Tuesday, April 27, 2010


In my most recent journal entry, I talked about happiness, which obviously suggests unhappiness. But that is not the right category when someone has just lost a beloved child. That category is desolation/anguish/misery as opposed to joy/elation/euphoria.

Desolation/anguish/misery all relate to loss and therefore grief. In the months after Paul’s death I found that on those occasions when I honoured the grief – thinking, feeling, remembering – I felt close to Paul. But on those other occasions when I allowed myself to be distracted by busyness, Paul was fading away from me like the shade of Eurydice. Despite the pain of the grieving I needed to persevere if I wanted to feel close to him. As a result of the thinking, feeling, remembering, I talked a great deal about him. At first my friends looked taken aback, not to say embarrassed, but they got used to it over time. I had lost Paul’s future. I didn’t want to have also lost his past. This has meant that friends and carers can speak of him as a real person in the same way that I can speak about their loved ones even though I haven’t met them.

There is a strange element in grief. Just as tears and laughter may be close together, so grief and joy may also be connected. Once, in tears I was walking in the rain through bush at Lake Brunner. I had no need to wipe the tears as the rain was adding to them copiously. I stopped for a moment, looked up at a punga (tree fern) against the sky and suddenly I was flooded with joy. It was like a see saw; the misery had completely gone. I believe this experience of a total reversal of mood is called metanoia.

Grief has a strange poignancy; it heightens contrasts, black becomes blacker and white becomes whiter. Both grief and joy may serve the same purpose: they enlarge the ego, pushing it beyond its limited boundaries. It’s easy to see how joy can achieve this, but harder to understand the paradox that grief can also function this way. Somehow grief that has been honoured, relativises us. We are bought face to face with our microscopic insignificance as part of a crowded world in a vast, ancient universe. Paradoxically this may act as an enlargement.

I am forced to resort to the language of mysticism:
to be full, we must first have been empty:
to be free, we must first have been imprisoned:
to be chaste, we must first have been ravished:
to be light, we must first have been dark.

Obviously words are inadequate purveyors of such truth so I will resort to those of a great poet, T.S. Eliot:
“a condition of complete simplicity,
costing no less than everything.”

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Where does it come from,
this yearning we all have,
for halcyon days,
this dogged denial
that life is an ocean where,
at any moment, unplanned
and unprepared for, a wave
may dash us gasping
on the shore?
Rather than outrage
at our being singled out,
undeserving, we need
to feel grateful for the mercy
of calm weather.

The son of friends’ has just died and remembering how I felt beached with grief after Paul’s death, my heart has gone out to them. But then I thought about the surviving families of the earthquake victims from Tibetan China, Haiti and Chile and I wondered whether we in the West have not acquired a wrong expectation that our life is supposed to be happy. Maybe when people are struggling for survival, all they can do is hope for happiness: they have no expectation, but can merely bless the days of happiness that come their way.

Friday, April 16, 2010


This morning I spent two exotic hours in my garden. The word ‘exotic’ to me means rare, unusual, and brings with it all the hot spicy atmosphere of the Orient. I come from the bottom of the southern hemisphere; maybe New Zealand appears exotic for people in the Middle East.

I have always had trouble with ‘exotic’ when it means ‘coming from another country’ but when I looked it up in the Oxford Dictionary, the first meaning offered was ‘introduced’ and the second was ‘rare and unusual’. So what I had thought was a colonial obeisance to political correctness turns out to be good English usage.

Therefore, the familiar birds of my childhood – blackbird, starling, thrush, sparrow – are all exotic. Geraniums red, delphiniums blue, chrysanthemums yellow and white, and ‘a rose by any other name’ are all exotic. Fruit trees, oak “planted in defiance/of evergreen bush and a bell bird’s song” silver birch, poplar, elm, plane, willow and the nearly 60 year old walnut tree in my garden are all exotic.

