The stuff of grief

The weather’s on the turn.  I’ve seen the first of the pink blossoms out
in the neighbouring streets.  My mother’s
body is decomposing in the ground near to where we had buried my father but my
life goes on. 
On the day of my mother’s funeral I
looked into the deep hole in the ground where her body was soon to rest to look
for signs of my father. As if the gravediggers would allow for that, but some
part of me hoped to see signs, bones perhaps, some testament to my father’s
existence where we last put him over thirty years ago.   I saw none.  
These two, my parents, united in marriage in 1942, their bodies together again in the earth, despite all their trials while living.  
This morning I needed to use a long
stick to dislodge the newspaper from out underneath our car.  The indignity of it all, me in my dressing
gown on all fours poking underneath the car as far as my arm could reach to
roll out the newspaper that the deliverers insist on chucking in over the
fence.  But that’s small indignity compared
to illness and death.
Still my mother is not far away and
images of her during her last few weeks pop into my mind unbidden.  When I find myself clearing sleep from the
corner of my eye I see my mother’s pointy finger nail on her index finger as
she tried to brush aside the conjunctivitis gunk that had built up in her eyes
as she lay dying. 
Is this the stuff of grief? 
Somehow I do not imagine myself
grieving for my mother anymore.  One of
my brothers sent an email and called it something along the lines of ‘Closing
the file on our mother’. 
Closing the file.  As if it were so easy.  But grief is at the other end.  When we grieve we cannot let go. 
I sense a too-easy ability to let
go.  My mother comes in and out of my
thoughts, but she is not there at the surface most of the time. 
I run into a friend for the first
time since my mother’s death and she asks me meaningfully with a special tone
in her voice, ‘How are you?’ and for a minute I go to say ‘I’m fine,’ but then
I recognise the intent of her question and I have to modify my tone.  I go back to the week of my mother’s death
and talk about how hard it was then, but for now it seems I’ve entered a
protective bubble that tells me I have too much to go on with to grieve for too
It was different when my mother was
around and I sensed my deep obligation to her, especially in her last few
years, unlike it had been from my early twenties through to more recently.  Now I am free of her, and yet it jars. 
For the past two Sundays, the day
on which I visited my mother regularly during these past few years I factor in
a visit to her, only to remember I will not go to her any more. 
I will make one last trip next week
to my mother’s old room in the retirement village to help my sister and whichever
other of our siblings might show up, to move out the last of our mother’s belongings. 
And thereafter, my sister, one of
the executors, will distribute my mother’s few possessions to which ever of the
siblings most expresses a need or desire.  
We will divide up my mother’s belongings as
best we can, much as we did when I was little, when on Sunday nights we shared a rectangular block of Neapolitan ice-cream for dessert.  Strawberry, chocolate and vanilla in three tight layers.  My older sister took a knife and divided the block into ten, if we were
all at home. My father, a diabetic in those days, missed out. 
I’ve ordered Helen Garner’s latest
book, This House of Grief, about the
Farquarson murder.  This is the story of
a father who has been found guilty of murdering his three sons by driving them
in his car into a dam.  According to
court and news reports, Farquharson claimed he had suffered a coughing fit and
had lost consciousness at the wheel. He managed to get himself free from the
car, but his sons were trapped inside and drowned.  The event took place on Father’s Day during a
custody visit.  There is evidence from
witnesses that Farquarson had said he wanted to pay back his wife, and that he
knew she would remember every Father’s Day for the rest of her life.  This is yet another story that ranks among
the particularly spectacular examples of revenge enacted.  After two trials, including an appeal, the
jury held that Farquharson was responsible for the death of his three
Helen Garner’s a brilliant writer I reckon but she
turns people into characters   Should
there be a ‘but’.  Isn’t this what
writers do?  Isn’t this what I do when I
write about my mother as though she is now only so much decomposing matter in the
ground and for the rest she is a memory, a fiction, a fantasy, a person who
once lived but is now no more.
My mother, and those three little
boys drowned in the dam, like ghosts they hover over us.  The skies are filled with their invisible
I cannot figure out the maths but I
imagine there are many more ghosts in the sky above than living people on the
As for me, still alive, I have a day to meet;
a daughter who complains jut now that some unknown person – not me – has bought
‘caged’ eggs.  We do not eat caged eggs
here.  We abhor the cruelty shown to hens
kept in cages. 
‘The cat food stinks, too’, my
daughter says.  The food I serve the cats
first thing in the morning a mixture of dry and wet from a can – pilchards and
something else – offends her sensibilities. 
How can she eat breakfast with that smell up her nose?    
And I skulk off to write.
Life is back to normal 

Writing Process Blog Tour

Before my mother died, Esther Helfgott invited me to join her on a writing process blog tour.

 Two others, Amanda Pearson and Kath Lockett have agreed to join me.

Here’s my response to the four questions, Esther raised.   Wade through if you will.

