Thursday, December 31, 2015

Starting Again After Being Alone With The Dead

Twenty seven years ago, it was raining on New Year's Eve. Pouring, in fact. My sister decided to head home to Auckland. Nine months before, my father had died after a protracted illness, 'living' eight months longer than the no-more-than six months the doctor had allotted him. So we weren't expecting my mother to give up just eleven days after diagnosis.

I was sitting with her when she died. I continued to sit with her for another twenty minutes before telling anyone, because I did not know if her doctor was on duty or not: he had told us that my mother's request not to be resuscitated went against his christian convictions, so if he was around, he would attempt resuscitation.

I sat alone for twenty minutes, angry at the need to do so.
I sat alone with her, relieved that she was out of her pain and misery.
I sat alone with her, relieved that she could no longer criticise every detail of my existence.
I sat alone with her, sad that I was never able to talk to her about all the resentments, the hurts, the pain she inflicted on me.
And because of that, I was unable to appreciate, let alone express gratitude for all she did that was good.

After twenty seven years, I recently realised that I am recalling more good things than bad about my mother. I have gotten rid of many of the criticisms that stayed embedded in my brain after she died. So many you're-not-good-enoughs. So many you're-toos. Some remain, but I can, albeit with a tinge of sadness, live without those things I can't do because of the internal dialogue. I'm 64 - time to move on, leave those voices behind.

I remember the clothes she made for me, along with dolls' clothes to match from the scraps.

I remember the birthday cakes, always my favourite orange cake, even though oranges were expensive at that time of the year.

I remember her saving me from relatives trying to force me to eat.

I remember how she instantly got in her car and drove from Hamilton to New Plymouth to get me, after I rang her saying I wanted to kill myself.

I remember her wonderful letters, every week, when I was at boarding school, and when I was in Europe for a year and a half.

I remember the patchwork bedspread she made for Mac and I while we were in Europe.

I remember when I rang her in a panic to tell her I was going to have a baby and I had nothing prepared and I was 30 weeks pregnant. (I had had three miscarriages, and had denied the possibility of giving birth to a live baby.) She told me to make a cup of tea, she'd be right over. She arrived with boxes full of lovingly stitched cloth nappies, beautiful home sewn and knitted clothes, and piles of baby soap, baby powder, muslin wraps and cloths, the bassinet we had slept in as babies, along with newly embroidered bedding.

I remember her teaching me to sew, and helping me with my garden.

I remember her joy in her grandchildren.

I remember the bad and try not to repeat it. I remember the good and am happy to have had that.

I only wish.... no, the past is gone, I'm done with sitting alone with the dead. I am who I am now. That has to be my starting point every day for the rest of my life.


Saturday, November 28, 2015

More Than Free Range, More Than a Chicken Run

Although I call my chooks 'free range', I have had people call me out on that because they are, in fact, enclosed (most of the time, but they do break out sometimes.)

According to the Egg Producers Federation of New Zealand,
The key difference with free-range egg farming is the hens’ access to the outdoors.
The shelter provided may be fixed or portable, such as a shed, aviary, perchery or ark. In larger farms, flocks are housed in sheds fitted, which include nest boxes and perches, and birds are able to access the outdoors through pop-holes in the shed walls.
But my chooks live in a very different environment from commercial free range chickens. The following is just one picture of many that I found when I Googled 'free range chickens'.
It's certainly better than the conditions of the barn raised, or battery hens. And I'm not specifically criticizing Sunset Free Range Poultry, whose photo it is. But chickens were originally jungle fowl and that's why my chicken run is developing into a jungle. They do escape the run every so often, but rarely stray far and can easily be tempted back in with a little wheat or bread, as I discovered after a few years chasing them.

Our chicken run contains space and food for them, but also includes food for us.
So although you might not be able to see them clearly, against the back drop of bush, there is a grape vine on the fence, two avocado trees that grew up from food scraps, pear tree and apple trees. 
The nasturtiums are taking a break from being scratched up - I have a moveable fence as well as the main enclosure.
 Harekeke reaching over the the chook house roof.
 The ladies are slightly disappointed that I didn't bring down a second breakfast of scraps.
 But there's always something in among the harekeke roots.
 There's a fig tree there in the middle.
 An area of grass which has been seriously 'lumped' by constant scratching. The bunting is to scare away the harrier which was stealing the eggs - some of the chooks refuse to use the nesting boxes, preferring their homemade nest.
 Out in the movable fenced area there's tagasaste, and loquat and sugar cane....
 ....another pear tree and another fig...............
 And scented geranium under the two nashi trees.

They seem to like their home, and it's one of my favourite places, both beautiful and productive.


Thursday, November 26, 2015

But What Do You Do All Day?

