Monday, August 31, 2009


If only all the worries of my life could be solved as simply as this one.

I have just managed to remove the splinter that had lodged itself inside my little finger for over a week now – a tiny sliver of glass.

This morning I poked a hole into the lump under my skin with a pin and pushed as far down as I could bear, then smeared the puncture with tea tree oil. I bandaged the lot and ignored it for the rest of the day until now.

I should be a surgeon. And you should all be proud.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Foreign objects

I am distracted by an infected finger. Something has managed to lodge itself underneath the top layers of skin on the little finger of my right hand. It is not so much painful, as it bothers me.

There is a lump that I have attacked twice now with a needle hoping to dislodge the splinter or whatever it is that rests there. My husband has offered to do the job for me. Once I would have welcomed that but not now. Now I prefer to minister to myself but I am squeamish. I do not go in hard enough. I cannot reach the foreign objects and I develop dreadful fantasies of bits of this thing splitting off and floating along my blood stream till it reaches my heart where it will cause a clot and kill me. Such hypochondriasis.

It’s not just a function of age. Though my fears get worse as I age. I’ve always been like this. I went once to visit a doctor in Carnegie because I discovered a slight bump in the middle of my big toe, a bump or lump, whatever it was, I decided for a day or so that at last I had the dreaded cancer. I was only twenty-two but I would be dead within months.
‘It’s a ganglion,’ the doctor said. And proceeded to tell me that the only way to treat it, if indeed treatment were necessary, was to drop a bible on top to squash it. Most likely it would go away of its own accord, he said. And it did.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The loneliness of the diary

I have been watching a documentary on Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet. The man amazes me. He seems so ordinary and yet the words that come from his mind and tapping fingers are extraordinary. He can take something as simple as peeling potatoes with his mother as a boy and turn it into a prayer. A prayer, I mean in the highest sense of beauty.
Heaney has a feel for words, the poet’s sensibility I suppose. I wish I had it too. I see it elsewhere, in poets elsewhere, but I have never been able to tackle words with such delicacy and respect myself.
I am a racer when I write. The words roll out of me. I do not stop to attend to them, to look for the finest alternative word, because I fear if I do so I will lose my momentum. I am a writer who uses momentum to create a scene. Momentum gives me rhythm and when I lose it I tend to stumble and stutter. But I wish, oh how I wish, I could string words together, string images together like Seamus Heaney.

I must avoid beating up on myself at this point. It is so easy to do. The writer’s lament: why do I not write like so and so, or such and such? Why do I not perform as well as he or she? Why are my words awkward and clumsy on the page?

I use my blog to practise my writing, to play around with ideas and to communicate with others. Is this the way others operate? Do other bloggers write on blogs primarily to communicate, or to practise their writing, or to show off, or to struggle with ideas, or to assert their certainties or share their doubts? These questions are probably ridiculous. As with so many things there are probably as many reasons for blogging as there are bloggers.

It beats the loneliness of the diary. When I was a young girl, around fifteen years of age, I wound up in a Catholic boarding school for the best part of a year. It was not an easy time. My sister boarded with me but she seemed, at least to me, she seemed to handle the experience better. She was a neat and orderly child. She could keep her clothes in good repair. I was a slob, with teeth rotting in my mouth that I sought to hide from the nuns and from my mother because I feared both the shame and pain of attending to them.
In boarding school everything ran in order. The boarders, most of them country girls from places like Numurkah, Wonthaggi and Maffra, wore picture perfect uniforms, each item clearly printed with their names in the top collar or on waist tags. Even their socks and underpants were labeled. I hid my underwear and socks in shame. I ran a furtive washing operation on my own, unbeknown to the nuns in the laundry, because I could not bear to let them see my tatty underwear.
It’s a familiar enough story but I use it here as a metaphor for other secrets and for this underlying sense of my writing - that it is messy and a disgrace.
Perhaps I should confine it to the loneliness of my diary.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

