Acid Mantle

It is nearly the shortest day. I am waking too early. Before it is light. I have been running every morning to a park nearby in the sharp cold. I have been doing this since we arrived here two weeks ago. In part I am running to save myself from the disturbance of moving again. It might smooth my fur. Or open a window. No, I don’t know what it might do, but it does something.

The cold strengthens as the days lengthen.

I had a friend who said that being in the pool is like the accident never happened. It is something like that. It could be brain chemistry, but it feels more psycho-spatial than that. Even spiritual. I suspect spiritual as it has an aspect of not being something I want but that happens whether I like it or not.

It feels like I am trying to draw energy up that has been withheld or drained out or channelled down to be saved for a time when the system feels safe again. Until the depression and sense of alarm lift. Trauma was explained to me by a healer as inflammation without resolution, the exhausting feeling of response constantly flaring and taking energy with it, on and on.

The park is pretty brutal. There are pylons and a substation that hums at the roadside. There is a long drive that is icier in the shadow of a row of cherry trees with sausagey trunks. The sun is very low in the sky behind me. There is a late-1970s cemetery. The park happened at about the same time.

I vandalised something here as a child with some friends on bikes that isn’t here any more when the park–cemetery was new, laid over the earth of the former market gardens beneath the subdivisions. We wrote the name of a band in spraypaint on the side of an equipment shed, and signed the names we had for each other. Raspberries still come up through the ground like weak resentments or regrets. There is also the odd Chinese coin to be found in the earth when it is disturbed.

There can’t be houses here because of the pylons and because the aeroplanes come in over this area to land nearby. In a northwest wind, they come in low over our house, the wind dragging the speed out of their descent, like a freaky huge brake, and rumbles the ultra-bass of earthquakes. The sound of the earth’s core.

The frosts are about to start.

I am also running, I tell myself, to hopefully see something I saw with my mother years ago, way before I became a mother. I was visiting my parents and staying with them and must have decided to join Mum for her mechanical morning walk. It was in late May and it was cold and fully light, but only just. When we reached the park there was weak, low sun on the frost of the grass. Massively long, narrow rainbows streaked across the vast surface of the playing fields. They moved as we changed our position, as if they were emanating from us. We stopped walking, arrested, unable to speak, and we almost stumbled because of the visual disorientation caused by the odd prismatic edge to everything.

It was as if reality was being generated outwards from us as a central point.

Without looking at each other or talking we moved a little further into the mystifying visual field, hunched a little as if the world might lurch and make us fall. The plane we were on had tilted, like it does between dreaming and not-dreaming. We sank carefully towards the grass to try to understand the surface. We could see that tiny spiders had spun little sheets of webs over the tops of the blades of grass. There were so many many spiders and so many many webs that it covered hectares. Maybe twenty. The little crystals of frozen dew refracted the light of the winter sun and we stood there following the lines of the rainbows radiating out from us. It was the heaviest thing I have ever seen. I mean Neil Young heavy. I really want to see that again. So I am going there every morning in May, frosts or not.

Nothing today in the grass but a possibility of an opening I find I need, the possibility of returning to something significant, but there are other things to look at repetitively, like a refrain in the dullness.

I think about Neil Young, or rather his song A Man Needs a Maid floated into my inner ear. It made sense like it hadn’t for years of listening. I suspected that rather than presenting a musing imperative — a man needing a maid — that it was a line he had read in an ad. Perhaps an ad he was writing himself, in the Hollywood Hills, the first time he could afford one. But deeply conflicted about shopping out his housework.

I want to ask him more about what he said in an early film interview, lying in a field, listening to the first recorded versions of the songs from Harvest they had recorded in his barn. He is young, wearing suede boots and soft jeans and shirt, and it is summer. He seems lightly stoned, or maybe just really happy on the crest of a wave, his river flowing.

The songs were so new that he was working out if he even liked them or not as he lay there, and they filmed him. The man talking to him asked where the songs come from, or how they come to him, and he said that they seem to come to him from an outside source. It was clear that remaining open as a channel to this information was something that he took very seriously, and that as an unpredictable mystery this needed much protection from speed, roughness and carelessness in its myriad forms.

