with life, besides write, and by the time I turned twenty-one in my final year I had even less idea. I was desperate to find some kind of identity that filled my deep need for approval, and if “writer” was no longer the identity that gave me the affirmation I craved, then I was more than willing to trade it for one that did.

I could have done some useful writing that year. I could have written about how I felt about myself as a student, about how I saw myself moving out beyond the confines of university. I could have written about my childhood which was ripe with stories. I could have written an autobiography in books, a story about the stories that befriended me as I grew up. I could have written about the bus ride into the city from the suburbs, or the sky outside the window of our classroom, or the view from the top floor of the library, which always filled me with a strange kind of certainty that I had places to go, and words to write. Any of the above would have been therapeutic. Any of the above would have assisted me, in small increments, to develop my voice as a writer.

There’s nothing about voice in the assessment criteria for the portfolio I will be sitting down to mark next week. I’m supposed to be looking for evidence that a selection of writing has been crafted, structured and controlled, and evidence of language features used for effect. Language features. If you’d told me at sixteen that I needed to use them in my writing I would have rolled my eyes and stopped listening to you.  I didn’t have to try to write, I just wrote.  It was nothing more conscious than that.

I sat in an empty classroom one day at the end of summer the year I turned sixteen, and wrote looking up at the exact same roof line you see in the picture above.  The sky was blue and clear just like it is in the photo; the predictable red brick of the building I was looking up at contrasting with the bright blue sky above. The words that came were stream of consciousness, purely automatic. I had no plan, no structure, and no sense even in the slightest of what I was writing. I was sitting at a desk eating a marshmallow easter egg, my cassette tape walkman beside me on the table. I’d found my cat dead on the side of the driveway that morning.  I didn’t need to be told to write. No one had to suggest that it would be a good thing for me to do. I just found myself, by the luck of the day’s timetable, in an empty room. I got out my pen and started writing.

It had rained in the night and the next day she went to school. Her teacher said now we have read six stories we have read six stories and then the teacher counted them aloud, reciting the titles the authors saying now we are enriched. But she was writing a story – she was writing and nobody knew and the teacher said what do you think what do you think and the teacher didn’t know, nobody knew that that morning she had walked past a dead cat a dead stiff cat wet stuck together fur looked like it was lying normally until you turned it over and saw it was flat on one side and they’d stood there outside on an almost cold nearly winter morning in their dressing gowns looking at this flat on one side cat trying to work out if it was theirs, trying to remember what their cat looked like, it had rained in the night… 

Plenty of people could have questioned whether my story was in fact a “story.”  My lecturers in the creative writing paper perhaps would have done so.  But I thought it was a story, a good one, and enough other people thought so too. The story won a prize, I was interviewed on the radio, and I distinctly remember being asked how long the story took me to write. I thought for a minute, and then answered honestly. “About an hour” I said. The interviewer thought that was hilarious.

Perhaps I haven’t written anything quite as good as that flat cat story ever since. Perhaps that was the peak of my creativity, right there sitting in an empty classroom twenty years ago.  Every time I write now, whether here on this page, in my journal or on the novel,  I can feel my fingers itching to go some where good. To get the kind of automatic flow I still remember feeling the day I wrote that cat story. And happily, it does come. It comes when the circumstances are right. When I am feeling full of words, when the room is quiet, when I am separated from the rest of the world by a closed door, and the sky is a bright square of light through the window above me.

I am the worst person to teach creative writing. I should probably apologise to my students and come clean. I have no techniques, no strategies.  “Just write” I say, as if it’s as natural to them as it is to me. And when they come to me with the ten lines they ached over for an hour, twisting and contorting each sentence until it sounds nothing like them at all, I take a deep breath, smile, and tell them to “say it simply.” Then I watch as their faces fall. In one small sentence I have contradicted everything they’ve ever been taught about writing.

getting ready


Of all the places I’ll miss when we leave, this is the one I’ll miss the most. This is the spot I come to, walking down towards the beach and then veering left before I get there. Down to the estuary and along the stream that meets it, splashing through the shallows and then walking up the path through the bush above. At the top is a hidden playground, a surprising open space on a small promontory with a bench seat out at the point , and this view. It’s beauty doesn’t depend on the tide. When it’s out the wily mangrove roots are exposed, reaching down into the fertile mud, and the water becomes a green ribbon winding its way down from the dam. The beauty is in its wildness, in the way, if you position the camera lens just so, you can’t see the raw earth of a new subdivision on the left, or the glinting glass windows of the houses high up on the ridge. The low line of trees in the background deftly hides the main road that takes us all back and forth from the city.  I watch the sea birds swoop and soar down towards the water, and it takes my breath away.

Everything went through last week. This house sold, the one we are moving to bought. We are tenants now, living here on someone else’s kindness. We have time to say good-bye to the place we once thought we’d never leave. It’s a bittersweet time, and there’s plenty of sweet with the bitter. It’s not our job to fix anything anymore, or improve anything, or deal to the weeds we know are waiting under the wet bush for summer warmth. The plans we conjured up for this place in naïve hopefulness have been laid to rest. We leave them here in the soil, like dreams or seeds or whispers from the past. They were here before we arrived, and they’ll remain long after we’ve left.

