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.

is there a plunket nurse for the born again?

baby noah pic
My nephew Noah, two weeks old

The reason it is exhausting looking after a newborn is because it is exhausting being a newborn. All that complicated feeding, getting it in, keeping it down. And then there’s the digestion, tiny winding threading curves of intestine, extracting, excavating, extruding. The food has to go somewhere, it must be in constant motion. Must be constantly transforming and being transformed.

Have you seen a newborn writhing in pain? One or two bubbles of gas is bad enough, imagine more! Imagine them constant – torture. The infant’s small frame becomes one tight hot bundle of pain. It cries, of course it does, screams if it has the energy. What else can it do? There is barely any remedy, only the purposeful, skilful cajoling of the digestive system towards its final goal. What has to happen must happen, there are no short cuts.

Today the world seems harsh and cruel and I am tired. I want to shut off, shut down, turn away, like an anemone poked with a stick or jabbed with the clumsy finger of a child. I have no eloquent words for this, I am crying like a baby. Everything is hard, everything hurts. The ache. The ache.

If I listed all my doubts here, if I lined them up like small children about to be sent in from recess, or if I tried to exorcise them with dark colours and mad scribbles on a roll of butcher paper spread out from one end of the room to the other, you would smile and pat me on the head. There there, you’d say, everything is going to be ok. But your words would do nothing, because I would roll my butcher paper up and tuck it under my arm, and march those grubby children right home again. And carry on much the same.

I am a baby lying on a playmat. Staring up at the constant white ceiling. I can’t speak a word, can barely get my own fist in my mouth, can’t sit or crawl or in any way effect shift or transfer. And this is excruciating. It is terrible, and frustrating, and wonderful. This helplessness is my beginning. Our beginning.

Not that we are all fragile newborns, our existence is more complicated than that. We are part newborn part ancient, lurching unevenly through success and failure and every stage in between. Just when we think we have made a gain, settled some existential score, another challenge rears its head. We stumble, slip, fall.

The ancient voice in my head is the voice of wisdom and experience. “You’ll get over this”, she says, “you’re growing up. One day soon you’ll roll over and everything will look completely different. Then, before you know it, you’ll be six months old and sitting up, burping unassisted. Can you imagine it! Burping on your own!”

Oh if only there was a list of milestones printed somewhere. Milestones for the recovering adult, for those of us re-made and beginning again. An expected time line, a description of growth patterns, a guide. We could take regular measurements, chart our developments, weigh in on some vast stainless steel scale, large enough for our oversized mass and accompanying baggage too. Then we could compare ourselves to the median, identify our progress against expected performance. Finally we’d know the answer to that pesky question: are we getting anywhere?

There are two trees outside my window. One is a kind of ornamental plum, well pruned in autumn, a chubby round bush of a tree above a stout trunk. The branches are thin and new at the tips, and reach straight up to the grey sky. It is early spring, and the cold air still feels like winter, but this tree has been busy budding papery pink blossoms for two weeks, and at the ends of the branches tiny leaves, tight and tender and earnest, grow faithfully.

The other tree, so close to the first that their branches intertwine, is on its own timeline. It was bushy and green in summer, a mass of curled leaves like a thick head of hair. The leaves predictably turned brown and dry, and some blew off in the autumn wind. But most remain, holding steadfast in their lifelessness, not ready to move on. I’ve been watching these two trees for a while now. Marvelling at their lack of synchronicity, willing the second tree to drop its leaves and get ready for new growth. Because it will come, won’t it?

In the meantime, I write. Every word written a molecule absorbed. I can’t curl up, can’t turn away. I am in constant motion, constantly transformed. Each time an old pattern is ditched, a new one is forced into being. It’s pure necessity that drives the process, my desperate instinct to survive. What has to happen must happen, and there are no short-cuts.

re-made

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Here I am. I am alive. As of right now, I am born.

What did it take? I wrote some words. I did some things. The things that I did, and the words that I wrote set a process in motion. The beginning of everything.

I imagine a banner unfolding over my head. It reads: welcome to the rest of your life.

I’ll start by telling you something; you and I are connected. You are reading these words moments after they were written. I put them on the page, and you picked them up. I couldn’t do this without you.

I’ll tell you something else. I’ve been waiting for you. I’ve been sitting in the corner of the room, layers of words and lines and pages piling up inside. Layers, words, piles of words, piles of lines. Lines upon lines. Too many. I needed a witness. Someone to take this load off my chest. And here you are.

There are plenty of people who find, at a certain juncture, that they get to begin again. This is not unusual. An opportunity to be completely re-made presents itself, perhaps later on in life, after the early ardour of youth has passed, and the urgency to keep a certain keen façade has waned. The tight aching pain that we had bound over with enumerable forms of ointment, and which we had almost forgotten, almost thought we had recovered from, returns. Wild, bright, fiery, refusing to be calmed or tended to or medicated. And this, though it seems like an awful regression, becomes our rescue. The pain forces us open.