autobiographers (and bloggers) lead perilous lives

I am disappointed in myself for not booking into many events at the Melbourne Writers Festival. Yet I fear at the moment I am suffering from stimulus overload. Too much information.
In recent months I find I have become something of a blogaholic. This bothers me. It’s all too easy. Some chance remark on someone’s blog, some brief reference to someone’s thoughts on some other blogger’s ideas, leads me to click the mouse and enter a new blog, one I never knew existed and then depending on the nature of that blog I find I am keen to include said blog onto my ‘follow’ list.
I now have seventeen people whose blogs I follow. I understand I am not alone in this. But at the rate I am going, with an increase of two new blogs every week or so for the last month I will soon be like the old woman in the shoe - she had so many children she knew not what to do. Not that bloggers are children, but I find myself busily identifying with so many of them if I can.
For me it is a brave new world.
I am wary of the ease with which words online can be seen to be far more hostile (or sometimes loving) than they would sound were they spoken. I also resist those (to me) awful conventions, which I see my daughters using regularly on face book, the lol, the hahahah, the letters that signify sounds that presumably are intended to soften the blow of any comments made on line.

My husband, the lawyer, tells me often enough that it is important to be wary of what I write in official capacities, for instance in the notes I might make about my work with others. It’s better he tells me to write less than more. The more you write the more likely it is to be misconstrued, or distorted by those who wish to put a different spin on it than you had intended.
We live in litigious times.
All of this gives me cause to sigh, a tremor of paranoia, but I persevere regardless, because I love to write.
I try to write as honestly as I can and if it gets me into trouble (as it certainly has done recently) then so be it. As the wonderful literary critic, Paul John Eakin writes
‘Autobiographers lead perilous lives.’

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Bogged down with the analytic

I'm working on an essay on migration and it's not working, or so Christina, my editorial mentor advises me. It doesn’t hold together for her. It’s too long sure, and there is no narrative thread holding it together.

What is my question? she asked. My question, my argument. Must I always have an argument? Must it be that everything we say is threaded through by some central argument? Or am I simply being defensive?

Okay. So what is my question, my argument, and the starting point of my exploration.

I’m bogged down with the analytic.

The wind is strong today. It drags at the trees and howls. The dog is terrified. I let him out this morning but he came back in from the backyard soon after and fled upstairs. My daughter found him later cowering in the corner of the upstairs bathroom. The storm freaked him out.

Now why can’t I pursue the difficult question? I am not a migrant. I am a second-generation migrant. There is a difference. I was born in Australia but I can feel the weight of my parents’ migration throughout my childhood in my memories. The business of living in two lands, of being in between, of feeling neither here nor there.

But Holland could only exist for me in my imagination. It was not real for me. It was my mother’s home and I spent so much of my childhood flooded with the feeling that Holland was where she wanted to be, not here with me, with us her family, not here in Australia, my home country.

It added to my own personal cultural cringe. People write about Australians in general as suffering from a type of cultural cringe, which goes back to the days of colonisation and convicts I suspect. Most locate it in our colonial past, though more recently historians have begun to consider the degree to which the dispossession of this land from its indigenous people may have left all those who have come since with the sense of migrant status, bystanders, not really belonging, not of the land, not with the land, not close to their ancestors.

Do these things matter? For me they do. How much of ourselves, our sense of ourselves is located in our physical surroundings.

Why do I never trust my own ideas and why am I always looking for someone else’s ideas to back up my own?

Someone else’s voice has more validity than my own. Even as I write down my thoughts from the top of my head without reference to textbooks and other people’s ideas except as I remember them, I am struck by a sense of uselessness. It is as if anything I might say has no validity unless I can refer back to someone specific who has written about this somewhere else. Then I can quote the reference, the author, and the page number and feel justified in my thoughts. Without the ideas of others my own ideas count for nothing.

I have written elsewhere about the need to find my voice. I have not found my voice in this essay on migration. I have not found it because as Christina suggests I borrow too heavily on Salman Akhtar’s ideas and to her his ideas seem dry. They are not dry to me but I do not use the few limited examples he uses in his paper, instead I try to weave in my own, from my own life, and this does not work.

Why in this post, post modern generation where subject position is all the rage and self reflexiveness, when it’s so important to declare your position from the outset, to let people know where you are coming from, is it still frowned upon to write from the position of an 'I' ?

Is it because the 'I' can so often feel like a migrant in someone else’s land with all the attendant anxieties and uncertainties about how to conduct oneself?

I suspect that the 'I' is rooted in one’s surroundings, much like a baby in her mother’s arms. The fact of my parent’s migration coloured my childhood in many ways.

