Saturday, January 30, 2010

Leaving Home

We think of leaving home as a single event, the one day in our life when we finally take the world onto our shoulders and close the door on home. In the future, trips back home will be visits only and we will enter the place of our birth, our parental homes as guests only. We might still hold a key to the door, we might have visitors’ rights but that is all they are: the rights of a visitor not of an inhabitant.

When I think of leaving home I think of the day towards the end of the summer holidays after my first year at university when I decided along with my younger sister and a school friend to move out of home and share a house together. I cashed in my Commonwealth scholarship for a cadetship that bound me for two years to the Health department at the completion of my degree. My sister and her friend from school were both on studentships and bound to the Education department to work as teachers for two years at the completion of their degrees. When we pooled our resources we had enough money to pay the rent, to pay for other expenses and transport. We would survive.

‘You must leave during the daytime,’ my mother said. ‘When your father is not around.’

I had seen it before, my father’s rage when my older brothers left home, when my older sister left home, that they should dare to take their beds with them.
‘It’s my furniture,’ my father said. ‘It belongs in this house.'
The ten kilometers or so that spanned our two homes, the old and the new, may not seem such a distance to others who have left home by traveling overseas or through interstate travel, but for me it marked a void, the void between myself and my father. We did not say goodbye to him as we stood on the nature strip watching the small rental truck we had hired to carry our few possessions, including our two single beds, away.

We sneaked off in the middle of the day while he was away at work. He could not have suspected that his second and third daughters had finally decided to take themselves away. We were no longer within our father’s grip. He could no longer threaten or hurt us anymore.

Perhaps it is this failure to say goodbye that has left me with the odd feeling of never leaving home. Besides it was not the first time we had taken off without my father’s knowledge. There had been other flights from home, both day and night. The times when we went with our mother to stay with relatives, aunts and uncles for only for a few days, when our father was lost on a bender and dangerous. And there were times when we stayed with our older now married brother who had children of his own and a wife who resented our presence. What else could we do? We were homeless.

Then there was the time when my oldest brother had issued an edict to my mother that we younger children should be removed from her care so that she and my father could 'sort things out'. It is easy to say that the arrangement my brother made to have us stay with a Dutch foster family in Camberwell broke down, as if it all happened in the blink of an eye. It did not. It took time, three months of mutual misunderstandings.

I was turning sixteen at the time. We moved from foster care with the Dutch family to live with the nuns and our fellow students at Boarding school. We moved from day scholars into boarders overnight and like other boarders in convent schools we made many trips to and from home.

Why do I lose momentum here? What happens to my mind such that I cannot keep to one train of thought, such that I find myself distracted, wanting to give up, wanting to move elsewhere, anywhere but here at this keyboard at the computer struggling to put down words on the page that might tell a story of leaving home.

Now I have left home on the page and I do not know where to go. Lynn Freed says that when you are writing you must not think. You must listen. Listen. I do not listen so much as I see. I trawl my mind for images for memories, pictures come to me and people occupy these pictures and they say things to one another but I can scarcely hear them. Their words fade in much the way the Dutch language of my mother tongue has faded from my memory.

Listen. The wind is howling through the trees. It is hot and a storm is brewing. You can see a hint of it in the build up of clouds, white and clean, with crisp outlines. They hang low to the ground, so low that from the second storey of this Writer’s House I can almost reach out to touch them. Were I to touch them would they burst?

Listen. There are birds chortling in the distance and insects chittering. The wind has dropped and for a moment I can believe the storm has passed. It is like this writing, these storms of emotion that well up in me as I type, but as Lynn Freed argues, emotions as honest and real as they may be, do not translate into truth on the page.

I am caught between two voices, as much as I am caught between two activities, as much as I am caught between two worlds. One voice tells me to go into a scene with all the sensuous detail, write from your eye, paint a picture, get into the picture, get into the life of that picture now in the here and now. The other voice says, no, write as a reflection about a past moment. Do not look into your mind, but listen.

Can I hear my father calling to me? I cannot remember the sound of his voice, only as an idea, not an experience. What am I doing back here again, always back here. My father/myself. Why?

It is not fair. I must leave home. I must find another home, another place where he does not feature. Is it his voice in my head that tells me over and over again that I am worthless? Stop this now. Write. Write into the pain. Write into the memories. Write into the rage.

Forget your audience. Forget that anyone is ever going to read this stuff. Forget that you are writing for anyone but yourself. If you want to spend page after page pondering the nature of your relationship with you father then do it. If you want to write in the present tense about memories that feel as alive today as they did then, do it. If you want to write about the past, about your mother, about your family, about anyone or anything, then do it.

Stop this voice in your head that is forever telling you off, that is forever comparing you to the person nearby who is bound to be a better writer or a worse one. It matters not. Forget the others, forget them all, these brothers and sisters in your head who are forever demonstrating to you simply by their presence that you are no good relative to them; that your claims for space are invalid; that you have no right to be heard; to speak; to say the things you say.

