The Notebook

A while back, I wrote a post about the pile of books next to my bed, and where they sat on the continuum of not having been opened/being partly read/being almost completely read/will probably never be read. But did I mention the notebooks that were also in that pile of books? There’s about 5 of them. (Honestly, the pile of books next to my bed is the saddest pile of books anywhere, in as much as it’s an indication of a wanna-be writer who never does anything more than write a post on her blog.)

Anyway, after looking through one of them, today’s post is this:

All the Ideas listed in one Yellow Spirax Notebook. (2007 – 2011)

I first used this very ordinary, spiral bound notebook to take notes in when I started a new job back in 2007. It opens, therefore, with some uninteresting notes: which printer prints in color, procedures for locking up, file paths to certain files – information I no doubt quickly came to know by heart, as I spent the next seven years working in that same organisation.

A few pages later, it’s become a writer’s notebook. Perhaps there was nothing more I needed to write in a notebook in the course of my day-to-day job. In any case, the diversion to a writer’s notebook is intentional, because I’ve used it for an exercise from The Memoir Book, (Patti Miller, 2007, Allen and Unwin) called Brainstorm Circles. The instructions in this exercise are to start by drawing a circle in the middle of a page, and writing in it a topic you want to write about. Then, creating a visual kind of “flow-chart”, you write the first word that comes to mind from that one, and then, the first word that comes to mind from the second word, etc. Importantly, the author notes, you are free-associating each time from the previous word, NOT from the original word. When you reach the edge of the page, or run out of ideas, go back to the middle and start again. Spend about 20 minutes – this will give you an idea of how rich your idea is.

Writing exercise from The Memoir Book, by Patti Miller (Allen & Unwin, 2007)

(I like this exercise and employ it every now and then. As it happens, from this very first exercise, I developed a piece of writing that I liked and have sent to a few literary magazines in the past ten years, but so far no-one else has liked it enough to publish it.)

The next few pages contain my ambitious ideas for books (never started) and more versions of the same writing exercise, using different topics. Book ideas under consideration were: a book about an organisation I was volunteering for at the time, a book on people from regional areas now living in the city, or a book about careers in the arts. Next are pages of research for an article I was writing about the value of arts education in schools. (That article was published, at least!)

Abruptly, this train of research is interrupted with a note scribbled down when I received a phone call from ANZ bank in 2008. Some of my siblings were travelling overseas, and the bank called me out of the blue to say that my brother’s credit card had been the subject of fraud and had been stopped. I’ve scribbled instructions about calling the bank using a reverse charge number, and below that, credit card cancelled.

That innocuous little memo signifies drama for others, although that mostly played out in Berlin. My part was done with after I passed on the message.

Underneath this, there are notes to myself on possible chapter ideas for a non-fiction book on arts education (never written). Then some research on funding opportunities for the organisation I was volunteering with.

Turn another page, and there’s another sudden shift in the function of the notebook. We were moving houses, (dating this to late 2008) and my use of the notebook has become purely pragmatic. Instead of writing, or even thinking about writing, my spare time, as well as the notebook, were used to keep track of what needed to be done. The evidence: an extensive, hand-written, checklist of all the companies (phone, electricity, etc) I’d need to inform of our change of address when we moved. Judging by a few boxes left unchecked at the end of the list from seven years ago, it appears that the local library and Dinosaur Designs may still have my old address. Woops!

In the chaos of packing and moving house it must have been the only paper we had at hand. That’s the conclusion I come to when I turn the next few pages, which contain lists of words written by my daughter, who was about 8 years old at the time – apparently spelling tests, corrected by me.

Seems pretty good for a grade 3 speller!

Next: a scribbled quote from Budget Truck Hire, on the cost of hiring a truck with a hydraulic lift. The truck was to be driven by my younger brother John. Back then, John was the go-to every time one of his siblings moved houses, as he had a licence to drive trucks and was always only too willing to give up his time and help out. It would have been his instruction to make sure the truck had a hydraulic lift, as I would barely know the difference between a hydraulic lift and a hydroponic tomato. Following on this theme, next comes a list of items to be put into storage.

Perhaps the notebook went into storage too, because on the next page, it’s apparent that at least a year has gone by. It’s now a writer’s notebook again, and I’m drafting ideas for a blog post about Beckett. This signals that it’s now late 2009. We were settled in our new house by then, I started this blog around October that year, and one of my first posts was about Beckett. Following this are more notes, on a book called The Lost Art of Sleep, by Michael McGirr (2009, Picador, Pan McMillen Australia), perhaps thinking I may refer to them in a blog post, or maybe just because I had a strong personal interest in the topic, as I was still, at that time, a constant insomniac. It’s a memoir of sorts, and passages I copied down include this lovely paragraph:

We fall into bed. We fall asleep. We rise in the morning. That’s what we do. Over and over. Falling and rising. Rising and falling. We fall in love. We rise in it too. The rising takes longer. (p248)

After this, the notebook must have been misplaced or left aside again for 2 years, as the next turn of the page reveals a list of scribbled descriptions of photos of my brother John. I guess that, once again, I grabbed the first bit of paper that was at hand, and this particular notebook seems to have been in the right place at the right time whenever that was required. On this page I’ve written headings, indicating different photo albums, and under each, a description of each photo of John taken out of the album. This means it’s September 2011, because I took those photos out of those albums to compile them for my brother’s funeral when he died suddenly on 11th of that month.

