Sunday, February 20, 2011

Listening for ghosts

There was not much traffic as I stepped out into the middle of the road. I could not be bothered walking all the way to the traffic lights, which I saw some way in the distance and well out of my way.

I wove through this traffic easily but when I reached halfway, the cars that had moved through slowly like Brown’s cows, were now replaced by a convoy of fast paced motorbikes. The roar of the engines echoed from the underside of the metal roof tracks on the rooftop that formed a bridge for the trains above.

I managed to dodge them and laughed to myself when I saw one old bike driver spit out his phlegm into the gutter. The wind blew it back up at him and it landed on his coat. He almost veered off the road in an effort to wipe it off.

Serves him right, I thought. Disgusting habit. No sooner had I savoured this thought than a collection of bicycles streaked through, followed by a number of mounted horses.

The road was an obstacle course and I wondered would I ever get through, or would I inevitably be knocked over.

Such is the nature of my dreaming at the moment. I prepare to be knocked over by life. It seems too hard. Too much stuff creeping in at the seams, and too many memories invade my space.

Last week I went with two of my sisters on a tour of our old school with about twenty other women. My sisters and I were by far the oldest. None of our contemporaries from the sixties and seventies were there, only one from the eighties and the rest from the nineties, including one girl who went to Vaucluse the year the nuns decided to close down the school.

Vaucluse was a convent for ladies run by the Faithful Companions of Jesus and steeped in the traditions of this teaching order, a brave strong academic tradition, the female equivalent of the Jesuits. The school began in the early 1880s and for a time was the oldest girls school in the southern hemisphere, but they closed it down for want of students.

The school had always been the poor cousin of its sister school, Genezzano, in Kew. And we, my sisters and I, felt this deeply.

The sporty girls played in competition matches against Gen, and our younger but richer sister school invariably won. Our school attracted the poorer Catholic families of Melbourne, those who wanted a convent education for their daughters but could not afford the higher fees of the prestigious Genezzano.

I was struck by the disparity of our memories, not only those of my sisters and I, but also, the younger women.
‘This was where the Sacred Heart dormitory stood,’ I said when we passed upstairs and gathered on what was once a balcony but has since been closed in to form a few small classrooms.

I could tell the dormitory by its ceiling and its position near the stairs, just as I could tell the year twelve classroom, the room we then called Matriculation. The younger women remembered what I thought was the Sacred Heart dormitory as the secretarial room, the room which my generation once called Commercial. For me Commercial stood where the library and computer room still stands.

I tried to listen out for ghosts as we traipsed through the corridors that had once been off limits, the house in which the nuns’ small rooms stood, row after row, neat tiny cubicles and I shuddered at the thought of a life lived in so small a space, a single bed in a room the size of an en suite.

Yet I did not feel the shiver of fear I had thought I might have felt travelling over what to me was once almost sacred ground.

The nuns have long gone and now the Christian Brothers have taken over the school. They bought it from the nuns and use it as a year nine campus for the boys from Saint Kevin’s and as a central office for their order.

In place of the few pictures that once adorned the walls of our old school, throughout the main hall there are rows of images of boys who triumph in sporting events.

It was like going back to visit your childhood home now taken over by another family who have moved things to their tastes and wiped away most traces of you and yours.

And yesterday we went to the wedding of a friend’s daughter, a friend whom my husband has known for some forty years, well before the birth of the bride.

There is something in the wedding vows that stir up intense feelings. The ones whose marriages have survived the test of time, can feel triumph, confident in the success of their efforts, however strained. They have managed to get through for better and for worse, while those who have not survived their vows and whose marriages have not held fast must cringe internally.

A friend suggested they should remodel the legal and compulsory words of the marital vows into something like: We promise we will try to stick together, but if we wind up divorcing, we will do so with respect towards one another, despite our differences’.

I consider events at this friend’s house, which is where they held the reception to be a measure of the passage of time. I have been going to birthday parties, to wedding anniversaries and celebrations of all kinds for a number of years here, for over thirty years now.

My husband and I started as newly weds and then as parents of very young children. Our children once came to these functions, too but as they reached adolescence they chose to stay away.

