Sunday, August 23, 2009

I dreamed I had traveled overseas for the next International Autobiographical and Biographical Association conference (IABA). I was on a bus traveling to my hotel in Morocco, where the conference was to be held. I travelled with my friend, Christina. When the conductor came to us I had no money for my ticket and needed to borrow a pound from her. Christina was gracious in lending her money but I felt dreadful (she could ill afford it) and I determined that I should not forget to repay her.

Next I am in a queue of people led by the conference organiser, Margaretta Jolly. She has a clipboard under her arm and seems officious as we weave our way through long corridors in the Moroccan university (which looks for all the world like any university I have even been inside in Australia – the same dull grey office chairs and desks) en route to the conference room. So far I do not recognise a soul and I feel sadly out of place.

We reach a sort of dead end in the form of a large room with windows. The only way out beyond the door through which we came is through the windows. Margaretta makes her way through one of them with a couple of others but a university caretaker stops the rest of us. We must not travel through university windows this way, he says. In order to get to the conference room we must backtrack part way along from where we have come and then turn down another corridor.

Eventually we reach the room, three quarters full of people already. For a while I sit down with Millie M and her husband. I am surprised to see them here. This is an IABA conference, not a psychotherapy one. We chat. Millie is eating from a plate piled high with what I imagine to be Moroccan food, couscous, and some sort of exotic dips, fruits and nuts. She is friendly but I sense an awkwardness, whether in her or me, and I am glad to get away.

I sit beside a woman whom I have never seen before. She does not wear a nametag. Nor do I, I realise, and wonder whether it would not in fact be helpful for all of us to wear such tags. The woman introduces herself. She spells out her name, which she says so quickly that I cannot catch on to the letters: L.E.U… or some such thing.

‘I am a professional atheist,’ the woman says. She has a look on her face as if she expects me to be impressed by these words, whether positively or negatively. She has said this to people before and clearly gets a reaction every time.

I am impressed, but before I can say more the conference begins. Margaretta starts off a discussion about autobiography and various people speak. When it comes to my turn I respond to the story of the woman who spoke before me. She had been telling the audience about how she had spent her last two years of school in a Catholic convent as a boarder. She had won a scholarship. Somehow her story seemed to be packed into a box of Vita Brits. I could see the half packed box on the stage in front of me. I started to speak about my own reservations about priests.

‘I do not like priests, ‘I said, no longer confident. I realised as soon as I had said this that my audience disapproved – furrowed brows, cross faces. There were priests in the audience perhaps. I had spoken out of turn. I tried as hard as I could to backtrack.

‘It’s not the people I dislike,’ I said. ‘It’s the position.’

But it was too late. I rattled on then about something to do with my own childhood when someone sitting nearby called out to me,

‘What’s your point?’ I tried desperately to find one, to bring my comment back to the story of the previous speaker, and to wind up my words. The conversation went on then with other people taking their turns to speak. I looked around the room indignant. I wanted to go home, to leave this large group. I felt such a failure. This is an IABA conference but none of these people are autobiographers. They are historians and people from memory studies, literary critics and the like. I am an autobiographer and they hate me for it.

The telephone rang and I woke up.

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