All the clocks

3salvador-dali-persistence-of-memory.jpgThe Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dali

All the clocks in the house are telling the wrong time. Greer has lost her watch. I am in this funny surreal space where I feel like I am re-making my life. I know I said a similar thing a year ago, that I’m back at the beginning again, but it’s true. I actually do get to start again. Every week I learn something new, and it’s a process that continues to unfold. This ‘growing’ business is ongoing. Why would it ever stop?

I went up to Auckland last week and got a brain update. High school statistics, plus a few extras. My supervisor is gifted with the ability of teaching with the barest minimum of spoon feeding, and in the kindest and most gentle way spent almost a whole day explaining to me what comes as naturally to him as tying his shoelaces. The update was successful: I am now immersed in analysis of the data from my Master’s research, and there are numbers everywhere. I’m swimming in them. After previously having almost zero faith in myself as a mathematician, here I am doing maths.

I’ve never been more aware of the gaps in my brain. Great holes I’ve allowed to stay wide open for so long. Although it might have seemed otherwise, I’ve lacked confidence in my intelligence. Everywhere I looked there were people more coordinated, more organised, and more consistently performing than I ever was, and somehow along the way I decided they were the smart ones. They were the ones who studied law, or held down full time jobs at the same time as bringing up their babies, or had letters after their names. I thought I couldn’t do any of that. So I avoided my gaps and weaknesses – trying to escape the shame of them.

But it would be a half-truth to say that my lack of confidence was the sole reason for those gaps. My insecurities were well and truly enabled by the religious framework I was brought up in. A framework which conditioned me to see the right answers as situated outside of myself, which convinced me that others were the experts in my life, and which valued a body of knowledge that could only be accessed through those same experts. And more than that, it was a framework which denigrated reason and discouraged any learning that was not of a religious nature, and a very narrow version of religion at that.

I grew up in the bosom of Pentecostal Christianity.  Pentecostalism is the “happy-clappy” version of Christianity. It’s always evangelical and often fundamentalist. Its roots are blue-collar, and its emergence at the turn of last century was in part a push-back against the traditional dominant structures of religious power of the day which were strict, ritualised and top-heavy. It began because a group of ordinary, uneducated people wanted more than the current Protestant orthodoxy had to offer. They were convinced they were part of something bigger than themselves and that that something was available to be experienced; to be touched, felt, heard, and seen. Even more than that, they were convinced that such an experience should have an effect on their lives. Whatever their need was – physical or otherwise – they brought it with them. Their spiritual experience was borne out of the reality of need.

I think it’s important to understand that the birth of the Pentecostal movement, while it had detractors  both from inside and outside the traditional church, represented an important rejection of the racial segregation and sexism that prevailed at the time. Those ordinary people who came together to seek a tangible experience of God were from marginalised communities. The leader of the movement in its early days was William J. Seymour, an African American and the son of former slaves. Many of the people who joined him were from immigrant or lower-class families, and women were free to preach and lead. These were people without social status or wealth and in this new experience of God they found belonging, security and a new kind of freedom.

It’s not surprising then that the Pentecostal denominations which grew out of those very unstructured beginnings became staunchly anti-intellectual. The ordinary people who flocked to Pentecostal meetings were rejecting not only the orthodox church as it was, but the education that went with it. The education that was available either by becoming one of the elite ministers themselves (if they were male) or by sitting in the pews each Sunday. That, alongside the social class of the majority of those first Pentecostals, meant that the leaders and dominant voices of the movement were largely self-educated.  In itself, this was not necessarily a dangerous thing. But when combined with the power structures of the church – which ironically evolved to mimic the structures of the traditional church – it created a powerful minority who were suspicious of higher education. These leaders valued experience and personal belief above all else. This has been a hallmark of almost all Pentecostal churches up until the present day.

I realise you don’t want to read an essay about power and the church, so I’m trying not to write one. But what I do want to say is that the dominant theme of my religious upbringing was that experience outranked thinking and education by a long shot. I was taught to be suspicious of my own ideas, and to consider them automatically inferior to the ideas and teaching of those in power in the church. The experts were always right. If I disagreed with them, it was because there was something wrong with me, not because there was something wrong with them or their ideas.

