reading lament

Huia Bird Intaglio print by Kapiti artist

“The Huia Returns” 

So time moves swiftly on.  Only three weeks left at school, four weeks until we go. What began as a playful wondering in our minds a year ago is fast becoming real. I almost can’t believe it. And yet I can. Because a house is waiting for us. A little house in the suburbs waits, with trees across the road and a wide sky above it. The open road waits, with stops and adventures thoughtfully planned. And a new life waits,  one that is open and spacious and unhindered in so many ways. We can’t wait to go. We are eager to move.

The novel waits too, waits patiently for the warm space of time that will be mine over summer. It waits for my full and knowing attention. Which it has not quite had yet, not in the way it will have very soon. We will spend time together, that story and I, and talk about all the words that sit on its periphery, the words that are waiting, the ones that were too hard, or too raw, or too uncomfortable to be written in the first time around.

An unexpected conversation about lament happened this week. My sparkling year 11 class and I found ourselves reading Hone Tuwhare’s No Ordinary Sun, that poem of poems. At first they were bemused, but with a bit of prompting they stretched themselves out amongst the words. One of the students thoughtfully asked whether the narrator of the poem is telling the tree to give up.

“Tree let your arms fall:                                                                                                                                                                                 raise them not sharply in supplication                                                                                                                                                       to the bright enhaloed cloud.                                                                                                                                                                         Let your arms lack toughness and                                                                                                                                                     resilience for this is no mere axe                                                                                                                                                                   to blunt nor fire to smother…”

I shook my head without thinking much but then as we read it together I realised she was partly right. The tree is no match for the “monstrous sun” of a nuclear blast and the narrator is keen to ensure the tree is under no false illusions regarding its durability. Its “end at last is written.” It will not survive. The poem is a lament, I found myself saying.

“Your former shagginess shall not be                                                                                                                                          wreathed with the delightful flight                                                                                                                                                               of birds nor shield                                                                                                                                                                                                     nor cool the ardour of unheeding                                                                                                                                                               lovers from the monstrous sun…”

Lament. We wrote the word on the white board. Talked about lament as a song of sorrow, a song that recounts what has been lost as a way to honour and remember it. Talked about how the bible, which some of them know well, is full of lament. And then I realised that a lament can be a form of protest. That Tuwhare’s much loved poem is lament in protest.  Loss is envisioned in such a way as to caution against further loss, in such a way as to communicate the pressing need for change, in such a way as to bring about change. Which is the essence of protest.

And then that novel, the one I’ve been telling you about for so long now, came to my mind. I saw something I hadn’t seen before. The Last Huia is lament in protest. It is a lament for things that have been lost and must be remembered, for things that have been lost and must be honoured, for things that have been lost and must never be lost again.  And my eyes filled with tears.

They were ok with that, those sparkling students. They’re used to me getting carried away occasionally, and they humour my sensitivities. I play the role of eccentric teacher in their lives, and every good learning career has one of those, doesn’t it? So the tears were smiled at and then wiped away as we read our way through the poem. But I carried that word with me for the rest of the day. Lament.

It has taken me from sixteen to forty to find my voice in life and on the page, and I am sad about that. There are a multitude of factors that I think of as accessories to this loss, but I am the principal charge.  I allowed myself to be silenced, I yielded when I should have fought, stayed when I should have walked out, conformed when I should have rebelled. I understand, in part, how this happened. Individuation as Jung has described it is a process contra naturam. To follow it through we must go against the forces without us which would have us conform, and the inclinations within us which hunger for acceptance. It was not a road I was capable of taking until now.

Sorrows gone unheeded fester, they weigh themselves down in dark corners and distort our perceptions. They sit waiting for us to see them, to put voice to them, to lament them. The song that arises is shadowy, at first uncertain. But it gathers strength as it recounts the loss, and the bittersweet notes themselves, by weaving a cautionary tale, become firm ground, a pathway for new possibilities. A pathway of growth, and of vital change. I know about this.


canon13JULY 127

One of my characters writes to “unravel the twistedness” in her, and “to turn on the light in a dark room.” I do the same, and I always have. I’ve got twenty years’ worth of journals sitting in a plastic storage box behind me. If I laid them out end to end they would cover the floor of this room and spread out into the hallway, like a steady carpet.  If I don’t write, I start to lose my grip on reality.

Words are the safety line between me and the world, they anchor me. As I write, I remind myself who I am, what I believe, and how I want to live. These three things are the pulsing life at our core, but we can overlook them without realising it, and let the incidentals crowd them out. The words I write here might seem raw at times but they always considered, and always written on reflection. The raw emotion goes into my journals, which have no audience. The words here come afterwards, they are the thoughtful response, if there is one to be made. I may seem like I’m thinking out loud here, but in reality I am thinking out loud things I’ve already thought, and there is a difference.

It’s an understatement to say that this year has been complicated, and the complications continue, but every time I sit down to look that novel, now at final draft stage, they fade into the background. The novel reminds me who I am, what I believe, and how I want to live. It answers all three of those essential questions with an emphatic and resounding “yes.” If it does nothing more than that, then it has done more than enough. If others like it too then that will be a bonus.

It’s a tight story, there’s barely any padding in it, and one of my last tasks is to flesh out a couple of key ideas. It’s like sitting down to work on a newly made garment and letting out a few seams so that it’s more roomy. The fabric feels good as I work at it with my fingers, and I like the way the colours change when I hold it up to the light. There seems to be something magical about what I’m doing, for wherever I need to open the garment up, to let out a hem, or loosen a dart, I find just the amount of fabric I need hidden behind the seam. I let it out, re-do the seam, and – voila! – it looks as if it had been that way from the start. 

