Waking up in the USA

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Bake sale cookies

Yesterday morning, at 8am, I was helping out at an elementary school bake sale. Brownies, pumpkin bread, choc-chip cookies. It was half price for poll workers.

Last night, at 11pm (when the New York Times predictions had taken a decided shift), someone out on my street played The Star Spangled Banner. On trombone.

This morning, at 8am, the normally aggressive traffic was subdued. Cars filed quietly past the roadworks. When a pedestrian dashed across the street, no-one honked.

This morning, I saw tears in people’s eyes.

I am upset too.

In such cases as these, my instinct is to pull back and mumble something about the issues being complicated. And sure, they are. A lot of people here in the US felt very strongly that they wanted Donald Trump as President, and they voted for him. They’ll be feeling very happy about this outcome. They’ll feel that it’s good, and just, and right.

I feel I have to honour that.

But you know what? I’m done with mumbling that I’m not sure, that I don’t know. So here, as an Australian living in Cambridge, Massachusetts (a liberal town in a heavily Democratic state), the day after this election, are a few things I do know:

It’s irresponsible for those outside the US to roll their eyes and joke about ‘dumb’ Americans, as I’ve seen on social media this morning. Please stop. It’s not just unhelpful, it’s wrong.

There is genuine fear and anxiety out there about what this will mean for the country and the rest of the world.

Kids are worried, too.

Life in America is not the stereotype that people sometimes like to entertain. The people I know here work hard, have high standards, and they’re smart.

The ideas, attitudes, and policies Donald Trump campaigned on are unreasonable and dangerous. I don’t like to take sides in anything, as a rule (I can’t even stand to watch team sports) but this, I think, is self-evident.

Anger is a natural reaction when something threatens our sense of ourselves, and our safety in the world. But if we abhor bullying and intolerance, then we have a duty not to indulge that. If there’s an argument to be made, we must make it. If there’s understanding to be done, we should work for it.

Like the rest of the world, I’ve only just woken up in this new reality where Trump has won the Presidency. I’m heartened to hear Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama call for unity, and a successful transition. I don’t know what the future will bring. I know a lot of people think this result will bring change for the better—and that I can’t find a way to agree with them. I dislike hyperbole as much as partisanship, but I’ll admit it: this morning, I woke up afraid.

But you know what? Tomorrow morning, there’ll be a team of people at that elementary school polling place, packing bags of extra food for kids who need nutrition over the weekend. And some acquaintances from the dog park have set up a Google doc to coordinate help for an elderly neighbour who has hurt his knee. Looking out my window, I see a lot of people going about their business—working, going to school, looking after their families. I will too.

But no more mumbling.

I-love-you-and-also-do-you-have-cheese?

Version 2So I was going to post this longish essay on J.M. Coetzee, but I thought instead, I’d tell you about my dog.

That’s him on the right there. Odie. He’s a seven-year-old rescue beagle who has fans in various places (I’ve come out of shops to find strangers taking selfies with him). And he’s hungry. Oh my heavens. Always hungry.

I’ve been thinking a bit about Odie lately, because:

One: We’ve moved from Australia to the USA, and he’s my wingman. I work at home, and he watches me snack;

Two: We’ve been going to the vet a lot, due to his excessive peeing, and

Three: I’ve been reading the novel Disgrace, by Coetzee.

I grew up with dogs. Big ones, the kind best greeted via the front door, with a family member (never alone, over the back fence). Sometimes, they tried to take my food. Other times, they took me for a walk. The death of one of them broke my brother’s heart.

But I didn’t think I was a dog person. I preferred the screw-you attitude of cats. There was something clean about it.

It would suit me now to say ‘I was a cat person, until I had this dog’—but that’s crap. I’ve been in denial. Decades after my family imploded, my father’s German Shepherd would cry with joy when she realised it was me walking down the driveway. She’d do this butt-wiggling dance of excitement, her eczema-blighted, old-dog back swinging from side to side, keeping time with her tail.

It was delightful, of course. But as a young adult I just couldn’t process that amount of feeling—that much need—from another being.

The truth is, I still struggle with it. The I-love-you stare of a dog can bring even the most hard-hearted of us undone (even when it’s really I-love-you-and-also-do-you-have-cheese). But I’m not so scared of feelings now. The companionable wag of Odie’s tail when we’re out walking makes my heart sing. It’s mawkish, ridiculous. But there it is.

