Laura Fulton (RMIT University, Australia)
January and Australia is burning. Ours has always been a sunburnt country, but this year the bushfires are infernal, catastrophic, apocalyptic. The animals are dying and every day I check the Vic Emergency app, over and over again, to see how close the nearest fire is to threatening my newly adopted home: a suburb not quite rural on the outskirts of Melbourne. I spend hours deciding what to pack, what we will keep and what—of everything we own—we would willingly let burn to the ground if we can just get out with our lives and our homeowners’ insurance. Photos, documents, computers storing back-ups of a lifetime of creative work, the dog. Everything else we must be content to leave behind: the kids’ artwork, my high school yearbooks, irreplaceable rough drafts and journals—things important to no one but me.
But the world rallies and volunteers come from everywhere (including my native America) to help. Brave men and women hold the line and do not flinch, and while some lose so much, the losses are mostly material, objects rather than lives. Eventually the fires abate and the pyrophytes that thrive on these fires to regenerate take their portion, and we give thanks that we are safe. And I keep writing: stories that take me to the Mississippi River delta (where I was born almost fifty years ago), stories about the man I think must be my birth father, stories about a place I only remember in my bones.
February and I stumble and stammer through the final milestone of my PhD. This project has been so much harder than I thought it would be: a painful picking apart of an ancient wound I’m not sure needed reopening. I cannot separate the personal from the professional with this dissertation. The fact of my own status as an adopted person shapes, drives, moulds my exploration of creative writing as a means of exploring this aspect of my identity. My best intentions are misconstrued, and I see one pair of eyes roll, again and again, as I stand and speak at the front of the room. I hear snide comments, deep sighs, dismissive huffs, all from the same academic superior. Only vaguely familiar with my project, this person, here on behalf of someone else, makes it clear that my work is not up to standard—that I don’t deserve to be here.
But I have friends here too: allies, cheerleaders who believe in me, and I see supportive eye contact and understanding nods and genuine smiles that say, “I hear you, I hear you”. And even though this presentation is maybe not my best work, I get the feedback I need, and I pass the milestone, and I give thanks that I have had the opportunity to take on this challenge. And I keep writing: stories that look inside myself, this way and that, stories that look backwards, stories that allow me to tell myself who I think I am.
March and everything stops.
March and the kids come home from school and we finally understand that this thing we’ve been hearing about, this weird thing from China is now this horrible thing that is everywhere. The grocery store is a terrifying place, where every habit I didn’t know I had has been turned upside down and there’s no point in taking the list on which I rely because there’s no knowing what will be on the shelves today: no knowing if there will be green vegetables or meat or pasta or simple toiletries. I watch a video online of three women fist fighting over a package of toilet paper, and I cry at the slow break down of civilisation, the ugly truth of human nature. I weep to be reminded that, sometimes, given the right set of wrong circumstances, we are not, actually, better than this.
But the kids rise to the challenge—these kids who have grown up with devices in their hands, these kids we have begged to go outside, these kids we have called antisocial. The same kids troubleshoot the platforms that have appeared overnight and teach me how to Zoom, and they fix the glitches and find each other within this state of discord and connect with each other in the solitude of their bedrooms. They heal each other and they hold me and they remind me what patience and solitude and resilience are made of. So I keep writing: stories that make me laugh, stories that make me cry, stories about relatives, recent and distant, I have never met.
April and I turn fifty, and there’s no point in thinking about the cruise I have always dreamed of for this day. I remember that I was privileged for even imagining it, that being denied a cruise for a birthday, even a milestone birthday, is not—actually—hardship at all. I sit in my driveway in front of the “Happy 50th Birthday” sign written in chalk by my family, and I chat with my neighbours, all sitting in lawn chairs on their nature strips, sensibly far away but just near enough for conversation. I eat snacks and drink wine and I give thanks that I am here to celebrate this day, that the tumour the doctors took out of my brain last year was blessedly benign, that they caught it before it had time to send any more runners from the lining of my brain into the tissue, that I didn’t lose my life or my ability to speak.
