Thursday, December 31, 2009

Self Portrait

Self Portrait

I met her at a conference. You might recognise her easily because she sits in the front row and asks questions. She has a tinny voice and asks questions that have the ring of the non-sequitor about them. She is of average height, with curly fair hair that must be coloured given her age. Mid fifties you would say, thin and pale skinned. She is friendly in a sometimes over the top way that can be off putting especially for others who might be shy. She thrusts herself forward to introduce herself to complete strangers. Bold, I say.

She is a note taker, the whole way through every talk you see her taking notes as if her life depends upon it. I look over her shoulder from my position in the second row and I see that her handwriting is virtually illegible. I could never read it. I ask her about it at morning tea.
‘I’m a compulsive note taker,’ she says. ‘I have to take everything down; otherwise I fear I will miss out on something. I never know when I might need it.’

She has the feel of someone who is hungry for more. She moves through a room at a fast pace. You do not often see her dawdle. Always in a hurry. Again you wonder what is she running from, or where is she running.

She is good enough with her words but she seems to lack confidence in herself sometimes, at surprising times when you least expect it. She is forever qualifying the things she says, as if she is fearful of offending people.
‘At the risk of generalising,’ she will say. Or, ‘I don’t want to polarise positions,’ or, ‘I know, it’s not exactly like this…’

She turns around from her place in the front row to introduce herself to me. She is the only one in the front row. I could never do that it would bother me too much, stick out like a sore thumb.
‘I sit here so I can hear better,’ she says. ‘But people don’t seem to like the front row. I wonder why?’ she says.
‘Perhaps it’s too close to the speaker,’ I say. ‘Perhaps they like to have some distance between themselves and the other person.’

That is the strange thing about her. She gives the impression of being open, open like a book, and yet I get the sense sometimes that she is a dark horse. She keeps stuff to herself. She will tell you her story all right. She will tell you all these things about her life and her family. But I am not sure I can trust her. There is something about her. Something underhand. Is it dishonest perhaps? I often get the sense that she is sizing me up, sizing the situation up and if I am not careful she will use it somewhere else.

Writers do this all the time I know, but she has the look of a writer who will plunder another person’s deepest secrets, the ones she does not even know herself and put them in a book somewhere. This is scary. It is scary to be with such a person. Nothing you say can be taken for granted. Nothing she says can be said without feeling that you are skating on thin earth. Yet she is okay to be with.

She has blue eyes and she looks at you intently while you speak. She looks at you meaningfully as if she is taking in your words, as if what you say matters to her, though there are times when I see her eyes close over as if she has had enough of me and there are other times, like when I talk about my interest in spirituality, when I sense a shift in her focus as if she does not want to talk about it with me, or she does not take me seriously anymore.

She likes to come across as someone without prejudice, but she is prejudiced all right. You can feel it. The way her shoulders stiffen when someone talks about god and religion, the way her lips come together as if she is trying to press them shut in order to not let anything out, for fear of what she might say. You can feel it in the tension that rises up out of her that she is intolerant here.

Sometimes I imagine she is just bursting with the wish to tell someone else to shut up. Shut up, she would like to say to someone else who has taken the floor for too long. Shut up, give someone else a turn. She is like that. She is into turn taking in a big way. If someone has gone on for a while, she will try to shift the focus onto someone else. She says she hates groups. She tells me as much during our lunchtime break.
‘I’m sixth in line, she says, 'an ignominious position,' as if this accounts for everything about her.
‘Groups are dangerous things,’ she tells me. 'Things happen in groups and sometimes it’s hard to know what’s going on. All these people talking together going in different directions and all these undercurrents that people can’t or won’t talk about it.’

I have noticed this in her. The way she sometimes wants to bring these undercurrents to the surface and sometimes her words come out with a jolt as if she has come from some unexpected tangent of her own, as if she has followed a long windy chain of thought to get to where she is at and suddenly she lets it all out bang plop into the middle of the conversation and it is disturbing like a big wind that picks up suddenly and knocks over chairs and tables in your outside garden, a wind that knocks over anything that is not fixed to the ground.

She seems to know a lot and when she does not know she will ask questions so that she can at least have something to say. If she is not interested, and it happens, her eyes glaze over for a while. Then I catch her casting glances around the room as if she is looking for better company. She is ruthless like that. She does not like to be bored. She does not like to sit with people who do not interest her. She will take herself away rather than sit with people with whom she cannot connect.

I do not know how she sees me. She puts up with me I suppose. She must. I am her mirror image.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Write about your obsessions

In her book, READING, WRITING AND LEAVING HOME, Lynn Freed tells a story of how at one time while she struggled to find something on which to write, a friend said,
'Write about your obsessions’.

Our obsessions lie deep within, Freed suggests. They are so familiar and non-obvious to us that we almost do not recognise them.

Freed is obsessed with her theatrical and moody mother, she writes. My obsession would have to be with my father. I write this with certainty, but can I be so sure? If I ask myself then what else obsesses me I might start a list.

I have said it already, first on my list: I am obsessed with my father, the sheer size of him. The way he would take over a room the minute he entered it. The way his voice boomed above all others, the way he needed to place himself at the centre, the way he seemed unable to share. His will was all, his militant will, his will that ruled like a sergeant major, that crossed over any preconceived ideas about what we might do or how we might do it.

And yet brooding underneath his militancy, I sensed my father’s dissatisfaction. He never believed his will had been followed. He felt cheated by life, by the very existence of the children that he had helped to bring into the world because the only way he could marry my mother was to convert to Catholicism and in converting he had agreed to obey the church’s rules about the non-use of contraception. Given that he had struggled to practise abstinence or so it would seem in view of the number of pregnancies throughout my parents' fertile years - twelve in all, and at least five of those each a year apart - my father failed to practise abstinence. And yet, ‘He loved it when I was pregnant,’ my mother has told me. 'He was always gentle then.’

My father was not a gentle man. There was a cruel streak in him that I fear I have inherited though I try to keep mine in check. I try not to let mine slip out. But it does. The other night, a woman in our small writing group who chattered on endlessly and would not be silenced, told yet another story from her extraordinary childhood, one for which she provided thorough and well rehearsed details, as a statement of fact, and all from her memories and experience as a child.

In response, instead of applauding, I could not resist the comment:
‘Have you heard of the notion of the unreliability of memory?’
'Yes,' she said, 'but all this is true.'
She was silent after that and went to bed early. Since then she has not dominated conversations with her endless detail. The conversation has become more inclusive.

This brings me to my second obsession: the stuff of fairness; my belief that everyone must get a go and that hopefully everyone’s go is proportionate to everyone else’s. Though I know I fail at this too. I know it rarely ever happens.

Perhaps the wish that everyone should get a fair go, and here I speak about fairness in conversation when together in a group. Turn taking, it is called. If the person in charge of a group in situations where there is such a person, does not take his/her responsibilities seriously and fails to move around the room and give each person approximately equal amounts of air time, then I become incensed. However, if by chance, I get more than my share - if I am one of the lucky ones - then I feel guilty.

I derive the greatest satisfaction from the illusion that a group is in harmony, that we all agree with one another; that we are having a wonderful time; that whatever experience we are enduring is equally wonderful to all. Even as I know that all of this is impossible, an approximation only and one that does not preclude the possibility of world wars.

This brings me to my third obsession, my family, not so much my present family as the one from my past. My preoccupation with my children and husband is more a constant force in my life, something I imagine I will never lose. I do not consider this to be a true obsession, more an ongoing love, but my preoccupation with my family of origin borders on obsession.

Just as my father held the size, my family holds the numbers. There are so many of us and I have never known a life without at least one or two or three of my siblings in the picture. My dreams are still haunted by my siblings, they feature nightly whether in direct form or even in the form of the people with whom I work, or my friends. I can always tell when a character in my dream has taken the place of a sibling. There is a particular feel, a peculiar mix of love and hate.

In her book, Lynn Freed quotes Marguerite Duras’s consideration of her childhood:

'In books I’ve written about my childhood, I can’t remember, suddenly, what I left out, what I said. I think I wrote about our love for our mother, but I don’t know if I wrote about how we hated her too, or about our love for one another, and our terrible hatred too, in that common family history of ruin and death which was ours whatever happened, in love or in hate, and which I still can’t understand however hard I try, which is still beyond my reach, hidden in the very depths of my flesh, blind as a new born child. It’s the area on whose brink silence begins.'

This would have to be true of all my obsessions: they signify the tension between love and hate, between the desire to be at one with and the desire to get away from, the desire to caress and the desire to kill.

‘Kill ’im off,’ my father said repeatedly to my mother during his nightly drunken rambles. I did not understand his meaning at the time, but now I wonder whether he too felt as I sometimes do, shut out, unwanted, a wound to be excised.

This brings me to my fourth obsession: the desire to belong. I love nothing more than to walk into a building, a house, and to sense the familiarity of location – this is where I belong. I have sensed it after years of working in the one place. I sense it whenever I walk through my own front door. I know it is illusory - most things are - but it is a comfort to me and one that contrasts with the sense of alienation I feel when a place no longer feels welcoming. A place ceases to be welcoming when there is conflict, or when there are things going on behind the scenes that cannot be addressed.

