Category Archives: books

How to fail at everything and die of cancer

If you take your eyes off it, it grows.
The mighty dieffenbachia

Okay, now I have your attention, I’ll hasten to add that I have not had a cancer setback; my numbers are still excellent. I’m still in hearty, robust remission, and long may it continue. No, what’s happened is that I’ve failed to even get an interview for the full time version of a job I’ve been doing as a casual for nine years. People often tell me how well I do this job. Not even an interview.

So what I’m experiencing now is a fit of pique, an imaginative foray into spitting the dummy, a brooding, repetitive thought pattern that circles like a plane unable to land. The landing place is, of course, the city of Disappointment in the country of Humiliation. I must check in, once more, to Heartbreak Hotel. I must wander Disappointment’s crepuscular streets. I step over the body of a young man who has died of lítost. Lítost is a Czech word, defined by Milan Kundera as “a state of torment” brought about by “the realisation of one’s inadequacy or misery”. The young man has jumped from the high window above, but nobody has come to take his body back to his hometown because everyone else is dealing with their own lítost and there’s no energy to do the paperwork.  A doleful waitress – she might have been a star – doles out a plate of comfort food, beige and yellow. We exchange a rueful glance.

But then I think of the dieffenbachia in my living room. This is a plant that laps up being indoors and doesn’t mind long stretches without water. I would certainly never pot it up, fertilise it or change the soil. For ten years it has grown vigorously and fulsomely, shooting straight for the ceiling. It has produced two sturdy daughter plants. This plant knows nothing of failure. It is successful, and because it lives in my house, I can claim its success as my own. Look at the plant I’ve grown!

And I think of my friend Sue. We started treatment together, finished treatment together. My cancer didn’t come back, but hers did.  She’s in deep trouble. She has four children, three of them still teenagers at school. I could claim success in this vile race for survival but even my black humour can’t go quite that black.

Success is real, failure is real, but it’s clear that these are not, and never have been, fair. Okay, I’m not casting aspersions on my selection committee (although it is tempting in these hours of pique) but the bigger picture reminds us that it’s all bullshit, really. Some people are dieffenbachias. They sit there with their vegetable success and congratulate themselves. Others – like the ten year old Indigenous girl who committed suicide in Western Australia – are struggling to secure the basic requirements of a life worth living, and blame themselves.

Google has no idea about this, though. If you ask Google for advice – as we must, because Google seems to hold the Wisdom of the Ages, and because Google is always there, and we are lazy – you will get this:

– Why success always starts with failure
– 50 famously successful people who failed at first
– Failure Is Feedback: How 5 Billionaires had To Fail To Succeed

Note how we could only come up with five billionaires? Compared to how many people living on earth? The fact is that most of us are – and must be, by Google’s definition – losers. It’s a horrible word to apply to your aunt, your partner, your children, the waitress at your local cafe, the neighbour who checks your mail when you’re on holiday, the unpublished novelist, the bedroom singer-songwriter, the swimmer who came second, the Aboriginal kid living in the remote community next to the iron ore mine making billions for one of those five billionaires.

Oh the chip! The chip on my shoulder! I’m actually laughing at myself. Could be time for a third cup of instant and to finish reading Sarah Bakewell’s exquisite new book The Existentialist Cafe, dotted through with some exceedingly consoling crochet.

Another year

Wicket_cardAnother year down, and all is well! I’m still here and my numbers are still nice and low – 12 last time we looked. For this, I thank modern medicine and the wizardry of my two surgeons. I’m happy but never entirely out of the woods. I walk in the wooded valley of the shadow of the Rainbow Bridge. People think the Rainbow Bridge is just for pets but it’s not; it takes bookings from anyone. Actually none of us ever gets out of the woods. There’s always more woods. And woods are beautiful places, buzzing with life…

Anyway, I’m getting carried away by my own metaphors, so let’s move on.