It’s been fifteen years since I began my slow journey to the very outer edges of institutional religion, and it’s taken me that long to even begin to understand how damaging those early years were. I’m aware that the way I’ve described my religious upbringing makes it sound like I was in a cult. I wasn’t. But it’s very easy for a religious organisation (or any organisation) to have cult-like characteristics without actually being a cult. And being in a cult-like organisation is almost as damaging as being in actual cult, as far as I can see.

But here’s the clincher. My religious upbringing didn’t just happen in church. My religious upbringing happened at home. And all the messages I got at church about distrusting my own thinking and relying on the experts for the right answers were amplified there.  In fact in many ways, home was cult-like too. There was very little room for me to develop my own thinking in either place. By the time I turned twenty-one I was pretty sure of one thing: that there were right ideas and wrong ideas, and if left to my own devices I was more likely to come up with the wrong ones. It wasn’t a winning strategy for life.

I’m not writing this to garner your pity. I’m writing this because I’m in a strange time of life, the clocks in the house are all different, my daughter’s lost her watch, and I’m starting again. Writing helps me get my head straight. These are things I’ve thought at various times and in different ways for a while now. But it wasn’t until I began to believe in myself as a thinking person that I realised it actually all makes sense. It makes sense to me, anyway.

So here it is: despite having seen religion at its worst, I remain a fan. And in these strange times, when in the same week Turkey’s president claims the military coup was “a gift from God”, and televangelist Pat Robinson has a vision of Donald Trump sitting at the right hand of God, I actually believe we need religion more than ever. Because we can’t talk about religion without religion. And we can’t even begin to understand that fraught intersection between religion and human experience without at least some understanding of religion itself – it’s language, ideas, symbols and practices – as strange as they may seem.

After all, that’s what religion is about – human experience. In other words, people. People with longings and desires and needs. Underneath the dogma and the power-play and the flawed organisational structures are a bunch of humans who have this crazy and yet quite sane idea that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. And I can’t argue with that.

seven, ten

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I had a dream the other night. I was in the passenger seat of a large bus, and my daughter Greer was driving. We were trying to get to the bus stop where she was going to take another bus to school. But she was having trouble stopping. She turned down the wrong road. Went left when I was trying to tell her to go right. I was worried she was going to miss the bus and it was frustrating to watch. Yet she was doing a pretty good job of driving, for a kid.

I’ve dreamt a lot of buses in the last year. Buses, cars, boats. My dreams have been punctuated with transport imagery. I’ve dreamt conversations in cars, long journeys through changing scenery. I’ve travelled alone, I’ve travelled with companions, I’ve had my companions change within the same dream. One minute I’m travelling with my sister, and then all of a sudden I’m not.  The cars are always going somewhere, the buses are always huge. Sometimes I’m trying to get large numbers of students all on one bus. Sometimes I’m in the dark.

Abigail, my youngest, turned seven yesterday. Wow. It is a little number and she is a little person and yet seven is a whole lifetime. I remember being seven and how long ago babyhood seemed to me even then, how it felt like I’d been alive for an age. I was no longer in my infancy, no longer completely dependent. I was dreaming and planning and reading and imagining and escaping; writing little poems in the exercise book my teacher gave me especially for words. Poems about pigs and daffodils and books.

How will she shine, this newly seven year old girl of mine? What will light her up? What will she do that makes her heart sing, that makes her shiver on the inside? It’s too early to tell. Like any parent, we want her to enjoy being herself, to grow into herself, to become comfortable in her own skin. We nudge her in certain directions, provide opportunities, take note of her interests, but in the end only she can possibly know. Who she is. Where she wants to go. What paths she wants to take.

I don’t always write about my daughters here. I’m aware of the obvious; not everyone has children. I don’t presume that all who read here identify with or are interested in parenting stories. And yet I see mothering and fathering in the broadest possible sense, as roles we can all embody at different times, if we choose to. I love what French feminist philosopher Irigaray wrote about mothering; that we are always mothers once we are women.  And perhaps that same sense of universal father-ness is available to men too. But more than that, I believe the best way to understand ourselves is to reflect on our family of origin. Our first family.  When I write about my children I’m connecting with the child I was.

