the beauty that lies in the imperfect the damaged, the broken unintentional beauty set the shadows to music what would be the tune?
small songs between breaths painted by light sung in the silence voices of star-stuff whispering
the beginning of a series of small verses inspired by the photographic prompts from 52Frames
I’ve been questioning whether to post this. But this poem, these words, helped me get through some of the most difficult days last year. They helped me stand and claim my place, they gave me hope, and helped me honour one of the most important people in my life. I’m thankful for everything I’ve learnt during all the writing I’ve done over the last few years. It gave me the ability to compose something meaningful, expressive and true to myself.
My father died in August last year. I wrote this the day after, writing into the depth of night until it was finished.
I wanted to say something at his funeral, but had so little time to prepare. So I drew from a couple of earlier pieces just to get started, then continued to create something new and special just for him.
When it came time to read it at the funeral the next day, I shifted from feeling nervous, to feeling strangely calm and almost confident. I could feel the silence in the room, the quiet attention. It was afterwards when the hearse drove away that I felt that falling feeling, the sense that you could collapse onto your knees and wail. Perhaps if I was somewhere else on my own, I would have done just that, pressed my hands down flat and keened into the earth. But the concrete entrance to the funeral home wasn’t the right place.
I keep having this sense that there is some symbolic ritual that needs to take place. I don’t know what it is, and it hasn’t happened yet. I thought there might be a sign, something that would suggest what I need to do. Perhaps a dream, but in fact, I lost the ability to dream for months. They’re back now, but he hasn’t appeared.
I’m thinking that I need to stop waiting for a sign. He came to me once, many years ago, and I treasure the fact that he re-entered my life. Perhaps this time, I need to come to him, find him somewhere in the bush, in a river, in a garden. I’ll speak to him and thank him for his love. Perhaps then he will visit in a dream, perhaps he needs to feel invited.
you apologised for things not working out
between yourself and my mother
but you are not the one who left
you did not leave me
I was taken
you said you never knew there was anything wrong
there were never any arguments
but this is the way she was
she expected you to know
she passed judgement
she wanted to be right
you gave me enough love in those first few short years
that I always knew, somewhere deep, what love could be
this quiet gentle thing
a hand held to stop me from falling
there is a photo of us
you look so tall
and I am tiny
and there’s a memory I have
of running through green, green grass
I’m sure I was running to you
I’ve heard it said that grief has stages
that it’s a process
my grief is a list
my grief is a blow to the chest, standing breathless in a doorway
an hour late
a strange smell
too few seats
my grief is an abandoned garden, earth cleared ready for planting
no hand to dig
gifts to the soil
my grief is a dark room, eyes open staring into the night
an empty cup
a silent promise
my grief is a heavy cloak, a conflicted weave of threads
a weight I drag behind me
a burden I cling to
my grief is hungry
it eats my sleep
it eats my dreams
it asks too much
my grief is a second blow, standing barefoot in the driveway
a familiar voice, unfamiliar confusion
my grief is sympathetic, falling into old habits
searching for an open a door
an open hand
my grief is a locked box, the key long gone
my grief is a lesson
in patience and trust
learning to wait
to give my mind time to adjust and make new connections
to give my heart time to accept the loss
to become used to this new truth
my grief is fickle
it will begin to lose interest
it will stop paying attention
it won’t notice when I look the other way
it will start hunting elsewhere to be entertained
and when it does
I will leave the house
stand in the rain
lost birds settle on my shoulders
when I go inside
I see what grief has left for me on the table
when I was a child, about 10-12 years old
there were times when I would be in the midst of an uninhabited space
and feelings of peace, and of relief would wash over me
I felt able to open up and breathe
I felt I was being shown
a different way to understand my place in the world
in the face of open expanses of land and sea and sky
I felt small and insignificant
and it was a comfort
I would lie on the ground and imagine
that I could be unmade
all my many parts become small enough that I could be carried on the wind
disperse across the land
to disappear from the human world and fall into the earth
to take root like so many tiny seeds
and this was not a sad thing
I almost longed for it
this communion with the land
I accepted this alternative perspective
as a child
and I still do
in this time of quiet
I look out my window
looking onto trees
and all I hear is the wind and calls of birds
and I’m aware that this wild natural world doesn’t need me
I’m not important to it
I could leave now and it would go on
and I’m back where I was as a child
wanting to disintegrate and be subsumed
to be embraced by the rich dark earth
to be transformed
to come back as a leaf or a song or an iridescent feather
With the gift of hind-sight I recognize there was an element of escapism in my childhood feelings.
The future was all uncertainty and this desire for disintegration meant I wouldn’t need to confront the unknown country of my teenage years or an incomprehensible adulthood.
And what I realise now, is that this youthful desire, which I sensed then as a desire to disintegrate, to become disembodied, to fly apart into myriad specks of star dust, was really a desire to be integrated into something bigger than myself, something dependable and strong. I wanted to be held safe.
