From this position, I will relax. From this position, I can see the whole place.

There ain’t no answer.
There ain’t never gonna be any answer.
There never was no answer.
There’s your answer.

Gertrude Stein

 

There are simple things that appear full of light and air and colour, and weightlessness. A voice speaking. A truth. A small decision. Why is the simple thing as heavy as it is? Why does the thing that should feel like playing a single note on a piano feel like pushing down an old door? It’s as if, in place of the right muscles, the right strength, there is dust.

I didn’t go to my final speaking class on the weekend. Every class member was going to give a big presentation, i.e. a speech, and be critiqued by the rest of the class. We’d already given 2-minute impromptu speeches (these included speeches about a special type of curry you can buy from Pak ‘N Save, tennis, and how expensive the components of motorcycles are. Predictably, I talked about my cat, Jerry). For the big presentation, I was going to talk about riding a bike in Wellington. I should’ve gone to that last session. But I was feeling burnt out and my heart sank when I thought about expressive gesturing and voice modulating. Embarrassment takes a lot of energy. I don’t think I absorbed much, in the end, from the first two sessions. Nothing went in, nothing bonded. It was like a body rejecting a skin graft or something. At the same time, I think I stood on the edge of absorption, and actual betterment, and it seemed very close. ‘It’s right there!’ Then you dive in and realise that actually the island of betterment is hundreds of miles away, and on the way you get stung repeatedly by jellyfish. (I should mention, I’ve been reading about incredible marathon swimmer Diana Nyad, who swam from Florida to Cuba and was stung repeatedly by jellyfish, including the 24-eyed, 3-foot-long-tentacled box jellyfish, whose poison can cause cardiovascular collapse and cerebral haemmorhage. Nyad is 65, and my hero.) If you are lucky, you make it.

The convener of the speech class told me was that I should open my mouth more when I talk, and also increase the volume of my voice. ‘Throw your voice like a ball.’ This is the one constant piece of advice for people trying to get better at speaking. ‘Throw’ your voice. And the voice is always a ball, never some other object (I guess because a ball suggests interaction, as opposed to, say, a firework). I would imagine one of those medicine balls they have at the gym, the heavy ones that some people throw at walls or slam into the floor, making the whole building shake. The convener explained that your head is like the body of an acoustic guitar: it’s the resonator. When air is blown upwards from the lungs, it excites the vocal folds of the larynx – that is, makes them vibrate – which then produces a tonal quality, resonating in your mouth. The more force with which you throw that air upwards from your lungs, the more the voice will resonate.

The convener said, ‘Open yourself out more when you sit.’ Don’t cross your legs or hunch over or hug yourself. All of these things compress the organs, the diaphragm in particular, restricting the breathing and contributing to a sluggish circulation, but more importantly these self-minimising postures send our brains a signal that we’re shutting down, withdrawing. To say something forthrightly, from this position, is perceived by our bodies as a great effort.

The convener singled me out to say, ‘Move around less awkwardly.’ So, let go of stiffness in your upper limbs in particular; let go of tension in your shoulders. Move as if you’re newly oiled, as if you’re a set of ball bearings in a perpetual motion machine, and your smallest movement flows from the previous movement and on to the next. So, sort of like saying, ‘Do all of your ordinary movements, but in reverse.’

When a person tells me to what to do to get better at something, and when their words seem to glow with good sense, I feel the old surge of hope. The possibilities blossom around us. ‘Goddamn! I am going to do this.’ This, I know, is the hope that fuels all endeavours of self-improvement, and the whole self-improvement industry. The hope is a kind of hyper-alertness to how you work and how you could work, instead. This sense of a new beginning has always been bound up with a lot of excitement for me. Built To Spill’s third album, Perfect From Now On, was one of my favourite albums as a teenager; I think partly because its title was what I said to myself all the time. Messing things up badly gave you permission to imagine yourself as a new person the next day.

Then come the days following the hope, when you’re striving. They’re like the days after a physio appointment, when you’re attempting to put into practise the correct ranges of motion that the physio has taught you so that you’ll sit, stand, walk and run properly. You have to place your toes and feet differently on the ground. ‘Make space’ in your hips. Not jut out your pelvis. Not swing the right side of your body more than the left. Etc. You walk out of the physio’s office and down the street taking small, weird, steps, hobbled by correctness. The way you move through the world must change if you’re going to stop getting injured. Despite the overwhelming nature of all the changes you need to make, it seems like a minor sacrifice to give up all those slightly erroneous ways in return for travelling more smoothly.

There was a lot of hopefulness in the speaking room.

There was a chaos of trying things out, setting yourself awhirl and seeing where you fell. It was almost like one big identity crisis. Trying to find a different hinge onto which your self might swing open.

