World-foraging mind

Woke to news of an earthquake in Taiwan, fearful for a friend who lives there, relieved to find she is safe. Thinking of those suffering or having to rebuild.


Weekend here, at last. Sports day on the school playing fields across the road, athletics matches in the heat. Parents and teachers applauding as children tear back and forth, competing, winning, losing. My Great Dane peers at the players through the living room window like an elderly voyeur behind a lace curtain. He is a very curious dog and a little short-sighted.


From Jane Hirshfield on how we look with poetry’s eyes:


Poems appear, as often as not, to arise in looking outward: the writer turns toward the things of the world, sees its kingfishers and falcons, hears the bells of churches and sheep, and these outer phenomena seem to give off meaning almost as if a radiant heat. But the heat is in us, of course, not in things. During writing, in the moment an idea arrives, the eyes of ordinary seeing close down and the poem rushes forward into the world on some mysterious inner impulsion that underlies seeing, underlies hearing, underlies words as they exist in ordinary usage. The condition is almost sexual, procreative in its hunger for what can be known no other way. All writers recognize this surge of striking; in its energies the objects of the world are made new, alchemized by their passage through the imaginal, musical, world-foraging and word-forging mind.


A week of thinking about how we see art, what baffles, what is technically skilled, what is unexpected. The materials listed: charcoal, acrylics, wax crayon, oil paints, pencil. I think about taking my easel out into the garden at twilight, when the garden cools, painting foliage or a cloudy sky. Looking at the familiar differently  as I try to repeat or copy nature. I drew leaves as a child, oak leaves, maple, viburnum, msasa, imbuia; leaves ribbed, furred, veined, crinkled and losing green. Both sides of a leaf: the side showing structure, the side floating colour. Thinking about the capillary action, the rising sap, the fluttering in a breeze. Silver-backed leaves, juicy dark greens, purple and black leaves. Some days  all I could see were leaves on the grass, leaves jumping out from branches and  twigs, leaves I had to paint there and then. Leaf light, the way the sun shines through a leaf and makes its inner workings transparent and suffused with gold.


When I was at school we ran races, relays, played tennis, played rounders, played netball, swam in  annual galas. I was placed in Livingstone House and cheered when runners for our  House beat those in Moffat House. Named after the colonial missionaries David Livingstone and Robert Moffat. The competition didn’t bother me because winning or losing seemed such a small thing. I won prizes for essays and elocution and disregarded them because  what teachers liked or admired was often not very good, too tame and neatly written. But there was pleasure in running barefoot in the sunshine, overtaking others, breasting the  tape at the end. It didn’t happen often but I liked the effort and cameraderie. Shiny cups and certificates were more for the excitable teachers than us. Even parents knew that and tended to doze off in deck chairs  under trees at the edge of the field, clap loudly for the wrong child, fanning away flies and swatting at bees. Spending time outdoors in a hot climate wasn’t always wise but we grew up on sunshine and fresh air. Black swimsuits and white caps for swimming galas, ironed white dresses for tennis. Straw bashers, ironed cotton shirts and  pleated knee-length skirts in summer, ties, sweaters or cardigans and socks or stockings in winter. Hair tied back in a pony tail or two plaits, fringes pinned back off our freckled, sunburned faces. Faces and hands scrubbed, short finger nails, no cosmetics. No swearing, no smoking, no slouching. It was the world of Empire, Little England on the Veld.


Umtali 1960s



Original shimmering self

Next week it is Lent, pancakes and then Ash Wednesday. At some point in my childhood peregrinations around Roman Catholic convents, readings in the liturgy and mystical lives of saints and heretics, penitential retreats in my 20s, New Monastic ventures in my 30s, a persisting unresolved loving quarrel with the Body of Christ — anyhow, somewhere  along the line,  the liturgical seasons and feast days of certain Catholic characters seem to have embedded themselves in my psyche so I am more likely to remember Shrove Tuesday or Embers or the Feast of St Walburga than the housemate’s birthday or a dentist appointment.


