Sunday, May 31, 2009

Tune in

if you haven't already, to these splendidly independent voices... 

Penelope at The Intertidal Zone

& cc'd at Carbon Copied

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Toward an impure poetry

'It is well, at certain hours of the day and night, to look closely at the world of objects at rest. Wheels that have crossed long, dusty distances with their mineral and vegetable burdens, sacks from the coalbins, barrels and baskets, handles and hafts for the carpenter’s tool chest. From them flow the contacts of man with the earth, like a text for all harassed lyricists. The used surfaces of things, the wear that the hands give to things, the air, tragic at times, pathetic at others, of such things – all lend a curious attractiveness to the reality of the world that should not be under-prized. . . 

. . . Let that be the poetry we search for: worn with the hand’s obligations, as by acids, steeped in sweat and in smoke, smelling of lilies and urine, spattered diversely by the trades that we live by, inside the law or beyond it. . . '  


Balancing act

I need to get something off my chest and while I'm not sure where today's writing is going to lead me, here goes...

Oil & paint stick on paper - CB 2009

In a nutshell, I'm in an uncomfortable situation in which the lines around a skills-for-skills exchange have become trickily blurred. Perception and reality can, it seems, be relative and inconstant things; our understanding and standpoint on matters can be as different as we are individual. Also - this goes without saying - conversations 'remembered' and 'perceived' can be as confusing and committing as any written document. 

Communication - like every creative gesture - is an act of faith?


I've talked before about how dearly I'd like to live life based on a practice of exchange. The old adage is that there is plenty to go around for all on this lopsided planet of ours, and that the problem is not so much that there's a lack of resources, so much as that the distribution of these resources is completely out of kilter.

The thing is, living by exchange seems to be fraught with complications. Why is that when the potential exists for it to be beneficial to all involved? Have we moved so far from our roots in this matter? When an exchange works well, it's a rich and splendid thing; when it doesn't, it can lead to complex and unhappy misunderstandings. I realize that this is no more than our human nature expressing itself, but what essential ingredients could be grown then drawn upon in order to determine a more reliably positive outcome? These arrangements start out so full of promise. 

Is it just me or are there others of you out there who sometimes feel disheartened by the way so much of what we come into contact with during our day-to-day living has some or other monetary value or expectation attached to it? Sometimes, it seems that the more one wants to resist this, the more insistently money pushes its runny nose up against the window. It's not pretty.

There's plenty one can do without money - tramping, propogating plants, digging in the garden, being out on our glorious beaches, in the forests, amongst the sky and mountains, etc... Visions, ideas, dreams and companionship are mercifully, freely available to all. Wealth that matters has no real material component, anyhow; I just don't like the way our world focuses in so much on material things. I guess what I'm saying here has more the tone of a lament. 

I keep coming back to the same question. What would it be like to live instead with a different kind of currency in place - not dollars, but a balance of gifts for gifts, and of skills for skills; a detached (as in, non-ego prompted, non-ownership based) pooling together of ideas, materials, counsel, values, practical assistance & relational support, etc, etc... skimming the much we have from the much we have and passing it around? 

It seems to me that as a human race, we've become crazily hard-wired into wanting to own things, possess things and measure things according to their investment potential (what is that, anyway - investment potential?); that we ascribe excessive financial relevance to things, when in the end, none of this stuff is inherently meaningful, let alone conducive to healthy relationship or a sense of nurturing community. How often is this the thing that stresses and divides couples, families, work colleagues, communities, nations?   

I'm feeling frankly fed-up with all this - and infuriatingly, rebelliously caught up in it. I'm also mad at myself for the ways in which I, too, participate in these dynamics and - no matter whether consciously or unconsciously - uphold them. It's so clearly a system that doesn't work and while I'm not sure what the answer is, I do think these are concerns worth reflecting on.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Weights & balances

My sons, reunited this morning in faraway Cairo, must have talked the hind legs off a dozen camels by now! I wobbled my way a little wonkily through Friday, which was fine - possibly even helpful - as it meant seeing Daniel onto his plane in the early hours of yesterday morning could be the strong, clear-eyed send-off we all wanted it to be. And what a joy it is now, to think of the two brothers on the same patch of soil again, exchanging five months'-worth of stories and a fresh appetite for adventure.

Today is Sunday in NZ, but it's Saturday still in most places West of here. I've had to set my computer 'dashboard' up with seven different clocks so that I can work out with a glance whether family in the UK are up yet for breakfast; whether friends, offspring and sibs in the US, South Africa, Europe (i.e here, there and everywhere) are at work, at play, awake, asleep, etc... 

