Category Archives: writing

my neverending story

Nothing ever ends. Not really.

As a story-lover – and occasional story-teller – this is difficult to accept. Traditional narrative requires – sometimes demands – an ending. Whenever I read or hear or watch a story I am always wondering, “How will this end?” Because endings are a point where everything makes sense, where motivations, events, actions and reactions have a purpose. A place where a line is drawn under that which went before, leaving a creamy blank sheet to start a new story.

Life is not so easily contained.

My last blog post was on October 15th, 2010. It was never intended to be an ending. But today will be my final post here. So, while my brain rails against the ease of narrative structure, my romantic heart still loves a neat(ish) ending. Today, the first day of the year, I draw a line under this story and start a new one.

But, nothing ever ends. Not really.

The stories I shared here are still here. They still come with me, loyal companions, wherever I go. They are the invisible thread of my existence. They haven’t stopped being. They haven’t finished their noisy, joyful, wrenching, messy reverberations.

Between then and now there have been other stories. Some I can’t tell because they are not mine alone. Not that any stories are ever really mine alone to tell. When we choose to write we plunder the lives of those unfortunate souls whose paths cross ours. But, even in my haphazard pursuit of truth, beauty, wisdom and wonder I know there are stories which can’t be told to all. These I share in private circles. Safe, protected circles where tender hearts and sadnesses are watched over. Where stories of pain and confusion are held to tiny lights and examined and, by the power of telling, set free. Not to end but to move away. Often they return, changed, evolved. Sometimes they bring a new pain. Occasionally knowledge. Always a growth – a leaf, a branch, a bud or an ugly gnarled offshoot which becomes intrinsic to the whole.

The last two years saw a gaping rent in the gossamer from which I’d woven my stories. A rent which isn’t an ending but a delineation. A signpost between then and now. The dangling threads in my fabric – tiny imperfections – got caught on a sliver of the sharpest steel, and there followed a heart-in-mouth tearing sound that always bodes ill. Frantically I grabbed to salvage what was left, catching the ripping fabric before it tore entirely in two. Over time I have patched it back together with scraps I have found littered around me. New stories. New friends. New life.

And I love my new, messy cloak. Now it’s authentic. It is speckled and peppered with love and laughter as well as those old faithfuls: sadness and confusion. These days it feels like home.

My cloak is not a dress that I wear for the world any more, but a blanket to enclose myself in. It’s a rug that I lay upon in the sun and examine, picking and caressing the gold here, the silver there, the black, purple, yellow and orange patches all over. It’s a shield I hide behind. It’s a flag I fly when I feel brave. It’s everything and it’s me. But it isn’t new. It’s woven from everything that never ended.

Because nothing ever ends. Not really.

This time six years ago I was newly released from hospital. I had two small children and had just given birth to – and lost – my third – a tiny daughter. On New Year’s Eve that year I recall feeling as if I was in a bubble of exquisite alone-ness as I walked to the corner store for orange juice. In the surreal December morning I felt heightened and alive in the aftermath of losing her, and almost losing my own life. It was my first realisation that nothing ever ends.

In the space of loss, if we look hard enough, what remains are heart echoes. Things that still sound when tangible evidence is gone. Maybe it’s the words of a lover, an inflection of their voice, their sigh as they sleep, the tears that they gave you. Perhaps it’s the dreams for a child who never was. It might be a wisdom shared, a scene glimpsed, a fragment of conversation that drifted on the breeze. A secret kiss. A dead snake or a coloured feather, found on a walk. A sudden gust of wind. The season’s sweetest cherry. A friend’s laugh. These things echo in our hearts and halt the very idea of endings. These things say: I was here. And so were you.

One of my favourite ways to capture – and watch others capture – heart echoes, is with words. Words I read. Words I write. Words I hear. A constant for me. The nuts and bolts of storytelling. My lifelong companions.

But I have become wise to the ways of words. Their tricks. The paradox of words is that they can appear as truth, and yet truth is the most elusive of all things – more elusive than heart echoes built out of memories. But words do offer a glimpse of transient truth. Something that is true for now. Something that resonates at this moment. A changeable, malleable truth that needs to be looked at constantly, refreshed, made more true.

Stories are a way into that truth, no doubt, but the very best, most true stories are the ones we create ourselves. And the most wonder-filled story we create is the story of our own lives. My story is different to yours. And to yours. And yours. But within the pages of my story and yours are the similarities which connect us. I write my own story, I choose my own adventure, but the intersection of our adventures is where the magic is. This is how we put an end to endings. This is how we make heart echoes. By connecting our stories. By making an endless patchwork quilt across humankind.

