Wednesday, December 22, 2010

In which the fish speaks of stones and bones and silence.

in case you were not aware, 
have no ears.

It would be foolish to expect a fish to offer access to their heads via holes,
they have smooth heads stretched with silver drums of skin and scale. Fish swim like torpedoes, along the path of no resistance.
What use have they of flapping ears, to cause drag and all manner of problem? None at all, I would think.

 Fish ears stretched like tympani on either side of the fish's long head, silver and smooth. You may have seen them, nacreous ovoids, turning apricot this way, mauve that way, depending on the tilt of the fish. There is no hole, no tunnel into the fish's head, no entrance into which the sea might pour and fill the fish with brine, flood its dreams, drown its thoughts. There is only tightly sealed silver fish skin.
Beneath the silver discs lie bones they call hearing stones. Stones to collect the sounds of the sea. The stone which orients us, much like, as Graeme Burnett points out, the Islamic qibla, the stone to which all Muslims turn and face for prayer. Our inner stones tell us which way is up, which way is down, and how far beneath the ocean you are swimming.


Pebbles in the head, pearls with which to gather music, safely inside the head of the fish.  It is said that a sea-bass has huge pebbles but humans have microscopic ones, a sac of tiny pebbles hanging inside the head.

As the years go by this fish's head strains and creaks to keep the sea out. My head works hard to close the entrance to my brain, to shut the sea out. The sea continues to poke long slithery fingers into my ears and tamper coldly with my brain, to softly clack against my ear stones, rattle them softly with a whispery rumpled sound. When I am back on land, the sea hides cunningly inside the ever-narrowing passages which lead to my ear stones. Walls of bone slowly close.

Cyprinus carpio (Common carp)

                                   (Doug Ferrell, New South Wales Department of Primary Industries.)

I try to seal my ears, to keep the sea out of my head, since having small oceans in one's ears is not a pleasant thing: it will whisper things to you as you go about your business, and distract you from the world of air. Every now and again an aquatic shift will echo largely as you reach across the table, or navigate your way across town, far from the conforting thrum of the restless ocean in which you swim.
No, I stuff my ears with waxes and plugs and wads of silicone, but the sea has become very cunning and contrives to pick them out in silent glee. I even took to using fluorescent orange wads of stuff which glowed brightly when they sank to the bottom and I was able to retrieve them, but gradually my supply was depleted. My bones continue to shift , and it becomes harder and harder to poke anything in them at all.

The stones in my head are drowning.

The sea worries the rocks underwater, tosses and pokes them as they are revealed by the great sucking of tide against sand.  rock shelf and boulder, pebble and shard: all are the palest of green, like naked things untouched by the sun.
The rocks settle in the faintest of hollows, and roll about, from one edge to another, swirling and tossing, around and around, the sound of rock against rock agreeable aquatic clunk, an undewater percussion, travelling through the pale green like an orchestra of sorts. After some time, they create a lovely round rock pool.

The sea stirs and worries the stones on their rock plates, and the hollows grow larger and deeper. the stones grow rounder and become, in time, like eggs in a basket, worn and beautiful: a nest of stone eggs. When the sea runs out these pale clusters sit in the sunlight and children play in them, lifting out the stones before parents call to them the dangers of blue-ringed octopi, the sharpness of urchin spines. Children lift out the stones, and rub them against the rockshelf, to see what happens: the rockshelf, unused to such reatment and more used to slumbering beneath a blanket of snad and the weight of the sea, is brittle and soft. The children dip their fingers in the wet powdered rock and draw with it. The sea-stones carve holes in the rocks.

My world grows quiet, the sounds in my world, it seems, have taken on the aquatic softness of sounds far beneath the surface of the sea. I peer into faces and watch them speak.  I worry that they will suddenly discern, just beneath my translucent skin,  my scales, my fins, the silver of my surface, the strangeness of my bones. 

Epinephelus lanceolatus (Giant grouper)

It is almost Christmas. 
I am standing, with all the other parents at the formal speech night, all of us singing. I can hear my own singing in my head, ringing agreeably. 
I like to sing, and I like to sing amongst other singing voices, so I sing clearly and strongly. Suddenly I worry that I am singing tooo loudly, and dart my gaze from side to side, but nobody is looking.  Emboldened, I continue. I pretend I am in a grand cathedral, until the carol finishes, and I must be seated with all the others. I watch and endless stream of royal blue blazers filing past, and listen to speeches. 
To my surprise, one of them makes me cry. A tale of kindness and generosity in an Indian orphanage run by an ex-student. Afterwards I walk through magnolias and gardenias in the warm dark air. I walk away from the sounds of father asking son to work harder, study harder, listen harder. the dark swallows me up like a tropical pond and I am glad for the way my fish ears filter sounds so well these days.

Next day at home, I sing. I sing and wonder what I sound like, since I am no longer sure.  I walk down to the sea and find it as flat s anything I have ever seen and I poke my newest earplugs far into my narrow ear canals, to cushion my ear stones, to keep out the sea.

 I swim all the way to the headland, but when I turn around to swim home I find a headwind has sprung up, and I have the devil's own time getting back.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

in which the fish is hot, the fish is cold

I am at Hot Yoga.

