Saturday, October 31, 2009

Doubt

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Father Flynn: That I care about this congregation.

Sister James: I know you do.

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

Sister James: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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


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

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

My right from my left

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Write what comes up for you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hold On

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

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Checking my public

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

My husband calls it ‘checking my public’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 23, 2009

Bastardised poetry

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

Unfortunately, I wrote abysmal poetry.

When did I first realise this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Fracture

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

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

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

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

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

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


I think I shall stick to prose.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Win the lottery on line

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 19, 2009

The ritual of writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Be disturbed

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

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

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

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

Take a look and be disturbed.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The gift of blood

Many years ago I went to the town hall to give blood. I knew the blood bank was visiting that day from signs I’d seen flapping in the wind above the town hall veranda. I had long wanted to offer my blood again. The first time I gave blood I was a student at university. In those days to give blood you took a number and stood and waited your turn. In those days they made a pinprick in your finger to test your blood first for all manner of diseases. Mostly I worried then about the sexually transmitted ones that might show up in my blood.

I stopped giving blood once I finished at university. I never stopped still in one place long enough and then came the babies, the years of pregnancy and breastfeeding when I needed every drop of blood I had. It was a relief then to know that although I would have liked to have given back something to those who might be desperate for extra life blood, I could not, my body’s blood was off limits, it was needed by others, much as my babies needed my milk.

The exchange of bodily fluids between one person and another has long troubled me. I had a friend who hemorrhaged so badly after the birth of her second baby they needed to give her a hysterectomy. She survived but during the long months of her recuperation when she had so much wanted her baby to be breast fed, her older sisters, most of them breastfeeding themselves, banded together to look after my friend's newborn baby and gathered together a tribe of breast feeding mothers who might offer some of their breast milk. I squeezed out several milliliters of blood into a sterilised jam jag and put it into the freezer. It seemed such a strange thing then to offer my milk to someone else’s baby. I tried to imagine the experience for my friend’s baby: all this mixed mother’s milk going into her system. The difference between one’s self and another.

Now years later when the last of my babies no longer relied on me for her total existence – I had weaned her – I could give blood. My breasts had shrunk back to their pre pregnant state and my body was my own once again. It was time I told myself to give blood.

On this day to my surprise I was not the only one so inclined. The queue to the information desk stretched out to the street. I realised too late that we were across the road from Swinburne University and students are a reliable bunch when it comes to giving blood. They are young and healthy, idealistic and often the offer of a cup of tea and a free biscuit is enough to inspire even the less altruistic among them to donate.

I figured that most of these people in this queue were students by the state of their hair and clothes, not the raggle taggle clothes of the seventies when I was at university, the hippy gypsy look of crushed velvets and calicos, wild hair and beads, but the clean casual look of the modern student, neat jeans, solid walking boots and freshly scrubbed faces. As well there was a mix of nationalities in the queue, no more the straight line of those descended from the English, Irish or European. Many of these students were Asian or from Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries. It gave the line a cosmopolitan feel.

I tried to hide my impatience as the line straggled on towards the desk. I had only two hours spare before I needed to travel to Mont Albert to collect my older children from school. I had left the youngest with the babysitter, all for this opportunity to give blood. By the time I reached the desk and explained the reasons for my impatience I knew I would not that day lie on one of the canvas couches scattered throughout the main room of the town hall, stretch out my arm and watch as the nurse at my side gently drew out a litre of my glorious red blood.

‘If you have no time now, you can at least fill out the form,’ the nurse said. ‘And make a time to come back another day.’

I watched a young woman in the first row, her eyes glazed with expectation. The nurse had pulled up the sleeve of her jumper and with a white wad of gauze wiped a square of flesh just below the elbow bend. Until now the young woman had been watching intently, watching as the nurse cleaned the area marked as if for target practice. Then the nurse turned around to the little tray on which her implements sat in a tidy pile, syringes sealed in plastic, one of which she pulled out and attached to the tube that led to the bottle that hung from a metal frame on one side of the stretcher. I watched the young woman’s eyes move from the nurse’s face, to the nurse's hands to the metal frame and empty bottle above her stretcher. I watched as the young woman turned away. The nurse plunged the needle in. I watched the blood suck into the syringe and along the narrow tube, while the young woman winced and screwed up her face as if in pain. She seemed to hold her breath. I watched and wished it were my blood flowing up the line, my blood, my gift to some dying person, my gift of life.

