A little emotional this morning, having just finished Patrick White: Letters, edited by David Marr. This will probably sound strange, but I’m really going to miss him. Nothing else of PW’s that I go on to read – for now I must belatedly acquaint myself with his fiction – will have the intimacy of this vast parcel of correspondence. I have no doubt that Marr’s biography Patrick White: A Life makes for excellent reading, but it is necessarily at a remove from the irreplaceable and often very funny voice of the man himself, and while I expect PW’s fiction will close this gap in one way, I know that making up stories erects barriers of a different nature between writer and reader.
I wish Patrick White were my pen pal.
No offence to the friend who currently holds the post – how sad that it’s dwindled to just the one, and how grateful I am to her for indulging me – but I really wish letters from PW were regularly dropping through the mailbox. What a treat – and (certainly for some of his correspondents) what a nightmare. Talk about tough love. In the way of a lot of very bright people, PW was evidently burdened with an inflated sense of certitude, and at times it made him a shockingly rigid judge of others. It was painful – watching, through these letters, the toxic disintegration of some of his long-term friendships. Decades-old affections: abruptly dismissed. And he wasn’t one to spend any time looking back, either. Once you were gone from PW’s good graces, you were in most cases done and dusted. By his own admission, he was not one to forgive.
We’re all together a vast jumble of contradictions, aren’t we, it’s human nature and I no longer find it surprising, and nowhere is this constant oscillation of the self more in evidence than in this collection of letters. The same man who was so inflexible was also generous to a stunning, sometimes very moving degree – the same man who could be so bitter as to make one flinch reading his enraged denouncements, simultaneously so thoughtful and sweet. I found myself cheering so many of his shrewd observations, agreeing with so many of his causes, greatly enjoying his witty forays into what turned out to be our many shared interests (though of course a great many writers love art, music, film, theatre, cooking, and travel – and to my knowledge all love reading), and yet also recoiling so completely from the worst of his venom, wincing at the unblinking, pigheaded cruelty of the sentiments he so freely expressed to others. It’s a terrible, blinding disease to fancy that one is always right.
And yet I was overwhelmed, again and again, by the realisation of how very little anything has changed. Much of his anger was, to my mind, well placed, not to mention uncannily, worryingly current given some of these letters were written half a century ago: he was repeatedly, badly disappointed and disillusioned by politics; he loathed Australia’s petty obsessions with things like material goods, vacant celebrity, TV and sport; he deplored the sacking of the country’s natural resources and the treatment of its original inhabitants; he scorned Australia’s status as slobbering lapdog to both England and the US; he feared for the environment and the future of the planet; he became a dedicated republican and lobbyist for nuclear disarmament, and he despaired of a world in which war was the habit, and not the hard lesson learnt.
Reading all this, I could only think, time and time again, “Yes – yes, yes, yes.”
Maybe by the time I am in my 70s I’ll be an incurable curmudgeon too. You must get pretty jack of it by then, and unfortunately that merry-go-round feeling – that creeping sense that we are all just caught forever re-enacting scenes that have already played and will keep on playing throughout time – leads me to suspect that’s about the size of what’s coming. And yet despite it all, he did believe – no doubt against his better judgement – in the better self. He did believe in our potential for change, he did believe we could become better than we are. He believed in art and music, love, moments of transcendence, and – interesting to me because so foreign – he believed in God. Not the God of a particular church, mind you, but perhaps an expression of the ultimate contradiction, a force he felt as something both altogether personal and absolutely universal. I can certainly relate to that – it’s just that for me, this is evidence of the human spirit at work, rather than the celestial.
Patrick White, it’s been truly lovely to meet you. Sorry I’m so late.
I’m pretty beat right now, as a result of much frenzied bashing of the keys the past two days, finishing off this month’s Varuna Alumni News, which now requires that I write a feature article each month on a topic of interest or relating to Varuna, the Writers’ House Alumni. This is great for me – it’s hard to imagine a better gig than writing about writing – but in some ways it means I’ve personally got more on the line… when I wasn’t generating the content to quite the same degree, it was so much easier to, well, hide. Now my name is on the thing, and everyone knows at whom to aim the eggs if I do a lousy job. So it’s not only the hours of nonstop work making me tired this afternoon (and why is it that when I am in the middle of meeting a deadline, I can’t even seem to allow myself a toilet break?? Is this normal? It’s certainly not healthy), it’s the performance anxiety.
(For god’s sake, just go to the toilet, would you? Step away from the computer. There you go, nice and easy, slowly now, that’s the way…)
Back again. I really knocked myself out: relieved my bladder, unloaded the dishwasher, made a cup of tea, promptly spilt it all over the floor, cleaned it up, and am now self-medicating with the help of a selection of cookies (swallows). Better now.