But the photos posted online the next day confirm what the bathroom scale has been telling me—that the stress eating and mild alcoholism I have adopted as coping mechanisms are solving nothing. There must be a better way to get my head around the world as it currently stands.
May and I turn to micromanaging, which is to say, managing through small tasks, tiny, microscopic-sized accomplishments. I take my walks ten minutes at a time, to the end of the street and back, to the end of the block, around the neighbourhood with the dog. I track my calories. I put the snacks back on the grocery store shelf. I make myself interesting and creative salads. (I continue to drink maybe slightly more than I should.) The weight comes off, slowly, slowly. And I keep writing: stories laced with truths only I know, stories that stand like armour between the world and people I love—people who don’t know me, people who share my blood.
But this thing is not going away, and I understand how deep my privilege goes. My casual work has dried up to a trickle—only a handful of days for the year—and our lives now depend completely on my partner’s work in the aviation industry. I hear stories of pilots taking jobs unloading boxes in grocery store warehouses, jobs they are so grateful to have they post videos of themselves on social media in their newly purchased hi-vis vests, uniforms they never imagined they would need when they graduated flight school and earned the title “captain”. I hold my breath as my partner’s company restructures again and again, each round a gruesome game of musical chairs that ends with lives upended, careers devastated. Again and again, my partner survives, but I know I am powerless to effect the outcome that will impact my family’s lives to such a critical, chilling degree. All I can do is listen, cheer him on, attend to the kids, wash his clothes, cook his meals. Hope.
June and the restrictions ease, the numbers improve. The kids go back to school and my son has a proper birthday party with friends and cake and presents. The grocery store shelves are mostly back to normal, but I still appreciate how fortunate I am to be able to shop first thing in the morning, avoid the weekends, and go when I know the supply will be best. I take only what I need, leave the cheaper items when there are only a few. I am so grateful that we still have an income and options. We have been sending money wherever we can, to people we know all around the world doing it tough. We’ve been volunteering, donating food, buying groceries and running errands for our elderly friends. It’s not enough. I know whatever we do is not enough, but I am thankful for our health, our lives, our comfort. And I keep writing: stories about a tiny house that once stood in the shade of a mighty river’s delta trees, stories prompted by wisps of memory, stories of a home I can only barely call my own.
July and the wall goes up.
Later, they will call this stage of restrictions within the Melbourne metro region the longest and most strenuous of any measures taken in the world. I can almost see the imaginary ring of steel enclosing us within its boundaries, like the dome Stephen King envisioned in his novel. We can go no further than five kilometres from our homes, the kids are home from school again, and we can meet with almost no one. We must wear a mask from the moment we step outside our front doors. Essential workers carry permits allowing them to pass through key checkpoints that are patrolled by policemen. State borders close, like the international borders that have been shut since March. Elsewhere in the world, people argue about whether or not they should have to wear a mask, whether or not they should have to quarantine or socially distance, whether or not this thing is happening at all. Around the world, across every sea that girts us, the death toll rises.
But here, within this imaginary ring that encircles the Melbourne metro region, where life has slowed to a crawl, and we all hold our breath, wash our hands, wear our masks and stay at home, the numbers turn. Every day I check the Victoria Health Department website to see the new daily cases, the new deaths, total cases, how many recovered, how many active. And the numbers drop, bit by bit, from the hundreds to the dozens to the teens to single digits.