I am looking in the mirror, focusing on just one point, as I am told.
Not at the point between my eyes, as I am told, but at a point lower, where things are black and indistinct, just near my waist. I focus my gaze there, that is a good point to gaze, I think, because it is just a patch of black, and indistinct.

The mirror is vast, and runs the entire length of the front of the room.
It is the cosmic mirror, they say, and there are many of us gazing into it. None of us look at each other, we are just aware. I try ever so hard to be present, to chase thoughts out of my head, but
of course, my gaze flickers around before I can still it. My vision briefly registers the presence of so many bodies. The one next to me, like all the other women, features a pale and slender waist, an uninterrupted stare. Today I note also that I am surrounded by men, which is unusual. We all begin, moving, just as we are told, as one entity, listening to the words, trying to join together mind, body, breathing.

When I first came, I couldn't look at the mirror at all. I hid behind others and stared at their reflection instead of mine, because I am the only person in this room who does not have a slim physique. My body rolls and pouts and sticks out at all angles and the bags beneath my eyes catch the light and make shadows. I began by staring at the reflection of the pretty girl next to me, and pretended I was her. At the end of the first week I was right behind a very gorgeous young lady, all in white, with her boyfriend. I am sure her poise was shaken when, in the middle of triangle pose, she let out a small, but distinct fart. I felt for her, but I laughed silently all the same. That's what farts are for, after all: laughing at. 
She was mortified.

When I first came, I covered myself up with long tights and baggy tops but the heat was dreadful, and my whole body went into a kind of distress. All around me was pale, shining skin, sparkling with moisture from the infernal heat. Waves of panic invaded me from time to time as I stolidly enacted the motions, trying my best to balance, trying my best just to stay in the room, the heat was terrible: sweat flowed like rivers from my every limb, my face so red I looked like a scarlet jellyfish. The first time I went there was with my friend, The Little Hen, who was very good at yoga and I watched her from the corner of my eye, realising quickly that talking and looking were not permitted. I watched her stand on one leg and place her head on the knee of her outstretched other. She never wavered, though I could barely manage a few seconds on one leg, and stumbled repeatedly, sweat running into my eyes. I'd hoped this yoga might be a way of fixing my badly assembled skeleton, fixing my crooked little feet, making me straighter, but that first time I thought I would die and could not look in the mirror.

Next day I went back.
And the next. I was immediately hooked.
It would not defeat me, but I didn't look into the mirror for six months. It's been a year and a half now, and I am working my way to looking myself in the face.

Strange how you are so extreme, said Kath. You're either swimming in icy water or poaching yourself in that diabolical room. Can't be good for you. 
Eija said: You look great, and I am coming too.
She did. She still does.

I am looking in the mirror, focusing on just one point.
The young man just ahead of me, to my right, wears small blue trunks, his hair in a ponytail and is just on the edge of my vision. A young girl is ahead of me, just to my left. Her ponytail is long and shining, her waist tiny, her tummy neat and flat. Directly ahead is me myself,  in small shorts and a singlet, both black, my dimply tummy beneath, hidden,  my lumpy physique looking just a touch more petite than usual, because this bit of the cosmic mirror is slightly concave.
I smile to myself: I am right at the front, gazing into the mirror, people all around me. We begin and everybody moves in time: breathing, stretching, bending. Names in sanskrit, instructions, the same every day. The words of the guru over and over, we enact the most strenuous of poses, compressing this, stretching that.

Standing Bow.
The first time I tried standing bow I fell and almost knocked someone over and had to stand side on to all the others and hold the ballet bar, because it was impossible to balance. I had to show my body what it might feel like if we ever got this right. Today I lean forward towards the cosmic mirror with one arm outstretched, my other arm behind me, holding my foot and drawing my it above my head: I am a bow. I pull my self taut and stand strong, and I hold this and breathe. I pull air into my lungs and hold my foot high above my head, willing my foot not to move. None of us fall.

I look into the mirror.
That's the thing: I look into the mirror.

I am the biggest woman here and I am looking into the mirror and my foot is as high over my head as the
beautiful girl with the ponytail. I stand perfectly still and taut, foot above my head, arm outstretched.

I used to see swimming in the icy sea in the winter dawn as a test, a challenge. I thought if I could do that, I could face anything, and I suppose I was right in many ways. It taught me that pain is brief and that everything is in the mind. The cold only lasts a minute and after that it's like a wonderful buzzing of the skin, a rushing of blood, blowing strings of air into the pale morning water and listening to the sounds.

I am looking in the mirror, thinking of cold water. I see myself, misshapen but cheerful, hopeful, looking back. I can hold my ankles and place my face onto the floor. I can bend backwards and almost see the floor, but most of all, I can look into the mirror. Soon, I will look into my own eyes. One day soon.

when I am finished I race down to the sea and throw myself in like a blob of molten lava. 
The sea hisses. 
The sea grips my scalp and flings my air about as I stay submerged, looking for a grip on the sea floor  so I might hang head-down for hours, but there is only sand so I dive down and down and down until the sea has cooled my flaming  cheeks. The sea does not know what to say about this, and keeps silent when I am on my long hauls through the water these days, though I do know that the sea has enough trouble at the moment with all the storms and the whale migration. There is so much to occupy a body of water at this time of year that I  hadn't considered my steaming hot dumpling act would attract too much oceanic attention, but I still get a good slap on the head to remind me who's boss.

