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.

new

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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.