Saturday, February 26, 2011

I’m for transparency...except for secrets.

This year we have suffered floods, only mildly here but elsewhere both in Victoria and in Queensland devastating floods. And now the news of this ghastly earthquake in Christchurch and everyone is muttering Armageddon. As if all these dramatic climatic events signal the end of the world.

On top of this we have all these uprisings in the Middle East that might also signal a new world order. I can only hope in the end it comes out for the good.

People power. The democracy of the Internet, the marvelous capacity of Face Book and Twitter to connect people in ways no dictatorship had even dreamed possible. This has to be good.

And then there is the issue of transparency and what happens when information intended for only a select few gets transmitted further a field as in Julian Assange’s efforts via WikiLeaks.

Here in Australia Assange is attracting something of a hero’s status. Elsewhere in the world he is decreed a villain. My sympathies lie with him, as my sympathies lie with myself.

I do not think I would actively seek to divulge other people’s secrets unless they happen to my secrets as well and I thought it necessary that they be known, but Assange exposes other people’s secrets, namely the secrets of those in power.

I have been feeling despondent about my blog writing of late. Worried that I write the same old, same old stuff, struck by the degree to which I feel constrained as I write. There are so many things I cannot say here.

I read a terrific article about blogging recently, Why I Blog, in which the writer talks about the distinction between writing as we know it, the stuff that is laboured over, polished and refined, the stuff that makes its way into print and the blog. 'The feedback is personal and brutal,' Andrew Sullivan writes, 'but the connection with readers is intoxicating.'

I agree. Intoxicating, and at times crushing, but why? I ask myself. These people may exist. They are your readers and you are one of them, but they need not become the arbiters of your mood states. Yet often, as ever, they do.

Sullivan argues that blogging cannot be too refined. It must necessarily take place in a rush; it must not be too polished. It is the conversational style that wins over readers in the blogosphre, with its rawness and its close to the edge quality. Brevity is of the essence. I fall down here I’m afraid. And clarity of voice.

Often when we blog even as we imagine we are writing or creating a certain persona, our readers will see things in us of which we are unaware.

I have rankled at my own tendency to moralise within the blogosphere and my resentment when I read others doing this very thing. It is so easy to pass judgment within the written word. So easy to pronounce ideas with a heady certainty that we do not usually maintain in conversation.

Blogging allows for more freedom of speech and thought but it can also turn into a dangerous calcification of ideas, the good of it though, Sullivan argues is that both sides of all polarised arguments get represented. The hardliners will have as many blogs as the lefties all touting their views.

I am amazed to find in my forays into blogdom that I seem to gravitate towards folks of my vintage, though there are a few younger ones in the mix. But I cannot be sure.

Before I started to blog my daughters warned me that I would not know these people to whom I write. They could all be falsely created identities, not the flesh and blood people they purport to be online. I imagine there is a small number of such people within the blogosphere, those who actively create a false persona.

But in my experience, short lived as it is, most people within the blogosphere seek a certain level of honesty and truthfulness that I find breathtaking. I’m for transparency you see, even as I know there are many many things we cannot say to one another, out of respect for others, out of respect for ourselves and out of respect for the medium. Good writing relies as much on what is left out, as it does on what is included.

'You end up writing about yourself,' Sullivan writes,'since you are a relatively fixed point in this constant interaction with the ideas and facts of the exterior world. And in this sense, the historic form closest to blogs is the diary. ... But a blog, unlike a diary, is instantly public. It transforms this most personal and retrospective of forms into a painfully public and immediate one.'

This is what I both relish and curse in my life as a blogger. The urge to tell all and the need to watch it.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Listening for ghosts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Grateful for crumbs

‘Have you no friends?’
‘None, Sir. I had a friend once but she died a long time ago.’
Jane Eyre’s words to Mr Rochester.

They stay in my mind this morning and rattle around there when I think about the task of letting our dog out into the back garden after his night asleep in the laundry.

