The rudest thing I do, or one of the rudest things, is sometimes I don’t get back to people. This has been going on for years, and it’s a deranged and filthy habit. It has got so bad, so embarrassing, that I would rather write about it here than get back to the people I need to get back to. As I write this I have many unanswered messages and emails, and some that I haven’t even opened because I feel so full of shame that they are still sitting there. When I think of my voicemail I can sense layers and layers, like sedimentary rock, of messages from my mum. It should be so simple to respond immediately: ‘I can’t reply properly right now, I will get back to you soon.’ It should be easy to say, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t reply sooner.’ But sometimes – just every so often this happens – I can’t go in. I can’t even go into the message. I fear it. Maybe I’ll answer a different message – one where I know the expectations are low and I have exactly the right words. During these times of avoidance, I’ll sometimes allow myself to forget the message I need to answer, which is dangerous and intoxicating. But always, after a while, the thought of the message catches me, often when I first wake up in the morning. I’ll think: what’s that funny feeling? What’s wrong in the atmosphere? Then I remember the message.
My family got voicemail around the same time the Santa hotline came in. Was it 0800 HO HO HO? I would stretch the phone cord from the hallway into the linen cupboard. Then I’d call up Santa in the dark and record horrible messages all through December. Animal noises, farts, sometimes poems I’d written. The automated Santa would eventually cut me off with his jangling sleighbells and laughter, so I would ring again and continue. It was the leaving of the message that was important. No one would listen to it, but that didn’t matter. Leaving a message was important work. There was a new space for you to create something, so you had to do it.
Around this time there was also Call Waiting and Three-Way Calling, and these were great, but best of all was just leaving a message on a friend’s phone – knowing what would make them laugh, what jokes would work. At some point, a new technology came: with some people’s phone numbers, you could press the * key if your message had not been good and you wanted to record a better one. In retrospect, this was a bad technology. I spent a long time re-recording my messages, sometimes stabbing at the * after saying only ‘Hi’, because I knew immediately that my ‘Hi’ was a disaster. If you had the option to re-record, why wouldn’t you take it? It was the dream of life: seeing how you did the first time, then going back to do it over without making a mistake. But eventually, after 7 or 8 or 9 takes, the effort to sound spontaneous was too tiring and you’d have to hang up with your subpar ‘Hi’ committed to tape.
I spent a long time recording a long message in a silly voice for the family voicemail greeting, and my dad heard it once and was angry, so I had to change it. At one point my brother changed the greeting to a song he’d recorded with his band Spaz. And I remember saving messages we’d received, so that I could go back to listen to them again. There was one from my favourite teacher, and one from another teacher who later died, and one from my penpal in America, and I can’t remember what else.
But the delight of messages. Of sending them, of getting them, of waiting for more.
For a few weeks, even months, I’ll get better at getting back to people and I will need to apologise much less, but then in a matter of days the old paralysis will overtake me again, the old fear of being asked to do things that I’m not able to do, the fear of not having any good words. I’ll let myself get swept along by other things. The silence creeps in.
Natalia Ginzburg in her essay ‘Silence’ writes that, when we were children, ‘Our silence was our wealth. Now we are ashamed of it and desperate and we know all the misery it brings. We shall never be free of it again.’ It’s a fantastically severe essay, because for Ginzburg silence and guilt are not ordinary failings but vices. Silence is one of the worst ones! One of the strangest and gravest. ‘We shall never be free of it again.’ I love that line so much that I don’t even mind if it’s not necessarily true. But it probably is true. There are so many ways to reach other people in the world, and more ways each day, so there are many more ways to be silent than there used to be.
Before reading Ginsberg’s essay I hadn’t considered silence to be a vice but I suppose it is. In the moment, silence is easier. It holds us. It keeps us always in the ‘before’.
Was our silence our wealth, as children? Maybe with parents it was, because withholding could feel so powerful – it let them know that their words didn’t work on us. But I also think messages – voicemails, emails – were a sort of wealth. Anything you could put in a message, anywhere you could craft yourself, and know that you would be received, felt like gold.
One afternoon, a few weeks ago, in the park above the house where I was staying for a writing residency, some teenage girls parked up. I couldn’t see them, but the sound of their shrieking carried on the wind. You couldn’t really understand anything they were saying or laughing about, and the longer it went on – ages! ages! – the less I wanted to understand. Whatever it was they were saying, there was always more of it and it was never finished. Finally they went away, their voices blasting all the way down the road, and they left a baffled silence in the garden. I realised my heart had been beating fast the whole time they were there. Later I talked about the girls with the other writer staying at the house, Pip. I found myself saying, like I had overalls on and a toothpick in my mouth, ‘They were really hootin’ and hollerin’.’ (More and more these days, I find myself performing some character, because it’s easier.) We had both wanted to shout at them to go away but counselled ourselves to wait it out. ‘It touched a nerve in me, and I remembered being a girl,’ Pip said. We agreed, if we were girls now, and sitting among those girls outside, we would not have survived.
