A flashlight in the dark

It all began in 1995 at the twenty first birthday party of one of my nephews. My family and several of his friends were seated at long tables in a community hall somewhere in Keysborough, music blaring and the chatter of voices, when the idea first came to me, to write a book. 

Not simply my book but one in which each of my eight siblings could include their own chapter on what it was like growing up in our family, over a twenty-year span, from oldest to youngest. Each providing their own perspective. 

I was reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal Dreams, at the time. A 1990 novel in two voices, each speaking in turn, a father, and his daughter. Kingsolver’s is fiction. Mine was to be memoir. The so-called ‘truth’.

After my nephew’s birthday party, aglow with excitement and my inspiration to get this book out into the world, I wrote a series of letters to each of my siblings, one after the other asking whether they’d be happy to write a chapter on our childhood experience. 

All except the sister below me, who delayed a return letter for some time, and the brother above, who told me he was writing himself and did not want to be part of another’s brainchild, at least not then. All others said they were happy to oblige. Some even wrote letters that might have entered my book but in the end – the end that is never the end only a continuation of the days ahead – I gave up on my dream of a book with my siblings and wrote my own instead.  

My own version of events that they could then pick apart, much as my mother’s siblings railed against certain sections of her book, when she insisted this happened like this and they said ‘no it did not’.

They argued over the facts, the time, the events. All the stuff that memoir writing demands we capture as accurately as we can, even as we know memory is a fickle beast and we cannot get to the facts as they once were with any accuracy of detail, only impressions of what it felt like to me then.

Memory is infused with all the experiences we’ve been through since. A rewriteable CD as Timothy once described in the days of rewritable CDs. Not so apt a metaphor these days when we rely on more up to date digital devices to keep our records straight to keep our memories alive even as we distort each memory on re-remembering. Even as we remember times when we remembered earlier times, which is another aspect of our human minds and memoirist tendencies. Remembering remembering. And that first moment when we recognise the frailty of our memories, the way those earliest times are blanked out. The first time someone told you what you did when you were little.

How hilarious or distressing it was like the time you jumped into creek and nearly drowned. The time you leapt off a moving train imagining your mother was there at the door ready to grab you only she had already turned away to put the baby into her pram and the train driver had imagined all passengers were safety off the train and began to move off. 

The way your older brother leapt across the station where he was waiting with the other siblings lined up beside the pram and pushed you across the train carriage as the train sped up. He saved your life the story goes but you have no memory of the event, only of the story when you were told, and you spend a life time imagining it as though it was a memory. 

Memories are like this, pin pricks of light that lead our way back into the murky past, but they can only illuminate so much of the way ahead the rest remains in darkness and can only be retrieved through our imaginations or someone else‘s flashlight pointed into other corners obscured from our view. Or through tricks of the light. 

Redemption in uniform

This morning I tried a Bradbury, a practice based on the writer Ray Bradbury’s idea. He liked to dip into three different types of books, fiction, non-fiction, and poetry for instance, and then re-read random sections for ten minutes, or so, before he took to his writing.

The effect was to awaken his senses. To send a different perspective shuddering through his unconscious. 

A Bradbury, so different from the ideas of my other writing teacher, Barbara Turner Vessselago, who urges you not to read immediately before writing. Such reading, she argues clutters the mind with a different style of thinking.

To read requires different parts of the brain, and gets the editor going. The editor, the critic, the one who tells you what works what does not, what you like and dislike.

In my reading this morning I came across these words from the psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips: ‘The myth of redemption begins to wear a uniform.’  

Why did I pick up his book first? He’s talking about Freud and the work of psychoanalysis, an acquired taste given the unpopular reputation Freud has developed over the years with many people.

Not least because of his take on women: unfathomable creatures. 

‘What does woman want?’ Freud writes, as if we women are so different from our male counterparts. As if gender is such a clear divide. That one half, with their penises and testosterone, and the other, with their vaginas, oestrogen and progesterone, want something entirely different. As if we are measured entirely by our biology.

When hasn’t our biology gone to shape our understanding of the way our minds work and lumped women into the categories of care givers and passive receivers, while the men become the protectors who still secretly wait to be cared for? Strong all the time, the great protectors, while deep down desperate for the love and care of the other, often a woman, to help maintain an illusion of their sovereignty. 

I’m not so sure my Bradbury worked. It’s put me into this heady state of mind, even as the first book I took on was Kate Atkins’ One Good Turn. In it I read of the encounter of a one man, Martin, who happens to be a writer, in a shop in Russia trying to find a gift for his mother. His mother will not appreciate his gift, Martin tells us, but will be furious if he gets her nothing. 

He is seduced into buying an expensive set of Russian peasant dolls by the girl at the counter, so pretty Martin can’t look directly at her. Likewise, he can’t resist when she invites him for coffee in a café nearby.

The whole time he drinks his borsch and hot chocolate, eats the pastry she orders and insists on paying for, allured by the invitation to meet again in the evening and is gone. 

It’s only when he finds himself later vomiting into a toilet bowl that he realises the potential for exploitation.

And yes, you guessed it: he has been robbed. His wallet gone, along with the memory stick of his current novel. At this point, I stopped reading, relieved for Martin when he remembers that he has a backup in his hotel room, and his words are not lost forever. 

I remember so much of the fiction, with its images, even as I simply dipped into this book, I have not yet read as distinct from the non-fiction of two other writers.

I did not get to the poetry. My fingers itched to get to the keyboard before the morning ran away from me and now I am annoyed with myself for not allowing the full effect of the treatment. 

I skipped the poetry. How can a person escape poetry? Is it too late to go back now and slip into a random book from my shelves and see what pops up?

I shall try.

The triptych of my Bradbury: a poem by Gwen Harwood called Dialogue. A mother wishing her dead baby back into life. And my eyes fill with tears. For all the dead babies who did not make it past our first imaginings, my own who lasted only ten weeks in the world and my mother’s first-born daughter five months in the world.

Twenty years later, her last child, also a daughter, still born at forty weeks, who never even opened her eyes. 

 At least the first saw sunlight and felt the breeze on her face. Tasted milk and took in the sweet smell of my mother’s armpits even in the cold of winter, but this baby was born into war.

This baby was born into an inhospitable world that could not protect her from the hunger that ravaged my mother’s body. Her milk disappeared, or so my mother told me.

She had travelled thirty kilometres on foot to visit her cousin’s farm to get proper milk for her baby. Her little angel, my mother wrote in a poem at the funeral. My big sister who had she lived stayed on the earth these past almost eighty years. A decade older and more than me. A rich life or a tragic one but a life cut short that leaves the ache.