Tag Archives: writing

2 Days in Christchurch (part 2)

Hanging in the Square

Working in theatre, television, sound and health I’ve travelled most of my life. Either up and down New Zealand or through bits of the world.

Even when I’m travelling just to see new places I rarely sleep well in hotels. I think it’s the fact I’m always aware of the unfamiliar, waking to check where I am, rather than due to any discomfort.

That said, I’ve slept in lot of noisy, hot or stuffy rooms. Last night was not like that.

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I’m in one of the new hotels that are slowly rising from the rubble of Christchurch. Breakfree on Cashel Street is the fifth different hotel I’ve stayed in post-quake and I think it’s my favourite.

It’s stylish, interesting – fun to be in. My room is a tiny studio but the design makes it seem huge thanks to clever mirrors and a chunky, industrial glass and steel en-suite in the corner of the room. I almost had to pry myself out of it last night to wander the CBD.

I had hoped to catch up with an old friend and drink beer in the air of a warm nor-wester but he had to work on Evita so I took the chance to be in this nice space and write without the pressures of home nagging at me (fix this, sort that, clean the blah blah blah).

That’s the thing about being alone in a town, you can do what you want. It’s one of the great pleasures of solo travel. The biggest drawback is eating. Eating alone can seem a bit empty. That’s why I sat in my room and wrote and wrote, and it wasn’t till 7:30pm that hunger drove me out on to the streets to see what the CBD had to offer.

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Over the past five years there hasn’t been a lot. The temporary food stalls that have popped up tend to close at night (except for the late-night pissed-folk ones that open late). After a stroll through road cones and re-build, and groups of tourists standing outside burger bars, I found a cool wee Japanese place called Hachi Hachi on Hereford Street. It was very appealing. I wanted a ramen but fell for the sushi burger with kumara chips and lychee Mogu Mogu… just because.

It was delicious. The tastes and mix of textures. I slowly savoured it watching a steady stream of locals bringing their kids in for a treat.

I wanted more. Writing and travel always increases my appetite.

But I had to find somewhere different. Resisting the lure of chips at Wendy’s or BurgerFuel next door I decided to head across the Square to New Regent Street where I’ve eaten many times.

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That’s when I discovered what I should have gone straight to. A night food market in the Square. It was wonderful. The food looked great. Exotic and interesting. The people were hanging and happy. I did three circuits of the stalls before I decided on a wrap with 12-hour slow-cooked pork and slaw (the beef cheek was sold out) from a stall run by friendly chaps who called themselves something Horse (sorry, too distracted by the deep-fried Oreos & ice-cream next door to get the name).

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I ate it sitting at the feet of the restored Godley statue (Christchurch’s founder) feeling like I had stepped into some comforting mix of the past and the future. The Square was alive. In use. Not some sad relic full of tourists standing around wondering what to do in a disaster zone. Maybe it was because it was so dark the crumbling carcass of the Cathedral was hidden. You weren’t constantly invited to mourn, unable to move on.

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I grew up hanging in the Square. Waiting for buses. Waiting for friends. Just waiting.

Last night I got to do it once again.

 

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4 Days in Christchurch (part 7)

Postscript

I started writing this blog on the flight to Christchurch. I intended to write fast, as things happened, on a 4 day visit to my home town. It was easy at first, when I had time to wander and play stranger in a strange land. But then I started catching up with friends. Devouring the experience rather than commenting on it.

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Once back onto the treadmill of Wellington I started posting a section each week. But life took over. And there was still more to say. More images to share. Then working through the rush of Christmas, and then two weeks away in a caravan, attempting to relax and unwind the tightened coil of the uncertain purgatory I had returned to.

It’s now 2016. My holiday is over. I am back at work, (hopefully) free of the stress that saw me make unprecedented cock-ups, and receive a call from my manager enquiring about my health/life.

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I have relaxed. But I am still living with the uncertainty that greeted my return from Christchurch.

That week I received the report on my fiction portfolio from Victoria University. It was a strong selection of stories. Better than I have ever written. NZ$2,600 well spent (on fiction and creative non-fiction).

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I was confident they may well get me accepted onto the MA fiction programme (one of the best regarded fiction programmes in the world). It is the third time I have applied. There are only 10 places.

The trip to Chch was as much reward for my hard work as distraction from the impending result. I wanted to do all the things I have mentioned in the previous posts but I also wanted to escape the imminent decision on my future. The day it turned up (report and MA decision) a massive cold sore erupted from my bottom lip; the first since the death of my father 3 years ago.

 

Uncertainty. Stress. Acceptance of loss. Understanding the past. Desire for a new future. All these played into my 4 days in Chch.

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The day before I headed to Chch I received a wonderful package from Scotland. A trove of several hundred slides taken on a world trip by my grandfather Sandy’s sister, Rachel, in 1968. It’s a wonderful trove I am yet to explore. She came out to NZ just after I was born. I grew up hearing stories of the visit. Fortuitously, the slides are meticulously indexed. Often still in order.