My mind is scatty. I cannot find a coherent thread. I want to go back to the drawing board of my essay and try to tidy it up yet again. Still I sense if I cannot nut out my question, my basic premise, then I am doomed.

You cannot write a decent story if you do not know your premise- or so I've been told.

Is this true, or can we grope around in a fog and produce something worthwhile out of that fog, even without knowing our premise? I ask you.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Vogue living

There is a house nearby in Camberwell, on a side street. I’ve noticed it a couple of times recently. A modern house, straight lines, blocks superimposed on blocks with sections jutting out in different directions. I do not know enough about architecture to give it a label, but you would have seen many houses like this of late.

In Camberwell they sit obtrusively in spots between the old Victorians and Edwardians. Chalk and cheese. The walls are invariably white and grey, charcoal grey, with maybe a smudge of purple or a splash of dark blue. This particular house is striking by its closeness to the street. The windows are large and square and almost lean over onto the nature strip. There are no curtains as far as I can see, so passers by can actually look inside at the various levels of the house.

I find it unnerving to see so far inside someone’s house. The point is the place is immaculate. It might as well be a display home. Clean, Spartan, open plan. A few books on shelves, but nothing out of place. The occasional but rare ornament. Vogue Living. I cannot imagine life like this.

I never see people walking through this house. People might mess it up, but there are no such signs.

We could never do such a thing with our house. We could never expose our insides to the outside world in this way. There's too much mess.

I pause in my writing and look across my cluttered desk. Only a few weeks ago I had cleared it completely and once again it is covered in books and papers. I am hopeless the way I work. I am like my daughters who seem unable to return a lid to its jar once they have opened it, unable to close doors, or to replace a knife or fork once dragged from drawers if unused or put it once used into the dishwasher. They rarely hang towels on hooks after use, or put their shoes into their rooms at the end of the day.

They simply drop things, clothes, shoes, books wherever they are standing, usually in the kitchen, on the table and bench and given that there are three of them at home at the moment, the place accumulates stuff. Stuff grows like weeds along the kitchen bench on any available space, bench tops tables, chairs, all cluttered.

I cannot simply accuse the girls. My husband and I also collect our items to add to the ever-growing piles. It’s a way of life here.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

The dust for the trees

My mother has long resisted the wearing of glasses. Throughout my childhood her call down the hallway ‘where did I put my glasses?’ was a constant. These days she might wear them on a chain around her neck, a chain or a cord, whatever tickles her fancy, but she will not wear them on her face.

My sister suggests that it is out of vanity that my mother will not wear her glasses except when she reads. My sister has taken to wearing her glasses all of the time. On her original business website as a celebrant, my sister had photos taken in which she wore no glasses until one or two people complained after they had met her that in her web photo she did not wear glasses. So my sister arranged for another photograph to be taken showing her glasses.

I still fluctuate in the wearing of glasses, between those I need for reading and those for distance. I do not want to wear the sort of glasses where the lens slips from one state of magnitude to another. They tell me it’s easy. You get used to it, looking down close to your nose for reading, looking up across the top and over your nose for distance vision. The thought of it makes my head spin, makes me nauseous. No I will stick with the shift from one pair to the other, with prescription sunglasses in between.

My mother does neither of these. I have never seen her wear glasses for distance.
My sister cannot abide this. She likes her vision to be sharp and clear. I’m more like my mother in this one, except when it comes to reading, where I want perfect vision, I do not object to the blurry edges of my vision. I do not object to seeing the world through a haze. It softens everything. I can still see shadows of disapproval cross people’s faces. I can still see the flicker of sadness when their eyes well with tears. I can still see a brow furrowed in anger or a trembling lip. The emotions do not deceive me through the fuzzy haze of my failing distance vision, my aging eyes, but the rough edges have been taken away. I do not see blemishes so clearly, nor do I see mess and dirt.

It is this latter impediment to my vision that I prefer most of all. That I can no longer see so clearly means I am less tormented by the state of the kitchen sink, the faded whiteness of the walls, and the condition of the carpet. I do not agonise over the cat fur that spreads throughout the house and lands on anything material, particularly anything black. Life is easier with less than perfect vision. I am less tortured by its imperfections. My older sister complains about the state of untidiness in my mother’s small unit, where my mother lives alone.
‘She can’t see the dust because she refuses to wear her glasses’
I’m with my mother on this one, too. I can’t see the dust for the trees and I’m not so sure I want to start. Dust is merciless, relentless. Even when we think we have wiped it away it lands again. We can see it through the shafts of sunlight that flash across the room, those golden motes float through the air, stirred by the breeze of our movements. The sunlight acts like a magnifying glass. It captures the billions of particles that weave their way through our atmosphere and nothing we can do can clear the room of them. They come back like armies on the march. They will not leave us. We can never conquer them.