If you want your fingers to fly across the keyboard in this manic and mad way, writing words again and again that have no reader in their sights; that in no way consider the needs of your reader, then do it.

You are free. You are like a bird. Fly. You have left home. You can write. Stop telling yourself what to do, what not to do. Stop looking for others to do the same. Stop this chorus of demands.

Exhaust yourself, throw yourself into the well of memory and imagination and find some point of entry from where you can get some comfort.

This writing is no comfort; fingers clicking on the keyboard are no comfort. You must have something to say. Say it.

Peter Bishop from Varuna says to write out of ‘doubts and loves’. Where do we put the hate? Is not hate on a continuum with the love? The ones we love are the ones we hate, beginning with our parents.

When I first read William Gaddis’s words quote in the Sunday Age in an article by Don Watson I knew that these words were important for me.
‘The best writing worth reading comes like suicide from outrage or revenge.’

It is not the first time I have been in a creative hole as deep as this. It is not the first time that I have sat alone at my writing desk wishing for something to come to me, some thread, some thought, some feeling or image that I might follow, but it is no less painful.

I ache all over with the refusal. My mind will not give it up. My mind will not let the words flow, will not let me arrive at some point where I can think, ah ha I have it. I know now what I am writing about. I know now what this book is about. I can proceed.

I start again and again, so many false starts so many attempts to move beyond this desperate feeling of not knowing what I am doing.

And the audience whom I tried to send away only five minutes ago is back again, my parents and siblings in the front row alongside my conscience. They say to me again, in a chorus, what are you on about? We don’t want to know this. Tell us a story instead and make it good. Make it interesting.

But if I start to tell a story, I am sure I will be in trouble with someone. That someone will tap me on the shoulder and say ‘what gives you the right?’

Enough, already we know this. Any writer worth her salt knows this, so why go on and on.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Love and Work: My list of ten things that make me happy.

Kass has asked that I list ten things that make me happy. At first glance this task does not seem easy. I’m much better at writing about things that bother and trouble me. Things that make me happy seem too sugar sweet by half. However, I shall try.

Like Kass in her blog, I shall order these things in no particular order, but the fact that I order them implies an order and so just as I did when I was a child and fantasized about a woman whom I saw each Sunday in the church and rated her as the most beautiful woman in the world, I will qualify my rating.

When I was a child I put the Blessed Virgin Mary first ahead of my mother second, and Miss Andersen, my grade four teacher, third. I could not rate a complete stranger for beauty ahead of my mother. Then I included all my sisters and brothers for beauty and love in a bunch. I would not discriminate one from the other, just as I cannot rate my children as preferred or less today.

When my third daughter was around the age I was when I was in love with the woman in the church, she asked me,

'Which of your children do you love the best? I don’t care if it’s not me,’ she said. ‘I just want to know.’

She did not let up. For weeks she hounded me with this question. For weeks I refused to give an answer. Eventually her question died away, but she had already decided whom I preferred, and nothing I could say or do would shift her decision, at least not then.

When I was a child I was convinced that my mother preferred me to her other three daughters. After all she gave me her name, her exact name, Elisabeth Margaretha Maria and she let me get away with things, things my older sister never managed to avoid, like having to tidy up – my mother never pressured me - and she bought me a Rockman’s baby doll for my eighth birthday, and a poetry book for my fourteenth. Proof positive of her special love for me.

I stored up evidence of my mother’s favoritism until I was well into adulthood and she was by then in her sixties. Not long after my father had died, my mother told me one day about an assignment she had been given by her church group. She had been asked to write down the name of the person with whom she felt the closest affinity.

My heart did a little flip. I was sure she would say my name, but no. She told me my older sister was the one closest to her in ideals and temperament. I was stunned. My older sister had convinced me for years that my mother hated her, and the feeling, my older sister suggested, was mutual. But this was not how my mother saw it.

You see now why it is so hard for me to list ten things that make me happy. I go off on tangents and always wind up with the difficulties. But I will try here to fulfill Kass’s directive.

1. In honour of what I have said above I will include my family at the top of the list. I bunch them together under the term family, my husband and four daughters, my grandson, my son in law. My love for them all is differential. I love them differently, as I say. Love for me, loving a person no matter who that person might be, makes me happy. I love to be with the ones I love.

2. Writing makes me happy, the sheer joy of clacking away at the keyboard just as I am now, writing, and to no serious agenda. Even here when I am trying to fulfill Kass’s request, I write into the unknown. I love the sense of not knowing where this writing will take me, what I might discover. Writing as an activity, as a process, as much as it sometimes brings me pain, brings me the greatest happiness.

There you have it: the two things that make me most happy.

3. Thereafter I list my work. My work as a therapist makes me happy but it also makes me sad. It worries me at times and I find it difficult and demanding – to be available; to keep my mind open; to project myself as far as I can into another’s state of mind; to try to imagine what might be going on in the room; to read about other people’s ideas on how this thing called therapy works – all these things bring me happiness. They also make me suffer.

