Friday, 24 May 2013

Middle Distance Stare

My wonderful crazy friend Jennie is a painter, world famous in Ngahinapouri. Her paintings of mad fluro cows, dead fish and the stunning scenery around here are becoming very popular. See here for yourself: Jennie's blog and Jennie's website. (btw she takes commissions J)

She painted this, called ‘Middle Distance Stare’, the kind of look you get in your eyes when someone asks you a really tricky question. This is what she imagined she needed to see.
I tried to think what question would throw me, and for parents, I think our biggest worry is what our kids, as teenagers, might get up to. I like to think I’m pretty liberal (cough & spluttering!) but still, I think I’d be shocked if my kids got involved in the KKK (or whatever the kiwi version of it is – the KKKK?), or into serious drugs. The legal ones are enough of a problem!   Hence, this nice little naïve story…

Think of the painting as you read it!
Middle distance stare
‘So why did your daughter run away, do you think, Mrs Johnson?’ The officer’s voice was soft, but the uniform and the stark surroundings made the question harsh and accusing.
She stared out past the concrete walls, the bare desk and empty chair, through the tiny window, into the middle distance, as if the clouded sky could provide an answer where she could not.
Why did anyone do anything? Why would a child run away from a warm, loving home, to live on the streets with the waifs and strays? She didn’t even know this child any more. How could she know what she was thinking?  
‘I really don’t know,’ she murmured.
“How about the pills? Where might she have got those from?’
A sickening feeling lurched in her stomach. Her child - her baby- using drugs. She knew it was commonplace amongst teenagers these days, but that didn’t make it all right for her child. The fears of her own teenagehood and the warnings instilled in her about pot and dreaded heroin came flooding back. It had all seemed so distant, so American, to ‘use’, that the warnings just seemed superfluous, back then. But the whole new world of party drugs, of pill-popping, was so much more accessible, so much more acceptable today, no wonder her daughter just had to try it for herself. That’s what teens did, after all, experiment. But not her child. Not ever. Until now.
 ‘I really don’t know,’ she repeated.
Her mind remained as clouded as the sky, as she tried to focus on the issue before her. She thought of the baby in her arms, the toddler running around in just a T shirt and nappy, the child with bouncing curls and a curiosity about the world. She had always felt like she had a strong, loving relationship with her gorgeous child. Come the teenage years she had struggled with the usual problems, see-sawing on the parenting scale between being too demanding, too disciplined, too harsh, and then the next day too lenient, too forgiving, too helpful when the child needed rescuing. It was all such a struggle, such a learning curve. Children came with no instruction manual, and even if they did, it would need to be constantly updated as the child grew and changed. She had hoped that she could, in the end, just rely on the relationship, the unconditional love, to see them through all the hassles- the untidiness; the rudeness; the manner of dress – or undress, as it might be; the disagreement about choice of friends; the lack of focus on schoolwork; the reliance on technology for communication with friends…. The list went on. But this, this was something beyond imagination, this was scary. This was real life, at the wrong end of the scale.
 The coldness of the building was not offset by the heat blasting from the heatpump. She followed the officer down the corridor to a further desk, this one loaded with paper in front of a harassed looking policewoman.
 ‘Officer Roberts will help you fill out the paperwork before you take your daughter home. You’ll get the court notice in the mail some time in the next week.’
A lump in her stomach sat like cold porridge at the sound of the unfamiliar terms. She skimmed the papers put in front of her and signed where she was told to. She wrapped her coat tighter around herself, and followed the officer to a lobby to wait until her daughter was brought to her.
The vignette from her imagination of her child running to her, throwing herself in her arms and sobbing ‘Mum, mum, I’m so sorry’ was quickly replaced by the reality of a surly teen, barely looking up through her mascara-smeared panda eyes, who sulkily followed her out the swing doors into the evening air.
They drove the fifteen minutes home in silence. What was there to say, to ask, that could help make sense of this predicament?
As they came to the last stretch of road before reaching the place they called home, the girl finally looked up.
 ‘Thanks for picking me up, Mum,’ she said, barely audibly.
 Taking one hand from the steering wheel, she reached over and touched her daughter’s arm gently, but warmly.
 Their eyes locked for hardly a second, just enough to make her heart skip a beat. She caught her breath before returning her stare to the road, into the middle distance beyond. Was that, there in the grey clouded sky, way out to the right, just the tiniest speck of blue daring to show itself, on the horizon?


Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Tuesday Morning Grumps

 Okay, I promised something a bit more light-hearted, this time. So try this on for size – a poemy-story thing I wrote for children, called ‘Tuesday Morning Grumps’.

