In the Haida story, “The Flight of the Hummingbird”, Hummingbird is the only creature not to flee in panic from the forest fire.
Instead, she flies to the stream, scoops up a tiny beakful of water, flies back and drops the water onto the fire.
Back and forth she goes, collecting each time a sip of water and dropping it onto the raging fire.
The other animals, cowering from the inferno, are astounded.
Finally Bear asks her, “What are you doing, Dukdukdiya?”
Hummingbird replies, “I am doing what I can.”
In the afterword to a published account of this story, the Dalai Lama notes that self confidence and enthusiasm are the keys to success in any activity we are engaged in.
Enthusiasm comes naturally to me, but manufacturing and maintaining self-belief has required ongoing, exhausting and often ineffectual effort.
“You try to please everyone,” my friend tells me.
I have just finished recounting my failed attempt to negotiate a shared activity with a colleague, a negotiation that has left me the financial and energetic loser in the transaction.
I describe my feeling of being put upon, of having to dance to someone else’s tune.
What about my song? I think. But I did not voice this thought.
“The two things that are apparent, in this story,” my friend says, “are your unwillingness to brook another's agenda, and your refusal to assert your own desires and wishes and point of view.”
My friend knows me well. Such friends, such honesty, are rare.
“Very few people are aware of the role they play in their own difficulties,” J- remarks.
I am trying to come to terms with the physical and emotional exhaustion that has dogged me the last few years, and which has temporarily felled me, at a time I most urgently feel I need to be “on deck” for my mother and father and my daughter.
J- suggests I become aware of my personal mantras.
They won’t let me, emerges as one of the most persistent – the byline for a feeling of being disallowed, blocked, thwarted. I reveal this dark secret thought to her.
“Do you believe it?” she asks.
I hesitate, feeling tricked, cornered, trapped. The correct answer obviously is “No.” All I have to do, to be a good student, to please the teacher, is to say no. But I am committed to truth, even if that truth is wrongly based.
“Yes,” I reply. “It’s what I’ve experienced, many, many times.”
I learned early to study those whose power could bless or blight my small world.
If I watched carefully, and guessed what they wanted of me, I would ensure my safety in a dangerously unpredictable world.
The anxious desire to placate and please thus had its roots in a sense of contingency, based on the ever-present possibility of rejection and annihilation.
Kahlil Gibran’s, “as much as the trees and the stars you have a right to be here”, was never an aphorism that I felt included me.
For I had concluded early that my place in the family was tenuous. Family lore has it, that, unlike my elder sister, who was sunny and amenable, I was a fretful and emotionally volatile infant and small child.
“You were a bugger of a kid,” my auntie told me, “always howling.”
My Baby Book records that one of my earliest utterances was, “You’ll go in the Girls’ Home.” I must have heard it a fair few times to have repeated it before the age of two. I reflect now that having a child who could speak clearly from the age of one, threatened the delicate fabrications of the family mythos.
“You are not my child,” my mother used to tell me when she was cross. “A fairy took my good, fair-haired baby and left a dark-haired changeling in its place.”
When I later learned from a book of fairy tales that the human mothers on whom the changelings had been visited agreed to look after them only because if they did so perhaps the fairies one day would return their own good, true, vanished children to them and rid them of the vexatious changelings, my sense of unworthiness and of the peril I was in became unshakeable convictions.
“Tell me about your family,” J- says.
I can find no words. There is too little or too much to say.
only what can be used matters.
Night comes early.
We discuss being at a loss as to how to do things differently.
The discomfort and unease of learning new habits.
How awkward it feels.
How time and practice are needed to get the hang of it.
How the new way must be learned bit by bit.
“Like writing,” I say. “Each time you come to write a book, what stares you in the face is the starkly obvious fact that you don’t know how to do it. You have to learn – all over again – every time – but you put up with the discomfort and keep going – and somehow it comes together.”
“Exactly,” J- says. “For me, a non-writer, that seems impossible. But you, as a writer, know the truth of it, because you have gone through the process many times.”
The poet, David Whyte, maintains that the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest – but wholeheartedness. We need to become exhausted with what is peripheral, he says, so that we come to the threshold of what is real to do – for us - as individuals.
In mid-life this may require radical simplification to bring us back to the sacred frontier of our life, to the core conversation, to the invisible foundation of experience on which to rebuild an innocence we experienced in an earlier phase.
The harvest will be different, but equally wonderful.
To see the work through to harvest, Whyte says, requires what William Blake named “a firm persuasion”. By this he refers not only to an outward physical pressure brought to bear on some object, but to an inward grip, some kind of firm focus, an inner star drawing us on into life.
To tell the story differently I need to work not from the outside in, creating the characters in my world, as in writing fiction, but from the inside out.
Remember that believing is seeing.
I tell J- how worried I am about my mother, who has Alzheimers.
“What are you worried about?” J- asks.
I cannot answer easily. The anxiety, whilst pervasive, is formless.
“That she is unhappy and frightened, that she complains all the time, criticises and finds fault.”
“And is there anything you can do about this?”
“Not really. Beyond taking care of her physical needs and seeing that she is as comfortable as possible.”
“And what will happen?”
“My mother will die.”
“And is there anything you can do about that?”
“Then what you are worrying about is transient.” “Yes.”
“ As what you are experiencing now is transient.”
An old promise: this too will pass.
A thought: we all have our stories: some inspire and enthuse, others depress and exhaust us.
I start to think about the many kind things my mother has done.