I could say this applies to everything that makes me happy. There is nothing pure to me about happiness. It always comes with baggage.

4. So now I’m up to four. Dreaming at night, remembering my dreams in the morning, writing them up and discovering these dreams, days, weeks, months later to be surprised and wonder: Did I dream this? What can it mean? This makes me happy.

5. My house makes me happy. The bank still owns a part of it, but it is still our house. I have lived here since 1980. I have seen many changes. We have renovated twice. It was first built in 1895. It is an old Victorian house with a curved front veranda, lead light at the door and a long central hallway.

At the moment we are working on its maintenance. There are so many things wrong with this house but I am a homebody. I love to have a stable base. Being at home makes me happy.

6. Blogging makes me happy. This could I suppose be subsumed under writing, but blogging also involves reading and responding to others. It involves looking, seeing, listening and most all thinking and feeling in response to the stories of others from my blog community. This for me has some of the pleasure of being with and thinking about good friends and family.

7. Other people’s happiness and successes make me happy, especially the joys of those close to me, particularly my husband and children. I could say that I am happiest when they are happy. The same applies to those with whom I work. I am happy when they achieve a flash of their own genuine happiness, which happens from time to time over the course of our work together.

8. Books make me happy - my library case filled with books most of which I have read or at least dipped into. Books to lose myself in, books whose words flow for me such that I enter new worlds when I read, or revisit my own.

9. My correspondence, my letter writing to people like Gerald Murnane, makes me happy. Again I should perhaps subsume this under writing, but writing snail mail letters, the type you send through the post, the type that makes it into hard copy and gets sent off in envelopes away from me to be read by some beloved friend or others, makes me happy in a way that is different from blogging.

Similarly emailing makes me happy. I’m cheating here. It should perhaps have its own rating but I need more space before I can safely finish. I’ve written about emailing before, too. I love the ping from my computer, the way the little ball flashes red when I have mail, in my in-box. Of course it helps when the mail is personal and from blogging friends and actual friends, anyone who bears genuine good wishes. The experience of connectedness with the outside world, whether nearby or far, gives me great happiness.

10. Watching DVDs, particularly the BBC period dramas, alone in my writing room on my computer screen, while everyone else is asleep late at night after all my tasks for the day are complete, brings me joy. I love it. It is my moment of escape into another world and one that requires little from me other than to bask in the fantasies of what life was like many years ago, usually in England or Europe, when things seemed simpler and paradoxically far more onerous.

At the risk of cheating I add jewelery, the rough silver variety, not expensive but strong and bold, the stuff my husband makes, and two of my daughters make; silver earrings that hang long and low, these give me pleasure.

Once I start on objects my list gets far too long and I have already over reached my mark.

Thanks, Kass. This has been fun. My impulse is to tag many of the people you have tagged including yourself but that would defeat the purpose, so I presume I should move further afield.

With that qualifier in mind, I shall try to find ten other lovely and wonderful bloggers who might not, unlike Jim of the Truth about Lies, find the task too irksome, but even Jim, for all your hesitation, you have written a list of sorts in your response to Kass and have shared a most wonderful poem.

It's a good idea therefore, Kass, this task you have set us. It gets us to work. What greater happiness is there than through work.

Work and Love: Freud's two parameters for living.

So here's the task for the following bloggers, if you have the time, the desire and energy, if you can bear it, please list ten things that make you happy and then tag ten bloggers who might have their go in turn.

If you choose not to, for whatever reason, it is fine. It will not be held against you. As far as I'm concerned blogging is for pleasure, despite its sometimes onerous nature. It ought not be done out of sheer obligation or duty.

Since reading through this, I have changed my mind.

To choose to tag people is to show preferences in one way or another. I find this too difficult, especially as I do not want to leave people feeling burdened, nor do I want to leave others, who like me, might feel left out.

So I have only completed half the task. Unless someone can convince me otherwise I will not tag others here. But I invite anyone who has gone to the trouble to read this post to have a go at the exercise if only for fun. And please add it as a post or a comment or whatever you like as you see fit.

Friday, January 22, 2010

An apple a day...

An apple hard and crisp and full of memories. Apples give me indigestion. They remind me of the days when an apple was all I ate for lunch, the days when I agonised to be thin. To be thin was to worry my mother and what better way to attract her attention than to look as though I were fading away. We were fading away. Me and my younger sister, the one less than twenty two months younger, the one with whom I competed in the thinness stakes.

In those days my sister and shared a house together, half a house, with one other friend from school. We shared a tight budget, too, ten dollars a week on groceries. H, our friend and housemate, the one who got fat while we grew thin, shopped on Saturdays at the Victoria market. We wrote the list together and never altered it. Week after week, H bought the same food.

Curried sausages on Monday. We threw in a handful of sultanas for the taste and novelty – the sweet and savoury mixed together. On Tuesdays we cooked a chicken noodle soup packet version of chicken chow mien without the chicken. We ate fish on Wednesdays, whatever could last the three days, whatever was freshest. In those days fish was cheap. On Thursdays we ate homemade hamburgers without the buns and on Fridays we drank.

When we drank we ate ice cream for supper. Ice cream was fattening but if that was all we ate we figured we could get way with it. The boys would pick us up around eight o’clock after our day at university and we would start our drinking, the boys on beer, the girls on port and lemonade. It was not until ten that we realised we were starving. When the boys went off to buy hot chips from the local fish and chip shop we girls went to the milk bar for a two-litre tub of vanilla ice cream. Always vanilla, any other flavour we considered more fattening.

It was a slow and steady process this business of disappearing. In time I gave up milk with my coffee. Black coffee gave the illusion of having a feed even if underneath I was starving. I watched my stomach shrink and felt the weight of any food I ate like an ache.

H served up plates at dinner and my sister and I fought over who might get the smallest serve. H had no choice but to take the biggest, whether she wanted it or not. It was a strange reversal of affairs. When we were younger, when H was still thin, my sister and I fought over who might get the biggest serve. All my siblings fought over the amount but this was before we hit adolescence and realised the power of disappearing.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Newsflash: An introduction and two other blogs

For those who may be interested - and can spare the time - I’d like to introduce my friend Gretta, a fine writer and fascinating person who has lately started her blog Dustchange.

Gretta and I joined a novel writing class many moons ago. She was well on her way in the writing business; several published short stories, while I was new at it then. We moved beyond novel writing, though only Gretta finished her novel, while I’m still working on mine, though I wouldn’t call mine a novel anymore.
Anyhow this is about Gretta.

Check out her blog. She’s living in the Kimberly region in Western Australia at the moment and writes about some of her experiences there with the keen eye and passion for detail of the fine writer that she is.

I mention blog number two to introduce another Australian writer, Maria Tumarkin, author of Traumascapes and Courage. Maria features on Damon Young’s blog as part of his writers’ series, 'The Write Tools' in which writers write about their preferred writing conditions.

If you visit Damon’s blog you can get some feel for Maria’s wonderful writing and finally, though this one sounds a tad too conceited, I’d like to introduce Tania Herschman's blog which in one post features my story as a writer. Too self interested by half, though autobiographical and hopefully interesting.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Star Signs.

I was born under the sign of Scorpio, on Guy Fawkes Day, a great day for a birthday when I was a child – all those bonfires. These days they’re illegal, along with firecrackers and the like. They’re too dangerous.

I have trouble taking seriously the business of astrology and yet star signs intrigue me. They’re one of the few things I cast my eyes over if ever I read a newspaper.

What sort of day can I expect today? My stars will tell, but I dismiss it as soon as I have read it.

Recently as I sat in the hairdresser’s I found the following description of Scorpios and was amazed because it seemed more than usual to speak to me of my own sense of myself. Of course you can extrapolate and imagine these qualities apply to other star signs as well, but I wonder whether those others out there in the blogosphere who were born under the sign of Scorpio might tell me whether this description fits the bill for them too.

I found it in Marie Claire, January 2009, p. 93.

Scorpios are born with an innate sense that life is a struggle for survival. You have a strong and persevering nature. You feel everything deeply or not at all. You have the courage to endure the most difficult loads, and you won’t be told what to do – it’s your way or no way. But once you’ve decided on a project, idea or relationship, it’s tenaciously pursued. You are perceptive, and have a highly developed sixth sense. Your inbuilt understanding of human behaviour also gives you a natural advantage over the other zodiac signs. Scorpios have a special magnetism and a larger than life presence. Deeper down however, lies a well of emotional insecurity. It may be that childhood experiences have left you feeling hurt or distrustful. If betrayed, you can harbour the desire for revenge. Your life lesson should be to sincerely forgive and forget.

For those of you who have read enough of my blog you will know that I am working on a PhD thesis entitled Theories of Autobiography: Life writing and the desire for revenge.

You can imagine how the last few sentences in the Marie Claire astrological blurb leapt out at me. Of course we all know Scorpios are meant to harbour stings in their tails.

So is this how it is for you other Scorpios out there in the blogosphere?

And for those out there under other zodiac signs who might know some Scorpios intimately, how do you find this description? Does it seem apt?

Was I in fact born for my thesis or is it one that derives from my experience?

This is a rudimentary survey and please I’d love to hear from as many of you as care to respond: Scorpios and non Scorpios; astrological believers and non believers; and others, like me, who take it with a grain of salt and yet still find patterns of behaviour in star signs that resonate.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Footnotes and Waffle

Last night I watched scenes from the 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice. I scrolled through the sections that hold less interest for me and moved onto the sections in which Darcy and Lizzie Bennett feature. I am looking for the happy ever after quality, the escapist thrill of the olden day romance, with all its affected old fashioned speech, its strait laced manners.