Being with Odie—especially in a new place—means having someone on my team. When I stand awkwardly in the park, he’s right there, ready to be talked about. He watches me resignedly (or perhaps he’s napping?) while I try to work out how to get a doctor’s appointment, where to buy a car, how to get a driver’s licence. And he’s shared (vicariously, of course) my joy at the sheer range and deliciousness of chocolate-coated caramel on offer in this part of the USA.

Odie and I have been spending some extra time together lately, what with all those trips to the vet. After a couple of Olympic-sized pees in the house (I still just—can’t—even), the vet wanted to run some tests. Ultrasounds, blood tests, urine (guess who had to follow him out in the morning with a large disposable cup?). As they ruled out infections and kidney failure, Odie just kept looking at me, panting in that way I choose to interpret as a smile.

It’s kind of terrible, the power one has over a dog. And it’s made worse by the trusting way they look at you. This is something J.M. Coetzee touches on in the novel I mentioned. Disgrace, which is set in post-apartheid South Africa, is about a professor who loses his job after he has an affair with a student. He moves to his daughter’s landholding, where he begins volunteering at an animal shelter.

Of course there’s far too much in Disgrace to do it justice in two paragraphs. But one thing that resonated with me was the way the protagonist’s attitude towards animals changes, the more of them he has to put to sleep. He doesn’t harden towards the dogs, as you might expect. He treats them with increasing respect, even as he knows they will die (and that he will help them).

What does this mean, and why does it tug so much on the heartstrings? I think it’s something to do with love and power. Because the truth is that I love Odie at least in part because he has to love me back. He knows I’m the boss (even if he sometimes chooses not to listen). It’s simple: he trusts me, and I have to live up to that.

Of course, by the fifth hour-long return trip to the vet, I wasn’t feeling my generous best. But I’m pleased to report that Odie’s pee problem doesn’t appear to be too serious—he’s on medication which has reduced his pee volume, and helped our new rug remain (relatively) unscathed. I mean I still had to nonchalantly catch this morning’s pee, and will need to remember his twice-daily medicine, monitor his water intake. And I can’t pretend this doesn’t sometimes feel farcical, when there are so many humans on the planet who don’t have access to clean water, let alone medicine.

But the fact remains that in this small area of influence (his life) I’m responsible. It’s my job to look after him, and luckily, I’m able to. I mean look at that face. Doesn’t it just bore into your soul, asking that you please at least try not to be crap?

And also maybe could you get up, and fetch him a snack?

Tidings of comfort and … pause

Thanks to Bob Gutowski for use of this image via Creative Commons

Thanks to Bob Gutowski for use of this image via Creative Commons

Shortly after I had my first child, someone bought me flowers. Let’s say they were irises.

For more than a week I shuffled past those flowers, bleary and joyous and confused. We had made a person. With eyes and ears and hair; who had hands that would grasp at cups and spoons and pens and screwdrivers. Who stared and yawned and stretched and farted.

One day I came in the front door and saw that the flowers had died. They weren’t just a bit droopy, or crispy around the edges; they were completely (pardon the pun) cactus. They must have been like that for some time. Yet in my mind, until moments earlier, they’d been fresh-smelling parcels of purple. Clearly, I’d been distracted. And my mind had filled in the details for me.

Of course at the time, it was no big deal. I chucked the flowers out, and got on with things. But they’ve been on my mind recently, and I think it’s because of December.

Now I know how this sounds, but I don’t much like this time of year. I get stressed about buying presents, I avoid decorating the tree, I resist caring about what we eat for dinner. I’m happy for others to enjoy it: to pop the Christmas crackers and read out the silly jokes, work their way through a month of advent chocolate, spend days and weeks covered in salt and sand. I’ll work to facilitate that; I see the value of it. But personally—it makes me tired.

December is a pushing-up point; a moment of enforced pause. We work away all through the year, hitting (or missing) work deadlines, inching our way through the school terms, chasing our tails to keep the house in some reasonably clean state (or perhaps that’s just me?). The news sails past—boats capsize, bombs go off and people get smashed-up in their sedans on the way to work. Maybe someone you know gets married, or your brother buys a house, your neighbour makes it to the other side of the cancer treatment. And then—wham—it’s almost next year, and what does it all mean?

