Here I am waking up into the bleakest hours of the morning yet again, and over a hundred kilometres from the centre of Sydney, which is not a comfortable distance for me – not until recently, that is, when I forced myself to move here, by going against every instinct I’ve ever had about cities and centres. Waking into these earliest and darkest of hours far from the centre and finding that I am already in the middle of trying to solve a problem that very likely can’t be solved in this thinking-through way. Not that I will know this, and certainly not now, at this time of the morning. Waking into the middle of trying to solve a problem, then, as if I had missed out on hearing or thinking the necessary first part (which of course is true), and so fudging ahead as I always do when I miss a beginning, and so soon becoming stuck, and then further stuck, in the jammed-up roadways of my mind. And just as it is for me when I’m in a real traffic jam – that is, in a physical traffic jam – in my mental traffic jam I will always be thinking, absurdly, that if only I could push on forwards, even just a little – just the fraction of a roll – I will soon be able to prompt the car in front of me to roll forwards too, and then the car in front of that, and on and so forth, until the whole long cavalcade of cars (thoughts) can then push on past the knot, and be free.
Waking into the sensation of pushing at the thoughts and so also meeting the resistance to this pushing, and I’m not just describing a dream sort of problem, like when we’re trying to speak and nothing comes out, but rather one that is real – what anybody else would recognise as real (surely! I think) – such as how I might arrange to see some of my clients face to face in the city, in the new work that I do, and some on Zoom, now that there’s no longer a lockdown – only this continuing risk, this continuing unknown. And so this attempt to come up with a perfect arrangement of movements and meetings according to my clients’ preferences, both in real rooms and virtual rooms (which nonetheless still need real rooms, especially ones that are private and stable, with solid, thick walls), and which – given that my travel into the city now takes me over two hours (perhaps less in a car, but who wants to drive?) – I am only just now and for the very first time in my life having to think about properly. It’s as if the part of me that never sleeps – the one that is always thinking, that is perhaps more responsible, and certainly more anxious – has only now, which is to say right right now (at three o’clock), got jack of trying to do it all on her own. And of course the seriousness of the problem, or at least of its effect on me, can be gauged by how thoroughly this process of trying to think it all through consumes not only the last remnants of my dreams, which I will no longer recall, but every possibility of thinking about anything else, including realising that what I am doing with this mulling, with this thinking, is not in fact helping me to come to a decision, and to the extent that, as three o’clock greys into four and then five, I become all the more desperate to solve the problem so that I can sleep again, and also less and less likely to do so. Coming to suspect, then, that in avoiding thinking about any of this in the daytime – after years and years of going for the simplest of working arrangements, which is to say the most passive, the least likely to ruffle or annoy – and avoiding, in particular, coming to any clearer understanding of my own preferences for what should happen – I myself am creating these early morning traffic jams of thoughts.
All my life I have had a fear of traffic jams. And I mean this literally. I’ve had a morbid fear of traffic jams, and particularly those chronic and regular traffic jams that clog and slow certain vulnerable routes around this city, with each attempt by the state government to fix those routes only making them worse – much more expensive, and certainly worse. And so this fear of continually being in the impossible position of wanting or needing to get myself somewhere – being desperate to get there – and at the same time being unable to do so, with the greater the need, the greater the impossibility of any sort of movement, and having such a fear of this sort of stuckness that for most of my life I have done all that I could not to live or work at either ends of those routes, and certainly not at the end that everyone else is attempting to move from when I want to move. In traffic jams – at least as I have experienced them – there will be an enormous pressure to get to some particular workplace or appointment with someone that it is necessary to get to or to see, and at the same time, there will also be an enormous number of impediments to doing so, with every possible obstacle preventing me from moving even half a car forwards. And then the battery dies in my phone, and I can’t even illegally ring that person who’s expecting me, so that I can tell them that I’m (clearly) not there and (even more clearly) will be very very late. And somehow the whole experience is so much the worse for knowing that a traffic jam is only a traffic jam because there are a lot of other people in the world who are also wanting to get to some sort of workplace or appointment with someone. Or else because somebody just now has had an unfortunate accident that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. That really I should be understanding that this is the case for all these other people, and that if all of our needs and wants were stacked up alongside each other, mine would always be less important – their desperation so much more valid and understandable than my desperation. And couldn’t I have arranged things, long ago and in the first place, so that none of this could have happened? Couldn’t I have been sufficiently organised and caring and thoughtful – sufficiently caring of everyone else’s needs and especially my own obligations regarding other people’s needs well enough in advance?
I have had such a fear of these sorts of traffic jams, and so of being helplessly stuck as a result of my reliance on a car – whether mine or somebody else’s – and certainly a fear of getting out of bed any earlier than I can bear, or being any more organised than I can tolerate well enough beforehand, that this tendency to avoid – and this alone – has determined where I have lived for most of my life, and also what sort of job I have done – or been prepared to do. And where.
