Sunday, July 05, 2015

The appearance of things

This morning, I’m working against the clatter of back ground voices as my husband convenes a business meeting of sorts in our kitchen with friends/clients whom he helps out from time to time. 

Last night he told me they wanted a nine o’clock start. 

Nine in the morning.  On a Sunday. 

It was okay, he said.  I could just get about as I normally do on a Sunday morning without interruption, only the presence of strangers in the house meant I was not comfortable staying in my dressing gown for hours. 

It meant I needed to take a fast shower and dress enough to be respectable. Not that my dressing gown is not respectable.  It’s a little on the eccentric side or so my daughters tell me.  Black and white swirls.  It makes me look like a cartoon character, especially when set off against my pale pink and white striped bed socks. 

I made my tea before these people arrived and now it’s already cold and I’m struck by the effect of such an intrusion on my writing time.

It chases away my memory of last night’s dreams, and shifts the immediacy of the moment into my head. 

The voices in the kitchen are silent for a few minutes and I find I am distracted once more. 

During the quiet moments my husband will be reading some document or other and the others around the table will wait in silence for the verdict, his interpretation of what to them is otherwise double Dutch. 

My husband is knowledgeable on the nature of contracts, those legal arrangements that people make with one another with all sorts of conditions and caveats to protect both parties. 

My husband is a stickler for fair and reasonable contracts wherein the needs of both parties are met.  It applies to property and wills and all matters related to births, deaths and marriages.

We made a contract with one another last night.

I promised him I would leave him to get himself organised in the morning.  I would not set the alarm, as is my custom, not on Sunday morning, the one day of the week where we sleep in. 

He said that was fine.  I could hide away and behave as usual.  He would deal with his visitors.

I opened my eyes to the day at twenty to nine and woke him, because I realised if he did not get a move on, he would be greeting his guests in his dressing gown and although it’s not as garish as mine, I think he’d prefer he were ready for such visitors. 

This is another thing we do; we break our contracts as the need arises.  They are, after all, not necessarily set in stone. 

If I had been able to fall back to sleep there and then, I might have done, but instead I was awake, enough to get myself into readiness to write and this ideally involves the absence of all distractions; like those voices from the kitchen. 

The clothes I put on this morning do not match.  Dark blue jeans with a flecked pattern, a hand me down from one of my daughters. 

She discards her clothes before they’re worn out and I can’t bear to see them go to waste and so I wear them on weekends when it does not matter that I wear trousers chosen by someone else for someone else. 

They clash with the orange top I chose as a contrast.  Too much of a contrast, I fear and as I type and look down to my middle I’m assaulted by this clash. 

And because it’s cold, cold beyond my usual expectations of winter cold, I chose my cable knit cardigan, a cardigan I only wear when the temperatures drop below ten degrees Celsius. 

My body is inclined to cook inside this cardigan and the visible clash worsens.

I spend a lot of time travelling through Facebook and the number of times I see posts that emphasize appearance is alarming. 

The appearance of things. 

People visit this house and they say it’s lovely, but immediately my thoughts streak back to the underlying disorder of this house, the fact there are cracks in walls, it needs a repaint inside and out and there are places in the parquetry where the dog has dug up tiles. 

My husband never quite finished lining all the floorboards and over time, over thirty years or so, we've grown used to the gaps, but they’re obvious if you look below the surface. 

The way Sherlock Holmes of the recent TV series can greet a person for the first time and instantly from his perceptive eye pick up all sorts of minor details about this person such that he can even know what he’s had for breakfast. 

Most of us do not have such perceptive vision, and yet we all see below the surface.  We see things that are not there, too.  We reverberate against one another.

I decide almost instantly on whether or not I like a person, whether I want to spend more time with that person, whether that person is simpatico. 

Most of my decision is based, not only on the appearance of things, but also on that unspoken thing called ‘transference’, the degree to which I superimpose my experience of significant others from my life, especially from my childhood, onto them and they do likewise to me. 

And so it goes, we make up stories about other people in the back of our minds and we may be completely off in real terms, but it fits our expectations, and can influence our behaviour. 

There’s a problem here, not just in the business of ‘love at first sight’ but also, its opposite, ‘hate at first sight’, which most often sprouts from prejudice, from all the ’isms: racism, ageism, and our tendency to stereotype. 

Best to reserve judgment, therefore whenever we meet new people.  Maybe get to know them a little before we decide.  

