Free Will and Determination by M. F. McAuliffe
I write with my body.
It’s been clear to me for a while that my body and mind move in very long cycles of writing, not writing, or writing first muddles and drafts of complex things and then refining them, also over a long time. It is even more clear to me now that I've moved into another one of these periods of assembling the basic material for something new.
At work we have an employee program run by fellow-employee volunteers, called the work / life balance program. My HMO also recommends work / life balance and runs, sometimes, free classes for those of us having difficulty finding time for our actual lives.
It has escaped their notice that jobs, such as are left to us – cubicle jobs, chained to the desk jobs, starve you mentally and abuse you physically jobs, all responsibility and no power jobs, don't pay jack jobs – are not structured to accommodate this kind of biological cycle and necessity. And as long as the economy uses the employment / income model of roughly the last hundred years, they won't be.
There's no balance possible when I need a month or two to concentrate on what I’m doing – not because I'm a poncy pretentious artist, but because my mind can't be in two modes at once. When I'm in this phase and totally preoccupied I can barely do arithmetic, let alone the myriad things I need to do to stay even vaguely current –
This complete mind-fog is part of my fundamental cycle.
There's no balance possible. The job takes precedence: I have to earn our living: housing, food, clothing, medical care. It's very likely that most of what I feel ready to produce will never be finished, never begun.
Just don't tell me it's because I lack time-management skills.
The notion that work of originality or depth can be done without something close to total immersion – that promulgated, amplified, prettified, Zen-veneered, pietistic, blame-shifting, money- and interest-laden notion – is false from top to toe. It's (another piece of) industrial / post-industrial propaganda.
That being said – there are better and worse arrangements in Dystopia.
The day-job's gone through a major restructuring. My next cubicle's imminent.
I've been in one of those before. I know how to make it work:
Ø some of my favourite pics, matte, 8" x 10," masking-taped to card-stock, moving in series down the sightlines of grey (yes, I did those)
Ø grow light over the excuse-plant (votive to the sun, to the hard Sophoclean light; defence against the shortening of the days)
Ø personal CD-player in the drawer, "Sympathy for the Devil" cued for those mid-afternoon, low blood sugar moments, to fuel my turning from that Moloch, Despair
For and until the moment:
the quiet and the crouch, the writing-position1, the 2 lines you need to fix on a piece of scrap paper in your pocket, and you, leaning over the desk, embodying the gap between the middle and the end of the poem, and the gap, the wordless question in the cave of darkness at the heart of your mind, the oracle-cave – and the answer coming out in words, and the words on another scrap of paper, the whole hidden in your palm.
An immense amount of trouble, travelling the world and the years to get to that grey space in order to be able to sweat out … words. Which, probably, no one will see, which I myself may never say aloud.
In Heaven's name, why?
There is this point or lance, and it pushes through. It's not as defined as a hypodermic, and it doesn't exist – except that it pushes, pierces some sort of flesh-self of the mind. It is where some sadness from outside me, some untoward thing, event, threat, meets me, and I am aware of the intrusion. And saying what it is, helps. Being able to name a thing robs it of some of its overwhelming power. Giving it its name separates it from me, lets me draw breath, be and exist in distinction from it, and so begin to struggle against it.
Or the cabin'd, cribb'd, confin'd, vocab of the Library of Congress will give me a fit of the Joycean revolts, and the roaring whitewater river of language that runs mostly unknown to me in the dark of my mind engulfs me for a moment, and in its joy and power time and fear stop.
(Why these mountains? Why this sky?) (Do the Irish have a gene for small spaces and parchment?)
Am I here, producing words in a cubicle in Oregon because this was the only thing my parents seemed to approve of me for – being good at school when my older brother, the only son, wasn't?
Because, at the last bottom edge of the world, we had the last faint echoes of an intensely verbal mediaeval education? Because I had an intensely verbal memory and was fascinated by the Church's Latin and my brother's French?