There are other plans to make now, practical ones. Our sprawling house-lot of belongings won’t be contained in the three bedroom house we are moving to, and so the process of culling and sorting must begin. This is a first world problem, of course. One that has spawned an entire industry of plastic storage bins and wardrobe organisers and self-help books. What do we do with all our stuff?  The religious men and women who’ve taken vows of poverty have it right. They know that there is an inverse relationship between peace of mind and material possessions. Our “stuff” costs us in more ways that we are aware of. It creeps its way into our subconscious, piling up in the corners of our minds, taking on a life of its own.

Some people deal with this by maintaining tight control over their possessions. Furniture positioned just so, boxes in storage meticulously labelled, strict rules regarding the approved territory for certain objects. And then there are the rest of us. The creatives, the easily-distracted, the absent-minded ones. We can’t exert that kind of control, no matter how hard we try. And so we learn to live with it, more or less. We tidy when we can, but the piles of books and papers and mail and school notices and children’s artwork are reliably regenerative. It’s a sign of life.

Moving day is three months away. Pat and I are slowly getting ourselves mentally prepared for the day when everything we own will be undone, unmade, packed up and transported down to the other end of New Zealand. We have been mapping out the rooms in our new house, deciding what will come with us and what will not. Writing lists, thinking through the options, talking out the pros and cons of keeping one piece of furniture over another.  It is a process of reduction. We are jettisoning, cutting back, giving up. Letting go.

I’m finding my focus steadily narrowing. Like a runner prepares for a race, or a woman in late-pregnancy readies herself for labour, my world is shrinking to the things I must absolutely give full attention to. Anything else is slowly fading off my radar. It feels strange, as if I’ve suddenly walked into a sound-proofed room and the noise of the world outside has reduced to a faraway hum. I can hear the blood thumping in my ears, the air rushing out my nostrils.

And then before I know it we’ll be driving. Us in front, kids in the back. Bags of snacks and books and activities piled up.  Our eyes taking it all in, fixed on the road ahead. The way it pulls us ever south, the way it winds and turns and opens out along the unbroken coast. Leading us towards the mountains that wait, green and strong.


photo (2)

This is what I know. I am standing at the beginning of everything. I have waited for this moment. Finally, I am here.

This moment is not about finishing a book. Or getting published. Or being recognised for something.  Anything. This moment is not about being noticed. Or being understood. Or being beautiful, after all those years.

This moment is not about anyone else other than me. Nobody sees me here, nobody even knows. But I see. I witness, my senses intact. I see myself.

I see the lines under my eyes, the saggy skin around my soft hanging belly. I see the veins bubble on the underside of my leg, the red spidery lines at my ankles.

I am her. I am the one I have been waiting for. I am the one I have been searching for endlessly, wondering if she was ever going to show up. Fearing that I was a figment of my own imagination.

I lived beneath the surface of my life, day after day, year after year.  I had no idea I was there. Invisible. Waiting.

And so I invite myself to live. To live this life that belongs to no one else but me. It can’t be shared. Won’t be lent out or borrowed. Can’t be lived for someone else, according to someone else’s whims. It’s time to go.

So take the rack of clothes drying in front of the window like a Chinese laundry; the pile of bills, half paid. Take the stack of children’s paintings, the hard drive filled with a decade of unprinted photographs, the eighty litre plastic storage bin stuffed with thirty years of journals, written in my own hand. Take the boxes filled with clippings and notes and half-realised imaginings, the yellowed pages collected in a time that was so long ago I hardly believe it ever existed. The bookcases. The oversized dining table. The dishes in the sink.

Take the children sleeping warmly, their father too. Take the chaos, every bit of it. Take the dog, he’s one of the simple things in life. And a pair of shoes to walk him in. The sturdiest I own.

I’ll look up on my way out; see the bush the way it leans in towards me, so green and alive. I’ll take it in with one glance, it will follow. And the water, when the tide’s in, how green it is or how blue it is, it’s all the same, it’s the same sea wherever I go, salty hydrogen and air, stretched out along every bit of coast there is. I’ll find it again.

I’m ready now. I have the essentials. The rest can be left behind without any loss. I’ll sell it or give it or throw it away, behind me like the detritus of a life I no longer recognise. What was it that I thought I was here for?

walking through

I walk through two narrow and windowless rooms every day on the way from my classroom to our department workroom. The desks in there are almost always empty, the computers that sit on them barely used, and the rooms are dark. The only light comes from either end; the hallway behind me where I’ve come from, and the hallway I’m heading towards. There’s a light switch but I never bother looking for it.

It has become a ritual of sorts, this regular walk through the quiet darkness. In the early mornings the darkness of dawn is matched by the darkness of my corridor; I begin the day at one with myself. Later, having just walked out of a bright and noisy classroom, the silent dark presses in as I walk through it, and my senses relax. It is a moment of peace, a walking meditation. I find myself again.