I had a lovely surprise yesterday, when Darkling JB sent us a group email direct from her Olvar Wood residency in Queensland. She said she and the other fellowship winners were sitting around at dinner discussing blogs, and I guess JB must have mentioned the Darklings and that one of us is a blogger, when one of them said, “Oh my god! You’re ‘JB’ from DoctorDi!”
It turns out this writer – her name is Penny (hello, Penny!) – has been considering starting her own blog, and at some point, she somehow stumbled across DoctorDi while looking at various examples of the form. I’m not sure how she found it, and neither is she. She thought it may have been from Jonathan Crossfield’s list of Top 50 Australian Blogs for Writers, but sadly (gulp!) I’m not on it. Anyway, it’s not only the bizarre coincidence I find so pleasing, but the large compliment that, having found this blog once, Penny quietly chose to return. I can’t tell how many times I’ve sat staring at my blog stats wondering who you are, so I’m just chuffed to have had this unlikely mutual unveiling take place. It’s hugely gratifying and funny; this is a BIG country, so the degrees of separation ought to be slightly larger than that.
Pretty wild, huh? So JB’s revelation from up north prompted me to ask the Darklings if they’d prefer I use their full names in future, and three of the four said yes – although it occurs to me now that we probably all intended such naming to occur only when I am writing about writing matters, such as when one of them has a win, in which case it’ll be lovely to do some loud public cheering from here. I doubt they’d appreciate my blithely divulging anything else (experience has taught me people love seeing their full names in my blog posts like a filthy great hole in the head), but their successes are another matter, and I hope and trust there are plenty more of those still to come. So without further ado, it gives me great pride and pleasure to reveal the identities of these three Darklings: Jewelene Barrile (who’s just received an Honourable Mention for another of her short stories in the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition in the US, so we’re clearly going to have to build her a bigger trophy cabinet…); Deborah Rice (an ABC broadcast journalist – yes, she’s on the telly); and Jennifer Scoullar (who has actually been named here before, as she’s the author of Wasp Season). Darkling C has her own good reasons for wishing to protect her anonymity, so I’m afraid you’ll just have to keep guessing for the time being, as ‘Darkling C’ she is and shall remain. So there they are. They’re my girls.
Now I’ve filed the Varuna News, it’s back to redrafting the doll’s house story tomorrow… and I might even be gearing up to take another run at the MS. Who knows? I guess we’ll see.
Well, I did finish the first draft of the doll’s house story last Wednesday, but I realised over the weekend that it’s going to require some fairly significant changes, so it’s not going to be ready in time for a last short story competition I was going to enter before forgetting contests for the foreseeable future. At present there’s a constant game of internal tug-o-war afoot, in which on the one hand, I want to finish a piece of writing and turf it out on its ear at the first available opportunity, ignorantly hopeful of its eventually finding somewhere to live of its own accord, all very brisk, while on the other I do very much want to learn not to rush anything out the door until it’s well and truly ready to go. These competing instincts are confusing, and they impair my judgement. Part of the problem is that I am not confident I do or will ever know when the time is right, so there’s a lot of hoping and guessing, but no certainty, and the result so far has been so many false starts.
One of the chief motivations I have for ever sending anything anywhere is the simple hope of receiving constructive feedback in return, because I think criticism is a real asset to anyone’s commitment to improving their writing, but such efforts could conceivably go on forever, since every reader experiences every piece of writing differently. What I think I need to establish is some sort of continuity of feedback, instead of all the random strands I’ve gathered along the way as various people have read and commented upon my writing. Ask a hundred readers for their opinion, and you’ll get a hundred different opinions. It’s addling.
I’d like to follow the example of Darklings JB and Jenny by getting myself a mentor, but the search for the right person has so far come to nothing. At the very least, I seem to have wildly overestimated my old PhD supervisor’s affection for me: I emailed her last week to ask if there was any way in hell she’d consider such a thing – for the going rate or better – and thus far she hasn’t even emailed back to say no. Just the confidence boost I was hoping for!! I knew it was unlikely – she’s very busy – but I thought it was worth a shot, and it’s more than a bit abashing to receive nothing whatsoever in response, least of all a soothingly redemptive out-of-office auto-reply. Naturally I’m already having very ugly flashbacks to my thesis – a hardcopy of which I so reverently posted – being utterly ignored by Don DeLillo, whose work I’d spent nearly five years of my life analysing. Crushing! Being ignored is even worse than being outright rejected, don’t you think? I’d much prefer my old supervisor said, ‘I never liked you, and I wouldn’t mentor you if my life depended on it’ than nothing at all. Total silence lets all the ghouls out and invites them to run amok. I’m feeling pretty toothless already, and I think they’re gathering for a concentrated attack on my ribs.
