He was my dog

HectorHe was nothing but a skittery pompom with a sharp little nose when we first brought him home.  He was small enough to fit into the pocket of my fleece.  His life spanned the length of our marriage.

Smart and fully engaged, he was excellent and constant company.  Dethroned successively by three babies, he generally took his demotion in good part.

Nosier than the Microsoft Paperclip, he always had to be involved, or at least present.  A naughty, loud fellow, scourge of the neighbours.   He was badly disciplined, an unrepentant pizza thief, a problem barker.

As he aged, he became blind and sick, and the sickness spread, despite our energetic denial.  What made it hardest to bear is that we could see in his eyes that he was still in there.  Barely able to walk he would still leap joyfully in the air when we came home.

When we broke the news of his condition, the children said ‘I wish I had been nicer to him’ and ‘it’s worse because he doesn’t know’

Towards the end, we ran a shift where one of us had to get up twice or three times per night and let him out.  We could never sleep past 5.30am.  It felt like having a newborn but without the upside.  It was unsustainable.  We walked like the undead, dealing with our kids and our jobs, but unable to bring ourselves to the point of what we had to do.

We heard many stories from others, some who had been to amazing extremes to keep their old dogs alive.  They all told the same story: ‘We kept him alive too long because we couldn’t bear to let him go’.  They were stories of bargaining, rationalising and denial.

In the end it was quite simple.  We carried him into the vet.  The vet spoke to us quietly and reassuringly, like a kindly priest.  The tears ran unguarded down our faces from the moment we arrived until we left.   When he was gone, he was gone.  I wish I had not looked into his eyes as they changed.  The right thing to do did not feel like the right thing to do.

Now, we can leave our food on the table without losing it.  We can walk around the back lawn without the danger of stepping on landmines.  We can sleep.

But weeks later I still hear his claws making fickety fickety noises behind me when I walk down the hall.  I throw food on the floor and it stays there. When I rise from reading, there is no attentive dismount beside me.  Coming home lacks a leaping celebration.

He was my dog, and I miss him every day.

Creativity is a happy virus: 10 things I learned from the 100 Day Project


100 Days title slide

Over the last 100 days, up to 760 of us have been toiling quietly away in our own private spheres, uploading one creative act to the 100 Days site every day. This all ends on Saturday, the 100th Day when I’ll join 160 other 100 Day finishers as we exhibit our work.

When I joined the 100 Days Project I made a commitment to paint one small natural object from my day, every day for 100 days.

100 day project on tableJPGIn addition to improving my drawing and watercolour skills, I had three goals:

  • Get over the idea that the work has to be perfect to be seen
  • Celebrate the living world around me with small acts of creativity
  • Bring a small spot of mindfulness to my day

As I collate my large collection of small paintings for their maiden voyage into Britomart tomorrow, I’ve been thinking about what the project has taught me.  I realise I have learned more than I thought:

10 Lessons from the 100 Day Project:

  1. I can fit at least one creative act into my life every day
  2. Creativity is contagious and inspiration spreads through family and friends like a happy virus. (Thanks everyone for your deliveries of small and interesting objects!)
  3. It doesn’t kill me to have an imperfect piece of work out there where anyone can see it
  4. I won’t like everything I make but I will actually love some of it
  5. Over time, the collection of work unexpectedly takes on a character and palette of its own
  6. As Goethe said, everything starts with the commitment, and the nature of a public commitment means I am much more likely to make it to completion
  7. It’s more fun with friends along on the ride but I still have to do my own work in the end
  8. Close observation and painting of an object captures a time, feeling and place more deeply and permanently than a photo
  9. Though we are not well acquainted, patience is my friend. The longer I spend on observing, the better the final painting
  10. It’s not cheating to work a little ahead, we can all do with easing the pressure, even if it is self imposed

Bird of Paradise

Overall I have found the project has boosted my confidence in my ability to produce work of quality and value.  The impetus to produce something every single day freed me from the need to create a ‘perfect’ thing.  I’m now happy for others to see my work, despite the flaws that I see.  I have grown to understand that others perceive my paintings quite differently to the way I see them. Over time, my style has become a little looser, less controlled, I’ve tried new techniques and I can see some new directions I’d like to take.