The first day of  a new year is a sweet construct, tricking us into believing in endings and new starts. I’m not comfortable with neat packages when life is a spectrum of faltering footsteps and unexpected headlong plunges. But I will use this quiet morning, with the sound of splashing summer children outside my window, to think about a creamy sheet of paper upon which to write today’s dreamed adventure. To draw an imaginary line under the tellings contained here. To end this Best of All Possible Worlds in an artificial way so I can go on living in it authentically. But how to end a piece about things never ending? Well, there has to be a closing song of course…

This song was given to me in its original form by someone very dear to my heart. A strip of light in my darkness. Since then it has come to me over and over. This collection of words has created heart echoes in ever widening circles. Magic.

And then I found this version. Yes, it’s an ad campaign, but ad people are some of the best storytellers in the game. There are layers upon layers of meaning for me in this representation. Every time I watch it a new layer is added, making its echo stronger and louder for me.

And today, as I rode my bike and I listened to it and thought about words – these words I needed to write, future words that I want to write – I knew who I had to dedicate it to. On this, the first day of the new year. Or, simply, yesterday’s tomorrow.

So, Muse, if you’re listening, this is for you. Come sail your ships around me.

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Filed under loss, writing

Bear With Me While I Put You On Hold

As I was saying to a writer friend – who might be Kylie Ladd and who might never have felt the sting of rejection (oh settle down Kylie, I know the school newsletter once refused to publish your story, working title: Turtles: The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. But that doesn’t really count.)

Anyhoo – I said to Kylie, “What good is a blog if not a dumping ground for rejected pieces?” Because this piece was rejected by one of my usually friendly websites. They swear the rejection is completely unrelated to my own brand of awesome. But then they probably say that to everyone. Nevermind. I’ll have another piece with them one day.

But this piece was fun – and not my usual writing bag. I find I can’t usually sustain humour beyond 140 characters. That’s not saying that I’m funny on Twitter. Or even that this piece is funny. But… don’t you hate an overwrought preamble?

However, the main reasons for posting this piece are:

1. Telcos have shitted me senseless this week. So get that up ya Telco 1 and Telco 2.

2. I really feel like getting up @AnIdleDad‘s goat cos I know he misses me. And he gets all snarky when you talk about telcos, cos even though he hates his job he has to live in corporate hell in order to fund his appetite for ukes, wine and sharp knives. He also has a rockin’ wife and magic daughters who need to be kept in a manner deserving of their awesomeness.

3. I had a cool writing buddy in on this piece. It was fun (even though he made me pull out my loving copy/paste of my Twitter stream…). We deserve to be published. If you can call a blog ‘published’ (which IMO you can’t really). But we will. Just for today. ^_^

Bear With Me While I Put You On Hold

I always thought whinging about telcos was the resort of mean-spirited types who didn’t understand that everyone is just trying to do their job. Whenever I speak to someone in a far-flung call centre I put on my smiley voice and try to infuse my pesky (one-hundred-and-twenty-seventh) request for whatever-it-is-this-time with an ‘I know what it’s like to be working for the man’ empathy.

Well, f*&% empathy , this shit just got real.

Although the digikids recently talked me into signing my life away for a jabscreen,  I have resolutely held onto my old-school landline. Maybe it’s nostalgia. Or perhaps it’s the fact that I don’t really know how to get out of my telco contract. Or who I am actually contracted to. Or why ‘bundling’ everything might make sense. Or what ‘porting’ my number means.

I’m Generation X so bear with me…

A few weeks ago I had a phone call from Telco1 who wanted to know why, since I had once been happy with them, I had changed to Telco 2. I mumbled something like, “Cheaper.”

Then Telco 1 started saying something like, “Shiny, shiny, My Precious and would you like us to bundle it all, port your number over and give you as many lovely new techno devices for your house as you would like?”

I was all: Yes please. How much?

Telco 1: Oh exactly the same as you were paying before. Just a little bit more expensive. But more shiny.

Me: I don’t have to do anything, right? You can do it all from your end and just deliver the shiny things here? And it will all be good and everyone wins?”

Telco 1: Yes. Yes, that’s exactly how it will work.

Then the voice got all fine-print and disclaimer-ey and I think they said something like: Blah, blah, change your email, blah blah, Gen Y do it all the time, blah, what’s your problem, blah, blah, ringthisonenumberandcheckthatyou’renotundercontractwithTelcos2through48thismessagewrittenandauthorisedbyblahblahblah.

Me: Sure. Can I do it tomorrow?

Telco 1: Yes. You have until (unintelligible date which may have actually been some time in the past).

All was fine until last week when our landline stopped working. And then the internet died. And a then black hole opened up in our kitchen.

Actually I didn’t realise any of this – happily jabbing away as I was at my jabscreen – until my kids said, “Mum! We can’t get onto Club Penguin!”

And that’s when I entered my Telco absurdist nightmare.

Call to Telco 1

Me: Hello. I seem to have a problem with my phone.

Telco 1: Bear with me while I put you on hold…

Me: Oh.

Telco 1: Sorry to have kept you waiting (8 minutes). Ok it seems you’re changing over to us but that’s not actioning until this Friday. We can’t do anything. You need to ring Telco 2.

Call to Telco 2

Me: Hello I seem to have a problem with my phone.

Telco 2; Bear with me while I put you on hold…

Me: Ok.

Telco 2: Um, ok sorry to have kept you waiting (12 minutes). It seems that Telco 1 have actioned the changeover. We can’t do anything from this end now. It’s in their hands. By the way you might need to cancel your contract with us now that you’re with Telco 1. You owe us 95.70 for breaking your contract.

Me: Oh. Ok. Can I cancel it then?

Call to Telco 1

Me: Hi. I was speaking to someone earlier about my phone…

Telco 1: Bear with me while I put you on hold…

Me: But…

Telco 1: Sorry for keeping you waiting (18 minutes) but it seems you have cancelled your contract with Telco 2 and we can’t really action anything from this end until Friday. If you want your phone on, Telco 2 has to do it. You’ll have to cancel the cancellation.

Me: Oh. Ok.

Call to Telco 2

Me: Hi. Can I bear with you while you put me on hold? And when you feel sorry for keeping me waiting for 23 minutes can I talk to you about cancelling my contract? I need to cancel that cancellation.

Telco 2: So what you’re saying is you want to cancel the cancellation order? Because there’s only about 15 minutes left before the cancellation takes effect. If you want to cancel it I’ll have to put you through to the cancellation department. Bear with me…

I swear I’m hardly making any of this up.

And this next part I actually really didn’t make up at all.

Telco 2: Sorry for keeping you waiting (47 minutes), but we’ve checked everything and it looks as if Telco 1 has pulled your plug out. Now, I’m not talking behind anyone’s back or anything (and at this point the voice took on a decidedly teenager-ish tone) but they do this, like, ALL the time. There’s nothing we can do.

That’s when I started rocking back and forth, clutching my jabscreen.

Later that day my husband decided to deal with things. He may have used a swear word. He may have used a loud voice. He may have cried real tears.

We still have no home phone connection.

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Filed under parenting, telcos, twitter

if hermione granger was a blogger…

Sometimes I’m a deadset wanker – no two ways about it. And posting up my uni essay may actually be one of the most wankerish things I have done of late. 🙂

But the bookish nerd dies hard and, needless to say if there had been teh interwebs around when I was a crazy moping high school student or a lonely undergraduate, I would have been posting up stuff like this left right and centre.

*sigh* silly me.

This blog post won’t be for everyone – in fact I think that my lovely friend and tweep @skippy_2 may be the only one who will read it. Although I know there are a few followers/friends/tweeps who take a passing interest in writing and its stylistic elements – so hopefully there’s something of interest here for you as well.

The subject for which this essay was submitted is called Creative Nonfiction and is part of my Masters in Social Science (Creative Writing specialisation). The question for this one was something like this:

“Choose two of the pieces of creative nonfiction from the course reader and discuss the narrative techniques they employ. What narrative features mark these works as creative nonfiction and how else would you define their genre (ie. memoir, travelogue, personal essay)? How are the themes of these pieces developed in narrative style and voice? To what effect?”

Oh, and btw I got a High Distinction for this essay. Lol. Otherwise it wouldn’t be here at all.

Creative Nonfiction Critical Essay

“In order for creative nonfiction to be creative nonfiction it must be framed and focused.”(Gutkind 2007, p.180) Lee Gutkind continues to define creative nonfiction as being comprised of, “story and information, style and substance, frame and focus.” (Gutkind 2007,p.180) ‘Framing’ is the organising by “time and shape” whereas ‘focus’ is organising by “meaning and content”. In Lee Stringer’s Grand Central Winter and Richard Ford’s Accommodations the authors employ frame and focus in their search for the embodiment of creative nonfiction – the desire to reveal an emotional truth through reflection upon a real-life event or events.