Anyway, I’ve looked at the list of mentors on the NSW Writers’ Centre website – a couple of times now – but didn’t feel the necessary pull toward any of them. Since it’s going to cost money I don’t have spare, and I would ideally like the relationship to be ongoing, I feel like I should feel a little glimmer of recognition and/or connection. I think it’s important to be a wee bit simpatico.
There are plenty of other mentors about, but I also admit I’d have difficulty regarding as a mentor someone with less publishing experience than I have myself. Even though all my published work has been non-fiction to date, I’ve still been published quite a lot. I work as a professional writer, after all, plus I hold a research PhD in English, so I admit I do turn a slightly critical eye on a couple of these resumes, some of which are distressingly underwhelming. Perhaps I am asking too much, but I’d rather wait for the right person to turn up than rush into an arrangement that could do more harm than good.
So the search continues. There was one woman I did like the sound of, but because she is attached to an English outfit, her rates are in Pound Sterling (even though she lives somewhere on the Hawkesbury River just outside Sydney), and I can’t afford that, since they charge more even before conversion. That’s what used to kill me in London when I was still spending my rapidly disintegrating fistful of Aussie dollars: a pizza in Australia might cost $20, and a pizza in London might cost £20, so it looks like there’s some sort of parity, but in reality that London pizza costs an Australian $50. The same applies to these mentorship rates: if you’re earning pounds, I daresay it’s all perfectly reasonable, but in Australian dollars the cost is prohibitive. Which is a pity.
Thanks to a gift from his mum, Llew and I were fortunate enough to attend a Sydney Symphony performance at the Opera House last night, and it was glorious. We had fantastic box seats, and the house was nearly full, right down to an annoying person who kept taking photographs and frankly deserved to be taken out by sniper fire.
It was a wonderful program, kicking off with the Australian premiere of a contemporary composition by John Adams (born 1947), Doctor Atomic Symphony, which we both enjoyed a great deal quite apart from the fabulous name.
Next up was Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, which is when our amateur photographer really got the ants in his pants. I think he was angling to zero in on pianist Garrick Ohlsson’s hands flying across the keys. It was a stunning performance – and no wonder, since Ohlsson’s apparently considered one of the foremost exponents of the music of Chopin performing in the world today. He had a large stage presence that seemed to balance well with the delicacy of certain of the piece’s demands.
After a whirlwind intermission, it was time for the evening’s highlight: Beethoven’s No. 5, which neither of us had ever heard performed live before. It’s pretty dramatic stuff, guaranteed to keep even the silver-streaked set awake and on the edge of their seats until after the finale. Cue thunderous applause. What struck us both was just how familiar Symphony No. 5 in C Minor really is – and it’s not just those first four notes, which as the program notes are surely the most famous in all of music. No, I guess over the years we’ve simply heard this piece of music many, many times in many, many settings. But finally experiencing it live at the Sydney Opera House from the comfort of box seats? Well, that was not a bad first, and brought so much that was new to a piece of music that in some ways we knew well.
Our conductor throughout was a very lively man, his dead straight hair a shiny cap forever leaping from his scalp as he danced on the spot every second he spent on stage (I must confess that conductors have always seemed a slight curiosity to me, but I really felt I understood them a bit better after watching this dynamo in action last night), a tireless American by the name of David Robertson. He was dizzying to watch, and it was quite a riveting spectacular in general, watching the members of the Sydney Symphony caught up in the strange phenomenon of being individually lost in the music while simultaneously synchronising as part of a seamless whole. I loved slowly scanning the stage all through the performance, looking from one section to another, studying one musician and then the next, seeing the way one by one they became something so much larger than themselves, and created something that was beautiful to behold as well as to hear.
It was wonderful.
Ghastly weather here, which is perfect for the day I have planned. I must say, I’ve been getting a nice little routine going with Patrick White’s letters the past few mornings: I get up with Llew at about 7 am, make my breakfast and a cup of tea, bring both back to bed, and sit propped up reading for two hours, at which point it’s 9 am and my own workaday must begin. And on the agenda for today is the doll’s house short story that Grad and Pete encouraged me to try writing. I started it not long after that post, but it’s been slow going. To be honest, I think I am still feeling pretty raw about the Penguin/Varuna shortlist disappointment, and it is causing me to feel really very jaundiced about everything I’m working on.
