Written March 31, 2020.
I’m nervous about my NIDA lecture this afternoon to playwrights because I’m again addressing weird things that happen in the creating brain- weird, not normal, and in the usual course of things, not spoken about. One top neuroscientist thinks this thought takes a different pathway, “decorticating” at least part of the pre-frontal cortex, so the very nature of thought is altered- speedy, slow, mental leaps happening, thought coming in flurries, and a feeling of connectedness to other people. You becomes subliminally hyper-sensitive (so you seem to be “psychic”)- weird, unexpected, even shameful notions occur to you, (shameful because you disabled your value system when you decorticated yourself) and weird images that seem hauntingly like a metaphor except that you’re so intoxicated by the wonder of it all, you just enjoy the feeling of a metaphor and say you’ll work out later what it might mean. One favourite woman neuroscientist of mine described it as such far-ranging thought, it’s like throwing out a line for a fish a long way off, and as you drag the line in, you catch little bits of all the fish ( which are your memories) along the way, so that you end up hauling in such a fish as the world has never seen before. I’m a little self-conscious talking about this, but it’s my job and if I don’t talk to them about it, no one else will.
What compounds my worry is giving the lecture on zoom, so I won’t be alive to their reactions. All this with the uncertain internet here, which is sometimes good but sometimes not. Forgetting I’ve still got my nightie on, I call for help about zoom from NIDA’s tech man, but he gallantly doesn’t notice.
In the lecture, which I give on the deck with my back to the beautiful bay, I push them to the far reaches of their imaginations, getting them to imagine one of their characters of their half-finished story in a building, and then imagining or sensing someone outside -perhaps from another country, or another time zone, or even another time in history. Imagining someone imagining someone else you’ve never thought of before is quite a stretch. And then they discover that this total stranger can well describe their original character, better than the author does. It makes sense if our characters are constellations of ideas, and ideas are cartoons of our feelings. As writers we must become mere secretaries of the ground of our being. And I assure the students that they must allow one of these characters to stage a coup and take over the story, because the characters know the story and what it’s about, and we don’t. I finish the lecture by speculating on the brain activities involved. I love talking about this and I think they love hearing it, all because it normalizes the thinking we do for a living.
I switch off the lecture and remember that today I’ve forgotten to be a farmer. I squat and weed, water and mulch. I plant the chives and parsley in big pots which I’ll keep on the verandah, so they’re handy to the kitchen, and I’ll remember to water them. The line of spinach seedlings in the vegie garden would look to any proper farmer like weeds, and I must abandon them and plant the new seeds. I chide myself for being so pig-headed, and losing precious days.
And today I’ve also forgotten to be a fisherwoman.After 14 days, we still have caught nothing! Nothing at all! And the Hawkesbury is often mentioned as one of the best fishing spots in Sydney! It can’t be all that hard!
The birthday boat is tied up to GG’s yacht, and I step into it, careful to land in the middle, a little shakily because I’m still getting my sea legs. I ship the oars and row out to the oyster leases to look for the crab nets. But I’ve forgotten a hook to lift up the nets, and reaching out by hand will probably send me tumbling into the water, so I must row all the way back, call to GG and ask him to leave what he’s doing and come down the jetty and hand me a boat hook, which he does, grumpily, poor thing, and I row back again. But where are the four nets? They each have a one litre milk bottle, empty of course, as a float. I row in a circle and then a wider circle, searching. At last I spot a float and head towards it, but the movement of the water makes it slip out of my reach – it’s like trying to hold a knob of melting butter- and I must become cunning and sneak up slowly before hooking it and pulling it up. The bait’s gone- no crab. Then I spot in the distance a second float, and, rowing up to it, discover that the net’s caught in the sunken timbers of one of the oyster leases, and no amount of pulling will free it. I’ll have to come back in a lower tide tomorrow. And where are the two other floats? By now, the light ‘s fading as I row all the way down to the mouth of the creek at the Hawkesbury, and back past our village and all the way to the point of the next bay, Kubla Bay. Nothing.
At home, GG’s finished the fish trap. Making it has crippled him.
“Maybe I over-engineered it”, he admits. It’s true: this fish trap will never be smashed under a pontoon, never be smashed by a heedless passing cruiser, nor by a 20 metre grey nurse shark. But it’s left him smashed. He groans now as he bends over the BBQ, moans as he finds plates and cutlery, whimpers carrying food to the table. And I come in dizzy with exhaustion from an hour and a half ‘s futile rowing, and K clears the sofa as I collapse.
