Monday Project: An agent of change

Audrey was alone, but sleepy and warm. She moved her lips over her gums, getting used to their fleshiness, sans dentures. She remembered, suddenly, having watched her own grandmother do the same thing.

She pulled the blanket up under her chin, neatly folded the top sheet over it so it wouldn’t tickle her, and closed her eyes. The darkness behind her eyelids was heavy, and her bones seemed to sink deeper into the mattress. A deeper heaviness than sleep. But she wasn’t ready for this yet. She wasn’t ready for this change, and so she fought it like she had every night for the last three months.

With her eyes still closed she drew her attention around the room she was lying in — her room, she had to keep reminding herself — repeating a journey she’d made physically many times that day, and for many days before that.

On her day trips around the room, she would touch the trinkets she’d brought with her to this place when she’d moved out of her last home, trying to recall the story behind each of them. Some days she would remember; some days not. Some days seeing a particular object in this place would bring to her an image of it elsewhere — an old house, the hands of one of her children, the store in which she’d bought it. At times she was not sure how many of these trips she made in one day. She’d look back around the room, trying to match the small new memories — a fingerprint in some dust, the way the light fell on a picture of her husband — with what she saw now. But she could never be sure if those memories belonged to another day, or to half an hour ago.

When she made the trip in her mind’s eye, warding off sleep and that bone-heaviness, it was like all the day trips became one. She saw each object a thousand times. The memories — old, new, real, invented — crowded inside her head, keeping her awake for what was probably hours. She floated around the room, and through the many years of her life, until she eventually went towards sleep.

Tonight, however, the heaviness loomed. It sat at the edge of every memory, cast a shadow on every object, every photo in the room. For the first time, the room in Audrey’s mind felt small, and she found herself wanting to go elsewhere. Not to escape the heaviness, rather to find a way to let it in.

For a moment she thought of all the faces looking down at her from the frames on the walls, and how what she was about to do would change them. She hoped they were ready.

~

This is my response to this month’s Monday Project theme. There’s been a bit of delay this month, but we should have the other responses up later today, along with the new monthly theme.

Home

Last night I was drifting off to sleep, finally, when a thought pulled me suddenly back into the waking world: this weekend, I’ll be able to visit the bakery of my childhood.

This weekend, you see, I’m heading back to Forbes, the town I grew up in. It’s the first time I’ve been back in four years. My immediate family all live in Canberra now, and most of the people I still keep in touch with from school no longer live in Forbes. Family friends still live there, but somehow I’ve not found reason to visit.

I very rarely think about Forbes. I mean, I reminisce about high school, and childhood, but I hardly ever think about the place itself, and the impact it had on me. The last time I did, I wrote an essay, which ended up being published in issue 77* of Voiceworks.

But I do often think about the concept of ‘home’, and the places I associate with that word.

My brother and his girlfriend are in Forbes today. This morning they sent me a picture of a roundabout on the main street. I’m sentimental at the best of times, but my propensity for nostalgia has been higher lately. The instant I opened that picture file, I was hit with a wave of nostalgia, and I wondered how I could possibly have excluded Forbes from the list of places I call home.

Melbourne is home for me. Sydney is home for now; Canberra sometimes home. Forbes doesn’t even get a look in. But I think it should. I lived in Forbes for many more years than I’ve lived anywhere else.

I guess, being the home of my childhood, its impact on me is something subtler than those other places, part of my subconscious.

Last year sometime, I got in a cab to go home late one night, and was chatting to the driver.

“You’re a country girl, aren’t you?” he said, suddenly.

I don’t think I’ve ever thought of myself as a country girl, but he guessed that I hadn’t grown up in a city because I got into the front seat of the cab and struck up a conversation. City girls, he said, sit in the back and avoid eye contact. Conversation? Ha.

Of course the cabbie’s guess is based on a huge generalisation about ‘city people’ and ‘country people’, but I did start wondering how many other aspects of my everyday behaviour might be related in some way to me having grown up in Forbes.

I’m not sure what to expect from myself this weekend. As I write this, more and more memories find their way into my thoughts. Sometimes it amazes me that one human being can have so many memories, so many that a whole period of your life can be tucked away somewhere safe. Sometimes so safe that those memories are never found again.

Judging by pensive mood, just anticipating the trip, it’s probably safe for me to assume there’ll be more of the same over the next two days. (I’m going back for a party though, so I’m sure there’ll also be plenty of plain ol’ fun.)

