Eat Pray Love: A Book Review

Monday morning spent in company with my mother, who in the gently deepening twilight of her years is afflicted with Parkinson’s Disease. So she totters here and there, her arms and hands waving uncontrollably like a battalion of lobster legs. Each effort to move is now an act of conscious will. My father had gone for a while to attend an exercise class. We had had morning tea of coffee and raisin toast and now, with father gone, we were at leisure to sit on the ramp outside the house in the sunshine overlooking a garden thick with native trees and shrubs.

 

The weather was mercifully mild as it is after a couple of days of steady rain, being sunny with patches of fluffy clouds still inky and heavy but nonetheless harmless and not bound to cover the sun with for any length of time soon. Mum had brought out an old book she had written of a family holiday in 1973, rich with photos of wildlife, forests we had trailed through, mountains we had climbed and rivers we had boated along. She wanted to know how old my cousin Geoffrey, with his broad shoulders, his mooch and his wild, blond-streaked surfer’s hair had been at that time. She had always had a great love for him, his wit and his imaginative, bizarre and often hilarious drawing and writing. I suppose he had been the son she had never had, having had three daughters.

 

We saw a couple of Cuckoo Shrikes, elegant birds like large, svelte pigeons with their black faces and grey-blue plumage and Mum heard the call of the Pied Butcher Bird. Currawongs cried their lilting cadence somewhere in the airy space beyond the sight of the houses in the street. This sunny patch of time was a place where nothing in particular needed doing. The rest of the world was going about its business, working and building, always building with some distant sounds of sawing and hammering echoing in the air and just the two of us were left, skylarking sedately on the landing.

 

I have finished ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ by Elizabeth Gilbert and briefly discussed what bothered me about it with Mum. Mum believes that we are not born with a purpose in life. Maybe she is right, that we are free to just sit and observe the roots of the large, slat-barked cypress tree in front of us hung with festoons of pale grey lichen and to feel that one’s life is not just a means to an end, but an end in itself. Amidst all this chaos of plant life, sunlight and birdsong there is surely plenty of time for whatever purposes one is inclined to, to take root and grow.

 

We of course could do whatever we wished beyond the necessary chores revolving around the business of keeping ourselves alive. With this capacity for aimless observation and pleasure in the mere fact of existence in mind, why do we need lessons on making the most of life at all?

 

‘Eat, Pray, Love’ appears to be about the author’s search for some kind of deeper meaning in her life. Elizabeth is a thirty-something, successful writer living in New York, earning the kind of income many people could only dream about, with a mortgage to a lovely house and a husband eager to start a family. Only Elizabeth just isn’t happy. The prospect of a happy marriage and children fills her with dread. In fact she is almost suicidal, crying all the time. Something from deep within her is desperate to make a break, but to what and to where?

 

I can relate to that feeling of being in the wrong life, of feeling my life unfold before me while I went through it in a state of living death. Only for me, these catastrophic feelings preceded a psychotic breakdown from which I emerged 7 years later, broken, traumatised, but nevertheless determined to get myself a regular job. After years of tormenting delusions, controlling phantoms and voices from nowhere, it was a relief to finally see that a chair and a table was just that and nothing more and that psychiatric counseling and medication could actually help me live the normal life that I wanted.

 

At that time, running around with fellow pizza-eaters in Italy was far from my mind, as was heading for an ashram in India, or blissing out and falling in love in Bali, which is basically what Gilbert goes ahead and does in the book. This is after her divorce, (which was messy, painful and acrimonious) and a doomed love affair with some arty, yogic man in New York that leaves her apparently more confused and upset than ever.

 

Much as Gilbert honestly tries to portray the culture of other countries in this book, which has some interesting snippets of information and reflections on things such as the Italian language, a brief history of the Balinese people, or the mystic, labyrinthine beliefs and customs of her Balinese friends, I can’t get away from thinking how much of a tourist she is, whilst seeking to steep herself deep into the by-ways of foreign cultures.

 

There is a temptation to declaim how these Americans cherry-pick the philosophies, cultures and ways of other people’s lives in foreign countries and treat them like pawns on the chessboard of their easy and affluent existences. But I don’t want to type-cast all American people, especially when it isn’t just the Americans that are doing it.

 

Hindu and Buddhist mysticism, Yoga and meditation are fruits on trees that entrepreneurs in the New Age wellness industry have been assiduously picking, packaging and purveying for decades now. Gilbert’s profile on how ‘Swamiji’ brought yoga and meditation to a bored, disillusioned, middle-class, white America in the 1970s was one of the first of them. Nowadays there are yoga, meditation and spiritual therapy courses based on supposedly ancient, mystical Eastern practices everywhere all promising to open the yearning, troubled psyche up to a new and enlightened awareness of life. But maybe all these worried but otherwise well people learn from it is a new language for the same old neurosis.

 

Then there is Gilbert’s relationship with God. I can’t believe she puts so much effort into such an intense and prolonged head trip with this posited deity, when she has more than enough sound New England common sense of her own to use. It’s gob-smacking to me how fortunate people fritter away their perfectly good mental health in silly, borrowed conversations with an imaginary entity.

