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Under the Bed

The only dream worth having is to dream that you will live while you are alive, and die only when you are dead.

Arundhati Roy, The End of Imagination

The gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end…As you walk in the garden you pass into this time – the moment of entering can never be remembered.

Derek Jarman, Modern Nature

Today I watered the front garden by hand. Maybe not the most efficient method but efficiency has its limits. I decided to pick three long stalks of feverfew daisies growing near the nectarine tree as they had started to lie down. They have an intense and complex scent half-mint half-chrysanthemum. It is an insect-repelling herb.

I said to the dog, the garden is giving us flowers. And as I held them in front of me and walked towards the mirror in the front hall I was reminded of the artist Paula Modersohn-Becker who painted herself several times holding flowers in front of her. 

It felt ceremonial and I found my camera, pushed the flowers into the front of my shirt and took a few photos. It was a kind of homage. Both to my mother, who loved to place flowers in vases, and to Modersohn-Becker, who died at thirty-one after childbirth, and was a friend of poet Rainer Maria Rilke after whom my father was named. It was for them too.

Rilke wrote a prose work dedicated to her called ‘Requiem for a Friend’ in which, in a translation by Stephen Mitchell, appear the words: 

You had just one desire: a years-long work—
which was not finished, in spite of all your efforts.
    If you are still here with me, if in this darkness
there is still some place where your spirit resonates
on the shallow sound-waves stirred up by my voice:
hear me; help me. We can so easily
slip back from what we have struggled to attain
abruptly, into a life we never wanted;
can find ourselves entangled, as in a dream,
and die there, without ever waking up.

Ah Rilke and ah the work. The groping, the plans, the reality, and yet how to begin and how to go on. The what and the why and the who for and the how all rise up towards the solitary artist or writer asking them so many questions and providing so few answers. A years-long work.

There are the interruptions of domesticity, of what we tell ourselves, and what we make ourselves believe, especially for women who often like to give and make life better or at least good for those around them. Feminist icon Ann Newmarch often spoke of interrupted time as a mother and artist and that is, in some way, what Rilke is also describing, the dream of continuity versus the reality of daily life, and all its ways of breaking up the day. Before she died I asked Newmarch for the origin of the resonant quotation that she used in a print in 1975: ‘We must risk unlearning all the things that have kept us alive for so long.’ She told me that she could not remember. 

The rosemary is full of blue flowers. The purple native hibiscus is flowering. The jade tree is covered in mounds of pale pink stars.

In the blue gum hanging over the back fence a koala, a rounded Buddha, a clot of grey in the sky, sits and watches, eats and drops brown scats. On a wet day its ears are like the soft grey-white fluffy heads of dandelions. 

Even though some yellow leaves are still hanging on trees and vines new buds are already forming everywhere. The glory vine has delicate green buds starting out of dry sticks. This means if I prune it now it will drip clear sap like tears for a day or two. So, the sap is rising, there is no real downtime in the lives of the trees and other plants but constant movement from one state to another.

The garden is also full of soursobs, bright green and acid yellow. You are supposed to wait until they are flowering before pulling them up and the hope is that their brown bulbs will come out at the same time, which they do, sometimes. The yellow jasmine is also flowering while the buds on the pink one are increasing in size every day.

The snowdrops are starting to come out. I used to think they were the only flowers in the world with green on them and that they had no perfume but when you pick their white bells and bring them inside after a while you notice their scent which is like a liqueur, fragrant and volatile. And the japonica is out, orange and spiky.

On the way to the playground at the top of the street, where the dog and I go almost every day to play ball, there is a small eucalyptus on which hang about fifty chrysalises made from pieces of torn leaves placed together to form what look like tiny pine cones. Like the koalas they are camouflaged. They must have been made by caterpillars. Some of them look quite dry while others are fresher. They have an Egyptian or Mesopotamian quality to them and also a Christmas bauble feeling. One day soon I am going to bring a small branch home so that I can find out what creature they are housing. If I had an old aquarium I would put them in there but might find a vase to hang it in instead.

And I realise that I am something like one of these invisible creatures and have built a layered home around myself of books, a garden, art, and perhaps most valuable of all – pieces of paper on which vital words wait to be followed through or placed with others.

Drops of water hang in all the trees and bushes, evenly spaced on the crabapple tree branches, in nets on the casuarina, and as shining lights all over the lacy fennel and daisy leaves. Writing is like embroidering with threads taken from the world and from thought, beads of insight, fragments of flowers and seeds, as well as lots of dust that has accumulated and holds time in its imperceptible motion. 

In the middle of the night, around four a.m., sometimes/often/but not always, a bird sings a four-note song at intervals. It doesn’t wake me up but when I lie there I hear it and imagine it is letting all the other birds and the rest of us know that all is well. Morning is coming.

What shall I do? How often do I open my hands and hold them out to the night? Calling the stars to witness. As a gesture in solitude, it has some drama…and could even be called Rilkean.

A years-long work. There is a kind of archive fever around me – stumbling over piles of my own past, notes, images, objects, I also encounter the pasts of others, people all over the world, family and friends, streaming away in all directions. When I leave the house and go to the market I see stories piled up in every face, every encounter, every piece of clothing, every smile. The idea of treasures, of gifts for the future, folded inside the archives, is, for me, one large reason they exist. Yet getting them out needs more than a systematic mind or indeed a system because an organic archive leaks away in all directions.