By utilising tools of narrative fiction, the creative nonfiction writer marks their work as distinct from simple reportage or recount. Structure is one such tool. Where recount generally creates a chronological rendering of the factual story, narrative looks at creating dramatic tension which renders it as narrative. In Grand Central Winter Stringer starts with an abrupt orientation: “What happened was I was digging around in my hole –there’s this long, narrow crawl space in Grand Central’s lower regions, of which few people are aware and into which I moved some time ago. It is strung with lights and there is a water spigot just outside the cubbyhole through which I enter.”(Stringer 1998, p.13) This introduction into Stringer’s world – understated and conversational – brings the reader immediately into the scene without requiring a more traditional set-up. The use of the present tense makes the action immediate. While sparse, the description is symbolic of the subject. Having established a tone of understated exposition he moves quickly to the fulcrum of the narrative. Digging for something to clean his pipe Stringer says, “I pull it out and it’s a pencil and it does the trick.” (Stringer 1998, p.14) This is the heart of the piece, the symbol of his eventual salvation – a fictional device which helps the full meaning of the narrative to be finally attained. Stringer’s narrative structure is further foreshadowed when he invokes the writing of Tenessee Williams: “It kind of comes in through the side door. I mean Williams will start talking about, say what it smells like to work in a factory, and before you know it, he’s going on about wanting to kill his father or something like that.” (Stringer 1998, p.16) Williams’ style informs Grand Central Winter from the abrupt structural orientation – an ‘in through the side door’ technique – which then gathers to the dramatic narrative turning point: his fevered writing of his first story. Ultimately the narrative moves forward until it reaches a traditional climax – being the moment when he and his friend bond over the story he has written – and onward to the resolution: “After that I did four things every day. Hustle up money, cop some stuff, beam up and write. And in the end I wound up dropping the other three.” (Stringer 1998, p.18) It is obvious that the framing and stylistic elements of Grand Central Winter are narrative features which mark it as creative nonfiction.

Accommodations by Richard Ford, begins in a remarkably similar fashion to Grand Central Winter. Abrupt, almost staccato introduction in the present tense: “I am in bed. It is one o’clock in the morning. I am eleven years old, and in a room inside my grandfather’s hotel.”(Ford 1995, p.114) The present tense creates immediacy and draws the reader quickly into the narrative world. Ford then uses snatched dialogue and scattered imagery to evoke a child’s perception. Descriptive devices such as “the orchid smell”; “the elevator grate drawn back” and “a second woman’s voice far away… a car horn blows.” (Ford 1995, p.114) create a sense of mystery and things half-seen which becomes a motif in this piece. But, after this similarity in narrative introduction, Accommodations veers into markedly different stylistic territory from Stringer’s piece. Ford reverts to the past tense after his introduction and gives some lucidly detailed descriptions such as: “Little Rock was a mealy, low-rise town on a slow river and the hotel was the toniest, plushest place in town. And still it was blowsy…” When it comes to the depiction of character Ford purposefully places himself in the background – “I simply stood alongside that for a while in my young life – neither behind the scenes nor in front.” (Ford 1995, p.119) – giving the spotlight to his grandfather and those who people his world. Paul Mills says, “It can be fruitful and interesting to explore personal narratives within a group or community, showing contrasting perspectives, shared perceptions, difference and coincidence.” (Mills 2005, p.37) This seems to be Ford’s approach and symbolic of his themes. In this way he almost writes himself out of the narrative, subjugated for the most part beneath the more strongly painted portraits of the other characters. “Employees, guests, ‘The Permanents’ (old bachelors, old shopkeepers, old married couples in cheap rooms with no better homes to hold onto) lobby lizards – older men with baffling nicknames like Spider, Goldie, Ish…” (Ford 1995, p.115)  The narrative function of evoking a sense of place and character is therefore imperative to the purpose of the piece. In a world of constant change Ford says, “To live in a hotel promotes a cool two-mindedness: one is both steady and in a sea that passes with tides.” (Ford 1995, p.114)  This observation underscores the thematic questions about permanence. Structurally Ford’s piece finds its narrative complication in the tension behind this boy’s recollections and his almost absent personality. There is also a hint of dramatic complication when he says, “If my grandfather lost his job – always the backstage scare story – we lost it all.” (Ford 1995, p.118)  Ultimately his theme is that, “every little thing is life”, and that questions of permanence are almost irrelevant. Thus this ‘floating life’ – the life where ‘everything counts’- becomes important and reflected in his seemingly unstructured yet purposeful series of events. The structure now mirrors the theme. As Gutkind says, “In order for scenes to fit together (in creative nonfiction), they must reflect the same or similar focuses.” (Gutkind 2007, p. 180) This is exactly what Ford has done in Accommodations.