Because hadn’t I decided, at around fifteen years old, after a fortnight of begging for lifts from my father to and from the station in the dark so that I could travel into the city by train for work experience with the afternoon paper, The Sun – hadn’t I decided that despite my continuing interest in writing, and even my continuing involvement, both as writer and illustrator, on the school newspaper, and later on the Union Recorder (illustrating other people’s stories and poems) – and the encouragement at The Sun that I got, at least, for my addiction to drawing people by way of making it possible for me to look as if I were keeping abreast of what was going on – that there was no way I was ever going to be a journalist? Absolutely no way on earth I was ever going to be a journalist, or even an illustrator or political cartoonist (which might have suited my habits then better), and certainly not a reporter? Because for me, being a journalist was equivalent to forcing myself to get up out of bed when I didn’t want to, which is to say getting up in the terrifying loneliness of the night, and then being driven to the station by my peculiarly slow and nocturnal father, sitting in the gaping cold of a red rattler as it wound its way through the weedy shadows of the suburbs towards the desolate damp of Central station. Getting to the old Fairfax building so very early in the morning that it was still so damned dark, and then hanging around for hours, while drawing too many caricatures of all the journalists in the news room, or sitting in the back seat of a smelly old car as, with a reporter and photographer, we waited in the infinitely continuing darkness for a reluctant hero to start stirring in his house – or being jolted through the backstreets so that we could get in as close as we could to what was promising to be an excitingly horrendous pile up on Tom Uglys Bridge (and in neither case being allowed out of the car to see the imagined carnage or even the hero in his towelling bath robe as he might have been standing, irritated, at the door). And then, at the end of the day, waiting for a lift home from the station. Waiting hours and hours, as it always seemed, for someone to remember to pick me up.
When I moved, at the end of my teens, from the upper north shore of Sydney to the inner west – initially to Camperdown, and then to Enmore, and after a couple of years elsewhere, to the even more inner suburb of Darlington – I was moving from stuckness, as it felt to me then, to the heady looseness of an undetermined freedom. No longer did I need to rely on anybody else to get me between one place and another. No longer did I even need to think about the details of bus or train timetables, since there were always plenty of buses going somewhere that I was wanting to get to – there were always plenty of trains. In the balance of destination and home, I preferred to be already in the destination, and so this has meant living not where other people lived, but where they were wanting to go. If most people were travelling, for instance, into the centre of the city every day for work or study or whatever else they were doing, I would want to be travelling out and away from that centre, unless I could keep my journeying in to very odd hours of the day, such as when I was hand-painting gumnut babies, flamingos and water lilies on t-shirts for a tourist shop under Centrepoint Tower, and I would head in there late in the morning, or after lunch, and on whatever days that I chose, which is to say only when a bagful of finished t-shirts was ready to hand over and I needed the cash. After my second child was born, I opened up a Gregory’s to look for somewhere to work that I guessed to be a fifteen-minute drive or train ride in the opposite direction from where everybody else would be going in the mornings, and so, after starting from Darlington, which is to say from our terrace house that was rather too small for the four of us (being only three and a half metres wide and in not such great condition) – this crumbling sandstock brick structure that I would never have wanted to exchange for a more normal house that might have been neater or bigger, but much further out from the centre – I would drive on west past the long lines of cars that were jammed in, nose to butt, at the various intersections along the way – driving past them so easily, since always in the opposite direction to where they were going, and in the haze of my frictionless journeys past all of those cars and the variously gleaming distractions of baroque mouldings on federation facades, cracked wheelie bins and giant bougainvillea – passing them all so very easily I would always cut it fine. Always arriving just in time for my classes, and sometimes not quite.
How important it was, for me, to be able to move outwards – outwards from this central-ish spot in Darlington, and however I did it – by car at first, although later, when my kids were older: a mixture of giving myself blisters as I walked the fifty minutes there in the wrong sorts of shoes and returning on a bus or a train.
In my ideal world, everywhere that I would ever want or need to get to in my life would be in walking distance from where I lived. I would do it, and yet I would hate it as I did it – hating every step that I took. How many times have I walked around the centre of Sydney, going from one place to another and getting so many things done and without any hassle of getting on or off anything – and walking so much that I could excuse myself from having to do any other form of exercise, and yet resenting all the hours that it took from me – all of those long minutes and hours of walking that take up so much time in my over-stuffed days? Because if on the one hand, and in my ideal world, I would walk absolutely everywhere that I needed to go, on the other hand – that is, in my other ideal world – because I have many ideal worlds and this is my problem, my seemingly intractable problem – in one of my many other ideal worlds, I would not go anywhere, anywhere at all. In fact, it was only when I was relieved, forcibly, by that stay at home order during the mid-year lockdown from having to go to any place other than home – and when out at the shops, skirting everyone I could, and gleefully judging them if their masks dipped under their noses or chins – that I came to understand that this has always been a secret fantasy of mine. Which is to say, this, just this. This avoidance of meeting other people or going anywhere, and an avoidance that is further relieved by any need to face up to my preference to avoid. Because isn’t this what life is, as Virginia Woolf tells us in her essay “Modern Fiction”: life as what endures when all of this jumbling and clashing of people and places are avoided or removed: life as ‘a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end’?