Earlier I was unlocking my bike, to bike home – it was around 6 o’clock in the central city, no one really around – and a car went past and a guy said out the window to me: ‘You fat motherfucker!’ It was a perfect delivery. Fat motherfucker! This short but definitive message, delivered in the postage stamp space of time as a car passes and the driver’s voice is in earshot. Then the car got stopped at a red light just up the road from me. I thought about going up and saying, ‘How’s it going!’ but couldn’t be bothered having some kind of altercation. The cyclist–driver altercation always follows a grim template. The driver will look at me with absolute disgust, I will wave my arms like Jerry Seinfeld, the following days will be ruined as the scene loops over and over in my head. But it got me thinking that what needs to happen, to solve my problem with messages, is for all messages to be yelled from a car window. No escape.
I once fell out with a friend because there were periods when I wouldn’t answer their emails. Later I would apologise and promise to do better, but soon enough I would stop answering again. I’d have days, weeks, of being on a roll. I was unstoppable, writing those emails. Then something would shift. When I thought about composing an email, a kind of weakness and stupidity came over me. I didn’t have the energy to seem interesting, or to find things interesting. All intensity left me. I couldn’t bear to put more words on a screen. I just wanted to be silent, recovering from words and the endless work of them. The longer I held back, the greater the expectation became to write – I could feel it, humming in the air between computers – and the more feeble my sentences felt, and the more profuse and gabbling I knew my apologies would have to be. Eventually, I didn’t even have the energy to talk about how useless I was in the opening lines of the email. But then, after some time had passed, my energy would come back and I would be able to write again, and to apologise and say how useless I was again, which was a huge relief. I would hardly remember the feeling of not being able to write.
At the residency, something I was trying to write was a poem responding to a sculpture by the artist Kate Te Ao. Just one poem. I was supposed to be writing the book I had applied for the residency with, stories about a character called Betty, who works on a ferry, but on this day I was more interested in the sculpture than in Betty and how to get her on and off this boat. I stared at photographs of the sculpture for a long time. I could feel my ignorance of art getting in the way, but I was moved by the work, almost afraid of it and what it might speak about. It is thin, tree-like structures, very fragile, reaching up towards small windows in the gallery. Some of the trees are wearing sleeves covered in bright glittering sequins. In the photographs, at the bottom of the treelike structures were small piles of these very weird and beautiful ceramic potatoes and kumara, painted different colours. Ceramic veg. I fixated on these veg. I stared at the photographs and all I could think was that the work was beautiful and I was moved by it.
This surge of emotion was bad for the writing. It’s taken me ages to work out that feeling is not writing. (This has been a disastrous realisation. I felt like I was writing a book…)
When I was little I wrote a letter to the children’s author Jack Lasenby and told him I was writing a sad story about a hedgehog who died. It felt important that he know. Jack wrote back to say that it was always a great risk to cry at your computer: ‘You might electrocute yourself.’ At last I think I know what he meant.
I spent a of time at the residency looking out the window at the birds in the gardens, especially blackbirds. The blackbird, maybe more than other birds, is interested in what the other birds are doing. It’s busy but it’s always got time. It’s busy scratching and rustling about for things in the dirt and leaves but it also looks up a lot to see what’s going on. I love to watch a blackbird just looking around, going through its tiny routines of paying attention. It’s heard all these noises and seen all these movements a million times but it seems to be noticing them for the first time. The blackbird is the bird that would answer its messages promptly.
One of my problems with the writing residency model is that it gives you time. That’s the whole problem. The organisers of these things need to do something about it. As soon as I have time, I’m scared and can’t function. Later, after the residency, I talked to a therapist about my fear of time and she suggested I go to a website where you can enter in your birthdate and it’ll start counting down how much time – in hours, minutes, seconds – you probably have left in your life.
‘Jesus Christ,’ I said.
‘Yes it’s quite confronting,’ she said. ‘But you know, we don’t have time, we are made of time. Time isn’t outside of us, it’s inside us.’
That sounds good, and like it should be a revelation, but I couldn’t think about any of it to the depth that was required to make it properly helpful. I like a slow-burning revelation, where the idea gently becomes obvious and then is inescapable. Not one that is immediately genius. That’s too much pressure.
It would be good if your body could regrow time, like how if a bit of your liver gets taken out, it grows back.
This week, I went to look at Kate’s installation in person. It’s in a small space that the sculptures somehow make bigger. They seem to reach upwards forever. One of the treelike structures, wearing its sleeve of sequins, reaches up and wraps itself tentacle-like around a light fitting.
My poem was on the wall. It’s called ‘Before’. It was gigantic, and I couldn’t bring myself to read it. I could only look at it as if it was an abstract artwork, and luckily the words lost meaning as I looked at them.
At the last moment, just before opening the show, Kate had decided not to include the beautiful potatoes in the installation. She had made around 130 of these things – dark green, pale green, white, grey. She offered me some, so I took four of them, and rode off with two ceramic potatoes and two ceramic kumara rattling around in my pannier, which is the wrong way to treat works of art. But I couldn’t have imagined such a perfect outcome for writing anything. The potatoes and kumara that didn’t make it into the art show. They are small weird treasures. They’re sitting on a table now. Better than any words.