The biro’s ink splodged onto the page as I tried to fill in my details. I took another and another until I found one that did not ooze so much ink as to make my form look untidy. Each time I screwed up the form and started another. Finally I found both pen and form that were unblemished and filled out my details in my best hand.

It was an unconscious gesture at the time, the ease with which I put the biro back into my handbag. See how easily I say ‘back into my handbag’, as if the biro had been mine all along. I folded the form over once and handed it to the woman at the reception desk in between her attending to others still in the long line, others who had more hours to spare than me and walked out into the brittle winter sunlight.

I walked alongside the cyclone fencing that separated the car park behind the town hall from the side street, when the realisation of stolen property in my handbag slipped into my mind. It slipped into my mind as a thought unbidden, unwelcome. I had become a child again.

I was sitting in church during my lunchtime at primary school. I had come inside the church to pray to God for deliverance from the boredom of the schoolyard where I had no friends to play with and the popular girls did not want me on their team because I was too slow in catching the ball. I came into the church to offer up my soul for the forgiveness of sins, the sins of the souls of those in purgatory, those who would never reach Heaven without my prayers. I prayed for the sins on the souls of the sinners in purgatory in one corner of my mind, from the other corner of my mind I stared at the empty seats along the pews. I used this part of my mind to set my legs walking up and down the aisle of the empty church and explored the empty seats for objects left behind from Sunday Mass.

I avoided a direct line with the Altar. God was watching. At best I needed to genuflect each time I moved into the centre of the church in line with the altar, at worst God would strike me down for my disrespect in roaming around the church, filled with evil intent. There were the usual collection of black covered missals; the ones with gold embossed pages and a gold cross on the front cover announcing the word missal. These I ignored. The ones that caught my attention were the colourful prayer books left behind by children. These were the missals of rich children, gifts for their first holy communions, their confirmation, books given to them to inspire them to keep up the work of prayer and penance, books inspired to encourage children to read. I opened one with a pearly cover. It reminded me of the inside of a mother of pearl shell, without the rainbow colours. It was the colour of milk. Inside the front cover, which had been thickened, the manufactures had cut out a square alcove inside which they had laid a gold figure of the body of Christ on the cross. I fingered its rough outline. A small figurine but not so small that I could not see the suffering in God’s uplifted eyes as he gazed towards some imaginary sun, as he gazed towards Heaven. There was no name attached to the inside sheet of this missal, this missal became for me a finders keepers. As I prayed for the sins of the souls in purgatory another side of me fingered the gold metal clasp that held the pages together. I slipped it into my pocket, unconsciously unknowingly, reassured by the notion of finders keepers.

It burned in my pocket all afternoon, all the way home through the leafy streets of Camberwell I struggled with the thought that my find was legitimate on the one hand, that my find was theft on the other. I held my hands over my head as I walked through the magpie park fearful a magpie might swoop down and peck my head even though I knew I would be safe. It was winter. Magpies only swooped in spring. I saw the top of a girl’s head once bloodied between patches of blond hair from the pecking of the magpie’s beak. This magpie had been sure that this girl, not much taller than a rose bush, was about to threaten her babies, about to steal the eggs from her nest. We knew better of course, but the magpie did not.

Outside the town hall the biro was heavy in my handbag. It was heavy in my mind like a stick of dynamite ready to explode. It was only a biro for god’s sake. It was inexpensive. People walk off with biros all the time. But it was theft. I should have returned it, especially as it did not belong to me. But I had no time to go back to the town hall. I was aware of the biro inside my bag for the length of time it took me to reverse my car out of the parking lot and onto the main road. By then it had slipped from my mind, forgotten, insignificant, the way the smallest sins slip away, even without confession.

I buried the missal in the backyard behind the garage where no one would find it. I buried it like a dog buries a bone for safekeeping. I wrapped it in a plastic bag from Myer and slid it into a cardboard box that once held my mother’s new shoes. I dug a hole as deeply as I could in the small stretch of land between the garage and the back fence and set it into the hole as though I were burying a beloved pet. Then I let it slip out of my mind, until today.

Monday, October 12, 2009

My body, a suitcase

The body’s memory and affect. That’s the title of a talk, or at least the topic I must pursue for a paper I'm about to give at the next post grad seminar but I cannot get inspired beyond the basic, though if I try hard, I shall find something I’m sure.

When do I first remember an awareness of my body? Was it through the experience of pain? In my bed in Camberwell in the room I shared with two of my sisters. I could not sit up, much less walk. My body felt hot and cold simultaneously. For days I curled up in bed crawling out only occasionally to use the potty. I could not bear to go as far as the bathroom. In those days we had an outside toilet. The first time I could travel that far my head felt light. Is this what it’s like to be ill, I remember thinking, as though it had only just occurred to me.