We wake up each morning assuming (quite reasonably, for the most part) that today is a regular day; that nothing catastrophic will happen; that dinner will be as we planned it and we’ll bicker, as usual, about whose turn it is to do the dishes. That’s what allows us (the lucky ones) to enjoy the wonderful, safe, ordinariness of existence. We have access to healthcare, education, nutrition. We can lock our doors behind us at night. But we know that bad things happen. People do terrible things. People get hurt, they go without. Life isn’t fair.

Coming up to December (especially if I’m going to have to listen to songs about peace and hope and joy), I want all of this to make sense. But it doesn’t. I hear and see and read about awful things happening, and I don’t do enough about it. Sometimes I don’t even want to know about it. I want to be safe in my kitchen with the sun streaming in and some nice classical music on the radio.

So, wait, am I saying that everything will be better if I pay more attention to flowers? Well, no. But those irises are a useful reminder that I look at out at the world from inside my own head—that reality is moving on, whether I notice or not. On the one hand, that’s a reassuring thought. I’m not in control of everything. I can’t be. On the other hand, it’s unsettling. Who wants to think about how easily things could change, how fragile we all are? Let’s just push that thought down hard, right?

Well, maybe that vulnerability is the bit I’ve been missing. If I’m feeling at all celebratory this December, it can’t be only about those new shoes I want, the opportunity to eat pudding and pavlova, or the list of achievements I can (or can’t) rattle off over the dinner table. It’s about accepting fragility, and celebrating the daily ways we overcome it. Or even, the ways that we don’t.

There’s no rule that says I have to be jolly at this time of year. Only, maybe, present. Happy enough about all the snacking and talking and general existing that’s going on. And remembering, when I can, to look around. And notice.

Fanny Price, the necessary ninny

Image via Penguin

Image courtesy of Penguin

Mention Mansfield Park to a devoted Austen-ite and you get the tell-tale sigh: yes, but Fanny Price! Why does she have to be so …

Pious?

Humourless?

Blessedly, teeth-grindingly annoying?

In any situation, you can count on Jane Austen’s heroine (a poor cousin taken to live with rich relatives at age 10) to be terribly proper. She’ll be concerned that everyone’s comfort is given due consideration, and aware of her own low station. She’ll say things like, ‘a whole family assembling regularly for the purpose of prayer, is fine!’ and ‘never happier than when behaving so dishonourably and unfeelingly!—Oh! What a corrupted mind!’

Cue the eye-roll.

Mansfield Park—which was published after Pride and Prejudice and celebrates its 200th anniversary this year—is acknowledged to be Austen’s least-loved novel. A seminal essay on the book (by Lionel Trilling) goes so far as to say that for Austen admirers, the book “is likely to make an occasion for embarrassment” while “nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park.” But so far this year, I’ve read it three times. There’s that same lovely Austen eye—showing us how people are ridiculous without sneering at them, making us laugh and drawing us in to the lives of characters invented two centuries ago. It doesn’t sparkle the way that Pride and Prejudice does, but its heroine (bullied as she is by her Aunt Norris and ignored by almost everyone else, except her cousin Edmund) is not (and nor is she meant to be) Elizabeth Bennet. She’s poorer, more alone, and daily reminded of her lowly position. Trilling, for all that he noted its mixed reception, pronounced Mansfield Park a great novel. And it’s Fanny—quiet, upright, moralising Fanny—who makes it so fantastic.

How can this be? So much of what Fanny does rubs a contemporary reader up the wrong way. She’s treated like a servant, pitied for her ‘deficiencies’ and excluded from the privileges her cousins enjoy—and she just accepts it. Nods demurely and fetches the sewing for her awful Aunt Norris. Is pitifully grateful that her flaccid Aunt Bertam wants her company, even though it means staying home while the others gad about having fun. You want to shake her—‘come on, Fanny, don’t be such a ninny! Show some spine!’ But this reaction, though understandable (even Austen’s mother judged Fanny ‘insipid’) rather misses the point.

I think Fanny’s pious submissiveness is in fact a clever armour, leading up to the point at which she utters those remarkable words: “I cannot like him, Sir, well enough to marry him” and “I think it ought not to be set down as certain, that a man must be acceptable to every woman he may happen to like himself.” Remembering that this is a time in which women could not vote, or own property—and bearing in mind Fanny’s precarious financial situation—her decision to refuse the wealthy (and untrustworthy) Henry Crawford is an act of self-assertion. Unlike those around her, Fanny Price’s insight and intellectual integrity allow her to see Mr Crawford and his sister for who they really are; next to Fanny, the Bertrams (including Sir Thomas, the respected patriarch) are dullards who misread just about everything that happens in the novel. The fact that Fanny is so serious and submissive means she that when she does think (and act) for herself, she is morally untouchable enough that even Sir Thomas, though angered by her refusal, can’t completely write her off. Presumably the same applied to readers in 1814.