August and September, sitting in place within our ring, we watch and wait and hope and wash our hands and look for ways to help each other. We witness the turmoil in the US as protestors insist the lives of black citizens matter and their countrymen debate the point, insisting that black citizens whose ancestors were once enslaved have been treated equally all along. We watch the numbers—new cases, total cases, deaths—rise and fall and rise again everywhere but here in Australia. The PhD is at critical stage. I’ve found the flaw that upended my milestone back in February. What I thought was failure was not failure, but simply experimentation, and every experiment, on reflection, has succeeded in one way or another. I’ve finally understood that my goal all along has been to consider myself, my past, the branches of my gnarled and twisted family tree, and my place within it. And every story has allowed me to do exactly that. I’ve adjusted and added and subtracted and reworded and reshaped, edited and cut and cut and cut some more. I feel like I’m almost there.
But the kids have missed out on so much this year and so many parents say their children are struggling to stay focused. I can’t get mine to go outside, not even for a walk, and I’ve got to the stage where I can’t even see the point in trying. I see a story on the news about a mother with four children all huddled around the internet hotspot her phone creates, the five of them trying to work and attend school remotely. I’ve barely worked, and my partner is facing one more round of restructure, which could mean potential job loss or demotion, and there’s nothing I can do about it but wait and hope and listen and wash and shop and clean and cook and volunteer and help where I can. But I still know my own children each have desks, laptops, 5G, and fat, noise-cancelling gaming headsets. And I keep writing: stories that pick apart the scar that formed over an open wound almost fifty years ago, when I was taken from one home and sent to another—sent away from everything and everyone I had ever known, taking with me nothing but a handful of shabby clothes and my middle name.
October and my PhD is finished. I send it in and put it out of my mind, only now the US election is nearly upon us and no one has any illusions this time. Everyone is prepared for the eventuality that it could all go terribly wrong, and even if it goes the way we hope, there could be backlash and unrest. No matter what happens, no matter who wins, the next few months will be difficult. As a dual American/Australian citizen, I feel something like survivor’s guilt as I enjoy the safety of this place—where nearly everyone has healthcare and almost no one has guns—knowing my family on the other side of the ocean are living in the midst of chaos. Some of them know to stay inside, work from home, wear their masks, follow the guidelines outlined by the best scientific minds. Others insist that masks violate their personal rights, that they will attend church in person despite the best advice, because “spiritual health is more important than physical health”, and that there is no reason to quarantine or socially distance because this entire miserable affair is one gigantic hoax designed to challenge the sitting president and make him “look bad”.
But here in Victoria, the numbers drop to the single digits and then to zero and we hold our breath, counting the number of days in a row, from three to five to ten. The restrictions begin to ease and the number of days in a row grows. We celebrate, first double doughnut days (days with both zero new cases and zero new deaths), followed by Dozen Doughnut Day (twelve days in a row with zero new cases and zero new deaths). The day we hit twelve in a row, I buy all the doughnuts I can find and send them to work with my partner, who has only recently been allowed to return to work in person. His colleagues are grateful, and we begin to imagine that perhaps—perhaps—we’ll be able to celebrate some version of Christmas.
November and I attend my one conference of the year, giving my presentation online. I’m deeply disappointed that the state borders are still closed and I can’t attend in Queensland like I’d planned, but I know that any expectation I might have had is the voice of my privilege talking again and I am grateful for the opportunity to attend at all. In preparing, I look again at the results of the DNA test I took two years ago, the one that allowed me, as an adopted child, to have an ethnicity for the first time in my life at the age of forty-eight. The company I used has updated their website and I discover I’m slightly less English than I was believed to be before, slightly more Scots-Irish. In browsing the website, I come upon a feature I hadn’t seen before: potential matches. I see that I have been matched with someone who shares 3468 centimorgans of DNA across 25 segments. I don’t know what that means except that the DNA company is 100 percent certain this person is my biological father (by comparison, my next nearest match is a third cousin with whom I share 121 centimorgans across 5 segments).
