jessie cole

novelist/writer

Category: Memoir

The Asian Invasion

The author in kimono, 1985

The author in kimono, 1985

The first ride-on mower my parents bought was always breaking down. This seems an incidental fact, but really it isn’t. We lived on sixteen acres in subtropical northern New South Wales and the grass grew like wildfire. There was a man who would come out to repair it. He was a regular feature of my childhood. Reliable, efficient, relatively cheap. There is something alluring about people who come into your home and solve otherwise insurmountable problems, and it’s interesting the way fix-it men can come to seem wise. Into my teens, I’d watch my parents’ thankful faces as they waved this man off, peaceful in the knowledge that the mower would work again tomorrow.

One day, after he had fixed our mower for the umpteenth time, my mother and I stood chatting to him in the driveway, a moment of small talk. I don’t know why, but I mentioned that my boyfriend was of Italian descent.

‘The I-talians, well, they’re all right,’ he said. ‘But those Asians, you’ve got to watch them.’

I was utterly shocked. This statement, so out of the blue. I glanced across at my mother, but she was staring avidly at her feet.

‘What do you mean?’ I stuttered out.

‘They’re shifty. You can’t trust ’em.’

Now it might sound improbable in small-town rural Australia that I could get to the age of seventeen and never have experienced such a blatantly racist statement, but that’s the first I remember. I stared at this familiar man, trying to fit his words into the picture I’d built of him.

‘We don’t feel that way,’ my mother said quietly, finally looking up.

The man seemed unperturbed. ‘In the cities and that, they’re taking over.’ There was a faint gleam in his eyes. ‘Can’t go anywhere without seeing them.’ He climbed into his truck and lifted his arm in a casual wave. The same as he’d always done but irrevocably different. The week after that my parents bought a new mower and the fix-it man vanished from view.

The valley where I grew up, and where I still live, is a predominately white place, but something unusual happened around the time of my birth. Three separate Japanese families moved into town and then each proceeded to have a bunch of kids. In my small primary school of sixty children there were about ten kids of Japanese parentage, all around my age. It was an anomaly – a Japanese community in 1970s rural Australia – but in the jumble of that time and place they fitted right in.

The 1970s was a chaotic decade in the history of my town. Previously it had been quite homogenous, old farming families going about their business, but with the rise of the hippie counterculture there was an influx of new settlers, young folk from the cities trying out whole new ways of being. They were on the hunt for a place far removed from the rat race, or – as my father once explained – away from the perceived evils of materialism and conformity. I used to imagine that there must have been quite a struggle when all these outlandish characters, with their long scruffy hair and bell-bottoms, turned up in town to build their hippie shacks, but nowadays – when I ask around – I find a relatively benign response to their arrival. It’s easy to forget that nearby town Nimbin, the hippie heartland of Australia, was once voted the deadest town in Oz by an early 1970s television show. Clearly there was some ideological reshuffling required when all these young folk came flooding in, but I get the feeling that mostly the locals saw this rush of outsiders as revitalising – fresh blood, so to speak.

And into this topsy-turvy world came the three Japanese families. Drawn to northern New South Wales for the same basic reasons as my parents, they wished to escape the society they’d been born into, to live a different life from their forbearers. Adventurous, they were ready for a new start. Of the three families, there were two who were particularly close with my parents. Shigeru and Yumiko, with their four children, and Yoshi and Tokie, with their three boys. Shige is a builder and Yoshi an artisan carpenter, and in the late 1970s both were involved, in different ways, in the building of my parents’ home.

Shige and Yumiko were first to arrive. They had travelled through India and South-East Asia, the classic hippie trail. Flying into Western Australia, they’d lived in Coolgardie for five months before they’d hitchhiked across the Nullarbor Plain, Yumiko pregnant with their first child. I once asked Shige why they’d settled in my valley, and he laughed and said, ‘We run out of money. Stuck!’ But later he elaborated: ‘When we move here, lot of other people move here too. Everybody new around the same time. Also, we lucky, lots of people traveller, so they understand.’

Yoshi and Tokie had planned just to visit the area, but by the time they arrived Tokie was pregnant with their second child, so they stayed for a while, and in time it’s where they settled. Yoshi told me, ‘In Japan everybody same mind…here people so friendly and very open-minded.’ Shige added, ‘Australian people complain about having no culture, customs … traditions … because it’s young country. For me, in Japan, too many traditions. So when I came to Australia I feel so free.’

Things like cultural capital can be hard to quantify, but the presence of these Japanese families brought something special to my town. Shige and Yoshi were both, in different ways, extremely skilled craftsmen, and many of the older houses in town have a uniquely Japanese flavour. Slanted, shingled roofs, hand-carved wooden features, handmade bamboo fences, the occasional wood-heated bathhouse. Way before the ubiquitous sushi train, we hippie kids were sampling the delights of homemade Japanese cuisine. Sushi rolls and handmade tofu. And on top of all that was the philosophical exchange. Elements of traditional Japanese culture involve a focus on being in harmony with the seasons and a reverence for nature. Keystone hippie ideals. The Japanese families in my hometown led the way when it came to going back to basics, living for years off the grid without electricity.

As kids in my hometown, we’d run together in packs – climbing trees, swinging wildly from the Tarzan vines, splashing our way through the creeks. Going out bush with baskets of fruit from the trees, we’d hang about playing elaborate games – laughing, bickering and making up again. Mostly we stayed outside, but at the end of the day we’d venture into one another’s houses.

Author's brother's 9th birthday party, 1988.

Author’s brother’s 9th birthday party, 1988.

When you’re a kid, everyone else’s family is like a foreign country, peculiar and unique. You have to learn the house rules, figure out the language. I distinctly recall being entranced by the exoticism of the plush pink wall-to-wall carpet in a friend’s suburban bedroom at about the age of eight. Suburban aesthetics that horrified my parents – from which they had so determinedly escaped – were alluring to me in their unfamiliarity. It is often confounding, how different we all can be, but I don’t remember feeling the Japanese families were more foreign than anyone else’s. I do remember enjoying the company of the Japanese mothers, who were gentle and softly spoken. Sometimes those mums would come into our primary school to teach us origami. They made us onigiri, which we thought were a massive treat.

I’ve been wondering lately about my own obliviousness to race as a child. I used to believe it was an outcome of having been brought up in a particularly open-minded community; that difference was somehow made invisible by the lack of attention afforded it. It has struck me recently that maybe my blindness was a luxury of my ‘normality’, my whiteness. Isn’t the very definition of privilege that the one who has it doesn’t see it? But then again, our town was full of wild characters. In this spectrum of eccentricity it was hard to get much of a sense of what was normal. Mine was a mixed-up world, multi-layered and complex. The rules, at times, seemed difficult to discern. As a child, the basic tenets I intuited were: be open (explore!), be kind (where possible) and – last but not least – don’t judge. (Each to their own. Whatever gets you through the night.) Certainly, when it came to the Japanese families, I detected not a hint of ‘us’ and ‘them.’

I am endlessly fascinated by this hippie experiment, that a proportion of the population committed to trying out relatively untested ways of living even existed in the 1970s. That they could flow towards my valley like a meandering creek, arrive in an unruly mess and go about erecting this strange boundary-less place seems somewhat fantastical in hindsight. Of course, they have always been easy targets for parody and derision. Long-haired stoners, talking their ideological bullshit. But there is something about this idealism, this verve – when it was still fresh and new – that fills me with a kind of yearning. Though I’ve experienced firsthand the ill effects of the hedonism of this era, there’s a part of me that longs to experience some version of the idealistic fervour. To be able to truly believe. By the time I’d come into any kind of political consciousness, idealism was dead. Cynicism was ever-present, anything less was just plain foolish.

In my final year of high school one of my teachers announced to the class, ‘You know, the rest of Australia isn’t anything like here. You think this is the mainstream, but it isn’t.’ We treated that statement with the derision we always reserved for old men in bad ties who tried to tell us how the world worked. A year later I was living in Brisbane, Pauline Hanson had been elected to the federal seat of Oxley and the political landscape had erupted into a space where fear of the ‘Asian invasion’ loomed large.

