Monday, 29 February 2016

Hamilton South

Today started cold. There was a southerly and clouds stacking themselves up in great, untidy, unfolded heaps above the beige hills, and after the morning quiet and breakfast I had enough time to walk up the dirt road towards where the town of Hamilton used to be. If it had lasted, I guess it would now be Hamilton South, but it has long gone. Once there were 4000 people, 40 shops and 23 different places to buy liquor. It was a goldmining town and the diggings are still there, about a mile away, like a great purplish white burn scar on the bare flank of the hill.

At the top of a hill there is a gate, a sign board and a small cemetery set behind a neatly made stone wall. That's all there is of Hamilton. I went and looked at the old Graves and the neat new plaque someone erected when the cemetery was restored just a few years ago. It records everyone who is buried there. Since the first person was interred in 1865 it was 23 years before there was a burial of someone over 60.  Children, men and women in their 40s  seem to make up the bulk of those early deaths.

I look at the other end of the plaque, at those who have been buried since 1931. There is only one under 60 and almost everyone else is in their 80s. I recall that the burst appendix I suffered in 2000 would have carried me off in any century but my own and that I owe my continued existence since 2008 to a superb medical system. I am given this privilege of advancing age, one denied to most people for most of human history and I walk slowly back down the hill filled with the responsibility of that.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Getting Settled

On a retreat like this one there are as many motivations to be here as there are retreatants, but there is a commonality about what happens in the first few days. One aspect of this is that when people stop and become silent their body lets go of all the little subterfuges it was using to prevent them knowing just how tired they were. So people arrive full of eagerness to enter the silence and start making headway on their inner development and find themselves falling asleep all the time. They would apologise if they were allowed to talk  but they just make oops sorry faces instead.

My spiritual director back in the day taught me to welcome this snoozing. The Holy Doze she called it. And so I pass her wisdom on to those who are coming to me on a day by day basis for direction. These first days will be about letting go and that includes letting go of the plans they have for how they will grow their souls over this coming week.

It's only been 24 hours. I know what is likely to happen. Sometime in the next 48 hours each will find a verse or a song or a line of poetry which bowls them over and they will head off down some entirely unanticipated path. My job is to have a daily one on one talk with some of them, to listen and help them refine what the Spirit is trying to tell them and give them permission to hare off down the new way when it opens up.

it's a quieter week for me. I was able to go for a walk this morning across the lumpy hills  in the clear Maniatoto sunshine, but even though I am keeping silence with the rest of them - except of course for the daily chats- it doesn't feel like a retreat as my attention is on the inner life of these others and not on my own and the days are actually quite long. But there is a different kind of reward and a different kind of growth in being here. It's work I love doing and hope for much more of it in the years ahead. 

Saturday, 27 February 2016

En Hakkore

In the hills up behind Ranfurly there used to be a town, Hamilton, which at one stage was home to 5,000 people. All that remains of it now is a graveyard, fenced off and baking in the lonely brown hills. Near it, in the 1930s a large Sanitorium was built for the treatment of tuberculosis and other respiratory ailments. It was a substantial complex of buildings with wards, a nurses hostel, impressive houses for the manager and superintendent and all the utility buildings needed for such a large operation.

The treatment offered consisted of isolation, views and weather. Patients were exposed to the air, the tons of it which whistled past, often at great speed, the warmth of the sun and the cold. They were housed in small cubicles opening onto huge glassed verandas where they cooked in the summer and froze in the winter and often, what with the wholesome food and the exercise, got better. When advances in antibiotics rendered the Sanitorium obsolete it was turned into a Borstal and then was more or less abandoned.

During the past couple of decades it has become a Christian Community and retreat centre. About 10 families live here and are gradually restoring it all. The 60 hectares of grounds supply vegetables and eggs and meat. The residents occupy various parts of the rambling complex and there seems to be plenty more buildings sitting around waiting for someone to think up a use for them. It is spacious enough for me to get adequate exercise this week just walking between the meeting room, the dining room and my bedroom.The sky in this valley is huge as is the landscape and sitting here in the brown tussock and pine trees even this sprawling settlement is dwarfed.

We arrived mid morning and were shown to our rooms. The retreatants are in Spartan but comfortable quarters in one of the old patients' blocks and we three leaders have charming rooms, all appropriately and tastefully fitted out in a huge, glassy 1930s wooden house. We have been fed and have begun the six days of silence. My role is to offer spiritual direction and to help lead the program of worship and brief talks. We have left long spaces for people to be by themselves and there are any amount of places to walk under the vast Maniototo sky.