For the past year we have kept the dog corralled in a corner of the kitchen living area, which includes a window with a cat door through which the dog is free to come and go. He has the whole back yard in which to play. The dog is small. He can use the cat door with ease and he does so, but not often enough it would seem.

The dog - perhaps like most dogs left to their own devices - prefers to sit inside in his small kingdom under a table on his bed hour after hour until someone walks him or encourages him outside.

My daughter came home from school last week and announced that the kitchen stank of dog.
‘He has to go outside more.’
And so we decided to seal off the cat door and keep the dog outside by day.

It is summertime and although the weather has been unpredictable and far from ideal, it is not so cold that a dog would catch a chill.

We continue to let the dog inside at the end of the day while we prepare and eat dinner. We still let him roam around inside until last thing at night when he now knows to take himself off to the small indoor laundry for sleep.

In the mornings, I feel bad about locking him outside.
‘He’s a dog,’ my husband says after I express my misgivings. He’ll get over it.’

I have no friends. The words resonate. A dog has no friends. Human friendship seems fickle.

The dog keeps interrupting my writing time by barking. He sits on his bed now transferred outside onto the veranda out of sun and rain and barks. He barks every time he hears a neighbouring dog.

Can I blame him? Is his barking a form of communication? Is it out of boredom that he barks? Does he need a friend?

The responsibility of another dog is almost more than I can bear. I did not want this dog in the first place. We have three cats. Enough I say.

Dogs unlike cats need so much love and attention. Dogs are companionable, loyal. They love to play. They want to be near. These qualities, this need for attachment stirs up the maternal in me, both the warmth of affection I now hold for him, but also my guilt.

I anthropomorphise this dog to death, but I do not believe he is without feelings. I can tell when he is unhappy and when he is not. I can tell that this new arrangement does not suit him.

And perhaps my husband is right: the dog will adjust. We all adjust in time to unfortunate circumstances, but it does not ease the pain I feel when I consider this dog’s life.

To me he is like an unwanted child, like Jane Eyre in the home for unwanted children. Such children were forced to be grateful for crumbs, a dog's life.

I remember when I was little I used to ponder on the nature of gratitude. How old was I? Ten, maybe twelve, when I considered that a child should be able to exist in the world without all the time having to be grateful for her very existence. There were things I considered then that a child like myself should be able to take for granted.

I had argued with my older sister. She said I was lazy. Why did I not help her with the housework? Why did I at least not tidy up our shared bedroom?

It was a Saturday morning. I did not want to clean the house. I did not want to be like my older sister who spent what seemed like her entire weekend, washing clothes, hanging them out, scrubbing out the bathroom, cooking and ironing.

She was the oldest girl; the job fell to her especially after our mother went out to work in a children’s home nearby.

In Allambie Children’s Reception Centre our mother looked after over fifty children at a time. We stayed at home and my mother’s oldest daughter took on the task of caring for us. My oldest sister was meticulous then and now, unlike me.

I ran outside to escape my sister’s harangue. I sat on the brick ledge of the front gate and felt the sun through the thinness of my cotton dress. I sat there still and quiet until I felt dozy and in my reverie I considered these matters.

It was then I decided that children ought to be allowed to live free from the burdens of excessive housework such as my sister demanded of me, until they were much much older. Children should have childhoods, I thought then.

I still think this now, though I recognise the need for some effort to be made on the part of children to 'make a contribution'.

What hope would I have had in Jane Eyre’s day with attitudes such as mine then? Though if I were born into different circumstances I suspect such thoughts would not enter into my head.

‘You'll be hopeless in your old age,’ my daughter said to me while we discussed the disarray in our household, which is in need of a spring clean, a spring clean I refuse to undertake myself. I am still the ten to twelve year old of years gone by, but I no longer have an older sister to whip me and the house into shape. My daughter takes her place.
‘You’ll even stop washing yourself,' she says. 'You’ll let your house fall down around you. You’ll spend your days in front of the computer writing and nothing will ever get done.’