I still haven’t looked at the manuscript since, the prospect continues to be damaging to my spirit, but I have redrafted another short story, and am close to having a first draft of this little doll’s house number. Perhaps having it come together so slowly will be improving to the result; my writing tends to arrive in such an uncouth blurting rush that it sometimes feels as though it’s not words I’m dealing in at all, but a mass of dirty unkempt orphans screaming about the place – especially given my spectacular inability to find them any sort of home. I wonder if this geriatric speed shall produce something any more genteel… I suppose we shall soon see.
My run of superior mail drops continues this week with a book parcel arriving from Shuckin’ Charlotte, who has so kindly passed on extra copies she’s received of titles she already owns. She’s very good to me, you know – far too good, in fact, given she does so much for me when I am not in a position to do a single thing for her – and she’s certainly done me another great favour here with a very timely inclusion, Making Stories: How Ten Australian Novels Were Written, edited by Sue Woolfe and Kate Grenville (my other loot is The World Beneath – the first novel by one of our best-known short story writers, Cate Kennedy, whose short story workshop I am attending at the NSW Writers’ Centre next month, having committed quite some time ago now – and Indelible Ink by Fiona McGregor, who recently wrote an intriguing piece about her writing life for the Varuna Alumni News. Plus – as if that’s not enough – a block of dark Lindt chocolate and almonds, with instructions scrawled across the top that I am to eat the lot myself, which makes me feel a little like you-know-who, and if you don’t know who, think Mad Hatter). From the back-cover blurb of Making Stories comes the promise of some dearly needed reassurance:
Anyone learning to write will be encouraged by Making Stories – it shows that even our greatest novelists come to their books by a long and uncertain process. Making Stories shows ten acclaimed Australian authors at work, painstakingly constructing their books from rough notes, dimly-glimpsed ideas, and trial and error… All faced problems and doubts, and solved them in sometimes startling ways.
On a rational level, I know I am far from alone in finding this entire process bewildering, deflating, and even in some sense actually physically, mentally and emotionally debilitating – it can be crushing, and it hurts – but it is genuinely soothing, like cold cream on a bad burn, to know that even the greats have struggled in kind. Beyond doling out the requisite dose of encouragement, I really think this text is going to prove hugely instructive, and already I can see that it’s a writing aid to return to again and again. Indeed, Charlotte tells me her own habit is thus. Perhaps after I finish the doll’s house draft I shall begin studying how others make their stories before even contemplating a return to my own.
A shout out now to dear Charlotte, which she won’t get, but it’s the spirit of the thing that counts so it hardly matters: today she’s off on a writing retreat to finish taming her own new book; I’m sure she’ll have it lassoed and obedient in no time, but I (and I’m sure all of you) wish her a wonderfully easy ride coaxing it through the final gate.
For now, the rain continues its heaving downward passage, and all is quiet. I don’t know a better circumstance in which to write.
If it’s true that ‘timing is everything,’ and ‘you’ve got to be in it to win it,’ then I, not to put too fine a point on it, am screwed. There’s been an almost comic series of missed opportunities that add up to a big block-lettered message from the universe that I should just forget this writing malarkey, be glad 2010 has turned into the year of growing Baby J, and really just stop looking to accomplish a single other thing for the foreseeable future.
It all started with the Olvar Wood Fellowships. We were originally supposed to be in France right now, and the residency kicks off this Saturday, so I did not apply. I probably wouldn’t have won one anyway (JB is once again flying the Darkling flag, having won one of four places, and we expect a full report from the Hemingway Room!), but the fact is, I wasn’t even in with a chance. And now I’m not in France, I’m right here. Going nowhere.
Moving right along, entries are currently being considered in the Varuna/Scribe Short Story Masterclass – a total long-shot for me in any case, you understand, given my short form track record, but I would have dearly loved to participate in this particular program precisely because of my struggles with short stories. However, that residency is taking place at Varuna the week before my due date, and I don’t really fancy risking it. I can just see myself squatting by the side of a mountain hearing my own screams echoing back to me across the range. So. Again, no entry for me.
And now Varuna’s new non-selective offering: Alumni Writing Weeks. These are being piloted for the first time over two separate weeks in September/October. When the idea was first mooted, I sent an expression of interest, and as such was included in the email that’s just come around canvassing the maiden dates. The first coincides with holiday time Llew and I have booked together before the baby comes. Just a couple of weeks together, and the first opportunity we’ll have had for anything of the sort since last October in Shanghai. Not to mention the last opportunity for a holiday on our own for who knows how long. As it is, these days I am lucky, through the week, to see Llew for more than an hour a day. Our dates are fixed for a number of reasons. The second Alumni Writing Week clashes with the birthing classes we have booked at the hospital. Of course it does.
