In this frantic age of money worries, of chasing it, trying to stretch it, gear it, leverage the damn – necessary stuff that makes our world go round – we should give ourselves a breather by going to a poet like Chile’s Pablo Neruda. In his world of words he’s created sanctuaries, havens, and even heavens for us. We just have to open the page.
Of his poem Ode to a Dictionary, this column can’t use his spacing and therefore his exquisite and deliberate timing, so you'll have to forgive me quoting him not as he'd prefer:
‘Dictionary, you are not a tomb, sepulcher, grave, tumulus, mausoleum, but guard and keeper, hidden fire, groves of rubies, living eternity of essence, depository of language.
‘How wonderful to read in your columns ancestral words, the severe and the long-forgotten maxim, daughter of Spain, petrified as a plow blade, as limited in use as an antiquated tool, but preserved in the precise beauty and immutability of a medallion.’
Now pause and reflect on those words, that they're from a simple dictionary. Yet in Neruda’s finely crafting hands are turned into jewels – of beauty and wisdom and reflection and philosophy. Of appreciation for what’s really important, and it sure ain't got a dollar sign before it.
Of course we are all bound by the demands of living in a modern world requiring mortgages, business loans, our careers, ambitions and aspirations. I'm not suggesting going back to a simpler life as that is impossible: you'd just left behind or run over in the rush for self-advancement. Just a gentle suggestion to pause every now and then and think a little.
Many years ago, as a nationally syndicated columnist getting ready to write the last column before Christmas, I found myself writing a spontaneous ode to those who probably wouldn't have a joyous Christmas. The editors told me it went down well because it made readers stop and think of those less well off, less advantaged, not so blessed by nature or circumstances. It was a call not to become smug and horrible, and less self-centred.
One of my seminal life lessons came from a care centre in Hawke’s Bay for people with head injuries and spinal injuries which my wife was in charge of. Seeing all these people in wheelchairs who'd once been able and active just like me started, I thought, to get to me.
Till one day I took my complaining selfish self to a Maori guy, Bub, a quadriplegic I’d got to know quite well, to cry on his shoulder that I'd been shafted by some of the players in the senior rugby team I coached. (A poor coach at that, lacking the talent and anyway preoccupied with writing my first novel.)
Well, Bub looked at me and shook his head and said, “So that’s a problem, Alan?” And not getting his tone at first, I said of course it was and I thought he'd understand. Spoken in a huffy tone I might add. He just nodded and said nothing. I realised who I was talking to, that he'd been confined in that wheelchair for over 40 years since as a 13 year old he dived into a shallow creek that broke his neck. And poor me had been out-manoeuvred by a political clique amongst my rugby team?
Embarrassed, ashamed, feeling quite the self-indulgent, self-pitying blind man, I vowed that day to never put my woes ahead of other people’s. To always look first and even then, keep my petty problems to myself. It has worked for me since that fateful day in 1989. Here is Neruda’s The Queen:
‘I have named you queen. There are taller ones than you, taller. There are purer ones than you, purer. They are lovelier than you, lovelier. But you are the queen. When you go through the streets, no-one recognises you. No-one sees your crystal crown, no-one looks at the carpet of red gold that you tread as you pass the non-existent carpet.
‘And when you appear all the rivers sound in my body, bells shake the sky, and a hymn fills the world. Only you and I, only you and I, my love, listen to it.’
Yet the master of words allows us to listen in too. And be glad.