So, my small triumphs buoy me along. The sea in my hair, my gaze in the mirror. My faultless backstroke, my motionless Standing Bow. 
I cannot help marvelling in the miracle of breathing.  Of taking breath, and letting it go. 
In, and out again, pulling air down into my body, where it travels through tiny branches into my blood, into the sea of me. 
Of releasing great soft cushions of air at the bottom of the sea and watch them wobble upward until they break that quivering meniscus,
and disappear.

I am looking into the mirror and I am taking no notice of my fat little legs and the bags beneath my eyes. Instead, I luxuriate in the fact that i can stand here at all, and that I can breathe. I am looking into the cosmic mirror pulling air into myself.

Endlessly, happily: 
in, out, in.

Monday, September 20, 2010

or, in which the fish reveals the whereabouts of the lost children.

(an extract) 

My body healed up, days marched on, and nights reassuringly appeared as they always had. 
After all, I am a champion fish, a strong fish, a winning fish.

Not such a fast fish perhaps, but a steady fish, a fish which goes the distance. A heads-down, fins-spinning sort of a fish, a fish who leaps at the starter’s gun and  is capable of endless miles, full of baby or not.

I have  trained furiously for the race in which I find myself, but even so, my cheeks are plum coloured and my lungs twin sacs of burning lace . It is a few kilometres long, this race, out over the kelp beds and out towards the dark playground of Bronze Whalers and the other darker, shyer sharks off  Long Reef. Through the roiling surf and out and away, through numerous clouds of jellies which pulse mindlessly like small milky geometries, Tall orange  buoys appear from time to time to guide me, for me to shoulder around in these abstract unmarked trails in the ocean. I have a need to win, a need to overcome something.

I pull myself through salt water, with my hands my feet, my fins. My chest heaves, my face burns and the cracking thump of my heart echoes into the bones of my head. Below me all is blue-inked shadow, above me sky glimpsed as I steal silver loaves of air from the sky and hold them hard in my chest then before exhaling them, fragmented, in molten blobs to spin in my wake.

I must win, but it’s such a long stretch of ocean, a long long distance. I am wearing my face like a mask. At the start it is all fragments of kelp in a turquoise toss of foam, and later, in the dark of the deep somebody is catching a free ride in my wake,  touching my toes as I thunder along. I am unable to shake them off, but they disturb me, lurking there just behind, waiting to chase and pounce.  I steady my breathing and try not to lose my rhythmic stroke-stroke-stroke, my lungs smouldering.
 I have passed into another reality, one in which I am nothing but air and light and salt and movement.

As I look down in to the deep and watch the silver bubbles trail from my endlessly digging hands, I suddenly think of Marin, of silver light and lost pieces of love. Then suddenly, it seems, every one of her little extinguished heartbeats is with me,  surging along on a cloud of light. In fact there are hundreds of them: all of those tiny lights, all the tiny  souls who never made it into the bright light of day are now ere in my sea, like tiny fish, like beams of light, buoying me along. The sun catches them: fragments of light, tiny beating hearts, clouds of bubbles, a bouquet of air. I am swimming on a cloud of souls, here they all are, out here in the kingdom of salt and loneliness, in my aquatic domain: all the love and hope, the energy of all and everything. And I am here, amongst it, stroking the blue with long fingers and strong arms.

I put the love I had for  Marin out into the world, although she never came to be, and like the light from far away stars in distant constellations, that love continues on.
Love ends up somewhere, love ends up here, in the salty indigo depths. In the luminous foam of the waves, in the dancing currents, in the dip and swell of the open sea. In every sparkle on the ocean dwells the love and hope invested in those brief existences, and every one of them forms a deep bloom of happiness upon my heart.

Marin carried me, like a mandala-shaped raft. A raft made from all those little silver specks of love, those beginnings of hope, those hearts now stilled, those tears.

I won the race, although it didn’t matter,
not really.

from "Marin", a short story
By Fiona E.D

Saturday, September 18, 2010


It is difficult to see underwater without some kind of intervention, some kind of separation between eyes and water. Even my shortsighted fish-eyes need help, though most of my childhood was spent gazing at some blurry submarine landscape, and bearing the sting afterwards.

The first time I saw the bottom of the sea I got a fright, and drew saltwater into my lungs with the sudden intake of breath. I coughed a bit, and then went down for more keeping my feet raised in order to push my head down, to stop it floating up and out. I was wearing a huge hard plastic underwater mask, like a piece of cartoon headgear, which flared from my face towards the clear oval of vision in a swathe of sharp green plastic. The world of the sea was suddenly revealed to me, and I saw with a shock that it went on forever and ever and ever.

The huge mask was problematic when swimming in the waves, as one's head was tossed about like a large and bouyant bucket by the ceaseless pull and push. But I have never forgotten the lure of that world stretching out before me, where the pale ocean floor continued forever into infinity, the bright dancing canopy of the ocean overhead. I thought to myself with a thrill of fear: I want to swim forever.

My mother hauled me out by the straps of my swimmers.


Around the edge of the rock pool is where the rip leaps in and around, and creates a flurry of sand and small bits of weed. The ever present flock of spotted toadfish seem to exist solely to swim against the in and out of it, turning this way and that in charming unison, their wide spaced goat-like eyes unblinking. When the tide is low, deep turquoise pools are laid open, disempowered and benign, full of stranded toadies, but the tide comes back in and they revert to spinning hollows of light, dark, and fragments tossed about in endlessly moving water. The rocks hunch in their secretive manner, clothed in cloaks of dark red weed knitted by the tide, flecked with sand here and there. Down low it is dim and dark, it is hard to see.


