One Saturday over three years ago, I caught the train to the city to do a one-day course on journal and memoir writing. After the course, I met my partner nearby, and we went to watch a documentary followed by an Italian dinner. What we didn’t know was that this would be the last time we would go to the city, the cinema, or a restaurant for several months. The following week Sydney, like many places in the world, went into lock down. I know the exact date of the course (10th March, 2020), the name of the movie (Honeyland) and the restaurant (Andiamo Trattoria), because I wrote it all on my journal a few weeks later.
I had never worked from home before, and a great deal of my role involved the promotion of the many workshops my organisation runs all over the state. With the world coming to a standstill, all our events were suddenly cancelled, so I feared my work would quickly dry up; as would the dinners, shows, movies, exhibitions, catch ups with friends, hikes and trips I was used to doing in my spare time.
Like the majority of people, I was facing the prospect of sitting at home, with nothing to do during months of lock down, so I made a list of projects to keep me busy. My list included going for long daily walks, practising meditation, learning a new language, unpacking the Yamaha keyboard I’d stored away years earlier and playing it again, reading more books, acquiring new skills online, and keeping the journal I promised myself I would start after doing my Saturday course.
My work, however, did not dry up. Instead, it multiplied, because we started delivering all our workshops as webinars. Apart from promoting the events, I also had to learn how to run them so I could coordinate them and provide technical support to the various teams. It was so busy that, of the many things on my ‘lock down list’, only three came to fruition: learning new skills online (specifically for work), walking a minimum of five kilometres a day, and journaling.
I remember vividly the day I decided to start the journal. It was a Sunday, in early Autumn, 2020 – my favourite time of the year, when it wasn’t yet too cold and the bushfire season, with all the horrors that it brought that year, was well and truly over. My intention was to document the unprecedented times we were facing – what life looked like during a pandemic. These would be my Corona Chronicles, or as a colleague playfully called them, my ‘Coronacles.’
My journal became much more than that, of course. It is the place where I can express my fears and see that once they are written down, they are not as overwhelming. It is where I exorcise my depressions, pushing through them with an armour of hope until they inevitably lift. It is where I capture my current experiences, both remarkable and mundane, so I can remember them tomorrow; and where I record yesterday’s memories before they’re forgotten. It’s where I write about the people in my life and the things we do together. The music we listen to, the food we eat, the walks we make, the work we do, the shows we watch.
It can also have practical purposes. Recently, a colleague was heading to regional NSW, and she asked around for recommendations of things to do in that particular area. I was able to send her, down to the minimum detail, a list of the restaurants we ate at, the towns we explored, the attractions we visited, our highlights, our lowlights … because I had recorded them all, with photos, as soon as we returned.
In the past, I tended to turn to reflective writing mainly when I was going through a bad patch. If I was to read those notebooks in the future, I would be reminded only of my tribulations. Though they also present in my journal, they are interspersed with hope for the future and recollections of happy times. Most importantly, the mere act of writing, even if it is about nothing remarkable, still has the capacity to bring me joy, and the power to put me ‘in the zone’.
Although the language in my journal hasn’t been as beautiful or elaborate as I would have desired, its main purpose was to get me back into the habit of writing regularly. It definitely achieved that. For the first two years I wrote most Saturdays and if I had the time, some weeknights as well. Although one would think there was not much to record, particularly during the worst of the pandemic, I was still writing at least 1,000 words per week. I often didn’t know what I was going to write about when I opened my laptop, but the words just flowed.
Journaling also worked wonders when it came to getting the creative juices flowing again. After finishing my debut novel, Exuberance, and delivering it to the world, I started writing a second novel. After several false starts, I put that project aside. For many years, I wrote this blog on a monthly basis, with my thoughts on the creative process, travel, inspiration, film, and the power of words. I promoted it on social media and often had positive comments from my readers, and could see, through analytics, that it received quite a few hits. But as life and work got busier, my blog petered out and became six-monthly, then yearly.
It has been nearly three and a half years since I started with the journal, and it is going strong. International travel has resumed, restaurants, shows and theatres are open again, and I am back to my pre-pandemic levels of activity, but I am still journaling. I can only manage one entry every few weeks, but it is several pages long.