‘I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians,’ Hanson said in her maiden speech to parliament. ‘They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate.’

It was hard to make sense of this in the context of where I’d come from. I couldn’t stop thinking of the Japanese families in my hometown, of what they’d brought to my community, of what we’d all shared. I couldn’t shake the bewildering sense that I had entered adulthood and stepped into an unfathomable world, an alien landscape where bigotry was righteously defended as a valuable addition to society instead of a scourge. My nation felt like a foreign land.

Nowadays, fear of the Asian invasion has lessened and the denigration of Muslims has taken centre stage. It’s a sad pattern, that each new wave of migration brings a counter surge of racism. I think of how ostracised the Italians and Greeks once were in our national culture – wogs, dagos – and how Australian they now feel. I watch the Socceroos win the Asian Cup with my sport-mad fifteen year old and the names on the shirts make me smile: Luongo, Langerak, McKay, Behich, Spiranovic, Brillante, Troisi, Bresciano and Jason Davidson, whose grandmother is Japanese. I want to say to my son – this is the best of us, this mishmash of names, this team.

We are a nation of immigrants. Colourful, diverse, textured. Apart from the First Peoples, none of us has ancestry on this soil that goes back more than a paltry two hundred and twenty-seven years. Looking back through our nation’s history of shifting prejudice – from the early stigmatisation of Irish settlers to present day anti-Muslim sentiment – I suspect that in a few decades the tide will have turned. Muslims will be seen as fully integrated citizens, a part of the fabric of this patchwork-quilt nation. Someone small-minded somewhere will be saying, ‘Well, those Muslims, they’re all right,’ with a world-weary sigh, ‘but those [insert new immigrants of choice], you can’t trust ’em.’

How I wish we could just skip that part, take a look around us and see how much we’ve gained.

First published in the Griffith Review #49 & the Asia Literary Review #28 in August 2015.

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The Nest

The importance of female friendship is sometimes lost in our culture’s rush to celebrate love and romance. The endgame of fulfilment is seen to rest squarely on the shoulders of marriage, or at least a committed love-partnership, often referred to as ‘pair-bonding’. But when I look back on my life, the relationships that have been most sustaining have been those that fall quite outside the realms of traditional notions of love.

When I first met Lou, we were both fourteen but she hadn’t gotten all her adult teeth. The remnants of childhood still hung about her, and I was drawn to the unselfconscious innocence of her gap-toothed smile. She was dreamy and whimsical, with large owlish glasses, and she wore little sprigs of jasmine in her hair.

At fourteen I was already wounded, family tragedy having taken its toll, but there was a freshness to Lou, a lightness. I remember thinking—she’s just like me, only better. Funnier, kinder, more honest, undamaged. Lou said aloud all the secret things I kept to myself, strange thoughts or feelings I thought might set me apart. She didn’t seem to have a private self, she didn’t seem to need one. I loved her transparency, the freedom it afforded her, the freedom it afforded me in her company. Finding her then—in the midst of my strife-filled adolescence—was like surfacing from the depths of a dark pond into the soft daylight. A coiled up part of me unfurled in the sun.

These days Lou’s face has settled into adulthood. She has a crease between her brows that I sometimes catch her smoothing, but I love the pensive thoughtfulness of her frown. It’s been over twenty years since we met, and in some ways she’s quite a different creature. The jasmine is gone, as are the owlish glasses, and when she speaks it’s with the hard-won wisdom of someone who’s been into the darkness and come out the other side. Life got to her, as it does to everyone. She hasn’t made it through unscathed. But when you love someone, the traces of their scars become beautiful, like a map of all the things they’ve been brave enough to feel. And though I’m afraid of middle age, I look at Lou and see how every day she becomes more luminous instead of less, and I hope it’s the same for me, that I’m mirroring her life-journey in some essential way.

It’s hard to ascertain why some friendships thrive, while others fall away—the particular facets of compatibility or chemistry that must surely be at play. How it is that with some people you can feel such a potent sense of home. Lou once gave me a nest that she’d created from scratch, with a porcelain bird sitting in it. She presented it shyly—“It’s a little bit weird, I don’t know what I was thinking.” But for me, it was perfect. We weren’t pair-bonding, but we had built a nest—a safe place where we could hear each other’s most peculiar thoughts, try to keep warm one another’s dreams, and—maybe most importantly—where we could speak hard truths if they be needed.

“He’s not good for you,” she said to me in a time of great confusion, not so long ago. “He’s making you sick.” I could feel her distress, how hard it was for her to get her tongue around those words. “I know you can’t stop, that he’s like an addiction, but I have to say it anyway.” And I was startled. It was the last thing I wanted to hear, but also unequivocally true. I stared, wide-eyed like an animal in the headlights. “You’re right,” I murmured finally. And she was. Her steady gaze an anchor in the wildest sea.

We’ve lived through so many versions of ourselves—such a wide arc of changes—sometimes it’s hard to keep track of all the people we’ve been. And always her voice on the end of the line has that echo of the past, that thrill of trust and intimacy, that promise of endurance.

Lou says—“Do you have time?” And I say—“Yeah.”

nest-BW

First published in The Lifted Brow, Issue 25, 2015.

Sexual Misadventures

'Memories', a drawing by Ian Cole, the author's father, 1986.

‘Memories’, a drawing by Ian Cole, the author’s father, 1986.

I grew up in a time and place where sex wasn’t pushed under the rug. We were lucky if it stayed behind closed doors. I was born in the late 1970s, amid a social upheaval around sexual mores, and my parents and their friends had decided to do things differently to their forebears. Shame around sex was out, spontaneous public nudity was in. In the midst of all this freewheeling behaviour, nothing was ever explained. I was a watchful child and the basic tenets I gleaned about sex in my early years could be most simply summed up as: it’s not a big deal, there’s no need for discussion, and—the golden rule—don’t be uptight. Meanwhile, all around me families broke apart and reformed at whirlwind speed. Like many kids who grew up in this climate of sexual experimentation, I developed a cautiousness about sex, because one thing soon became clear—it was a very messy business.

I have no memory of not understanding the mechanics of sex—who put what where—but the confusion around sexual feeling started early. I distinctly remember my parents taking me to see some kind of foreign film. They had no baby-sitters, so my brother and I always tagged along with whatever was happening. The film was dark and broody, subtitled, and I couldn’t yet read. There was a sex scene that began with some degree of antagonism. I remember asking my father, ‘Daddy, why is he hurting her?’ And him shushing me and saying, ‘He’s not. She likes it.’

‘But why is she making those sounds?’

‘That’s the sounds she makes when she likes it.’

This was an unnerving revelation. I remember being worried for her all the way through the film. ‘But she doesn’t sound like she likes it,’ I kept muttering. I must have been under five.

‘Don’t watch it if it’s scary,’ my dad whispered, so I slithered down and sat beside his feet where I couldn’t see. And, of course, no further explanation was forthcoming.

The first explicitly sexual book I remember reading was Judy Blume’s Forever. It was greatly hyped in my pre-teen circle of friends, passed around like a secret. All I remember is it was faintly discomforting. I re-read it recently, just to see, and I think perhaps—even back then—I didn’t quite buy the sexual chemistry. There was something prosaic about Kath’s and Michael’s desire, something a little forced and sad. And really, the sex scenes didn’t give us much: ‘He rolled over on top of me and we moved together again and again and it felt so good I didn’t ever want to stop—until I came.’

It was upfront, yes. It told us (vaguely) what went where. But it lacked an interiority that would have made the whole thing more enlightening. Why did it feel good? What was the feeling like? What was happening inside Kath’s head? Why did she love Michael? These were all things I desperately wanted to know.

Around the same time I found a copy of The Joy of Sex. We were staying at my parents’ friends’ house in the city and I spied it on one of their bookshelves. I really wanted to look at it, but I didn’t want anyone to know that. Despite my parents’ openness, I was quite a private being. So I snuck out in the middle of the night and snaffled it, hiding it under the mattress to peek at in any moments of solitude I could snatch. The Joy of Sex was informative. With lots of pictures. But I don’t remember feeling any closer to the things I wanted to know. Why did pleasure sound so much like pain? Why did love so often seem to hurt? If you basically just ‘moved together’ with someone until you came, why was everything so (fucking) complicated? What was going on?