The commitment to the project has also had interesting flow-on effects such as a move into writing and blogging for the first time, and burgeoning connections and friendships.

Bok ChoyIf you are considering taking part in the project next year, I’d thoroughly recommend it for the fun and the challenge.  If called to offer advice, I would say keep your idea simple and flexible.  No doubt you’ll be busy with other life commitments and 100 ideas is a lot to come up with when you’re mired in the middle stretch somewhere with a thousand competing commitments.

If you’ve taken part in this or a similar project, please comment! I’d love to hear what you have learned from your experience.

Cut apple

The Day 100 exhibition is on The Nathan Room, 51 Galway street, Britomart, Auckland.  Hours are 6pm-10pm Saturday 14th September and 10-4pm Sunday 15th September.

Please join us to celebrate if you can.  All are welcome!

Rub your eyes and purify your heart

Purified heartWhile being deported to the Gulags, Nobel Literature prize winning author Solzenitzyn observed a mother and daughter engaged in a petty squabble on his bus.  In response, he wrote the following:

“Do not pursue what is illusory – property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated on one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life – don’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn after happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter does not last forever and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don’t freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don’t claw at your insides. If your back isn’t broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes see, and if both ears hear, then whom should you envy? And why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart – and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well.”

As we go through some significant changes in our work and family life, this quotation resonates strongly with us.  Even now as I read it the hairs rise on the back of my neck in recognition of the the essential truth.  We are blessed to have people in our lives who care about us and who wish us well. We are healthy and strong enough to live with integrity, love, honesty and kindness.

What else could possibly matter?



Thank you for spending your time on me

Scanned images 001My middle boy reached double figures today.

Any parent will tell you that each child poses his own particular challenges to their own self mastery as an adult.

This boy with his dramatic swings, verbal dexterity, persistence and emotional intelligence is capable of diabolical tempers, protracted negotiation, belly laughs and breathtaking sweetness.

This weekend he watched carefully as I made his birthday cake.  A wise move since one never knows when an M&M might go rogue. Tension rose as I tried to remember what I had forgotten to prepare for his small party. Just between us, I may not have had a pleasant and loving smile on my face.

My march to martyrdom was halted in its tracks when he looked across the table and said “Thank you for spending your time on me Mum“.

It is a choice to be an involved parent, whether you choose to express it via cake, or soccer coaching or endless standing knitting beside godforsaken dressage arenas (you know who you are). But even a rewarding choice takes time, money, energy and in the opportunity cost to personal projects.

Perhaps as a parent you can’t really expect to be thanked for what you do.  Maybe it’s only when you become a parent that you really realise what went into making you who you are. But when thanks comes, graced with a recognition that you could have spent your time differently, my goodness, it is appreciated.  I spent the rest of that day with a real glow, a feeling of  true delight.

Do you have memories of paging through the Woman’s Weekly cookbook to choose your next birthday cake, sometimes months in advance? The pages of my Australian Woman’s Weekly Kids Birthday cake book which aren’t stuck together are falling out from overpawing.

Even though my mother doesn’t really love to bake she has always been very good at it. Her baking is, without fail, delicious, and her scones are worldbeaters.  Few people can whip up a square meal for five with a heel of cheese and an old boot, but she can. It is usually garnished with a description of how it could have been better.

I have very strong memories of cakes Mum made for me such as ‘The Garfield‘ c1985 in particular. However special mention is reserved for the inventive jelly topped cake (still remembered by Lucy C some thirty years later) which was consumed shivering under a cold concrete ledge at the Parnell Baths.

As an adolescent I lounged about like a sneering know-it-all, not lifting a finger while the domestic arts were conducted around my prone form. Now I find them surfacing in me spontaneously, like a coma victim who wakes to find they can suddenly speak fluent Aramaic.  My mother for her part has been extremely gracious about me discovering these skills as if I was seeing them for the first time and acting as if I may well have just invented them.

It’s too big for one blogpost, but it all just comes down to one thing really:

Thanks for spending your time on me Mum.



On becoming an opshop queen

Dollar coinBeing on a budget is like being on a diet.  Suddenly the world seems chock full of desirable items you might not have looked twice at before.

