What lies beneath

Ideas come to me like so many scraps of beauty but when I sweep them up and consign them to paper, they soon lose their lustre. The lustre they held when they first entered my mind and connected in a long chain of ideas that’s broken the moment I write them down. 

Now I sweep the remnants from the floor or in this case from the back of my computer where I stuck them as post-it-notes, writing prompts, and tip them into the rubbish. 

They began filled with promise but materialised into disappointment. The bread and butter of a writer’s life. The way ideas and memories can shine like gold only to tarnish into cheap jewellery whose gold coating wears off with age. 

I could go on with metaphors that match my mood this morning, but I’ll spare you the insult.

I’ve been listening to an audiobook, Vicki Laveau-Harvie reading her Erratics and I’m filled with awe. The voice is that of an older woman. A woman in her seventies whose voice, although Canadian, reminds me of the British Vanessa Redgrave, the voice over in the television series Call the Midwife

I relish the years such voices carry, the weight of their wisdom. The way they carry a lifetime’s experience in every undulating wave and cadence. At the same time, I resent the occasional crackle, the hint that soon enough this voice will fade away to nothing. 

I saw a YouTube clip of a woman, now over one hundred, confined to her bed in a nursing home. She was once a dancer and choirgirl in the 1930s.

A couple of volunteers who took to visiting her in the home, trawled through the archives and found some out-dated clips of her dancing in black and white. The two upgraded these tapes and brought them into the home to show the centenarian. The woman spoke in almost a whisper when they played them back. She tried to snap her fingers in rhythm with her younger self’s feet but could only wave her hands around. 

My mother had a way of doing this well before she approached her one hundredth year. She waved her arms from side to side whenever someone put on dance music. She also tried to click her wrinkled dry fingers as if she was returning to the Count Basie days of her youth.

Has my voice aged, too? I thought I heard a hint of it in a video I took of me feeding my grandson in his highchair, ‘Yum’. 

When I heard my voice played back to me it grated. How I hate the sound of my own voice from the outside. That’s not my voice. That’s not how I sound inside my head. 

Other people have remarked on a shared experience. We sound different to ourselves. Our voices cocooned inside our bodies come out of their familiar echo chamber all wrong when we hear them played back. 

When my children were adolescent, people said,

‘I can never tell which one’s on the phone. You, or one of your girls. You all sound so alike.’ From their formative years, my children who had then heard my voice more than any other voice in the world, especially when they were tiny, must have taken on the cadences. Just as I took on my mother’s voice, only I could never affect her accent. So thick and European, so slanted and the words sometimes out of order. 

I hear my mother’s voice in my own head when I have an urge to rejig a sentence, the things that stay with me. ‘You make me cold to look at you.’ 

Simple sentence reshuffles and the occasional odd word. Enthusiastic became ant ooze y astic. Psychiatrist became psychiater. And the Dutch words my mother threw out, which I find myself repeating to my grandson, schatje and lekker, words for the love of little ones and the pleasure of food. As well as words for horrible things like verschrikkelijk. Yes and no: ja and nee

These words come to me effortlessly as though they’ve always been there. The same words I used with my children when they were babies. My mother’s words to me long ago when she and I were as close as any mother and baby could be, if only for a short time. 

Getting back to The Erratics, I’m in awe of the writing. Here was a mother whose love for her two daughters faded almost before they were born, though there must have been something there to create the beautiful writer her older daughter became. 

It’s a fantastic story, witty in its poignancy. 

At one time the writer describes the process of covering a piece of paper in wax crayons in swirls of colour. A crazy display that covered the page. Then the children covered the lot in a film of thick black crayon. Finally, with a sharp implement they scratched out images through the black, and the lighter colours behind became the picture. 

‘Scatch me,’ Laveau-Harvie writes and you’ll find ‘grief’. Scratch her sister and you’ll find rage. 

If you scratch me, you’ll find shame. Shame deep and abiding which is perhaps why I’ve made it my life’s work to get on top of my shame by writing about it. By shouting it from the roof tops. By declaring myself in full view, but always beneath, there is a river of shame that runs deep. There are things I cannot even let myself know, though they nudge me from time to time. 

I must get to them before I die. I cannot let them die with me. 

Dogs, bats and memories

Look at this dog. See how he’s aged. I got a shock the other day when he came back from the clippers with a summer coat. To see how thin he was underneath his thick winter overcoat of the past several months. 

The other day, I took both dogs out for their morning walk down the road to Fritz Holzer park, which my family prefers to call the Rose Street tip, this park of reclaimed land that forms a swamp and was once used as a tip for the cast-offs from Hawthorn and surrounds. 

Over the years, I’ve watched the park turn into a green oasis in the middle of our suburb one that now attracts visitors and dog walkers in their droves, given the constraints of life under Covid.

When my girls were young, we used to cut through this park on Friday nights on our way to dinner nearby at a Thai place and on our way home in the evening twilight we took to counting the bats that flew through the sky. 

The bats were such a novelty but soon they became a nuisance and people resented them for the way they stripped the fruit trees and buds, looking for food and they all but destroyed fern gully in our city’s Botanical Gardens. 

Our governments soon introduced policies to deter the bats and drive them off course away from the Botanical Gardens a well-manicured museum of plants, to the edges of the Yarra River where the gum trees and willows could better cope with the burgeoning colonies of bats. And as far as I know they’re still there. 

When the dog first came into our lives, I was resistant. I did not want this dog. I did not want the additional pressure of another vulnerable creature in my house, a creature whom I would undoubtedly need to take some responsibility for. I had forgotten the pleasure that animals can bring even in an over full household.

It’s taken over a decide to adjust to life with this dog and two years ago another dog to turn me around. I’m not an official dog person, one who cares about dogs, about breeds about their antics, their personalities and the struggles dogs endure with us humans as their carers. It took some work for our daughters to persuade us to take one on. I’ll try to attach a pdf to prove the point.

I’ve written before about our back garden which when our children were young became a grave yard for dead rabbits, birds, frogs, ad guinea pigs. We still have gravestone plaques dedicated to one cat, Tillie and to another cat Pickles. To the mice Frida and Alexandra. 

The naming of pets, the chance to go through a lifetime with a creature is good preparation for the fact of death. But it’s never the same when a person goes. At least not for me. 

I was going somewhere with this story when I talked of the other day, but every other day that lies behind me merges into another, even more so these days under the weight of lockdown, I wish I was able to delineate one moment from the next and create a clear storyline that goes up and down, creates that narrative arc so beloved by story tellers that has people on the edge of their seats only to come down the hill slowly at the other end through a satisfying epiphany and sense that something’s changed.

It’s not so easy when things can seem so much the same and yet they’re in constant flux.

I realised this when I turned forty and looked back on my life as if I’d only just realised I was in one. 

Now twenty years plus later, I look back and see things more clearly and yet my memory is not what it was when I first reflected on the meanderings of my childhood. Once I took to writing down my memories, they changed in shape. They lost their intensity. It’s as if a memory when first encountered shines with brilliance but then on revisiting again and again it loses its lustre and potency. And yet more and more I sense the bodily flash of the newness of things when I was small, in a smell, or a photo or a flash of colour on a walk.

And the look of the dog now. His visible rib cage, his sharp shoulder blades where his upper leg meets his hunches are a reminder of death. The skin and bones of our humanity that is lush and full at birth only to fade as we age.