At the time, I scribbled that list with the intention of putting the photos back in each album after his funeral, but then after his funeral, it didn’t really seem important to bother putting them back. I think those photos of him remain together in a folder with other papers related to his life.

Following that is a scrawled first draft of the eulogy I wrote with my sister and youngest brother.

Incredibly, straight after the eulogy – surely the most significant and heartbreaking thing I’ve ever had to write – the remaining pages full of mundane notes are a testament that the small details of life relentlessly carry on even after someone dies, and require attention.

These final, trivial notes include log-in details for a student portal, reminding me that I was actually studying part time at RMIT when my brother died. Then, prices of various options for holiday accommodation follow, because I had a strong desire to go away over the New Year break that would fall only a few months after my brother’s death and would also overlap with his birthday.

The rest of the notebook – only a few more pages – is taken up with similarly utilitarian notes: a confirmation number from a bill paid, a quote from a telephone company.

In my pile of notebooks, I’ve got writerly-looking notebooks, with luxurious, leather-bound covers, or floral designs and beautiful soft writing paper inside them. This one is the notebook you get out of your office stationery cupboard. It’s cheap and functional and not made to look like a writer’s notebook. It begins and ends with practical, trivial, and mundane memorandum – but it’s inadvertently also a missive that demonstrates how, in between the mundane, and in the course of four years, lives were irrevocably changed.

 

Don’t judge a book by its cover

 

 

5 years or no time at all

Writing

On 1st September this year, I happened to be in Byron Bay, a beachside location on Australia’s New South Wales eastern coast. I was sitting outside with a cup of tea, on a mild, sunny afternoon, that was not quite warm but definitely not cold, and therefore a vast improvement on Melbourne’s recent weather. From where I sat, I looked over a view of a permaculture organic garden and, beyond it, a clearing and behind that, the edges of a forest of gum trees that bordered the property I was visiting. Lucky me.

As a soft breeze rustled through the leaves, I pulled out my writing journal to do my easy, never-fail, writing exercise, “Today I Noticed….”

I like this exercise because I don’t have to think about it to get started. There is always something one will have noticed in a day, and often – if you are me, anyway – this small observation acts merely as the opening of a gateway, and usually a flood of abstracted ponderings proceed to pour out, filling up a few pages in a loose, unplanned way until the timer goes off.

Did I mention that for this exercise you are meant to time yourself and only write for 10 minutes? I like that restraint as well. This means that I don’t stop to rewrite sentences to make them sound better, but just keep going to get the ideas down. So, intermittently, I end up with a few pages of blurted-out thoughts, in a non-publishable form. Of course lots of it ends up being pointless but the theory is that I can mine the pages of this journal later on when I need something to write about.

Well, I’ll mine it today, because this is how my entry began on that breezy afternoon on September 1.*

 

Journal

01.09.16

Today I noticed, as I wrote that date at the top of the page, that it’s already the 9th month of this year. That Winter has ended. That it’s Spring. That it’s September. That it’s the month that my birthday falls in. That it’s 10 days until the 5th anniversary of John’s death.

And I notice, as soon as I write that last sentence, how quickly a heaviness can land in the stomach; when it was light only a moment ago. 

Of course, I can’t recognise that it’s September without also being aware of this anniversary. It’s just there; a heavy, sad thing, that adds some weight to the start of Spring, and to September, which was always my favourite month. In fact I wouldn’t even say that I dislike September now. I still have some affection for it, which maybe goes to show just how important our own birth date is to us. Even when my birthday is weighed up against the death date of my little brother, I still can’t hate September. But I wish he had died some other time – in the middle of winter, at the start of July – that would have been more tonally appropriate than at the start of Spring, a time when we are meant to feel hopeful and optimistic because the temperature is losing its chill and the blossoms are out.

*

Anniversary

In September in 2011, the fact that my brother died was terrible and nothing else really mattered – but the terribleness of his death was still new and raw  two weeks later when it was my birthday, so that made my birthday an awful, sad affair that year. But after 2011, the closeness of this anniversary to my birthday matters very little to me.

