Writing

  • Advertisement for Uber, The Thinker, my sister and daughter and all things about love in Philadelphia

    Tess Ashton 15 October 2015

    Advertisement for Uber, The Thinker, my sister and daughter and all things about love in Philadelphia

    My loving sister who lives

    in Philadelphia
    first city of America
                city of a thousand trees and
    slim pretty streets
    where window boxes
    spill with flowers and 4th of July flags
    and people gather on pavement chairs
    tipped out tight doorways
    over high front stairs
    terrace-house knees negotiating
    close as the tree limbs
    colonnading
    speak brotherly love
    drink sisterly wines
    on hot Friday nights

                 My sister I was saying
    has the Uber app
    on her phone
    we used it twice when we visited
    right now I’m started…
    she Uber’d
    to get us round the corner
    me, husband Lloyd and grandson Caspar
    from Parkway Apartments
    art deco with a hint of gothic flair
    in Logan Square
    to terrace house digs
    in sweet Meredith
    heart of the arts quarter
    where Rocky at the
    steps of the Philadelphia
    Museum of Art
    is hot property
    the city’s latest addition
    to its statue collection

                 as I was saying
    enlivened by our
    exciting reunion with
    our daughter Alex
    and granddaughter Olivia
    down from Canada
    on that first evening at my sister’s
    we and Caspar wafted one with the lift
    that once carried
    education board people
    out to the marble edge of Winter St
    and elegant
    Pennsylvania
    Avenue
    where classical trees
    loftily mind
    the people below who
    stop by
    Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’
    and those mesmerised
    by the art at the Barnes Foundation
    who come out bearing
    Cezanne apple and pear
    candle fruit mementos
    that make fools
    of customs officers at airports  – ha!
    and bring postcards of Matisse
    and Picasso riches home
    for mantel pieces

                  High classical trees that cool
    people who visit
    the science museum
    of Benjamin Franklin
    in the summer season
    and who loll on the grass
    with homeless people
    like lionesses
    while grand children
    play on the swans and
    the giant First Nation people
    at Logan Circle

                  but re my sister and Uber
    our light toes had barely
    reached the pavement
    our hearts one
    with the hot American night
    when our Uber appeared
    a black Chevy sculpture
    a mere click of the fingers
    from there to here
    Denzel Washington quipped hubby later
    was the driver
    tall as a Pennsylvania night
    and lustrous as a god
    we were fated to be in possession of
    for a moment
    gave reason
    to later muse
    on the panoply of
    guiding trees
    the dark bronze sculpture
    in Rodin’s Gallery garden
    we would pass several times
    on our walk to Wholefoods
    organic supermarket
    where they employ disabled people
    and yellow shopping bags have LOVE
    in big letters
    a take on
    the famous Love sculpture in the Love Park
    on the JFK Boulevard
    by the fountain where the kids
    all rush and play
    in the heat of July holidays

                  It was ‘The Thinker’
    got me humming
    through the week
    that came
    the plaque explained
    on close inspection
    is the top small figure
    created for
    a sculpture
    of Dante’s
    ‘The Gates Of Hell’
    then the artist
    enlarged his expression
    to personify all inspiration
    behind creative thought
    an answer to my old question
    about what’s behind all things poetic
    bizarre this driver
    for a moment
    personified the revelation
    that love is in motion
    here in Philadelphia

                 In the back of his Chevvy
    our stuff and my family
    tumbled about the leather excitedly
    from the front
    I marveled the way
    of our limo-trained driver
    the pay-later scheme
    completed the golden mile
    next day
    we returned from being out
    to find Caspar’s
    red running shoes
    glowing on the doorstep
    like Cinder’s slippers
    dropped in the getaway
    returned by Uber
    a surprising
    thing for a taxi driver

                  But Uber is like no other
    fits well in the city of brothers
    where Penn the Father
    was known to interpret
    St Paul’s words of freedom
    ‘Love is above all;
    and when it prevails in us all,
    we shall all be lovely,
    and in love with God and one with another’
    hail to Philadelphia’s far walking father
    and my sister, daughter, grand daughter
    husband, and grandson
    and the Uber driver and trees and art
    in Pennsylvania

    ©Tess Ashton

    Image Philadelphia Love Statue  www.philly.com

    Side note:
    America’s first city named by
    its far-seeing owner
    William Penn who dreamed it all
    devotee of St Paul
    America’s first Quaker
    set the hopeful standard
    for extravagant love
    his city plan and libertarian principles
    inspired
    Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin
    the American constitution
    invited British and European persecuted
    Hugenots, Mennonites
    Amish, Catholics, Lutherans and Jews
    in time art lovers with Penn’s Oxford
    training
    people with money
    got persuaded
    made bronze statues of mothers and fathers
    heros and heroines
    planted them like muses on
    the ridiculously clever
    town planner’s
    broad plazas

     

  • Northern Lights in June

    Northern Lights in June

    A New Zealander arrived on our doorstep last week, cold and alone. The early British summer had finally got to him. The Manse, which is the Scots name for a clergy house, was marginally warmer than the temperature outside.  

    When we lived in New Zealand, my memories of childhood summers in Britain were building sandcastles on the beach, eating ice-cream with sprinkles, skipping through fields of daisies, being an imaginary fish in the sea. Now I remember what I had chosen to forget. That it all happened in the cool wind and rain with glimpses of sunshine.

    Our Kiwi friend, who is discovering his family history, was en route to the Orkney Islands, that archipelago, far north. Weather forecast grim. The Orcadian Sabbath is a day of rest, he said. Nothing to do except go to church. Which he did, at St. Magnus Cathedral. Afterwards he read The Observer newspaper, from cover to cover in the relative warmth of a B and B in Kirkwall.

    The Cathedral, one of the finest medieval churches in Europe, is known as ‘The Light of the North’, founded in 1137 by the Viking, Earl Rognvald in honour of his uncle, Magnus. Thereby hangs a saga of political intrigue and dirty deeds. Since those early days, the Roman Catholic, Norwegian, Scottish Episcopal and Presbyterian Churches have all claimed the building as their own. Yet the Cathedral has never been the property of any of them. It belongs to the people, assigned to them by King James III of Scotland in a charter of 1486.

    Meanwhile, back at the ranch, there have been baptisms, confirmations, a wedding and funerals. We yearn for markers in the transitions of life. This is where the Church comes into her own, offering an embodied love through the rites of passage that give meaning to the passage of time and experience.

    Another kind of embodied love is happening at the Findhorn Community which beckoned me earlier this week when the sun came out. In the swinging ‘60’s, Eileen and Peter Caddy and Dorothy Maclean found themselves without work.

    With their children, they lived in a caravan on a wild and windswept shore. Feeding six people on unemployment benefit was almost impossible so they began to grow, from poor soil, amazing flowers, herbs, fruit and huge vegetables. Word spread, botanists and horticultural experts visited and the garden at Findhorn became famous.

    The longing of these three friends was to 'bring heaven to earth'. Others joined them in that hope and now the Community commits itself to a sustainable, holistic way of life and a spacious spirituality. I whiled away some time in one of its smaller gardens. Bees were about, water tumbled over rounded stones, carrots and capsicums grew in the midst of late bluebells and old roses, lemon balm, sage and lavender. A lady wearing a floppy straw hat sat in a shady corner, back straight, eyes closed, calming her mind.

    Two small and beautiful books of poems and prayers arrived in the post a few days ago. Written by  friends in New Zealand, Where Gulls Hold Sway and Be Still were companions on that afternoon of perfect light. The touch of new paper, the smell of ink and glue, the physical turning of the page with thumb and finger, the reading of words that read me…what is this heaven?

    Later this month, at Stonehenge, a mysterious formation of stones in perfect alignment with the solar events of the Summer and Winter Solstices, there will be many peoples, who will gather in a spirit of togetherness, to celebrate the Light on the longest day of the year. 

    In the Southern Hemisphere, on the same date, the Winter Solstice will gift quietude, firelight, restfulness, while seeds germinate in the cold earth. Our ancient ancestors knew the sacredness of such times.