A long time ago I would have said it was wise to avoid darkness, in all its many forms. I’ve spent most of my life pacing the well-lit corridors of the stories I told myself about myself, never daring to go  more than a few steps into the dark that was my deep unknown, my unconscious self.  I would stand in the doorway and imagine I knew what was in there.  I couldn’t see any point in venturing in. Until I had no choice.

My daily walk through the narrow dark has become a small and tangible image of my own internal journey. It reminds me that although I’m still trekking those deeps, I am heading somewhere. And that the darkness, disconcerting as it is, can be peaceful. There’s no point rushing down there, no race to be won, no performance necessary.  There is no audience in the dark but myself. And in the end I find that it is myself that I must discover on this long and dim walk. No monsters lurking in shadows. Just a girl; patiently waiting.

The gift is to keep moving towards her, the treasure found in the walking, in the journey forwards. The movement doesn’t need to be consistent, or even necessarily in the same direction; there just needs to be some measure of mobility. This is grace, as I understand it. To be in shadowed, unfamiliar territory and still be able to take the next step.

This grace that keeps me moving is the sense I have of being part of something that is bigger than myself. And Easter, that strange ending that becomes a beginning, is the most eloquent image I have of this wider, wilder knowing. The one I find myself inextricably bound to, despite my moments of unbelief.

We  scoff at the idea of a resurrection; the grand embellishment on a story full of embellishments. A clever trick played by a few grief-stricken apostles.  But the motif of death and re-birth is nothing new.  It has been with us since the beginning. We’ve painted it, created rituals to celebrate it and told stories to remind ourselves of it, over and over again. If Jesus knew the significance his death would take, then he knew that in dying he was speaking a universally understood language. And if he knew that something waited for him beyond the doorway of death, then his death, that one solitary loss, holds meaning for as many of us who’ve heard it told. The moment he gave up his breath becomes an invitation from one to many. An invitation to move from death to life.

And there’s that idea of movement again. The same one I consider every time I walk through those narrow, windowless rooms.  I’m on my way from some where to some where else but I’m also, in a funny otherworldly sense, inhabiting a space that exists within me all the time. That space I walk through on the way to myself. But it’s a glimpse of something bigger too; that wider movement I will never escape. The same wider, wilder movement that we are all part of by virtue of being alive.   The one that Christ became part of on that infamous Friday, that tied him to all of us, as we live and breath and move and die.  Over and over again.



canon13JULY 127

One of my characters writes to “unravel the twistedness” in her, and “to turn on the light in a dark room.” I do the same, and I always have. I’ve got twenty years’ worth of journals sitting in a plastic storage box behind me. If I laid them out end to end they would cover the floor of this room and spread out into the hallway, like a steady carpet.  If I don’t write, I start to lose my grip on reality.

Words are the safety line between me and the world, they anchor me. As I write, I remind myself who I am, what I believe, and how I want to live. These three things are the pulsing life at our core, but we can overlook them without realising it, and let the incidentals crowd them out. The words I write here might seem raw at times but they always considered, and always written on reflection. The raw emotion goes into my journals, which have no audience. The words here come afterwards, they are the thoughtful response, if there is one to be made. I may seem like I’m thinking out loud here, but in reality I am thinking out loud things I’ve already thought, and there is a difference.

It’s an understatement to say that this year has been complicated, and the complications continue, but every time I sit down to look that novel, now at final draft stage, they fade into the background. The novel reminds me who I am, what I believe, and how I want to live. It answers all three of those essential questions with an emphatic and resounding “yes.” If it does nothing more than that, then it has done more than enough. If others like it too then that will be a bonus.

It’s a tight story, there’s barely any padding in it, and one of my last tasks is to flesh out a couple of key ideas. It’s like sitting down to work on a newly made garment and letting out a few seams so that it’s more roomy. The fabric feels good as I work at it with my fingers, and I like the way the colours change when I hold it up to the light. There seems to be something magical about what I’m doing, for wherever I need to open the garment up, to let out a hem, or loosen a dart, I find just the amount of fabric I need hidden behind the seam. I let it out, re-do the seam, and – voila! – it looks as if it had been that way from the start. 

Here’s a newly “let out” piece you might like, about the same character I referred to at the beginning of the post:

She was born on an island in the Pacific Ocean at four o’clock in the afternoon. It was a Tuesday in the middle of the year, in the middle of a tumultuous decade, when a war in the jungle was lost to the north, and a conservative dictator died in a land-locked capital. She was born while Elton John sang ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, and The Eagles’ song ‘The Best of my Love’ flew to the top of the charts. She was a solid baby with rolls at her wrists, and the weight of her pulled at her mother’s shoulders. Her mother was her constant attendant, faithfully offering her breast at the child’s slightest whimper.  