I get the feeling that some of this wistfulness will become writing. Fiction, maybe. Watch this space.

~

* Express Media’s website is down at the moment, so you might not be able to access that back issues link. I’ll keep an eye on it though, and update it when I can.

Cities and food

I’ve spent my entire adult life living in cities. And at the moment I seem to be spending every spare waking moment reading about them — part of some research I’m doing on how cities are fed.

Cities are complex — an extension of the human beings they house, I suppose. I’m finding the research fascinating, even though I’m still in that stage of not really knowing what I’m going to pull out of it. Most of what I’m reading suggests that we should treat cities as living things, allowing room for them to develop organically.

Geoff Mulgan, from the Young Foundation, says their research suggests that we need to practice “designing in incompleteness, recognising that the best cities evolve themselves rather than just following somebody else’s master plan… the more perfectly planned and conceptualised the new city, the more certain you can be that it will fail.” (You can access the transcript of his presentation, The Social Life of Cities, on the Grattan Institute‘s website.)

Allowing for uncertainty and growth, I guess. As a teenager, I was interested in architecture, and briefly considered going down that path when I left school. Design on that scale — and broader still, looking at urban and suburban planning — still interests me. What we see around us, in urban and suburban environments, is very rarely there arbitrarily. Mulgan (and a number of other people whose work I’m reading at the moment) suggests that much thought needs to be given to how our built environments impact our social lives, because one of the very basic human needs is interaction with other humans.

Food, of course, is another basic human need. I think the two can and should cross over.

But enough for now. Back to work for me.

Storytelling

What has struck me over the last few days, since my Mamie’s death very early Friday morning, is how important storytelling is to the grieving process. Apart from the day she died, when I withdrew into a little shell and moped about the house by myself, I’ve spoken to one or more members of family every day. And each time we’ve told stories about Mamie.

I’ve found out things about her I didn’t know, and heard stories that cement my ideas about her. I said to my Dad the other night (Mamie was his mother) that I’m sure there are lots of things about Mamie that I was never going to know until she had died, and I’m kind of looking forward to getting to know her better — or at least in a different way — through the stories I’ll hear about her.

The storytelling is vital, I feel. Mamie was frail when she died — if we weren’t able to tell our stories about her to one another, I think we’d not be able to remember her as she was in the rest of her life. In the stories, she gets to live again.

I’ve always been fascinated by religion and spirituality. I went to Catholic schools growing up, and every year I did very well in the compulsory Religious Studies. I don’t really consider myself a religious person, but I have always loved learning about how people explain to themselves life and death and everything in between. Life after death — again not something I’m decided on — is a particularly interesting concept to me. I wonder whether these stories, these memories we have of Mamie, are her next life.

Mamie was religious. She believed in God, and Heaven, and that she was going to be with my grandfather, Da, again when she died.

Once, a few years ago, she and I started having a conversation about God. I told her I didn’t know whether I believed in a higher being or not, but that I didn’t think it mattered if I was able to be a good person. She listened. At that point in the conversation we were interrupted, but she looked at me, touched my arm, and said, “Please let’s continue this conversation when we can later, darling.” I knew, from the way she said it, that our later conversation would not involve her trying to change my mind, only wanting to know more of it.

Sadly, we never got the chance to finish that conversation. I would dearly love to talk to her about those things now, and it saddens me to think that I won’t be able to.

But that I can tell that story, and imagine how the conversation might have gone — have the conversation with her in my head — is enough. Whichever way you look at it, Mamie’s having a life after death right now.

I’ve shared my thoughts about the social function of literature here before, and I’m sure what I’m describing here fits into that idea somehow. Stories encourage compassion and empathy, and in doing so I think they can perpetuate a person or character’s voice and existence. Which reminds me, I’m due to write more about my ideas on using different narrative voices — my efforts here don’t do the subject any kind of justice.

Monday Project Theme: Beach Baths

The water on the cement is cool between her toes. She tries not to think about the temperature of the water in the pool as she pulls her goggles down over her eyes. The suction on these goggles isn’t great, and the last few mornings water has seeped through; when she gets out out of the water her eyes feel as though she is still mostly submerged, peering along the water line. In at attempt to avoid this today, she pushes the goggles firmly into her eye sockets, then steps up onto number six.

This moment, before she dives in, is her favourite part of the day. Looking around at the world she’s about to forget for an hour, anticipating the shock of the cold water.