Apparently, exotic means introduced by human agency, as the welcome sparrow, which has flown quite easily across the Tasman, is regarded as a native, as is the wax eye which appeared in the 1850’s and is called ‘stranger’ by the Maori. But the wax eye is a very small bird with a swooping tree to tree flight and it is difficult to imagine it could have flown such a distance. If it had hitch-hiked on a sailing ship for a journey of several weeks it still would have required apple, sweetened bread, dripping, alias lard or suet, or aphids. There would have needed to be enough birds to create a viable colony, so I have always suspected some anonymous human to have bought the wax eye across the Tasman.

The word 'exotic' when applied to these introduced brids and trees always sounds pejorative, but how long do you have to live in a country before you belong?

Now before I tell you about my exotic hours in the garden, I need to fill you in about Christchurch weather. Christchurch is built on a swamp which means that I am probably a cathedral depth below sea level, as sea level is the top of the Anglican cathedral spire: It is bordered by the Pacific Ocean, nestles against a great volcanic bump called Banks Peninsula (named after the naturalist on Captain Cook’s ship) and some 50 miles away from the foothills of the Southern Alps of which the highest mountain, Mt. Cook, is a little higher than two fifths of Mt. Everest. The Alps may be much lower, but they are still rugged and avalanche prone. All these conditions make Christchurch weather inconstant and changeable.

On the day in question we had just recovered from a week when the temperature had plummeted from 26° to 16° to 14° to 12° and when it was at the lower temperatures it was grey and blusterous. On the exotic morning it was mostly clear with scudding clouds; I found it a great relief to be outside and to listen to the ground swell of ‘exotic’ birds – sparrow, hedge sparrow, finch, blackbird – all the birds, also, were glad at the relief from cabin fever.

Then I had the first of my three ‘exotic’ visitors; they are native to New Zealand, occasional visitors in the autumn and always a delight.

First it was a bellbird right in my garden; it did not just give one or two peals but a complete chime of bells, a sequence of five ringing notes. The bellbird rang on and off for about ten minutes and was followed by a fantail, the most regular autumn visitor, almost regular enough not to be exotic. Fantails are insect eaters and immensely coquettish. They seem both fearless and friendly but actually I constitute an insect magnet having either disturbed or attracted the insect around me. They chatter excitedly between each mouthful. So even if I can not see them pirouette, I know a fantail is there.

The last of my exotic visitors was a grey warbler, a little grey bird, sparrow shaped but much smaller, with a trill of piercing sweetness. The volcanic bump, Banks Peninsula, must have originally been an island because it has different flora and fauna. I am most familiar with the Banks Peninsula grey warbler with its three descending semi tone trills. But the one on my special morning was either a visitor from some where else in New Zealand, a mutant or a young one rehearsing its song. It sang and sang.

Once I was fortunate enough to watch a grey warbler sing. It's whole body vibrated with the intensity of the song and I knew without a shadow of doubt that the whole world, at that moment, depended for it's existence of that song, you, me, and the rest of the teeming billions. From then on I can never hear a grey warbler without grateful acknowledgement the world is underpinned by some such moments, a bird's song, spider web, or act of generousity.

So who's going to tell me that I did not have exotic visitors on that bright clear morning.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Pathetic Fallacy

Today, if nature had been truly
sympathetic, there would have been
a driven storm and blinding rain.
Instead, there was blue sky, not much wind
and a tinnitus of crickets.
I was consumed by self-pity,
a great perverter of reality,
an egocentric wallowing,
no room for beauty.

Fortunately I stayed outside,
and little by little, the integrity of trees
erased the word self. “Oh the pity of it!”
allows compassion, welcomes beauty.
The trees had done it again,
I was healed.


I am living dangerously,
pursued by a runaway poem
which tells glaring lies.
Sure, I berated the pathetic
fallacy for being pathetic
but tree-centric as my garden is,
in the end it wasn’t the trees
themselves that made me feel better,
it was my writing a poem
about the trees making me feel better
that made me feel better.

The poem was sophisticated,
quotes Shakespeare, knows the difference
between coherence and correspondence,
is well versed in Romantic twaddle
about man and nature, but unwilling
to go out on a limb
about woman and nature.

This is a sorry case of an unreliable
narrator, but please remember
it is the poem who is the narrator.
You are faced with a choice:
which poem to beleive.