I have rinsed the salt from my hair and driven across town, keeping my attention upon the roads, the directions. I am right on time for my appointment, and I sit down on a blue chair and cross my ankles. The hair at the back of my neck is damp:  I realize that I have done nothing but twist it into a wet knot, leaving it uncombed, but  I think also that nobody is really looking since these rooms are part of the Sydney IVF clinic, and everybody preoccupied with their own private hopes and sorrows. I am able to watch, as closely as I wish, the actions of everybody in the room, before I am shown into my own room, with a large screen above the chair, waiting to map me out. It is a larger, clearer screen than any I recall.  The nurse asks a few questions, how many children do I have. 

Two, I answer.
 I am compelled at that moment to explain that I have been through this four times. 
Four times, she says. Four times pregnant but only two children?
Thats right, I answer.

I do not elaborate, thinking instead of the time I saw a heartbeat glinting like a lighthouse, the time I saw those little hands flex and startle, and finally let myself exhale and love. I do not explain seeing that inert shape at fourteen weeks, like a stone at the bottom of a pond, lying still, no beating heart, no trace of light. I keep myself quiet and watch the sea inside of me, up there on the screen and say nothing. The blunt white muzzle of a very clever camera becomes a pair of underwater eyes, revealing my hidden ocean.
The shapes and hollows are aquatic and submarine, with flecks of light and dark shadows. Waves of sound mark the beat of my heart and the tides of my blood, so eerie and strange to see this space unoccupied, like watching the empty flow of the tide after the storm.
The nurse maps my inner fronds, the darker spaces. We listen to my blood, the soft thud of waves, moving in a fluid fashion from place to place. My chest tightens.  My body cannot help but remember the joy, the looking, the finding. Those tiny fingers, all of them with their thumbs in their tiny aquatic mouths, the rolling and the turning. Those two creatures who are so formed and loud and airborne now, those other two that shine endlessly in the quieter stretches of the ocean, silent and bright.
It is strange, to be so uninhabited.

Incredibly, a newborn howls through the partition wall, followed by muted adult voices. I look quizzically at the nurse, who smiles and shakes her head.
That's pretty hard for some people in here, she says. 
The crying is protracted. If it continues, I think, I will begin to lactate.

I lie there with my thickened chest, the shape of a flood of tears forming in my heart. I am remembering something else which often threatens to fall out of the edges. I remember being alone, watching all those hearts, those fingers. I remember greeting them all: my daughter like a small bear, my son who flung his hand up high, that bold soul leaping with arms raised to be the youngest then deciding to remain undersea, and the last one, who stayed incredibly for so long, whom I almost managed to convince that the world was a wonderful place, but who held her breath, and fell asleep on my ocean floor.
I remember it was only me who greeted them. Just me, their mother. I wonder now if I should have insisted, rather than ask, for company and be refused. Too busy, no time, no interest.

It is said to be churlish to bring up such things: that I was always alone.
 But the fact was,  it defined everything. It made me set back my shoulders, bear the solitary acts with as much grace as I could manage.  Nobody else but me even so much as glimpsed the sea inside of me, when there were creatures furled in there. There was no "we loved him" or "we loved her". 
Twas just me.
I'd not thought I had tears left for that, but I was wrong. In this unexpected moment in which I gaze into my own oceanic depths, and listen to the solitary beat of my own blood, this overcomes me.

Of course, there are many courses in life that I have not had to manage. I swim out into the open sea along the furrow next to the pool, the rip carrying me beyond the hunched woolly shoulders of the rock platforms, past the deeper pools and out to where the waves grow high like  sharp blue dorsal fins  trembling in the sun.  I think of Katie, who was deserted with two babies, I think of Mary who was deserted at 36 with none, and of Jane who left empty handed. I think of Anne and her brand new breasts, her harvested eggs waiting in some dark storage for just in case...and I think of the fine babies they might have had for me to hold, to talk to. 
I think of Georgie, whose firstborn leapt from a clifftop aged 17, a few months ago. I think of the hopeful eyes of the women hovering in wait for a scan to tell them that, somewhere in their private watery hollow, new life has been persuaded to take hold. I think of those who will never see anything but emptiness and silence in that  underwater place up there on the screen.

 Everything is relative, I think, as I head out towards the looming dark shape of the headland. I look at the small fronds of seaweed as  I swim,  at all the tiny points of light which trail from my moving hands  as I disappear into the sea inside of me. I hope to myself that all these aquatic maps will, this time, be empty,  and that what they find
is nothing. 
Nothing but everything as it should be.

The sea tries half-heartedly push me under, but I'm not having any of it.I swim on: the points of light are buoying me up. Against the horizon my son hunches over his bright yellow board, gives me a wave.

I swim forever.

I am not having IVF, just a thorough look-over.

Paintings from Body of Water, 2010

Saturday, August 28, 2010

in which the fish is herded into shore

When the sea is breathing in such great sucking breaths I do sometimes worry what on earth will be dragged up from the bottom.
Sometimes it is dark, cold water from far below: from  the domain of deep silent creatures whose blood is fixed at icy levels, whose fins fan currents which are viridian green and frosty.  Other times, it is just sand, and the battered fragments of olive brown kelp.