I remember when I was maybe seventeen and studying first-year education, I read about James Marcia’s theories around the development of self-identity in adolescence, including the idea of ‘identity foreclosure’. In this identity status, a person ‘commits’ to an identity without much exploration. They haven’t questioned themselves much, or explored other ways of going about. At the time, I latched on to this idea of identity foreclosure. ‘I committed too early! I foreclosed!’ This was why, I thought, any kind of exploration or experiment or game felt so difficult, like trying to push down a very heavy door. In Marcia’s theory, it’s only later, towards the end of adolescence or even into the twenties, that the person has the big crisis: the ‘identity moratorium’, when the lid comes off the blender and all hell breaks loose.

But there was a lot of hopefulness in the speaking room. There were simple things that appeared full of light and air and colour, and weightlessness.

 

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Problematic

 

His voice wasn’t all squashed up in his mouth.

He was forming the words in his mouth quite well.

His pace wasn’t too fast and it wasn’t too slow,

he flowed pretty smoothly for most of it. There was a nice rhythm happening.

I guess you weren’t quite sure what was happening with his hands.

He knew he had to do something with them but whenever he moved them

they just ended up going back to where they were.

I got a bit of a sense of disconnection with his gestures.

He’s quite a tall guy, so you notice, actually.

Sometimes he would talk in little spurts and then stop

and you felt like maybe he’d forgotten where he was

in the scheme of things. I mean you knew he knew where he was

but if had just walked in off the street and didn’t know him

from Adam you probably wouldn’t know. So I would be worried about him

and I might think his ideas were all over the place.

At the start he sounded quite happy and excited. He was smiling

and the volume was good

and quite resonant, and it made you feel quite happy with him.

At the end everything went lower in pitch and a bit softer

as the content got more serious and more sad, I guess you could say.

So his pitch was appropriate to what was happening.

The only thing was, his eye contact wasn’t as good

as it maybe could’ve been. He wasn’t meeting anyone’s eye,

in a way he was looking all around the room except for at anyone.

And wasn’t eye contact his goal all along? I just think

he should reevaluate that goal. Sometimes he laughed

when it wasn’t that appropriate. It was like

laughing at his own jokes to cover the fact that no one was laughing.

I think that was a nervous tic, actually. Maybe he sensed

that he didn’t really know what the point of the story was.

Fillers, there were some fillers, when he should have just breathed

instead of saying um. I think the problematic thing was just

the general confidence of him. Here’s this big tall guy, you know,

and he’s a tennis pro, knows a lot about music, and you’d expect him

to know a thing or two. And he does but he kept getting in the way of himself.

 

William, by Tomas Januska (from the Gravity Series)

William, by Tomas Januska (from the Gravity Series)

 

* This sort-of poem is a riff on some feedback that someone gave in a continuing education course I am doing at the moment called ‘Speak With Presence’, which is about overcoming nerves about speaking in public. We had to give two-minute impromptu speeches today.

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Three things

Here are three totally inconsequential things, going backwards in time.

1. Eventually I’ll write a full post about this, but on the weekend I went to a continuing education course called ‘Speak With Presence’. It was the first of a three-parter. You can guess what it’s about. You can guess how awkward it was. Here are a couple of things that happened.

There was this moment when the group (there were twelve people, including me) were supposed to imagine that our feet were connected to roots that extended far into the earth. We had to allow our legs to sway gently from side to side, then the pelvis, and slowly up until our whole bodies were engaged in a sort of rippling figure-8 movement – all this with eyes closed. Surprisingly enough, I was getting into it. It was quite relaxing, and knowing that everybody’s eyes were closed was freeing. I imagined myself swaying around like a reed in the wind. But, when my focus momentarily lapsed, I felt a sudden overpowering impulse to open my eyes. I couldn’t resist – I opened my eyes. I saw everyone in the room lurching weirdly around. Someone else had his eyes open and was staring feverishly into the middle distance, swaying. I quickly closed my eyes again. The whole course was like this: seeing unsettling things, and seeing myself momentarily reflected – and turning immediately away in wilful blindness.

At the end of the session, we stood in a circle. A few volunteers went up, one at a time, to the head of the group, where they stepped into an imaginary circle in front of them. The circle was supposed to represent the quality that they hoped to embody, for instance confidence, charisma, or ‘ease’. Once in their imagined circle, they had to slowly, fluidly, sweep their gaze around the room, looking into every person’s face, silently, while ‘projecting’ their chosen quality. That was hard work. When an everyday human behaviour, like looking and smiling into a person’s face, becomes the central occasion, rather than a peripheral one, well, that is a special and intense kind of human awkwardness there. Again, I couldn’t meet anyone’s eyes. There were only a few minutes left to go, so I gave up and sank into my old, comforting, delicious, evasion – and it felt good, and right.