Of course, I know now that when Virginia Woolf states, in contrast, that life is not ‘a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged’, she is not trying to say that life excludes the fiddling and precision that goes into making all the necessary transporting arrangements, as I might have wished my parents to have engaged in when I looked out for the goggling headlights of their anciently cream-coloured fifties Peugeot with its long sighing gears, or the rectangular pair on the white Ford Fairmont, whose hardly steadier beams might only have finally turned in towards where I had been waiting forever after one of my parents had finally remembered to pick me up from the station. She is not even saying that it excludes the far more admirable display of parental organisation in those brighter and steadier beams that would always be swivelling one after another at the corner of Eastern Road for all those other people – mostly teens like me who’d arrived on the very same train, or on the next one or the next – and so for those outrageously privileged kids, as I always saw them, who perhaps had never in their lives been given reason to doubt that their allocated lifts would arrive whenever they wanted them to – and certainly a lot sooner than an hour or two – if not in advance – all those kids whose smoothly contented faces told me that this perfect manoeuvring of parent and vehicle and train and timetable was nothing more than their due, and whom I hated more than anyone else around me then, since weren’t they all so much better dressed than I was, and at the same time so much more innocent looking – so much more straightly and stupidly smug?
But while, with her reference to ‘gig lamps’, Virginia Woolf was likely not to be thinking about the steaming protrusions of head lamps on those early twentieth-century cars that had been sent to meet bankers, as I imagined it, when they returned to their home county stations after a long and tedious day in the office in London – not thinking about the way that the glowing lamps might have lined up neatly, one behind the other, in the mists of the evening since, according to Julia Briggs, ‘gig lamps’ were the contemporary slang for eye wear, and their symmetrical arrangement much more likely to be referring to the fait accompli of a tidied and well-labelled drawer – while I know this now, I also know that Virginia Woolf’s invocation of life as ‘a luminous halo’ and as ‘a semi-transparent envelope’ had trumped something important for me. I felt the reprieve. All that was alien to me, whether objects or plans – none of that was important. Yes, her image of the ‘luminous halo’ and ‘semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end’ was always going to strike me as baseline true because the haze that I fell into during those times when I was waiting for my parents to collect me from the station – or even to do anything that I might have wished or longed for them to do – whatever that might have been – that this haze that had in fact dominated so much of my experience when I was young, shielding me from the violence at home, stoppering up my ears, making it all but impossible for me to concentrate in class time and later in lectures unless I drew rapid pen portraits of my classmates or teachers or wrote all of my notes with my non-dominant hand – impossible not only to hear the crucial end of a sentence or a phrase, but also the beginning of that sentence, which I would also miss, and so the entirety of sentences, the entirety of utterances – that this haze was also precious to me. Because it softened my life. It was the warmth and contentment I would feel, whether in the old leather airlessness of the Peugeot as I was being driven home by a preoccupied parent, or in the variously lonely stretches of sun scorched grass and silvering trees that I would see on the interminable journeys in the Ford Fairmont to Melbourne to visit my grandparents – in all of the familiar silhouettes seen from my bedroom window, as they were also enhanced by the gently distortive consolations of Anne Shirley which, in the entire series of those L. M. Montgomery books were only ever fondly ribbed, never dismissed. It was this sort of contented and spreading vagueness, then, that I took to be everyone’s most basic experience, so long as they weren’t stupidly and obsessively focussed on something boring. This is the haze too that, since moving out of the city, I have discovered – to my great surprise – to be inherent to the one experience that I dreaded most in consequence of that move, which is to say in the extensive journeys through the reddening dawn down the mountains and through the western suburbs to the centre of Sydney, between one lockdown and the next – one official lockdown and the one that is not official – the long, muffled haze of staring out through the windows with all the contented passivity of a child or, despite the way the upper half of my glasses always fills with mask-made fog, the haze that seeps in through the two clear spots in them, and then straight on down into what I am reading, with only the gradual saturation of fat and salt into the cloth at my nose suggesting that there might have been other people around me earlier, people who had already finished their hot chip breakfast before they got off at Penrith. And so, like the fog on my glasses, this filling in of the spaces between one thing and the other as I move – between one ‘gig lamp’ and the next, as I persist in seeing the orienting objects of my journeys – and filling them in so well and fully – it will always be the softly felt experiences of the journeys that I remember rather than where (specifically) I went or what (specifically) I did. My early allegiance to Virginia Woolf’s version of what life is has long prejudiced me against ‘gig lamps’ and their variously attentive symmetrical arrangements in time and in space.
And yet, here I am waking up in the bleakest hours of the morning, just over a hundred kilometres from the centre of the city, which is no great comfortable distance for me – or at least not until recently, when I forced myself to move here, and so to move against every basic instinct that for decades has kept me rammed in as close as I could to the centre of Sydney. Here I am waking yet again into those early hours of the morning and finding myself already in the middle of trying to solve this problem about how on earth I’m going to arrange my working life now that things are opening up (as they say), even as people are continuing to fill up the ICUs and die (as they also say): a problem that, so long as I continue to avoid all of these sorts of pedantic-seeming problems during the daytime, can’t be solved, and certainly not now, at this time of the morning.