I was saying to my friend Jackie the other day that I'd much prefer to live by 'spirit level and plumb bob' than be governed by clocks and calendars. (She has a fondness for the former that matches my own.) The thing is - given the hugely regimented world we live in - this way of being would probably only be tolerable to a rare few beyond the immediate orbit of home?

Plumb bobs

Over the past couple of months, I've alluded every so often to the fact that spirit levels and plumb bobs have become the foundation pieces for my current work; I keep saying I'll post more about them and the various explorations that are taking shape in my studio. Today, by way of an introduction, here are two photographs showing the objects I've long been entranced by and that I can't imagine ever coming close to de-mystifying or 'reaching the bottom of'. It seems to me that there's nothing that will not be able to find expression via these two marvelously-related, yet distinctly different 'objects of balance and measure.' 

They hold it all, are at once heavy and light with possibilities. . .  

Circular spirit vial 

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Brass taps & soft crocs

When our youngest son was a small boy, he was drawn towards anything and everything do to with Egpyt. His obsession extended beyond Tutenkamen, the pyramids and the Sphynx, to scarabs, oxides, papyrus and hieroglyphics; amulets, astronomy, urns; farming equipment, irrigation systems, and the designs for boats destined to transport royal souls (still in their physical bodies, with accompanying entourage of servants, cats, birds... imagine that?) to the afterlife. At night, he would curl up in bed with an impressive collection of brass taps and garden sprinklers and his metre-long crocodile. (Each of our three children shared cots then beds with a soft croc., stitched together from fragments of off-beat fabric salvaged from their grandparents' childhood bedroom curtains and a pair of my old African-print Art School dungarees.)

One morning, when three years old, this little man climbed into bed, took my face between his chunky wee hands and said to me, 'Mummy, when you die, they are going to put you in a box. Do not worry. I will build you a shrine like Tutankamen's and I will put turquoises where your eyes are... '

Our older son and daughter held a similar fascination for Egypt, although not perhaps with quite the same single-mindedness. She was into lions, painting, writing, dressing up and unicorns. He was a tree-climbing, bike-riding little fireball, seldom in repose and almost always with a raw and scabby big toe. No sooner would it heal than he'd bump it on something and open it up again. Looking back at those early childhood photographs, that stubbed toe was a permanent feature for three or four years! He played hard and non-stop and when he climbed into his bed at night, he'd conk out in a curve - collection of precious stones under his pillow - and not stir again till morning. Sometimes, the boys and their sister would fall asleep mid-play in a bedroom fort they'd built and filled with lego creations, origami frogs and herds of stuffed animals.

On Thursday afternoons in Cape Town, the three of them would wait at the top of our driveway for Mr Sahlie, the Muslim fruit-seller and his cart horse to come down our street. 

'... they know he will come. He'll spoil them
with a fistful of pomegranate, a slice of ice
green melon. Upside down, they wait
dangling limbs and rinds of chatter 
from the purple crown of the jacaranda 
tree. They swing from a sandpit sky
scuffed toes bare, swishing through a thick mirage 
of air. Up at the gate, in the post-box shade
beach buckets brim with the horse's drink.

Ramadhan. And today is the boy's 
sixth birthday... '

Where do the years go to? This is the common call, I know, but still - where do the years go to?


I'm reminiscing tonight because in three days' time, there'll be another set of parents in Dunedin orienting to the fact that their three adult offspring are no longer in town. They won't be in the house, next door or flatting down the road; they'll no longer be here to bump into on the city sidewalks or to meet up with for coffee. It could be a while before I get to bake them apple crumble, play scrabble with them, walk the beaches and ask them over to help me stack firewood. They won't be immediately on hand to enthuse about books, movies and music. And - for a time - there'll be no nineteen, twenty-one or twenty-three year old popping in for a meal and a talk. Who else will share an Emerson's Weissbier with me, drinking from the same bottle, knowing I can't hold much more than half? I have the fondest memories of sitting out on the front steps at nightfall chatting away and - confession - passive-smoking a roll-up with these three. (I don't smoke and wish they didn't, but we all know about 'phases' don't we, and we did have hysterics one night when they tried to teach me how to 'roll my own.' I was seriously useless.)

