In my teaching I have found that one of the most enjoyable and fruitful ways to discover a life story is to set writing exercises on a theme. My courses are structured around topics that progress chronologically: I was Born, A Childhood Memory, The Moment When I Grew Up, Riding the Teenage Years, Finding My Way in the World, My Working Life, Someone I have Loved, In the Present Moment: A Self-portrait. At the conclusion of a course I help writers establish their own writing groups. There are now a number of these groups flourishing in the city. Some have been writing together for nine years now and over that period they have accumulated hundreds of short pieces writing on a theme that the group dreams up. The possibilities are endless.
Recently I visited a writing group that formed following my summer life writing school at the University of Auckland Creative Week on Campus. For this meeting they had written on the topic, ‘A Window.’ It occurred to me that I could devise a further setting on the Your Story page of this website to feature collections of group writing on a theme.
Here is a selection of stories on the theme of ‘A Window.’
Inveterate travellers Inge and Ron spent four winters driving through the Australian outback and deserts. The deserts were an exhilarating and life changing experience focusing the mind on the essential and important things in life.
We were staying at a cattle station in the Painted Desert an hour's drive down a sandy track from the roadhouse at Marla on the Stuart Highway - the only roadhouse within a 400 km radius. Three blue heelers were home when we arrived but we never saw the owners and so far nobody else had turned up. Nothing was locked and after waiting for several hours that first day we had moved into room seven in the converted shearers' quarters. The days were very quiet. The nights deeply silent.
It was on our third and last night at Emily Downs when, lingering by the window looking at the brilliant night sky, tracing the constellations, I noticed it, a flickering light just down and slightly to the north of the Southern Cross — a fire. It could only be a campfire. Who was out there and what were they doing? It was impossible to say how far away the fire was. I called out to Ron and mesmerised we watched the flickering light. ‘Nothing we can do about it,’ he said after a short pause and went to bed. I watched for a long time. The silence now piercing. Eventually I too gave up and crept into bed; I must have drifted off because I woke with a jolt - silence, nothing, but something must have woken me up. Then suddenly a muffled sound at the door - the grip of silence tightening. I tiptoed to the door and slowly pressing down the handle prized it ajar. A dark shadow rising up. The dog, the dog, Old Blue was guarding the door.
Patricia finds that now she is retired she has the time to appreciate the view from her windows.
The view through our windows used to be even better with Rangitoto dominating but now three townhouses have filled the spaces in our foreground and blocked the lower half of the island. I can't see into those homes but they must have expansive views into ours, especially at night, a view into our lives. In the summer my pot plants on the deck are ablaze with the colors of petunias and cosmos softening those hard roofs and crowded sections down below.
The Norfolk Pine directly in front started dying a few years ago. We watched as the steeple jack removed its branches leaving it like a totem pole until he topped the trunk, block by block, slowly revealing the sweep of Milford Beach and all its activities.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote in Windows on the World : 50 Writers, 50 Views (2014) that a view is “ choked with stories, because it is full of people. I watch them and I imagine their lives and invent their dreams.”
I watch the cruise ships going out. I love to see them all lit up, decks packed with people setting off on their dream holiday. I have the cruise ship schedule so I know where they have come from and where they are going. How spectacular Auckland must look as they proceed down the harbour first heading towards us and then seeming to sail across the roof of the house in front before they turn and head out towards the Pacific and their romantic destinations.
I watch the beach, the tides, the changing colors of the clouds and water, the early morning walkers socializing with their dogs, the families playing and swimming in the weekends, the surfers riding waves after a storm. If something catches my eye I zero in through the telescope.
My friend had told me that at 4pm on a particular Sunday her son would be proposing to his girlfriend on the beach. I saw it all! He built a heart of shells and candles on the sand, knelt on one knee, then walked arm in arm with her - around the corner.
I don't know how I would manage without large windows. They bring in light, sun, colours, the sounds of the little kids and dogs next door. They offer views of other people's worlds whether real or imagined.
Colleen belongs to a small group of writers committed to meeting each month to further our skills, after attending a Summer School of Life Writing tutored by Deborah Shepard. Colleen enjoys writing poetry and recently had a poem published in a collection entitled When Anzac Day Comes Around by Graeme Lindsay.
We are flying over the Great Dividing Range inland from Brisbane heading for Hong Kong. It is 5.15 pm, 26 June 2015. The window is a rectangle about twice the size of an A4 sheet with curved corners. The sunlight makes the view ultra clear and bright at 34,000 ft. The top third of the view is clear sky blue, fading to pale icy white as the snow white clouds meet the horizon.
