Monday 23rd August, 2021
I am writing this while waiting to find out the status of the level-4 lockdown. Next to me, my flatmate sits typing on her phone, drinking a lime flavoured La Croix. What is there to say? I am inside, but calm now. It took multiple days for the fuzziness of my head to abate. I feel much calmer this lockdown as compared to last.
Sunday 29th of August, 2021
I almost wrote 2022, as though an entire year can pass in just a day. It looks like the last time I wrote properly was Wednesday, 18th of August. That feels like a long time ago, eleven days in which nothing much has happened and a lockdown has happened. Today I finally left behind multiple days of physical pain and a headache that came on whenever my muscles tensed (most of the time) and went when I breathed deeply out and instructed myself to relax.
Last night I dreamt that I’d died of Covid and returned as a ghost. I was haunting others but not wanting my haunting to be visible or noticed, which was difficult as I was in a contained space, and whenever anyone alive accidentally touched me a cold shudder ran through them; unpleasant for both of us. So I was haunting others, but my unwanted presence also haunted me, which I resented. Somehow, even dead, there was not enough space for me.
Last night, my boyfriend, Ash, and I watched Moon, starring Sam Rockwell. It’s a sci-fi film from 2009 that I originally watched not long after it came out and have been intending to rewatch ever since. I was so impressed by it. Ash said it was good the filmmakers kept it to 90 minutes, though they could have padded it out. I agreed that this was a good choice. And there was something of that in the film, its minimalism, extending beyond just the short runtime.
Sam Rockwell is the only character—also named ‘Sam’—but there are two of him. Early in the piece, he discovers himself to be a clone, defrosted on the Moon as a worker bee and destined to be destroyed prior to the safe return to earth that he was promised. The film is aesthetically pleasing, though we don’t see that much, just the inside of the small space station where Sam works and occasionally some moonscapes when he takes the rover out to go fix something. The costumes are perfect though there are few of them: there’s a flightsuit, reflective aviator sunglasses, a set of white cotton long underwear and matching bonnet with laces at the back. Slippers. A baseball cap. A puffy yellow jumpsuit which one Sam Rockwell tells the other Sam Rockwell makes him look like ‘a radioactive tampon.’
The film shows the evolution of the two Sams’ relationship—at first wary and untrusting, then necessary and vital. Sam has a supposed romance back home, but the Sams realise the tapes being sent through of their ‘wife’ are repeats, consistent with memories that have been implanted, not lived. That romance is not real, but the intimacy between the two Sams is, both of them the same genetically but different for one of them having lived the last three years on the Moon station, body decaying and mood relaxed, while the other is fresh and fit and angry. There is something about technology and aging and obsolescence. Questions of captivity and isolation and truth. I can’t push those words into their own sentences, I don’t have the patience or brainpower right now to do a true analysis.
In the final scene, the newer Sam rockets himself towards earth in a spaceship made for the conveyance of the energy they’ve been harvesting, their reason for being on the moon in the first place. As he burns through the atmosphere in his small craft, audio from talkback radio is played as a voice-over—a man grumbling about this new person who claims to come from the moon: ‘You know what, he’s one of two things: a wacko or an illegal immigrant. Either way, they need to lock him up.’
I’ve been reading Can You Tolerate This by Ashleigh Young. Her essays are so incredible. I have put no stickies in the book, because there is no point. As Bill Manhire puts it on the back jacket: ‘Some of Ashleigh Young’s personal essays feel to me like beautifully told short stories.’ Amen, Bill. With this, there aren’t really parts where I go ooh that’s interesting, I need to think about that, I’m just swept through the stories, sometimes marveling at the language, but mostly feeling that I am so naturally occupying the voice of the narrator that it is, for a time, my own.
There is so much wonderful language, metaphor and image that it feels pointless to take note of it to return to later—it’s in such abundance that I know if I open any page there will be some phrasing that’s apt and satisfying. My favourite is the description of a yoga guru looking like ‘a pair of reins.’ At first, the image seems bizarre, the reins seemingly unrelated to the yogi, but then it’s perfect, giving the sense of a tanned and ropy body, flexible and strong and weathered. Like how did she come up with that???
