On a long-haul flight, time stretches, warps, balloons. As we fly across time zones, in and out of days and nights, time becomes a tangible substance that we move through, like dense fog, or like water. It seems to exist only in the space outside the plane. Inside the plane there is no real time, and there is no real sleep and no real waking. The air conditioning circulates the same brittle air. People communicate in nudges and murmurs. We try to sleep, lopsided in our seats, like crushed cans. It’s a strange static dimension – at first enjoyable, because there’s nothing to do but read, eat, drink, sit, and it feels like a little holiday, but soon those actions begin to wear and we long to walk into another room and talk to somebody or open a door and walk outside. On this flight, between Auckland and Los Angeles before flying on to London, I was sitting next to two young rugby players in their uniforms, and I was reading Alan Lightman’s book The Accidental Universe. It’s a collection of essays in which – very broadly – Lightman, a physicist, explores discoveries about the universe from a philosophical and emotional perspective as well as a scientific one. It’s a book I’ve read before, but I was reading it differently this time, paying closer attention, hoping that my semi-wakeness might lower my defences and help me notice more. Lightman is an unusual physicist in that he’s intensely interested in religion – particularly Buddhism – and literature and art, and in how these things widen a scientific perspective, and vice versa. He has that kind of restless, search-beaming mind that, as you follow it, seems to open up possibilities for understanding the universe, and the tiny accidental blip of human life within it, even as he arrives at more questions rather than answers. Reading this book reminds me of my first memories of flying in a plane, with my parents and my brothers JP and Neil – looking out the window and down at the town below, seeing the cars on the tiny roads, the rivers, the sheep. I was thrilled and haunted by how small all our busy-ness had become.

On my flight I read one of the essays, ‘The Temporary Universe’, a number of times. There was something in it I wanted to grasp but couldn’t. It opens with Lightman describing his daughter’s wedding, and his feeling that it’s a sort of tragedy – he wishes that she could have stayed the same, that he could have his younger daughter back, as she was at ten or twenty. (She’s only thirty in this essay, but, alright, fair enough, Lightman.) He has this irrational wish, he explains, for permanence, despite his scientific understanding that everything around us – the universe, the earth, our own bodies – is relentlessly shifting and evaporating. Nature shows us that time is constantly wearing away at what we know in this moment, and that to hope for lasting stability is futile. But in a profound contradiction, people still cling: to knackered old shoes, to photographs, to products that might make us look more like our younger selves, to a house perched on a clifftop that’s falling into the sea. This clinging is ridiculous in the face of the second law of thermodynamics – otherwise known as the arrow of time – and yet many of us can’t relinquish a desire for the people and the things that we love to never change and never leave us. ‘The universe has an infinite supply of time and can outlast any player,’ says Lightman. I was expecting him to leave it there: to tell us with a shrug and a smile, like the cobbler who can’t fix his falling-apart shoes anymore, that we have to accept this and get on with things. But then he suggests that, maybe, nature is not yet complete. Maybe it’s nature, not us, that can be found wanting. ‘Perhaps this immortal thing that we wish for exists beyond time and space.’

A few short days earlier, my brother Neil’s partner of nearly ten years, and the mother of their two small children Kiwa and Ngaire, took her own life. When I spoke to Neil on the day that it happened, a Saturday morning on the other side of the world, when paramedics and police were still in his home in Brixton, I heard a roaring sound in my ears and my whole body seemed to go numb. Then it felt like time stopped. The next morning, when it was night in London and the end of Neil’s first day living with what had happened, I walked outside. I saw a young woman pushing a pram with a toddler inside it, and a dog on a leash trotting beside them. A few cars hissed past, and a cyclist. These were indications that time was continuing to continue. Each indication felt piercing, acute, like the harshest glare of sunlight.

Neil was the one who found Jeng on the morning she died. On the first few days afterwards, in deep trauma, when numbness set in, he said that he became like a sea anemone, responding only to the environment around him in each moment. I keep picturing a sea anemone, attached to the sea bottom, its skeletonless body triggered by the slightest touch. Beneath the weight of miles of water above it, it moves around very slowly in the dark.

