Memoir

A vapour trail across the sun

Making order out of chaos

I AM AN amazingly fortunate woman.

I am an author, well into my seventies, published for the first time.

My memoir, The Erratics (4th Estate, 2019), sits on shelves in bookshops, its starry night-sky cover facing hopefully outwards: a book successful against the odds, received with touching fondness by many readers and singled out by prize judges for recognition.

The story of how this came about is a publishing fairytale, complete with obstacles, sudden reversals of fortune and carriages full of fairy godmothers. It is one of luck and hard work, persistence and the kindness of others – and of two moments when I stepped out of my shell to claim something for myself, emboldened to do so by the very experiences I had written about, and the changes they had wrought in me.

This grand adventure has surprised me at an age when the unexpected is rarely good news. As we get older, we find medical maintenance eating up our days; we are saddened by the decline and disappearance of friends. Besides this, we are appalled to find that the young (and everyone is young from where we stand) may view us as not quite real, surplus to requirements, like garden gnomes. We apparently appear sometimes as pale snapshots of last-century life forms, divested of any wisdom or capacities we might once have had, but still talking.

I know how exceptional my position is: I stand today somewhere I have never been before, ignoring the everyday and looking forward, because the last two years have cracked open my understanding of myself. They have changed my view of who I am and what I have done with my time. I can ignore questions tinged with the dismissiveness of ageism because when I look at myself, I see only the sharp clarity of a redefined image. To know that change is possible so late in the game, to experience it, is startling, invigorating. It is priceless.

How lucky am I. And how much do I want to share the joy I have felt at solving old riddles and building upon new understandings. How much do I wish this exhilaration of discovery for anyone who is curious about how we become who we are and why we do what we do.

 

MY MOTHER DIED at ninety-six, in November 2013. More than six years ago.

She died in a hospital she had entered in 2007 for rehab, after surgery for a broken hip. My sister and I used this period of compulsory in-patient orthopaedic treatment to have her mental condition assessed as well. We wanted her sectioned, committed, and for this to happen, we needed a formal diagnosis of mental illness. We had no other choice if we wished to save our father from her, and to save her from herself.

We prevailed. She never went home from that hospital. After much consideration – which was as it should be – a geriatric psychiatrist diagnosed her with malignant narcissistic personality disorder, and judged that setting her free would result in tragedy. She was transferred to a locked ward, an airy prison with wide windows and tasteful furnishings, where she lived out her days with others as severely impaired as she was.

My sister and I reacted differently to this last chapter of our mother’s life, as we had to the wasteland that was our childhood. I believe that for my sister, seeing our mother deprived of her freedom was a kind of victory. For me, being obliged to seek this outcome struck me dumb with grief and marked my heart forever.

The Erratics is the story of all this, of us answering the distress call of a concerned stranger after my mother’s hospitalisation, and spending the next six years travelling frequently to the Canadian foothills to extricate our parents from mayhem of their own making.

Our situation was exceptional, as we had been disowned and disinherited twenty years earlier, at my mother’s insistence. Over that time, we had lost contact with our parents and with each other. It is unclear why we both responded to the call. I suspect our reasons were different, but we both showed up.

 

WRITERS OCCASIONALLY SAY, when asked why they wrote the book they did, that it wrote itself. It’s better than saying you don’t know; it leaves space for the notion of inspiration. What is true is that when you hit a seam of truth, an underground reservoir of pain, the pressure builds and the means to tell the story may present spontaneously. When this happens, the writing is a pleasure.

The Erratics was like that. I knew I wanted to recount the bizarre and ludicrous things that happened in the middle of the heartbreak and frustration of those years – I’m a sucker for strange juxtapositions and black humour. A deeper reason to write lay underneath, however – one that strengthened over time.

It was this: I was stricken when I saw my father in 2007. I saw a skeletal wreck of a man, shambling, confused; he resembled in no way the father of my childhood, physically fit, successful in business. I measured how decades of living with the destructive force that was my mother – the same force that made me who I am – had robbed him of himself, made his existence meaningless.

In his book about death anxiety, Staring at the Sun (Scribe, 2008) the American existential psychiatrist Irvin D Yalom describes what he calls ‘awakening experiences’: the losses and shocks of life, the big hits that oblige us to revisit our choices before it is too late, to do better for ourselves. Seeing the hollowed-out spectre my father had become shook me off my foundations.

I understood how short life is even if you live long; how meaningless, if you fulfil only the wishes of others. My mother’s exactions had left scars on my father’s soul, habits too ingrained ever to be remedied – silence, withdrawal, despair, a comprehensive paranoid mistrust – and I knew I bore the same scars.

I saw my end in his, and my heart revolted. I fought, as did my sister, to return some agency to him. We fought as though it were a matter of survival. It was, and when I fought for him, I fought for me.

