potatoes

The rudest thing I do, or one of the rudest things, is sometimes I don’t get back to people. This has been going on for years, and it’s a deranged and filthy habit. It has got so bad, so embarrassing, that I would rather write about it here than get back to the people I need to get back to. As I write this I have many unanswered messages and emails, and some that I haven’t even opened because I feel so full of shame that they are still sitting there. When I think of my voicemail I can sense layers and layers, like sedimentary rock, of messages from my mum. It should be so simple to respond immediately: ‘I can’t reply properly right now, I will get back to you soon.’ It should be easy to say, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t reply sooner.’ But sometimes – just every so often this happens – I can’t go in. I can’t even go into the message. I fear it. Maybe I’ll answer a different message – one where I know the expectations are low and I have exactly the right words. During these times of avoidance, I’ll sometimes allow myself to forget the message I need to answer, which is dangerous and intoxicating. But always, after a while, the thought of the message catches me, often when I first wake up in the morning. I’ll think: what’s that funny feeling? What’s wrong in the atmosphere? Then I remember the message.

My family got voicemail around the same time the Santa hotline came in. Was it 0800 HO HO HO? I would stretch the phone cord from the hallway into the linen cupboard. Then I’d call up Santa in the dark and record horrible messages all through December. Animal noises, farts, sometimes poems I’d written. The automated Santa would eventually cut me off with his jangling sleighbells and laughter, so I would ring again and continue. It was the leaving of the message that was important. No one would listen to it, but that didn’t matter. Leaving a message was important work. There was a new space for you to create something, so you had to do it.

Around this time there was also Call Waiting and Three-Way Calling, and these were great, but best of all was just leaving a message on a friend’s phone – knowing what would make them laugh, what jokes would work. At some point, a new technology came: with some people’s phone numbers, you could press the * key if your message had not been good and you wanted to record a better one. In retrospect, this was a bad technology. I spent a long time re-recording my messages, sometimes stabbing at the * after saying only ‘Hi’, because I knew immediately that my ‘Hi’ was a disaster. If you had the option to re-record, why wouldn’t you take it? It was the dream of life: seeing how you did the first time, then going back to do it over without making a mistake. But eventually, after 7 or 8 or 9 takes, the effort to sound spontaneous was too tiring and you’d have to hang up with your subpar ‘Hi’ committed to tape.

I spent a long time recording a long message in a silly voice for the family voicemail greeting, and my dad heard it once and was angry, so I had to change it. At one point my brother changed the greeting to a song he’d recorded with his band Spaz. And I remember saving messages we’d received, so that I could go back to listen to them again. There was one from my favourite teacher, and one from another teacher who later died, and one from my penpal in America, and I can’t remember what else.

But the delight of messages. Of sending them, of getting them, of waiting for more.

For a few weeks, even months, I’ll get better at getting back to people and I will need to apologise much less, but then in a matter of days the old paralysis will overtake me again, the old fear of being asked to do things that I’m not able to do, the fear of not having any good words. I’ll let myself get swept along by other things. The silence creeps in.

Natalia Ginzburg in her essay ‘Silence’ writes that, when we were children, ‘Our silence was our wealth. Now we are ashamed of it and desperate and we know all the misery it brings. We shall never be free of it again.’ It’s a fantastically severe essay, because for Ginzburg silence and guilt are not ordinary failings but vices. Silence is one of the worst ones! One of the strangest and gravest. ‘We shall never be free of it again.’ I love that line so much that I don’t even mind if it’s not necessarily true. But it probably is true. There are so many ways to reach other people in the world, and more ways each day, so there are many more ways to be silent than there used to be.

Before reading Ginsberg’s essay I hadn’t considered silence to be a vice but I suppose it is. In the moment, silence is easier. It holds us. It keeps us always in the ‘before’.

Was our silence our wealth, as children? Maybe with parents it was, because withholding could feel so powerful – it let them know that their words didn’t work on us. But I also think messages – voicemails, emails – were a sort of wealth. Anything you could put in a message, anywhere you could craft yourself, and know that you would be received, felt like gold.

One afternoon, a few weeks ago, in the park above the house where I was staying for a writing residency, some teenage girls parked up. I couldn’t see them, but the sound of their shrieking carried on the wind. You couldn’t really understand anything they were saying or laughing about, and the longer it went on – ages! ages! – the less I wanted to understand. Whatever it was they were saying, there was always more of it and it was never finished. Finally they went away, their voices blasting all the way down the road, and they left a baffled silence in the garden. I realised my heart had been beating fast the whole time they were there. Later I talked about the girls with the other writer staying at the house, Pip. I found myself saying, like I had overalls on and a toothpick in my mouth, ‘They were really hootin’ and hollerin’.’ (More and more these days, I find myself performing some character, because it’s easier.) We had both wanted to shout at them to go away but counselled ourselves to wait it out. ‘It touched a nerve in me, and I remembered being a girl,’ Pip said. We agreed, if we were girls now, and sitting among those girls outside, we would not have survived.

Earlier I was unlocking my bike, to bike home – it was around 6 o’clock in the central city, no one really around – and a car went past and a guy said out the window to me: ‘You fat motherfucker!’ It was a perfect delivery. Fat motherfucker! This short but definitive message, delivered in the postage stamp space of time as a car passes and the driver’s voice is in earshot. Then the car got stopped at a red light just up the road from me. I thought about going up and saying, ‘How’s it going!’ but couldn’t be bothered having some kind of altercation. The cyclist–driver altercation always follows a grim template. The driver will look at me with absolute disgust, I will wave my arms like Jerry Seinfeld, the following days will be ruined as the scene loops over and over in my head. But it got me thinking that what needs to happen, to solve my problem with messages, is for all messages to be yelled from a car window. No escape.

I once fell out with a friend because there were periods when I wouldn’t answer their emails. Later I would apologise and promise to do better, but soon enough I would stop answering again. I’d have days, weeks, of being on a roll. I was unstoppable, writing those emails. Then something would shift. When I thought about composing an email, a kind of weakness and stupidity came over me. I didn’t have the energy to seem interesting, or to find things interesting. All intensity left me. I couldn’t bear to put more words on a screen. I just wanted to be silent, recovering from words and the endless work of them. The longer I held back, the greater the expectation became to write – I could feel it, humming in the air between computers – and the more feeble my sentences felt, and the more profuse and gabbling I knew my apologies would have to be. Eventually, I didn’t even have the energy to talk about how useless I was in the opening lines of the email. But then, after some time had passed, my energy would come back and I would be able to write again, and to apologise and say how useless I was again, which was a huge relief. I would hardly remember the feeling of not being able to write.