And there’s really nothing like a bargain is there?  King of these has got to be the prize you’ve been eyeing which you pick up for a fraction of the original price.  It’s that very basic human drive which keeps Trademe humming.  I have to confess I’ve generally found Trademe annoying and lacking that real world thrill of the hunt (although this visual search version Rummage is a bit more fun).

Therefore, my preferred bargain destination for a retail fix on a budget, is the op shop. Even amongst op shops around here, there is a hierarchy. You’ve got to know where to focus your miserly attentions.  The Hospice Shops, for example, have wised up and present their wares in a professional manner.  You pay accordingly, but they tend to attract a higher quality level of goods.  And of course nobody could begrudge a slightly higher price, given the funding goes to such a good cause.

The Salvation Army and the Red Cross, though equally laudable in their aims, generally run a lower price, higher volume game (however see the link above for a clever deal the Red Cross is doing with Country Road clothing). And although well picked over by Trademe resellers, there are still surprising bargains to be had for the frequent and discerning shopper.

For the crafty, such as my super-arty friend Carolyn, there is a treasure trove of repurposable art materials waiting to be transformed into desirable contemporary objets d’art.  If you’re a frequent flyer, quite often the shop will hold items for you, and of course I always try to drop off more than I pick up in my endless Sisyphean (some might say doomed) household decluttering mission.

Woollen blankets are suddenly terribly trendy amongst crafters, and the old Princess and Onehunga blankets are not as thick on the ground as they were.  However I’m looking to make hot water bottles covers and cushions, so I’m happy with fragments and damaged blankets which still go for a couple of dollars considering the amount you’d pay at Centrepoint Fabrics for a similar length of good quality wool.

Braided rugI love me a little handmade charm and the braided rug I made for Mr 12’s room was mostly put together from old denim and cotton duvet covers from the Sallies.  All up, the material cost around $20. The equivalent, even from cheapie Spotlight, would have set me back much more and been of lower quality.  And although I do admire the skill and art of quilting, I can’t help feeling that there’s something slightly counterintuitive about buying brand new fabric to chop into little bits to make into another brand new thing.   Buy at the op shop and you help divert clothing away from landfills. Yes, and all the smugness of recycling can be yours too at no extra cost!

I find the op shop particularly handy for picking up different sized cake tins and other kitchen basics (Six white ramekins for $2 anyone? Designer zester for $3?). I was prepared to splash out six whole dollars on a new shirt today, only to find that there was a half price sale on, so I forked out just $3 on a gently worn shirt.  At other times in my life, I’m slightly embarrassed to say I might have spent up to 100x more for a similar garment which would have looked pretty much the same after two months’ wear.

Although like any addiction, retail will always have its pull for me, I am trying to resist the siren call of the new and choose the wiser path where I can do less damage overall. Wish me luck!

For your thrifty earworm songs today, you have a choice of Thrift Shop by Macklemore, I Need a Dollar By Aloe Black or One Day off Second Hand Planet by Opshop.  You’re welcome!

What’s your favourite recycle boutique? Do tell!

In the company of ladies

Mosaic flowerSome years ago, I joined a folk painting class with a few friends of different ages and stages. Eventually we were chucked out, ostensibly because the teacher no longer wished to run evening classes.  But we always secretly suspected it was for laughing too much, and not paying enough attention to our correct colours and strokes.

The other thing about ‘decorative painting’ (as were were instructed to call it) is that it is extremely prescriptive.  We all have very different tastes and preferences, and although we had benefitted by learning paint control and technique, we all wanted to build on what we had learned and break out a little.

However we just weren’t quite ready to let go of the ongoing creativity and sense of companionship we enjoyed, working on different projects together for three hours on a Monday night.  So when Helen bravely and generously offered her lovely big table we jumped at the chance of continuing to meet each other every week.

We meet, we check in, we paint, we embroider, we glue, we sew.  Mostly we talk loudly and laugh even louder.  Tea is drunk (in quantity), cake is eaten, children sorted, victories celebrated, health discussed, problems aired, resignations contemplated and embarrassments shared, to the great enjoyment of all.

