January 2010 archive

Leaving Home

We think of leaving home as a single event, the one day in our life when we finally take the world onto our shoulders and close the door on home. In the future, trips back home will be visits only and we will enter the place of our birth, our parental homes as guests only. We might still hold a key to the door, we might have visitors’ rights but that is all they are: the rights of a visitor not of an inhabitant.

When I think of leaving home I think of the day towards the end of the summer holidays after my first year at university when I decided along with my younger sister and a school friend to move out of home and share a house together. I cashed in my Commonwealth scholarship for a cadetship that bound me for two years to the Health department at the completion of my degree. My sister and her friend from school were both on studentships and bound to the Education department to work as teachers for two years at the completion of their degrees. When we pooled our resources we had enough money to pay the rent, to pay for other expenses and transport. We would survive.

‘You must leave during the daytime,’ my mother said. ‘When your father is not around.’

I had seen it before, my father’s rage when my older brothers left home, when my older sister left home, that they should dare to take their beds with them.
‘It’s my furniture,’ my father said. ‘It belongs in this house.’
The ten kilometers or so that spanned our two homes, the old and the new, may not seem such a distance to others who have left home by traveling overseas or through interstate travel, but for me it marked a void, the void between myself and my father. We did not say goodbye to him as we stood on the nature strip watching the small rental truck we had hired to carry our few possessions, including our two single beds, away.

We sneaked off in the middle of the day while he was away at work. He could not have suspected that his second and third daughters had finally decided to take themselves away. We were no longer within our father’s grip. He could no longer threaten or hurt us anymore.

Perhaps it is this failure to say goodbye that has left me with the odd feeling of never leaving home. Besides it was not the first time we had taken off without my father’s knowledge. There had been other flights from home, both day and night. The times when we went with our mother to stay with relatives, aunts and uncles for only for a few days, when our father was lost on a bender and dangerous. And there were times when we stayed with our older now married brother who had children of his own and a wife who resented our presence. What else could we do? We were homeless.

Then there was the time when my oldest brother had issued an edict to my mother that we younger children should be removed from her care so that she and my father could ‘sort things out’. It is easy to say that the arrangement my brother made to have us stay with a Dutch foster family in Camberwell broke down, as if it all happened in the blink of an eye. It did not. It took time, three months of mutual misunderstandings.

I was turning sixteen at the time. We moved from foster care with the Dutch family to live with the nuns and our fellow students at Boarding school. We moved from day scholars into boarders overnight and like other boarders in convent schools we made many trips to and from home.

Why do I lose momentum here? What happens to my mind such that I cannot keep to one train of thought, such that I find myself distracted, wanting to give up, wanting to move elsewhere, anywhere but here at this keyboard at the computer struggling to put down words on the page that might tell a story of leaving home.

Now I have left home on the page and I do not know where to go. Lynn Freed says that when you are writing you must not think. You must listen. Listen. I do not listen so much as I see. I trawl my mind for images for memories, pictures come to me and people occupy these pictures and they say things to one another but I can scarcely hear them. Their words fade in much the way the Dutch language of my mother tongue has faded from my memory.

Listen. The wind is howling through the trees. It is hot and a storm is brewing. You can see a hint of it in the build up of clouds, white and clean, with crisp outlines. They hang low to the ground, so low that from the second storey of this Writer’s House I can almost reach out to touch them. Were I to touch them would they burst?

Listen. There are birds chortling in the distance and insects chittering. The wind has dropped and for a moment I can believe the storm has passed. It is like this writing, these storms of emotion that well up in me as I type, but as Lynn Freed argues, emotions as honest and real as they may be, do not translate into truth on the page.

I am caught between two voices, as much as I am caught between two activities, as much as I am caught between two worlds. One voice tells me to go into a scene with all the sensuous detail, write from your eye, paint a picture, get into the picture, get into the life of that picture now in the here and now. The other voice says, no, write as a reflection about a past moment. Do not look into your mind, but listen.

Can I hear my father calling to me? I cannot remember the sound of his voice, only as an idea, not an experience. What am I doing back here again, always back here. My father/myself. Why?

It is not fair. I must leave home. I must find another home, another place where he does not feature. Is it his voice in my head that tells me over and over again that I am worthless? Stop this now. Write. Write into the pain. Write into the memories. Write into the rage.

Forget your audience. Forget that anyone is ever going to read this stuff. Forget that you are writing for anyone but yourself. If you want to spend page after page pondering the nature of your relationship with you father then do it. If you want to write in the present tense about memories that feel as alive today as they did then, do it. If you want to write about the past, about your mother, about your family, about anyone or anything, then do it.