Her name was Angel and she was the fruit of that new freedom they called Love. She wore corduroy tunics over bell bottom trousers, and watched blonde-haired girls singing in the Micky Mouse Club on Thursdays after school. On Saturday afternoons her mother sent her to her room for a rest, and she lay as still as she could on her bed, while the muted noise of the neighbour’s television crept in through the open window, and the low afternoon light filtered through the thick stand of bamboo outside. She dreamed up secret rendezvous with the next door neighbours, and when she was finally let out, escaped to the garden. There she made an entire universe out of one tree. Its giant exposed roots creating for her an almost infinite series of worlds, all separate and contained. 


canon13JULY 048

I sit here to write after watching a beautiful film; The Red House. It’s about Lee (a kiwi ecologist) and Jia (his Chinese wife) and the life they have woven together. They have only a portion of language in common, but their intimacy is all the more deeper for it. And despite her frustration with English, Jia has the most incredible way with words, they come tumbling out  with a disarming freshness. At the end of the film she is cutting Lee’s hair and talking to him about the purpose of life, and he asks her, how would you live, if you could. How would you imagine your life to be? And she smiles and laughs and says something like it would be to not be forced to do anything. To not have to make my parents’ breakfast, to not have to cut your hair. It would be to suddenly go and read a book, to suddenly go to the movies, to suddenly write.

At this I take an audible breath. Somehow in those surprising and seemingly clumsy words I find this truth; that freedom is a sure self. It is to know what we want, and then, at the appropriate time, to do it. To suddenly read. Or to suddenly, surprisingly, write. It is having a sure sense of self within, and the agency to act on it.

I see now that it is ten minutes until my birthday. And I remember all the other birthdays, those singular days jam packed with meaning; they couldn’t possibly hold any more of it. Some people can’t do a birthday without sharing it. The sharing is the meaning. For me, the older I get the less I need to share it. The sharing is lovely, and the love is always appreciated. But in the end this day is about the deep space inside of me, the one that only I can see. It is a chance to gaze within, to absorb the meaning of a lifetime, the meaning of a life.

I imagine that as I get older this will become even more true. I can imagine a birthday at ninety, completely alone. I know there will be children and grandchildren and an ancient husband, God willing. But my sense of peace and contentment will not come from without, great though the joy will be in sharing it with so many loves. Those loves will come and go, the presents will come and go, the praise, perhaps, will come and go. And in the end I will be alone, and happy. I will look back from that great distance and see everything, how all the twists and turns and dark spaces came together to form one incredible, unimaginable whole. I couldn’t have planned it.

It is obvious that every challenge and painful thing I have experienced has become and is becoming the raw passion and truth that I write from. It is obvious that there is nothing that has been wasted. There is no pain or difficulty that has been, or will be, without its own fruit. Strange fruit it may be. The unexpected and disconcerting fruit of the tropics, perhaps, like that wild-shaped and bleeding dragon fruit they eat in Cambodia.  But fruit it is, all the same. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I will relish it. And in the lean years of age it will feed me. When my adventures can only be made on the inside, I will look back over all of it in wonder. In wonder that one life could hold so much grief and so much joy.

This is my gift then, and will always be. The joy alongside the grief in complete union, my very own dance. I could wish the latter away all I wanted, but without it the joy would lose its depth. And the grief is my window onto the world, it is how I know you. It is how I came to be standing in the supermarket today with tears running down my face, feeling so alone and yet not alone, looking around at the people beside me and in front of me and behind me and knowing, suddenly, that between us all we had everything. We had money and the lack of it; health and the want of it, peace and the need for it, life and the dregs of it. Right there, in a suburban supermarket in Mt Albert, we were a microcosm of the world.

I wrote about this in my book. I wrote about it without even realising exactly what I was writing, and now I’ve written it, it can’t be undone. I feel it growing steadily inside of me, humming like a faraway rhythm, like a current of electricity. It’s a simple knowing, and it’s this; we are one.

I can’t live the same any more, not after what I’ve written. I cried at dinner last night because I realised that there were other mothers who served their children more than they served themselves, as I had just done and as my mother would have done once, and they were everywhere, all around the world. Only they went completely without, their hunger spreading through every fibre of their body until they were nothing but hunger, could feel nothing but hunger, could think nothing but hunger like an ache like a constant pain like a dullness in the mind, a shutting down.

And I can’t eat the same knowing how hungry they are.

My mountain knows this, the mountain I told you about when I last wrote. She knows that we all belong to each other, that we are all connected. That the leaves  on her trees are connected to their branches, and that the roots of those trees reach down into the soil which reaches out to everything, and all of us, everywhere. So that we are never truly alone. That everything we do and say reaches out in ripples and touches the people around us, those close and those far away. Even our breath goes out from us and mingles with the breath of every person who breathes with us now on this planet.  We are never cut off, never separated. We live and think and speak and write and love and grieve and eat and want, together.

at the end of the day

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I took the dog for a walk at dusk last night, and found myself thinking about a time when I was young, when I won prizes and had a story published. I was sixteen, seventeen, and the world held so much promise. But I floundered when it came to writing anything new, and my mother pronounced my words “bitter.” I had done my best work early, and after that, I was like a failed spring, a river run dry. I survived my years at university, studying mostly literature, by putting all my energies elsewhere. I was more lost than I was in love with what I was learning, and I only did what it took to get by, doing nothing that I thought I might fail. I had no idea about myself, no idea about the quirks that explained why I felt so lost academically, why I wasn’t what I had been expected to be. I lasted long enough to graduate, and in my final year, to take a creative writing paper. But I had no interest in revising my work, or in playing pretty word games. I wrote nothing that meant anything to me, or to anyone else. My light had fizzled out.