I have a bumper sticker that has moved around with me that says ‘What would Neil Young do?’ It occurs to me that it is time to actually stick it to something, to declare something about the space of work and what is required to find that shining space. It seems hard to make myself participate in thoughts that consider choosing a place to fix it to. Surely he would suggest, perhaps sitting on a fencepost and swinging a tan boot, that I should stay put awhile somewhere. When he sings Everybody Knows this is Nowhere, I think he is trying to not be running-around nowhere.

He wrote Cinnamon Girl, Cowgirl in the Sand, and Down by the River all in one day while he had a fever.

I am trying to listen to songs more carefully.

In the cemetery to the right of the drive before the park opens up, there are these small concrete buildings that look like mountains. There are three, two smaller behind a larger one, like its wake. They are shaped like steep mountains, but the front is flattened off to make windows that are straight up and down. The smaller ones are public toilets, but the front one must have been some sort of room where you could check the grave plans. Magic brutalism.

Unoccupied now. I want them for myself. But would prefer that they were in the beech forest in the mountains. Upsweep and straight down like the left side of cursive handwritten letters, like n, m, l or r, if you write it that way.

I always notice empty buildings. It is a habit based in an opportunism I learned as a teenager. We used to live in empty buildings, my friends and I. There were so many interesting places to live that were not normal houses, but houses we could never afford, rented while on the market in a recession, a church hall, abandoned, old warehousing that was as cold as a tomb in the winter. I got used to moving, and not unpacking. Having very few things. Not caring about things, except books, records and clothes. Fur coats and painkillers as antifreeze made sense.

As I looked from the park driveway to the cemetery between trees making up an avenue of poplars I thought I saw a row of rugby players in the multicolour practice shirts that they used to call uglies. But as my eyes adjusted I could see that they were the rounded shapes of artificial bouquets in front of headstones.

Grateful to be alive I should be, I propose to myself, each time I pass the cemetery, and somehow running throws a suspension bridge over some sort of fear. Comically doomed in my running gear, alive and running.

I think of a woman I saw at a community meeting last week. She had a t-shirt on. I thought it said ‘acid beauty’, and I was so there, like it was announcing support of a new feminine ambient black metal entity, or a pulled-back profound utterance implying familiarity with a rainbow-edged realm, but it was partly covered by an over-shirt and it said some-thing that was much less interesting, so I can’t remember it now.

The meeting went on for about an hour, and people took turns talking. Because we were sitting in a rough circle to break any sense of hierarchy, as people took turns to speak I would listen and then after a while close my eyes and see their image in negative on my eyelids in darks and reds. These retina shadows are the only things I have ever wanted to paint. It is a durational exercise in staring, which I find interesting because of the time expended attending to a fugitive group conscience.

I don’t think the spiders are going to put on their show for me this year. Or maybe they did and it just didn’t register without frost. And I am kind of horrified with myself as the thought dawns on me that I may well not be here this time next year. Such continuing irresponsibility, such compromised ethics. A need to move, but the destabilisation, and how dissembling that feels, is too much.

There is no room required to write, just a cry and the dirt-floored cave that opens like an airbag the other way out. The space of the work often resembles rental property in that we never possess the space by right of ownership

or customary use. We must be ready to move, to adapt to changing circumstances and adjust to competing needs, our own and others’. And to new interests, pitched like tents.

At the moment I write at night as there is no other time to be alone, for everyone else to sleep or to contain them-selves. My voice resonates in the strings of the piano next to my desk. My son has noticed his guitar strings connect with its strings in a faint harmonic.

To pay attention is to pay attention a lot.

Our ability to attend is fragile.

There has been too much change. Too many houses.

Too many tables and windows.

I am entranced by those older people who have stayed in one place, composting the same soil, for decades, and who are still affiliated to those they knew in their youth.

I have a bookmark that my son made one morning before

I got out of bed that has written on it, ‘Looking at feet’. On it there are small drawings of different types of pairs of human feet rendered in fine black ink and watercolour.

The space of writing is not about architecture so much as the ability to find that shining space. That comes from being able to observe, to have cultivated the space of observation and identification of significance. The opportunity is logistical, energetic, and to do with feeling able to keep our attention for ourselves rather than being drawn too far into others’ orbits.

