Look to the skies

‘I talk to God, but the sky is empty.’ Sylvia Plath

I share Plath’s view. The sky is empty of God, but there are other objects flying around, intentional, and otherwise. Planes, birds, bats, and further upwards, there’s space junk, the detritus of human ingenuity gone wrong.

Call in the gleaners, those who collect abandoned objects, but space junk might serve little purpose other than as the term suggests, as junk.

On the day of my father’s funeral, his coffin rested in the central aisle of the Church of Our Lady of Assumption in Cheltenham. He had reformed in his last years, not drinking, and attending bible study classes with my mother. He even studied Hebrew. He was back to his fascination with religion which he held as a young man on arrival in Australia before he abandoned it for a type of atheism, or at best agnosticism, when life became too difficult. 

Like Sylvia Plath, I like to imagine my father could not reconcile the idea of God in the sky with the rigours of his life. Father of nine children in a foreign country where people decried his accent and he needed to work ten times harder than the locals, to get anywhere. 

Not indigenous folks. He never paid them attention. But my father’s ancestors from centuries ago were no doubt colonists. In turn his arrival in this country in search of a better life, a voluntary refugee, was a colonisation of sorts. 

It took only a short time before he had earned enough money working as a carpenter in his early days to buy the block of land on which he built his first Australian home, using hand tools only. A house which remains today in Nepean Street in Greensborough. It still holds its niche, a rectangular recess in the side wall near the front door where he once propped a statue of Our Lady. 

One of my brothers tells the story of how our father bought the statue from Pellegrini Religious Supplies in the city and asked the shop assistant to prise off the halo, in my imagination a wire sequence of tiny metal stars. Whether it was because he thought her less than holy or whether to help her fit her cast inside his alcove, I cannot say. I have no memory of the event still a toddler, but I can see him do this on his way to a renunciation of the faith he entered to marry my mother who would not countenance marriage to a non-Catholic. 

It helped us sidestep the ignominy of what priests called a mixed marriage. A most serious event in the eyes of the church which, like so many tribes, seeks to keep its own together.

The fact that the man I came to marry was once a Catholic appealed to me such that I have often wondered whether the expectation of my tribe carried in my blood still lingered in my choice of life partner. I cannot say this for sure. If he had been practising as a catholic, I would have turned right off. 

His lapsed state appealed and my sense we shared an ancestry of ideas and might understand one another better for it.

The early impulses to pray to God for all the things I want, need, or hope for, linger. Muttering under my breath, I find I cannot stop myself, ‘Please God,’ even when the sky is empty. 

Please God, in whom I disbelieve, help us out here. Give us the thing we most need or want or value. Please don’t let us down. 

Whenever I make a birthday wish over candles on a cake and draw in breath to blow them out in one gust, the desire hits me. 

One breath, one blow and all the candles out at once to make my secret wish. It has more chance of succeeding if I keep it secret. One breath and one complete snuffling out of those pin pricks of flame. 

I love birthday cakes for this reason. The promise of a wish more likely to succeed in the superstition of my childhood’s mind. These days my two loudest wishes are the same and although they are yet to come to fruition, and I still cannot tell you here what they are or it would ruin any chance of their fulfilment. 

Part of the myth of blowing out candles at birthdays and making wishes, they must be held in secret. Rather like the idea the person who forms an idea for writing a book does well to keep the idea to themselves, at least for some time while it flourishes into some workable piece of writing. Otherwise it will lead to nothing.

Something of these treasured wishes held firm in my mind keep me confident. One day now. And whether the God of my disbelief allows it, or fate or the random chaotic nature of life, I cannot say, but I strive anyway.

Look to the skies for this is where we locate the God of our imaginings, up high, mid cloud or ahead of the clouds. 

An accidental click on my mouse and my writing disappeared briefly and in its place a picture of my mother, and her sister and five brothers when they were in their later years on one of their rare get togethers pops up. Company my mother loved with a passion. Her beloved siblings. 