At the residency, something I was trying to write was a poem responding to a sculpture by the artist Kate Te Ao. Just one poem. I was supposed to be writing the book I had applied for the residency with, stories about a character called Betty, who works on a ferry, but on this day I was more interested in the sculpture than in Betty and how to get her on and off this boat. I stared at photographs of the sculpture for a long time. I could feel my ignorance of art getting in the way, but I was moved by the work, almost afraid of it and what it might speak about. It is thin, tree-like structures, very fragile, reaching up towards small windows in the gallery. Some of the trees are wearing sleeves covered in bright glittering sequins. In the photographs, at the bottom of the treelike structures were small piles of these very weird and beautiful ceramic potatoes and kumara, painted different colours. Ceramic veg. I fixated on these veg. I stared at the photographs and all I could think was that the work was beautiful and I was moved by it.

This surge of emotion was bad for the writing. It’s taken me ages to work out that feeling is not writing. (This has been a disastrous realisation. I felt like I was writing a book…)

When I was little I wrote a letter to the children’s author Jack Lasenby and told him I was writing a sad story about a hedgehog who died. It felt important that he know. Jack wrote back to say that it was always a great risk to cry at your computer: ‘You might electrocute yourself.’ At last I think I know what he meant.

I spent a of time at the residency looking out the window at the birds in the gardens, especially blackbirds. The blackbird, maybe more than other birds, is interested in what the other birds are doing. It’s busy but it’s always got time. It’s busy scratching and rustling about for things in the dirt and leaves but it also looks up a lot to see what’s going on. I love to watch a blackbird just looking around, going through its tiny routines of paying attention. It’s heard all these noises and seen all these movements a million times but it seems to be noticing them for the first time. The blackbird is the bird that would answer its messages promptly.

One of my problems with the writing residency model is that it gives you time. That’s the whole problem. The organisers of these things need to do something about it. As soon as I have time, I’m scared and can’t function. Later, after the residency, I talked to a therapist about my fear of time and she suggested I go to a website where you can enter in your birthdate and it’ll start counting down how much time – in hours, minutes, seconds – you probably have left in your life.

‘Jesus Christ,’ I said.

‘Yes it’s quite confronting,’ she said. ‘But you know, we don’t have time, we are made of time. Time isn’t outside of us, it’s inside us.’

That sounds good, and like it should be a revelation, but I couldn’t think about any of it to the depth that was required to make it properly helpful. I like a slow-burning revelation, where the idea gently becomes obvious and then is inescapable. Not one that is immediately genius. That’s too much pressure.

It would be good if your body could regrow time, like how if a bit of your liver gets taken out, it grows back.

This week, I went to look at Kate’s installation in person. It’s in a small space that the sculptures somehow make bigger. They seem to reach upwards forever. One of the treelike structures, wearing its sleeve of sequins, reaches up and wraps itself tentacle-like around a light fitting.

My poem was on the wall. It’s called ‘Before’. It was gigantic, and I couldn’t bring myself to read it. I could only look at it as if it was an abstract artwork, and luckily the words lost meaning as I looked at them.

At the last moment, just before opening the show, Kate had decided not to include the beautiful potatoes in the installation. She had made around 130 of these things – dark green, pale green, white, grey. She offered me some, so I took four of them, and rode off with two ceramic potatoes and two ceramic kumara rattling around in my pannier, which is the wrong way to treat works of art. But I couldn’t have imagined such a perfect outcome for writing anything. The potatoes and kumara that didn’t make it into the art show. They are small weird treasures. They’re sitting on a table now. Better than any words.

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B-roll

Yesterday I was filmed ‘being a writer’, for the Windham Campbell Prize, which is having its ten-year anniversary this year. It was a slightly freaky experience: I’ve always had this fantasy of myself as someone who would be quite good at being normal and relaxed on camera, but it turns out to be the hardest thing in the world, and everything good you had to say just unravels immediately into chaos. At one point, during the interview portion, I heard myself describing myself as a stingray. I have blocked the context from my mind. Anyway, a big part of the shoot was filming the B-roll, where I had to be shown ‘being a writer’: typing at my desk, weeding the garden, reading/stroking my own books (we do this), and at one point fondling a fern in the rain and looking up into the sky from left to right. I struggled with the bit where I had to write at my desk. How do you hold your body so that you look like a writer? Usually I write in bed, or reclined in my armchair with my feet (in huge socks) up on a wheely chair, so it felt unnatural to sit at a desk ‘writing’. As my fingers and face were being filmed while I was typing, I tried not to think about my fingernails (scungy, bitten) and figured I might as well try to write something. It was this weird exercise in trying to unfreeze myself while being looked at. I don’t think it succeeds at all, but it was kind of an interesting exercise.

B-roll

This is what I am typing for the camera.

Creative task creative task creative task. 

Let’s run through the poem from the top. Here is the poem again.

My god, it is the poem again already. A fly is here. A fly is in the room…

Two flies. A bird is screaming. A bird is screaming. I am typing normally.

The camera man had to stop before because that fly was here.

It was on me as I was speaking.

I look up. I delete… I look up and type normally with my mouth a little bit open.

I am enjoying what I am writing. You can see it on my face. 

My mouth is a little bit open. I open it more. The flies are mating.

The moment is seeds I can’t get off my hands…

It was pointed out to me that the rubbish bin was in the frame.

But I am a writer. I type normally. Who am I at the desk? No one. No one.

Who is running? I am. I am. Through the rain, like a writer.

Now I remember the sausage. Here’s something. 

I remember the dog that was lost in the wetlands. Do you remember?

The dog reached up for the sausage that was dangled from a drone.

The dog was drawn away from the wetlands.

The drone, the sausage dangling from the drone.

The dog’s life, saved, the dog, eating the sausage. But only half the sausage.

The dog, evading capture still. For days. Days.

But eventually the dog was saved. It smelled the sausage – it smelled it.

It was drawn out of its lostness and away from the encroaching floods

and it was saved and fucking drawn to safety! I am a writer.

Then the dog spent two days and two nights alone. 

The truth is ordinarily I write in bed. Not sitting upright like this. Like an insane person

with a rubbish bin under the desk. The fly is back. There was a fly on me yesterday as well,

but at a different location. I am thinking new things all the time.

A woman sitting on a bench in a bra and jeans, smoking.

A woman smoking and looking over her shoulder as someone comes into the room.

She has a little perfect haircut.

It will never be possible to look that good again. It’s over. You never had it.

My mouth a little bit open. I am living a life of the mind now.

Here is the poem again already. It likes to be filmed while it is being written.

The disgusting poem. Do not film it. Do not film it. Do not put the camera on it.

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Helen Garner’s hair.

‘Went and had a little haircut.’
—Helen Garner, 1986

I keep thinking about Helen Garner’s hair. Her short, scraggy, square hair. All through the three volumes of her diaries there are small (but somehow … immense) moments when she thinks of her hair. Or when others think of her hair. There she is on the cover on the third volume, her hair magnificently square, just edging now into mullet territory. She is looking out to sea from the rail of a ship, turning away from and towards the camera at the same time. I doubt she is thinking about her hair in that moment. Though maybe she thought about it briefly when she looked at the photo later.

In all of the drama and wrench and beauty and howl and fantastic ordinariness of the writing contained in these diaries, why should I be thinking about Helen Garner’s hair? Because I love this hair. The hair, too, is a part of all of that drama. And it is drama all of its own. Its stubborn squareness, its slight blokeishness, its practicality, how it must be chopped on a regular basis. It is my form teacher’s hair in 1996, my maths teacher’s hair in 1997, it is my mother’s hair and all of her friends’ hair. It’s the hair of going swimming and the hair of a rough towel-drying. It’s the hair of walking briskly from place to place. The hair of time passing and the parts of us that stay the same.

And because Helen Garner’s hair means something. It was a shocking realisation to me, that this should be so. That someone whose power is in looking at the world should ever be looked at and coolly appraised by the world. Whose hair should ever be looked at. And whose sense of self could ever be rattled by the business of getting a haircut. In one scene she gets her hair cut in Chicago in 1996 by a guy called Benny Casino: ‘As usual a haircut removed, distorted and replaced askew my self-image. When he finished I said, ‘Can I take your photo?’ This restored my power as looker.’ Being looked at – and looking at her own image – its Helen Garner’s kryptonite.

Helen Garner knows her hair means something, too, whether she wants it to or not, and this is why she feels a lot about it. Why sometimes she’s protective of it, defiant; why sometimes she is despairing, feeling herself masculine, not womanly enough. In a 1987 entry, she and some friends have a long conversation about hair and whether ‘P’ should have hers cut or not, and suddenly Helen breaks in, wondering whether all this talk about hair is neurotic, but ‘P’ disagrees. ‘“No!” said P. “It means something. A circle means something different from a triangle. The shape of your hair affects the outline of your body, where it connects with the rest of the world.”’ Of course, I agree with this and I also find it almost unbearable, because it goes both ways: Helen Garner’s hair is one of the many places where the rest of the world meets Helen Garner. Here it comes, with its unasked-for opinions and subtle scoldings. 1984: ‘Yesterday the diplomat asked me if I’d like to have my hair cut at her hairdresser, “so you won’t have to worry about it.” I politely declined, but I knew she really meant “Your hair looks awful.”

I will admit it. Many times, as I read, I would think: please, Hels. Go to a good hairdresser and get a haircut that you really like, and learn how to style it. Stop getting these bad haircuts. Don’t go again to that hairdresser who is clearly ‘freaking out’. (‘He cut it dry, a thing he’s never done before.’) You are so good at noticing beauty in the world, you even notice ‘the subtle beauty of a subjunctive, the tiny shock it administers’. A subjunctive, for god’s sake. Your powers of seeing are immense, yet here you are, missing out on the beauty and wonder of a good haircut. I can’t be alone in thinking this.

But this misses the point and only goes to show how indoctrinated I am by certain ideologies (I should point out that, despite this, I don’t even have a good haircut). It’s not about what Helen Garner’s hair looks like. It’s that she wants to be left alone with that haircut. It’s that she doesn’t want her haircut to send any message at all. She desires a no-haircut, I think, a haircut that transcends haircuts (I would argue that actually her haircut gets pretty close to this; in style it exists outside of time. I realise now that it is, and I don’t use this word lightly, badass). Why should she even have to think about the difference between a bad haircut and a good haircut; why should it make any difference as to how she is seen as a woman?

But it does make a difference, she knows, and in this she is all at sea, railing sometimes at the injustice of it, the injustice of ‘women’s position as regarded creatures’. So I come back again to loving this haircut and feeling tender towards it and wishing she could be immune to bastards with opinions. I love her hair (and her) most when she defends it. Again from 1984: ‘. . . Whatsername said, with that smile she gets when she’s about to be daringly frank, “I like your hair when it’s pushed back at the sides.” I felt like screaming, “I like my hair when it’s all shaved off! So get fucked!”’ Then, a single entry later, as if in retaliation: ‘I went and had my hair absolutely CHOPPED.’ Of course, the hair of the other woman, X the painter, is free of such violence, is fair and wavy, ‘soft hair waving about her brow’.

I have never met Helen Garner but saw her once, on her own in an art gallery, when she was visiting Auckland for the writer’s festival. She was looking at a picture (was it Fiona Pardington?), and she was in that moment just before you drift away from one thing and go on to the next one. It’s probably inappropriate even to mention her hair. The whole point is that we’re trying to rise above it. But I did notice her hair – in the way that you notice all the earthly details when you see a famous person in real life – and I thought it looked soft. I know: not that it matters.