I am writing this on a patchy cellphone connection. It won't handle photos, but I'm hopeful I can continue to post daily. 

Friday, 26 February 2016

I'll see what I can do

I'm leaving at 8 am tomorrow for Waipiata to help lead a six day silent retreat. I won't actually be on retreat myself, so I will be able to keep up my Lenten discipline of posting daily, but there might be a problem. I have no idea whether or not I will have internet access, or even enough cellphone access to set up a mobile hotspot. So, maybe I'll be in touch tomorrow. Or maybe it'll be at the end of next week.

The End of Love. 2

A sweet little love song. 
And this really is a love song, unlike most of the others which are actually infatuation songs. 
One of my favourite books, John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman is set in Victorian England and is about a successful and established young man, Charles Smithson. Charles is engaged to Ernestina but becomes curious about a woman named Sarah Woodruff, reputedly the abandoned lover of a French naval officer. Charles has some contact with Sarah and soon realises he is in love with her. On a trip to settle some private business, Charles decides to visit Sarah. At this point the author intervenes in the story and offers the reader the first of three possible endings. 
1. Charles decides not to visit Sarah after all, returns to his home in Lyme Regis, marries his fiancee and lives a dull and unsettled life. 
 The reader is invited to read on and an alternative story develops. Charles visits Sarah and they have an impetuous sexual encounter. Charles returns home to end his engagement and join Sarah but promptly loses contact with her. He spends years seeking her. And then the author intervenes again and offers two more possible endings:
2. Charles finally tracks Sarah down and they have a poignant, quietly joyous reunion in which he meets the child of their former encounter. A difficult  but satisfying life lies ahead of them.
3. Charles meets Sarah and their meeting is sour. After a brief conversation in which he realises that his feelings are unreciprocated, and groundless,  Charles departs to face a bleak and uncertain future.  
 With the different endings the same events are given a different meaning. So, in ending 1 Charles feelings are revealed as a passing, inconsequential infatuation arising from his nervousness about his impending marriage. In ending 2 those same feelings are revealed as a true and noble love; a soul relationship which triumphs over all the hardships Charles has endured in their pursuit. In ending 3 his feelings are shown to be a kind of insanity: an obsession which has destroyed him. 

John Fowles is making a profound and powerful statement. All relationships end and the ending gives meaning to everything that went before it. All the events of any story - of any relationship - are prolegomena to the revelation of the true state of things which the ending reveals. The ending is what all that other stuff was leading to. It's not that the ending of a relationship changes anything but rather that the ending reveals what was there all along. 

We are all ambiguous creatures and our relationships are uneasy composites  of good and bad, healthy and unhealthy, selfish and selfless components. We simultaneously show love to the other and use them to satisfy our conscious or unconscious needs. Over time however the deepest strongest forces in the relationship reveal themselves and these are seen most starkly at the relationship's end. 

Where has this relationship left us? What has it done to us? Has this relationship proven, in its final revelation and analysis,  to be one in which we were nurtured and encouraged and grown? Or is it one in which we have been restricted and lessened and damaged? Have we left it bigger and more whole? Or have we left it broken and restricted? Has it opened doors for us or closed them? An ending may be fraught. In the ending most strong unions, by whatever means, there will be an overloading of grief , which is the process by which we learn to accommodate ourselves to the loss of the beloved other and learn to live without them. But even in the sometimes overwhelming force of grief we still recognise the strengthening and empowering contribution with which the beloved  has gifted us. Or perhaps the gall of grief is made all the more bitter by the ending of our illusions about what it was that we were actually being used for.

 

Thursday, 25 February 2016

The End of Love. 1


In my early thirties I performed the funeral for a lovely woman in her early 40s. After the service I walked away from the grave with her grieving husband. "You know, Kelvin", he said, "one day half the married people in the world will bury the other half."

That moment has stayed with me since then; I can remember the green grass and clear sky and his particular stride and his eternal statement. All relationships end. All of them. So what is the end of love? And by that I mean two things: what is the way a love finishes, which is what I want to talk about tomorrow, and what is the meaning of love, which I want to talk about today.