Greer, the middle sister, is about to turn ten. She’s a feisty, fiery young woman, and every day she gets a little more sure of herself. That dream I had of her driving a bus, a ridiculous vehicle for a child to be driving, seems to remind me of what I know instinctually about her life. That she is in the driver’s seat. That her life belongs to her. I’m close beside her, watching every move, but I’m not driving. No matter how challenging the road gets, the bus is hers. And as much as I take my responsibilities as a parent seriously, other than in an obvious emergency it’s vital that I don’t take the wheel.

When I was her age, I didn’t know what it felt like to be in the driver’s seat of my life. I didn’t have that kind of control or agency. There are reasons for this, and I’ve reflected on all of them over the last few years as I’ve become aware of the ways in which that lack has played out in my adult life. I’ve witnessed chilling depths of powerlessness within myself, and in the moment I saw the worst of it I had two choices; either collapse in on myself or change. So I changed, slowly,  almost everything about the way I live. I’ve seen, with frightening clarity, what my life would have looked like if I didn’t step into my own driver’s seat.

I had a pretty ordinary childhood. You probably experienced some of the things I did. Maybe we watched TV at the same time after school, maybe we were both brought up on the DPB. Maybe you lived on a street lined with familiar state houses too, with a rusty car on the grass verge five houses down. Maybe you packed your bag to go and see your dad like I did. God knows there were and are great hordes of us who did that. It’s nothing so unusual.

But for all the reasons, for whatever reason, for all the whys and wherefores and ways I was and wasn’t and would never be, I grew up broken. So when I dream that my daughter is in the driver’s seat of her own bus and I’m right there, and even though I can see how much she has to lose if she gets it wrong my hand doesn’t reach out even once to grab the steering wheel, I’m a happy woman. Every day I get to start again.

 

building plans

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We went for a walk along the harbour the other weekend. The girls rode their bikes ahead of us, wheeling off into the distance and then coming back again. It was a beautiful day, warm and clear, although over on the edge of the harbour the wind was cold. On the way home we stopped at the section we’re planning to build on, to pick apples from the trees at the very top. It was amazing to be there in the full afternoon sun, looking down over the valley and the hills on the other side. It’s a little piece of paradise, and one day we’ll live there.

The apples we picked sit overflowing in front of me here on the table. Two bowls of them;  red and tart and real. I look at them and I am amazed. Apples from our own trees! We’ve been eating them crisp and fresh every day, and cooking them with cinnamon and ghee until they are soft and unctuous. We are producing, it seems, after some lean years. The fruit may be tentative, but it can’t be denied. There it is – hanging off the north facing trees of our future.

This is how it is you see; we’ve lived through a long winter. It’s been three or four years now of harsh weather. The worst weather I’ve seen, a full range of extremes. Gale force winds, heavy blasts of rain, low grey clouds for months at a time. I’ve learnt how to batten down the hatches, how to step in and shut the door behind me. I had no alternative but to pay attention to my interior spaces. Sometimes it takes us a long time to learn how to give ourselves what we need the most.

I’ve been off facebook for a while now and one of the reasons I left was because I got sick of all the rubbish that kept filling up my feed. Superficial ten point nothings about how to have a successful relationship, blah-blah-blahs about how marriage is nothing to do with what you need it’s all about what you can give the other person. These are particular views, hailing from the evangelical headquarters of the world, and once upon a time I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at them. But I can’t stomach that kind of garbage anymore.

There was a time early on in the stormy weather, when the fierceness of it was still bewildering, that I thought fixing our relationship was what needed to happen. Financial difficulty had triggered the storms, as it often does, but it was the fundamental weaknesses in our relationship that were uncovered almost immediately. Whole sections of roof lifted off in the wind and what we’d managed to avoid noticing was now plainly clear.  There were rooms missing entire exterior walls, and half the house needed re-piling. We’ve never liked the idea of giving up, so we worked at it. We sought professional opinion, made game plans, developed strategies. There were late night dramas, bags packed and unpacked, ultimatums delivered, and whole sections of the house abandoned, deemed completely unliveable. Everything was negotiable.