 

Sorry, I’m an atheist. Really, if Gilbert wants to go swim in a sea of faith, run head-first over a possible cliff and call it ‘a courageous act of humanity’ then let her do it and good luck to her. But when I read passages like:

 

“I’m not interested in the (spiritual) insurance industry. I’m tired of being a skeptic, I’m irritated by spiritual prudence and I feel bored and parched by empirical debate. I don’t want to hear it any more. I couldn’t care less about evidence and proof and assurances. I just want God. I want God inside me. I want God to play in my blood-stream the way sunlight amuses itself on water’”

 

I’m annoyed at such relentlessly navel-gazing guff. Surely just stopping by on a walk to watch sunlight dancing on water is happiness enough. Personally, I never get tired of doing that. Why does the simple appreciation of such a sight have to involve all this intensive (and expensive) labour, guidance and ritual? I wonder why people spend so much more time on this canting, arcane and solipsistic business of spirituality, this fake engagement with a supposed inner self, than they do in discovering the truth and the beauty of the reality that lies outside the human imagination.

 

The traditional dismissal of the outside world as transient and unimportant, so extolled by mystics everywhere, is especially dangerous for a humanity on the brink of destroying the earth and dealing out the threat of death and extinction to every living thing. Thankfully however, India has its rationalists (http://www.srai.org/science-and-rationalists-association-of-india-humanists-association/) too, fighting to stem a tide of superstition and hidebound ignorance that this author has cut a piece of to take home to America and put into a best-selling book.

 

Meanwhile tomorrow, I will be taking a walk down to my local wild-life reserve to watch sunlight dancing on water, maybe even see that Pied Butcher bird again, or observe a flock of maned wood-ducks and other things. I will be voting in the up-coming election to protect the environment. You should too.

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Looking at 60 Years…

Today is the afternoon of a whole day rostered off from work.  Tomorrow and the next day will be the same, already maturing into golden globules of exciting possibilities of things to do.  Today was warm and moist, with the sun shining through big fluffy clouds most of the time and a brief afternoon thunder-shower, which passed as lightly and as pleasantly as it began.

I have decided to leave the career that has caused so much dissatisfaction and frustration, that has wrung so much exhausting patience from me.  Sometimes my forbearance has fortuitously uncovered strengths I did not know of.  At other times, I have cracked under the strain, only to get back up and stagger on again.

In its entirety, for more than 20 years, this career has been like a man I have never loved (not to be confused with my actual partner, whom I do love).  I am sick to the death of counting the hours down to the minutes and watching them slowly erode by, every time I get to work.  ‘That’s my life!’  I have screamed inwardly so many times, and then silently endured this wasting of the hours that could have been spent on doing something more creative.

In two more months, I will be free to focus on going in a different direction.  I have some plans in place.  But still, the enormity of uprooting 20-something years of being in a secure, well-paid job is slapping me with its fear of the unknown, like a wet branch as if I head through a rain-lashed bush-track in the dark to the brink of a steep cliff.  What of failure, of making mistakes, of happiness, of doing the responsible thing?

Then I read Tim Lott’s article in The Guardian, about his reflections on reaching the age of 60.  Tim is measured and sober and mellow.  He sits in a large, discreetly modish, blue plush chair in his lounge room in which brown wood panelling predominates, set off by a glimpse of red persian carpet.  There is a fireplace, a bookcase and a glass show cabinet, some colourful ceramics on the mantelpiece, a nice art-work on the wall and the kind of modern but comfortable-looking upholstered chairs my lean, spare, intellectually- minded grandfather would have felt quite at home in.

Tim is a nondescript and harmless looking man, the chief feature of his visage being a pair of glasses, which he wears like a mole in the sunlight, looking perkily upwards towards the viewer.  Tim wears a brown jacket over a dark mauve shirt and a pair of loose, daggy indigo blue jeans that have shifted with his sitting cross-legged to somewhat above his ankle, revealing stripy though muted socks and one nice, shiny brown brogue.

There were conflicting views from the commenters on those brown brogues:

Ultracrepidarian

29 Jan 2016 21:41

Never wear Brown brogues with jeans and take your shoes off inside the house, it’s time you grew up.

mazeltov Ultracrepidarian

29 Jan 2016 21:46
One of few annoying things about being old is the totally insane sartorial advice people feel free to offer you. Brown brogues with jeans are a perfect blend of unfussed informality and traditional style. I wear this combination all the time. As for taking your shoes off inside the house … what do you think shoes are for?

 

‘Unfussed informality and traditional style’.  Some people like it, some people don’t.  But that seems to describe Tim Lott, or at least his piece of writing.  He has defined himself as a serene and comfortable man on the cusp of old age.  He feels the sum of his life becomes him and he is at peace with that.  He is not afraid of being defined, having long recognised his face in the dressing-room mirror.  He wrote the books he wanted to write, he is happy with his partner, his children, his family and his relatively well-to-do way of life.

‘Sixty, in my mind’  says Lott ‘represents the beginning of the third act of the human drama, what I, as a teacher of fiction, have learned to call “falling action” – after the climax has been reached, the princess has been won or lost, and the quest has succeeded or failed.’

In his mind.  Not far off sixty myself, I look back on a terrifyingly long time-line of chaos, of stuff-ups, despair and of things I still want to do.  Some months after beginning this article, I have embarked on my leave from the job I never really loved.  Next week I will hand in notice of my intention to retire with a month’s notice.  So indeed I am conscious of that move being the beginning of the next act of my life.