Lizzie Bennett’s forthright tone and Darcy’s brooding gentleman like qualities comfort me. Like wearing warm socks on a cold night in bed when my feet are too cold to let me sleep, or drinking a sweet cup of milky Earl Grey tea.

Earl Grey tea reminds me of those times many years ago when I was studying for my final year of social work. I hated to study then. I could not concentrate for long. I would prefer to do housework than to sit at my desk reading the assigned text books. Nothing made much sense to me then and even as I might have basically understood the material we were meant to pore over and absorb, I could not see the point of it. I could not recast it in the form of an essay that might answer a particular question or address an set topic without sounding pompous, wishy-washy or just waffling on, as I fear I am doing now.

Waffling on.

Waffle waffle, words on the page. The movement of my fingers as I type, the words that form in my mind as I sit here hunched over the keyboard is pleasurable in itself. No matter what the words. Almost no matter. I am aware at the same time that I wish I were saying something meaningful, something that would take me somewhere, somewhere purposeful, somewhere with oomph.

Is this blogging drowning out my capacity to think?

On Friday a friend told me that they had refused to send her exegesis in for marking as it had no footnotes. No footnotes is not the stuff of PhDs. It would not pass.

I wonder who wrote that rule down and when? Footnotes signify what? That the work has been filtered through the minds of other researchers; that the person writing the thesis has considered other points of view and acknowledges them accordingly?

It seems it is not good enough to write down the contents of one’s thoughts without some reference to other people’s ideas, nor is it satisfactory to so assimilate and process other people’s thoughts that they cannot be clearly demarcated with a footnote at least and preferably not just a reference to the author of the idea, but also to the title of the text book in which the idea appears and best of all the page number.

This proves that you have read it. You cannot write about other people’s ideas without acknowledging them, and yet there is little that any of us write that does not include other people’s ideas.

If there is no such thing anymore as an original, a truly original thought and if every thought derives from somewhere else, and someone else has already considered it, then the business of scholarship presumably is to develop that thought somehow, at best or at worst I suppose it is merely to paraphrase the thought so that it sounds as though you have understood it and can therefore regurgitate it in the interests of your own ideas. Then the thesis becomes a laddering of other people’s ideas all piled one on top of the other.

I have a tendency to bring other people’s ideas together from different places. Some thoughts from psychoanalytic theory mesh with thoughts from autobiographical theory and they look good together. I make them make sense in much the same way as I force my dreams to make sense, more sense than they would have were I able to write down my dreams exactly as I dream.

Dreams are far less tidy and cooperative than narratives. Narrative demands a logical sequence of events, one that leads to another or clear gaps in between where readers can use their imaginations to leap over the gaps and create their own bridges. Dreams make impossible leaps that are only possible in our imaginations and unconscious minds.

It is not enough for me to write what I think. I must marry what I think to what other people think. Other people whose ideas bear some relevance to what I write about.

At the Writer’s House where we explored new forms of writing, Peter Bishop told us to follow the tangents. I am good at following tangents. I do it effortlessly.

In thesis writing it is also necessary to follow tangents at least in the beginning but there comes a point where I must stop following tangents and stay in one place.

I must pull all the threads together and make some coherent sense of what I have discovered both in my own thinking and also in that of those whose writings I have explored. This is the difficult part. It is like stitching a jumper together once all the panels have been knitted separately. The stitches must appear seamless. The stitches must be so carefully done as to give the appearance that the jumper was knitted as a whole, one piece rather than a series of pieces.

This I find difficult. This I resist. I want to keep knitting new panels but my jumper will become a many armed thing if I am not careful and there is no one person other than a monster with more than two arms.

Friday, January 08, 2010

What news today?

The beginning of the year and the newspapers are at it already. The headlines read: ‘Retail splurges put heat on rates.’ So now again we must panic. The news sensationalises. If the retail sector had been slow over Christmas, the headlines would read something like, ‘Confidence low as retail takes a nose dive.’

Panic. We must all panic. Every day we become overwrought that doom and gloom is just around the corner. The newspapers feed on misadventure, despair, and anxiety or on the occasional report of treacly sweet goodness: 'Child rescues baby sister from house fire'.

Years ago when I joined a class on non-fiction writing where the emphasis was on techniques of journalism, I found the simplicity of it all 'under-whelming'. The philosophy held we must report the salient features of an event first and run down the peripheral details point by point in an ever decreasing spiral of significance so that it mattered not whether the first sentence alone were published. Only the first and maybe second sentences mattered. They provided the bald facts. Thereafter all details became mere embellishments and the editor would use his/her discretion as to whether they remained in the published report.

This discretion it seemed was based on competing news reports. The value of news was rated for its sensational qualities and also on the pressure to advertise. If someone paid more for their advertisement of course it would be given pride of place against the news of the day, which did not pay in itself. The news however was intended as a money spinner in that it was reported in such a way as to draw in readers, and more readers encouraged more advertisers. Those who bought advertising space wanted as many of their advertisements read and acted upon, so the news itself became a saleable commodity. I imagine all of this still applies today, even perhaps more so.

