A Conversation with Joanna

November 15, 2012

Well here I am again. No, don’t get up, two visits in less than two years is not that unusual.  Okay, I did commit to coming back earlier though, so forgive me my tardiness. I ran down here this morning from Tekapo and have arrived to a gorgeous clear day, though there is a forecast of rain so I am not wasting time. Your letters are all clear of loose paint and the surface is wiped over with metho and I am about to break out the brushes.  The silence is filled with so many triggers of memories. The smell of the damp earth, daisies (that have escaped the lawnmower) a lamp bleating for its mother, the constant chorus of thrushes, the throaty bleat of an anxious ewe and the high trill of larks bring me straight back to a place a ten year old boy reveled in. But I hope you are not offended when I say my heart is no longer here. With the exception of this piece of hallowed ground I hasten to add. I arrive and drop my bucket of gear and find myself on my knees, overcome for a moment. You know there is just a piece of my heart here. But the loves of my life are elsewhere these days and that is where my heart goes.

So your fortieth rolled around this year. Sorry there were no candles. Sorry actually that I missed it. Bother,  I was resolved to have this chat and not use the word sorry. Or the word regret. But the first just slipped out without any prompting. So the denial is denied and what I am supposed to do is convey some sort of sorriness. You would not have gotten away with a word invention like that in your Palmerston or Melbourne schooling. But life is a different school and I have learned there is an awful lot you can get away with if you just put it out there. Sadly there is only a sense that we are getting away with something because life is too often made up of fences in our imagination, or of someone else’s making. Behave like this. Behave like that. Conform to this or conform to that. If I don’t conform or behave others act surprised. But I haven’t murdered anyone. Or done something outlandishly extreme. Their surprise tells me what restrained and quiet lives they live. But then I am a hypocrite if I judge them for that, for there is far too much self restraint in my own life. Things I really want to do but refrain from doing. Or things I should have done but did not. Careful, that is starting to sound like regret.

Okay, so maybe there is scope for a discussion about that too. But I wonder what your fortieth might have brought you. Would you be living a life outside everyone’s expectations? Or would you be conforming to what we all want of you? The Italian mausoleums in our local cemetery are nothing like what we ever see in this Palmerston cemetery. You would be puzzled by them I am sure. I’m struck when I wander through the mausoleum by the photos. Why are photos placed up there which show the deceased at their oldest? And most serious? And stern? Some are clearly photos taken in hospitals, in their last days. Looking sick and harrowed. Is that how the family really wants to remember them? And those of us observing to think them censorious? Why not a laughing birthday photo taken a decade or two earlier?  The old and sad faces make me wonder how much their lives and deaths have conformed to what their families and communities expected of them. Or did they live their lives in glorious, exultive, independent riot?

I have erred on the side of caution and gone back over the letters with another wipe to ensure they are as degreased as possible.  I don’t think I am up for any more, the fumes are knocking my head off.  Three mares are gazing over the fence at me, no doubt wondering what is going on. They were having a good back scratch roll in the grass when I arrived. And the blackbirds call and call and call.  Expectations are not something that plague you are they? We have no expectations of you. You are free of  what we hope and demand of each other. We can only wonder at what might have been. I hope in my heart of hearts it was to be a life of grand design and magnificence. Of rebellion and hearty resistance to what anyone expected of you – except of what God desired for you of course. I have learned those are not mutually exclusive. He has planted in us all an unsettled curiosity about what life is about. Too much we bury it. Too much we let others tamp down the earth when we threaten to break out. What a glorious thing it is to spread our wings and not fly quietly and serenely like an owl. Far better to fly like a giddy cockatoo, with noise and edge-of-the-envelope madness. And I hope in my heart of hearts too that you would have found an equally mad partner who would have broken the rules with you. Who would sit on the power line and squawk and dance and flip at life.

I am shocked at the unexpected intimacy of this  – my nose pressed up to the letters as I try and hold the brush steady. I painted in a whole bunch of other stuff before I could put the brush in your name. There is a sense of the sacrilegious. But then it’s done and suddenly it all looks so much better. I am relieved. I wait for the paint to dry and wander over to see Grahame and Joyce, Jim and Rodney. John Smitheram is up here.  I grieve for that too. It seemed to me that an eternal flood of gentleness was always falling from his face. His soft voice came to us  out of a craggy visage yet as though through cotton wool. I remember him so clearly, standing at the front door each Sunday. He would coo at you and you would respond, crawling across the foyer in eager welcome. He loved you deeply, more than he could ever say in words. I know that now. But he didn’t  have to say anything. He wore his love like an expensive coat for everyone to see. He used to work at the electricity board. John is but part of a cloud of witnesses to your time and place now. Faithful friends of yours whose love was never said in words. They seem incapable of that, these folk of the not quite mountains, living instead in their distant shadow. But their hands said it all.