While last year was all about taxol, carboplatin and long stretches of time on the couch, this year was a bit of whirl as I got back into Life at 100km an hour. Teaching was weird. I’m probably a bit like Samson, taking strength from my hair. I felt I didn’t have quite enough hair to stand in front of a room of 19 year olds and hold my own.  Meanwhile, I was sewing three giant turquoise dresses and learning my steps for the Invisible Body performance in May, where three of us did nifty moves on stage while someone else read out our personal accounts of living in bodies. We did this twice and then on the last day of the Bathurst outpost of the Sydney Writer’s Festival I got to be on a little panel of bloggers talking about our blogs. I said I blogged every Thursday, no matter what. This commitment has now begun to unravel, as you may have noticed.

What else went on this year? Check the photos on the computer. Oh, a LOT! There was a little campaign to save the Tremain silos in Keppel Street (saved!); Tracey Carpenter’s campaign for the state seat of Bathurst (retained by Paul Toole); the giant Diffenbacchia pot plant reached the level of the ceiling fan and then FELL OVER. I cut it off to its stump, leaving its two daughter plants to replace their mother (they are going very well); we had an Afternoon Teal to raise money for ovarian cancer at which Deb and Bernie, Max and Joey auctioned small items and we made lots of money (and Larissa baked cakes using the neighbour’s stove because ours was on the blink); there was the trip to Kandos to help Karen Golland poke pom poms into the ground, and then a day at Cementa; a school hols visit including nephews and a random kid they brought along; a trip to Shelley beach with Bertie and his cousin Wicket; painting ring-pulls for this year’s Waste to Art exhibition; an attempt to make sauerkraut (it looked the part but we never ate it); making Nicole Welch’s promotional video; getting more hair; going to TASMANIA (Maria Island and Hobart and a bit of the east coast) with Ranger Steve; experiencing a day of snow in the streets of Bathurst; experiencing, with all of Bathurst, the shock of the murder-suicide of cafe proprietor Elie Issa and beautiful real estate agent Nadia Cameron; more hair; following along as Mum constructed a separate wing at the back of Deb’s place to move in to; and then the grand flurry of the 200 Plants and Animals exhibition in the Bathurst CBD, followed by a battle to stop a gold mine sucking water out of the Macquarie River. Steve’s sudden obsession with kayaks. Whoa! No wonder I’m tired! And that’s not to mention the first steps into a PhD and the most amazing thing I haven’t mentioned yet but will mention now.

Over the last half of this year, I was mentored by the totally amazing and brilliant Charlotte Wood, author of The Submerged Cathedral and The Natural Way of Things as I made one last charge up over the trench and into the enemy lines of Finishing This Wretched Novel for Once and For All. (I’d finished it before, a couple of times, but not really. It still had essential problems, problems I was hoping some editor, somewhere, would help me fix.) Charlotte gave me some big guns. Howitzers. These will be handy in future battles. So as 2015 comes to a close The Lucky Galah, the novel I’ve been working on forever, is now really, truly, ruly finished, except for some typos and tiny touch-ups. And I’m so glad I didn’t settle for faulty earlier drafts. This novel is not quite the perfect thing I had in mind, but it is as good as it’s ever going to get, so that’s that. Done. Line ruled under. All over.

Meanwhile, out in the bigger picture, I just want to take a moment to savour the moment Tony Abbot was ousted. I know all the stuff about Malcolm carrying on most of the same policies, only in a more smooth-talking way, but I tell you what, that moment of waking up the next day was pure bliss. It was like a weight dropping off the shoulders of the nation.

Finally, little Wicket the long-haired dog really did step over the Rainbow Bridge recently. Vale Wicket. And Vonnie, my sister’s Mother in Law, with whom I spent many Christmas days. And thinking of Dad, too, who is sitting on a chair on a deck somewhere over the Rainbow Bridge, with his big white Maremma dog at his feet, looking through his binoculars at all the native Australian birds in the tree canopies.