We have little sympathy for each other. We need a third person to look after us. But the third person has gone to the bright new bathroom, somehow singing to the songs on the radio while she scrubs her teeth.
At midnight, I’m wide awake and go out onto the deck. The moonlit sky is full of black puffs of clouds, like smoke from an old-fashioned huge steam engine stopped suddenly at a railway station. Between the smoke puffs, the bay gleams in its rounded stillness. Little rogue waves topple against the shore, the jetty, the boat, the overengineered fish trap, and somewhere out there in the oyster lease, two lost crab nets. Crickets sing, it seems, in a circle around me, as if I’m standing in the pit of an orchestra. And I remember all this is a huge adventure, and it’s hard, exhausting, daunting and often defeating, but adventures are like that in the living of them. Surely life before the torpor of suburbia was, generation after generation, since our beginning, hard, exhausting, daunting, defeating. We were made to be adventurous. Only in the telling of adventures are they pleasant, not in the doing, or rarely so. How strange it is, in all this terror, all this fear of all our deaths, to be given this chance to learn to live.
A five year old child on the radio asked: “Are we all going to die?”
Please not yet. Please not yet.
A grey day, like yesterday, and the power’s low, so we run the generator for an hour.
GG says it mightn’t hold, maybe we should run it for two.
“We’ll see”, he adds.
It’s one of those days when everything takes much longer than it should. Because it’s been raining every day – good for the tanks but not for the solar power – I haven’t got the new seedlings into the soil and they’re not looking happy. GG, being colour blind, picked ones that were already yellowing. Perhaps there was such a rush on them, he had no choice. I don’t like to ask. I have still to clear more weeds out of the vegie garden, and cut back a gardenia bush that’s growing there. it’s ridiculous growing a gardenia bush in a vegie patch but someone gave it to me when it was just a little tot, and we wired in the veggie patch around it, for it needed to be protected from the wallabies and possums, and regularly watered till it got used to being here. Suddenly, it seems, it’s tripled in size. I clip all the branches except ones with a bud, so it puffs out a wonderful perfume, but ends up looking like the sheep of, well, an emu.
F and S text to say they’re going to Aldi- in Galston- a boat trip and a drive away – is there anything that we need? We need everything – chicken and veggies, and we text back an entire shopping list. Later I blush at asking for so much. And I didn’t even give them money.
“Don’t worry we know where you live,” they text back. They smilingly pull their boat in at our jetty in a expert semicircle that I can only admire and not emulate, and drop off our shopping. I feel spoiled. But what about the dangers of things from the supermarket?
I had a long talk on my mobile to Sarah my friend in England about whether the virus could be on the plastic wrappings that other people have fingered and considered. She thought it could, and suggested we wash everything under the tap in soap and water. Sarah is always sensible, but GG’s jaw drops in astonishment when he comes upon the litre bottle of milk, the plastic wrapped cabbage, the plastic wrapped cucumber and two bags of chicken legs in the bathtub, all soaped up. He’s used to me being weird, but a soapy cabbage having a bath took him by surprise.
Then I realize that I haven’t prepared my last lecture for my NIDA class tomorrow, and I promised one of my retreaters I’d send her the edits on her novel by tonight, and I still haven’t rowed out to the oyster lease to pick up the crab nets. I run down to the birthday boat, but it’s half full of rain water. I begin bailing out, but after 5 minutes it’s still half full of rain water, and my back is sore from the twisting.
I call to GG, who’s still titivating his fish trap – it’s now got a hinged door and a funnel so a fish easily swims in but then can’t turn around – for the bilge pump from his yacht, but he tells me that the battery is flat.
“Bloody engine. Everything’s going wrong.”
He’s tired, his voice full of pain.
“If the nets caught crabs, they’ll wait till tomorrow, they can’t go far.”
I call to K asking her to put dinner on, but she says she’s too overwrought from her first session with the therapist.
“I’ll be cactus tomorrow if I don’t lie down right now.”
When K uses that indignant voice, there’s no shifting her.
I call to GG asking him to put the chicken on the BBQ and run into the cabin and work for two hours on my retreater’s work, send it off, and begin on my lecture. I hear shouting upstairs and the crash of a plate breaking, but I must work on.
And I wonder if living here is too hard.
I walk out into a black night, so black I have to call to GG and ask him to shine a light on the steps. He brings a torch, grumbling because too much is asked of him, and it’s true, it is. It’s hard setting up for permanent living when it was just a hideaway. He’s longing to lie down as well. Kitty’s eating tuna out of a can because the chicken took too long, she says. And she’s munching a her way through half a head of lettuce.