We see this more clearly in looking at a modern version of the story. The 1999 film adaptation (the one starring Frances O’Connor) does two particularly interesting things: it hands Fanny Price a pen (and a sense of humour), and adds more events around the Bertrams’ sugar plantation in Antigua. These elements are sketched more lightly in Austen’s story—we know Fanny has a small study, where she goes to read and write, but we hear little of what she produces; and we know Sir Thomas travels to Antigua, and that Fanny asks her uncle about the slave trade, but the issue is not explored in detail.[1] In the 1999 version, Fanny Price has taken on elements of Austen herself; the film draws on the author’s letters and diaries, giving Fanny a gift for language and seeing her, at the end of the film, about to publish her first book. She’s still reserved and accepting of her situation, but we’re allowed to interpret it differently—she knows her own mind and holds independent ambitions. Contemporary readers don’t need Fanny to be cloying, carefully toeing the line and knowing her place. Things have changed. In a similar vein, viewers today are unlikely to be satisfied with the Bertrams’ interest in the slave trade being in the background—it requires explanation. But of course whatever her personal view may have been, Edward Said notes that it’s not reasonable to expect Jane Austen to “treat slavery with anything like the passion of an abolitionist”—she, like us, is a creature of her time.

For all that, the two centuries that have passed since Mansfield Park was published can’t diminish my enjoyment of this book. Fanny Price might require a bit more of an empathy stretch than Elizabeth Bennet, but she’s more than worth the effort. Fanny navigates poverty and patriarchy, landing on a place (however eye-rollingly virtuous it may seem) where she can assert herself. So if she sometimes comes across as a ninny, then it’s a necessary calculation—and we’re all the wiser for seeing the world through her eyes.

 

 

[1] For a detailed analysis of Mansfield Park and attitudes to slavery, see Edward Said’s book Culture and Imperialism (Vintage, London, 1993). Paula Byrne also provides some interesting thoughts about Austen’s deliberate use of names and language in alluding to slavery.

Making pretend people matter

Brokeback Mountain cover

Cover of the 1998 Fourth Estate edition. The story was first published in The New Yorker in 1997.

When my husband was four, he asked for a clock. Any kind, really. As long he was going to be allowed to pull it into tiny little pieces.

Over time, he moved on to old TVs, broken video recorders, radios, cars. Eventually he learned to put things back together—and at some point, he even found there were no pieces left over.

Meanwhile, I spent years with my nose pasted between the pages of a book. I’d read one, then read it again. I was a very happy consumer of those imaginary worlds. It didn’t occur to me to unscrew the back, and see what made it all tick.

So I thought I’d come late to the take-it-apart party, and have a closer look at some stories I admire. First, I had a look at Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts (which is a gorgeous book about selkies, love and beauty). This month, I’ve been thinking about Brokeback Mountain, by Annie Proulx.

Like a lot of people, I’d seen the film. But I hadn’t read the book—nor had I realised that it was actually a short story, coming in at 58 small-format pages of pitch-perfect prose.

Now I’m sure there are lots of ways of thinking about Brokeback Mountain, but I’m going to focus on it as a love story—because in essence, that’s what it is. The relationship between Proulx’s two characters, Ennis and Jack, isn’t an easy one, but we believe it; it’s real love. And given how tough that can be to recognise in real life, bringing it not just convincingly—but beautifully, and honestly—to life on the page is a pretty neat trick. So in taking a look inside this particular clock, I want to know: How does Proulx bring love between two pretend people into the real world, and make it matter?

In trying to answer this question, the first thing I did was make myself a little diagram. (Warning: there are no big spoilers here, but there are plot points—so if you don’t know the story and you’re the kind of person who likes to be surprised … well, you’ve been warned).

Brokeback mountain

Now this is just a very simple outline showing how I see the story’s structure (I certainly wouldn’t set your watch by it). The first thing I noticed was the ‘frame’ that Proulx has put around the story—represented here by the two dark blue rectangles on the far left and right. Both of these sections are set at the same time, and they use two key motifs: Ennis dreaming about Jack, and a pair of shirts hanging on a nail. The opening section gives us a glimpse of the shirts (they’re explained later on), and we only get hints about what’s in Ennis’s dream—but by the time we learn that he’s had it, we’re right there with him, at 5am on a windy morning, in a flimsy aluminium caravan.