Sunday, June 28, 2015


Mother Margaret Mary stood in front of the class and handed back our papers.  One after the other we stepped forward onto the raised platform where she stood in front of her desk and reached out from her pile

I knew it would take an age to come to my name.  Mother Margaret Mary went alphabetically. 

Some kids smiled as they walked back to their desks; others frowned. 

When she finally called for me, I scraped out from behind my desk, one where the top was attached to the base and you slid in and out sideways. 

‘I knew you weren’t any good at mental,’ Mother Margaret Mary said as I reached out to take my test.  ‘But not this bad.’

I had not known I was this bad either. 

I’d tried hard to figure out those numbers, those additions and subtractions, multiplications and divisions, but my head went fuzzy and it took me ages to get out one sum after the next.

‘Two out of ten,’ Mother Margaret Mary said. 

She said it in a way that made me feel small.  She said it in away that made me wonder whether she enjoyed my bad mark.

This was not unusual.  Mother Margaret had a way of triumphing over our childhood mistakes.

When one of the boys talked to his friend during class when he should have been silent, she called him out to the front and then took a ribbon from her desk.  She kept a collection of ribbons there, ribbons that had fallen from the hair of some careless girls and been lost.

She took the ribbon and lifted a piece of loose hair from the boy’s head then tied the ribbon round it in a bow.

Then she ordered the boy to stand outside of the classroom in the middle of an empty rubbish bin that stood near the door.  She kept him there for hours.

‘If you act like a girl, you’ll be treated like one.’  That presumably was a reference to Mother Margaret Mary’s choice of ribbon for his hair, but I never understood the reference to girl’s behaviour nor the purpose of the rubbish bin, other than to tell the boy he was nothing more than rubbish.

I didn’t know about humiliation in those days. 

I didn’t know then that some people took pleasure in making other people who were already vulnerable by virtue of their size or some other difficulty, feel even more vulnerable.

Years later, when I was at senior school and had grown taller and begun to realise that maybe I could be good at other things and, although I was still no good at arithmetic, I could at least count and measure size.

I met Mother Margaret Mary one day at my new school.  She had come with other nuns to visit when they appointed a new reverend mother.  I saw her at the back of the chapel.  I swear she had shrunk.

She looked so much older that I remembered her.  And for the first time in my life it occurred to me that people can change, and those who wield power over you one day, can the next, become like the emperor of no clothes.

‘The queen wipes her bum, too,’ my husband once said to me when I was approaching a meeting that terrified me.

He was trying to give me courage.  And in a strange way it helped. 

Not the sight of the queen on the toilet, but the idea that Mother Margaret Mary might also have used the toilet and that she, too, had a body. 

When I was a small child who failed her mental arithmetic test I had imagined Mother Margaret Mary had no body. 

I had imagined she did not eat, or sleep, or use the toilet like the rest of us, and that outside of the classroom and staff room she spent her days in church. 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Once upon a time...

In an hour or so, I will skype an acquaintance whom I met online and who now lives in New York, about her editing of my manuscript. 

In other words, I will talk to someone on the other side of the world and we will see one another on the screen as if we are close by and it will be our first ‘real’ encounter, as face to face as we can get. 

I have a daughter who lives in Japan at the moment and another visiting Berlin.  I have seen both of them in the past week on the screen, heard their voices and, although we have not been able to touch, we have been able to be with one another in ways I could not have dreamed of as a child except on the Jetsons. 

Once upon a time, we communicated with our loved ones overseas in written form  on aerogrammes: thin blue paper with a dark border around the edge, the image of a plane in one corner, already stamp impregnated on the other top corner at a cost dependant on its destination and with broken lines around the ends that told you where to fold, and with sticky bits that jutted out onto rounded corners which you could stick down to form an envelope. 

Such aerogrammes you needed to open with a knife, otherwise you risked ripping into your beloved one’s written words. 

There were telegrams too, this time on pale yellow paper with short typed messages that often omitted joining words to cut down on costs.  

People sent telegrams sent at times of births and especially deaths and maybe to announce a wedding or to send greetings at a wedding when the person could not be there. 

When I was a child, my Dutch relatives phoned maybe once a year, at Christmas time.  

I watched my mother take up the phone, its black receiver that stood against the wall in the hallway near to the bathroom. She sounded  breathless in anticipation and her words in Dutch were halted as if she were measuring each word out and weighted in gold.  

Ten dollars a minute these calls cost, or some such ridiculous amount.  It made it hard for anyone to want to speak and when they did, they reverted to platitudes in their anxiety to reconnect. 

