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Rebecca Jessen

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memoir

‘Hello Dolly’ now online at Verity La

The lovely people at Verity La have published my memoir ‘Hello Dolly’ which is about dealing with grief and the eccentricities of family. You can read it in full here. Like Tincture Journal, Verity La publish challenging, courageous, and thoughtful writing by a diverse range of emerging and established writers. So while you’re there have a look around and read some of the other brilliant work on the website.

 

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‘We’re All Going On A Summer Holiday’ published in The Lifted Brow #33

This month The Lifted Brow are celebrating 10 years of the Brow! I’ve been lucky enough to be published in the Brow a few times now, and I can tell you that their 10th Birthday issue is in itself something worth celebrating – and not just because I have a piece in there.

My memoir ‘We’re All Going On A Summer Holiday’ is featured in this issue, and I was really grateful to see it find a home here. Writing the piece, and reliving the holiday was… well a labour of love, or self-torture. Read it and decide!

My inner music nerd was delighted when TLB asked me to make a mixtape and commentary to accompany my piece – which was perfect really, considering that the piece involves a road trip, and already had its own dedicated playlist. Also, if you ever wondered how trashy my taste in music really is, here’s your chance to find out! Listen to my mixtape and read the commentary here.

I’m still slowly devouring my copy, but a few pieces really blew me away. ‘Something To Be Tiptoed Around Until It Goes Away’ by Emma Marie Jones was so heartbreakingly good. It’s a beautiful meditation on grief and grieving, something so raw and true that there are post-its, highlighted passages and I’m pretty sure a few tears shed on those pages. You can read an excerpt here but really, just go and buy a copy of the issue because you’ll want to read all of this one.

Another piece I loved was ‘In Pursuit of Nostalgia’ by Anna Spargo-Ryan. I happened upon this piece rather serendipitously after talking to a friend just hours earlier about feeling nostalgia for home, and wondering whether the feeling was true.

I enjoyed reading ‘Thinking of You’ the conversation between poets Alison Whittaker and Joshua Jennifer Espinoza. Intelligent, interesting poets talking about important things – read their poems on the preceding pages, then read their to-fro.

Lastly, the comic ‘The Gap Between Theory & Practice’ by Nicky Minus is brilliant – check it out!

All that’s left for you to do now is buy a copy or even better, subscribe if you can. You won’t regret it.

(TWENTY-FIVE) the body has memory

‘The body has memory. The physical carriage hauls more than its weight. The body is the threshold across which each objectionable call passes into consciousness.’ Claudia Rankine, Citizen.


this is how days are spent. the briefest moments of hope. punctured by despair. can you despair at nothingness? can nothingness be a sign of despair? how often in the last four weeks did you feel hopeless for no reason. you would like to believe there is always a reason. but numbers aren’t a good measurement of pain. or experience. or despair.

it’s the memories that stop you. does the future have memory? is past performance an indicator of future performance? you never know you’re in it. until you’re in too deep. you don’t yet know when to fight. and when to walk away.

you are a self-fulfilling prophecy.

there are already others. circling. waiting to swoop. and you say there is nothing left. not even for me. but someone has found something. and my skin still smells like you. and you keep saying I’ll hold on I’m hanging on I will be held here.

this is how days are spent. each morning there is a torturous moment before consciousness. each morning there is a moment where nothing has changed. how often in the last four weeks did you feel hopeless for no reason?

every morning she said.

every

single

morning.

and on a scale of one to ten? always a ten. always.

these streets don’t exist without us. and last night I dreamt about our wedding. you wore a dress. but that can’t be right. can it? you took my breath away. and isn’t that how it’s always been. how do you erase the intimate knowledge of someone? is that what happens now? will the contours made for these hands wear away over time?

the body has memory.

and these streets. they don’t exist without you.

this is how days are spent. you are dressed for a different season in a different city. this city that was once your own is now the prickle of heat on your neck. and will it be yours again? and does that mean you’re no longer being held. just holding on. hold on.

there’s something comfortable about being in the crush of people. here in this space you are nobody. you are not the person who has lost everything. twice. you are just a girl in a stripy shirt wearing a banana necklace. here in this space you are nobody. and for a while. this is the best you can hope for.

and you keep thinking. but there was a ring. and you keep thinking. but we were making a dream home scrapbook. but you were a ghost. and now you’re ghosting streets that don’t belong to you anymore. these streets that belonged to the person you once were don’t exist in this time. these streets exist in the past.

but you say you’re holding on. just holding on for one more day. and you’re in danger of becoming a 90s pop song. but we agreed that life is a musical. so hold on anyway. just for one more day.

these bodies have memory. and mine will remember yours.