I love flying above the clouds and watching the ever changing pockets of density. I fantasize I could easily wade through the dense meringue and bounce in the soft fluffy bubbles emerging like a snowman covered in whipped egg white. I have no sense of being able to fall through this cocoon of white, but the softness wraps around me even as the whiteness levels out in the distance. I can eat it if I like. In some places, someone has travelled before me with a giant fork or rake and smoothed my path to oblivion. If only dying could be so peaceful and tranquil, surrounded by whiteness and silence. No sense of aloneness, just peace.
I am eagerly awaiting the excitement and colour density the sunset will soon bring but I have been asked to shut down the blind! How can they deny me this pleasure.
When faced with this writing exercise I felt restricted at first until I realised I had the gift of choice and it was not a dilemma but an opportunity to recall so many windows. Some are shut — some are open — some are coloured — some opaque — some leaded.
My mind drifts back to a very small window with a heavy gilt frame shaped like a temple dome but with heavy hinges and an exquisite lock and key. It was smaller than my water bottle and opened out over the lake to reveal the middle distance view of the Hindu Temple on the other side. The foreground was framed with soft green gum-like trees that were home to beautiful white storks with huge nests. They seemed quite comfortable with our close proximity. The sounds that surrounded me were wonderful, especially the Temple bells at 5am and the constant swish of the gardeners’ brooms sweeping and smoothing the pathways below.
This was Rohet Garh in Rajasthan, October 2011. At the time I left reluctantly. I didn’t want to close the carved shutters and shut out that view. But I can go back there in my mind at any time. I can dream about this window and the sensation it evoked whenever I choose.
Jim was a secondary school principal for twenty years. This piece relates memories of what he saw, and sometimes thought about, through the windows of the principal offices in the schools he worked in.
If there were a competition for the school with the best view through the principal’s office window, Opononi Area School would have to be in the running for a prize. It was such a contrast to Atiu College, in the Cook Islands, where I had my first shot at school leadership. There, sitting behind the small table in the cramped principal’s office, I peered through dusty louvre windows at coconut trees, a field of tropical grass and, in the distance, the sagging verandah and peeling walls of neighbouring Atiu Primary School.
At Seddon High School, where I went after Atiu College and after Opononi Area School, a vintage World War two P47 Thunderbolt fighter plane filled the frame of the office window, in perfect line of sight from the principal’s desk. It symbolised for me the battlefield that was my work at that time. At Tangaroa College, my last school, the windows in the principal’s office were too high to offer views from the desk. There was nothing distracting to look at anyway. I sat with my back to the window.
The window in the principal’s office at Opononi Area School was in a class of its own with an expansive pane of glass and a desk perfectly positioned to take in a sweeping view, across a foreground of dunes and sandy beach, up the ribbon of water wedged between Signal Station hill to the south and the sweep of stark white sand hills to the north, and on through the gap between the Hokianga heads to the Tasman Sea. The mood changed daily; dark, brooding and mysterious one day, sparkling and frivolous the next. So much history, too. I imagined Kupe’s waka paddling through the rolling surf, departing Aotearoa, heading back to Hawaiki. I searched for the ghosts of the 499 dead miners, on their way home to China for reburial but shipwrecked on the bar in 1902. Such beauty; such history; such a distraction for a school principal.
In this story Jackie was reminiscing about the atmosphere in a particular room in the farmhouse where her father grew up. Then her writing led her to consider how his mother would have coped in a crisis.
The pale yellow light filtered in through the lead light stained glass windows giving the closed in L shaped veranda an olde worlde atmosphere reminiscent of circus sideshows, carousels and clowns. We loved the mystery of this strangely shaped, rarely used room, ancient, musty and exciting. It wrapped around the old farmhouse connecting the two bay windows. It was where my father grew up. I can imagine him playing here too, with his two brothers and older sister.
Was the veranda covered in then? I don’t know and it’s too late to ask.
Dad had an impressive scar down the shin of his right leg. We never saw it much as he always wore long trousers. If we asked he would show it to us. “Tell us the story,” we pleaded.
When he was a toddler he ventured into the pigpen. The old sow with her new litter was not pleased and prepared to attack. I imagine Granny leaping over the fence to rescue him but not before much damage had been done. I wonder what happened next. No Emergency Departments then. He must have bawled the place down. How did Granny repair the wound? Did she give him stitches? She wasn’t a nurse. How did she prevent infection?
I’ll never know.