She stands up tall, her spine long, chin tucked in slightly. Her arms come up over her head, palms touching. She chuckles at her own drama, drops her arms and dives in casually. Her arms and legs feel it first — the tingle. Then her scalp, as her limbs grow numb to it. Even with her tied back the cold manages to find its way in and around every hair folicle. Some days she can still feel the scalp-tingle several hours later, post-shower, post-breakfast.

The first few laps she swims quickly, more quickly than usual. With each new stroke comes a new thought. There is barely room for pause, and she realises she is forgetting to let herself breathe. A breath. A snippet of sound from the world outside, then back to the muted heaviness of underwater.

After lap five, she slows down, allows herself to feel the frustration rather than swimming away from it. She doesn’t know where it’s coming from, and that somehow makes it worse. With her next inhale — a big one — she realises her lungs feel trapped by her ribs, like she could breathe deeper if only her skeleton would get out of the way.

Another breath. Later, she will recognise the sound as a scream, but now it only registers as something harsh; she notices the relief when her ears are blocked with water again.

~

This is my response to this month’s Monday Project theme. The next theme went up yesterday — you can have a look here.

I cruelly forced my writers’ group to respond to the theme on Sunday, when we all got together. I’m hoping some of them will send me what they wrote. We did share with each other on the day, but it might take a little more prodding to get some of their words here.

Stalking… I mean, observing

The other week at uni, instead of a tutorial, we were asked to make our way to one of a list of places in the city and make some observations. With the brief ‘cities at night’, we were to produce two 150 word pieces — the first a description of the place, the second a description of a person within that place.

I chose the supermarket at Broadway. I chose it because I’m writing about supermarkets for one of my feature articles, and because I really dislike the place. Actually, most supermarkets make me vaguely anxious. And that fascinates me. What is it about them that makes me anxious?

My written pieces for this exercise don’t really attempt to address this question, but I thought I’d share them here.

    The place is full of people, but not their voices. A hum fills the space – the cooling system for the fruit and vegetable section. Beep, beep, beep; items scanned and placed in bags. “Next waiting, please.”

    On the whole, it is a place devoid of smell. Only the bread and meat sections have a scent: both vaguely sugary.

    There are few Supermarket Rushers at this hour. People move in a dream-like state, eyes sliding over the shelves, occasionally stopping to peer more closely. To speak to someone is to wake them.

    Away from the hum of the fruit and vegetable section, people’s footsteps can be heard on the bright white hospital floors. The high heels and heavy business shoes have gone for the day, left are those who have had time to slip their feet into something more comfortable. White light — a Hollywood yellow in the cosmetics section — shines down from above. This place seems both small and enormous; with no windows there are no landmarks for perspective.

    ~

    Phone between her shoulder and ear, basket dangling from her arm, she puts two heads of broccoli into her basket. Her grey sneakers take a few steps away. She is not speaking English on the phone, but her sigh is clear; she returns to remove one head of broccoli from her basket.

    The white phone now hangs in her hand. She has moved to cosmetics. Her eyes amble over the face creams on display, looking without really looking.

    In her basket she has a box of oats, a carton of soy milk and the green vegetable. She seems unsure what to add next, moving briefly back towards the vegetable section before drifting in the opposite direction towards the frozen foods. For several minutes she stands in front of the garbage bags, squinting at the many choices. She decides on purple bags a shade or two darker than her shorts.

    She scuffs towards the self-checkout. Basket down now, she gazes at the screen a moment before moving to scan her first item. She has not brought her own bags.

It was an interesting exercise. I ran into someone I knew at one point, and had to pretend I was doing some last minute shopping — even though I was at the opposite end of the supermarket to the milk and cheese, which is what I said I was there to get. And I discovered that stalking is really quite difficult.

But the exercise was fun. I had trouble keeping to the word limit because I had many, many notes. Being asked to observe something almost always has me listening harder than I normally do, and I had lines and lines about the sound of the supermarket.

As much as I dislike these places, supermarkets are fascinating. People behave strangely in them. This observation exercise was as much an exercise in trying to find the kind of compassion for other people I ranted about in my last post. People are rude and vague, tired and careless. Maybe they dislike the place as much as I do.

In last week’s class we got back an edited version of our pieces and discussed the exercise. There were some fairly heated discussions about some of my classmates’ observations of other people. I won’t discuss those here just yet (they relate, again, to my last post and I want to give them a little more time when and if I do write about them).

When I got mine back it was covered in notes, questions, underlines and crossings out. I love the way something looks when it’s been edited. I’m not really sure why.

(Excuse the terrible photography.)

Where to start?