But where is the ‘falling action’?  Googling the benefits of early retirement, there are hardly any articles that do not talk about money.  Not even health seems as important.  Everybody warns of the dire need to save enough money for retirement.  But notwithstanding the practical considerations of keeping the bills paid, what is enough to quench the soul-deadening desire for absolute certainty?

So I jump.  And in doing so feel a strange sense of exultation and an enormous hunger for books to read, worlds to explore, things to teach myself and give to others.  I know on a physical dimension that this is the beginning of the end, but my mind seems ascendant like an eagle still rising.  I could die in mid-flight, or fall and die a slow, suffering, broken end.  But that doesn’t matter any more.  It reminds me of a poem I wrote some years back…

Twilight II

Twilight softly deepening

slight drizzle

light swish of cars passing

Summer has been cool

Flat is silent

I am alone, wrestling with the inevitable assignment

John & Veronique with Mum & Dad

Mum unable to shake her cold.

Almost for first time realise how frail she is

And how old I am

And how good times do not last

And I am not immortal

Though my eagle of immortal consciousness still swoops

High in the sky

What Sun does shine on me?

If I could gather all knowledge

together to make a realisation

That there is nothing that I have to do

except where I will go

And all my obsessions fall like dusty ruins,

Fall like the false veil of want

Before my eyes

– Megan Payne

The Life of the Bead

Dear Diary,

Wonder if all this spiritual angst people go on about is really just a nagging, subterranean feeling of guilt.

According to Christian philosophy, the love of beautiful things like beads and fashionable clothes is just trivial and materialistic. There is a deep, deep-grained antipathy to ‘materialism’ in our Christian-valued society. So much so that I find it hard to shake off.

Life_of_Beads_2015-08-11 16.22.01I found myself feeling happy just because I found and bought the ideal little strand of colourful Murano glass beads, on sale for only $50 AUD. Bright yellow they are, with lively little dots of colour: vivid red, dark blue, light blue and green. Perfect for brightening up a plain white Tee with jeans.  Then I felt I shouldn’t feel happy about such things and immediately felt guilt for being so trivial and materialistic and was unhappy with myself, for not being ‘good’ or ‘high-minded’.

But Homo Sapiens have been making beads for tens of thousands of years.  Archeologists have recently uncovered an extensive and lively trade in beads during Stone Age Europe, concurrent with our earliest art works.

Prehistoric shell bead necklace.

Cro-Magnon necklace, France, 32-22,000 BCE.
(Photo by Didier Descouens, Wikkimedia)

Our long vanished cousins, the Neanderthals and the mysterious Denisovans even appear to have had a penchant for making personal adornments.

Trade in fashionable items and works of art is a force for good, a peaceful activity that cuts across cultures and cross-pollinates them.  Never underestimate the power of The Bead.

Thus beads have a mystical significance and behind every good piece a woman might own that she likes, there is a story behind it – how she came across them, why she liked them, who might have given them to her.  Memories hang on strings of beads as surely as the beads themselves.

‘But it’s just a bead!’ an invisible voice scolds.  Ah the mystery!  I would love to find my way out of the maze of Christian ‘values’ and work out just why love of material things is so ‘bad’.

It might be that beads breed greed and covetousness.  But there is enough of that around anyway. In fact, if we just relaxed and took pleasure in The Bead, maybe our guilt trip would not go into overdrive and we would not then go and buy a truckload of beads to compensate, but be content with a few.

Image of Coco Chanel (Author Marion Golsteijn, Source Wikkimedia)

Image of Coco Chanel (Author Marion Golsteijn, Source Wikkimedia)

The French seem to have this pleasure in artful adornments in balance with the course and purpose of their lives.  Maybe I should read more of my book ‘How to be a Parisian’ that my sister Cathie gave me.  But I’ve really also got to find a way for myself – out of the soul-deadening tedium and anguish of Christian guilt – learn to enjoy the little things in life in moderation – without guilt.

– Megan

PS: I remember seeing a bracelet in an art exhibition of ancient Egyptian treasures.  I cannot remember much of it but one bead of the bracelet was a large hunk of beautiful, almost transparent and luminous lapis lazuli, with a seal insignia carved on it, that was apparently from the deserts of Persia and already of immense antiquity when it was put in the bracelet, thousands of years ago.

Necklace of colourful Murano glass beadsIt took my breath away to imagine that astonishing length of largely unrecorded time that people went about their daily lives in – trading, working, playing, creating art. Surely no bead that evoked such thoughts and imaginings could ever be completely trivial.

Lismore, NSW Australia of the 1960s

The late summer afternoon was hot, blazing and lazy. It started off as a day off work in a desultory way with a haircut, then a medical appointment, then back home for lunch and then hours lazing on the black leather couch in the lounge room surfing the Internet for news, bits of research, labyrinthine information about starting a small business…  The whole of me is sunk in a kind of sleep, wanting to do something and yet not wanting to make the effort to do it. I seem to want to let the moments tick by, as easily as the cars in the street glide past and the mynah birds chirp in the trees.

Nevertheless I have a simple plan to go back in time – way back to when I was a child growing up in a peaceful little town called Mullumbimby on the lush North coast of NSW, Australia – so long ago it seems like another country that I am reluctant to make the long trip into.  I am so immersed in the dense, buzzing city-scape of the present.