For a long time I disregarded my body. It was merely a suitcase to me, the thing that I carried my insides in. My insides, my mind and my soul. My soul so close to my bottom worried me, how easily it could be stained by poo. It was hard to keep my soul and mind separate. I preferred my mind to my soul. It was higher in my body, perched atop, inside my head, behind my eyes. I could see out from my mind onto the world. I could hear from there, too, and taste and smell. All the good things happened at that level, only in the middle somewhere adjacent to my hands could I feel.

I felt things with my hands and occasionally marveled at the feel of my fingers on my skin. How would it feel if someone else were to touch me? Would I know it? The difference between two parts of me touching one another and one part of me being touched by another person or thing preoccupied me for hours.

My fingernails were a constant torment. I could not keep them clean. ‘Wash your hands before you do your needlework,’ Mother Mary John said. ‘This is a disgrace.’

How could it be, I wondered then that the dirt from my fingers should so easily spread to the pattern on my needlework? Sky blue cornflowers and red poppies with bright yellow and black stamens. We held the fabric firm with a circular frame the nuns had lent us. I kept my needlework in a paper bag. I did not enjoy the thought of sewing, only the process once I got started.

The nuns taught us to keep the thread at an optimal length, too short and you would be needing another thread too soon and your work on the back would be full of knots and finishings off. Too long and the thread would get tangled and knot up to the point it could no longer pass through the fine weave of the fabric.

My fingers pricked blood on the sharp point of the needle, faded brown spots appeared between the cornflowers.
‘You will need to ask your mother to wash this once it’s done,’ Mother Mary John said. ‘You can’t present it like this.’

Shame burned red around my ears. I write now as though I felt none of it. This was the way things were, but my insides blazed with shame whenever Mother Mary John looked my way. She dressed entirely in black, apart from the white band across her forehead. She smelled of mothballs and musk. She wore an apron, also black, over her long black dress and never seemed to attract a fleck of dirt.

It was then I decided that nuns did not have bodies. They were machines underneath. They did not eat, and because they did not eat, they never used a toilet. They gave off no signs of being human apart from their faces where their eyes, ears, noses and mouths suggested they could see smell and hear, and speak. The fact of their legs and arms suggested they could walk and carry things, but their thoughts were circumscribed to quotes from the bible and injunctions about what to do and what not to do. They did not sleep. They only taught and prayed. These inhuman creatures were my first teachers for the first fifteen years of my life. They terrified me. And taught me about the sanctity of the body as if preserved in aspic.

My father, on the other hand, taught me a different sense of my body.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Imperial or metric.

I received a letter yesterday from the taxman, who is actually a woman, by the name on the bottom of the letter, Erin Holland. Erin Holland or her representative has told me that I have failed to pay my full dues in the financial year ending June 2008.

I have just sent them evidence in the form of my BAS statement and cheque stub to confirm that I did pay this amount. I may yet need to pay it again, but it galls me because I am sure I have already paid. I am meticulous about my payments, obsessional even.

At the same time I must concede the possibility that I did not pay this amount after all. I sent the cheque in the mail, as the saying goes. My accountant suggests this is a mistake. I should have put it through the post office, that way I would have a receipt stamp. Or I should have used something like BPay, but I have not yet mastered on line or telephone banking. I still prefer to pay my bills with a cheque. I have been doing this for the last 35 years, ever since I began to pay my own bills.

I can see the writing is on the wall. Cheque books are on their way out. This saddens me for some strange reason. Another legacy of the past gone. As long as I can I hang on to my chequebook for those big payments, I will resist. EFTPOS and the like is fine for the daily shopping, the stuff I buy over the counter but for the bills that come in the mail, I will continue to pay by cheque.

There are times like this that I wish I were born as one of my children’s generation. My children are so adept at these things. They do not flinch when it comes to anything technical, anything on line, anything that requires a spring into cyberspace. Whereas I need to concretise it somehow first and this slows the process almost to the point where it does not happen.

I console myself with the thought that at least I have a contrast. I still remember that other world where things moved more slowly. When we still measured things via the imperial system, in feet and inches, stones and pounds. Even the language held more charm to my mind than the rhythmic simplicity of the metric system. Of course I can see the value of the metric system. It goes up in tens and hundreds. The imperial system travels in units of twelve.

