I must say, when Kath asked me to launch Recollections 2011, I was a little concerned. Indeed, I wrote her an email saying something like this:
If you really want me to launch Recollections, of course, I’d be honoured. But maybe you should consider someone new? It’s hard to be impressive the second time round.
No need to be impressive she replied: We’d love you to do it.
Right, I thought great. What am I going to do now? It’s easy to create a bit of an impression when you’re unknown. As long as you aren’t a total disaster, everyone heaves a sigh of relief that this wannabe writer from Vermont has something vaguely entertaining to relate.
But when everyone expects you to be good, when in fact the organising committee has unanimously agreed to invite you back. You get a queer knotted feeling in the pit of your belly.
You are bound to fail.
Now Kath is an organised person. I’ve had months to get used to the idea of launching Recollections, 2011. But I have to admit, as the date loomed, the knots in my stomach only tightened. When Kath emailed last week to say Liliana would drop the anthology off at Ashburton library by one o’clock Friday afternoon, I made a beeline for the eight hundred’s section and started thumbing through books on public speaking.
Sadly, it was a waste of time.
I found books on Fearless public speaking. A volume on after dinner addresses. A plethora of advice on weddings, anniversaries and funerals. Even a tome or two on business lectures. But nothing about how to make a speech at eleven o’clock in the morning to a group of people who have heard (and probably remember) every inspirational thought you’ve ever had on the topic of writing.
Friday, I woke in the early hours of the morning. I had an ache like a garden stake between my eyes. The words what am I going to say? ran round and round in my mind. I had nothing, I realised in the toss and turn of that night. I couldn’t accept the anthology. When Liliana came to drop Recollection off at the library, I’d have to tell her someone had died. Or that I’d lost my voice. Or worse, that I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. That I’d probably be in a straight jacket by the launch date.
Now, please don’t think I was reluctant to launch your anthology. I wanted to very much. Only... what was I going to say? What did I have that was new and fresh and inspirational? How could I going to honour the treasures you were placing in my hands?
By the time I picked up the anthology my stomach resembled a macramé wall hanging. But I have to say, here and now, that my fears were groundless.
As soon as I opened the cover the knots in my belly began to soften. People’s names were familiar, of course – but the stories and poems were all so very different. I found forests and farms, in this volume, along with beaches and work postings. Stories about dolls, treasure chests and teddy bears, about getting a job for the first time, riding a camel, about charity, the joy of collecting, and strange ventriloquist dreams. I also found a horse who’d been put together all wrong. The pleasures of doing up a run down old house. Stories of the depression, a Carmelite convent and Nazi occupied Holland.
As I sat on the couch, Monday morning, with a notepad and highlighter pen in hand, I felt overwhelmed.
As if standing at the base of a waterfall.
My problem wasn’t what to say. It was: how am I ever going to sum up this stream of growing and journeying and remembering?
In the end, I came up with three words: memories, mistakes and meaning.
Let us start with memories.
One of the lovely things about reading another person’s memoirs is that they give you back fragments of your own life. Through reading your stories, I remembered my first ever pair of red shoes and how, as a delighted I child of six, I slept with them on my pillow the first night. I thought of the years my family had spent living in Fiji and how different theft looked in poverty’s light. I re-called watching the Salvos walk the streets of my childhood. How I’d been captivated by the coloured streamers on their tambourines. I remembered being bullied in the school yard. And, being one of the bullies. Pitted apricots and potato peelings, conjured up walking to school on cold misty Adelaide Hills mornings. Mum gave me bus money at the beginning of each week.
‘You can catch the bus,’ she said. ‘But if you walk, you can keep the cash.’
‘What? All of it?’ I asked
‘Yes, all of it.’
Needless to say, I walked to the three kilometres to school often, stashing the coins in my red rocket money box. But it wasn’t until I read your stories, that I realised that this was all part of mum’s clever strategy. She’d wanted me to walk to school. There was no such thing as childhood obesity in our family.
The second word I came up with was: mistakes.
As I read I couldn’t help noticing that word failure cropped in a number of your stories. One story even asked the question, was it my fault? I felt the ‘failed’ nun’s pain of facing up to the past. Her struggle to move on. I experienced the horror of a young soldier being executed at dawn. For what? I asked myself. What was his mistake? Was it being a bad soldier? Or a decent human being?
Life teaches us lessons, doesn’t it? About honesty being better than lies, about ingenuity and letting go of children. About charity and helping others. About how to work hard and save. As we look back over our journey, we find ourselves wanting to right wrongs. To stand up to that nasty teacher. To re-live past embarrassments, to learn, to grow, and to seek resolution for our mistakes. This is all part of the richness of human experience. I find it wonderfully encapsulated in your stories.
Finally we come to the third word: Meaning.
Human beings are purposeful creatures. Not driven by instinct or programmed merely for blind survival, we seek patterns in the seemingly random events of our lives. It is no surprise, therefore, that many of the worlds sacred books are collections of stories. Events related at the fireside, that have grown and changed with each re-telling, yet somehow still bring meaning to each successive generation. For aren’t each of us on a journey? Do not we all take wrong turns at times? Haven’t we all been the stranger? The lost one? The injured one? In writing stories, are we not drawing threads from the past and joining them with who we are here and now.
In her story Dream Voices, Valda Martin wrote:
‘What a blessing to hear this unique voice, absolving me of my inner guilts and everyday trials of keeping positive in my struggle with sign language and trying to understand Debbie’s desires and needs.’
In Memoir, Eva Rainow asks:
‘How did the battlers of those times manage? From what I remember, it was having people around, not things, and the sense of space, the room to move slowly, to spend whole days in the blackberry patch.’
‘Who are you?’ Marg Tucker asks in the story James Burns. ‘I’m anxious to know more.’
In Acts of Random Kindness, Valerie Jeffreys concludes: ‘I hope that any Indian lady in Australia would be treated with the kindness I experienced in India.’
In Forests, Mieke Hammond writes about the wonder of sleeping out in a forest as a new migrant to Australia, concluding with the simple yet profoundly moving words:
‘That was my first introduction to some of the forests ‘down under’ – Australia, my country.’
The words, my country, brought a tingle to my spine.
For I too have learned to call this country home.
So many lessons. So many reflections. So much meaning. I can’t possibly quote every story. But if we stand and watch and listen, with the age old wisdom of the liquid amber tree, we will find meaning in the ordinary event of our lives. For as St Columba once said:
‘If poet’s verse be but stories,
So be food and raiment stories,
So all the world is a story,
So is man of dust a story.’
Thank you so much for your stories, for your willingness to share the dust of your lives with me. And thank you also asking me to launch Recollections, 2011. It is a wonderful achievement.