I had a conversation with two men writers at a book launch sometime last year and we were talking about the diaries. I thought about mentioning the haircut, but hadn’t solidified my thoughts on it yet – and still haven’t, clearly: the haircut is a font of infinite mystery and intrigue and, yes, beauty to me; the things it stirs up in me keep growing and changing. But to the point, one of the writers suggested that Helen Garner would be ‘difficult to live with’. That’s a question I often find myself wondering about, more generally about writers: what would this one and that one be like to live with? But I was taken aback. Who is to say that she would be difficult to live with? Apart from ‘V’ (her ex-husband, the novelist Murray Bail), who would likely agree. But remember that ‘V’ is a man who, when Helen Garner shows him a photo of herself among the voyagers on a ship to Antarctica, studies the photo then hands it back and says with a laugh, ‘“You really have got a small head, haven’t you!”’ As someone also with a small head, this hit me on a few levels (and the part of me that’s been trained to find it funny, found it a bit funny). I couldn’t hold it straight, in my own tiny head, that someone could go to Antarctica, write the masterpiece ‘Regions of Thick-Ribbed Ice’, then be told off-handedly that they’d got a small head. What I’m saying is that ‘V’ was almost certainly more difficult to live with.

What we can definitely say is that Helen Garner sometimes found herself difficult to live with. In a heartbreaking entry from 1986, a friend shows her some photos of herself from the previous year. ‘I was shocked by my ugliness: spotted skin, lined face, ugly haircut, dark expressions. I mean I was shocked. I quailed at the possibility that I will be alone now for the rest of my life. That I will never turn back into a womanly being but will find myself stuck here in between, plain and dry in my manly or boyish little clothes. I was afraid of my ugliness.’ I was almost unable to continue reading. The loneliness of that passage, the starkness of it, all possibility seeming to be stripped away. Later, she tells us that she fears beauty too. ‘People like me, who aren’t beautiful, fear beauty because it seems to be a guarantee of love.’ The sense is that without beauty she is on shaky ground, constantly having to ‘summon up other resources’.

I thought how none of us can really be rescued from such feelings of self-loathing – how we have to rescue ourselves, over and over again. Often Helen Garner’s way of rescuing herself is to go out and be among people, turning her back and going on dancing when ‘V’ jerks his head at her. But this struggle in herself is what gives the writing so much of its beauty and intimacy. Amid all of that push and pull, she tries to get stronger than the power exerted by the gaze of others, so that her work can get stronger. At one point she tries to explain to the block-headed ‘V’ her ‘ideas about looking: how men have control of it, how in order to be an artist or a writer a woman has to overcome her sense of herself as an object, has to usurp something.’

I imagine her haircut getting even blockier as she usurps that thing. As she finally leaves her marriage, as she finally buys that blue sofa, as she writes and writes. The hair gets even shorter and scragglier, even worse – oh god, it is a terrible haircut, but now we see that it is becoming something else, something that is almost nameless and that can’t be called good or bad – as she grows in power, as if the hair were a hardy desert plant drawing upon some deep, ancient reserve, finally blooming.

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New Year’s paragraphs

Merlin, circa 1978. Junkyardsparkle, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

On Christmas Day a fly was bothering us outside near all the food. My niece Iris ran inside and got the fly swat and presented it to my brother JP, who said, ‘No, we don’t do that outside.’ ‘Yes, otherwise where would it end?’ I said. I was imagining chasing flies through the streets, down to the beach, up into the hills with a swat. I liked the idea of the outside as the fly’s house. You don’t swat the fly in its own house.

I’ve just realised it’s that time of year again. New Year! That time where I moon around in a bunch of disjointed paragraphs, with little dashes in between them, kind of complaining about things, kind of describing some things I have noticed, but most importantly of all, being vaguely disconsolate. It came around so fast.

Every time I clean the skirting boards of a house, which isn’t often, but when I do, I think about the times someone has inspected my cleaning of skirting boards. There was a flat in Newtown, around 2008. I’d spent two days cleaning and the place was now just two bright empty rooms. The landlord walked back and forth slowly between the two rooms, then he came to a stop and said in a jolly voice, ‘Did you do the skirting boards properly?’ I knew this was going to go badly and said that yes I had. And I had! I had. But he knelt down to the skirting boards, like some skirting board whisperer, and found a bit of dust straight away. I felt completely ashamed and said I’d do them again. I can’t think of any landlord who has said the words ‘skirting boards’ without a faint tone of excitement in their voice. They just cannot wait to get their hands on those things after you’re done with them. Skirting boards aren’t inherently bad – they’re like light switches, or barcodes on the backs of books – but they are the place where your true slovenly self, your life of utter filth, will be pointed out to you. There are so many boards in the world that speak of other lives and obsessions – skateboards, storyboards, soundboards, keyboards, dartboards – but skirting boards will only ever be to me the place upon which this tiny, deranged battle must play out between tenant and landlord. So I hate to clean them, but I will.

Above where I’m writing this a sparrow goes in and out of its house, a secret one in the roof of this house.

Late on Christmas Day my brother Neil in London messaged me and JP. ‘Do you remember that weird computer thing that we’d play noughts and crosses on. It was red and would make bloopy noises.’ I tried to remember, and thought I almost had it – the ghost of something red, something bloopy-sounding; maybe I could remember something of the feeling of its presence in a room – but in the end there was nothing that could be called a memory. After some minor sleuthing JP found that it was something called a Merlin, and sent a picture: yes, it was red and looked like it would make bloopy noises. It gave me a funny feeling that gadgets from the 80s always give me – half deja vu, and half a sort of simmering dread at the knowledge that all of that time is over, is so long ago, which in the trade we call getting older. ‘I remember never really knowing what to do with it,’ JP said. ‘I don’t think it was fully functional by the time it ended up in my toy orbit. But every now and then, it would beep and come to life.’

My old bora-infested desk is sitting outside with a sheet of rain lying on its top. There are so many things I haven’t finished writing while sitting at that desk. It’s been out there for a few days. We’re going to cut it into bits with a chainsaw tomorrow. The desk before this one – also wooden, even heavier, even more bora-infested – also sat outside in the rain for a few days, and I can’t remember what happened to it after that. I treat all my desks very badly. I had a thought that you could turn this current desk upside down, saw off its legs and plant a herb garden in its undercarriage, but it all seems like a hassle and the desk garden would probably just need to be left behind anyway.

When I ran through the bush earlier today the light and shade and rain together had a strange effect: for a few moments it looked like door frames, or picture frames, were hanging in the trees. The rain got heavier overhead, with the sound of something speeding up. On another day when I was running through, there was this young guy striding along through the trees carrying something in a drycleaning bag.