1. What are you working on?
At the moment I have two major
projects in my sights.  The first, a
book, I have been working on for the past twenty years.  Its first life came in the form of a memoir,
which formed the basis of my time in a novel writing class in the early
nineties.  In those days it was not the
thing to write memoir unless you were a person of some note and so I tried to
represent my writing as fiction. 
I never completed the initial
memoir but have plucked from it whole chunks that then fitted well into essays
I have written over the years in the fields of trauma writing, autobiography
and psychoanalysis.  The memoir shifted
then into a hybrid form: part essay, part memoir with an academic edge when I began
my PhD on the topic, ‘Life writing and the desire for revenge’. 
Despite my PhD, I have neve
considered myself an academic.  I want my
writing to be accessible beyond the narrow confines of academia and so after I
finished my thesis I began this second version of my book, which contrasts my
life as a child with an experience I had within the psychoanalytic institute in
Melbourne where I once undertook training. 
After I completed this memoir I began the process of getting it published.  But after five rejections from mainstream
publishers I have decided to seek further editorial help and advice.  Mary Cunnane has read the book and made
suggestions about further improving it.
So this is my current aim to get
this book as good as I can and eventually published. 
My second project, which I began in
June when I was at Varuna on a weeklong writing retreat, is an essay that
explores the nature of anorexia.  This
work is still percolating in my mind.  I
have memoir sections that I might well include but I am also reading more
deeply through the analytical literature to add to my theoretical understanding
of this state of mind and body, the state we call anorexia.
2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?
I think of my work as a hybrid form.  It is not simply memoir, but incorporates
elements of the essay form, in a struggle to sort out issues that trouble me
and of the theoretical, but only with a lower case ‘t’.  I’m not interested in highbrow academia but I
am interested in difficult ideas about what makes us tick. 
3. Why do you write what you do?
I write into my internal world when
I find myself struggling to make sense of events both from the past and present.  Things that niggle at me: experiences and
people who stick in my head and imagination and demand some sort of fleshing
out.  I write because it helps me to
escape the confines of emotional experiences that can be too much for me.
As soon as I begin to shape
experience onto the page it loses some of its sting.  It’s as if the very effort of taking
something from my mind, my memory and imagination shifts the event into
something new.  Maybe it’s akin to what
I’ve heard fiction writers describe as their ability to create whole new worlds
and characters who will not so much bend to their will – as much of this is an
unconscious process – but characters and events that come alive only through
the writing process with this one writer. 
I write to get some sense of power
over my life, a life in which I can sometimes feel strangely powerless, as a
woman, as a mother, as a wife and as a therapist.  All these roles lend a certain authority to a
person but they also constrain.  The
writing allows me to transcend some of the boundaries of my day-to-day
life.  To play around with my identity
even as I seek always to stick to the truth as best I can – whatever the truth
Even as I try at all times to be
authentic there is something of the fictional about the process of writing
non-fiction for me that becomes the thrill. 
Whenever I put words down on a page I’m struck by how many choices I can
make in how I position myself in relation to this writing.  I can emphasize the people involved, the
setting or my own internal state. 
Whatever I decide to emphasize then affects how a reader might interpret
my writing. 
The element of the reader and the
space between the writing and the reading also adds an unpredictable dimension,
including an element of unpredictability, both thrilling and terrifying. What
will my reader make of what I have written? 
What sense will readers make of the story I tell? 
These things matter to me but they
are not primary.  In the first place, I
write for myself.  For the pleasure of
putting words and spaces onto a page and creating something new for myself and maybe
for others to read that will add to the volume of imaginative prompts
available. This to me is what makes a writing life worth living.  It adds to the colour of my world.  It bursts open the constraints of the day to
day.  That’s why I write what I write.
How does your writing process work?
I write Freefall following in the
steps of the writer Barbara Turner Vesselago
I write into my mind.  I start
without any preconceived ideas of where I might go.  I see what comes up for me.  I rarely if ever plan.  Planning for me is a no-no.  I prefer to go into the unexpected.  I prefer to go into places when I have no
idea of where I might end up.  I might
tell myself that during the week I fiddle with a question that’s niggling at me
or a scene that I want to explore, but that’s the extent of my planning.
It makes for unwieldy writing and a
need for much shaping and shifting after the event, but initially I need to
write without the so-called parachute.  I
need to Freefall.  I try to write at
least on weekends first thing in the morning during the working weeks.  On holidays, I try to write every day.  It is frustrating because I would enjoy more time
to write but I have acclimatised to this life of catching words in the nooks and
crannies and it seems to suit my messy nature. 
I write reams and reams of words,
images, ideas and thoughts and then if for example I’m working on an essay, I try
to pull these disparate pieces together. 
I try to find a beginning and I build on that beginning, dipping back inside
my compost bin of words until the essay begins to take shape.  It’s a long and slow process but it gives me
pleasure.  I like to juxtapose disparate
ideas together.  To see how these ideas
might connect.  Parataxis they call
it.  Chunks of information or ideas can
sit together in uncomfortable union.  The
gap of white space on the page between each chunk becomes the bridge that readers
use to make connections over different themes. 
I am a messy writer.  I create chaos in the first instance and refuse
structuring until late in the piece.  I
have the greatest difficulty with structure because I prefer the image of the moment,
which is why I might require more of my readers than some are prepared to
give.  I might put too many disparate
things together but other times they work.