Jack and the tattered weed

sunflowerI’ve been having a lot of trouble getting out of bed in the morning. As I’m working from home, there’s no need to be up at six, or seven, or eight. Or nine, or even ten. And having begun the day late, it’s impossible to sleep early, so each day is starting later, ending later. In the 1990s I had friends who lived in Philpott Street, Marrickville, who had let this process reach its logical conclusion: they awoke just before dusk and went to bed again at first light. I remember being there at about one o clock in the morning while they ate and chatted as if it were one in the afternoon. I can’t let things get that bad, I tell myself. I’ll have to start getting up earlier. But then, suddenly, it’s  morning again. I feel like I only just got to sleep ten minutes ago. I decide to snooze a little bit longer.

This morning, at a time that felt like the middle of the night, I heard a short, sharp buzz. It was a text message from a friend inviting me to have morning tea at ten o clock, two hours hence. I went back to sleep. At five minutes to ten, I hauled myself out of bed and got around the corner to Fiona’s place. I told her that while I was physically present, my mind was not actually awake. She fed me a cup of coffee and the rich smell offered a magic carpet ride to the land of youthfulness, wakefulness and vigour.

She read me Shakespeare’s second sonnet.

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a tattered weed of small worth held –

It’s about what happens when one is over forty, and one’s brow is furrowed and one is just a tattered bit of seaweed washed up on some godforsaken shore and nobody can even be bothered to look at you …

The solution to this grim state of affairs, says Shakespeare, is to have lots of children. That way, you can continue to be young and beautiful because your children will be young and beautiful. You can gaze upon them and that will comfort you in your hours of pointlessness. Fiona’s brow has been besieged by forty winters; mine ten more. Between us we have not had one child; we are without remedy for the cruel ravages of time’s scythe.

Except for coffee. The coffee did the trick. I’d come as a tattered weed but I was leaving as a strong, bright sunflower like the ones that are growing against the fibro wall out the back, reminding me of all the other sunflowers of my life. They’ll grow anywhere. Galahs love the seeds. I may not have children, but I can always find a galah or a sunflower to get a dose of cheerful, hardy things (unlike, say, the white rhino, whose days are definitely numbered).

MBJBack home, as I did the dishes, I listened to a program on ABC Radio National about George Johnston’s My Brother Jack. It’s fifty years since the book was published. George Johnston and Charmian Clift and most of their children – non-hardy creatures – are long gone, but the book lives on. I’ve carted my copy around since I first read it as a teenager. Images from the book are companions through my life. Insects still drop out of the  dollicus*. Prosthetic limbs and a gas mask clutter the hallway. The gum tree in the front yard that Helen didn’t like because it was messy grows tall and strong in the Australian light; a broken man, falsely accused of murder, tends his roses. The green eyeshades worn by the copy editors at the Argus and the crumpled trench coats and pork pie hats worn by the reporters. When I told my English lit teacher how much I loved the book, she sneered: “What about the development of the female characters?” I was taken aback. I had so thoroughly identified with the tortured David Meredith (endlessly contrasted with his brave, straightforward brother Jack) that I had barely noticed Johnston’s two-dimensional portrayals of Sheila and Helen and Cressida.

lucky_countryThe book keeps company on my bookshelf with Donald Horne’s Lucky Country, published the same year. My Brother Jack has a digger painted by Sidney Nolan. The cover of Horne’s slim paperback is by Albert Tucker. It’s a craggy painting of a bloke with a beer in his hand, an Ace of spades in his pocket and the glorious deep blue sea behind him. In the sea there are bright triangles that might be the sails of boats or the fins of circling sharks. Both books were searing critiques of Australian life that became, as the decades rolled on, part of the pantheon of Australian mythology. The Australia Johnston and Horne both loved and deplored began to vanish and as it vanished, a fantasy took the place of all the messy details. Australia was a wide brown land inhabited by sturdy, uncomplicated Jack Merediths. It is this Australia – this fantasy lucky country – that is brooded over and celebrated in drunken, flag-covered binges on Australia Day. It is the Australia evoked by those who say Fuck Off We’re Full and by John Howard when he laments the “black armband” view of history. It’s a sentiment that spiked during Monday’s Sydney siege but was tempered by Tuesday’s #illridewithyou.