In winter, when everything seems pretty grey most of the time, even when I'm not depressed, it feels like there is nothing to do, little to write about, nothing to write about, my life is boring and pretty bleak.

Then along comes spring with it's vibrancy and almost obscene lush growth, and I feel alive again. There's so much to do in the garden, in the orchard, in the apiary, and elsewhere around the land. In addition, I am working a couple of days a week. So now I am too busy to write, but even when I take the time to write I realise my busyness is unlikely to interest anyone but me.
Two days a week, for a couple of months in spring, I work for a local nurseryman, potting up native trees. I work in a beautiful garden, with a very knowledgeable man. It's tiring, but most enjoyable. The rest of the week is also busy, but mostly with work around home. Mostly enjoyable. Anyway, today I am going to answer the question I have been answering regularly, ever since I became a stay at home mother thirty five years ago, but with increased frequency now: "but what do you do all day?"

Here's Tuesday:

Did the usual feeding of the animals: cat; dog; ducks - also emptied, scrubbed, and filled their water trough; chooks and spent some time catching an escapee.

While collecting eggs, I discovered a dead rat in the trap I set about three months ago, and gave up checking about two months ago. This poor creature had eaten the egg, long since gone disgustingly rotten, and then died in the trap. I emptied the trapped and hosed it out and hosed it out again and again.... The smell was revolting but I managed not to vomit. Next job was to wash my hands with soap and hot water for a long, long time.
I then spent a couple of hours scything hip-high grass around the trees in the bottom orchard, and alongside the grapes and kiwiberry vines, then raking up the cut grass and distributing it as mulch.

After several glass of cold water, I swept the house, using the broom, as the vacuum cleaner is broken, and did a few more housekeeping chores to stay out of the hot afternoon sun for a while.
I sowed three long rows of carrot seed and one of beetroot, and raked up lots of mowed and scythed dry grass, spreading it on the gardens as mulch.
Mac had been mowing lawns in Raglan, but when he arrived home at a quarter to four we did a bee inspection. All four hives seem to be doing well, with eggs, larvae, capped brood, honey and pollen. I had thought one was queenless, and had ordered a new queen. The bees were all looking good and the hive I thought queenless was full of eggs and brood - what to do with new queen if it arrives? I sent the queen seller an email. (Two days later I heard from him, and as he hadn't filled the order yet, he cancelled it - a saving of $60 and a lot of work finding something to do with the queen.)

I chased and caught the chook again. (The following day I found and fixed the hole in the fence.)

I bottled the elderflower cordial, got the washing folded and put away, and on taking the wash basket back to the laundry, discovered the cat had knocked the next day's soaking chook wheat into the washing machine. So until such time as Mac can either take the agitator out, or tell me where his tools are, I'll have to use the old washing machine in the shed. I don't want to risk having the remaining, inaccessible wheat start sprouting in the filter!

Even after we both showered, I was too tired from trying to be self-sufficient in food to be bothered cooking. It was a beautiful evening so Mac suggested Hell's pizza for dinner - i.e. he wanted to go for a motorbike ride. I agreed, forgetting the hedges of privet flowers all the way to Hamilton, so spent most of the ride with my eyes closed, and my scarf shoved up my helmet acting as a makeshift air filter.

We ate down by Lake Rotoroa. I've been going there all my life. As a toddler: I remember the concrete igloo and concrete cars. As a child: the looong slide. As a uni student: swimming at night, and park-ups in cars, being chased along by patrolling police cars. With my own kids: Greg attacked by a swan when the bread ran out; Simon breaking his toe, me ignoring his complaints thinking he was just tired and grizzly. Coming here for a cup of tea with my mother after being told at the hospital she had terminal cancer (see below.) 'Happenings' in the seventies. Concerts. Walks with friends. Tonight, Hell's pizza with Mac. Still a lovely place.

Then across town to see Jeff, Konny, Steve and Heidi, and have a cup of tea before riding home in the dark - not that the dark made a lot of difference to me, with my eyes closed and scarf air filter.

Home. Hot chocolate. Watched Step Dave. Bed. Sleep. That's what I do all day.



Rotoroa

Children still drive the little concrete cars,
Crawl through the Eskimo house,

Feed the swans and ducks with stale crusts
At the edge of the lake

(though no-one swims here as we did
long ago when my mother was young
and I was younger still)

Young couples still sit in cars at night
Talking and laughing and loving,
Walk through the rose gardens
Guiltily picking a red, red rose, for love

(though locked iron gates
keep them from the dark side we enjoyed
when I was younger)

Families still treat themselves
On a fine Sunday afternoon
To ice-cream, sandwiches and drinks
At the lakeside kiosk

(though no-one remembers TT 2s,
and chocolate dipped ice-cream
is no longer as special as it was)

And we sit at the white-clothed table
On a sunny Tuesday afternoon,
My mother and I together
Speaking platitudes sandwiched with
silences

(What is there to say to an old woman
who’s just been told that death is waiting
on the other side of the lake?)

