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.
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.
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.
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.
Your words are, as ever, beautiful and evocative. I wish I had some advice for you but I don't have teenagers yet and I don't konw yours. Maybe give them the responsibility of making a meal once a week?
You see - if you didn't paint , you could write. You write so sublimely.
and evoke in me a swirl of feelings - but mostly an overwhelming desire to rest your head on my shoulder ..
Gosh no wonder you haven't been posting so often. This post really moved me, I feel for you, it really is no surprise that you feel tired. The struggle in your head about if your art has distracted you from your parenting is one many women chastise themself with... but to ignore the artistic person who is you is I think far worse. Mothers are notorious for beating themselves up for not doing enough at the best of times without trying to throw in something as 'selfish' as doing art!(I really don't believe it is selfish but traditionally anything that distracts women from their family and is not 'propper work' often feels or can be percieved as selfish.) You really need to find some balance (says the hen with the messiest house in Perth who stresses often because she has lost important papers and bills and the water or electricity is about to be cut off!) If you can afford it have your cleaner come regularly (you can't do it all!) and I agree with Mindy get your fussy eaters to help out- I had mine cook once a week and at the beginning of the week, which was thursday as that was pay day and shopping day I had them tell me what they wanted to eat and we chose two meals each and then the 7th one was a takeaway, I was so heartily sick of the 'food fights' and having to make all the decisions. It helped a little.
Be gentle on yourself poor fish you are an amazing lady.
Hugs. Lou XX
No words, just my heart aching for you.
When can you come over for a cup of tea and cake? Next week when school is back? How are you placed on Tuesday?
And look, at least you don't have nits.
I want to say something, but I don't know what to say. I'd like to offer parenting advice, but I'm a crap father and wouldn't trust my own advice. I am in awe of you and your creativity in painting, writing and parenting! Only last Sunday I was telling my partner about your idea of reading to your daughter.
I'm not even good at rolling off trite phrases about love & support...but here's the most reassuring thing I can say: As I was sitting here at our shared place of work, trying to think of what infinitesimal contribution I could make, I received an SMS from my daughter. She's visiting workers in Wagga Wagga (she works for the childcare union) and her union car won't start in the freezing Wagga morning. She's waiting for the NRMA. No request, no advice sought, just making contact; sharing her life. It almost brings me to tears.
I predict you'll have the same experience in a few years time.
Re: your girl?
You sound like where I was last year.
Email me when you hve a spare second...
Oh Fifi. I hope you find some harmony and stillness soon.
Oh, and the thesis?! CONGRATULATIONS, on both finishing and no corrections!!!
I raise my hat to you Dr Stupenda.
Nits cant hold their breath long enough to live in my hair Kim you know that :-)
Thank you for your very lovely comments. Now that the sun is out things look a little better, more manageable and I have begun to be able to function again. My semester ahead looks much less fraught, and now that i feel as if I have hardened my armour, onward it shall be for me.
O suse, I cannot claim that praise. It is merely a matsres in Fine Arts by research, which was to have been upgraded to a PhD at some point, but, well, I missed that point and ended up with a gigantic masters project. I still may go on with it, tough, despite the problematic institution, because I am an idiot and like that kind of thing. I will just have a breather first.
Old Black your daughter souns very lovely and I dont think you are a bad parent at all.
dette, I often confort myself with the thought of
your unpaid bills because I never seem to pay mine on time either...
Ii's just very hard to juggle everything at once, and I seem to be running out of my customary energy for doing so. But thanks, all. I'll be right.
Oh, and mindy, the boy makes dinner, but the girl will not. He atttracts the attention of the fire brigade regularly.
The curse of a great gift. Almost like a white elephant, that ability to see beauty where others hurry on with their head down. The passion to capture that beauty at the expense of all else. The doubt that you can replicate what is in your dream. The angst of treading over loved ones in the process. Breathe, Fish breathe.
And, I don't believe nits can hold their breath that long.
The glimpses of your art are breathtaking. Someday I want to see one up close and personal.(the paintings not the nits) Oh, and you too.
Sending you lots of love, dear fish.
I know the feeling of tipping dinner into the bin. Awful, isn't it?
Wishing you well and a turnaround second half of the year.
I wish you every possible happiness. I was pointed to your blog by a friend many moons ago and find your writing intense, mystifying, delicious.
Congratulations on the art, enjoy your children, your life. <3
Sheeesh...good to see you back Fifi, 'bout time indeed.
That's quite an art world cast of characters in your life, Fifi! And I'm glad you're posting again.
I sent you an email about a friend of mine who just moved to Australia (not Sydney) and is keeping a blog about his time there. He is there for at least one year.
Oh dear Fifi, what a lot of stress! I cope by doing the dutiful things and not doing anything creative and I so admire the way that you do your art. Dust will just resettle but your paintings will endure.
Glad that your comment makes things sound a bit better. Your children are beautiful and will grow up to be easier to live with, I'm sure. And will appreciate their wonderfully talented mother.
I went to visit Old Black...& left the most idiotic remark. I feel stupid but did not want to coumpound the stupidity, by trying to correct it.
I swear, I was your daughter, in a parallel life! I was odious to my lovely, loving, mother. We became the closest of friends, after life tortured both of us. I am sure you will reach this, with your own daughter, one day. I wonder what I did, to get such a beautiful daughter, who is so different to me!
Big love to you, most loved sea creature.
You are no more, but sunken in a sea
Sheer into dream, ten thousand leagues, you fell;
And now you lie green-golden, while a bell
Swings with the tide, my heart: and all is well
Till I look down, and wavering, the spell–
Your loveliness–returns. There in the sea,
Where you lie amber-pale and coral-cool,
You are most loved, most lost, most beautiful.
Congratulations on your thesis. No wonder you are sometimes overwhelmed by life - all that juggling. I very much liked your description of the "furled bud of my girl" stored inside you, keeping you warm in the freezing sea. I am sure that you will keep each other warm again.
ah, bay bay,
fancy seeing you here?
ah fifi. Hard times, huh?
It's wonderful that women have so many opportunities these days, but at the same time we somehow end up having so many responsibilities that our heads spin. I often feel like I am doing a lousy job in each role. There seems to be no end to mother-guilt.
I was glad to read in a comment by you (above this) that you're feeling better. Take care dear fifi.
Wow, that's one of the longest blog posts I've read that has engaged me with every sentence. Thanks for putting into words what I feel so much of the time (sans the added pressure of kids). I loved your analogy of the table, I know exactly what you mean. I'm struggling with realizing I might never get to some of those piles. I need to choose just a few and let the others go, since my table isn't getting any bigger...
...and I know the feeling of being at the same time obsessed with your art as dust gathers in your studio...and the feeling of gratitude after an opening for the people who came and the nagging worry that you've offended them...artists' guilt for sure
I'm going to link to this post on my blog, any bookmark yours!
I haven't been to blogland at all often recently, but oh fifi, I'm sorry it has taken me so long to come across this post.
So beautiful and so sad.
I love the terrifying image of your daughter tearing down the mountain in the snow. Wild thing.
And as I just step into the angst of a MFA by research, I can only admire a thousand fold that you have finished.
Hope you are okay and sending you much love. xx
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