Thursday, November 24, 2016

writing myself out of this mess

I'm not much of a people person, I suppose most people who know me would say. It isn't that I don't enjoy company, even crave it sometimes, it's just that good company seems to be getting harder to find. Everyone is so busy doing whatever it is that keeps them going. I am not burdened by busy-ness, as it happens, but I am doubly burdened by the guilt associated with that and some days I can't keep going no matter how hard I try.
I spend way too much time looking at my newsfeed and seeing a relentless churning mass of things that make me sad, interspersed with the occasional cat video or Dalai Lama quote that makes me smile. I know, and please don't interrupt me with advice because fuck knows that's the other thing my newsfeed is brimful of, that I should put my phone away and go outside. On most days I do. On most days I try to maintain some perspective. I try to focus on all the amazing good in my little part of the world. But some days that little part is bounded on four sides by a fence and surrounded by people who couldn't care less.
I have never felt more in need of a tribe, and never felt that tribe so far away. I know where they are and it is not here. If I go in search of them I will have to take everyone I love, but my greatest fear is that I will have to take myself too.
I was hoping a couple of weeks ago to see Mother Moon and get some answers from her. Turns out she's not a superwoman either, and the clouds were more than a match for her that day. I thought how good it would be, given the election of a moron and the passing of a genius, to have a gathering of people singing, playing music, embracing nature and each other's company and the immense power of the moon. She's seen this shit a million times and she's all over it.
All I really feel capable of doing at the moment is writing. If I could write myself and everyone else a new world that's totally what I would do. It turns out I can't. I just write little bits and pieces of happiness here and there and maybe one day I will have a nice word quilt to throw over our shoulders to keep us warm.
I wrote this today. I really hope you like it.

AT the age of five years, Esmeralda began to collect things. Having no grasp of time’s relentless nature or the span of decades that awaited her, she started keeping little traces of her life in a lidded porcelain box her grandmother had given her. The ballerina painted on the lid was on her tiptoes, arms outstretched in front of her as though to carry all the treasures Esmeralda bestowed into the little box. Soon the treasures – a broken but still spectacular hair clip, two miraculous four-leafed clovers her sister had found, a piece of broken pottery with a blue flower in one corner, several glass beads saved from a broken necklace and a magnificently whole macadamia nut – began to outgrow the ballerina’s box. Despite having just celebrated her sixth birthday, Esmeralda needed a new vessel for her life’s most important articles. Having explored the overflowing plasticware drawer in the kitchen – plenty of boxes but no lids – and searched her sister’s bedroom and her own, Esmeralda could find no vessel as pretty as the ballerina’s box. She resolved to store future treasures in a properly unassuming shoebox, so as to render snooping sisters unaware of the bounty inside. An added bonus was that the ballerina’s box fitted inside the shoebox too, as Esmeralda would have hated to part her treasures from their steadfast, pointy-toed guardian.

In keeping with the nature of things, this first shoebox spawned a multitude. Soon a whole shelf of Esmeralda’s wardrobe had to be cleared to contain all the shoeboxes and all the treasure. Her mother’s protests to dispose of some of this priceless collection were greeted with momentary disbelief followed by outright indignation. Still, as Esmeralda passed her seventh, eighth and ninth birthdays, her collecting of treasures began to slow down. When she reached the milestone of one decade on earth, there were fewer and fewer things to treasure – at least things that could fit inside a shoebox. If she counted her cat Zydeco, her threadbare teddy, her Mum and Dad, her rainbow high-tops, raspberry ice blocks and the jacaranda tree in her backyard, there was more treasure than could ever be contained in a vessel smaller than Esmeralda’s enormous heart. She did not stop treasuring the little things, she only stopped trying to make them her own.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The first Freya

When I was about 15 there was an Australian film I saw, I can’t even remember where or with whom. It was called The Year My Voice Broke.
There was a girl in this film and her name was Freya. I had never heard the name before but it stayed with me for many years, and I remembered this Freya as being a bit wild and almost otherworldly. I remembered her cotton dresses and her wanderings around the barren but beautiful landscape in which the film was set. My second child was born 18 years after the film was released, and she was never going to have any other name but Freya.
In the time between seeing my first Freya and holding my very own, I had learned more about the name – the Norse goddess of love and beauty, who rode in a chariot drawn by two cats, whose day was Friday (the day my Freya was born) and whose animals were cats and stallions. I did not watch The Year My Voice Broke again, although I found it on DVD at a discount store a couple of years ago and bought it.
Last night I decided on a whim to finally watch it again, this time with my husband who had never seen it before. I watched my first Freya with eyes almost 20 years older and saw what it must have been that drew me to her, although I couldn’t honestly recall most of the storyline. I saw her wildness, her connection to spirit, her barely contained beauty and her wild yellow hair that matched the hills around her home town.