When I have such a remarkably blank diary, a calendar that is currently a parched desert of social engagement, a dance card that has warped and faded from lack of use, it seems extraordinary to me that these things have all uncannily converged. I guess it’s the start of a long, long lesson in my own desires taking a number and joining the back of the queue, because most of these missed opportunities revolve around things I want and need to do in preparation for the arrival of our little friend. I’ve heard the refrain, ‘Get used to it, because it’s all about them’ from enough of my friends to know this is going to become a very familiar theme – already I’m no longer free to suit myself, already I must always consider Baby J every step of the way, so it’s not as though this has all arrived as a total shock. I knew perfectly well it was coming.
Yes, I knew that major changes and restrictions were barrelling toward my day-to-day ability to work on improving my craft. No kidding! Show me a brand new mother, and I’ll show you someone who looks like she hasn’t eaten or showered in three days, and who can’t open her mouth without floods of tears pouring down her face. I get it. But I guess I’d hoped to use these next few months to enter some of these things precisely because I know it’s the last chance I’ll get for a good long while to participate in any of them. I can’t very well go on a writing residency while I am breastfeeding a baby, can I? Crying babies aren’t really part of the peaceful writing environment places like Varuna and Olvar Wood promote, are they? No.
And so how much writing do I plan to get done once the baby comes? Well, blimey, who the hell knows? Some people seem to manage very well, others totally come apart at the seams, and which it’s to be seems intimately tied to the nature of the baby itself. In other words, it is entirely beyond my powers to predict the way things are going to evolve. I’m just going to have to roll with the changes and see what eventuates.
But in the meantime, I think I’ll just spare myself the angst and kiss all these programs goodbye. That way, I can just keep quietly writing, trying to make the most of my rapidly closing window (shrinking in tandem with my expanding waistline), without worrying about all these things that otherwise feel like they are passing me by. Let them pass. I have all I need right here.
Well, as expected Australian PM Julia Gillard has called an election for August 21, so that, less than three years after the last election and with a different leader at Labor’s helm, Australian voters are heading back to the polls to cast their (compulsory) votes. I’ve railed against Australia’s stupidly short terms of office on this blog before, so I won’t spend long supping from that particular rant can today, only to say I am so sick to death of the focus on politics at the expense of governance, and I think our fundamentally ineffectual blink-and-you’ll-miss-it terms of office exacerbate the problem tenfold. It’s all about politicking, not leading. Yes, it’s true we have two rabid political beasts locking horns now, and with this battle there comes the unmistakable, unpalatable stench of a hit-and-run trailing both their campaigns, with their separate convictions already left by the roadside to die. Neither one feels any compunction to stand for anything, it seems, but only beat their competition. The tighter they lock horns, the harder it becomes to tell them apart. It’s a most unedifying spectacle, and it’s putting me off the lot of them.
One of the things that’s turning my stomach is the way both leaders are allowing the issue of asylum seekers to dominate the country’s fear spectrum. Boat people in particular are the source of much frenzied pledging by Gillard and Abbott, and the contest around which one of them plans to set the most disgraceful example to the people of Australia is tight. Gillard and her new offshore processing centre, Abbott and his ‘I’ll just turn the boats back!’ supreme idiocy – I can’t quite decide whose policy is more inhumane and repugnant.
Do you know what really makes me seethe down to the core of my being? Australia commits troops to Afghanistan, we invade that nation, we contribute to its present turmoil and the growing death toll among civilians, and then, then we have the disgusting gall, the absolutely breathtaking hypocrisy, to turn away Afghanis fleeing their broken home in search of a new and peaceful life elsewhere. Boat people! We shriek. Stop the boat people! Panic in the streets! Lock up your plasmas! Refugees – however they arrive – are not the real threat to our way of life – we are. Any population so pigheadedly closed to the reality of what these people endure – and that’s before they take the utterly desperate decision to climb aboard one of these dodgy boats and risk their lives all over again – will frankly be its own undoing.
Our ignorance and lack of compassion – our peculiar hysteria and fear – toward refugees really takes some beating. To constantly criminalise and demonise people who have already suffered brutalities and losses truly beyond the comprehension of the average Australian – a well-fed, sheltered species who need not even work a day in their lives in order to secure a comparatively comfortable life – is utterly despicable to me. Those bumper stickers aggressively declaring ‘FUCK OFF, WE’RE FULL’ make me so ashamed I want to disown my country. If this is a common attitude, we have veered badly off course as a people. It is so cold, it is so ignorant; it is so selfish and unfeeling and false.