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I have used several in the posts but I am yet to find the time to go through them all as slides aren’t that easy to view or transfer. But I will. Amongst the few I have looked at I found a picture of Aunty Rachel with my grandparents, Sandy and Flo’, standing on the banks of the Avon with Aunty Lynette and my cousin Robyn. Treasure from the past.

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I could say much more about Chch. The wonderful art on the streets. The NZ flag flying everywhere at a time when the country is being offered a dubious new flag.

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How happy I felt seeing the statue of Godley (the visionary leader of the settlement) back on his plinth for the first time post-quake. How I sat every day listening to the resolute balladeer outside Ballantynes belting out ballads, rocking back and forth as if on a boat, eyes closed, tin whistle in hand. How amongst the 19th century tales he sang the wonderfully cheesy 1960s/70s song I have only heard once before, about a man in prison who will never see his home again.

Christchurch City is mighty pretty, when the lights are all a-glow

Christchurch City is mighty pretty, where the river Avon flows

I did not get accepted for the MA. But I have been shortlisted. At any moment before March I may be offered a place if someone can’t take it.

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The fate of the decaying carcass of Christchurch Cathedral was to be decided just before Christmas. The Anglican Church wants to pull it down but doesn’t have the guts. Or enough support.

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I’m not sure how I feel about any of this. Conflicted and uncertain. Certainly. Positives and negatives both ways.

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What does the future hold? Uncertainty. Again. And again.

But there will be holidays. And I will write about them.

And I shall keep writing fiction.

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By George

I started blogging two years to find a way back to the joy of writing fiction. The pattern of success and rejection that writers face in their empty room had become too much, especially as life was swelling up around me with such persistence that making up stories seemed a futile dance in front of the inevitable.

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I wanted to exercise my writing muscle, clear my mind; find that joy. I found it crafting pieces I was happy enough to share with whoever cared to read them.

This year I applied for an undergrad workshop in creative non-fiction at Victoria University, using some of my blog posts as examples of my writing. They got me in, and I loved it. So much so that I applied for the short fiction workshop. I’m reading great stories; loving talking about writing with writers.

writingAfter three weeks of exercises it has become even more apparent that non-fiction and fiction are not mutually exclusive. Two of my pieces have been drawn straight from life. One has been made up. My classmates are writing a similar mix.

On Sunday I had a crack at our latest exercise, ‘Negotiating With the Dead’; an exercise reflecting on the hypothesis that writing is motivated by a fear of, and fascination with, mortality. We had to write a 1st-person piece of prose where the dead are given voice via audio technology (a phone, a computer, radio or stereo). Given my run of writing about the subject (“love your writing but less about death, please” said one comment) I wanted to make it purely fictional. And fun.

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That morning I read a wonderful story for class by George Saunders about a hapless old man trying to off himself so he doesn’t end up shitting the bed/being a bother due to Alzheimer’s. It was inspiring in its approach, and humour. It also resonated given my father’s suffering from the disease. I was party to many conversations about ‘exit-strategies’ as we waited for his undignified end.

writI decided to write a help-desk story with the voice of the operator as the only prose. As I wrote it I wasn’t sure if it was people trying to reach the dead, or the dead trying to reach the living, but once I had milked all the gags and Kafkaesque frustrations I could think of it became clear that The Helpless Desk is about a help desk for helpless ghosts.

I was very pleased with it. Even more so to have pulled it completely out of the air.

Elated, as I always am after writing, I went to bed and did something I try not to do; I checked out Facebook. An old friend had died. As I read through the tributes it became evident that it was the type of death that has begun to plague my various peer groups. I was so sad. George was a well-liked person, a true character. A lot of people were hurting across the digital ether.

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I thought back to our many conversations in our youth, when we were student-radio DJs, and live music fans; the memorable night we had to flee a massive house fire just as our private conversation was getting life-definingly interesting. WCBN_main_FM_studio,_University_of_Michigan_student_radio_stationAnd, more recently (around the time I started this blog), when in great despair about whether I would qualify to get my Haglund’s Deformity corrected, he PM-ed me regarding my bleak post-assessment status (stuck in a carpark, crying behind sunglasses… eek! Not like me to be like that, or communicate it without self-deprecating humour). It was a long message that talked about other things, conversations we had had in the past, things he had wanted to say at the time but hadn’t had the maturity or courage… it was incredibly revealing and encouraging. I was stunned and thankful; diverted from my self-absorption. Reassured that support can come from the most unexpected quarters.

Poster0015As I sat in bed on Sunday night feeling like I had failed him, I looked for that message. Was it as long and interesting as I recalled? Yes. A good 1,000+ words or more. And it was two years ago. To the day.

The co-incidence made me smile and grieve. More so having conquered an unsettled weekend wondering how I would give voice to the dead.

I wish I could be at George’s funeral tomorrow, more so at his wake. I want to be amongst my peer group from those formative years. I ache. But it is in Christchurch and I just cannot get away from Wellington. Life holds me tight as it bleeds into fiction.