Years later, Clemency and I sat,  the two of us, and looked back into our past  watching two gauche kids, her and me, blunder their way into a life together. We said sorry once again for things that were forgiven and forgotten decades ago. We recalled names and deeds and places long past. We laughed like drains. We talked of those others for whom  the advent of each other had meant a pretty major disappointment, and speculated on why we didn't follow other possible paths.

For I have been in love before (I'll let her tell her own story if she chooses to). Been there, done that, have a whole drawer full of T shirts. I can remember the excitement and the (for various reasons) sleepless nights. I recall the angst and the single minded preoccupation, and the question always present "does she love me?" And the knowledge, that only came late in the piece, that  being in love is not necessarily the same thing as love.

Scott Peck defined love, as you will be sick of my telling you, as the willingness to extend oneself for the spiritual growth of another. Being in love, in comparison, is a feeling. Or rather, it is a cocktail of different and sometimes conflicting feelings in which the mix is probably a bit different in every instance.

Being in love is about the projection of our own wishes and hopes and desires onto another. It is about the filling of our needs for intimacy, for recognition, for power, for understanding. It is about the end of loneliness. It is about sexual desire and the aesthetic appreciation of the beautiful other. It is governed by hormones and expectations, usually wildly inaccurate of the other. It plays out in ways laid down for us by our culture. It is temporary.

Love is sometimes found in the middle of an infatuation, but it's found also, and maybe more commonly, in other places:  in long, safe, committed relationships of divers kinds. In my marriage, certainly, but also with old and dear friends, with my children and grandchildren. It is about me putting in the hard, committed regular work of doing all I can to help my beloved become what some deep instinct tells me she can be - no, what she is already if only she could believe it. It is present even when not reciprocated. It is eternal.

Does she love me?

Well, she thinks about me all the time; she stalks me on Facebook and drives "accidentally" past my gate; she gets butterflies in her stomach when she sees me. But none of that is about love; that is about her and her inner emotional state and her neediness.

Well, her relating to me has, imperceptibly but really, made me wholer, less fractured, more authentically me. By relating to me she has furthered my becoming. I am a better person because of her. This is how I know she loves me.

The end of love is the growth of the other. It is about my gifting, not about my taking. But strangely, as I seek her growth I find new possibilities opening in myself, and, as I give, my supply of gifts seems, like the widow's cruse of oil, never, ever to empty.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

My Dunedin. 4

 So what's a city without its people? Here are a few of my fellow citizens, human or otherwise.
 My daughters, both students of Otago University when this was taken
 St. John's parish fair
 Mary
 Taking in the sights from the top of Mt. Cargill
 Baldwin Street, the steepest street in the world. (to be perfectly frank I know of a steeper one in Dunedin, but this is more accessible for the tourists)
 Baldwin Street
 We have a long proud history of education. Our university was the first in the country. We had the first woman graduate in the contry and the first woman doctor. This is prizegiving at Otago Girl's High School, the first state run school for girls in Australasia, and one of the first in the world. It is constantly ranked amongst the highest achieving schools in the country and I'm pretty proud that my daughters went there. (Catherine's friend Helen is just getting a prize)  
 Evening worship, St. John's Roslyn
There is a long and deep musical tradition in the city. Combined school choirs sing on the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral
The City is named for Edinburgh. Dun = Burgh =Hill. The names of both cities means Edin's Hill.
 Albatrosses are a common sight if you go just a few km offshore. I have twice seen them from my house
 This is one of the big ones, a Royal with a 9 ft wingspan
Fur seals and sea lions are quite common on the beaches 
A Hoiho - a Yellow Eyed Penguin. An endangered species but not infrequently seen

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Motion 30

A wedding at the end of the Earth. Nosa Senora da Barca (Our lady of the boat. nb. The name is Galician, not Spanish.), Muxia, Comunidade Autonoma de Galicia, Spain.

At the General Synod which met in Waitangi in 2014 a great deal of prayer, care and time was put into the debate around matters of sexuality. We recognised that, as a church, we  had people who held views that were theologically based and honestly held, but which were mutually incompatible and that the church would not be able to resolve the differences between them. Energy was directed, therefore at investigating ways in which we could, with integrity, continue to hold our diverse views but still remain in one church.  After days of some of the most honest, considered and mutually respectful discussion I have ever been privileged to be part of, a statement was crafted and a commission was formed and charged with bringing to the next synod (ie the one that will happen in Napier in May) a plan for continuing to live with the tension of diversity.