This then brings me to my fifth obsession: the sense of wanting to get below the surface to what is really going on. To deal with the version of whatever elephant is in the room at any given time. There is always an elephant in the room. There are always in any situation subterranean rumbles that people work hard to skirt around and ignore. Most of the time I do likewise, especially when it does not matter - to me at least - in superficial situations when it is okay to float on the surface.

But when it matters, when we are meant to be having a meaningful conversation but we are not because we have been given the message that we cannot speak the obvious, the obvious to me at least, then I am like a restless ant, scurrying from one thought to another. I find it hard to settle in the room. I hunger for some sense of anchoring and it will only come when someone has said something about what appears to be going on underneath. Often, more often than not, this does not happen and once again I am left dissatisfied.

This brings me to my sixth obsession: connection. I long for connection, a sense of getting through to another person however momentarily, a sense of sharing, a glimmer of intimacy where we can share an affinity and a sense of at oneness, again however illusory.

Connection is illusory. It is like the truth, it is something we can only sense, we can only glimpse, we can only hold close to us in our minds, but it can never be grasped firmly. As soon as we try to get too firm a grasp on it we lose it.

Connection turns to possession, possessiveness; and truth turns to doctrine. Doctrine is dangerous, as is possessiveness. We must hold loose to our loves. I suspect it is our hates that enable us to do this.

Have I run out of obsessions? Perhaps the list should end here.

And you? Do you, too, write into your obsessions? Can you share yours?

For me this list becomes a deep and endlessly fascinating source of ideas and I thank Lynn Freed for sharing her friend's suggestion.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Travel without a ticket

During my seven days at The Writer's House, Varuna, in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, I felt at times overwhelmed by a sense of my inability as a writer, by my fraudulence. The experience led me into memories.

I travel without a ticket. My concession card has long expired but I keep it tucked inside my blazer pocket in the hope that every time I flash it past the stationmaster at the gate, he will not notice and will wave me through.

For a year we travel like this, my sister and I. From Parkdale railway station beside the sea to Richmond and its factories in the middle of which, in a green oasis of garden and trees, sits our school.

It has become something of an art this business of concealment, with many different strands and possibilities. Every day as we stand on the platform waiting for the train we look to the ground for cast off tickets. There are some, which are useless. They have a pink stripe or a bold print declaration that marks them as tickets once used by someone in a special category, different from ours. We need tickets that belong to concession-eligible students and there are plenty of these around if only we are lucky.

I also have a store of these tickets in my blazer pocket. I use them at the other end of my journey. I have become adept at walking past the station man with a cool air. I toss the ticket into his open hand along side all the other people who do likewise. It is important to get into the middle of a large bunch of people. This way the station man does not have time to look too closely at out tickets, my sister and I, when they fall into his hand. Concealment comes in numbers.

Anxiety is at its height at these times. That climactic moment, as if in a movie when the ticket man looks down at your ticket, drags it out from the pile in his hand and looks at its past-its-use-by date and sees that it is a ticket for a journey that stopped four stations before in Malvern, or sees that it is a ticket that should have been used last year, and recognises that you are a fraud. He calls for you to stop within the crowd of strangers, selects you out as a non person, a person who is not worthy of such travel. It gets worse.

In my imagination my sister and I are held hostage in the station master’s office until the police arrive. I am not so young and foolish these days as to imagine that we will be sent to prison for our crime, nor am I worried about what our mother will say. She does not have money to give us to buy our tickets. She must know that we travel on imaginary ones. She never says a word about this to us and we know not to tell. She has worries enough about finding money for food.

Nor do I worry about what the nuns might say. The nuns are more tolerant of poverty than many, and since we have started to travel to school from Parkdale, since our parents have separated and the nuns know the story from my older sister - who once planned to be a nun herself but they would not take her on the grounds of insanity - since then, the nuns have been kind.

They turn a blind eye to my partial uniform, to the fact that my indoor shoes are worn out and should be replaced, to the fact that I hold my pinafore together with a safety pin. They turn a blind eye. But I wear these things badly in my mind and it is my fellow students who torment me with their stares, like the anonymous throng of people scurrying from the train. I see them in my mind’s eye when the ticket man calls to us to stop – ‘that’s not a proper ticket’ – when he grabs me by the wrist as if he imagines I will attempt a quick get away. Then it becomes the single eye of the anonymous crowd like a giant eye blinking down from the sky that stares with accusation and criticism. It is a look I have seen in my mother’s eyes when she disapproves. It is a deadly look, the look of the curse - the curser looks upon the cursed, and the cursed one is damned forever.

Can you imagine? A year of this? A year of traveling on trains twice a day, of sitting in the middle carriage, hands on our laps, our bags at our feet, sharing the bag of lollies a school friend and her sister who live in Bentleigh buy at the shop in the tunnel of the Richmond railway station on our way home.

I wonder that they do not resent us. We do not reciprocate. We do not buy lollies. We do not have money to share. We sit together in a huddle, white gloves in summer, brown in winter, demure schoolgirls chattering about the day’s events. Four of us travel together but two of us are frauds. Two of us do not have a ticket.

I watch the doors at every platform when the train comes to a halt. I watch for the men in grey – the ticket inspectors. I have a plan laid out in my mind. The ticket men will prepare to walk into our carriage. We will see them as the train pulls into the station. As soon as we see them we will stand up, make a sudden excuse to our friends, grab our school bags and leave. Then we will take ourselves to the toilets in the middle of the platform, well away from the exit gate and the stationmaster and wait for the next train, but we will not take the next train or the train after that. We know that ticket inspectors get on and off from one station to the next. It will take at least five or six more trains before the ticket inspectors have exhausted the stations and we will be able to complete our journey without detection.

After a year of traveling in this way I have an entrenched sense of guilt, the danger of being caught.

I struggled with this throughout my seven days of writing at Varuna, the writer's lament. In time I shook the monkey from my shoulder and wrote like a train, but it only came after the pain of remembering.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The mid point of the wheel

Tomorrow I leave for the Blue Mountains. For five days solid I hope to write. I hope to lose myself so deeply in my writing that for this short time I will transcend the usual humdrum of my daily writing and get to somewhere I have not been before, ‘wheeled and soared and swung through footless halls air’. These words come to me from a poem I met as a child , ‘High Flying’ by Walter Magee. It begins, ‘Oh I have slipped the surly bonds of earth and danced the skies on laughter silvered wings, Sunwards I’ve climbed and chased the sunless mirth of sun split clouds and done a thousand things you have not dreamed of, wheeled and soared and swung my eager craft through footless falls of air...
and while with silent trembling heart, I've trod...put out my hand and touched the face of God’. (I have muddled these words. If I were a worthy soul I would Google them for you and correct them, but it's late and I must be away early, so if you are interested, you will need to search for yourself, or accept them as they are here, a muddle from my memory.)

I have started to pack, at least in my mind. It’s an easy thing to pack for one. After all the years when the girls were little and I needed to pack for them as well. I need also to put out five shirts for Bill who is colour blind and cannot select his own shirts and ties without disastrous consequences, at least he will worry that the consequences will be disastrous. He lacks confidence in his own taste, at least in colour. For the rest he is artistic, with excellent sense of shape and texture. Sometimes he gets to work in non-matching socks.

Tomorrow morning I will get up at 4 am and leave the house fifteen minutes later. I will drive my own car and leave it in long-term car parking to the airport. The cost of a weeks parking is the equivalent of one taxi fare, so I save money this way. Although I have discussed the matter of my getting to the airport with various members of my family and all express the wish to drive me to the airport, it seems to me, it’s too ridiculous a time, Monday morning at 4.15 am to inflict on any of them. Therefore I should be the only one inconvenienced by this trip – I should drive myself there and back seven days later.

I am a nervous traveler. Whenever I rehearse the experience in my mind I panic a little. I can see myself getting lost, or misreading signs and missing my plane or in this instance my train, first from Sydney airport where I will arrive at 7.00am during peak hour and then on to Central station. From Central station I need to make a three-hour train trip to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. I look forward to this leg of the journey. Three hours on a rocking train, three hours where I will still be on land but moving swiftly through space, three hours during which I can doze, read, or look out through the window at a new landscape.

I feel the need to write a brief farewell blog, a farewell for one week only. A bit like the dinner my husband wants to share tonight to mark my absence for a week. Not too special a dinner – I’m not going away for long – but to mark the occasion nevertheless.

We mark absences and returns in our household with fervour. No one can sneak away unnoticed, not like one of my brothers did on his eighteenth birthday many years ago, or Maggie May’s sister. She writes about this in a blog that eats at you with its poignancy. No, we mark our farewells and hellos.

It’s worse when I go because I am the ‘mother’, and mothers, not always but perhaps more often than not, are the mid point of the wheel around which all the spokes circle.

I wear the weight of my responsibility seriously and I am troubled at this end by my planned absence.

Someone needs to worry incessantly about the dog, as there will be a man here to help install a new gate and the gate will inevitably be left ajar from time to time. Someone will need to keep the dog in mind for the times when the gate man is here. The under pinners are also coming on Monday to help us to rectify the enormous cracks that have erupted in the front walls of our house.

