Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Profiles and the passage of time

The thing about my profile picture I realised with a shock the other day is how quickly it ages. I put it there because it's one of the few respectable photos I have taken of me in black and white, taken for my husband's fiftieth birthday.
I notice it from time to time and wonder, have I changed much?
Clearly I have but it's subtle.
I've aged.
Tonight I realised the subtlety - all ten years of it.
Tanya Sutton, a good friend and previous nanny to our children, took this photo, the last one in a series.
It was in the days before digital. She'd been photographing all four of our daughters for a photo collage for Bill's fiftieth birthday and used the last shot on me. That was ten years ago.
Maybe it's time to put up a new self representation, but I've yet to find one.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

'A Continual try': writing as housework

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 piles 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.

Yesterday 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 disorderedly 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 judgement, 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. Bill is disgusted. He is an orderly worker; he needs to be. He’s a lawyer.

At the memory seminar 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’; he said when I 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 SRD 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. Take for instance Salman Akhtar’s ideas on migration. The list he establishes, the eight categories in which migrants’ adaptations are differentially experienced, the duration of the period of migration, whether temporarily or for good; whether the migration is compulsory or voluntary; the age of the migrant – children are exiles, they do not volunteer to migrate; the degree of welcome from the host country; the migrants’ opportunities to pursue established careers from their country of origin within their new land. The list goes on.

Akhtar talks then of several points that therapists need to bear in mind when working with migrants, particularly in relation to the use of language and a sensitivity to differences in cultural expectations. We need to be mindful of the need for variations in the frame. All Akhtar’s comments about migrants could apply equally to any person visiting the therapists’ consulting rooms, because culture spreads beyond its boundaries. The notion that the past is a foreign country and that we all have a past that needs be explored within the consulting room suggests that we all come from different and foreign countries, that others might share similarities with or that might appear completely different, especially in Australia where our multinational and indigenous origins are so pervasive.

Other people tend to focus on one or another example, flesh them out, give them body. Akhtar gives the bare bones, but he encourages my curiosity and I find I want to read more about the man himself. He offers a final personal gem when he includes a poem he wrote nine years after he arrived in America from India. the poem conveys the ache of dislocation and gives an insight into a migrant’s experience that works for me better than the paper overall. But psychoanalytic thinkers will no doubt prefer the distance and abstractions of the theoretical. Then 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.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

No, Ralph. No.

Ralph has a bone under the kitchen table. I know he is there even before I see him because I can hear him chewing. That’s the expression, isn’t it, a dog with a bone?
He alternates with a pig’s ear. Millie, who is normally squeamish about these things, picked up the ear, presumably wrapped in cellophane or some other containing material, at Safeway for $1.50.

A real bargain and Ralph loves it. He chews away at the fleshy part near where the bone would have once joined the pig’s head. He chews it until it turns into a grey pulp. The outer ear is charcoal black as if the manufacturers had exposed it to high heat. Perhaps it is a way of preserving it. This bone hangs around much like an old bone, now under the kitchen table, later in the hallway, tomorrow in the backyard. Ralph worries it for a while then gets distracted onto some other object and leaves the ear where he first chewed it. This way the ear does the rounds of the house.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Recovery and Records

I am settling back into life after our trip to Italy and France. I have my brain back. I am still in one piece, much to my surprise. I had feared I would not survive this trip and I have survived. Apart from the three books I read while I was away and the few new sights I saw, of countries right up close, I do not feel I have achieved much. I am achievement driven. I feel the need to have something to show. It’s not enough simply to have enjoyed the company of others. I need a more tangible record. My photographs are disappointing. They do not do justice to the landscape or to the people temporarily within that landscape, but at least they exist. I have a partial record.

Friday, July 17, 2009


Here are my first attempts at downloading my own photos, shot by me with my own camera.

These images are from the village of Treponti, in the district of Teolo.

I have avoided including portraits here because my photographic skills are such that I have not done justice to the individuals photographed.

