Childhood tragedy that changed author's life
AMONG the many remarkable things in Clare Bowditch's powerful memoir Your Own Kind of Girl, is a list she wrote when she was just 21, and about to leave Australia for London.
It was called - as these sort of lists made by young girls with hopeful hearts tend to be - "My Amazing Life", and at the top of it was "write a novel".
There was also "learn a language", "run fast", "travel everywhere" and "do something that helps people".
That Bowditch, now 42, and an ARIA award-winning musician and actor, did indeed go on to write a book (along with checking off several other items on the list) is testament to her courage and spirit.
That it is so very beautifully written is testament to her talents as a songwriter and wordsmith.
But back to that courage. Because it took some to write this memoir.
To write of the death of her sister Rowena when they were small children, of heartbreak, and terrifying anxiety.
Of a full-blown nervous breakdown that sent her fleeing back from London to her parent's home in Melbourne's Sandringham, and the feeling, as she writes of that time, "that I am broken for good".
All that took courage, and Bowditch smiles, "20 years of adulthood in my bag, extra appointments with my therapist, excellent self-care which sometimes is a gin with the ladies, and lots of peanut butter".
"I did always know I would write a book," Bowditch says from her home in Melbourne she shares with her husband and fellow musician, drummer Marty Brown, and her three children Asha, 16, and twins Oscar and Elijah, 12.
"It was always sitting in the back of my mind, but there was also a tiny, wise part of me in my early 20s that said, 'Do it when you're older'.
"I think if you write before you are ready, it's probably not going to work.
"And I needed to be very adult when I went in there."
And going "in there", Bowditch says, back to the sassy girl who was all attitude and chutzpah - on the book's cover photo at least - was both terrifying and exhilarating.
"The drafting was excruciating," Bowditch reflects, "two years of daily rollercoaster riding, feeling both excited and nervous, and wondering what effect these stories might have on the people around me. These are stories not even my closest friends have known."
But underpinning the fear for Bowditch, particularly now that some of those friends have read her searing memoir, was "the lifesaving relief of knowing others are feeling the same things, or going through the same things".
She sees her book, Bowditch says simply "as a companion to being human".
Bowditch's book is not, however, all tears before bedtime. It is also full of life-affirming joy, gratitude interspersed with sadness, and brimming with laughter and love.
Unusually, it also a practical manual of self-care. At the back of the book Bowditch has listed various organisations, individuals, websites and books that helped her navigate her own anxieties, self-doubt, body image issues and grief.
THE GIRL WITH THE CROOKED SMILE
To read Bowditch's book is to be introduced to, and come to know Rowena Bowditch, who died from an extremely rare form of multiple sclerosis, when she was seven years old.
Bowditch's account of her older sister's life and death; the years from the first sign of her illness to her two-year hospital stay; the endless treatments; her bravery and humour throughout, and the way she managed to hold on to who she was despite all the ravages on her body, is raw, beautiful and compelling.
It is also searingly honest, Bowditch writing truthfully of how Rowena annoyed her at times, how she sometimes (as a five year old) felt jealous of the attention her sister received and how she aches for her still and always.
Writing about her sister, Rowena, who had "a crooked smile and a husky voice that made playful adults laugh" was, Bowditch says, "central to who I am and who our family are and became".
"I don't really know how I wrote about it, but I just committed to Rowena that she would not be sentimentalised, and that I would try to get her right.
"For so long I felt so lonely in that I would never know the adult Rowena, and then one day it occurred to me that I knew her so intimately and I started writing down all the ways I carried her love inside me …
"I know my sister by the smell of the dried lavender in the little pillow that someone made for her when she first went to hospital … I know her by taste and texture; the crunch and sting of those salt and vinegar chips from the hospital cafeteria … I know her by the songs that were playing on the radio when she was alive, like Supertramp's Dreamer … I know her by colours: by the light satin blue of her Holy Communion ribbon, the lime green and gold of her dress-ups scarf … the red of her fingernails, the white of her Holy Communion dress, the one she was buried in."
HER OWN KIND OF GIRL
Bowditch has been, by her own account, and her childhood nickname, a "fatty-boom-bah", thin, and everything in between.
As a teenager and young woman, she tried all the diets; the Cabbage Soup Diet, the Egg Diet, the Grapefruit Diet, the Royal Jelly Diet, the Meal Replacement Shakes Diet, the Smoke-a-Lot-and Don't-Sleep Diet. If there was a diet fad to be had, she gave it a red hot go. For a time. Until she didn't. And then hated herself for giving up. And then tried the Atkins Diet, of which she muses: "It turns out you really can have too much bacon."
These days, Bowditch is at home in her own skin, celebratory of her body and the things it can do. Thankful for its movements, its grace, its curves and bumps and its gift of motherhood.
Among the things on that "My Amazing Life" list was becoming a mother and falling truly, madly and deeply in love. Bowditch has done both, after a somewhat rocky romantic path (farewell Joffa, we hardly knew ya!) she is married to her soulmate Brown and is one besotted mamma.
"I love this generation of kids," she says, "They are so incredible, gorgeous, kind and brave".
After her own body image struggles, Bowditch is also acutely aware of the outward pressures on this particular generation's digital natives.
"They are bombarded with messages, and they are told again and again what sort of physicality is to be rewarded. And while we don't get to control the messages they get from society, we do get to give them upfront and honest language to question what they are told.
"It's wonderful to be able to celebrate our gorgeous selves, the problem is when we are only allowed to celebrate ourselves when we are a certain way.
"I try with my own children to give them that language to question and challenge what they are being told, or sold."
For her own part, Bowditch's mother, the gentle and strong Marianne, always told her daughter that she was "a peach" and "an Amazon". Indeed, it was Marianne who told her tearful, fearful and overwrought daughter the first time her heart was broken, at three years old, by a boy who said she was "too big" to play with, that she was just right, in fact, her own sort of girl.
And there's another thing on that beautifully, handwritten list - "make an album". Bowditch has made several in her long career and is set to release her sixth studio album next year. She writes and performs both as a solo artist and collaborating with, among others, Leonard Cohen, Paul Kelly, Cat Power, Snow Patrol, Goyte and John Butler.
There have been numerous awards (ARIA and International Songwriting Competition gongs and nominations among them) and accolades, including Rolling Stone magazine 2010 Woman of the Year for her "Contribution to Culture".
There's also been (see the entry "do something that helps people") the creation in 2013 of Big Hearted Business, Bowditch's love child that marries creative types with business know-how, and vice versa.
It's an enterprise born of Bowditch's own observations of friends and colleagues in her creative life struggling with the business end of their work, and it provides, via its website, information, inspiration, mentoring and an annual conference, which is called an "unconference", and it's safe to say, there's not a slick "team building" exercise in sight. It seems that Bowditch, both in her life and her book, has found something she once very much doubted she would: her own happy ending.
"As a 20-year-old I really did have great hopes for my life, but such self-doubt that through that breakdown and recovery phase, I don't think I was capable of finding my own happy ending," she says.
"But I think because I always knew I was loved, by my parents and my family, and because I had music in me, and so many words and stories, I think I always had a glimmer of hope inside me that I would find it."
The girl on the cover - the one leaning back in her swimsuit and tinted sunglasses, the one with the look that says, "Here I am, life, come and get me", was always in there somewhere.
Your Own Kind of Girl, Allen and Unwin, $30
Clare Bowditch will be sitting down with ABC Radio presenter Myf Warhurst on November 1 at the Brisbane Powerhouse, tickets $35, and with author Steven Lang on November 6 at the Maleny Community Centre, tickets $21.70