I had not expected the story to be one of birth and loss, of ghosts and the heavy, unavoidable burden of history. As a 15-year-old I had not seen any of these things, or at least had not found them memorable. How lovely it was to know that even though my life now carries so much more and sometimes weighs so heavily, that my first Freya has not changed at all. She is still wandering the windswept hills, wearing her cotton dresses and windswept hair, being beautiful and wild.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

In the sun born over and over ...

There was a moment last Sunday that was notable for lots of reasons. It was on a long stretch of beach, which makes it memorable for setting alone, and it involved a family outing and a challenging but visually and physiologically rewarding walk up a very steep hill. As we walked back along the beach under an enormous blue sky, I glanced behind me for the fifteenth time to make sure Rosa was following, prone as she is to pausing and picking up shells or seaweed or spinning in circles or just stopping to plunge her hands deep into the sand because it's there. She wasn't behind me. She wasn't in front of me. She wasn't beside me either, at least not on the ocean side, and I suppose I had that split second of panic where I thought my child had vanished into thin air, before I looked to my other side and about five metres into the distance to see she had climbed the metre-high ledge of sand and was running along the ridge with pure abandon. I walked along beside her but kept my distance, and although we were both moving I felt completely fixed on her and her lightning-bolt, pure-hearted spirit. I'm almost ashamed to admit my brief moment of regret at not having brought my phone to capture this image of her, but it occurred to me then that it would be with me forever anyway, and I resolved to try something I haven't done before. I wanted to see if I could write this image, to conjure it using only words, and create an image just as real as any Instagram post. In this age where everything has to be an image or a soundbite to command attention, I wanted to see if I could make something with words.

She is running along the very top of the ridge, as though the thin line where the sand meets the vaulted blue sky is an extension of her bare feet. She seems to run without thought or effort, although her sleeves are bunched up above her elbows, her skirt long since discarded and her tights rolled just under her knees, as if to prove her protests at having to wear too many clothes on this sunny winter’s day. Her hair was pulled into a bun this morning but many hours of adventure have almost brought it undone. Rebellious strands, like the thickets of wheat-like, waving seagrass along the ridge line beneath her feet, catch the early afternoon sun and are rendered golden. Her focused, smiling face is radiant too, a reflection of pure joy and a primal urge to move, to run, to be free. I am reminded of words I once quoted when she was a toddler, and somehow they are even more perfect now than they were then:

“Under the new-made clouds and happy as the day was long,
 In the sun born over and over, I ran my heedless ways.” 
(Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill) 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Dweller on the threshold

Last weekend a Writers Festival came to town and filled the streets of Newcastle, along with my calendar. I was one of many volunteers on two of the three days, as well as a finalist in the festival’s inaugural Microlit competition for short fiction (200 words or less).

The first session I saw while volunteering was a meeting of two Newcastles – old and new, steel and sky, blue collar and white. John Lewer spoke about his new book, Not Charted On Ordinary Maps, which documents the period between the announcement of BHP’s steelworks closure and the actual day the gates closed for the final time. It was two-and-a-half years, and for the 5000 mostly male workers must have been a time of great pain and uncertainty, despite the overall hope that many in Newcastle, including myself, held for a future unfettered by the dirty great industry that had been its making.

The room was full of men who had clearly seen all those things – the making of an industry, the pain of its loss. Lewer recounted the incredible figures around that two-and-a-half year period – the productivity gains, the almost negligible absenteeism. Back then these men had something to prove, and though it ultimately fell on deaf ears, I don’t think it was lost on a single person gathered at City Hall last Friday. I doubt whether most of those gathered had ever been to a Writers Festival, though of course I could be wrong. It seemed they were there seeking answers of some kind, these middle-aged and elderly men who carried with them a life of hard work and resignation. I think I winced when Lewer quoted from his book the cruel observation that, when the death knell finally sounded for BHP’s Newcastle steelworks, the unions and workers alike were instrumental “in their own demise”. The words could not have been easy for these once-strong men to hear, even 17 years later. They, like the city, are connected far beyond knock-off time to a place beyond the physical, to a comradeship that helped them rise above the politics and brutal conditions they endured for most of their working lives.