By the time I finally kissed a boy, I was shocked by the ordinariness of it. How could something that gathered so much heat in the culture around me feel so pedestrian? I had expected a magical sensation, akin to fireworks, something that would explain this incessant focus on sex. It felt exactly like someone pressing their tongue into my mouth. Which, when you think about it, is just plain weird.

As a young teen I was surrounded by many fictional portrayals of sex. D.H. Lawrence, Anais Nin, Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski sat gathering dust on my parents’ bookshelves. I opened them all over time, with some curiosity, but I don’t recall a revelatory quality to these readings. Perhaps it was a bit like the foreign film—I was simply too young to understand them properly.

In an unfortunate coincidence I happened upon historical romance novels at about the same time I started having sex, some time in my mid teens. A friend, the youngest in a family of seven girls, brought Johanna Lindsey’s So Speaks the Heart to my house, and after dissing its outlandish Fabio-inspired cover, I picked it up and had a peek inside. What I uncovered was a raunchier world than I had ever encountered before.

But when he finally did join his body to hers, he still moved carefully, slowly, and she could not stand it. She raised her hips to force all of him into her. What followed was no less than wondrous. A tight knot formed in her, becoming tighter and tighter until it broke, and the throbbing that followed was exquisite, spreading through her whole body and going on forever.

There was a more precise attempt at describing orgasm than in Forever, and detail around physical sensation, but what about all the other bits I was discovering about real sex? The fluids, the strange body-sounds, the awkwardness, the missed communication, and the confusing times it just didn’t work? And most importantly, what about the clitoris? This little nub seemed entirely absent. How could that be?

When I started bringing historical romances home, it was immediately clear that my parents viewed them with disdain. In shame I ripped off their covers and stashed them in a bottom drawer. My parents weren’t concerned about the sex, but about their terrible ‘quality’. Why would I like reading books that were so clearly very bad? It’s a mistake to judge a book by its cover, and if they’d read one they might have been surprised, since not all trashy romances are badly written. I wish they had taken the time to read a few so they could have set me straight about some of the myths these books peddled. That orgasms are always simultaneous. That around your lover arousal is ever-present. That desire and beauty are intrinsically linked. That love usually starts with a superficial contempt, and—perhaps the most problematic of all—that ‘bad’ men always come good in the end. I read those books obsessively as a teen and slowly they created an alarming gap between what I felt sex should be like and what it was.

Despite this discrepancy, my boyfriend and I made our way through the pitfalls and pleasures of inexperienced sex, learning from each other, and in time I began to realise these romance novels weren’t doing me any good, that the subtexts of the stories was undermining my happiness. If I’d started reading them as a sexually experienced adult it might have been different. I might have been able to view them as what they were—pure fantasy. But as a teen they were just confusing.

Then I discovered Puberty Blues. I have no memory of how I found this book, but I was astounded by its gritty realism. Reading Puberty Blues was revelatory in how it mirrored the dismal reality of the teenage sex lives unfolding around me. Drunken or drug-fucked groping in the backs of cars, awful unpleasurable hook-ups that left my girlfriends dazed with disappointment. Although it was startling to finally find recognisable sexual experiences on the page, I didn’t learn anything about sex that I didn’t—in a sad kind of way—already know. I wanted to experience writing about sex that was real, but not that real.

The book I learned the most from turned out to be something quite unexpected, Shere Hite’s The Hite Report on Female Sexuality. I discovered it in my mid twenties in the bookshelf of my best friend’s mother—a battered relic of the 1970s. I must have skipped over it a thousand times, but one day I picked it out, and what I found in those pages opened my mind. A collection of anonymous questionnaire answers about sex—intimate revelations by a range of women about their own experiences and desires, in their own words. I read this book in a single day as though it was a thriller. I was heady with new knowledge. The sheer diversity of female desire and arousal; the strange individual idiosyncratic nature of the whole process. Reading this book freed me from expectations about my own sexuality in a way nothing previously had.

I recently read Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip for the first time. It was published in 1977, the year of my birth, and though I didn’t grow up in inner-city Melbourne, I instantly recognised the attempts at sexual liberation that had characterised my parent s’ community. There is so much ‘fucking’ in Monkey Grip it is hard to keep track. The protagonist, Nora, relays her sexual experiences perfunctorily, with an unabashed casualness. Reading the novel, I was completely engulfed by the same confusion I felt as a child. Why if sex means so little, does everything seem to revolve around it? For me, Monkey Grip embodies that cultural paradox like nothing else I’ve read. But it also got me thinking about the lack of sex in mainstream literature today. Considering we live in a world saturated with visual portrayals of sex, it seems a strange gap.

As the Bad Sex in Fiction Award attests, it is easy to write poorly about sex, but does that risk really explain the reticence? William Nicholson, a disgruntled past nominee, observed: ‘There’s an underlying assumption that it’s not good form to write about sex as if it really matters. Irony, dirty jokes, porn, all fine. But serious sex—that’s a private matter.’ Yet sexual longing—fulfilled or unfulfilled—makes up a huge part of how we relate to each other. It runs, like an undercurrent, through most of our lives. If the strength of the novel is that it allows us to inhabit the experience of being inside the mind of someone else, is it rational that sex in mainstream fiction should so often be peripheral to the story? We live in a ‘liberated age’, where the full spectrum of sexual experiences is available to us with just a few clicks and taps on the keyboard. But what is so frequently lacking in visual portrayals of sex—subtlety, nuance, feeling, emotion, depth—could be fertile ground for the novelist. Surely sex, with all its complexity, is worthy of a deeper interrogation.

A little while back I heard British writer Glen Duncan talk about what good sex-writing does:

The most convincing sex-writing is writing that focuses on the discrepancy between the pop-culturally dictated ‘script’ of interiority—that is, what the songs and movies (and bad writing) tell us we’re supposed to be thinking/feeling—and the frequently absurd, dislocated or downright disturbing things we’re actually going through whilst having sex.

Something about this spoke to me. I realised that the sex writing in novels I’ve loved as an adult have all done this, in one way or another. Writers such as Susanna Moore and Jeanette Winterson, Carrie Tiffany, Krissy Kneen and Duncan himself. Writing into this gap between popular narratives around sex and the hard-won reality. Writing about sex as if it really matters.

First published in Meanjin, Volume 74 #1, Autumn 2015.

An Unsurveyed Land

JessieCole_walking

The land I inhabit, my family home, is a forest of sorts. This part of northern New South Wales was once cleared pasture, but my parents started planting before they even built the house, and nearly forty years on it’s a green jungle. Their gardening strategy was haphazard, guided by a wide-ranging love of trees. When I was young my parents battled constantly over light – my dad craved sunshine, my mum embraced shade. Occasionally Dad would start up the chainsaw and Mum would pace the house, stricken. Mostly she could see his point, but the loss of a tree was hard on her heart. She had planted it, no doubt, and nurtured it through those precarious early years. My dad died when I was eighteen, and with him the battle to control the gardens. These days, the place is self-propagating, and apart from keeping some flat spaces mown, my mother enjoys watching nature run its course.

When I was a child my family had a summertime ritual of walking up the creek that bordered our land. We always went after it had flooded and the creeks were full, the rocks rubbed clean of moss and slime. Everything sparkled. We walked upstream until we hit the bridge, the first sign of civilisation, then we turned around and walked back. It seemed to take a whole day. Mum would pack sandwiches and snacks. We waded through the shallow water, clambered over boulders, and if it got too deep we’d tramp along the bank, watching out for thorny vines that hung from the treetops with their giant, lethal-looking spikes. We had to pick our way through, pathless, choosing step by step how best to move forward. The section of creek upstream from ours was uninhabited, lined by disused pasture and forest on one side, and a steep bank up to the road on the other. As far as we knew, no-one else ever walked here.