My journal is 120,000 words and counting, which is longer than the average length of a novel. This has restored my confidence in the fact that I have the discipline to write long form, even if it takes a while. Second novel, here I come! The blogging was also reignited, because the journaling planted seeds for new posts.
As I wrote in a previous entry, I am a gregarious writer, and am loving being able to get out and about again. But I have to admit that days like today are also my idea of heaven: having a lay-in, a leisurely breakfast, a morning spent communing with nature, getting my boots muddy in the bush near my home; a quiet afternoon ensconced in my study, recording my thoughts in my journal; and a quiet evening writing this blog.
In one of my first memories, I am nauseous at the back of a truck, which is precariously descending from the glaziers of La Paz to the tropics of the Yungas on the narrow, winding ‘road of death’ in Bolivia. My mother is holding a plastic bag under my chin and I am emptying the contents of my stomach into it, repeatedly, whilst other passengers throw us looks of pity. At the best of times I am a scrawny looking child with forlorn eyes, thin limbs and unusually pale complexion, so our fellow travellers look genuinely worried. I truly feel I am about to die, but more from embarrassment than from motion sickness.
We are making the trip to visit my father, who is a doctor doing his year of country practice in Irupana, a little town in the Yungas region known mainly for its coffee plantations. We board a bus in the early hours of the morning, while it is still dark and misty, but as we reach the cumbre, the highest and coldest point of the journey, the bus breaks down and we are shepherded into the back of a passing truck, our teeth chattering with cold and our breath condensing as it leaves our mouths.
At this time I don’t comprehend that I am travelling on one of the most dangerous roads in the world, a two-way dirt road that in some places is no wider than one lane, stretching for 90 kilometres, carved on the side of the mountains at over 4000 metres of altitude, with twists and turns so sharp it is often impossible to see any cars coming the opposite way. There are no barriers to stop vehicles from falling over the edge onto cliffs so deep and sheer that the passengers have no chance of surviving. As it is heavily used, up to 300 people lose their lives on this road every year and the way is peppered with crosses in memory of those who perished. In between bouts of nausea I count the crosses as they fly past, thinking that this surely is something that only happens to others.
A few years later, when I am perhaps seven and my brother is two, I come close to becoming one of those crosses when we find ourselves inside my father’s car, swaying on the edge of the cliff after he miscalculates the angle of a bend and two of the wheels end up off the road. If any of us moves as much as an inch, we will precipitate down to our deaths. So we sit tight, afraid to even breathe, avoiding looking at the precipice stretching below us, until other drivers stop their vehicles to come to our rescue, and pull the car back on to the road. As though staring at death in the face is something that happens to us every day, my father thanks them, gets back behind the wheel and we get on with our journey. Nobody speaks about what has just happened.
When I am in my thirties and living in Australia, a friend emails me a slideshow of the “most dangerous roads in the world” where the Bolivian death road features prominently. I show it to my mother, and she confesses that when I was aged two, I had travelled this road at high speed on my father’s motorcycle, squeezed between him and her and wearing no protective gear. Knowing my mother, who is the personification of cautiousness, it is hard to believe that she would have agreed to make that motorcycle trip not once, but several times with her infant daughter, but I have to take her word for it, as I was too young to remember.
When I am three, old enough to recall the endless bends, the precipices, the landscape morphing in front of our eyes from arid to lavish, and the beautiful ‘Bride’s Veil’ cascade, we make that treacherous trip several times; until my mother too finishes her medical degree and starts her own country practice in the same hospital as my father, and we move to Irupana for the duration.