In the year that surrounded the 4-month gap when my parents died 3-4 years ago, 7 people I know took their own lives. That’s a lot of pain to go around. At the time I tried hard not to look for connecting meanings and patterns, especially as they were all male and around my age. It felt like a curse I wanted shot of. How could I resolve this with having just watched both my parents struggle for life?

memory-loss-mauro-celottiI cannot be there to celebrate George’s great wit and intellect; his sensitivity, humour and life. The bouncy way he walked, the measured way he talked. But I can write this. And I can, when I feel up to it, listen to his voice on the radio shows people are sharing from Soundcloud on Facebook.

I wish he was still around. The world is a poorer place without him.

Songs of September

Motivated by my 6 year-olds recent statement that she… hates spring… because I love winter so much… I’ve had September songs on my mind.

While most of the 4 songs in my pocket come from a hemisphere where that month falls in autumn, signalling the approach of winter, I live in New Zealand where it means warmth and light, daffodils and lambs.

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Waikiki

Waikiki

The September song foremost in my head is Here Comes September by Waikiki. I know it from the Triple J Hottest 100 collection my Australian sister sent me in 2003. Triple_J_Hottest_100_Volume_10They’re a great way to hear vaguely alt popular music that doesn’t necessarily get noticed in New Zealand. It was a great mix that year and I remember only ever needing to skip the odd track. While this wasn’t my initial fav I was soon skipping back to repeatedly sing along. Its hooky jangly pop seemed to exude the hope of September. Never having heard of them I assumed they were Australian (the singer tries to sing ‘American’ at times, as is the fashion/compunction for many vocalists, but broad Aussie vowels give her away).

The song is about an ended relationship, being positive and remembering the good stuff.

Though there were others, you never left me at all

Here comes September, and we both know what that means

Sometimes it’s out of our grasp, not everything is made to last

If that’s the way you wanna remember, then that’s the way you gotta remember

But I won’t cry now, here comes September

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A Fender Jazz Bass, much like the beauty I once played

And although I was seduced by the lack of bitterness in her delivery, I didn’t focus on that when I sang along in 2003, being more captivated by the harmonic vocal hooks, the ringing of the Rickenbacker and the rich low rumble of the Fender bass; instruments I grew up knowing intimately.

Of course, 2003 was a weird time. Across the world we were repeatedly told that the world had changed forever (as if it doesn’t every day). I was actively angry and resistant to the warmongering narrative of fear. Refusing to march to that duplicitous beat, I was living a life infused with hope.

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Paris 2000. The Japanese tourist said she couldn’t fit in the tip of the tower. Just relax tourist, san, and tilt up

In 2000 I had left my job in television to tour around Europe, embracing the roots of my immigrant parents before eventually realising that it was time to embrace my desire to write. So in 2001 I bit the bullet and attended a 6 month fiction writing course in Timaru. It was amazing, I literally felt like I was Harry Potter: that my life had gone from dark containment to light-filled expansion.

Of course, despite my first short story being accepted for publication within a week of sending it off, the world wasn’t waiting to be entertained by me and the pile of rejections I studiously kept (to remind me of my early struggle) got ever bigger. And bigger. And bigger.

So I headed back to Auckland to freelance in a TV industry pumped up with the phoney money of pre-Credit Crunch NZ. I didn’t need to find work, it found me. While I continued to compulsively write and submit fiction, certain in my abilities, I socialised in a heady media scene awash with the social lubricants of the day (booze, pot, P and E).

It was a fun time, but I wanted more out of life. Yes, I craved success as a writer but most of all I had begun to seriously yearn for a committed relationship. And to be a father.

My desire was so strong that on 3 of the 5 following Christmases (’03, ’05, ’07) I found myself ‘expecting’ with a different woman (which may indicate a very casual attitude, but I would say it illustrates a certain commitment).

Yes, I admit, my taste in women has been questioned by friends and family, but that’s only ever after things go pear-shaped (and isn’t everyone wise after the fact?)

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Blending into a tight spot, Paris 2005

In heart and head I’m never-endingly fascinated by women, considering myself more of a woman’s man than a man’s man. I will choose their company (platonic or not) over men any day. It’s been that way since I was a child growing up surrounded by sisters and female cousins, the only boy in girl town.

And who really fully understands the drivers of their own desires? I can’t say I’m attracted to the same thing: it’s usually a certain strength of character, and something indefinable in the eye and mind.

However, given what’s gone on in my life in the 11 years since 2003, I have lost a lot of confidence in my desires, leading to the celibate phase of the last couple of years. At the start of this phase, in a reflective moment, I said to a good friend that I always like strong women, to which he replied… you like bossy women…When I mentioned this to a sister she said… you like bitches!

I thought that was rather harsh. But very funny.