Lightman quickly – but with empathy, letting us down gently – dismisses the notion that a magnificent immortal substance exists in nature. It’s too preposterous to believe. And yet, like so many of us, he can’t force his mind to the dark place where he might truly accept that ‘in a few short years, my atoms will be scattered in wind and soil, my mind and thoughts gone, my pleasures and joys vanished’. In the essay’s uplifting final paragraphs, he writes that perhaps mortality grants a sort of grandeur on its own; perhaps there is something majestic in the brevity of our lives. And he writes, of course, about the night-blooming cereus, the leathery plant that blooms for only one night a year.

It is very hard to see the grandeur of brevity when a person’s life is cut short, and perhaps particularly hard when it is the person herself who cuts it short. Instead of beauty, the far stronger impression is of cruelty. When Lightman writes so vividly of the wearing effects of time, I think instead of the wearing effects of depression, with bitterness, because, whereas time outlasts us all, it’s not inevitable that depression will outlast the depressive. When he writes of the way the universe falls apart and constantly yields to disorder, and the way that the genes of some living things are subjected to random chemical storms so that, in time, they become degraded, like ‘forks with missing tines’, I think of these processes as the turmoil of depression, of what happened to Jeng in a space where nobody else could reach. In one way, this kind of thinking helps: Jeng was ill, and what happened may have been the result of a random storm of her illness, or perhaps the storm had been building for some time. In another way, it does not: if only she could have held on through this last storm. At this moment, the wish to reach into the past and hold on to someone is an even more profound futility than the futility of trying to stop time.

My seven-year-old nephew Kiwa likes to play Minecraft. The other day, my brother Neil says, Kiwa found himself stuck inside a dimension of Minecraft that he couldn’t get out of. He felt very alarmed by this and Neil had to help get him out of there, though it took some time and some trial and error. The FAQ boards providing advice on how to escape such dimensions say things like: ‘You need to set up a temporary shop by collecting leather, feather and sugarcanes, and go myst-hopping forth and back until you find one with a star fissure symbol. Temporary home, if you will.’ ‘Create a portal to the twilight forest. Once on the other side if you jump through the portal to go back home, it seems to drop you in the overworld.’ ‘Die, then escape limbo by finding the void.’

Maybe the place where his mum has gone, he said to Neil, is like the dimension in Minecraft. She has got lost, got stuck.

When I walked through Brixton the morning after I landed, on my way to Neil’s, through the morning rush to the tube, nearly every face I saw was squinting, grimacing, into bright grey sunlight, pressing forwards.

I don’t believe that we can ever consider the brevity of Jeng’s life to be in itself beautiful, to be majestic. Just over a week later, accepting that she is no longer here and will not come back is to force our minds into a dark place. Coming to terms with the inevitability of the past rather than that of the future is the impossible thing; learning to live in the reality that one terrible decision has made seems like the impossible thing. But we can consider many, many moments of her life to be beautiful, each of these accidental, shining blips within a life, within a universe: Jeng walking through the Brixton markets with shopping bags over her shoulder, Jeng riding her bike to work, Jeng making dumplings, Jeng in the countryside holding Ngaire’s hand. We can also consider the pressing-forward of those left behind to be beautiful. As my brother paces himself through the coming days, not only trying to process a deep trauma but also working his way through many grim administrative tasks, such as speaking to a coroner and closing bank accounts and explaining to many people what has happened, he moves around a little bit more, begins to make the very first movements, very slowly, upwards through the weight.

Neil, Jeng, Kiwa, Ngaire

Posted in Family, London | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Your coat

A woman smiles out of a plastic coat,

its yellow turning rain to torches.


Light rests on a man waiting to cross,

touches the small face inside his stroller.


The hills pull fog around them

and push on to the sea

carrying all our houses.


The boat folds around you today

carrying away our silence.


When you ride home tomorrow around the bay

see how flowers cloak just one tree

and leave all the rest green.