The years roll by and we now attend these events alone, not yet quite elderly but almost.

Many among our generation have retired or are considering retirement. Their children are grown and married, in many cases with children of their own. There was a rush of new little ones at this wedding, the grandchildren of the bride’s relatives. She is the first to marry in her sibship of two.

And now today
‘Go back to your hovel,’ my daughter says when I offer to go out to buy the eggs that we have run out of. 'And don't be such a martyr.'

My husband is busy eating the last two eggs and I am trying to write, wracked by the requirement that I attend to my family despite my thoughts to the contrary and their knowledge that they are old enough to attend to themselves.

At this precise moment I hate being me. I hate the pressure I feel I am under to restore everything to order including, the state of my writing room. To make it look like the study I see on certain blogsites of famous writers who work to order, when I am a slob.

My room becomes a storage room for empty shoeboxes, which I stack to one side and the multiple overfilled filing cabinets, necessary for holding my collections.

‘A hovel my daughter calls it, not simply because of the mess I fear but more because she resents my preoccupation with taking myself off to write as I do.

There are not enough hours in the day to lead a writer's life, but I can always dream.

48 comments:

Studio Sylvia said...

Hi Elisabeth.
Sorry it has been a while since my last visit. If I’d known you were in the neighbourhood, you could have popped in for a cuppa. My daughter went to FCJ, we live just around the corner. I’m fairly certain my husband’s cousin’s wife also went there. She is in her 60’s.
You write about so many emotional issues and I can relate. Time for one’s craft is usually placed on the back burner as life prioritises family/household commitments. Regardless of anyone else’s description of your space, it is still your sanctuary, your retreat. your place to dream of aspirations.

Ocean Girl said...

Hello Elisabeth, we always have pictures of writers behind their typewriter at a desk with a pile of rubbish in their waste baskets. They are not necessarily neat. And we always have stories of writers struggle to find their muse and scramble their lives to write. And yes, we also have stories of writers move to an island to write. Maybe you could consider that;)

The Elephant's Child said...

It is smells that raise my ghosts. Familiar smells that immediately act like a tardis and take me back to times and places I thought were gone. I don't think I could bear to go back to my school, but after reading your (as always) beautifully written post, I can smell it now.

And I don't think that there is anyone who can apply pressure to me/on me better (and more unreasonably) than I can.

Sharon Longworth said...

There's so much to unpick here - time passing; not enough time; changes over time; memories of another time, juxtaposed to present time.
Great stuff.

Marshall Stacks said...

yes of course, when your daughter refers to 'hovel' she is not talking about the house, but about your priorities. they are the 'hovel' to her. she isn't old enough yet, to understand that you need to live Your Life instead of everybody else's.

Weddings these days, are rarely less than a theatrical production. charmless generally, and misguided.
Some participants need to be charged with misrepresentation.
"life wasn't meant to be easy, but if we try, we can find contentment"
peace and love from me

jabblog said...

Returning to the familiar haunts of one's youth is always a strange journey. I did it with my children and saw those places through their eyes. My son is revisiting with his children now and is this week in the city where he went to university and met his wife.
Otherwise, I don't care to return - memories can become distorted by the changes wrought by time.

Jim Murdoch said...

Most of the buildings I was schooled in no longer exist, demolished and the names now attached to new buildings down the road that mean nothing to me. I only went back to my primary school once after I had left to collect my sister – I would have been about seventeen at the time – and the one thing that struck me was how much it felt like it had shrunk: I was wandering around a school that was now two sizes too small for me. About the same time I passed one of my old teachers standing at a bus stop and again I was struck by just how small this woman was, this woman who was renowned for her severity – this was the sixties remember – she was tiny, she looked about four and a half feet tall. I think she recognised me but I didn’t acknowledge her and passed on by which I rather regret now.

I went back to my secondary school once too, the year before, having only been away a matter of weeks and I was shocked by how uncomfortable I felt being back there: this was no longer my world, I had no business being there and I swore there and then never to return to a place after I had left which I never have. I’ve become a bridge-burner. When I’ve used up a place or when a place has used me up (that’s probably more accurate) I move on and try not to look back.