When last the high seas came, huge rolling furrows of might marched in even rows from across the Southern Ocean, roaring and howling, foam dripping from salty lips. The cormorants headed inland and pelicans sought shelter in the lagoon in flocks like squat clergymen, the old geysers with oversunned pelts sat on their bench as always, waiting silently to pick a fight, the words hanging off their chins, waiting for me to slap.  they restrain themselves mostly, as do I as I snap on my little swimming cap, adjust my goggles, daring them to make a stupid comment. Homophobia, misogyny, climate change...

On the first day of the swell I had to do nothing, for as I watched, my eyes round, my mouth open, the sea rose like the great wave off Kanagawa and reached up in an incredible arc, unbroken. Unbroken, it raced up the beach, unbroken it slapped the wall, and reached all the way to the beach house and slapped the old bastards right off the bench and strewing sand all the way up the car park. Up they jumped in fright, scrambling to stand on the wooden bench, drenched and grazed with sand and water. I watched,  laughed silently, and gave the sea a knowing smile which it staunchly pretended not to see.

Never have I seen the like! They talk of that wave still, a week later. I  smile at the memory of looking down the road and seeing the tops of the waves as if they were dancing over the houses like enormous muscular entities, the wind whipping the foam into plumes the size of trees. I swam in the rock pool that same day with my heart thumping like crazy, the sea desperately feeling round in the crevices of rocks with grasping fingers to toss me out or crush my bones. Folks, spying me there in my pink cap cutting through the slabs of storm foam, sure and solid, fancied they might join me, but soon retreated when faced with the walls of water.
I cant help being here, i feel like saying to them, I really can't.
And I know exactly what to do and where to go, where to hide from a thumping, how not to get flung out onto the rocks upon my head.
But i don't. They just shake their heads and scramble out. The Old Geezers laugh at them.

 The next day after that the wind gave up and had a rest, so the sea had nowt to do except jostle and fret, its body muscling and  rolling, curtains of sand rising from the ocean floor and foam like torn lace washing this way and that. Lively water it was too, sizzling with life, with things.  It was this day. the day after the day of the Great Waves, that the dolphins came back.

I had not seen them for a month or two, but here they were, just off the back of the ocean pool, and the pod had grown by at least a third. The biggest one was there, that I call Two-fin, because it appears there are two dorsal fins, or one with a large slash out of the middle.  Two-fin is always in the lead, purposefully leading the others around and around in that strange little love-knotty dance, tighter and tighter they embroider the surface of the sea until they all break free and fling themselves jumping into the air on the crest of a wave. Moving in circles. Revealing themselvs suddenly, amongst the surfers, their huge bodies silhouetted, silent, gliding.

It seems it is winter when you see them most here. They often arrive and circle and hunt for an hour or so and then at some secret sign all head off, leaping back out to sea, out towards North head. One dark winter day when the ocean was stirred much like this week I was in the middle of the beach at sunrise when they appeared. Quietly I put on my goggles and slipped in, alone, feet-first off the sand bank as they were so close to shore, and watched them from underwater, weaving and circling through the weed strewn water.

It is no small thing though, to be in water with such large creatures, face to face. For they are huge, muscled and dark: they are like water made solid, they are silent and full of purpose. One holiday, up  on the North Coast, I swam in the ocean at the unpatrolled beach on which we camp. I am timid of this ocean, as it is warm and busy with creatures large and small. It is unknown, unwatched. I  swam parallel to the beach with long hard strokes, looking below at the shadows in the ridges  of sand, and the occasional stream of whiting pouring along them from time to time,
when  suddenly a huge black shape appeared at my side,
then  another,
 then many.

I was surrounded by dolphins.

The sudden appearance, when one is out to sea, of an animal of equal size in very close proximity, is a terrifying thing. At eye level, you are vulnerable: it is an entirely different psychological perspective than  to be at sitting height, with the relative safety of a piece of floating fibreglass from which to view the world.
They swam at me, around me, not quite touchingme until I realised I was being herded to shore.
They kept urging me into the shallows, swimming closer  and closer around me in a tight and thrashing circle, until I could stand, at a depth I never imagined a dolphin would even swim.  Still they herded me ashore, further, until I stood ankle deep, and then they all turned and headed back to sea.

The beach was deserted and  I had to walk quite some way back, heart thumping, trying to make sense of it all. The fishermen dragging their tinny up at the end of the beach, gutting fish and spangling the sand with scales, remarked that they had seen a shark, which is nothing new.
 It might have been a dolphin, I said, but they squinted at me briefly, shaking their heads.
I paddled out every day after that on a board, desperate for them to come again, but they did not reveal themselves to me again, not face to face, not from my board.

It was not until I had returned home and was watching a news report that I had a fancy as to what my rounding up by dolphins might have meant. A group of swimmers in New Zealand were herded together buy a pod of dolphins, which swam around them in a tight circle and herded them towards shore. They were protecting the swimmers from a large shark which was circling beneath the surface, by screening and bunching them together.

I have always wondered if those dolphins had surrounded me to protect me from an unseen shark.
 I like to think they did, getting me safely to shore. Finding me alone out there, they gathered about and took me home.