I had a bulimic lapse the other day. I like to call these ‘lapses’ – the sense of a failure obviously but also a kind of sinking, a sliding, a falling, that tells me something got weak and needs to be built back up. It was the first one in almost a year, the longest stint yet. This old place comes rapidly into view, like a stage set with moving parts, each sliding back to reveal the next part where I have to go and where I’ve rehearsed going hundreds of times before. I’ll pretend to myself I’m going somewhere else now; I’m only passing through, I’m going into the wings. But then I’m slowing, slowing, and pushing the door open. I’ll probably always go back there, maybe even many more times, to move through this shonky set I’ve known since I was very young. It’s weirdly, maybe wrongly comforting to think that this won’t be the last time. I can accept it, and it doesn’t have to be a disaster.

The chainsaw went through the desk ‘like butter’.

Was irrationally annoyed when I opened the new Sally Rooney to find she had quoted from Natalia Ginzburg’s essay ‘My Vocation’ for the epigraph. The bit about being ‘a small, a very small writer. I swear I know it.’ My heart sank. You can’t just bandy those lines around, I thought. You can’t just put them in a novel that millions of people are going to read! Then I realised I was just jealous and didn’t want too many people to know about that essay and claim it for themselves. Then, how idiotic that was. The love that you feel for a book always feels private, between you and the writer, and nothing can really touch it, and the love is so particular to whatever you’re looking for, or maybe don’t even know that you’re looking for, in that moment. Helen Garner, from How to End a Story: ‘My friend gave me a marvellous book called Macs for Dummies. The minute I saw a page headed “Mindlessly opening and closing files” I knew it was the book for me.’

I was thinking about this flat I went to look at in Newtown around 2004. It was winter and a tall woman in a long skirt let me in through the kitchen, which was poky and wooden and had onion peelings all over the bench. The woman owned the place and she didn’t want anyone home during weekdays: people just made mess. She led me down a hallway. The house seemed simultaneously enormous – high ceilings, this long hallway – and tiny, the rooms cramped and cupboardless and onion-smelling. One room was full of piles of newspapers and magazines and books, and armchairs heaving with stuff. I had an overwhelming sense of dust. Upstairs – I remember the woman’s skirt sweeping the stairs – there was a bathroom that was mostly bath and very little room, and a window that opened out onto the roof. Back out in the hallway she knocked on a door and opened it, and there was a man sitting at a desk. What was his name? I want to say Mike. This was the time when most men were named Mike. I had already lived with several. This one was sitting in front of a computer. He had a cup of tea and some Marmite toast on a plate beside him. He was wearing a thick cream cable-knit woollen jumper that came up to his chin. I remember thinking about the jumper and the toast, how the crumbs would get on the wool, how it would be scratchy, how necessary those two textures were to be warm. We had a brief conversation and I don’t remember what we said, but I remember the soft glow about that guy, in the small room with the tea and his toast, working at his computer – a similar one to what I had, a bulky PC, with the matching cream-coloured keyboard – how it seemed like such good fortune that in this cold house filled with other people’s things, here he was in his jumper with his toast, working on something. This was how you did it. I thought I could probably live there then. But the next day I lost my nerve and changed my mind and stayed where I was.

New Year. I think New Year is the bit in part 3 of Get Back when George says, almost with disgust, ‘Well, I don’t want to go on the roof.’ And then Ringo declares, ‘I would like to go on the roof.’ And Paul says: ‘You would like to?’ Ringo: ‘Yes, I’d like to go on the roof.’ And then eventually they go up on the roof, because there was really no other option. New Year is also like this very enjoyable argument I had with someone at a party who thought that Get Back was too long and I thought it was the perfect length: it had to be that long, I said, to show all of the chaos and silliness and lame jokes that made up the Beatles. ‘But by that logic, where would it end?’ he said. ‘Why not show all 60 hours?’ I hadn’t thought of that and he had a good point. You had to end it somewhere.

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Wicked form

I remember the boy and I standing in a trailer in his driveway. He was staring at me, waiting for me to answer his question.

‘Hug,’ I finally said. It was a bad option, but it was the least bad option. Whenever I looked at the boy – his tracksuit, his freckled face, his small mouth – I knew we’d never be friends. For one thing, he spoke meanly to his dog, and this told me everything I needed to know.

The boy made an impatient noise and came towards me. He was bigger than me and he wrapped himself around me so that I staggered backwards. It was strange to be so close to a boy who wasn’t a brother. His body was burly and smothering. Finally he pushed me away. Then we had to go back to the beginning of the game.

He listed my options again – the things I could let him do. Each time, I chose the hug, and each time he grew more annoyed. When once more I took the easy way out, he refused. In one decisive action, he pulled down his pants and undies and began to issue instructions for what I should do next. He seemed happier now that he was in charge.

I knew I should have felt scandalised – that it was wrong to feel unmoved. What I felt, though, was boredom. I tried to pretend I was still interested. The options, after all, were dirtier and weirder now, and the boy was toying with himself, as if coolly demonstrating how some new gadget worked – how you could take it apart, put it back together. But none of it had anything to do with me.

Right behind him, then, his mother appeared. She was leaning against the trailer with her elbows propped up. It was shocking to see an adult suddenly so close, close enough to touch; it was like an animal in a paddock had wandered over to stare at us. Her hazy blond hair seemed to glow against the greyness all around us – the grey stones of the driveway, the grey house, the grey sky of our neighbourhood.

The boy still hadn’t seen his mum. For a moment her eyes met mine, and she looked bored too. I couldn’t tell if she was bored with her son, or bored with me for being so silly as to get into a trailer with her son.

Almost everyone I know has a small story like that, more or less. The story could almost be funny, or it should stay small enough to be funny. The story isn’t really about any loss of innocence but about the realisation that you are beginning to take on different forms to different people. I was seven then and most of the time my body was a means of getting between home and school. But every so often it would reveal itself to me as a kind of tether, binding me to things I didn’t know anything about. Or it became a radio, emitting signals I had no control over. Sometimes, if anyone looked at me for too long, I was scared they could see deeper in, to another of my forms – my wicked form.