[for Jeng, 23 May 2015]

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Dear Bob Cunis

One of the things I did when up was up in Auckland for the writers’  festival was meet my friend Donald for breakfast one morning, on K Road, just after I had fallen over while walking to meet him. It was raining and those little raised metal dots that announce a pedestrian crossing were slippery. Both of my legs shot out from underneath me like they were on model train tracks, then I was lying down on the road. It almost felt good. It’s better to be unambiguous about falling over. A wave of pedestrians came towards me with concerned faces, and that made me feel good too, in the midst of shame. Anyway, Donald was my high school music teacher in the late 90s. We’ve stayed in touch off and on, and he still plays clarinet in various orchestras and teaches music. He is a tall man with a large smiling face and he has a lot to say. He says things like: ‘Wait – I have just remembered an anecdote from my past.’ In my mind he always wears a mustard-coloured corduroy jacket – this was the jacket he always wore as my music teacher – even though he’s been wearing other sorts of jackets for the last few years.

‘I’ve been thinking about getting rid of my TV,’ said Donald. We were sitting in a cafe where rumpled, writerly-looking types were dotted around the tables. I noticed a man I had danced at aggressively at Bar Bodega, like some kind of dancing bully, about ten years ago and I took care not to catch his eye. I remember him reciprocating but reluctantly.

I can’t remember word for word what Donald said, but I have an approximation. I was lamenting the fact that I don’t give myself much time to write these days – I am always doing something else at the same time, or thinking about things I have to do, or feeling worried about spending time on it at all; this is always a banal thing to say but it also seems like an inevitable thing to say, it just comes up as soon as people start talking about their art. Donald said: ‘I’ve been thinking about getting rid of my TV. But the thing is I’ve taken to practising my clarinet in front of the TV while watching movies. This is actually how I watched the entirety of Frozen.’

I haven’t seen Donald play for a few years but I remember him being an expressive player. He sways around and bobs at the knees, and wears a deep frown on his face. I pictured Donald standing up in front of the telly while playing his clarinet. It struck me as a version of shouting at the TV. ‘But can you take in anything of what’s going on in the movie while you’re playing?’

‘Well, every now and then I’ll stop so that I can catch a bit of dialogue or something, but it’s amazing how much you can follow just by watching the action and playing the clarinet.’ Then he said: ‘I’ve just remembered something from my past. My friend once told me about the cricketer Bob Cunis, and how there was this radio commentator who was rambling nonsensically about Bob Cunis when nothing was going on in the match. He said something like, “Ah yes, there goes Cunis … Cunis, a funny sort of name; neither one thing nor the other.” And my friend said that when I’m playing my clarinet in front of the TV, I’m pulling a Bob Cunis, because it’s neither here nor there, it’s neither one thing nor the other. So that’s why I’m thinking about getting rid of my TV, because it would be better for my clarinet practise; I wouldn’t be pulling a Bob Cunis, I would just be doing one thing instead of two things.’

This story came back to me later, because I realised that I myself pulled a Bob Cunis over the weekend. On Sunday afternoon I had to read at the Sarah Broom Poetry Prize. Along with Alice Miller and Diana Bridge, I was a finalist to win twelve thousand dollars, an amount of money that seems almost limitless to me – ‘I would be set for life!’ I cried to myself derangedly – as it is vastly, vastly more money than I have ever had in my bank account, and although I told myself that I wouldn’t win, and although I knew in my heart that I wouldn’t win (it’s funny how you can ‘know in your heart’, but all of your other organs wrestle the heart to the ground to get it to shut up), there was clearly a small but stubborn part of me that was hoping I would. This part of me was losing control. It had got on a plane with the money and flown to the other side of the world. There is a lesson here. Hope is inevitable. But you can keep the hope under control by keeping it to yourself. My mistake was to talk to other people about what I might do with the money. What good literary cause should I donate some of the money to? What charity? Should I start up a fund for something? (I became obsessed with doing something very worthy with this money.) But also: should I get a new bike, and what sort? What kind of nice winter coat? All of these questions were mistakes, because when people responded, their answers gave the possibility a sharper form, and hopefulness, with its deadly bulk, began to overshadow pragmatism. From time to time I would give myself a stern talking-to. ‘You know that this is not how prizes work; you don’t win them just from hoping.’ This worked for a while, and then this other voice would say: ‘Obviously that’s true, but, you never know …’ I imagined one outcome and then the other, over and over; the two began to overlap and blur together. I was pulling a Bob Cunis, doing and believing neither one thing nor the other, and I wandered around like that for ages; like an actual cricket match it went on painfully for days and days.