I’ve been thinking about the similarities between Ashleigh Young’s writing and that of Anna Sanderson—particularly in Young’s shorter pieces, and those about artworks. Both have quite an understated and humble voice. Both also come across as inveterate watchers, those observing the world and considering their place within it. Okay, after some rudimentary googling I can see that Ashleigh Young has cited Sanderson’s book Brainpark as an inspiration for her collection, that Sanderson inspired her to think that perhaps this is something she can do, too. It is, Ashleigh, it is!
Having read both of these collections this year, the voices feel so personal to me, as though they are both my big sisters. Anna is the oldest and a bit bolder, more secretive and wry, a true artist in the way she puts the world down on the page without shying away. Ashleigh is the middle sister, sensitive and quietly hilarious, smart and stressed out in a very endearing way.
I’m not sure if constructing an imaginary family tree out of Wellington literary women counts as a ‘reading journal’, but here we are! I feel so happy to have come across these writers this year, to be inspired by their words. And maybe I can echo what Young said about Sanderson’s work—that these two authors make me feel I can do it, too. There is something about their voices, the way they seem to strive for truth (which often is truth in the strangeness of life) that makes it seem possible. I don’t have to be them, I just have to seek out my own truths, however they may appear.
Friday, 3rd of September
I hope my honesty about this date, coming clean that I am finishing this journal on the final day it’s due, engenders trust. The truth is, I’m tired. My body is tired and my mind is tired. Lockdown has been hard, though I’m aware that it has been far, far harder for many others. Still, I am tired.
I really enjoyed Clare [Moleta] and Tayi [Tibble]’s talk from the reading programme this week. There was so much I took from it, but I was especially struck by their honesty and vulnerability. I had the sense that each of them, in their own way, really wanted to share their experiences as best they could, and this seemed to come from a place of empathy, a knowing where we are right now in the year and the stresses and pressures and unknowns facing us all. So I felt grateful that they shared their post-MA experiences, because lately it’s felt hard to zoom out.
I think it was Clare who spoke of the intense levels of concentration required by the Masters, and this has been my experience as well. This, for me, has led to the perception of minutes swelling, hours being larger than normal while also zipping by. It’s not that time is going slow, exactly, more that everything is filled to the brim and it all requires my attention. Like there’s so much to look at this year that I can’t even contemplate what might come later. So the nudge from their perspective was helpful—there is life after this year. Writing life, even, should I choose to do that. I’m afraid I won’t choose that, though I desperately want to.
Writing is hard. And fun and engrossing and fascinating. But hard. Still, I love the words and sentences, and the way my obsessive brain has something productive to perseverate over. I also love the deeper stuff that emerges from writing, how I get to discover what lies beneath my initial thoughts of whatever the essay seems to be ‘about.’ This helps me to know what I really think. Or what I really believe. All of this unconscious material floats to the surface to be looked at, and that feels so valuable, precious.
But I am such a baby at this, still. There is so much to learn. But, much like in my clinical psychology program, I have the sense that though I haven’t been taught everything this year (which would be impossible), I’ve been well set up to continue learning. And I want to. It is strange to think of myself as a writer now, to grab hold of that aspect of myself and really pay attention to it. To give that part space and time and water and sun. I want to continue. I really do.
This reading journal reminds me a little of a scene from one of my favourite young adult novels, Juniper. The protagonist, Juniper, is sent to live with her witchy godmother, Euny, as the first step in her own journey towards becoming a witch. While there, Juniper’s taught to weave, and is guided in making a cloak, a protective garment that shields her from evil. There’s a scene that shows her choosing colours for her cloak, and I recall her picking dark and earthy tones – greens and navy and maroon. She finds the weaving arduous, fiddly and boring. A chore. Euny observes Juniper’s progress and remarks on how she’s going, giving guidance and suggestions along the way. It’s possible to see what Juniper is learning through the cloak she’s creating, to see the strengths and weaknesses of her magic and where more work might be needed. Am I pushing this analogy too hard? Or is this, in some way, the reading journal. It’s the inner workings, warp and weft, the stitch by stitch. The journal is looking over my shoulder, quietly observing what is there while I learn and continue to do the work.
‘You have to do the mahi,’ Tayi said on Wednesday and Clare agreed. This message has been said over and over by Chris and Pip, too. What is this essay about?! I ask again and again. I want a shortcut. To just know. But the answer is always: I guess you’ll have to write it and see.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maggie Sturgess was born in Dallas, Texas and moved to Aotearoa as a child. She has lived in Te Whanganui-a-Tara for the past 15 years where she works as a clinical psychologist. She recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters.