The Geography of Home

I break all the rules and write too much, so my apologies in advance. This post derived from Niamh’s geographical meme at Various. I read her post and then Dominic’s. Then I took off on my own. Later I read Rachel’s.

I see now that I have failed on all accounts to answer the questions Niamh set. I was never good at geography, maths or comprehension. In my defense, I am an autobiographical writer. I cannot bear simply to list things or to answer direct questions. I like to color them in as well.

Geographical Meme

Geography was a subject I took at school as an obligation rather than a pleasure. I did it out of necessity. Learning about the landscape and the people who occupied that landscape failed to excite me. I spent my childhood in a fog of not belonging. I thought that I should have been born elsewhere.

I thought I belonged in Europe but here I was in Australia with all these children at primary school whose connection to their land seemed certain and unquestionable. My own connection seemed tenuous.

I was born in Diamond Valley Community Hospital in Diamond Creek and spent my first three years in the nearby suburb of Greensborough, first in a converted chook shed that my parents used to occupy their then six children and later in a weatherboard house my father had built himself in Henry Street. In those days Greensborough was a place of grassy paddocks and dusty roads. A suburban countryside.

I spent my fourth year of life in the mountain suburb of Healesville on Myers Creek Road, where my father and my uncle, my mother’s brother and his wife had gone into business. They had bought a series of small huts as accommodation for city visitors and a café-cum-milkbar. The venture failed. After a year we moved into rental accommodation in Wentworth Avenue in the genteel suburb of Canterbury, or Camberwell as it is most commonly known. Ours was the scruffiest house in an otherwise beautifully manicured street.

These are the years of my childhood I remember best, my years in that rundown Edwardian gentleman’s residence when all us kids were still at home, though my older brothers left home during this time. When I was fourteen we moved to a new AV Jennings special in Cheltenham, which my parents managed to buy.

When I was fifteen my oldest brother decided that my parents should sort out their mess – primarily my father’s alcoholism – and he organised to have the six youngest move out of home. My sister and I stayed with a Dutch foster family back in Camberwell but the arrangement broke down and we wound up boarding at our convent school, Vaucluse, in Richmond, for the rest of that year. We then moved back ‘home’ to Cheltenham for my sixteenth year.

By the time I turned seventeen, life at home had become untenable again and so the second oldest brother organised for my mother to rent a shabby cottage near the sea in Parkdale. This time she left my father and we four youngest lived with her. We were visited at times by another older brother who stayed with us when he could not sort out his bed sitter accommodation, and by my older sister who was herself homeless for a time, for all sorts of complicated reasons.

I finished my last year of school in Parkdale when we moved back to Cheltenham on the basis of a miracle. My mother swore that my father was reformed and would never drink again. His reformation lasted little over a month, as I recall, and by the end of the Christmas holidays when I had started at university my father was back to his worst. My younger sister, the one immediately below me, went back to boarding school, in order to survive her final year and my mother lived at home in Cheltenham with me and my youngest sister, brother and our fast deteriorating father.

At the end of that first year at university which passes through my mind in a haze of misery, I moved into an old half house with my younger sister who had by now finished her schooling and was off to university herself and her girlfriend from school. An unstable threesome, we lived in Caulfield, first in the run-down half house in Royal Parade near the then Chisholm College and later in an upstairs flat still in Caulfield not far from the race course on the corner of Grange Road and the Princes highway.

Several further moves followed.
I will list them here: Leila Street in Ormond with my first boyfriend to Beach Road in Black Rock in a dilapidated half house by the sea, again with my first boyfriend, and then onto Westbury Street East St Kilda, the year I started my first job as a social worker, at first with my first boyfriend but in the end alone briefly after we broke up. Then I moved back to Caulfield and shared yet another flat, this time with my youngest sister for a year, after which she got married and I moved in with the man who in time became my husband in a group house in Fermanagh Road in Camberwell. I shared with him and the three other occupants of that half house for only a few months before my then partner soon to become my husband and I moved to Canberra. The government had seconded him into the Department of Administrative Services and we stayed in Northbourne Avenue in the city for some six months.

Eventually we returned to Melbourne and rented a small old fashioned apartment in a block of four in Bourke Road Camberwell, from where we were married and later, forced to leave when the block was sold, we moved into a small single standing unit in Auburn Road. We lived there for about a year before we bought the house in which we now live and have been living these past 30 years.

My early days were days of constant movement but since 1980 I have lived in the same place. In many ways I can see myself living here for some time longer beyond the time our youngest daughter leaves home into old age, by which time we will no doubt move again if death does not take us first.

All up I calculate that I have moved house twenty times and all of these bar one within the first twenty-seven years of my life. For the past thirty years I have lived in the one place, in Hawthorn, an inner city suburb of Melbourne, on a busy main road surrounded by genteel and quiet streets.

I have only lived outside of the state of Victoria of which Melbourne is its capital city once for six months when we moved to Canberra and I hated it. I resolved then that I would spend the rest of my life in the city in which I was born.

Having spent my entire childhood in the belief I should live elsewhere in Europe – go back to my mother’s home in Holland – I finally decided that I wanted to stay put. I am a homebody – nomadic only in mind. Apart from brief trips overseas and interstate I maintain my links to the land and space here. My home.

Leaving Home

We think of leaving home as a single event, the one day in our life when we finally take the world onto our shoulders and close the door on home. In the future, trips back home will be visits only and we will enter the place of our birth, our parental homes as guests only. We might still hold a key to the door, we might have visitors’ rights but that is all they are: the rights of a visitor not of an inhabitant.

When I think of leaving home I think of the day towards the end of the summer holidays after my first year at university when I decided along with my younger sister and a school friend to move out of home and share a house together. I cashed in my Commonwealth scholarship for a cadetship that bound me for two years to the Health department at the completion of my degree. My sister and her friend from school were both on studentships and bound to the Education department to work as teachers for two years at the completion of their degrees. When we pooled our resources we had enough money to pay the rent, to pay for other expenses and transport. We would survive.

‘You must leave during the daytime,’ my mother said. ‘When your father is not around.’

I had seen it before, my father’s rage when my older brothers left home, when my older sister left home, that they should dare to take their beds with them.
‘It’s my furniture,’ my father said. ‘It belongs in this house.’
The ten kilometers or so that spanned our two homes, the old and the new, may not seem such a distance to others who have left home by traveling overseas or through interstate travel, but for me it marked a void, the void between myself and my father. We did not say goodbye to him as we stood on the nature strip watching the small rental truck we had hired to carry our few possessions, including our two single beds, away.

We sneaked off in the middle of the day while he was away at work. He could not have suspected that his second and third daughters had finally decided to take themselves away. We were no longer within our father’s grip. He could no longer threaten or hurt us anymore.

Perhaps it is this failure to say goodbye that has left me with the odd feeling of never leaving home. Besides it was not the first time we had taken off without my father’s knowledge. There had been other flights from home, both day and night. The times when we went with our mother to stay with relatives, aunts and uncles for only for a few days, when our father was lost on a bender and dangerous. And there were times when we stayed with our older now married brother who had children of his own and a wife who resented our presence. What else could we do? We were homeless.

Then there was the time when my oldest brother had issued an edict to my mother that we younger children should be removed from her care so that she and my father could ‘sort things out’. It is easy to say that the arrangement my brother made to have us stay with a Dutch foster family in Camberwell broke down, as if it all happened in the blink of an eye. It did not. It took time, three months of mutual misunderstandings.

I was turning sixteen at the time. We moved from foster care with the Dutch family to live with the nuns and our fellow students at Boarding school. We moved from day scholars into boarders overnight and like other boarders in convent schools we made many trips to and from home.

Why do I lose momentum here? What happens to my mind such that I cannot keep to one train of thought, such that I find myself distracted, wanting to give up, wanting to move elsewhere, anywhere but here at this keyboard at the computer struggling to put down words on the page that might tell a story of leaving home.