The oddest – and, alright, the most pitiful – thing is looking back at the acceptance speech that I scribbled in my notebook on Sunday morning. Writing this speech, too, was a mistake, but a hard one to avoid. You tell yourself: I’m just being sensible, I must be prepared for all outcomes. But mostly what you are doing is exercising a catastrophic hope. I share a snippet of this speech here in an effort to defuse some of its woefulness. (I would like to make an anthology of unused acceptance speeches. Little unmade futures.)

Doomed acceptance speech

But, ridiculously, when all three finalists were quietly told an hour or so before the reading who had won (it was Diana Bridge, congratulations Diana), I felt extreme relief. Thank fuck! There would be no expectations. I could continue to write in the margins and no one would accuse me of being ungrateful. And I wouldn’t have to decide what to do with the money. I would not have to be responsible. I could wallow in the strange comfort of my debt once more. But I still felt disappointed, and I noticed that my hands were shaking and I felt sick. It was like experiencing a physical withdrawal from hope; and becoming, again, just one thing, instead of two things.

Just before the reading, I bumped into Greg O’Brien and said that I didn’t know where the green room was – the place where all the writers had to meet before the event. Greg linked my arm in his and cried, ‘Look, I’ll take you there!’ and escorted me down the stairs. At the bottom, he said, ‘I’m putting my money on you!’ This conviction, even if it was off-the-cuff, something to be said in between places, suddenly felt like it was enough for me. I didn’t need anything else. I said, ‘I have reservations, but I’m definitely feeling hopeful.’

Posted in books, Poetry, Recklessness | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments

Five rides

1. The blogger Whale Oil calls cyclists ‘road maggots’. I can’t help but find this quite funny. Sometimes I think about it when I’m riding along. Does this analogy make cars blowflies?

2. On Friday, the day before Anzac Day, I rode past Memorial Park, and sidled my way past some coned-off army tanks – some of the ‘vintage World War I vehicles’  from Peter Jackson’s collection – which were to be used in the Anzac parade later that day. As I waited at the lights, I imagined one of the tanks clanking into life and nonchalantly rolling over me.

3. On my ride home at night recently, I’d stopped at a red light when four young guys came straggling across the road, all loose arms and rubbery lips, with beer cans in their hands. I thought, here we go. I looked straight ahead. I believe I looked mildly threatening.

‘HEY!’ one of the guys said. I looked at him and he said, ‘You wanna ride a different bike?’ He gestured at his crotch in case I hadn’t got it.

I told him that yes, I would like to ride a mountain bike. He ignored this, and one of the other guys shouted at me, ‘He wants to take you for a ride.’

I said loudly that I wanted a bike with disc brakes.

The first guy made a sort of confused screeching noise. Then the other guys shouted some stuff and then they straggled off, like a many-armed resurrection plant scuttling across the desert. I hope they had a nice night.

4. When I’m biking into a strong headwind, a silent space opens out in front of me. It’s a small bubble that moves with me, perched between my legs and face. I breathe into it as I would into an oxygen mask. Outside of the bubble, the wind is roaring in my ears, and no matter how many times I’ve cycled through a strong headwind, the ride is always frightening, like spadefuls of air are falling onto me, burying me and my bike. Sometimes they hit me sideways, so I swerve, or they hit me from the back so that I go surging forwards. But it feels like as long as I keep this silent bubble balanced on my lap, I’ll be alright. Like a viewfinder, it puts the world at a distance. Even as I heft my bike up onto my shoulder to walk down the steps to the flat, and wind is still squalling around and the white tail of Jerry is flagging my way, the bubble of silence seems to bob along with me.

5. Last night I dreamed that I was cycling up the hill home when I saw my boss cycling down on the other side of the road. The first thing I noticed was that he wasn’t wearing a helmet, and his hair was streaming out behind him. He was spinning the pedals furiously and he had an anxious look on his face. In the dream I thought to myself, ‘He’s making a getaway! What’s he running from?!’ Later I discovered that he was involved in some kind of illegal whaling operation, and the police had arrived and he’d been fleeing the scene.