As far as marriage goes I can tell you here and now that I only married Carrie to keep her in the UK. People stay together because they want to. Marriage vows are next-to-meaningless. People are faithful because it’s in their nature. No bit of paper is going to stop any two people having sex if they set their hearts on it irrespective of who is married to whom. Carrie and I wrote our own vows. I still have them in the back of my big red folder. I’ve just reread mine. A little on the gushy side but I still stand by them. They really hinge on a single line: “I will not expect, only accept.”

And one of the things I have accepted is that my wife has an exceptionally high tolerance for untidiness. Even before she became ill and can now no longer do much in the way of cleaning and tidying she worked in a bombsite and her office is still one. If she dies before me I’m going to have an interesting time working out where she keeps stuff. I don’t make much mess. I have a side table beside me on which I keep a few things and that’s about it. When Carrie’s not here virtually nothing moves. I’m not fastidious when it comes to cleaning – I’m a tidier – but since she’s started to visit her parents in the States more often I have been doing mini-Spring-cleans while she’s away which works fine for me. The only other time I make an effort is when my daughter comes over but that’s only every few months these days too. Other than that I sit and write until Carrie needs me for something and then I drop everything and attend to her. Thankfully despite her ails I have a very independent wife and so she doesn’t make terrible demands on me. I expect it will get worse over the next few years and I accept that.

JeannetteLS said...

Elisabeth, this moved me on many levels and I'm not sure what to say. All of it, I think, is good--even when it hurts. I'm one whose marriage did not survive. I realized shortly after he had taken off that it probably was for the best. He married the wild child and then wanted to keep me in a box. I rebelled off and on, but then, the last four years of our ten years, tried to be that "wife" he wanted. That seldom works. He left for someone very young, very lost, looking for a father. He formed her to his liking.

We have not see one another now in about a decade.

I visit the past--places or people--because it gives me some sense of continuity in a life that has had many, many restarts to it. Even where there are drastic changes, my mind fills in blanks, and I can find something that draws out what I need.

I wrote on a table, quite unsuccessfully. I was too fragile myself at that time to withstand the ridicule when simply demanding my attention did not work. "What can YOU have to say? Your life is boring." I would look at whichever child it was, including the one I married, and smile and go back to it.

Yet eventually, I stopped trying.

Yes, your writing stirred up a great deal, which is fine!

Speaking of FINE, your writing has a touch, a rhythm. I simply sit in my little boat when I hit your blog and go for the ride. So glad I found your blog.

Two Tigers said...

This is a wonderful examination of time, E, in its many ways of imposing on our lives. I would offer that we give more credit for superior tidiness to other people than they are due. We all have our messes and our missed deadlines and neglected obligations. As long as we try to do our best most of the time, nothing more should be expected. That said, my first thought on waking this morning was "I've fallen behind again and have some catching up to do!" Thanks for this post.

Leslie Morgan said...

Elisabeth, if you and I each took a standardized test, I wonder how closely matched our personalities would appear. Or is it not personality, but just females of a certain age who, perhaps, surrendered too much of themselves for too long and now feel pressured to make up for lost time? As to ghosts, I find there are more of them as time passes. It takes me longer to revisit them all now than it did 5 years ago. I wish they'd go away and quit bothering me, but they seem well entrenched and must be dealt with.

When I want to write or do any other activity that pleases me, fulfills me, makes me feel whole, I want to do it to the exclusion of everything else. Oh, sure, I take a shower. But I don't want to. Eat a bite, even though it's the farthest thing from my mind.

OK, you already know I'm extreme about marriage. I held in so long. 32 years is a vast period of time in an endeavor that should never have been undertaken. I was so certain that would be my state for life, that I still (8 years later) wake up in the morning sometimes and look around for Ex. I don't believe I'd marry again under any circumstances. I like what Jim Murdoch said up above about "never expect, just accept". It didn't work out that way for me. It became all expectation on both sides and embittered two pretty nice people. P.S. I am not transported to romantic fantasies by today's wedding extravaganzas. The last Prince Charming and Royal Princess I believed in have hit the rocks, it seems, and I'm more cynical than ever.