2. A couple of weeks ago I did a poetry reading at Te Papa, part of the annual Writers on Mondays series. Before the reading, I was nervous. I was walking down the street towards the museum, thinking about the reading and hoping I wouldn’t botch it.

One of the reasons I was nervous was because one of the poems I would be reading, ‘Avoid’ by Tim Upperton, had the name Federico García Lorca in it. (The line in question is: ‘Federico García Lorca, that all-night talker.’ The poem is essentially a list of things you should avoid.) I was worried that in the heat of the moment I would pronounce the name badly. So, as I was walking along, on a quiet stretch of street, I started softly chanting to myself, ‘Federico García Lorca. Federico García Lorca. Federico García Lorca.’ Saying the name repeatedly calmed me, and I realised it really wasn’t that difficult to pronounce.

Then, as I was mid-Federico García Lorca, out of nowhere, a man appeared. He was sort of hunkered down reading his phone, behind some sort of wooden post, and he looked up sharply and stared at me. I nodded and continued walking, which was a big effort, because I was so embarrassed. But in the midst of the embarrassment I realised I wasn’t nervous any more. It was as if the nerves been burnt off by the heat of the embarrassment. I thought, ‘Oh, who cares.’

It reminded me of one evening the previous week, when I was walking home, and I had passed a woman who was striding in the opposite direction. She was wearing a fluoro pink jacket that stood out in the dusk, and she was saying loudly, ‘Pink Floyd. Pink Floyd. Pink Floyd’ as she strode along.

Anyway, later that day, after my poetry reading, Tim Upperton wrote to me to tell me something strange had happened. His neighbour down the road was having some trouble with his son, and he had had to barricade himself in his room, so Tim went around to help out and to cook him some dinner. He set off into the night.

As I walked down the dark street I was muttering idiotically, “Federico García Lorca, Federico García Lorca,” over and over – and this other pedestrian appeared out of nowhere! It was your scenario all over again. God knows what she thought, and I tried to make out I’d been addressing her all along, with a hearty “Good evening!”

 

3. A few months ago, there was a Cliff Fell poem called ‘Once’ on the NZ Poetry Shelf blog, and while the poem was great, the author photo was incredible. And while there was this thorough, searching analysis of the poem, there was no mention of the author photo, which, in a way, made the photo even better, as if it was a thing so unthinkable it must not be spoken of, especially in the presence of poetry. Basically, in the photo, Cliff Fell’s face is protruding through a head-in-the-hole painting of a freakishly muscled Fabio-type who is grasping the shoulders of a swooning woman. There’s clearly a strong headwind because the woman’s dress is flying up and their hair is swished back from their faces. There are palm trees behind them, so they’re on some kind of tropical island. The expression on Cliff’s face is benevolent, maybe slightly cranky. He looks a bit like Madril from Lord of the Rings. The whole thing could be the cover of a novel you’d give your slapstick uncle. It’s sort of awful, but it’s not boring, and for that reason I like it a lot; I like the gumption of it.

I emailed Cliff Fell to ask him what was going on in that photo. He said, ‘It was very liberating, actually, sending Paula that shot. I felt like I’d run away and really joined the circus.’

The photo came from an art show, a 2012 exhibition called Love For Sale at the Refinery in Nelson by two Nelson artists, Claire Ellery and Kirsty Keen. It was a great, funny show – and clever. The only downer was I got a $150 ticket on the way home for failing to stop at a stop sign. … [Cliff then went on to detail a mud-slinging argument with a police officer.] Author photos – ah yes, so much to be said about them. In theory, how wonderful to be asked for one. In practice, so stressful deciding which to go for. Obviously there are key things to consider, like: smiling/not smiling; hat/no hat; look like Bob or Tom or Leonard and so on. Here’s another good one: looking at the camera, or 3/4 profile looking like you’re studiously actually doing some writing. What a joke! I have a photo file called “author photos” but I don’t like any of them. Hence this latest. Here’s another choice: full body or full-face close-up. …
Actually, last night, reading Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Abandoned, I came across a brilliant passage on Osip Mandelstam’s author photo, done for a Soviet magazine in 1927, the photo of him in a sweater.

Mandelstam sweater

The gist of the passage is that the photo appeared in the same issue, ironically, as the first portrait of Stalin as Soviet leader, and Nadezhda’s point is that photos of politicians have to be theatrical – look like and offer the promise of something that they’re not really, whereas the photo of a poet should offer exactly what and who they are, at some deep and true level. Of course, things may have changed since then, as I suspect we’re now to some extent into presenting a constructed image of ourselves, albeit (generally, though not in the case of my Love for Sale image) a subtle rephrasing of one’s “self” . . . but I think she’s right.
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Lightness

It could have been an autumn scene in a music video
where the leaves were falling in reverse, but instead of leaves
were cardigans, keys, library books, late-night cakes, a bike helmet.
Some of these items organised themselves into flocks.
Some items just followed the cables of the old trolley buses,
which will be gone in 2017, and before long forgotten.
Birds made way for business shirts that opened
their necks. For the grace notes of socks in the air. A scarf
got caught like an entrail in a tree.
It was as if we existed apart
from the things we hefted daily in bags and panniers.
As if the things we had forgotten
were taking it upon themselves to be remembered.

