Saturday, July 3, 2021
Saturday, December 19, 2020
Tuesday, December 8, 2020
We drove- or rather I drove- all the way to Richmond in traffic whilst you sat in the back seat with your older sister- a more experienced traveller at almost 15, but still naïve and high school inexperienced in many ways. Then you, on the precipice of change, chatting away at 12 and waiting, expectant, but no doubt trying to push things to the side or back of your mind. Things. What things? New encounters, mixing with people you do not know, a sea of unfamiliar faces and unfamiliar experiences awaiting you like a grey tide of uncertainty.
When we arrived, we parked just before the school crossing and I could see that you didn’t really want to get out of the car. The short walk across the road and into the grounds of the school were probably mildly terrifying; similar, but at the same time so different, from Mandela’s walk out of the prison on Robben Island. His was freedom, yours not so embracing.
Inside the gate there were adult helpers who told us about the lists. I found yours first. Melba 2, it said. Your sister told you she was in Melba 1 when she was in Year 7 last year. Then your sister simply disappeared. The right attitude. ‘Stand up, like I had to do last year’, would have been the silent message. And that philosophy was the same kind of thing for me. The clutch of Melba 1 students- maybe about a quarter of them- were sitting underneath a tree, and there was no adult in sight. I was glad I was not holding your hand. And I was glad that you didn’t insist I stay and sit with you.
In fact, I was impressed with your fortitude, which you somehow dragged up from the depths of your soul. I briefly introduced you to a couple of girls- ‘I’m from a primary in South Yarra…’, etc, one said, and I asked if you could sit down, then after a few minutes I told you I would be back soon. I went to another ‘house’ and looked for the only other girl you knew beside your sister, but just fleetingly. As a reinforcement during the day if you needed it. I glanced over to you, often, and caught your eye a couple of times with a little wave, but mostly watched you clandestinely, noticing your attentiveness to the other girls. Not talking, but listening, and learning, and navigating that awkward situation where you know nobody but other people seem to have some knowledge of each other as they sit smiling. You, a portrait of innocence, your childish multi-coloured backpack, your hair in plaits with a red heart-shaped adornment on each braid.
In desultory, threatening weather and a soft cool breeze, it started to rain, and the Melba 2 group leader- very young looking herself- began dragging you all away. I wandered over and said ‘have fun, darling’, and I was away. The sky turning charcoal and me hoping it wasn’t an omen.
I think back to a similar day two years ago with your sister- in fact it was the first day of the school year- and recall her anticipation and nervousness. I think of these days accurately or otherwise as being like Wordsworth’s ‘spots of time’, encounters that are completely new and challenging but will define you and shape you. Experiences you will always remember, like a wedding day, or a particular birthday, but essentially experiences that herald change or growth or some kind of significance in you.
I know you are 12 but it still feels a little like I abandoned you, but not abandonment in the gross or cruel sense, but rather leaving you in a foreign and challenging environment, but hopefully not a hostile one. I sit here at home typing this some hours into the day, with our newly arrived dog next to me, sitting on the couch. And I wonder how it is going. Have you found someone to chat to? Are other kids aware of you? Have you made them aware of you? Are you thinking ‘this new place- you know, may be ok after all. I look forward to 2021.’ Or is it all horribly different to this?
Another spots of time moment for both of you, was the first day of primary school. You both had someone you would grow to care for next to you. For the eldest, Liberty, and still probably a best friend, even though you are now at different schools. For you, it was Holly, Liberty’s sister, who was here just last night. So, Holly and Liberty are experiencing the same thing as you two- a year 8 girl about to share the school with her little sister- except different schools.
I watched you come out of the wrought iron gates, waiting expectantly with a multitude of other parents. Your face. Drained of colour and exhausted looking. Not sad as such but relieved, a trial over for one day, only for it to be renewed in a couple of months. Will day one next year be any easier?
‘ What would you give it out of ten?’
‘Six out of ten’, you replied.
We climbed back into the car to navigate the traffic home. You unpacked your emotions. Steady, calm, even perhaps a little indifferent. Relief.
Saturday, December 5, 2020
I sit here on my bed lying peacefully
My bookcase with my favourite books
At the bottom of my feet
About a half metre from the end of my bed.
The red curtains are closed and
The windows jammed shut.
The air is a little thick with
My restlessness and torpor.
I call it ennui and it is a
State of nothingness and helplessness
And feeling the need to do something
But being uncertain about what it is.
It is a heavy press on the mind and it is
I think, a reflection of dissatisfaction and
Unfulfillment, but at the same time
A sense of nagging responsibility and guilt.
No-one is here besides me and yet
I feel this presence urging me to do something
Which is oppressive in its weighing down.
It does not come completely from outside but
Rather within as if I owe it to myself. I wonder
If it is connected to my body. I don’t
Think so. It feels rather more connected with my mind.