Last night we watched a documentary about the Sudanese genocide in Darfur, ‘The Devil Came on Horseback.’ It convinced me anew that Australians should be more exposed to and educated about the horrors visited upon civilians in other parts of the world, so that we might better grasp the gross extent of our own good fortune, and perhaps reach a place in our hearts in which we’re better able to extend it by opening our vast shores to others whose homes and lives have been totally destroyed. We seem to think people just want to flood Australia from elsewhere, that there’s a tidal wave of Others straining against the gate, but I think the truth is that most people in most of these shattered countries would prefer, if they could, to stay and rebuild their own home. ‘Home’ means the same thing everywhere, it’s a precious and irreplaceable site, and people generally don’t leave it lightly. Some of the images in this documentary are scarring, and that’s even just seeing them flash up on the screen from the cosy comfort of my middle-class lounge-room in my beachside home in my wealthy and peaceful city. So imagine for a moment – and it’s hard to stretch my own imagination this far – what it’s like to experience that world of relentless rape, torture, mutilation, murder, burnt babies and torched villages firsthand. Hell. On. Earth. That is what survivors of these and other atrocities have seen: hell on Earth. And what do we do, as a country? Treat the world’s genuine refugees as vermin to be avoided at all costs, as though their shattered lives were something they had deliberately cultivated and wish now to unleash upon us all.
There is something badly wrong with all of this, and all of us, that leads Gillard and Abbott to flick the panic switch over a few hundred illegally arriving boats by reassuring an anxious public that these asylum seekers won’t get away with it on their watch. One might have hoped we would get a leader who would try to settle the public unrest by speaking to the reality of the situation, by soothing the nerves with reference to the negligible scale of the number of arrivals, and by calming the public’s paranoid nightmares via dialogue with and education about those whose nightmares are real, but that won’t be happening this time. No, they won’t be saying, “Our petty concerns pale beside what these innocent people have already risked, lost and sacrificed” – none of it. These two “leaders” will be too busy promising to turn the boats back, or else promising to send these pesky refugees somewhere else, somewhere far, far away where we can simply forget about them, and continue closing our minds to the troubled world beyond our wilfully blind little bubble.
Do you want to hear something really scary? Patrick White was writing about certain of these Australian xenophobic attitudes some fifty years ago, and it depresses me beyond all reckoning to realise that so very little has changed.
I’m reading Patrick White’s collected letters at the moment, a vast selection edited by David Marr. I can’t tell you how much I am enjoying it. I was given this book (I’m afraid I can’t remember by whom, although I think perhaps a university friend), many years ago now, and all of a sudden I was really seized by an urgent desire to read it. I’ve no way to account for this sudden appetite – I’m still yet to read a single one of his novels. It seems increasingly bizarre to me, now I’m learning more about him, that I was never once, in all my great many years of schooling, called upon to read a single one of his texts. This is a situation I shall have to correct for myself at the first available opportunity.
Patrick White, for those of you who don’t know of him, currently retains the title of Australia’s only Nobel Laureate for Literature. He was almost as famous as a curmudgeon as he was a man of letters, which former reputation I am finding surprising as I read his prolific private correspondence (and this is only what survives – imagine if he hadn’t demanded the recipients destroy it all! His lifelong partner Manoly Lascaris complied, but I can’t help feeling pleased that so many of PW’s friends defied him on this count. And since Marr secured PW’s permission to collect and publish what remained before PW died, one hopes that the author might have been grudgingly pleased too), because he’s very good company indeed. There’s plenty of talk of his being bitter and cynical and miserable, but thus far very little evidence to support this version of himself that he evidently liked to cultivate. Still, all may be about to change… I’ve only reached his 40s. Maybe by the end he really is an incurable sourpuss, but it hasn’t happened yet.
It’s a fascinating life journey through letters, and it reminds me, over and over, how much I love the epistolary form. So imagine my delight when I came home from my walk today to find a REAL LETTER waiting in the letterbox. It just. Made. My. Day. I badgered this friend – who returned to England from Australia a couple of years ago now – into becoming my pen pal a little while ago, because I was so desperate to keep my own letter writing alive, and deflated beyond tolerance by continuing to write letters to people who do not write back. It is thoroughly demoralising and wretched in a way few things are to have years of letters go off to a meet a great big unanswered dead-end. Poe of course was interested in missing letters, but I’m much more caught up in those that are never written in the first place. Over the years I’ve ended up feeling quite wounded, which is terribly unfair, I suppose, given no one asked me to start writing the damn things in the first place. My wanting people to reciprocate is distinctly not the same thing as their wanting to themselves, and any die-hard letter writer probably needs to accept that the only response to their efforts may be a deafening silence. In which case I would say, welcome to my world.