Tracy_Deb_Jetty_early_70sSpeaking of history, I have been besieged by forty years and ten. My brow is not that furrowed, but there’s a whole part of me – recovering from cancer, missing body parts – that is definitely doddery. And like George Johnston in exile on Hydra, I miss the Australia of my early memories. A child’s world is a simple world. Some people are good and others are bad. Your legs can run you up the side of a levee bank or down a burning sand dune. Your abdomen contains its full quotient of pink organs that slide easily over each other as you go into a handstand. The deep blue sea meets a clear blue sky that arches over a wide brown land with a blue EH Holden moving purposefully across it.

It’s driving into tomorrow, where things are different.


* The dollicus is the name the Meredith family gives a creeping vine in their back yard.

Varuna

IMG_6407I’m in my ideal habitat. I’m sitting at the window at Varuna, the writers’ retreat in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. A crimson rosella – no, three, four, more – have just flown in to sit on the branch just there, a few feet away. All you have to do here is write and, if you’re lucky, talk to Peter Bishop. Peter Bishop is a professional encourager of other writers. The Peter Bishop Way is conducted in a nice posh voice, a knitted jumper that might have biscuit crumbs down the front and an infinite joy in reading and writing. Until March this year, he was caring for his wife, Libby, who had a degenerative disease that left her unable to do a thing, and then she passed away. After she was asleep at night, Peter would start writing. He’d often start with the phrase, “After the last light, another cold night.”  Or something like that. Last night he read out the piece he’s been working on. It starts at Libby’s graveside, goes out to tending an apple orchard in Norway as if he were
Olav Hauge, goes off down an overgrown path with Uncle Vanya and back again. It’s divided into ten sections in the manner of Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations, and each section has ten sub-sections. He just dashes them off in a noisy cafe. I’m copying the idea. I love it. Each sub-section only has to be about 350 words long. Not so daunting. Then you just keep stringing them together until you’ve finished. I’ve just dashed off a piece comparing multiplying cancer cells with multiplying rabbits.

Before I came to Varuna, Deb and I went off to the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutation day at Rydges Hotel near Central. A series of doctors, researchers and ordinary afflicted people gave presentations. Lots and lots of slides of breasts and breast reconstructions, nipples tattooed, nipples recreated out of spare skin, breasts made out of tummy fat. Before that, on Saturday, we walked all the way to Circular Quay, ate lunch while looking over the harbour, and then headed back towards Central. There was a refugee support march going the same way, so we joined it as far as Town Hall, where it stopped and we kept going. We did a lot of Sydney rallies and marches in the 1980s and ’90s.

It’s my birthday tomorrow. Last birthday, feeling tired and unwell, but before diagnosis, I had a Dr Who themed party complete with a large cardboard TARDIS. Half the potential attendees had to cancel their plans because of the bushfires. It’s a year later, now, and a cascade of water has gone crashing under the bridge. Things are quieter now. I feel fabulously well, and I’ve got time to reflect.

Des the blind synesthesic guinea pig and Séraphine de Senlis are of a feather

Des_Seraphine
My photo of Kirsty’s guinea pig mashed up with Seraphine Louis’ L’Arbre de vie. Oil on canvas (114×145 cm), 1928. Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie de
Senlis, France. © Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie de Senlis; Christian Schryve, Compiègne; © ADAGP. Retrieved from http://www.medicographia.com/2010/10/art-and-psychosis/ on 9/3/13.

Séraphine de Senlis reminds me of Des, the blind synesthesic guinea pig. They are of a feather. Neither has feathers, of course. Séraphine wears an old crocheted shawl and Des has infinitely soft fur. Séraphine was a real person; Des is only imaginary. Both have a life on the Internet. So, who are these creatures?