Just as framing marks out the realm of creative nonfiction so necessarily must ‘focus’ or theme. Grand Central Winter is a redemptive, epiphanous and self-reflexive story of the writer’s journey out of drug addiction and into the writing life. The sparse, almost detached descriptive approach to the story pre-empts the moment of salvation when, digging for an implement with which to clean his crack pipe Stringer finds a pencil. With deceptive nonchalance he says, “The good thing about carrying a pencil is that it’s a pencil.” (Stringer 1998, p.14) The impact of this statement is layered retrospectively with the narrative turning point which comes later: “It dawns on me that it’s a pencil. I mean, it’s got a lead in it and all, and you can write with the thing.” (Stringer 1998, p.14) Ultimately this pencil leads to the redemptive moment which parallels Stringer’s earlier descriptions of his drug use. “I’m scribbling like a maniac; heart pumping, adrenaline rushing, hands trembling. I’m so excited I almost crap on myself. It’s just like taking a hit.” (Stringer 1998, p.15) The pencil, at first a part of his despair, becomes a narrative symbol of his salvation.

Richard Ford’s thematic focus concerns the definition of home, and the permanence and reality of life. His piece is interesting in that it reads as nostalgia but in fact has at its heart not so much a longing (as is nostalgia’s hallmark) but a questioning borne from his experiences. “How permanent is real life?” (Ford 1995, p.119) he wonders at the conclusion. This questioning stance originates from the intrinsically transient nature of the lives he observed as a child: “The place was a hollow place, like any home, in which things went on, a setting where situations developed and ended.” Ultimately the theme of permanence and transience is symbolised by the detailed rendering of life within his grandfather’s hotel.

While these two pieces have stylistic, structural and thematic differences the claim to emotional truth must necessarily unite them as creative nonfiction. Stringer’s emotional truth comes through his raw and understated description. When he says, “I take a hit and have a pleasurable half hour of sweaty trembling panic that at any second someone or something is going to jump out of the dark,” (Stringer 1998, p.14), the ironic tension between the pleasure and the panic rings with authenticity. In Ford’s Accommodations the claim to truth comes through the lovingly rendered descriptions and evocation of place and character. The ultimate expression of the truth behind these representations comes when the narrator says of his grandfather, “I could think different of him now, see him through new eyes, revise history, take a narrower latter-day view. But why?” (Ford 1995, p.116) The reader is alerted to the author’s intention to represent – as much as possible – things as they really were, seeming almost at pains not to interpret too much. This method of recollection suits his theme of the importance of the ordinary; articulated when he says: “To make regular life seem regular need not always be to bleach the strong colours out. But just for a time it can help. When you look for what’s unique and also true of life, you’re lucky to find less than you imagined.” (Ford 1995, p.119)

Creative nonfiction is marked by the emotional truth distilled from reflection upon real events rendered through the application of narrative techniques. Grand Central Winter and Accommodations both use such techniques in order to ultimately express the central theme of their reflections. And it is perhaps in a shared technique that they each find their quintessential expression: the invocation of a rhetorical question in the second person. Stringer says: “What can I tell you? It was one of those moments.” By virtue of its simplicity this is an incredibly moving representation of his salvation. Ford similarly addresses his reader – encouraging them to reflect alongside him: “Everything counts. What else do you need to know?” By insisting that the reader engage with the writer, the narrative itself and the emotional truth, creative nonfiction – such as the pieces discussed here – achieves its ultimate function.

Bibliography

Ford, R. (1995). Accommodations. Best American Essays 1995. J. Kincaid and R. Atwan. New York, Houghton Mifflin.

Gutkind, L. (2007). Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Creative Nonfiction But Were Too Naive or Uninformed to Ask. The Handbook of Creative Writing. S. Earnshaw. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

Mills, P. (2005). The Routledge Creative Writing Handbook. Oxon, Routledge.

Stringer, L. (1998). Grand Central Winter: Stories From the Street. New York, Seven Stories Press.