The imperial system is so much more complicated. We had yards and furlongs, and tonnes and bushels. We had guineas and pounds, shillings and pence. We had some of the most wonderful words, words that now in my imagination carry such colour and weight that the metric system lacks. Though I can still see centipedes scribbling across the page whenever someone mentions centimetres, but for me that’s where it ends.

I suppose I am idealising the olden days. They were not golden days. They were grim days as far as I can remember, but they offered words then that are no longer available to me now, words that date me, and words that must be expunged because they are no longer useful. Though those raised under the metric system will no doubt see images in the words that come out of their childhood imaginations. I should not knock it. It is better today. It has to be better today. It is all we have, basically right here, right now. The future lies ahead uncertain, the past fades quickly.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Helen Garner and a woman's voice

I am re-thinking and re-reading Helen Garner. All week her books and their image have surrounded me. In photos she does not smile for the camera but looks to one side. The photographer has caught her during a thoughtful moment, perhaps during a conversation, maybe mid sentence and in one photo she holds the tip of her fingers together as if she is disseminating a closely woven thought. Her hair is short, neat and brown. I can only guess that her eyes are brown. I have seen them close up but I cannot remember whether they were blue or brown or shades between, though I imagine them as brown to match her autumn temperament. To me Garner has an autumn temperament, 'the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness...the maturing sun.'

I’ve read somewhere her daughter talking about Garner’s amazing legs and I remember my desire several years ago after one of the Mietta’s writing events at Federation Square when I scoured the shops trying to find a pair of purple stockings just like Garner’s.

I want to write to Helen Garner again and tell her how sorry I am. In my last letter to her I think I was trying to show off, trying to show her how clever I was under the guise of trying to get her to take me seriously in relation to my thesis topic. But now I suspect she will only experience my writing as pompous and peacock.

I am ashamed of my desire to impress Garner, my desire to seduce her, to make her my friend, to want her to rely on me for something, anything however small, just as I rely on her. I have to remind myself that I am a reader, one of many, an admiring reader perhaps but like everyone else, especially those who try to write themselves, I am prone to fits of jealousy.

I have never been able to, or even wanted to dismiss Garner's writing. I have wondered about her interpretation of Anu Singh in Joe Cinque’s Consolation and of Joe himself. Garner says she’s one sided in her appreciation of Joe’s parents. She has come to love his mother and that might account for some of it. After all Anu Singh murdered Joe. But Garner in the book seems to see Anu Singh as the representation of evil in Singh's failure to recognise the horror of what she had done. Garner pays lip service to the notion that Anu Singh is mentally unsound but she does not seem to understand the blatant disregard for others that someone like Anu Singh might manifest.

Anu Singh from what I have read in Joe Cinque’s Consolation, and from news reports elsewhere suffers some sort of personality disorder, to use the horrible psychiatric jargon. She’s 'borderline', destructively narcissistic. She can’t see past her own nose, herself as the wounded and traumatised infant who must be immediately given whatever she wants, who must be cosseted and who can become overwhelmingly vengeful when things do not go her way. This to a pathological extreme. She’s not your average young woman caught up in the madness of disappointment in a loved one, in a relationship. She’s probably not even capable of loving someone in the first place.

So what was Joe C doing with her in the first place, I asked myself continuously in reading his consolation? What was he doing smitten by such a woman, drawn to her, living with her, putting up with her? There were rumours as I recall that he was thinking of leaving her and that in part may have inspired her wish to do away with him. Anu Singh could not bear to be abandoned, but all of that was towards the end. They’d been living together for some time.

If there ever exists such a couple where one is the innocent victim and the other a cruel ogre I tend to see it as a function of the two. Of course there are some situations where young women are forced unwillingly into alliances not of their choosing, maybe sometimes even young men so forced, though I cannot think of any off hand. Joe C presumably chose consciously to be with Singh. Why was he so na├»ve, so blind, so innocent? Or was he, too, like Singh's friend Madhavi Rao, caught up in the siren’s song?

What is this siren’s song? Have I been lured by it in Garner’s writing, but her writing is not a siren’s song. It does not lead the reader onto the rocks of destruction, broken and battered, though maybe that’s how some people find it.

I write about these people as though they are characters in a novel. But these people exist in reality and I am troubled by the ease with which I dissect them here as if they are fictions.

To this extent people are challenged by Garner's writing. It seems either they love it or they hate it. Even her last and third failed husband apparently discredited her writing as not worthy of attention because it was not fiction. Is that why she wrote this latest one, The Spare Room as a novel?