New Writing in The Lifted Brow #30

I’m really excited to have a new pice of non-fiction, ‘The Art Of Breaking’ in the latest (#30) issue of The Lifted Brow. Not only is it the Brow’s 30th issue, a great thing in itself, it’s also all-round, a pretty special issue. Have you seen the awesome wrap-around artwork? There is so much goodness to find in this issue, I set myself the task of reading a different piece every night before bed. Sometimes the strange and wonderful works entered my dreams.

I especially enjoyed the Advice Comics by Lizzie Nagy and Andy Connor, Madness and White by Anezka Sero, and Izzy Roberts-Orr’s poem Sometimes the Ocean Falls on You, Even When the Coastlines are Far Away.

The Lifted Brow do such an excellent job at welcoming and nurturing different and experimental pieces of writing, that may otherwise not find a home here. My piece ‘The Art Of Breaking’ is about a breakdown/breakup via Twitter and I’m really proud to have it published in the Brow. You can view a tiny excerpt of the piece here. You can also read short excerpts from all the of the pieces here. But really, the best thing to do is to buy an issue, or subscribe, and get it delivered straight to your door every quarter.

 

Happy reading!

TWENTY-THREE (Street Stories)

This is a tiny extract from my current work in progress.

 


 

Sometimes the only way to remember the early years is to trace the memories back to the streets they emerged from. There were so many houses early on, so many schools, so many new beginnings. Can a beginning be thought of as new if it starts and ends the same as all the other beginnings? Is this how other families work too, this constant shifting, but never starting over—just starting again, and again—sometimes only a few streets away, across a suburb line.

My family managed to find whole clusters of suburbs where time worked in the same way, always staying still, never moving. Suburbs where if you stayed too long you got a glimpse of the person you would become. I can see now, how easy it is to stay, how time and place can slowly wear you away, slowly permeate your sense of being, your sense of belonging. How you can wake one day and know without a doubt, that you have become this place where time is still, where people are worn away to their very shell, this place that you come to find you can never leave.

Some years there is more than one street, more than one house, more than one school, this makes it harder to remember. Some years my memories settle on other markers of time, of place. Some years the streets are all I have to remember them by, or the houses, the waking dreams, the nights I can’t forget.

TWENTY-TWO (Yesterday)

There was a time there all those years ago, in that old house, that old suburb, there was a time there when I saw you in everything. Wherever I went, wherever I looked, there you were. They say, after a person dies, it’s not uncommon to still see them, in places you might have once seen them, often in the most ordinary of places. Then it’s not uncommon to see you riding down the street on your bicycle. Then it’s not uncommon to see you in the supermarket, stepping off a bus, turning back and catching my gaze.

I don’t really know if people say this, but I imagine it to be true. Otherwise how to explain this seeing you, when I know you are gone. Of course, this was many years ago. I don’t see you anymore, not like that. I’ve moved away now, to a different city, with its own haunts and hauntings. But I still go back, I am always going back.

Ten years is a long time for someone to have passed. I remember it like it was yesterday. Isn’t that what most people say about the moments in their lives where grief is found balled up inside them like a fist.

If I don’t remember it like it was yesterday then there is the danger of forgetting. There is the danger that I could pass through time unmarked, unchanged. If time is not a construct designed to change us, then what is it? If time and grief are balled up inside you like a fist and you refuse change, what happens to that fist? Does grief spread inside you like a roadmap, unfurled, sprawling and unknown.

I remember it like it was yesterday. You were always leaving, even before you left for good. You were always leaving, on a Saturday evening, crashing forward into the night. You were always leaving, on a weekday afternoon, hiding in a nearby empty lot. You were always leaving and we were always left looking. I remember it like it was yesterday.