My brother had told me he’d once woken up in bed with the feeling that something heavy was pinning him down, crushing his chest, and the word ‘devil’ came into his mind. Eventually the feeling passed and he could move and breathe again. I thought that that must be what had happened to me: somehow, a devil had got in.

I thought it because I had episodes where certain sounds took on a physical shape. The scariest sounds were the sharp ones, like my dad typing at his computer, or a light switch flicking, or shoes clicking on a floor – I felt the edges and weights and movements of these sounds. But sometimes it was the soft sounds too, like a sheet being pulled over a bed, or my mum brushing her hair – these sounds became like whispering. They pressed around my head, getting inside me, and my heart felt sharp inside my chest. I thought the sounds were the devil making itself known. It hadn’t released me yet, like it had released my brother.

I had one other form that I knew of, and whenever it revealed itself I was relieved to find it still there – when I was nothing more than a small furred animal burrowing against my mother.

When we were older and in high school, the boy had a group of lanky, shouting friends. The boy told people that I’d done filthy things with him and would do them with anyone. Now that all of his friends knew, it was as if the boy had multiplied. He was a gaggle of boys that moved around the school chaotically, his many heads bobbing, mouths opening and shutting with laughter. He told and retold the story of what we’d done, and the story got bigger every time, and his selves kept multiplying. Now it was as if the whole school had been there in the trailer too, had watched my face closely to see what option I would take, had watched me choose things I hadn’t chosen.

One day after school, I heard the boy telling the story again, loudly so that I could hear as I walked past. I thought of that scene in the trailer, and how ridiculous it was, and I was suddenly furious that it had been so changed – that, in the telling, I had been changed.

I had stayed quiet all this time. Now I stopped walking, and screamed. I called the boys the worst names I knew. My voice was useless and shrill but they all paused, as if confused, and were quiet for a very tiny moment. Then they laughed and laughed, and began repeating the story over and over at me, and it was like the story was flaring up and rising even higher.

As I walked home, seething, it felt like something was being burned out of me, some quietness. Some belief that I would never say what my real choice was. I still had fear around my anger, deep pools of it, but the anger was clarifying. It felt like allowing myself to hold eye contact with myself, rather than looking away.

What I really thought was: this must be the devil. It mustn’t be me who is feeling this rage. But maybe it didn’t matter who was feeling it. I thought: I can turn this whole thing around. I can make my wicked form work for me.

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Bad News

In the morning there was a Linden tree
whose whole body looked on fire.
Its branches had grown in a desperate way.
It came closer, knowing I’d be trying to write something later
and that I would almost certainly want a tree in it.

In the afternoon a poet came to see me, worried
that her cover wasn’t blue enough,
but when she saw it she was satisfied.

I love to make a poet happy. I love to be afraid
that I will anger a poet and then to make them happy.

In the evening a family of quail gathered on the road
as I approached, and I could tell they had bad news.
But when I came close, they couldn’t
bring themselves to say it, and ran away really fast.
Tomorrow, tomorrow, they called. Not today




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Passersby

Sometime around 2008 I met my writing teacher at lunchtime and started complaining that I didn’t know what I was doing with my writing. I was scared to keep going in case it got worse. So far, every page looked like an accumulation of wasted time. He took a big bite out of his panini and said, with his mouth full, not looking at me, ‘Do keep at it. Just keep chipping away.’ I like to think of the moment before and after that bite of panini. I was feeling completely discouraged but then, with just a mouthful of panini, everything changed, and I felt like maybe something was possible and that I would finish what I was writing. I saw that maybe I could find a way to replicate that hopeful shift at other times, at other very ordinary moments. Before panini, after panini.

Then again, the power dynamic was askew at the table. I wasn’t eating anything and my tutor was, which put me in the more powerful position. The non-eater always has power over the eater: they have total freedom to speak, while the eater must negotiate every sentence with whatever it is they’re eating. So it’s possible that he was just passing the baton back to me because the panini demanded it.

Two black swans are waddling along the path, their long necks swaying. Closer, I see they are actually black terriers with wagging tails. As I approach, one of the terriers lunges at my ankles while barking explosively and dragging its owner sideways. I hop out of the way and do the apology wave, while smiling, and carry on running as the dog continues its fuss. Since going out running again, I’ve been really enjoying taking on the role of the friendly passerby. A car backs out of a driveway into my path, and when the driver sees me, I smile and trot past. I hop out of the way of some construction workers who are blocking the footpath and smile at them as I run past on the road. The joy of being the friendly passerby is in having a small human encounter while running away from it at the same time. It’s in smugly forgiving anyone who puts a tiny obstacle in your path. And it’s in signalling to others that you’re a nice person, without really having to back it up with any evidence.

I used to think the sign-off ‘Regards’ was a bit brisk, even sour, but I’ve come around to it and now I like its frankness and ordinariness. Also, it reminds me of once when my brother JP and I were in a CD store in Hamilton where one of his friends, Rob, worked. As we were leaving, Rob was busy with another customer and we couldn’t say goodbye, so JP said to the other store assistant, whose name I can’t remember, ‘Well, give Rob my regards.’

‘Will do,’ the assistant said, and looked over her shoulder and called, ‘Hey Rob!’

Rob looked up from the counter, where he was serving the customer.

‘Regards,’ the assistant said, and turned back to shuffling some CDs.

Rob nodded and waved politely at us, and we nodded and waved politely then we went out of the store and into the shopping centre.

I keep seeing a big rat run across the road. Today there’s a note stuck to the fence near the bit of road where I always see the rat. The note is printed out and has been put in a plastic sleeve. I stop to read it, and the note is all about the rats. ‘Kia ora residents of Aro Valley. I know there are rats. This whole valley is filled with rats. Stop taking photos of them and putting them on the Facebook page. and saying that my birds are the problem. My birds are not the problem.’ It goes on like that for a while.

I was sitting on the couch when the postie went past the house in his red t-shirt and hi-vis, wearing his wraparound glasses and his hulking mail bags. I’ve been seeing him most days because I have been home reading manuscripts. Today the postie didn’t stop and I watched him plod down the hill and through the trees that lead out onto Koromiko Road. I felt a wave of horrible sadness, because my brother used to be a postie and I missed him.

