Story Doula: Building the ship as we sail it

Some personal news, as they say. I was shortlisted for the Vogel Literary Award, announced over the last couple of days. At the same time, #meat20 began floating about the internet.

Soon followed the thinkpieces about what had sparked the viral posting of photos: the theories mostly centered around nostalgia and a longing for a time before coronavirus.

I thought of posting this photo on social media, and then not, and then thought I’d share it here- the egotism was there in the posting and the not posting of it anyway.

It is me at 18, on a road trip with my then-boyfriend and a big bunch of our friends. The photo is taken at Mount Gambier in South Australia, the furthest we reached on a trip from Sydney along the Great Ocean Road, a journey that at the time felt historic even as it happened. There was a road-trip documentary for posterity. I still remember seeing this photo after we had our rolls of film printed, and thinking even then that it had frozen me in time, at the moment I became a Real Adult, free in the world. I thought it was #meat18 when I was 18, before the hashtags and the nostalgia and the global catastrophes. 

I thought of that photo over the weekend as the shortlist was announced, because me at 18 dreamed of one day entering the Vogel’s, a prize for young writers under the age of 35 (me at 18 did not think 35 was young, lordy). Mostly because Tim Winton had won it, and me at 18 felt that Tim Winton was a lyric-prophet who spoke in tongues I dreamed of imitating. And then me at 33 remembered to enter the competition three weeks after having a baby, in a heady fog of sleeplessness and aches and oxytocin on the day it was due (I have almost no recollection of having done it). And then me at 34 was shortlisted, the second last year I could enter.

Normally there is a party and champagne, and I hear, free packets of Vogel’s bread from the sponsor of the competition. But instead there was a 16 minute video led by musician Claire Bowditch, who didn’t sing, unfortunately. (The winner, K.M Kruimink’s book, seems fascinating, I’ll read it and get back to you). We watched it on my laptop as we fed my daughter and ate leftovers, which is not how I think the party would have gone back in the old reality. 

I imagined telling my 18 year old self what was going to happen. Of course, #meat18 was not an adult. Me at 18 was a ventriloquist of adulthood, throwing my voice to a puppet body I was still learning how to operate. Years later, when I came across this Kay Ryan poem, I felt she had written it to me, of this time:

We’re Building the Ship as We Sail It 

Kay Ryan

The first fear

being drowning, the

ship’s first shape

was a raft, which

was hard to unflatten

after that didn’t

happen. It’s awkward

to have to do one’s

planning in extremis

in the early years –-

so hard to hide later:

sleekening the hull,

making things

more gracious.

Poetry Foundation

One of my most profound discoveries at 18, and in the years following, was that there was not a point in time in which adults became perfect and did everything right — an assumption I had projected for myself, imagining a future in which everything was sorted out.  And I thought of this poem again over the last few days, during the imperfect circumstances surrounding the fulfilment of a childhood dream, for my imperfect self.  

And as I write this I’m wondering if I can use this poem again. That we’re building the ship as we sail it, as we work out how to live in this strange time. Kay Ryan writes that later things become more gracious, but what #meat18 didn’t know was that there is grace in accepting ongoing imperfection, and proceeding as best you can nonetheless. 

I hope I can show you the manuscript, one day. There’s a long story behind it, and one that is not only mine, or really, mine at all. 

x Belinda 

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