Note to self

Swim, or learn to sink

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  • Published 20200505
  • ISBN: 9781922268761
  • Extent: 264pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook


Sorry you never get a Christmas card. Sorry I never invite you out to dinner. Sorry I have neglected and ignored you so much you have turned into a shadow. Actually, literally a shadow. A shadow of my former self.

I remember when things were different, years ago now, when we inhabited the same body, and it was a young woman’s body, questing outwards into the world, unselfconscious, unthinking, spontaneous. Now that body is closed in on itself, like a figure in the background of someone else’s photo, worn out and blurred, and you, shadow self, are a ghostly figure hovering in my peripheral vision.

You’re still the one I find myself thinking about, though, in that odd twilight zone between waking and sleeping. Yours is the only address I have still, folded and refolded, stowed in my wallet in case of emergency. You have all the old photos of me. You’re the one with the lease; the bond’s in your name. You’re the ID on the licence, even though the photo looks nothing like you anymore. You’re the designated driver. You know where the spare key is.

THANKS. FOR HANGING in there. For being the stone I have sharpened myself on, and the one I took so utterly for granted, all these decades. Especially, thanks for coming with me on that all-important trip when the two of us were given that writing residency at the artists’ colony. After the marriage break-up. The marriage break-down. The marriage break-apart.

I say the two of us because I could feel you waiting patiently across the room as I numbly filled in the boxes on the application form. When I said ‘I’ve got nothing to send them as an example of my work’, you said ‘Bullshit. Send them that one you haven’t finished.’ And I did. And it worked. It was the first break I’d had from parenting for eleven solid years.

You didn’t even need an extra seat. You had no excess baggage. You were always a good traveller. When the guy at the customs and immigration desk looked at the passport then up into my face, you slipped in and made my features recognisable for a minute, so that I could pass as the same person in the picture. Thanks for that summoned flicker of energy, Shadow of my Former Self. I felt the heat and light of it, the quick blaze, remembered how it once felt to be my singular self, alone.

And a bolt of pure dismay, then, to realise how far I’d drifted; how I’d ceased to want anything or allow myself to want it.

Safe to say, I wasn’t in a good headspace. There was no space, actually, inside the head. The head was a churn, nauseating as the Tilt-A-Whirl, gurning away from 3 am each morning, blankly exhausted during daylight hours, marinating in cortisol and adrenaline. On this reserve fuel tank I’d been floundering forward, driving along on the wheel rims. The engine boiling with hypervigilance. I’d become the Everywoman I’d always looked at with surreptitious pity, sucked dry and discarded, stumbling along like a slapped, whiplashed sleepwalker, eyes wide, disoriented.

I hesitate to write this because even when I strain to describe it, it feels performative and melodramatic, but that suggests something being constructed and knitted together, whereas in reality everything had unravelled. I was at the stage of having to constantly check in to test myself that I remembered the lines, remembered the steps. This…is this how you walk? Is this how you nod and smile as if you can retain what the other person has just told you? Is this a reasonable facsimile of normality, enough for people to take you at face value and pass over you?

It creeps up on us, this slow, relentless panic. Strive to compromise and see things from everyone else’s point of view for long enough, and it becomes your default. You forget how to see things from anywhere else. Your eyes take up residence outside your own head, joining the world in endless gimlet scrutiny back at your external flinching self. There’s nothing inside. Knock on the hollow sides, slide the swords through. No woman in there. Not in the body. She’s holed up in the head. Churning.

SORRY FOR NOT listening when you tried to tell me, year after year, that the body keeps the score. In my small cliffside room in France I lay awake at night, grinding my teeth. My brain was like a lockpick, and also the tumblers in that lock, and also the locked door itself. And also the abandoned house, all blinds drawn. And also the potholed street of houses, all the streetlights out.

Remember that Stevie Smith poem we used to read, where she said she was too far out all her life, and not waving but drowning? I was in that rip, alright. Once when we were young – you and I, twinned, tanned, thin, luminous and long-legged, finishing each other’s sentences – I used to bodysurf. In a bikini. Now, at the multidisciplinary artists’ residency, I was flat out keeping my head above the swell as set after set rolled in, obliterating. I literally could not focus on a single thing except bracing myself not to go under. My throat was raw with salt water. Nobody was waiting on the shore.

Writers talk about being nervous due to imposter syndrome: not me. There was no imposture. This was the unadulterated truth, under the ripped veneer, exposed like scar tissue.

I’m sure you looked on, Shadow of My Former Self, and saw the state I was in. I’d arrived with a torn rotator cuff in my shoulder, so couldn’t even get my own bra on or brush my hair without pain, and I had recently also discovered, through a sudden gallbladder attack, that I had a gallstone. An excess of gall came as no surprise.

I ran on gall. I was galvanised by it and also paralysed by it. Treatable, according to my doctor, by antispasmodic medication. There was one chair in that room. I don’t know where you sat. I sat in the chair alone and it was one long, clenching spasm. Block. Ridiculous, I whispered, and you shrugged and nodded, there in my peripheral vision. Just get on with it, I ordered myself, at the end of my tether. My own tether. The tether I had tied myself with a double knot. Just get it together.

I was getting no sympathy from you. I hadn’t looked into your eyes for a long, long time.

