Cover your head

The year I turned ten, we began to wear mantillas to Mass.

There was never any official announcement just a slow slide from women with hats on their heads – Sunday best hats, big flowery productions, hats that sat on their heads like pill boxes (a term that puzzled me for its connection to medicine) or floral bouquets stitched together and held fast with a pin – to wafer thin spider webs of lace that floated on top. Unlike those hats of old.

Those old hats were not the same as the hats we see today on race days down at the Caulfield race course or Mooney Valley.

The hats of my ten-year-old days were more formal, silent, less a statement of beauty than of obligation.

To cover your head before God. Not that anyone ever said as much. Not that the covering of our heads before God’s was stated as a requirement, but somehow, at the time it struck me as a necessity for women, who also tended to have more hair, lots of hair, long and even short curly hair, to put a hat on top of it, and so maintain order.

It was not until some six years later when men started to let their hair grow, too, that I began to wonder about these things, even after I had noticed that the men in my father’s art books also wore long hair and bright silken clothes that could compete with any women’s fashion of that day.

The mantilla slipped into your pocket just as it slipped into use. Easy and convenient a triangle of lace, black for winter and white for summer like the nuns wore.

The mantilla matched every outfit unlike our hats that could sometimes clash especially when my older sister took to wearing trousers. Trousers were not a match for hats.

One Sunday morning, flanked by two of my sisters and walking along the streets of Camberwell on our way to church, I stopped mid stride, pushed my fingers into my coat pocket and realised to my horror there was no mantilla.

My fingers poked around, first in my front pocket then in either side pocket.

‘Hurry up,’ my older sister said. ‘We’ll be late for Mass.’

‘I can’t find my mantilla.’

‘Here,’ she said and rifled through her bag. My sister took a handbag with her at all times then as a mark of seniority, or a sign that she had possessions, the type most grown-ups had, things that warranted safety, a place into which she might put her treasures, including money.

She handed me a folded white handkerchief, and as I unfurled it the lines of each corner where the iron had pressed most heavily stood stiff as a mountain ridge with none of the gentle caresses of a mantilla’s folds.

‘But people will think I look silly,’ I said.

‘You’d look sillier without it,’ my sister said. ‘You’re too big now to go without a hat.’

We walked into the church of Our Lady of Good Counsel and sat towards the back in the only pews with enough space left to seat the three of us comfortably.

I was glad to be down the back, that way fewer people would be able to see me with my white covering. I looked across to a sea of heads, the back of men’s heads neatly clipped and women, the older ones still in hats and the younger ones their domed heads flattened under the weight of white or black lace.

We were between seasons. No one appeared to look over towards me to snigger.

I needed to find a way of hiding. At least in my head. I looked up to the sorrowful mysteries hanging from the walls of the church and noticed the frayed white cloth that Veronica held out to the thorn crowned head and blood-spattered face of Jesus, a cross on his shoulders on his way to crucifixion.

I thought I could see my handkerchief similarly, not as a blood-stained relic that could add to my indignity, but as a consolation to comfort Jesus though how I could do this I had not yet figured out.  Still it was like those times when my mother railed at the left overs on our plates.

‘Think of the starving Biafrans,’ she said. I figured then, if by eating all the food on my plate, even when I did not like or want it, I could help someone else in Africa who was starving. And then the white cloth on top of my head might help someone else in their suffering.

And so, the makings of my saint hood began.

Shhh! Writers at work

‘It is a joy to be hidden and a disaster not to be found.’ Donald Winnicott

The writers who come to Varuna, at least those I have met over my four visits are a sensitive lot and I include myself here, as ‘I accuse myself of’ my deep insecurities along the lines of what will they think of me?

Do they like me?

Then further along, do I like them?

From the moment you pull up the driveway in your taxi from Katoomba railway station with heavy suitcase in hand, given all the books you’ve taken for a week long’s reading and writing, there’s the sign:

Shhh! Writers at work.

It speaks to a type of monasticism. And fair enough.

Varuna is intended as a sanctuary for writers, a place where they can get on with their work uninterrupted by the pressures of the outside world.

No mobile phones between 9 am and 6 pm. And no talking outside in front of the house on your phone during these hours. The noise carries.

No reading out loud in your room unless you have the good fortune to stay in Eleanor Dark’s studio, which is separate from the main house and offers a level of soundproofing the rest of us can’t enjoy.