Unknown photographer for the Daily Herald, via

c. 1940s, unknown photographer for the Daily Herald, via

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Lunch poem

These men are walking slowly.
They have angled their heads so they are not
looking at one another. They are wearing plum-coloured
jerseys with fresh, oxygenated shirts
pointing out their collars.
Their pants are rolling tyres.
They are moving very slowly now.
Their shoes are lead-bearing ores.
The napes of their necks, little flags.
Now their heads are lowered, forcing the men
to stare at the leaf-blowered path.
A rumble is coming. It is the rumble of large
submerged propellers
beginning to churn inside the men.
They are walking very slowly.
They are assembling a conversation.
We shall not pass them. There is no room.
One of us tries and is sucked into their propellers.
Should we call the police to make them walk faster?
‘Walk slower, walk slower,’ says the path they walk over.
‘A bit slower,’ say the windows
the men fill with plums and greys, as they go by.
The men are walking very slowly.
They are walking to the university.

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I met my friend to talk about work. But what we ended up talking about instead was friendship. He said he was thinking of writing a book about friendship. I told him about an essay by Vivian Gornick that I recently read and that maybe he would like. It’s mostly about Gornick’s friendship with a difficult man named Leonard. It’s a sad essay. There is a moment when Gornick has farewelled Leonard and, going up the elevator into her apartment, she starts to ‘feel on my skin the sensory effect of an eveningful of irony and negative judgement. Nothing serious, just surface damage – a thousand tiny pinpricks dotting arms, neck, chest – but somewhere within me, in a place I cannot even name, I begin to shrink from the prospect of feeling it again soon.’ I told my friend that I had recently had a falling out with another friend and that I wasn’t sure what to do about it. He said that a lot of his friends are starting to die now and he wasn’t sure what to do about that either.

I got a text from my mother to say that my aunt, my dad’s sister, died. I remember very little about her, but I do remember her face well. She had a chin-length greyish bob and drooping eyes and a quick walk. Maybe she wore soft skirts and long cardigans. The last time I saw her I was maybe eight. My father sent me a message on Facebook (that is, he wrote it on my Facebook wall) to say that at the funeral he’d sung a tribute to his sister, and his singing was very off-key, but it went down very well. ‘In fact I was mobbed like a pop star.’

I sent a book of poems to a friend who lives in Nelson. Five days later he emailed me to tell me he had received the book. ‘This morning I had a huge list. So many things undone. I considered resurrecting a Hot Cross Bun recipe for the family influx this Easter,’ he wrote. ‘But then the mailman saved me from corporeal ambitions.’

I woke up feeling angry because somehow, while sleeping, I remembered that a while back I wrote a long, enthusiastic email to answer an acquaintance’s questions to help with a project they were working on, and they never replied to say thank you. I was angry all morning, and I cleaned things furiously. Maybe there were other things feeding into the anger, but that was definitely the main thing, and it seemed to me that the lack of response represented the whole world’s general absent-mindedness in the face of all of my efforts. My many great efforts, I said to myself as I was on my hands and knees scrubbing the cat’s door. Then I remembered that, actually, the person did reply. But briefly, and not for two months after my email. Somehow, this made me angrier.

Sometimes I have a thought: ‘Other people my age have lots of friends. Why don’t I have more friends? Why don’t I have a group of friends who I see all the time?’ At first I’ll decide that it is not because I am shy, but because I am lazy. Then I begin to argue with myself. Am I truly lazy, or am I genuinely shy? Perhaps the shyness has turned into laziness, over the years. It is important to be honest with myself about this.

I decided I would stop putting friends and family into poems anymore, even though I still wanted to. It seemed selfish, in the end. I wasn’t sure whether I could stop putting them into other sorts of writing, though. Whenever I started writing anything, it was as if they all just walked in and made themselves comfortable. Sometimes the entrance was more forceful, as if they abseiled into the room or crashed through a skylight. Then stood up and dusted themselves off. Then I had no choice.