Anyway, the reason I've mentioned Egypt, Mr Sahlie, crocodiles, garden sprinklers and stones of the past is because of their surprising connection to the present. Life does that, don't you find? As does time. Both roll forward then back on themselves, get to work on blue-prints, patterns and purpose right from the word go - and there's something insistent and circular about it all... 

Our daughter is living in Wellington now and this coming Sunday, our two sons (the younger one has been at Uni in Budapest since January) will meet up with two friends in Egypt before embarking on a thoughtful - and no doubt challenging - trek through the Middle East; N. Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Turkey. They've been working for many months to make this happen... My mother's heart twangs and pangs, flinches, has moments of awe, anxiety, apprehension and admiration - the full range of feelings. It also trusts that each one of us has his or her individual journey and it's imperative we honour the experiences we feel called to participate in. Of course they must do this. 

In response to my comment 'Angels go with them, make them wise, keep them safe,' friend Penelope wrote, '... mm, that's a biggie, seeing another son off, and why not to Norfolk Island or Warrington? But, like the dragons we need, they need to go where their hearts tug them. Ouch, but they have angels, yes, and wisdom, as present there as here. '

So, yes, an opportunity's just up ahead to trust again the reality of presence in absence. When it comes to those you love, there's never any real distance to speak of.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Walk to Beautiful

The Human Rights Film Festival opens in Dunedin on 28 May and runs till 5 June. I picked up a programme in town this weekend and was reminded of a piece I've been wanting to post for some time. The attached story was written by my friend Pauline Durning in response to the film A Walk to Beautiful  that was first shown in NZ during last year's HR Festival. In the intervening twelve months, groups of women (and a handful of men) in and around Dunedin have been getting together to knit brightly-coloured blankets for the women whose story Pauline tells here...


"Millions of women in Ethiopia suffer from fistulas.  Unheard of in western countries this is a “curse” of poor women living in isolated, extremely poor communities with no access to obstetric care.  Women, often young and of small build find they cannot deliver their unborn child.  As a result of long, fruitless labours they often lose their children during the childbirth process.  Once their baby has been removed, these women end up with incontinence resulting from fistulas (tears/holes) that are created in the birth canal.  Their condition is regarded as a curse, and they are ostracised from their families and communities.  Some resort to suicide to free themselves from the suffering and humiliation. 

A New Zealand man and his Australian wife - Drs Reginald & Catherine Hamlin - set up the Hamlin Trust and The Fistula Foundation and built hospitals for these women to receive treatment.  The movie A walk to Beautiful follows 5 young Ethiopian women who make their way from remote villages to the Hamlin Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa in search of a cure.  One woman took 6 years to get enough money to get the bus and had to walk for days in order to catch it.  The treatment is free.  Women arrive bewildered and frightened.  They receive education and care. In 93% of cases they can be cured.

And the knitting?  Where does it fit in? Well… Before the women head on their long journey back home after their treatment, they are given new clothing and warm knitted shawls/blankets from the hospital as a symbol of new beginnings.  A relative of the now 84 year old Dr. Catherine Hamlin (who set up the trust in 1959 and is still doing fistula operations in Addis Ababa Hospital)  talked to us after the film.  “Donations and bequests are needed, of course, but knitting blankets for these young women would be every bit as wonderful,” she said.

Friends in my singing group and many in the Education Review Office have been knitting. We knit during tea breaks, lunch times, at home, watching the news, at meetings and conferences, while singing or chatting together.  The vision is  to “just do it!”  Knit knit knit… as a meditation or a prayer... as a way of contributing and doing something.  We can see a time when a load of colourful warm cloaks will grace the shoulders of these young mothers about to leave the hospital.  It is a comfort to think maybe the blankets express in some small way compassion and empathy,  and will warm these women heading out to begin the long walk home, hopefully feeling cherished and with new hope.

We invite you to knit. Knit a row... knit a few rows and pass the knitting energy on. Contribute in any way you can to this vision.  Any size or shape will be combined with others' efforts and stitched into blankets.  We are mostly using 6.5 needles, 8 ply pure wool but will happily take anything contributed and create a blanket around it.'


Winter is the perfect time to knit - and, if you don't yet know how to, then now is the perfect time to learn. (This invitation goes out to all you men out there, too.) Please contact Pauline at if you're keen to add your knitting to Dunedin's steadily growing pile.  

Photo acknowledgements:  and Wubete at The Fledgling Fund. 

Friday, May 15, 2009

Friday's flavours - flamboyance, fecundity, fullness

And my right hand 
drawing without thinking 
wanting nothing more than to communicate 
today the richness 
of round, red notes. 

