Life comes first

Palmer: Children of Sao Felix, Brazilian Amazon
Palmer Children of Sao Felix

I was cutting the vegetables by the kitchen sink and listening to Annie Dillard’s audiobook The Writing Life. ‘Why people want to be writers I will never know, unless their lives lack a material footing.’

“Does yours?” piped up a small voice.

“Mine what?” I asked, confused. I had forgotten that my young son was there on the floor, some ten feet away, constructing a cross bow out of paper, cellophane tape, and rubber bands, all held together with glue from a hot glue gun.

“Lack …” he trailed off, struggling to remember the exact words, before I realised he was referring to Dillard.

“Oh, no, with such wonderful children, my life could not possibly lack any materiality,” I assured him. Truth be told, when I heard that Dillard found all her pot plants dead and black after completing a manuscript, I misguidedly rued the fact that I could not possibly let my children die of hunger as she had let her plants die of thirst.

To put it all this into perspective was one of Australia’s best story tellers – Arnold Zable, who taught a class on Advocacy as an Artform at SA Writers Centre last Saturday.

‘Life comes first, writing second,’ he said. It is out of our ongoing engagement with life and the people around us,  that we learn things, and from that engagement flows writing that is true. I suppose we can insert any occupation into that second clause. Life comes first, all these things come second: plumbing, doctoring, teaching, gardening, milking the cow, mowing the lawn.

In the unlikely event that any of my children read this, know that you are loved and truly, because of you, my life does not lack a material footing.


Reality check


‘You no-good scribbler. Yes, I know who you are. I have seen your columns, God help us. I have read your foolish stories, may my enemies be so clever.’

And so, I am chided by Laizer – a Holocaust survivor in Arnold Zable’s book, Cafe Scheherazade – as he upbraids fellow book character, the writer Martin Davis. Poor Martin, someone else had just asked him: ‘My foolish child, what do you understand about the past? You did not live there, may my enemies have such luck. What do you know of such things? You were born here, in Australia, in a fortunate hour…’

I am not Martin, I was not born here in Australia, but the question remains: What do I know of such things?

As I savoured my first cup of coffee yesterday and watched the bees fuss over the flowering basil, it was so quiet that I could hear the clock ticking. In the stillness and peace of the moment, I wondered if I would ever be able to write about bombs falling, people throwing together belongings in a matter of hours, and families fleeing with only what their cars can carry.

That night I dreamt of Iraq. My arms jerked. I was disoriented. And then I was awake. ‘High Tea in Mosul’ lay on my bedside table, my last thoughts shaped by O’Donnell’s words before I drifted off.

Could I be getting closer to being able to write about what happened?