The local dolphin pod stayed for a week, hunting and circling. Folks sat on the cliffs and paths above to watch them. I tried to swim out and join them, but the sea grabbed me by the head and threw me back, giving me a good slap on the way, so I pretended I had no intention of heading out the back throught he huge dark green channels and over the vast peaks.  I made like I was merely rinsing my hair, making the most dignified exit I could muster, before hearing the sea say to me
leave them be, let them alone
and I stood dripping on the wind blown sand and watched them from there.


The wind made a good show of things at night, pushing the sea into submission, blunting the sharp edges, wrinkling the oily slick surfaces with icy vigour. After only four days, the sea had tired, and gave up. So did the wind, sitting back breathless and watching the sea become a hard flat millpond beneath a luminous sky.

I swam in the rockpool with burning skin, concentrating on my stroke, imagining the cold to be fire until I could not feel it anymore. Until my skin had turned to scales, silver and moonlit and impervious to the cold. All I feel is the soft breathing of the sea, shifting next to me, held back by rock.
I swim and swim and swim like a shard of ice.

It is a week since the Great Waves came, and the dolphins have returned to wherever it is that Two-fin always takes them: somewhere just out past the Heads, I imagine. They could be anywhere in my dark and vasty sea: I can never see as far as I would like beneath its shining skin. There is still a sandy
tide-mark and driftwood beneath the bench from when the sea told the Old Geezers to hush their mouths, and smacked them soundly.

I slip in now, and feel how the wind cannot defeat the great body of the ocean: it is warm and clear and full of life. The sun dances in patterns across the ocean floor, and blow as hard as the wind might, it can chill the rock pool, but not the sea.

I head towards the horizon. There is nothing but light, salt, and water.
Nothing but me, and the sea. And somewhere, not too far away, stitching together the endless shadows of the vasty ocean, Two-Fin and the dolphins swim wreaths in their endless dance,
round and round and round.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

In which the fish speaks of dark glass

The fish will speak today.

Even though the sky is low and sitting on my shoulders, and crows strut on the damp sand pecking and throwing their beaks into the air, even though the horizon looks dull and dim, I will speak, because I fear I may lose my voice entirely if I don't. So today will be the day that the fish will speak. 

Six months is a long time in the life of a fish. Six months, to some, is longer than a lifetime. The last six months have brought me to an almost-halt, but not quite, and so I will speak myself back into existence. words will draw me back into visibility.
Its just i am so tired, tired beyond imagining. Even the sea knows this. It slapped me hard yesterday and I barely reacted. But I think I will wake soon, let me see.

I have woken in a film. I think the director may be sometimes Lasse Hallstrom, but sometimes others must step in and alter the tone slightly. The film is about a dysfunctional family, all of whom seem to exist in their own small spheres, and to whom any semblance of normal family life seem alien. It is as if I stepped on the wrong train and did not notice until now, thousands of kilometers later, barely able to remember where it is that I was supposed to be heading.

Nobody can have it all.
It is a conundrum, isn't it?
If I do not enact my self, paint my pictures, imagine things, make my way in what has been my life since I was seventeen, I may as well cease to exist altogether. But putting together my exhibition was all-consuming, and for the first time I realised that i could not do such things alone anymore.  I could not rely only upon myself to haul paintings, plan catalogues, hang things and the many other things required just like I used to. That art does not fit into a neat space which allows you to drop children off at 8am and collect them at 3pm. Art wants to occupy your thoughts entirely and lucidly, with passion and imagination in equal measure. Art stomps on the shopping list in your head and banishes the phone numbers of the tradesmen you need to fix your creaky house, the dates of deadlines  and visits to teachers. But still it presses in and you rear up

I have been putting everything else ahead of this for too long. i cant stop now

and on you clatter with your project and your thoughts.

Six months. 
Eight half baked blog posts. Fingers that resist the keyboard, nothing to say.

I wrote a thesis.
i was terribly behind, and stayed at home while the family went on holiday without me. I woke at 6am and sat all day at the table typing the thoughts of the last two years into a large jumble and sculpted them into a vague shape. My hand ached and my shoulder acquired sensations, a pain when I swam. I competed in only three races, limping along slowly like a moth with one burnt wing. Thankfully my old art school friend  was also typing in unison just as neurotically neurotically, on a similar project, and we kept in touch via panic-stricken email. She is represented in the Australian National Gallery and appears on the Art School website as a shining example. She wins big grants, she is a superstar, but still she cried and struggled with self doubt. I helped her with her work. She panicked about her husband and son. We both discussed the guilt of staying at home while the others go on holiday without us. 

In late January she was hospitalised for five days, they thought she had a stroke. I knew immediately the sensation: the burning nerves in the face, the paralysed arms, the headache. Touch-pad itis. Worry. She even outdid me on the neurosis. This made me laugh.