I don’t know when we stopped walking the creek as a family, but at some stage in my early teens it became a kids-only activity. After the first summer flood, I’d pack a knapsack with fruit and Vita-Weats and head off upstream with a bunch of friends. There was something about crossing this threshold from our land into the unfamiliar, something risky and enlivening. In line with my teenage obsessions, what I remember most from those kids-only creek walks was not the landscape but my shoes. I had inherited a pair of sandshoes my dad had painted for my oldest sister years earlier. They’d been white, but at her request he painted them in bright primary colours – an abstract artwork. Someone had even sewn garish buttons over the toes. They were ludicrous clown shoes, but in my mind they were perfectly suited to the wilds of the creek walk, and they set the tone for everything else about the day. For the trek upstream my friends and I always dressed in things we would never wear in the world. Skirts that were far too short, bikinis we knew were unflattering. We painted our faces with ochre and did zany things to our hair. It was as though we were preparing to step into a space ungoverned by rules. A gazeless place, unsurveyed and unjudged. Walking upstream into this uncultivated world, we became loose and freewheeling. The narrow edges of our teenage lives transforming in that liminal space.

Somewhere along the line, we stopped doing the walk upstream. I had babies very young, and, burdened by their weight, it became an arduous task. Balancing on unsteady rocks is precarious with a toddler on each hip. What had been a kind of freedom – walking into an unknown land – became work. Physically exhausting, with twisted ankles and banged up knees, mosquito bites and thorn-scratches. I vowed we’d do it when they were bigger, when they wouldn’t need so much propping up, and then, like so many things, it drifted from my mind. Even though I stayed living in my childhood home, the summer ritual that had marked my early life disappeared.

My kids are teenagers now, and watching them negotiate the wider world has me thinking about the power of that walk through an unsurveyed land. This first week of summer, I decide to revisit my family’s old ritual, alone.

…..

To continue reading go to CHART Collective, An Unsurveyed Land.

JessieCole_in water

Published as part of CHART Collective‘s The Longer Light Series in December 2014.

Photographs by Lilli Waters.

Floodlighting

Photograph: I love Images/Corbis

Photograph: I love Images/Corbis

Getting to know someone new can be a complicated affair. Sometimes it’s hard to judge what to reveal about yourself and what might best be left to a later date. The last boyfriend I had told me that when I first talked to him about my childhood he had to drop in on a friend afterwards to offload.

‘She’s got this crazy backstory. I just don’t know if it’s all too much.’

He only revealed this post-conversation-debrief to me after we’d been together a few months, and though my first response was defensive, on reflection, he had a point. Which brings me to one of the biggest quandaries those with a difficult past face—when to tell the people we meet the basic facts of our lives?

Of course it’s a personal choice, and each of us is different, but I favour getting it out of the way quickly. Omission of truth has always felt like lying, and if people don’t know what I’ve been through I fear the relationship is built on a kind of false floor. That it could, at any moment, cave in. Mine is a traumatic story, with no easy explanations, but usually it comes up naturally enough.

‘So, how many siblings do you have?’

I always pause, not sure how to respond. Right now I have two, but I used to have three. How this came about is the crux of the story. For me, this innocuous question holds a different kind of weight.

When I was twelve my eighteen year old half-sister, Zoe, committed suicide. I could mention this, or I could hold off. If I disclose, the conversation will either slam to a halt, or continue. I’m most afraid of the first possibility—my revelation causing a rupture, a shutting down of something burgeoning, an end. But sometimes I’ll risk it. I’ll say—‘Three. I had three.’

My sister has been dead now longer than she was alive, but that doesn’t mean she never existed. Growing up with Zoe coloured my whole childhood. The loss of her devastated my family, her suicide like a detonating hand grenade thrown right into the heart of us. No-one was unscathed. But it saddens me that because of the way she died—and whatever mental health struggles led her there—there’s never been any space to talk about the person she was. Vibrant and fierce, delicate of soul and wild of heart—a teenage girl who never made it through. I often try to imagine the adult my sister would have become if she’d chosen life over death all those years ago. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of a stranger and see a fleeting resemblance. She’d have been like that, I think. Just like that. And what I most long to say to the sibling question is—‘Three. I have three.’

But if by chance that question doesn’t arise, there’s always the seemingly safe territory of—‘So, where’s your dad these days?’

Grief stricken after my sister’s suicide, my father became ill. Crippling depressions interspersed with effervescent but terrifying highs. A late onset, grief-induced bipolar disorder. In and out of psychiatric hospitals from that point on, he finally took his own life six years later. One suicide lighting the fuse of another, a sort of explosive domino effect. In my head, I call them ‘the dark years’. The time everything I knew and took for granted crumbled. You can see why I might be nervous about false floors when my whole family very suddenly plunged into an unimaginable black hole. My father was fifty-four when he died. The older I get the younger that seems.

‘Floodlighting’ is what American social researcher and TED Talks sensation Brené Brown calls the act of sharing too much sensitive information with someone who you haven’t yet built enough trust. (See above for a spectacular example.) Traumatised people do it for two main reasons. Firstly, as some kind of self-defeating subconscious test. If this person can hear my pain then perhaps they’ll stick around. Secondly, because the need to talk about the events can be so overwhelming it is impossible to contain. The problem being that often the person on the receiving end is caught like an animal in the headlights, startled and unable to respond.

For me, learning how to judge when I’m floodlighting or more healthily sharing has been a long road. When my sister died I was just a kid, and for many years I believed when I spoke about her I wasn’t using the right words. That words must have existed that would make sharing our story possible but I just hadn’t found them. After the death of my father I began to see it wasn’t the words I spoke that created such a discomforting space between me and the listener, it was the enormity of the events themselves.

And nearly twenty years later it’s still tricky. Usually I can tell when there is enough intimacy in a relationship to share about one of the deaths in my family, but often the second death is a kind of tipping point into too far. I am left in a limbo land between half and full disclosure, not knowing how to proceed. And all this is not because I don’t like to talk about my dead ones, it’s because I’m trying to find a time and place where the other person will feel safe enough to hear.

 

Lifeline (Australia): 13 11 14. Samaritans (UK): 08457 90 90 90. Lifeline (US): 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

 

First published in The Guardian, 13th October, 2014.

The Breaking Point

It was the suicide of my older sister Zoe, in all her shimmering teenage glory, that pushed my father to the edge. Perhaps everyone has a breaking point. An incident or event that cannot be overcome, a moment in time that can never be erased. Most of us might get through life without encountering it, but my father was not so fortunate.

We lived far outside town, nestled in green hills, on a winding dead-end road a thousand kilometres north of Sydney. Filled with hopes for a new start, a tree-change—another world—my parents had packed up their busy city lives for the freedom of the country. My father, a psychiatrist, worked only three days a week. On days off he toiled in the garden. He began fantastical tasks and finished them in one day. Covered in sweat and dirt, with an aching back and a tired body he came in and told my mother of his progress. A Japanese garden, with a real slated pond and giant lilies, huge boulders and bamboo. An orchard with endless rows of citrus humming with bees. A rainforest, shady and ancient-seeming, strewn with fallen coloured leaves.

When I was small my father brought me special things he found in the garden. I sat steaming in the bath one evening, naked and easy, the flickering leaves of the growing forest outside whispering wordless secrets in my ears. The bathroom sat among the trees, the sliding glass doors open to the green. Coming in, dirt-speckled and sour smelling, he showed me a tiny white ball. With a delicate tug my father pulled this small sphere apart and thousands of spiders fell, sprinkling down upon me. Miniscule, they spread across the water, floating determinedly towards the edges, their legs braced against the sway of my careful movements. Hurriedly, the masses of baby spiders climbed out and along the top of the old enamel bathtub. With concentrated joy I scooped up the stragglers and flicked them gently from my fingers and out the long open doorway into the forest. I stared in wonder that so many lives had come from such a small white seamless pouch.

I understood that my father had held the power of their lives—and deaths—in his gentle hands, and felt in a subtle way that he had created them. I searched my father’s face for signs of meaning, but he was unreadable and unexpectedly quiet. My mother came in from the kitchen to see what had caused my squeals, and I checked to see how deep the crease between her brows became when she saw the delicate wafting spiders.