As I’ve been reading, I’ve noticed something. There are a lot of silent dads in New Zealand fiction. Dads staring into the distance, dads chewing silently, dads nodding and turning away and going inside. I think that either one of two things needs to happen: our real-world dads need to talk more, especially during moments of high tension, so that this talking might be assimilated into our fiction; or we need to find new ways of describing silence in dads.

Shayne Carter ordered a steak. The steak came out huge and completely raw. Just completely raw. I don’t know anything about steak, other than what it looks like when raw. ‘What the hell is this,’ Shayne said. ‘Do I cook it myself?’ The waitress explained about how he had to cook it on the little hot plate that had been provided. When it was nearly cooked, he was to put the blob of butter on top. ‘Oh, okay, thank you,’ he said. When she left he turned to me and said, ‘God. I can’t believe I have to cook my own fucken steak.’ I agreed it was outrageous. He picked up the steak in one hand and put it on the hot plate – it made a sort of shrugging motion as it settled. Then we watched it, cooking, as the brownness crept upwards through the steak.

I wondered what my teenage self would have thought of it, back when I didn’t conceive of musicians as real people. The idea of, for example, John Lennon eating an apple, or Mama Cass making some toast, or even Neil Finn eating a pie in his car – it was too far outside my comprehension. To me they were kind of like plants, drawing everything they needed from air and light. I had a penpal who I’d met on a Radiohead fan site and she told me that in the background of ‘How I Made My Millions’ you could hear Thom Yorke’s girlfriend washing the dishes. When I listened to the song again, each little clinking sound was like cracks forming in something.

When I was about fifteen, my family and I went up to Auckland to see Neil Finn on the ‘Try Whistling This’ tour. He drank a cup of tea on stage. The audience seemed to love it, especially when, between songs, he said how good the tea was. ‘That’s a really good cup of tea’ – and everyone roared with laughter. But I was too overwhelmed to enjoy it.

I had a similar feeling when, years later, I saw Morrissey play, and he sweated through several shirts.

It took ages for the steak to cook on the little hot plate. But finally it was ready and Shayne ate it and we talked a bit about our families.

I am reading a manuscript that has a chapter with the subtitle ‘[With strings]’. I like the idea of dictating what kinds of sounds the reader has to listen to while reading your work. [With theremin.] But it wouldn’t have to be a musical instrument, necessarily. [With insinkerator.] [With rain.] [With puffing inhaler sound.] [With man jogging past uphill.] [With more rain.]

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Transcription errors in a conversation with Kris Sowersby of Klim Type Foundry

Unknown Speaker 31:54: A friend of mine, she wrote her first book by opening a book of chickens.

Unknown Speaker 32:32: Animals initial animals. 

Unknown Speaker 14:17: She’s got my lower jaw. A lot of bone. 

Unknown Speaker 47:30 The pretentious line is to say something is bridgeless. 

Unknown Speaker 37:03: What happens if you get three quarters of the way through, like a fucked up madness? All right. I’ve made a grave mistake.

Unknown Speaker 1:13:24: It must be quite a headline to walk.

Unknown Speaker 1:11:08: The sky has been tasked with, you know, spreading the word, basically saying how awful everything is.

Unknown Speaker 51:28: Because your relationship with the book is disgusting, isn’t it.

Unknown Speaker: 1:09:18 Diesel is so hard for people to talk about.

Unknown Speaker 1:09.28 It was raining those books. 

Unknown Speaker: And it’s a very indefinable, like, nebulous, quality, but you kind of know when something is dead.

Unknown Speaker: 1:32:21: You know, has anybody ever come back? This is not well. This is unwell.

Unknown Speaker: 46.51: It’s actually not all there is to you. It’s a list of yourself.

Unknown Speaker 1:33:41: How do you fill up my … my other books with this food?

Unknown Speaker: 27:34 Last night, someone showed me a poem, without telling me that it was by James Brown. And I could not tell. It was so unlike his, the workout of his nose.

Unknown Speaker 17:00 I was angry at the new future, because you’re so invested in what it is, it was missing what it could be.

Unknown Speaker 1:10:33: An abrasive Catholic upbringing. Can you hear those ideas?

Unknown Speaker 1:37:42: So it’s nice and sharp and dark. Instead of some other kind of God series. 

Unknown Speaker 20:01 The poetry crowd often surprise themselves by feeling like Karens on the margins.

Unknown Speaker 1:12:59 Just the burning … the burning hill on the afterlife.

Unknown Speaker 1:40:52: It’s always a copywriter, or an egg.

Unknown Speaker  12:18: Like if you were reading several different authors that you know quite intimately – would you be able to tell who was home?

Unknown Speaker 1.21.27: A boy who goes across the country and learns things on the way. Well, he’s gone to Norway.

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Rehashing (iv)

I promise I won’t keep doing this too much longer. Maybe one more after this. But here’s one more rehashed newspaper column from the past, this one from June this year, which still feels like a long enough time ago to refer to it as the past. A lot has happened in the past month or so for me and it feels like I really was a different person in June.

On comfort

It’s 8:44pm and pouring down – rain as loud as a recycling truck. When it rains at night I feel myself come a bit more alive, like a worm wriggling up to the surface to see what’s going on. I feel safer and more comfortable, because heavy rain means that everything can stop. You can wriggle to the surface of just this hour, just this night, and stay there. You don’t have go anywhere else in your head, not even to tomorrow. Basically I’m saying it’s an opportunity to have a good old-fashioned wallow.

But to get really, deeply comfortable – I mean, a comfort that is more than just momentarily enjoyable, like going into a furniture shop and testing all the couches without any intention of buying one – you’ve got to get uncomfortable first. The more uncomfortable the better. Sitting inside listening to heavy rain is nice, but being caught in that same rain on your bike on your way home, in anticipation of sitting inside listening to rain, is even nicer. It’s like our spirits need to be broken down, just a little bit, so we can really feel what we have when we return to it. It’s why people run ultramarathons, or dive into lakes in winter, or go to Glastonbury.