They will work outside but one day at least my husband will need to take time off work to watch as they hoist the house up on jacks before they pour concrete into the huge holes they will have dug beneath the perimeter of the house to force it back in place. Hopefully this will help to rejoin the cracks.

I can put five shirts and ties for my colour blind husband in advance, one for each working day of the week I am away. I can make sure there is enough milk in the fridge to last the week and enough toilet paper. For the rest, my children, the ones living at home are old enough by far to look after themselves, as is my husband. Still I worry about them.

I worry about all the little things that they can take for granted, though taking people for granted is a dangerous pastime and one none of us should ever indulge in for too long, myself included. When we take others for granted, as Art Durkee has written elsewhere in relation to the business of expectation, we will inevitably trip up, not to mention the pain we cause the other person who is taken for granted.

So my absence shall be a good thing, painful for those at home to some extent only. The days will pass quickly enough and apart from my youngest who needs me more for transport and a general holding in mind function, the others will do just fine. And so will I.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Numerology: Births Deaths and Marriages

I have always preferred even numbers to odd. This makes life difficult, this superstition, because half of our lives operate under the weight of odd numbers. Every second day is an odd day so it is not right to focus too much on this anomaly but I find whenever a number pops up for any reason whatsoever I first of all judge it by its odd or even nature.

My favourite number is two, preferably double two. Two hundred and twenty two is not so good because it is an uneven number of twos and two thousand two hundred and twenty two is too much altogether.

My analyst once suggested to me when I reported my love of the number two, that I chose this number because it is the number of coupledom, mother and baby, just the two of us. It’s an interesting observation. I had thought it might have more to do with the shape of the number, very much like the letter ‘s’ and also that the first house whose address I was able to learn as a child was that of 2 Wentworth Avenue where we then lived.

My address became a vital part of my internal world. I would explore its details regularly and roll the words over my tongue: Number 2 Wentworth Avenue Canterbury, East 7, Melbourne, Victoria Australia, the Pacific Ocean, the world, the universe.

Similarly I played with the multiple dimensions of time, the time of the day, the time of the day in relation to the time of my birth, the hours I had lived, the hours I might continue to live. But I was never good at sums. I failed mental arithmetic in grade six, much to my teacher, Mother Mary John’s expressed horror,
'I knew you were bad, but not that bad.' So I did not linger long over numbers except visually.

Numbers developed personalities in my mind and I had my favourites. I hated the numbers seven and nine and could only just tolerate the fives.

I loved the letter ‘s’, smooth, round and to my mind shiny. It was also the letter that distinguished my first name Elisabeth from all the other Elizabeth’s I encountered in my life, the ones at school who sported an ugly ‘z’ in the middle of their names. S was definitely the more beautiful and friendly letter, as well it was the first letter of my second name, ES.

I did not go in so much for the harsh letters of ‘H’ and ‘E’ especially in their capitalised forms, though in lower case ‘e’ could pass, ‘e’ for egg. Even now to me ‘e’ looks like an egg. But the letter ‘h’ could not redeem itself so readily, nor ‘f ‘even with the rounded dome of the top of their shape in lower case.

I am back to letters I see. It is easy to slip by numbers. My relationship to numbers was never so good. Numbers always frightened me. Multiplication, addition, subtraction and division.

My parents were always doing it. Adding babies and sometimes losing them. For the first ten years of my life, my mother was either pregnant or carrying a newborn.
‘What a woman,’ people said, ‘nine children.’ I soaked up the compliments as if they were directed at me.

There should have been eleven but two died, the first, my mother’s second daughter at five months, the second her last child, another daughter this time still born. There was a miscarriage as well, between the seventh and the eighth. In the end my mother was left with five sons and four daughters.

Some weeks after the death of her last leven los, my mother stood with me in the front garden of our house in Camberwell talking to a neighbour who was muttering condolences for her recent loss.
‘It must be very hard but you do have your other children to comfort you.’
My mother nodded and sniffled onto the back of her hand.

Mrs Bos had no children of her own. At ten years of age I was puzzled that any married couple could remain childless. My mother and I watched Mrs Bos, retreating up the street, click-clack on her stilettos, a string shopping bag bulging at her side.
‘Poor Mrs Bos’, my mother said, wiping her nose again on her hand, ‘she can never have children of her own.’

My mother offered no explanation and I was left bewildered about this sad Dutch woman who lived at the top of our street, barren and empty, unable to add, divide or even subtract.

Thursday, December 03, 2009


All afternoon I couldn’t get the images from the film of Atonement out of my head, the war and the death and the significance of a child’s lie.

The man beside me in the picture theatre belched three times, not once and seemingly not accidentally. I did not like to sit directly beside him but our seats were numbered 12 and 13. When I looked at the tickets as we walked to our seats, I thought we had an unlucky number , but I dismissed it. Besides, as luck would have it, my sister sat in seat 13, I would have had it but moved to fill the gap between myself and this chap in seat 12. I led the way into the theatre with my sister close behind.

I was conscious of this man from the start. He was alone. He sat arms folded over his huge belly. He seemed an unlikely man to see at a film like this - rough looking, but it was dark by the time we arrived and I couldn’t get a close look.

While the credits were rolling I remembered the story a friend once told me about her experience as a small child. She had gone to the movies with several of her siblings who sat in a row in the picture theatre. She was on the end. When the lights went out and the film began a man, a stranger sitting beside her put his hands into her pants and started to masturbate her. She was struck dumb with terror, unable to speak or move.

What would I have done, I wondered? Would I scream, make a fuss? Tell my sister we’re leaving.

I thought what a good thing it was that I was sitting beside this man, and not my sister, that I could manage this ordeal better than she. This might be more traumatic for her.

My sister might be like the little girl I have just described, paralyzed, unable to say no. Not me, I thought. I would put a stop to it.

Or would I? Helen Garner describes it in her book, The First Stone, her own paralysis in the face of sexual assault, unwanted sexual advances, from a masseur in one instance, from another person in authority in the other.

This memory rose out of the film based on Ian McEwan's book Atonement.

Why wouldn’t it, sitting behind that old man in the picture theatre? He was not old. He was more or less my age, but in my little girl’s mind he was a ‘dirty old man’, given the belching burping noises he made, seemingly oblivious to them. I didn’t even sense him wince by way of apology.

What was an man like him doing in a movie like this? He may have appreciated it. When the end of the film arrived with my sister sniffling beside me and the names of celebrities and workers running down the screen and the beautiful background music fanning the sadness, this man could not wait to get out of the theatre.

And Briony Tallis’s words from Atonement ring in my ears still.

‘How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.’ (371)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Where have all the nooks and crannies gone?

It’s a relief to get to today, after last night’s party. Fifty or sixty fifteen and sixteen year olds celebrating a joint birthday for my youngest daughter and one of her girlfriends. As it turned out they were all well behaved. No one drank too much, though they seemed to drink quite a bit, only one girl crying in the bathroom and that towards the end of the night and something to do with her feeling snubbed by a boyfriend rather than through too much to drink. For all my anxiety.

I have been so anxious of late. It comes across in waves. I can usually locate its source: last night the party, at other times anything to do with my professional association, but it seems to wash over me more frequently these days. I worry incessantly about the dog’s well being. I long for a front screen door to reduce the possibility that someone might inadvertently leave the front door open and the dog will take off down the street, onto the road and under a car. I worry still that he might be able to scale the fence. He has not done it yet, so it is unlikely he can, but still I worry. I worry I worry I worry.

The backyard is a mess, empty drink cans, bottles, caps, shards of broken glass and cigarette butts everywhere. Although I had set up the rubbish bin strategically in one corner of the garden, it seems no one paid it attention. They dropped their cans as they stood. A few of my daughter’s friends have stayed overnight. She and they can tidy up later. I shall resist the temptation myself. For once, acknowledging that it’s not my mess and that it will be good for the girls, for my daughter and her visitors, to take responsibility for the aftermath of their party.

In two weeks time and one weekend I will be traveling to the Blue Mountains for a week of writing at Varuna, self funded. I did not apply for a mentorship, I simply decided that I needed time to do nothing but write. It does not happen here and even though I am a master at distracting myself, it is the demands of others that make it worse, not just my work and family but the other little things that crop up daily.

I also have to stop blogging as obsessively as I have been for the last few weeks. It takes up too much time and too much head space. I get into these conversations and tap away response after response. I scroll down and read other people’s blogs and other people’s comments. I love it. Such companionship, however virtual, but it takes away the nooks and crannies of time I would otherwise have used for research and reading, for emails.

Lately everything I write and everything that I read over that I have written in the past seems stale, like dry bread. Inedible. I am not happy with this. I do not feel able to engage with new ideas.

Perhaps it is the solipsistic nature of my preoccupation with all things autobiographical that leads me to this impasse. Occasionally on my blog I hear from the odd person who is critical of my interest in autobiography.

In academia there are many people who like to study autobiography from a theoretical perspective, the Sidonie Smiths and Julia Watsons of the literary world, but few of these people embark upon their own autobiographical writing, instead they examine the memoirs of others.

It seems a safer bet, I suspect. The theorists can analyse and think through ideas. They can question the memoirist’s perspectives and motives, they can challenge the level of truthfulness and otherwise, consider the extent to which the writer may have abided by or broken Paul John Eakin’s rules for life writing. They might even offer a personal reflection on their own experience of reading this other person’s personal account of their journey, but they do not offer their own journey, their own story, their travels or thoughts about their own lives. They leave that to us the autobiographers.