The report of that commission has been completed and published. The full text is available here, and a very good summary is found here.

The report is long, and takes some reading. I will reserve my comments on it for General Synod, but in general I believe the report is a very good one and gives us a workable way ahead.  We will make opportunities for people in the Diocese of Dunedin to discuss it before General Synod. We will hold seminars different parts of the diocese. As well, I recognise that, if the recommendations of the report are adopted by General Synod, there will be significant connotations for the lives of some of some of our people. I will be available to meet with individuals or concerned groups by appointment either before or immediately following General Synod.

Monday, 22 February 2016

A crappy day. In the best possible way.

I got a photo of Noah today, eating MacDonalds and wearing the accompanying Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hat which came with the 'food'. Not that he knows what  a teenager, a mutant, or a ninja is, though he has a pretty good grasp on the meaning of turtles. He's being toilet trained and he has a sticker chart: the deal was struck with his mum for 1 (one) sticker for every result in his potty (of both or either variety, verified by inspection of either parent) and when the chart is filled he gets to eat MacDonalds, which, though he has very little prior experience of it, the kids at preschool assure him is way cool. So he figured a) lots of small efforts are more lucrative than 1 major effort and b) if he eats and drinks a lot his productivity will rise.  The chart was set up on Friday and he got the ninjaburger on Sunday afternoon. I expect he is going to become a lawyer like his mum, who is, even as we speak, negotiating a revised contract.
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My day off was today.
  • I went to the Doctor to talk about a few things. Brent Wishart, my GP, is, I would think,  in his 40s, chatty, knowledgeable and thorough. And optimistic. And collegial. I came away from him greatly looking forward to a long retirement.
  • I picked our whole crop of plums. maybe 2 kg. And noted the pleasing progress amongst the apples.
  • I did a few house repairs.
  • I rode my bike to St. Leonard's and back. It's amazing how quickly fitness disappears.
  • I cooked dinner. At the moment we are living pretty much out of the garden, which is responding well to a settled summer, so  I would greatly appreciate more recipes involving lettuce and/or courgettes.
****
Thomas Keating talks about the effect of contemplative prayer on others:
" The contemplative journey is the most responsible of all responses to God because so much depends on it - the future of humanity, the healing of the wounds of humanity, our own deepest healing. It's not just a method of meditation or a practice to find personal peace. It's basically a total acceptance of the human condition in all its ramifications, including its desperate woundedness...Humans are fully capable of becoming God, not in the fullest sense of the term, but in a very real way, where the light, life and love of God are pouring out of them, channelling a source of healing, compassion and reconciliation wherever they go and whatever they do. They are rooted in the divine compassion and mercy, and are manifesting... the pure light of the image and likeness of God within them, which is the assimilation of the mind and heart of Christ in everyday life."

How far I have to go! But that's what I want to do. That's what I want to be. So I stop trying, and sit as still as I can and invite God to do what God wants to do and  hope I don't get in the way.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Omakau

We had a late start so there was time to watch Attitude. This wonderful program runs on Sunday morning at a time when no one much will be watching it. I don't get to see it very often but it never fails to deliver.  Production values are superb and the interviewing and scripting is amongst the best you will see on New Zealand Television. And the stories! So moving! Today's was about a very high achieving young man with Down's Syndrome and his astonishingly whole and wise parents.

TVNZ buries this on Sunday mornings and at prime time programs endless cooking contests or dating shows or people fixing houses . Go figure.
*****
We left at 11 am to drive to Omakau: there via the Pig Root, home via the Ida Valley and Middlemarch. We stopped for a picnic lunch somewhere by a river under a deep blue sky and that still warm clear light which is the signature of Central Otago. We made it to St. Mary's church in plenty of time for the service at 2 pm.

This was the last one for this little wooden church. Originally it had been St. Peter's Church in Queenstown but in the early years of the 20thC it was dragged to Omakau by bullock cart and received a change of name. Sometime in the next few weeks it will become somebody's holiday house. The congregation will meet in the local school. It will be cheaper, easier to heat and repair, and far more comfortable for those that remain. We celebrated Eucharist and I read the deed of deconsecration. It's the fourth time I have done this, and it won't be the last.