My mind takes me to places like Court Green
In Devon, England where I feel compelled
To visit the two star-poets who live there with their little
Young daughter, escaping the rat-race of London and
Inhabiting this new huge dwelling
Surrounded by a graveyard, a church and a yew tree.
Having so much space suddenly, being able to call out
Loudly from one room to another
Without being heard, but somehow still feeling
Restless and rather isolated and not in tune with
The people around them. A dream house in a dream
Setting which proves to be a fabrication of the mind.
She feeling some contentment in finishing her first novel and
Feeling the poems- many good ones- unearth themselves and
He, her husband, feeling less secure, missing the brightness and hope of
The big city and being young enough still to be
Attracted to bright lights and like-minded people
And the cosmopolitan aspect of everything, not
Terribly domesticated and not fulfilled with pram rides
With his daughter and blackberrying and wandering
Around town, and a pregnant wife whose moods can
Alter very suddenly, whose own moods are very changeable, who
Is about to be lumbered any day with a second child which
Threatens harmony and promotes restlessness even further and
On top of this is about to be visited by another woman whose eyes
Are mesmerising and whose smile and body encourage all sorts of
Wild fancies and lustful imaginings and the promise of a
Much more vibrant and intoxicating lifestyle compared to
The steady and monotonous hum of regular and steady life at Court Green.
One holds fort like Penelope whilst the other
Searches for who he really is, desperate to
Rediscover who he is as well as his
Literary life which has lay dormant for quite a while,
He eventually forcing a rupture, obliterating the
Family unit in order to fulfil insatiable needs, her voice
Reaching its peak and hanging on grimly and precariously
As a candle that pretty soon is going to snuff itself out.
Saturday, November 28, 2020
I LOVE music. The sound of a tinkling piano and the heavy sound of a bass guitar. The wailing of David Gilmour’s lead guitar. The soprano sax of Paul Desmond and the echoing horn of Miles Davis’ trumpet. I love music but it feels a world apart, like an abstract science I could never muster.
I LOVE art. The look of an empty canvas appeals to me. An art supply shop thrills me. The detail and precision of a Vermeer or Ingres painting. The daring of a Picasso. The thick swirling paste of Vincent using olive green, cobalt blue or bright yellow. A painter’s tools. But like music, it feels a world apart. It is not tangible. I cannot touch or taste it.
WRITING is somehow different. I have so many inspiring books scattered around me at home. Beautiful modern editions in hardbacks of works by D H Lawrence and Katherine Mansfield. Large biographies, letters, collected works of Sylvia Plath, Colm Toibin first editions, Alex Miller’s fresh novels as they appear in hardback, Virginia Woolf’s diaries and letters, a multitude of Lawrence books from as early as 1913, through to the 20’s and 30’s.
It feels more tangible. I can put pen to paper and it can make sense. But I cannot make it amount to anything much. I can’t seem to write about imagined relationships, romance or mystery plots, gothic settings, even very much on personal relationships, real life observations, philosophical rants. I can put opinions down as well as vague, random memories and places I have seen. But I can’t seem to write fiction.
Writing fiction is something I would really like to do. I would like to write a story about an elderly man who is grappling with the sudden illness of his wife (Tobin), or a story about a lonely spinster who pretends her life has meaning and that she is somehow an important player on the world’s stage (Mansfield), or a woman who is deeply affected by the incidental touch of a man’s hand in the middle of the night (Lawrence), maybe a woman who has married too young and has a dalliance with a priest with far-reaching consequences (Miller), or a woman who spends much of her adult life fearing a descent into madness and depression (Plath and Woolf).
I so much wish I could write.
I wish I could write really long, meaningful sentences that dip, and soar, and take the reader on an emotional journey, and have lots of commas- and pauses- and other sections where you read really, really fast like your sentence has suddenly become filled with action; only to end obscurely…
I wish I could find interesting verbs to use in an imaginative way, like shimmer or shatter or glisten or glitter.
I wish I could conjure up a really effective simile, much better than saying ‘her face was as clean as the skin of an onion when the outer layer is carefully peeled back.’
To be able to create a great metaphor would be even better, much better than saying ‘she didn’t feel love for her mother anymore because her heart had turned to stone.’
My page sits empty. A rough sketch or draft is perhaps created, on a good day, but then it fizzes like rain that has fallen on a fiery rocket that threatened to be launched into the air.
Maybe I am waiting for a fox to appear as it did for Ted Hughes:
‘I imagine this midnight
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:
Cold, delicately as the dark
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot
stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.’
But, like Sylvia Plath, I don’t expect a miracle to occur, even in the vision of a black rook outside in a tree in the rain:
On the stiff twig up
Hunches a wet black rook
Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain-
I do not expect a miracle
Or an accident
To set the sight on fire
In my eye, nor seek
Any more in the desultory weather some design,
But let spotted leaves fall as they fall
Without ceremony, or portent.