It is the early seventies and Irupana, like many other regional towns in Bolivia, hasn’t yet caught up with the rest of the world. There is no electricity, no television, no telephone. My mother reads me books by the light of oil lamps and we listen to battery operated radios. The hospital is one of the few buildings that has electricity magically produced by a generator. We gorge on strawberries from our neighbour’s farm, and drink unpasteurized milk freshly squeezed from their cows, with a deliciously thick layer of cream. At night, we pluck oranges from the trees in our backyard and my father roasts them in a bonfire. My first movie is projected on a white sheet hung on the wall of an improvised theatre in town, where we sit on folding chairs scattered on the dirt. The movie is Walt Disney’s Pinocchio and I enjoy it immensely until Pinocchio gets swallowed by the whale. This seems completely unfair and I cry, kick and scream as though it is the end of the world, and we have to abandon the screening to pacify the other movie goers; it is not often that they get to see moving pictures.
The edges of my first memories are soft and dreamlike and they start in this tiny, backward town where everything seems to take place in slow motion. Irupana is surrounded by rolling green hills, plantations and tropical valleys. At only a few hours’ distance from the barren, high-altitude, noisy La Paz city, this is a completely different world.
Some of the memories are not as soft though. I am stung by a bee and attacked by two different dogs – though one of the attacks, from our own dog (Jackie) is entirely my fault. As the two dog attacks happen under the watch of two different babysitters, my parents give up on the idea of having me looked after by nannies and decide to send me to school.
The nearest school is an all-boys school. Neither my gender nor my age (I’m just over three years old) deter the principal, and I am allowed to join the kindergarten class. Not only am I the only girl at the school, but I am the youngest by almost two years. I am also the palest, as most of the inhabitants of Irupana have the copper skin tone of the Amerindians. Although there are some European immigrants in this area, most of the population is indigenous. Even in the city, my skin is unusually white in comparison with most Bolivians as a result of having some French and English blood somewhere down the line. At kindy I am not teased or ignored because of my differences - quite the contrary, I am the centre of everyone’s attention, from the teachers to the kids, and I bask in it.
We present a theatrical version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the end of the year, and I am given the title role - it would have been quite ironic if I didn't’ get the part, being the only girl in the troupe; even the witch is played by a boy. My mother makes me a beautiful pink dress for the performance and newspapers are carefully laid on the dusty stage floor to avoid ruining my outfit when I fall to the ground, after taking a bite of the enchanted apple.
Despite the dog incidents, this is a magical year, but twelve months fly and return we must, to the big city at the other end of the road of death.
Images from: http://www.ssqq.com/archive/vinlin27b.htm
"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference." - Robert Frost.
How many times have you found yourself at a fork in the road and no matter how impetuous or carefully considered your decision was, you couldn’t help but wonder (either at the time or further down the track) what course would your life have taken had you chosen the other path?
Some such decisions might be momentous, such as a career change, moving to another country, saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a business or a marriage proposition. Some might be deadly, as was the case of Alberto Dominguez (the first Australian to die in the September 11 attacks), who at the last minute decided to delay his plane back from the US to Australia by one day, and ended up aboard American Airlines flight 11 when it plunged into one of the towers of the World Trade Centre. And conversely, I remember reading the stories of people who were meant to be in the towers at the time of the attacks, but had missed their bus, or woken up with a cold, or decided to spend the day with their lover instead of going to work – and had no idea of what happened until they received frantic calls from their family (or their wife!) wanting to know if they were alive.
In the movie ‘Sliding Doors’ it is not even a conscious decision, but the simple fact that she misses a train that sets the main character’s life in a different direction. We get to see both futures taking place, and in both futures she finds her way to Mr Nice Guy and out of the clutches of her cheating boyfriend. The German film “Run, Lola, Run” explores three variations of one story, in which minimal things, such as brushing someone’s arm in the street by accident, can cause not just your own future but the other person’s to change in radical ways.
Moving countries from Bolivia to Australia in 1988 was one of the most distinctive forks in the path of my lifetime, and I often wonder what would life had been like if I stayed in Bolivia and pursued a career as a concert pianist. Among the friends who stayed some became renowned opera singers, directors, composers, and one even an internationally famous rock star; whereas I abandoned my career in music when it became too difficult to pursue it in a country where musicians were light-years ahead of me in their training. Admittedly many of my musician friends in Bolivia were not as successful as the others, and struggled to make ends meet; and even some of the successful ones often had to supplement their income doing other jobs.