Kind and brave, because she is not naturally assertive. One skin too few, like all the women in our family, with the remaining layers of skin over-sensitive, she has nevertheless been known to step right out of her comfort zone, albeit squirming with anxiety, impelled by her need to support and bring comfort to others.
Against her nature, and to the detriment of her health and well-being, she has pushed herself to do the right thing – to do what’s needed; putting others’ needs before her own.
I am my mother’s daughter.
Predawn and the wild ducks calling.
A high wind all night. The cabin door blows open and when I step out to close it I am greeted by a great inverted bowl of stars arching over my head. Spear points of the numinous.
Back in bed I nestle under the doona.
"Thanks for the feathers!" I call back as the cold winter morning ducks honk low over the dam.
Not only do I worry about my sick mother and my sick daughter, there is also debt. We could sell your bush block and pay back the bank, I tell my husband. But he won’t.
“What if you turf me out when I’m 90 and I have nowhere to go?” he says.
I tell him how desperate I feel that the responsibility of absolving our debt rests on my shoulders alone. It makes me feel lonely and burdened. Perhaps how my father felt for many years.
In the dark of the despairing night I carefully plot my death, say goodbye in my mind to everyone – asking forgiveness - try to obviate the effects of my planned demise. Wait quietly to put my plan into action. But morning comes and I get up to face the new day, of course.
Peripeteia - undramatic but irrefutable. A turning point in a drama after which the plot moves steadily to its denouement.
Change is needed. I have come to the end of some way of life. It’s about time.
It’s not a case of weighing up whose agenda should take precedence – it is simply what one owes to life – to preserve the life one has been given. Not to throw it away.
I run through the competing claims on my time – Mum’s and Dad's frailty, my daughter's need for physical and emotional care, the needs of the refugees, our finances - and far away, like the echo of a swan calling its mate, the writing beckons – the writing – but there is no time and not the means to get to it.
There has never been enough time for it.
There has never been a right time.
There never will be.
The title of my PhD thesis was Telling Someone Else’s Story. Of course. Living – and telling – someone else’s story. But it is only I who can make a different choice. Look it firmly in the face and decide where my priorities lie.
I came to explore the wreck
I came to see the damage that
was done, and the treasures that prevail
Psoriasis – silver scales – scabs – lifting the scales – covering my scaly arms and legs – not wanting to be seen – not wanting the ailment to be seen – scratching away at myself – drawing old wounds to the surface.
I can no longer carry everyone who asks me.
I need to do my own work. Not doing it. The pen still. The tongue silent. Is wreaking havoc in my body and spirit.
Pathology = the speech of suffering, the logic of pain.
I work through tasks, heavy-hearted, trying to disregard the nagging voices that tell me I am selfish, self-centred for wanting my own time - time to myself - for what I want to do.
I know only one thing, that I am tired. And that I must set this tiredness down or it will kill me. No need to plot my death – the internal combustion generated by deferred hope will do the job quite well.
The zeal of thine house has eaten me up.
How hard it is to find truth. And how simple. Usher the chorus of competing voices to the door – they’ve had a fair go – more than 60 years of hollering their complaints and demands and accusations – shut the door on them, then sit on the threshold and breathe the quietness.
In the gathering daylight small birds peck the rough grass – no sign yet of the larger, sturdier species, though magpies are beginning to warble from their roosts and far to the west the aargh! of an irascible crow and the ah-ah-ah-ah! of reply from a neighbouring branch break the stillness.
Rain is on its way – blowing in from the south-east – clouds tinged pink – traveller’s warning – down the highway I’ll wend soon, into Hobart’s rain.
Callings keep surfacing till we deal with them. They return as Freud’s “repetition compulsions”.
What is needed?
A simple yes.
A return to Yeats’ “radical innocence”
Heeding the quiet voice of my own desire, the red thread of my own life, that has snagged on the thorns of every ‘should’ and ‘ought’ I have placed in its path.
My way into and out of the labyrinth of my own life.
I have a dream I do not understand until I am halted in my tracks by cancer.
Travelling with three other women we come to a place of “kindred spirits”. I am very much drawn to stay there but I am committed to our travel plans. I cannot renege on our agreement, so we travel on, I preoccupied and backward looking to this congenial place – and as we get further and further along, things more and more seem “not quite right”, not quite real. But my desire to return to the briefly-experienced sanctuary does not feel legitimate. Too selfish. It will mean letting my companions down.
We stop to refuel at a service station in a remote town. Simultaneously filling the van and purchasing some brown paint to cover the rust on the vehicle I am so preoccupied that I start to pour the paint into the petrol tank – and only become aware of what is happening when I notice streaks of leaked brown paint on the duco of the van.
I find a mechanic and tell him what has happened. I am afraid I've totally destroyed the van, but he says it's fixable, although a big job, which will take a long time. He'll have to almost totally dismantle the car, take out the tank and clean it with some pretty heavy duty stuff.
I apologise to the other women. They decide to travel on, and suggest I go back to the place I’d been so reluctant to leave and wait for the van to be fixed.
The mechanic asks if there's anyone who could collect me…
I wake, exhausted and troubled. In the dream (as in life) I am trying to do a hundred things at once: say goodbye to the women who'll continue on a journey that's no longer mine, gather the stuff I’ll need, sort out transport back to the homely place, make arrangements for the van and for my immediate future, while I wait for the mechanic to fix the damaged car so I can get back on the road to where I was heading.
Terry Whitebeach is a Tasmanian writer and historian who has published biography, poetry and young adult fiction. Her latest novel (with Sarafino Enadio) was Trouble Tomorrow. Three of her radio plays have been broadcast on ABC's Airplay.