Our group occupied the ground floor of the villa pictured, but our room was towards the back and separate.

The chooks came up better in my photos than the people, but that's usually the way of it. Animals are less self conscious than people.

And finally an image of some of the people to prove it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Will I ever feel normal again? My back aches and the desire for sleep, even after a full fourteen hours of sleep overnight seems so close. I feel as if I could sleep forever. States of mind like this make me wonder whether all this traveling is worthwhile. Not only do you lose time in travel, you also lose time in recovery. It would not be so bad if we had a week or so to get over the disorientation but we do not.

Bill lost his glasses in Singapore, in Changi airport, terminal two, somewhere near the E gate exit where we came off the plane from Munich. By then we had only been traveling for some fourteen hours and waiting around for the next plane to fly us to Melbourne. The time difference between France and Singapore is nine hours, between France and Australia it is ten hours, hence the disorientation.

We came back from our trip overseas on Friday, arriving in Melbourne at 4.45 am. Although I had aimed to stay awake all day that day in order to overcome the jetlag, I could not. I had to sleep for a few hours in the morning. Finally we went to bed that night at ten in the evening and I did not get out of bed until eleven am. I could have slept longer. I scarcely struggled with jet lag at all when I had arrived in Italy over two weeks ago now, after one very long night’s sleep from 10 pm to 11 am the next day I was fine, but it is worse arriving home.

I find the business of travelling so stressful. From the moment I set foot in the airport I go into a sort of trance like state in readiness for all the waiting that goes on. You wait in queues to book in your luggage and get your seat allocation. You wait in queues to get onto the plane. Throughout the flight itself you wait for the trolley to arrive at your seat with a serving of the most awful food, only because it’s a way of killing time, and the business of eating aeroplane food is a way of distracting yourself from the inability to get comfortable. I can never sleep on a plane. I only ever doze at best.

We left Paris proper at 4pm to catch a flight that was due to leave at 7.10pm. The flight was delayed until after eight, which caused us to panic. We feared we would miss our connecting flight to Singapore. As it was we two and another woman traveling to Singapore were rushed off the plane as soon as it landed in Munich and led across the airport at breakneck speed by an assistant in order to catch our plane from Munich to Singapore on time. This plane then left Munich around 9.40 pm and arrived in Singapore at 3.20 pm the next day, Thursday. We sat on the plane for twelve and a half hours but somehow during that flight we lost all the time that exists as we crossed the International Date Line.

I do not understand these things, nor does my body. It’s like being stretched brain wise and body wise. You no longer feel hungry. You eat out of some sense that you should be hungry. During the long trip the aeroplane attendants offer two meals, of sorts, breakfast and dinner, then while waiting in the airports we might eat something else, mostly a bread roll or some such thing that generally costs as much as a three course meal in a normal restaurant. I exaggerate, but it’s true, for some reason food in the airports tastes terrible by and large and costs a huge amount relative to what you would normally pay elsewhere. A dried out chicken wrap that has been sitting in a bain Marie all day can cost as much as eight dollars when it’s not worth much more than two. A cup of coffee costs around five dollars, a bottle of water the same. I think it has to do with the hours the airport cafes keep. They need to stay open for flying public, I imagine, so staff costs must be high and also they have a captive market. Once you are in the airport there’s nowhere else you can eat. It is like the cost of buying sweets and popcorn at picture theatres.

My brain is not working properly, hence all the boring details from the business of traveling. It hardly seems worth it, when you are in transit and in the days recovering from jet lag. Of course it does have its advantages but most of them get lost on me. I do enjoy seeing the places I have read about in books, French architecture, the green shutters on the windows in Italy, these are just a couple of things that come to mind, but for me nothing compares with the familiarity of home, even in the freezing cold of winter. I am such a creature of habit. Often I felt disappointed in things like the taste coffee, like the absence of vegetables with my meals in Paris and the general dirtiness of the streets. Dog shit everywhere.