Stop this voice in your head that is forever telling you off, that is forever comparing you to the person nearby who is bound to be a better writer or a worse one. It matters not. Forget the others, forget them all, these brothers and sisters in your head who are forever demonstrating to you simply by their presence that you are no good relative to them; that your claims for space are invalid; that you have no right to be heard; to speak; to say the things you say.

If you want your fingers to fly across the keyboard in this manic and mad way, writing words again and again that have no reader in their sights; that in no way consider the needs of your reader, then do it.

You are free. You are like a bird. Fly. You have left home. You can write. Stop telling yourself what to do, what not to do. Stop looking for others to do the same. Stop this chorus of demands.

Exhaust yourself, throw yourself into the well of memory and imagination and find some point of entry from where you can get some comfort.

This writing is no comfort; fingers clicking on the keyboard are no comfort. You must have something to say. Say it.

Peter Bishop from Varuna says to write out of ‘doubts and loves’. Where do we put the hate? Is not hate on a continuum with the love? The ones we love are the ones we hate, beginning with our parents.

When I first read William Gaddis’s words quote in the Sunday Age in an article by Don Watson I knew that these words were important for me.
‘The best writing worth reading comes like suicide from outrage or revenge.’

It is not the first time I have been in a creative hole as deep as this. It is not the first time that I have sat alone at my writing desk wishing for something to come to me, some thread, some thought, some feeling or image that I might follow, but it is no less painful.

I ache all over with the refusal. My mind will not give it up. My mind will not let the words flow, will not let me arrive at some point where I can think, ah ha I have it. I know now what I am writing about. I know now what this book is about. I can proceed.

I start again and again, so many false starts so many attempts to move beyond this desperate feeling of not knowing what I am doing.

And the audience whom I tried to send away only five minutes ago is back again, my parents and siblings in the front row alongside my conscience. They say to me again, in a chorus, what are you on about? We don’t want to know this. Tell us a story instead and make it good. Make it interesting.

But if I start to tell a story, I am sure I will be in trouble with someone. That someone will tap me on the shoulder and say ‘what gives you the right?’

Enough, already we know this. Any writer worth her salt knows this, so why go on and on.

Love and Work: My list of ten things that make me happy.

Kass has asked that I list ten things that make me happy. At first glance this task does not seem easy. I’m much better at writing about things that bother and trouble me. Things that make me happy seem too sugar sweet by half. However, I shall try.

Like Kass in her blog, I shall order these things in no particular order, but the fact that I order them implies an order and so just as I did when I was a child and fantasized about a woman whom I saw each Sunday in the church and rated her as the most beautiful woman in the world, I will qualify my rating.

When I was a child I put the Blessed Virgin Mary first ahead of my mother second, and Miss Andersen, my grade four teacher, third. I could not rate a complete stranger for beauty ahead of my mother. Then I included all my sisters and brothers for beauty and love in a bunch. I would not discriminate one from the other, just as I cannot rate my children as preferred or less today.

When my third daughter was around the age I was when I was in love with the woman in the church, she asked me,

‘Which of your children do you love the best? I don’t care if it’s not me,’ she said. ‘I just want to know.’

She did not let up. For weeks she hounded me with this question. For weeks I refused to give an answer. Eventually her question died away, but she had already decided whom I preferred, and nothing I could say or do would shift her decision, at least not then.

When I was a child I was convinced that my mother preferred me to her other three daughters. After all she gave me her name, her exact name, Elisabeth Margaretha Maria and she let me get away with things, things my older sister never managed to avoid, like having to tidy up – my mother never pressured me – and she bought me a Rockman’s baby doll for my eighth birthday, and a poetry book for my fourteenth. Proof positive of her special love for me.

I stored up evidence of my mother’s favoritism until I was well into adulthood and she was by then in her sixties. Not long after my father had died, my mother told me one day about an assignment she had been given by her church group. She had been asked to write down the name of the person with whom she felt the closest affinity.

My heart did a little flip. I was sure she would say my name, but no. She told me my older sister was the one closest to her in ideals and temperament. I was stunned. My older sister had convinced me for years that my mother hated her, and the feeling, my older sister suggested, was mutual. But this was not how my mother saw it.

You see now why it is so hard for me to list ten things that make me happy. I go off on tangents and always wind up with the difficulties. But I will try here to fulfill Kass’s directive.

1. In honour of what I have said above I will include my family at the top of the list. I bunch them together under the term family, my husband and four daughters, my grandson, my son in law. My love for them all is differential. I love them differently, as I say. Love for me, loving a person no matter who that person might be, makes me happy. I love to be with the ones I love.