19/6/1999

This was written about the day years ago (Tuesday, 20 December 1988) when I had taken my mother to an appointment at Waikato Hospital and we had been told she had terminal cancer. Afterwards we had morning tea at the kiosk at Lake Rotoroa, just down the road from the hospital, a favourite place ever since I was a very small child. She died 11 days later.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Spring Panic

It seems like half the world is stretching out the darkness of winter. Some trees slow to come into leaf. And people. People I care about. Hunkered down in the dark. Withdrawn from the world. And the people who care about them. I have made it through winter without falling into the pit, but I look around and find that too many others have fallen. Depression, anxiety - is it worse this year, or have I been so withdrawn from the world in the past that I failed to notice my fellow sufferers? Not that they really are 'fellow' sufferers, because there is little fellowship in the withdrawal, the shrinking down into the hard core of the black hole. Nor is there fellowship in the desperate flailing of anxiety which threatens to explode and disperse, to the universe, the mind, body and soul.
Is my noticing of so many people's despair and anxiety a sign that my mental health is much improved, so that I'm less absorbed with my own? Or is it a sign that my mental health is on the decline again? All I know, is a sense of panic that I can't save the world, not even my own small part of it. In a quick rough count I thought of fifteen people (that figure has been revised five times since I started writing this, as more faces and reaching hands appear in my mind) who I feel I want to, and should be, supporting at this point of time, as they live with mental illness, physical illness, bereavement. Having gotten to the end of this paragraph, I realise that it sounds like arrogance and a hugely over-inflated sense of self-importance! I don't think that's what it is, it's just that people are what I care about most.
And then there's the other half of this ridiculous world which is bursting with frantic growth. Every morning, walking around our land as I feed the animals, I see new growth. The bamboo grows a couple of centimetres daily. 
There's new blossom on yet another tree,
the grass is thick, fresh-green and absurdly long. The chooks are laying 10 - 12 eggs a day and the beehives are bursting at the seams - so much so that one swarmed, 
so now we have four hives instead of three. 
There are weeds growing strongly in newly prepared gardens, potatoes needing hoeing and hilling up. There are seeds to sow, seedlings to plant, an orchard to scythe before the long grass over whelms the trees.
There is so much to do as nature dances exuberantly.
And inside me, alongside the worry, and the crazy growing season, there is another kind of panic as I realise I am growing old and there are so very many things I want to do before I die. So many things I want to do each day, that the only way to close down the there's-not-enough-time panic is to immerse myself in something, but because there is so much, I can't chose, and illogically immerse myself in a book or a silly computer game because it's all too much.
Would someone please bring on the lazy, hazy beach days of summer and relax my crazy mind?

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

September Reading

Novels

The Sea on Our Skins by Madeleine Tobert
The story of Ioane and Amalia who marry. Ioane for sons - he has no intention of staying on the remote Pacific island permanently. Amalia, because her mother told her she had to. It's a story of family relationships in a culture different from ours, of love and betrayal, and of how cultures and individuals change. I was drawn into the story, but it left me feeling rather bleak.

MiSTORY by Philip Temple
A story set in future New Zealand, in a time in which the effects of climate change has left a world of war, invasion, fear, and of shortages and loss of many of the things we take for granted. In the lower half of the South Island rebels are fighting for elections to be held again. The relationship of the main protagonists is a little unlikely, but is, I guess, essential to the slightly hopeful ending. It's along the lines of John Marsden's Tomorrow series, but aimed at adults, if only because it is less exciting, slower moving, and considers more complex political issues, rather than the more personal values issues of Marsden's books. Worth a read.

Clade by James Bradley
Another climate change novel, this time set in Australia and England. It is quite good at giving the feeling of world collapse in some chapters, but then in others Bradley seems to forget that the world is in a state of chaos. He tries to cover too many characters, and too much time, so the total is bitsy, and shallow. Most of all, the cover is decorated with bees and honey comb, and talks about how 'Ellie will discover a strange affinity with beekeeping,' yet this is a very minor part of the book - disappointing to a beekeeper! Individual chapters are well written, but the whole just didn't come together - there were too many gaps.