‘They’re not biting ones, Mum.’

My mother’s face broke into a sun-like smile. ‘They’re amazing.’ Her words were soft, and she looked at my father with a gentle warmth. ‘Where did you find them?’

He motioned out towards the garden and my parents wandered off together in search of the very spot.

My father was a man living in the moment. Before my sister died I once spotted him doing a lap of the town, ghetto blaster on his shoulder, wearing his bright yellow esprit shirt, on an afternoon errand. Hanging around on street corners after school as a young teenager, I got a glimpse of him in the distance.

‘Isn’t that … your dad?’ my tittering friends asked. When he jogged right past calling ‘Hi, Possum!’ it was a hard question to evade.

‘But what is he doing?’

Now, I suspect he was rushing about trying to get that beloved ghetto blaster repaired, and jogging with it on his shoulder just seemed a natural time management strategy, but the yellow woman’s esprit T-shirt was harder to explain.

My father loved that shirt. ‘Esprit is French for spirit!’ he’d proclaim, ‘S-P-I-R-I-T. You know, spirit, life, strength. That’s me!’

‘But why does it have to be bright yellow?’

‘That’s my favourite colour!’

‘But it’s a girl’s shirt, Dad.’ All I got for that objection was a slight roll of the eyes. For my father, gendered clothing was irrelevant, but in my small Australian country town a yellow woman’s shirt was enough to set a man apart. Add a ghetto blaster and a zappy jog, and the word ‘lunatic’ easily sprang to mind. There are advantages to growing up in a family with a high tolerance for eccentricity. Boundaries are loose, undefined. Odd fashion choices are celebrated, experimental artworks championed and socially inappropriate expressions of authenticity never shunned or derided.

But what happens when your crazy parent turns out to be … well, crazy?

After my sister’s death my family was in tatters. We were like fish swallowing air. Silence enveloped us. But in time my father’s muted grief turned wild and the tangled threads of his control snagged and tore apart. My mother and I woke one morning to find he had partitioned off the kitchen with a hinged ad hoc wooden screen to which he nailed all his favourite books.

‘Jess, Jess. Look, what do you think? Great, hey?’

I slid towards the table, trying to sit down among the books. ‘I’m not sure about the John Cowper Powys. Your mum’s always hated that book. Boring, she said. Fucking boring.’ My mother tried not to look at the newly constructed shrine. There was meaning in it somewhere, this fictional crucifixion, but my mother and I were frightened, and we huddled together in a quiet fist of unnamed communion over breakfast.

‘Jess, what about you? You haven’t read any Kafka. You’ve got to, baby! I’ve nailed this one up here. All these books, they’re between me and her. Your sister. Zoe. She’ll know. She’ll know even if you guys don’t. Don’t tell me Kafka’s fucking boring! Jess, your mum does like Kafka, even if she’s not willing to admit it here. Tell her! Zoe will know. So what do you guys think? How do you like it? The end of the hammer broke off last night otherwise I’d add those ones too.’ My father held the broken hammer in his hand, motioning to the piles of books still on the table—‘Some Mishima, The Leopard.’

‘You’ve taken up half the kitchen. There isn’t enough space to sit.’ My mother’s voice was quavering, falling away at the edges.

‘What? What are you talking about? Just move those books over and sit down. You have to complain about everything. God, Jess, your mother is such a fucking complainer. I scattered the ashes last night. Out in the garden, it was great, just me and her. I could feel her. She was with me.’

‘You scattered Zoe’s ashes? Where?’

‘Out there in the garden.’ He gestured behind him. ‘It’s a great spot. You’ll love it.’

My mother stood up, her mouth pressed together in a tight line.

‘Oh what, you have a problem with that too?’ My father’s face was red, his lips jutting forward. Wrapping her sarong tightly around herself, my mother replied quietly, ‘What about us? You can’t do things like that without talking about it.’

‘Fuck! She’s my daughter. I know where she should be. You’re such a control freak. You want to control everything.’

‘You’re not the only one who’s hurting.’

‘All right! But I’m not taking the books down. Zoe knows. She knows what it’s all about.’

‘You can’t do this, it’s crazy.’ My mother’s voice was quiet.

‘What, now I’m fucking crazy?’ Leaving no space for reply, my father’s words streamed out, relentless and loud. My mother gazed longingly at the green garden sea, as though willing the trees to come inside and rescue her.

I slipped into the garden and searched the fallen leaves for some sign of the soft grey dust. It lay in little clumps, meagre and exposed, underneath a tree that looked no different to the others. Gathering some up, I hid my sister’s ashes in a little painted wooden box among my jewellery, and avoiding the kitchen and the shrine of books, walked out to the driveway and the hissing doors of the school bus.

Always a punctual man, my father began to run late for work, and in the office he made phone call upon phone call until his patients, milling about in the waiting room, looked away from each other’s startled eyes. He bought a small rickety house, on impulse, in my one-street country town, with a cheque that he wrote out to friends at three o’clock in the morning, drunk, and he did not tell my mother. He dreamed of building an elaborate marble-floored Italian restaurant in his tiny new house and he drew up the designs and called the architects. He called the bank manager and the builders. He called old friends and acquaintances. His secretary phoned my mother, her voice low and disturbed.

‘I’m worried about him. He looks terrible, like he hasn’t slept in days. I can’t get him off the phone.’

In the evening he rang home to say he’d be there soon but he didn’t arrive. He disappeared and my mother’s long skirts swayed as she paced, the crease between her brows a savage line. She thought of accidents and car wrecks and he did not phone and he did not phone. He had vanished into the nearest city, and it took my mother all the next day to track him down. In the consumer complex of that other world he spent and spent, his credit cards bloating.

‘My daughter, everyone thinks she’s dead. But she’s not, she’s come back! She’s come back to me,’ he told a stunned woman at the checkout. ‘She was just on holiday. A protracted holiday!’

On the way home he took twelve hours to complete the two-hour drive, stopping along the way to make more purchases. He bought a new cane furniture suite, a brand spanking leather lounge and more and more presents for my mother, which he claimed post-acquisition were all tax deductible and therefore half price. When he finally arrived home he still didn’t tell my mother about the house he had purchased, and the hefty house-sized cheque. Erratic and wired, my father talked and talked, in endless flooding words. My mother’s lips tightened and she rang his old doctor friends for help and advice.

‘He doesn’t sleep. He doesn’t eat. I think he’s having some sort of episode.’

‘He’s just starting to feel better.’

‘No, he’s acting crazy. It’s beyond that.’

‘I saw him the other day at Jim’s. He was in high spirits. Life of the party. Back to his old self.’

‘No, this is not normal. He is out of control.’

The next morning, my father’s day off, the handyman came to spray the orchard with white oil, but my father made him sit down and watch music videos.

‘See how when Clapton comes on stage, Neil Young shifts over? They can’t stand each other. You can see by the way Clapton holds his head. I’ve got it figured, man. You can see it, right?’

‘Well, I don’t know … but I guess I should get to work.’

‘No, no, man. Just watch this bit. It’s fucking great. You can see that Dylan doesn’t even want Willie Nelson there. I mean, it’s Dylan’s concert, right? You can see this exchange. Backstage, I can tell you what happened. I can tell just from this one look. There, that bit, did you catch it? See how Dylan kind of smiles right there? Here, I’ll rewind it for you.’

He had developed detailed theories about what the videos meant, and he sat and stood and sat and stood and talked to the handyman until finally it was dark and the bemused man escaped into the night.

Back at work, he came home late from the office, arms gesticulating with a frenzied flourish, and declared he had something amazing to tell my mother. Waiting while he made phone call after phone call, exhausted and bewildered, she went to bed.

By the weekend he had converted to astrology. Accosting me at breakfast, he dragged me out to the verandah. Sitting across from me with a notepad, my father asked endless questions and jotted down my replies.

Star signs. I was startled by this latest obsession but I sat with him and talked. It felt to me that this morning was the first time my father had heard me speak since Zoe died. He was vibrant, his arms sweeping out in lavish emphasis, and I tentatively smiled.

