Minds Went Walking

Dear Reader, it’s been a long time – months!

Since last I wrote, I am pleased to report that I have completed a proper draft of How to Avoid a Happy Life, and am awaiting marked up pages from my mentor, Howard Norman, without whom it would not be finished at all. He has brought to it and to me his wisdom, wit, and incisive but kind criticism. There have been a few times during the drafting that I’ve felt that going on was beyond me, that I could not do the subject matter justice, or fulsomely explain this thing or that thing, or put certain matters into the context I would like them to be in. But Howard always is at hand with an apt quote or a comforting observation – including, at a particular juncture during which taking a vow of silence seemed appealing, that writing a memoir will drive even the most experienced writer to despair. That a memoir is not stenography.

The memoirs I have been reading lately have reinforced to me that a story well told is more powerful than fiction. Recently, I’ve read and adored:

Found, Wanting by Natasha Sholl

Big Love by Brooke Blurton

The Sins of My Father by Lily Dunn

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

Memoir is a way of working out what happened, and putting it in context and order: done well, they are windows into the lives of others which deepen our understanding of how to live, how others live, and how we might regard others with kindness. All of these books do that and more.

In other (related) news, I am over the moon that the first narrative non-fiction piece I’ve published for some years – also dealing with some of the same subject matter appearing in one of the memoir’s chapters – has appeared in a fine collection called Minds Went Walking: Paul Kelly’s Songs Reimagined, edited by Mark Smith, Neil A. White, and Jock Serong. My piece is entitled Dumb Things, set in 1987 and 1988, mostly in the Sydney I’d hitched to with my friend Carita. You don’t have to love Paul Kelly to pick up the collection and enjoy it, but if you do, you’ll feel a deep sense of communion with this book.

Faking tough, 1987

Which brings me to one of the things I was saying to Howard in our most recent Zoom conversation. The memoir is called, as you know, How to Avoid a Happy Life. It is arranged, as you may have guessed if you’ve been a reader of this blog, around difficult events and experiences that have had force fields of their own. I hope that others, reading, will take comfort from tales from certain trenches. However, I have had the luck to have deep and abiding friendships, to have loved and been loved – not always, and not always consistently – but this has sustained me. And books, music, writing. Dogs and sunsets. And to have learned from my mother, ornery as she was, to lift your chin and keep going, no matter what, and especially no matter what people think. There have been times where I’ve felt ambivalent, to put it mildly, about life and the events it has visited on me and those I love, but mostly, I am grateful to have experienced it all.

I’m also grateful to have finished writing about it, for now.


The beginning of the ending

Dear Reader, I have been beavering away at the memoir (and, as it happens, a few other creative projects besides) so I thought it was time to share some of what is turning out to be a rather lengthier chapter than the rest (to date). Howard Norman has suggested that I use the structure of this final part as a template for what I will do once I return to fill out the previous five. The lacunae in the first draft of this section are shared by the rest of the manuscript, so I am cutting out superfluous information, slowing down the compressed narrative, adding in dialogue, including more about Annie, and, as always, trying to reconstruct how it was I was feeling about it all as it was happening. So, here’s a taster.

It was a bright summer’s Wednesday in February 2015. I woke up in my small but airy unit in inner city Maylands, with Annie in her room and Hecta curled in his basket. The year’s first meeting of the Public Administration Committee would be held at 9am: the committee was inquiring into prisoner transport, and today I’d be advising on which prisons and lock-ups to visit, which witnesses to call to give evidence. I couldn’t wait. I had a committee chair I got on famously with, and a job which married my love of research and writing with my curiosity about the world. Since I’d left calling the Council to attention as Black Rod, I’d done inquiries into pastoral leases, flying over the striated red plains of the Kimberley in a plane so small I’d had to breathe into a paper bag as it see-sawed to land; recreational hunting, which had taken me to the remote forests of Orange, New South Wales, where I met hunters who hated the industrial meat industry, and to Victoria near where I’d had my horse-riding accident, and where I cuddled rescued baby wombats. Now, prisoner transport.

I had reason to believe that the wheel of fortune was indeed moving on and up. I had taken Annie to New York in January, aided by a grant I had got to attend a writing retreat in Vermont at the beginning of February. The distance from our Perth-based woes had been bracing, as had minus-25-degree-centigrade Vermont. While I was away, the guardian had arranged for John to be placed in care, and the sale of the house was in its final throes.

On my first day back from the US, dizzy with jetlag, I had visited John in his new abode, a locked dementia unit his father had also been in. I was worried he’d be sad about not having Hecta there, or that the move would be unsettling. Neither thing appeared to bother him. He greeted me cheerfully: he did not notice my three-week absence. He still knew who I was and was happy to see me. We went out into the beautifully landscaped courtyard. He proceeded to strip the foliage from every bush there, and deposited the leaves in his pockets. When I left, I told him I’d be back tomorrow and he waved and smiled and turned away, unconcerned. After four very difficult years, it was a relief.

Before I left for work, I checked my phone to see if Nigel had replied to my good-night text the night before. He hadn’t, which was unusual, but it had been the first sitting night of the new parliamentary year. Perhaps he was tired, or distracted. I sent another good-morning message, and got in the car.

Because it was committee meeting day, I did not have time to write, as I usually might have. I had been translating Annie’s experience of having a father developing early onset Alzheimer’s into a young adult novel, Before You Forget. Writing provided me with the optimism inherent in the making of coherence. When I wrote, I was no longer at the mercy of the tangled feelings, reactions, hopes, and regrets, the habitual composite of which I experienced as myself. Having watched someone’s selfhood dissolve into a morass of reaction, repetition and anxiety, I also had the dual perception of knowing that Self – anybody’s – wasn’t solid in the least. At minimum, it was reliant on the possession of adequate myelin, something over which nobody had control, no matter how much Sudoko you might play. Neither the witty-lovely-John nor impatient-angry-John I’d lived with were solid or reliable or true: they were the product of electrical impulses in the brain as much as the product of experience, let alone a flimsy notion such as choice. The contemplation of this led to regular existential abysses from which, I often told people, I was only rescued by Nigel.

For Nigel remained my untainted good thing. No matter the storm that surrounded us, he remained steadily at the helm, navigating me through of the chaos of administrative tribunals, the wrath of people earned (his now ex-wife) and unearned (my ex-in-laws). He was careful in his reactions, reliable in that his words and deed exactly matched each other, entirely opposite to the daily volatility I had experienced with John. The ways in which he was exciting – taking me riding on the back of his Ducati, impromptu visits to golf and gun ranges, quad biking and helicopter riding, surprise plane fares to my brother’s 50th and Broome holidays – were perfectly balanced by his in-person calmness, his Islander reserve, focused listening, and unruffled demeanour.

Before I went into the meeting, I checked my phone again. Still no text from Nigel. I would go and see him at lunch time in his office, the way we always did on a sitting day. He would be handsome in his bar jacket and jabot, and his kind eyes would be happy to regard me after an absence, the way they always were.

I was part way through the meeting on prisoner transport when one of the committee staff came to the door and asked for me.

Howard Norman asked me, How did you get through?
This is how.