But as soon as we patched up one corner, another blew out in the wind. The repair list didn’t seem to be getting any smaller, no matter how many things we crossed off. And the weather wasn’t letting up. It was the longest winter. One day I stepped out of the house and looked at the surrounding land. It was good, flat land with a northern aspect, and there was so much more of it than either of us had realised. I picked up a shovel and started digging. Before I knew it, I had the ground prepared for the foundations of a small house. I ordered concrete, supervised the delivery, and then kept building. Once Pat saw what I was doing, he did the same thing a few paces away. We got on with the difficult but completely necessary job of building ourselves.

To say we ditched the flimsy edifice that was this relationship we’d tried to put together, is an understatement. All that is left now of that weather-beaten building are a few piles of old bricks, a corner of concrete poking out of the earth. We keep it there as a reminder, a warning for our children. We’ll tell them the story when they’re old enough to understand, and hopefully it will mean something to them. But it’s more than just a cautionary tale. It’s a testament; a bold monument to hope and to the possibility for change than exists within all of us.

Meanwhile, I’m still building. It takes work to go right back to the foundations of our lives and start again. I’ve had to make some hard calls, and there are parts of my life that may still look ugly to the outside eye. Everything I do now is intentional, I do it because it works for me, because it helps me to build. I have no interest in keeping up appearances, or in putting energy into what is superficial or false. I’ve lost friends, allowed formative relationships to lie fallow, abandoned a million “shoulds” and “must-do’s.” I’m finally learning how to look after myself – I wouldn’t have survived otherwise.

And it’s very nice to have company as I build. It’s a miracle, in some ways, that Pat and I still love each other. But it’s even more of a miracle, I think, that we are friends. Even better friends now than we were before. We have fifteen years together, which is long enough to create history. We share a tall stack of memories, haunting and otherwise. I know not everyone gets to start again together, and for many, separation is the only way forward. But the building requirements are the same. In the end, all we can do is build ourselves.

twelve years old

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My big girl turned twelve last month. How about that. She’s growing, lanky and long, trying on curves for size. A was-child’s body barely containing the woman within. She’s waiting to break out.

What will that woman be like? I watch her and wonder. Kind, above all else. Thoughtful and sensitive, without a doubt. Inquisitive and searching, definitely. Light hearted and fun-seeking, yes. Growing in confidence and attitude, in gut feelings and feisty reactions, I pray so. Developing a voice that speaks without hesitation, that says, “this is me, this is who I am, and this is how I expect to be treated.” Come on girl!

It’s my moment, I know, I can feel it in my bones. This is where I get to play my most important role. Everything else almost pales in comparison. The babywearing, the midnight feeds, the cuddles, the songs, the stories, the trips to the beach the zoo the park flooded with autumn leaves, they’re all in the past, their time is gone. This is where I get to take on the role of airfield officer, to put on my high-vis vest and get down there and clear the runway.  It’s a very serious job. Watch out anyone who tries to get in her way! And what can’t be moved, of course, we talk about. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover.

I’m in the middle of a Masters in Education, carrying out research in the area of twice-exceptional students (students who are gifted and have some kind of disability). It’s a fascinating subject because it brings together so many different areas – giftedness, learning disabilities, disability studies, educational psychology, neuroscience, pedagogy, and all those important self’s: self-knowledge, self-concept, self-efficacy, self-awareness. I’m surrounded by case studies – at home and at school – so everything I read is real. I sit here in my tiny box of a study, piles of journal articles wherever I look, and I laugh, I cry, I talk back to the researchers I disagree with. I’m in heaven.