All of this makes it sound as though I have written a memoir. I have, but it remains unfinished? I use bits of it from time to time as a way of reinforcing my essays, the ones I write on theoretical aspects related to autobiography, to theories on life writing, the nature of shame and trauma, to the thorny old divide between fact and fiction, but I do not seek to complete this work. I am unhappy with it. I wrote it when I started again to write in my late thirties and it is clumsy in places. It does not sing to me.

I need to do more research, but for now I prefer to write and read other people's blogs.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A question on autobiographical poetry

It seems I have developed a reputation as an autobiographer and theorist of autobiography, whatever that means.

As a consequence, an academic has asked me a question to which I do not know the answer. Perhaps you out there, my fellow bloggers and poets, will know more than me and I can pass on the information to the good person who is conducting research on the issue.

She asks the question:
What's the best introduction to autobiographical poetry?

Again does such a thing exist? I can only think of poets who write autobiographically and that pretty well covers all of you, but maybe some are more obvious about it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

I remember you.

I have a partial denture, not all of my teeth are my own. I write these words and the thought floats around the back of my mind. Not for publication this, not for the audience. I don’t want anyone to know. I am too ashamed.

A while ago my mother visited. She came with her much younger cousin Jo and Jo’s husband Arnold. They’d been out for lunch and my mother decided, or so she told me over the telephone when she made arrangements for the visit that it would be good for Josephine and Arnold to meet some of their younger relatives in Australia. They emigrated here a couple of years ago.
‘I’m an old lady, my mother said, what would they want to spend time with me for?’
I thought it was also a pretext to spend time with me.

I suggested my mother come after four as I had a dentist appointment earlier that day.
‘Oh, I remember you.' She said. 'You were so frightened for the dentist. You had to have an anesthetic.’
‘I was only little,’ I said. I was about seven and they needed to take out several teeth.’
What do I remember of that day?

My mother and I sit on a long wooden bench in a room that reminds me of a church for all its austerity, but there are magazines on a pile in one corner and no crosses to be seen. We are in the Dental Hospital and I am alone with my mother. In so many memories of my mother I am alone. She is sitting very close to me. I can feel the mold of her hip against mine even through the thick layers of her woolen skirt and coat. I am wearing my older brother's black duffel coat. One of the wooden buttons is loose so the coat gapes in the middle.

I have come for extractions. I do not want to think too much about this word but my mother says I will not feel a thing. I will be put to sleep and when I wake up it will all be over.

I look down at my feet. I am wearing my first Holy Communion black patents. I have worn them for a long time now, every Sunday, and they are beginning to wear out. There are holes in the middle of the soles of each shoe, but no one can see this, no one knows but me. Only when I kneel down for Holy Communion at the front of the church do I worry that other people will see the holes in my shoes. Then I try very hard to curl my toes up while I’m kneeling to keep as much of the heel concealed as possible.

My black patent shoes shine. My mother has told me I must not worry. I do not want to think about why I should worry, but the smell of chemicals, the smell of toilet cleaner, the mothball smell of this place makes my stomach hurt. I try to breathe through my mouth and I run my tongue over my teeth. They are scratchy to feel.

‘Seven baby teeth have to go.’ I hear the dentist tell my mother as his big hands prod my mouth open. He scrapes against my teeth with a sharp metal stick.
‘Normally we await till they fall out of their own accord,’ he says ‘ but these seven are too far gone.’
She’s not doing a good job of brushing her teeth, is she?’ he asks my mother as though I am not there.
‘I tell her to brush them every day,' my mother says.

It’s true. My mother tells me every night when I go into the lounge to say good night to my father and he brushes my forehead with his yellow thumb, his thumb that is yellow from smoking, He brushes my forehead in a sign of the cross and my mother calls out after me, after us, my sister and I, ‘Brush your teeth now.’

My sister goes to the bathroom and brushes her teeth. I go to the bedroom and get ready for bed. When I am in bed, I remember to brush my teeth but I cannot be bothered. Later when my mother comes to say good night she asks again.
‘Did you brush your teeth?’
I say ‘Yes’. And she is happy. Easy as that.

My teeth feel furry most of the time. But not today. Today they have a shiny feel in the places where they are not broken. They have a shiny feel because I brushed and brushed them because I know the dentist will look at my teeth and he must not know that I have not told the truth.

I tell the truth in confession. Every week I tell the priest that I have been telling lies once. Telling lies. He never asks what lies. Telling lies once, stealing once, he never asks what I have stolen. And being disobedient, I add. That one feels like a lie because I am never disobedient.

Not brushing my teeth when my mother tells me cannot be a sin of disobedience because I have included it in my telling lies. A sin only counts once. At least for me it does. Though my mother tells me that my grandmother suffered from scruples. She went to the priest and confessed her sins and even after he gave her absolution and said she could go off and say a prayer she was not happy. She came back to the same pries again and again. ‘
You do not understand, Father’ she said. “You do not understand how badly I have sinned.’

I know it’s easy to wash your soul clean. One visit to confession and everything is washed away and my soul, which is just under my stomach right down close to my bottom is clean and white again. I know my soul is near my bottom because it is harder to keep it clean there when it is so close to all the poo in my body. I know this because the nuns tells us about the soul within and how hard we must work to keep it clean and spotless.

But my teeth are not spotless. They are full of holes, ‘cavities’ the dentist says. A nurse in a white uniform with a tight bun on top of her head calls out my name and my mother and I walk into a cubicle where my mother helps me take off all my clothes. Then she dresses me in a thin white dress which has big holes for sleeves and no buttons. My mother ties the cords all the way up the back but the hospital gown gapes even worse than my coat and I am scared that people will see my bottom. But as soon as I am out of the cubicle the nurse tells me to lie down on a long bed with metal sides and she pushes me through slamming doors that snap shut behind, down a long corridor of bright lights.

I am lying on top of this trolley bed like a dead person. I feel numb the way I think a dead person feels but my mind is still ticking over. My hands are cold. My stomach aches from the smell. A man in a mask leans over my arm and sticks in a needle. I watch the silver shine of the needle as it pierces my skin and the feeling of sharpness that comes with it is not my feeling anymore and then I am really dead.

When I wake up my mouth is full of the metal taste of blood. I try to spit it out. I am too scared to run my tongue along my teeth. My mouth has become a bloody hole. I can see myself in a mirror on one of the walls and I have shrunk. I do not look the same as I remember me. My face is white, and flat as a plate. My lips are bright red.

My mother and I stand outside the big green dental hospital and wait for my father. He pulls the grey Holden into the curb and my mother bundles me into the back. Her hands are gentle as they brush back my fringe from my forehead.

My soul feels black today as though all the times of not brushing my teeth have been lined up together for punishment.
‘You can have some ice cream when we get home,’ my mother says. My father pulls the car into the traffic. I have never been in a car alone with my parents ever. Where are my sisters and brothers? Where are the others? I hope my mother has not told them. I hope they will never know about my teeth, the holes and my bad ways. There are still four days before Friday’s confession.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Another pair of eyes

November is the month of birthdays in our household. It is both a pleasure and a burden. Half the members of my immediate family of six were born in November. The rest are spread more evenly in February, June and September. November is also the month in which my husband and I chose to get married. The month before Christmas, it signals the beginning of a long line of celebrations.

I have always maintained that birthdays are important. It is the one day of the year when you can really be celebrated. We all need to be celebrated from time to time. We all need to feel special from time to time. We all need to take centre stage from time to time, but how easily it is frowned upon.

When I was a child the nuns described the naughty disobedient ones, generally the boys, as ‘notice boxes’. I conjured in my mind then the image of a red letter box, a letter box with its wide slit in the middle like a hungry mouth waiting for a letter to drop in. Were these naughty boys then like letter boxes, waiting for letters, waiting for attention?

I have a friend, a child psychotherapist who observes the increase in situations where small children, again most often boys, are being diagnosed as suffering from attention deficit disorder. She wonders, she tells me, where is the attention deficit actually located.

This is not an attempt at parent bashing. Think again of Phillip Larkin’s poem: ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad./ They may not mean to, but they do./ They fill you with the faults they had, /And add some extra, just for you.’

I wonder sometimes whether as a society we suffer a sort of attention deficit disorder across the board. I’m the worst of all when it comes to this – head buried in a book or at my computer screen.

Just now my attention has been taken away by my daughter who is busy making a lemon meringue pie at the request of her youngest sister whose birthday was yesterday but which we celebrate today. She cannot find the lemon zester.
‘Can I lend another pair of eyes?’

Do you find this? You’ve lost something. You’ve searched all over the house and still cannot find it. You ask for help and the second pair of eyes sees it instantly. I found the zester in the cupboard with the juicer, where it should not have been.

And now I’m distracted still further by a conversation with my husband in which we have decided yet again we must do something about getting the dog groomed. His coat needs a cut; his claws need clipping. So I will make that call now to a visiting dog washer because, if I do not, another week or two or three will pass and the dog will get shaggier and shaggier.