A surprising amount of work gets done. It’s the ideal opportunity to create, to make birthday presents and finish those UFO’s, or unfinished craft objects as my friend Helena calls them in her post on the topic.  Helen creates graphic and imaginative images with strong lines, Carolyn her amazing mixed media and altered art and Julie her gorgeous flowered pastels and embroidery.  I could pick their work, sight unseen, out of a police lineup (not that there has been any need for this to date you understand).

When the National Government cut funding to community education I was exceedingly angry at the typical shortsightedness.  It’s not just upskilling in Mandarin, wood turning or Thai cookery, it’s the creation of personal cross linkages which builds community.

Our Monday night group creates for me an unprecedented feeling of support and community.  Without this encouragement. I wouldn’t have felt empowered to start the 100 Days Project or this blog. When life gets too busy and I feel too tired to set off, my husband always encourages me to set off: ‘Go! You always feel better for going’. And he is right and good to do so.

I get by with a little help from my friends.  Do you?

Thank you CFs.

Hunting and gathering – family time

Dried flax flowerFlax flower: 100 Day project #11

This dried flax flower was found on a walk from Hekerua Bay around the cliff to Little Oneroa and then up to ‘Big’ Oneroa for a pie.  After a luxurious and enjoyable morning lolling about in our PJs we put on our jackets and went for a walk in the blustery air.  We even took Hector, in an inclusive ‘no man or poodle left behind’ spirit.  Although at thirteen, he is half blind, and we took a bag as well in case we had to carry him.  He was overjoyed and capered about on the beach like an old puppy, taking some larger dogs to task for being large and being dogs, and making it home with his dignity and a limp.

We were so lazy and late leaving the house that by the time we got to our destination only the sausage rolls and more exotic pie flavours were available from the coffee bar  Thai chicken anyone? Alright then.

En route, the boys found many small brightly coloured and patterned objects of interest to support the painting project, including this flax flower which is so beloved by the tui when it is still plump and ripe.  It’s really fun to see how involved the children have become, with quite strong opinions of their favourites and which painting should go up next.  Something of a relief too, to now that I’m not likely to run out of subjects with them around.

When I lived in France in the mid nineties, I worked with a Dutch girl who generously opened her family holiday home to me.  It was close to Orleans and was called “La Pomme, or ‘the apple’ for the small orchard in which it stood.  Mariet and Charles-Henri were married from the chateau nearby and had a lengthy post-match celebration in this orchard, at which half the guests (male) spent with one ear attuned to the broadcast of the France/NZ Rugby world Cup game (as you might guess, it didn’t end well for us).

Hunting traditions ran strongly in Charles-Henri’s family and in Autumn the gentlemen, for that is what they were, would dress up for the job and stride off to take part in the annual chasse.  At the end of the hunt they would display their catch in a neatly arranged square tableau, standing behind to mark the occasion with their photograph.

tableauWhen we returned from our our walk on Saturday I couldn’t help but arrange our finds in a tableau on the bench.

These habits of hunting and gathering run deeper than we know.

Feeling crabby? Time to get away

crab pincer closeCrab pincer: 100 Days Project #10

It’s always delicious, that feeling of getting away.  And luckily in Auckland, it isn’t that hard.  Thirty minutes’ drive will get you to a patch of green or blue you can call your own for a short time.  Somehow it’s even more refreshing when you get to go by boat.  Everyday stresses and cares are tossed to the wind, carried by the gulls and churned behind you in the wake of the car ferry as you literally leave the city behind.

On the Waiheke passenger ferry, cardsharp commuters mingle with students, fascinator-wearing wedding guests, anoraks and hardout alternative lifestylers for a 45 minute journey to another place.  Friendships are struck up over mongrels and labradoodles alike on the back deck and there’s always a feeling of freshness and transition.

So, imagine one day if your parents were to say to you: ‘We’ve found the perfect Waiheke section to build our bach at last!. It’s steep, covered in bush, inaccessible by road and requires a 10 minute walk-in by a steep zigzag track!’ Naturally the only possible response is ‘fantastic!’.  Not everybody has the good fortune to have parents with a house near the beach, and it isn’t something to take for granted.