Part of my reading has been looking at the role of the family in talent development. It’s heavy going in places, sobering and inspiring at the same time. It all boils down to one very obvious fact – the influence of the family can be a determining factor in the development of a child’s potential. Whether their ability is developed to a high level or not can depend on the family context. Of course there are always exceptions. History gives us plenty of examples of highly successful individuals who succeeded despite their family background rather than because of it. But research has highlighted some interesting factors in the way a healthy family works to support the child’s development, and I find it fascinating.

Paula Olszewski-Kubilius points out that a disability in a child can set in motion within a family a psychological process that either helps or hinders the child’s development.  A disability combined with giftedness (which is what I’m studying) can result in reduced opportunities for the child’s development, or in a disproportionate focus on the disability, to the detriment of the gift. However, she interestingly suggests that any characteristic of a child that results in rejection by their parents (such as a disability), can help free the child from “strong psychological identification” with the parents, thereby supporting the development of the child’s own unique identity.

It reminds me of Jung’s idea of individuation. I’ve written about it before, I talk about it often. I’ve lived it, better late than never, and I believe in it. Individuation; the process by which we become our own unique selves, is a process contra naturam. Meaning, against human nature. To individuate we go against every force within us and without us that would will us to comply, to fit in, to keep the peace. Separating from our parents, defining ourselves as ‘other’ in relationship to them, is the first step. It’s teenage rebellion in a psychological frame. But it’s more than that too. It’s the hard work of pushing back on the world when the world tries to tell us who we are and how we should be behaving. It’s the risky, enormously brave step of standing up and saying “this is me, this is who I am, and this is how I expect to be treated.”

As far as my role in these teenage years goes, I realise the tarmac metaphor is limited. When the time comes for my twelve year old to take off into life she might rather dance than fly. Or paint, or sing, or yell. You get what I mean. But however she decides to do it, she’ll have my full support. It won’t all be, well which cliché shall I use? Fun and games? A walk in the park? Plain sailing? At some point I’ll be the thing she fights against with every ounce of her strength. I’ll represent everything she’s not, as she does the work of discovering what she is. I’m wincing at the thought, but I’m also kind of excited. It’s an amazing season to be in, full of potential and possibility, and I get to watch it unfold. The least I can do is get out of the way.

 

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.

mountains

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I have been hanging out with mountains. That’s just what I have been doing.  I live in their neighbourhood now, I am local with them. I walk out of my house, get in the car and drive a few hours – three or four at the most – and there I am. Walking along the street while mountains tower ahead and behind.

What is a mountain if not the very core of the earth reaching up to the sky? It is the land from its deepest centre stretching towards heaven. Our truest reminder of those earliest days. When papa our mother and rangi our father, as the creation story goes, were wrenched apart and reached for each other ever after. And we were born in the empty space of their longing. We inhabited their loss. These craggy peaks and soaring ranges remind us; something is not as it was. The land wants to be one with the sky again.

I can’t take my eyes off those layered folds. The way one curve of green gently rises out of the one before. Standing on the edge of the lake looking out, the layers are uncountable. Ridge after ridge folds down from peak after peak, as far as I can see. Each one nestled into the company of others. A community of mountains, sitting in regal conversation, presiding over our small lives. Continuing the dialogue they began all those millions of years ago. We come, have our moment in the light, and then, at the end of our days, fade away. While they remain.

And that doesn’t make us any less consequential. If anything, it spurs us to do something with this tiny but unknowable piece of time we have been given. This stretch of days we call a life; what are we going to do with it? How are we going to live out the longings that lie at the core of us? How are we going to count our losses and learn from them? How are we going to take care of ourselves? What stories are we going to tell ourselves?

I have been swiftly covering ground, moving backwards and forwards in time at great speed. Answering questions that had gone unanswered for all four decades of my life. This is enlightening and devastating at the same time, thrilling and disturbing. It takes courage to face the things that haunt us. Turning away from them is easy. Ignorance and denial are temptingly sweet. Reality is far harsher and yet it is a sure foundation, the only way we can truly know ourselves.