I am ashamed of my difficulties with travel, with my wish to stay at home. I should be more like others, more like Bill who longs to see other lands, who longs to savour other tastes, to experience all things foreign. While I was away I read Maria Tumarkin’s book called Courage. Like Tumarkin, I know something of the foreignness of my upbringing, what it felt like at school to be a stranger in a strange land, not so much the oddity of the contents of my lunch box – I never had a lunch box – but the messy clothes, the unkempt hair, the feeling of not belonging at school, of not fitting in with the other children in the classroom, my memories of primary school, my longing to be at home with my sisters and brothers, with all things familiar, where we could play uninterrupted for hours. Though by secondary school it had all turned around – Vaucluse became the place I longed to be and home, the enemy territory.

Here in Italy, in the town centre, they have a necropoli, a notice board where they include names and details of the local recently dead. I wanted to take a photo of someone by the name of Giuseppe who died at 37 years, and of Fulvio who died at 77. Forty years between them, one a young man, the other old. What stories could they tell?

We stayed in Italy in a place called Teolo. On my first morning there I slept late till 11.15 am, overwhelmed with jet lag but thereafter every morning I was the first to wake. This proved a small problem for me. Every morning when I woke up I left the room that Bill and I shared in a separate section of the complex and walked around to the main house where the others slept only to find it locked, green shutters drawn. I could not get inside the main house even to get a cup of tea. The frustration of being locked out was all part of the group experience, I reasoned. It was hard to have a holiday with a group of eight and sometimes nine people, if you include little Leo, ten, when only one of the group, our daughter Tessa, we knew well enough to be ourselves. It must have been hard on Tim’s family too, his parents, his brother Jorn and Jorn’s girlfriend, Olga. Jorn liked to practise his English with us. He had spent a year in Canada, but the others had to work hard to communicate with us, and we with them, despite all ur goodwill towards one another.

Leo at twenty months, his second trip to Europe, the first when he was three months old, was unwell too, with Tonsillitis that he first seemed to get over on antibiotics. But he hated to take his medication. He hated to share his parents it seemed with all the extra people. He carried the stress for all of us. All of us in this foreign land where not too many people spoke English or German. So it was an intellectual exercise much of the time, having to think hard about what words to use.

The landscape had its compensations. The green of the fruit trees, already bearing fruit, mulberry, plums and apples, conventional fruits, the grey green leaves of the olive trees, the chestnuts and walnuts that surrounded the country villa and the green grass everywhere. The days were hot, around 30 degrees at the height of the day with a light breeze that seemed to be with us constantly, and humidity was high. Again European heat is different from Australian heat.

On these mornings as I sat outside at the table and longed for a cup of tea, I read and wrote. The locked shutters seemed a very Italian concept – to block out the noise, the light, the mosquitoes. It was effective but once sealed the villa was like a fortress and all those on the outside, thieves and honest people, were locked out.

I am trying so hard to resist the desire to go back to sleep. It’s four o’clock in the afternoon and I want nothing more than sleep, but I must resist. This jet lag is dreadful. I resent the way I feel, the tiredness, the inability to concentrate, the boring quality of this writing. It’s like a long mantra of regrets. Why can’t I sleep when I want to sleep and be awake when I want wakefulness? This is jet lag. I resent it; I resent the whole business of traveling overseas when it takes so long to recover. I feel as if some part of my life has been stolen from me.

Even now as I write the tiredness engulfs me but I force myself on. I want my brain back. I feel so ill tempered, ready to snap at any minute.

The dog is chewing at a cardboard box underneath my desk. I could kick him.
‘Ralph. Stop. Stop.’ He ignores me and keeps on chewing. It’s an old cardboard shoebox and holds the contents of last years tax details. At least he doesn’t chew on them, but the edge of the cardboard box itself is already chewed to shreds.
“Ralph. Get away.’ Still he ignores me. Enough of my complaining.