Zuzana said...

Dear Elisabeth,
you always manage to combine so many different subjects in your writing, it is easy to see how your mind works and how your thoughts follow a certain path, from a dream, to a recollection, to the present.
I am not a professional writer, but I believe the best ones are not neat and organized and their life is a mess, a chaos, just like the lives of everyone else. They are just able to convey that into words and the rest of us can relate.;)
Always enjoy your beuatiful and candid posts.
xoxo

Kass said...

Oh, I hear you, this 'restoring to order' that we feel so compelled to accomplish!! It's a sharp and keen compulsion, fueled by conditioning and constant comparisons.

I'm in the middle of going through all of my parents 'stuff.' I don't know why it has once again fallen to me to be the keeper of the flame, the guardian of order. I want to chuck it all. Why should I see to it that cousin Cheryl's picture of her mother be returned to her? My sister is insisting on going through every item in the house, every paper. What horror if we throw away something really interesting or valuable!! I go along with it and I don't know why.

I was interested to read of your Catholic school visit, especially as Leslie had just posted about her experiences surviving that system.

steven said...

elisabeth - i returned after twnety years to my first school. a very old school - a couple of hundred years old - it had stuck in my knowing as the beginning of the grabbing and suppressing of difference aspect of the world that is so omnipresent. imagine my surprise when i approached the building as an adult and discovered that it had been converted into a funeral home! ha! a favourable environment. steven

Kath Lockett said...

"We promise we will try to stick together, but if we wind up divorcing, we will do so with respect towards one another, despite our differences’" - YES!

And finding time to write? Yep, I hear you on that score, too. I did a bucket load when LC and Sapphire went away for a week in January and have done nothing since. I keep telling myself it's great to have a break from it; to approach it later with 'fresh eyes' etc, but really it's that time (and other jobs that pay me money) are intervening....

And hey at least you weren't the slob who spat on his own coat!

Marja said...

Ah the gohst of old times I love to visit them although my old school isn't there any more. I am also always happy to return to my current life as the gohsts sometimes haunt me I am happy to leave them where they are.
I feel also more at home as the culture here allows less order, allows a laid back life opposite the one I come from. Stil from time to time in my head too a voice whispers and sometimes screams and tells me to get things in order

Elisabeth said...

I figured someone who visits my blog might have a connection to my old school, Sylvia. I hope your daughter was happy there, as happy as I was. I loved my life at Vaucluse, despite some of my criticisms about the school in retrospect. For me it was a safe haven. Come to think of it, I started my journal writing habit there.

Thanks, Sylvia.

Anthony Duce said...

Your writing today reminded me of a childhood school I had returned to when much older as an architect, to renovate. The neighborhoods had declined, but the school looked the same just a little more worn out. It was a strange feeling changing, replacing finishes, and functions to familiar spaces.
As for your writing, I can only remember feeling the same, except I was always struggling to find time for my art more then writing. This changed a few years ago when I retired from architecture and where I did architecture turn into a studio. It’s still a mess, but I do manage now to hide away from others demands, and do art. And somehow being older, I am better at ignoring the complaints and selfishly enjoying myself.

Elisabeth said...

I can't see me moving to an island, Ocean Girl. I don't imagine I'd enjoy it if I did. I prefer the cut and thrust of city life, despite the limitations, though I can see your point regarding time to write.

Thanks, Ocean Girl.

Elisabeth said...

Smells are the most powerful precipitants of memory as far as I know, Elephant's Child, and as you say they bring us back in time, apparently often to pre-verbal times as infants. It's not surprising really.

And as fr being hard on ourselves, there are many like you and me. We need to learn to ease up otherwise others will get in first.

Thanks, Elephant's Child.

Elisabeth said...

Sharon, I'm glad you can see the weave of times past, present and future here. Such notions for me are pretty compelling.

Thanks.

Elisabeth said...

I reckon you have a point, Marshall Stacks: my hovel of a writing room is very much to do with my priorities and having just now come from watching the film Blessed - about a group of neglected inner Melbourne city children and their struggling mothers - I can see her point.