Back to the old chestnut, fact versus fiction and the highest praise reserved for fiction while the readers keep clamouring for the truth. We want to know that this really happened? We want to know about real lives, real events. We don’t want fantasy.

It’s a non-fiction moment HG said to me in 2004, a non-fiction moment, so make the most of it. I’ve been trying to do so ever since, with varying success.

Gsrmer talks in an interview about resonating with Virginia Woolf's feelings when the writer first opened one of Katharine Mansfield’s new books: ‘If she’s good, then I’m not’. This 'infantile' comparison that we can all get into from time to time. The concrete, unprocessed thought that my mother has only so much love to give, as if it's all held inside a bottle, a bottle of sand and every time she pours out a little for one child, there’s only so much left for the others and for me. In time even if she gives me a little, soon there will be none left and there’s no way known she’ll ever be able to re-fill the bottle. The bottle once empty is useless.

Reading her interviews about Garner's experience with male writers and publishers in the 1970s resonates for me, too. No wonder I gave up English literature after two years at Melbourne University. I who had once imagined myself a writer dropped the idea cold and turned instead to being a good social worker in the first instance and later a good therapist because according to the mores of the time women’s writing was all about ‘shelling peas and pain’. The only ones who could write were the great classicists from the 18th and 19th century literary canon, men mostly. Even Jane Austen has come into vogue in more recent years. There is not a single woman recognised as a Shakespeare or a Wordsworth, a TS Eliot or a James Joyce. There are women who receive praise: the Brontes and Jane, Christina Rosetti and little Emily Dickinson. These are the female names I grew up with, but they are all secondary to the great men.

I too once feared showing my writing to a man, a man would find me wanting. Which leads me to my other thought about Garner: her father, her so-called negative relationship with her father, her life long battle to win his esteem. And supposedly she has never really felt she has, any more than many of us women feel we have.
Somewhere Garner quotes someone else’s comment that we are always laying tributes at our parents’ feet.

I feel so vapourish alongside Garner, who spends hours perfecting each sentence, every word. Her sentences she says in one interview used to be short and clunky but now she goes to trouble to fill them out. She collects good adjectives, splendid nouns and images from her daily life, snippets of conversation over heard.

I rely purely on my memory and what rolls into my mind, and it’s so limited.

The significance of being seen

I have started to read Ann Patchett’s book, Truth and Beauty about her friendship with Lucy Geary. Geary is the author of the book, Autobiography of a Face. It tells the story of Lucy’s life after she developed cancer of the jaw, Ewings sarcoma, as a nine year old. Thereafter the doctors removed part of her jaw through surgery and chemotherapy and radiation. She spent the rest of her young adult life undergoing reconstructive surgery on her jaw. All attempts failed. The book focuses on the pain of her experience but more than the physical experience and the long isolation and sadness of a childhood in hospital, Geary wrote about the effect of her appearance on others and on herself.

Drusilla Modjeska wrote about the business of being a woman as the one who is looked at in her book The Orchard. I heard her speak about this at a psychology conference several years ago before she had finished writing Stravinsky’s Lunch. At that time she had been writing about the lives of two women artists, Grace Cossington Smith and Stella Bowen. Modjeska had been reflecting on the difficulties for
Australian women artists during the early 1900s. In the process she wrote about the business of seeing and being seen. She had suffered a sudden threatened total loss of vision, a detached retina or some such thing and for a time she sat in darkness. She could not see. She contemplated the possibility of blindness. When you cannot see, do you cease to be aware of the significance of being seen? Do you care less about your attraction to men for instance? Men's attraction to you? Do you focus on other senses instead?

I had a dream as a child, a recurring dream, one of complete whiteness, whiteness that was not like a white wall that covered the whole field of my vision; it was a whiteness that held depth. I was looking into a void, rather like those arctic images I imagine when people suffer snow blindness, when the horizon blends with the land and we cannot discern land from water. A motion sickness they describe that sailors suffer when they have been out to sea for too long. The waves they imagine are rolling hills and they find themselves ready to leap overboard in a desperate bid to find steady land and something solid on which to walk. Their stomachs heave.

