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We’ve all heard of writers who have certain rituals they put themselves through before starting a work, or when finishing a work, or when the work has gone off into what’s likely to be a dreadful dead-end. Some writers only start putting words down on the page when they have three blue Bic pins lined up nicely on the desk; others have to take a walk up the hill and down the trail and over the creek.
No doubt you have your rituals too, whether you’re a writer or not.
For me, it’s cleaning out the chook-shed. Yes, once I’ve fed the dog and had breakfast myself, once I’ve read the newspaper headlines online and checked the emails that have come in overnight and quickly scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed – as if my friends know something about the world the newspapers have missed; sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t – I head outside, feed the chooks, refresh their water, and clean out their shit-tray. Yes, there’s a tray that catches their poo.
I have the world’s smallest backyard so in my quest to keep happy chooks there needs to be a judicious use of space, which has meant creating a two-storey coop. To stop the girls crapping into their water while roosting my brother and I constructed a drawer that’s lined with sugar-cane mulch. So this is my ritual, the last thing I do before heading to the writing room (which sometimes feels like a bower of bliss, other times it’s a pit of eternal doom, often it’s both at once): I lift the side hatch, slide out the draw, and with an old brickie’s trowel found in a secondhand yard, I carefully extract the little – or not so little, as the case my be – macaroons of chookshit and drop them into the watering-can at my feet.
It is, to be sure, a strange ritual, but also appropriate.
For a start it’s mechanical: open hatch, pull out drawer, scoop shit into watering-can. Writing is all head, and fiction – its production at least – is amorphous and multi-layered and inherently complex and slippery and more often than not mind-warpingly unfathomable. So it’s good to start with something that is so rudimentarily of the body. And it doesn’t require much thinking beyond ‘Ooh, lots of crap today’ or ‘That one’s a bit runny – I wonder who’s feeling off?’ or ‘My God, that really does look like a macaroon’. Of course, this whole process is analogous to writing: getting ride of the crap, cleaning up, putting the house together so everyone is happy and healthy and full of life.
But there’s more to it, of course. Because each morning, once the watering-can has its scattering of chook crap at the bottom, I half-fill it with water and let it all stew into a foul-smelling swill. Sometime later, it could be at lunchtime or during afternoon tea, I top up the watering-can with more water before finding a sapling or shrub or tiny little annual or perennial to give what I always imagine to be an intoxicating concoction. So it’s also about turning the crap into a ripe juice that will make leaves grow glossy and green, stems thick and solid, moving everything along despite the harsh Southern Tablelands weather – the desiccating summers and the cutting winds and the wild wild frosts of winter.
Life, in other words; life against all odds.
Because surely that’s what writing is all about: creating richly living life from the most unlikely ingredients – paper and ink and a brain that, despite everything it knows, thinks it can do something with all this. Regardless of the odds, which are so resolutely stacked against the whole wretched bloody enterprise. For what’s in that watering-can is hope: faith, reassurance, optimism, aspiration, credit, trust.
There’s a phrase for hope: ‘a castle in the air’.
I call it chookshit in a watering-can.
You can always trust bank advertising to make clear what’s considered normal, the desires we’re all meant to have, the standard way of being. Stuck in a bank queue recently, I looked beyond the tellers to the large, multi-paned ad board on the wall. On it was a man and woman looking comfortable in their expensive white-and-beige clothes, beside them a pair of magazine-beautiful children, behind the family a brick-and-tile home in perfect repair, a white picket fence out front. And I thought, why would anyone in their right mind want any of that? All those rooms of the house filled with the sounds of the kids running up and down and around and everywhere, all that housework, the constant state of negotiation, so much communication and companionship but so little peace and quiet, next-to-no time alone.
Of course, many people (most?) do want this, but not me, not on your life.
I’ve been with my partner for 15 years. For five and a half of these years, we lived together in a cute 1960s house, a pretty garden, a car and matching car-loan, a Dalmatian named Willow and a very naughty cat named Sam. No picket fence, thank God, otherwise we would have looked as though destined for a bank advertisement. But, as it happens to most of us, we hit a road-block, we split up. Only to get together again ten months later. I now owned the house—actually the bank did, through the mother of all mortgages—and my partner now owned a place on the other side of town. Immediately we decided not to jump straight back into cohabiting, we’d take things slowly, just find our own way this time, play by our own rules. Wednesday would be our ‘date night’ and we’d spend weekends together; sometimes we’d take a trip interstate or even overseas. But the rest of the time would be our own—our own time in our own homes.