Because all my teachers said I should go to university and so I went, wholly because Robert Menzies made it possible with those unprecedented thousands of scholarships? (What a clever fucker he turned out to be. Those scholarships half-destroyed his old half-enemy, the Australian Catholic Church.)
Nursing, teaching, the public service; bank, shop, office – the formal, official, allowable female paths in an Australia now passing out of memory.
If Adelaide had been happy with me as I was – sometimes funny, a bit of a dreamer, a bit of a dill, with no desire to rule my neighbours and a tendency to stare bewitched at pretty, changing lights – would I have escaped the curse of art, its demands for attention and understanding? (How my mother feared the poverty her cousin had suffered because of her husband, post-war immigrant Pole, death-camp refugee, modernist painter, genuine genius.)
If my parents had been happy with me as I was, would I have cared that thought is impossible in Australia, where conversation comes in pre-cut lengths, like timber, where to be colonized takes care of the heavy lifting and is a consummation devoutly to be wished, where being female was to be silenced (Damned Whores and God's Police) because the very few women of the First Fleet knew altogether too much about the many men of the First Fleet…. Where being different is a death-sentence unless you're as cunning as the devil –
If my parents had been happy with me, would I have been happy with them, the parish, the city, the state, the nation? Could I have stayed?
Would Australia not have rejoiced in its own stifling had it had a different European genesis, not begun as a society as stunted in spread as Ireland became after The Famine?
Would my experience not have been my experience if I had been born ten years earlier or ten years later? (After the Depression of the 1890s and WW1, the Depression of the 1930s and WW2, who could blame a nation of fridge- and car- and carpet-worshippers?)
Would Australia have been different if Gough Whitlam had not been removed from office by Rupert Murdoch and the CIA? Would that amazing opening out of the early '70s, carried further, have created a country I could have lived and worked in, even if my parents weren't happy with me? (Already, by the late '70s, that first of the Anglophone right-wing counter-revolutions had taken root, and fundamental R & D, as well as Humanities subjects, were being defunded in favour of business and applied science.)
My father's family had been farmers. It was my father's triumph that he escaped into something that couldn’t be drought-stricken, the hundred-pound land and horse lost, the family broken.
I left the country because I'd run out of employment. (How Irish that sounds.) (Nursing, teaching, the public service; bank, shop, office: the formal, official, allowable female paths.)
Small, quiet spaces or no, the Irish do have a gift for leaving the exhausted field.
So. There I am: verbal child, unemployed emigrant, unemployed immigrant, now about to produce words in a quiet space, like many a countryman before me1, like many a teacher I knew of. I'm following a family pattern of emigration; I'm increasingly mobile in an increasingly mobile set of societies.
Am I an automaton, opportunistically seeping into more stable, more suitable environments?
Once upon a time a term deposit matured – money my father had set aside for me when I was born. He wrote to tell me. As it happened, my boss had driven me to the point of walking out the previous afternoon.
And so I took the money and went abroad, and, through a process too complicated to explain, ended up at a workshop in Michigan 3 years later. Had that term deposit matured six months earlier I would have renewed it and not had the money to hand. (We were not a family to cash term deposits early. Making the rules work for us was not something our class could do, or conceive of doing.) Had it matured six months later… I might have still had the hideous job-sitch: it takes a while for the Public Service to expel foreign bodies. But I would never have talked to Ted Sturgeon, never have gone to that workshop.
Would I have married at all? Who would I have married?
We are still somewhat patrilineal and patrilocal. Where would a different marriage have taken me?
Once upon another time I drove to Melbourne to see friends. I was about to leave an earlier job and go, somewhere, somehow, to learn "how to use a camera properly." I'd been fascinated by photography since I was 4.
Had one friend's husband worked at Prahran Institute of Technology instead of Swinburne I. of T., would I have gone there instead, heard of Carol Jerrems, been taught by Paul Cox, become a photographer?
Had I not gone to a WEA English Lit class and met that teacher; had that teacher not been a post-grad at that university; had she not shared a post-grad study room with the other post-grads who moved to Melbourne, one of whom worked at Swinburne instead of Prahran –
Where and who and what would I have been (like) now?