The day you left I arrived in the kitchen from school and couldn’t see Mother for the small mountain of food stacked on the kitchen table. I remember it was capped with a cooked goose. The bustle around the house was that of farmer’s wives, many of whom lived with their own losses. Mrs White is up here. She was there that day. And for so many days after. And years. When I was a foolish young man (I am still foolish but fancy my years have shown me how to hide it better than I could then) I dropped by to say hello and was aggrieved to discover a bunch of rocks lying around here. I picked them up and threw them as far as I could into the paddock nearby. Her son stood and watched, and kept silent. How I cringe when I think of my insolence. His mother placed them there to prop the flowers she brought you each week when she dropped into say hello to her son.  Grant knew that and didn’t intervene. Did he understand too the need to somehow do something instead of just stand and reflect? I think he did. His brother Rodney fell off one of those distant mountains in his truck. No one could do anything for him then and cannot now. All we can do is stand and reflect. Or maybe throw something in our rage and sorrow.

Do we worship sorrow? Do we dwell on that too much? Or is it that we wrap it about ourselves as we get older? Or somehow seek its comfort and meaning as we walk through more and more of it. Do we expect it as part of life’s course?  Do we feel it more acutely as we bear down on an age when we anticipate its visitation more and more? And when it comes we say “it’s of the Lord’ and console ourselves with that.  Tell ourselves it’s part of his plan. Is it? Of the Lord that is? Does he will sorrow into our lives?  We worship it after a fashion for its one of the great descriptors of God. It’s a profound way by which we define him. Isn’t he the one who will wipe away all tears? Who else can do that, save God? So we adore him for it as we plough though our sloughs and wildernesses.  Ought not we be saying instead – “Be my friend”. “Talk to me. “ “Let me talk to you.”  “Be the one in whom I confide.” The companionship of God should be our worship. Rather we wallow in the sacred yet turgid morass of  our misery. That becomes our focus. We focus on the ailment and even the medicine but pay little heed to the doctor.  It seems to me when the smorgasbord of options is laid out in front of us that we start with the sweet, easily digestible dessert of sorrow first. It ladles in and slips down easy. The tougher meat of wrestling with your creator is left alone. I for one am guilty of that. Not wanting to wrestle that is. Not, at least, until a living compunction from a place outside of myself draws me to the fight.

You will be able to tell me about that. I will have to wait yet to find out. But it’s odd that there is a deeper understanding of the sorrow, of the loss as the years pass. The pain goes surprisingly quickly. But the reflections deepen and the thoughts linger. And the conversation becomes more intimate, more sensible, more sane.  Nonetheless a  more insidious idea of sorrow embeds itself . A more self indulgent sentiment, that burns when the ‘beauty of other lives becomes a misery to me.‘ That is a self indulgent sorrow indeed.

What are we when we meet I wonder. I imagine the state is one of, to borrow someone else’s phrase,  perpetual vigour. Yet there is day and night. Night for rest. Do even our perfect bodies need rest? You know and I do not. I can only imagine. Why would I imagine day and night? Some would have us in perpetual light. And so we will be, so we will be. Light in every sense of being unburdened. But celestial light too, that comes and goes as the planets move. Why do I fancy this? Because I reckon we have a sound and clear insight into our future world. It’s the one already created for us. What is this place if it isn’t the intended perfect home? It suffers a certain amount of foundational rot. But despite that we can see its shape and plan. And something of the glory intended. And it, in all its perfection, was built on the diurnal round.  And on marriage too. Funny how I come back to that right now but relationships are on my mind. The purity of them. The fragility of them. The essence of them. And the essentialness (another tut tut from Miss Jones for inventing words) of them too. Have you the pleasure of marriage? Of the perfect union of souls. Ha, so much theology of heaven says there is no such thing. I once sat under the teaching of man who was convinced our future, resurrected bodies would be mutilated from their current form. That there will be no reproductive organs. He argued his case on the basis of the rebuttal by Jesus “no marriage or giving in marriage”.  What nonsense. Yet what is heaven if it is not a restoration to the model set up for us, which was considered perfect – unable to be bettered. God said as much. Not once but often. Don’t we have clear insight into that model in which marriage was first established. Oh we fuss about first and second and third and ad infinitum earthly partnerships and how is it possible these will be sorted out and unraveled in heaven. But in fretting thus we impose our creature minds through glass darkly onto the brilliance of the creator of the universe – of all universes. So I will let God worry about that. It is enough to know that what he established is an insight into what he will finish. And it is enough for me to imagine you have indeed tasted of that perfect union. I console myself with the idea at least.

