When I was very young my parents owned and worked a chicken and cattle farm. It was only forty acres, not at all big by Australian standards, but for me, it was enormous.
I wandered around with Mum and Dad, helping them … or so I thought.
But one day, the family mythology tells, I went into our lounge room and took the large, square seat cushions from the chairs and stacked them, one by one, onto one chair, climbed to the top and sat there. I’m sure I remember myself sitting there, near the window with the curtains closed, high on my mustard-coloured cushions. Or perhaps I’ve filled in the memory from what my family told me, because they have retold the story many times: that while I was sitting there, they were hunting for me, calling out, frantic, looking in the chicken sheds, the woodshed, the workshop, the storerooms. And, with dread, scanning the dam for signs of me.
I must have heard them shouting, but there I stayed, high on my tower of cushions and said nothing. At last they found me with a mixture of anger, relief, frustration … I can only imagine. It would have taken some time, if at all, before they would think of it as ‘cute’, I reckon. But they laughed years later whenever they told the story.
What was I doing up there? Thinking, singing, talking to myself, making up stories, being a princess? Perhaps. Being by myself? For sure. I was making a place for myself in that family, in that expanse of land I explored, excited and nervous.
I was brave enough to taunt the cows with their twisted horns, their heavy hoofs and their ground-shaking bellows, to call them names, pretending I wasn’t scared, but only from the safety of the trailer when we took out hay for them. I would call Blackie, our black Labrador, then, suddenly nervous, put my hands out to fend him off, his big head about level with mine, his tongue thick and wet, his tail like a whip. I mixed mash for the thousands of chickens strutting around in their sheds, but I was always just a bit daunted by the mass of white and the non-stop, high-pitched cackle. I loved the adventure of it all, but I was always smaller, often overwhelmed as well.
So in one way it makes sense that I carved out my own space — not just a corner of the bedroom or a chair like everyone else had, but something my own (that made me taller, as well). I can’t remember what I was doing on that tower of cushions, but now, I love the picture of my small self propped up there because it feels a lot like what I do when I write.
Many writers say that they write to find out what they think, to make sense of the world. I agree with that, but it can sound a bit too much like resolution. When I write, I find a space like the young me. Even though I need to be alone, I don’t leave behind the world outside, just as I didn’t leave behind the farm, but gather it in, take a deep breath, acknowledge its terrors and its beauty, and find out where I belong in relation to it. Writing helps me do that. I don’t make sense of it all, but I work toward a way of living more fully in it. It’s where I play, imagine who or what might be, where I face the questions, explore a way toward answers, discover more of what I think and believe; it’s not always comfortable like my cushions, it’s never finished or resolved, but it’s undoubtedly mine. Oh, and now I never imagine I’m a princess!