 

TWENTY (Just The Way It Is)

I received my family inheritance young. I remember this, I’m ten, it’s a quiet Sunday afternoon, around four or five. Mum pushes a few coins into my hands and asks me to walk across the road to the servo and buy some milk. I agree, I don’t recall if there’s something in it for me, fifty cents, maybe. I’m wearing my new favourite outfit, a pink ribbed singlet and a pair of pink shorts – this is hard to admit, even now. I leave the house with the coins jingling in my pocket, I reach the end of our street and I stand looking across the busy road at the servo. It might be a 7/11.

I know that it’s where I have to go. I know I have agreed to this task and I didn’t have to. But something in my mind makes my feet stop working. I look left, then right, then left again. I watch the people in the cars rushing by me without a care in the world. They aren’t stuck. They keep moving. Just go to the lights and cross, I tell myself. Don’t be stupid. But still, I stand there, not moving, just watching. I watch the cars enter the 7/11, I watch the people who get out of the cars and enter the store. Some of them leave with milk and bread, some leave with nothing.

I turn around and run home. When I get home I am breathless and empty handed.

‘Where’s the milk?’ Mum asks.

‘I didn’t get it,’ I say.

‘Why?’

‘There was a man,’ I say. ‘He looked scary and I didn’t want to go over there.’

‘Okay,’ Mum says.

I’m relieved, she isn’t angry, she doesn’t demand I go back anyway, she just says okay and takes the money when I give it to her. I have school the next day so Mum tells me to have a bath.

Mum is talking to my dad on the phone when I get out of the bath and she passes the phone on to me. I tell him I’ve just had a bath.

‘Did you dry your hair properly?’ he asks. He always asks me this when he calls. And then he tells me I should get Mum to blow-dry my hair, but I never do.

I hand the phone back to Mum after a while, and when she hangs up I say, ‘Mum?’

‘Yes?’

‘There wasn’t really a man, I made that up. Sorry.’

Mum doesn’t even get angry then, angry that I’ve lied, that I’ve seemingly just refused to go and get the milk. She says it’s fine, she says it doesn’t matter.

When I got home empty handed I didn’t know how to tell her that there wasn’t really anyone scary lurking by. I didn’t know how to say that it’s just what happened in my head when I thought about crossing the road. So I didn’t. I couldn’t. Perhaps, this is where it starts, this obsessive anxiety I’ve inherited.

EIGHTEEN (Carry Me Home)

For n.

When I run my fingers over her skin I see traces of the lives she has already lived, lives that I have never known – perhaps never will know. Her skin tells the stories of past loves, lovers that have been too quick, too rough. Stories of children gained and lost. Homes built and burned down.

When I look at her, when I really look, I see the toll it has taken to be one woman holding the weight of loss in the palms of her hands.

Sometimes I look at her looking at me and my hands want to pull at my shoulders and bring them in close. My head bows. I think she sees me too.

When I see myself through her, I see an intruder. Someone temporary. I see how much I need her and how consuming it is to be needed. I see how strong she is, yet delicate, how heavy a small bird is in the hand of another. I worry often about crushing her.

Sometimes at night, after she has fallen asleep beside me, I lie very still and fret about all the ways in which I do not belong. I worry that this life is not what she planned. But what is a life planned but a wish list that never ends.

I know she busies herself and fills her days to the brim in fear of what might happen if all her days were not full, if all her moments weren’t already promised away to the more needy. What would be left to confront? Not the day’s takings on her soul – but a question that dare not be asked.

The older I get the more sure I am, that we all have one question we spend our days, our lives, frantically – if not madly – dancing around. Only the very brave and broken dare stop their mad dance long enough to find out what their question is. And do they answer it?

When I sit with her, it is with the quiet acceptance that we are both still dancing around our lives in some strange, unacknowledged way. That we might continue to dance for some time to come – and that’s okay, as long as she continues to dance with me.

THIRTEEN (Ming Hua Memories)

Today I’m very excited to be posting a guest-blog by the immensely talented Nike Sulway. Nike is the author of several novels, including Rupetta, which—in 2014—was the first work by an Australian writer to win the James Tiptree, Jr Award. The award, founded in 1991 by Pat Murphy and Karen Joy Fowler, is an annual award for a work of “science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender”. She blogs at Perilous Adventures.