Generally, I read only the front page every morning first thing after I have picked up the plastic covered newspaper from the driveway and brought it inside. I unwrap it from its Gladwrap as I walk down the corridor, that is when I can. Sometimes the Gladwrap refuses to unstick and I must take to it with a knife. It is a morning ritual akin to the business of making that first cup of tea or coffee. It is the business of waking up.

Once, not so many years ago, I read the newspaper in a cursory sort of way. I peeled the pages one from the other and scanned each article. Some I read through from beginning to end, most I only skimmed.

I have never been a newspaper reader, except on weekends when I like to pore over The Age and The Australian’s Review of books. Here I find something of interest. My husband on the other hand, even as he might complain about the thin quality of newspaper reporting, will read the newspaper from beginning to end every day.

‘What news today?’ I might ask and sometimes he will oblige me with an answer. Other times he will tell me that if I want to know I should read it for myself. My husband hates to have his brain ‘picked over’. Fair enough, I say. Lazy people like me who cannot be bothered trawling through the so-called news of the day might look for shortcuts, and ask their partners for a summary, but should they be so indulged?

Our children tend to read the news on line, as does my husband, more and more. This is particularly useful for updates on events as they happen. Even I have taken to reading the news on line. This time last year when the bushfire season had begun, I focused on the areas in Healesville, in Badger and Chum Creeks where my husband’s family live.

The selfishness of my newspaper reading is obvious. I will always read if it pertains to me and mine. But I cannot abide the sensationalising of news, particularly on such massive events as the economy, which is not simply driven by local events but by global events. More often than not it feels completely outside of my control. I am not a frugal person.

I am one of the wastrels. I should be more careful, but I cannot be bothered to get into penny-pinching and miserliness. Life is too short, I tell myself, to worry too long about the debt we will be left with in our old age. As long as we can work and earn enough money on which to survive, we will survive.

It is a blinkered view I know, but if I allowed myself to worry about all the things I could worry about daily, I doubt that I could go on. I doubt that I could allow myself to spend the few precious hours I use each weekend on my reading and writing. I doubt that I could allow myself to celebrate my children’s birthdays. I doubt that I could allow myself to enjoy good food and wine. I doubt that I could have allowed myself my recent trip to the Writers House for a week of reading, walking, writing and writerly conversation. I doubt that I could allow myself to tend to all the things in this house that currently need repair.

The list goes on. The list is endless. And finally to my list of all the things I would not do were I to allow myself to indulge in thoughts of not wasting a thing in this life, of not indulging myself in any excesses, and instead worrying about all the things that are wrong, I doubt that I would be able to blog as I do.

Blogging swallows time. It is almost purely self indulgent and although I can claim that I learn many things on line through other people’s blogs and that I have met many wonderful and fascinating people in this virtual world, which has its underpinnings in the real world – most of the bloggers with whom I communicate are real, however well concealed their identities – I cannot claim that the activity of blogging is essential to survival. Though it does assist the quality of my internal life, I am not sure it helps much else.

I have talked myself into the hole of non-existence when I allow myself to speculate like this. After a while it gets me nowhere and so I must stop before I persecute myself further. My guts begin to ache, the well of anxiety in my hips – that’s where I feel it most – rises to the base of my stomach and eventually reaches my mid sternum, by which time I must take a deep breath and change topics.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Life is plotless: Things Happen

Something in Truth and Lies's latest posting, on Amos Oz's Rhyming Life and Death has inspired me to include this short story here, to back up my view that life is plotless: I called it 'Things Happen'. It was published in Island Magazine

Things Happen

My friend invited us to dinner. It was hot. She had left the side doors open to catch the breeze. One of her rabbits hopped through and skittered across the carpet.
‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘My rabbits are toilet-trained.’
My friend served wild duck soaked in red wine and garnished with slivers of prosciutto. She had stuffed it with pine nuts and raisins.
Once again she argued with my husband over the meaning of life.
‘How can you say something’s meant to be as if someone’s in charge? Life’s not like that. Things just happen.’ He was glaring at her across the table. Her cheeks were flushed from too much wine.
‘It’s presumptuous to assume it all stops and starts with us,’ she said, sticking the carving knife into the side of her duck and sawing furiously as though the meat were tough. It fell away like crumbling cheese.

That last time I saw my friend I was still bleeding. When I went to the toilet, and saw the pad soaked through to my dress, I realised I must have been dripping through onto her seat cushion. The cushion was coloured a dark burgundy like my dress and the room was lit with candles. I hoped she would not notice.
I had lost the baby three days earlier. The doctor called it the lottery of pregnancy.
‘Not to worry,’ he said. ‘You can try again’. He took me into his surgery to scrape out the left over bits but the bleeding went on.

My friend wrote poetry: long tortured pieces about the mad people she met through her work. She was a doctor, but I could not tell her about the baby or the bleeding that night. I was still picking over my grief.

