Making sense of pain and chaos
My children were returned to me when schools closed last year. At five and seven, their lives had just been uprooted in the wake of family separation, shunting them from a big block in the country with a trampoline and a treehouse, to two tiny apartments in Melbourne’s inner north. It’s fair to say that things felt uncertain, precarious and hard. At that point, I read Deborah Levy’s memoir again. The Cost of Living reflects on remaking a life in the wake of divorce. ‘The writing you are reading now is made from the cost of living’, I recited to myself in my unfamiliar apartment, a mantra of survival and acceptance. I thought of Zadie Smith’s assertion, printed in Elle: ‘It’s all life. It’s all unavoidable. It’s all better than its opposite. Enjoy it while you can.’ I suddenly understood that I had never before experienced proper grief, never perceived that all the yearning and disappointment and sorrow in love songs was anything other than poetic licence. Levy’s ideas, and Smith’s, worked to suspend me above the void I felt I was falling into as the separation and pandemic converged, loneliness upon loneliness. Still, when pitted against the possibility of life’s opposite, the cost of living seemed a worthwhile price to pay for access to the human condition, of which loneliness might be a fundamental component. Writing this at the dawn of a new year, the other side of lockdown, I know that I am (on the whole) prepared to pay up.
If parenting styles exist on a continuum from Montessori to Playstation, all through my children’s toddler and preschool years, I had clung earnestly to the Montessori end of things, encouraging the children to collect interesting leaves in the park and attempt finger painting. I had a crack (unsuccessfully) at procuring homemade playdough for them to knead. These were the activities I thought one had to undertake foremost to be a good mother, and secondarily to raise curious and creative children. I was labouring under the assumption that motherhood was a silhouette one could be jammed into by force of will, shearing down the more problematic aspects of one’s character (a propensity towards drinking wine and staying up too late, for example. Moodiness. Selfishness). It took the catastrophe of the pandemic, the unravelling of my life, for me to understand that one can’t flourish happily inside an archetype. Soon, I read Helen Garner’s diaries. Both volumes. For six months I opened the books at random, drank them in, put the children to bed, sat in the bath, and wept.
Schools closed and the children came home, but I still had to work. I had rent to pay, bills. Given the scale of the global disaster, I was privileged to be able to keep working in my university role, seeing undergraduate students about their essays from a desk wedged into a corner of my new bedroom. But what was I meant to do with the kids, day after day? E gravitated towards Netflix; A to videogames. I was panicked by the implications of this transgression, my devolving capacity to deliver on ‘good parenting’, but not as panicked as I was by the looming potential for losing my job. At this point, I read Tegan Bennett Daylight’s collection of essays The Details: On Love, Death and Reading. Conversations, Daylight writes, ‘with other writers feel as alive as the conversations I have with living people…they are companions as much as teachers. And Helen Garner can seem as much my parent as my own mother.’ I understood this, comforted by the transposed maternal solace right there on my bookcase.
One thing I could control during the lockdown was what the children were reading. We started with Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword, a childhood favourite of mine about a group of siblings who struggle across Europe to find their parents at the end of the war. My children were captivated, as I had hoped they would be. What did I want them to glean? Perhaps that terrible things can and do happen to children, events beyond the scope of their influence. But they survive. We went onto Judith Kerr’s When Hilter Stole Pink Rabbit, another view of World War Two. As Anna’s family are fleeing the Nazi’s, she considers the importance of suffering in childhood for achievement later in life. ‘All the famous people had had an awful time….They all had what was called an unhappy childhood. Clearly you had to have one if you wanted to become famous.’ Reading these lines aloud, I realised with horror that my memory of Anna’s sentiment was significantly inaccurate, though I had gripped onto it through a childhood spent the way I had now orchestrated things for my own children: moving between the homes of separated parents. As a child, I had internalised Anna’s message to mean that unhappy childhoods were a precursor not to fame, but to becoming an artist. ‘My mother used books as a form of communication,’ Daylight writes in The Details; I knew that this was what I was doing for E and A. One day you will be grown up, I hoped Kerr’s narrative would convey to them, and then you can choose to make something meaningful from all this pain and chaos.