Which leads to another song from my September playlist: Miss September by Bulldogs Allstar Goodtime Band. Bulldoggin'

They were a family favourite on the NZBC TV talent show ‘New Faces’ in 1973. Their bouncy feel and eccentric look featured tea-chest bass, washboard and kazoo and their song about a pinup picture (naughty!) got them into the finals. Yes, they were hugely derivative (Sgt. Pepper’s, anyone?…Pictures of Lily by The Who?), but as a 6 year old I found them far more entertaining than the syrupy/sombre crooners and balladeers, and frowning girls with acoustic guitars the show was lumbered with.

Now the article that came with your picture, says you hail from Illinois

Now I know Illinois-a-noise an oyster, but an oyster will only bring me joy bulldog2

The lyrics were wonderfully silly (how is Illinois an oyster?) while still appealing to popular music’s reliable workhorse of unrequited romantic yearning.

Miss September, Miss September, I know I’m gonna meet you some day

Miss September, Miss September, though you’re 12,000 miles away-hay-hay-hay

The allusions to masturbation (of course) were lost on me.

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Spot the Rickenbacker

Such things were more apparent in my (short) encounter with The Bangles’ cover of Big Star’s September Gurls in 1986. I never liked them as much as the Go-Gos (much more flaccid, musically). Maybe it’s unfair to compare them but both bands were sold directly to pubescent boys (for obvious reasons), and rock/pop is never shy of such subjects. I liked that Susanna Hoffs played a Rickenbacker (John Lennon played one!), and that the bass player sang this song (I was playing bass in a jangly-pop band by this stage).

By the 1990s I was much more familiar with the original version by Alex Chilton/Big Star. While his version has a lot more life to it (his delivery is heavily nuanced, maybe to counterpoint the bland lyrics: the Bangle delivers with dead-eyed ‘80’s coldness), the song is the least favourite of the September songs I know. I just don’t find much meaning in the lyrics. RVM-Big-Star_16x9_620x350(What’s a September Gurl? A Virgo? I dunno). But maybe you don’t have to. Lyrical clarity is an overrated part of music, especially when compared to the open and inclusive reading of poetic imagery.

September gurls do so much…

December boy’s got it bad…

That said, it’s clearly got something going for it in that a female vocalist can sing it without feeling the need to change the respective genders of the lyrics (something that always irritates me, especially when the P.O.V of any song is all over the place).

Which leaves the September song that had the biggest impact on me. Wake Me Up, When September Ends by Green Day. A song that became intimately associated with both my very personal experience of September 2005, and an awful ‘Act of God’ that affected countless lives. green_day_04_original

Catching up with a beloved ex-lover for coffee in 2003 had resulted in the first of the 3 Christmas pregnancies. That one ended on New Year’s Eve. I got the text while dancing with strangers, high on a mix of P and E. Although at the time I saw it as lucky escape, it was an incredibly lonely moment and I eventually came to grieve deeply for the unborn child and the unfulfilled relationship with his/her mother. But back then my heart was set on a come here/go away long term flame, and by 2004 I had moved in with her, happy in a relationship I imagined lasting forever.

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Waiting for my partner to finish work, the first thing I visited in Paris was Diana’s tunnel. People still left tributes 8 years later

Which is why, at the end of August 2005, I flew to Paris to accompany her on a work trip she had left for the week before.

When you fly to Europe from NZ you tend to fly through the night so I arrived in Paris on a hot, sunny autumn morning. As I checked into our hotel, the first English I heard being spoken was two clearly shocked Americans, reading a newspaper at the check-in desk… They’re shooting each other… looting the place… Animals… Once I got up to my partner’s room and turned on the telly (this was before the internet became something you carried in your pocket) I realised who they were and that a hurricane had devastated New Orleans.

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When September Ends by Green Day wasn’t my favourite track on American Idiot, an album I loved thinking it both entertaining and brave (especially in a time when there was little push back in popular culture against the proponents for war), and I played it many times before I headed to Europe in 2005. Sept green Day

The song didn’t fit my particular concept of September, speaking of rain/winter/loss. I was embracing the future, heading for a hot month in Europe with the woman I wanted to spend my life with. And we had decided to make a baby.

I now know the song is about the vocalist losing his father at the age of 7, which explains much of the lyrical imagery.

Ring out the bells again, like we did when spring began

Wake me up, when September ends

It’s testament to the strength of the very personal lyrics that the single, released August 2005, became the unofficial anthem for Hurricane Katrina, which hit as I arrived in Paris.

It has the poetic/fluid nature of good lyrics in that the video for the song ignores Billy Joe Armstrong’s intimate meaning to take on the blustering pomposity of sacrifice and war that many American videos were plastered with at the time. Sept lyric

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A rainy night in Brussels and a very fine, boozy meal

But that song was not in my head as I flitted from Paris to Florence to Lucca to Pisa to Brussels to Maastricht to Amsterdam to London and back to Paris: exploring, being, loving.

And it wasn’t all fun and games. I was also doing some research for a historical novel I was writing about the founding of my hometown of Christchurch, which was set up after the formation of the Canterbury Association in London in 1848.

