The beginning

In the 2012 Abu Dhabi summer, this past Adelaide winter, the lads and I spent most of our escape-from-Abu-Dhabi time in Adelaide, but the mister came for a couple of weeks and we also went back to our block of land on Kangaroo Island. Our last trip to Kangaroo Island was just days before we left for Abu Dhabi and in between more than three, not quite four, years had passed. We missed our scrubby, wind-blown land.

I took my laptop to the shack, determined to write something (anything) that worked. The week before, one lad had asked me, ‘Don’t you want to write another book?’ A friend had asked me over coffee, ‘Are you still writing?’ A friend of my mother’s had asked, ‘Do you have any plans?’ They did not mean anything by it, there was no implicit criticism, but they had a point. It would soon be four years since my first novel was published, three since I published anything. It was time to confront my false starts and my ongoing, now-habitual failure to finish anything.

I sat at the table in our one-roomed, tin-roofed shack. The rain pelted against the window and the lads ran in and out of the cold, trying to keep their campfire alive between the bursts of rain.

I fossicked through the files on my computer, looking at everything I’d written over the last few years. Novel drafts, scraps of short stories, half-written essays and half-baked articles. I trawled through my many blogs. The public one, my experimental ones, the password-protected ones.

It soon became clear to me that there was a sharp line in my written sand.
Before my father’s death and after.
Before we moved to Abu Dhabi and after.

Little I had written since since those intertwined times showed the intensity and precision of the things I had written during my father’s illness and my children’s preschool days. How could it be that during the time when I had been barely had time to breathe let alone think I had written with such clarity and, then, when I was given the time and distance to think, I froze? It seemed entirely counter-intuitive.

But then I came across some notes I’d written while reading a book about grief by Caroline Jones: “I felt that I was behind a pane of glass on the other side of which people’s lives went on. But I was not part of that life. I now have come to think of grief as a sort of severe illness, bordering at times on derangement; an illness that dislocated me physically, mentally, psychologically and spiritually.” It had had sharp resonance when I first read it, but now, even more than resonance, it made sense.

During the time of Dad’s illness, when I got on the tram, or stood in the line at the check-out, I had a sense that we were all in this together. The details of each the lives of the people around me didn’t matter. Ageing, full-time caring, relationship breakdowns, falling in love, promotions, unemployment, travel, graduations, illness – these were the specifics, but together they all added up to a shared and universal understanding of what life is. We all lived with a layer unseen beyond our front doors. The mere fact that we were all here on the tram or in the shop together was something we should celebrate in a shared smile, shifting our bags onto our laps so that someone else could sit down and rest their life-worn legs.

During those times, I didn’t only observe people, I empathised in a way that I never had before. I knew what it meant to live a messy life with scattered thoughts and loyalties, with seemingly no time to think, but a mind that was constantly churning. This understanding gave me a sense of connection to the world. Just as the New Internationalist poster I’d hung in my room at university had promised me, we were inextricably linked by the common thread of humanity, by life and all of its complexities.

This is what it means to grow up.

But this connection was severed almost as soon as my father died. With four years’ hindsight, I can identify the moment that the pane of glass slid into place. I was on a tram travelling south down King William Street. I caught a glimpse down Flinders Street out to the Adelaide Hills. This was a sight that had always filled me with calm and a sense of belonging, but at that moment, I saw it differently. It appeared in a way I had never seen it before. I wrote about it in my diary that night, trying to make sense of it, but the only thing I had been able to articulate was a muted colour. Four years later, I saw that as the moment I lost the sense of belonging to other people’s worlds. There was the world which belonged to other people, and there was me, standing behind a pane of impermeable glass.

I no longer empathised with anyone. Worse than that, I didn’t understand. How did they do it? How did they keep going on, day after day after day? How did they pass the time? In the face of a life that made no sense, how could they keep on acting as if it did?

I no longer believed in the universal experience.