But I’ve just written an entire PhD about how I’ve learned to deal with the truth of my adoption by experimenting with creative writing, and I thought I already knew who my biological father was. My adoptive parents—who will always be my “real” parents—have both died within the last five years, and I’d really love to talk to them about it, but I can’t, and I’m not really sure what to do with this information. In the end, however, my presentation goes really well. When I finish, the session chair sounds disappointed when she asks if “that’s all?” and tells me my work is “brilliant”: I think I hear genuine admiration in her voice. Even though I’m slotted in at the end of the first day of the conference and only a handful of people attend, I feel like the positive feedback I receive from my tiny audience bodes well for my PhD. So I may as well keep writing: funny little stories about people I have imagined, based on ancestors I only know I have because biology dictates I must, sad little stories about a cast of characters I have invented almost entirely, pieces of stories that fit together like a patchwork I think will make an excellent novel when I’m finished.
December and our numbers are still low, and we get to have a Christmas of sorts: a Christmas of limited gatherings, a tense Christmas spent on edge, watching our loved ones on social media like Hitler’s Nazi youth, wondering “why they are standing so close together?”, “where are their masks?”, “did they travel?” and “are they staying home?” Some of us are missing certain people we care about on the other side of one border or another, some are separated by miles of sandy bight, some by time zones of ocean. And this thing, this horrible thing keeps hanging on and leaders less vigilant than ours keep playing with half measures, trying to please all their people all the time—a recipe for disaster, or so the ancient maxim suggests.
But we are safe, here in Victoria—our pointy little corner of Australia, where our leaders held the line and did not flinch, where our people joined together in battle against an invisible enemy armed with nothing more than face masks, hand sanitiser and the doors of our houses, where reason and science prevailed over hysteria and hand wringing. Here, human lives mattered more than some fanciful idea about “freedom” (the type that exists in the absence of responsibility), and lives mattered more than financial interests—we understood that an economy can correct itself, regardless of how damaged it may become, but that a life lost can never be recovered. And so I reach out to the man whose centimorgans match mine, the one who is my biological father. I send an email via the DNA company, tell him I have no desire to impose, and wish him a Merry Christmas. And I keep writing: stories about angels, stories about devils, stories about anything but what has happened here and now, in this time and place, over the course of the last year.
January again and 2020 is a vision in the rear-view mirror, a shimmering mirage on a hot, empty highway, a year we all want to leave behind us. Reason seems to have prevailed in America: tens of thousands have come out in support of a man who we hope will right the ship, turn the rudder, and set the country back on course. As predicted, the backlash has come right on cue, and the US Capitol withstands its first assault since British forces burned Washington DC during the War of 1812, in the very attack that inspired the lyrics of “The Star Spangled Banner”. Those of us who support him hold our breath until the newly elected president is safely sworn in, and even then, we know the forces that have divided the United States for so long will not go gently into that good night. And I’ve got no answer to the message I sent before Christmas, even though the “read” notification included in the DNA company’s algorithm tells me that the man who shares my genetic code has seen it. He’s just chosen not to respond.
But the sun is shining and the kookaburras are laughing in the gumtrees and we’ve had rain and rain and rain this year. The kids are all right—resilient and happy and reluctantly looking forward to going back to school. My partner has begun his newest position, one he’s excited about and a little afraid of, which is a good sign. Here in Victoria, we seem to have wrestled back a small bump in numbers introduced by international travellers returning home from overseas, and I have people who care about me here in this corner of Australia and on the other side of the ocean. Finally, the email comes and I have passed my PhD, needing only a few amendments suggested by one of the examiners. Only now can I stand to look back on the events of the last twelve months, only now can I find a way to articulate all that has happened, all I am feeling.
And so I will keep writing.
Laura Fulton is a writer, teacher and researcher born in the Mississippi delta region of Arkansas and now based in Melbourne. A naturalised citizen of Australia, her recent PhD completed through RMIT Melbourne explores how the adopted person may address issues of identity, origin and belonging through creative writing experimentation. Laura is currently working on a novel, an imagined family history presented as a patchwork story that considers themes of absence, longing and loss.