This body ache that comes from constant motion must in some ways hark back to days in utero. Though to be carried in utero or in a mother’s arms must surely feel different from the experience of being tossed or rocked on top of ocean waves. The one surely has some cadence and sense to it, the other has the wild rhythm of a beast or a creature with a will of its own, a will that does not have the needs of the individual it carries in mind at all. A mother hopefully is mindful of her child; the sea I imagine is oblivious to its cargo. It will go on regardless, though, humankind is said to be upsetting the balance of the natural order of things such that even the seas might be angry with so many intruders. Our excesses interfere with the climate, the temperature, the balance of all things so called natural and as the concept of Gaia suggests, the sea might be angry and may have been so for many years. But this is to anthropomorphise nature and that will never do.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

On Doubt and Wonder

Martin Edmond, the wonderful New Zealand writer, has included a piece in his blog on Doubt and Wonder. It's well worth a read as it looks at the history of writing in ways I had not considered, both in terms of non fiction and fiction.

If you have not read his writing yet, here's a wonderful introduction.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Tortured conversations

I’ve been reading all these blog references to the use of corporal punishment as a legitimate form of discipline. They remind me of Alice Miller’s work. Once you’ve read Miller you’ll never view corporal punishment in the same way again, however much you ascribe to the notion of ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’. Is that how the quote goes?

It also puts me in mind of a conversation I overheard recently. I’ve tried to record it as best I can remember. It puts me in mind of Ruth Schmidt Neven’s notion that ADHD can perhaps be relabeled: ‘parental attention deficit disorder’. But of course, any parent was also once a child and most of us tend to repeat what was done to us. Therefore we need heavy doses of compassion for all parents however seemingly inadequate.

At the airport on Saturday as I stood and waited for the arrival doors to open and let out our youngest daughter, returning from a three week school trip to England, I overheard a conversation.

A boy, about ten years old stood, between the barrier and the corridor that leads from each of the three exit doors. He was waiting with his father for his mother to arrive. Presumably this mother was on the same flight as our daughter, Emirates 404 from London via Dubai and Singapore. I knew this because I had overheard the father tell his son that the air hostesses, who walked out of those sliding doors, mostly in twos, were from the Emirates flight, his mother’s flight.

The man said this I think to encourage his son to be patient, but it had the opposite effect. The boy wore glasses and had a sharp freckled face, none too attractive but typical perhaps for a boy of ten who had been waiting for a long time at the airport for his mother to arrive.

I noticed his face after this first odd exchange with his father.
‘I’ve seen people over there who are crying,’ the boy said.
‘They’re probably happy to see someone come home. Like we’ll be happy when we see Mum and Emma.’ There was a pause, and the boy strained to look to the top of the corridor where people were finally able to come together and hug.
‘I don’t care about other people,’ the father went on to say. ‘Forget about other people. We’re here to see Mummy and Emma.’

The boy spun around then and glared at his father momentarily before regaining his position behind the barricade beyond the opening doors. In that movement he looked directly at me. His face was a grimace and I wondered whether I had missed something.

The boy held a small plastic figurine in his hand and he tapped with it against the metal bar.
‘Stop that now,’ his father said.
‘Why can’t I?
‘Because I said so. Now just be quiet and wait till your mother comes.’
‘There are some balloons over there,’ the boy said, straining to look behind him. ‘Can I have one?’
‘No,’ his father said.
‘Where did they get them?’ the boy asked. ‘Why can’t I have one?’
‘They probably brought them with them. Now settle down.’
I was looking straight ahead so I did not see what happened next but the boy’s voice rose to a new pitch.
‘Don’t you hit me,’ he said.
‘Let go of my shirt,’ his father said. The boy held on.
‘Let go of my shirt or I’ll leave.’
‘You can’t do that,’ the boy said. ‘Who’ll look after me?’
‘Let go of me or I’ll leave.’ The father pulled away. The boy wailed.
‘I’m sorry dad. I’m sorry.’
The father left off leaving.
‘You’re not sorry, he said. Now settle down or I will leave.’
‘You can’t go,’ the boy said. ‘I’ll be all alone.’
‘I told you to settle down. Just settle down.’
‘You shouldn’t have hit me,’ the boy said.
‘Let go of my shirt.’
‘Dad, Dad, I’m sorry Dad.’
The father must have moved away because the boy became even more agitated
‘Don’t go, Dad. I’m sorry.’ In the midst of all this wrangling, the boy’s mother arrived.

I leave this conversation now for you to interpret and make sense of.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Women will be fly-by-nights

What does the brain matter compared to the heart? These words from Mrs Dalloway. I have been watching Marleen Corris’s film of the story with the same name, Virginia Woolf’s glorious story that says so much of a bygone era, written with a woman’s voice.

I have a preoccupation at the moment with women’s voices as opposed to those of men. More so since the conference. The conference of course was inundated with women. Forty women I’d say, to only three men, and one of them a convener.