A poet came in to my work, the author of the book of poems that I sent to my friend. He said, ‘Now, here’s something I know about you – you’re a swimmer. I saw you standing outside the pool the other day, with a girlfriend. Was that you?’ I do swim, but I don’t stand around outside the pool with a girlfriend. I go to the pool by myself and when I am done I leave immediately. Suddenly this was too complicated to explain, so I said, ‘Yes.’ Then the poet said that he had three unpublished novels and that he would be quite satisfied if they all vanished so that they wouldn’t be unearthed after his death, to retrospectively destroy his career. But, these three novels. Perhaps something could be done.

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On breathing noisily, when puffed

I have decided to begin breathing noisily again when I am puffed, rather than trying to conceal the breathing.

In the past, I must have decided that breathing noisily when puffed was a sign of weakness, and that anyone who noticed the noisy breathing would say to themselves, ‘That woman is unfit.’ I can’t remember how or why I decided this, but it might have been something to do with climbing a mountain while on a school trip, and a boy was lagging up the mountain behind everyone else, breathing noisily, and the person beside me muttered, ‘John is unfit.’ As we waited, John crept very slowly towards us, crablike with his huge pack, and his eyes were lowered as he breathed noisily.

It might have been that, or it might have been something else, such as climbing some steps with my mother, or a combination of things.

For years now I have tried to quiet my breathing, when puffed, by letting the breath out thinly, like a slow leak from a puncture, or even pretending that it was a sigh, as if I had just remembered an important task. So whenever I was riding my bike up one of the many hills that I ride up each day, I tried not to move my mouth too much, because this would betray my noisy breathing. I also tried to maintain an unflustered, slightly bored expression, as if I was making so little effort that I could mentally absent myself from the scene. I didn’t want to attract the attention of any of the people walking up and down alongside the road, especially not anyone who would recognise me, and who might say to themselves, ‘Ashleigh Young is unfit.’ One of my bigger fears, and one that I thought about every day, was that an old boyfriend of mine, who I know goes to the university, would be passing in a bus and would look out the window and see me there at the roadside, breathing noisily. ‘She has got unfit,’ he would think to himself. I suppose this might still happen sometime in the future.

I am slightly puffed after walking the three flights of steps from my flat to the street with my bike over my shoulder. I am averagely puffed when I begin the climb towards the university. I am very puffed when I get to the top of The Terrace, and I am extremely puffed by the time I am creeping through the roundabout at the top of the parade beside the university; I use a last bit of energy to throw my arm sideways to signal the turn. When I am locking up my bike, I am so puffed that it feels like my lungs have turned into a pair of excited dogs and they are jumping up and down, trying to get at the air. My lungs paw and salivate at the air, tearing bits out of it like stuffing. By now I am defeated. Anyone who walks down the path behind me will see a woman untangling a bike lock while breathing not just noisily but extravagantly, on a breathing spree, and the thought will probably come to them, even just for a second before it is gulped up by a stream of other thoughts: ‘That woman is unfit.’

Sometimes I have been stuck behind slower-moving male cyclists who I could tell were breathing noisily, but I still have not been moved to allow myself to do the same.

Once I had a slow crash when a woman in a parked car opened her door into my path. But even that didn’t remind me that there were more important things to worry about than my breathing.

Last week a couple of teenage boys shouted abuse at me when I was just at the steepest, most difficult part of the hill, and I didn’t have enough air in my lungs to shout abuse back, but even that didn’t make me think I should let myself breathe noisily, as required.

Today, nothing in particular happened to make me decide to breathe noisily again when I am puffed. So, just as I am not sure why I decided that I had to breathe quietly, I am now not sure why I have decided that I don’t have to. I pushed my bike through the gate and my cat Jerry immediately came running out from under a tree, screeching at me. He screeched loudly and continuously as he ran down the steps just in front of my feet. I leaned my bike against the fence and put its special bicycle raincoat on, which is always more difficult than I think it will be, like putting a pair of pants on a car. Then I came inside and lay down on the floor and breathed noisily until I was no longer puffed. All this time, Jerry was prancing around me, screeching for food and maybe, I hope, because he was glad to see me. Maybe it just felt like enough time had passed and that I could breathe now.

Posted in bicycles, Working | 4 Comments