I’ve been a fan of Nike’s work long before I had the pleasure of getting to know her. Her writing is evocative and poetic, beautiful on a sentence-to-sentence level, thoughtful and immersive. I’d highly recommend checking out her award winning novel Rupettawhich is heartbreakingly beautiful, and then working your way backwards through the rest of her work. You can find Nike’s publications here.

Minghua-SYD-BW

This morning, someone played Rod Stewart’s cover of ‘I am sailing’ and I found myself, like the kind of idiot you can only be in the safety of your home, enthusiastically singing along. I could smell the ocean, and feel the sunburn of that summer when my family cruised the Pacific Ocean aboard the Ming Hua.

As we sailed out of Sydney Harbour, Rod sang his heartfelt farewell. The paper ribbons we were holding snapped and fluttered in our hands. At every port we visited, Rod’s voice would croon over the loudspeakers: arriving and departing. For years afterwards, particularly in summer, my parents would put Rod on the turntable to bring back that time.

I was young enough that I had never been kissed by anyone other than my relatives. My mother still bought all my underwear, and I found the advice about sex and sexuality in Dolly magazine shocking enough not to be able to discuss it with anyone. I had breasts. Well, I had small, tender nubbins that made the amount of coverage provided by my crocheted bikini-top of enormous conern. I was at that awkward age: no longer a child (I though), but certainly not a teenager or–heaven forbid–an adult.

The SS Ming Hua bore only a passing resemblance to the Love Boat I had imagined I would be boarding. I was disappointed not to meet the inspiringly glamorous Julie McCoy (cruise director), or captain’s daughter, Vicki Stubing (with whom I was sure I would have been fast friends).

Instead, the crew were all of Chinese or South-East Asian heritage. Their English was thickly accented: disarmingly exotic. There were mah-jong classes to attend, and dumplings for breakfast. Much of the signage on the ship was in Chinese characters, with awkward English translations underneath.

I don’t remember much about the ports we visited (Vila, Suva, Vanuatu …); for me, the focus of the holiday was our shipboard adventures. My two younger sisters (and our smuggled-aboard niece) shared a cabin: our parents’ cabin was somewhere nearby, but we saw them only intermittently.

My mother suffered terribly with sea-sickness. I remember her mostly being pale and fragile. She drank coffee and lay on a sun-lounge on the Promenade Deck with a wet flannel over her face. Or lay in her darkened cabin, as she did sometimes when the migraines overcame her at home.

We children were left to our own devices. We flocked together with the other children on-board, roaming freely around the ship. There was a cinema on-board, with films screened regardless of who attended. I first saw Alien aboard the Ming Hua, with Chinese sub-titles. In the afternoons, we gathered in the ‘disco’ to dance to the latest tunes mixed with contemporary Chinese music, and to play games on the cocktail table Video Game console. The boys dominated play, but us girls had a good go. By the end of our cruise I was the Frogger champion.

We ate and drank like princes and princesses. There was a bar where we could fill up on strangely-sweet nuts, and lemonade. And instant coffee machines that spat our hot chocolates made with powdered milk.

One night, there were horse races in the bar. Small, woven horses with brightly-coloured manes were set up at the starting line and my parents, along with others, rolled dice to ensure their mounts charged forward to the finish line.

At one port, a bevy of beautiful women came aboard. Petite, white-toothed, big-haired, they put on a show while we floated at the pier. Singing and dancing. Only after they had disembarked did I learn (from who?) that they were transvestites.

There are very few photographs of our trip. My mother, perhaps unsettled by sea-sickness, reached the end of her roll of film. As we sailed from port to port, she kept holding up her camera, telling us to smile, clicking and then winding on the film. But there was no film. There were no more photographs. Instead, we have Rod Stewart, crooning us back in time.

*The SS Ming Hua last set sail from Sydney Harbour in May, 1983. She has since become a land-locked hotel, shopping centre and ‘entertainment venue’ at Shekou Sea World, in China’s Quangdong province.

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