“you’ve gone feral”.
“I washed it!”.
“I’ve only got two pancakes left and nothing for the morning,”
I tell her I’ll make up the mixture and she can cook them. She groans.
The chicken is burnt and we’ll all exhausted but the night air is soft and silent, with stars bright as they never are in the city, so you could almost reach out and touch their silver tips.
And through the night, the power holds. I know because I’m up at 3 am, writing this.
Written March 30
In the morning, after discussing it with GG, I text Fand tell her that we’d like to be her first customers for June and July, when it will be so cold here. I tell her that K feels the cold terribly. Even today, at 21 degrees, she’s wearing two pairs of socks.
“In winter, K needs to be on the grid”.
She texts back excitedly- “oh wow!” but then she adds:
“but thinking again, a local told me that it’s as cold in winter as the mountains. Perhaps it’s not such a good idea for you.”
Were people always this kind and I didn’t notice?
I’m starting to clear weeds out of the garden for the chives, parsley and rocket when a familiar boat slews into the bay and headed straight to our jetty. N the builder’s come in answer to our plea for help about the hole in K’s wall. He lives much handier to Brooklyn than us in a very beautiful bay, but the houses there are shadowed by an overhanging cliff, so that solar power must be installed at the end of jetties. It’s so tidal, you have to judge the right, or wait for hours. It’d be a joy to live there, but I couldn’t handle the strange conversations I’d have in the city…”Sorry, I couldn’t get to the meeting; it was the wrong tide.” In the city, you can’t submit to nature. You’re too busy, and what you have to do is too important Perhaps that’s why the arguments of climate change are difficult to believe.
N leaps nimbly out of his little runabout, then turns and tells Coconut, his protesting dog, to stay. I’m running down the jetty to meet him but he holds up his hand and tells me to stay, too.
“I’m on anti-rejection drugs,” he says. And when I look quizzical, he explains that he’s got someone else’s kidney. Of course, two years ago he was very sick with cancer, though you’d never know it now; he’s strong, athletic even, with a wonderful golden bush of wavy hair, as wide as his face, and laughing blue eyes.
“I’ve got no immunity,” he ends. “So don’t come near. I’m expecting any minute a call from the hospital telling me to stay home, but you neede help.”
“They keep tabs on you?”
“I’m on a list.”
He’s holding what looks like a roll of very wide white tape.
“I’m going to put this over the hole.”
“That? Could that stop the smell?”
“It’ll dry out in 3 days and the smell will be gone.”
He looks at the sky.
“If the weather stays like this, make that seven. But it’ll go, I promise you. IThis doesn’t look as if it’s the fix, but it is. The only other thing to do is to take out the panel of wall, and I haven’t got time- the call’s any minute. Don’t worry-“
He adds as I go to lead him up to the hole-
“Don’t come near. I know where it is. I’ve seen it many times. Did a rock go through it?”
GG has come out of the cabin.
“No, when the tree-lopper came, he threw a log and it deflected off a tree and hit the house.”
N throws back his golden mane of hair and laughs wryly, a laugh that includes and acknowledges the likelihood of accidents, the vulnerability of houses, of us all, the foolishness of living here.
I watch him lope up our 40 stairs.
I turn and water the garden, and he’s back down in five minutes.
“It’ll hold, don’t worry. And you know what I’ve got to do before next summer for you? When I was working here last time, I realized that the heat in the house was coming from the roof over your top deck. The closer I got to it, the hotter it was. We’ve got to line it. Before summer.””
I warm to his “we”.”
Ok, says GG.
“And winter? I add. I perch on a rock about 3 metres away from him. He’s now part way down the jetty and stopping.” Should you come back and put it a bit more insulation?”
I mention that because of his insulation, we had the coolest summer we’ve ever had.
“We bless you every day for that. And for the flying fox.”
“Insulation only does so much for these houses. It’s up high, which is lovely, but the cold mountain air comes whooshing down, and the cold air from the river rises up. All you can do is keep the fires going. 24/7. We’re the same. One winter, we went through 3 tons of wood. You should move down to the cabin- it’s warmer there, even though I haven’t insulated it yet. And I won’t be able to now. The call. See you.”
And with a wave, he’s loping down the jetty with the rest of his roll of tape, and Coconut barking in relief.
And my heart squeezes as he throws his boat into gear and races away. I wonder how many other people he’s helping out, before the call. I worry all night that we mightn’t see him again.