    Memory recalls a visit with Clive, to a recumbent stone circle in Scotland with the almost unpronounceable name of Easter Aquhorthies. It happened many moons ago, in the early hours of a Summer Solstice morning when we were first in love. We cooked eggs on a makeshift stove for breakfast and then watched the pink porphyry, red jasper and grey granite stones, placed there over 4,000 years ago, change colour in the enchanted light. It seemed as if the whole world was open before us.

    The earth spins around, time passes in minutes and millennia. We come, we leave, we meet again. One story.

    ©Hilary Oxford Smith
    Image Caithness Croft, Deborah Phillips

  • The 13.30 from Inverness

    The 13.30 from Inverness

    There is something blissfully solitary about train journeys unless you feel minded to share stories with the traveller seated opposite who is, like you, bored with paperback melodramas, texting the world and fleeting fields.

    I am not of that mind on the 13.30 from Inverness. The late afternoon landscape invites imaginings of toiling harvest workers gathering golden bales of hay, of ancient Celts standing in a stone circle as they watch the moon skim low over the hills like a great god visiting the earth, of King William the Lion’s army defending his Red Castle from Viking invaders. Brief encounters.

    And then to Dundee, once described as the city of jam, jute and journalism and where the RRS Discovery, the Antarctic exploration vessel of Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton was constructed in 1901. This magnificent ship is now anchored in a custom-made dock at Discovery Point on the Firth of Tay. She and her crew spent two years locked in sea ice in McMurdo Sound. Scott and Shackleton relocated the Southern Magnetic Pole and returned with the news that Antarctica was a continent.

    Travelling by any method has its austere moments. It was the Italian poet, Cesar Pavese who mused, ‘…travelling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of the familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.’

    Luke was Paul’s travelling companion. Faith and patience must have been two of the many virtues this benign doctor and writer of stories was blessed with. Paul could be complex, volatile and difficult. On his mission he was tough and courageous and faced many challenges. Luke faced them too. As the old missionary neared the end of his life, with all his fellow travellers having deserted him or gone elsewhere, he poignantly wrote to Timothy, ‘only Luke is with me’.  

    Another teller of tales, Robert Louis Stevenson believed that ‘we are all travellers in the wilderness of this world, and the best we can find in our travels is an honest friend’. He finally ended his sunset days with Fanny, his wife and soul mate, on the South Sea island of Samoa enjoying wine which he said was like bottled poetry.  

    In the age of Ebola, there is a growing panic about leaving home shores for other shores. Even though medical staff and non-governmental humanitarian agencies have been working with the sick and the dying in West Africa for a long time, it has slowly dawned on the rest of the international community that this disease could be visited upon them. So now, politicians are on high alert, lining up to urge a greater response to this modern-day plague. The people are fearful and fear breeds fear.

    American Dr. Kent Brantly contracted the Ebola virus while working in Liberia and survived to tell the tale. He will be returning to work there. ‘The Spirit that God has given us does not make us timid’ he said, quoting words from St. Paul. After all that he faced, it is remarkable that Paul was still able to write probably the most memorable description of love that exists.  

    Globe-trotting is in the DNA of most New Zealanders. Emigration is the story of this land. People have travelled across many oceans to settle here and never leave, some leave and some return. It was emigrants from all over the world who helped to build the country’s railways through hostile and mountainous terrain, deep ravines, criss-crossed streambeds. What a titanic achievement.

    One of the most breathtakingly beautiful railway journeys in the world is the Coastal Pacific from Picton to Christchurch in the South Island. I think that the poet and railway romantic, John Betjeman would have loved it. He ‘…was not one who stood with duffel bag, Penguin biscuit and fish-paste sandwiches on murky days at the ends of platforms taking down the numbers of locomotives…’[i] Betjeman travelled by train for the journey, not to get somewhere. This leisurely meander through an enchanted land of long white clouds is probably just long enough to still the ticking of the clock and time-travel to an older world. Air, sleep, dreams, sea, sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.