Mornings are the hardest time.

That time from when you wake and must start the day’s writing. Breakfast of your own choosing and available in good supply down below in the kitchen. People tend to avoid one another, at least I do, at this time so as not to clutter our minds with too many extraneous details before the writing day begins.

Lunch likewise, enjoyed in solitude though from time to time, one or two or three writers might take it upon themselves to go for a walk into Katoomba, alone or together, to see the Three Sisters, to shop or even go on a day trip to Sydney for research, or whatever else might lure them away.

Carol Major who met us on the first Monday evening for the ritual 6 pm drinks at the beginning of each writing group said she hoped we might bond.

I hoped we might bond, too. I expect we all hope to bond but it’s such an unpredictable task.

Four or five writers of different ages, stages, personalities, writing preferences and temperaments, thrown in together to share at least a week, for some two or three weeks and for those who stay longer, a fresh batch arrives every Monday, a fresh group of writers with whom they might or might not bond.

The official bonding time happens from six in the evenings when people can come together for pre dinner drinks and then afterwards for dinner.

The unofficial bonding time happens at any time when two or three form deeper friendships, usually out of shared interest or prior knowledge of one another.

I’ve stayed in groups where people don’t arrive for dinner till 7pm on the knocker and others where everyone is keen to open a bottle of wine and start socialising at 6 o’clock, as if we’ve hit recess or lunch time at school and we’re free at last to talk and play.

For me, as an emerging writer, with one memoir published by a small publisher, conversations about agents and publishers can be painful.

Conversations with new writers who are yet to publish can also be painful for them when they’re jammed in with well-established writers who exude confidence with every breath. Even though it’s axiomatic, every new book is as hard to write as the last.

Every book requires the writer to learn all over again. But it’s the external perception of a successful published and award winning writer as the one who has it all and the rest of us become could-have-beens or try-hards or simply hopeful.

Rubbing shoulders with ‘celebrity’ writers can also prove inspirational, as a model for the future.

There is the pressure of friendly gestures in a space where outright hostility might exist or subtle micro aggressions might pop in between the lines, without people noticing.

We‘re writers after all. We want our writing to be read. We want our writing to be recognised. We want contracts and publishers to pay attention and all of this in a shrinking market where fewer books are deemed commercially worthwhile and it gets harder and harder to get your book on the shelf even when your writing is good enough.

Good enough, for whom and to whom.

And then there are the tensions between the various styles of writers, the poets and the prose writers, the non-fiction and the fiction writers, the literary and the genre writers.

A hierarchy of ideal forms in the minds of some, with literary fiction at the top of the pecking order along with poetry, half a head behind.

Though poets are a strange bunch, or so I’ve heard more than once at Varuna, and then non-fiction and genre writers running parallel or almost, with non fiction writers at the bottom, but the non fiction writers and memoirists can be comforted by the knowledge the general public go for non-fiction these days ahead of fiction and certainly ahead of poetry or so I’ve been told.

Still, within the writing world, the content of your writing matters and there is usually an attempt at civility and interest shown at dinner.

‘How was your day today? How did the writing go?’

Most of us mumble platitudes in response:

‘It was okay.’  Or ‘not so great’. Or ‘Just shit’.

Most of us are too close to the experience to dominate the conversation when there is so little space to be heard.

Most of us hope to stay hidden for a time, but we also hope, as Winnicott writes, like babies who love to play the peek-a-boo game, we want to avoid that disaster of never being found.

We want to be discovered as writers.

We want our voices heard but it is only on the page that these desires can be met.

In the dining room at Varuna at dinner, even comforted by the wonderful cooking of Sheila, who has been feeding writers at Varuna since almost its inception, there’s a deep hunger within all of us to be fed with recognition, a hunger that makes these meetings, these temporary and enforced proximities sometimes painful.

If you’re lucky, you will meet some one or two who will become life long friends.  Someone who will be forever in your memory associated with the beautiful Varuna.

If you’re unlucky, you might go home scarred by the company you kept, determined never to put yourself through that ordeal again.

Most like me, find temporary friendships that peter out over time, held onto loosely through Facebook and the online world, but otherwise fading over time.

Still the writing remans, the words we write at Varuna, especially those that over time find their way into publication.

These are the greatest tribute to Varuna, beyond the people who will in time disappear, no matter their fame.

The written word lives on. And for writers, it is one sure way of avoiding the tragedy of never being found.