There is a month long period where I think more frequently about John, and reminisce about the time immediately before and after his death, but that period of grieving, if that’s what it is, starts on August 13 and subsides after the anniversary of his death, which is September 11. It starts on August 13 because on that date in 2011, I was with my daughter in the Emergency ward at the Royal Children’s hospital, and John phoned me to organise to come and visit us that week. In hindsight it always feels as if that day, which, at the time, was quite distressing and exhausting, was just a taster for what was to come. And John’s phone call out of the blue that day led to his visit for dinner that week, and thus to the next significant date, August 16, the last time I ever saw him, hugged him, or, for that matter, spoke to him.

In reality, I guess there is no cosmic alarm that goes off to signal that it’s time to start quietly observing that month-long period of grieving, so in fact, it starts when I remember the significance of the date. This year, I was driving to work on 18 August when the significance of the date struck me. Suddenly, with dismay, and considerable sadness, I realised that the anniversary of the very last time I ever saw my brother had come and gone, two days earlier, without me noting it.

Grief

But you know what? While feeling sad that morning, at some other level, I also felt relieved – to realise that I could still feel that sad about my brother’s death – as strange as that sounds.

Because the worst thing of all when someone you love dies, is to think that at some time in the future you might reach a point where you’d never feel any grief when you thought about their absence.

Intentionally, or unintentionally, that is the concept that is conveyed by well-meaning people who try to comfort you when you’re grieving, by offering phrases such as you’ll feel better with time. In the days and weeks after John’s death, that piece of wisdom achieved nothing more than to make me very angry. Angry at the person who said it, and angry at the very thought of it. I didn’t want to feel better. I didn’t want to contemplate the possibility that I would ever feel better.

Last night, I went to see One More Time With Feeling, the film commissioned by Australian singer/songwriter Nick Cave on the release of his latest album, basically to fill the role of publicity for the album. The artist doesn’t wish to do media rounds and answer questions about the album’s relationship to the tragic death of his 15 year old son just over a year ago. In the film, Cave remarks on the meaningless platitudes offered by others, who say things like he lives on in your heart. No he doesn’t, says Cave to the interviewer, He is in my heart, of course, but he doesn’t live anywhere. 

I am mindful of what I say to someone who is grieving. I refuse to buy sympathy cards that offers these kinds of cliched phrases. Grieving is important. It’s honouring the beloved person who has died. It ties you to the person who has died. Why would you offer comfort to someone recently bereaved by telling them that eventually they will lose that too, the grief that binds them to the person they loved?

Better, surely, to say what a wise friend who had lost both her sisters, said to me at the time: grieve for your brother!

Death

I’ve written a lot about the death of my brother – there are plenty of posts on this blog about John, and my grief when he died. There is one specific post that, due to the specificity of its title, must come up in search results when people search relevant terms, and every now and then on that post, I receive a comment from someone whose brother has recently died; quite often, in a similar way – in his sleep, from no known cause. Every time, it breaks my heart to hear this person struggling with immense sadness, pain and confusion about why this has happened. I received another such comment only a few weeks ago, and it was long, and filled with confusion, pain, and anger. My heart broke all over again. I read this young man’s comment and cried for him, and his younger brother.

And when I read his comment, I was reminded again, that all around the world people are dying. Someone dies every moment of every day. And that each time, other people are left behind, confused, angry, distraught, distressed, and anguished at their loss.

When I was a kid, my religious parents said a prayer (they probably still do) in which the world was referred to as a valley of tears. If I dwell for very long on the idea of death, I can see how someone came up with that poetic description for a place that, I now realise, is full to the brim with sadness. It becomes apparent that at any moment, there are so many people in the world either dying, or deeply affected forever by the death of someone they loved, that those innocent few who do not yet know how it feels to deal with the death someone they loved are in a distinct minority. I was one of those lucky few until September 11, 2011.

 

 

 

 

*Journal entry slightly edited.

A banana in time saves nine (part 2)

The sky.

The light.

Sharp shadows in the late afternoon.

The ability to feel happiness at a simple thing like the sun shining in her back garden.

That was what she was thinking about, idly, in her kitchen one afternoon, when suddenly, she was struck by an observation: that the bananas in the fruitbowl had reached exactly the right amount of ripeness.

She was filled with joy, not so much at the ripeness of the bananas, but at her own observation of their ripeness. She was, after all, an aspiring writer, constantly scribbling away, but always about what was going on in her own head. This had become quite tedious to her, since she always had the same thoughts, and those thoughts were always self-conscious musings about her own state of mind, combined with self-referential commentary about writing – questioning the purpose of the activity, etc, etc. So it was exhilarating to make an observation about the outside world.

With a gasp, she grabbed the nearest scrap of paper, and on it, frantically wrote the following.

Today I noticed the bananas are exactly perfectly ripe. Or are they?? Sometimes there is no certainty anywhere. They are yellow and speckled, but if I was to eat one…..will it be (gasp) – OVERRRIPE?!!! Best not to find out. I reserve my judgement.

She was fussy about fruit, anyway. Carbohydrates are so much more reliable.

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