2. Writing makes me happy, the sheer joy of clacking away at the keyboard just as I am now, writing, and to no serious agenda. Even here when I am trying to fulfill Kass’s request, I write into the unknown. I love the sense of not knowing where this writing will take me, what I might discover. Writing as an activity, as a process, as much as it sometimes brings me pain, brings me the greatest happiness.

There you have it: the two things that make me most happy.

3. Thereafter I list my work. My work as a therapist makes me happy but it also makes me sad. It worries me at times and I find it difficult and demanding – to be available; to keep my mind open; to project myself as far as I can into another’s state of mind; to try to imagine what might be going on in the room; to read about other people’s ideas on how this thing called therapy works – all these things bring me happiness. They also make me suffer.

I could say this applies to everything that makes me happy. There is nothing pure to me about happiness. It always comes with baggage.

4. So now I’m up to four. Dreaming at night, remembering my dreams in the morning, writing them up and discovering these dreams, days, weeks, months later to be surprised and wonder: Did I dream this? What can it mean? This makes me happy.

5. My house makes me happy. The bank still owns a part of it, but it is still our house. I have lived here since 1980. I have seen many changes. We have renovated twice. It was first built in 1895. It is an old Victorian house with a curved front veranda, lead light at the door and a long central hallway.

At the moment we are working on its maintenance. There are so many things wrong with this house but I am a homebody. I love to have a stable base. Being at home makes me happy.

6. Blogging makes me happy. This could I suppose be subsumed under writing, but blogging also involves reading and responding to others. It involves looking, seeing, listening and most all thinking and feeling in response to the stories of others from my blog community. This for me has some of the pleasure of being with and thinking about good friends and family.

7. Other people’s happiness and successes make me happy, especially the joys of those close to me, particularly my husband and children. I could say that I am happiest when they are happy. The same applies to those with whom I work. I am happy when they achieve a flash of their own genuine happiness, which happens from time to time over the course of our work together.

8. Books make me happy – my library case filled with books most of which I have read or at least dipped into. Books to lose myself in, books whose words flow for me such that I enter new worlds when I read, or revisit my own.

9. My correspondence, my letter writing to people like Gerald Murnane, makes me happy. Again I should perhaps subsume this under writing, but writing snail mail letters, the type you send through the post, the type that makes it into hard copy and gets sent off in envelopes away from me to be read by some beloved friend or others, makes me happy in a way that is different from blogging.

Similarly emailing makes me happy. I’m cheating here. It should perhaps have its own rating but I need more space before I can safely finish. I’ve written about emailing before, too. I love the ping from my computer, the way the little ball flashes red when I have mail, in my in-box. Of course it helps when the mail is personal and from blogging friends and actual friends, anyone who bears genuine good wishes. The experience of connectedness with the outside world, whether nearby or far, gives me great happiness.

10. Watching DVDs, particularly the BBC period dramas, alone in my writing room on my computer screen, while everyone else is asleep late at night after all my tasks for the day are complete, brings me joy. I love it. It is my moment of escape into another world and one that requires little from me other than to bask in the fantasies of what life was like many years ago, usually in England or Europe, when things seemed simpler and paradoxically far more onerous.

At the risk of cheating I add jewelery, the rough silver variety, not expensive but strong and bold, the stuff my husband makes, and two of my daughters make; silver earrings that hang long and low, these give me pleasure.

Once I start on objects my list gets far too long and I have already over reached my mark.

Thanks, Kass. This has been fun. My impulse is to tag many of the people you have tagged including yourself but that would defeat the purpose, so I presume I should move further afield.

With that qualifier in mind, I shall try to find ten other lovely and wonderful bloggers who might not, unlike Jim of the Truth about Lies, find the task too irksome, but even Jim, for all your hesitation, you have written a list of sorts in your response to Kass and have shared a most wonderful poem.

It’s a good idea therefore, Kass, this task you have set us. It gets us to work. What greater happiness is there than through work.

Work and Love: Freud’s two parameters for living.

So here’s the task for the following bloggers, if you have the time, the desire and energy, if you can bear it, please list ten things that make you happy and then tag ten bloggers who might have their go in turn.

If you choose not to, for whatever reason, it is fine. It will not be held against you. As far as I’m concerned blogging is for pleasure, despite its sometimes onerous nature. It ought not be done out of sheer obligation or duty.

Since reading through this, I have changed my mind.

To choose to tag people is to show preferences in one way or another. I find this too difficult, especially as I do not want to leave people feeling burdened, nor do I want to leave others, who like me, might feel left out.

So I have only completed half the task. Unless someone can convince me otherwise I will not tag others here. But I invite anyone who has gone to the trouble to read this post to have a go at the exercise if only for fun. And please add it as a post or a comment or whatever you like as you see fit.

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