Protecting my father meant depriving my mother of her liberty. My book is also about how, over time, life forces decisions upon you that leave you heartsick, about how it feels to choose courses of action you cannot fully accept.

I began to write it all down. My mother died just as I was finishing the manuscript; I wrote the ending the book had to have. Then, for the two years it took for the shock I had felt, and its implications, to soak through me, to impel me to see and do things differently, I left the manuscript in a drawer.

 

I HAVE ALWAYS read, and always written. From the time I learnt to shape letters on paper with a pencil, I knew how to decipher their meaning on a page; I could create my own meaning with them.

At school, I realised that I could produce a story, a composition, a book report. I could get the top marks demanded of me. Failing was not an option. My mother’s mental illness meant she did not see me as separate, discerned no boundary between her and me. My successes were hers; she ordered them up from some warped internal menu of her own. She craved recognition. We must – and we would – excel at everything.

By the time I went to school, my mother had created a puppet. I was a child fashioned to fulfil her wishes, excelling at the tasks I was set. All sense of self had been drained from me – it could only have distracted me from what I was meant to do. Any nascent feelings of agency had been crushed.

My mother used formidable tools in remodelling my psyche: the complete withdrawal of affection and even of her physical presence; a refusal to acknowledge my existence, looking through me, not hearing me. I lived in fear that some involuntary expression of my pain, or my hopes, might escape me and cause her to abandon me yet again.

Zadie Smith said in a recent interview on ABC Radio National’s The Book Show that reading is a radical act, that ‘to read is to be out of the observing eye’. As a child, I knew this.

I knew that I was safe, ‘out of the observing eye’, in two places: inside the pages of books, or in what I thought of as my ‘mind’. I imagined this as an actual physical place, a snug study in a tower, with bookshelves, a warm quilt on the bed, a mullioned window, pens and notebooks on the desk.

I could do as I wished in this sheltered workshop, the inside of which I would draw on sheets of white paper with an HB pencil. Always two pictures: a ‘before’ and an ‘after’. The ‘before’ picture showed this eyrie in disorder: scattered papers, books crooked on shelves, an unmade bed. The ‘after’ picture showed a neat, welcoming room, a lamp throwing a golden net of light over the desk and the chair. I made order out of chaos.

I imagined myself living in that space, writing the stories I invented as I walked down the dark, icy streets to the library bus, which parked one evening a week next to the skating rink. On my way home, I took time to dream and imagine. I lay down on the pristine blanket of fresh snow on someone’s lawn and stared into the stars. I moved my arms and legs slowly to make a snow angel, and thought about what I wanted to say.

 

WHAT LUCK FOR a child struggling through a damaging upbringing to find a refuge in writing. A safe house, a panic room. To this day, I go there. The writing I do usually stays in there. I rarely share, except with my writer friends. I let them in because they are kind, and because they too lay their writing on the desk for all of us to read. They make themselves vulnerable in the same way I do, a kind of Cold War nuclear standoff situation but with pens, and friendlier.

When asked why I have rarely sent my writing out, I am tempted to ask in reply: why would I knock down the walls of this place where I am safe, to let the world in? Why would I seek to extend the reach of what I write beyond this space? I do not fear the harshness outside because I stay in here. There is, however, a little more to my reticence than that.

Make a child ashamed of anything that is hers alone, terrorise her into believing that her sole worth lies in embodying the desires of someone other than herself, and you create the person I was for many years. You guarantee the paralysis of this child, the teenager she grows into, the adult she becomes. She will freeze when confronted with the harder realities of life.

This means she tells no one of bullying in the class cloakroom when she is eight, because all she can do is freeze. And whom could she tell?

This means she is not surprised when an older boy assaults her one night when she is thirteen, in a corner of the municipal swimming pool where the spotlights don’t reach, shielded from the view of others by his complicit friend. She tells no one; she has no word for assault. When this boy fails to recognise her on a bus a week later, it is confirmation of her invisibility, her lack of substance. The experience is bitter, but not surprising.

The adult this child became, the adult I became, has fought every important battle twice. I have needed first to overcome a paralysing sense of helplessness and invisibility before engaging in any struggle. In relationships, in the workplace, in defence of someone or something less fortunate than myself, of a principle, half my energy has been spent pulling myself upright and shoving myself forward. I have been less than successful in battle. Sometimes I have barely shown up.

I have no illusions, however. I don’t think that had I been more present in the larger, less personal combats, I would have tipped a balance – but numbers matter; my voice might have counted. I would at least have had the satisfaction of trying wholeheartedly, of standing with others. My inner landscape would have been less bleak. I might have been less lonely.

 

THE SHOCK OF seeing my father so diminished in 2007 was almost physical: a bucket of ice water, a violent slap. It still took time to permeate my dreams and my consciousness. I thought I was the same person as always through those years, just a little sadder for seeing him so frail. I swam through molasses and slogged through periods of numb lethargy. I realise now that those times must also have contained minute subterranean shifts, imperceptible seismic events brought about by new insights, tiny but cumulative.