But even before that, straight out of school, I studied two years of psychology at university. Had I stayed, would I be writing articles for research journals and transforming people’s lives through counselling, as many of the graduates from my class are doing now?
The internationally successful rock star happened to be the young man I was dating before I left the country. At the time, he didn’t even have enough money to buy his own guitar. If I stayed in Bolivia, would I have gone onto marry the rock star? Would he had become a rock star at all, with me pulling him back, perhaps with one or two children in tow? He never married, although I heard that he had a child ‘out of wedlock’ with another celebrity, a television presenter.
I also wonder sometimes whether, if I had married a different man 26 years ago – freshly arrived in Australia - instead of my ex-husband, would I now have the happy family, the kids and the white picket fenced house in the suburbs? Somehow, I think not. Even back then, in my early twenties, I don’t remember ever dreaming this ‘Arcadian’ ideal...
I do remember however sitting for the public service test within months of my arrival. Sometime later a letter arrived offering me a job in the public sector, but by then I had already obtained employment in a private company. I dismissed the letter, not knowing how difficult it would be to enter the public service if you were not already in the system. Many a time in the years that followed I applied for government jobs and didn’t’ even get as far as the interview. Who knows, had I accepted that job offer, I could now be in the Senior Executive Service of Australia…. or, on the other hand, I could be working as a teller at the post office. Either way, I most probably wouldn’t have met the friends and colleagues I now have, I wouldn’t have achieved the things that I’ve achieved in the private and later in the not-for-profit sectors; I would not be working for a highly respected charity, helping disadvantaged people transform their lives, and using my writing skills for a great cause.
Having faced another distinctive fork in the road recently I asked a friend: “how can I know the decision I am making is right?” And she said, whether it is right or wrong, you have to “make it right”. Once you follow one course, you have to decide that this was the right course, and make it work, without looking back. I thought that was pretty sound advice. What is the use of dwelling on what could’ve, should’ve or would’ve have been?
Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges tackled this subject in his short story “The Garden of the Forking Paths”, in which one of the characters analyses Ts’ui Pên’s fictional masterpiece, a novel that is apparently nonsensical, contradictory and chaotic, and explains that:
“In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of Ts'ui Pên, he chooses - simultaneously- all of them. He creates, in this way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork. Here, then, is the explanation of the novel's contradictions. Fang, let us say, has a secret; a stranger calls at his door; Fang resolves to kill him. Naturally, there are several possible outcomes: Fang can kill the intruder, the intruder can kill Fang, they both can escape, they both can die, and so forth. In the work of Ts'ui Pên, all possible outcomes occur; each one is the point of departure for other forkings.”
Each time I am confronted with a fork, or even a branch in the road, this is what I would like to believe: that another version of me has chosen each of the other paths; and thus, there is one of me who is a concert pianist, another an eminent psychologist, another a bohemian artist, another a happy stay-at-home mother, another a senior government executive, another a rock star’s groupie… and so on. In all the versions, I am, and will always be, a writer.
Left: My home-town, La Paz (Bolivia) at dusk, 2012. Right: My adopted home, Sydney (Australia) on a stormy night, 2014 (both images taken by the author - click to enlarge)
According to Peter Read, in his book Returning to Nothing (1996), 'home' can be a city, a suburb, a house, a room in a house, or a single plant in a garden.
Home can be a physical or geographical place, but it is also a place inside our hearts and our minds. It could be a person, an object, or a collection of memories, individual or shared.
During my first years as a migrant, whilst I still lived with one foot on the vast island known as Australia and the other firmly placed on the soil of landlocked Bolivia, I remember finding myself continuously exploring the concept of home, perhaps as a way to understand and overcome my feelings of dislocation.
When I was studying the subject of Australian History at university, as a mature student, I wrote an essay exploring the concept of ‘home’ from three different perspectives: Home ownership, Home country, and Home land. To my delight, the essay received a high distinction. In this blog I revisit those ideas more succinctly and subjectively, as well as bringing them up to date. The fully referenced essay (1998) can be downloaded at the bottom of this page.