From the verandah I could see my mother lingering in the garden, wandering from tree to tree, touching the leaves gently as though searching for sustenance. She peered up at us, eyes narrowed, and then left to get supplies from the local shop. When she was gone, my father stood up, smacking his pen against the page.

‘Thanks, Jess, you’ve told me everything I need to know. I’m working on something special here.’

‘Right, okay?’ I was uncertain.

‘I’ll be back later to tell you what I’ve found.’

My father went to his room and when he returned he cornered me in the kitchen. ‘I’ve discovered something amazing, Jess. Zoe didn’t leave me. She didn’t fucking leave me. I’ve got this patient, a beautiful girl, you’d love her. You’ll meet her soon. She’s fourteen, and I know that she’s really Zoe. She’s Zoe reincarnated.’

Standing over me, my father began to cry, a deep collapsing sob. ‘She’s not dead, Jess. I knew she’d never leave me. I worked it out from all the things you told me, from what you said about the star signs.’ Voice wavering, he wiped his tears roughly from his cheeks with the heels of his palms.

‘But Dad, she’s fourteen, how could she be Zoe? She was born way before Zoe died.’

‘It’s partial reincarnation, one of my patients told me about it. This guy knows about heaps of fucking stuff. I’ve done a lot of talking with him. Lots of fucking talking.’

‘Dad, that’s crazy.’

‘You don’t believe me?’

‘No. You’re acting crazy.’

‘You want to know something else?’

‘No.’

‘See this picture.’

My father held up a Time magazine with a picture of a black-skinned man with glasses. ‘Do you know who this is?’

‘No.’

‘It’s Arthur Ashe.’

‘Who?’

‘Arthur Ashe, he’s a tennis player who died of AIDS a few years back.’

‘So?’

‘Do you see anything unusual about this photo?’

‘No.’

‘That’s me. I’m Arthur Ashe. I can tell by the shape of the glasses.’

‘But he only died a few years ago, right? Come on, Dad, how is that possible? Who were you before?’

‘I’m me, baby, but it’s partial, you know?’

Needing to be away from him, I fought tears. ‘Dad, you’ve lost the plot. You’ve totally lost the plot.’

‘Fuck, you sound just like your fucking mother! Both of you so fucking critical.’

I stole away to my room and waited for my mother to come home. She arrived at the same time as the furniture van, with the fancy new lounge suite. My father asked the delivery man to stay for dinner and regaled him with tales of his newly acquired astrological knowledge. After dinner he invited the man to stay the night and then, in a flurry of movement, headed out to a party at a friend’s house. We watched him go, exhaling in a communal surge of relief. This friend was a psychiatrist and a colleague, and surely something would be done. We talked shyly to the furniture delivery man, and showed him to the spare room.

Late that night the mother of the fourteen-year-old patient rang. ‘Look, I’m worried about your husband. He came to my house, he just dropped by. He says he thinks your daughter has returned. He sounds crazy. I don’t think it’s right, I mean, he’s her doctor. It’s not safe. He says he wants to take her away somewhere. She’s just a kid, you know?’

After my mother hung up the phone, she searched and searched until finally she found the cheque book and the house-sized cheque.

I escaped the silent fear of the house to spend the night with friends. In their bright company I drank and drank, aiming for that engulfing darkness, and found myself instead crouched in the garden, shivering and lost. My older sister Zoe, vibrant and fierce—delicate of soul and wild of heart—had disappeared from our lives, but every day the event of her death expanded, as the person she was gradually diminished. Her suicide—my father’s breaking point—pulling us all to pieces. Drunk in the garden, I mourned the loss of her and the brokenness of my father.

My friends searched for me in the leafy night. Bending down, they gently pushed the hair from my face. They took me to bed, tucking the covers tightly around me and turning out the light. I lay in the darkness, my head pounding and my stomach raw, and eventually slipped off into that quiet black place.

In the morning a friend woke me gently to come to the phone. My mother had called and it was urgent. ‘Jess?’

‘Yeah, Mum, what’s wrong?’ My throat felt razored, my voice shrill.

‘Jess, it’s your dad. He went missing. They lost him at the party.’

‘What?’

‘He disappeared and they couldn’t find him.’

‘Where is he? What happened?’ My head throbbed loudly in my ears, and I pushed my fingers hard against my forehead.

‘He’s at the police station. The police picked him up.’ Her voice reverberated on the other end of the line. I was afraid to speak, afraid to find out why. The silence stretched between us. ‘Jess?’

‘Yeah. What did he do?’

‘Are you okay?’

‘Yeah, I’m all right. Tell me.’

‘He broke into someone’s house and put some music on. He turned it up really loud and the police came. He was naked and muddy, I mean, he’d smeared himself with something.’

‘Is he okay? I mean, is he hurt?’

‘I think he cut himself a bit with the glass. You know, from the window when he broke in. But it’s not serious.’

‘Mum, what’s going to happen?’

‘He’s not going to be charged, I don’t think. It was clear that he’s not well. He’s going to be picked up and taken to the Richmond Clinic.’

‘The Richmond Clinic? Where all his patients go?’

‘Yeah.’

The phone shook in my hand, and I felt my lips turning downwards in a flickering involuntary grimace. Fighting tears, I clenched my teeth together until they scraped loudly in my ears.

‘I have to go over and bring him some stuff, some books and pyjamas. I can’t pick you up. Can you stay there today?’ My mother sounded tired and tight. I could feel her anxiety through the white cold plastic of the phone. ‘Jess, I’ll ring you when I get back, okay?’

When my father broke into the stranger’s house he carved mandalas into his palms with the glass from a shattered mirror, he smeared himself with sewage and ate a packet of cigarettes. Grief had unravelled his control. He was wild and savage and lost. The sorrow that had engulfed our home since Zoe’s death had finally spilled into his outside life in a torrent of mad despair. He was hospitalised but he soon came out, and then he was hospitalised again. He talked of axes and Aphrodite and splitting skulls, and his old doctor friends called from Sydney and whispered to my mother down the end of the line.

‘Do you have any guns there? Get rid of the axes. Get rid of anything weapon-like.’

And when the raving was over and the muted sadness returned, it was somehow our fault and he could not forgive us. He was bitter and angry and uncomprehending, and we could not forgive him. He began to talk of my mother as that woman, and when she left the house for any reason she would return to the roaring sound of a chainsaw as he cut down another of her beloved trees.

Watching my father’s slide into madness was terrifying. What we had known as eccentricity suddenly became much more. How could we tell what was his illness and what was him? He had always been spontaneous and unpredictable: unafraid of the unknown, testing the boundaries. What were the bounds of normal? Who made those rules, and who enforced them? My family were constantly on watch, but what signs were we watching for?

Raging against the dying of the light, my father was in and out of the psychiatric ward from then on until his death a few years later. And no, the causes were not natural. He had reached his breaking point and tumbled into the abyss.

And now, still nestled in those green hills, nearly eighteen years later, I watch myself in the same way. Walking through life warily, the line between destruction and perfection so fine as to be perilous. What is my breaking point, and will my life take me there? If the line between sane and crazy is fine enough to step over, how can I know when I’ve taken that step? And who, apart from me, is patrolling the perimeters?

In light of what happened to my dad, that yellow esprit shirt has taken on a whole new meaning. I keep it hidden deep in my closet, the material so soft and worn it almost comes away in my fingers. Somehow, despite everything, it has come to represent all that is wondrous about living so close to the edge. Being in the moment, being open to the world, being full of spirit and life. Being deeply and utterly yourself.

Drawing of the author as a child, artwork by the author’s father, 1983

Drawing of the author as a child, artwork by the author’s father, 1983

First Published in Meanjin, Volume 72, Number 3, 2013.

Do we teach prejudice?

Prejudice_wide-620x349Racism is not something I’ve had a lot of personal experience with. I’m a brown-skinned, brown-eyed, brown-haired white girl living in a fairly white kind of world. But whenever I venture out beyond my rural homeland the inevitable question comes up.

“So, where are you from?”

To which I answer with a description of my small town. Whereabouts, climate, flora, social milieu.

“No, I mean, originally?”