In my view therefore we do best to live beside them. When they multiply too much, sure we can shift them aside, a dust here and there, once a week or so, but the daily grind of trying to remove them endlessly is pointless. Like the man who rakes the leaves from his garden onto the nature strip in the hope that the rain might come and carry those leaves through the drain and out to sea. He is deluded. Before nightfall the wind will spring up and carry the leaves back onto his garden and his nature strip back into his life and like Sisyphus he must return next day to deal with them again, endlessly repeating a pointless task while the rest of his life slides by.

Friday, August 07, 2009

On line ghosts

I heard a talk on Radio National yesterday morning on 'Future Tense' about what happens to people’s blog lives once they have died. Not just their blogs but other experiences they may have shared on the Internet, particularly those for which entry requires a pin number.

It seems there are people, especially those of advanced years who die and leave their loved ones the task of dealing with their online identities and unfinished blog business of which their loved ones know little or nothing.

This fascinates me, the degree to which the way in which the private becomes public on line and then suddenly it’s made private again, at least for those closest to the deceased. The blogger or on line user dies and the remaining loved one must deal with a secret life of which he or she knew nothing.

One woman who aims to help people dissolve the online identities of their deceased loved ones talked about how distressed the remaining partner can become when suddenly realizing their partner had a whole other life with a host of online friends of which he or she knew nothing. Then the remaining partner finds he or she has to dissolve these arrangements when in some instances they don't even understand the basics of computers. This can be even more devastating. They are terrified of 'the ghost in the machine'.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

The ethics of autobiography and the desire for revenge

I have read now the story of the ethnographer Renato Rosaldo and of how he could not understand the urge of the Ilongot tribesmen from the Philippine’s to head hunt when they were overwhelmed by grief, to head hunt as a means of ridding themselves of their rage, rage born of grief. To throw away the head of another was to throw away the pain of the rage.

Rosaldo could not understand these motives. He tried to reconstruct them into terms of exchange, the talion principle, an eye for an eye, but this was not the way in which the Ilongot’s men understood their ways of dealing with grief. When they could no longer headhunt, as it had become illegal, the old men as Rosaldo described them chose to become Christians as a means of assuaging their grief and rage. They could find comfort in the thought that their lost loved one might find comfort in a life hereafter and that they too could join them in the future.

And so one primitive practice was used, was overtaken by another more theoretical practice, that of Christian doctrine, which urges us to bear the pain of this life in an illusory manner. Put your pain aside because in time you will find relief and solace in the world hereafter.

It is hard for those of us who doubt the existence of a life hereafter. It is hard to find comfort in such notions. Maybe we who cannot find comfort in notions of everlasting life and joy in the company of Christ, must revert to the old ways of feeling our pain, which can sometimes, at least in the early stages of grief become that feeling of desire for revenge.

Rosaldo felt rage and fury when his wife died suddenly on a field trip in the Philippines. She had lost her footing and fell down a steep incline to her sudden death. Rosaldo railed against her, furious that she had left him there, then. Furious that she had been so careless, furious that she had taken with her all his joy, all his meaning, everything worthwhile. Only after he could know of his own grief after the death of his wife could he begin to understand the Ilongot’s desire to headhunt, not that he, he writes, would chop the head off the insurance investigator who refused to concede that Rosaldo’s wife had died while at work, however incensed. Rosaldo does not expect replications of behaviour in response to grief but understanding of the motivations as alternative attempts to deal with it.

Ruth Behar later wrote a paper as a tribute to Rosaldo in which she deplores the academic tendency to decry the ‘vulnerability’ and the subjectivity of the observer.

This is my dilemma. How do I justify my use of the first person? Even in academic circles where we write about autobiography, there is a clear preference to write about other people’s autobiographies, to keep ourselves at a distance? Too much emphasis on the 'I' makes it difficult for readers to appraise the validity of a piece of writing, as if they can no longer critique it for fear of offending the writer, who is in fact the narrator, who is in a sense creating, making a fictional character of herself out of the bedrock of her own personal experience, but this bedrock is inevitably sustained not merely by memory but by imagination.