And it worked. You bet it did. We’re both independent souls, we like privacy and a little solace; neither of us needs constant company, though we do like being in a partnership.
But then came another change; relationships are nothing if not constant wretched change.
Keep reading over at Role/Reboot. Thanks to Meredith Landry.
In the New York Review of Books last year novelist Zadie Smith wrote an article on the differences between joy and pleasure. I wasn’t made aware of the piece until last Christmas, those long, slow, sometimes empty, sometimes bumpy days of eating and reading and sleeping. I read Smith’s words closely; I read them repeatedly. Are these ideas of joy and pleasure really that hard to get a grip on?
What else to do when something’s on your mind than head to the local pool.
In my lane, which luck would have it I didn’t need to share, amongst the crystal-clear chlorinated water, beneath the hazy but grand Southern Tablelands sky, I thought about Zadie Smith and her joy/pleasure conundrum. She believed that for most people joy is just a more intense version of pleasure. However, she also noted, ‘The thing no one ever really tells you about joy is that there is very little pleasure in it. And yet if it hadn’t happened at all, at least once, how could we live?’ It’s this question that hounded – haunted? – me as I got myself from one end of the pool to the other.
I’m a life-long lap-swimmer; I come from the breed of people who find this sort of thing enjoyable. I can remember my first swimming less as a little boy, which was given in the family pool at home in Sydney by a Jaguar-driving man who prevented me from sinking by gripping the back of my tiny black Speedos. Since then there’s rarely been a time when swimming hasn’t been a weekly activity; not so long ago I could do thirty laps, sometimes fifty, every so often more.
Which is probably why my shoulder gave up the ghost. The physiotherapist told me that if I wanted to swim for the rest of my life then I’d have to learn to breathe ‘on both sides’, which, like jogging, is something I’ve simply never been able to do. So, during the Christmas just gone, with Zadie Smith in my head, I began teaching myself to breathe on my left as well as my right. By the end of the first session I could do it, gingerly, and I had to concentrate, but I made it work.
As I walked home I thought, swimming might be a pleasure but teaching this old dog to learn new swimming-pool tricks is where joy lives.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 2 February 2013.)
Oh it’s always the little gems, isn’t it, the things you stumble across that make everything worthwhile.
At the end of last year in my local street-press, the always reliable BMA Magazine, there was a series of lists of best albums of 2012; I love these lists, because usually I’ll find the next album I’ll buy. In one list, amongst names of bands and singer-songwriters that I’d never heard of – that terrible but sure sign of middle-age – was a reference to an attractively reflective album by a band called Foreign Fields who’d recorded a collection of songs in an abandoned Wisconsin warehouse in the middle of winter, or something like that. On my laptop I pressed a few buttons, found Foreign Fields’ Bandcamp site (it’s their only web presence), had a bit of a listen, and within minutes ordered the album and got the download onto my laptop. So maybe the modern world isn’t so rubbish, though I’m still open to the distinct possibility.
The album, which is rather enticingly called Anywhere But Where I Am, is a suite of such intimacy, beauty, melancholy, all these words that I love. The Nashville-based Eric Hillman and Brian Holl really do know how to craft a song out of the simplest ingredients: acoustic guitars, a piano maybe, perhaps a cello, all the while harmonised perfect-pitch voices drift and lilt over the top, a hint of percussion (sometimes it’s nothing more than a series of hand-claps), though if you listen closely you’ll also hear sweet sweet field recordings. But there’s nothing ‘slacker’ about this; every second of sound is put together so lovingly. There are distinct colours and shades of Nick Drake, and Bon Iver, and Sigur Ros, but this is also a sound like no other – somehow Foreign Fields manage to be both pastoral and domestic, so small and delicate in scale but also filmic in the moods and suggestions. There’s no point singling out a song; everything is of the finest quality. And there’s variety, and contrasts, and depths. Brilliant.
Even though here in Australia we’re not yet done with summer, I know that when autumn comes around and then winter finally hits, I’ll light the fire, pour myself a glass of cheap plonk, and keep on listening to Anywhere But Where I Am. Why this record isn’t on a major label I have no idea. I’m just so glad that I found it. Because Foreign Fields remind me of why I could never live without music when it’s as good as this.