SELF HELP with Hera Lindsay Bird

The Burning of the Cliff House, San Francisco, California 1907

Part one

‘i know something about this obsession business. it isn’t real. it is a huge cloud of looming nothingness triggered off by small events. but it is not real. i am the captain of my fate, i am the captain of my fate, i am the captain of my fate. laughter is possible, laughter is possible, laughter is possible.’

Shirley Jackson’s last diary entry 1965

 

When Shirley Jackson died of heart failure at the age of 48, her family thought she was playing a practical joke; sending up her eldest daughter’s recent suicide attempt – a behaviour apparently congruous with her cruel sense of humour. She lived in the township of Bennington Vermont, into which she hadn’t ventured for some time, in a house with eleven cats (all of which were grey – a strategy calculated to overwhelm her husband into believing there were less.) Severely agoraphobic, surrounded by neighbours she despised and worn down by her husband’s infidelities, she shut the door to the world and vanished into the slow green castle of her death.

I mention all this by way of saying, three years ago, I burned myself alive. It was the end of summer when I fell in love, sold everything I owned and moved to a small town in coastal Otago I had never seen & owned no imaginative stakes in. I spent the first winter & spring in a geographical haze, wandering around the cemeteries & hillsides that penned us in like tattered green parentheses. My ex started school, and our living room filled with diagrams of the digestive tracts of cockroaches. I stayed home and began working on a writing project that was quickly losing momentum. The book was a failed murder mystery where nobody got murdered. Nothing happened, and then kept on happening. All that grief, and nothing left to solve.

I abandoned my book and spent most of my days walking in the long grass behind the salmon hatchery. It was during this time, I felt something new taking shape. Jealousy, or the echo of it. The past ghosting up through the present like a double exposure. History as a conveyor belt, gliding along on its subterranean circuit of ancient happinesses.

*

Recently, in the aftermath of a break up, I became obsessed with a motivational speaker from the states, a woman by the name of ‘Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy’ or SARK for short. I was working in a university bookshop, where I spent all day alone, ordering ancient dental textbooks, comprehensively illustrated with photographs of various, hideous gum diseases and impacted wisdom teeth. Each night I drank a bottle of wine in bed, re-watching the motivational Ted Talk my friend had sent me: a woman in a satin blue pantsuit expounding her personal theory of emotional wellbeing. The talk was called ‘succulence is powerful,’ and it was based on a dubious botanical analogy which, summarized, goes: ordinary house plants require a regular intake of water in order to thrive, whereas succulent plants are unique in their capacity to store water, and therefore ‘nourish themselves from the inside.’

The emotional parable is obvious. Unfortunately I knew this to be botanically untrue, because I had been looking after my landlord’s collection of succulent plants and had neglected to water them for so long they were beginning to die, their leaves wrinkling and falling off in the night. The question that began to occur to me was: If I am not capable of taking care of a virtually indestructible plant, one that has evolved to survive many centuries in the desert, how am I to go about taking care of myself? No matter how succulent you imagine yourself to be, nobody can survive in this world without water for long.

*

Once, many years ago, a friend and I buried a small collection of objects in the forest. A slingshot, a woven bracelet, a wisdom tooth, a toy car with the paint scratched away. These items were of various emotional significances and were an attempt at a sideways translation of the protection spell in Shirley Jackson’s last & greatest novel, ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle.’ We drove to the forest in the middle of the night with a small shovel, and buried our constellation of objects around the borders of our city.

We debated the mechanics of the spell for a long time. What began as a homage – a simple protection spell, slowly began to change shape. We were left with a question; the central question of Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece. Do the protections we afford ourselves hurt or serve us. Later, during a difficult period, I wrote to that friend:

‘I was thinking about inside/outside, as we have since we buried our spell flags in the forest, and Shirley Jackson whose physical world diminished in proportion to the growth of her fictive. I was also thinking about jealousy, which has to do with boundaries and the divide between interior and exterior forces. For some time, my hope was that in diminishing the exterior, x and I would be able to create a greater interior to exist in, even as our roofs burned away.’

My friend wrote back to me:

‘i was wrong about the outside. or, i was wrong about the inside. there never was an inside. or the inside is only a temporary fold or knot of outsideness. you cannot keep the outside outside, or even try to usher it inside. it is what was always already there before – the groundless ground from which everything emerges and into which everything escapes.’

These were the questions Shirley Jackson tried to answer with ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle,’ and ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ was the story I tried to answer with my life. But you have to be careful which stories you choose to tell about yourself. I spent three years telling myself I was a ghost, until one day I got transparent and began to disappear….

 

Hera Lindsay Bird is a writer from Wellington,New Zealand. Her debut book of poetry is coming out with Victoria University Press in 2016. You can follow her here: https://twitter.com/HeraLindsayBird

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