There was the time, many years ago, when I woke one morning to a dream. One that was murky and unsettled in the way of dreams and the only thing that remained were the letters of one word. PHALANX.
At the time I had no idea what it meant. I was not even sure it was a word.
I took it to my analytic session the next day. Mrs Milanova sounded intrigued. It was indeed a word and she was surprised I did not know its meaning. A line of men, usually a term used in war.
It’s not a word we encounter often in the everyday speech of our lives and in later years I came to imagine I first saw it in my eighteenth year when I studied books like Virgil’s Aeneid in Latin.
Phalanx is a word that must have featured often in Virgil’s many discussions on the antics of the armies, the language of battle.
Dreams are like that. I wake with a start and Mary Oliver’s poem comes into my head ‘One day you finally knew what you had to do…’
Get up and now despite it being the first day of holidays.
Get up now because your youngest daughter is about to travel in a car with family friends and drive for seven hours and all day long she will be there in the back of your mind in the way each of your children are there in the back of your mind when they travel far from home. Whether in a car or on a plane or boat.
The sensation is the same, at least until they reach their destination, and your mind can settle into the usual stuff of life.
A child in transit is a scary thing. A child who might not reach her destination. A child who takes themselves far from you. As each child must.
And Mary Oliver’s words come back to me: ‘though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice’.
Their bad advice on how to live your life, for Mary Oliver on how to save your life. Your ‘one precious life’.
There’s not a lot to it in the scheme of things, this one precious life. Not a lot to hold onto but it’s the most you have in life, this one precious life.
Use it wisely. Whatever bad advice those voices throw at you. Whatever admonitions come your way.
In school holidays I read the Scarlet Pimpernel in advance of my year ten days and took notes at the end of each chapter as a refresher for when we would study the book in the year to come. The Scarlet Pimpernel, a dashing man who saved the lives of those hapless royals in fear of the guillotine.
I tried to imagine the world of these people, alongside the images of those old hags who sat knitting beside the guillotine, teeth rotted in their mouths as they crowed with delight whenever a royal head fell to the ground at their feet. There was much trampling of horses’ hooves in the night, and many clandestine meetings behind the backs of those who sought their revenge.
It taught me about the confusion you can encounter between good and bad.
Why should I identify with those flamboyant royals with all their money when the peasants were starving? But I did.
Around this time my mother began her special pleading for my father. He was troubled, she told us. He’d had a latch key childhood. A terrible time with parents who were never there for him.
Mother Mary John’s pronouncements came into my head. The colours yellow and purple when placed together signify an unhappy childhood. It became a secret code in my mind and I used these colours often in my childhood illustrations, a hint to passers by, a hint to the nuns and priests that I too had endured an unhappy childhood but I was nothing like the royals in The Scarlet Pimpernel.
Their fate was worse unless the Scarlet Pimpernel could save them. I was more like the wretched peasants hell bent on revenge against those who had wronged them. Hell bent on letting those, including my father, know how much I had suffered. Only I could not let my father know these things. His vengeance was greater than mine. He smashed into walls. He stripped himself naked to punish us with the sight of his unclothed body. He cursed ny mother as a whore. He threatened to be rid of us all, one by one beginning with my mother, going through me and my sisters and ending up with my brothers.
And my brothers could hardly form a phalanx against him, strong man that he was.
We could only do our best to survive our one precious life.