There was a feeling of lightness in the streets.
Even as the cars began to cut up the cyclists again
and even as a bus nearly sideswiped an aunty
going up the Terrace, there was a feeling of
sweat expressing itself freely on our backs
for we carried less. We would not have to go back.

By midday most of the flight paths were free of forgotten items;
only a few pairs of socks remained airborne
and once there was a pair of fresh underpants and once a knitted jersey
with a horse on it – these quickly passed by.

The last item travelling was sighted at about 2.30pm:
James Brown’s trousers, descending from the high cloud
over the Mount Street Cemetery.

 

 

 

 

 

[The other day, the poet and cyclist James Brown forgot his trousers and had to teach half of his poetry workshop at Victoria University in his cycling gear until his trousers were delivered. I started thinking how great it would be if everything you'd forgotten just pursued you of its own volition. It's tiring carrying stuff around all the time, especially when you commute on a bike.]
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Notes on embodiment

‘You are feeling cold, but soon I’ll warm you through’
– Voom

As a kid I had such hairy arms – wolfishly hairy, house-of-rugs hairy – that they looked like they belonged to a very small man. I was very self-conscious about these arms and wished that I had different ones. On long car trips, my brother and I would stretch our arms towards our mother so that she could stroke their undersides. With the hairiest side of my arm facing down, partially concealed, I immediately felt calmer. But the main pleasure here was having the underside of my arm stroked. My arm was like one of those trout you can send into a trancelike state by tickling its belly, then when it’s at your mercy you can flip it out onto land. Was it because the underside of the forearm has less hair on it, and thinner, more sensitive skin? I’ve since learned that this length of skin passes directly over the median nerve, which begins in the cervical spine and runs all the way into the hand; along the way it branches into two as it courses through the forearm, and down into the hand it branches off again, supplying the palm with nerves. I’d worry that the stroking might suddenly stop, which it sometimes did when my mother got distracted by something, so to ensure that the arm-tickling with continue indefinitely I would say, ‘Can I have an arm tickle?’ She’d say, irritably, ‘I’m already tickling your arm.’ I’d say, ‘Can you keep tickling my arm?’ She’d keep tickling the arm. The tickled arm felt, finally, like mine, because, feeling pleasure, I was more aware of how it felt, rather than trying to ignore its presence or wish it away.

‘It is like an arm dug out of a coffin and cemented to her shoulder’ – this is how a physician described the arm of an eighteen-year-old girl named Jane Jenkins in a case study in Walter Johnson’s Anatriptic Art (1866) – a history of massage therapy. Jane Jenkins lost the use of her arm after suffering from typhus fever. Her arm had become numb and atrophied, small and trembling. Her physician treated her by regularly rubbing her arm over the course of a few months, and this was ‘a perfect cure; and Jane Jenkins was able to carry into execution what had been her dearest wish – she went into the business of a dress-maker.’ The case study, as with all of the case studies in the book, is so strangely simple and triumphant, the solution so elegant – touch gives Jane Jenkins her arm back, makes her whole again – that it seems fable-like. I’d love everything in The Anatriptic Art to be true.

If my mother stroked the hairy side of my arm, it was almost like being stroked with a brush. The hairs would move around on my arms, making little peaks and troughs. And, again, I’ve since learned that a light, slow, hairy touch is not only thought to be the most pleasant to human beings, but also the touch most likely to contribute to a sense of embodiment, or bodily ownership. That is, localised within yourself, you are aware that there is a you, and a not-you; you have a beginning and an end. Embodiment arises through a complex range of psychological and neurological mechanisms; it is not always as simple as understanding that your actual arms or legs belong to you. Someone who uses a walking stick all the time can feel as though the stick is a part of their arm. An amputee who wears a prothsesis for many years may feel whole again. Scratching a prothsesis can make a phantom itch go away. And so, then, a part of your body that you have heretofore felt disconnected from, can begin to feel like a part of you again.

The now well-known experiment that has led to these conclusions about embodiment is called the rubber hand illusion. A person watches a fake rubber hand being stroked, while, out of sight, that person’s actual hand is stroked in exactly the same way. The idea is that, through this combination of touch and seeing an object being touched, the person will come to believe that the rubber hand is her own. (I like how neatly this experiment puts paid to that old saying ‘I know it like the back of my hand.’) The object that most successfully achieved this illusion was a ‘hairy’ one – a make-up brush (Boots natural hair Blush Brush No. 7, specifically), stroked lightly and softly over the forearm and hand. As well, the areas of skin rated ‘most pleasant’ to be stroked were the hairy ones.