The title of Lewer’s book comes from a passage in W.A. Metcalfe’s academic article ‘Mud and Steel: The Imagination of Newcastle’ and when Lewer read out the passage I was hanging on every word:

‘Not just space, then, nor just bricks and mortar, Newcastle is rallying calls, pledges of loyalty, moral terrors … the analyst of Newcastle must explore memories, dreams and imaginings not charted on ordinary maps.’

It reminded me of a poem I wrote last year.

I recognise this place.
I’d know that stifled optimism anywhere.
A place full of heart,
If you believe the paper.
But all your major arteries are empty.
Beards have replaced the boilermakers
And there are different tracks,
All going nowhere.
Cafes have cropped up
Where corned beef used to be the rage
And you don’t do smoko now,
Just coffee to go or kerbside espresso.
You’re going places.
Always have been.
Your ship’ll come in,
But then it’s gone by dawn
Down the old Coal River
And out to new horizons where I can’t see
And you’ll never be.

-                                                                Jodi Vial

By Saturday I was in a much more optimistic mood. The sun was shining, the streets were buzzing, and I was standing outside the Civic Playhouse with my volunteers' clipboard smiling and saying hello to Drusilla Modjeska, one of many wonderful authors who visited the city for the festival. I snuck in later to see part of her session, in which she discussed her writing life, and caught an anecdote that will stay with me for a long time.

Modjeska related the story of taking some visiting Papua New Guinean women to a large Australian shopping centre so that they might buy some clothing and souvenirs to take back home. She recalled seeing the matriarch of the group, “one of the most powerful women I have ever known, and I have known some very powerful women”, suddenly lose all her strength and begin to look panicked. When Modjeska asked the woman what was wrong, her reply came from generations of connection we can only imagine, having begun to lose our grip on it some time ago. “Where is your ground?” the woman pleaded. “Where is your ground?”

That night I was back in City Hall for a discussion on microfiction and the screening of all four finalists in the festival’s Microlit competition. I was disappointed not to win, just a little, but loved hearing the other works and my own, voiced by professional actors and with audiovisual enhancement by Melbourne writer and artist Richard Holt. I can’t provide you with the full package here, but following is the piece for which I was shortlisted. 

I know how it feels to be seeking ground, but with this work and the continual work of writing and learning, I believe I have found mine and hope it will never be lost to me again.


There are two bare feet below her on the weathered boards. She is unsure if they belong to her or someone else. Either way they anchor her as her body tilts and rolls through another wave of pain and she comes out gasping with exhaustion and relief. The boards breathe along with her, with the spirit of the women who came before her, who birthed and were born in this house, held above the earth by this floor and beneath the sky by this roof but no less a part of them both. She lifts her head to take a great belly full of air before the next wave and she sees a small bird, a swallow, rendered in plaster but moving, flying, as surely as if it were feathers and bone. The swallow’s wings lift her spirit but her body is still anchored to the dusty floor and filled with pain and purpose. She braces against the nearest door, claws at the timber as though she might bring the whole place down. Her baby is at the threshold of the earth and she is reborn with him, into a motherhood and sisterhood from which she will never return.                                                                             Jodi Vial 2015

Monday, February 1, 2016

freedom overload

It seems we are all trapped, one way or another. Either trapped in circumstances we did not foresee or trapped in those we intentionally created for ourselves. And there we are. The decision is whether to struggle or to give in, which seems an immense decision on the face of it but ultimately neither one matters in the end. Either way you are still trapped, and even if you manage to get free there will only be another trap attached to freedom. 

Some would say that not having to go to work would be the ultimate freedom. Some would delight, if only they could, in not having to be anywhere or do anything all day. No places to go, no people to see. The enormous freedom. Yet I know that with that kind of freedom comes complete uncertainty. Like letting a toddler do whatever they want to do without any intervention. At first it’s fun but then they get hungry, or tired, or both, and without an adult to feed them or put them to bed a toddler is lost. Confused. Panic-stricken. Their freedom is their prison.

So I’m eating biscuits for lunch and drinking tea because I can, and because my self-control has momentarily left the building, along with my self-belief and self-preservation. I’m sure they’ll be back. They’ve just ducked out for some fresh air and adult conversation. You tend to miss these things when you don’t get out much.

Friday, January 15, 2016

what solitude sounds like

It’s the walking I miss.

The feeling of bare earth

on the soles of my feet, the freedom

to move without waiting.

The clear soundless notion of solitude.

I am worn by these days, worn and tired

and sinking

below the surface.

I crave air that is mine alone,

just enough to fill my lungs

and heart again. Just enough

to open up a path within me

where my feet can go wherever they choose.