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Filed under Uncategorized, uni, writing

birthday gifts

Dear Sienna,

If things had gone as planned – as promised in the ideal world I used to live in – you would be turning four today. Anzac Day wouldn’t be just Anzac Day; it would be your birthday. And I would probably be wondering if the shops were open because I forgot to buy sprinkles to make the fairy bread for your party.

Things would be different.

But it isn’t your birthday today. Today there is no four-year-old girl at our house. Your big brother is still the baby of the family – though at eight he really isn’t a baby any more. When I see him with our puppy – the way he cuddles and calls him ‘Bubba’ – I know he would have been a great big brother. He’s not supposed to be the youngest.

And Indy? Well I know she wishes she could say the words: ‘My little sister’ without watching them fall to the ground – all meaning lost because you’re not here.

Today – on your would-be birthday – I wonder what you would look like. I remember ‘four’ with the other two. Such a gorgeous age. Would you be blonde like them? When you were born you had your brother’s legs and chin. Your eyes were the same beautiful shape as your sister’s. As tiny as you were there was no doubt you were so much like both of them. I wonder: what funny things would you say if you were four? Who would your little friends be? What would you like to eat? Would you have a favourite toy? TV show? Bedtime story?

But all of this wondering comes to nothing. Because you are not here.

Things are different.

In the void after I lost you I returned to writing. I wrote about you. That was the beginning. A collusion of inexplicable good fortune saw me land a most amazing job. Through it all I fell headlong back into a long lost love affair with the world of words. I became more *me* than I’d ever been. Because of you. The gift of you.

But you know I’d give it all back in a heartbeat if I could have you. Never gonna happen. Because everything is different now.

I don’t believe in heaven any more. Not because of you. Just because. Words like ‘god’ and ‘soul’ and ‘angel’ don’t sing to me. But there’s still one thing that does.

When I planned your funeral I struggled to find a song to play. The funeral people had some suggestions – and yeah Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven breaks everyone’s heart but wasn’t right for you. But, the day before you were to be born I got in my car and there, on the radio, was the song.

I knew immediately. Ok, it turns out this is one of the most requested funeral songs ever, so I am rather predictable after all. Nevermind. It still works for me. And this is why. As always, it’s about the words.

When I’m feeling weak/And my pain walks down a one way street

Yep. Not only do I love me a metaphor, but I’ve been down that one way street.

There’s also this:

Down the waterfall/Wherever it may take me/I know that life won’t break me

Yep again. When you’ve been through the worst you kind of adopt a bit of a ‘bring it’ attitude. It’s a strength that you have given me. Another gift.

And here’s the thing – the reason good ol’ Robbie Williams reached me in this way is because I *should* be loving a four-year-old little girl, but turns out I’m not. Call you an angel, call you whatever – but things are different and loving you as a memory, well, that’s what I’m doing instead.

So today,  this life of infinitesimal wonder, confusing and conflicted awe, marrow-sucking, torturous, life-affirming, mind-blowing, O Captain! My captain! Carpe diem–ness – today it sucks in the most exquisitely bittersweet way.

But, at the bottom of it all… I miss you.

Happy birthday.

Mummy

xx

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Filed under loss, parenting, writing

the best pr in town

The narrative of parenting is littered with clichés. From the ‘being a parent is demanding but oh so fulfilling’ proclamations to the constant worship at the altar of ‘unconditional love’ and the declarations that life was somehow incomplete until the progeny came along, parenting is a public relations dream come true. But I find myself occasionally cringing at how readily we spout banalities when we become parents. It’s a soapbox I have been on before but I return to it again because of a little piece of parenting propaganda from the Hollywood machine.

The film I’m talking about is Baby Mama – now don’t get me wrong, Tina Fey is my total celebrity girlcrush and I get all tingly and excited when 30 Rock comes on the tele. But I found myself weeping with both sadness and frustration at the end of the film and questioning how such representations of parenthood both influence and cloud our perceptions.

Baby Mama tells the story of Kate, a single woman in her late 30’s who has dedicated herself to her career and now finds that she has left it too late to have a baby. (How many hackneyed ideas can you spot in that sentence?) Kate decides to go to a surrogacy agency to have the baby of her dreams. The surrogate mother turns out to be a fraud who deceives Kate into believing she is pregnant in order to make a quick buck. Unbelievably both women fall pregnant to their prospective boyfriends and have perfect babies – ‘happily ever after’ seems inevitable.

