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Hinterland

My mother was born with the Pacific stretching out around her in all directions. She lived her childhood looking out over the sea from a bungalow on a hill. When the north wind blew, it rattled the windows and howled down the nook between the house and the hill. The sea would constantly change colour as the clouds raced over it and the wind whipped it.

When she got married she left the coast and went to live in a little house as far inland and far away from her home as she had ever been. The drive was long, the roads windy. Letters and infrequent toll calls were all that kept her in touch with home. This was where I was born. I remember this when I feel isolated here on a peninsular of a continent far, far away. My mother had travelled as far away as I had.

Perhaps because it’s where I was born and my first memories are there, I’ve always been drawn to the centre of the North Island. I’ve explored so much of it, on foot, by river and car. I feel such excitement to be able to pass through it whenever I return home as if it were a pilgrimage necessary for my soul. I’ve spilt my blood there, shed tears. I’ve laughed and felt pure joy. I’ve seen the most glorious sights of my life and beheld the silence that causes the sensation that you’ve physically disappeared and joined it. In the hinterland, the spirits have passed over my head and lifted me in their wake and gently dropped me down with the heavy sadness of people’s passing.

Quick anecdote: My Great-Great Grandfather passed by there in the 1880’s trying to find a village in order to discuss a school. He was a rather large man apparently and no spring chicken, so one can’t quite imagine how he managed through such rugged country on a horse. He never found that village, getting himself quite lost and unable to cross a river, so had to turn around and go back to the coast.

In Spain , the first time I entered Extremadura, in the Spanish hinterland, I felt almost at home. It was the first time that a Spanish landscape spoke to me as if I had come from it. This vast expanse of isolated, stony, barren cattle country, is hot in summer, freezing in winter and its name means what it is: extremely hard . It can simultaneously uplift and oppress.

“Annihilation is an existential fear: the common – and sharply overdrawn –fear that some part of you dies when you stop making art. And it’s true. Non-artists may not understand that, but artists themselves (especially artists who are stuck) understand it too well.” *

As I said, the hinterland can lift you up or oppress. I’m stuck. I’m blocked, distracted. I can’t make work. I can’t find a thread. The more that happens, the more I read, the more knowledge I have, the more I live, the more life lives ME, the more I feel weighed down in the immensity of everything. I’m lost in vast a hinterland, lost in the chaos and calculation of life. It’s too hard and too much and leaves me en blanco (in white). It’s a white that roars in my head and stops me making art.

So here I am, lost. With a hinterland that calls and challenges me to go on into the bareness, get scrapped by the rocks and feel the hardness. It is a long solitary passing under an unending sky, thinking all those thoughts, countering all that weight. And while I’m in there, when I can, in the very brief spells of seeing sense in that thunderous whiteness, I try and make art, any art, anything, just to keep me going.

Though sometimes , I prefer to turn back on the inland and face the other way. I forget “art” and enjoy how my two year old daughter jumps on the bed. My life isn’t about “art”. No, art is about my life, which needs to be lived as interestingly as I can, and not alone.

Clara is re-enacting for me with expressions, toddler talk and gestures, how she waited for the waves to come in to her feet before she jumped over them at the beach on the weekend. It was the world’s greatest, most joyful discovery – we had driven to the coast to see the sea.

*Art and Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) or artmaking. David Bayles and Ted Orland

Post Note: I have since discovered that “Extremamdura” actually comes from the land at the extreme end of the river Duero, but I like my ill-founded translation anyway.

Blanca's View in the Community Garden

Blanca’s View

La Tata is ninety and has a very full, straight set of knashers. Her lips stretch over them, as if she is trying to keep them in. She speaks in her low gravely voice to eight week old Blanca. Blanca looks back at her, smiling over my shoulder. When La Tata first saw her at one week old, she clasped her hands together mumbled benedictions and then waved her hand in a vague sign of the cross over the pram. She had told me then of how the mystery of life transfixed her -how could a child come from our bellies?

La Tata speaks of the wonderful things that Blanca will see and of the little that she knows, of the smartness of her big sister and most of all, that she is Andaluza, a Sevillana, and not to forget it. She told Clara the same when she was born. I think she finds the idea that part of them is not, and that they could disappear off to that very foreign, distant land and forget their roots, of great concern. Soon the chatter from over my shoulder ceases and I turn to see that La Tata has fallen asleep, her head tilted forward and her hands, that have washed and ironed countless amounts of clothes for three generations and soothed many crying babies are clasped together in the lap of her dark green wool skirt. Blanca looks on in a wide eyed baby stare. The telly blares in front of us with some midday South American soap opera.

Blanca hears sirens. She watches her mobile turn in the top of her pram. Innocent little bugs and butterflies swirl and bob around above her as we rattle through the cobbled streets. We pass a spray painted sign calling for Andalusians to rise up and strike. We heard from a friend, whose brother is a policeman, that they’re receiving special riot training. He may be just talking it up, but people are certainly getting angry. Laws are passed every day to cut spending, increase taxes, increase costs, reduce salaries…there are two million people out of the almost five million unemployed who receive no benefit and depend on their families. 350,000 people have lost their jobs since January. Corruption is everywhere among the rich who remain rich and even richer -we all know how untouchable they are. People are getting very angry.

Blanca is looking at the branches above us, thick with new spring leaves and blossoms. The vacant lot is full of children raising dust with their running games, climbing in the ancient fig, swinging on the swings and jumping along the old car tyres laid on the ground. I’ve never seen the place so full of people. People are sitting under the trees having afternoon tea, celebrating birthdays, studying or…a distinct smell wafts over my way… sharing a joint. Various raised garden plots have gardeners there weeding, planting, cutting back or harvesting. A man is pushing a wheelbarrow of dirt to continue caking the old children’s playhouse with a mixture of mud and straw. He’s creating a series of sculptures made of raw recycled materials. A giant snake’s head is forming at the end of the tyres, made of sticks, branches and straw, bent in to shape with eyes made of glass jars that used to contain olives. It kind of reminds me of the playground by the river in Wanganui, only this is all formed from the earth on which it stands. Next Saturday there will be a party here to celebrate eight years since the community gardens started.

Blanca is looking over my shoulder at the rain falling outside. It’s much needed. Extremadura is in a drought and the summer hasn’t arrived yet. Tomorrow my parents arrive, so I want to finish this postcard even if I have to type with one hand and hold her with the other. It’s been two years since I was home and this will be the first time that Blanca will meet her New Zealand Grandparents. She has faced the computer and wobbled her head at some pixelated people as her sister Clara has given the screen sloppy kisses, one for Nan, one for Poppa.

Finally Blanca looks at me.
It always takes a while to register
She looks at the outline of my face,
Then finds my eyes,
And cracks a smile.

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