I prefer a more balanced ratio, men to women, but it rarely happens for me these days. In my own household dominated by women, even with visits from the odd regular boyfriend or partner, my husband is never alone sufficient to overcome the impact of what one of his friends has described as ‘too much oestrogen’.
‘There’s too much oestrogen in your household,’ my husband’s friend tells him and I know exactly what he means. Too much oestrogen, as opposed, I suppose, to too much testosterone.

It is hard for my husband to get a word in, and so he takes to making jokes much of the time or of becoming authoritative. It’s hard for him to find a middle path. What is this about? It is more than a function of his own idiosyncratic upbringing, I suspect. Why the imbalance between the genders? We cannot simply ascribe it to difference.

During the conference there was often talk of feminist perspectives and how much these have altered the degree to which storytelling has changed. How much women’s voices are now more often heard.

Sometimes I confuse the notion of women’s voices with my understanding of the role of middle children in families. This tends to be the role of the conciliator, the one who tries to get both sides together and yet at the same time the one who rebels, the one who is subversive.

I am struggling with this at the moment. In the last several days I have had at least three conversations with different men about the intricacies of my paper, Straddling Two Worlds, the writer and the therapist. The men have all been generous in their responses and in their efforts to help me work through what it is I am trying to say. By and large it is women who have been my detractors, though not all women of course. Still it is striking that within my professional association it is mostly the women who have taken me to task.

This is my favourite time of the week. The time when I have energy to write and often with no agenda.

I read Peter Craven’s review of Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch and felt the same sharp thrill of pleasure at Gerald’s success and jealousy, that no one should ever appreciate my work in such a bold and clear way. Peter Craven is clearly an admirer. But in his text he does not mention a single woman writer. They are all the famed fellows and Craven imagines that GM will join them, the one who will be read in 100 years time, akin to Marcel Proust.

Women will be fly-by-nights. Is there a woman writer today whom people write about as someone for the future, someone whose work we will be reading in years to come? I think of GM’s ‘future creature’, the young researcher whom he imagines as an attractive woman, a student of literature who pores over his archives and is the first to know all his wonderful and as yet untold secrets. GM has fantasies of how his future creature will respond, and how she will be amazed by the secrets she unearths.

I have at times wanted to be that future creature but my time for such research is past, besides I do not want to spend my time researching other people’s work. I want to write my own. Yet in the back of my mind I take great pleasure in being part of GM’s archives.

These days whenever I write my letters to him, I write with a broader audience in mind, the future readers, future creature, future researchers of GM’s writing and work. In this sense I am a parasite living off the great man’s reputation, a tic on his skin, a louse in his hair.

These things are not set in stone. I met a man at the conference Michael, an older man who is doing his PhD on notions of disability relative to his son who died at the age of 22 from muscular dystrophy. This man showed photos and talked of Roland Barthe’s differentiation between what he calls punctum and studium. The latter is visible in ordinary photos that reveal only conventions, where every event is balanced such that it might represent a stable and predictable moment in time as opposed to punctum that carries the sting, the punch, the sudden shock in one or other of its elements. Punctum can emerge not simply from the photo itself but from our knowledge about the photo, which may come after we have first viewed it.

Michael showed two family shots. He is sitting in the background, his then wife in the foreground in a wading pool. She is dressed in bathers and holds her 18 month old son. Their daughter, seemingly a couple of years older than her brother is also in the wading pool. She sits to one side and is smiling. A family photo that reflects Barthe’s interest in all things photographic, including the seemingly benign and predictable. Then Michael showed another photo in which his little boy’s disability is more visible.

Would we think it if we did not know? The little boy is stretched out in the second photo as if caught in an awkward shift of body. There is something in that shift that bespeaks some sort of bodily spasticity, some awkwardness of tone, but all of this punctum, we can surmise only on second sight.

Later during a tea break, Michael talked to me about his observation that women, many women in their fifties and sixties seem to be coming into their own. Their children have grown, their familial responsibilities begin to ease up and they can begin to find new interests, new ways of fulfilling their lives, lives perhaps to some extent that were held off during the years before. Men on the other hand, he observed, hit sixty and they go into a decline, both physical and emotional. They feel that their best years are behind them. Meanwhile the women are beginning to find theirs.

It’s a terrible generalisation, and I can think of many exceptions and yet it resonates with my own observations of many women, and particularly the women at the conference last week. All these women, intelligent, articulate and fired up to explore new ideas and consider their own identities in the light of these new ideas – educated and bright women, who are interested in the story of the story.