Here’s a newly “let out” piece you might like, about the same character I referred to at the beginning of the post:

She was born on an island in the Pacific Ocean at four o’clock in the afternoon. It was a Tuesday in the middle of the year, in the middle of a tumultuous decade, when a war in the jungle was lost to the north, and a conservative dictator died in a land-locked capital. She was born while Elton John sang ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, and The Eagles’ song ‘The Best of my Love’ flew to the top of the charts. She was a solid baby with rolls at her wrists, and the weight of her pulled at her mother’s shoulders. Her mother was her constant attendant, faithfully offering her breast at the child’s slightest whimper.  

Her name was Angel and she was the fruit of that new freedom they called Love. She wore corduroy tunics over bell bottom trousers, and watched blonde-haired girls singing in the Micky Mouse Club on Thursdays after school. On Saturday afternoons her mother sent her to her room for a rest, and she lay as still as she could on her bed, while the muted noise of the neighbour’s television crept in through the open window, and the low afternoon light filtered through the thick stand of bamboo outside. She dreamed up secret rendezvous with the next door neighbours, and when she was finally let out, escaped to the garden. There she made an entire universe out of one tree. Its giant exposed roots creating for her an almost infinite series of worlds, all separate and contained. 


canon13JULY 048

I sit here to write after watching a beautiful film; The Red House. It’s about Lee (a kiwi ecologist) and Jia (his Chinese wife) and the life they have woven together. They have only a portion of language in common, but their intimacy is all the more deeper for it. And despite her frustration with English, Jia has the most incredible way with words, they come tumbling out  with a disarming freshness. At the end of the film she is cutting Lee’s hair and talking to him about the purpose of life, and he asks her, how would you live, if you could. How would you imagine your life to be? And she smiles and laughs and says something like it would be to not be forced to do anything. To not have to make my parents’ breakfast, to not have to cut your hair. It would be to suddenly go and read a book, to suddenly go to the movies, to suddenly write.

At this I take an audible breath. Somehow in those surprising and seemingly clumsy words I find this truth; that freedom is a sure self. It is to know what we want, and then, at the appropriate time, to do it. To suddenly read. Or to suddenly, surprisingly, write. It is having a sure sense of self within, and the agency to act on it.

I see now that it is ten minutes until my birthday. And I remember all the other birthdays, those singular days jam packed with meaning; they couldn’t possibly hold any more of it. Some people can’t do a birthday without sharing it. The sharing is the meaning. For me, the older I get the less I need to share it. The sharing is lovely, and the love is always appreciated. But in the end this day is about the deep space inside of me, the one that only I can see. It is a chance to gaze within, to absorb the meaning of a lifetime, the meaning of a life.

I imagine that as I get older this will become even more true. I can imagine a birthday at ninety, completely alone. I know there will be children and grandchildren and an ancient husband, God willing. But my sense of peace and contentment will not come from without, great though the joy will be in sharing it with so many loves. Those loves will come and go, the presents will come and go, the praise, perhaps, will come and go. And in the end I will be alone, and happy. I will look back from that great distance and see everything, how all the twists and turns and dark spaces came together to form one incredible, unimaginable whole. I couldn’t have planned it.

It is obvious that every challenge and painful thing I have experienced has become and is becoming the raw passion and truth that I write from. It is obvious that there is nothing that has been wasted. There is no pain or difficulty that has been, or will be, without its own fruit. Strange fruit it may be. The unexpected and disconcerting fruit of the tropics, perhaps, like that wild-shaped and bleeding dragon fruit they eat in Cambodia.  But fruit it is, all the same. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I will relish it. And in the lean years of age it will feed me. When my adventures can only be made on the inside, I will look back over all of it in wonder. In wonder that one life could hold so much grief and so much joy.

This is my gift then, and will always be. The joy alongside the grief in complete union, my very own dance. I could wish the latter away all I wanted, but without it the joy would lose its depth. And the grief is my window onto the world, it is how I know you. It is how I came to be standing in the supermarket today with tears running down my face, feeling so alone and yet not alone, looking around at the people beside me and in front of me and behind me and knowing, suddenly, that between us all we had everything. We had money and the lack of it; health and the want of it, peace and the need for it, life and the dregs of it. Right there, in a suburban supermarket in Mt Albert, we were a microcosm of the world.

I wrote about this in my book. I wrote about it without even realising exactly what I was writing, and now I’ve written it, it can’t be undone. I feel it growing steadily inside of me, humming like a faraway rhythm, like a current of electricity. It’s a simple knowing, and it’s this; we are one.

I can’t live the same any more, not after what I’ve written. I cried at dinner last night because I realised that there were other mothers who served their children more than they served themselves, as I had just done and as my mother would have done once, and they were everywhere, all around the world. Only they went completely without, their hunger spreading through every fibre of their body until they were nothing but hunger, could feel nothing but hunger, could think nothing but hunger like an ache like a constant pain like a dullness in the mind, a shutting down.

And I can’t eat the same knowing how hungry they are.

My mountain knows this, the mountain I told you about when I last wrote. She knows that we all belong to each other, that we are all connected. That the leaves  on her trees are connected to their branches, and that the roots of those trees reach down into the soil which reaches out to everything, and all of us, everywhere. So that we are never truly alone. That everything we do and say reaches out in ripples and touches the people around us, those close and those far away. Even our breath goes out from us and mingles with the breath of every person who breathes with us now on this planet.  We are never cut off, never separated. We live and think and speak and write and love and grieve and eat and want, together.