My mother received one such call in Healesville where we lived for a time.  I watched her pick up the ringing handset and as if in a movie, she pulled away from the wall when she heard the news that her mother had died.  

She could not go to the funeral.  She could not say goodbye to her mother. Could not hold her mother’s cold hard hand when her body was laid out for a vigil; could not do anything other than imagine her mother’s death and mourn alone. 

My daughters overseas were devastated that they, too, could not be here for their cousin’s funeral last week.  It’s hard work going to a funeral but harder still not being able to share the family ritual that connects us and helps us to go on living. 

In an hour or so when I connect with the woman in New York who will help me to think more about my manuscript, I will notice the quickening tempo of my own speech, because I am nervous and I dislike seeing myself in the corner of the screen while I am looking at this other person who fills the screen. 

Depending on the connection quality, colours and shapes will distort.  We will see one another, but not as we might were we to meet in person.  Still it's a good thing at least to see one another when we speak.

Better than a phone call, though this skype call will not hold the same terrors as the calls my mother made to her family over fifty years ago when they rang from Holland. 

Just an optimal level of anxiety.

We will be free to speak as many words as we need to communicate our respective messages, but still I am nervous. 

It’s like waiting for test results at the doctor’s when you fear you might have some dreaded disease, or exam results when you fear you might have failed. 

How will I receive her criticism?  I have told her I do not want to re-write the whole thing, but I am concerned about its structure, the way it hangs together. 

Structure, that monster.  It stalks me whenever I write. 

What’s your structure here? 

‘Form isn’t an overcoat flung over the flesh of thought (that old comparison, old in Flaubert’s day); it’s the flesh of thought itself.  You can no more imagine an Idea without a Form than a Form without an Idea.

I greet this quote as the words of authority from a great man, Flaubert, whose mind was more disciplined than mine, who thought in that rational well-enunciated way through which scholars think, while I straggle around the edges, barely able to select one thought over another, to create something that coheres.

And my skype call to New York awaits. 


Saturday, June 13, 2015


Part way up the mountain in Macedon, we said goodbye to my niece.  It was freezing despite the faintest glimmer of sunshine.  

The organisers had set up a marquee in a secluded section of the gardens at Duneira, a reception centre that mainly caters for weddings and other life inspiring events.  

It was uncanny the way I found myself – I was not alone in this –using the word ‘wedding’ in the place of funeral.  It was also understandable, because in November last year, my niece and her partner were married in the sun in Portsea and the festivities were similar, much happier, but even then we knew about the gruesome diagnosis and that it was only a matter of time before we would be saying goodbye. 

Even in her dying, my niece worried about polluting the earth with her chemical soaked remains and so she organised an environmentally sustainable funeral where they did not use more chemicals to keep her body life-like after death. 

Nor did she use a coffin.  Instead, her family wrapped her in a shroud, which they and others who had attended an earlier vigil, decorated with drawings and messages.  A simple calico coloured cloth that housed her body before cremation. 

They rested my niece on a flat board with handles on either side, which the pallbearers used to carry her out. 

We all brought flowers and foliage from our gardens and spread them around her body during the service and then later the funeral assistants carried these cuttings, flowers and branches in huge strips of cloth behind the hearse.  

My niece’s immediate family walked before the hearse as it drove down the hill to the main road and the rest of us formed a guard of honour on either side to farewell this beloved young woman.  

All the cliché’s come to my mind and I try to push them away. 

I dreamed this morning that my niece’s father, my brother, stayed at my house.  He was looking for things to repair he said.  He liked to keep himself busy. 

Keep busy, he and his wife said after the funeral, as they handed out food to guests.  Keep busy, as if in doing so they could keep on living. 

If we stop we die, too.  We join my niece in her frozen state.  

In the past week I find myself overcome by a type of malaise that leaves me unmotivated beyond my work and the normal domestic duties of my days.  

I find myself wanting to withdraw from the extra-curricula.  

I find myself wanting to sleep more than usual. 

I find myself wanting to avoid writing. 

I tell myself I’ve written enough words for any person’s lifetime.  Maybe it’s time to start editing and erasing.  Prune back the words to their bare minimum. 

I know of at least two successful writers who reckon that most people write too much.

I felt chastened when they first told me this.  It left me feeling clumsy and loud, as if I had spilt out my thoughts in a useless array when I should be more like my friends and sit for hours in silence before I let one single sentence appear on my screen. 

Everything else is mere indulgence.