So I pestered A into signing her life away, and thus far I’ve managed to drag a princely total of two letters out of her. Today’s is the second, and it’s a huge improvement on the first – in which she cheated by enclosing lots of interesting clippings from the TLS, but very little in her own hand – it’s long and entertaining, and gives me WILD RENEWED HOPES for our future correspondence. I devoured it with a lunatic grin plastered all over my face, and felt such a surge of pleasure to have received it that anyone would think she’d mailed me some cake. When I glimpsed the handwritten envelope, just visible beneath all the bank statements when I cleared the box just now, I can honestly say my heart leapt. A letter! Oh, it’s a real letter! And it’s for me – happy day!
So if she thinks she’s got a hope in hell of being let off the hook now, then boy, has she got another thing coming. In fact, she really does – I’ve only to write and send it.
Another gorgeous day here – so much so that one might almost forget Sydney is in the blue-fingered grip of winter. Nice to see all the kids out playing, like the pair of girls I saw this afternoon laughing hysterically as they rolled down the grassy hill at Shelley Beach. It was rather tempting to join them – I haven’t rolled down a hill in years.
I was talking to my friend B from PhD (in her case post-doctoral fellow) days today – she’s about to have Baby #2. We were laughing at the way women sometimes behave toward other women, and I wonder now if men find it all pretty terrifying and foreign, or if they think the same applies just as much to their relationships with each other – I’d be very interested to know. Because what I do know for sure is that female-to-female relationships – when we’re not happily rolling down hills – can be pretty fraught, and pregnancy takes some of these tensions to a whole new level.
At about the Week 9 mark, I ran into a friend downtown headed in the opposite direction. After exchanging pleasantries, she said hopefully, nodding eagerly, “Feeling sick, are you?”
“Actually, no,” I said. “Luckily I seem to have dodged that bullet.”
She narrowed her eyes, flicked them over me and said, “No sickness at all?”
I had the unmistakable feeling I’d given the wrong answer.
“Um… no. But it sounds awful; I do feel really fortunate.”
After that, she just couldn’t get away from me fast enough. When another friend learned I hadn’t been struck down by morning sickness, she laughed gaily, topped up her wine and said, “Not to worry! You’ll probably get varicose veins instead!”
And indeed I probably shall – they run in the family. But what am I supposed to say to that? “Gosh, thanks! Here’s hoping!” A third friend, upon learning I’d been feeling well, stared at me over their dinner table before muttering, “I’m so happy for you,” looking very unhappy, and rather more like she wanted to stab me. Llew was there for that, which was great, because I think he previously thought I was making it up. Then she added, “Oh well, you had such a hard time getting pregnant, didn’t you, so I suppose that’s all right then.”
What – I ask you – does that even mean?!
I had absolutely no idea that other women were going to take my absence of nausea so personally. My friend B’s equivalent war stories centred around her weight gain (which looked perfectly modest to me, just the result of being 37 weeks pregnant with a boy), with the most popular barb being to insist that she must, just must be expecting twins. “Nope,” she says, “just the one.”
“Get out! Are you sure? Nooooo… It’s gotta be two!”
“Pretty sure it’s one. O-n-e. So they tell me.”
“My god, you’re GIGANTIC!”
“Uh huh. Thank you.”
Then come the midwife stories. I’ve been hearing a lot of those. In fact, I’ve heard so many that I’m starting to wonder if there is some kind of sadism involved in some women’s decision to enter the profession. How else to explain it? B said, “The one piece of advice I wish I’d paid more attention to was, ‘Be prepared for at least one bitch midwife.’ Because it’s true.”
I shook my head. “In the wrong job?”
“No,” she said, “they love it. There are really, really nice ones too, but of course it’s the bitch you remember. There are some who are real… bullies. They boss you around until you find yourself sobbing in the shower like you’re in Cell Block D.”
At this point I’m sure I looked completely aghast.
“But I’m sure yours will all be lovely,” she hastened to add, but neither of us believed her.
Truth is, I have heard this cautionary tale about some midwives, lactation consultants and nurses – always with the strenuous caveat that the rest of them are fantastic – from just about every mother I know. One said she was subjected to undisguised contempt after the birth until the nurses learned her caesarean was an emergency rather than elective decision. Another said her inability to instantly grasp the technicalities of breastfeeding earned her the scorn of a lactation consultant, so extreme that she found herself physically and psychologically unable to keep trying. It goes on. So you have to wonder if these people are just having a bad day, or a bad week, or if they’ve just seen it all too many times to care that it’s still a new mother’s first, or if on some level they actually enjoy seeing and/or making other women suffer.