In my head, there is a table.
It used to be a large and beautiful table with things piled elegantly upon it. Volumes of history, books, art. Ideas about the garden, ideologies on parenting. Opinions. Large silver antique compotiers filled with enthusiasm and joy, large paper chains of bits of philosophy, pomegranates, pictures, passion and desire. Platters of still lifes, the recipes for painting with oils stroke by stroke. Ink-marbled copies of half finished poetry, calendars and schedules. All piled up on that table.
But now the table seems to have shrunk to the size of a Parisian cafe table. Naturally, I am grateful that the table, tiny as it is, retains some charm in its european aesthetic. But the piles of things don't fit on very well, and I am only able to see one pile at a time. If i want something else, I must hunt endlessly through reams of tangled items which have fallen on the floor, rummaging endlessly. So all those grand ideas one retains in one's head in those glorious moments of lucidity seem destined not to return. Once they drop from the tiny table into that great chaos at my feet I have to struggle to find them. After a wile I forget to look. It  makes writing things like theses rather difficult, makes remebering day to day things just as hard, and to make matters worse, this hunting is usually acompanied by the same refrain if you werent so precoccupied with your art.

But that is the thing: the art perches on the edge of this tiny table, waiting eternally. The pile in front of me is always the same tedious work books, shopping lists and parent-teacher schedules. Objections to council,  appointments for  Xrays. If i drag the art pile towards me, the other things crash down upon it. I hold firm to a small volume, and peek into it whenever i can. I keep my hand on it, so I can feel it when I am unable to see.


                                               With one of my very favourite ocean swimmers, Glistening Dave

We passed, both of us. My friend and I.
I sent my thesis to the most wonderful person in the world who raked through it like a fine silver comb through the tangles hair of a flea-ridden wolf. He removed all the fleas, and helped me untangle the knots. It took two days. I submitted it at last, all tideied and neat. The report returned no corrections.
A miracle.

My daughter, for the past six months, could be said to have a condition.
Yes, let me put it like that: a condition.
It is easy to put it in a neat single-word box like that. The condition makes me miserable and makes me doubt my own existence. The condition has changed her into someone I can barely recognise and with whom I am running out of energy to deal with. I read of warm mother-daughter moments and wish to cry, wondering what i did wrong, accusations of an art preoccupation ringing in my ears.
But I cast my mind back and find myself seing the beginnings of it all. Words knock around in my head no such things as bad children only bad parents. 
Reading stories to her does not work. I can no longer lure her to my bed and the Water Babies lies unfinished. I wonder what i should have done, and look at my own isolation within everything. I wonder.  I wonder how other people experience happiness, and whether I understand this at all. Throughout my days this eats at me, eternally. Perhaps i should have phoned teachers at school more often, insisted on that hard-won appintment with professionals that she refused to attend. Perhaps i was preoccupied. Perhaps I missed the boat altogether.
She throws a fit at her grades, 89%, because she has not attained over 90%. I tell her this might be due to the fact that she did not sleep during her exams. She hisses at me.

My exhibition fell in the middle of term. The students gave me their third assessment task and I promptly threw all 149 of them into various baskets and threw myself into organising my exhibition. 
Paintings seemed to me unfinished, not properly considered, but they were hung. I thought they looked quite good. It was so peculiar to see them somewhere else than the Nest of Fish on my easels.


It is the strangest thing, an exhibition opening: I wish in some ways i could have levitated above it all and watched all the people who had come. Had a good look at them from my position up in the air. Marvelled at the existence of them.
People that come to your openings are loved and treasured forever. Friendsips can be made and broken on opening night, honour among thieves and all that. But I smile to myself to think of the folks who came. I store all of them like dolls in my silver compotier, lovingly. I received such a thrill to see beloved persons from my past.
The swimmers came, in hordes, surprising me on a cold dark night far away from home. They all came and stood in the space and all of us were underwater together. All of us.

I was barely able to speak to so many people at once. I struggle to talk to people face to face one at a time sometimes, let alone everyone I know simultaneously, and so was sure to have offended at least somebody.
I remember once going to a friend's show, at which I knew nobody and was not spoken to, and I hated her for a year. After driving an hour and a half through traffic, I was handed a price list, listened to her husband hustling for sales, and made my escape as soon as I could. This came back to me as I considered the handful of people I must have neglected to speak to. 
Offended indeed was the friend whose invitation remained in my bag for want of a postcode till the show was finished. He will not return my apologetic emails.
Oh well.
Folks ask, Did you exhibtion go well?
and I reply that it did, it went very well. But there was a payoff. It was a hard-wrung success.


One of the very best things was the presence of two of my favourite girls, Eleanor and Ulrike,  like a dream come true. I am desperate to find my photo of Eleanor, but it continues to evade me. My laptop is a jumble of files in which it is hard to locate anything...but it is strange I cannot find the very photo I want the most.
I did, however, find this picture of Old Black, who came, silently and left without speaking. I guessed who he was later, when looking through the pictures. He put a photo of me up on his blog. You might know him, but maybe not. he is very quiet, but it is interesting to read about his life in Sydney which is quite different to mine. Strangely he also works at the same place I do, but I have never seen him there.

Old Black, bless him

For the rest of the term I continued to lecture, and for one day of the week I lectured for a straight six hours. The Faculty, in its administrative wisdom, also decided to schedule most of my year's allocation in the one semester, which meant I taught six courses instead of the usual three or four. For each of these 149 students, there were approximately eight more items per student each to assess and record.  Those baskets of projects came back to haunt me with a vengeance. They took me two weeks, night and day to read and grade. Then I assessed all the painting, the sculptures, the digital media, the drawings, the essays, the journals. At one point I was so tired I was crawling along the piles of work  on my knees because there just wasnt enough room on tables to place them. The projects were so deadly dull I would lose concentration often and have to stop.

