Retrieving lost words

In 2002 my young adult daughter died. In the first year of grieving I lost the capacity to write, to read or to listen to music.  The year passed ‘as if there were no seasons – just a drifting,’ as one of my colleagues described her life in a desert country. It may not have been coincidence that at the end of that first year I was drawn to work in Oman, a desert country in the Arabian Gulf. My husband took a year’s leave to accompany me and we went to stay with my brother in England for a few weeks, before flying to Oman. Together, my brother and I visited the scenes of our childhood, both physically and metaphorically, our words spilling over each other as our memories surfaced. As Zimmerman writes: “When we lose our moorings, when we are caught in currents beyond our control, we need to step out of the maelstrom and look back. We need to retrieve images from our youth. We need to step back so we can look forward. We need to take solace in that which can be preserved – and somehow completed – by the gloss of memory’.

The images my brother and I took from our youth centred on memories of our father. My passion for language and storytelling began with him. He made up stories where my brother and I were the main characters – a boy and girl who entered ‘fairyland’ and had adventures. He always returned us, sleepy yet wanting more, to the ‘fairy bus’ that would take us to ‘the Land of Nod’, where, he assured us, these adventures would continue. As I grew up I gave him the titles and themes of stories I wanted him to invent and tell me. He also told me tales of his real-life adventures when he travelled to exotic countries. His storytelling opened the door to my imagination. The process of taking a journey through the past with my brother helped to establish who we had become in the present and opened our minds to the possibilities for the future. When we said goodbye, I flew to Oman feeling confident of my ability to live there.

My life in Oman included astonishment at the stark beauty of the landscape and the ability of the inhabitants to survive in one of the most inhospitable deserts on earth. I started a journal and wrote in it every day to record the characters we met, the situations we were involved in and the adventures we had. Many of the expats we met in Oman were colourful characters, such as my colleague, an Irish woman of fifty, with a mane of red-gold hair. I had not smiled for a whole year after my daughter’s death, but this woman made me laugh so much it hurt and she fascinated me with her stories of places and situations she had been in. I wondered if I might weave her into a short story one day, but writing fiction again was, at that stage, like contemplating running a marathon with no breath. Instead, I read as much as I could about Oman and the lives of its people.

Women and Community in Oman (Eickman 1984) and Behind the veil in Arabia: Women in Oman (Wikan 1982) described life in the 1970s, just as the country was developing after the discovery of oil. Similarly, Mother without a Mask (Holton: 1993) discussed the lives of women in Al Ayn, on the border of Oman. When I began teaching my classes in Muscat, I saw how different life was for the young women I taught, compared to Eickman’s, Wikan’s and Holton’s accounts of uneducated, masked women confined to the home. Iranian writer, Nafisi, describes her experiences in teaching English Literature to a group of young Iranian women.  Some of these descriptions were similar to my own experiences of teaching English to my class of young Omani women. They had been selected by the Ministry of Higher Education to be future academics and had been sponsored by the Ministry to study Academic English before going to Australia to begin postgraduate degrees. As I got to know my students I began to add their stories to my journal.

In an interview, Nafisi says that one of her favourite stories is Alice in Wonderland.

‘Alice shows us how curiosity, a desire to go beyond our everyday habits and routines, can open up wondrous worlds to us and give us the power to turn the most ordinary into the most extra-ordinary’. In Oman I often had the feeling that I had fallen, like Alice, through to the other side of the looking-glass, where ‘normal’ was a variable construct. As I tried to make sense of this in my journal, while describing the amazing lunar landscape of Oman, my pleasure in language was restored and slowly my own inner landscape began to change. The idea of using the journal as the basis for writing a travel book gradually took shape, but this soon morphed into short fiction about loss, grief and reconnection to life, some of which drew from my own experiences.

Nafisi describes fiction as a window into another reality and states that ‘the ordinary pebble of ordinary life can be transformed into a jewel through the magic eye of fiction’. She says:  ‘…what we search for in fiction is not so much a reality but the epiphany of truth’. The ‘epiphany of truth’ was what I sought to capture in this description of the moment of dying in a story called The Stone, later published in The Best New Zealand Fiction, 2007.

Beneath the hills wild horses graze in the moonlight. The lead mare lifts her head and pricks her ears. The colts and fillies stop chasing each other’s shadows. Foals stand closer to their mothers. The old ones stop grazing. They all watch the lead mare, and wait. The earth holds its breath. Beth’s pulse flutters like a moth’s wing, and is gone. I go outside to tell Vincent and Melanie and they say they know because the wind has died.

Sitting on top of a sand dune in the Wahiba Desert I thought of all the civilisations that had lived and died there. The desert winds had blown over the once green landscape, obliterating all traces. A year later, back in New Zealand, I thought again of the desert wind as the scorching nor’wester roared over the Canterbury Plains for a whole week. Phrases, poems and books about wind tended to find me.  Jan De Blieu compares the wind to a dragon. She describes it as an organic force that binds humankind together. She goes on to state that many aboriginal cultures believe wind to be the restless spirits of the dead. The ancient Egyptians, North American Indians, and the Aztecs, all had words that simultaneously meant breath, wind and soul. I wrote stories set in New Zealand, Brazil and Oman, linked by the winds that shape the people and landscape in Canterbury, the winds that fan the fires which disfigure the Cerrado in Brazil and the desert winds that blow in Arabia, and the many ways loss, grief and reconnection to life shape the inner landscape.

One of my colleagues in Oman told me that during a bleak period of her life in England she stopped by an aviation club and asked to be taken up in a glider. She said, ‘I just wanted to be flown around the sun and silence and watch the autumn from above.’ During her flight she became aware of being part of a much larger landscape and this gave her a different perspective on her situation. I remembered this image in the autumn of 2005 when I flew from Christchurch to Kaikoura in a four-seater plane. As we flew over the Canterbury Plains we could see our house below. To allow us to see it more closely the pilot did a ‘maximum rating’ turn which somehow defied gravity. The feelings of disorientation and dislocation were immense. I didn’t know where the horizon was or where ‘up’ and ‘down’ were. When he pulled out of the turn I sat frozen in terror and determined that when we landed I would get a bus back to Christchurch. However, the sky was so blue and the sea sparkled with light and I was struck by the way the Plains connected to the mountains, the rivers flowed to the sea, the forests turned into scrub.

Looking down on familiar landscapes from this new perspective was exhilarating and by the time we got to Kaikoura the idea of travelling back by bus had evaporated. It occurred to me that this flight was a metaphor for my changing perspectives as I experienced life after the death of my daughter – the times I lost my orientation, the times I was frozen with terror, the moments of insight when all the pieces fitted together. It was also a metaphor for how I was trying to shape my stories, set in countries which are separated by physical, cultural and spiritual boundaries, but which are connected to a larger ‘landscape’ by the commonality of the human experience.

When my daughter was a child she liked me to make up stories for her, just as I’d liked my father to make up stories for me. ‘Tell me a story,’ she used to say, ‘Tell it out of your mouth’. Those stories felt more real to her than when I read her a story from a book because I often blended characters she knew with those which were fictional. Nafisi discusses the often blurred boundaries between fiction and reality and asserts that through imagination it is possible to retrieve what has been lost. Writing fiction allowed me to retrieve the lost creative part of myself and this retrieval reconnected me to life. As Virginia Woolf says: ‘Imaginative work… is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.’

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