From this frame, we go ‘back’ to hear the main story—represented by the four light-to-dark rectangles in the middle of the diagram. The main story brings our two protagonists together by circumstance (they both sign up to work on Brokeback Mountain), and through the simple act of having them share a paragraph:

They were raised on small, poor ranches in opposite corners of the state, Jack Twist in Lightning Flat, up on the Montana border, Ennis del Mar from around Sage, near the Utah line, both high-school drop-out country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life.

We know that these two somehow belong together; Ennis and Jack are a “they”. From here, the story follows the contour of a relationship which in its most basic sense (they meet, they fall in love, there are difficulties) is familiar. But Jack and Ennis’s difficulties are major: openly having a relationship would pose the real risk of violence, and even death. And this matters—it really does. But for us in the real world to care, first we have to believe in the ‘truth’ of these pretend people, and their love.

So how does Proulx do it? My theory is that it’s a combination of intimate connection, tension, and distance. From the beginning, these two characters share the frame—they’re talking, drinking beer, setting off up the mountain together. We know it’s a story about them. And then once they’re involved, there’s tension: after that first summer, will they see each other again? Will they get along, are they truly connected? And all along, there’s a distance that animates everything. This is most beautifully captured early in the story:

During the day Ennis looked across a great gulf and sometimes saw Jack, a small dot moving across a high meadow, as an insect moves across a tablecloth; Jack, in his dark camp, saw Ennis as night fire, a red spark on the huge black mass of mountain.

What this story does so well is hold two people simultaneously together, and apart. It does that structurally (through plot and so on) as well as with gorgeous words: from the description of Jack’s buckteeth as “not pronounced enough to let him each popcorn out of a jug, but noticeable”, to Ennis as “a little cave-chested … a small torso on long, caliper legs” and the way the two of them sat in front of the fire, “boot soles and copper jeans rivets hot”. Proulx takes an ordinary scene and makes it strange for us; gives us pause, makes us look again.

In convincing us of the truth of her pretend people, Proulx performs a powerful act of empathy—not on herself (she’s already there), but on us. If we believe the truth of these two characters, and in their genuine connection, then their story really matters. It matters because it reminds us that there’s a whole world inside the head of every person we meet, and that there is often a wide gulf between what we think we know about someone, and the truth.

Looking back, perhaps I didn’t try to ‘pull apart’ books when I was a kid because I didn’t want to spoil this kind of magic—the stuff that made a story matter. And there is a difference between reading with the clock back open, watching the gears turn, and looking at it from the front. But we can read both ways, right? And at least with a story, there’s no danger of finding stray words hiding under the toolbox when you’re done.

Running’s not about, um, running

Running

Thanks Patrik for the use of this image under Creative Commons.

When I was 14, my foster sisters told me they were going for a run. It’d only be about 1km, they said. Would I like to come?

By the time I’d ‘jogged’ down the driveway and onto the road, the two of them were blurry, heat-affected smudges in the distance. My ankles were searing. My lungs felt like they were collapsing. My foster sisters tried to help, but I was moving glacially. And I hurt. Oh, my giddy-burning-airways-aunt, I hurt. After about 200 metres, I turned around and went home.

I’d been known to roll my eyes at exercisers before, but after that day I moved to open sneering. The sight of someone in sneakers was enough to make me snort. Ugh, I’d think. So bloody happy, so well-adjusted. Because derision is a constructive way to deal with failure, right? (It’s great for concealing envy, too. No-one can even see that green-eyed monster. Like a ninja.)

Twenty years later, I decided it was time to try again. Armed with some woefully inadequate sneakers and an asthma inhaler, I ‘ran’ the third of one street length on my block. Oh. My. Jelly. Legs. It hurt. But it was great. For 15 whole minutes, I’d escaped the apartment and my ever-expanding parental to-do list. Music blared in my ears, my feet flailed over the concrete, the ventolin worked, actual distance was covered. When I got back, I felt like someone had scrubbed out my brain with a clarity cloth (and like I was about to vomit).