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Place of the first meeting to found Canterbury. Spot the three lambs in the shield

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Communards at the barricades

Due to the utopian ideals of a group of graduates of Christ Church College, Oxford (yip, Harry Potter’s school) who sent the ‘Canterbury Pilgrims’ to found Christchurch, I was making a study of the Paris Commune of 1871, established when the decadent, corrupt government of Napoleon III let the invading Prussian’s get within a humiliating cooee of Paris (WW1, 40 years later, was a replay of this schmozzle).

At the most famous bookstore in Paris, Shakespeare and Company, Shake I bought a history of that incredible event which, when the city was retaken by government forces, saw the slaughter of more Parisians than the Great Terror of the Revolution and The German Occupation of WWII combined.

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Dead Communards on the cover of the book I bought

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Tomb of Oscar Wilde

I read that book throughout our travels around Europe, finishing it at the end of the trip when we returned to Paris, making a special pilgrimage to the famous Père Lachaise cemetery, pushing past the tourists at Jim Morrison’s grave, stopping to take a photo of my partner kissing the toes of the lip-stick covered Jacob Epstein statue on Oscar Wilde’s grave, making a beeline for the wall at the back of the graveyard where a great many Communards were lined up and shot.

Returning to NZ at the end of the month, and still in travel mode, I flew down to a good friend’s 40th.

Towards the end of that early spring party, standing on the threshold of his back door, my friend, who I had known since my early 20s, tapped the neck of his beer bottle to mine and said… to the barren knights… It took me a second to realise that he wasn’t talking about humorous British pop group, the Barron Knights, Barron-Knights-Best-of-the-Barron-Knightsbut about us having avoided parenthood. He was clearly wistful, having married 5 years before, just before I headed to Europe for the first time.

But that poignancy became ironic when 6 weeks later I was back, escaping an awful argument that erupted after my partner found out she had got pregnant on that last weekend in Paris. She was not happy with the situation (but we planned it?), and in her bitter reasoning she was carrying the spirit of a Communard murdered at that wall. I felt betrayed and used.

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The photo we took at the wall in Pere Lachaise. 134 years later, people still leave flowers for the victims

A lot went on in the next few months; too much for here. Suffice to say that my partner eventually found her peace with the child growing inside her, and we announced it to her gathered family on Christmas Day 2005. Which underlined a greater and more painful irony when, late on Boxing Day, after a hurried and tortured helicopter flight off our island home she delivered a tiny, perfectly formed boy with eyelids closed. Fingernails, clearly forming on the hand resting across his chest.

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Paris, beneath the rewarewa we planted

In a strange way, the experience brought us closer, and we were happy for most of the next year. I listened to Green Day a lot as I worked in the wild, extensive garden, clearing and landscaping the area where we buried the boy we called Paris on New Year’s Eve. I loved the album; it was a journey, more than its constituent parts.

But When September Ends took on a new meaning for me, as did the month. It became a personal anthem of loss and each year I was anxious for the month to pass.

Which gets at the reason I have written this blog.

Because when my daughter said that she hated spring, my first thought wasn’t of Green Day, it was Waikiki.

Two months after I shifted out in Dec 2006, following my erstwhile partner announcing… actually, I do want a baby. But not with you… I met my daughter’s mother. Four months later she was (unexpectedly) pregnant.

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Exiting the apartment in Paris

My friend and his wife, who had provided refuge in that awful time in 2005, did so again (along with his baby boy, born earlier that year) in 2007 when we shifted down to his town just before Christmas.

I ended up buying the house next door and our children grew up as brother and sister. My friends moved far away just before last Christmas but I continue to live next door to that threshold where we toasted the barren knights. I have my daughter every other week as her mother and I are no longer together (having a child with someone is not the best way to establish a relationship).

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The dining hall at Christ Church, Oxford, where the founders of Christchurch (and Harry Potter) went to school.

There’s been a shit-load of loss in my life over the last few years (I have referred to aspects of it in past blogs). Paris, and the woman I was convinced I loved. My vibrant life in the media. My home town, smashed (and the novel I was writing with it). Both parents, straight afterwards. My sister, briefly here, now back to Australia. My other sister and family now following.

It seems like I’m on a beach watching an ever-receding tide, wondering if it will ever flow back.

But it is September, and I am full of hope. My girl is the greatest joy. I try not to cling but she is growing so fast. There is increasing warmth in the air, greater light in the days, the garden is growing and in 2 months it will be a year since the surgery on my ankle so I will be able to start running (gently) once more.

Like songs and seasons, we are filled with memories and meanings both personal and shared: as immutable as the ever-changing seasons, nothing is certain except for change.

I do not seek an encounter with any woman pinned above my bed. I do not hanker for the lost, or yearn for the future (well, not too much).

But I have a confession. There are boxes of baby toys and paraphernalia under the house I am struggling to let go of. It may seem a trifle sad but I would counter they are a guard against the unexpected.

I am no longer a young man, but if I pass these things on to charity do I not invite Murphy’s Law to inject a mischievous twinkle into my eye? To put a song in my heart, a spring in my step, to turn my mind to… ?