Parenting is a balancing act, as are writing and housework and life generally.

Thanks, Helena.

Elisabeth said...

Memories certainly suffer distortions through time, but even so I relish them by and large as part of the layering of my life and identity. How would be be without them?

Thanks, Jablog.

Elisabeth said...

Jim, I have had that same experience of returning to places long after my time there in childhood and been amazed at how much they seem to have shrunk.

I prefer not to burn my bridges behind me, but there are certainly times when I like to leave the past behind, as is inevitable except in fantasy.

As for those blessed wedding vows, they are more ritual than useful and they are so open to abuse. I too like the idea of no expectations only acceptance and by the sound of things you two have lived up to the promise.

I have a feeling that part of what makes marriages and partnerships of any kind work relates to an even distribution of labour. If one person in the couple feels unfairly weighed down then there will be trouble. If both fulfill some part of the burden of responsibility even if they look quite different than that's usually enough to keep the hip afloat.

Resentments creep through imbalances but equally things need not be too perfectly balanced otherwise they can become static and obsessive.

I don;t think there are accurate formulas for these things, they are so individualistic. as long as all parties are happy things can continue to grow even through illness and death. To me it calls for a certain openness of spirit and a willingness to explore.

I'm too much into cliches here, but I'm tired and it's late.

Thanks, Jim.

Elisabeth said...

I'm delighted that your boat floats past my blog, Jeanette, and grateful for your comments here. You seem to have weathered many a storm but come out of it the wiser.

I talked to a few divorcees at this wedding, mostly women, and most reflected on their sadness at the breakup even after many years but all had some sense that their lives were more meaningful for their breakup despite the pain.

Not one resented the newly weds their optimism and despite their bucket loads of cynicism they were all keen to wish them well.

Thanks, Jeanette.

Elisabeth said...

We can't help t, can we Leslie, this continual call to arms: my house is a mess I must attend to it, even as we rationalise it's not necessary. A quick tidy up will do.

These injunctions about cleanliness are ground in from earliest days. They're hard to shift.

Thanks, Leslie.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks Two tigers, my response above belongs more to you than to Leslie. It's late. I have worked all day long, been to a film and now am trying to respond in a meaningful way to all my beloved commenters and I'm beginning to make little sense. I shall resume tomorrow when I have more of a mind.

In the meantime, thanks Two Tigers.

Ms. Moon said...

You may not lead the perfect writer's life (and is there such a thing?) but oh, my, how you can write!
I understand, though. I surely do.

Elisabeth said...

Leslie - a further response to your comment, about our personalities and those of women of a certain age being well matched when it comes to the pressure we feel to make up for lost time. I agree. There is enormous pressure, and the conflict between what we want to do and what we are obliged to do can be intense.

Maybe if a different focus, more akin to Jim's suggestion-acceptance and not expectation - had been possible in your marriage it would have worked out better.

Thanks, Leslie, I hope we both find more fulfillment in the latter part of our lives.

Elisabeth said...

The writing that okay in bogs is simply not good enough for the academic powers that be, Zuzana. This frustrates me but I also appreciate the difference. I value the literary freedom of the blog.

Thanks, Zuzana.

Elisabeth said...

I must check out Leslie's post on her survival of the Catholic school system, Kass.

I've been snowed under of late, with this need for order, not only domestic but in the writerly sphere. Thesis writing can be fairly consuming. To me blogging is more fun, however messy.

Thanks for your good wishes, Kass.

Elisabeth said...

Fancy turning your old school into a funeral home, Steven. That seems apt: ghosts upon ghosts.

Thanks as ever, Steven.

Elisabeth said...

Dreams are funny like that, Kath, and as for the slob who spat on his coat, I hate to think who and what he represents in my psyche.

It's always hard to give writing the priority it deserves. I know it's work but more often than not, because it does not generate a huge income, it gets rated as a hobby. And yet the rewards for me in writing are incalculable. I cannot put a monetary price on them.

Thanks, Kath.

Elisabeth said...

Marja Thanks for your thoughts. I write to you and think immediately of the crisis that besets your country.