The trip from Mullumbimby to Lismore was a short drive of about an hour along the coastal plains, until it took a dizzyingly steep turn up the ancient ragged, volcanic escarpment to the hinterlands.  It went past the turn-off to the village of Clunes and then a curious old quarry called Bex Hill, caught in the bowels of a steep rocky hill with its deep green waters of mysterious depth and where my parents spent a lot of time finding fossils of ancient plant life embedded in its loose rocks of charcoal coloured shale.  The road rolled on to over the bridge at the Wilson’s River at Richmond Hill, where I would then watch the accompanying river winding lazily along across chocolate loam and verdant buttercup-starred pastures and fields of brown Jersey cows calmly grazing on the grass.

And presently the river would come right up close to the road and there between two green hills and descrying a high church steeple and clusters of houses, we would enter the domain of the city of Lismore, population at that time: 30,000.

Lismore was (and still is) a quiet, rural city on the banks of the muddy Wilson’s River, which winds through its centre flanked by hordes of beautiful, but feral weedy weeping Willows whose proliferating branches and roots make it impossible to walk along its banks.  From time to time it is prone to flooding, though the subtropical climate is otherwise kindly – warm and humid all the year around.

Grandma and Grandfather lived in a large, wooden, white-painted Queenslander house (a kind of house perched on high stilts that allowed ventilation and precaution against flooding) in a street lined with graceful, ferny-leafed Jacarandah trees near the top of a steep hill on the near outskirts of Lismore.

We would arrive through the concreted drive-way shaded by trees with red, star-shaped flowers with petals like leaves and would park near the house atop the long sloping sweep of back-yard.  We would step out and eagerly meet my father’s parents as they clambered down the long, narrow and precipitous wooden stairs – Grandma dreamily effusive and warmly affectionate, Grandfather lean and spare, his long face sand-paper cheeked and grave – and we would go up the stairs through the covered, linoleum-floored porch (with its lavatory) and into the kitchen/dining room with its ‘Early Kooka’ gas oven and stove where we would sit at the large steel and laminate dining table just under a print of a painting of blue boats by Van Gogh and talk.

The dining table was to the left of the door.  The kitchen area, flanked by a large bench where a big black telephone lived and where Grandma did her cooking preparations, was on the right.  This kitchen bench depicted a watery blue scene of tropical fishes, painted by my mother the night before I was born.  Ahead against the wall was a small bookcase with books from Grandfather’s favourite authors – Shakespeare and James Joyce and higher up was a lacquered wooden shelf of little china animal ornaments, an hour-glass and a tiny ornamental watering can.

There were all kinds of cooking utensils in the cupboards under that kitchen bench and that was where our favourite jar of Grandma’s home-made biscuits were – some with cherries, some with chocolate chip and others with cornflakes. The kitchen sink was under the window and beside was the gas oven, stove and the constantly humming refrigerator.

The view from the kitchen and the windows of the covered verandah/porch that stretched outside it were of soft, green, rolling hills that had reminded my great-grandfather of the rolling hills of Wales.  Except (as I learned later), this beautiful, romantic, peaceful scene was not of a natural making.  My ancestors, the White People, had invaded the country rather like locusts, hewing and mowing down countless trees and undergrowth of the dense, sub-tropical rainforests so unique to the coastal plains of North-East Australia – The Big Scrub.

Through the window, we could also see the whole networked town-scape of Lismore spread out far below, with its streets of houses, clusters of office buildings and shopping centres, its several-storied hospital and the twin chimney stacks of what I think was the power station.  At night, hundreds of white and yellow lights gleamed all connected to the backbone of quietly humming electric grid that bound us all to the linoleum-clean civilised life of the mid-20th century.

Of course, the White People had so razed the land to replicate the way of life they had had in the British Isles and in Europe: to feed their livestock, grow their crops and build a civilised state.  At Lismore, the denuding of the land had been so thorough by the 1960s, that when Grandma took us three young sisters for a drive to the local Lions Club park, the rich tangle of liana vines, blackbean trees and great, spreading roots of giant fig-trees seemed like an utterly alien world.

But in my childhood and early adolescent ignorance, the hills and verdant, grassy landscape just seemed a symbol of all that was beautiful and serene and calm in the world.  The hill at the top of the street was farm-land and the grass grew lush, with plenty of weeds like burdock, dandelions and scotch thistles which shed their silky-haired seeds delicately into the warm, gentle breezes.  The beautiful music of Mozart was often playing on the record-player, perfectly reflecting the sense of carefree peace and happiness.

Grandma and Grandfather’s house on the hill had a long backyard, with a good two-thirds of it a vegetable and fruit garden of Grandfather’s steady and industrious cultivation.  In the rich, black soil he grew lettuces, carrots, tomatoes, beans, peas and grape vines and there were fig and pawpaw trees thick with luscious fruit in season.  A substantial lawn of green grass that Grandfather periodically mowed surrounded the cultivation patch and the borders were fringed with piles of forgotten black basalt rocks, a large Jacaranda tree and dense Jasmine bushes that burst into profusions of little starry flowers in spring, gracing the air with their sweet, nectar like scent and attracting hosts of butterflies and bees.