Well, it is September.

And we both know what that means…

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To What End

Stupid Death, stupid Death,

Hope it doesn’t find you

I started blogging a year ago to clear my head of recurring themes in my life. I wanted to use it like a journal, making sketches of things that take my fancy, to salve recurring fears, to beat a pathway out of the clusterhump of grief that has surrounded my existence in the last few years and stroll back into the arms of fiction.

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I’m loathe to list it all that has happened, it’s all been referred to in various blogs over the year, and I have always intended to (and managed to) write about other things.

But it’s been a funny 10 days or so and some things can’t be avoided.

On Sunday morning, as I lay in the darkness, scrolling through news sites I saw an article about a woman I briefly met about 8 years ago. She’s a very distinctive ex-pat Brazilian model who has just attained a degree in psychology (something she was doing part-time when I met her at a party of Brazilian ex-pats in Auckland, all those years ago).

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Grace on the job

When I met her, I was working in television, doing a programme on Brazilian food. It’s was a great week and I ate many things I had never tried before. But that is not this story, and she wasn’t on Stuff because she had finished a degree. The point was she was familiar to people, and was dedicating her degree to her husband, who died 2 years ago.

Reading that, many parts of my life converged and I immediately wanted to leap out of bed and start writing it out of my head. I knew I would not be able to rest until I did it. But it was 6am on a cold winter morning and my 6 year-old would soon be clambering in to join me.

So I waited and she joined me within minutes, complaining of a nightmare where giants wanted to eat her. I cuddled, listened, diverted by saying it was just a bad dream and could she remember any good dreams? She smiled and said, yeah, she had one where her princess castle had turned into a rocket ship. With a TV! It was AWESOME!!!

But my self-congratulation at diversion was short-lived as she immediately changed back to her sad tone and said her snuggles had bad dreams, too. Gorilla Lilli had dreamed she/he was a baby and …and…a hyena was trying to eat him/her (Gorilla Lilli is a boy AND a girl). While Bucky (a giraffe/something hybrid) had dreamed of being chased by tigers. I kept quiet, a little shocked, letting the story continue, while she danced the two soft toys on the bed singing the song at the top of this blog.

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Bucky and Gorilla Lilli

Stunned, I said I had to get up to go to the toilet and wrote down the musical refrain.

The thing is, 10 days before that I had one of those dreams that affects your whole day. Someone I didn’t recognize had come to me, claiming to be someone I knew who had died in the Christchurch earthquake. She was so sincere, I didn’t want to contradict her. But, even in the dream, I was unsettled.

That day, I worked in a venue that was, likewise, unsettling. The weekend before an adventurous university student had stepped onto a skylight, falling through onto the hard floor 10m below. While he had not died immediately there was still a pall over the place from the stupid, accidental death. The skylight he went through had not yet been replaced, with only a bit of loose plastic keeping the rain and hail from our heads.

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The skylights

Throughout the day, workmates and members of the public quietly looked up to the flapping plastic and down to the floor at a gaffer tape X.

I so wanted to pull it off.

The next day I was working at a different venue, one where the roof, co-incidentally, had just been fixed to remedy persistent leaks. There is no other connection to the previous day. But something happened, linking the narrative in my head.

I had just put the needle in a donor’s arm and gone to the next donor (it was a busy day and we were short-staffed due to illness). When I turned to look at the donor I had just left I saw he had fainted, eyes rolled back, tongue pushed forward, looking like death. I called for help and as soon as I got to him he stared to fit, arms flapping; body flexing. I threw myself on his arm to prevent the needle from doing damage. As my colleagues put themselves on his other limbs I pulled out the needle, doing everything not to be stabbed (or stab him). He has big and there weren’t enough of us, so his arm became loose, spraying blood all around.

Of course, we exuded calm and control, not wanting to distress the other donors, and he soon came round with a smile. However, it was one of the worst faints I have seen in my 5 years as a phlebotomist, and I was wrecked for the rest of the shift.

The following day was a day off. And despite the continually foul stormy weather, I headed to the pool to aqua-jog away the stress. As I waited for the bus, a good friend called who needed to talk. She/he was distressed, facing an awfully mortal health scare, unable to talk to anyone else. I listened to their distress, knowing there was little I could say. Awaiting results from tests, I was sworn to secrecy.

The next day I crashed hard. Exhausted, tonsils swollen, black rings under my eyes, I was certain I was coming down with one of the myriad of ailments that has taken out all my colleagues over the previous month. But with rest, and the news that my friend’s results were clear (plus a bottle of beautifully medicinal cider each day of the weekend) my body rallied and I was not taken by any lurgy.

Nevertheless, on the Monday night after work I fell asleep as soon as my daughter was in bed, waking to the noise of a strange sit-com featuring Sarah Michelle Geller and Robin Williams. It was set in an ad agency and they were trying to re-brand Australia to some densely comic Australians. It was pretty funny. I hadn’t heard of the show and was surprised to see Robin Williams doing TV.