When people tell us that they know how we are feeling, they are telling the truth. Even in my middle-class world where adversity is easier to avoid, by the time we’re forty we have all felt the grip of grief to some greater or lesser extent. There is no more relatable experience than loss. And yet, for all these years, grief had been the loneliest and most distancing of times. I was surrounded by people who loved and cared for me and who absolutely understood what I was going through, but I had never felt more alone.

How strange that the most universal of experiences can leave us feeling entirely dislocated, absolutely removed from everyone around us.

Of course, the move to Abu Dhabi didn’t help. With its stratified and segregated society, it is no place to repair a faulty connection to the world. My exclusion from the local community immediately gave Abu Dhabi life a sense of a muted, half-lived experience. The constant reminders that I was a guest, the assumption that I was here simply for the money, the lack of any opportunity to be involved in a sustainable community all created a superficiality for which I was entirely unprepared.

I actively avoided the casual relationships – the interactions with people on the bus, at the supermarket checkout, at the traffic lights – that had been such an important part of my life in Adelaide. On Adelaide’s tram and footpaths and in Adelaide’s post offices and markets, I had reveled in the universal significance of even the tiniest of daily interactions, recording them in my journals, on scraps of paper in my handbag and in my blog. Trapped in a car on Abu Dhabi’s four-lane roads, my opportunities for connection were already limited, and, because I could not pretend that I shared anything in common with the woman on the checkout, the man who packed the groceries or the girl who made my coffee, I avoided those opportunities that were available. I smiled, said thank you, but I read nothing into their smiles, the flicks of their hair, the picking of their nails.

Where was my connection to the men who walked the streets day after day, dragging a bin behind them, picking up the rubbish dropped from cars, blown around by sea breezes? When white, un-airconditioned buses pulled up beside me at the traffic lights, curious labourers stared down at me, what else could I do but look away, disconcerted by their stares, my privilege, our divide.

I know that in Australia there is privilege and there are divides. I know that to many people those divides are impenetrable. But in Australia, they were divides I worked to understand. But now? I no longer knew how to even pretend that there could be some thread of humanity between us.

All of this, I could now see as I sat in my Kangaroo Island shack, was one of the causes for the drawn-out death of my blog. It was impossible to write anything without writing about these feelings and this sense of disconnection. But I was frightened of blogging such things. I did not want to write publicly about how harshly I was judging everything that I saw. I was wary of exposing myself, frightened of the consequences.

While I sat, listening to the Kangaroo Island rain and looking back over my writing, I understood what a pivotal part blogging had earlier played in the processing of my thoughts and the stimulation of my writing. Started during the time of my father’s illness, my blog had allowed me to give words to the intensity of my feelings and the one fed into the other. The more I felt, the more I wrote and the more I wrote, the more I felt.

In Abu Dhabi, where I felt unable to write about any of the personal encounters that I had during the day, I had lost this cycle. I maintained my distance and this distance was continually reinforced when I made myself stop thinking. I had occasionally felt words forming into the shape of a blog post, but I would quickly pull myself up and make myself stop the thoughts with the result that I was not properly processing my experiences and interactions. Where once, every interaction had given me a sense of connection to the world, in Abu Dhabi, and in the wake of my father’s death, the emptiness of every interaction had come to leave me feeling even further disconnected.

It lasted a long time, that sense of disconnection, but now, the campfire, the smoke in my eyes and my clothes, the drenching rain, the hail, the simple passing of time made me look at all the things I’d started to write, but never finished. I wasn’t at all sure where to start, but I liked the idea of starting to blog again, of having a place to test my feelings out, to put words down again.

Things got in the way, between then and now, but now it’s 2013. January. And we’re back on Kangaroo Island for a week. What better time to begin.

39 thoughts on “The beginning”

  1. Hooray!
    That pane of glass… yes, that feeling I know, too.
    I think my not writing has had a similar feel.
    But, hooray you’re back!
    I may have to start blogging again, some how, soon. It feels right.

  2. You stayed in my reader…. just in case – just like another commenter said in the comments of your post ‘The End’.
    And I am glad I did.

