New beginnings, revisiting the past, stories, and Joe Strummer: it’s all about the stories we tell ourselves.
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Before starting, I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which I live, work, and record Pillow Talking, the Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation, and pay my respects to Elders past, present, and emerging.
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It’s been a few months. I promised you another bonus episode, and here it is – the last episode of Pillow Talking for the year. It’s also the last episode I’m recording in The Cone of Silence 2, because you see, we move out of this house tomorrow.
Once again, I’m recording on my phone because Shane’s put my recording gear away. He’s also put my Mac away, which means no intro or outro music, and I won’t be able to edit my audio, so you may hear me suck the air out of the room every now and then. I’m reading my script very slowly and deliberately, because I constantly stumble when I read, and ordinarily I’d splice everything together for you, oh-so-carefully, to make me sound a kind of smooth I could only every dream of being in real life.
It’s been a few months since my last episode, wherein I told you that Shane’s been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He’s doing well. Treatment is in full flight and before too long we’ll reach “cancer normal”, which is like covid normal, but with cancer. You live your life and go about your business as usual, except there’s this ever-present, background knowledge that makes you tread very carefully. Because like my hero Joe Strummer said, the future is unwritten.
The new house, like most houses, is not just a house. It’s a new beginning, and now that our one remaining child – manchild, that is – has flown the coop, we are finally together, on our own. The hopes we’ve imbued the new house with, even before moving in, should make for some top-notch vibes.
But before then, there’s moving out of the old house.
This house, as small and humble as it always has been, was a massive deal. It was my first home, on my own. It was my fresh start after the end of a 21-year marriage. It contained my fractured family until it felt whole again. It ebbed and flowed with the people who lived here. A daughter who moved back in after a few years on her own and proved you really can’t go home again. My son’s best friend, who alternately frustrated and delighted me, several times a day, every day. We miss him. My son’s girlfriend, whom we all learned to love before she became his wife. There were water balloon fights. Silly outdoor games that we took video of, and they literally make me cry with laughter years later. We had lounge room gigs here, and my friends Drew Sutherland and Mark Moldre blessed the house with song. After a few years, Shane and I got married here, in the backyard. He and his girls and Sweetie the dog moved in. The house stretched at the seams. But it held.
Packing up is like those stratigraphic cross sections I learned to read when I did geology back in high school. On the surface is the warranty for that new Instapot that was just delivered a couple of days ago, and at the bottom is stuff you haven’t seen for epochs. Reminders that your children were actual children once. Reminders that you were a child once. Reminders of stuff and relationships long gone.
Shane is on the opposite side of the room, sorting through one of his piles while I sort through mine.
“Should I keep these old love letters?” he calls out.
“Yes.” I instantly reply.
The love letters aren’t from me, obviously, or he wouldn’t be asking. But he should keep them. As I’m keeping mine.
Love letters have served me well. We’re a blended family and once Shane and I are gone, I don’t know if our kids will get anything out of reading the love letters that predate our relationship, but to me, they’re beautiful and important evidence.
One of my writing mentors, talking about the pitfalls of life writing, said that nostalgia is a sin of omission. You omit all the bad stuff just so you can get misty eyed and sighey about a time that never really existed. I think that bitterness and resentment are sins of omission too, where you look back and omit anything that was good or noteworthy; that time that makes you gnash your teeth never really existed either.
There is so little in this life that’s not finely, infinitesimally drawn with great attention to detail, and both nostalgia and resentment are huge paint rollers that cover it all up in either black or white. What a waste.
So if you’re going to look back and get neither nostalgic nor bitter or resentful, what can you do instead? You can look back in gratitude. For that time. For what it gave you. For which you couldn’t possibly have the now.
Gratitude erases regret and replaces it with hope. If you’re grateful for the love and happiness you had in the past maybe you’ll know it again. If you’re grateful for the lessons in the trials and the screwups you’ve made, maybe you’ll do better next time.
I’ve got an ego. It’s pretty huge. And it’s a game of the ego to think about how you’re this great love to another person, right? You’re like nothing that ever came before and like nothing that will ever be, and jeez it feels good to think that’s true, but is it? Even if it were true, you can’t deny this simple fact: you had to learn how to love, and someone had to teach the person who loves you how to love. It would have been a different kind of love, but essential nonetheless. We don’t compare Usain Bolt’s coach to his mum or dad holding his hand as he took his first steps, do we.
I didn’t realise how bad this house was when I bought it, all on my own and with zero knowledge about buying real estate. The foundations were already beginning to decay, and the termites had moved in, but I didn’t recognise them. After a few years of patch-up jobs that couldn’t keep up with the fact that the house wasn’t built to last 10 years, let alone the 40 it’s been standing. We gave in to overwhelm. We gave up. And when we decided to sell and move to something better, we gave in to a kind of bitterness and resentment. We’ll be glad to see the back of this place, we said. Bloody house, and all the fruitless struggle and expense to make it better, we said. Onward and upward and no looking back!
My friend Tara runs these amazing non-linear movement classes that I’ve been doing over Zoom over the past year. They ground me, heal me, and both relax and energise me, and it’s pretty common during the practice to have emotions burble up to the surface. The past few sessions I’ve done have been in our bedroom, and one of the last ones took me by surprise. You do the practice with your eyes closed, so it’s just you, connecting to your body and spirit, with Tara’s voice to guide and anchor you. Tara asked us to put our hands over our hearts, and stay with the feelings, inviting love in. Then she said, “Open up your arms. Spread your love around the room.” I did this, and was surprised to feel that suddenly my face was completely sopping wet. I had no idea what it was – it wasn’t like I had worked up a sweat during the session or anything. I put my hands up to my cheeks and realised that my eyes were streaming tears, all on their own. Emotion was seeping through the rough paint roller job I’d applied to this house – this home – when I decided to forget what it had meant, in all its chequered history, to all of us.
You’d better bloody believe I spread my love through the room. This room. This bed. Where we rested and dreamed and loved and laughed… and talked. Pillow talk.
Life is made up of stories. Not just the stories we tell each other, but the stories we tell ourselves. And stories are so much richer for the details and the nuances. We are drawn to stories – true and fictional – because they reveal the human spirit in action; they tell us things about ourselves, or things we’d like to be true about ourselves. Under the paint roller, complex human beings become caricatures: villainous villains, saintly saints, heroic heroes. But when you look at the detail, people are people: good sometimes, bad sometimes, with a lot of meh the rest of the time. When you look at the detail, you can focus on the parts of the story that serve you better, and you realise that – we miss you, Joe! – parts of the past are unwritten too. When you look at the detail, the stories you tell yourself can be love letters too.
Whenever I come back home from away, the first thing I say when I walk through the door is “Hello, house.” Now I say, “Goodbye, house.” And goodbye friends and pillow talkers, until next year, when I’ll be back with more stories of real-life bedroom conversations. Until then, please take care of yourselves. And each other.