Writer’s block. Even the solemn pathologising of it sounds ridiculous. The choreographer there at the residency wasn’t going to get dancer’s block. The academics were hardly going to get reader’s block. But a few years of pernicious writer’s block had moved in and wasn’t going anywhere now. In fact, like a crazy housemate, it had spent the time developing elaborate conspiracy theories and setting up a jerry-rigged surveillance system. Everything filtered itself, now, through this surveillance system. Grief stagnated into grievance. Confronting the world felt like an extended psych test. There is a population of one on Planet Invisible. That’s where I lived now, and I had a new day job. It was changing the empty tapes on the surveillance cameras, taping over old footage and replacing it with new; footage on which the same hours of nothing happened in grey, blurry lo-fi.

Even if your life’s going well, age and weariness do this rendering down. There’s just less and less of you worth anyone’s attention. What did it matter, the vein behind my knee, the hard grim lines emerging on my face, any of it? I had my swimmers, but I didn’t go into the sea. I sat watching it, though.

I could feel you there, in the little garret room with me looking out at the blue Mediterranean, right there behind my frozen, crippled shoulder. I could feel you imperceptibly gain definition and dimension as I erased myself into something ever more invisible, dug ever deeper in the hole. You were there watching me trying to put on my T-shirt one-armed, listening to the sea rolling in below the window, in the place you’ve always been, attached to me. Sewn to my heel like Peter Pan’s shadow. Only I was Wendy, the dutiful seamstress. Wendy, who no one ever listened to, who was visible only to the extent to which she could be put to use by others. Wendy, whose gall must have raged and boiled inside her.

I want to thank you for that day, four weeks in, where I had reached the point where the tapes would no longer record anything.

Thank you for reaching over some imaginary space and turning off that imaginary camera.

The red ‘record’ light faded, and the penny dropped.

The penny dropped. Listen, you said. There was nothing to interrupt you. I heard you very clearly. You were brusque, out of patience – and who could blame you?

Nobody cares, you said. Then you added more kindly: Nobody is watching.

Nobody cares, and nobody is watching. I could pace the room, berate myself, stew in this bitter toxic brew of stress and anxiety and resentment, but nobody was keeping score. God wasn’t in heaven, adding up all the injustices in his big black ledger. Nobody cared how I was spending what I’d been given. It was mine to squander. I was depleted and tapped out, and in a vicious undertow I was wearing myself out fighting, but why was I waiting to be saved by something? Nobody was indignant on my account, telling me they had my back, or that what doesn’t kill us makes us strong, or any of that Instagram shit. Either swim, you said, or learn to sink. Get on with it.

Thanks for showing me the thing I’d forgotten. I love you for that. You’re still you, which is to say, me. Plain. So plain. Uninterested, now, in creating some embellished idea of a persona, a burnished, embroidered, constructed identity that takes so much time and effort to maintain, and so much vigilance, and so much fear. I’m shrugging it off. I’m too tired, and there’s no point.

Thanks for coming down to the beach with me that afternoon. It was the perfect place to go, that shoreline covered in small pebbles and naked French people focused on darkening their skin to the colour and texture of an old saddle. They were perfect companions for this small epiphany. Male and female, young and old – but mostly old, completely unselfconscious. Bodies aged, sprawled, swollen, stretched, bloated, scarred, marked, liver-spotted, burnt, flabby, wrinkled like spray-tanned Shar-Peis. What was I worried about? Nobody cared. Nobody was watching. They had their own stuff going on. Nobody scrutinised me or gave me so much as a second glance.

I picked my way down through them, awkward and menopausal in my Target swimsuit as they lay sunning themselves like a sea-lion colony.

What a relief that complete invisibility was. What a belated rejoicing in imperfection. I lumbered among them, looking for a spot to lay myself down in the colony, unremarked and unremarkable, utterly unnoticed, my own sum total.

Pull yourself, wrench yourself, from the tight constrictive binding pinch of what you’re leaving behind, and catch a glimpse of your true shape.

YOU WERE THERE. I saw myself only in your eyes, like a pair of excellent French sunglasses. The savage, laser-critical focus had mercifully dulled, and I saw a vague, hovering reflection. Recognition like an ache. My still-there face. My body, which has never said a word against me.

And you, my oldest, most loyal companion. The one I’m alone together with, whose name and address I carry in my wallet, ready to call on, who is there between waking and sleeping, who has always been there, watching all this pass like weather, who stood behind me faithfully in the cruel white downlight of the Target change room when I bought those swimmers, saying put your shoulders back, you are down but not out, who nods and smiles when I put my towel down on a hot stony beach, ready for further weathering, and sit looking out at my own horizon, unhindered, because I’m the only one here, gloriously invisible and unscrutinised.

Identity isn’t what you are, it’s what you do. It’s what you make. Maybe one day I’m going to make something out of this.

Maybe doing this is going to soothe the corrosion, ease the spasm, relax the hard hurt lines between my eyes.

It’s curative, squinting your eyes into the sun because you’ve forgotten your sunglasses, looking for something on a calm blue horizon. Too late now to worry, in any case, about the map of lines around my eyes. I can feel you next to me now, my most constant and loving of friends, my better self.

You’ll wait for me forever until I get this. You never yawn or check your phone or roll your eyes. You just shrug and nod and pass me the sunscreen. You’re right. Let’s keep looking after ourselves. We’ve got years to go yet.

This piece is adapted from a talk delivered at the ‘Love Letter to Myself’ event at the Melbourne Writers Festival, 2019.

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