I went to a dance show with Greer last year, and at the end of the show the dancers invited the mostly school-age audience to come up on stage and dance with them. Greer, all curly-headed six years of her, was up there like a shot. She set herself up at the centre front of stage, locked eyes with the audience, and danced. The song was “Party Rockers,” of course, and she found her rhythm and got shuffling, right there at the front of the stage. More kids came up, and some of the professional dancers tried to encourage them to show us their moves. There were a few half-hearted attempts and some fun had around the edges, but the space wasn’t really working. A little six year old girl was dancing, face to the audience, literally stealing the limelight.

I was glued to my seat in shock. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I felt like I was under the spotlight as much as she was, as if everyone in the audience knew that she was my daughter. Of course they didn’t, and the scene eventually sorted itself out. One of the older dancers gently encouraged Greer away from the centre of the stage so that the group of kids could spread out and share the space. Greer came back at the end of the song beaming from ear to ear, and she got several high-fives and big smiles from the people around us. I told her how proud I was of her, and what a good job she’d done, and she was happy. She had no idea what had really happened, she told me later that she couldn’t even see the audience.

There was nothing prodigious about Greer’s performance on stage that day, except this, she got up there and did what she set out to do. She didn’t freak out when she realised all the kids around her were older, and she wasn’t dazzled by the lights, or the audience she knew was out there somewhere. She walked up to the front of the large auditorium, climbed up onto the stage, and started shuffling. She kept on shuffling until the song finished. She stayed her course.

It’s the best that any of us can hope for, in whatever time we have here in this life. To get out there and do what we’ve set out to do, to stay our course. I don’t mean “do”, in the sense of achieving a certain group of external markers, and I don’t mean “stay the course” as if that course is a tangible set of tasks or goals we must complete in a lifetime. I mean “do” as in become ourselves, the word my friend Stu used on a facebook comment on my last post, when he talked about life as a process of “becoming.”

I watched a cheesy clip from a Michael Buble concert that’s been circling around for a couple of years. In it Buble has a conversation with a woman in the audience who tells him she’s at the concert with her son, and that her son can really sing. So he gets this kid up on stage with him. The kid is sixteen, and looks like any ordinary guy, and Buble really just has fun with him and his mother, doing a bit of audience interaction before his next song.  Buble asks the boy to sing with him, holds the microphone between the two of them, and then the kid opens his mouth and sings and everything changes. The audience erupts, Michael Buble jumps back, puts the microphone in the boy’s hands and lets him sing solo. The boy’s voice is incredible, astounding for a sixteen year old, and completely unexpected. Buble is obviously impressed, and the camera catches the mother standing in the audience with tears running down her face, completely overwhelmed. Because she knew that kid could sing, and she’s been hoping and praying and wishing he’d get a chance to, one day.

I know these stories are common now. You can’t do much without someone sticking a camera in your face, and we seem to have an inexhaustible appetite for seeing “ourselves” on screen. Between The Voice and X-factor, and all the other versions of reality TV that multiply every day, we can’t get enough of seeing real people have their fifteen minutes of fame. Consequently, our idea of success has been narrowed to the group of activities that television producers deem worthy of putting in front of a camera. I’ve seen how this works; my two big girls are obsessed with The Voice. They watch it with their Dad any chance they get, give running commentaries as the show progresses, and talk constantly, on first-name basis, about “Joel” and “Seal” and what they themselves are going to do when they’re on The Voice one day. Their eyes light up with the wonder of it all, and with the sense I recognise in them because I felt it in myself, that there is something they are going to woo the world with.

I feel a bit like that sixteen year old boy as he was climbing up on stage. As if despite all my attempts, failed and otherwise, I haven’t really opened my mouth yet. And when I do, well I think it’s going to be a good sound. Actually, I know it’s going to be a good sound, because I can hear it echoing within me, getting ready to roar. I don’t say this because I’m anything special, not at all, I say this because I think most of us, whether we’re sixteen or sixty, are in that same waiting space. We know there’s something in us, we feel we’ve got something yet to give, and so we wait and hope and wonder whether our moment will come.

By the time I’d turned around and started walking back home last night there was only the faintest hint of light in the western sky. I could barely see the road ahead of me, but I wasn’t scared. The sky was dark but the day was still fresh, as if it was only just drawing to a close. I knew that all the way over in the city, under those burning beads of light, were queues of cars still inching their way home. And around me, in the handful of houses that had people in them, dinner was being prepared and stories about the day were being shared. I stopped, pulled back the hood of my jacket, and listened. There was the faraway woosh of cars along the main road, and the wind blowing lightly around my ears and up in the trees. A cat miaowed strangely in the distance, and around and through it all was a peaceful silence. It was a contented, full silence. The contentment of a good day’s end.