The ancestry question.

As far as I know, I am of English, possibly Irish descent. Convicts, most probably. This is always a surprise to my listener. Often I am erroneously claimed to be part of some more exotic ethnic group.

“I bet you’re Greek … Italian … Lebanese …”

The list goes on. I’ve even had someone guess half-Thai, which seems a stretch. I’ve been claimed by Aborigines on public transport, “Hey Sister, come sit with me. Tell me, where’s your mob?” And then scoffed at for denying my heritage.

This claiming seems a warm thing to me. A welcoming. A belonging. It is always with regret that I refute it. But it leads me to pondering what preconceptions are being foisted on me without my knowledge. What is contained in other people’s assumptions of my cultural heritage? If I experienced racism based on my assumed ethnicity, would I even notice? And do people think of me differently when they discover, despite appearances, that I am of plain-old Anglo-Celtic heritage?

With the jumble of ethnicities in cities I notice the ancestry question is something sorted out early on. But what quickly becomes clear is how often people guess wrong, and when corrected – how little the truth actually tells you about a person. Can clear deductions about cultural heritage even be made nowadays? Despite attempts to maintain separate ethnic identities, have these markers become diluted in the mishmash that is multicultural Australia? If my Australian mother was of Italian–Croatian heritage, and my Australian father was of French–Malaysian heritage, what would that say about me? Maybe a little, maybe a lot, but the complexity of cultural associations would be a little mind-boggling to decipher from the outside.

Which leads me to questions of perception – what we see in others, and what we rate as important. My mother once told me a story about my first day of school that has always stuck in my mind. I grew up in a small country town. My primary school had sixty kids all up, so maybe twenty in my classroom. There was one black girl in amongst an otherwise white class. She was an Islander of some description, though I never discovered which island. Her skin was not tan, or dark brown, but a lovely near-black. My mother was curious about her. This exotic-looking black-skinned five-year-old girl. When I got home from school she asked:

“And who was the little black girl?”

The question of whether my mother could have used a more sensitive adjective springs to mind, but I guess since I was five, she was trying to keep it simple. The surprising thing is – even though there was only one black-skinned girl in my class, and even though I’d never met a black person before – I didn’t know which girl she meant.

“Who?”

Not yet schooled in this difference between skin colours, it seems I didn’t notice it.

“How did she have her hair?” I asked, perplexed. Hair was something I was minutely interested in.

“It was black and fuzzy, in pigtails.”

“You mean the girl with hair like puff-balls?”

And then I finally got it. I knew who my mother was asking about.

Often it seems as though perceptions of ourselves, each other, and the world around us reflect a reality set in stone, but really we notice what we’ve been taught to notice, and we judge what we’ve been taught to judge. Nowhere does this truism become clearer than in the raising of children.

Again and again I’ve been surprised by what my children don’t see. I once invited a friend who has a disabled child over for lunch. The child was born with only one functioning eye, half an ear missing, and a malformed leg that had been amputated above the knee. Despite these difficulties, she was bright and cheerful. My children were pre-school age and I wondered if I should talk with them about the girl’s disabilities before she arrived. I was alarmed by the prospect of them treating her strangely, or reacting in some way that was hurtful, but I was unsure of how to manage this possibility. What would I say?

“There’s a girl coming. She’s looks a bit different from you, but try not to make a big deal about it. You don’t want to hurt her feelings.”

This kind of sentence sat heavily on the tip of my tongue in the hours before her arrival, inadequate and somewhat patronising. In the end I decided to just see how it went. To let my children make their own deductions.

The friend arrived and the children played. Zalie had a spike like a pirate where her foot should have been, but she was mobile. We had lunch, and the kids rushed around, chatting and squealing and laughing, and there was no mention of the missing eye, ear, or leg. After my friend departed, while sitting quietly in the bath, my five-year-old son said:

“You know Mum, Zalie had a broken foot.”

That was it.

And it got me thinking about how differently the day might have gone if I’d made a point of highlighting Zalie’s difference. Of guiding my children’s perceptions and judgements.

It certainly showed me a lot about my own.

First published on Daily Life, January 17th 2013

Why Is It (Still) the Mother’s Fault?

I live in a small town way out in the country where – it’s true – debates about helicopter parenting are pretty rare. Here packs of sunburned kids ride helmetless around our winding roads, the wind blowing through their sweaty hair, the sun reflecting off their freckled faces. They ride to the local waterholes where they leap from rope swings, flying through the air like amateur circus performers, not a parent in sight.

And yes, excepting the odd hospital admission, usually they are fine.

But despite their general robustness, when I watch my sons ride off into the distance I do worry about their heads, their skin, and their pre-manhood bodies. I worry because I love them, and children, in all manner of ways, are vulnerable.

When my first baby was 4 months old I was sitting on the grass at the local playgroup – the little guy on my lap – when he stopped breathing and turned blue. It seemed he was choking, but I couldn’t find the offending object by scooping around in his mouth. Patting on the back produced nothing. Seconds passed. Perhaps a minute. My baby wasn’t breathing. A more experienced mother came to my aid, giving him the baby version of the Heimlich Manoeuvre, and he vomited up a piece of leaf smaller than a five cent piece. I cried for an hour, hiccupy and inconsolable. How could I think I could raise a child when I couldn’t even keep him safe from the threat of miniscule leaf segments?

The weight of the responsibility hung heavy about my neck. And, of course, that was just the beginning.

When Catherine Deveny decries helicopter parents and all their associated neuroses, she avoids the very persistent reality for many mothers: that of an oppressive sense of responsibility. Does she really assume this arises in a vacuum? That these ‘competitive’ and ‘annoying’ super-mums are singly playing out their varying degrees of neediness or ‘abandonment issues’ – blindly – to the detriment of their children?

Because that is a very harsh call.

I suspect if we dug a little deeper we’d find that mothers feel responsible for every facet of their child’s development because everyone else thinks they are responsible too.

The bigger question for me is – how – in the giant, multifaceted and complicated society we all inhabit – can everything still be the mother’s fault? No wonder those highly qualified over-achievers are trying so hard to be the best mothers they can when the pressure is so undeniably huge, when their child’s ‘outcomes’ rest squarely on their shoulders.

But the irony is that mothers can never do right. Try too hard and they are creating ‘dysfunctional co-dependence,’ slack off a bit and they are charged with neglect.

And yes, I was a child of the 1970s. I too got driven around in a car with my dad chain-smoking, all the windows up. Heck, I even ate catfood. Didn’t everyone? But nowadays I think we are all a bit more savvy to the effect our childhoods have on the people we become.

I too want my kids to be brave, resilient, optimistic and independent. So by all means let’s discuss it: benevolent neglect, quality boredom, and independence as a result of parental indifference. Funny, yes. A great tagline. And maybe it’s a good starting point. I know that when I imagine my boys flying through the air on that rope swing I am simultaneously terrified and exultant, but the joy of it wins out in the end.I just wish in these discussions we could stop throwing out barbs and get to the heart of it.

In a culture saturated with mixed messages aimed at children, where the average age a child views pornography is 11 and gender stereotypes dog their every move, where making healthy food choices is bamboozling even for the educated adult, where we are force-fed instant gratification as a way of life but becoming good at anything still takes energy and effort, where a lack of resources sets some of us up for significant disadvantage, where fear-mongering is a large part of the political landscape, where environmental destruction looms always on the horizon, where technological addiction and a multiplicity of anxieties are rife among our numbers. Where broken arms, cracked heads, fractured feet, black-eyes, pneumonia, bronchiolitis, school sores, cellulitis, teeth abscesses, asthma, allergies and learning difficulties are all just part of the game. (And, yes, between them my kids have had them all!)

Why – in this confusing and hazardous climate – is everything still the mother’s fault?

When I see those helicopter parents anxiously hovering, I try not to judge them. Instead, I imagine the terrible weight of responsibility our culture hangs about their necks. They are the gatekeepers, and if things go wrong they will be held accountable. And I think of that tiny segment of leaf that nearly blocked my baby’s windpipe.

How can we help mothers be resilient in the face of so much risk?