For me, though, the hairy side of my arm was the less interesting side to be stroked on than the underside. I was all about the median nerve: it was that side of the arm that made me float up above myself. But for my mother, was the hairy side the more soothing side to stroke – the hairs against her skin also, in some way, calming her and locating her, as if stroking a cat, or one of those robotic seals called Paro, that from time to time wails its demands and has to be settled?

Jasper Beardly and Paro

2. My cat Jerry, who was a flea-ridden stray wandering around in Waikanae before he was delivered to the SPCA and I saw his picture on the Internet, goes into raptures when patted and stroked, especially on his belly, where the hair is softer and finer. The tiny looping track of his purring seems like an extension of his fur: something that rises softly into the air around him, warming it.

Submersion

The difference between blissful touch and annoying touch, for Jerry, is imperceptible to me. He is as unpredictable as a horse (but sometimes as unpredictable as a hedgehog, a possum, an owl, a shark – the point is, you just don’t know). When he decides that the touch is irritating, he transforms very briefly into something like a woodchipper made of claws and teeth. The study above suggests that it’s gentle, caring touch that helps humans to establish boundaries between themselves and the external world, and this kind of touch in particular gives rise to embodiment: but it’s the annoying touch that seems to heighten Jerry’s sense of the boundary between him and me, him and the rest of the world. This makes me wonder how touch that is annoying or traumatic affects a developing sense of self, and an understanding of where your body begins and ends.

Recently Jerry got hit by a car, and all I wanted to do was cradle him. It seemed very important that I hold him and stroke him. The infuriating thing about having an animal as a pet is that you can’t communicate directly to him. Touch is most often the very first sense you use to connect with him, but this is the sense that’s taken away when the animal is sick or injured – he’s being shuttled round in a cage, sometimes with tubes in him, things that prevent you holding him. On the way out to the vet, with Jerry in a cage on my lap in the car, I kept reflexively threading my fingers through the wires. All I could reach was his whiskers, and they tickled my skin. Later on I thought about the make-up brush on the rubber hand. But this soft hairy touch felt disembodied: it was nothing approaching a connection. It would have been different had that touch held the promise of a more enfolding, meaningful touch, but I didn’t know when I’d see Jerry again and if I’d ever be able to hug him again. So it was a frustrating almost-touch. Fingers through wire, palms against glass.

At the vet, I watched a daughter and her mother enter the building with a little grey cat in a cage. When the vet came out and said, ‘Lola?’ they went into the examination room. A few moments later they came out again, no cage this time, just a cardboard box in the mother’s two hands, the girl crying. I imagined the bare feeling of the box, all that warmth and softness reduced to the featherweight inside it. I think that we want to rub the places that hurt to make them hurt less – for ourselves and others – and being unable to do that any longer feels like love being stymied.

3. It’s common to unconsciously hug and stroke yourself when you’re slightly anxious or pent-up. Some people do it more than others. All day after Jerry got hit I was rubbing my eyes, pulling my lip, toying with that wattle of skin under my throat: all of these forms of ‘self-massage’ lower your heart rate and the level of cortisol, a stress hormone. It’s a kind of self-caressing that works as a calming mechanism and can also tip over into a tic, an endless cycle of half-reassurances, hands tugged ever-upwards as if on marionette strings. There is often a moment when I am speaking when I feel a hand beginning its rise to cover my mouth. In a split second I’m conscious of it and have to make the hand change direction: to, say, my eyebrow, or the top of my head, where it lingers for a bit, unsure. ‘Self-massage’ is often seen as kind of a negative behaviour, springing from low self-esteem, social discomfort, dishonesty and even latent aggression – for example, you’ve probably heard that teenagers who touch their faces a lot are more likely to be aggressive; that a person who touches their face while speaking to you is probably lying; you’ve read that Bill Clinton touched his nose 88 times during his testimony about Monica Lewinsky. In my case, touching my face is more an unconscious attempt at containment: I’m trying to contain anxiety, not let it tip me sideways. Usually my finger goes straight for one of my front teeth. 88 times is nothing. I wedge it in there, the tooth under my fingernail, a little foothold. I’ll also place the back of my hand against my face, so that my nose peeks between two fingers like a gherkin. Supposedly a major sign of trying to calm yourself down is puffing out your cheeks and exhaling. I had a boss who used to do this frequently, and yes, it did make me very nervous. His face momentarily became almost twice the size, like a cat puffing itself up when it sees a threat. But it’s difficult to stop all of these behaviours at once. We have all these nerve endings in our faces, so it’s an easy-access way to soothe ourselves.