That’s the best we can hope for, when we get to the end of our lives. Not the applause of an audience, nor the approval of critics, nor the praise of judges. Those things, as reassuring as they are along the way, are not the things that will give us contentment when our time comes. No, it’s what we did when we finally opened our mouths to sing that we will remember. When we finally started living the life that only we could live, and found that within us we had the most remarkable gifts to offer. That we had a love that had taken a lifetime of faithfulness to sustain; that we had forgiveness and had risked everything to give it; and that we had hope deep inside of us, despite the circumstances. These were our gifts, this was our true life, this was how we managed to woo the world. And at the end, when the lights went down and all was silent, we were content. We gathered around a warm table and shared stories. It had been a good day.

the day after the ball

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I had a dream the other night which made me wonder, on waking, how I would live my life if I knew my time here was limited. I got up and looked out the back door and saw that the water on the harbour was shimmering silver blue in the early morning light. I tried to take a photo of it but the camera couldn’t do it justice. It caught the dewy leaves on the kauri tree at the bottom of the garden, and the warm depth of the golden early light, but it couldn’t catch the water. Depending on which setting I tried, the water was either just a pale hint of something grey in the background of the photo, or else it faded into nothing at all. I realised right then, standing outside in my pyjamas, that I had a choice. I could either live my life in the foreground, in the shallows, in the safe places, like the view the camera could see. Or I could stretch out and live my whole life, the one that reached out far beyond the space that was right in front of me.

There’s a humility that comes with desperation for the truth. It’s  a brokenness that’s not really broken at all. It comes to us when we take a very raw, very honest appraisal of our life and the circumstances surrounding it, and no matter how complicated it seems or how vulnerable that makes us, it’s actually entirely sane.  It’s a view like looking down at our life from a very high place and seeing the breadth and the depth of it, and realising that there is so much more to life than our temporary hurts or doubts or needs. Realising that our lives are about so much more than our comfort, or our perceived safety, or our being understood. Our real lives are about this burning sense we have somewhere within us of what it means to be us, and the responsibility we all have as uniquely created beings not to squander this incredible thing that it is to be ourselves.

I’ll tell you this. I know without a doubt that we are all created. I also know that we all belong to each other, all of us. I believe that our creator can be known as God, but that not all of our ideas about God are helpful or true.  I believe that God (adjusted understanding) is available to all of us, regardless of where we are or what we believe. And I think that Jesus Christ was the best representation we have of that unknowable and yet knowable God. I don’t say that to marginalise any faith that does not approach Jesus in the same way I do, only to state what I believe to be true, and which I bear witness to in my own life.

I think Jung was the first to use the expression “Christ-consciousness” in regards to an intuitive understanding about the uniqueness of Christ that exists in the world and is not restricted by boundaries of faith or religion, nor found only in the company of those who would call themselves “Christians.” This Christ-consciousness is an intuitive response to Jesus that would be witnessed to, I believe, by millions of people. Whether we think of him as prophet, universal teacher, good person, or the incarnation of God, a huge number of us agree on one thing; he was not an ordinary person, and there is much we can learn from his life.

I was brought up to be a Christian. This meant a whole lot of things, including that I understood on an intellectual level that Jesus Christ was my example of how to be human. This in itself is a powerful thing. We have the legacy of many men and women the world over who gave us much because they followed the example of Jesus. Some of them were Christians, Mother Teresa being one of many, and others were not, like Gandhi. For many of these people, their Christ-consciousness deepened and became more than just intellectual. Their knowings about Jesus shifted to the area we might call the heart, or the spirit. They came to understand, mysterious as it is, that Jesus can be “known” in the present tense.

My understanding of Christ deepened from the intellectual to the spiritual gradually, as I grew up surrounded by the stories of Jesus in the Gospels. The Jesus who took pity on the old woman bent over by crookedness in her spine; the Jesus who called children to him and showered affection on them; the Jesus who healed the leper and set him free from life as a perpetual outcast, was the Jesus I came to know and love. And not love in a rosy sort of Disney kind of way, like I might have said  “I love chocolate,” but a love that came from somewhere so deep I could barely recognise its source. A love that welled up out of a genuine, almost inexpressible gratitude for what I knew I had been given. For in all of those stories I saw myself. I was crooked and I had been made straight. I was diseased, and I was made whole, I was rejected, and in Jesus I knew I was found.

I went to the sixth form ball with a guy that worked at the same supermarket as I did. It was the Thursday night shift, 5-9pm. I was a checkout operator and he was a packer, and if he was assigned to pack at my checkout he would tease me and make jokes all night. I’d spend the whole shift laughing, and my till was always out. We didn’t see each other outside of  work, but when it came to finding a partner for the ball I didn’t have many options, and truth be told, I liked him. My mother sewed me a blue wool crepe shift dress.  I wore it with my hair in a sort of beehive, looking like a re-incarnation of her in the sixties. I mostly had a good time, and my supermarket friend and I kind of made out in the back of the taxi on the way home. We had a running joke about living up north somewhere and having babies, but really we were the most unlikely and unsuitable couple. We could have been plain old friends, I suppose, if that had occurred to me. But I was far too insecure to figure that one out for a long time.