I found some writing on my computer I didn’t recognise by the file name and do not remember writing. There is so much of it, and I did it over a period of about six months — it has dated episodes. There are tens of thousands of words, none of which I remember writing. It was written in an upstairs window of a new house. I had not lived by myself for many years before this. I was grieving, perhaps crazed with it, without identifying as such. It is called ‘You can’t get dry in the water’.

I notice a pattern, in that of all the places I have lived as an adult I have written at least one story containing a reference to an accidental blow to the head. Perhaps this is a way of addressing the disturbance all experiential phenomena bring with them. If, that is, you are paying attention, apprehending the instant.

Somewhere on the violet side of violent, between being contracted closed to it or grossly attached to what we encounter, we find the raw materials, the beings, of the new.

I recently shared a short Lydia Davis story called ‘Men’ with a friend by sending her a photograph of the page:

There are also men in the world. Sometimes we forget, and think there are only women – endless hills and plains of unresisting women. We make little jokes and comfort each other and our lives pass quickly. But every now and then, it is true, a man rises unexpectedly in our midst like a pine tree, and looks savagely at us, and sends us hobbling away in great floods to hide in the caves and gullies until he is gone.

Davis does not feel comfortable with the term short story for her writing, as that is a form she feels has a particular history. Her stories are just not long. Sometimes only a line or two. They are episodic in a way that I deeply appreciate and am grateful for.

One thing I really like about the book I copied the story out of, Can’t and Won’t, is that many of the paragraph-stories are accounts of dreams that she has been told or has had herself — it is not clear whose they were and the importance of that is dis-established. Other stories are fragments of considered experience, and then there are passages in a third register, which are re-workings of passages from Flaubert’s letters to a lover.

Her story ‘My footsteps’ has the small word <dream> after the paragraph to indicate its register:

I see myself from the back, walking. There are circles of both light and shadow around each of my footsteps. I know that with each step I can now go farther and faster than ever before, so of course I want to spring forward and run. But I am told that I must pause at each step, letting my foot rest on the ground for a moment, if I want it to develop its full power and reach, before taking the next.

I like to think she understands the disturbance of signifi-cance or significance as disturbance. Joy and horror. Always together.

I can hear the voice of Clarice Lispector, author of the strange and phenomenal novel Água Viva, intoning, ‘The next instant, do I make it? or does it make itself? We make it together with our breath. And with the flair of the bullfighter in the ring.’ She was from Brazil and her words grow like jungle over the naïve architecture of the city-makers.

In my son’s dream last night we move to Van Gogh, Canada. And another school.

My friend Penny lies in the cemetery. In our teens we used to go to the public art gallery in the botanical gardens when we were supposed to be practising for a chamber music group we were part of. Those afternoons after school seemed to be nothing but time. We would lie on the leather benches in the gallery, beside pictures in heavy frames, and read Australian Vogue, review our shoplifting.

We would smoke on the steps and practise breathing in the smoke and saying things then breathing it out like Joan Collins as Alexis. The gallery is now closed, has been for a long time. Its temple doors are shut. The frontage resembles Robert Smithson’s drawing The Museum of the Void. From home Penny would call the Citizen’s Advice Bureau to get her maths homework done. In those days you had to ring from home.

From reading the newspaper we realised that you could send a classified advertisement to the local paper and they would syndicate it to newspapers around the world for a small charge. We sent one in that asked if anyone could please tell us the point. We got letters from faraway places that fell into two groups. Those worried that we needed help and wanted to send us encouragement about the point of life, the beauty of life, the preciousness of life. The second group was made up of handwritten responses from people who said they could not see the point either. Reaching out across the seas and time to connect with other lost souls. We would collect the letters from the Central Post Office by the bus stop and take them to the gallery to read.

Later she sent out an advertisement for someone to pay her to be a mistress or do whatever. The letters she got back were mostly creepy and sometimes dangerous, and she considered a couple detached-seriously. So much money. Such apparently small things. I thought they would damage her auratically to follow up in any way. I had a sense that disturbances to our etheric selves via callous sex acts were real and brutal, and I have not revised this.