    I’m happy you enjoyed your stay on KI and that it was a fulfilling time for you. I have yet to holiday there even though I live in Rads myself.

    1. You should come…it’s about ten degrees cooler than the rest of South Australia at the moment. Though the wind is a bit warmer than it usually is.

  3. Tracy,
    Thanks for writing this post. I think it’s very brave of you to put such exposing words about your thoughts, feelings and circumstances out in the ether. It’s always hard to know how much to reveal and conceal about one’s inner states in a blog.

    I found much that seemed familiar in your words above. I went through something similar after the deaths of two immediate family members almost ten years ago, and still struggle with what seems like the sense of distance from and unreality of everyday life, especially since my family continued to implode in ways that are quite unbloggable (because family members would scream blue murder if they ever found out–probably rightly so).

    I often asked myself if I moved to Alice Springs because instinctively I felt that life would be more ‘real’ there: the life-and-death cycle was more ‘in your face’ and apparent than in city life. Alice also has a sense of disconnection through the profound sense of divides there (tho these are arguably elsewhere but not as apparent). I’m wondering if you unconsciously moved to Abu Dhabi for the same reasons–to enact/be more at one with the sense of disengagement you felt–tho I suspect Alice differs from AD in (paradoxically) offering a range of country town/small community connections.

    I’ve sometimes asked myself if this sense of loss/mortality has something to do with middle age (which can only get worse in old age?), but although everyone has ‘losses’ by the age of 40, not everyone seems to have the same drastic/PTSD-type sense of loss (or dramatic losses, either), so I’m not sure how much weight I can give to that idea, which seems to be a distinction you’re also struggling with. I also think that at the end of the day, while it’s possible to empathise with other people’s feelings in a general way, it can be hard to empathise with the specific aspects of certain circumstances, unless you’ve been through something similar yourself. (A tangent: American scholar Philip Lopate sees the fundamental narrative position of the personal essay as being that of middle age in its ambivalence and awareness of limitations and mortality.)

    Anyway, I think your blog post has the germs of a great personal essay on themes of grief and dislocation, if you’re still interested in pursuing the collection of essays.

  4. I always freak out when people say ‘that’s brave’. It makes me think, ‘Oh, gawd, what have I done?’ But really, thanks for your comment which makes very good sense to me – I think you’re right the specifics can be hard to truly empathise with. Maybe I should go and look through other bits and pieces, see if they fit with this for something longer.

    Thanks again for great comment. Blogging. It’s the new blogging.

  5. There was a little leap of joy in my heart when I saw Adelaide from Adelaide pop up in my reader, and then as I read your post, a sighing “Oh” of understanding, and contentment, and recognition, and a savouring of your writing.

  6. I felt like crying reading this, and Eleanor’s comment. I feel as if I have retreated into such a tiny ball that I don’t even play with my blog friends any more.
    But hey, guess what?
    I went to KI. It was a secret. I thought of you more than once.

  7. I was in Adelaide 20 years ago this year, sitting by my father’s bedside as he lay dying. I so understand the strange confluence of the completely familiar and the total dislocation (in my case J and I had just moved to Hong Kong).

    I am so happy to see you writing here again. So happy.

  8. Echoing everyone else. It is marvellous to see another post from you. That glass pane? Frosted glass in my case. I sometimes think I used it as a form of protection, something which allowed me to not confront the things I needed to, and to avoid the work I also needed to do. No fool like an old fool.
    I am beyond thrilled to see you out from behind its spurious protection and am so looking forward to seeing more from you.

  9. Yes, I know what you mean about ‘brave’, having had my writing called that a few times, to which I said, ‘Do you mean “feckless”? “foolhardy”?’

    But I think what you’re doing by putting yourself out there in a way that people rarely do is brave.

    Anyway, good to see you blogging again! Hope to join you, once I’ve met a deadline.