The day after the ball was a Sunday, and on that Sunday evening, in a black tub filled with warm water on the stage of the school hall my church met in, I was baptised. There’s a photo of me in my wide tortoise-shell glasses and my uneven, ringleted fringe, with a smile beaming from my face just as I was about to be dipped under. I remember it clearly. “It was the happiest day of my life,” I said to someone a few days later. “I feel like I’ve been smiling all week.” At sixteen I was insecure and confused about a whole lot of things, but I wasn’t insecure about Jesus. Jesus was the most real, most dependable thing I knew, and getting baptised was a natural thing for me to do. It was purely symbolic, and in a sense, completely immaterial to the daily goings on of my teenaged life, but it meant the world to me. I was making an inner truth known externally. And as theologian Paul Tillich has expressed, I was participating in a symbol which pointed to something beyond itself, which, in the moment I sank under those tepid waters, drove the infinite towards the finite, and the finite towards the infinite.

There was no brainwashing involved. No coercion of any sort. Not from the church, nor it’s leaders, nor from my mother. Not explicitly or implicitly. In that moment, wet and grinning from ear to ear, with an other-worldly shine in my eyes, I was my own woman. I was doing something entirely for myself. And that, you might understand, was a miracle.

I’ve changed a lot since that day more than twenty years ago, and my understandings about God have shifted and re-arranged themselves countless times over. But when it comes down to it, the essence of what I believed then is the essence of what I believe now. God is, and God is available to be known, and Jesus is one of our surest pathways towards that knowing.

The view out over the harbour early that morning last week was beautiful. The grass was wet with dew, as were the leaves on the hedge in front of the house. Beyond it, slightly hazy in the barely risen sun, was the water like a strip of pale silvery-blue glass.  I stood at the back door looking out at that exquisite water which I could see with my own eyes,  but which I couldn’t record or reproduce, or even explain in a way that would do it justice, and I thought about my life, my real life, the one I’ve been writing about finding. I’ve had a nagging sense for a long time that my real life was “out there” somewhere, waiting for me, glinting with possibility and yet so far away, so illusory and hard to define. I’ve tried to capture it through others, I’ve wanted other people to tell me what it was and how to get it. I’ve used other people like the lens of a camera, trying to see myself through their eyes.

But they can’t see what I see. They can’t see how far into the distance the horizon stretches, nor how hopeful or blue the water is. They can’t see the almost imperceptible line where the harbour meets the shore on the other side, and they can’t see the buildings in the city beyond, square windows of light through to the other side of the world.

I don’t want to stay in the foreground of my life.  I can see that water so shiny and blue it makes my heart ache, and I can’t imagine living my whole life without venturing out into it. I’m writing these words today because I realised, standing outside that morning, that I’ve been living half my life. I’ve been living the life that other people could see, the life that other people approved of. I’ve spent thirty-eight years defining myself by comparison. It’s time to put down the camera, and open up my eyes.


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We drove over to the other side of the harbour on New Year’s Day, to spend the day with my sister and her family. This was the view from the side of the road on our way home at dinner time, the sun heading down towards the sea, the wild grass beginning to pink. I never get tired of this drive, the way the narrow roads curve up along the ridge of the Awhitu Peninsula. One side looks back towards the city, and the other, over undulating hills and hidden valleys, towards the ocean.

It’s sad the hills are barren, in one sense. And yet there’s something sensual about their naked curves. I want to run my hands over them, smooth them out and bunch them up again, like a child with playdough. If you look carefully you get a glance at a small lake in the flat land between the hills, a glinting sheet of glass in the sun, a second later it’s gone. Earlier, at the beginning of the road, there’s a small old wooden church that commands a view not unlike the one you see above. It’s an unused church, religiously speaking, and yet it is iconic and beloved. A church with a view.

I like the days around New Year’s.  They command a view. A view back to the year that has gone, and a view forward into our dreams. Oh how we wonder how the next year of days will turn. What surprises, what successes, what dreams come true, what longings, what pain will surface in the next three hundred and sixty five days? The days will go fast, we know that for sure. They will tumble away behind us and we won’t be able to do anything about it. Except let them go.

I let 2012 go on Monday night, at midnight, when the crackle of unseen fireworks burst into the quiet night. I didn’t even try to hold on. 2012 was a complicated year, the hardest I’ve lived; emotionally, relationally and spiritually. I wouldn’t wish that year on myself again. And yet I couldn’t have got to 2013 without it. In fact, I couldn’t have got to the rest of my life without it. 2012 was the doorway to my life.

Catholic writer Richard Rohr talks about doorways and transitions as “liminal space”, a space that is “thin” in the Celtic sense, closer to the unseen realm. The term “liminal space” is not new, but its more deeper, spiritual sense has been best articulated by Rohr. The term comes from the latin limen meaning threshold and in this article “On the Edge of the Inside” Rohr notes that the tradition of having guardians and spirits of “doors, bridges, exits and entrance ways” can be noted across cultures and throughout history. He points out that “the ancients knew that you need guidance, patronage, and protection as you move from one place or state to another.”