This is the life we lead, attention deficits abound, distractions as Damon Young calls them. And yet there is something inherent in these distractions that I also love. They remind me that I am alive and I’m thankful for them. I imagine when I’m dead they won’t touch me anymore.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Good from Bad

I wonder what distinguishes good writing from bad? What is it that makes us want to read on? To some extent it must be subjective, different words and styles appeal to different people. The good and bad of it is the wrong terminology of course. It's not necessarily good and bad, it's different, at different levels but I can keep qualifying for ever.

When I read blog sites, why do some appeal to me and others not? Why am I so taken by the self conscious confessional tone of some like Artandmylife, who forever admits to feeling poorly educated, a non expert, and yet offers her thoughts and opinions regardless. For me she becomes a sort of every woman, the mother at home with her little ones imparting knowledge to them that is greater far than anything they can read in text books and yet, her knowledge is somehow diminished because it has not been formalised through the official authorised discourse. Maybe this is why I enjoy her work so much, the same with Stripeysocksstudio and Martin Edmond on Luca Antara– was there ever a more self-effacing, yet brilliant writer, who also seems more self taught than spoon fed by the institutions. Maybe for me, too, because I have gone back to the university after thirty years and because I do not have a vested interest in fitting in with the academic ethos – I’m not looking for a job there – I can write more freely even as I know it will not satisfy certain of the establishment.

I resent the insistence that everything said be backed up by a footnote - Who gave you this idea? Who has said this before you? How can you claim to know this? How dare you presume to say anything unless someone else presumably more learned than you has said it before? To me that’s different from the need to acknowledge other people’s ideas. I have no problem acknowledging other people’s ideas, but sometimes I cannot remember and sometimes my own ideas have become such an amalgamation of all the ideas that I have read and heard from many other people I cannot think to anchor the idea as someone specific’s property.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Too late

The day after my birthday on Guy Fawkes Day, the dog snuck out through the front door when my back was turned. I tried to stop him to corner him in the front yard before he reached the entrance gate but he was too quick.

He ran out onto the road and did not die. Cars honked, I screamed and eventually my daughter managed to corner him on Beaconsfield Road, around the corner, but the trauma of the near miss is still with me. I cannot settle.

The next day I gave a paper at a conference on migration. And now I'm struggling to prepare that paper for publication.

The image of the dog running onto Riversdale Road won’t leave me. It’s one of those recurrent scenes that flashes before my eyes involuntarily and I have to shake my head to get rid of it.

It is a small trauma in the scheme of things but a trauma nevertheless and it will be days before it leaves my memory, not entirely, not forever, but at least like music that repeats itself again and again when you least want it, in time this image will only come back when I call upon it.

For the moment it is lodged there, cruelly shattering my sense of peace. It reminds me of how easy it is to lose a loved one; how easy it is to fail to be vigilant and leave the front door open long enough for the dog to slip out; and before you know it he is out on the street.

The dog has no road sense, no understanding whatsoever that the things roaring past will not stop for him if he chooses to run in front of them, if he chooses to play.

When I was a child we had a dog named, Peta. Peta loved to chase cars. It amazed me even then that she never ran under the wheels. When our car took off from the curb, Peta started to chase us all the way down or up Wentworth Avenue to Canterbury or Mont Albert Roads where he finally stopped.

Peta seemed to know when the cars were too much for her. She chased only the single file of cars on the side road on which we lived. She did not take on the main road.

We called her Peta with an 'a' because when we found her as a stray and begged our father to let us keep her we had to convince him that Peta was a boy and not a girl.

Several litters of puppies later he knew the truth, but by then it was too late.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Apple pie order

I had such a day yesterday, a doing-jobs-I’ve-put-off-for-weeks day and now I feel that blessed relief that comes of a nasty job well done. I feel virtuous. Even as my feet are cold and I should put on socks, I can ignore them better when I feel this way. Such feelings are short-lived. I cleaned the stacks of notes surrounding me in my writing room into orderly piles and filed them as needed. I sorted the articles I need for the two essays on which I am currently working, one on migration and the other, straddling two worlds, as autobiographer and psychotherapist.

I do not know how it happens. It sneaks up on me. I begin to work on something and the books and papers begin to collect around me, one on top of the other. Then they become interspersed with letters, magazines and any other correspondence that comes in over the period. After a while I cannot find anything and yet this mess making, as I call it, becomes an inevitable part of the process for me.

Recently in The Age I read an article about Jane Clifton and her writing space, which she loves in part because it is away from her home. She can work in silence and peace all day away from domestic demands and children, then at the end of the day she can tidy up her space and return in the morning knowing the room will be in ‘apple pie order’. Her words: apple pie order. Apple pie order lasts for me as long as an apple pie would. I forgive myself this. I suspect it is the way I am.

When I work on an essay, it’s the same. I begin in a mess. I make many false starts. I cobble together bits and pieces that seem relevant from writing already written, then I try to find some narrative thread to tie them all together. I use Gail Jones’s wonderful parataxis. She has given me permission to continue in this disorderly way. To bring together what appear to be discrete blocks of writing: things that resonate for me, as having some underlying connection, even if the connection is not obvious. Then over time I work on these pieces. I play around with them. I drag one chunk from down under and bring it closer to the beginning. I add new chunks. Then at some point when I sense I have completed a good enough first draft, even though I know it is far from ready, I send it to someone like my wonderful editing and writing friend Christina Houen in the west who will read the piece through and give me an honest appraisal, often at this stage a scathing appraisal where she will point out all the bits that do not work.

More often than not, Christina will urge me to trust my own judgment, to write more autobiographically and to dispense with at least half of the wonderful quotes from other writers that I have included in my first draft. I do this every time and Christina has the same response. I love the quotes I use. I have an ear for them but she is right, they are the voices of others and sometimes my first draft can read like a collage of other people’s ideas and my own voice gets drowned. At this stage I often feel desperate, hopeless. The essay has become an impossibility. But I heed Christina’s advice. I pare back and pluck out the excess to try again.

Grace Cossington Smith, one of the artists whom Drusilla Modjeska writes about in the biography Stravinsky’s Lunch did this with her painting.

‘A continual try’, she writes. ‘It’s true of painting, it’s true of writing and it’s true of life. The process of staying with that continual try can produce long low loops and sudden illuminations, which we see in retrospect as springing open and banging closed. But in the tug and pull of time, it is another day lived, another piece of board on the easel, another squeeze from the tube…’(p. 322).

All this trying can be messy: lots of false starts, lots of unwanted bits floating around the room in the form of my notebooks, other people’s texts. My computer desktop is littered with new readings. My husband is disgusted. He is an orderly worker; he needs to be. He’s a lawyer.

At a seminar on memory several weeks ago I tackled Jeffrey Olick on his desire for order. He had talked about wanting to establish a canon for memory studies, namely his need to list a series of basic texts with which anyone should familiarise themselves in order to become proficient in the area, beginning with Holbwachs, Durkheim and the like.

People in the audience, creative types who do not follow easy, straight trajectories, challenged him. Someone offered Ross Gibson as an example of an academic whose work is scholarly but would never reach Jeffery’s canon. Jeffery’s canon is only to include theorists, no case studies, he declares.
'Ross’s work is not scholarship,’ says Jeffrey. ‘It is art certainly, but not science.’ No room for art within Jeffrey’s canon. Then the fight was on for young and old.

When it was my turn to speak I told Jeffrey about the essay writing mantra my lawyerly husband trots out, about the need to plan: Write in the first instance what you plan to say, then write it and finally write about what you have said. There you have it: simple, so simple so neat, so orderly and to my mind so boring. I told Jeffrey before writing an essay I never plan.
‘I would not want you to be my lawyer,’ Jeffrey said after I had tried to suggest that both methods have their place, both are valid, simply different ways of approaching our work. No Jeffrey could not agree. The creative exploratory work of the Ross Gibsons of this world is all very well. But real scholarship comes out of painstaking theoretical writing that covers the field. Maria Tumarkin, Jeffrey says, is doing a bit of both. Christ knows, I think most of us are doing a bit of both, but in Jeffery’s mind the only valid work is the abstract, distinct and theoretical.

I felt for him then. He was outnumbered by most of the audience. He, the esteemed visitor from America who had been hailed the guru of memory studies and came here as a guest of Swinburne’s Institute for Social Research had been reduced to rigidity. By the end it was as if people were challenging his offering so heartily that if he were more sensitive than he appeared to be I think he could have felt very hurt and troubled. But I suspect, given his proclivity for distance and abstraction, he has a thicker hide than most of the messy creative types, all of whom, myself included are far more insecure in our undertakings. We can never have the confidence of a canon.

Canons include and exclude. Although they purport not to be definitive, they become that way simply through the power of the list. A list becomes a measure of belonging. If your work, your book, your name is on the list, you belong. If it is not, you are an outsider and somehow the outsider is measured in such academic circles, as far as I can see, as a maverick, not kosher, not rigorous enough in their scholarship.

Scholarship, schmolarship. To me it’s all about reading as much as you can within and around an area and trying hard to think your way through the ideas, the stories from the past and present, trying to come up with your own measure of things.

