The Virgin birth and a faux Chinese chest

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The Virgin birth and a faux Chinese Chest

Christmas. It used to have a religious significance for me. But that was a long time ago, the fifties and sixties when I believed almost everything, anyone told me. And I was a dutiful sort of person, obedient, willing and looking for a story that would explain the strangeness of ‘being’, human.

Then I had a family and Christmas was nostalgia and the creation of my own new story, a family story. It was sewing Christmas stockings that we still use, in spite of my limited skills as a sewer. Each year, I bring out the stockings for a brief cameo and then I stow them away in a faux Chinese wooden chest where we keep newspaper clippings and the Christmas lights.

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A virgin birth. It never occurred to me as a child how odd this was. How could a child be cynical about the Angel Gabriel arriving on a beautiful cloud? Mary so pious (in various versions, possibly a little startled), but attractively compliant. You have to remember, I was a Catholic girl who read her Catechism and could recite the Apostles Creed in English and possibly parts of it in Latin. The Angel Gabriel arriving at the annunciation was a powerful fairy-tale.

I had no sympathy for Mary who was to carry this unplanned pregnancy. I was filled with the light of El Greco paintings on Colomban calendars, sermons from a small church in Richmond – Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. And then after abandoning my faith, and travelling for a few years, eventually I married the man I’d been ‘living in sin’ with for almost five years.. and became that very Lady of Perpetual Succour… a wife and mother.

I’m older now, and there are decades between my love of filling stockings at midnight, baking the cake weeks before, writing cards, attending Midnight Mass (merely for nostalgia and now not at all), buying a real Christmas tree, decorating it, making food that will please everyone, and then, finally, realising, that it’s not up to me, and you cannot ever please everyone.

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I no longer weep when Christmas music (Snoopy’s Christmas) comes on the radio. I still dance to the Pogues ‘Fairytale of New York’ because my granddaughter has been dancing to it with me for seven and a half years…

In my life-time, I have celebrated Christmas in Richmond, Nelson, Wellington, Washington DC, Norway (Santa arrived on Christmas eve in the snow), Edinburgh (practically alone), Istanbul (snow again) and Laos.

I’ve experienced joy and disappointment and one of my most memorable gifts was a swimsuit from an Aunt when I was about eight years old – it was covered in Christmas pink bon-bons and had a pink bow placed strategically at the base of the bodice where it flared into a cute skirt – prior to that I’d worn my Mother’s seersucker, over-sized swimsuit (with bra cups that possibly kept me afloat).

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It’s New Year now in our bay. The Pohutakawa next door is flowering. We’re re-united with our son who has been living overseas for ten years. We had a happy Christmas family breakfast and thoughtful inexpensive gifts under the tree. We were almost sitcom material on New Year’s Day with everyone on their best behaviour. Our granddaughter is besotted with her Uncle and we’re all besotted with her.

This year, I want to embrace being human, and to recognise the glorious potential of difference, rather than indifference, the beauty of the individual rather than the duty of togetherness, the magic of family in all its inordinate incarnations.

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Art to Heart with Edvard Munch, Gustav Vigeland, El Greco and Picasso

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All of my art experiences, well the ones that have touched my heart, have been more or less accidental. I think it is this stumbling into art which has had the most impact on my life. I didn’t grow up with a specific artistic or literary education, but one of the biggest influences was of course religious art, iconic images from my Catholic childhood. It was astonishing for me as a young woman travelling through Spain in the seventies to step into a chapel in Toledo and find the original El Greco’s which I knew intimately as a child from the Columban Calendars that hung in all good Catholic homes. I had the very good fortune that day to be travelling in a group that included a young Australian priest in training, on temporary leave from the seminary, who took me on a guided tour of the El Greco’s. And, confession, it was many, many years later, in Kalamata, Greece in 2007 that I finally realised, attending a movie on the life of El Greco, that of course, he was ‘The Greek’, and not a Spanish artist after all.
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It is a very fine thing I do believe to uncover these secrets accidentally, rather than academically.
A friend recently emailed me a link to two beautiful images by the artist Edvard Munch… ‘The Madonna’ and ‘The Voice’ and

Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch

interestingly, the poems written by Munch about these paintings (from a book by Bente Torjusen – The Words and Images of Edvard Munch which is copyright, or I’d include the poems on this blog). The poems are exquisite – unnecessary you could say, for what is art, but a visual not verbal experience… but beautiful as well, because the lines of the poems are expressed in different colours (the mind of an artist). It reminded me of my first encounter with Edvard Munch, in Oslo, January 1973. I was on my way to taking up a job as a waitress in the Haukeli Mountains and staying in Oslo at a youth hostel. I found Munch and Vigeland. They’re pretty hard to miss in a small city the size of Oslo. It was snowing too, that much I remember. I was in love then with all things Norwegian and still hold huge affection in my heart for that time in my life. It was here I first learned to ski and to haltingly speak snippets of another language.

Gustav Vigeland sculpture

Gustav Vigeland sculpture


In Paris in 1997, with my youngest son who back then was just fifteen, together we literally stumbled upon the Picasso Museum. We had just previously laboured our way through the great halls of the Louvre in search of the Mona Lisa, almost running through a room of Rubens – so overwhelming was the art experience that we couldn’t take it in.

This delightful accident, the Picasso Museum, remains an unforgettable art experience both the intimacy of the setting, the sharing of it with my son and the lack of expectation enabling a true heart to art experience. I purchased this poster advertising an exhibition which now hangs in our bathroom and the other is a print which hangs in our bedroom.Poster from Picasso MuseumPrint Purchased from Picasso Museum

Years ago, when my children were preschoolers, and we didn’t have a lot of money to decorate our humble Edwardian villa in Brooklyn (not New York, but Wellington), I used to drive my olive-green Mini down to the Wellington library and fill the boot with art for hire. It was a lot of fun and a cheap way to dress our house and the great advantage being you never got bored as you just took the picture back and got another one. These were reproductions such as Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ and Van Gogh’s ‘Bedroom in Arles’ but oh the joy racing through the Louvre to see the Vermeer original. I know, I know, they’re practically clichés, but they looked lovely on our wall.

At primary school in the fifties, one of my most humbling experience was being part of a team in class where you had to run to the front of the room and draw something – my task was to draw a hand – all I had to do was place my hand on the blackboard and draw around it to get a fairly reasonable image – but I didn’t have the confidence or imagination for that, and instead I froze at the board mortified, unable to even decide how many fingers a single hand held. It’s one of those frozen moments of life that you never forget. My own version of ‘The Scream’. Nowadays, I teach English as a second language and I find being unable to draw a big advantage – I have no shame and I attempt to draw and the students laugh and through their laughter they name the object that I have so poorly tried to represent – you see my lack of shame unlocks their language.

My friend has reminded me of my introduction to Edward Munch, my astonishment and attraction to ‘The Scream’ before I knew it was a famous painting, and too, of the joy of Frognor Park, my very first up close encounter with stone brought to life. Coming from New Zealand in the early 70’s I was too, a teeny bit startled by so much public nude abandonment (even in stone)… I loved the girl with the flying hair and now I am a grandmother, and I see my granddaughter, her plaits flying as she dances for me in our garden.