Selfie with Wellington, 5th November 2016
I had to do it on my own. It was something that required me. To show up to myself. I didn’t think about counting. The hours of reading. The days and days of writing. The minutes and hours and days and weeks and nights of thinking. Did that make it lonely? No. I was alone with my thoughts, which is not exactly alone, and always a rewarding experience. There were moments of doubt; I had to face them head on. I had to look at myself in the eye and not shrink back from what I saw. The raw gristle and meat of me. Me in all my frailty and fervour. I saw myself.
It could have been almost anything. The thing I had to do on my own. It could have been a very long race, run on my own two feet until my lungs were fire. It could have been a piece of art. A canvas the size of a wall. Or a throw. A crouch and turn and heave of a weight away from myself. Or the first year faced newly alone, or the first year with a tiny one, newly responsible. Any of these feats require the person only. To show up to themselves. To look the challenge in the eye and decide, perhaps despite the evidence, that they are up to the task. And then to follow through.
I had a meltdown, of course I did. Before I’d even started writing. I thought it was too much. I thought I couldn’t do it. I started catastrophising. I wasn’t the person to do it. It was going to get harder and it was going to get too hard for me. I hadn’t been born with what it took and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. So I started planning how to give up. How to get through the bare minimum and bow out gracefully. How to avoid biting off more than I could chew by exiting the dining room. I was full, thank you. I did not need to eat.
But I was starving. I was withered and skinny on the inside for not having eaten a full meal for years. For having spent too long watching what other people were eating, following their lead, not wanting to be greedy, not wanting to be different. And so I starved myself. Routinely ate small portions, avoided seconds. Became a chronic snacker. Almost convinced myself that social media was a food group. Narrowly missed contracting one of those ubiquitous online diseases. You know, the ones where you end up forgetting how to actually live.
I’d spent way too long flitting over the surface of things. Parenting magazines. Books about how to get your baby to sleep. Books about how to get your baby to eat organic vegetables and organ meat. Great big homeschooling manuals. How to get your kid to learn everything you missed out on learning in one year. And every now and again I’d pick up a book off my shelf and read an old favourite. But new fiction? It was either too bland or too thin or too male or too strange to my ear – for some reason I could never put my finger on.
I went back to work. Is that what was missing? A sense of being, in amongst it, out in the real world, getting up in the morning and coming home at night. All those hours in the car alone to think and notice things. That got me going back to study, a post-graduate counselling paper – gender studies. So this is how it goes, I thought, this is what thinking feels like. The lecturer talked about creating an intellectual genogram. A record of a journey of reading and thinking. His was eclectic, from Tillich to Foucault and everywhere in between. Where was mine, I wondered? Had I actually been thinking?
So I started reading again. Fiction. Being an English teacher is good for that. We’re peddlers of other people’s words, us English teachers, and if we don’t read we don’t have anything to peddle. I had a sparkly class of girls that year I started studying again, who I thought might handle An Angel at My Table – Jane Campion’s film of Janet Frame’s autobiography. They were fifteen and sixteen and bright-eyed and maybe I broke them a little, maybe I shouldn’t have shown it to them, disturbing as it is. But I did so much reading to teach it that I could have written an over-sized essay myself. And I remembered all over again how much Janet Frame’s words meant to me.
I was twelve when I read Faces in the Water, and after that, I wrote my first story. It was about a girl going blind (God knows why), and it was melodramatic and stuffed full of repetition and run-on sentences. I wrote it in pencil on a pale newsprint pad and showed it to the mother of my friend Zoe. Who said that it wasn’t the kind of writing she normally read but that she liked it, and thought it was good. Well that was high praise. That was feedback I could run with. I decided, almost out of nowhere, that I was going to be a part-time writer and a part-time speech therapist. I don’t know where the latter idea came from, but you can see that from the beginning I was pulled in opposite directions. One inward, the other outward.
Reading is an entirely interior act. It excavates us on the inside, brings in the materials required to progress with the next stage of building. There’s nothing to show for it. Not initially. Reading is private, invisible, profound. It is something we do for ourselves, by ourselves. After all those years of being pulled outward, desperate for approval, sitting down to do my Master’s was like giving myself the gift of attention. Once I’d started down that long road of focused reading and writing, I couldn’t turn back. I couldn’t change tack, or change subjects or change my mind. I had to stay. With myself, with my thoughts, and with the words.
This was my transformation. I sat in silence and hauled the words in one by one. I made them mine, I added them to myself. I used them like travel guides, like clues, like the shining shreds of bread that Hansel and Gretel followed home. The words took me to me. I showed up to the work and found I was showing up to myself. This is how I finished something I thought I could never do. And this is how I will do it again.