I imagine it now as a desire to become embodied, through re-integration with the land.
It seems that very little has changed.
During this time of isolation, of nationwide lockdown in order to overcome the threat of the corona virus, I’ve had days when this feeling has returned.
There’s something about the quietness, the stillness of current times, that is reminding me to reconnect on a deeper level with the pulse of the land.
I’ve wished I could just walk out into the hills and be absorbed into the ground.
And more than that, I’ve had the sense of how little I matter, and that if humanity stepped aside, the natural world would find its balance again without the stress of our presence.
It’s not that I don’t think my life has purpose or value. It has as much purpose as a seedling pushing its way up through the earth. It has as much value as the shimmer on the back of a bird, the purr of a cat.
It’s just that there are days when I can’t bear the suffering we impose on the land and every other creature that walks or swims or flies.
I walk barefoot every chance I get.
It’s my way of staying connected.
(written all the way back on 12 April
– near the start of the lockdown in NZ)
During the week of 16 – 20 March 2020, we were just getting used to the announcement the previous weekend that anyone entering the country would be required to self-isolate for 14 days. It seemed to have the immediate effect of reducing the amount of traffic on the roads, as if everyone had started to keep their heads down, hoping this virus would pass them by.
On Wednesday 18 March, I was talking with a dear friend, and confessed I’d been feeling very strange.
“It’s so silent… it’s as if I can hear it… it’s not just that there’s so little traffic… it’s something more than that. It’s as if I can hear silence…”
And I discovered, she felt the same.
We both felt there wasn’t just less background noise from the lack of traffic, but that even the birds were quiet. As if they’d moved further away. And there was more than this.
“I can hear the silence… as if it’s a presence, a being in its own right. It’s like a psychic, spiritual silence, something we’re not usually aware of.”
It was as if the silence was something we could feel, a weight we could sense. As we attempted to explain what we were feeling, we decided it felt eerie, almost foreboding, as if something else was coming. We talked of it as a psychic silence. That it felt like something beyond this material world, something spiritual. We struggled to find the right word to describe what we were feeling. Perhaps there isn’t one.
Then while talking about this with two other close friends shared that they had noticed strange things involving animals – frogs falling silent, cows clustering together.
It was all starting to feel very unsettling.
Perhaps we had just started to pay attention.
We were noticing the absence of sound.
We were hearing silence.
And perhaps what we were sensing was the sheer enormity and power of the natural world, which our society has managed to separate us from for so long. As if we had suddenly stepped off a structured path and into a forest, and were struck by the changes in sound and smell, of temperature.
I’d felt that I was sensing silence as if it was a weight, something heavy and ominous.
Perhaps the screen of the modern world had lifted, and revealed the ripe, rich, wild world just beyond the doorstep. Not preparing to take over, and not waiting for me to me to cross over, but purely alive and present.
Perhaps what I sensed was the deep, slow heartbeat of the land.
The following Monday, it was announced that Aotearoa/New Zealand would go into lockdown at 11.59pm 25 March for four weeks. I discovered that although nervous, I felt relieved.
And now that we’re a few days in, I’m finding this period of isolation is giving me the opportunity to slow my own rhythms, to synchronize my blood and breathing with the earth.
It was the lack of traffic I was noticing. Fewer cars, hardly any planes.
And the birds?
I hear them. They were always there, in the trees around my house.
It was my listening, my attention that was struggling to adjust to absence.
I have the chance now to fill my ears with every other sound around me.
bird-call, rain, wind
the soft tread of the cat as he crosses the room
the tremor of a leaf
the expectance between heartbeats
the promise of a held breath
the weight of silence
anticipation, abundance, potential
The Black Goat
They say that goats can eat anything…
The other night, I met a goat
black, smooth haired, domestic
and still young.
It was stumbling along the road
scraps of rope tied around its neck and legs
and trailing behind it as it walked.
It told me it had been bound
and had chewed its way free.
It had been bound and at first,
when it was younger,
it thought this was okay.
It thought it was being cared for
and cared about.
But over time,
it realized this wasn’t the case.
It was alone
and the ropes were becoming tighter
as it grew.
It tripped and I reached for it,
lifting its small dark body into my arms.
“I will carry you.
I hope I’m strong enough”.
They say that goats can eat anything.
This goat ate its loneliness and desperation
ate its restraints and limitations
ate its past, chewed its way to freedom.
Another one of my strange dreams, from Wednesday night 18 March 2020.
Its not until some time later, when I’m trying to remember what happened and I start writing, that I begin to make sense of it all.
There’s such a lot of anxiety at the moment, I thought it might be connected to that.
But there’s something else going on. A sense of release, of being in a position to take care of another.
And like a few other dreams I’ve had, I think I am both the “me” in the dream, and the goat.
when you find yourself in front of a painting you don’t understand
look for a shape you recognise
look for a colour you’ve worn
look for a line that could be part of your own name
if you scraped back a layer
what might lie beneath?
can you find the first time you fell in love?
can you find the first time you were afraid?
can you find the first layer of paint laid down when you were still in the womb?
your first word
your first step
your first act of defiance
when you find yourself standing in front of a painting you don’t understand
you are watching your own life unfold
This started out as a much different painting –
an attempt to convey a family separation that happened in my early years.