You can see how much they cared for one another. If I compare this to a photo of my siblings altogether on one of our rare get togethers, I wonder about our mutual affection. 

Too many children make it harder to connect. Or so is my experience. I’m dubious when I read stories of large happy families in the newspaper. Large families are a breeding ground for jealousy and deprivation. One lot of parents cannot manage all those babies in turn and still attend to the toddlers ahead and the older ones. 

Something must give. Someone feels left out. But the message might be akin to the words the priest intoned at church: ‘the family that prays together stays together’. As if the invisible God in the sky or the statue of Mary with her halo removed could hold us altogether. 

It could not. We have grown into separate worlds. Unlike my mother’s family. All of them dead now, but in their lifetimes, even though many of them on opposite sides of the world, they all came together with joy and longing. 

My father’s family not. They were raised in multiple religions, religions that changed like the fashion. My father might well have been confused.

Better no religion, I say, even as my mother’s words pop into my brain. How can a child develop any sense of morality without religion to guide them? And I think of the wars that run throughout time, especially now, and at their root some form of religion. 

Like the story of Gulliver’s Big-Endians in Lilliput who believed the big end of the egg should be cracked. Unlike their counterparts, the Little Endians, who believed the other end should be the way in. 

Human beings find some way of seeking division. Even as, like porcupines we cling together for warmth, just as we pull apart when the prickles are too intense.

Still, we hope to find God in the sky. And we hope the sky is not empty, not only a God of our choice, but of birds who fly overhead unimpeded. A reminder that the earth spins on its axis for generations to come and that we in our tawdry lifetimes have not added too much to the damage of our ancestors.

A future for our children whatever Gods might inhabit the skies. 

Out in the fields all day

The ambulacrum was built alongside classrooms for the Commercial students – those who left school after they turned sixteen and went out into the world as secretaries trained in shorthand and typing – and our tacked on weatherboard concert hall, the place where I once stood on stage for the first time and sang solo. 

The floor of the ambulacrum was layered with red terracotta and mustard Italian tiles. Curved at the edges whee they dropped down to the concrete walkway, they formed a slippery surface some girls used as a slide. Stockinged feet in winter and socks in summer. 

The nuns forbade this practice as dangerous and risky but when no one was around, one or two plucky girls tried. Never me. I was made of obedient stuff. Timid to the core and wary of attention until I stood on that stage in disguise. 

In my thirteenth year I became The Merry Peasant, a title I shared with the title of the performance, full details of which I cannot remember only the words of my signature song:

A peasant I, out in the fields all day.

I plough and sow and reap and mow and make the hay.

I work all day from early morn till eve.

There’s always something to be done you may believe.

When harvest comes, and all the fields are white,

my neighbours all, from far and near, I call 

To lend a helping hand to make the labour light.

To be chosen for one of the central leads, to rise above the ignominy of my hopeless self, took me places I had never been before. I felt sorry for the other girls in my class who were not so chosen. The ones who acted merely as stagehands or danced and skipped in the chorus. The ones who stood by nodding, as I sang my song. 

This was fame and I relished it. My life seemed worthwhile in a way it had never done before. To be central for those few glorious minutes on stage when all eyes and ears were on me, as I sang the glorious words, made my life worthwhile. 

Like all good things it did not last, but it laid a foundation, a shaky foundation for future efforts to speak in public, but always inside a tremulous voice that says, 

Who do you think you are?

How dare you?

What gives you the right?

Don’t buy tickets on yourself. 

Or get too big for your boots.

Since when is it your turn. 

Who do you think you are?

I’m nobody

Who are you.

Are you nobody too?

Then there’s a pair of us. Don’t tell.

They’d advertise you know. 

How dreary to be somebody.

How public like a frog 

To tell one’s name the livelong day 

To an admiring Bog.

Emily Dickinson’s words ran through my head between performances and gave comfort.

She of such fame albeit only after death. She from the lines of my poetry book, there nestled among the anonymous poets who numbered more than those who had names, her words. 

