A Traveller’s Tale: an Inner and Outer Journey

Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski was published in 2003. I recently discovered it when a writer friend suggested I look at it as a model of unravelling a personal story by spiralling in and out of a themed narrative. I didn’t know what to expect; I had heard of Diski, but not read anything of hers before. I knew she had died of inoperable cancer in 2016.

I found the book strange, confronting, and yet compelling. Strange because the theme is her journey to Antarctica; the title reflects her childhood experiences of skating on an ice rink, which aggravated her with its limits. She wanted to skate on and on, endlessly. She learned to skate before she could walk. Her mother, who used to take her, and sit for hours and hours watching, dreamed of being the mother of the youngest skating champion ever, an ice princess. Something went wrong. After a while Jenny refused to practise, and life got in the way.

Now, after lengthy travel legs on the way to Antarctica, she arrives in Cabin 352, in a Russian cruise ship. The room is:

…quite as right as it could be, and in recognition of this I let out a gasp and then laughed at the improbability of my being here, far from anywhere and entirely, at that moment, satisfied with my environment. Plain white walls…The bedding, to my delight, was all white. Sheet, pillow cases and thin padded duvet, neatly folded and ship-shape. White, all white.

Jenny is an astute, ironical observer of herself and others, and entertains us with many anecdotes and encounters with fellow travellers. This braid of the narrative alone would make a splendidly entertaining and enriching travel story.

But there is a darker, hidden theme, which is slowly revealed. It is many years since she last saw her mother. Her daughter Chloe finds a death certificate which may be her mother’s, and with Jenni’s permission, sets out to find out whether she is dead or alive. Jennifer (herself as a child) has lived inside Jenni’s head, “no more certain than any other figment of my imagination. I might have made her up. I did make her up from time to time.” Her memories are of ghosts that haunted her and shouting parents.

Jenni looks up some of the women who had lived in the same block of flats as she and her parents had lived in, and visits them to talk about her parents. Her father left when she was six, her mother had a breakdown and was taken to a mental hospital, and Jennifer stayed with a foster family for two or three months. Father returned, the family was together again until the father left, for good this time, when she was eleven. The three women she visits give her scraps of information, which help her to remember. The memories are disturbing. The mother’s behaviour was erratic, swinging between violent outbursts and depression.

Living with her, day by day, was like skating on newly formed ice…. I cannot recall a moment in my life when I have wished that she was there….Bad, sad luck; human child-rearing arrangements are a crap shoot. You might as well be enraged at the ice for being too fragile to hold your weight.

As the actual journey to the heart of ice continues, more is revealed of her awful childhood, including her own hospitalisations for depression during her adolescence. In her times of depression, she saw “what was actually there to be seen. Intolerable blankness.” An absence of everything, like the whiteness of Moby Dick. The white walls of psychiatric hospitals, white sheets, peopleless landscapes, snow and ice, are her refuge from… from what? The mystery at the heart of her being is not fully revealed. Perhaps it is death, perhaps it is the psychic void of aloneness, of no one being able to help. When depression strikes, the thought arises: “Why isn’t someone helping me? Why have I got to do this on my own? I can’t.”

The child’s outrage is still with her.

I could go on, but I would be going round in circles. The heart of darkness in this book is white, all white. There is satisfaction in having her memories of her mother corroborated by witnesses. There is relief, that “she had been as I remembered her.” This is Jennifer/Jenni’s consolation.

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Do Cows think of their masters?

 

imagesThe Cow Book: A Story of Life on an Irish Family Farm  by John Connell is exactly what the title says, and more. It is a memoir, a history of cows, a story about a particular community of cows, and a reflection on the relationship between cows and humans. It is philosophy, poetry, a love story, and a meditation on birth, life and death. Connell went back to the family farm at the age of twenty-nine, after the breakup of a relationship in Canada, a couple of failed businesses, and a bout of depression. His purpose in returning was both to retreat back to what he knew best, and to write a novel. Instead of a novel, he has published this wonderful hybrid story. The closest cousin to it in literature is Walden by Henry David Thoreau, who is the author’s literary and philosophical mentor.

