It still fills me with nostalgia every time I approach the Thornbury Theatre on High St where, once a month, I take part in Women of Letters. As I drive around in circles in search of a place to park, I see the familiar streets on which I grew up. Along Hutton St, past the primary school I attended for six years, and its playground where I played on both school days and weekends and where, much to my parents’ grief, I broke more than a few pairs of glasses running into trees, basketballs and other kids. And across the road is the little rundown house that we rented with the extended family of stray cats that lived and bred under the floors, their kittens occasionally brought into the house, again, to my parents’ dismay. The fact that I can’t even find a parking spot these days because of the parking restrictions, permit zones and sheer number of cars in the area is astounding. Sure, twenty years ago, I was rollerblading instead of driving but since when did Thornbury need permit zones? And while I’m ranting, where did all these trendy cafes and hipsters come from anyway?
But I don’t come to Thornbury for a trip down memory lane. It’s to be a part of something special, Women of Letters, a literary event that brings back the art of letter writing. Not emails, Facebook messages or tweets; actual letters, as in with a pen and paper and envelopes and stamps, and the occasional licking of some of these things.
Five guests, often women from Australian public life – actors, musicians, writers, comedians or politicians – are invited to pen a letter to a given topic. Past topics have included, ‘A letter to my unfinished business,’ ‘A letter to my biggest sacrifice’ or ‘A letter to that thing on my body’. What happens next is anyone’s guess and, often, that’s when magic happens. The women sit on the stage around a table in a darkened ballroom with a bottle of wine or two and, surrounded by an audience of a few hundred, they tell their stories.
Five women of different backgrounds both professionally and personally, approaching the same topic from their own unique places, inspired and imagined by only what they themselves feel, value and desire. Born out of this are stories that have the ability to surprise, move, entertain, and provoke. Hearing new writing from Helen Garner being read out for the first time is such a privilege. The deceptive ease at which she paints a place and its people is pure poetry and transports me to a moment years ago when I discovered the delight of her language and prose for the first time. Equally, there is endless joy in hearing Kitty Flanagan rant.
It never ceases to amaze me the honesty that’s born from these letters. Speakers unlock a part of their soul to reveal their dark clouds, their demons, and you feel privileged and humbled to have been allowed momentarily into some of their lives. Indeed, when Genevieve ‘Barbara the bank lady’ Morris can cause you to wet yourself laughing then move you to tears in a space of minutes, you know you’re witnessing something special.
When the time comes for those of us in the audience to pen our own letters to the people in our lives, the words flow easily. For the past few Women of Letters, I’ve been writing to a friend interstate who has been doing it tough, and although I often feel helpless being here while she’s over there, sending my thoughts and love through my handwritten letter is the only way I know how to feel useful and supportive. Letters connect people because they come from the heart. It’s a moment of joy or comfort for the recipient and it is equally cathartic for the writer. As I set my letter free to embark its journey to the city of churches, and try to remember when the cost of stamps rose to 60 cents, I vow to do this more often.
And so, it’s always with much sadness that I leave the theatre at the end of the two hours for, like many in the room I imagine, I would like the afternoon to go on forever. As I walk back to the car, past the cafes and unfamiliar shops on High St, I realise that the Thornbury I remember from my childhood will never exist again. However, I don’t mind so much because I am reassured that another community, indeed family, exists just down the road and around the corner in the Thornbury Theatre ballroom. And I bet they won’t judge me if I decide to show up in rollerblades one day, for old times’ sake.