I learned years later, after I ended up working at the gallery briefly, that there used to be a man who they would allow to enter the gallery by the back doors after hours, dressed in a series of ball gowns. He would dance rapturously around the full circuit of the arched galleries over the coarse polished cork floors. He was free, and beautiful, and full of life. He could be ideal among ideals. He was not subject to straight time or any dull drags. He had access and license, a glowing subject.

I want to reopen the gallery so it can be like a small version of the study room of the State Library where people can work together.

Close your eyes.

A place for those who move too much, a lot, out of a decision-making process governed by choosing what is the most interesting. This results in lots of material, but no fixed abode.

There are openings that are larger on the inside than on the out, and the air is enchanted.

Write from where you are.

Find a singing time.

The energy does come up, as if from the earth. I think about the turf of the playing fields and am mindful that grass is not singular plants. It is a vast rhizomatic network of interconnected nodes that travels over endless kilometres. Grasses cover some 40% of the earth’s land surface.

After I turn for home things shift in my run. It always feels downhill once I have reached the point I am running to and am on the way back. I enjoy the ease of it. I look at trees, their shapes, and try to see the energetic haze at their edges. The auras of trees.

Once, after a car boot came down on my head, the can I was holding rolled down the slope of the car park. Following the glow of the impact, in the concussed feeling afterward, I was aware that if I looked at a bare branch I could make it catch fire. I am looking at the trees of this park in a slightly dilated way, and am convinced that the lighter my grasp on things, the more powers I have. Leafless trees, their structures like energetic diagrams, burn at their edges as I pass, like a salute of complicity, but my affect stays level. All is well and as it should be, and there is no need talk about this for relief or connection.

The space between asleep and awake coupled with looking with no opinion is where the fruit grows. Runes are cut from fruitwood after the flowers but before the fruit sets. Words came originally from trees. Nouns are where the power is, in the absence of any formed opinion, or sense or property or preference. Flower, spider, stone, apprehending eyes light up and energy fills waiting halls.

I dreamed I was in a colonnaded courtyard, swimming in a brackish pool. It was the Wintergarden pool in the Auckland Domain by the War Memorial Museum, except rotated 90 degrees so the length of it went north to south rather than east to west. I was not at all bothered by the water quality and became aware that beneath the surface of the water were growing lotuses in bloom, their pink flowers about four feet beneath the surface. Their existence crowded out everything else for some time. The water was warm and had the thick feeling of the heavily salted somewhat soupy Mediterranean. I got out and sat on the side and as I chased away mosquitoes someone tried to tell me that if we drained the water we would see that the plants were planted in plastic containers but I really didn’t want to know how it worked.

My son and I have a friend called Paul who is in his early sixties. He is small, gentle, slow, brave, intensely frugal, doesn’t set out to impress anyone, cares for others, and has the still centre of the bachelor. And every room of his very old and faithful house is lined with shelves of LPs floor to ceiling. It is a life’s work; that, and teaching people in prisons and rehabs how to play. Not to bring up issues for therapeutic discussion or correction, but to promote spontaneity and letting go, and the joy of laughter together and the example of who we are at that moment.

I do have a point. I went to wake my son up a few mornings ago and he asked, clearly not awake, ‘Can I have a fern in my hand instead of a flower?’ When I asked him about this later he said he dreamed Paul had a pile of dirt in his up-turned hand. He held it for a long time, and started to make upwards movements over it with his other hand, as if to draw something up with his fingers. Out of the dirt grew a huge pink dahlia. My boy had some soil in his hand, and out of it grew a small yellow dahlia, like the one he picked at school and that came home in his lunchbox. He asked me if he could have a fern instead of a flower, and I touched the flower with a stick and it turned into a fern.

I called Paul to tell him and he said that he woke, that same morning, with a strong impression of both of us, and that he had always wanted to be a magician. I was reading to him, and it was sort of late, but I was just really tired. I could feel myself falling asleep and was vaguely aware I was dreaming about cassette tapes and I felt like I could hear my own voice. So I woke myself and asked if I had been talking rubbish. He reported I said, ‘She was dreaming so she couldn’t answer her emails.’

I am perplexed as to how I could have been dreaming in two temporally coexisting layers. What place is this?