So I got ‘into’ running. I bought better shoes, made an iPod playlist, figured out what baseball caps are for (no windscreen wipers on my eyes). I started going regularly(ish), and even did a few fun runs (the short ones). I was slow and ungainly, but I felt like this was something my body was meant to do. And in a way, it is. According to Harvard University’s Daniel Lieberman, modern humans (with our big brains and ability to use tools for essential skills such as whipping up a raspberry blancmange) evolved at least in part because we learned to run. Our bodies—long tendons in the legs, sweat glands aplenty and a head able to stabilise itself independent of the shoulders—are well adapted for running. Humans might not be the speediest member of the animal kingdom (Lieberman says horses and greyhounds can reach twice our fastest sprinting speeds), but we’re good at going the distance. Lieberman thinks that early humans used this running ability to ‘endurance hunt’ big game (basically, chasing them till they’re worn out). This led to a protein-rich diet and ultimately, bigger brains.

In other words, people were running before we were thinking big thoughts (and making blancmange). So you could say that it’s ‘hardwired’ into us. And it turns out (much to the irritation of my sneering inner teenager) that it has all kinds of benefits not just for the body (yes, yes, stronger legs, fitter heart, etc), but for the brain, too. Studies have shown that running helps with memory, and that it not only helps with cognitive ability, but it actually builds neurons.

On hearing this, my teenaged self can’t help but sneer. Just a little. So those running types can’t be content to totter past in their expensive shoes and tighty-tights: they have to be so clever, too. Doing what they were born to do, and always striving to do it better. So of course, when you think your 3km lunchtime jog is an achievement, there’s someone doing more—if it’s not the lycra-clad gazelle on the treadmill next to you, it’s the sweaty man shuffling past on your circuit of the park. Or the colleague taking you through their training program for next year’s New York Marathon. Or—perhaps even worse—the friend who thinks it’ll be fun to run together, jovially bouncing along beside you while you slowly melt into the pavement. At which point I’m right back there, gasping after those shimmering figures in the distance.

And of course, people will tell you that competitive sport isn’t a bad thing. It’s about beating your personal best, and all that. But I say hang my personal best. (It stinks anyway). When I go out running, having any kind of goal spoils it for me. Sometimes I don’t run for weeks, or even months. But when I do, I just want to be cruising along, pounding the pavement. I don’t want to be ahead of, or behind, anyone. I’m pretty happy in my own head—and that’s okay. If I’m going to sweat my way to some endorphins, I’d rather do it alone, thanks very much.

It turns out that for me, the problem with running (other than the undiagnosed asthma, which was also an issue) was those figures on the road ahead of me. I can’t connect with my running ancestors if it’s a race. And I’m a bit skeptical about applying evolutionary theories too liberally anyway, since the fact that humans may have evolved one way or another needn’t dictate behaviour today (I don’t see too many people chasing down big game in my neighbourhood). Which is not to say the benefits aren’t there. Running is good for you. As is any exercise: one of the studies about neuron growth looked at older people walking regularly, and found they were neurologically two years ‘younger’ after one year of exercise. So, you know, this whole cardiovascular exercise business is actually pretty good.

If I could go back to that teenaged self now, I’d tell her two things. First: the reason you feel you don’t fit in with your foster sisters is because you don’t. Relax. It will work out. And second: Running doesn’t have to be about running. Think of it like a dance. A brilliant, brain scouring, solitary dance in which you’re free to celebrate the specific arms, legs, ankles, eyes you were born with. Throw those feet at the pavement, and get on with it.

Oh and by the way, you have asthma.

Sea Hearts, love … and hair

Image from Allen & Unwin

Image from Allen & Unwin

Really pleased to have a piece on Killings, Kill Your Darlings journal’s blog, today. It’s about Sea Hearts, a novel by Margo Lanagan. Here’s a taste:

“There’s a right mess unfolding here, but it’s not moral condemnation we’re being served with. It’s a kind of truth. These are people in all their difficult, mean, loving glory.”

You can read the whole piece here.

Knock, knock

On Day 14, Kat drew this:

Kat Day 14

On day 10, this:

Kat Day 10

And on Day 3, this:

Kat Day 3

Day 3 is my favourite. Something about that feather-ish headdress, the Big Top-like shape in the backdrop, and the rings radiating from the figure.