We demolished the old garage that sits down from the house on the edge of the footpath, as is common in Dunedin. The roof leaked and the door was rotting, stiff and awkward on ancient hinges. It wasn’t fit to be a garage, it housed the things we had no where else to put. Old bikes, boxes of tools and random things still waiting to be unpacked from the move. The water pooled in the corners when it rained, and the floor was a sandy base covered, some time ago, in a layer of black polythene that was now ragged and torn. We talked about what to do with the garage from the moment we arrived. A year later, we took action.

The iron roof was carefully peeled back, the sheets cut in half with tin snips and thrown into the rubbish skip that sat waiting on the side of the road. Then the roof bracing, rotting in places, was strategically demolished and the heavy door taken off its hinges. Finally, the polythene was lifted up and the floor swept of debris. Now all that remains are three concrete block walls and a pale sandy floor. The open space is tantalising in its simplicity, hopeful in its possibility, completely stripped back, a blank slate.

The process of deconstruction was more complex than my description portrays. There was a lot of shifting involved. Things had to be moved out before anything could happen. I said good-bye to some of it, there was grieving to do. The rest was ferreted away wherever it could fit. New spaces surprisingly presented themselves. Unused corners came to light. Spaces that had been ignored were given attention. And there were people involved besides us. A student we’ve got to know, my Dad, the next-door neighbour. Each of them intersecting with the process in unpredictable yet vital ways.

This process is not unlike the one we all go through periodically, when we allow ourselves to see things as they are and find the courage to do something about it.  We shed light on dark corners, explore what had been hidden reaches, find new ways of seeing the familiar, discover untapped resources within ourselves. We’re all on our own timeline when it comes to this internal deconstruction. There is no one-size-fits-all, no cookie-cutter recipe or perfect mathematical equation. There’s no point in comparison either, or in thinking that what worked for us will necessarily work for someone else. But we all need to do it, at some point in our lives. We were born into loss, in some way or another, as those mountains remind us.

I go to church

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I go to church. Not the way I used to. Not three times a day, not desperate, not believing blindly. Not storing treasures in heaven, not trying to save people from hell, not piling up discrete answers to discrete questions. Not following behind myself with a clipboard and a pen and a checklist of required actions, a list of never-must-do’s.

I once stood in front of a full auditorium and earnestly declared “we all need Jesus.” It was a heart-felt plea, a genuine profession. I believed whole-heartedly that my faith was everything. My sustenance, my guide, my reason for being. I thought I couldn’t live without it. And I presumed that meant neither could you.

You may have been in the audience that day. You may have squirmed uncomfortably; perhaps you looked down and picked at your trousers when I made my earnest proclamation. You were sitting there at my invitation, your presence there in that bright school hall all the evidence of your unconditional support I’d ever need, not that I’d see it at the time. I was trying to win you over. I wanted you to see how much life I had, I wanted you to see the glow of the light I could feel burning me up on the inside. I was trying to convert you.

I could apologise, right here. I could come clean. I could tell you how sorry I am. That I’ve regretted that day, and all the days like it, for a long time. I could re-count my sins in a list as long as all four of our arms put together. I could repent. Oh the litany. Of all the things I could repent of. The assumptions, the narrow-mindedness, the fear. The fear. But I know you don’t need it.

You saw right through me. You saw how small I was, how afraid. You saw how the light glanced off my eyes and blinded me. You knew my world view was a shaky construction, held up by dogmatism, the most flimsy of flimsy supports. You knew, somewhere deep inside you, that if my faith was a building, it would fail every building code out. That I had not tested anything. I had put no weight on it at all.

And so you kindly tolerated my enthusiasm. You took my cheerful positivity at face value. I was happy, I was finding my way in the world and you were proud of me. You were interested in my life. I turned up at your house one night, ostensibly for no other reason than to say hi, and you were very glad to see me. At the end of the evening I asked you to pay for my bible college fees. I had believed the money would come, as everyone else around me did. And when it didn’t, I came and asked you. You said yes, of course.

It took a long time for everything to fall apart. Self-deception is the true world super-power. There were several bouts of depression, more than one round of mild burn-out, and still my story stayed the same. If I could just do the right things, and pray the right words, or get the right people to pray the right words, everything would be fine. I knew that something was wrong with me, but I couldn’t admit that something was wrong.