In my writing I have found so many ideas repeated again and again and every time I read the same idea repeated in a different voice, by a different writer, the idea takes a slightly nuanced slant in a different direction that shifts and balances the weight of other ideas. But the basic ideas remain.

Here I remind myself of my analyst’s helpful comment years ago about the nature of theory. ‘Theory,’ she said, ‘is simply other people’s ideas.’ Other people’s ideas I would add now that have been validated and confirmed by others in authoritative positions from the academy. Not every one’s ideas can be offered the label of theory. Ideas also need time to percolate within the public psyche before they can be offered the status of the theoretical. But they are ideas nevertheless and the world is full of them, and rarely can if ever reach anything like a state 'apple pie order'.

Saturday, October 31, 2009


Last night I watched the film, Doubt, wherein Meryl Streep plays the role of Sister Aloysius, the principle of an inner suburban Catholic primary school, maybe more a middle school because most of the students look to be around ten, twelve, thirteen years of age. The local priest, Father Flynn starts the film with a sermon on the nature of doubt and how it is linked to despair and how it binds us.

‘Set in 1964, Doubt centers on a nun who confronts a priest after suspecting him of abusing a black student. He denies the charges, and much of the play's quick-fire dialogue tackles themes of religion, morality, and authority.’

I've transcribed some quotes from the film because I found them awe inspiring.

Reading them here on the page may not work so well, but it's worth reading them in any case.

The film opens in a full church. The popular parish priest of Saint Nicholas Church and school, Father Flynn gives his sermon:

'What do you do when you’re not sure? That’s the topic of my sermon today. Last year when President Kennedy was assassinated, who among us did not experience the most profound disorientation, despair?

'Which way? What now? What do I say to my kids? What do I tell myself? It was a time of people sitting together, bound together by a common feeling of hopelessness. But think of that. Your bond with your fellow being was your despair. It was a public experience. It was awful but we were in it together.

'How much worse is it for the lone man, the lone woman stricken by a private calamity? No one knows I’m sick. No one knows I’ve lost my last friend. No one knows I’ve done something wrong. Imagine the isolation. You see the world as through a window. On one side of the glass, happy untroubled people, and on the other side, you.

'I want to tell you a story. A cargo ship sank one night. It caught fire and went down. Only this one sailor survived. He found a lifeboat, rigged a sail, and being of a nautical disposition, turned his eyes to the heavens and read the stars. He set a course for his home and exhausted fell asleep. Clouds rolled in and for the next twenty nights he could no longer see the stars. He thought he was on course, but there was no way to be certain, and as the days rolled on, the sailor wasted away.

'He began to have doubts. Had he set his course right? Was he still going on towards his home or was he horribly lost and doomed to a terrible death? No one to know the message of the constellations. Had he imagined it because of his desperate circumstance? Or had he seen truth once and now had to hold onto it without further reassurance?

'There are those of you in church today who know exactly the crisis of faith I describe and I want to say to you: doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainly. When you are lost, you are not alone.'

In the middle of the film, after he becomes aware of Sister Aloysius’s campaign to discredit and get rid of him Father Flynn preaches another sermon.

‘A woman was gossiping with a friend about a man she hardly knew. I know none of you have ever done this. That night she had a dream a great hand appeared over her and pointed down at her. She was immediately seized with an overwhelming sense of guilt. The next day she went to confession. She got the old parish priest, Father O’Rourke. She told him the whole thing.
"Is gossiping a sin?' she asked the old man. "Was that the hand of God Almighty pointing his finger at me? Should I be asking for absolution, Father? Tell me, have I done something wrong?"
"Yes," Father O’Rourke answered her. "Yes, you ignorant, badly brought up female, you’ve borne false witness against your neighbor. You’ve played fast and loose with his reputation and you should be heartily ashamed."
So the woman said she was sorry and asked for forgiveness.
"Not so fast," says O’Rourke. "I want you to go home, take a pillow up on your roof, cut it open with a knife and return here to me."
So the woman went home, took a pillow off her bed, a knife from the drawer, went up the fire escape to her roof and stabbed the pillow, then went back to the old parish priest as instructed.
"Did you gut the pillow with a knife?" he says.
"Yes, Father."
"And what was the result?"
"Feathers," she said.
"Feathers," he repeated.
"Feathers everywhere, Father."
"Now I want you to go back and gather up every last feather that flew out on the wind."
"Well," she said. "It can’t be done. I don’t know where they went. The wind took them all over."
"And that," said Father O’Rourke, is gossip.

Then towards the end of the film we have a dialogue between the priest, Father Flynn and Sister James, the young nun.

Father Flynn is speaking about Sister Aloysius Beauvoir's campaign against him.

Father Flynn: I'm not going to let her keep this parish in the dark ages and I'm not going to let her destroy my spirit of compassion.

Sister James: I'm sure that's not her intent.

Father Flynn: That I care about this congregation.

Sister James: I know you do.

Father: You care about your class. You love them, don't you?

Sister James: Yes.

Father Flynn: And that's natural. How else would you relate to children? I can look at your face and know your philosophy, its kindness.

Sister James: I don't know. I mean, of course.

Father: There are people who go after your humanity, Sister, to tell you that the light in your heart is weakness. Don't believe it – it's an old tactic of cruel people – to kill kindness in the name of virtue. There's nothing wrong with love.
Have you forgotten the message of our Saviour, love of the people?

Sister James: I just feel as if everything is upside down.

Father: There are these times in our life when we feel lost. It happens and it's a bond...

I'll leave the film here. Needless to say it ends and we the audience are left in a state of doubt.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

My right from my left

You’re phobic about driving,’ my instructor says as I fail to line up the car at a close enough angle to the kerb to reverse park.
‘Do you know what a phobia is?’
‘Yes,‘ I say. I do not tell him I have done three years of psychology at university. We spent a couple of sessions in third year learning de-sensitisation techniques. If a person is phobic about spiders then you gradually re-introduce him.
First a picture of a spider, next maybe a soft toy spider, a rubber spider and so on. You let the spider sneak up on the person, at each step he masters, you inch up the degree of reality, eventually exposing him to a real spider. Alternatively you can try flooding. Sit the person in a room full of spiders. It will either free him of his phobia or it will drive him mad.

I have been learning to drive for at least a year and a half, two lessons a week, paid for out of my earnings as a second year social worker. I am ashamed of my slowness but there is no one who can take me out for practice, so I try to practise on paper.

My instructor, Marvin, is of Maori extraction. He has a mop of wiry hair very in keeping with the afro look that is now coming into fashion, only Marvin does not care. Fashion is not one of his great concerns. Not that I know what they are. He is teaching me to drive, that is his concern, and he is sick of my slowness in getting hold of the ideas.

Marvin drives a turquoise Datsun Y, a sleek hatchback with a suede blue interior. Marvin has controls on his side of the car, which perhaps accounts for his easygoing approach to riding out with me.

I, on the other hand am terrified. I clench the wheel as if to hold myself together. If I let go I imagine the car will take on a life of its own instantly. My previous instructor told me I had to keep my eyes on the road all the time. He demonstrated by getting me to look at a clump of birds and as I did so he pointed out the way in which I had turned the wheel in the direction of what I was looking at, the birds. If he had not righted the wheel we would be into a post.

I am phobic about driving.
‘You aren’t coordinated,’ Marvin says. ‘It’s not unusual for women to lack co-ordination. It’s the way you’re built.’ He hesitates as if deciding whether or not to go on. And you have a very bad case of it.’

I am not good at guessing my right from my left. In my last year of school when I wrote page after page of notes for history and English I developed a writing lump on my third right finger, my long finger. I rub it with my thumb and I can tell where I am. My lump tells me my right from my left.

I also have trouble stopping. I do not like to stop. I have trouble working out what I should do with the clutch. I would like to put my foot on the brake and push it down and that be enough but I think there is more to it. Something about the clutch and going down the gears. All this coordination is too much for me. And I must remember too that every twenty seconds I must look in the rear vision mirror. I must look behind me.

Today we are diving in the streets around the Caulfield Race Course. The billboards are full of images of women in big hats holding champagne glasses with long stems. Not a horse in sight though I know everyone looks forward to the Melbourne Cup if only for the holiday and I am looking forward to the holiday too.

I took this job with the promise that I would be getting my driver's licence in a matter of weeks. That was five months ago. The job required a current licence. I said it blithely to the interviewer when he had asked.
‘Oh I’m about to go for my licence,’ I said. 'I'm ready,' I said and almost believed it but then I remembered I am phobic.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Write what comes up for you

You’ve heard the expression, if you have nothing worthwhile to say, then say nothing. I have a new one when it comes to writing. If you have nothing worthwhile to say then write your way into finding it.

This is one of the primary precepts of ‘freefall’. It’s a writing technique developed by Barbara Turner Vesselago. The idea is that you write whatever comes to mind, pausing from time to time to think, but there is to be no stopping to look back over what you have written. You write whatever comes to mind as long as it feels to have some frisson, some significance for you.

As Barbara suggests, write what comes up for you, simply because it occurs to you. Do not plan. Trust your unconscious; trust that what comes up for you has meaning that may not be immediately apparent.

Barbara likens the process at the start to one of fishing. You sit at your keyboard or with pen in hand and wait till something comes to you, much like a fisherman waits for a nibble on the end of his line. The nibble is the initial idea, or image, or thought, or the something that might 'feel' worth writing about.