One evening, months before my miscarriage, my friend came home and found two of her rabbits gone. She lived close to the city but her house was opposite parkland that ran all the way down to the Yarra River. Foxes lived by its banks in a maze of dens hidden among the ti-tree and gums.
My friend offered two of the surviving rabbits to me. She wanted them to breed. They would be safer in our house, away from the river and the park. But we never loved them enough. Not like my friend. We left them outside in the backyard in tight wire cages and their toenails grew long from never being able to dig or run free.

‘The pregnancy took but for some reason the egg and the sperm did not fit properly,’ the doctor had said, pointing to the empty sac on the ultrasound screen. ‘It’s just one of those things.’
I did not tell him how I had named the baby Horatio, after the Roman general who held the bridge. I did not tell him he was a boy. You’re not supposed to know those things, not at ten weeks. But I knew.

The rabbits mated. My friend showed me how to cordon off a section of the cage. When the mother rabbit was about ready to deliver her babies, my friend told me, I would notice her rip out lumps of fur from her body which she would use to line the cage.
‘Then you separate the male from the female. Male rabbits are likely to damage their young.’
There were five babies curled up together like pinky mice, their eyes covered with a thin shield of skin. My friend warned me not to touch the babies for several days, otherwise the mother might refuse to feed them.

Weeks before I miscarried, my friend came to our house for dinner. With each glass of wine her voice grew louder. She loved to argue, especially with men. We joked about the dangers of sitting beside her. She made her point by grabbing the nearest person at the table in a headlock and shaking him till he begged for release. She was strong, my friend, with long pointy fingers weighed down by silver rings.

My friend was born a twin but only she survived the birth. Her brother was born and died thirty minutes later. He became her shadow. She liked to think he was there with her all the time. At work meetings, as a laugh, she would insist on occupying two seats, one for herself, one for her twin.

My friend never had children of her own. She had wanted them, she told me, but they never happened.

In her fiftieth year, five years earlier, my friend had bought a red sports car, sleek, contoured and close to the ground. She drove it with the sun -roof down, her green scarf streaking behind in the wind. An Isadora Duncan scarf. My friend laughed when I told her how, in the 1920s at the height of her dancing career, the scarf on Isadora’s swan-like neck got caught up in the spokes of her car’s wheel and strangled her.

My friend wore glasses, with lenses thick like the bottom of milk bottles.
‘I couldn’t bear to go blind,’ she said, lifting her glasses to rub at her eyes. ‘I’d rather die first.’
At night she sat close to the computer screen composing letters of complaint to the editor, her last surviving rabbit, a barren female, hopping under her feet.
‘Silence is a crime,’ my friend said.

My friend bought tickets for a jazz concert the week after our dinner. ‘You’re sick. Go to bed,’ her husband said.
‘I’m not wasting my money.’ She closed her eyes, threw back her head and soaked in the music.

A bug crawled inside my friend and took over. It traveled along her blood stream letting off a poisonous gas. Within hours of the concert she went into a coma.
‘We need to make an oxygen chamber,’ the doctors said. ‘This bacteria hates oxygen.’ They hacked away at her dead flesh. Peeled off her right shoulder, part of her leg and stomach. My friend’s body swelled like a balloon as it struggled to defend her. The doctors spared her the pain by anesthetic and split her skin from shoulder to wrist to stop the constriction in her fingers and gangrene. Through it all she slept.
‘This hateful bug,’ her husband said, wiping my friend’s face with the back of his hand. ‘We must beat it.’

My bleeding stopped while my friend slept. I found a get-well card in a bookshop, a ‘bug’ card, depicting a green bug sitting up in bed, ill. But I did not buy it. It was too raw. I wrote her a letter instead: ‘What talks we’ll have when all this is over.’

The nurse came and washed my friend’s hair. Only her family could visit. Her husband was certain she enjoyed the water’s warmth, the touch. But the doctors insisted she was now brain dead and could feel nothing.
Without the machine, she breathed only three times a minute. She needed fourteen. She could not speak. She could not eat or shit. She was lonely and in despair, her husband said, but the doctors were certain she could feel nothing.

My friend died in the afternoon when the temperature in Melbourne reached 40.3, the hottest November day for 86 years. They turned off her life support. She did not tell me she was leaving. I did not hear a whisper.

We buried her and held a memorial. Tea and cucumber sandwiches. She would have preferred a glass of red.

Last night I saw my friend in a dream, sitting at her kitchen table, laughing, full bellied roars. She was wearing her green scarf, loosely draped around her neck. She sat, legs akimbo, as always, arms flying to right and left, as she remonstrated with us about the meaning of life, then grabbed hold of the nearest person at the table and pulled him to the ground.
‘Submit,’ she said. ‘On the count of five, I win.’

Sunday, January 03, 2010

The corset and a draftsman’s square.