All over Southland and Otago small rural congregations are dwindling and finding it increasingly difficult to maintain the infrastructure they have inherited from their parents and grandparents. There is the shift in spiritual values and adherence which is common to all Western countries, but in the countryside there are other forces as well. Unnoticed by the vast bulk of fellow Kiwis, who are by and large urban, Rural New Zealand has undergone a radical shift in the past two decades or so which has seen decline or even extinction of most of the organisations and institutions - including the churches - which facilitated rural society. Changes in land use have led to wholesale shifts in land ownership and tenure. The centralising of banks and government services and retail has gutted small country towns.

So the churches close; ours and those of other denominations. I think it is possible that within a decade there will be no church buildings of any description left functioning in vast swathes of Southern New Zealand.

I preached about Abram, leaving Haran and heading for the land of Canaan. I talked about the crofters being driven from their homes by the rapacious lairds, losing the lifestyle they had inherited from countless generations of their ancestors, and moving en masse to Canada and Australia and New Zealand. I talked about the bitterness of ending and where it has led in each of these cases: to new beginnings and unimaginable blessing. A recurrent pattern of the Bible is one that seems to be woven into the very fabric of the Universe: death and resurrection, ending and beginning. The building is gone but not the church. What also remains is the insatiable spiritual curiosity and hunger of those amongst whom the church lives, and the propensity of people to stumble into spiritual experience whether there is a little wooden church in their town or not.   

Saturday, 20 February 2016

An Inconvenient Question

I drove to Balclutha just after breakfast. The weather was good and the roads clear, so it was a brisk trip. I was going south for a gathering of ecumenical parishes. The attendees were mostly Presbyterians and Methodists, but I had been asked to talk to them and be inspirational. No pressure or anything. I talked about Elijah, and then later about my own experience in Co-operating Parishes. I'm not sure whether it was inspirational, but, as often happens when I talk to people, it had a truckload of lessons for me.  Seems that lately, my past keeps coming back. Like my life passing before my eyes, but  not so much in a flash as in a slow dawdling conflagration.
****
I  can watch cricket live on my phone. I refrained from watching but did, as a noble act of ministry to others who wanted to know, occasionally peek at the score. I knew that Brendon McCullum was doing something pretty extraordinary at the Hagley Oval but didn't look until I got home. I think I did about 25+ days of Lent right there, all in one hit.
****  
A couple of years back we planted a Peasegood Nonesuch. You can never buy those giant apples in shops and we both have such fond memories of them. Tonight we ate the first apple off the still spindly tree. Combined with our own rhubarb and yoghurt. Delicious.
****
Elijah was  prophet of the Lord. King Ahab, even though he was also a Hebrew,  was a disciple of the god Ba'al, who was the personification of power.  In a chance encounter, Ahab goaded Elijah into a contest, which was fought out on Mt Carmel, and which was a trial of strength. In other words Elijah was suckered into doing things in Ba'al's way: he tried to show that The Lord could outba'al Ba'al. It turned out badly for everyone. The priests of Ba'al were made to look foolish and then made to look dead. Elijah had to run for his life from the outraged Queen Jezebel, herself an even more jealous practitioner of Ba'alism than her husband,  and ended up suicidally depressed and cowering in a cave as far away from anybody as he could manage to go. And while he was sitting there feeling sorry for himself three powerful things happened: an earthquake, a fire and a mighty wind. But God seemed to be absent in each of these manifestations of power. Instead, God showed up in the utter silence which followed. And God asked one of the most profound questions in all of the Bible:
What are you doing here Elijah?
It's a question which comes to me, sometimes more frequently than is comfortable.
What are you doing here Kelvin?
How did you arrive at this place?
What is it that is occupying your time and talents right now?
What are you hoping to achieve by all this?
I have the uncomfortable sense that my past's propensity to poke it's head around the corner, grin, wave cheerily and say "Hi! Remember me?" with such inconvenient persistence, is God noticing that I have an uncanny instinct for avoiding the utter silence, but deciding to ask the question anyway.

What are you doing here?


Friday, 19 February 2016

Phone Pix

People sometimes ask my advice on buying cameras. Often they want to improve their photos and think that a new camera will be a big help in doing that. Well, it might. A new camera will help your photography in much the same way that buying a new pen will help your writing. But mostly, if you're taking crap now, the new camera will help you take better exposed and more sharply focused crap. And anyway, these days most people have a pretty good camera built into their phones. Phone cameras have excellent processing software (actually the most important bit of a digital camera), fine lenses and a good range of options for controlling the shot if that's what you want (and know how) to do.

