I’m letting our succulents die. I was the only one keeping them alive. So I’ve forced myself to stop. I read in a book that a vital stage of healing for those who have sustained trauma is letting go of the caretaker roles they find oppressive. I have deleted from my calendar the reminder notification that says ‘water plant’. When I see the pots I force myself to look away, and resist the compulsion to run to their aid.
In 2018, around about this time, I was in Mudgee for the annual Readers’ Festival. Before the lockdown came into effect in June, my friends and I were planning to go back again this year. Now cancelled, its future, like that of other regional writing festivals, seems uncertain. I remember, three years ago, on Market Street, seeing a small jade plant in a public flowerbed that had toppled. Picking it up and righting it, I pushed it back firmly into the soil, and said out loud, to myself, ‘Oh no, this poor succulent has fallen down.’ Some patrons at a nearby café, in earshot of me, laughed, finding what I had said and done, I guess, endearing or whimsical. I think of that person now, as I apply myself to desiccating these fuckers in my yard slowly to death.
I clean under the bed. I clean the whole house, compulsively, day and night, and it develops a kind of spinstery smell: cigarettes and bleach. I am surprised in particular by the way that the bedroom floor had seemed spotless, until I peeked under the furniture. The bits of the house you can’t see are filthy; the house only seemed clean. Boring metaphor. I fill a garbage bag with clumps of hair and dust, used tissues, lost slippers, forsaken hair ties, my favourite pens. I am not writing.
A colleague and I meet on Zoom every Friday, keeping each other up till past midnight, the conversation sometimes devolving into incoherent gurgling as we use each other’s companionship to fall asleep. We discuss the issue of whether I should or should not let go of a friend of three years who has, I keep insisting, been unable to be there for me during my recent dark night of the soul, my flowery way of talking about an unexpected break-up with my partner of eight years during a lockdown that has me now living alone.
My colleague insists that one should never burn a bridge. Keep watering the plant, just in case. Remember, it’s a pandemic. We’re all burnt out right now. He’ll come back soon.
I acknowledge that he is right, but, and yet. I’m sorry, I find myself insisting. I appreciate your advice. But I can’t. I’m sorry, I can’t. I continue, I just – I never get to be the shitty one, you know? I never get to be the dud, the flop, the crazy one. When do I get to suck?
Hold on! he interrupts. Hold on!
I shout back, no, you hold on!
But he carries on, speaking over me: Hold on! Who are these people who ‘get to be crazy’?
I think of a tweet: 95 per cent of Twitter is people making up a person and then getting mad at them. We both collapse into giggles.
During this period I have been incapable of doing anything: positively haemorrhaging cash, deadlines (which used to structure my day-to-day existence), and career goals (which used to propel me) feel distant and insubstantial. I develop the habit of weakly remarking about some missed deadline or another, ‘What are they gonna do, come to my house?’
I have to push back my PhD thesis submission deadline by six months. I submit two thirds of my book manuscript to my publisher, and then shit the bed on completing the final three essays: for a few months, I could not even tell you what their titles were meant to be, or who is the Me who was meant to be narrating them. The only thing that penetrates my brain fog is reading books on psychology – which is where I got the phrase dark night of the soul – and taking copious voice memos and Google Keep notes, in which I detail my dreams, and variously reflect on feelings that come up around my divorce. In one, I comment that I am so grateful I have such an active subconscious, which processes things for me on my behalf. For example: in one dream, my house is about to explode, and I know it is, and my former partner knows it is too. An hour before the scheduled eruption, I get up out of bed, sneak away from my partner. I crack a window, and I practice escaping, and then I slip back into bed and lie in wait. My partner decides not to do any preparation, and in the dream he dies and I become a widow. I wake up, both grateful that I practice escaping and afraid that from now on I will always practice escaping.
In another memo, I comment that my brain is a souped-up trauma-processing machine. My subconscious works even while I am not working. I sleep and it cleans shop.
On Twitter, the Elizabeth Jolley bot posts: ‘Leaves fall all the time and new leaves come, stained bark.’ When I go to copy it out into a Note, I accidentally write, ‘Leaves fall all the time and feel like a punishment.’ Did I write that?
One attempt my colleagues and I make to stay tethered to one another is through a reading group. Each of us gets to take a turn to pick the book, which we meet weekly in order, sometimes, to excoriate. Occasionally we pause to acknowledge that each of us will someday go on to publish a book, and that we hope our critics will be kind. But that future is yet to come, and so in the meantime we run our mouths. Occasionally, we ironically repeat the tweet, ‘Congrats to anyone who has ever written a book,’ a shorthand means of acknowledging that it is in fact a difficult feat. Writing a book is worthy of respect, says my colleague, about one particular text that he hates. Setting up for an even more brutal takedown by first feigning graciousness. But the real issue here is that this does not even meet the definition of a book. We hoot and holler like schoolkids over the quality of this roast.