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The Crazy Ones

The next day, as I aqua-jogged in the pool, rehabbing the ankle and Achilles I had surgery on over summer I thought about the challenging 3 days of the previous week. How each illustrated how close we are to not being here. How my friend’s scare was by far the worst. How 2 years ago, as I watched my parents struggle for life (and the release of death) over a few short months, a mix of 6 old colleagues/friends/acquaintances from various past lives had all chosen suicide. How could such a cluster happen? And why…

Though they seemed randomly connected (all male, all around my age), I know that we are built to inject meaning into seemingly-related events.

The next-to-last was the closest, a former bandmate from my formative years. The day before his funeral a colleague had picked up a guitar pick from the floor of the hall where we were working, saying to me, ‘you’re a musician, you must have a use for this.’ I took it with me to Auckland, and when my (then) 4 year-old daughter insisted on viewing Stephen in his coffin, I gave her the guitar pick to place with him.

Later, at his wake, while my daughter played and ate food, I uncovered the final stanza of this inexplicable group. A friend’s partner had lost her fashion-shoot photographer to suicide in the months before. As he said his name I knew that I would know him. What I didn’t know was that Craig had married the Brazilian model I had met at that party in Auckland. Small world. Strange life.

When I got out of the pool last Tuesday after thinking about that strange year, I checked my phone, succumbing to dumb addiction. That’s when I saw that Robin Williams had died.

I felt sad, yet unsurprised. Not because of the co-incidences. More because I had been thinking of that year of loss of those I had known. How it sat in such a strange cluster. Which thankfully ended. Why? Why?!

When I came back to bed and my daughter on Sunday morning, I asked about the Stupid Death song… had she made it up? No, she said, it’s from Horrible Histories! I was so relieved.

Craig was a wild-card, a crack-up, full of life. Stephen was clever and caring; sharing so much beauty with the world.

There’s a Chinese saying I am fond of, ‘no co-incidence, no story’.

I don’t believe that gaffer tape X was marking where the student fell. It was for something else, surely.

People chose death for different reasons. Everyone who expressed pain and loss (or anger) when the beloved Mork left us looked to different, personal explanations.

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Rocket-ship Castle (TV not included)

When, later on Sunday, my daughter went to stay with her mother for the next 2 weeks, I knew what I had to write. As soon as she went I started bashing it out but it was too bleak, I was exhausted. I didn’t want to show this face to the world, it would serve no good. But why did I feel this need, to what end?

Instead I went to the couch and dozed to the bland noise of silence. I awoke feeling awful. The only thing I could do was write or exercise, and as I still could not face this topic, I marched off to the beach to stretch-out my slowly recovering Achilles.

At the top of the path down to the sand, full of anxiety and impotent distress, I found this new piece of graffito.

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At Bay

I think I laughed.

I had something difficult to write. It’s taken a bit. But some things can’t be avoided.

A Bit of Pottyry

Is it really over two months since my last blog? Really? Truly? Has time devoured my mind and our southern winter huddled my thoughts?
That’s nuts.
Collected and squirreled, not to share.

I have been writing in that time, of a sort, but it’s been back with my first love, fiction. More precisely: speculative fiction*. One set in the distant past amongst pre-lingual humans, the other in the near future in a post-relationship society. My journal writing has been cracking along, too, at a rate not seen since the turn of the century (when I did my first proper writing course).

As it is with a lot of writing, I have little to show for it. Nothing put away to sustain me through the dark days, or to lure a lover to my hoard. What a frigid beast is the desire to scribble.

Last night I received another rejection, for a story of ‘science and the erotic’. Like all rejections, it hurts, but there’s nothing to be gained by not barring up and putting your nuts on the line once more.

I’m doing just that at the moment, taking an online poetry course through the University of Iowa. As you can see from the purple prose and tortured imagery above, I’m no great shakes as a poet, but as a lover of knowledge, and a constant writer of prose, I’m keen to engage in the unknown and learn, fail, learn.

There’s over 7,000 poets around the world doing this free course, so while I feel rather naked posting my exercises/poems online for others to sniff, prod and nibble, I’m able not to attract too many eyes.

That said there’s nothing worse than getting up on stage to dance around and show off your goods to the sound of a deafening silence.

Which is the bind of plucking up the courage to reveal yourself. It hurts when you attempt allure and grace, and fall flat on your face.

It stings just as bad when the tip tucked into your g-string is unearned, unthinking sympathy.

I’ve always written verse. For better or worse (stop it!) Throughout childhood and my teen years, when I played in bands, never has it ceased. It slowed for a time, when I abandoned rhyme (oi! what did I say?)

Ah. Ok, now I’m extracting the Michael (as the saying goes). Time to stop. View the next lecture. Nut out some words (grrr…)

* I have two first loves, but they never meet, so they cannot get jealous of one other. The other love is literary fiction, but please don’t tell, you’ll ruin everything.