The fire in my belly from my last post has me frustrated. I’ve got all this energy, all this desire to do something, but no idea where to start.

My appetite has gone nuts. For a few days there it was almost at hyperactive thyroid level — the kind of eating not uncommon to me before I had my thyroid zapped. Just like back then, it’s a need to do something (eat) rather than an actual hunger. I mean, if I don’t eat, I get hungry, but the feeling itself is not like normal hunger. And, again, it’s a hunger that doesn’t know where to start. When I get like this I’ll eat just about anything. I’ll open the pantry and the fridge and just eat things as I come across them: yoghurt followed by sultanas, followed by dry crackers, followed by a spoonful of onion jam, followed by a handful of nuts, followed by whatever chocolate I can get my hands on, followed by an intense desire to cook porridge, and while that’s cooking I’ll eat some more nuts and some more jam and maybe some more crackers and definitely some more chocolate. Of course, when the porridge is cooked I feel like I’m going to explode. But I still want to eat. And so I eat the porridge.

I should clarify. One of the ‘benefits’ of having an overactive thyroid is the crazy-fast metabolism. Constant eating, no weight gain. Sounds brilliant, doesn’t it? Read back over that last paragraph, will you? It’s terrifying and exhausting. And kinda expensive.

Now that I don’t have a thyroid, and my thyroid levels come from a little white pill every morning, my metabolism, while still fast, is much more normal. Except when my brain goes into overdrive like it seems to have in the last few weeks. (The list above, while an accurate description of the appetite of someone experiencing thyrotoxicosis, is a little hyperbolic when used to describe my appetite now. Take a few things off the list. That’s about right.) It’s like my brain needs extra fuel.

Also fuelling my brain are the many, many journal articles, newspaper articles and books I’m reading, and the videos I’m watching and the radio programmes I’m listening to. I’m jamming (ha) them all in there, hoping that my brain is like my metabolism and can process them quickly.

The other thing I’ve found myself doing is taking up lots of new projects. House projects, mainly. Today a friend of mine came around for lunch and I convinced him that it’d be a great idea for him to drive me to Bunnings (I don’t have a car) so I could spend a voucher I had. I bought a lot. Almost the second his car was out of sight I had my (new) gardening gloves on and manically planted just about everything I’d bought, even though my plan had been to leave the planting until the weekend. Then scrubbed the dirt off my hands (I’d ditched the gloves to plant the smaller stuff) and rushed off to teach a yoga class.

Now that I think about it, I’m probably achieving more than I realise with this energy. But it sure doesn’t feel that way. And therein lies the problem, I think. A while ago, I wrote over at the Monday Project about how I’ve got lots of start-up energy, but struggle with follow-through. As well as just running out of steam, not getting the time to appreciate what I’m managing to get done means that I feel like I haven’t done anything, become disheartened and, often, give up.

Kinda like how your stomach takes about twenty minutes to process what you’ve just eaten, feel full, and tell you to stop eating. If you eat quickly you end up with that discreetly-undo-the-top-button-of-your-pants-full. Not good for you in the long run, and not overly pleasant at the time.

So, in the same way that you might, say, actually finish chewing and swallowing one mouthful before moving on to the next, I’m going to try to take a bit of time with some of the writing I’m working on and some of the ideas that are floating about in my head. It doesn’t need to be finished tomorrow. It does have a deadline, of course, but that deadline is a little way away yet.

Right now though, I’m going to go downstairs to see if there’s some chocolate in the cupboard.

~

In case you’re not familiar with the Monday Project, or missed the newest project theme because I’m a bit of a dill and accidentally scheduled it a week early, you can have a look at it here.

Writing as activism

Things seem to be pushing me lately to get writing again about the things I talk passionately about. Heated discussion (not necessarily heated because of disagreements) has always been a part of my life. My parents always encouraged me to think for myself, to find out when I didn’t know, to constantly question.

Talking about literature as activism (and activism for literature) at the Academy of Words started this ball rolling. Then I went back to uni and my teacher talked about how we use words to explore the consequences of the world’s happenings (“If this is so, then what are the implications?”). Then I read some of my uni texts and found myself sobbing by myself on my couch, hoping my housemates wouldn’t come home in time to see me like that (even with the explanation “Kids with cancer”, a red-eyed 25-year-old with tears running down her face, unable to speak properly, is not a pretty sight). Then my brother posted this to his new blog. He’s doing what’s basically an environmental science degree at ANU, and it’s not unusual for a phone conversation between us to be entirely about worm farms or gardens or cooking or food or what’s wrong with society. Our conversations aren’t short. But I’ve never really spent much time writing about them before.