The second day of the year and I sit down to a tidy desk, a tidy room and a fresh spirit. I spent the best part of yesterday sorting books, filing papers and clearing out my writing room such that I can now think more clearly at the keyboard. I did not resolve to do this. I just did it knowing that were I to leave it any longer the weight of the mess would swallow me up and I could no longer think at all.

For me there is an optimal level of mess that is conducive to thinking; too much mess, or no mess at all and it seems nothing happens in my brain. In my tidying up I found a draftsman’s square, which I imagined belonged to my husband but had somehow found its way into my room, as things sometimes do. I brought it to him.

It turns out it once belonged to my father. In all likelihood he made it himself, my husband said. It is a tool that allows you to measure exact right angles and to be certain of the straightness of a line.

The draftsman’s square becomes a metaphor for me, a metaphor for structure. Structure, or rather a lack of it is one of my greatest handicaps. I blame my father for this. In that part of my mind that likes to order things, which is paradoxical given my abhorrence of too much structure, I imagine that the business of structuring is a masculine attitude of which I do not have enough. Were I to have a better grasp on structure I would not feel so daunted by the piles of paper, the thousands of words I have written thus far on my thesis topic, ‘life writing and the desire for revenge’. I would easily put them into order.

I try. I have tried and I will try again but it is so hard to find a structure that can contain the ideas without one spilling over into the other. The ideas are never neat and orderly, they are not discrete pieces of information and when I write about one idea, such as the nature of shame, it leads me on to think of trauma, and trauma leads me on to think of rage. I can define all these various emotions. I can offer examples, but soon they leak one into the other. I can put them all together in the same chapter, which I have done so far, but then the chapter gets longer and longer.

It does not surprise me that I have not yet managed a book. A series of essays yes, but an entire book with one chapter linked to the next requires structure.

My father’s draftsman’s square is made of a fine-grained wood, a reddish toned wood, and most likely oak. It is smooth to feel and stands erect in front of me like a lopsided crucifix. My father’s initials were JCS and my brothers sometimes called him JC for short. He was imperious and intelligent, a razor sharp intelligence but the alcohol soaked it up as did the trauma of war and migration, family shame that he tried to leave behind in Holland, nine children and more beside. He was not able to teach us about structure.

My father's draftsman’s square will be my guide.

I once described a memoir on which I was working – though at the time when memoir writing was not fashionable, I called it a novel – as being like my mother’s corset, thick and bulging, held together with safety pins. This is a feminine perspective, though it is not so much feminine as a constraint on femininity.

I never wore corsets myself. By the time I came of age they were no longer in popular use. Corsets represent too much structure, too much held in, too much firmness and control.

I often wonder about the women who lived one hundred years ago, the women we see portrayed in films, the BBC period dramas into which I love sometimes to escape: those women who were their husband’s possessions, who owned next to nothing, who could not control a thing except through wile, cunning and manipulation. Those women who had a structure imposed upon them and had no choice in the matter.

Many years ago my oldest daughter gave a speech at a Rotary competition in which she who was then sixteen years old talked about the freedom she believed she had in life as a young woman of the 1990s to choose her own destiny, a career and/or children. She now has both, but she will tell you that it is not as easy as she once imagined. In those days the way was open to her, as long as she worked hard and fought for her rights.

My daughter did not win the competition. A young man who has since risen to extraordinary prominence here in Melbourne, a young man who at the age of 25 is the editor of a significant magazine called The Monthly won the competition. Or at least was one of the winners. It is strange that I should remember the evening so well.

The young man talked about film noir. I do not remember the details of his talk, nor of the films he discussed but I do remember him. He was all but fourteen years old and had a commanding presence, a wit and stature that belied his height and his years. My daughter’s talk was fine too but hers lacked humour and the adjudicator at this particular eisteddfod was looking, among other things, for humour.

There was another participant whom I also remember well. She stood to speak and after the first ten or so words she froze. She had rote learned her talk it seemed and anxiety had grabbed her by the throat and forced all memory of the words she once knew so well from her mind.

Never rote learn a speech, my daughters tell me. Always prepare it in your mind. Use a point system: make three points and speak around them. Prepare well. My daughters are good at structure. You would not know it from their sometimes-untidy bedrooms but you can see it when it comes to their written work.

You must plan ahead, my husband told them whenever they approached for help with an essay, plan ahead and write out your plan. I watched my oldest use sheets of butcher’s paper to plan out her structure for her honours thesis years ago.

A couple of years ago I tried to do something similar. I wrote up a plan of my ideas and the people who had written about these ideas like a type of racecourse that I might charge around, but like a racecourse, it became circular.

I pinned my plan to the side of my filing cabinet and there it sits. I do not refer to it. It has become an unused corset. I know in my subversive mind that for all I have learned about ways of structuring, the importance of planning and thinking ahead, I will not do this. I will not write a plan again. I will do as I have always done. I will launch into writing to see what comes up for me. It is the thrill of exploration into unknown territory that gives me the greatest pleasure.

One day soon I know I will need to drag these thoughts into some kind of order but for now I will write corset free.