Meanwhile, in the damp earth around the bottom of the stairs, Mint grew in great clusters along with Nasturtiums, Forget-Me-Nots, Violets and Wandering Jew. In the cool earth-scented darkness under the house was Grandfather’s work area, with his saws, drills and fishing equipment neatly stacked.  Alongside, there was the laundry, with its big cement twin-tubs, rubber wringer, corrugated scrubbing board, pieces of old yellow soap and the little deep cobalt blue-bags which astonishingly made white clothes whiter.

Whenever we visited, my sister Cathie and I both got the spare bedroom, painted pure white, with intriguing patterns in the plaster ceiling and the two windows framed with gauzy white curtains embroidered with purple flower-sprigs.  There was a double and a single bed, both covered with pretty mauve and white bedspreads and two dressing tables.  I used to wake up in the morning to the sounds of a rooster crowing and hens cackling in the distance as the pale shafts of sunlight stole their way around the room and feel perfectly at home and peaceful.

Outside the spare bedroom was a small hallway carpeted with stiff, gold-brown plush and hung with smiling black and white photos of my father and my aunty Norma.  That was where while sitting on the floor I broke my leg at the age of three, when my toddler sister Cathie walked over me.

The hall led to the kitchen on the left.  Straight ahead was the linen closet all neat and tidy with clean, lavender scented white sheets, scratchy towels and face-cloths. Beside it was the tiled bathroom in cool darkness redolent of soap, with a huge bath that Grandma ran nice and hot for us children, shower recess and old-fashioned sink.

Further to the right of the hallway were two doorways. For now I will go through the lounge room.  It had the same gold-brown plush carpet, it had two lounge chairs and a lounge and a record-player and television at the far end of the room. Above the lounge was a fascinating print of Vermeer’s painting of a girl reading a letter and I used to endlessly speculate on the content of the letter, which despite the calm serenity of the domestic scene, could have been anything.  There was a book-case containing such entertaining books as ‘The African Queen’ and ‘The Girl With the Swansdown Seat’ and ‘What the Aussie Papers Didn’t Mean to Say’. There was a pale-brown lacquered cabinet containing the good china and a beveled mirror.

At the other side, towards the front door, the lounge-room had two frosted glass-paneled doors draped with rich red drawn curtains, one on each end of the wall. These doors led out to a bright sun-room and the front door, whereby one could go down a few steps onto the path through a lawn and a garden lush with ferns and hydrangeas.  Hardly anyone ever went to this sun-room, which was a pity. Because with its white wired chairs and table upon which a rampant maiden-hair fern showered its tresses, it was a calm, still kind of place with a view of the wide, grass-edged and usually deserted street through its ample windows.

Back at the hallway there is an entrance between the bathroom and the lounge-room.  This was Grandma and Grandfather’s bed-room.  The windows were usually draped over with curtains, so it was quite dark and made more so with the dark, ponderous furniture – a large wardrobe, a dressing-table with fascinating Grandma things on it like powders, her favourite Tweed Lentheric scent – a delicate spring floral fragrance that pervaded all of Grandma’s presence – and boxes of costume jewelry.  There was also a big double bed, which us three girls all piled onto with Grandma and Grandfather of a morning to read the Sunday Papers.

A door beside the bed finally led into a kind of long side room.  To the right was a curtained alcove in which sat an old Singer treadle sewing machine (which Grandma taught me how to use) and all Grandma’s sewing things – lots of cotton reels of all different colours, needles of all sizes, pins, buttons, tape measures, thimbles and scissors.  At the centre was a long dark brown plush couch which my youngest sister Berenice slept on.  It was alongside windows draped with cotton curtains of a pattern of dancing red flowers.  Opposite the couch was the window to the bathroom and beneath this a long, old dark brown cabinet with creamy bone handles which held many secret things like old board games and toys, books, yellowing manuscripts, fountain pens and stored Christmas decorations like a frosted tree, some tinsel and tiny, brightly coloured balls.

At the end of the room and in front of a window that looked out onto the backyard and beyond was a large jet black desk with a typewriter, pencils, erasers, pens and lots of typing paper.  Grandfather liked to write and this was his work-place and we would often hear the tapping of the typewriter as he worked away in the afternoons after lunch.

And beside the desk was a door leading out in the kitchen, back where we started.  For dinner, Grandma would make a roast lamb with crunchy roast potatoes, pumpkin and peas from the garden.  She would make the gravy with flour and dripping and put in a fluted green china gravy-boat. She would make the mint sauce with sugar and vinegar and mint growing from under the steps of the house.  It always seemed she would never be done fussing over the dinner and would still be in her apron hovering around after people had started.  But eventually she would give in to persuasion that she really had thought of everything.  And the meal would be absolutely delicious.

 

 

 

 

 

Entry for Edward Gough Whitlam

I should be asleep. I am tired and another early morning shift at work tomorrow. Was going to write more on another blog post but the best laid plans of mice and men are put to one side by the endless entrances of events.

 

Edward Gough Whitlam has died – at the grand old age of 98. It’s so sad to think that a vital link to my days of youth has gone.

 

I remember him most of all with the ‘It’s Time’ campaign when he swept into power – glorious and triumphant – with such a wonderful vision for a new Australia shining in the bright blue skies above the eucalypts that Australia always has had.