Although, I admit, I desire,
Occasionally, some backtalk
From the mute sky, I can't honestly complain:
A certain minor light may still
Out of kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then —
Thus hallowing an interval
By bestowing largesse, honor
One might say love. At any rate, I now walk
Wary (for it could happen
Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); sceptical
Yet politic, ignorant
Of whatever angel may choose to flare
Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant
A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality. With luck,
Trekking stubborn through this season
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content
Of sorts. Miracles occur.
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance
Miracles. The wait's begun again,
The long wait for the angel,
For that rare, random descent.
That rare, random descent awaits me. I will call on it in another life when my mind will be less crowded, where I will no longer care so much for the distractions of the news of the world. Where the view from my window will be a green valley or the green sea. And you never know, I may have some rich experiences as well that I can draw on.
Saturday, October 3, 2020
IN Colm Toibin’s BROOKLYN, Eilis makes the sudden decision to leave her mother and friends in small town provincial Ireland to return to Brooklyn and a future that is more daring, filled with promise and potential, but infinitely risky. She does this because she thinks this course is the one that is most likely to bring her happiness.
In Alex Miller’s equally beautiful CONDITIONS OF FAITH, Emily Elder makes the sudden decision to stay in Europe and abandon her French husband and her new born child. It is a decision that is even more risky and momentous than Eilis’. When she tells her husband Georges of her decision whilst they are dancing at a Paris nightclub, he asks her ‘why?’, which is a fair enough question. She tells him it is because she is not content. His response is ‘Content? For Christ’s sake, no-one’s content.’
They are both interesting ideas because they are weighty decisions filled with risk. Each person knows something is lacking and they know they just need something more. To say that ‘no one’s content’ seems pretty meaningless to me. These are the cowards like most of us, me included, who travel on the road already taken, and are not prepared to risk everything for a life that could be so much better. Maybe the doors haven’t opened sufficiently. Maybe the mindset will mean that the doors will never open up, or widely enough. The world is filled with risktakers like Eilis and Emily, but they pale into significance when compared with the multitudes of us who settle for what they have.
It must be about security. It is just too scary to risk giving up all you have strived for. Joni Mitchell, in her song HEJIRA, sings ‘You know it never has been easy/ Whether you do or you do not resign/ Whether you travel the breadth of extremities/ Or stick to some straighter line.’ Mmmm… ‘travelling the breadth of extremities.’ It sounds easy enough.
Georges said ‘no-one’s content’, and I wonder how true this is. I read somewhere, posted on a wall for everyone to see, that you should be careful criticising someone else because you never know ‘what particular shit they may be going through.’ In many ways, I would love to be someone like Eilis or Emily. I don’t mean chucking everything in, after all that’s not what they were doing. They weren’t suicidal. Emily was wanting to continue her archaeological studies and her European adventure. Eilis was going back to Brooklyn to meet her husband and start their American dream. Both wanted more of being foreigners in a foreign land.
If there is anything that would make me truly happy, or even ‘content’- Emily’s word-( I am not even sure how close to ‘happiness’ this is), it would be to go back to being a foreigner again. Van Morrison on ASTRAL WEEKS says ‘I’m nothin’ but a stranger in this world…’. Both Katherine Mansfield and Sylvia Plath were strangers in a strange world. Both refused to go back to a potentially easier life with family in their home lands.
Twenty years ago, almost to the day, I arrived in the UK with my wife and began a European adventure of my (our) own. I dreamt of the day multitudes of times growing up where I could have Cornwall, Somerset, Yorkshire, Northumberland, Shropshire, at my fingertips. And then suddenly I did. I had experiences I will never forget, including motoring holidays around Italy and France and Switzerland. But was I content? After just over two years of this I suddenly wanted to ‘come home.’
Coming home. I will probably take this to my grave as the biggest mistake of my life. I look at Emily and Eilis with profound respect for the decisions that they made, how they chose the road not taken. But if we are ever going to live a life where we ever feel even remotely ‘content’ we have to live with these decisions, or doing something extraordinarily wild and unpredictable, and ‘travel the breadth of extremities’ like the trailblazers that have done this before us.
So, I salute those who are foreigners in foreign lands. I wish I could join you. But I also know many of you have given up important things and made extreme sacrifices along the way.
I come back once again to Nick Cave’s ‘There is a town…’
‘And now I live
In this town
I walk these dark streets
Up and down, up and down
Under a dark sky
And I dream
That one day
I'll go back home’
I have no doubt that Eilis and Emily thought of home every day. And perhaps Sylvia and Katherine as well. Were they content? Well, illness and fate always play a part. I like to think that things worked out well for the fictional Eilis and Emily. For Sylvia Plath and Katherine Mansfield… the former took her life through gassing herself at age 30, and the latter died of tuberculosis at just 34. For the rest of us? Well we live a lot longer- most of us- snug in our protective cocoons, a satisfying, safe life, or a life devoid of mystery and filled with mediocrity… depending on your point of view.