And where would I ever have been without legal, reliable, affordable contraception? (That truly does not bear thinking about... driven half-mad by the strictures on women, repeating my mother's life, its incessant and corroding fury.)
("Even if I had been rich enough to afford child care, wealth was no protection against puerperal fever, and being pregnant most of the time is tiring, enfeebling, and a drain on one's physical and emotional resources. In fact, most women were ill most of the time until the introduction of contraception…")2
I'd never have seen Central Asia and a little of Europe without cheap air travel. I'd never have had a job that wouldn't have driven me to suicide if I hadn't had free tertiary education. I'd never have had a life of my own without contraception.
Seen from above, outside, afar, a life's environment is almost completely determinative, especially for women, especially for far-flung colonies, and small, rooted societies. You can have gifts up the wazoo, but work and the rules will suppress them. (My mother's incessant fury.)
Seen from up close – who happens to be at school with you, where they sit in the classroom, who you get to know and not to know, the paths that opens or closes (might I have married and divorced that sometimes-charming arsehole who sat a few rows behind me at the WEA sessions, whose gaze burned at my back?)
Looked at that way, a life is a series of moments, and each moment's possibilities and choices are as much determined by blood chemistry and consequent mood as by your the rules you've been taught, the things you enjoy or draw away from, by your time, your age, your geography –
(Aha! You say. But why do you enjoy the things you enjoy? You're an automaton second by second, as well as by lifetime.)
Automata or not, we're treated that way.
It is assumed by Churches, parishes, preachers, hucksters, con-men, scolds, editorialists, educationists, economists, corporations, governments, political parties, employers, families, that we will automatically act in our own interest.
That's why "our own best interests" (for your own good – if you know what's good for you) are such a mighty battleground, preached at, described, prescribed, proscribed, stage-managed from our birth: our perception of our own interests makes or breaks those Churches, parishes, preachers, hucksters, con-men, scolds, editorialists, educationists, economists, corporations, governments, political parties, employers, families.
The automata must agree.
Since every consideration of free will & determinism leads to paradox or the utterly imponderable, perhaps we can leave Western philosophy to its own devices, escape from it altogether.
The Mayan calendar says if I'd been born on the 11th instead of Caesarian'd the 10th, I would have stormed through the universe like a new god.
I like to think of myself in that other universe, storming away.
1) I've skimmed and skimmed A History of Reading, looking for that description of the racking pain of mediaeval copying. I know it's not in How The Irish Saved Civilization, because everything in that book is light and laughter and Pangur Ban; it’s not in The Name of the Rose because the lines are quotations, not dialogue, and embedded in recitative.It's somewhere in the Manguel, 2-4 sentences; the book weaves back and forth in time so much my memory's cast a false order on it, and lost the location of that passage altogether, even lost the ability to recognize it typographically.
2) Carter, Angela, Shaking A Leg, Penguin, London, 1998, pp 40-41
Cahill, Thomas, How The Irish Saved Civilization, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, New York, 1995
Carter, Angela, Shaking A Leg, Penguin, London, 1998
Eco, Umberto, The Name of the Rose, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego, 1983
Manguel, Alberto, A History of Reading, Viking, New York, 1996
Summers, Anne, Damned Whores and God's Police: the Colonization of Women in Australia, Ringwood, Vic, Penguin Books, 1975
M.F. McAullife was born and educated in Adelaide. She has worked as a teacher and public servant in South Australia and Victoria and, since moving to the other Anglophone edge of the Pacific, as a political pollster, house-cleaner, technical editor and crypto-librarian. Some of her work has appeared in The Adelaide Review, Overland, WORK Magazine – http://workmagazinearchives.
In 2002 she co-founded the multilingual magazine Gobshite Quarterly - www.gobshitequarterly.com – where she works as contributing editor.
In 2002 she co-founded the multilingual magazine Gobshite Quarterly - www.gobshitequarterly.com – where she works as contributing editor.