hand washing and sitting

window pic jpegthe view from where I was sitting 

It’s so long since I last wrote here. So much has changed. Suddenly the things we thought we could depend on and the ways we reassured ourselves have become less sturdy. I went to the doctor on Monday and could see the stress on her face. Tuesday morning at school our pandemic plan was presented. Now we know when a school will close, what will trigger each respective stage. In January we were reading about a virus which was so far away. Now it is very close, and it’s unlikely that anyone will be unaffected, in some way.

I am wrestling with my own anxiety, and feeling a primal urge to self-isolate – a word which has strong-armed its way into common usage in record time. Self-isolation, social distancing – these were new words yesterday, today they are familiar as the hills. I am not in the category of the most vulnerable, but I still have weird things going on with my health. Even ordinary sickness ramps things up for me. I don’t want to get the virus.

I’ve been pretty germ-phobic since I was pregnant with my eldest sixteen years ago. My midwife had a client who ate a pie in the car after going to the supermarket, without washing her hands first. She caught listeria and lost the baby. Being pregnant is obviously intense – physically and psychologically – and that information coalesced with my heightened state and transformed me. I became germ-phobic overnight. Once I went back teaching, spending all day in contact with hundreds of teenagers, my cautious behaviour increased. I pushed open doors with my feet, pulled down my sleeve to turn door handles. It felt like self-care.

At times I’ve been embarrassed by this behaviour. We now understand that unless you have a dysfunctional immune system, living in a perfectly sanitized environment is dangerous. I wondered, for a while, if I had been overreacting all those years. And yet as we head into a period of unparalleled global emergency caused by a single virus originating from a single source, I’m thinking that all these years of “paranoia” have actually been useful training. I have skills. I can turn a tap on and off with my arm. I already avoid touching my face.

But all the hand washing in the world is not going to completely stop the course of this virus. What we are collectively facing is unprecedented. We are going to lose people. People are going to lose jobs and businesses. The arts community is reeling. The hospitality industry is beginning to reel. One of my best friends has had to postpone her wedding. My dad was due to visit next weekend. Normal, whatever normal looked like for each of us, has gone. I can feel it in my gut, it’s a heavy wariness. The world is going to look very different when we come out the other side of this.

I’m not religious like I used to be, and that’s a good thing. But I still pray. And somehow it’s one of the few things that make sense for me right now. It’s not that I think my sitting quietly is going to change anything external to me (although I hold space for the possibility), it’s just that I have to do something. I can’t think of the families who have lost or will lose loved ones and do nothing. I can’t think about those facing the loss of their income or their life’s work and do nothing. So I pray. I pray a simple version of the lovingkindness prayer, thinking of a person, or a group of people.

May you be happy. May you be safe. May you be healthy. May you live a life of ease.

It seems impossible to think about a life of ease right now. But perhaps it’s the right thing to ask for, even if it’s only relative ease, or ease in a small detail, or ease in spite of what’s going on, or ease on the inside of us, when the outside is so unpredictable.

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.

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.