The best way to take better pictures is to take more of them, and look at pictures other people have taken. Look at the ones that you like, and ask yourself why you like them. Try and copy them. When you find a little frustration that there are some things  your phone camera wont let you do, then is the time to start thinking about splashing out on a more versatile bit of kit.

Here are some of the pictures I have taken with phones over the years, which I am reasonably happy with and which I am not sure my fancy gear would have improved on..

 iPhone 3gs

 iPhone 3gs

 iPhone 3gs

 Sony Xperia Z1

 Sony Xperia Z1

 
Samsung Galaxy Note 4 

 Samsung Galaxy Note4

 Samsung Galaxy Note 4

Samsung Galaxy Note 4
Samsung Galaxy Note 4
Samsung Galaxy Note 4

Thursday, 18 February 2016

My Dunedin 3

 First Church. I took this photo and the next one with my phone and was quite pleased with them

 Interior, First Church

 Knox Church

 Altar Frontal, St. Paul's Cathedral

 Botanical Gardens

 The botanical gardens cover a hillside and a large section of the floor of the Leith Valley. They are perfect for weekend family strolls.

 St, Paul's Cathedral

 Otago Boys' High School

 St. Paul's Cathedral

 The old Church of Christ building

 Dunedin Railway Station. Built in the days when we were the wealthiest city in the country and when railways were state of the art technical marvels that had to be celebrated and boasted about.

An inner city lane

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Giving Death a Helping Hand

In 1930 Carl Panzram was hanged. The account of his life makes dismal reading. When he went to the noose he confessed to 21 murders and 1,000 rapes. He lived by theft and his hatred of humankind was shown in random acts of cruelty and vandalism. Given the danger he posed to society, the non existent hopes of rehabilitating him, and his ingenuity at escaping from prison, it is hard to argue against the eventual imposition of the death penalty on him.

For those who argue in favour of the death penalty cases like Carl Panzram are trotted out as evidence: there are some people, it is argued, who are so irredeemably evil that the world is better off without them. There are some acts of wickedness so monstrous that death seems a just punishment for them. Last year, standing in Auschwitz I could sympathise with that view. But of course, when the death penalty is legalised  it is never quite so cut and dried. No matter how thorough the legal system there are always people who are wrongly accused and wrongly convicted. And amongst those who are guilty of murder the ultimate punishment seems to be applied in a very skewed fashion. Those who can afford the best defences; those whose connections and assets allow them to play the system know how to beat it. So death row fills with the young, the  poor and black and the mentally ill. It fills with those whose life circumstances or addictions or passions have led them to make fatally stupid decisions. And repentant and reformed souls are led to the gas chambers alongside the irredeemably wicked. I would hazard a guess that unambiguously evil wretches like Carl Panzram are a minority of those who are executed.

So when we discuss the subject of medically assisted suicide I find it uncomfortable when the cases urged as exemplars for its acceptance are so clear cut and seemingly unambiguous, and where the implication is that all presenting cases will be like this. My experience with the elderly and dying is that judgements of coercion and rationality when people are making such a decision will be very difficult to assess.
  • People are ambiguous creatures. We are perfectly capable of holding two or more conflicting ideas in our heads at the same time and switch between them on a minute by minute basis depending on what mood we are in and who we have been talking to last and what we have read or seen on TV. 
  • When debilitated by serious illness it is very possible for people to be consumed with guilt over the burden they cause their relatives; to overestimate the trouble they are to others and underestimate their own worth and needs.
  • When faced with the prospect of an inheritance disappearing in rest home bills; when faced with their own unease around illness and death; when consumed by longstanding animosities or jealousies it is easy for close relatives to covertly or overtly place enormous pressure on a dying person. It can be hard to detect this.
  • When faced with the loss of much that they hold dear it is natural for people to grieve and feel depressed, and to make decisions which are influenced by short term states of mind.  
 If we were to allow medically assisted suicide we would, of course, need to have a system and that system would need to be devised and governed and policed by somebody. Which would mean that it would be, inevitably, flawed and open to manipulation by those with the will and the means to do so.  Give it enough time to operate and the system would become as skewed as the one for sorting candidates for death row. The most vulnerable and weak amongst us; those who have no champion or those with venal and selfish champions; those whose grief processes are currently delivering them anger or depression; those with low self esteem; those frightened of the future; these are the ones who would make up most of the numbers.