The season is winter, and the daily events that hold the threads of the narrative together are rhythmic, affirmative, but also hard, messy, heartbreaking, and discouraging. Cleaning the outhouses, putting down hay for feed, assisting the births of calves, often in the wee small hours, when it’s dark and bitter cold,  treating a sick animal, milking the freshly calved cows to get them started, walking the land… These hold his life together and give it meaning. The rhythms are interrupted when things go wrong; a calf is stuck in the birth canal, a ewe dies in misery from listeriosis (from a moldy bale of hay), another row breaks out with his father, who yells that he doesn’t need him and that he’s a failure.

He withdraws from the farm, takes other work. His mother tries to console him:

” These are just cattle rows, John, every father and son has them.”

I nod for she is right: it is the way of farming and has been for centuries. But I am still sore and hurting.

…Do the cows notice my absence? I do not know.  Do cows think of their masters? I cannot say. Perhaps they shall hold a meeting for me, like Orwell’s Animal Farm, calling out in the animal tongues for my return.

When he has given up hope, he hears that his work is to be included in a literary magazine and a publisher (Granta) has made enquiries about publishing his book. The frost with his father has not thawed, he is still not sure if he is a farmer,  he is starting to be a writer and that is what he has always wanted. He is not sure if he belongs on the farm, and the sight of the animals hurts him. During a break at the seaside for the launch of his story, he remembers that this (this country, the farm) is his place, it is what he has always known.

When spring comes, he goes to Spain and starts to write again. A book about cows, about Ma and Da. The cows have become so much more to him than mere animals; “they were part of the cast in this battle of wills, in the age-old story of fathers and sons.” His culture and his birthright are here, at the farm. He can be, is, both farmer and writer.

So while this book is many things, it is a mature coming of age, an initiation into the hero’s origins and culture. Father and son talk again, celebrate the return of summer, and give thanks.

This is a beautiful, poignant, heart-warming story which is a celebration of cows and country life, and a hero’s journey.

 

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Do Cows Dream of Humans?

The Secret Life of Cows, by Rosamund Young, is a little book that makes you rethink the way humans see things. Do humans dream of cows? Do cows dream of humans? Perhaps not, for humans, if they live in cities and towns and get their milk and dairy products from the shop. Back in the twentieth century, milk was delivered in glass bottles on your doorstep. Now it is in plastic bottles. 80% of all milk produced is used in secondary products — butter, cream, cheese — and in tertiary ones, all sorts of processed and packaged products. Dairy farming is done on a big, industrial scale, and it has become very cruel. I’ve never been a milk drinker, but I have fond memories of the time in my childhood when we had a milking cow, and I helped my mother separate the cream and churn butter. And most of my life, I have enjoyed cream, butter in cooking, cheese and more recently, yogurt. About three months ago I woke up. I realised that cows are slaves to humans, that their babies are taken from them soon after they are born, and reared for the table. Meantime, the mother is milked until she is ready to carry another calf. If we treated humans like this, herding them in large numbers, subjecting them to milking machines, taking their babies from them, making them produce more babies, The Handmaids’ Tale would read like a fairy story.

So this little book tells us of a different way. The Secret Life of Cows is not a conventional book. It is a series of anecdotes, weaving in and out of one another. The premise of the book is that cows are individuals, have personalities, emotions, are intelligent and diverse, and they can lose their identities if they are “forced to live in unnatural, crowded, featureless, regimental, or boring conditions.” They are not all the same and do not want to be treated as such.

Success in farming is increasingly measured in terms of output. … the almost constantly pregnant mother might well have a reduced life-span and will not have the opportunity to pass on to her progeny her own accumulated wisdom because of unnatural, forced weaning strategies. This is farming for the short term.

At the author’s family farm, Kite’s Nest, the calves stay with their mothers for as long as they choose. They suckle for at least nine months, and wean themselves before the next calf is due. After a simple and engaging introductory chapter which defines industrial methods and the organic, cow-friendly methods that Kite’s Nest follows, we are treated to many stories of the cows, all with names. Mothers and daughters, bull calves, siblings, difficult calvings, calf games, birthings and deaths… we are invited into this little world, to get to know the cow characters and their lives. Sheep, pigs, hens, horses and birds are part of this world too, and have their little entrances and exits. There are some delightful line drawings. All in all, this little book is a world you enter and suspend any prejudices you may have about food and the way it is produced, and just simply get to know the creatures that have been domesticated to feed the world, increasingly in cruel, industrialised ways. Here, they are treated as individuals, with respect and love and humour.