Home-ownership: The Great Australian Dream
The Great Australian Dream of owning a detached house in the suburbs, on a quarter acre block, has its origins in colonial times, when British colonists arrived here escaping the poor and overcrowded conditions of the cities in Britain. They were pursuing the ‘agrarian myth’ of owning a cottage and a bit of land in the vast Australian countryside. When the agrarian myth failed, and people had to leave the land to move back into the cities, they brought with them their ‘rural arcadia’ ideal, which reached its height in the post-war years.
By the 1960s, Australia became one of the nations with the highest rate of home ownership in the world. This however, had consequences: young families became committed to debts for most of their working life; there was a growth in inequality between those who could afford the dream and those who could not; suburbia began to sprawl, and Australians developed a culture of home centeredness.
In recent years, ‘the dream’ has been cut short for many, particularly in Sydney which in 2015 has officially become the most expensive city in the world, due to the skyrocketing of property prices. The size and composition of Australian households has changed dramatically since the post-war years. Younger generations have a busier lifestyle, are more focused on having a career than on having a family, they don't have the time to care for a house with a garden, nor do they have the means to buy said house.
Despite of all this, the Australian Housing Survey conducted by the ABS 1 at the start of the millennium, demonstrated that the overwhelming majority of Australians still prefer to own a detached house on a plot of land – regardless of the material, social or emotional costs that this might bring.
Home-country: stories of migration
In April 2013, my family and I celebrated a quarter of a century in Australia. Reflecting upon this milestone, I realised that most of the time, I no longer feel painfully divided between two cultures. The transition has taken a long time, but I have embraced this country, its language and its people, and they have embraced me back. And yet… when I speak about my country of origin, Bolivia, I still find myself calling it ‘home’.
In the almost three decades that I have been living in Sydney, I tackled the subject of ‘belonging’ with many fellow migrants from a variety of backgrounds. The metaphors of reincarnation, of living two parallel lives, of having been forever divided into two halves (before and after leaving our countries of birth), of being perpetually trapped in a kind of limbo, illustrate some of the ways we express ourselves when we think about belonging or feeling 'at home'.
Many migrants hope that their Australian-born children, still referred to as ‘migrants’, (second generation migrants) will finally establish roots in their parents’ adopted home. But for some of these children, ‘belonging’ is even more complex. Many years ago I spoke with one of my mother’s colleagues who had been born in Sydney in the 1950s to an Orthodox Greek family. She said she never felt at home growing up in Australia, and still had memories of being called a ‘WOG” at school; but when she visited Greece for holidays she didn’t feel at home there either. She looked at me, almost with envy, and said, 'at least you know where you come from; you have roots.'
When you put it that way, perhaps home is where your roots are, or as T.S. Eliot put it, ‘Home is where one starts from’. What happens then, when your roots are taken away from under your feet, in your own country?
Home-land: Indigenous Australians, migrants in their own home
The concept that indigenous Australians have of ‘home’ is not easy to explain, not only because of cultural barriers but also because of language limitations. Perhaps the words of W.H. Stanner express this language difficulty more adequately:
“There are no English words good enough to give a sense of the links between an Aboriginal group and its homeland. Our word 'home', warm and suggestive though it be, does not match the Aboriginal word that may mean 'camp', 'hearth', 'country', 'everlasting home', 'totem place', 'life source', 'spirit centre' and much else all in one. Our word 'land' is too sparse and meagre...To put our words 'home' and ‘land’ together in 'homeland' is a little better but not much”. 2
Without pretending to understand the multifaceted meanings of home in Aboriginal culture, as a migrant I found myself comparing some of the indigenous people’s experiences to that of unwilling migrants: the dispossession of their land meant the dispossession of their identity, and they became displaced persons, strangers and exiles. The difference is that they experienced, and continue to experience, all of these whilst they are still in their own home.
The story of Aboriginal families that had to leave the town camps to move to the cities is also a story of forced migration. Similarly to overseas migrants, aboriginal people who emigrate to the city tend to "identify themselves with their country of origin, choosing places to live and work where they can relate to kin and homeplace." 3 Many return to their home country after decades of living in the city; others finally identify themselves with their new home, as in the case of many migrants, only when their children are born in their new land.