Of course there are people whose future is bleak and who face a very unpleasant time between now and death. But we have means of palliative care which can make almost every passage to death bearable, and the risks of systematically allowing us to shorten lives which have become troublesome to ourselves or others are  too great to allow.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Love letters

A sketch of Clemency from a letter I wrote to her in 1973

My niece Tania started it. She said, on Facebook,  she would love to see what was in that note that I passed to Clemency all those years ago. So I asked Clemency if she still had it and she disappeared into the garage and emerged a few minutes later with a couple of boxes containing everything I had ever written to her. And there it was. Written on a page torn from the cheap newsprint pad I used for notes, with the red pencil I was using to underline things (hilighters hadn't been invented yet, remember) were the first 51 words that ever passed between Clemency and me. And no, Tania, you can't see them. Ask Bridget after Clemency and I have departed for wider shores.

So we read the note. And remembered. And then sat down together to read through the rest of the contents of the boxes. There were envelopes that hadn't been opened in 42 or 43 years. There were letters that had, back in the day, been read and reread and handled and savoured. There were others that had been read once and angrily jammed back into their envelopes. The letters were filled with jokes and puns and riddles. There were pictures: little cartoons of myself and Clemency mostly, but I note that I was pretty darned good at drawing Asterix and Obelix. These letters were passionate and eloquent and inventive and funny. They were angry and full of self doubt and confusion and ignorance. I found maybe a half dozen poems, and no I'm not sharing any of them, but looking with the objectivity which 4 decades brings, I am surprised at how competent they are. I found a sketch, the one above, which I had completely forgotten drawing and which I know I could not now draw .

I've kept a spiritual journal from time to time but never a diary, so for the first time ever I was looking at a fairly full written record of my own life, and it was strange. This was the time I learned to love. This was the period in which I came to faith and the period when I began to make my own way in the world. As far as the details go, I had forgotten most of the letters and most of the events they described, so it was like reading the correspondence of a stranger. I was looking over the shoulder of this young man who was not me and yet was completely me, and reading his most personal thoughts as he lived through the most anguishing, the most joyous, the most bewildering, and confusing, the most hopeful and optimistic and adventurous, the most humiliating, the most lonely, the most deeply connected couple of years of his life.  I felt such pity for him; such exasperation at him; such pride in him;  such compassion. How is it that this young man, whose beliefs and life experience and feelings are so utterly other is still the same single consciousness as writes this post? How am I still him?

There was an evening when I first said to her, "I love you." And there was the letter I wrote the next morning. It was so full of doubt and insecurity. It was so certain. It waxed philosophically on what love is, and struggled to explain what it was that I felt. Last night I read it aloud to her, and we both felt the power of it still after all these years: clumsy, eloquent, heartfelt, accurate, strong and tender. Back then we were so confused, so damaged, the pair of us, we didn't know what the hell we were doing. Yet we blundered onwards and here we are all these years later with a collection of old paper that describes a journey we were led on; and it describes the agency of something greater than either of us which was determined on our healing and growth.

And which has led us here: through all the certain paths and byways and missteps and faults and errors and sufferings and joys to which human beings are prone, on a 44 year long pilgrimage to this little house on a hill with its flowers and trees. And to this couch with tea and a box of old letters and each other.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Gerard Manley Hopkins


Gerard Manley Hopkins was an ineffectual parish priest and a hardworking but unappreciated teacher who, during his lifetime, wrote a small body of obscure and ignored poetry. After his death his work was edited and published by Robert Bridges and is now regarded as some of the most important poetry of the Victorian era; indeed it is some of the most important religious poetry of all time.

His work was technically revolutionary. He devised a new form of metre which he called sprung rhythm. Instead of lines constructed of words with a set number of variously stressed syllables, as was customary in English poetry, he constructed his lines of a number of feet - each with a varying number of syllables - but with the stress always falling on the first syllable of the foot. In this way he pioneered a freer rhythmic structure and paved the way for the later development of free verse.