I danced naked in the street, like King David, like a small child in the rain, like a madman, a leper, like a streaker across the vast grass of entertainment. I was desperate to be seen, to be known, for someone to understand me. I was holding an entire world of twisted pain inside. I needed release. So I did the only thing I knew: I took off my clothes. I lifted up my arms.

Beginning again is a lot like beginning the first time. We take a breath and yell. The force of air into our fresh new lungs is confronting, astonishing. And yet it is not enough. We take another, and another, and another. We had waited so long to take this breath. And now it fills us.

You may know this already. Perhaps you are already one of the re-made ones. You picked yourself up and you walked away. Or you picked yourself up and stayed. Or you picked yourself up and said the words you’d been waiting all your life to say. And then you went and did those things that you had not done yet. You went to the places you had not seen yet. You impregnated yourself with possibility, and then, despite the risk and the naysayers, you carried your potential to full term. Until you were round and full and bursting. Come on!

I make a ritual for you, right here. Let your shoulders drop, your chest stretch wide. Cast your mind over the endless possibilities that await, fill your lungs, and begin.

 

 

forty-one

forty one

This is the life, this one. I wasn’t mistaken. I am in the right body, occupying the right square of space on the planet, tucked up warm in a three bedroom house on a wide highway that heads out of town, with the people I love. This is my life.

It was my birthday yesterday and I sat in a cafe in the earliest moment of the day and wrote, watching the students file past in their jackets and hats; busy people going places walking purposefully along the footpath outside the cafe window. I saw a woman in her early fifties, well-dressed, hair just so, scarf in order, ears bejewelled. I wondered, what will I look like when I am fifty-one? Who will I be? Not her, with her jewellery and her ordered appearance.  But her poise? The way she lifted her head as she crossed the road, shoulders back? That’s me.

Some people take a long time to get to the good bits. I have utmost empathy for those, because I am one of them. I keep company with the lost and the downtrodden. We share the same language, traveling together on an uneven and murky road. When one of us trips, a hand reaches out of the darkness.

I found my way by moving. This is what gypsies know, what nomads and pilgrims do.  A shift, a change, a significant adjustment. Sometimes this is the most vital, most imperative action. To pick ourselves up from where we were and take ourselves to where we had not yet gone. A physical exchange from old to new. A conscious decision to take part in the natural order of evolution. A continuing improvement. A continuing movement.

I have things to tell you. There are things that I know. My eyes are clear now, my mind alive. What was starved, smothered, clamped down, left to wither and fade, now thrives; veins pulsing with life. This is me putting myself back together, this is me growing up. I was girl for far too many years. Good girl, broken girl, mute.

Take in the day, take in the grey light with the tinge of pink behind the clouds, shepherd’s warning. Take in the road dark with rain, the steel and glass buildings, the green field, ancient windows perched beside it, everything connected, nothing an island here in this compact city. I’ve got so much to tell you. I could spend my life telling you.

An emotional trigger is like a tidal wave in miniature, arriving suddenly on the landscape. Put into motion by an unseen, subterranean force. It is unstoppable, completely irrational. I cannot resist it. It picks me up, takes me where I do not want to go. Tosses me back and forth until I am dizzy, I am overwhelmed. Until I am dumped out the other side, worn and relieved. Wiser.

We tread a fine line between progress and regression, one step forward two steps back, two steps forward, one step back. We talk as if the present and the future were partners in a seductive dance, one leading the other surely on. But we forget, oh how we forget, that the past is our jilted lover, hiding in the shadows that press into us, waiting for a chance to take our hand again. Desperate for another dance.

I turn my head away, I do not look back.

At the beginning

st clair pic2

If you look closely at the picture above you’ll see three girls heading off into the future. Ignore the sign to the public toilets, that’s a minor detail. The point is everything else. The signs directing us to the rest of the world, the one marking the spot right where we are. This is the beginning of everything.

Who knew we had to come so far to come so far? I didn’t. Sometimes the future turns up and smacks us right in the face with it’s now-ness, it’s very here-I-am-ness. “And what are you going to do about me,” it demands. “What are you going to do with all this potential?”

I’ve always felt that I was somehow defective, let’s make that plain. And that it was my fault. You may understand. I was too different, too clumsy, too opinionated, too stupid, too sensitive, too wrong. The list could go on. I wasted my time on self-doubt, spent forty years defending myself, threw my pearls down like cattle feed, bent my ear to everyone but myself. It’s time to get on with things.

I am making quite sure that I bring up children who know exactly how to talk back. I give them opportunities to excel in the language of disagreement. In our house doors are slammed, fists get clenched, faces ashen with anger. It is my job, and I take it seriously, to ensure that there is ample room for dialogue. Feelings are formulated into words, words are spoken. I want to know how they feel. And I don’t, generally speaking, take it personally.