1 Australian Bureau of statistics, 1999
2 Cunnen, C. and Libesman P. Indigenous people and the Law in Australia, Buttersworths, Sydney 1995
3 Goodall, Heather Invasion to Embassy – Land in Aboriginal Politics in NSW, 1770-1982, Allen & Unwin, 1996
TO DOWNLOAD THE FULL, REFERENCED ESSAY, CLICK ON THE BOTTOM RIGHT CORNER OF THE PDF BELOW
The movie 'Hector and the Search for Happiness' (based on the book by François Lelord), whilst not a cinematic masterpiece, was for me one of those thought-provoking, laugh-inducing and, at times, tear-jerking films that made me consider, long after we had left the theatre, one of the age long questions - What Is Happiness?
In the spirit of 'Eat, Pray, Love', Hector (Simon Pegg), a psychiatrist, leaves the perfectly organised, regimented life he shares with his girlfriend Clara, and sets out to find the meaning of happiness; a journey that will take him to a monastery in China, a hospital in Africa, and to a reunion with his old university 'flame' in Los Angeles.
Wherever he goes, he takes a journal where he writes down the lessons learnt from all the people he meets along the way. These characters range from a hideously rich businessman, to a penniless young prostitute, an old wise monk, a dangerous drug dealer, an African grandmother, a world expert in happiness, and a terminally ill woman who is undertaking her last journey.
As to be expected, Hector discovers that Happiness means something different to everyone. In the case of the African woman, happiness is as simple as cooking a pot of sweet potato stew and sharing it with her large family. He also discovers that happiness encompasses a range of emotions, including those considered negative; such as sadness, fear and pain.
When I think of the elusive concept of happiness, I always remember the lines uttered by Clarissa Vaughan, a character from another movie, 'The Hours' (based on the book by Michael Cunningham) when she admits to her daughter that she hasn’t been happy in a very long time:
I remember one morning getting up at dawn, there was such a sense of possibility. You know, that feeling? And I remember thinking to myself "this is the beginning of happiness. This is where it starts. And of course there will always be more." It never occurred to me it wasn't the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment. Right then...
The Hours was not a happy movie, according to the half a dozen people who came with me and who cursed me for months for choosing it; in fact some of them are still holding it against me. But a decade on, I still remember the lesson I took away from it, and find myself constantly catching and enjoying that fleeting moment, which is not the beginning of happiness, but happiness itself, before it’s gone.
There are days when I experience several such moments, because happiness lies in the simple, everyday things that we often take for granted.
For several years I worked in an “office” which once used to be a garage. It was dark, with the windows painted shut and the walls painted a sickly shade of green. It was hot in summer, cold in winter and generally a depressing place to spend eight hours a day in. My workmate and I used to call it 'the cave' or sometimes 'the dungeon’. One day she had the brilliant idea of sticking a laminated piece of white paper on the door, and we used a black marker to make a list, accompanied by child-like drawings, of all the things that made us happy. Whenever our gloomy surroundings started ‘getting’ to us, we would look at our list and remember the many wonderful things we had in our lives, and we always ended up with a smile on our faces, which in turn made the room brighter.
The items contained in the list were amazing in their simplicity: Family, the kindness of strangers, sunrises, sunsets, rainbows, sunny winter days, chocolate, themed birthday parties, writing, air drumming, dancing, singing, holidays, bush walking, gardening…
Some people - as Hector finds out - see happiness as permanently in the future; a goal to constantly strive for, which is by default unattainable. Others, like Clarissa Vaughan, feel that their happiness belongs in the past. When Clarissa tells her daughter that the last time she felt genuinely happy was decades ago, her daughter replies ‘what you are saying, is that you were once young.’ I was once young too, and know what it is like to experience that kind of earth shattering happiness. When I was eighteen and in love for the first time, this is what I wrote about it:
I am so happy that I even feel angry; I am so happy that I feel like crying out aloud, that my lungs feel like bursting out like a balloon, so happy that I feel impotent at the sight of so much beauty, the nightfall of December, the Christmas lights at the windows, and the music - the ever blessed music - so happy, that I feel dumb in the presence of so much life, that the singing of the birds amongst the leaves is deafening, as deafening as the protest of those who cannot feel this madness.