Naturally the shy student to whom I had given an extension seemed to appear a regular intevals, and I was too disinclined to send him off. The resident snake did not appear, presumably because of the cold, which is a pity, because I'd have liked the snake to poke its little head in and say hello instead of forced conversation with extended students.

Meanwhile, my son continued to fail at school. His new, expensive school.
I am given a schedule to help with homework but he is as slippery as that snake and evades me. I arrive home from work and commence on the cooking, distracted by thoughts
if I make a nice dinner everything will be alright
As i chop and cut and juggle pans I try to ascertain what it is that my son must do. Usually his homework book is missing, or he spins me a tale about having none, or that he has done it. I hold his homework up above the saucepan and examine it for clues as he tells me that the teachers have told him  how well he is doing, but this may be his fancy. He appears not to retain spoken words in his head,
 like me, needing words to look at. I bark orders to learn his maths, write his history. He says he is working, listening, concetrating. we have im assessed at a professional outfit for such things. Sometimes when I arrive home from work he is still out in the surf. he returnd and I nag him, knife poised above yet more sliced onions, to get out his homework. I am trying yet another dish, I am chopping parsley, carrots, garlic. 

More often than not my dinners are barely eaten. Excuses, absences, picky eaters, late nights. I slide the food off the plates and into the bin.

He contracts a virus and is laid in bed for ten days. I have to go to work and leave him with a pile of comforts. He falls further behind. I struggle to do my work, to teach, and to mark papers. I am not entitled to sick pay or leave. I receive letters about my own results, and do not read them for a week. I rush into the market and emerge with food, which I cart home and cook. Often it is uneaten. After that I keep on with my grading. I stare into space and more and more things fall into the chaos beneath my parisian cafe table. I have to phone teachers, sign detention slips, find socks, iron schoolshirts. Uniform demerits pile up on the kitchen bench, but not on my brain-table. I forget them. He receives even more. I iron faster, harder, higher. 
Youre so distracted by your art
My studio is unvisited, the brushes gone hard, my life conducted at a run: I submit the university grades six hours after the deadline, feeling numbed. My touch-pad-itis makes me slower than ever to type them in.

We travelled to the snowy mountains almost the  moment I finished everything and sent it in just outside the deadline. No failures, lots of splendid results. I barely managed to pack, and the house, after six months, resembles the cafe table, except with real life dust and dirt. I call our cleaner,  let go months ago, and she agrees for a large sum to clean it. I spend six hours cleaning, and for 24 hours, our house is able to breathe. We are going on a Family Holiday. I am going too. I will be there, rather than typing at home.
We leave the house cleaned. First time in six months.


In the mountains we ski. I watch my daughter from a distance, sweeping down the mountain at astonishing speed with astonishing grace. She is the first one down the mountain, the snow untracked, and i see her from above, sitting on the chairlift. Folks exclaim and point at her, so spectacular is she.
Then she catches an edge, and falls. As spectacularly as she skiied.

She plummets twenty meters, a plume of snow rising behind her like a volcano. 
The mountain is silenced.When she stops, she is completely still.
I watch  her then, standing up and laughing, raising her arms above her head in victory.
I watch her from a distance,  from above, from the sky in my chairlift. If I catch her I am left standing in her wake, watching her tracks. People talk for the rest of the week about that girl on Mount Perisher, the first run down. 

Every day the sun beats down as if we are in another world, except for one morning when a cloud drift obscures everything and makes me giddy. Some hours I feel the sense of flying, of shooting along the frozen air in arcs, as if I am a star in the sea or a fish in the sky and I remember something of myself, of my body but I feel heavy and earthbound much of the time. Normally at this time of year the Ski lub holds its training sessions for the juniors, but seemingly they have been abandoned now that a good portion of them are on sports scholarships at Mountains Grammar. There, they ski and train every day.
I drink Caprioskas in the bar and read in the afternoons.  I fight with my daughter. she torments her brother and backchats me.

My body aches from fallout with her.
There is not enough snow to get to the other side of the mountain, 
and many trails are closed. Rocks and grass protrude in places.
This time last year I was on my way to Venice.
The thought makes me groan unbecomingly.

On a day such as today the ocean floor seems untroubled by anything but its own large watery movements. No light plays in flickering lines, nothing is suspended in the water, no shadows, no weed and no creatures. There is no wind and little light at all, in the sky above the thick violet banks of liquid cloud flow from deep in the flatlands until, reaching the edge of the country and meeting the sea, they fall like waves from the sky, unruffled, smooth, oppressive. The water is  a smoky turquoise, to watch the ocean floor so pale and quiet.

It is like looking through dark glass. 
I am swimming with my friend Mal, with whom I swam through the cold winter of 1993 with the furled bud of my girl still stored inside me. we remeber it. We agree, yes, that winter was an icy one and the seapool got down to 10 degrees, but i felt nothing, warmed as I was by the presence of that girl and a network of bloodvessels.
On such a dark still day it was good to head to the deep still water with my old friend.  A solitary group of bream scatter as we glide silently over them, heading towards the open sea.

Just past the break where the water became that green glass colour, the sea gave me a very hard and unexpected slap. I pretended it didn't hurt, righted myself and pushed on, without saying a word.