I have stopped eating dairy. I know this won’t make any difference to the life of cows, but it is for myself I do it.

 

 

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The Wounds of Living in a Patriarchal Society

Traumata, by Meera Atkinson (UQP, 2018), is an informed and passionate critique of patriarchy, woven into a braided narrative, where the author’s life story is the weft woven through the warp (the formative structure) of patriarchal society in all its forms and deformities. Atkinson’s weaving of her life story with theory is powerful, for every experience and incident she relates is material for illuminating the traumatising influence of patriarchy; hence the plural title. Her self-exposure is searching, nakedly honest and compelling, but it is always in service of her intent, which is to create a three-dimensional picture of the society we are born into, deeply and generationally wounded by the institutionalised, polyphonic, medusa-headed curse of patriarchy. Atkinson has achieved this searching picture of the wounded culture into which we are born with great skill and a remarkable command of the many discourses that inform this deconstruction of ‘traumarchy,’ her word for the traumata caused by patriarchy.

Meera, as a little girl of four, was abandoned by her father when he and her mother separated, and from then on, her childhood was beset by a succession of dysfunctional men, foils to her mother’s narcissism, one or two with paedophilic tendencies. The worst  setup was when she and her school friend arranged a meeting between their parents, and the result was a blended family, traumatised by violent quarrels between the adults and a very unsafe, chaotic domestic scene. Meera dropped out of school before she was fourteen, and her teen years were a sequence of failed attempts at finding herself, road journeys, underage drinking progressing to poly-drug use, overdoses, detoxes, failed co-dependent relationships, and finally, in her late twenties, shaky steps towards sobriety and tertiary study, and the relatively safe, but still wounded space, that she occupies.

I was about a third of the way through the book before it really took hold of me, and as I read I became more and more engaged. This slight resistance on my part was to what I saw as an eclectic toolbox of psychology, social commentary, psychoanalytic theory, feminist theory, media, neurophysiology, genetics, and more. I found myself skimming some paragraphs. But as the life story tightened its grip on me, I began to see the need to switch back and forward between different lenses, to shine light on this mass, this mess of a life.  There are no romantic happy endings in the story of a traumatised life. Atkinson describes herself now as ‘a high-functioning agoraphobe,’ with a fear of flying, a tendency to panic attacks, and OCD-like symptoms of the need for control and order, which was masked by self-medication in her earlier years.

But there are good things. Her relationship with her father is mended, so that she can say ‘I have a father now.’ She understands his failure to be the father she needed, which triggered her desperate search for a man who would love her as she was, in a stable place of safety and intimacy. She is able to say ‘I have never loved him more than I do now.’

Can the traumata of patriarchy be transformed? she asks. Despite ‘bone-deep cracks and bruised vulnerabilities and injurious trauma-bound habits,’ the challenge is to ‘dedicate your life to changing what it is in your power to change… to love life despite the ugliness, the unfairness, the injustice… [to] meet traumata in tenderness.’ And though there are ‘moments of grace,’ most of the time ‘I still struggle towards those elegant hours.’

This is a profound and deeply felt reflection on the issues of our time and their patriarchal roots, arriving at a compassionate, intelligent understanding of self and the challenge of not just surviving, but living intensely, with love and tenderness.

It deserves to be read by all thinking men and women, and to be on late secondary and tertiary reading lists, for its significant contribution to intelligent, informed, compassionate discussion of how we can address the traumata of our civilisation.

 

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The Last Garden by Eva Hornung

Published by Text, 2017. This is I think the first book Eva Hornung has published since her masterpiece, Dog Boy, won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for fiction in 2010. I reviewed it here: https://memoryandyou.wordpress.com/2012/03/29/eva-hornungs-dog-boy-challenges-what-it-means-to-be-human/

9781925498127

The Last Garden has some similarities in theme, in that it imagines a boy crossing the border between human and animal, becoming animal for a time, and experiencing the world from a double, human-animal perspective. Benedict Orion, the hero, aged fifteen, returns home from boarding school to find that a terrible crime has shattered his childhood paradise, the farm outside the Wahrheit settlement. His father has shot his mother through the heart, and then himself.