I went out to visit Jerry after he had surgery, and spent a good twenty minutes just patting him in his wire cage at the vet. Going home afterwards I felt so happy and grounded. It was like I’d had all these Jerry-strokes pent-up in my hands and they had needed somewhere to go. I noticed that I stopped touching my face so much.

4
My relief that Jerry had lived soon gave way to abrupt middle-of-the-night dread: one day, he would indeed die. I would have known him for longer, grown even more attached, and the loss would be profound. I began to worry that Jerry would, in some way, become absorbed into my sense of self, like the person who carries a cane for so long that she begins to see it as one of her limbs. Jerry would become my glasses, my hands, my feet, my little home. It would’ve been easier if instead I’d kept patting cats on the street from time to time, growing no attachments. It helps, though, that Jerry has an almost entirely shaved bottom, from where he had surgery. He stalks around like a delicate baboon. He seems unaware of his nakedness. That temporary bare patch, where there should be soft fur, helps me to look at Jerry with a slightly (slightly) steelier eye, as if the only thing holding us together were hair.

Jerry in hospital

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Horse of the sky

Last weekend I went up in my dad’s Cherokee (him flying, not me). My dad has a hangar at the little aeroclub just outside Blenheim, where he keeps his plane, which is named SNE. He’s a hobbyist, not a commercial pilot, and he’s flown for as long as I’ve known him. Here he is towing SNE out of its hangar.

Towing SNE

It’s a single-engined Piper Cherokee with two little seats up the front, two at the back. The control yokes, which remind me a bit of a Nintendo 64 console, thrust out above your knees when they activate. Here are the controls, and my knees.

Knees and yoke

The seats are covered in raggedy fake sheepskin – it’s a bit like clambering into a dubious motorcycle sidecar that looks like it might detach along the ride. The only things missing are goggles and leather gloves. My dad is scrupulous about keeping SNE in good condition, though; before we went up, he talked at length – you must understand, at great, great length – about all the repairs he’d had done on the bits that had corroded away underneath the wings.

The safety signage on SNE is meant to be reassuring. To the outsider, it’s not really.

Axe

When you get on board a plane like SNE, you realise that safety is spoken in a different kind of language. It’s the language of faded labels and hairy seatbelts and parachutes congealing under your seat. It’s the language of the pilot’s squinty, sun-watery eyes. But, apart from a couple of times as a young kid, I’ve never felt unsafe in a Cherokee.

From the little aeroclub just outside Blenheim – and, one day I will write a whole series of essays about aeroclubs: the small talk, the smell of vinyl and sweat and aftershave, the long pauses, the constant squinting at the sky, the instant coffee – we flew out to the White Cliffs, circled around above the water, and wandered slowly back. (Not shown in the photo below, but it always surprises me, when you fly over a town or a city, just how many swimming pools there are, each one an alien blue.)

white cliffs

The last time I’d been flying in the Cherokee, before this, was five years ago. My dad flew with my brother JP and I from Wellington to Oamaru, for my granddad’s funeral. We landed on a beach near Cape Campbell partway down, where I proceeded to vomit everywhere. We went back up. I vomited everywhere again. I’d lost my airplane stomach and have never quite gained it back.

stop by the beach

After the funeral, when we arrived back in Wellington, we circled low above Westpac Stadium, where a big rugby game was going on. It felt strangely voyeuristic, and also a little bit smug. A bit like that dream you might have had as a kid: you wake up to find that you can fly, so you fly above your school and all your classmates are pointing and gaping at you angrily. ‘That’s right,’ you say, ‘I’m flying,’ as if this is the ultimate triumph over them.

But this weekend was the first time I’ve really liked going flying. Maybe it was because we didn’t actually need to get anywhere: we were just skulking around, looking at things, and the things were beautiful. Apropos of the ‘skulking around, looking at things’ attitude to flying, here’s my dad and a flying cronie, a few years ago. You can see, in their body language, that the plane – the freedom it gives them – is a source of pride. The plane is like a faithful horse; here it even appears to be nuzzling them. Growing up, as a constant passenger in the very small planes my dad flew, I was mystified by men’s affection for their planes, and by what I saw as their slight distrust of anyone who couldn’t fly.

Dad and crony

I was mystified by the affection because I mostly hated flying. A word I dreaded was ‘turbulence’. Dad turning from the cockpit to report: ‘We might be going into a bit of turbulence here.’ My mother – I’d be sitting on her knee, usually – also hated it, but my two brothers were usually unfazed (but were occasionally betrayed by their vomiting), even when the plane, ricocheting off the wind, was lurching up and down as if it were a rag in a giant window-washer’s hand. I would stare at the back of my dad’s neck, and at the headphones clamped over his ears – or, if headphones were in short supply, lawnmower ear mufflers – and grip the back of his seat. It wasn’t that I had complete faith that he would get us landed safely. It was more that it just never entered my head that it was possible we could crash and die. My dad had known pilots who had crashed and died. But that would never happen to us.