My daughter jokes but there is a sting to her words.

I do not care for the domestics as I once did when my children were younger and before I took up this writing life.

This writing life that I can only fit into the nooks and crannies of each day, but these nooks and crannies my daughter might argue should be filled with housework and cleaning and putting our house into order.

I have said it before in a quote from the writer Olga Lorenzo, when I die I do not want to have it written on my gravestone: She was a good woman. She kept a tidy house.

I want to read something else. I prefer the words: She wrote well.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

And then the floods

After all the talk of floods and cyclones elsewhere in Australia, last night it was our turn here in Melbourne. They called it flash flooding: rain that came down in volumes in only a matter of minutes, and the city was drenched. Our backyard was a swimming pool and many of the streets in valleys and low-lying areas were unpassable.

Our situation is mild compared to places where whole houses have been inundated to their rooftops. The only water that entered our house came through one or two points where the roof had leaked because the plumbers who were supposed to have fixed it last year did not completely seal the flashing.

One or two buckets in strategic places has been enough to hold the flow here, but elsewhere in country Victoria where the rivers have burst their banks, people’s houses have been inundated. The drenching rains and winds for us come in the wake of cyclone Yasi, which ripped a swathe through parts of north Queensland two days ago. It is still rocking its way inwards but has lost much of its force moving from a category five cyclone into a fierce storm.

I felt anxious this morning, uneasy in my gut. Too much water now. When will it end?

Last night I went to the historic house where one of my daughters works as operations manager. She was worried that the place may have been flooded. The house, an old mansion in the inner city was once owned by a dignified family in Melbourne, now all long dead.

The house is spooky at night, my daughter says, hence her need for my company.

There was a function in the restaurant when we arrived, for which I was grateful. There were other people around in the garden, but we soon took ourselves off to the main house and away from the crowd.

It took some fumbling through office drawers for my daughter to find the one old-fashioned key to fit the back door and more keys, again old fashioned, for almost every separate room in the house.

The main leak was near the ballroom. One of the workers for the catering company who organised the event nearby had put down buckets, haphazardly as it turned out because the floor was a river of water. Someone had peeled back the carpets long ago. This room is notorious for leaking, my daughter says, but the Trust has no money or will to fix the roof.

After a twelve-year drought it has not mattered so much till now when the El Nina effect has turned things around, from drought to flood, in what seems like the blink of an eye.

We walked from room to room across the musty carpets, past elaborate furniture displays, all held back by light wooden barriers to deter people from touching. In each room we looked to the ceiling for tell tale signs of cracked wallpaper. We listened for the sound of dripping, the splash of water against hard surfaces.

We found a small drip onto the desk in the room they call the ‘Boudoir’, otherwise all seemed okay. We moved upstairs. No further signs of damage. We used paper towels to mop up the mess, then turned off lights and locked up again. Finally we took up our umbrellas that we had left at the back door and made our way home through the teeming rain.

All the way there and back I had wondered about the ghosts on the property. I did not let myself think too long on these ghosts while I was in the house itself. I did not want to spook myself nor my daughter. She after all works there and there are times, in winter particularly, when she finds herself having to lock up alone in the dark. Lights out and it is indeed a creepy place.

My umbrella brushed against the underbelly of one of the Cyprus trees along the side fence and unleashed a torrent of water over my head. It rolled down the sides of my umbrella like a waterfall.

This time last year we were still hoping for a little more rain, after the first drops fell following twelve years of drought, but now we want it to stop.

Last year I resolved to myself that I would never again complain about rain, as if my complaints had been responsible for keeping the rain away. Now it seems it matters not.

The amount of rain falling in the last twenty-four hours is enough to convince me the weather is impervious to my insults, or to my comments. The weather is its own boss. It is thick skinned. It does not heed the feelings of mere human beings.

Even so, maybe we should pay more attention to the weather. There are patterns. There are signs. We ignore them at our peril.