Someone asked, where are all the men? Why is it that women take an interest in life writing and many men not. Though at the IABA (International Autobiography and biography Association) conferences there is a much better balance, still many more women than men, and yet there is no shortage of men. Mind you, I notice many of the men are older, near and beyond so-called retirement (as if anyone needs to retire) and many of them are the early pioneers in auto/biographical theory. There are those like Philippe Lejeune who established the now controversial ‘autobiographical pact’ and my hero, despite his slightly ‘protestant’ flavour, Paul John Eakin, who writes so much about autobiography and identity formation.

There’s room for men in theory-making it seems, but less so in the business of personal storytelling. That’s where they turn to novel writing and fiction perhaps as a safer means of telling their stories.

Women perhaps, and this is a big perhaps, might feel safer in the realm of so called creative non-fiction and life writing. That's not to say there are no fantastic women novelists, nor equally fantastic male life writers. I'm talking proportions here.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Anxiety Dreams

I put these two dreams on the Annandale Dream Gazette. To me they represent something of my anxiety about presenting at a conference, but more than this they relate to my struggles against being silenced.

Dream 1:
27 September 2009

This morning I dreamed I went to visit the house of some friends. It was an unusual house in that there was a long low movable wall around its perimeter. At several points in the wall there were gaps to take the place of doors. You could move this wall with a simple push and get the openings to fit to the door of each room in the house. It was like opening the lid of a pepper dispenser. You push the lid around and different size holes become available depending on whether you want a light sprinkling of pepper or a great handful.

My friend’s daughter was in her room. I call him my friend but he’s more my husband’s friend. I have an ambivalent relationship with my husband’s friend, but somehow my feelings about him did not feature in the dream nor my feelings about his daughter, who is a strange person I find in real life, though in the dream she seemed normal.

She had gone to a great deal of trouble to tidy her room and yet I noticed the drawers were bulging and stuff peeped out through the cracks of the wardrobes as if she had simply stuffed things inside willy-nilly. There was a false sense of order here.

My youngest daughter who in the dream was still a toddler joined us. A carefree, cheerful toddler. Then a little ball of fur on legs walked across the room. It looked innocent enough and I asked my friend’s daughter what it was.
‘Stay away from them,’ she said. ‘They’re trouble.’ The ball of fur suddenly let out a spray of the foulest stench imaginable into the room and we all reeled back.
‘That’s what they do,’ my friend’s daughter said. ‘And if they manage to get some of that stink on you, it sticks for ages.’

I swooped up my daughter and tried to escape the monstrous ball of fur, which I felt sure was getting ready to spray us again.

The doors slid around the room and my friend, my husband’s friend arrived, all bluster and swagger. He remonstrated with his daughter for keeping the walls fixed in one place. He had had trouble getting in.

I was aware as if in a flash that there were other dangers lurking here in this oddly designed house and I must be careful.

Dream 2:
30 September 2009.

On the morning of my presentation at a life writing conference called The Story of the Story I had a dream that felt so real it still seems as though it actually happened. I dreamed that when it came time for me to present my paper in the Noel Stockdale room within the library at Flinders University I went ahead of the others to set up and to tweak my paper for the last time.

In my dream an old friend, who is now dead, LB was the conference convenor. LB once lectured me in psychology. He was born around the same time as my father.

People had already arrived in time for the third day of the conference to begin. They sat in rows faces turned towards the front in readiness. LB asked me to start. Some people were still rustling papers and chatting to one another, so I had to repeat my first sentence. Then I started fumbling my words. I lost my place on the page and could not find it for what seemed like ages. People shifted in their seats and began to talk among one another. I could not regain their attention. I tried from the beginning and spoke loudly but my words would not flow.

I had rehearsed and rehearsed. I had tried hard. Now here it was: my turn to present, my turn at last, last speaker of the conference, and I could not get the audience to listen.

I tried to catch LB’s eye, to plead with him to get the audience to settle, but he would not look at me. The people in the audience then seemed to lose patience altogether and before I knew it they had decided to break for morning tea.

I had lost my opportunity to present. It had passed without my saying a word of what I needed to say. I was devastated and stood at the podium in tears. There was a small group of people nearby, the ones with whom I had shared a car en route to the conference. They ignored me, too. I was furious, but flooded with tears.

In my dream LB had become a medical doctor not just a PhD. I wailed to a woman nearby about how unfair he had been in not insisting to the audience that I be allowed to have my turn. I had tried so hard to prepare and now no one wanted to hear from me.

I woke sobbing and nothing felt as if it would ever be any good again.