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.

 

together

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

canon13MAY 102

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.