I chose this film because I thought it would be filled with irreverent humour and irony – and indeed Sigourney Weaver’s turn as the über-fertile middle-aged director of the surrogacy agency was my favourite part of the film. But what I objected to was the ending where everyone had a baby (naturally I might add, so there’s a slap in the face to anyone who may have conceived a child by other means) and the distinct subtext was that these two unfulfilled women would now be happy because they had entered the exalted club of parenthood.

I admit I was emotional when I watched this film (it was around this time last year, on the day my angel should have turned three) but when I shared my thoughts with my best friend she could see my point. While we both love our kids and now can’t imagine life without them, we wonder why we never felt that we could have chosen a child-free path. The unspoken understanding is that it is a choice you might regret – that the happy ending will somehow elude you if you walk the road less travelled. Our consensus was that, biological imperative aside, parenting has an awesome public relations team on the job. As my friend said, “Having kids can be wonderful but so can other things. And sometimes being a parent can be just damn hard.” But this is not something you hear often. If someone does dare to complain about parenting or their children it is almost expected that they will balance the expression with a platitude such as, “But I wouldn’t swap them for quids.”

After watching Baby Mama I was once again left worrying for women who do not have children – either by choice or by circumstance. How do they cope in the face of the overwhelming juggernaut of parenting PR? Anyone who has watched a friend or relative struggle with IVF or other fertility issues undoubtedly knows the answer to that question. And so this week I have been asking: where are the narratives about women and men who are not, and never will be, parents? Where is the happy ending which doesn’t have kids in it?

What motivated you to have children? Do you ever wonder what life would be like without kids?

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Filed under parenting, writing

the muse, the memory, the master

Ok -so uni is back. And this week it was my turn to post a workshop piece on the topic of ‘Nostalgia’.

The reading for the week was a piece by Bruce Chatwin called A Lament for Afghanistan. It was an ok piece. Sadly, I am not a fan of travel writing – am kinda not really a fan of travel itself. But part of this course has a focus on travel writing – being, as it is, a popular genre in creative non-fiction.

Anyhoo – the focus question to do with this reading says: “Chatwin’s memories of his travels in Afghanistan are triggered by thoughts of another travel writer, Robert Byron. Has any writer put you on a journey into your own past? Write about it, weaving your reading into the memory.”

I *knew* what I wanted to write about, but somehow I came out with a garbled piece about nursery rhymes, Enid Blyton and Little Golden Books. Gah!!! And I was running out of time (to say nothing of work deadlines and all that jazz).

Then, in a nice collusion of coincidence and intensity, I reached a point where the piece I wanted to write found its way to the very top of my brain.

The muse is a deadset mysterious thing.

Out it came. A piece about what is possibly my favourite book ever: The Great Gatsby. I could weep at the literary perfection of this classic. I loved it then and I love it now. (I even have the Popular Penguin coffee mug to prove it ;-))

But this is just a short piece, just a taste. I feel there is more as yet unsaid. It will come. When the muse says it is time.

Without further ado…

Of Cocktail Music And First Loves

The yellow cocktail music pulled me in. The words – exquisite, poetic and yet duplicitous – seduced me, while the tragic narrative broke me in two.

And in the protagonist I found myself.

I was fifteen, discovering ‘literature’ after a lifetime of books. It was the year when the whole world was wondering if George Orwell’s dystopian vision would materialise. I was, of course, perilously perched upon the Newspeak/ Doublethink/ Thoughtcrime/ Big Brother ride of the times. Contrarily, Emma thrilled me, because – and this was a surprise – I adored it. Catch-22 felt like a private joke Joseph Heller chose to share with me alone. And John Irving blew my mind when he introduced me to the weird and wonderful world of Garp.

Then came F. Scott Fitzgerald. And I fell truly, madly, deeply in literary love for the first time.

At fifteen – desperate to escape, dreaming so hard the dreams that would be my way out – The Great Gatsby gave breath to my deepest and most tender desires.

Metaphor captured me, made me listen: Her voice was full of money.

As a girl with pretensions to a writing future it hit me in my sweet spot.

And as a girl from a poor family, I got the metaphor on a visceral level. I envied girls with voices like Daisy. I was Jay himself – ridiculously smitten by an untouchable world.

He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.

This almost impossible articulation of a transformative love – a love which renders the subject powerless in its wake – sang itself off the page to me with heartbreaking lucidity.

My own first love belonged to that world too. A girl of poetic beauty, whimsical charm and gentle charisma.  Like Jay with Daisy, I never forgot her. She made her way in the world and I watched – West Egg to East Egg – as she transcended. Above. Beyond.

While I waited. Below.