So there is Lent, and then Easter and right after Easter the winter rains begin and we shall be going into autumn. Right now the housemate’s brother may be dying of bleeding on the brain and death will be a release for him, an end  to confusion and suffering. But the loss for those who love him is a torment. Here is the now and the not-yet: the waiting now, tomorrow or the day after, the funeral, the cremation and dispersal of ashes, the grieving after that and a framed photograph above the fireplace, on a  bedside table.  A few lines of official obituary, an old hat he wore when fishing, still hanging there in the hallway. The handful of small threadbare mementos that are all we have to recall that rich teeming life once there among us. The great calm hand of death conferring anonymity, forgetting.


I’m doing some work on emerging artists, the experimenting, the excitement and that utter despondency of the young when confronted with their own limitations, failure, invisibility. The brash colours and recycled materials, protest, satire, the desire to shock or awaken the New. So much to do, so little time. And that craving approval, wanting to be seen or heard, wanting any reaction other than indifference. What sparks, what flickers and goes out.


Birds crying high overhead, calling out warnings or greetings. The lovely obscure language of wild birds. How can I live more skilfully, how  do less harm and more good, bring warmth to the empty cold places between us? One breath at a time, one word sent out into the world like a living seed, a comfort, a dream or promise. Down the side of the house March lilies are swelling into bud, nerines, crinums, a blaze of luscious pink and white to come.


This, from Frederick Buechner:

“The original, shimmering self gets buried so deep that most of us end up hardly living out of it at all. Instead we live out of all the other selves, which we are constantly putting on and taking off like coats and hats against the world’s weather.”

you must have a mind of desert

Paraphrasing Wallace Stevens’ “You must have a mind of snow…”


There may be some rain later to cut the humidity and heat. I miss those cool dry cloudless dawns of the Karoo. Distilled air, the crisp new morning.


Planning to grilled ripe peach slices with some rose-scented yoghurt. Not sure if I shall use rosewater or rose-scented pelargonium leaves. Perhaps scatter some new mint leaves on top. Summer desserts. A mind of dessert.


Looking around for intelligent commentary on the US electoral circus and caucuses. I may not be crazy about Hillary Clinton but can’t anyone critique her campaign without misogyny?




Karoo Jan 16


South African writer and translator Marlene van Niekerk asking such hard questions, unanswerable perhaps:

The strongest link between this story and the accompanying graphics, as far as content is concerned, is the explicit questioning of an appropriate artistic response to the exceedingly brutal past and present of our country. A false binary is intentionally erected in the story: Should one be a mere recorder of cold brutal facts or a shaper/narrator of aesthetically pleasing/terrorising artefacts? There is no choice really, simply a tension between the impulse to record, count, categorise, excavate, exploit, analyse and the impulse to shape, create, project, dream and synthesise. The best works of art actually perform this tension without any other solution but a formal one, and preferably a solution that includes a strong rough edge of ‘ungainliness’ or ‘excess’ (c.f. Elizabeth Grosz). It is not only a moral but also a technical and an aesthetic tension.


Out here we deal with the need for restitution, the return of land, the sharing of  inherited wealth, the need to give back what was stolen. The pragmatics of how this  is to be done legally. An Australian friend of mine came out to southern Africa and  was shaken at the prospect of what such a ‘return of stolen wealth, property, land’ might mean for aboriginal peoples and how terrified and enraged white Australians would be to experience the righting of historical wrongs as actual deprivation. But it has to happen if we are ever to step out from under the long shadow of history.


And in the same way, there is a recognition that new voices may have more compelling stories to tell, that the twice-told anecdotes of privilege do not speak to or for those who have suffered in silence and  now need to  speak up and be heard by their own. The hungry generations deserve to take their places in the sun. Though this is only  part of the  bigger story-led complexity: multiple narratives,  multiple perspectives, the listening across bracketed categories and censored voices. We hunger for more reality, we lust after metaphor. The dispersed singularity of our times.