This Article was first published by The Wheeler Centre on the 10th of December 2012. 

The Knoll

Twelve is a slippery age, a time of shape-shifting and metamorphosis. My son, towering above me, smiles and pulls me in towards him in a gentle embrace. His chin rests on my head. He giggles, and I squeeze him round the middle. Through the accident of birth, I am a little mother. A child-woman with her own half-grown, giant-sized boys. The younger one too is gaining on me. At ten years old his gaze is almost equal with mine.

“I’ll be taller than you soon, Mum,” he says, and what can I do but nod. It won’t be long now.

It’s as if my smallness has placed me strangely in their world. Long ago I became one of the kids, jostled along in the pack like we were all a bunch of clumsy puppies. Following our noses, unsure of the way.

“Take us down to The Knoll, Mum,” the oldest says, “Come on, I know how to get there.”

It’s a swimming hole, a secret haunt, with a rope swing. I’ve lived in this same green hollow of a town for most of my life, but I’ve never been to The Knoll. I envisage cigarette butts and half-hidden bongs, rubbish and the scent of teenage transgression, but the afternoon is sticky and hot, and I don’t mind being wrong.

“Okay,” I say, “But if any other kids are there, we leave. Right?”

They accept without question the strange rules I have invented.

On the school bus my boys have learned the whereabouts of this hideout. Behind the old church, through two sets of fencing: one barbed, and one not. The grass is long, and we slip through, on the lookout for snakes. There is a worn path down to the creek. It is damp, as though a troop of wet feet has just passed through.

“There’s no-one here, Mum. We’ve missed them,” the younger one says, “That’s good, isn’t it? We can be here for a bit?”

We stop at a wide corner of the creek, grassy on either side. There are no cigarette butts, no rubbish. It is, in fact, quite scenic – an old wooden railway bridge curves away to the left. There is no sign of the encroaching suburbia of my town, just grass and trees and the gentle flow of water. At the base of The Knoll is a giant disused cement water tank half built into the bank. I sit on the top, and watch the boys try to get the rope. Ragged, with inverted bike handlebars knotted on the bottom, it hangs over the water, just out of reach.

“You better check it’s deep enough first,” I say, and my big fellow scampers down the edge and plunges in.

“Can you touch?”

He swims around, and ducks down, heading for the bottom. The water is clear enough, but I can’t see him. I know he will resurface, and he does.

“I can’t even get down to the bottom. It’s real deep.”

I peer across at him.

“Alright. Come on. Let’s see you jump.”

They fish the rope from the air with a stick, and then they are away. Lithe, muscular, beautiful, one by one they swing out across the water, dropping in at the highest point. How to describe such grace?

I catch myself thinking of their countdown to manhood. Right now they seem at some pinnacle of evolution: smooth-bodied, open-faced, ready for the world. They fly across the water with no hesitation, no missteps or fears. The creek swallows them up, again and again, and each time they are reborn, their faces breaking through the water’s surface, joyous and alight. I wonder what happens between here and there; between now, and becoming a man. I live on a winding dead-end road in the middle of nowhere, but I am not naïve to the next steps. Alcohol, drugs, pornography, fast cars, junk food, and the shallows of a consumer culture with no end. We do not have wireless broadband, mobile reception, or even commercial TV, but I know I can’t keep the world at bay forever. The question of what makes a man looms large in my mind, and I must admit – I am more than a little afraid.

“Mum, you have a jump,” my big fellow says as he pulls himself up the muddied slope.

“I don’t know if I can,” I say, but I know that I want to.

“We’ll help you. It’s easy. You just hold on, and let go at the end.”

The littler one watches me from the launch pad on the bank. He holds the spindly end of the rope in his fingers, his body quivering with excitement or cold.

“I bet you can do it, Mum,” the older one tells me, “I bet you a dollar.”

I stand up, and strip off my clothes. Down to my bra and undies, I am vulnerable, uncertain. The path is slithery, and I slip awkwardly towards the jumping spot, gripping small saplings as I pass. At the precipice, my son transfers the cold bike handles into my hands. I stand on the edge, holding tight and looking out at the expanse of the water.

“Push off Mum, just lift your feet.”

And I do.

The rush of air against my body makes me squeeze my eyes closed. On a pendulum, I am flying blind. A wide arc through space.

“Let go … NOW!”

My fingers unclench, and I drop from the rope with an unwanted cry. The water breaks around me, and I surge downwards like a bullet. There is no rock bottom, and after a moment of stillness my limbs kick in and I swim back towards the surface. Pushing into the world, spluttering and laughing, my eyes and nose and mouth are full of water.

My boys grin from the bank.

“You owe me a dollar!” My big fellow calls, punching a fist in the air.

Twelve is a slippery age, on the brink of any number of beginnings.

“Go again Mum. Go again.”

I tread water and look up at the sky. It is the deepest blue, without a single flitting cloud. There is nothing to signal the world is changing, but above me the pendulum rope keeps swinging, marking time.

 

First Published in Meanjin Volume 71 Number 2, 2012

Man of Constant Solace

There wasn’t much my parents were sure about, back in the day. I was a child of the 1970s and experimentation was key. ‘Right’ and ‘wrong’ were social constructs, money-making was passé, and polyamory was the new frontier. Anything could happen and probably did.

There was only one thing my parents believed in – one firm truth – and that was the mystery and power of music. My parents worshipped music like Baptists worship God. Their tastes were far-reaching, and sometimes in great opposition, but they were united in their fanaticism and the continuity of their praise. Whole pockets of my childhood were marked by obsessive listening. The summer of Tim Buckley. The winter of the Velvet Underground. Limitless years of Bob Dylan. Bruce Springsteen for hope. Neil Young for despair. And when things got tough, small snippets of Judy Garland, and constant late night reruns of a desperate sounding John Lennon. My parents used music to soothe their pains and express their troubles, and there were times when I was a child when it hurt just to step inside the chapel.

Bob and Bruce

Having grown up in such a faith it is hard to view these musicians as anything but religious icons. And not only that, as known entities. I attended my first Bob Dylan concert at three months old, and have seen the man perform almost every time he’s been here since. Even though he was up on stage and I was in the audience, he’s one of the most stable adult presences in my life. Sticking with me from childhood into adulthood. Enigmatic, eccentric, bamboozling, but ever-present. An endless reservoir of wisdom and strangeness. His now craggy face is more familiar to me than many of the adults I grew up with, his startling nasally voice a constant in an increasingly disjointed world. Is there a term for this kind of relationship? Because ‘fan’ really doesn’t seem to cut it.

As many of us know, there isn’t much Bob Dylan hasn’t sung about. Most pressing questions have been addressed somewhere along the way, and if they haven’t – there’s plenty of time left … right?

The forlorn realisation that a seventy-something year old man cannot go on producing music indefinitely brings me to the issue of mortality. Of finiteness. Of watching these icons slowly lose some of their capabilities. I recently saw BB King perform to a large audience and was distressed by his immobility and confusion. Helped into a chair in the middle of the stage, in some songs he stopped in the middle, lost in a sort of reverie, and in others he just played a riff here and there, like a sad faded version of his younger effervescent self. My brother, a musician by trade, remarked with gentle melancholy – “They will all eventually die. And who will we look up to? Who will sustain us?” And it got me to thinking about religion and worship. About how it begins, and what it means. I don’t pray to Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen to save my soul, but maybe I could? If faith is about belief and love, nourishment and sustenance, about living with joy and despair – then perhaps there are no better idols than musicians to see us through.

Legend has it that as a young man Bob Dylan hitchhiked across America to visit his hero Woody Guthrie who was dying in hospital, to sing him a song. Later he recorded a poem entitled Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie which ended with the lines:

You’ll find God in the church of your choice
You’ll find Woody Guthrie in the Brooklyn State Hospital
And though it’s only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You’ll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown

Now, it’s only my opinion, I may be right or wrong, but I think when BB finally passes over, he’ll be there too. His smile wide, infused with peace and joy, he’ll be strumming his beloved guitar Lucille – with all the others – in the Grand Canyon at sundown.

First published in March 2012 in the Big Issue #402.  

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