You live in Christchurch, are you okay? Please let us know when you can how things fare for you. It's a worrying time.

Elisabeth said...

Age can be a help, Anthony when folks stop making demands on your time and leave you be, at least to some extent.

It must have been a strange experience renovating that old school. I know I felt strange walking trough my old school and its renovations. I wanted to strip the changes away and go back to the way it was.

Thanks, Anthony.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks for the generous comments, Ms Moon. Sometimes, in indulgent moments, I think the writing is all that matters, but most times I think life matters much more.

Robert the Skeptic said...

My wife and I have lived long enough where institutions such as our high schools have each been bulldozed. Hers replaced with a brighter, newer building; mine replaced with a housing development. The memories relegated to our respective yearbook pictures.

Elizabeth said...

I wish that I had already read this post before I stood in the doorway to my room/study today and nearly wept in stifled frustration at how cluttered it is. I might have smiled, then, and thought of my melancholy comrade down under.

Elisabeth said...

The memories may well be relegated to your wife's and your respective year books, Robert, but I'll bet they're safe as well tucked away in your internalised personal memory boxes and minds, which is where most of mine exist.

We cannot resurrect the past but we can re-imagine it in our memories.

Thanks Robert.

Elisabeth said...

Melancholy comrade indeed, Elizabeth. The mess still gets to me, but my pleasure in other things soon overrides it. How else could I survive?

Thanks, Elizabeth.

Dave King said...

This is a tremendous piece of writing, not just a piece of blog writing: it would hold its own anywhere. Bravo, I say!

Marylinn Kelly said...

I, too, find there are not enough hours in the day to lead a writer's life AND an efficient, present version of an ordinary life...and I don't have a job outside the home. That family members may feel they are suffering because you have passion that calls you elsewhere does not mean that they are. From you writing, I know your family holds a prominent place in your heart.

Since I haven't been here for a while, I hope you are fully recovered from your accident. The dream, before I knew it was one, concerned me because of what happened.

I have not revisited any of my schools but live near enough to drive by them and they still stand. Reading your account of the visit, some things do remain in the past and do not come forward to reconnect with us, if that is a way to describe it. We remember, without too great an emotion attached.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks for the generous comments, Dave. You give me heart. I've just finished reading an article about the difference between blog writing and ordinary writing, the stuff that makes it into print and it seems there is a difference. I might yet blog about it.

Elisabeth said...

I am fully recovered from my accident, enchanted Oak. in fact at my last visit to the physio we found I was able to bend my leg up to 155 degrees which is the angle I had aimed for. That's how far back I can bend my good leg. I walk normally now but the broken leg still aches from time to time.

Thanks for the good wishes, Enchanted Oak.

Elisabeth said...

My apologies to both enchanted Oak and to Marylinn for ascribing the above comment to one and not the other. I am so technologically Challenged that I cannot work out how to delete my own comments, so I will have to ask you both for your forbearance.

Pranavam Ravikumar a.k.a. Kochuravi said...

One of the best posts I read so far in my 3 years of blogging... Warm Wishes Elisabeth...!

Ruth said...

I enjoyed this walk with you, through your school, and on into the writing room. Inge and I had a long discussion last evening in our weekly supper, about Virginia Woolf. She is reading the biography of her that is 700 pages, I can't think of the author's name. We talked about women, and writing, and how we, more than men it seems must bear the guilt and responsibility of the household, and of society. Really, it's in our minds where we let others pressure us. Someone said recently (I probably just read it recently) that the soul does not want to move. I keep thinking of this. When I ask my soul what it wants to do, I am pretty responsible, to myself, and to the work that needs doing around me. But when I let someone else tell me what I should do, I feel resentful.

Love how you get me going ...

Elisabeth said...

Thanks for your good wishes here, Kochuravi and welcome.

Elisabeth said...

I know that feeling Ruth, the business of being forced to move against your will and then feeling resentful.

I think I should enjoy reading a biography of Virginia Woolf, even at 700 pages. I find the writer - at least my fantasy of her - endlessly fascinating.

Thanks, Ruth.