… and so it went for two whole pages. But was this really happiness? Or was it euphoria? We all know what it is like to be 'high'; some people take drugs, others take extreme risks in order to experience that euphoria. I have been high in love, high in lust and even high in anger many a time. But is that happiness?
This morning, I woke up with a spring in my step, with that subtle yet exciting feeling of having butterflies in my stomach, for no particular reason. Yes, I had a good night sleep, and it was a beautiful day. But was that enough reason to be happy? I hadn't achieved or acquired anything overnight; nothing was different from yesterday. I decided not to question it. I held onto that feeling and managed to get to the end of the day with ‘it’ still inside me, despite a couple of incidents which generally would have been enough to make my mood plummet.
When all is said and done, if we can look back and remember the hours spent enjoying a good book, writing a poem, or gardening with the sun on our backs; and the times of laughter, of joy and even of tears shared with lovers, family and friends, then we can say we have lived a life filled with happiness.
I want to start with a tulip. Then I’ll move onto the water lilies floating aimlessly on the surface of a pond. But let me get back to the tulip.
It was a bright, saffron yellow colour and you fastened it to my collar with a safety pin. You even thought of bringing a safety pin!
My mother wasn’t impressed. She believed that, when it came to flowers, yellow signified disdain. Reds, pinks, whites and all hues in between were perfectly fine, but yellow was the wrong colour if you wanted to make a good first impression on my mother.
She didn’t say anything to you, though. She just watched us take off in your car (would you believe I don’t remember what colour your car was, back in those days?) and she waved us goodbye with teeth clenched behind her smile. Later that night, after you delivered me home, safe, sound and still a virgin, I pressed the tulip, which was already languishing, between the pages of the phone book.
Let’s move onto the water lilies. It’s a fine summer’s day, a lazy Saturday, two years after that first date. The dry tulip, together with the dry yellow roses and daffodils that came later, is now living – or should I say perpetually dying – between the leaves of my journal. My mother continues to believe that your preference for yellow is a bad omen; if you hold me in such contempt now, what will it be like after we get married, after we have children, after we become as used to each other as one does to wearing a pair of old, faded jeans?
She never voices any of these concerns to you, though. She only brings them up with me, usually when we are alone in the sewing room, as she struggles in vain to teach me the art of dressmaking, to prepare me for married life. Much as I try to please her, my patterns are always crooked and my stitches uneven. To her despair, I am not nearly as interested in crafts as I am in numbers, and she blames that on you too, on the formulae you share with me, the theories you propagate, about measured risk-taking, about odds and percentages, about everything in life being subject to the laws of arithmetic.
She must be right, because when you produce the ring out of your pocket this particular Saturday, and kneel down next to the pond, and ask me the question I never thought you’d ask, I answer you with another question:
‘What would you say are the odds of me saying yes?’
‘I’d say ninety-nine to one,’ you answer confidently.
To your disbelief, I snatch the ring from your fingers and cast it into the murky pond.
‘Ha! What do you think are the odds of you finding that ring in the pond?’ I ask, but you are too stunned to reply. You stand up slowly, and stare hopelessly at the pond.
‘Perhaps one in a million,’ you manage to mumble when you find your voice. ‘Have you any idea,’ you then say, striving to sound measured, ‘how many months’ salary I spent on that ring?’
And with that, you turn on your heels and walk away.
Later, when I tell my mother, she insists on walking with me to the pond.
‘The problem with that boy,’ she says as we approach, ‘is that he only believes in numbers, and there are times in life one needs to believe in miracles.’
And I watch my mother, my old, big fleshy mother, strip down to her undergarments and disappear in the green, cloudy water. She emerges at the centre, among the water lilies. There, resting on one of the leaves, catching the light of the dying sun, is the ring.
Image credit: Robert Gavila http://www.gavila.com/artist/Photos/Photos.html
Bel Vidal - Débutante novelist (author of Exuberance), blogger,