Now that we have three children who can walk, talk, swim, and (theoretically) hang up their own towels, the magic of this house nestled among the trees become more evident with every visit.  They can trot down to the beach, through the flax, past the serried ranks of orange sea kayaks and aluminium dinghies, all on their own now.   They know about lifejackets and how to mess about in boats. They can spend long hours ignoring sunscreen advice and finding beach treasures such as the crab pincer above.

Their childhood memories are being formed there.  For our eldest, this is the spot he thinks of when asked to picture his ‘happy place’.

Here, we get to create our own traditions, such as ‘Grandad tries to sneak out on his own for the paper‘, ‘breadmaking one-upmanship‘ and the time-honoured ‘we kayak to get a samosa‘.  Nobody, but nobody, will spend longer in the water with our boys than their Grandma, and they get the chance to pick beans still sun-warm from the row with their Grandad.

I think that like a lot of parents, our jobs have often gotten the better part of us, first in our own business and then as part of a larger company. Our children pay the price for that.  The small distance between our home and Hekerua Bay allows us to reframe and refocus.  We need to do that a lot more.  Thanks Mum and Dad. x


Heart of oak

Oak Leaf horizOak Leaf: 100 Days project #7

Over several years my commute required me to drive along Stanley Street, over the motorway, through the ongoing roadworks and down past the University.  Along with the tall avenue of overarching plane trees on that stretch, there are several very old oaks.  One in particular stands sentinel over the Jewish cemetery and the old brick public convenience by Grafton Bridge.

In a country dominated by evergreens, the foliage of these leafy giants defines the season.  When I see the oak branches brandishing clutches of soft, fresh new leaves in lime green, I feel a sudden lightening of spirits and I understand at an elemental level that spring has arrived.

Green Man

Green Man

There is a compelling quality to the oak tree.  The lobed shape of its leaves, the strength and arrangement of its branches, the fascinating acorns with their tiny cupped hats.  Core of many a myth and legend, the oak speaks to the pagan Green Man, to Robin Hood, clandestine meetings and Enid Blyton.

Being both beautiful and useful, the oak must surely be the epitome of William Morris‘s timeless ‘arts and crafts’ Englishness.  However, both the symbolism and timber of genus Quercus are much older and predominate in the history of shipbuilding, military strength, endurance and civic honour for more than one nation.

In a world where artisanal style is increasingly ‘referenced’ by high fashion designers, even fashionistas such as Karen Walker have taken to incorporating the imagery of oak leaves and acorns into her work.  While any self respecting magpie would swoop right on in there, that baublesque shininess just doesn’t seem quite right somehow.

Is my steadfast affection for the oak tree disloyal, unpatriotic?  It isn’t a native species, after all.  Is this simply the perpetuation of the same deep-seated cultural colonial imprint which had my father singing ‘Heart of oak are our ships, heart of oak are our men at Southland Boys High in Invercargill in the 1950s?  Certainly, the sight of these leaves recalls family trips to the Christchurch Botanical Gardens (where the first oak was planted in 1863) to walk, and identify Scarlet Oaks, Pin Oaks and to punch the slightly forgiving trunk of the Cork Oak.

Is it rather some kind of inherited soul memory?  All I know is that despite the surprising foreignness of England in arriving for the first time, I saw the softness of the trees, and something in me relaxed and luxuriated.





Commitment, Goethe and a personal note of gratitude

joyful arumToday SmallActs was featured by the 100 Day Project Facebook page.  It’s a little thing perhaps, but significant to me, and as one of over 750 contributors, many of whom are outstandingly talented, I do feel quite humbled.

It’s one of a number of small but lovely developments which which have happened in the very brief interval since committing to the project and to writing this blog.   I feel happier, more energised, more ‘me’, more connected.  Is it an irony that it is only by concentrating on yourself you feel you have more to offer others?

This inspiring quotation, partly attributed to Goethe, (again with the Germans) speaks compellingly of the the luck, assistance and resources which come to a person who is committed:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.   

Go boldly friends.  Begin it now.

(PS If you’re lucky, one of those resources is a very patient WordPress mentor who is now looking askance at the monster he has created.  Thank you kind friend.)