Now I have left home on the page and I do not know where to go. Lynn Freed says that when you are writing you must not think. You must listen. Listen. I do not listen so much as I see. I trawl my mind for images for memories, pictures come to me and people occupy these pictures and they say things to one another but I can scarcely hear them. Their words fade in much the way the Dutch language of my mother tongue has faded from my memory.

Listen. The wind is howling through the trees. It is hot and a storm is brewing. You can see a hint of it in the build up of clouds, white and clean, with crisp outlines. They hang low to the ground, so low that from the second storey of this Writer’s House I can almost reach out to touch them. Were I to touch them would they burst?

Listen. There are birds chortling in the distance and insects chittering. The wind has dropped and for a moment I can believe the storm has passed. It is like this writing, these storms of emotion that well up in me as I type, but as Lynn Freed argues, emotions as honest and real as they may be, do not translate into truth on the page.

I am caught between two voices, as much as I am caught between two activities, as much as I am caught between two worlds. One voice tells me to go into a scene with all the sensuous detail, write from your eye, paint a picture, get into the picture, get into the life of that picture now in the here and now. The other voice says, no, write as a reflection about a past moment. Do not look into your mind, but listen.

Can I hear my father calling to me? I cannot remember the sound of his voice, only as an idea, not an experience. What am I doing back here again, always back here. My father/myself. Why?

It is not fair. I must leave home. I must find another home, another place where he does not feature. Is it his voice in my head that tells me over and over again that I am worthless? Stop this now. Write. Write into the pain. Write into the memories. Write into the rage.

Forget your audience. Forget that anyone is ever going to read this stuff. Forget that you are writing for anyone but yourself. If you want to spend page after page pondering the nature of your relationship with you father then do it. If you want to write in the present tense about memories that feel as alive today as they did then, do it. If you want to write about the past, about your mother, about your family, about anyone or anything, then do it.

Stop this voice in your head that is forever telling you off, that is forever comparing you to the person nearby who is bound to be a better writer or a worse one. It matters not. Forget the others, forget them all, these brothers and sisters in your head who are forever demonstrating to you simply by their presence that you are no good relative to them; that your claims for space are invalid; that you have no right to be heard; to speak; to say the things you say.

If you want your fingers to fly across the keyboard in this manic and mad way, writing words again and again that have no reader in their sights; that in no way consider the needs of your reader, then do it.

You are free. You are like a bird. Fly. You have left home. You can write. Stop telling yourself what to do, what not to do. Stop looking for others to do the same. Stop this chorus of demands.

Exhaust yourself, throw yourself into the well of memory and imagination and find some point of entry from where you can get some comfort.

This writing is no comfort; fingers clicking on the keyboard are no comfort. You must have something to say. Say it.

Peter Bishop from Varuna says to write out of ‘doubts and loves’. Where do we put the hate? Is not hate on a continuum with the love? The ones we love are the ones we hate, beginning with our parents.

When I first read William Gaddis’s words quote in the Sunday Age in an article by Don Watson I knew that these words were important for me.
‘The best writing worth reading comes like suicide from outrage or revenge.’

It is not the first time I have been in a creative hole as deep as this. It is not the first time that I have sat alone at my writing desk wishing for something to come to me, some thread, some thought, some feeling or image that I might follow, but it is no less painful.

I ache all over with the refusal. My mind will not give it up. My mind will not let the words flow, will not let me arrive at some point where I can think, ah ha I have it. I know now what I am writing about. I know now what this book is about. I can proceed.

I start again and again, so many false starts so many attempts to move beyond this desperate feeling of not knowing what I am doing.

And the audience whom I tried to send away only five minutes ago is back again, my parents and siblings in the front row alongside my conscience. They say to me again, in a chorus, what are you on about? We don’t want to know this. Tell us a story instead and make it good. Make it interesting.

But if I start to tell a story, I am sure I will be in trouble with someone. That someone will tap me on the shoulder and say ‘what gives you the right?’

Enough, already we know this. Any writer worth her salt knows this, so why go on and on.