Every day now, for the past two-and-a-bit weeks, my friend Kat—whom I share housed with back in the dark ages, when we were both at university—has been drawing one picture. Whatever comes to mind, whether she thinks it’s good or not. Then she posts it online that day, so there’s no time (in her words) to “put off being out there until I feel brave enough. It helps that it’s daily so I know I can try again the next day … or the next day”. She’s doing this while teaching, raising children, cooking, washing, reminding. Probably walking the dog in there somewhere, too.

Kat’s daily art challenge has got me thinking about three things:

  • Creativity
  • Eleanor Roosevelt, and
  • Halloween.

I almost want to put that first point in inverted commas—creativity is a word I’m quite comfortable with when we’re talking about kids and Clag, but makes me a bit squeamish when applied to Proper Grown-ups. With, like, Houses. And Responsibilities. I mean there are the Serious Novelists, right, or Serious Artists, and no-one goes off laughing at them. Because they’re Serious. But the rest of us, well—if we’re really trying to make art, perhaps we’d rather not let on.

I know Kat feels a bit like this. Coupled with the desire to create is the fear of being told you’re rubbish; the worry that the people you admire will scoff at the things that you made. And these things don’t just come from your pen. They come actually from you: your eyes, your memories, all the things you think about the world and the way it works. Talk about feeling exposed.

Which brings me to Eleanor. I’ve just finished reading a wonderful biography of Eleanor Roosevelt and her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt (who was the 32nd President of the United States). Biographies are great because they epitomise hindsight—we usually know how things are going to turn out, that the struggle will be worth it, the battle won. So when I read about Eleanor’s mother mocking her (she used to call her ‘Granny’, because she looked so serious), or the fact that both Eleanor’s parents were dead before she’d turned ten, I could see it as part of a broader success story. Because Eleanor grew up not just to be America’s First Lady, but a real force in American politics: she was highly influential in the U.S. Democratic party, and as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations was a driving force behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The biography charts her course through a slew of difficulties: the heartbreak of discovering her husband’s affair; the judgement she bore for her appearance (apparently she didn’t inherit her mother’s good looks); and FDR’s struggle with polio, which meant that he would never walk unaided again.

But I wonder what would happen if, as we read about other lives, we were able to stay suspended in each moment? Because when Eleanor Roosevelt was standing in that doorway, sucking her fingers and being called “Granny”, she didn’t know how it would all turn out. Nor could she see the future, when she watched her husband in the grip of a raging fever, unable to move his legs. Life is a series of moments in which we don’t yet know the outcome.

Which brings me to Halloween.

Now I know there has been a bit of debate in Australia, about whether Halloween is just an over commercialised ‘American import’ that has no place in the Southern Hemisphere. After all, October 31 is spring in Australia, and it’s daylight savings. But we also celebrate Christmas in summer, and Easter in autumn. Besides, it’s not only an American festival—and it’s great fun.

I first experienced Halloween in the U.S. several years ago. We walked a block from our apartment and the darkening streets were full of people—kids dressed up as pirates and teddy bears, adults in rainbow clown wigs, teenagers wearing mustard bottle and ghoul costumes. My neighbours had draped fake cobwebs over fences; put jack-o’-lanterns on front porches; some had gone all-out on the decorations, and were inviting the neighbourhood in to their ‘haunted house’. People where either on the street shepherding children with candy receptacles, or answering doors and handing out sugar (one hold-out was distributing raisins).

This year, we did Halloween closer to home. We found at least 10 decorated houses (etiquette states that you only knock if the house is decorated) and the group of kids I was with brought in a decent candy haul. We knocked on strangers’ doors; they smiled and wished us a good night. Sure, the sugar was nice, but the welcome was lovely. It was a neighbourly enactment of ‘opportunity knocking’.

Which brings me back to Kat’s daily art challenge. To make anything new—to be creative—we have to be able to try our best, while also suspending judgement. Kat’s actually found that some of her ‘failures’ (that would have otherwise ended up in a drawer) are the ones people identify with most. But you only find that sort of thing out, if you get out there. There’s no way of knowing whether the story will end with a fizzle, or success. Which can be pretty unpleasant, especially in the dead of night when you’re wondering if everyone knows you’re a total fraud who has no right to even hold a pencil, let alone create anything.

But the story’s not written yet. We can keep working harder, push ourselves, enjoy making stuff. And then, when we’re ready, make our way out the door and into the street. If we’re lucky, we’ll meet some friendly faces. But whatever the outcome, the first step will sound something like this:

Knock, knock.