 

Second Thoughts

Today is a special day. I feel caught at the edge of something; marooned in the calm swell between past and approaching waves.

Why? Because I am exhausted and lost.

I have just come back from taking my daughter to the airport to fly off to visit family. She will have a great time, but as she had been with her mother for a week, the brief minutes together have mixed with my bone-wary exhaustion leaving me adrift in a cold, grey sea.

I know why my body is wary and trembling, giving rise to some loneliness and despair. It’s most probably because I have been working non-stop day and night in jobs which require levels of physical exertion I am probably not yet fit for (something I hate to admit).

It’s 5 and a half months since the operation to fix the Haglund’s Deformity on my heel and though I try to be patient and not think about it, there hasn’t been a moment when I could honesty say that I feel less pain and exhaustion than before the operation. No, I lie. I have many times marvelled at the improved movement and lack of pain, but each time that has happened I have had to remind myself that I’m on painkillers so have no real idea.

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Do I regret the procedure? No. I won’t allow that thought. Do I hate my jobs? No, they are enjoyable and rewarding on so many levels. Do I yearn for a relationship? No, not yet. I need time to heel on all levels.

With my girl gone to have fun I decided to do something I haven’t done in ages; wander around town, looking in second-hand bookshops. It’s not like I wanted to buy any books (I have so many still in boxes), but I just wanted to be free of my thoughts and look for the author I am presently obsessed with, Penelope Fitzgerald. She’s a wonderful, but unfashionable, writer and her books are never on the shelves. That, of course, could be read as a sign of the strength of her work; people hold on to books they like.

First, I tried Pegasus Books in the Left Bank of Wellington’s Cuba Mall.

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It is where I walked on crutches in January, finding a copy of The Gate of Angels, which I am reading at the moment. It’s a choice wee book and I am reading it as slowly as possible, savouring each word and image. It has the thing I require of every book I read, a great opening line (“How could the wind be so strong, so far inland, that cyclists coming into town in the late afternoon looked more like sailors in peril?”).

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But she was not on the shelf, so I went to look for Nicholson Baker, who was also absent, however I did spot a copy of John Banville’s, The Sea, something I read when it won the Booker in 2005. I loved it at the time and something about it has stayed with me. I checked the opening line (“They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide.”) I wanted it.

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I checked the price, $15, which seemed steep for a second-hand book I had already read. I put it back and kept looking, but returned three times to re-read the opening paragraph. The beauty of the craft was as compelling as Fitzgerald. After turning to glare at the unthinking woman who twice pushed past me while talking to her companion, both times rubbing her backside against mine (if I did it to her, would it not be sexual assault? Never mind, never mind…), I decided that in my fractured state I was being impulsive, so I left the deliciously book-filled shelves and headed for Arty Bees on Manners Street.

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Yet again, no Baker or Fitzgerald. But there was The Sea, in a different (and cheaper) edition. I read the first page again.

I so wanted it. Not just because it sparked my mind, making me want to write, but because I was intent on buying myself something to mark the day; the last day before I became a year older.

As I walked back towards Pegasus Books, reminiscing about how hard it was to cover this distance 3 months ago when I was still on crutches (noting that for all my moments of despair, I was making progress), I spotted a second-hand book shop I had never seen before; The Ferret Bookshop.

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It’s much smaller than the other two but amongst the fiction I found The Sea, in the same edition I read back when I lived overlooking the sea, on a city island north of my present home. While it wasn’t in as good a nick, it was only $10. Score!

As I went to buy it and head home to rest I noticed another book I had read at the same place by the sea, 10 years ago; Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin. Like Banville’s novel, this biography had slipped inside me in unexpected ways; partly because of the subject but also, as I have come to realise, because Tomalin is a great biographer who I adore (Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley, Mansfield, Austen… not to mention a biography of Dickens’ secret lover, now the film The Invisible Woman).

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Pepys is like no other writer. Yes, he was writing (secretly) close to great people and events, but it is his startling emotional honesty that compels interest and keeps him relevant. A man of his times, he wrote in code fearing discovery, joyfully recording his sexual ‘conquests’ which we now read as sexual assaults.

And through this, he wrote and lived with the greatest of pain, enduring a horrific and dangerous operation to remove crippling bladder stones. I think of this often, especially when my relatively minor pain chips away at my resolve.

Through the Great Fire and plagues, Restoration surgery, and the distractions of the court of Charles II, he was compelled to examine himself in a way which is stunningly modern.

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Um, I’ve changed my mind

At $15 I had to have this book, too.

As I have mentioned many times, I am awash in the competing currents of fiction and creative non-fiction, pulled one way, then the other, unsure where I am heading, certain they are part of the same body.

Some writers write for money, and the physical sustenance it gives. But most, I believe, write because it is like breathing, and they don’t want to drown.

$25 has purchased me the greatest of birthday presents, and I couldn’t be happier.

I am no clearer which way I am heading, if I’m caught in a rip or heading for paradise. But sometimes, being at sea is the only place to be.

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