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Meet Miriam

Last night, a large group of Dunedinites gathered in the Public Library's Dunningham Suite to celebrate the launch of The Madonna in the Suitcase by  Huberta Hellendoorn. 

Written as a direct address to her adult daughter Miriam, this true-life story has all the characteristics of glass; fragility, transparency and considerable tensile strength. 

Miriam, first-born daughter to Huberta and Bart Hellendoorn and sister to Raymond and Foster, enters this world with an extra chromosome. A unique and deeply-loved child, Miriam grows up with a sense of her gifts rather than any conventionally-perceived limitations. She grows into a young woman with a fascination for language and a quirky turn of phrase. She also demonstrates a very real talent for drawing and painting. Miriam is an artist, who just happens to have Down Syndrome; Huberta is her mother, companion, advocate and guide. In the telling of this story, Huberta acknowledges the many ways in which Miriam has also been for her an inspiration, mirror and life coach. 

Light travels through this triumphant book in ways clear, mysterious and unencumbered; as is true for glass, it has nothing to hide, is innately beautiful and reflects back to us just how capacious and selfless love can be. 

Paddy Richardson (author of If We Were LebaneseThe Company of a Daughter and A Year to Know a Woman) launched 'The Madonna' last night. A fellow-writer and close friend of Huberta's, Paddy spoke of the metaphor of the suitcase... 'For me the suitcase suggests a metaphor for family. At first new and spotless, shining with possibility and promise of adventures to come and then, as the years pass, growing a little shabby with marks of wear and tear, perhaps the odd dent and scrape.  But always enclosing, sheltering and imbued with memory; the home we return to either physically or in our hearts. And then inside, the mystery, the treasure of Madonna and child, that image which resonates through myth and history, celebrated by artists, symbolic of hope, promise and the purest of loves, of Blake’s concept of innocence and experience.  Aphrodite and Eros, Demeter and Persephone, Mary and Jesus.

In Miriam’s painting the child’s dark eyes gaze steadily out at the world. The viewer  senses that the source of the confidence which eminates from this child is the mother who holds him in her arms; his trust in her firm grasp, his conviction of her love for him, his certainty that she will keep him safe. The mother also gazes directly out. Her eyes are filled with pride yet there is also an expression of sorrow, of a ‘knowing’, since she, unlike the child, has an adult understanding of what is inevitable, that eventually this child must go out into a world in which he will be confronted not only with challenges and delights but also difficulties and sadnesses and she will  be unable to protect him. Yet she understands also the power of guidance and of example which will remain always with him and the security and self assurance that love may bring.'

Huberta's writing is musical, unfaltering, gentle in both tone and measure. And Miriam's images demonstrate an uncommon directness and absence of hesitation. Her sense of colour is unique and exuberant. It's as though she has nothing to fear; as though balance and harmony are already there, asking only to be recognized and celebrated.
Still life - Miriam Hellendoorn 1998

Iona McNaughton has written an excellent article on The Madonna in the Suitcase on the Arts Access website. You can order copies of the book directly from Huberta at

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Monday, May 04, 2009

An hour and a half of sky

Naseby - Ranfurly - Kokonga - Hyde - Middlemarch - Macrae's Flat - Clarke's Junction - Outram - Three Mile Hill - Home.


An hour and a half is a little less than it takes to drive from Naseby (where I've been doing a bit of maintenance on the Mud House) to Dunedin. The same stretch of time is about what you need for a yoga class or to walk the beach from St. Clair Esplanade to the St.Kilda rocks and back; it's as long as it takes for skin to form on oil paint, yeast bread to rise or a slow-cooking casserole to reach perfection. In an hour and a half, a person can watch an average-length movie, stack a couple of cubic metres of firewood, attend a symphony concert (Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ is being performed in the Glenroy Auditorium tomorrow evening), check the oil and change the car tyre (nope, I'm not as zippy at this as some of you might be!)... When you think about it, an hour and a half has just the right number of minutes for all sorts of things - and nothings. 

When I arrived home this evening, I sat quietly in the dark on the steps overlooking the harbour and lit a candle for the Lookout Soldier who keeps watch from his distant peninsula hill. 

An hour and a half can seem like no time at all, and too, an eternity. 

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Nothing but

A candle is made to become entirely flame.
In that annihilating moment
it has no shadow.

It is nothing but a tongue of light
describing a refuge.

Look at this
just-finishing candle stub
as someone who is finally safe
from virtue and vice,

the pride and the shame
we claim from those.