Without noticing, I was making small changes, pruning back whatever prevented me from seeing where I wanted to go. I stepped back from my work, resigned from committees. I finished my book.

I ventured outside. I learnt that I preferred my solitude to most of the new activities I tried, but now I could draw that conclusion from experience. I started to open my doors, my windows and my heart. I have left myself open to more pain than joy, but neuroscientists have discovered that paracetamol lessens the ache of a broken heart, and so I have no fear.

There were two recent moments where action I took shaped both the story of my book and the story of me as a late-blooming author. The first happened in 2016: my memoir manuscript had been in the drawer for over two years.

One blurry night of insomnia, I gave up deep breathing and reciting poetry and got up to check my emails. In a newsletter from Varuna, the Writers’ House in the Blue Mountains, I read about an upcoming Memoir Focus Week: five places available; one day left to apply. Why not, I thought, with a straightforwardness quite unlike me. If not now, when exactly, you prevaricating, flightless goose? I asked my sleep-deprived self.

I applied, mostly to forestall any regret about not acting that I might torture myself with later. Not expecting a result, and not fully measuring how unusual taking this step was for me, I did not stall and let the deadline pass, telling myself I would think about it some other year. I pushed ‘Send’.

I got one of the five places. In amazement, I heard the Varuna consultant who read my work say words I have never forgotten: my manuscript would certainly be published and she would champion the book it became. She was the first in a succession of exceptional book people, most of them women, who have believed in The Erratics and encouraged me, putting time and effort into pointing me towards whatever I needed. These are my fairy godmothers.

I respect these people; there was no way I could disregard their encouragement. Their words propelled me forward. Urged on by my Varuna consultant to send my manuscript out, I entered it in a memoir competition sponsored by a small independent publisher.

I won the prize – a sum of money and the publication of my manuscript. One of the prize judges launched the book on a stormy winter night in a Sydney bookshop. The room was packed with friends, family and people who came in out of the rain, all of whom laughed at the right places when I read. I felt I had won the lottery.

This happiness was short-lived. A matter of weeks later, the small publishing house announced its closure. The Erratics would be out of print in six months. My distress was keen – I had been, for a moment, pleased and excited to see my book out in public, following its own path. This distress was compounded when I learnt in passing that the publisher had decided against entering it for the Stella Prize, reversing a decision I had been told about some months earlier. I had been thrilled to think that my book could take part in that competition, be involved in something exciting, positive.

This was the second moment when I made up my own mind, shook off my inertia. I checked the Stella submission deadline, and with fewer than forty-eight hours to go, I requested the publisher follow through on what I had originally been told. I contributed to making my entry happen, sending personal copies of my book to Melbourne to meet the deadline. I suggested, for good measure, that it also be entered in the non-fiction category of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

The Erratics was longlisted, then shortlisted for the Stella Prize; it was also shortlisted for the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. I was suddenly not invisible anymore. An agent came forward to represent me, and immediately found a new publisher for my book. I had some trouble absorbing all this; I was for a time simultaneously dazzled, disbelieving, joyful and terrified.

I won the Stella Prize.

I often wonder what my state of mind would be today had I not insisted that The Erratics be given a chance. I am grateful I had become, by that point and thanks to the exfoliating experience of writing about ageing and lost opportunities, a woman capable of stepping up. I cannot imagine life without what has come my way because of that sequence of events: my book back out in the world with an enthusiastic publisher and a beautiful new cover; a magic carpet sweeping me off to places I have never been, where I have met fascinating people. I am still riding this carpet in the company of my fairy godmothers, new and old friends, children, grandchildren, and readers who tell me that their secrets are a lot like mine.

 

Vicki Laveau-HarvieI SAW A strange thing in the sky the other morning. It made me reflect on the moments of creative satisfaction we enjoy when life presents us with the perfect image, symbol, metaphor, for whatever is preoccupying us. ‘Look at this,’ it seems to say. ‘You can use it if you want; you might like to write about it.’

So – this strange sight: a vapour trail across the face of the sun, but not the usual long streak bisecting the blue from horizon to horizon. This one was short, a wispy tail feathering out behind it, suggesting threads of a story coming together from a beginning lost in the deep clarity of the morning sky. This vapour trail did not carry far forward. It was more past than future – but it was bright, so bright, with the sun behind it.

I looked at it until I was seeing spots. I knew I would write about it: about my happiness on seeing it, on imagining, as writers do, that it was meant for me to see. I absolutely do not believe in the possibility of this being true, but I cannot resist the radiance of these things that fall in my lap.

How beautiful to behold, how wonderful. For a microsecond, I see my story in that gauzy silver flash of discovery and enlightenment. For an infinitely small parcel of cosmic time, my story is that vapour trail across the sun.

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