Watching him manoeuvre a landing was always impressive: there was something triumphant in it – and, when emerging from difficult flights, something almost maniacal in the focus on it, like Batman bearing down on a villain in his batmobile. He’d begin to guide the plane towards the runway, flicking various switches and twiddling various knobs, and burbling into a radio. At some point he’d reach a hand up and crank the lever on the ceiling that controlled the plane’s nose, the movement a bit like spinning a lasso.

Nose

I loved watching the trees and grass stretching up to meet us, then the feeling of solid ground rushing under our wheels, and then opening the door and clambering stiffly out on to the gritty wing and into fresh air. The places where we landed usually weren’t big, proper, controlled airports: they were aerodromes, or aeroclubs, where airplane hobbyists – always men – congregated to talk and to watch planes coming and going.

At the moment I’m reworking a short piece I wrote about my mother going flying. She learnt to glide (in a glider called a Lark) when she was at university, and later she met my dad – who, along with many of the other young men who lived in Te Kuiti then, had learned to fly. His first plane was EBD, another tiny Cherokee, with a red tail that we all learned to look for when he was out flying. One of Dad’s friends took EBD for a flight once and crashed into a hill. I’m not sure how it happened, exactly, but the friend survived and was OK, and the plane was repaired and we just kept on flying it. I remember looking at it carefully the first few times we took off together after the crash: the hairline cracks around in the walls and ceilings; the jagged browny-red vinyl of the seats.

Anyway, here’s an excerpt from the piece, called ‘Lark’, in which I am trying to imagine what it might have been like for my mother, learning to glide. Maybe it’s not a great idea to post work in progress, but hey. Technically this is old work that’s, um, still in progress.

 

Lark

The craft itself was a skinny, cigar-shaped thing – not quite a plane, not quite a kite – with a long front window and a pointed nose. It was Czech. It had no propeller, which made it seem more vulnerable than an ordinary aircraft. Its wings were so far outstretched they looked cartoonish. All the glider needed now was eyes and a goofy grin painted on. Andy, Julia’s instructor, said the wings were detachable. They could be unclipped and folded up so that the glider became like a tadpole, then it could be easily stored in a shed.

Andy was a smiling freckled man. He was soft and faded, with greying hair, crumpled shorts and polo shirt. ‘Ready?’ He opened the Lark for Julia. Its door opened way up high on its hinges.

*

Over the next month Andy taught her that the little half-moon on the dashboard had to always be level. He taught her to steer using the controls, which looked a bit like metal hooks on a man’s arms, and to keep straight, to glide, to not lurch about as if she were on a bike. It was cramped inside the Lark. Her legs couldn’t stretch all the way out and she was aware of the roof only a few centimetres above her hair. She was also aware of Andy in the back seat, watching carefully as she held the controls. The aircraft smelt like cracked vinyl and stale nicotine, and oil, and aftershave.

At take-off, a Tiger Moth would pull them promptly along the runway. The Lark skittered along on the end of the rope, bumping and bobbing on its hard, hoof-like wheels, as if it were galloping, and then the Tiger Moth rose up ahead of them, a silver insect in the window, and the ground came unstuck and fell away. The Lark swayed then slowly became level. Julia became aware of her weight and her eyes in a way she had never been on the ground – how every movement altered the Lark’s bearing.

She’d thought it would be silent to glide, but instead the Lark made a whining, groaning noise. It was the motor. It sounded half-hearted, as if it didn’t particularly want to be in the air, would have been more at home in a lawnmower. Despite this, Julia wasn’t scared. She was afraid of heights – even looking up at tall buildings gave her vertigo; she had to clutch onto something – but in the sky it was different because the land was too far away to trigger any fear. From this distance, land was an abstraction, like clouds were from the ground. Christchurch was carved flat, a post-operative land, sewn up in green and brown and yellow. Being apart from it was a new relief.

At about 2,000 feet she would press the lever that released the tow rope. There was a loud whoomph and then finally, as the motor cut out, there was silence. They were alone and motorless in the air. Julia would look back at Andy and he’d give her the thumbs up. His pink face was sandwiched between thick black earmuffs. Were they lawnmowing earmuffs? Julia would turn back and hold on to the controls. She was above Canterbury and gradually losing height. During this descent she would feel a mixture of dread and glee in equal measure: gravitating towards something she wasn’t sure she wanted to gravitate towards, but glad of being able to steer herself to it.