Life has an uncanny way of presenting us with the exact circumstances needed for us to learn exactly what we need to learn. Almost twenty years after the day I stood in front of you under the glaring lights of that sterile school hall, the day I graduated with the bible college diploma you had paid for, I finally found myself in the dark. Looking into the murky reality of my completely unknown self. Everything was steadily becoming undone, and there was nothing I could do about it. There was no area of my life that had not been touched by chaos. And it was the beginning of everything, the pre-labour of my own re-birth.

I’m waxing metaphorical here, I know. But hear me out. I thought I was already re-born. The story I’d been told, that I had absorbed and recounted a million times, was that I began again the moment I believed. It seemed so simple. It seemed to make sense. Some kind of metaphysical interaction had occurred on the night that four-year-old me asked the holy spirit of God to look after me forever. Forever and ever and ever. I have this feeling I was being efficient. A shred of a memory tells me I thought I was praying once so I’d never have to pray again. But my mother, opportunist and recent convert that she was, saw eternal potential. “Do you want to ask Jesus into your heart?” she asked me sincerely. I did.

If I could go back to that tender night I would not change a thing. Children see where adults do not. They understand things we find obtuse. They believe, where we scoff. My conversation with God that night, aided by my mother, was the real thing. I wanted something more than this world had to offer. I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. I wanted to believe.

I could look back on the years since then as one long loss. My simple four-year old faith was quickly tarnished. It wasn’t long before I was convinced I was right and everyone else wrong. I read the world through newly converted eyes. Even at four I had opinions about what Christians should do and shouldn’t. The day I found out that our closest church friends ate white bread, I was horrified. Christians ate brown bread! I was a prodigious fundamentalist.

You can fill in the gaps between four and fourteen, and fourteen and twenty-four. The desperate prayers for myself and the entire world. The missions trips. The youth groups. The compulsive bible reading. The conferences, the sermons, the mega-healers on TV. My heart was full to bursting, or so it felt. But my mind had checked out a long time ago.

I’m not here to recount the evils of organised religion. You know them all. I can’t even bring myself to hint at them; the horrors beggar belief. But I can tell you why, after all these years, I still go to church. I go to church because I like to go to church. I like to sit in the quiet of the one hundred and fifty year old stone building we worship in and think about my life. I like to look up at the rafters towering above me, and imagine the people all those years ago who put so much energy and resource into building something soaring and magnificent, something so impractical. I look up to the balcony floor and wonder what the days were like when most people went to church on a Sunday. When this old building was full and bursting with life. I think about the Reverend Wallis, a character in my novel, who preached in buildings just like this one, to a full house. And somehow, sitting in that building, partaking in the ritual and the community it offers me, my life makes sense. I go to church to understand.

I used to go to church for you. I thought that if I did the right things, and prayed the right prayers, that you would have your moment of transcendence too. I wanted you to be happy. I wanted you to be free. I wanted you to know that sweet indescribable feeling of being loved by something bigger than you. I wanted you to find something soaring, magnificent. I wanted you to know that you are beloved, end of story. I still do.

You are welcome to join me at church any time, but I’ll never invite you like I invited you before, all serious and hopeful. Every precept I once held, tightly as if it were a rock and I drowning in a sea of uncertainty, has crumbled. What’s left is beautiful. But it’s beautiful to me. I won’t presume you’d feel the same way. The children will probably want you to come and hear them sing in the choir, and I’d recommend it. The sound of their clear and steady voices pierces the still air, and above them the morning light streams in reliably through ancient glass in a myriad of colours. There’s nothing like it.

You see, I still want more than this world has to offer. That’s why I go to church. Not like before, when I was so unaware. I go like the new-born newly-adult self that I am, everything fresh and undone. It’s the best way I know to begin again.

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

avo sun

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.

 

 

this

matisse

I can’t tell you this without telling you a story. So here’s the story:  for almost as long as I can remember, I was given the message that being gay was not okay. The message came through loud and clear.