Tuesday, September 15, 2020
I HAVE been thinking about resilience a little bit of late. The other day I walked out the door to Bell Street and the short distance to the bus stop. I wore my woolly hat, black jeans and of course, in today’s environment, a mask. I saw myself in a storefront reflection. This particular mask is white and quite surgical-looking. It dominates my face and sometimes it fogs up my glasses. I waited a short amount of time for the bus, and standing there I realised I had forgotten my book about Carson McCullers. I felt slightly vulnerable. Not going out much these days. Very quiet streets. Thoughts tumbling about whether or not I would make my appointment on time. Would the bus even take me to me destination?
I sat near the back and looked at the couple of other masked occupants. I had this feeling we were all trapped in some way. Getting off the bus, I could see I was way too early so I walked about these usually vibrant shops opposite Northland. A kind of ‘homemaker’s centre’. Not a soul about anywhere. Deserted. And then it was 10:00 o’clock and I had to face the dentist.
This has not been my usual routine. Usually I am working at my desk with my computer, my wife and children thereabouts, the whole world shut out. Only the news reports on the television offering any kind of connection. But on this day, recently, I caught a bus to visit the dentist near Northland. I told myself to be resilient.
The small challenge I faced, which included the experience there, and the journey home, demanded some small amount of resilience on my behalf. But what I was really thinking about on the way home was my youngest daughter who is very soon going to go to big school and may not know a soul besides her older sister. She is definitely not the kind of kid to be ‘out there’. If you knew her you would know exactly what I am talking about. This, for her, will have a huge resilience factor. I feel (hope) she will grow so much as a person and learn so much and become more confident, and I hope it will keep her in good stead.
I did something new when I left home for the second time at 24 to live in the countryside. I spent the first weeks in my room in a house I felt unwelcome and afraid in, and wrote often in my diary and took solo walks in the neighbourhood listening to the music of my soul and thinking about the places of my heart. This experience built something strong in me and I was less afraid in tricky situations later. The first time I left home I went to live in Adelaide. Another day, another time.
On the bus, too, I thought of the Bronte daughters and their shocking exposure to grief in their life, and their forced attendance at preparatory schools. Little Charlotte at the Clergy Daughters’ School in Cowan Bridge in Lancashire, the setting for the abysmal Lowood school in Jane Eyre. Poor little Emily went there, too, when she was only six. She thereafter enjoyed being at home so much with her animals and the moors, her vast playground, and her deep isolation and books, and romantic imaginings. Little Anne was spared the horrors of being away from home until she worked as an adult at a place called Blake Hall. She had an unsurprisingly terrible time with unruly children and was dismissed, but it must have taught her resilience. She fared better late with similar work.
I began having random thoughts. Sylvia Plath abandoned by Ted Hughes, alone and vulnerable at Court Green with Frieda and little Nick. And worse, not much after, freezing cold in her Primrose Hill flat in 1963, seeking sanctuary in death, her children warm and protected. Resilience can wear thin.
Katherine Mansfield suddenly aware of death closing in around her, at the top of the stairs, at Georges Gurdjieff’s Institute in January 1923, aged only 34. The need for resilience over, the end of that long search in the south of France for better health.
Lawrence also with blood dripping out, in Vence, in 1930, also in the south in the fruitless search for better health, hand held by Maria Huxley, lost and bewildered at only 45. The need for resilience over.
Vincent’s exhaustion and disappointments, and feelings of despair and isolation in the merciless wheatfields in Auvers, this time in the north of France, in 1890. Age 37. His long patient struggle with hallucinations and epilepsy and other forms of madness at last over. Again, resilience worn thin.
And finally, on the bus, Paul Simon’s song ‘American Tune’ came into my head. It seems to be at least partly about the first immigrants from England sailing into New York harbour on the Mayflower and the anxious time they must have had in a foreign county, filled with hopes and fears:
the time I've been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
But I'm all right, I'm all right
I'm just weary to my bones
Still, you don't expect to be
Bright and bon vivant
So far away from home, so far away from home.’
These are some of the poignant ideas that the Bronte’s may have sung if ‘American Tune’ was available to them, even if it isn’t their direct experience. And then there are the convicts on the way to Australia, often in chains, and who of us can imagine African slaves bound for America, people enlisting in wars like Vietnam, so far away, the train journey to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, current struggles with Covid-19 so far away and so close to home…
So, in the end a bus trip a suburb or two away on a regular bus to a friendly dentist and back again doesn’t require quite so much resilience after all.