The most exquisite and most painful challenge for any parent is to give to their children what they were not given themselves. This is true for all of us, everywhere. But to give it to them well, we must eventually (and the sooner the better) give it to ourselves. And so I am working hard on listening to myself, on putting feelings into words, on telling the truth. The truth begins inside, it’s an internal knowing that is apprehended in the quiet dark space within. But eventually it needs to take shape. It needs to be spoken out loud. This is where I begin.

south

sth is journey pic2

It’s been three weeks since we left, two and a half weeks since we arrived. This was the sky that spread itself over us as we travelled south, the wide wide blue pressing down onto yellow-dry land. Driving off the ferry and through Malborough to Kaikoura was like turning a corner and suddenly finding ourselves somewhere completely different. Not so different that we didn’t know where we were, but different enough that there was no doubt we were somewhere else.

And it’s all new down here too, in this place we now call home. Dunedin is different to Auckland in almost every way. The size, the weather, the landscape, the people, the pace of life. I spent the first week or so pinching myself, reeling as if I’d just stepped off a ride at an amusement park. Where was I? Was I really here? The first few days were mad, the hallway so full of furniture and boxes we could barely walk through, the floor in the girls’ bedroom a forest of partly unpacked boxes, the contents spilling out over the floor.  We had no internet for two weeks,  waiting for our fibre to be connected. Every time we got in the car we had to use GPS.

Even now, here in this tiny sunroom that is my study, I can only get into the room by gingerly walking sideways, careful not to knock over the towers of boxes and papers and books stacked up behind me. We knew it would be a challenge downsizing to a small three bedroom house, but we really couldn’t have imagined just what a challenge it would be. On the day the truck arrived with all our things I stood on the footpath watching the movers ferry our boxes and furniture into the house and it dawned on me that our lounge suite was not going to fit, not in the lounge which we had measured up carefully on paper, nor through the front door and into the hallway which was already filled with furniture which we hadn’t yet been able to fit into place. I rang my friend Stacey and said By the way I’m crying and Do you want to borrow our entire lounge suite? She said yes, having just done the opposite of us and shifted from a small place into a much larger one. There were no words for how grateful I was.

I wrote about letting go a while ago, about the process of paring back. We did that in plenty of ways before we moved down here, but it wasn’t until we were here in the reality of this new life that we saw how much more we needed to do. Isn’t that just how life goes? There’s only so much preparation that can be done prior to the event. Preparation takes us so far, and then at some point we have to step out and do the thing we’ve been preparing for. Whether an adventure or venture or some mix of the two, we really have no idea how it’s going to go until we begin it. And look, I’ve just written my way to the word Advent. From the Latin adventus, to arrive or approach.

The season of Advent finishes today, Christmas Eve. Our Advent this year has been the least advent-y of them all. We put the Christmas tree up a few days after we arrived and bought a few presents for the girls, but other than that we’ve been living in a nebulous time, as if we somehow became separated from the calendar. The light down here at the bottom of the world is so different, it barely gets dark before ten in the evening. The days stretch out so that we completely lose track of time. We’ve hardly known what day it is, let alone how far away we were from Christmas. And yet we were living an advent of our own as we prepared for the big move. And living in a wider, less tangible advent over the last two years as we sensed a growing need within us for change.

Significant change doesn’t have to involve physical change, but often it does, the outward transformation becoming an external representation of what has happened internally. I think of a friend of mine who transitioned from female to male over the last couple of years. I watched from afar as he ‘crossed over’ via surgery. It seemed to me that the surgery he underwent both confirmed and crystallised the state of being that already was already  a reality for him on the inside. The physical change he experienced in surgery was a representation of something internal and at the same time the catalyst that brought the change about in its fullest, most complete sense. It brought congruence.

I’d already shifted, before I moved south. I was already somewhere else. The move was simply an external representation of what had been an internal reality for some time. And yet it was more than that. The change in location crystallised my inner transformation like nothing else could. It brought out what had been inside, it made physical what had been metaphysical. It shifted me to where I already was. So that I can now be where I am.

I can’t help wondering whether the Advent of Christ did something similar. That perhaps it brought into being something that had already existed. That the physical birth of Christ into a physical, tangible location was a representation of the divinity that was already present metaphysically. That by being born as a human child in the most ordinary of circumstances, Christ gave us what we already had. The presence of God.

We had no idea how much we needed to move, until we got here. We had no idea how natural the change would be, how easily the girls would fit in, make friends, make themselves at home. Just as we could never fully prepare for the worst that the shift would entail (and there were moments when the upheaval was overwhelming,) neither could we fully prepare for the best that was waiting for us. We couldn’t have imagined how good it was going to be.

I’ve written many times over the last few years about being pregnant with my self, about giving birth to my self, about being born, finally, after all these years. There were times when I wrote as if I was out, born, alive. And yet the actual birth process was much longer and more complicated than I ever could have seen. I’ve been born in little ways, bit by bit, for a long time. But perhaps it wasn’t until now, until I picked myself up by the scruff of the neck and threw myself down to the bottom of the country, that I could really breathe.

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

image

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.