The Long Goodbye
ALUMNI FEATURE – JUNE 2018
By Features Editor Diana Jenkins
I can’t remember the last time I did a first-person Monthly Feature like this – one of my ‘true confessions’ – but it was a while ago. (Okay, it was February – I checked – and before that, November 2017). And boy, I’d really have to go back through the archives to recall anything about the very first one I wrote, but I can tell you this is the last for a while. I’m going on sabbatical. I have to, which means there’s a wonderful, real and present opportunity for all of you while I’m gone.
That makes it sound like I’ll definitely be back – I don’t know if I will be. Change is healthy and necessary. It’s a central feature of life and creativity, so it may well be that at the conclusion of this hiatus, everyone agrees that it was high time I made way for someone new, and what the hell took me so long, anyway? When I put it like that…well, you see what I’m saying.
But back to the opportunity: Varuna is now seeking expressions of interest from Alumni who wish to write Alumni Features, so please get in touch with Amy Sambrooke at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are keen. It’s not the best paying gig around, but you will be paid for your contribution. For now, I need some time out.
My ability to keep up this role started unravelling back in 2017. I’ll give you the annotated version: I despise the cold. As I write this, less than three weeks into a season I absolutely loathe, I am already almost completely voiceless. Winter is my existential enemy. This time last year, I was in the evil clutches of the first of what would prove to be five chest infections. Five rounds of antibiotics later, I was sent for a chest x-ray, sobbing uncontrollably to the technician about my two small sons because I was absolutely convinced by this stage that there was a dark mass mushrooming in my lungs and I was about to die.
And yet after just two days in the South of France last July, as part of the Buddy-moon following the wedding of one of my oldest friends in London, I was miraculously restored to full health and vitality. Or maybe that was the round-the-clock Rosé. Either way, I was positively tickety-boo.
What I really require is dual hemisphere capacity. If I could just hightail it outta Dodge every time the ice rolled into town, I’d be absolutely FINE. But my husband was made redundant right after we booked and paid for everything for that holiday. Like, within days, as if it were a practical joke. I was still flat-lining as a freelancer at the time, so this was Very Bad News indeed. My job search began in earnest. The pressure to find work was very real: instant and intense. Our youngest son was two-and-a-half at the time, so I was also in the throes of toilet training and tantrums (mainly his; occasionally mine).
I hope I never, ever, ever have to go through a job search like that ever again. To have always worked – maintaining an updated freelance portfolio throughout raising my two young children – to be an English PhD with more than 12 years’ experience writing for magazines and newspapers, to have co-curated and presented three Sydney Theatre main-stage events for Sydney Writers’ Festival – including arming then-SWF Artistic Director Jemma Birrell with the means of persuading Richard Roxburgh and Richard Tognetti to appear – and to have my applications (yes, plural) utterly ignored?
I thought I’d be an asset to any team. I know how hardworking I am. I know I have aptitude, honesty, application, experience, intuition, drive, creativity, humour, empathy and practicality. I’m efficient. I multi-task. I am a worker by nature (and some people are not. My husband well and truly missed his boat, as his destiny was surely to be an 18thcentury gentleman adventurer).
But no. On the contrary, I was not a hot candidate. I was DOA. I wasn’t even worthy of an acknowledgement of receipt, let alone an email letting me know my application was unsuccessful. After a couple of months of this steaming shit, I sent my LinkedIn profile to two senior recruiter friends, leaving a teary message for one along the lines of, ”Why – sob – don’t they – sob – want me…?”
Judith is very wise (also one of those unnerving people who never ages. I’m convinced it has to do with a certain pre-possession. She’s not insecure in the slightest and never has been – if only all women and girls had her attitude and strong sense of self). Judith called and left a message on my phone that made me cry again. It was very . simple, and something along the lines of, “Di, just don’t worry about it. Don’t give it another thought. Your LinkedIn profile’s fantastic. You’re everything your profile says you are. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it or you – it’s great. Just hang in there. You have nothing to worry about. Trust me. You’ll be completely fine.”
And trust her I did. I kept that message and listened to it several times more across the whole demoralising, insulting, bewildering and infuriating process of looking for a job.
It continued in an unpleasantly undiluted fashion being totally awful and traumatic. Then, as these things so often and so weirdly do, I’ve ended up in the job that seems most fated of all.
It’s peculiar in the extreme, after all this time, to end up here, and I’m slightly concerned that the…well, the term everyone uses these days is “triggering” and I guess it’s pretty accurate – that the triggering aspect of all this is going to ultimately overwhelm or undo me, but for the past four and a half months I’ve been Business & Communications Manager for the Northern Beaches Women’s Shelter (the new website at www.nbws.org.au is currently under construction).
