In the 2012 Abu Dhabi summer, this past Adelaide winter, the lads and I spent most of our escape-from-Abu-Dhabi time in Adelaide, but the mister came for a couple of weeks and we also went back to our block of land on Kangaroo Island. Our last trip to Kangaroo Island was just days before we left for Abu Dhabi and in between more than three, not quite four, years had passed. We missed our scrubby, wind-blown land.
I took my laptop to the shack, determined to write something (anything) that worked. The week before, one lad had asked me, ‘Don’t you want to write another book?’ A friend had asked me over coffee, ‘Are you still writing?’ A friend of my mother’s had asked, ‘Do you have any plans?’ They did not mean anything by it, there was no implicit criticism, but they had a point. It would soon be four years since my first novel was published, three since I published anything. It was time to confront my false starts and my ongoing, now-habitual failure to finish anything.
I sat at the table in our one-roomed, tin-roofed shack. The rain pelted against the window and the lads ran in and out of the cold, trying to keep their campfire alive between the bursts of rain.
I fossicked through the files on my computer, looking at everything I’d written over the last few years. Novel drafts, scraps of short stories, half-written essays and half-baked articles. I trawled through my many blogs. The public one, my experimental ones, the password-protected ones.
It soon became clear to me that there was a sharp line in my written sand.
Before my father’s death and after.
Before we moved to Abu Dhabi and after.
Little I had written since since those intertwined times showed the intensity and precision of the things I had written during my father’s illness and my children’s preschool days. How could it be that during the time when I had been barely had time to breathe let alone think I had written with such clarity and, then, when I was given the time and distance to think, I froze? It seemed entirely counter-intuitive.
But then I came across some notes I’d written while reading a book about grief by Caroline Jones: “I felt that I was behind a pane of glass on the other side of which people’s lives went on. But I was not part of that life. I now have come to think of grief as a sort of severe illness, bordering at times on derangement; an illness that dislocated me physically, mentally, psychologically and spiritually.” It had had sharp resonance when I first read it, but now, even more than resonance, it made sense.
During the time of Dad’s illness, when I got on the tram, or stood in the line at the check-out, I had a sense that we were all in this together. The details of each the lives of the people around me didn’t matter. Ageing, full-time caring, relationship breakdowns, falling in love, promotions, unemployment, travel, graduations, illness – these were the specifics, but together they all added up to a shared and universal understanding of what life is. We all lived with a layer unseen beyond our front doors. The mere fact that we were all here on the tram or in the shop together was something we should celebrate in a shared smile, shifting our bags onto our laps so that someone else could sit down and rest their life-worn legs.
During those times, I didn’t only observe people, I empathised in a way that I never had before. I knew what it meant to live a messy life with scattered thoughts and loyalties, with seemingly no time to think, but a mind that was constantly churning. This understanding gave me a sense of connection to the world. Just as the New Internationalist poster I’d hung in my room at university had promised me, we were inextricably linked by the common thread of humanity, by life and all of its complexities.
This is what it means to grow up.
But this connection was severed almost as soon as my father died. With four years’ hindsight, I can identify the moment that the pane of glass slid into place. I was on a tram travelling south down King William Street. I caught a glimpse down Flinders Street out to the Adelaide Hills. This was a sight that had always filled me with calm and a sense of belonging, but at that moment, I saw it differently. It appeared in a way I had never seen it before. I wrote about it in my diary that night, trying to make sense of it, but the only thing I had been able to articulate was a muted colour. Four years later, I saw that as the moment I lost the sense of belonging to other people’s worlds. There was the world which belonged to other people, and there was me, standing behind a pane of impermeable glass.
I no longer empathised with anyone. Worse than that, I didn’t understand. How did they do it? How did they keep going on, day after day after day? How did they pass the time? In the face of a life that made no sense, how could they keep on acting as if it did?
I no longer believed in the universal experience.
When people tell us that they know how we are feeling, they are telling the truth. Even in my middle-class world where adversity is easier to avoid, by the time we’re forty we have all felt the grip of grief to some greater or lesser extent. There is no more relatable experience than loss. And yet, for all these years, grief had been the loneliest and most distancing of times. I was surrounded by people who loved and cared for me and who absolutely understood what I was going through, but I had never felt more alone.
How strange that the most universal of experiences can leave us feeling entirely dislocated, absolutely removed from everyone around us.
Of course, the move to Abu Dhabi didn’t help. With its stratified and segregated society, it is no place to repair a faulty connection to the world. My exclusion from the local community immediately gave Abu Dhabi life a sense of a muted, half-lived experience. The constant reminders that I was a guest, the assumption that I was here simply for the money, the lack of any opportunity to be involved in a sustainable community all created a superficiality for which I was entirely unprepared.
I actively avoided the casual relationships – the interactions with people on the bus, at the supermarket checkout, at the traffic lights – that had been such an important part of my life in Adelaide. On Adelaide’s tram and footpaths and in Adelaide’s post offices and markets, I had reveled in the universal significance of even the tiniest of daily interactions, recording them in my journals, on scraps of paper in my handbag and in my blog. Trapped in a car on Abu Dhabi’s four-lane roads, my opportunities for connection were already limited, and, because I could not pretend that I shared anything in common with the woman on the checkout, the man who packed the groceries or the girl who made my coffee, I avoided those opportunities that were available. I smiled, said thank you, but I read nothing into their smiles, the flicks of their hair, the picking of their nails.
Where was my connection to the men who walked the streets day after day, dragging a bin behind them, picking up the rubbish dropped from cars, blown around by sea breezes? When white, un-airconditioned buses pulled up beside me at the traffic lights, curious labourers stared down at me, what else could I do but look away, disconcerted by their stares, my privilege, our divide.
I know that in Australia there is privilege and there are divides. I know that to many people those divides are impenetrable. But in Australia, they were divides I worked to understand. But now? I no longer knew how to even pretend that there could be some thread of humanity between us.
All of this, I could now see as I sat in my Kangaroo Island shack, was one of the causes for the drawn-out death of my blog. It was impossible to write anything without writing about these feelings and this sense of disconnection. But I was frightened of blogging such things. I did not want to write publicly about how harshly I was judging everything that I saw. I was wary of exposing myself, frightened of the consequences.
While I sat, listening to the Kangaroo Island rain and looking back over my writing, I understood what a pivotal part blogging had earlier played in the processing of my thoughts and the stimulation of my writing. Started during the time of my father’s illness, my blog had allowed me to give words to the intensity of my feelings and the one fed into the other. The more I felt, the more I wrote and the more I wrote, the more I felt.
In Abu Dhabi, where I felt unable to write about any of the personal encounters that I had during the day, I had lost this cycle. I maintained my distance and this distance was continually reinforced when I made myself stop thinking. I had occasionally felt words forming into the shape of a blog post, but I would quickly pull myself up and make myself stop the thoughts with the result that I was not properly processing my experiences and interactions. Where once, every interaction had given me a sense of connection to the world, in Abu Dhabi, and in the wake of my father’s death, the emptiness of every interaction had come to leave me feeling even further disconnected.
It lasted a long time, that sense of disconnection, but now, the campfire, the smoke in my eyes and my clothes, the drenching rain, the hail, the simple passing of time made me look at all the things I’d started to write, but never finished. I wasn’t at all sure where to start, but I liked the idea of starting to blog again, of having a place to test my feelings out, to put words down again.
Things got in the way, between then and now, but now it’s 2013. January. And we’re back on Kangaroo Island for a week. What better time to begin.