Phew, I didn’t mean to get theological on you. I want something more personal. I test myself in front of you. What is it that I really want sitting here with a paintbrush? A conversation to be sure. But the truth is I want to unearth things I am frightened of unearthing elsewhere.  To someone whose judgment and understanding of these things is perfect. Who can see unimpeded when my own glass is dark. I am in a dungeon right now. For no clear reason I find myself in a hole. I drag myself out of it and look back and wonder how I slipped there. I think it’s the lack of control over those slumps that I hate the most. The trouble is that when I am not in a hole, and am feeling my best I teeter along a precipice. I liken it to the last ridge above the Hilary Step on Everest where a misstep drops you off a knife edge of ice down three thousand feet to your death. Either side.   Walked something like that this week. The drop was about 300 feet on one side and more than one thousand on the other. You can’t look to the left or right but must simply focus on the next step. I walk a knife edge of my feelings. In a state of nerves, self doubt, fretting my mind and heart. I fight to keep my affections corralled but feel them blossom. In a particular direction. But  each day I pluck those blossoms off the branches of my heart and stamp them into the earth. Partly because I don’t want to make a fool of myself. Partly because the collective wisdom (to which I happen to subscribe) is to leave things alone for a (long) while. But mainly and overwhelmingly because I can’t see how those blossoms could ever be repaid. Best I strip them and rid myself of them, than someone else tear them up. You see, I am no different to anyone else and have my own petty insecurities and fears.

The first coat is on and I am just past lunch. Not bad for a morning’s work. I am happy with the way it’s shaping up, and could in fact stop here. But who knows when I will be back and so I will wait a couple of hours and get another coat on. Those blossoms? I’m stamping them out because I don’t know what else to do with them. I’m telling you because it’s the great taboo in all this that I have uncovered. You can’t talk about these things with anyone. They tell you it’s too early. I tell me its too early. You can talk about anything and everything else. Just not that.  So I will tell you instead. Sorry about that. I know it will bore you like it bores everyone else. But it plays on my mind and eats me up. I am trying to be practical about it by committing to not looking anywhere else for two years. Some think that is too long. Maybe it is. You have waited longer than that, here on a cold hillside. But up here you will understand too that it actually puts a clear horizon out there that means I can see the mistakes coming even as they loom down on me. Indeed, it’s saved me from disasters already. I won’t bore you with those details, other than to say I am quietly relieved.  Yet even though some mistakes have been avoided I am sick with fear that there are others which I have made. The urge to run is so very strong Joanna. So very strong. To any other place on the planet where I know I could take up work in an instant. Daily. Truly – every day I fight the urge to run.

The irony of this great taboo is that when you most need to confide in someone you can’t want to get too close to anyone. People are rightly wary of your contagion. They don’t want to hear your ups and downs. We hide from each other with polite “I’m fine thanks”  or  “Good”,  when we really mean “Let’s talk about this when you have more distance” or “I don’t trust you with this”, or “I really don’t want to hear anything intimate or confronting”.  My closest friend (I thought) directed I speak nothing to him of any of it.  So I speak nothing at all. About anything anymore. Another casualty. We offer those simple lines up because we know our audience can digest them. Give them what is really going on and they would choke to death in front of you.

In between coats I have tidied up the headstones of Jim, Rodney and John. This is lichen country and they don’t take long to spread over the faces of these stones.  They all look a bit sharper for a clean up. I hope the families don’t mind. I’m sure they won’t.  Conversations like the one I have with you  save me.  And conversation with one other I have to confess. I only have to have a coffee, talk about writing (or anything really), exchange an email or text and the gyros of my world settle down and stabilize, and life seems less like a mess teetering on the edge of destruction.  Such a simple balm. Such a powerful one. I am not as self contained as I once was, or as much as I ever want to be. But that opens up a fragility I am very wary of,  so I pour these things into my new characters in new novels instead. Poor Adam of Mudgee reflects some of this.  But when I mix up that fragility with vulnerability and exposure I worry about my lack of judgment. This is all unfamiliar ground Joanna. Fragility. I hate it. But perversely I prefer it to the stainless steel I once was.  Trouble is, I can see it getting me into trouble. My sense of fragility fuels that urge to run. And when I lie awake for hours each night it nudges the quiet voices I hear which enquire “What’s keeping you here? Nothing. No one.” Not even the fatigue of the last week climbing in the snow and ice dampened those whispers.

