Peonies

6 Nov

I’m in love with five pink peonies. I pulled them out of a bucket on Ponsonby Road last Friday when they were tight green golf balls with promising pink outlines. It wasn’t easy to choose – lilies, roses, birds of paradise, tulips and daffodils line the pavement outside the Bhana Brothers – you smell the flowers and touch them early in the morning when people rush in and out of the café next door at this time of year. And, for a few short weeks peonies come to town. The flowers are a rainbow; the Bhana brothers bustle about in their dark aprons and watering cans making sure they get enough to drink, and in the afternoons pull down striped canvas awnings to shade them. I saw their tight heads as I walked towards them on my way to my desk after my indispensable coffee fix. They were more essential than broccoli. You must eat cruciferous vegetables say my daughters. The peonies were more seductive than going into the Women’s Book Shop and letting a book choose me, a ruse I play rather too often. There were dark peonies like blood, and I nearly chose them, but the pink ones change colour as they get older – they really do fade, and right at the end of their short rich life, they’re no colour at all, just a scatter of bleached petals across the dark wood of the table. Right now they’re in my sitting room having a life of their own. In the mornings when I wake they’ve retreated into the night. As the day advances, they open up and surprise me – I’m in my office doing this and that, but then I find myself in the sitting room and there they are. I forget why I’ve gone in to that room. They arrest me. I must stop and gaze; how they’ve opened, changed since I last looked. They’re miraculous; they rearrange themselves in the vase – they’re silent choristers – their leaves are uplifted – they’re singing some large song, which I can tell from their glorious openness is their own Lied von der Erde – peonies are full-throated flowers.

It’s quiet in my flat so the peonies singing to themselves while I’m tapping is more than companionable. Today, for example, the phone rang only once, but downstairs is a baby named Alexandra who cries in the night, and outside are the birds, some of which squawk when Alexandra cries. I wake, hear her, a parent’s footsteps, a rustle in the trees outside my window, a tumble of notes. Then silence until the morning when the teacher next door clicks past my door in her high heels, pleated skirt and bulging briefcase, and John, whose front door is opposite mine, who plays the violin, slaps downstairs in his jandals to grab the paper before jumping into his car to teach all over the city.

The day I moved in, two years ago, he was playing the Bach Chaconne (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fwDCdmD7Nao&feature=related) as the moving men and I climbed the stairs with books, chests of drawers, chairs and my bed. The music was a ribbon twisting down the stairs –so many stairs, so many boxes, but the notes never stopped – they pulled us inexorably up into this small light space where you almost touch the trees.

Mila-from-Bulgaria lives opposite Chris-the-teacher. Mila’s the gardener of the strip of weedy soil by the three washing lines. You like garlic she asked on Saturday night on the stairs when I came back from my walk. Yes, I said. I give she said. You like cream I said. Yes she said. We swap I said, and when I went down later to get my teeshirts, she was bent over the garden shoving small white cloves of garlic, radicchio, kale and Italian parsley into a plastic bag. Good for us she said. Our age women. I asked her where Vladimir was. Gone she said. To Adelaide and he not coming back. He got job with security firm. Better money. I don’t know when I see again. My kids say Mom when you come but still much to do here.

Mila minds Alexandra during the week while her mother goes to work. I hear them on the stairs. One-two-three says Mila as she holds Alexandra’s arms above her head and climbs her to her own flat. Pretty flower says Mila as they pass my geranium which blooms outside my door. Your flower make me happy said Mila last Saturday as we swapped garlic and cream. Always it flower. I told her it made me happy too because I’m not a gardener and mostly plants near me die. This geranium in its clay pot has flourished. It’s because of the Little Prince.

I live at the top of the stairs. I got the idea of a flower outside my front door from Chris – hers is the only painted door on the landing. She had two ferns outside hers and I liked their lacy greenness beside the grey door and our collective white walls. Also, there’s a skylight at the top of the stairs and in the mornings it’s very sunny and bright, and I felt that all that warmth and light was wasted somehow. I hadn’t been here very long when I was invited to a nearby artist’s house to see her pots. She’s extremely various – before the pots it was gilding, before the gilding, it was painting and always there’s been a garden. And the pots weren’t pots – they were birds with scooped out backs for candles, and bowls for muesli, and pink geraniums for sale from cuttings. So I bought a peace dove; there were owls as well and very tempting they were, and put it on the table where the peonies are right now gently disintegrating – their tenth day. I put the geranium by the front door without much hope, although the fox’s words to the Little Prince did rise up from  French lessons with a nun in a dark classroom on a windy hillside far from here: Tu es responsable de ta rose. I have remained responsable; the geranium is a little beauty – it hardly ever stops flowering – right now there are seven pink heads – I talk to it, I like it so much, and it’s made me think that when Mila finally goes to Adelaide to join Vladimir, perhaps I’ll plant some vegetables in place of her Bulgarian garlic.

But Chris’s ferns have died. I’ve watered them each time she’s gone overseas, but they seemed to develop a wasting disease – the kind of thing I imagine Elizabeth Barrett Browning or Lady Bertram both suffered from (with vastly different results it must be said). Their lace fronds faded, they drooped, became limp; they turned brown, and now all that remains are two pots of tobacco coloured straw. Being a teacher is hard; it’s busy; Chris’s briefcase is always fat and she’s often in a rush. One of the worst things about schools is the electric bell.