Once, the Tiger Moth ascended too quickly in front of them. The towrope whipped up and snaked in the air and then dropped straight down behind the Tiger Moth. Snap. The rope had snapped! There was silence, into which Julia screamed, and Andy insisted: ‘It’s all right, it’s all right.’ He was right – it was. They did not die. They did not crash into a mountain. Why would they? Nothing happened, just as Andy said it wouldn’t. It was a clear day. She was at 1,400 feet, high enough that she could glide back to the airbase. Down she went through the layers of the sky, towards the earth, as if her eyes themselves were shedding layers; and her heart too, slowly shedding panic and becoming calm.

To land, she had to glide very low over roads and trees. It was here that the fear began to come back, because she could see the hard angles of the earth’s surface. She could see roads and rooftops, cars and sheep, and it was all too easy to imagine falling and impaling the Lark on one of its own wings. If there were any young women cycling along the road, now was when she would now make them topple sideways. But there was never a cycling woman, or any person.

*

One day Andy flew straight into the side of a mountain. She heard about it days later. It was a unusually still day, thick with fog but hardly any wind, the day he died.

*

Years later she was in the air again but this time she was gripping on to the back of a seat, her husband’s seat – they were flying through mountains over Alexandra and there was a storm coming up to meet them. Rain was hitting the windscreen, each drop exploded like a bug – it was true that the closer you were to clouds, the bigger the rain was; when you were inside clouds the rain was obscene – and they pitched from side to side, jolted violently up and down. Their seatbelts bit into their hips, and at one point their heads bumped the ceiling and she felt her stomach leap into her mouth then fall through the floor. She started to think this could be it. They would die up there in the mountains, like in a movie. ‘Russell,’ she called, her voice bee-like in the roaring plane, but he didn’t turn around. He was holding the controls and peering through the windscreen into the white. He’d turned on the windscreen wipers. The mechanized arms butted frantically back and forth, which even in the middle of all this she thought funny, as if they were in a flying car. The back of her husband’s neck looked tense and purposeful. Also, it was speckled with worrying-looking moles she hadn’t noticed before now. A person becomes hyper-alert in a small aircraft flying between mountains in a storm. On either side of her were children, one of whom was crying, the other of whom was staring out the window at the clouds racing greedily past on either side of them. She hung on to the back of the seat and prayed. Her husband flew, and the storm towed them through the mountains.

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A bike ride with James Brown

I’ve been a big fan of James Brown’s poems for a long time. The first poem of his I read was ‘Loneliness’, in 2001. It’s probably still his most well known poem, all these years later. I wonder if James is a bit tired of it now, has made a real effort to leave it behind, the way Radiohead have left behind ‘Creep’ but a stubborn faction of people still want them to play it and wish they’d go back to their roots. Anyway, after I read it and Lemon, his second book, I became preoccupied with tracking down a copy of his first book, Go Round Power Please. It was out of print, but that eerie crowd of little pottery faces on the cover haunted me, and eventually I stumbled across a copy in a secondhand bookstore, and when I read that book, I knew that James’s poems would end up being permanent fixtures in my head. They were really the first poems I’d read that felt like a person talking to me – an endlessly interesting, questing person. I found the poems addictive. I wanted to write poems that had a similar warmth to them, poems that were good company, that felt like someone was opening a door to me rather than instructing me to squeeze in through a tiny window. (Some poems really do make me feel like that. There are so many poems in which I am still stuck, my top half inside, my legs waving helplessly outside.) I loved all of his subsequent books, and waited for them as I waited for new albums by favourite bands. In The Year of the Bicycle, I was elated that someone was writing poems about the agony of going uphill, the rush of going down the other side, the mechanical difficulties, falling off, and getting angry, as in ‘The Wicked‘:

On your bike you weave and spit
a throaty, viral gob over the windscreen
of an SUV that won’t give way.
There is no rest for the wicked in this world.

His poem ‘Severe Open Dislocation’ is the only poem I’ve come across that describes a mountain biking accident (it’s based on what happened to mountain-biker Nigel Page):

Luckily my trusty helmet saved my neck.
The only problem was
I needed one on my foot too,
as I had somehow completely
ripped my foot off my leg.

His latest book, Warm Auditorium, moved me so much that I kept foisting it on people. I sent it to a friend in London and gifted it to numerous others. I know for a fact that people now get sick of me going on about James Brown. Back in 2012, James came to the launch of my first book, which is when we properly said hello, over ten years after I’d first read ‘Loneliness’. Anyway, we got to talking a bit since then, and today in the driving rain we went for a bike ride around Miramar Peninsula. James was splattered in mud after biking the Tip Track (a track he’s written an incredible line-by-line account of in The Year of the Bicycle). Here’s the route we took (with water hydrants, or stops for crying). It was a good bike ride.

Peninsula ride

 

 

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