 

An inclusive, enthusiastic, vital Australia – where education would be accessible to everyone, no-one need go broke being sick and where everyone could have a healthy, happy life free of hardship and equal opportunity.

 

And I love the way Whitlam and his old foe Malcolm Fraser became friends and allies in a lot of important causes after the tumult and grief of The Dismissal had died away over the decades.

 

I remember the power of his mild eyes and steady gaze – this was a statesman for peace and the common good and in this way, far mightier than those disgraceful, tin-foil hatted, saber-rattling little men who formed The Coalition of the Willing in the early days of the new millennium.

 

In my own life I think the advantages his government gave me was free education – even though I abandoned my university degree in 1981 due to a serious mental illness. But I did manage to complete enough to make getting back to it easier 15 years later when I had a job and a young daughter and husband. Also, the medical care and welfare I received during my illness was enough to stop me from getting into desperate circumstances – and then again my low cost education and training opportunities helped get me into a normal, productive, financially independent working life.

 

Despite the difficulties that I faced, Australia – thanks to Gough Whitlam – was a first-world country with enough second chances and opportunities to stop me from falling through the cracks. So I survived and prospered in a way that does not need great wealth.

 

Only a few politicians have The Vision Thing – and Whitlam had a depth and breadth of vision for this country that we had never seen before and have not seen much of since, except in some ways from Paul Keating.

 

Whitlam did not make it to 100, but then probably did not want to go on much longer without his wife. I remember him looking like a mighty figure bowed with immense dry-eyed woe, but still magnificent in his utter despair. I guess he can rest in peace now with his beloved Margaret.

Vale!

A new generation of students – my daughter included – revere him and are astounded at his legacy when they study it. So Edward Gough Whitlam will live on – some parts of my youth will never die.

Reflections on Racist Ranter

A 55 year-old woman cracks and lets fly her dark side one afternoon on a crowded train from Sydney to Newcastle.  After two children refused her rude and agressive demands for a seat, she began to lash out at people around her.  Having sworn horribly at the terrified children, she picked on an Anglo man and an Asian woman who both happened to be sitting nearby and launched a gob-smacking racist tirade at them both.

At the time, the offender had given out her name as Sue Wilkins, but when the police later arrested her for offensive behaviour, she identified as a Karen Bailey.  She had worked as a legal secretary for top legal firms in Sydney and was qualified and experienced enough to land a job as a senior legal secretary.  But the market for legal secretaries is oversupplied, leaving Karen chasing only temporary assignments.

Karen issued a rambling apology to the media, full of excuses for her behaviour.

The excuses were that she had been unsuccessfully looking for a permanent job for a long time, an Internet love interest on a lonely hearts website had scammed her of ‘everything’, she was separated from her husband and had been visiting him in a nursing home and was living with her father.  She had sore, arthritic knees…  She’d had a particularly rotten day, was exhausted and full of pent-up frustration and the fact that there was no seat on the train for the long journey home for her was the trigger that brought her to breaking point.

She described her outburst, which was widely broadcast and condemned over online media, as a ‘brain snap’.  Inexplicably, she said she had unleashed all this dammed up torrent of anger against anyone who happened to be nearby.

But it was a melt-down that likely has heavy consequences for her.  The police have charged her with offensive behaviour and she is due to appear in court later on in the month.  On top of it, videos of her rant have hit the Internet and gone viral, with commentary appearing as far away as The Huffington Post and broadsheets in China.  Her reputation is in tatters and it is quite possible that she is going to find it even harder to get a job than before.

For some reason, I followed this story with intense interest.  I am of a similar age and also understand very well the stresses and frustrations of being at a certain age.  My husband is out of work and I am at present the breadwinner with two part-time jobs and we have a daughter who is doing her HSC.  My mother has Parkinson’s Disease and so has my dear friend, who is now in a nursing home.

There are days when I walk through work and think everybody who is younger is smarter and knows and does things so much better than I do.  My plans for a new career have hit the doldrums.  I spent all this time getting university degrees and working hard only to miss out on interview after interview.  Sometimes I feel a bit like Karen obviously does – old and out of it and destined for the scrap heap.

Another reason for my fascination with the affair seems to be that Karen comes from the same area I grew up in – an Anglo-Australian rural backwater between two cities, bounded by the sea, great lakes, farm paddocks and dense, eucalypt and lush, sub-tropical rainforest.  And I do not remember it with much affection, because of all the bullying I got right through most of my years at school because I was different.

I am Anglo-Australian, but unlike the others from their working class homes and coal-miner fathers, I liked literature and history and classical music.  My knowledge of pop music and culture was sketchy.  My father was an English/History teacher and he and Mum took myself and my two younger sisters off on camping trips to national parks around Australia during the school holidays.  We had a house by the highway and a garden full of riotous native plants.  I was a dreamy, solitary, otherworldly individual and if I wasn’t different enough, being acutely sensitive made things a whole lot worse.

You see I cried every time fellow students picked on me and soon I was easy game for every up and coming bully in the school.  They mimicked my walk, they mocked my appearance, my clothes and my speech.  Groups of bitchy girls would surround me, filling the air with their taunts.  I couldn’t walk past any group of boys without getting insulting comments.