Contrary to popular opinion, writing for children is the HARDEST writing to do- every word has to count, language has to be ‘fresh’, can’t be preachy, has appeal to kids, empower them and ideally be fun and/or funny, and if you make it rhyming it’s DOUBLY HARD – rhythm and cadence have to be perfect, rhymes have to be original, the story still has to ‘move along’ and it has to fit in a 32 page children’s book layout. All in all, a TALL order.

You know how Tuesday mornings are? – Too long since the weekend to remember how that felt, DAYS before the next one so it’s too soon to even start looking forward to. It seem like Tuesday mornings  are when your socks get gets lost, the  washing won’t get dry, you run out of milk, the cat spews up….    I even put something special like a fruit string (“It’s fruit, not lollies J”) in the kids’ lunch boxes for ‘Cheer-up Tuesday’ so they actually have something to look forward to on a Tuesday.  

Kids’ books aren’t meant to be preachy, but I still wanted to get a message across, - that we all have days like ‘em and the ‘Tuesdays’ in our lives come & go any day of the week. By making the 'Grumps' a kind of a imaginary monster, I hoped kids would get the idea that they can control how they react to them.  
Just gotta go with it, and turn the page of the calendar….!
                    Read the poem to your kids & tell me how they react :)


Beware the Tuesday Morning Grumps!

You wake up one morning, a Tuesday, let’s say.
It seems like a perfectly promising day,
but the moment your toes touch the cold wooden floor
All your warm cosy dreams seem to fly out the door.
Everything, anything, starts to go wrong.
The day looms ahead looking dreary and long.
Beware- it’s the Tuesday Morning Grumps!

 They get in your hair and they fluff it about-
Impossible knots that you’ll never get out.
They hide your left sock somewhere under the bed.
You crawl down to get it and bump goes your head!
They mess with your mind ‘til you can’t even choose
which clothes to wear with your favourite shoes.
Beware- it’s the Tuesday Morning Grumps!

 They make porridge go cold and burn all your toast
and use up the strawberry jam you love most.
Then they spill orange juice all over your books
so your Mum gives you one of those ‘not again’ looks.
You go to the bathroom, the toothpaste’s all squeezed up.
The basin’s disgusting, like someone has sneezed up.
Beware- it’s the Tuesday Morning Grumps!
They mess up your homework, like the dog has chewed it.
Your library book looks as if someone has glued it.
They make your bag heavy, though your lunch isn’t in it.
You’re rushing and racing ‘till the very last minute.
You stub your big toe but there’s no time to fuss,
if you don’t hurry up, you’ll be late for the bus.
Beware- it’s the Tuesday Morning Grumps!
 But as Tuesday wears on, they get tired and lazy
Of thinking up tricks to make you go crazy!
Things start to go better, they slink sadly away
It turns out, after all, to be quite a good day.
By bedtime that night, you’ve rid the Grumps from your head.
Thinking ‘what a great day’, you snuggle down into bed.


Beware the Wednesday morning grumps!

Monday, 6 May 2013

A moment of remembrance

This month marks 5 years since my Dad and brother died, both of cancer, within 10 days of each other. Now there’s a story – truth is stranger than fiction after all! The poem is pretty much Johnny, straight up, and attempts to note that story.  