I’ve never worked so hard in my life. I’ve never worked so many hours beyond what I’m being paid for. I’ve never – with the exception of writing for a living, and even then – been this poorly paid. But I’ve also never been in a role where I know so unequivocally that my efforts translate into meaningful outcomes for struggling women in my community and beyond.
I’ll give you example by asking you all for one small, parting gift: the Shelter’s (volunteer) President Rosy Sullivan is a finalist in the Westfield Local Hero awards. A public vote between now and 1 July decides the winner of a $10,000 grant for the organisation the nominee supports.
Should Rosy win, we’ll direct the funds into purchasing bedroom dividers, so current and future residents will have some tiny modicum of privacy and personal space while living in twinshare crisis accommodation. You can help us get this grant over the line: all you have to do is spend a single minute casting your vote here.
Thank you, thank you!
So you see, I know my job means something. I know I’m doing something of genuine value that assists women far less fortunate than I have been. But it is all consuming – I’ll never be able to deliver everything the Shelter needs – and here comes the hard part of the conversation.
I’m not managing.
I have a 3-year-old son; a 7-year-old son; a husband embarked upon a start-up business who’s currently not earning a salary and is necessarily preoccupied and also working non-stop (are we having fun yet?!); an apartment in a constant state of almost total disarray (which I find psychically disturbing, a state of agitation heightened by the fact that I mainly work from home); a pile of long abandoned TBR books beside my bed; an equally tall pile of empty notebooks for various projects, all waiting to be filled (including a handsome unused journal, a gift from my dear, sweet and knowing friend Judith); a dead manuscript that continues to suck all the air out of the room even though I’ve kicked it under the bed; another one I haven’t yet been able to birth, stalled as it was by the employment imperative and everything that’s happened since; a third that’s currently nothing more than a few lines in my head, and I have friends I never see. Friends I love so much and keep letting down.
I am not running. I am not reading. I am not writing. Ergo, I am not well.
The thought of leaving this community of writers permanently and losing this umbilical cord to Varuna is frankly too painful to contemplate, but I do wonder if you aren’t all quietly sick to death of the sound of my voice, and I suspect you’ll really enjoy taking turns writing this feature instead.
I would like to think I might still occasionally qualify as a contributor, but certainly from July (my last feature for the time being: an interview with Alumni author Eleanor Limprecht, author of The Passengers) until the beginning of 2019, I warmly encourage Alumni to consider putting forward an expression of interest to be a contributor. The newsletter Feature needn’t stay in the same format each time, and Varuna would be happy to consider letters, essays, fiction, poetry, interviews with fellow Alumni, and interviews with other writers.
As for the dead manuscript, well, I’ve accepted it won’t be published in a traditional sense, but perhaps it can be pressed into service as a fundraising tool for the Shelter. After all, I wrote SPILL as a sort of Sliding Doors version of my own experience of homelessness at 15.
I was one of the lucky ones, and I’ll be writing an essay on this subject very shortly entitled, ‘A Triumph of Empathy.’ The protagonist in my manuscript, on the other hand, goes through many experiences I was spared, but I’ve always imagined this alternate path with a painful, visceral clarity. Nonetheless, that’s a function of imagination, not fact, and hers is not my story.
I have the vague idea that I might make the manuscript available as a crowd-funding project with GoFundMe, with half the proceeds going to the Northern Beaches Women’s Shelter. I just have nothing left to give it. Had a publisher said, ‘Dear god, this thing is deeply flawed and needs a total rewrite…but what the hell, we still want it,’ I may have been able to dig deep enough to do what was required. Maybe. I’m genuinely so fatigued at this point that I’m struggling to feel any certainty about that, even as I know – in some far off, remote way, because the scenario’s not real – I would have happily (euphorically) done my best to comply. But that is not what happened and I need to move on. If I can do that while raising money for the Shelter, well, it seems like a far more positive outcome than any other I can imagine.
I badly want to finish the second manuscript and start the third, which means I have no choice but to make some changes in my life to claw back some time.
Thank you one and all for reading my words over these many years. For those of you who’ve commented once or made a habit of it: I can’t even type a word about it without a lump forming in my throat. My debt to the commentators is especially vast. Your calls across the void have meant everything to me and I will never, ever forget how you have sustained me. It is my honour and duty to do the same for other writers until the day I die. From the bottom of my heart: thank you.
I confess I’m not sleeping very well at present, but I wish far greater peace for you all: the easeful night, followed by the calm day of clear purpose.
We are writers, and writing matters. We are readers, and reading matters. These two things we do, our desperate pathologies: they do matter. They matter so much. To me – and if there’s one thing this job has shown me time and time again, it’s that I am not alone – they are everything.
The stories will prevail.
With much love and fireside-at-Varuna longing,