Everything seems to be pushing me back towards writing about what intrigues me, what sets off that fire in my belly.

See, I tend to write to explore issues or relationships that intrigue me.

In fiction I write about characters with dementia, or men who are trying to deal with grief and still be ‘manly’, or middle-aged siblings trying to deal with their parents’ old age and death. These are situations I’ve not been in myself, but things I’ve observed in other people’s lives. And I just wonder, you know? I just wonder what it’s like to be them, how it feels. I want to come closer to understanding, and in sharing it with other people, I hope to provide an opportunity for others to at least think twice about people they pass in the street.

In non-fiction I write about food and cooking, yoga… Well. See, I’d like to write a whole lot more about some of the things that anger me, or frustrate me. Like some of the muddy definitions of ‘climate change’ that my brother refers to here. I’d like to write about lots of the ideas that he and I discuss. And lots of the ideas that I discuss with other members of my family, and those of my friends who are willing (or have no choice but) to listen to me ramble on in such a non-sensical way.

I’d also like to write a little more about the concepts I ramble about in my yoga classes (and write about on my yoga teacher blog), while my students hang their heads in paschimottanasana. I wonder, sometimes, if they’re wishing I’d just shut up and tell them about their hamstrings, or hurry up and get to the bit where I make the little relaxation-inducing adjustments on them. But they keep coming back, so maybe they don’t mind (or they suffer through it to get to the relaxation bit).

Anyway, I don’t really know what I’m getting at here. This is a bit of a rant. And this is me telling someone what my ideas and goals are, rather than just setting about achieving them — which apparently I’m not supposed to do if I actually want to achieve them.

I feel like my brain’s switching back on after a little rest. I guess that’s not a bad thing.

Summation of Academy – from notes in my phone

My original plan with this was to write up some thought-provoking, rambling discussion that somehow approximated what went on at the Academy of Words. That plan was a little ambitious.

Instead, I’m going to put up some of my notes from the day (still in note form). Unfortunately it looks like I only took notes for three of the sessions. And didn’t take anything down at all for the one that I took part in as a panelist. For anyone watching me thumbing away on my phone on the day, I promise I was taking notes, not distractedly sending text messages. Because, would you believe, I actually didn’t think to pack a notebook to take with me to a festival about words. The bits in italics are thoughts I’ve added after the fact.

I write therefore I am… A writer.

  • Realised that writing is how I deal with the world. It’s how I find out how I feel about things.
  • Fiction writing is how I explore certain ideas; non-fiction is an exploration of other kinds of ideas — I seem to have an innate knowledge of whether I can deal with an idea better in fiction or a non-fiction
  • Realised one day that I’m actually good at putting sentences together (am I?), and that it’s not something that everyone is good at.
  • Connection between writing to get to know yourself and yoga practices. (There have been times in my life when I’ve felt it necessary to write pages and pages of personal journals — hopefully something that will never, ever be read by another individual. What comes out in those journals often surprises me. Sometimes it’s like I don’t know how I feel about something or what I think unless I write it down. My yoga practice is the same. Getting on a yoga mat, for me, is a way of getting myself to look at what’s actually there, rather than whatever it is I imagine might be there.)

Honk if you’re the publishing industry

  • “A book itself is a really good piece of technology.”

Literary activism

  • Advocating for a better industry, using literature as a form of activism.
  • People who are lobbying for more accessible cultural artefacts
  • Developing communities — feeling passionate about developing a writing community
  • “Activism is about knowledge, about finding out” director of SA Writers’ Centre
  • “Doing something is activism. You can’t ever be apolitical.” (This reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend of mine recently about how we’d grown prematurely disillusioned with ‘activism’ and felt useless, but then realised that only a small amount of effort was needed to feel active. She now schedules a little time each week in her diary that’s devoted to acting on social and political things she feels are important.)
  • Need to change the social attitude so that cultural artefacts are valued as highly as, say, season tickets to the local footy team’s games.
  • Chloe Langford (Format Festival): recontexturalusing art so it’s just a part of life.

Tiny snippets of things. Tiny snippets that have started to spring off in all sorts of weird and wonderful directions in my brain. More on that shortly…

~

If you’re in a generous mood (or even if you’re not), you might like to donate some spare change to Format, so they can pay their rent and continue contributing to Adelaide’s cultural community. You can donate here.