Remembering John
John,    who shares my father’s name and for many years, the same address
John,    who never spoke, withdrawn, surly, silent, rude, to the fury of my father
John,    who called me a “bloody little nuisance” and had no regards for the picture of a tractor I had drawn him for Christmas
John,     who went to Holland, his first big OE, and came back talking so much we couldn’t shut him up
John,     who married and had 4 children, now all grown up and having children of their own
John,     who loved his farm and his cows, his tractors and his motorbikes
John,     who once said he’d “sell the bloody lot and move to town” except that he wouldn’t know what to do with himself
John,     who once told me he didn’t know if land would keep increasing in value, but he did know they weren’t making any more of it
John,     who sat and told me stories at a party, after a beer or 2, and laughed and talked for hours
John,     who was told shortly after his 50th birthday (what a party!) that he had a brain tumour
John,     who quietly resigned himself to his fate, saying ‘what else can I do?’
John,     who, when my mother asked what he would like for his 51st birthday, quietly asked for 20 more years please
John,     who I sat with in hospitals and homes, at bedsides, holding his hand, talking, taking him out from those four walls when he could manage it
John,     the stoic farmer, who called a spade a bloody spade
John,     who quietly died on his own one night
John,     who, 10 days later, called our father, with whom he shares a name, and once again, the same address
As I’ve said before, death & tragedy bring forth poems and stories, as my way of learning to deal with it. ‘Spring heart’ is just a simple story about an old man experiencing his last moments, as I wondered what that must really feel like. I guess I’ll never be able to really find out how close I come.
Now, don't stress about the state of my mental health. But we all go through tough stuff, and I am thinking of friends as they 'take their turn'. Hopefully these pieces will connect to them and help them accept what is happening as a normal part of life.
Promise -  after this some more light–hearted pieces!
Spring Heart
He had been waiting for this moment all his life.
And now that it was here, it caught him by surprise, really.
He had been expecting it for years. Well, for always. Who could ever presume they had a tomorrow?
But he hadn’t expected it today. There was nothing to mark this day as momentous.
As the pains came and went in waves, bands of tightness across his chest, he gasped for air, knowing that this was, indeed, the day.
He reached for his chest, as if holding his heart would encourage it to go on just a little longer.
He had just sat down at the kitchen table with his morning coffee, feeling slightly dizzy and nauseous after his usual short walk to collect the post from the mail box. Daphne was in town, she would be away for hours. So it was just him, his coffee, the morning paper, his blossoming spring garden through the plated glass, and the coronary.
Spring. How ironic. Spring was meant to be a time of growth, of renewal. But not for him.
It was true. Your life did flash past your eyes. But his was more like a slow 8mm movie, with flickers and scratches, grey and disjointed, just like those old movies he took in the 70s when the kids were little and home movie cameras were new. He saw the boys, in their little checked rompers, splashing in the paddling pool. He saw Valerie, coy and pretty, like first loves should be. How she had stolen his heart! They had married way too young, people said it wouldn’t last, but the cancer took her long before complacency and divorce could.
He looked around. Perhaps if he could just reach his coffee. He would have preferred water, but the kitchen sink was a marathon away. His shaking hand knocked the cup, the coffee spilt to make a footbath in the saucer. He had always hated that, growled at Daphne whenever she delivered his coffee already slopping around the ankles of the cup. How petty those irritants seemed now.
Perhaps she would get sick of shopping and come home early? Perhaps he could reach the phone on the sideboard? He chuckled inwardly. She would never have remembered her mobile, much less have it fully charged and switched on.
Daphne. Sweet, obliging, grey-haired, Daphne. They had been good for each other in these later years. Company. Caring. She had that wicked sense of humour which kept him on his toes. Pushed him out to join the bridge club, take up bowls, attend the rose competitions - do things no self-respecting farmer would have done without a woman to cajole him into it. She would be devastated to find him here, slouched in his chair, at the kitchen table.
His breath came short and sharp now, matching the pains which spread from his heart, throughout his body. The heart- that symbol of love. Ironic, again, that it should be the thing to kill him. He’d spent all his life working for love. The years on the farm, the miles of fences he had built; the hours he had spent walking up and down the pit in the milking shed,  putting on and taking cups off cows; the hay he had cut, raked, baled, stacked in the barn and fed out to the stock; the ragwort he had pulled; the drenching... It was all for the people he had loved. The portraits drifted through his memory as his consciousness faded in and out. His boys, his wives, his family, his mates- yes, even his mates. That had been love, although no kiwi bloke would ever use that word out loud.
He felt poised on a precipice. The pain kept him still very much in this life, but he teetered on the brink of whatever came next. Is this how a caterpillar felt as it wove its cocoon? Did it have any consciousness of the process, if not the destination?
Thoughts of his sons flashed through his consciousness. They had both done well, but neither of them had followed him onto the farm. Perhaps he had been too hard on them, expected too much, wanted them to be who they were not? How would they take the news? Gary, in Sydney, a partner in some fancy accountant’s firm. Having to take a few days off for Dad’s funeral. Bit of a nuisance. Slight regret he hadn’t stayed a few days longer last Christmas. Phil, in Auckland, living the vibrant gay lifestyle. How had that happened to a good kiwi farm boy? It didn’t matter now, anyway, he thought. They were good kids. Men. They were men now. Good men. He’d done a good job on them really. They were kind, hard working, good blokes. Valerie would be proud.
A new wave of pain shot through his chest, extending from his breastbone, up to his throat, a strangulating, suffocating pain. It pushed up through his neck, his jaw, his shoulder, crippling, shooting pain, nothing like the angina he had ignored for years.
Years. Seventy seven, he had had, nearly seventy eight. A fair old innings, although you always hope for at least 5 more.  But it had to end sometime, somehow.
His moment had come.
And now that it was here, he wished he could go back and do each moment again, laugh more, worry less; play more, work less; love more, argue less. But it was too late for regrets.
In the end, it all came down to him. Just him, on his own.
He had lived.
He had had the gift of life.
He had done what he had done; he had not done, what he had not done.
With a final closing of his eyes, he let it be.