  10. Eleanor, I never knew about your losses, which goes to show that either I didn’t pay proper attention to your blog or you didn’t reveal some core information. I also don’t like the ‘brave’ accolade which in the past I attracted by being openly lesbian – well, by writing about sexual politics – in the media. It didn’t feel brave, just the putting down of thoughts and analysis and experience. Having said that, I put down far fewer of those as I get older – everything feels more uncertain, yet calmer. Paradox.
    Tracy, I’m sorry to hear you’ve had that pane of glass and Abu Dhabi would not have helped at all, at any point of life I’d guess.
    I had three significant losses in my 20s/early 30s. I never had the pane. But I do still struggle with how set apart from most other people I feel my emotional life has been.
    Anyway, if you’re still on Kangaroo Island, I hope you’re all safe, as I heard it had a particularly bad fire danger today.
    I look forward to more of your writing, as ever.

    1. We stayed safe, and then came back to Adelaide a few days early because the heat was on the rise again. Thank you for your generous comment.

  11. Welcome back Tracy! So happy to see you blogging again.
    There was a lot for me to consider in this post. My dad died in October and for some reason I haven’t had the heart to write anything on the blog. My take on it has been a feeling that nothing is really important or world-shattering enough. Then, of course, because I haven’t updated for so long, I feel embarassed about any post I might put up and feel the need to explain… and so the cycle continues.
    My dad was very old, 92, and he was well ready to go, so the immediate grief was less than yours on the death of your dad… Well, I mean, we had kind of grieved already, when he lost so much of the life he loved and were glad he was free in a way.

    1. I know what you mean – I often think I shouldn’t talk about it so much, because it isn’t earth shattering and it is a normal life event. But I loved reading the links you shared about your father on facebook.

  12. I’m so, so very pleased to see you back!

    I’ve always been in awe of your wonderful relationship with your father, and it must be said, incredibly envious too. I can’t even begin to imagine your grief and what a difficult time that period must have been.


    And the other part of me feels all smug that you’re back in the bladdle (blogging saddle) because now I have more to read in 2013.

    And YOOF, is it hot or wot?

    1. I tried so hard not to be back, because I knew you knew…the mister drops by from time to time and he’s a dude (by dude you mean ‘man’ not ‘cool person’, don’t you?).

      It’s hot as, bro, hot as.

      1. Aren’t the two the same thing?

        I got back into writing over the Xmas, too. Not PhD writing. Fun writing. Story writing.

        Anyway – I’m back at work now, so it’s just blog wri–… er… reading.

  14. I’ve just been reflecting, at the start of the new year, on my feeling of disconnectedness and distance. I’ve speculated about a glass pane often these last few years. Sometimes I even miss those heady few months right after my father’s suicide, when everything was awful – but it was intense and it was brilliant and it was crystal clear. Now everything is muddy and dim and musty. It’s better, in as much as it doesn’t hurt as much. But if I think about it too much it hurts more.

    It’s hard to be left here, the alive one, and not to feel alive.

    I wonder if that’s why I haven’t been reading so much these few years. Hard to find meaning and connection to others through the haze. Trying to work on that but it’s a struggle. Sometimes I don’t have the energy. And what will be on the other side if I break through, if I finish the thoughts? Something terrible? Or worse, nothing?

    Gosh, I’m glad you wrote this. I hope there’s more coming but either way, I’m glad you wrote this.

    Hope you’re somewhere cool. Below 30 tomorrow, they’d have us believe. I forgot that there was a below thirty. Jeez.

  15. Hooray! Welcome back to public blogland, Tracy!

    The pane of glass is something that – with both of my parents still alive – still slid down for me when I arrived in Switzerland.

    It has been only these past three days when, after three weeks back in Oz for the first time in two years, I’ve been smiling at locals, initiating conversations and feeling at home. Time for us BOTH to write!

  16. You’re back! Hooray! I hoped you’d be back.
    And what you’ve written makes sense to me — it makes perfect sense when I think over what you have written, and also when I think of the way life works.
    I am glad you are writing again —

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