Today would have been the 100th birthday of one of the most important people in my life: my maternal grandfather James Savage, known to his friends as Jim and to me and my cousins as Pep. Born in 1921 to an Irish Australian father and Scottish Australian mother, he grew up in working-class Sydney during the Depression, and the death of his father when he was nine due to the after-affects of mustard gas in the trenches of WWI saw his mother raise him and his two sisters alone with very little to live on. When she remarried and he clashed with his step-father he ran away to fight in WWII, flying in Number 10 Squadron with the RAAF. Returning to Sydney after the war, he eventually started working for a photographic company and as a result also became a respected photographer, especially for his architectural work for the National Trust. Forced to leave school young, he never realised his desire to be a History teacher but he inspired me with four of his great loves: history, great books, good tea (always Twinings) and photography.
Pep piled photographic equipment on me like he showered me with books. He introduced me to Dickens, Orwell, Camus, Brave New World, Joyce and Hemingway. And he taught me something that never made sense to me at the time: a picture needs something to hang its hat on. An enthusiastic reader of early Richard Dawkins and angry at the Catholic Church of his childhood, Pep subscribed to the “blind watchmaker” view of the cosmos, but believed up to his death that God was love and saw order and beauty in nature that was not easily explained by his scientific determinism. The way I look at the world has my grandfather’s stamp on it. When I see a dazzling array of light and grab my phone to capture it, Pep has prompted that sense in me. When I photograph an interesting doorway or the curious shape of a tree, Pep again. He taught me to see all the places where God hangs His hat in the world’s form and wonder, though he would never have put it that way.
Bible scholar John Walton speaks of the seven days of creation as a process of God building a home for Himself. The first six days He spends ordering His home. On the seventh day, He comes inside, hangs up His hat, switches on the lights and puts His feet up. In every arm-like tree bough I see God carving a dwelling for Himself with us. I do not know where my grandfather stood before His creator when he died – in his last days he took great comfort in remembering the Lord’s Prayer – but I know that he taught me how to see God’s world with an eye attentive to beauty and order. And my faith is the richer for it.
Strange to be flourishing so far afield; its home is equatorial, tropical, not here, among suburban paddocks, with a straight line down to Antarctica. Yet, while silver birch weeps and quince decks boggy ground with its midwinter yellow, this Malaysian friend greets me with loud, audacious pink, asserting its brilliant right to exist, here, far from home: fruitless, pointless, its only purpose to be, to glory, and beautifully so.
Senseless acts of beauty went
unnoticed as the runners ran
and golfers golfed
and my head span.
Full of self I stormed upon
the beaten earth and missed the shades
of microscopic brown and green,
the flower hidden in the leaves,
the pounding in the runner’s ears,
the grace which binds me to these years
and notices it all.
The garden holds promises, and I visit them daily: minuscule at first, fluffy, unsure, like hesitant children, awaiting the world. This is not quite their season: the Rabbi knew as much, yet visited expectant nonetheless. And, as frost and dew recede, there they are, peeping and proffering garden-bound joy. Too early to pluck, too much promise curse. So I’ll visit them daily until they can sing.
There hasn’t been a lot going on at The Consolations of Writing for the past few weeks: partly because the busyness of life has conspired against my being able to write very much but also because after three and a half years of managing this site I’ve been in the process recently of rethinking what I use it for. I’m in the midst, when time allows, of an extended writing project centred around faith, mental health and the fragmentation of 21st century life. Some of it is on the down low, but some can be found at a new site I’m trialling, sprawlpoems.wordpress.com. And, as that site slowly takes on its own identity, this site seems to be returning to some of its old roots: the question of how writing can bridge the gap between faith and life.
It’s a question I have asked for a long time, both in my own writing and reflection. And now it has a new shape: a doctoral thesis I am in the throes of, around the links between creative writing and adolescent well-being in schools – a topic close to my heart as both a teacher and a writer. So the new question that I’m toying with is this: what does it look like in my own writing for me to be exploring this topic?
The answer is not yet clear, though some ideas are slowly circulating in my mind. I’ll still be posting poems here, though they may have a different flavour. You can also read the poems I post at Sprawl. But there will also be some new ideas and approaches that I’ll be trialling here in the coming weeks and months. I hope you can all join me in the process!
I gather moments like raindrops,
these microscopic buds of spring
tricked by sun
to come out, one by one;
how hesitant can be
the grandest glimpse of things
I catch the way your moments dance
from distance –
yet close enough to ring
the shadows into song
in soft, legato days of praise.
how hopefully we hold
in tentative expectancy
You hold our hope in moments of joy,
What we do not expect
grips tight. I neglect
too soon what we know. Let go
that pass. Joy is forever,
the things that stir our hearts in song.
The bee is not afraid of me, I know the butterfly.
Busy as themselves, they bustle
in explosion of hum and hive.
Contained, less fearsome, they pattern out their piece of wall
in splendour of black and Emperor’s yellow.
Intricate weaving, a tight-packed fabric of sweetness and protection,
this is nothing to startle at.
Yet children cannot play with them or with each other,
and deathly stings signal the sickness, not create it.
Until lion and lamb are united,
and babies can rest in the serpent’s nest,
until we have no fear of bees killing or dying,
until then we wait, and watch glory from afar.
Beauty still buzzes and demands our sight.
and yet there is room:
in shoulders, between lanes,
by roadsides, in industrial paddocks.
No room, perhaps, for cars, yet feet
have space to move, if you,
traffic-sore, should rise
into the space where lavender
shifts in wind, gnarled
tree trunks climb
to upward possibility.
on desert paths; He plants
His footsteps in the raging sea.
As inlets, channels, block up here,
prepare your feet,
prepare your way,
prepare to come and see.
Note: Most of this poem was written on a chewing gum packet while stuck in traffic. Chewing gum packet attached to post.