Digging for SpainA Writer's Journey

Penelope Todd

I like to think there’s a story already sealed within each of us. Some of us take a long time to uncover, decipher and assent to it. We start our search when we find that the stories we’ve attached ourselves to prove no longer accurate, their themes too limited … I’m talking about the midlife  quest we’re invited on when all we’ve abandoned or ignored of our earlier impulses towards life begin to clamour for attention. … I knew I was in some kind of trouble the day my finger started jumping.

Here is a portrait of the growth of a writer, of the challenges of faith, and the route one woman takes to reach a better accommodation with herself, and her family. It’s a heartfelt and lyrical narrative — as the author questions her closest relationships, and some of the stifling patterns she has fallen into. Yet it will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has ever tried to juggle relationships, the craving for solitude, and the urge to write or to devote oneself to a career which demands total focus.

Delicately written, yet tough at the core, this memoir weaves together a journey to Spain with several years of internal change. Digging for Spain explores an intensely personal yet common rite of passage: that of a woman learning to separate her identity from motherhood, marriage, and beliefs formed in youthful inexperience. It also shows the astonishing versatility of one of our best-loved writers for young adults.


Readers have said:

… thank you for your brave, insightful, lyrical DFS which, like a glutton, I devoured in a day or two.

Then there was your faith, your family, the whole nine yards, the whole shooting box dished up.  Who could ask for more.

 … a book to live by: meaning that I often think of it when certain things bubble up in my life …

 … everything the blurb says and more. As a writer myself, I found Todd’s dilemmas — particularly the battle to achieve balance between writing and family — echoed many of my own. I envied her clarity of thought and her fine prose in expressing her desire for the freedom to enable her to be truly present in her life, casting off the ‘rigid frameworks’ imposed by societal expectations and her early experience of organised religion.

… a fine and rather delicate talent … I think Digging for Spain is one of the very special New Zealand books of recent years …



Flying over Cook Strait, I’m on my way — north! When R and I walked outside at Christchurch airport this morning after I’d checked my bags through (so simple, so reassuring; at least half the anxiety is carted off with the luggage), the sun and two red and orange hot air balloons were aloft in the early haze — lovely heralds of buoyancy.

I’m always uneasy before flights, although I should be right at home at thirty thousand feet. Apparently I have five Air out of a possible complement of nine of the four elements.

Astronomy. Astrology. I always have to pause and recall which I mean. I see they both come from the Greek (adjective) astronomos which means ‘star-arranging’. I suppose astronomers like to arrange the stars; astrologers consent to being arranged by them.

An experiment: draw converging lines from the stars down to Earth. Date the point where they meet — for example twelfth October, 1958. Swivel the globe until Christchurch, New Zealand lies beneath the point. Ask your mother what time you appeared. Half past eight, she’ll say, recalling for you that it was whitebait season, that lilacs were flowering, that your father baked shortbread. Also how placid you were. A little Libran, of course. Why shouldn’t it be so?

Feed these details to a reputable astrologer and he will chase through his tomes and in eight pages more or less tell you how you conform to the pattern of your star sign, also how you don’t. It seems anything is possible, contradictions are multiple. A few things will offend you (you have no Earth, an excess of Air — this in spite of the way you’ve always favoured the ‘earthy’ look, never trusted your intelligence), others will stun you with their accuracy (he suggests you try karate — a strenuous martial art, ‘to temper that haughty Mars energy’ — and you’re surprised to find in it exactly the right formula).

Astrologers tend to be open-minded, and reaching as they do, upwards, outwards, beyond, are probably going to draw you a map that’s a rough fit so far — but bigger and bolder than anything you’d envisaged for yourself.

‘What is the source of our first suffering?’ asked philosopher Gaston Bachelard. ‘It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak. It was born in the moment when we accumulated silent things within us.’

I began in childhood to horde my silent things. To be precise, I started my collection the September just before I turned seven — when I lost my mother. She went to hospital and gave birth. Oh, she survived all right. She made as good a fist of that baby as she did of me and my three brothers. But. There’s a photo of me in my smocked dress, white socks and sandals, spring bedecking the cherry tree overhead. We’ve been to hospital to fetch the baby. My arms hang limp, my mouth is a crescent of accusation. I scowl up at my tired, radiant mother, at the white knitted shawl in her arms.

My sister.

My mother had betrayed me by bringing home a girl.

They say I was garrulous until then. I trailed my mother, jabber-jabber-jabber. When there were no questions left to ask, I kept on asking. My mother wrote this one down: ‘Did you do that later on a long time ago again?’

But when my sister arrived I stopped. Or, was stopped, stoppered. I imagine I had a go at expressing my fury over being Queen Bee dispossessed (at my fall from the madonna’s lap). But the expression of rage or outrage was discouraged in our family — an old story. It’s only in these psychologically enlightened times that we feel we must let children stamp their feet and roar. Back then, a good girl was a nice girl and could be taught how.


Amsterdam airport. I feel less than solid, and so tired. I haven’t let my thoughts track down dark pathways, am simply trying to observe what is. Any fright is in my own head. Outside, fleets of huge blue KLM planes await the dawn that comes softly, greyly — like the dawning fact that I’m here.