Orbit the Sun
A drawing a day for a year and six days
One earth orbit of the sun
The year dad died
one earth orbit of the sun
A drawing a day for a year and 6 days 9.5 x 20 x 29 cm
one earth orbit of the sun
Photography by Bernie Carr
The Little White Shift
It is a simple white cotton shift, delicately worked with white embroidery, tied beneath the breasts with a soft sky blue ribbon. Mum gave it to me, her mother gave it to her, but maybe before that it came from her Grandma - Mum’s not sure.
It's a birthing gown. Mum wore it for the birthing of all five of us. Untie the ribbon and it opens to the lower belly. If you are the doctor, place your hand between shift and skin and her modesty is preserved - feel your way around the belly - it’s an unveiling through touch - feeling for the life inside the vessel that is her. I think of her giving birth - silently, not a squeak - that was the correct way in the 50s. And the man - I know he was impatient and unsympathetic to pain - with all that authority in his white coat. The thought is unpleasant but Mum wouldn't complain - he brought all us kids safely into the world. Thinking of him causes a longing in me for the time of the matriarch.
Birthing - it’s a process of shedding really. The snake knows how to do that - shedding its skin at regular intervals when it becomes too small for the body inside. The snake is credited with cosmic abilities of creation and regeneration as a result - along with its capacity to go into and out of the earth - in and out of the Mother - now that's divine.
But back to birthing. The baby sheds the mother or is it the mother shedding the baby? And in that infinite moment there is the shedding of the skin of self - where all is interconnected. She is shedding like a flower - petals - physical and metaphysical - opening, falling, to reveal the seed. The outer-most petal, the gown...
And I am to wear the gown next - for the last time.
When I try it on I feel beautiful - pure - unadulterated. There is a sense of anticipation. It’s the white. Mix all the colours of the spectrum together in light and you get white - mix them in matter and you get black. It’s the colour of a rite of passage - the colour of death. The bride wears white at weddings to denote the death of her old life, but an understanding of the reasons why we have traditions is no longer part of our tradition.
White - love - life - death - illumination. Or is it the white light of oblivion?
The gown is simple - a white cotton shift over a naked body - the body has to be naked beneath the shift. It's patterned with tiny white embroidered flowers so reduced in form they could be stars. I like this - we are all made of stardust, scientists tell us - everything is - including the earth itself, or herself depending on your perspective. All - everything - forged in the furnaces of collapsing stars - matter transformed then drawn together again through gravitational force. It's wondrous.
So, this little white shift - my mother’s - patterned with star flowers: her birthing gown - my burial garment. From dust to dust.
In 1943, T.S. Eliot wrote in Little Gidding:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
I wonder ... will this be the experience of death - to know our beginning anew at the moment life is extinguished? ❖
janelle mendham WRITING + DRAWING an Anthology of Artists writing
Photography by Simon Cuthbert
Orbit the Sun (detail) 126 x 126 cm
Orbit the Sun - installation
Orbit the Sun - a drawing a day for a year
Orbit the Sun (detail) 126 x 126 cm
He looks like a bird of prey – sharp features in profile. Lips
and eyes shut unnaturally tight. Skin shrunken over form.
There is nothing of my dad here. It takes me a long time to
find the courage to touch him – to stroke his brow how I
imagined I would – I know he will be cold – I am afraid.
He is cold – ice cold – no softness in the skin – it feels like
marble – clean, polished, cold, hard stone – and damp.
Tentatively I check his hand – maybe I could curl my finger
beneath his – no – this entire body is carved from one slab.
This isn't rigor mortis – that should have passed by now – I
think it’s because he's been frozen like meat in a freezer.
They’ve closed his jaw – tight – maybe they tied a ribbon
beneath his jaw and over the top of his head – and how come
his eyes and lips seem to turn inward? What pressure did
that? Internal – external? Bushy eyebrows – I remember hair
grows after you die – ahh – but his hair – it's so soft and I love
my god this music is awful
turn it off
Mum said when she saw Aunty Dell's body she looked like an
angel. Dad doesn’t look like an angel – even with his own
face he doesn't look like himself. I am reminded of a portrait
of his grandfather – also Frederick – his face was like Dad’s
only his eyes were hard, severe – maybe this corpse could
pass for Dad’s granddad.
So this 'magnificent man' (I loved Paddy for calling him that)
was mortal. It seems unreal that I thought he wouldn't die –
of course I knew he would – but I'm still shocked. Before this
he was beautiful – very handsome once – but always
beautiful. There is none of that beauty here. This is an
epiphany for me – the beauty that was/is my dad was that
lovely spirit that brought his lu to life. This is the most
important thing and I'm not sure what it means and I don't
know the words or how to name it – but I feel warmed,
reassured – caressed into the fold
into the fold
And I'm using the word 'lu' for the first time. It's someone
else's word – The Tibetan Buddhists call their body lu – the
package that you leave behind. I remember the first time I
read this I laughed, imagining how differently we would view
existence if we referred to our body as baggage.
And now I stroke his hair and brow – I say my words to him
that I have said every time I see him – even though he isn't
there/here. I kiss his lu goodbye.
When I walk outside, the day is warm – still lu dreaming I get
into the car and see in my mind’s eye the Tibetan monks
dismembering a body – burning juniper on the side of a
mountain and laughing together. They are preparing to take
it to a place to feed the birds. Apparently this practice is
declining, and as a result the vulture population is also
declining. I once wondered how they could detach
themselves from the body they were dismembering – but
after seeing Dad’s corpse this is no longer a mystery to me. I
admire them for so generously feeding the birds and helping
the body re-enter the food chain.
Driving home – the sky is so big – I love it here – feel the pull
of this land that made me.
All bathed in a warm glow – even the landscape is golden.
Nine windmills – one of them is working.
Through Millthorpe – the road is patterned with shadows of
the grand old trees arching over the road. Graveyard and
church on the left, the fields where mum’s great aunts once
ran a dairy on the right. Mum’s childhood school on the
corner. On my last trip through that wise young boy told me
that unlike his place, this place feels like it’s morning all day
until it’s evening and then the sun sets.
I notice it feels like morning.
It’s un –
unreal – unnatural – uncharacteristically mild, warm and dry
every day – no rain. There’s another drought meeting next
This place –
Where do you go after you die? Where were you before you
were born? Where is he?
The trees on the hill on the other side of the valley cast a
shadow that is exactly the same height and shape as the
trees themselves – a reflection – all in silhouette. Do their
roots have the same shape as this shadow drawing? The
invisible made visible – its roots exposed – our roots
exposed. And then I drive past that point and the perfect
symmetry is destroyed – the magic gone.
In the centre of the dining table – a pile of rose petals at the
base of an arrangement
little shell shaped cups fallen into – onto – each other
deepest red with the tiniest dash of yellow and white
at the throat of each petal.
The promise of a velvety touch –
so easily bruised.
Rose petals showering over skin
flowing in cascades
a feather brush
pink and red from inside darkness
sweet and sad