The crime is not explained, and the year in Benedict’s life that the book covers is in part about his quest to understand it. Yet he goes about this by escaping to the barn, where he lives with the horses and the chickens and a cat, and avoids human contact, except for the irregular visits of Pastor Helfgott, who believes, for a time, that Benedict may be the Saviour that the religious community is awaiting. At the same time, he protects Benedict from being ‘civilised’ by the members of the community and allows him time to heal, to live half wild, bringing him offerings of food and reminding him to eat and pray. Benedict, who responds to the shock that has shattered his life by not speaking for a long time, is haunted not only by his father’s crime but by a fox that flickers on the edge of his vision, and brings murder and death back into his world, wounding and killing his beloved hens and roosters. The fox enters his consciousness and becomes God, taunting and enslaving him.

I have not forsaken you, said the fox, one night. I am with you always.

He has encounters, perhaps dreamed, perhaps real, with black people, and they heal him of self-inflicted wounds.The fox reminds him that he needs only him and this is his farm.

Finally, he confronts the fox and kills it.  The voice of God is gone, yet there is a profound mistake. He has killed a vixen, mother of suckling cubs. This takes him back to his own family and his father’s crime, and he reviews his life. He begins to understand how his father had made such a terrible mistake.

Maybe if Matthias had counted to ten, as Ada always told him he should, if Matthias had seen himself in the eyes of a dead fox, a horse, or for that matter a koala—any god would do— if he had let the wave of whatever pain, guilt or madness pass…

There are other strands to this story, and other voices, mainly that of Pastor Helfgott. I found this strand less convincing.

I prefer the two-dimensional world of Dog Boy, where the boy’s consciousness is the main voice.

I have to say that this is not an easy book to read. It is enigmatic and much is unspoken. I read it once and immediately began to read it again. I recall I did the same thing with Dog Boy. But I can say that this book haunted me and still does, though not as much as Dog Boy did.

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Reworking

The fragment below is from my third memoir, Found, which tells the story of my life after the breakup of my marriage and loss of my children, who were abducted by their father to the United States. It was 18 months before I saw them again, on an access visit. I went with my mother as my chaperone in enemy territory. The arrangement my ex-husband decreed was that Mum and I would stay at his house during the week, and he would stay with his girlfriend; then at weekends we would swap over, and Mum and I would go to the girlfriends’ house.

***

In his house, during the hours the girls are awake, I act like a normal mother, and keep busy when I’m not cooking or looking after them by doing crochet and embroidery. I am making a shawl for Mum in creamy wool, with an elaborate border of flowers in purples, dark reds and pinks. The pattern is wrong, and as I sit un-pulling and reworking sections, I think of all the steps that have brought me to this place, all the choices I made without realising the consequences. I drop the crochet sometimes — will I ever finish it? — and creep into their bedrooms. I bend over them as they sleep, watching their faces, uncreased and innocent, and inhale their sweet breath.

When I tire of the wayward shawl and the repetition of the pattern, I turn to another piece of work, an embroidery for the girls. Under my fingers, slowly, a picture grows of forest foliage with a faun’s face peeping out, and words from The Song of Solomon: ‘… the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.’

One afternoon when the girls come home from school, Mum and I take them shopping and choose material for a dress for each of them, and for new curtains for Sophia’s room, in bright greens, yellows and reds, with fauns leaping amongst tangled vines and trees. Mum helps me cut out the dresses and pin them, and when I have sewn them, she does the hand finishing, the hems and buttons, and helps me hem the curtains.

But when they are asleep and Mum has gone to bed, the numbness returns. I drink red wine and sit listening to music until at last sleep seems possible. In the morning, I look in the mirror and see my face, the face of a woman older than me. The lines under her eyes and round her mouth are sharply etched by the dry mountain air, cold winds and lack of sleep. I can’t stay here. I will dry up and wither away before I grow old.

leaping fauns

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My Sewing Box

My mother had a Singer treadle sewing machine, and made most of the clothes we wore. She bought Butterick and Simplicity patterns; sometimes her efforts turned out well, but sometimes they were disappointing.

When I was about eleven, I went to my first dance, the Picnic Races ball. Our friends and neighbours, the Ramages, were going, and I had a crush on their older son, Henry. He was about three years older than me, and to him I was just a little girl. He had honey blonde hair that hung over one of his delphinium blue eyes, golden brown skin, and a husky voice.