There are so many gaps in my memory I must draw on other memories to create a narrative that makes the work readable. In so doing I distort facts. And because I do not, did not, hopefully never will live in a vacuum, I must also draw on the experiences of the times I have spent with and observed others. Herein lies the greatest pitfall for autobiographers – the degree to which my perspective differs from that of others, both those involved in the scenes and events I might describe and those other bystanders who look on.

Ann Patchett wrote her book, Truth and Beauty based on her relationship with fellow writer, Lucy Grealy. Grealy wrote the acclaimed Autobiography of a Face. Patchett’s book also received critical acclaim. She could write about her friendship with Grealy presumably only after Grealy’s sudden death from an accidental overdose of heroin.

Grealy died in 2002, Patchett’s book came out in 2004. In 2008 a letter appeared on line written by Lucy Grealey’s sister decrying Ann Patchett for violating her grief, the grief she Suellen Grealey carries with her other surviving sister, Lucy’s nonidentical twin, Sarah.

Suellen Grealy feels betrayed. Ann Patchett has interfered with her grief, distorted the public view of her dead sister, included details that the family, the remaining family, namely she and her sister would prefer were not on record. If Grealy’s mother were still alive, she too would be devastated or so her oldest daughter insists, for Patchett’s portrayal of the mother's chronic depression, the knowledge of which would be best kept within the family where it would not be taken out of context and exaggerated. The letter goes on and towards the end, Suellen decries Patchett for making things public, even as she Grealy herself makes public these things she suggests should be kept out of view. Grealy’s letter puts them even more into view.

I have difficulties with Suellen Grealy’s position. Not her right to publish such a letter, but her right to challenge Patchett’s right to publish her book. I have difficulties with my own position vis a vis Suellen Grealy’s position. I think both are free to write and express their perspectives (within reason – that they not slander or vilify the other) but both should be free to write. Yet I find Suellen Grealy's right and writing more untenable because she writes after the event and I have the sense that she is saying Patchett should not have published Truth and Beauty in the first place. Patchett is the well-known writer, as is Lucy Grealy. Suellen Grealy, on the other hand, has no such claim to fame, except perhaps as the older sister of the now dead Lucy Grealy.

All this leads me back to life writing as fueled by the desire for revenge. A similar occurrence elsewhere. I publish a paper, I present a paper and my professional siblings call for my exile because I have spoken about things that they consider should be kept under wraps. Am I the head hunter, for writing as I do, about family dysfunction, or are they, my professional sibling/colleagues the head hunters, for trying to get my scalp in punishment for my crimes as they see them. Could the same be said of Grealy and Patchett? Which one of them is the head hunted, which one hunted?

Where is the compassion in the views that follow? The bloggers who comment on Grealy’s letter seem unevenly divided into those who now declaim Patchett’s book and refuse to honour it by reading it and those others, many of whom have read Patchett’s book and insist on her right to write and publish, that the book is her attempt at dealing with her grief, her memorial to her friend.

Whose rights are greater, that of the family, that of the friend? As Suellen assumes to speak for her sister Sarah and for her dead mother, can we ever be sure that the mother and twin sister of the dead Lucy Grealy would in fact agree with older Sister Suellen?

In my own family such polarisations continue to exist. None of us can speak for each other unless one or other of us gives permission to do so and endorses the views expressed. The difficulty here, I cannot canvas for the views of my siblings, take a vote on what gets included and what not without rubbing up against the ones who insist I not write about my experience, in so far as it might include them, at all. The ethics dilemma again of life writing, of autobiography and of memoir-how can we write about ourselves without writing about others and in so doing without affecting the light and shadows cast on the image of the others that will enter the world, often against the wishes and sometimes the interests of the persons so portrayed?

We can be as honest as we can be in relaying our own views of ourselves but clearly that view is also slanted. It is difficult not to want to put a best foot forward even as we can admit to shame and guilt about our own perceived wrong doings, but still we try to enlist the support of our unknown audience. Witness the Brett sisters, Lily and Doris, one who claims their mother was an angel, the other experiencing the mother as its opposite, a damaged frantic woman who destroyed her older daughter’s self view. I could go on.