Fragility is linked to heart disease. There is so much you know that I don’t. But here is something I can share with you that will be unknown to you. The heart is the heaviest organ in the body, something I didn’t learn in biology class (as much as I enjoyed those lessons). Not by it’s inherent weight but by the loads it takes on itself.  Those weights accumulate like silent limpets that are impossible to remove. They clamp your chest, suppress your breathing, clinging on and sucking life into death. There is a deceit in these additional weights – they convince you they are not to be removed and handed to anyone else. We all know the lie yet its almost impossible to overcome. Sometimes I have dared take that weight and hand it to someone else. Then I wake the next day and rush out in panic to take it back, fearful it be mishandled and that I be judged a fool, or unwise for such dereliction.  Before I came over here I handed over a weight into the care of  a friend and woke the next morning without the expected self doubt and desire to retrieve what I had handed over. I drove down from Christchurch with a lightness of being, a peace and contentment I have not felt in a very long time. On my right the snow glittered off the sharp peaks and round bluffs of the alps under a clear blue sky and even though I was travelling on my own I was deeply satisfied. Then the panic set in and I fretted the foolishness of what I had done. That’s not fair. I know the hands are safe hands.  That self doubt kicks in and unsettles me. Safe hands  – that’s all you can ask really. For care and respect and if you are fortunate there might be a little bit of understanding as well.  And if none of that then polite tolerance. I stopped in Ashburton and bought your paint and the brushes I needed. So many memories sit on the side of this road and wave at me as I drive by. All friendly waves. Not a maudlin one among them. All the more friendly for the health of my heart I dare say.  But by the time I got to Timaru I was not so sure and despair crept in. Maybe we worship sorrow because it seems to have such command over us.  I have to tell you dear sister there is another temptation which accompanies the desire to bolt – that of putting that stainless steel case back on. It would be so easy to do. Wouldn’t this all be a lot easier if I was in Basra?  A long way away and behind some chainmail again. Come near me and I will cut your throat. Tell me it would be easier Joanna. Please?

I spent the week on spiny ridge caps of snow, thanks in part to the heaviest falls in the mountains in living memory. Fear gripped almost every step over those ridges and along those spines, and kept me awake in anticipation of what the next day might bring. But the fear of  my fragility  messing up other people’s lives is something I find hard to drive from my mind. I have handed off something of myself and now only want it back. Badly. To not be as open as I thought I should be. To go back to being the guarded person I was.  Once I was employed in a line of work  in which I reveled, and was recruited into it partly for my ability to manage my emotions. To cap them as an actor might.  And because I was so damn self contained. I would never have given up what I recently gave up of myself if I was that same old person. But I do desperately want to rush out and grab it all back. Not, I hope, for selfish reasons. But because I fear I have destroyed what has taken so long to build – a deeply trusting friendship. I know I have said it all before – we blokes are too quick to run you know Joanna.  I swallow the impulse and endeavor to work with what I have got, crave forgiveness and beg a fraction of understanding. Or if none of those, then at least no condemnation.  There is a deep despair of ever getting this stuff right.

Well, its been a sober conversation. I am done after six hours and you have been very patient. The stone looks a whole lot sharper and stands out in the sunlight. I have barely packed things away and the rain starts. That steady soaking stuff that makes this place so verdant. The lambs and ewes still call to each other. I say “see ya later” go to the car then come back for a final moment and a deep breath. I won’t run Joanna. I sense you would expect more of me than that. So I come back and make you that promise. For better or worse. Then I leave. The tears flow and are added to the accumulated weight of that heart of  mine that is going to let me down one day, if it has not already. If I survive I’ll come back one day and tell you how it all goes down. But you already know, don’t you?  Don’t we?


One Response to “A Conversation with Joanna”

  1. Alex Shepherd on November 17th, 2012 3:03 am

    Your ability to put your thoughts on paper amazes me Bruce. It is an incredible gift. Have you always writen to your family members like you have done to Joanna? or is that one of the areas of your life you have conformed more to the “norm”? – at least I think it is the “norm” from my 66 years of life. I consider you my friend Bruce but how little I know you. Al

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