How do we break with the tyranny of the past? The way it creeps into our minds and memories with a fury that knows no bounds. Something happens today and we’re pitched back in time to when something else happened that resonates with now and we cannot stop ourselves from shrinking in size and form to the small child who stood shame ridden, red faced, body trembling in front of a threat so great we might as well be dead.

And yet we survive and put the sensation behind us, only it never disappears. It’s there in the form of objects that coat our memory like Doctor Who’s Weeping Angels. They stand still when we look at them, but when we look away they creep onto to us ready to attack. And when they attack we’re engulfed by the past.

Look up into the ceiling of the ambulacrum and you will see the vaults of a cathedral. Wide arches supported by dark wood beans as deeply recessed as an upside down well. Birds’ nests in corners, safe and concealed from the light of day. 

The ambulacrum brings memories of shame. The way I fled through it after I helped Sister Dominic in the sacristy polish brass vases one evening before supper and she pointed out to me that I was getting fat. 

She did not use these words. Only told me my dress was cutting into my hips where my suspended belt supported my stockings. A line in the fabric. Her eyes bore through me. I was back in the chapel at Mass that morning and the weight of her disapproving eyes in the seat behind me, one in a line of boarders, everyone else their dresses neatly ironed and falling like loose veils across their hips while mine was bunched and tight. 

‘You might want to tell your mother you need a new dress. A larger size,’ she said.

I made some excuse and bolted across the tiled ambulacrum in the twilight out to the tennis court. And I wept into my pinafore, the gingham affair we wore by day to keep the mushroom-coloured linen of our dresses clean. At least behind my pinafore one that covered us from front and rear, no one need notice the indentations Sister Dominic found so disconcerting. 

It was out of concern she said these things, but she was not inside my head. She did not register the hideous sensation that spoke to how bad I was, not only in mind but more so in body. A lumpy ungainly body of too muchness.

A body that had begun to change a year or so earlier and I could not keep up with the hunger of boarding school where food was plentiful, bland, and rich in fat and carbohydrates: white bread rolls the nuns collected from a local bakery free of charge the day before. Day-after stale bread they soaked before placing in the oven to crisp their crusts. To me it was like eating heavenly clouds laced with melting butter and honey. 

Every morning for breakfast. The comfort of comfort food. And I had not noticed and hoped others might not notice that the hand me down dress from my elder sister that once fitted at the beginning of my year seven was, three years later, as tight and stretched as a balloon ready to burst. 

So many things to hide in this body of mine. My hips, my breasts, my periods sopped up with rags I collected from the science block when we ran out of pads. My teeth, yellow and pitted.

An urchin child, though I was no longer a child and the nuns expected only the best of their inmates in this convent for ladies. I had tried to fit the bill even as I burst from my clothes. I walked around in stealth and when addressed, covered my mouth while speaking so no one might notice my discoloured teeth, moving from yellow to brown. So, no one would notice the cracks inside my mouth and the shame of the hidden pain. So, no one would notice the way one day my left cheek blew up and was hot and red and throbbing. 

I left the breakfast table early that day on the pretext of needing the toilet. I left the nun reading from the lives of saints as other girls munched on their white honey covered rolls and slid down to the toilet block. None of the day scholars had arrived yet. 

Inside a closed cubicle, I sat on the toilet seat and drew out a safety pin holding up the hem of my school. I opened it wide to form a pin used the point to pierce my gum where the throbbing was hot and regular. 

Liquid, warm and metallic, sputtered into my mouth. I dabbed it with toilet paper and the pain stopped. Back at breakfast, I resisted another bread roll. I did not want to put anything into my mouth for far of opening the pin prick hole I had made in my gum. In the unruly mouth of my unruly body. 

My teeth are mended today. No longer grey. My teeth are mended, and my hips have lost their adolescent heft, but still the memory of my unruly body remains. And the girl who refused to skate across the ambulacrum in socks, who walked quietly as she was supposed, except on stage when she morphed into a merry peasant, lives in on. 

The tyranny of the past cannot be opposed. It can only be softened.