Séraphine de Senlis was an early 20th century French painter, an uneducated, working class orphan who grew up in a convent. She had a passion for painting as strong as a Labrador’s passion for water or a Kelpie’s passion for rounding up sheep. According to the beautiful movie about her life that I saw on SBS TV last night, she made pigments out of animal blood, roadside weeds and stolen church wax. She worked all night, ardently, on her paintings. During the day she was a cleaner, mopping the floors of bourgeois families; the sort of person who is of invisible service. Her talent was discovered by a German art collector and suddenly she was someone of note. It all ended in tears at a madhouse. For me the most moving scenes were the stealing of the animal blood (from a big pot in a butcher’s shop), the decanting of church wax from lit candles, the grabbing at weeds. All this work and experimentation was carried out alone, on the floor of her tiny apartment. As she neared the end of a painting she’d start singing. It was a humble life, full of art and ecstasy.

I started watching this movie accidentally. I was washing up, making a lot of noise. I was half-glancing at the screen, noticing that it was a French movie, beautiful cinematography. I started standing behind the sofa to watch it, tea-towel in hand. Then I moved around to sit in the sofa properly, and committed. The blessed relief in watching a movie about a woman who was neither young nor beautiful, holding centre stage, scene after scene. And not in a patronising, comic, overdetermined, Educating Rita sort of way. This was a movie prepared to look at this woman from inside. That in itself was wondrous. And then to see she was an artist, grinding her pigments with a mortar and pestle, dabbing paint on her board with her fingers, lying down to sleep with her paintings … even better. It suddenly made the last film I loved – Ang Lee’s Life of Pi – plummet down the floors like a broken lift.

Séraphine also made me think of Félicité, the servant who loved a parrot in Flaubert’s A Simple Heart. Again, the outward image of a “nobody”; the rich interior life.

And so we come to Des, the blind synesthesic guinea pig. Who is he? Just a guinea pig in a hutch in someone’s back yard. The hutch is moved from place to place in the back yard. He munches through grass like any other guinea pig. Nobody even realises that he is blind; his blindness doesn’t stop him performing any of his normal pet guinea pig functions. Like Séraphine and Félicité, he has a rich, ecstatic inner life. As a synesthete, he hears colours and feels sounds. He has deep wisdom about the world beyond the hutch but no particular need or desire to move beyond it. He is happy to be picked up and cuddled – an explosion of colour, sound and sensation – and happy to munch on grass. He can taste music in the grass. (No, not that sort of grass. This is buffalo grass, mixed with couch and clover and the odd dandelion.)

I got to know Des by tweeting about him. I’d been playing the competitive Twitter word of the day game on Artwiculate for some time, when he quietly appeared in one of my tweets. This has happened to other Artwiculate players: a character arises spontaneously out of their tweets and demands to be included, here and there, in other tweets down the line. The Des tweets were automatically indexed by the Artwiculate site so from time to time I could go back and look at them, like opening a book on a shelf. Then disaster struck, in the form of a resentful hacker (someone who wasn’t winning as often as he thought he should). Mortally wounded, Artwiculate was put into an induced coma. When it came out of this coma, its archive – and the voting system itself – had been removed. All gone. It was as if Des had never existed. It’s true that I could search back on my own Twitter timeline but this wasn’t quite the same as being indexed by Artwiculate. (Only a veteran Artwiculate player can understand the emotional importance of being indexed.) This would not bother Des in the slightest, but it was bothering me. I tried to be philosophical about it (as did other Artwiculate players, many of whom realised they were grieving out all proportion) and remind myself that Twitter is just a branch on a tree with birds on it. These birds might fly at any time. The whole branch might come down in the next storm. It’s a babbling (sometimes shrieking) brook into which you can’t dip your toe twice; it’s a shaft of light moving across a room. This desire to archive, to pin things down, violates the very nature of Twitter and even of Artwiculate itself.

Still.

This morning, as I was thinking about Séraphine, Félicité and Des, it occurred to me to Google him. Perhaps it’s really true, this thing we tell high school students – if you put something on the Internet, it never goes away. I entered “Des, the blind synesthesic guinea pig” and there he was. A whole page! A page of references that were just about Des, the Des of Artwiculate. Des de Artwiculate. Seraphine de Senlis. Félicité du perroquet. Here’s the screen grab:

Des on Google search