To this day, I still feel the same sense of dread when I approach a group of school-students.  At work I don’t like to leave a group of people in case they start talking about me and when I do, walk away as fast as I can to avoid hearing the negative discussion about me that I feel will inevitably follow.  At times when faced with a demanding customer, I open my mouth and word salad comes out.  It’s mortifying.

Throughout my adult life, a chronic sense of inadequacy and sense of failure has gnawed at me and have walked through life as if in a grey fog.  Before I started counselling and taking anti-depressants, I would burst into tears at work for no reason other than thinking that I was utterly alone and nobody liked me.  On bad days, I walk through a Hell of darkness visible where people at work are all talking about me and saying what a terrible job I am doing.

But I walk and keep on walking and talking myself through it and after a while, as gentle as the day’s long duration, imperceptibly, the fog lifts.

These days I live in a very multi-cultural, metropolitan environment and love being surrounded by all the sights and sounds of cultural diversity.  My daughter has grown up with bi-lingual friends from homes of different cultures – Greek, Chinese, Lebanese.  For some reason, I adore going shopping in nearby suburbs and feeling like I am in another country like China.

I work with Chinese – as immigrants and travellers, every day and often over a steep language barrier.  I largely find them a very polite, hard-working, honest, sunny kind of people and am fascinated by their language, their shops, their stories and their love of bargains, urban luxury, bright colours and cute, kitschy things.

I visit suburbs dominated by an Anglo-Australian demographic and shudder at the sameness and insularity of it all.  I love my own culture – visiting England was a high point in my life – but the idea of living in the same culture I grew up in feels stifling and stagnant.  Too many bad memories.

Often, I find myself thinking the same old things those bullies would make me think – that I am destined for failure, that I’m not any good at social interaction or working in a team.

But really, it’s time to discard all this kind of thinking that keeps me living in a loop and going nowhere.  I have learned of new cognitive behaviour therapy techniques where I recognise such negative, self-critical thinking as just the ghosts of the bullies talking.  So I reason with myself in a more calm and realistic way, to say that that was then and it’s over.  That no-one worthwhile behaves like that.  That there are a lot of good, kind people in the world.

Anyway, to live means to change and change involves not too much thinking either way about uncertainties.  To observe, to plan and to work a way out of any problems is the important thing.

I don’t care about becoming unemployed.  I have another dimension to my life and a home life lush with things to do that don’t involve having a lot of money.

I don’t know anything about Karen Bailey.  She might have gone to the same school as me, she might even have been one of the bullies.  I don’t remember and don’t really want to either.  She is a stranger.

But just for a moment then, this stranger’s head cracked open and all that same intolerance for differences, that malicious, mocking glee, that bloody-minded insistence on uniformity and that same sense of territorial tyranny gushed out to all of the early days of July, 2014.  And for that moment there, she was the outsider.

My Father’s Affair

I remember the long, inky black evenings at the house, a modern split-level building of chocolate-chip brick perched on the edge of a cliff by the sea.  At the end of a long, winding dirt drive up-hill, it stood by itself in a defiantly untamed bush of dry schlerophyll forest, long tufts of grass and prickly acacia.

Inside were large, airy rooms, the walls painted white and rich, soft earth brown carpet.  In the two bedrooms, there were vast built-in wardrobes with wide, sliding doors of honey wood and there was a mysterious Paul Klee like painting of a woman with a pointed face hanging in the hallway.

The open-plan living room was long, with an alcove for a desk, chair and filing cabinet in one corner, then a generous fireplace fronting the lounge suite of black leather cushioned furniture all the way to the great French windows leading out to the balcony that overlooked the magnificent sweep of Avoca Beach Bay down the long, steep slope of the cliff far below.

During those long, inky black evenings, my parents would carouse with their friendly hosts with red wine and cheese on crackers and cigarettes and long and impassioned conversation about politics, philosophy and nature – after a meal of barbequed meats with tomato sauce, potatoes and coleslaw.  Us five children would be left to play and wander at will and I would look out through those great French windows and see the calm seas lying glistening under the floating moon and hear the gentle sighing of the imperceptible waves as they heaved themselves gently and languidly upon the shore.

Somewhere in the 1970s the McDowells were my parents good friends.  Frank McDowell was my history teacher at High School, a man of short stature but lean and wiry with deep-set grey-blue eyes in a long, bony face, bald head and red, bushy beard.  His wife Margaret was by contrast, a handsome looking woman with a hazel eyes and a straight bobbed light brown hair, who was taller than he was and of the solid and sensual kind – someone who had secrets.  In their large bedroom, Margaret had a dressing table and on it was an ornament.  A large sad-eyed china dog chained to two small puppies.  For some reason, it would remind me intensely of her.

The McDowells were more intrepid bushwalkers than my parents and when we camped in national parks and bushwalked in places like the Snowy Mountains for sometimes 10 miles in a day, their well-worn but good quality equipment outshone ours.

They had proper equipment from Paddy Pallin, tall back-packs of dun brown canvas and faded japara sleeping bags of goosedown that packed down into tiny bags.  They had the old black billy can and the perfect gripper for it, long-handled and firm, that I have never seen before or since.  The arrival of their two children barely stopped them in their tracks.  They promptly bought a papoose for the baby Mia, powdered milk and disposable nappies and the toddler Elaine soon learned that complaining about the long walks was not an option.