That said, there’s a risk of overthinking the discomfort/comfort equation. I once bought a new duvet that was more comfortable than any other duvet in my life. Sometimes I would be lying in bed and I’d feel so comfortable under this duvet that I would start to panic. Had I done enough for this comfort? Had I been sufficiently uncomfortable during the day? And was this duvet as comfortable as I was ever going to feel, or was there something even better out there? It was the feeling I imagine people get when they install a big fancy pizza oven in their backyard, and eat pizza all the time – great, but every so often that nagging thought: is this it? (Of course it’s possible that the pizza people never, ever have that thought. I don’t know.)

It’s like the German philosopher Hegel said: ‘What the English call “comfortable” is something endless and inexhaustible. Every condition of comfort reveals in turn its discomfort, and these discoveries go on for ever.’ Those might be the bleakest two sentences I’ve ever read. Hegel wasn’t talking so much about duvets as he was about how others can profit from the discomforts we go on discovering, and how sometimes we don’t even feel uncomfortable unless someone tells us that we are and that we could do better. Either way, discomfort – some new sense of inadequancy, some new hankering – has a way of arising pretty soon after we’re satisfied.

I watched a short documentary this week about a guy who ate only tins of beans for 40 days, inspired by a Steinbeck novel in which a poor family lives off beans. The documentary-maker ate different sorts of beans – black beans, four-bean mix, baked beans – and he ate each tin cold, with a spoon, averaging five tins a day. At the end of the 40 days he ran a 50 kilometre race, I guess to see what it would feel like to be literally made of beans and what his bean body would feel like when challenged – not very good, it turned out. Without the variety of foods he usually ate, he felt like he’d lost his personality. His sense of humour vanished, his crankiness increased. He was lost to himself. For a film about beans, it got existential pretty quick.

I think that like the food we eat we are made of the things that make us feel comfortable. Our routines, our favourite chairs, our pets, our favourite topics of conversation, our opinions – they’re not who we are, exactly, but they allow us to access who we feel we are. And if those things are taken away or upended, it forces us to adapt, which at first feels horrible, even shaming – it can make you feel sort of weak.

It’s still pouring down. A branch lands on the roof with a crash. As well as the worms, I often think about the birds when it rains. What are their feelings about rain? What do they think it is? Does a bird feel discomfort, or does it only ever endure the moment it is in, huddling and shivering, tucking in its head and puffing up into the shape of a little tennis ball? But obviously the bird has adapted to bad weather. Its body knows what to do. Even as it shivers like crazy and clings miserably to its branch, its tiny heart keeps beating, keeping it warm, keeping it alive.

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Rehashing (iii)

Today’s rehashed column is from August 2019, just after Ronnie Van Hout’s sculpture Quasimodo was installed on the roof of the Wellington City Gallery.

The Hand     

I’m going to look at the Hand in Wellington’s Civic Square for the first time. My visit feels dutiful. There has been a lot of talk about the Hand, much of it strangely sexual in nature, some of it dismissive, even disgusted. I have to go and see the Hand in the flesh so that I, too, can have an opinion.

I park my bike near the defunct library. The sun is out, the breeze is fussing. Surrounded by empty buildings, Civic Square has felt like a dead space for months. But as I enter the square and see the Hand, immediately I can see that it has changed everything. Its presence is electrifying. The Hand braces itself on the art gallery roof, like a weather vane. Perhaps in a former life it behaved as one, a finger pointing in the wind’s direction. Now it is unmoved by all weathers.

People stare at it openly, smiling. Some millennials arrive and start laughing and reeling about. The Hand remakes everything as its stage – the onlookers, the sky, the buildings, time itself. A few people are hurrying along and not looking at the Hand. The effort of ignoring the Hand radiates from them; their internal battle – Do not look at it – echoes in their footsteps. I hear a man say defiantly, ‘Well, I love it.’ Someone else says, ‘Yeah, not a fan,’ as if such disapproval could ever surprise the Hand, as if the Hand could ever be cheered by the validation of others anyway. A man ambles through the square with a ghetto blaster under one arm. His tracksuit has ‘Google Me’ written all over it. He is playing a grim karaoke recording of John Lennon’s ‘Jealous Guy’. Normally this karaoke man would be the centre of attention. Today he is a distant star. The Hand possesses all gravity now.

I sit on a bench to look up at it, feeling intoxicated. At each moment the Hand surrenders to being looked at. Its expression is that of someone who knows we are looking but also knows we will look away, that its abject existence is too uncomfortable to contemplate for more than a short time. It knows that even the weather eventually turns away.

I recall watching a video of the Hand’s maker, Ronnie Van Hout, installing his sculpture Comin’ Down on the roof of 209 Tuam Street, Christchurch in 2013. The sculpture is of a very tall man, also with the likeness of Van Hout, wearing a suit and Converse sneakers. The man points his impossibly long arm at the sky, or maybe the arm points itself of its own volition. Van Hout adds the finishing touches to the figure and clambers, grinning, back inside a window, and suddenly the rain comes heaping down, and in that moment the pointing figure seems to own the rain and the sky itself.

As I look at the Hand, trying to form an original and tweetable opinion, I realise that my opinion is simply that I love the Hand.

But love is such an animal response. I need something more. Part of the problem is that it’s hard to say what the Hand means, beyond how wretched it feels to be an outsider, like Quasimodo in his bell tower. I sit there trying to figure it out. Is the Hand saying something about the exhausting process of creating, of producing? The knowledge that no matter how hard one works, they won’t be able to escape who they are, or how they’re seen? Is it something about how simultaneously we lean towards and recoil from the grotesque? I like what Van Hout said in a recent interview with Megan Dunn – that the Hand ‘never gets to go inside to hang with the real art. He’s like a working-class schmuck at a private-school event, who feels terribly out of place.’ You could say that up on the roof he’s at that same private-school event, still jostled by opinions and stares, still denounced as ‘not real art’.

But when I look around again – people smiling and laughing and recoiling – it’s clear that the Hand has made a sanctuary of itself, like a dancing man at a party who at first looks to be embarrassing himself but then suddenly becomes pretty good. From moment to moment, the Hand offers itself up. Here is something for us to love or despise. A reason to gather, with our pitchforks or bouquets or secret proclivities. The Hand gifts us its freakishness to make of what we will.

I feel very happy in the presence of the Hand. In the sky behind it, a plane leaves white trails. I have a plane to catch soon too. The sun flickers. Under the Hand, anything feels possible.

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