And all the time, beneath my own swirling surface, there burned twin ambitions: to be someone. And to be someone for her. To be worthy.

And then. Slowly I moved forward. Running faster. Stretching my arms out further. Hoping that one fine morning

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memoir & emotional truth

As part of my Masters this year I am doing a course called Creative Non-Fiction. This week we looked at the genre of ‘memoir’. From our notes: “What marks (memoir) from fiction is the claim to truth – what the author believes to be the truth or the emotional truth.”

One of our workshop exercises was to write about a house we lived in as a child.

My first draft was complete and utter crap. And after missing the first week’s class (through no *real* fault of my own) I was determined to redeem myself in the eyes of my teacher.

But it wasn’t going to happen with the nonsense issuing from my pen.

But then…

I went to see Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland. The film aside, Lewis Caroll’s book is one of my top five all time favourites. When it comes to the emotional truth about the absolute trippiness of childhood it’s perfect – and it’s not even a memoir.

Maybe it resonates with me because my own childhood was not a pastel-coloured one. It was considerably darker hued than anything Walt Disney may have conjured up. Dark shadows. Deep holes. Monsters.

Until now I haven’t shared a lot of my childhood in my writing. But, if I want to be a fair dinkum writer, I think I have to try to find some of that emotional truth. To occasionally reveal the wound, raw and weeping, before I put it away again.

So (with thanks to both Lewis and Tim) I wrote this.

The Farm

The farmhouse has an outside toilet. A long tunnel, boring straight down into the earth. Its smell is rancid, septic, the rotten part of being alive: the undertone of pine disinfectant does nothing to disguise its filth. If you dare to look down you see a liquid mass, buzzing with flies, writhing with maggots, ready to swallow you if your tiny bottom slips through the seat. I dread the long walk to the outhouse, but fear even more the longer return with  grotesque shadow-beasts unseen at my back. My five-year-old footsteps break with fleeting hysteria and propel me helter-skelter to the relative safety of the house’s threshold.

But the house itself is no dreamy sanctuary. There are no aromas of hearty soup, or dense teacakes baking in the oven, waiting to be slathered with butter. There is no roaring fire in the hearth. There are no cows for milk or crops for food, and the few malnourished chickens have been killed by the underfed dog. It is but an echo of a farm: run-down, possibly condemned, a charitable hand-out for the family with too many kids, a ne’er-do-well father and nowhere to go.

It is a house of dark disappointments. The barely hidden, yet unintelligible disappointments of the grown-up world: whispered behind doors, screamed in plain view, shamefully aired in public.

And the childhood ones.

The Easter bonnets (cheap cardboard, glitter, cotton wool) are abandoned on this, the last day of term. The car won’t start. Again.

I picture my classmates parading with their own creations, proud, before smiling parents. Parents with cars that go and toilets that flush. In this, my kindergarten year, they are not yet ‘friends’. Never to be friends actually, because I have the wrong lunchbox, the wrong uniform, the wrong family.

Not that it mattered. We left soon after for another school, another house, a new life.

But here, now, I hold my disappointment, keen and burning, close to my chest. My mother does not need more angst today. Impotent and raging, my father has already thundered out the door for the long walk to town. There, he will try to find someone to fix the car.

My big sister – a ferocious eight-year-old veteran of disappointment – is equally devastated. Her Easter bonnet was even better than mine. School prizes of chocolate – chocolate! – retreat back into our dreams, never meant for kids like us anyway.

And so we sit on her bed – a covetous bed built high into the wall. A place to hide, above and away from the sadness, the trouble, the hopelessness. I know I’m lucky to be allowed up there and so I keep quiet, cowed by her older, fiercer anger, her own dramatic and frightening powerlessness. She can’t save us either.

But… proportions.

Mum, at the door now, beckons us.

We’re on her bed now – nay, her bedroom suite: the one good thing she owns, a wedding gift from her parents, with matching wardrobes and dressing table. The top quarter doors of the wardrobes are sliders. Places of grown-up secrets: hurriedly wrapped Christmas presents, abandoned wedding rings, books I shouldn’t read, pictures I shouldn’t see.

But today its secret is sweet. Mum reaches up and brings down two foil-wrapped chocolate rabbits – slated, I realise now, to be delivered in a few days time by the Easter Bunny.

Under  the covers with chocolate – disproportionally sweet, melting, lavish, indulgent, special-occasion chocolate – we, all three, sigh out our sadness and despair. And the recipe for momentary happiness (cocoa, milk, butter, sugar) works its delicious magic.

For now.

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