Authors: Donna Williams
n what seemed like the edge of the earth, I sat alone, perched on a cliff above the incoming tide of a familiar Australian beach. The
night was a midnight blue and the moonlight danced wildly in sparkles upon the waves. My fingers ran through the grass as the summer's-night wind ran its fingers through my hair. My hair was full of the wild, free smell of the ocean wind and it streamed out to the side as I turned my face into the breeze. I was an albatross on the mainland. I was alone but whole.
Facing into the wind, the distant city lights mockingly reminded me that although I now had a whole self there was something still missing that seemed perpetually unreachable and “over there,” always just around the corner.
Turning back toward the sea, I balanced my bare feet on the edge of the cliff and looked outward into the darkness. My position seemed to stand for the future: a place and time of mystery without lights to show the way and without roles to hide behind. Another wave broke. A new year had begun.
The sound of leaves fluttering in the wind punctuated the feeling. Was this aloneness? Carol had always saved me from the incomprehensible and overwhelming things I knew as “tidal waves.” Carol could laugh in the face of emotions that could not reach her. I had been abandoned to the arms of emotions I had no understanding of. They were still overwhelming but at least I now knew what category they belonged to. I decided to go and find the real Carol.
I went to the park at the end of the dead-end street. I had lived here when I was three. Carol must have been about ten. I couldn't really remember what she looked like because I'd spent most of my life thinking my reflection was her. I vaguely recalled that the real Carol had short, dark, possibly reddish hair.
I stood at the base of my favorite tree and looked up at the strong “arm” of my friend who lived in the park. He wasn't my tree because he belonged to me. We had a belonging with each other. I was as much his as he was mine. We belonged with.
I had swung from this branch twenty-four years ago. I ran my hand along the tree trunk and smelled the leaves. Hi, old friend, I said silently.
Swinging from his arm I had made an upside-down world swing
backward and forward with me. It had felt good to own the world in those magic years before “the war.” I stood beneath the branch where Carol had stood watching me so many years before. Like all those years ago, I wondered how to bring her back.
I had a rough idea of where she had taken me. It was the street whose fence backed onto the park, but I couldn't recall walking around the park to get to it. Had Carol and I somehow walked through the fence?
Facing the fence, I saw that gates now seemed to emerge from it. My mind changed gear and suddenly the gray wooden line and its components made sense. I now knew why I had thought I could get into Carol's world by walking into the mirror. The mirror, tall and rectangular, gave the impression of a door to the place on the other side, just as the gates did.
I thought about the mirror at my childhood house. It was a full-length mirror. You couldn't see behind it. It appeared to be an open doorway but you couldn't walk through it. I had thought that if I only believed hard enough, I could walk through the mirror into Carol's world just as I had, once upon a time, walked through one of those gates in the fence. Things were changing. I was understanding.
Like Alice in Wonderland, I wondered which gate to choose. After more than twenty years, I couldn't remember which gate it was. They all looked so much like the fence itself. The only thing to do was to walk around the other side and knock on doors.
The neighborhood had always been fairly elderly and most who were around then weren't around anymore. Even the young people who'd grown up here had mostly moved on to other suburbs. Nobody seemed to recall anyone called Carol.
“Red hair, red hair,” said an old lady in her seventies with her hand on her chin. “Could have been the eldest of the Jeffrey girls.” The Jeffreys had lived on the street and their back gate was part of the fence bordering the park only fifty yards from my tree. They'd left about ten years ago, and most of them had moved to the country. No one was quite sure where. I'd asked every walking history book on the street, and it seemed there was only one who could have told me for sure about a girl named Carol.
An old man who had kept an eye on the children playing in the park for decades knew the names of all the various children. He'd have known Carol. But he'd passed away a few months before I'd returned to Australia. Ironically that was around the same time I had finally exposed Carol's existence after two decades of secrecy.
Perhaps Carol was someone who had just stopped over in the area; perhaps her name was not Carol at all. It was possible that unless she'd told me her name, I'd simply given her one. It was possible I'd borrowed the name from the TV or one of my stored-up conversations. At least I was sure of one thing: Carol was not me.