I sit on my bedroom floor surrounded by notebooks of every conceivable size, colour and shape. There is no regimentation in this life, even though it includes making notes and writing – there is no tidy progress, no inventory, no order! Damn. Just a great volume of pages scrawled, written, scribbled. Lists for self-improvement, complaints, dreams (a lot of dreams), visions (quite a few), appointments, plans, events, joy, manifestos, copied out passages from books, anger, drawings, misery, shopping lists and accounts, delight, and here and there a flight of writing, and sometimes a poem or something like one lying on its side, half-dead, half-alive, wondering if it will be pulled out and resuscitated or left there. 

Like all artists, writers are self-appointed and must have both very thick and very thin skins: thick to withstand indifference, thin to make their observations, and to find the fine edges of meaning in their languages.

Writing is or can be a consoling voice whether you are the writer or the reader. It can wrap you in a warm hug of solace, not always so much the content as the rhythm, the mood and the sense of a world with a form. Then there is sometimes the feeling of being transported to another place, another level of existence, the home of heightened and intensified sensations. 

So, here all around me, are multiple notebooks filled with too much embarrassing nonsense and self-revelation to be safe. No one must ever see these books. It is imperative for me to stay alive long enough to find and destroy them all. 

But first I must identify the treasure in them as those few words may keep me or someone else alive. A sense of duty enters here. In some ways it is a defiant echo of myself as a child. When I learned something off by heart I imagined saving lives by knowing those words. We will murder you all, unless someone knows this poem or song, they would say. I can do it, I would pipe up. Memory as power.

Every now and then a shelf of notebooks that I had forgotten turns up to frighten me. And then I appreciate the common sense of religious rituals that, as a side effect, include cleaning the entire house. I particularly like the description of the Jewish one of ridding the house of bread before Passover that Claudia Roden describes in her Jewish cookbook. Thus religion can improve hygiene, and maybe this is one key to its endurance, as well as a way to remove secrets and trails. But how likely is it, really, that all secrets can be removed? Don’t we all need them to give our lives depth?

There are notebooks stacked in an old desk, some in a cupboard, piles in a box or two. They are without labels though some have dates written on their covers from former attempts to impose order and some have bookmarks or dogears marking notable moments. They are museums, libraries, suitcases, vitrines, bookshelves, archives, wasteplaces and storerooms. When I hear about someone using the same type of notebook all their life and clearly dating and filing them as if their existence was a neat shelf of bound journals in a library I feel sad. My notebooks lack such a steady rhythm. Such regularity sounds suffocating anyway – the appeal of the random, the accidental, the chance, the unpredictable, except in the case of breakfast, is surely essential and needed for a life to be alive. Patterns can be found later.

The earliest notebooks are tiny, lined booklets, though there are a few unusual heritage notebooks, resuscitated vintage items discovered in op shops. These are followed by exercise books and something relentless starts to happen here as writing becomes as rewarding, in some way, as living, and must be fulfilled, not for posterity, not as a public work to be polished and published or submitted for publication but as release, as pleasure, as necessity.

There are a few volumes from a bookbinding class I took in Canberra, amazing old-fashioned real proper thick hardcover books – one blue, one red, one grey, stitched, stiff, stout and strong – they will be quite hard to burn but I will give it a go.

Then there are the patterned books that a designer has composed to give life a bit of style and colour. There are books of every description imaginable, cheap and ordinary, spiral-bound, stapled, and plain as so often are my hand-written words, though rampant in their scale. Yet sometimes mesmerising, hypnotic, holding even in the thickness or thinness of their inked letters a flavour of the time and the mood they record. While I did once mix my own ink from red and blue to make purple ink in my Baudelaire days of using a fountain pen, mostly it is black or blue that marks the pages, and I recall the scent of some biros to be really spicy and inky. There are at least a dozen red and black Chinese notebooks (from both during and after Mao). Then there are the Moleskines, legendary notebooks, beloved of Bruce Chatwin and others. Shiny or matte black, brown paper plain or red lizard skin, whether handsome or restrained in colouring they remain anonymous as they have no markers on the outside. Here and there is the book too good-looking to use. The notebook destined for emptiness, its beauty holding off revelation, confidences or simple documentation. 

Will I ever be able to mine the notebooks and then destroy them? Why don’t I just throw them all away? Can I relive the past? Is it safer, quieter, eternal? What is it that makes me keep them and occasionally pull one out to try to recreate something with it? Regret, sadness, longing, ambition? In a way it is like walking in a mysterious museum with always more rooms, dim galleries, doorways receding into infinity, glass vitrines with fruit and seeds from ancient tombs, fragments of china and glass beads from lost civilisations. Is it a huge monument to a pathological self-regard or a simple resource, an old jewellery box, a place of unthreaded moments? 

A palace of memory. They are a garden too, old, rather overgrown, neglected, abandoned, wild. And must stay wild. The unpacking must be done privately. Secrecy and tenderness are the passwords/bywords. And the people within are often like closed books, sometimes they open a little. Some people go out, some go in and don’t appear again. 

The notebooks hang over me like an albatross might, if I had one. All the unspoken words piled up, heaped like earth, compost, weeds, leaves, refuse or fertiliser. 

Really I have a deep inclination to just crawl under the bed and hide. I seek oblivion and ecstasy, silence and invisibility. Under the bed there is not much room, it is full of rolled up paintings but I think I can fit. And that is where you might find me, under the bed with the paintings, with my paintings. 

Yet in this early spring the sky glows intensely just before dark and I must either watch from a window or go out and stand in the garden breathing and holding the light, letting it colour me in. Tonight I see a new moon and a star representing, to my fond imagining, a woman and her dog. Standing, staying, shining.

Finding the treasure. A years-long work.

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