When it rolls around to my turn, I pick Sophie Lewis’ Full Surrogacy Now, a work that advocates, among other things, for the abolition of the family. It makes sense for me in a way it doesn’t make sense for my peers. During one meeting, I find myself insisting, only half-jokingly, that we are all already each other’s mothers! We are! And therefore the family is an unnatural construct! But only someone motherless would believe that.
I haven’t seen my mother in months. Normally, she occupies a significant portion of my mental real estate. She looms large, especially in my work, but this period – of physical distance, and of letting go of the caretaker roles I find oppressive – has allowed her to recede. I am worried that soon I won’t care enough anymore about the impact her life experiences have had on mine, and that therefore I will no longer be able to reliably tap the vein that has so far animated my work. I am worried I can’t work, that I will never feel well – or even ill – enough to work again.
In Full Surrogacy Now, Lewis quotes a line from Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which, anyway, is Maggie Nelson quoting something she was told many times in the lead-up to giving birth to her and her partner’s child Iggy.
You don’t do labour – labour does you.
Congrats to anyone who is writing their book.
Yet another note, under the heading COMFORT, reads, ‘Grief involves the pain of losing something that we had. But we didn’t always have it; as with dying and returning to non-existence, all that we’re doing is going back to a prior state, before we had what we had.’
None of this writing is the right writing, but this writing rights me.
I get used to telling my friends the CliffsNotes version of the break-up story. I do it about eight times before I stop being able to be bothered – before I hang up my gloves, stop touring the material. I have synthesised a tight, condensed, although admittedly 40-minute – and therefore neither tight nor condensed – version. Each time I tell it, I feel myself perfecting the content, hitting different beats, setting up a few Chekhov’s guns: remember this name, it becomes important later; remember this conversation. ‘Play stupid games, win stupid prizes,’ is one of the lines I repeat, as it gets me a sure laugh every time.
My friend comes by and drops me off a copy of Rachel Cusk’s Aftermath. For research, he says.
True, I say, laughing. Maybe some day this’ll be an essay. I actually already have the title picked out. But I’m not writing it.
When I tell my publisher I might be late on delivering the last essay of the book, the real book, the one I have under deadline, she is understanding and commiserative.
‘That sounds so hard,’ she says.
‘Eh, it’s alright,’ I say. Don’t know why I harbour the impulse to slap away words of comfort. ‘And anyway, it’s all material, right?’ We both laugh weakly.
I obsess over a print I bought my former partner – due to COVID lockdowns, I purchase it before the break-up, and by the time he and I are wrapped it hasn’t even shipped from Melbourne. I can’t quite parse that a tracking number can outlive a relationship, or that we must satisfy this injunction that the universe has placed on us that we play out interpersonal crises in the background of the collapse of the global political economy. We are like pianolas with the notes pre-loaded.
I forget about the print I have ordered until one night I wake at 4am in a lurch, unable to think about anything else. I email the artist. The print was a gift in recognition of an important career milestone. When it does arrive, I contemplate writing something deranged down the side of the mailing tube, like, ‘Congratulations! I thought that this was something we achieved together. I thought this was for both of us. I thought this was a shared investment.’ But I don’t; I hand it over, in the form of the unladen gift it was once intended to be. I am not writing on the tube.
I don’t write. I take walks. Some days I walk for up to four hours, either alone or cycling through a range of different companions that I am lucky enough to have living within 5 kilometres of me.
On Zoom, when I speak to my colleague, he often insists that he viscerally loves his home city, yearns for it like nothing else. I used to often remind him that he was responding to a question I hadn’t asked: who do you love? I would say, Who, not where. You have to name a person.
But I don’t care about this question anymore. It is easy to love Rozelle Bay. Every morning, I drive, possessed, to smell the bay’s air, to look over the smattering of moored boats, to watch the sun glint and reflect off the water. Maybe this is an asymmetric, and therefore degraded, form of love – I cannot act on this place but it can act on me.
Tim and I walk Rozelle Bay every week, and we discuss my break-up, the beats of which sometimes reflect events that have occurred in his own life. One night, he ponders aloud, ‘Isn’t it crazy that we’re all going through the same kinds of feelings, the same big life changes, just with endless permutations in terms of tweaks in minor details, like the themes are the same but the plot is different?’
‘I wouldn’t know,’ I say, attempting a joke. ‘I don’t write anymore.’
My nails are growing back out. For years this has been the key way for me to tell how my subconscious is doing. At the most stressful junctures of my life, I have stubs, red fingertips, peppered with dried blood. I have to use these clues because I don’t have the insight that I pretend to – I often am only guessing at myself. My friend Marie, who joins my singles bubble – oh, how my former partner and I had pitied people who lived alone during the lockdowns, until – points out that I didn’t practice escaping, really. What happened did blindside me. Maybe it was convenient for me to believe that I had known the whole time. Maybe some part of you knew, she says. But most of you didn’t. We are drinking beer on my couch, at the end of a long week for her, and the end of yet another one of my ‘weeks off’, so called because I have been helpless to accomplish anything. I am not writing, I have not been writing, I am not working, I have not been working. But this week I might start again.