Together we all went to Kinchega National Park and camped by the Murray River where we swam in the muddy waters and I cooked a very well received damper in the iron camp oven, which we all had, tremblingly, fragrantly hot and slathered with runny butter and honey.  We watched thousands of yellow-crested and pink Mitchell cockatoos and galahs converge screeching at the edge of a wide lake at sunset while we lounged against huge, grey-white, bone-dry logs half-submerged in the soft, red-dirt sands.

We picked up pieces of chert stone lying in the dunes, chipped like stone-age flint and long abandoned by vanished aboriginal people.  We walked along the shores of the lake and saw a stunning diversity of water birds, fleeing grey kangaroos and trees covered with the matted clods of innumerable, tiny little mud and feathered nests inhabited by huge flocks of chattering birds.

I am alone in the inky night at home again, some forty years later, with a hasty meal of fried-eggs and tomato on bread, the last skerrick of ice-cream eaten from the tub and the large, crystal wine glass of some Barossa Valley shiraz.  Long cold winter nights have begun and my husband John and nearly adult daughter Veronique are out.  And thinking of the promising magic and beauty of those nights, I remember back then with a kind of impenetrable sadness.  What did, or didn’t happen that laid all those long years since with such a sense of unspoken waste?

My husband and I have laid the floors of our apartment in a quiet suburb in the city with bamboo, stained to warm, syrupy, variegated hues but nevertheless reverberating with a sense of echoing coldness.  The oil heater has to work hard to heat the large L-shaped living room with its bright, freshly renovated and painted open kitchen.  Our marriage of twenty years, unmarked by any infidelity, simple and straightforward.  We talk about politics, some history, issues.  But our full book-cases go largely unread and with the casualness that marks our relationship, the outings occasional and plans more often than not undone.

Back in the 1970s, the McDowells eventually moved to a neat, white weatherboard cottage with a barren, paling fenced backyard and Hills Hoist in town by the river.  We still visited and played with their two daughters but a mysterious sense of barely perceptible tension had pervaded the relationships between the four adults.  They shouted more suddenly and vociferously in their discussions with each other, there were terser leavings and goodbyes.  Margaret was talking of their family moving away to Canberra sometime, but she did not say when.

Then, one explosive night, it happened.  Our family had gone home and I was trying to sleep in the room I shared with my two sisters, but was unable to because Mum and Dad were arguing with each other:  Mum with at first low and impassioned tones, but with rising pitch and intensity, Dad like straws all at sea, helplessly remonstrative.

Then my sister Cathie came in to our room, bursting with the information she had gleaned with her assiduous eavesdropping.  ‘Dad’s been having an affair with Margaret McDowell!’ she announced at once to me and Berenice.  ‘Mum caught them kissing at the back fence in the dark at their house.  Dad’s admitted that it’s been going on for some time’.

In the dark, our whole lives whizzed into a garish, ugly focus of suburban frustration, disappointment and dull ordinary things happening like sordidly secret affairs between married people who should have known better than to hurt and turn upside down the lives of those dependent on them.  It was wrong, morally wrong, wasn’t it?  But none of this was happening to me.  Curiously I felt neither dismay, surprise nor the slightest bit of anger towards my father.  I felt calm, dead calm, almost numb.  I just listened and over the days and weeks that followed, thought only that my father was mortal and for that, I forgave him.

In their bedroom, Mum was hissing ‘I could see that you wanted to dance with her!  I saw you looking at her, with her swirling skirt and red lipstick and her come at me eyes…  ‘What are you talking about?’  Interjected my father faintly  ‘I never did any such thing!’  ‘Oh yes you did!’, screamed my mother almost manic with volcanic rage ‘You were looking at her, her, HER!’…

The next few days were lived in a kind of grey, uncertain daze.  I had breakfast, went to school, came back.  And then one afternoon Mum gathered us three sisters together in the lounge room and spoke to us with unusual candour about the whole thing.  This time she was so calm, that it was almost impossible to believe that she was the same person she had been that night.

‘Frank and Margaret are going away and your father and I are staying together’  She said ‘Your father realised it was only a temporary affair and he liked her because she was a good bushwalker’.  ‘But we all got together and talked about it last night.  Frank surprised me because he said he had known about it from the beginning.  He was watching them to see what happened and hoping to have a relationship with me.  I was taken aback and of course never would have done anything like that.  I find him quite repulsive, physically.’   ‘Then Margaret got in touch with me privately and confessed to me that she no longer loves Frank.  She was in love with someone else and married him on the rebound.  I don’t know what they’re going to do’…

After that episode, we saw no more of the McDowells.  Unseen by us, they had winged their way to Canberra or some such city to an unknown life somewhere else.  Mum and Dad never even mentioned their names again.  Except once.  They told me that Frank had opined that I was not bright enough to finish university.

A year or so later, we had gone on a camping trip to Carnarvon Gorge National Park.  A rocky, red place of ancient beauty somewhere in mid-west Queensland, where us sisters played in the quartz-strewn stony creek beds and ran laughing through the largely deserted bushy, dust-bowl of the camping grounds.  It was then that I noticed a familiar tent and Khombi van.  From a distance, Frank and Margaret had seen us.  A short while later I saw that they were suddenly packing their tent, camping gear and belongings hastily into the car.  Without a word, they drove off into the ether of the early afternoon…