I went out and bought Carol something as a way of saying goodbye. Having no sense of self to inhibit her, Carol had forever loved to wear bright colors. I loved the colors but had no desire to wear them. I bought Carol a multicolored sequined hat, hung it on the wall, and looked at it as one might the fading flowers after a funeral.
eople buy a parrot and they think they teach it to speak. In spite of teaching, the parrot learns (maybe he is bored out of his mind or learns he gets rewarded for performing). The people are impressed because they now have a “clever” parrot. Their parrot can “do things.” An expert comes along and says the parrot only appears to speak. The expert says he actually hasn't got language, only speech. But the parrot did have language. Beyond cheap tricks, the parrot has always had language. It had and always will have its own.
Like the parrot, the characters Willie and Carol handled the survival issue. I had waited in the shadows unable to identify with the compliance and behavior I had to exhibit in the absence of its comprehension. The things that happened in the name of chasing “normality” could never have been derived from interest or understanding. The appearance of “normality” meant survival. Unless you eat, breathe, sleep, and shit “normality,” you will be treated as less than zero and possibly not even survive at all.
My employment record was impressive if one was looking for variety but it was a total write-off when it came to proving a stable work history. No amount of compensation or channeling of abilities had been able to cover the cracks in the pavement of my personality. As time went by people would always discover one crack and then another and point them out. I would become so afraid of their shattering the image that I would run out on everything.
said the machine under Carol's hands as she ran the fiftieth shirt cuff under the foot of the sewing machine. At seventeen, it was her twentieth job in two years and one in a long string of machinist jobs. She had lasted a while at this oneâalmost two months.
Suddenly Donna looked at the hands in front of her unable to make sense of them as her own or to understand why she was there. The material was familiar but what it was for now evaded her. She looked up at the rows and rows and rows of bright overhead lights and squinted. A face shoved itself quickly into the vicinity of her own. “Get on with it, Donna. We don't pay you for nothing,” said the face. The words meant nothing. Carol was out of the factory, down the stairs, and outside the door before anyone realized what she'd done. She bit her lip. “Uh-oh,” she thought. Willie would have to go for yet another interview.
I was getting a grip on things. I was becoming able to cope with ongoing situations well enough not to have to drift or run away. Ironically the presence of the self in the words I used, and the mind and emotions they came from did nothing for my fluency. I stood in the full light of my own humanity, and it choked my words, clogged the pipeline to my views, and made me look hardly responsible enough to cross a road.
I went for job after job. They wouldn't take me. It was hard times in Australia, where only the tough or impressive went to the front of the line. Willie and Carol abandoned me ruthlessly to the open arms of unemployment.
I considered going back to the university. Taking courses had always been a safe territory. But for whom? Willie was the scholar.
Carol was a repertoire of stored-up “social” skits. Who the hell would I be?
I considered becoming a teacher and began cautiously by trying for work as a teacher's aide in the special schools.
It wasn't so much that I wanted to teach as that it was something I had found I was good at. Over the years I had taken on work as a private tutor. Compared to the social worker image I had chased in my early twenties, tutoring had been far more clinical. I didn't have to develop a stored repertoire of performed saintly empathy, been-there-done-that emotions, martyr-like understanding, or high-flying, well-brought-up morality. I didn't have to convince people that I was social and caring by waving references of valor for voluntary work I had taken on for far from unselfish reasons.
In my early twenties I had tried to untie the knots within me. I was afraid of the unpredictability of alcoholics, so I had surrounded myself with them. I was afraid of the helplessness and vulnerability and disrespect that came with homelessness, so I had volunteered to work with the homeless. I was afraid of the realness of children, their spontaneity, honesty, and the way this made my walls shaky, so I had volunteered to work with children. I was afraid of the threat and accusation of insanity so I had volunteered to work at a mental hospital. I just wanted to show my fear who was boss so I could one day steer my own chariot without it dragging me along for the ride. Instead I was praised as the martyr I was not. My fear of self-exposure meant no one ever knew my true motivations. (Yet I did manage at least to say that I didn't believe in charity because the so-called charitable are always getting something back.)