Everyday strange

Metamorphosis

Cover of the Vintage edition

So you wake up one morning, and you’ve become a bug. You’re flailing on your back, the bedroom door is locked, and you’re really worried: you’ve missed not just one, but two early trains to work.

You may well recognise this as the opening sequence of Franz Kafka’s novella Metamorphosis. I didn’t. I only picked the book up because I saw Andy Griffiths (of The Day My Bum Went Psycho fame) on the telly, calling Metamorphosis “as close to perfect a piece of fiction as you could possibly want”. It looked very nice on my shelf—and gave me that satisfying feeling of reading something rather highbrow, without actually opening it. And then I got the overdue notice from the library, and figured, all right. Just a quick peek before I return it.

I was hooked. Metamorphosis is fantastic—clever, sad, funny, a bit gross, beautifully ironic. And not difficult. I was drawn in to the world of Gregor Samsa, a young man who works hard at a job he doesn’t like in order to support his family. By the end of the first paragraph, I was totally on board with the bug transformation, and eager to see how it was all going to pan out.

Now as they pointed out on the The Book Club, there have been thousands of books written about Metamorphosis. Lots of them will be by clever literary types who have read all these other books, and can give you a summary of global scholarship on the subject. I’m not in a position to do that. What I want to do is talk a bit about how Metamorphosis makes everyday life just the right amount of strange—forcing us into a double-take, so we look at things afresh, and recognise them again. This, incidentally, is one definition of that fancy-sounding word, Kafkaesque: something familiar, but also strange.[1]

To me, this attitude is the whole point of reading. It flexes the part of your brain that says: am I happy? Do I need to do things this way? Should I really be eating meat/unethically fished tuna? Do I even like this? Or whatever. It’s important to step into those gaps sometimes, and think. The rest of the time, we rely on everything obvious, and unsaid. Because that’s how we look after ourselves, and the people around us. We use what we know.

So when Kafka gives Gregor bug legs and antenna, we see a dutiful son in a strange (yet familiar) light. Gregor is stuck in bed, unable to answer the worried cries of his family—and one of his chief concerns is that he’s slept through the alarm. He’s missed the 6am train, and will soon miss the next one, too. Waving his little bug legs, he convinces himself he might be able to go to work anyway—that somehow, he’ll explain it all to his boss. He has to keep his job, and he knows he must get up, since “in bed … his meditations could come to no sensible conclusion.”

On the one hand, this scene is genuinely funny—here’s a guy who’s just turned into a bug, and he’s worried about getting to work? He thinks that getting up will solve his problems? But of course we see that in the daily course of his (pre-bug) life, these acts have been the answer. To love my family, I must work. To be myself, I must continue. Going on is what matters.

In this light, the central metamorphosis isn’t the one that turns Gregor into a bug. It’s the changes that take place within Gregor after he’s an insect. When we first meet Gregor, he’s a bug who feels human on the inside. As he adjusts to his new body, his senses and tastes change. He feels moments of sad rebellion, and dreams of a life outside his locked room. But there would be no fascination in the story if Gregor transformed inexorably into an insect: the drama is in his struggle to find his new self in these changed circumstances.

This is a theme we can all relate to. Well, not the bug part—but the idea that we have to adjust to what the world (our families, jobs, social status, random chance) asks of us. Sometimes, this coincides with our deepest wishes (such as looking after our loved ones); sometimes, it doesn’t (as when Gregor finds himself working long hours, or turned into a bug). But just as Gregor’s new body is not simply a uniform that he can take off, the roles we take on—and the choices we make—become part of who we are. In Gregor’s case, this is both sadly ironic (worrying about catching a train when he can’t roll his bug body out of bed) and a kind of shrug-your-shoulders status quo (noticing that he’s repulsed by fresh food, and attracted to garbage). Yet all through these changes, we’re reading along with the same Gregor. I think this goes to what scholars call Kafka’s notion of ‘indestructibility’: “a going on when you can’t go on”.[2] We adapt, we work hard to do what’s required—and somehow, we remain ourselves.

In turning Gregor into a bug, Kafka opens up a chink in reality; another angle for peering at the world. And although nearly a century has passed since Gregor’s story was published, the characters are as real and recognisable as someone you’d meet on a bus (or indeed, over Christmas dinner). The weirdness of Gregor’s situation is enough to make us pause and do a double-take: and while we’re looking, perhaps find some everyday strangeness of our own.

 


[1] Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon, p448

[2] Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon, p462