There are two blokes in the bottom flats.  Ron works in the Lotto shop at the supermarket but we didn’t really talk till a night in January when the police came to investigate the noises emanating from one of the flats on the second floor. Ron came out on to the street in his dressing gown to see what was going on – we could see shadows behind the curtains and hear crashes.  Afterwards the policemen said it was just young men who’d had a few but in the middle of the night when you’re asleep and then you’re not because someone’s shouting I kill you I kill you and you hear smacks and crashes and broken glass you think you’d better do something and you call the police because you’re rather myopic and not exactly authoritative and don’t think you’d have much success tapping on their door and asking if everything’s all right. They were young men – too many for these small flats – and they only stayed about six weeks and then went back to India. They worked in a restaurant up the road. I blame the heat. You get hot working late in restaurants and afterwards you drink too much and there’s nowhere to go except back to these flats which are too small for five or more people. You’re far from your family and your English isn’t great. When I first moved in, I made friends with Mani who used to come downstairs and smoke by the washing lines and look at the clouds.  One day he said I reminded him of his mother.

Next to Ron is a skinny, smoking Frenchman who loves music – the louder the better. It can be anything – the Stones, Blue Train, or Waft her Angels Through the Skies – (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UoC7c_XxLEc) and when you’re going up the stairs, the music makes the walls on the landing vibrate. The landing is a minimalist space – just numbered doors, grey linoleum and fire extinguishers – so the music seeping out from the Frenchman’s flat gives you a sense of a faceted  life.  Most of the day he sits outside at a round glass table smoking, listening and sometimes looking into a mirror propped up against a low concrete wall where red geraniums separate his garden from Ron’s. He’s made his own garden in pots – orange and yellow marigolds and great healthy basil plants lined tidily beside his ranchslider.

The washing lines are in front of his bedroom. One day when I was hanging out my clothes, Gabrielle from one of the flats behind the cabbage trees, came across with her laundry basket. She’s lived here for ages and knows which lines get the most sun. We talked about the best way to hang sheets and then the Frenchman’s bedroom window was flung open and a woman shouted out Gabrielle – I’d know that voice anywhere. Joyce said Gabrielle. I haven’t seen you for ages – for years. What are you doing? It’s Rashmi said the woman. Airing…My ex…I’m minding the cat. Still counseling? Sorry Rashmi said Gabrielle – I still am…what about you? Yeah said Rashmi. In the Coromandel.

The peonies have been with me for a week. Their heads are nearly the same size as mine – really – they’re huge and so far not a single dropped petal, but they are now a slightly buttery colour. Here is what they looked like on the third day:Image

An interesting week. I met Tiffany Singh in her garden recently to talk about her work. She’d strung a gold and red sari over a swing to make a tent and we sat beneath it on strip of patterned carpet. The sari on the swing suggested immediately something of her artistic practice – she’s an installation artist whose use of space is imaginative and flexible; the transformed swing became a formal and beautiful enclosure – Tiffany believes in ceremony and sacred spaces. Scattered on the grass were rainbows of artificial flowers which represent not only her delight in colour, but also the idea of pilgrimage or journey – her installations always invite her audience to participate in some way, and the flowers are part of this.

They are the beginnings of her next project – the creation of a space round the Library using colour and light as a way of introducing Aucklanders to the Indian festival of lights, Diwali. But it will be more than that. She’s collaborating with fellow artist Cleo Barnett in an installation that’s a local – that is say, a multicultural response to this ancient festival, and one she’s perfectly qualified to create: her heritage is Maori, Pakeha, Indian and Samoan.

2012 has been a rich year for Tiffany. She represented New Zealand at the Sydney Biennale with a work entitled Knock on the Sky, Listen to the Sound – a visually and aurally alluring arrangement of hundreds of bamboo wind chimes strung across an open space on Cockatoo Island. The words are a Buddhist proverb she first heard in Ladakh, where the sky was ‘so close, I could almost touch it.’ Buddhists believe that wind chimes bring good luck because they harness the wind’s energy, and visitors to her exhibition were invited to choose a chime and take it away, but to document its journey with a photo on Flickr. Thus, her desire, both for participation and her belief in the significance of pilgrimage, was fulfilled. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q299C7YLlFg

After The Biennale, she took up a residency in India where she created a collaborative installation of hundreds of tiny boats within an enclosed rainbow-hued space, each containing the illustrated dreams and hopes of slum children in Bangalore.

She’s lived in India working in the slums of Gujarat and learning about Buddhism in a monastery Tibet. When I asked her how she selected her monastery she said she followed her feet. She believes in the power of art to transform and make sacred every day experiences, and that she’s not so much the creator of a static artifact as a facilitator of her art’s effect on her audience.  ‘What others do with my work is more interesting to me than what I do,’ she says. Thus, her idea for her impending residency at the McCahon House will also be collaborative, although this time she intends to address ‘the idea of death’ ‘That we die is the one fully known thing.’ She believes New Zealanders are full of grief because of their reluctance to talk about death, and that her Buddhist beliefs have helped her to see death as part of life’s continuum. For this project she’s thinking about bells – their shape, sound and symbolism.  People who visit the house during her residency will write something related to death or dying, which will be woven into the bells’ strings. When her residency ends, she envisages a ceremony in which all is burnt – ‘all things pass,’ she says. She believes that the ceremony will represent release or a letting go.

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Steph Matuku

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