Landfall by Helen Gordon
Alice has job problems so moves home to the south east of England to house sit for her parents for a few months. Her teenage cousin is sent to stay from America. There's a creepy guy that's obviously going to be a Bad Guy. There's a whole lot of threads, and I waited for them to come together in some way. The back of the book said, "...this clear-eyed, mordantly witty, warm and unsparing novel culminates in one of the most surprising and destabilizing endings you'll have ever read." Well, no, not really. Because it didn't have an ending. It was as if the author got up one morning and said, "Oh, fuck this writing lark. I'm sick of it. I'm going fishing." Not a single thread came together - and I know the threads don't all end up as a beautiful piece of woven cloth in real life, but there are always periods of ending / beginning in real life, and I like that in a novel too. Not just a, 'she left Auckland and was driving along State Highway 1 when a li....' type of thing. The writing was reasonably good, taken chapter by chapter, and presumably the author intended the ending to be provocative, but to me it was frustrating and unsatisfying. I was left with the impression that the author was trying way to hard to impress some book award judges with her 'edgy' ending. Don't bother.

If I Should Die by Matthew Frank
A detective novel set in London. As well as the murder investigation, there is a new detective who was previously a soldier in Afghanistan, whose character is strongly developed. This is a first novel, with more planned around this character, Joseph Stark, and I will be watching out for the next one. If you like murder mysteries, this is definitely worth a read.

Non-Fiction

Five Sons and 100 Muri of Rice: the story of a five year old bride in rural Nepal by Sharyn Steele and Zoe Dryden
A true story similar to the novel described above. At just 5 years of age, and a very undersized child at that, Kharika Devkota was married to 12 year old Ketu. After the wedding, Kharika's mother left for home - several days' walk away, and shortly thereafter she and Kharika's brother left for india to join Kharika's father. She never saw them again. Kharika lived with her husband and his mother, who protected her, and refused to let the boy have sex with her, so it was not until the mother died that, aged just 13, she first had sex with her husband - in our culture it would have been called rape. We would see Kharika's story as one of harsh poverty, of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, yet it is also a story of love, especially for her children, of satisfaction with her work, of courage and of extraordinary survival and longevity. The usual age of death in Nepal was around the mid-forties, and yet, despite a life of hardship, when the book was published less than a year ago, she was still alive, living in her own house next door to her sons - aged ninety! A wonderful book, one I really think everyone should read.



Sunday, September 27, 2015

Grandparents

A grandfather died the other day. Facebook filled with tributes, stories and the honouring of a man who had been loved and treasured by his adult grandchildren.

I thought of my grandparents. Three dead when I was so young, I have not a single memory. The fourth remembered only as a dour old Scot, blind in one eye from glaucoma, nearly blind in the other from a cataract, and very deaf. I saw him just once a year, if I was lucky, until he died when I was eight.

My parents died nine months apart when my oldest son was seven: he remembers them - just. They were unwell for most of his life, with strokes and cancer. The next two have no memories and the youngest was not even conceived at the times of their deaths.

My children's other grandparents were not involved with, nor even overly interested in grandchildren numbers ten to thirteen - they'd done their grandchildren days long before mine appeared.

So what is a grandparent? I have no experience of being grandparented, nor the examples of my parents or parents-in-law. I don't know how to be a grandparent, except to love my grandchildren, and to miss them. I don't know how to play with them, nor how to talk to them. Mostly I forget that they are children and speak to them as if they were friends.

I hear my Facebook friend's grief and emptiness and my heart aches for her loss.

My heart aches also - for something, for people I never had, but I don't know how to grieve for that, for them.

What It Means To Be Me

"You are a writer. You just need to write."

So said the book I downloaded for free onto my Kindle. Yet another book on how to write. And basically, it's the same advice every other book on writing has said. All the other advice is just padding: sometimes useful padding, sometimes superfluous stuffing.

I am a writer - I just need to write.

The question I need to ask myself every day is, "What have I written today? In what way have I behaved like a writer today?" Not, "Is it good writing or is it bad writing, but simply, is it written?"

Then I got to thinking about what else I am, for being a writer is not the all of me.

I am a woman: "in what ways have I been a woman today?"
I am a wife: "in what ways have I been a wife today?"
I am a mother and a grandmother: "in what ways have I been a mother and a grandmother today?"
I am a craftswoman: "in what ways have I been a craftswoman today?"
I am a bookbinder: "in what ways have I been a bookbinder today?" Recently I realised that the word I always use for what I do - 'bookmaker' - means something else and I wondered why I avoid the correct term. But that's a whole 'nother story.
I am a yeoman farmer: "in what ways have I been a yeoman farmer today?"
I am a homemaker: "in what ways have I been a homemaker today?"
I am a friend: "in what ways have I been a friend today?"

I am Cally: in what ways have I been Cally today?

It is not enough to be mindful of the world in and around me. I also have to create my reality. It is not enough to say, "I am a writer." I also have to write.