Mum bought some lavender marquisette for my dress, and some taffeta to line it. She got Baxter’s Drapery to send away to have a tailored belt made for it, and covered buttons. The bodice had pintucks, the sleeves were puffed, and the skirt gathered.

She sat up late the night before the dance, hemming the skirt. I crept into her room in the morning and tried it on. The buttons and the belt were beautiful, the pintucks perfect, but it was too big for me. My breasts were just buttons, so the bodice sagged over my rounded stomach where my waist should have been, and was too long for my short torso.

I was a wallflower that night. My dreams of dancing with Henry faded when I saw him in his tuxedo and long trousers, dancing with a girl with the same name as mine, from a wealthy pastoral family on the Lachlan. She had shoulder-length blonde hair, silky and smooth, and golden brown skin like Henry. She went to Frensham, an exclusive girls’ boarding school in the tablelands. I was still doing Correspondence school, and had little experience of talking to people my own age. I was the youngest of five children, and after my father left when I was seven years old, I became my mother’s helpmeet. Together we did the jobs that my father and my brothers, now away at boarding school or university, had been used to doing, and I became a little adult in a child’s body.

My mother was a conscientious needlewoman but not a talented one. She was very good at darning. She had a wooden darning mushroom, which she inserted into the inside-out sock and stretched the toe or the heel over. She used her little embroidery scissors to trim the ragged ends of wool, then made a knot with her threaded needle and ran a running stitch around the edges of the hole. She laid a grid of parallel threads across the hole, then wove her needle in and out to form a latticework pattern.

She tried to teach me how to do it, but my parallel threads were uneven widths apart and my weaving was irregular, so that the effect was a cobble compared to her perfect grid.

In her old age, when time hung heavy on her hands, she took up tapestry. When I was sorting through her things after she died, I found two cushion covers she had almost finished. I packed them into my trunk of sewing projects I’d half-finished or not started, and carried them with me for the next thirty-six years, through all my moves. About twenty years ago I cleared out my trunk, letting go of my dream that one day I’d be a crafty old lady. But I kept a few things — some Jacobean embroidery I’d started, a tapestry church my youngest daughter had made as a craft project at school, but not assembled (it was missing one small panel to complete the gabled roof), her guiding badges which I had meant to sew onto a blanket for her, and my mother’s two tapestries. One day, I thought, I’ll sew these onto cushions.

Recently I was looking for something in my box of unfinished projects, and found them again. I got them out and pinned them onto a couple of cushions in my study. When I say pinned, I have no pins, so I used needles from my jar of about a hundred needles I’ll never use for sewing. From time to time, while listening to podcasts, I worked on one of them, a bouquet of roses in shades of pink, mauve and red with a central yellow rose, with greenery shading from khaki to sage. Using tapestry wool, I managed to sew it onto a cushion, with great difficulty, as the needle that had a big enough eye to hold the wool had a blunt end that had to be pushed and wangled through the fabric of the cushion edge. Stubbornly, I persisted, and after a month or two, I finished it. There is a mildew stain in one corner of the canvas, and one side has a bigger border than the other, because I applied it unevenly. But the traditional picture pleases me.

The other tapestry is quite different in style, a loose arrangement of gum leaves and flowers, in shades of blue-grey, olive green, pink and red. One little section of a leaf is not filled in. I found some tapestry wool of a shade that is a close match and tried to fill it in, but my stitches looked clumsy, and I didn’t have the patience to teach myself how to do a proper tapestry stitch. So I’m leaving it empty, reflecting my mother’s desire to create a thing of beauty, unfinished. The edges of the canvas have frayed, so today I cut the frayed edges off and pinned some braid around. It’s not a perfect square, as the fraying was uneven.

Mum's tapestries

So neither cushion will be perfect. But at last my mother’s work, so laboriously done in her old age, will grace the couch in my study. She didn’t become a crafty old lady, but she made a better go of it than I have. In both of us, there’s been a dream of making things with our hands, and she passed that on to me. Both of us are more readers and writers than makers. Both of us love beautiful things. She had more patience than I have, and did things more in the proper way. I take short cuts, and botch things a little. Our making is imperfect and unfinished, and for both of us, it kept us sane in times when life was difficult and we needed something to occupy our hands and take our minds off worries and troubles.

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