Because some women seem to actively dislike other women. It’s true. I don’t know what it is, I don’t know what’s behind it or where it comes from or what it means, but I have met women who clearly do not like women. They’re out there, no question. And what better place to exact some obscure revenge on their sex than in the labour and maternity wards, places where women are absolutely at their most vulnerable? You have to admit it makes a sick kind of sense. It does tarnish that rosy mental picture of kindly caregivers somewhat, but at least I’ve been warned, so instead of bursting into tears, should someone be mean to me at the hospital, perhaps I’ll be able to look the bully in the eye and say, “Please don’t speak to me like that.” Maybe I should start practising now, just in case.
The morning has cleared in spectacular fashion to reveal my very favourite sort of Sydney day: not a cloud in the bright blue sky, the winter sun doing its warming best to live up to a reputation earned easily in later months, a light offshore breeze, all in all truly just the ticket to lift my spirits after the recent days of miserable shared sadness, at the end of which a regretful agreement of sorts was brokered, in which the main tenet is time. Time to respectfully consider and continue our separate journeys, with the future hope of different lifelines learning how better to cross.
In happier news, and in keeping with the re-emergence of sunshine after a season thus far characterised by sopping laundry and icy feet – all twenty toes huddled and jostling down the end of the bed like a family of gypsies huddled around a fire – Baby J has forced me from my usual jeans. The big (in more ways than one) day was Sunday: I made it as far as my mental and entirely arbitrary milestone of 17 weeks and not one day beyond. It was odd, because only the day before they really did still feel fine, but when we left the house Sunday, I turned to Llew and said, “That’s it.” I was uncomfortable for the rest of the day, they were cutting into me as though to punish me for letting it come to this, and I couldn’t wait to pull them off the second we got home. It’s weird wearing maternity jeans. And of course they’re currently too big, so I’m in a sartorial wasteland for the minute, although I doubt that will last too long. It would have been nice to make the halfway mark before shifting gear, but I was never going to make it. Three more weeks? I don’t think I could have tolerated three more hours. And the change was that sudden, and that total, as though Baby J responded to his or her dinner on Saturday night (S’s delicious meatballs and pasta) by promptly doubling in size.
Baby J’s bump is plainly visible sometimes, and not really at all at others. Currently I am wearing a windbreaker – I have to go for my walk shortly and tilt my face to greet this glorious sun – that is very kind. I don’t look pregnant at all – at least, if you didn’t know, you’d be very unlikely to suspect. Other clothes make me look enormous. It’s all very funny, as is some friends staring hard before insisting they can’t see anything, nope, nothing at all, whereas others can’t stop telling me I’m massive. I oscillate wildly between wanting to hold on to my figure, such as it was, and wanting to really bloom. Right now I am somewhere sort of featureless, because I can’t yet feel our little friend moving, so based on purely sensory perception, all I know is that I’m five kilos heavier. That didn’t take long, did it?! And there’s no surprise where those five bags of flour came from, either – that would be all the food.
But who cares? It’s all in the service of a wonderful cause, and I am eating well, walking, and in very good health. Half of Sydney is sniffling and hacking, Llew’s been sick twice, and yet I am passing through it all (famous last words) fancying myself as something almost biblical (to the extent that my being pregnant at all feels nigh on miraculous). I am determined not to get the flu. Also, because I have never dieted and therefore have never deprived myself of anything, I don’t think anything drastic has changed except my exercise, which used to be running and is now walking. I plan to move to the nearby pool once that becomes uncomfortable and the weather is warmer. Oh, and I’m not eating my adored cured meats, blue cheese or pate, so in fact may even be slightly ahead in the nutritional stakes. But because I’ve never ‘missed out,’ there’s no reason to view the pregnancy as a reason to ‘give in’ or ‘indulge’ – I’ve always done precisely as I please with respect (and what great respect it is) to food, and it’s served me very well – both the attitude and the nosh.
Speaking of which, I was fascinated at Jah Bar by the return to work last week of the owner B’s girlfriend, E. She’s French, absolutely drop-dead gorgeous, and gave birth to their daughter a mere four months ago to the day. She’s very petite anyway, but I was riveted by the seemingly overnight, apparently effortless return of her girlish figure. Four months? She looks like she’s sixteen! When I leaned across the bar and made this observation to B, he said with a happy shrug, as I knew he would, “French women don’t get fat.”
We both turned and looked at E’s tiny form disappearing with a tray of drinks held aloft, and then he added, “And that’s because they don’t eat.”
A-ha – I knew it! I gave Llew what can only be described as a triumphant smile, and settled down to the happy business of devouring my dinner.