Little House on the Prairie came next. A box set. The rootedness of these books in the settler-colonial experience is indefensible, but having never read them in my own childhood, I was curious. When restrictions meant that we were confined to the apartment for all but an hour a day, Laura’s experience of wintertime came into focus. Snow rises up around the door and windows of Laura’s cabin, a unique horror. In chapter after chapter, the family are confined to their house. The narrative action is consumed by the minutia of daily life: cooking, stacking wood for the fire, waiting for the snow to ease. Reading these passages, I was comforted by the presence of Laura’s mother, continually deploying her ingenuity to keep the children busy. ‘She gave her thimble to Laura, and Mary’s thimble to Carrie, and she showed them that pressing the thimbles into the frost on the windows made perfect circles. They could make pictures on the windows.’ My expectations of myself went down, down, down.
I read Sharon Olds’ portrayal of her marriage ending in the Pulitzer Prize–winning poetry collection, Stag’s Leap. I read Vivian Gornik’s memoir Fierce Attachments, about her relationship to her mother. I read the recently reissued Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages by Phyllis Rose. I read Gwendoline Riley’s incredible novel, First Love. Then I read Ann Patchett’s collection of essays, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. I particularly loved one essay, in which Patchett writes of the awful Christmases she endured with her stepsiblings as a child, shunted between their various sets of parents.
Lonely and spent, my stepsiblings fell apart soon after they arrived, fighting and weeping among themselves. That was when my stepfather, overwhelmed by the presence of his children, would take his cue to recount his own unhappy childhood…Somewhere in all of this my mother, crushed by everything that had fallen to her, would begin to cry as she tried to settle the six small, miserable children who were now in her care.
I was made weirdly exhalant by the image of these sad children and their weeping mother; some of my loneliness lifted off. Other families were troubled, and some troubled children grew up to become Ann Patchett, able if not to reconcile the past, then at least to narrate it.
I wonder if all children of writers have funny relationships to books. Later, when the threat had eased and the world reopened, the children and I stood browsing at Readings Kids. E brandished a classic, Dickens. ‘Do you know him, Mum?’ he asked casually, secure in the assumption that all authors, like the ones already populating our lives, are somewhere in our orbit. But at other times, the children claim ambivalence about reading, sticking me where it hurts. ‘Reading is your thing, Mum,’ E says disdainfully at dinner. It’s true that on the whole, my kids don’t seem as compelled by reading as I remember being at their age, and this concerns me. How will they know how to live when they don’t seem to realise that the conversations that Daylight refers to are also being had for them?
I noticed that E had started to develop an intrinsic sense of how narrative can work from all his Netflix watching. ‘Look at this,’ he said, gesturing at the screen as I walked past between appointments. ‘This show started with everything being nice and perfect, and that means something bad is going to happen next.’ Narrative arc. I wished the lesson hadn’t come from tele, but I was impressed.
Later, he called down from the top bunk, ‘Does baby Carrie get born right at the start of Little House on the Prairie?’
I considered this. ‘I don’t think so. I think Carrie is a newborn baby when the story opens.’
E frowned. ‘That’s dumb. Why wouldn’t it start with the birth?’
‘I suppose Laura decided that there was a better place to start,’ I said briskly, impatient and tired.
‘Well,’ E said thoughtfully, flopping back against his pillows. ‘Maybe Laura should think harder about her readers.’
Alice Robinson is the author of Anchor Point, longlisted for the Stella Prize and the Indie Book Awards in 2015 and The Glad Shout, winner of the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction in 2019 and shortlisted for a Colin Roderick Literary Award and an Aurealis Award in 2020. She has a PhD by Research in Creative Writing.