    ©Hilary Oxford Smith

    October 2014

     

    [i] Jonathan Glancey, John Betjeman, On Trains (York: Methuen, 2006) p. vii

    Image: The Jacobite train wending its way to Mallaig on the West Highland Line www.scotlandrailways.com

     

     

  • "If you have faith..."

    Susan Smith 26 November 2013

     

    Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to spend a week in Greece visiting the places where Paul had journeyed. And then on to Ireland where we stayed at Glendalough, the most important centre of early Irish monasticism. The hermit priest, St Kevin, was one of the key figures responsible for the extraordinary growth of Irish monasticism. Sadly the monastery was partially destroyed by English troops in the late 14th century. We also spent time in France, where our congregation had come to birth in 1861 in Lyon.  

     

    Upon my return to New Zealand I was struck by the number of people who asked me what was the most important moment for me. I could not answer as there were so many wonderful moments. Now I have two tentative responses.

     

    First, I was struck by the extraordinary faith that led people to build monastic cities in Celtic Ireland or great cathedrals and monasteries in France. Fortunately the weather in Ireland was mostly rain-free, so we had ample opportunity to wander around the ancient monastic city of Glendalough now in ruins, and to visit the three or four nearby churches also in ruins. I became very conscious of the faith and generosity that led people without the technology that we take for granted today to express in such a tangible way their belief and faith in God.

     

    Then on to Paris, where we visited Sacred Heart Basilica in Montmartre. Construction began in 1875 and was finished in 1914.  This cathedral, full of African, Asian American, Oceanic and European tourists, witnesses to the revival of Catholicism after the persecution of the revolutionary era, and the excesses of the Second Empire and Paris Commune. Immediately behind the basilica is the older St Peter of Montmartre built in the 9th century on the site of an ancient temple dedicated to Mars. When we visited it was remarkably free of tourists, and its Cistercian-like simplicity was in stark contrast to its grand neighbour. It was possible to feel an extraordinary sense of relationship with those who had gone before me.

     

    From Paris it was but a short train journey to Chartres to visit the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres, now a UNESO world heritage site. The cathedral was completed in 1250, the fifth church to be built on that site. Four previous churches had been constructed there since the 4th century. Its artistic splendour means it is easy to see why it is a UNESCO heritage site. But that same artistic splendour spoke to me of the loving faith that that was present behind the wonderful stained glass windows, and the amazing statues and friezes that adorned both the exterior and interior walls.

     

    And then on to Lyon where we spent some time in the Cathedral of St John the Baptist, completed in 1476, and again constructed on the site of a more ancient church where St Irenaeus had been one of the early bishops. Lyon is also where we find the Church of St Nizier, another extraordinary example of a Gothic cathedral, and constructed on the site of an ancient temple honouring the Roman god, Attis. More recently in the 19th century Suzanne Aubert was baptised in the church of St Nizier.

     

    Because Taizé is close to Lyon we went there for our Sunday liturgy. The monastery of Taizé was built in 1940, not far from the ruins of the famous monastery at Cluny. The summer season which sees enormous numbers of pilgrims at Taizé was over but still there was a large congregation for a prayerful and simple Eucharistic celebration.

     

    Second, the experience of being in these wonderful cathedrals and monasteries thronged with tourists and fellow Christians from all over the world allowed to appreciate more deeply what ‘the communion of saints’ means. Visiting these places reminded me that we are part of something much greater than our own particular parish. We are part of a tradition that stretches back through the centuries, that stretches outwards to all the world’s peoples, and touches us within as we stand in awe at the faith of previous generations.

     

    Postscript

    It never ceases to amaze me that the wonderful awe-inspiring cathedral at Chartres was constructed mostly between 1194 and 1250. Fifty four years!! It took about three years to sort out about one kilometre of State Highway 1 that runs through Warkworth, and this in the age of computers, trucks, bulldozers etc. It is amazing what faith can mean.

     

    Image: Entrance to St. Kevin's Monastic City, Glendalough, Ireland (Susan Smith)