You write without planning or forethought, you write into the unknown. Barbara has five precepts, as I recall. She calls them precepts to get away from the notion of hard and fast rules. These are guidelines only.

The first is to write what comes up for you, as I have described above, without looking back over what you have written, because Barbara argues the process of reading and writing are different. They require different skills and if you do them simultaneously it can muck things up. It is a bit like changing gears too often, or getting too many instructions from a back seat driver. Some people even cover the screen of their computers with a tea towel or scarf. I do not do this. I look down doggedly at my keyboard, instead. This is just as well because I am a lousy typist. I find I need to check the screen from time to time, just to check that my writing is registering. I have known myself to type away for long periods only to find that I must have pressed some button inadvertently and I am no longer typing into the computer. My words have not registered. It is all lost except in my memory and imagination.

Hence the second precept is to leave the writing as it is. Do not correct spelling and typos, do not read back over what you have written, leave it all. Leave it for some time before you read it back - a day, a week a month, but do not re–read as you write.

The third precept is to include as much sensuous detail as possible. By sensuous, and I mean ‘sensuous’, not sensual, by which Turner Vesselago means, you write from all your senses. Include the tastes and smells, the things you hear, the things you see in whatever scene you might describe. Even dialogue is sensuous.

The notion of sensuous detail is most important because this is the one that will allow your readers in. If you do not include such details you will not create an image that readers can use in their own imaginations to explore further. Sensuous writing opens all the senses in the reader. It creates resonance. When we pay attention to the sensuous details surprising things can happen. They lead to new and unexpected associations, memories, and images ideas. They open up the world on the page. It is the associative quality of writing, the links between ideas and images that creates the life of the writing.

I imagine in some ways this is what poetry achieves first and foremost, but good prose can do so, too.

Fourthly, Barbara urges you to write fear ward, to go where you are reluctant to go. To write whatever it is that ‘makes you sweat’. This is one of those tricky ones. It involves getting beyond the censor in your head, your parents looking over your shoulder, the monkey at your back. Write as if there is no one listening, at least not someone who will sit there, disapproving. Write fear wards. Go fear ward. If there are a number of things that occur to you at once, go with the one that has the most force for you, whether it is positive or negative, or choose the one you are most afraid of.

Energy is that which absorbs you. It grips you and often it is the thing you least want to follow. Go into the thing you want to avoid, go fear ward. I agree with Barbara Turner Vesselago, the greatest tension comes with the expression of a taboo. And going fear ward fosters an ‘openness to the moment’.

The final precept is what Barbara calls her ten-year ‘rule’. In this process it is best to write only about things that are at least ten years old or older. In this way the events you describe will have had time to percolate. Scenes and experiences from the past generally have completeness to them that comes with time.

It is an artificial completeness. It is an illusion on the page. Most events are never really complete. They have tentacles that reach into the future but they can seem complete in themselves given our tendency to look for what has now become an unfashionable word called ‘closure’.

Of course this is a guideline only, this so called ten-year rule. If something from the present urges itself onto you, it is probably best to follow it but Barbara has found that writing based on more recent experience and events has a quality of incompleteness, an unprocessed quality, whereas matters from the past do not.

Wait till your material is composted. The idea of waiting ten years is a suggestion only, especially for young people for whom ten years might be half your lifetime. The reason to not choose more recent material is that often it is not composted. The writer is too close to it. As Barbara suggests, the writing can read as though a traffic cop is directing traffic too much; not letting readers decide for themselves; ‘showing not telling’ enough. Older material seems to be a world unto itself, untouched by present concerns.

As you can imagine freefall, certainly in its beginning stages lends itself to the autobiographical, but with time and practice it can lead into fiction. Given that I am not so much a fiction writer myself I cannot explain this process so well, though Barbara Turner Vesselago can.

Shall I give you an example of time spent at a freefall workshop? To begin Barbara explains her precepts, then she might suggest a simple writing exercise to get people going in the group. Eventually you are on your own. One such initial exercise involves the suggestion to write about a sound from childhood.

You can do this now. Write about a sound from childhood.

It is much harder for me to do this now sitting at my computer alone, with only an imaginary audience in mind, but in the middle of a workshop surrounded by some twelve people, all keen to write, this makes it much easier. The writing process in a group lends itself to productivity or at least it does for me.

Now you see I am avoiding my own set task, which is to write about a sound from childhood. I will need to pause a while.

In the laundry of the house in Wentworth Avenue there is a small briquette heater. It sits against the wall opposite the laundry trough and requires manual lighting every day. This is one of those rare tasks allocated to my brothers. They take it in turns to collect the kindling wood and newspapers, which they light before piling in the briquettes one after the other to get a roaring flame. It takes a good hour before the water is hot enough for dishes and washing, but this is never a problem as in those days we do not wash in the mornings anyhow.

In those days baths are a weekly affair, each of us in turn, oldest to youngest, each using the same bathwater and topping it up for warmth. By the time it reaches my turn the water has tuned a sudsy grey, with a fine rim around the inside of the bath, which builds up as long as I lie still in the water.

My daughter has arrived home and I have lost my train of thought. This happens often for me. This is one reason why workshops and writing retreats are important for me. I am lucky to get to one every two years. It is one reason why I think I have difficulties getting into fiction.

As I understand it fiction writing requires a sort of immersion into the interior that takes time and often time involves no writing at all. Anything I try to ‘make up’ seems stilted to me, so false and dishonest. It does not have the ring of truth that good fiction writing holds. Though I once wrote a short story called ‘Hold On’, which I shall include here. It’s one that managed to get itself published off line. But the process of writing this story was a torture. It began as a writing assignment. We were given the opening sentence from a series of other people’s published short stories and told to use one as the basis of a story. Mine was: ‘At the tea stall Mr and Mrs Das argued over who would take Tina to the toilet.’
Here's the story that came if it:

Hold On

Mrs Jordan scowled at her daughter. “What’s the matter with you? I told you to go before we left home.” Theresa shrugged her shoulders and looked down at the floor. She was a thin child with dull copper-coloured hair and a smattering of freckles across her pale face. She said nothing.
Mrs Jordan’s huge breasts heaved up and down and the yellow roses printed on her woollen blouse danced boldly on either side of her deep cleavage.
“Well, I’m not taking you now and that’s that.”
The toilet block was outside, behind the tearooms down a narrow laneway, which backed onto the car park. You needed to ask at the front counter for a key. The manager was fed up with finding overdosed addicts slumped on the concrete floor. He’d even put in a special blue light so they couldn’t find their veins.
Mrs Jordan pushed her coat further back onto the chair. She had no intention of moving out from the warmth of the tearooms. She’d already started on her first scone. Knife poised in the air, she jabbed it in the direction of her husband.
“You take her Ralph. I took her last time.” She spread the butter over her scone in thick lumps, then smeared the lot with a blood-red layer of jam, and reached for the cream.
“I can’t do that and you know it.” Mr Jordan looked peeved. He was a skinny man with a receding hairline and a face shaped rather like an upside down turnip. He too disliked the idea of the cold outside.
“For Christ’s sake. She’s only five. What do you think they’re gunna do, think you’re a paedophile?”
Theresa sat between her parents shifting from side to side. She hadn’t asked to go to the toilet. She knew it would be too much trouble. But her mother could always sense when she wanted to go because of the way she wriggled. Her mother hated her wriggling. Theresa figured if she held on tight between her legs and tried to think about other things the urge to pee might go away. For a little while at least, until they could get back inside their coats and hats and brave the cold wind outside once more. She knew that her mother on a full stomach was much more agreeable than her mother unfed.
Theresa was wearing Mrs Jordan’s favourite dress, a pink taffeta with a black sash and a silver snail pinned to the collar.
“Brightly-coloured clothes suit you,” her mother would say, “they make you look a little less sallow.” And then, for good measure, she would add, “before he went grey, your father had a reddish tinge in his hair. It must come from his side.”
Theresa herself had no strong opinions on the matter of colour. She only knew she wanted to wear trousers like the other little girls in their street but her mother insisted she dress as a lady.
“Heaven knows if you dress like a boy, you’ll be treated like a boy and then who will ever want to marry you?”
Theresa wondered briefly about the idea of marriage. It was her destiny, she knew, to be married, like her mother, to a man, like her father, for the purpose of producing a child, like herself. But it was too hard to think about that now. She was much too aware of the fullness in her bladder.
“Milk, Terry?” Her father asked, pouring the remains from the cow-shaped jug into a cup and thrusting it towards her. “It’ll make your bones strong and your hair curl.” He laughed. Her father was like that. He liked to laugh at himself, almost as if he were getting in first, beating his wife at her ridicule.
The waitress arrived with an extra pot of boiling water for the tea. She tried to clear a space in the middle but the table was already too full of cups, milk jug, sugar pot, scones and cream. She leaned over to take away the empty ashtray, assuming perhaps that this well-turned out family would have no need of it.
“Don’t take that,” Mrs Jordan said, her arms reaching out to hug close everything on the table, as if she were gathering in a loose pack of cards. In doing so she sent the pot of boiling water flying from the arms of the waitress into her husband’s lap.
Mr Jordan leapt from his seat, his mouth open in a noiseless scream. The lid of the pot rolled down to the next table. It came to a clattering halt at the foot of the manager who’d come out to see what all the fuss was about. And Theresa forgot to hold on. A little puddle collected under her seat and formed a small tributary to join the river running down from her father’s trousers.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Checking my public

I have become a blog fanatic. In a short space of time, I have gone from someone who occasionally checks her blog site and maybe trawls through the sites of a few others, to one who cannot leave it alone.