There was a man at church who used to be gay and was now happily married, thanks to an ex-gay support group. This was important information for me to know. My school friends’ suspect behaviour was eagerly identified. One wore aftershave as perfume; this was not approved. I sat at a dinner table for more than an hour listening to a group of church women gossip about one of the women’s gay sons. The tone of the conversation was superficially of concern but the stories his mother regaled us with were merely fodder for our curiosity.  We’ll pray for him, the women said, as I sat frozen. Any time the word homosexual was mentioned in church, or in books I read, I stiffened. Someone once, without asking my permission, decided that I needed the gay prayed away.

Somehow I made up my mind that if I hadn’t been brought up Christian, I would have been gay. I said it occasionally, in quiet tones, in private conversations with friends. I even said it once as a joke, and laughed. I don’t think anyone heard me.

And who would have heard me anyway? I was all about boys. Truthfully, anyone who knew me back in those dark old days could tell you that. I was desperate for love. And in a church community which idolised marriage, and having grown up without a Dad close at hand, I was yearning for love in the masculine form. I was also desperate to get on with my life, convinced that marriage was the ticket to success and approval.

But I never managed to procure a long-term boyfriend. My heart was always with my girlfriends. Boys were foreign, they spoke a completely different language, and as much as I appeared keen to learn it, in reality I was a lacklustre student.

I met Pat at the ripe old age of twenty-six. Plenty of my friends had got married already, I was one of the “spinsters,” or so I thought. He was sitting at a table in a café next to a friend of mine; I noticed him straight away. He made me laugh, was interested in things I was interested in. He rang me that same night and asked me out. We fell in love and were married eight months later.

I had no idea how much I needed to fight. I had no idea how much I needed to be put into a position where I had to fight for my life. It’s a truism to say that marriage takes work. But there are some marriages which, owing to the baggage the partners bring into the relationship and the unconscious lacks which spur their initial attraction, are hard work from the get-go. There is no shame for me in saying we had one of those. Most come to an end, or become one groundhog day of misery after another. The lucky few go to battle and come out the other side. The victory is sweet. The wounds are spoils of war.

The battle was my saving grace. Everything I failed to learn in childhood I learnt then. For the first time in my life I had to open my mouth and speak the truth. I learnt, over many grey and weary years, to put my needs into words, and then to go after them. I dragged myself out of the murky depths of compliance and passivity kicking and screaming. For the very first time in my life, I got angry.

Anger is a vital emotion. We can’t act without it. That I grew up with a profound inability to feel anger was a great abuse. It left me bereft of the fuel my introverted and compliant self needed to be able to speak up for myself.  I was incapable of agency or autonomy, completely unable to arrange the elements of my life in such a way as to benefit myself. I had what every abuse victim has in common; a complete and total lack of self-love.

I will spend the rest of my life living out the lessons I learnt in that battle. What I’ve said here barely scrapes the surface. But the most important lesson I learnt of all was to own my own mind. The battle forced me to discover, incrementally, what it meant to think for myself.

After that the world began to look different. Broader, wider, more sparkling. I systematically went through every belief I’d collected over the years, starting from the very beginning. What did I think? It was a thrilling process. And it’s probably obvious to you that my old ideas about being gay were some of the first to get the toss. All of sudden, being gay was actually ok. The ground shifted.

I’m bisexual, and I’ve known it for a while. I wish, like I’ve never wished for anything in my life, that I got to come out at a younger age. To explore what it means to follow my own natural attractions, uninhibited by dogma or social coercion. That’s not to say I have any regrets about the path my life has taken. There were lessons I had to learn, and this was the way I learnt them. And I have a family. A dear husband who loves me, and three daughters who are growing up in a very different world to the one I grew up in.

But I know what it’s like to love a woman, and I carry the memory of that love with me still. It is a sweet memory, and rich its own way. It leads me towards paths I have not yet taken. Paths that move me deeper into self-awareness, deeper into myself. I was sad for a while, wondering if I had missed out on something precious and irreplaceable. And then I realised, like I was Odysseus landing on home shores after a lifetime of journeying, that the woman I needed to love most was myself.