I wasn’t happy with the painting, it felt too contrived and stiff.
When I decided to paint it out and start again –
suddenly – with those two sweeps of white – it was as if I’d overwritten the past
and shifted into the present.
Strange how things work out …
The poem was written in April 2019 – some sort of foretelling going on there.
This year has brought a great deal of challenges to New Zealand. It’s felt like one crisis after another.
A few of these events are still sitting close the surface of memory… I don’t really want to comment on them, but writing them down does bring home the number of things we’ve had to deal with as a country.
- In February, major bush fires broke out near Nelson, covering over 2000 hectares and resulting in the evacuation of hundreds of people.
- March brought the shootings at two mosques in Christchurch – 51 lives taken and so many families affected. The government responded by bringing in changes to gun laws – semi-automatic weapons banned – and a gun amnesty whereby people could hand in their weapons. Around 56,000 guns handed in/exchanged as part of a buy-back scheme.
- A major measles outbreak continued throughout the year, reaching epidemic proportions, and finally appearing to have peaked in October.
- November saw a man finally found guilty of murdering Grace Millane. A trial marked by the woman’s personal life being dragged through the courts and the defence framing it as “rough sex gone wrong”. It’s about time that stopped being accepted as an excuse.
- In December a storm front moved up from the South Island and brought a massive lightning and thunder storm moved up the country and spent some of its energy over Wellington. Sleep became impossible as huge explosive thunder booms broke in the sky over the house.
- Then a day later, 9 December, the volcano Whakaari (also known as White Island) erupted, with many deaths at the time and some later in hospital as a result of injuries sustained. Two people are still missing. Questions are being asked about whether visits to such places should be allowed.
- During the year electric scooters continued to multiply like a virus across the country with almost no rules governing their use. They can be ridden on footpaths at high speeds (eg: up to 30km/hr) but can’t be ridden on roads because they’re not classified as vehicles. Meanwhile other users of the footpath are expected to cope with people speeding towards and past them, often with very little warning or consideration.
- The housing crisis continued throughout the year – a financial windfall for anyone in a position to sell and pocket the proceeds – but an insurmountable hurdle for others. Prices have risen by a massive amount over the last decade.
And now as the year ends, I’m thinking of the fires in Australia and the loss of life, human, wild animals, domestic animals, and loss of property – it does feel apocalyptic. My heart goes out to all those suffering in the face of this disaster.
And I give thanks for young people like Greta Thunberg bringing their voices to the call for action in order to save our planet.
I’m looking forward to a new year and a new decade, but I am wondering what lies ahead for us all. I think my country needs a break. We could do with a less stressful year.
I’m glad I live in a country where our Prime Minister shows compassion. I’m glad our current government is trying to focus on the welfare of its people. The focus of the government budget this year was on national well-being, with social issues given priority.
On a personal note…
In late April I slipped and fell and thought I had a badly sprained leg. A week later it wasn’t getting better and an x-ray showed – it was actually broken! I should have known. The pain in the moment when I fell was intense and I just sat on the ground gasping for air until I was able to pull myself up and hobble inside. I didn’t think it was broken because I was able to hobble around. I’ve since learned the fibular isn’t a load-bearing bone, which is why I was able to limp about on it for a week or so. What was interesting though was the way the pain connects the mind to the body. And accepting that sometimes all you can do is surrender to it. For someone who spends a lot of time in their head, this was a reminder to not take my body for granted.
At the start of this year I set myself the focus of painting portraits. I worked from photographs, and I feel the results showed that good things can happen when you challenge yourself. I kept going with this focus throughout the year – at the expense of getting a few other things finished – but ended the year so much more confident about my attempts to paint people. Next step – to paint from life – eeek!!!
I had to get my cat shaved down to the skin to remove masses of matted tangles. I’ve only had him a couple of years and in that time I’ve tried to brush him, but he refuses. More than that – if you keep trying to brush him after he gives a warning growl, then he’ll try to take your arm off!! But after being clipped, he instantly became a much more chilled, relaxed moggie – and I realized that so much of his grumpiness must have been due to feeling so uncomfortable. He’s learning that it is okay to be brushed and sometimes I think he actually starts to like it. I’ll need to learn how to use the clippers and keep him trimmed.
This year ends with noise and concrete dust as a plumber digs up the driveway to find a water leak. I could think of better ways to end the year. We’ve had two leaks within a couple of weeks – the first was on my birthday, and it flooded the lower workshop/study area of the house.
Oh yes – and a birthday in December – I turned 60. I can’t believe I’m saying that out loud. I reckon I’m only about 47 on the inside.
And next year – I really need to start writing again. I want to work out how to merge both writing and painting. Its a positive challenge to myself.