The concept of liminal space has resonated with me since I first heard it, and I’ve come to understand it as a space or time of transition, often where things feel difficult, where life is not unfolding in a predictable or easily understood manner, and where perhaps it feels as if there is pressure on all sides, not unlike the pressure a newborn experiences as she is propelled through the birth canal. I said to a friend once that being pregnant is the ultimate liminal space, because it is nine months of transition, nine months of waiting for a new life to arrive, nine months of preparing to be transformed into the mother of the new life, with no escape route.  In a way, pregnancy is double liminal space. The gestation and the giving birth to new life is one form, and the gestation of the mother herself, as she waits to be born, as she waits to be transformed into motherhood, is the other. She is both the carrier of life and the growing life herself.

I thought about this over Christmas. I had a card with a reproduction of “The Visitation” by James B Janknegt as part of our nativity scene, thanks to World Vision’s Advent in Art series. The painting shows Mary and her cousin Elizabeth  greeting each other, and the babies leaping in their wombs in recognition of each other. The picture is like  an animated version of an ultrasound, but with a slight difference: the babies are depicted as their adult selves, Jesus with a crown, and John falling to his knees in worship, the present and the future rolled into one.

If I was pregnant in 2012, it was a rough pregnancy. The symptoms surprised, and the growth didn’t happen in an orderly, expected fashion. What’s more, it was a funny sort of pregnancy, not one that was plainly seen by the bulging of a belly. It was all on the inside. And if I was pregnant, I gave birth to myself, which means I had that double liminal space thing going on. I was pregnant with myself. I grew heavy, weary, sick of the challenges and the complications, tired of the continual necessity for introspection and self-revelation. It was hard work. The growing was hard work too. And it’s not very pleasant to be forced under enormous pressure through a narrow canal, as if your life depended on it. But I’m out.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to find my life. I’ve tried, and failed, at plenty of things other than the two things I know I was born for;  my family, and my words. Even once I finally figured out that all I really wanted to do was write, I still did things the hard way. Always searching, always striving for the key that would unlock my “perfect” writing life. I was convinced that if I could just get the help I needed, or just wake up at five every morning, or just do the research I thought would answer all my doubts, that I’d be away, laughing. If I’d been right, I would have written several novels by now. In fact if you’d told me, at twenty-two, that I’d be approaching forty with no novels to show for it, I’d have been aghast. I simply wouldn’t have believed you.

I took the dog for a walk through our bush this afternoon. I found myself throwing a few words up at God, as I often do when I walk. I apologised for being useless at everything from being disciplined with food, to being disciplined with my art. It wasn’t overly dramatic or anything, just what naturally came out as I let the words rise. As soon as I’d said it, I looked up. There in the trees above me was a tui, one of my favourite birds. These beauties have a gorgeous green glint in their dark feathers, a beautiful white bell at their throats, and a trill of a call that is haunting. I smile when I see a tui in our bush, because it feels like such a luxury to have them so close, to be their neighbours. And as I looked up at this tui, I reallised. The tui doesn’t have to do anything to be beautiful. The tui just is. The tui is beautiful because he is tui.

Can I believe that about myself? Can I believe that I am beautiful, that my life has meaning, just because I am? And that the words I’m longing to write will come, not by some forced effort of will, but by the simple act of being. I am beautiful because I am. I will write because I am Idoya. The question came to me then, what would my name look like as a verb? What would it mean to Idoya. What would my life look like if it was filled with the simple act of Idoya-ing.

What would your name look like as a verb? What would it mean to Patrick, or to Hilary, to Joy, to Daniel, to Esme, to Carey, to Glen or to Allie? What does Melanie-ing look like? Or Heidi-ing? It sounds silly, I know, but it makes sense. What would a life devoted to the art of Jayraj-ing look like? Anita-ing? Leonie-ing? A life full of being Amy? What if your whole life’s work and purpose and joy was summed up in your name, in the essence of you. Could it really be that simple?

I think it is that simple, and yet, as 2012 has taught me, it’s not simple at all. To live a life devoted to the art of being you, you have to first know who you are. To be yourself, you have to know yourself. You might have to be born, as yourself. Stranger still, you might even need to give birth to yourself. And there’s that double liminal space.

Liminal space is sacred. It’s a time and space that requires things of us that ordinary life doesn’t. It’s lonely on the edge, and transitions can be confusing. There are pressures, complications, challenges to be met, sacrifices to be made, internal depths to scour. We need all the help we can get, other-worldly and otherwise. And yet it is a gift. In the way of mountain ranges and peninsulas, tunnels, valleys and canyons, it commands a view. The view might not come at the beginning, and sometimes you might wonder if the view’s going to come at all, and yet it comes. And there are angels and hidden lakes and small churches, and other pilgrims – bellies bursting with life like yours –  just when you need them.