My husband calls it ‘checking my public’.

I find there is something compelling and yet so utterly excruciating in this business of blog writing. I hope for a response and I try to respond to the entries that resonate for me. While all the time I sense a great weight of potential criticism hovering there.

I say to myself the blog world is not real, it is virtual. Therefore I need not take it as seriously as I might take the events and people from the real world. But no, I find blogging has more of a hold over me than that.

I have a way of defending myself with the people I encounter in the real world, but not in this virtual blog world. Besides I never know who’s watching, who’s listening or worse still whether anyone is listening at all.

Can you imagine it? Here I am writing away to some imagined audience and it all turns out to be an illusion. There is no one there.

When I check other people’s blogs I am seduced by the conventions that say, if this person’s profile reveals that many others have preceded me here then I can only assume this person is worthwhile to visit. This person has something to say.

To me this is the power of the sheep - one follows the other. Of course I have to make allowances for those newly arrived bloggers who could not hope to build up a following in a short space of time. It’s like trying to develop some sense of fame within a box.

I read websites like those of Weaver in Wensleydale and she’s full of good will for her friends real and virtual. I’m drawn to her, the beauty of her poetry and the warmth of her photos. It all seems lovely. Then I look at other sites that convey a more grim message. The artist Momo Luna's preoccupation with death, or at least with representations of death.

I look for the more literary sites, but they can be disappointing, too much talk about publishing sometimes or how to write, or how to get started. I don’t want lessons. I want 'meaningful' connections.

Jim Murdoch has written to me about these matters, about how seriously and otherwise I must take my blogging. His writing enthralls me.

Once, a blogger whom I shall not identify, sent the message that I should stop following him. I spent an entire day feeling sick about this. I could not understand why he would not want me included in his list of admirers. I could only imagine that he did not like my words, if indeed he had looked at them.

It reminds me of going to a party, where there is a large gathering of strangers gathered together in various rooms. I walk from one room to the next looking for a familiar face. There is no one there whom I recognise, so I decide to try to move in with a group of people talking in the kitchen.

What makes me choose this group over all others? Could it be some flicker of movement from one or two members in the group that suggests to me, maybe they’ll let me in. Maybe they can stand the arrival of a visitor.

All of this puts me in mind of the business of asylum seekers. It’s probably far too strong and overstated an analogy to say I am like an asylum seeker here. I should not insult genuine asylum seekers by comparing their pain in trying to find a home to mine in trying to join the blog community, when I am not sure that I will be welcome.

Though most people who write blogs I imagine are people who welcome new visitors. Some make that clear. Still some seem to operate as closed shops.

I must now remind myself as Jim's writes in his comment on Autobiographers (and Bloggers) lead perilous lives: 'I treat [blogging] like a business and comments are water cooler moments when the odd bit of my private life peeks through. Other than that it's a business, one that doesn't pay very well, but a business nevertheless.'

I love the expression 'water cooler moments'. I'm afraid my life is full of such water cooler moments and I use them regularly, too regularly perhaps. For me it is not a business, but I haven't yet worked out what it is.

I must work on the boundary between my narrative self and myself. Sometimes they seem to blend, or at least it might read that way.

I know that every time I sit down to write, I step out of myself and the words on the page become fictions.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Bastardised poetry

When I was a child I wanted to be a poet. My nickname within my family for several years was the poetess.

Unfortunately, I wrote abysmal poetry.

When did I first realise this?

I cannot remember. I know that I tried hard and often to use the biggest words I could imagine. It did not matter that my poems made no sense, the words needed to impress. That was all.

I chose two central themes to follow, the first religion, the second nature.

Here is an example from the first category. I remember it well. For some reason I rote learned it.

I am almost ashamed to write it down here, but in honour of the past I shall.

Confession wash me white as snow
Confirm my mortal frame
Ring and water, holy quarter
Make my heart to love again

(Two lines are missing here, which for the life of me I cannot remember)

Parents grace shall win the race
To bring us up the Lord’s lane.

You see what I mean? It makes no sense at all.
A poem, cringe worthy, even for a ten year old, which must have been about my age at the time I wrote it.

More recently I tried again. I cheated. I used a piece of prose and a poet friend converted it into the look of poetry.


The crack in the wall
is widening. It extends
from the top corner of my room
beyond the cornice, and runs down
the wall at an angle, disappearing
somewhere behind the filing cabinet.

The crack in the wall
in my writing room started
months ago, at the height
of summer, when the drought had reached
its worst in ninety years.
The doom mongers tell us
we will never see rain again.

I do not believe this.
Each morning I wake
and imagine the sound of rain
on the tin roof of the veranda.
Each night, especially on nights
when grey clouds have gathered,
I imagine the rain
will be there by morning.

But the rain does not come
and the crack gets wider.
It tests my optimism,
it tests my endurance.
I dare not look too often
for fear of changes.
Even without looking I know
fresh tributaries are running out
of the central seam and this morning
when I brave a quick glance
I am sure it is getting wider.

I have never taken a ruler
to measure its length.
How did it start?
A hairline fracture in the plaster
above the window sill traveling
a raggedy path to some nondescript point
where it starts to widen and becomes
a thick Texta line creeping
its way down the wall.

Last year the roof was leaking,
this year the walls are cracking.
Drought or flood.
There’s always something to panic us.
World War Three I call it.
My life is dominated by domesticity.

I think I shall stick to prose.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Win the lottery on line

Why am I so addicted to email? Why do I love it so much?
It’s taken the place of the phone call for me and of mail. Once I longed for the mail and the sound of the drop of a letter in the box addressed to me, the clatter of the letter box lid, now I long for emails.

They come thick and fast, though not always so pleasurable. The junk box fills fast and now my new computer has trouble distinguishing the junk from the genuine. I have to go through and send back serious emails into my in box and delete the gratuitous ones from Africa, the ones that involve a special plea for friendship, usually expressed in clumsy English, with frequent references to the goodness of God. The penile enhancement emails have replaced the offers of Viagra and the number of times I’ve won the lottery I cannot count. Only I must keep it a secret, I cannot let anyone know, or I will forfeit my lottery win.

I have a friend a wealthy friend who was once sucked in by one of these emails. Greedy, my husband said. He thought he could make a free dollar.

Extraordinary, I think. I’d have to be the innocent who gets taken in by more than most, even I know about the delete button for all these offers of friendship and money. Just give me the details of your bank account and you can be a beneficiary of my estate. Oh that life were so simple.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The ritual of writing

Last night I toyed with the idea of trying to write in the evening. But I cannot bring myself to write at night. Blog comments yes, but not full postings. I only put them up after I have written them in the mornings.

In the mornings I am fresh and able to think. As the day progresses my mind gets cluttered and I lose all confidence at writing. This is a strange process, others seem to reverse that order.

Others prefer to write at night into the wee hours. For me it must be in the morning.

So many blogs inquire about people’s writing practice. I wonder whether others are like me. Do they write in the night or morning? Is there anyone who can write at any time day or night simply at will? I have a sense that for me at least certain rituals apply to the business of writing. Certain times when it is okay to tackle the blank page and other times when it is not.

Midway through December I will go to Varuna for a week. Here I will try to write at all times, night and day. I am excited. I have never had the chance to write for an entire week alone.

There will be other writers in residence and Peter Bishop hopefully might offer guidance.
‘Why don’t you just go to a beach house,’ one of my daughters asked when I described my trip to Varuna.

There’s more to it than just writing. There is the opportunity to run the work past others, to write in a collegial atmosphere.

It reminds me of some of the scenes in Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty where she describes her time at writing residences. The sense of being alone to write coupled with a level of companionship where everyone is embarked on the same quest: to write as well as they possibly can.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Be disturbed

Paddy O’Reilly presented a paper on the uncanny at a recent post grad conference. Put simply, she talked about Freud’s notion of the uncanny as the way the unfamiliar and the familiar come together and leave us feeling ‘queasy’ inside. Paddy used images from robotics to make the point.

She put on a U-tube of Big Dog. A military styled robot that can assist in wartime operations.

We watched the film clip and Paddy who sat in front remarked on the amazing expressions on our faces as we moved through states of awe and pity for the strange creature that struggled to right itself while walking on ice and a sudden shiver of revulsion whenever the blend of human and non-human came together. It is this combination of the familiar and unfamiliar, the human and the nonhuman that disturbs our cognitive tranquility, that makes us wince, turn away and at the same time titillates.

I thought of ET. I thought of those strange faceless dolls that were popular some time ago. Paddy also showed a short video of this giant little girl who is manipulated to walk through the streets by cranes and pulleys. Dracula comes to mind. Pinocchio, as well. The non-human into the human. It fascinates and yet we recoil.

Take a look and be disturbed.