But his great innovation was religious, or philosophical or cosmological. He was fascinated by Being. He believed that everything in existence had a reason for being here, and each thing - each rock and blade of grass and person and institution and relationship - had its own unique identity. This identity could be described as the thing's inscape, in the same way that we talk about the landscape of a geographical region. Everything had its own inscape, and the particular energy of the thing, the energy which held this inscape together and was expressed by it, he called instress. The instress was thus akin to what Maori might call the Wairua of a person or thing. It was the thing's soul, although soul is a poor synonym because even inanimate objects had an inscape and instress.

Hopkins sought to express, in his poems, the inscape of the thing he was talking about. He thought that his poems should impart the instress of his subject to the reader, and do it in a particular way. He used his innovative rhythmic structure and carefully chose his words, manufacturing words where he needed to, to construct a poem which was deliberately tight and obscure. The reader encountered the poem and while charmed by its beauty and originality, was left somewhat baffled as to its meaning. But on rereading the poem several times an extraordinary thing happened: the poem suddenly burst into meaning , opening itself like a rosebud quickly blooming, revealing the completeness of its meaning all at once, and, in that opening, imparting the instress of the subject to the reader as a felt and intuited and understood thing.

I once described all this in a conversation with somebody. That conversation changed her life. Mine too.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.
 - Gerard Manley Hopkins

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Valentines Day

It's Valentine's Day. It's also Clemency's 64th birthday, so I got up early, cooked her the breakfast she wanted, and had the appropriate Beatles' song playing when she sat down at the table. She opened her presents and we skyped to allow Noah to help her blow out the candles on her birthday scone.

Later this year we will celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary, which means that we have been together for 44 years. She was in my English 3 class at Canterbury University in 1972. I had noticed her, of course; she was so beautiful how could I not? But I was navigating other waters for most of the year, as was she. Around September/October exams loomed and most students stopped whatever it was they were occupying themselves with and began to study in earnest. We all spent the  most part of most days sitting at two seater desks in little cubicles dotted around the creaking three floors of the old townsite library.

We arrived early and stayed all day and it so happened that even though competition for seats was fierce and it was almost impossible to sit exactly where you wanted, most days Clemency seemed to be sitting near me. Or me near her. We glanced and glanced away. Smiled. Nodded. One day I placed a note on her desk which didn't quite have the intended effect as the next day she wasn't there. Or the day after that. About a week later,  just when I was chalking this one up to experience, I returned from lunch, and though the other chair at my desk was empty, I saw her English folder, with her name written in her unbelievably neat handwriting, sitting next to mine. I sat down and, mustering all my nonchalance, tried to study. Ten minutes later she came and sat beside me and tried to do likewise. We said a shy hello. We noted what each other was reading and asked, quietly, how it was going. At dinner time we went together to the student café and ate something, in company with a friend of hers. We talked about Gerard Manley Hopkins, the subject, for both of us, of that day's study.  When the library closed at 9 I asked if she wanted to go to the Victorian Coffee Gallery, which was about the hippest place in Christchurch: they served Nescafe in earthenware mugs, had live folk music and, by way of lighting, candles jammed into old wine bottles. We sat in the candle lit fug, on opposite sides of a small table and sipped at our coffee. We talked for a while, then I leaned over the table and kissed her. She said, in a very small voice, "help". And 44 years later here we are.

44 years. We've had our ups and downs. One of the purposes of marriage is to provide in environment in which our deepest woundings can be surfaced and addressed. We've done that for each other. We've faced, like everybody else, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Sometimes our marriage was as good as a marriage can ever be and sometimes it was not. And now, it is in perhaps the best place it has ever been. There's not much, if anything, we disagree on - music, art, books, politics, child raising policies, travel destinations, food or how to spend a quiet Waitangi weekend. We don't argue much, if ever.  We laugh a lot. We laugh A LOT. We rest unguardedly and unselfconsciously in each other's company and in the profound knowledge we each have of the other.

Today I remembered one of Joy Cowley's Psalms Down Under. It sort of sums it up:

Journey
Partner,  we bring to each other
not spring blossom but summer fruit
ripened by experience
and made all the sweeter by our knowledge of winter and spring.

We have known the seasons of abundance
and times of storm and drought.
We have come through the pains of growing
to understand that petals fall
to make way for something greater,
something that was meant to be
by God from the beginning.

Partner, I love what we have become
and what we are now for each other.
Let us go on together, you and I,
love to love, touch to touch,
to share the wisdom of autumn
and the new spring which awaits us
in the heart of winter.