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Self-portrait: Laura McPhee-Browne

Laura McPhee-Browne, photo by Leah Jing

Laura McPhee-Browne, photo by Leah Jing

We come to visit Laura, who is unaware we are there. We watch her, we can hear her thoughts, and look at the heart inside her chest.

We are welcome here, she would tell us, if she knew. She likes to make sure people feel comfortable; in fact, she can’t bear it if they’re not. She is sensitive, you see, to their experience of her, their experience of the world — she is dependent on their peace.

Laura has been working on herself. Not because she has wanted to and has the space inside her to move about within, but because she has been forced to. She is an alcoholic — don’t worry, she doesn’t mind the term — and an alcoholic suffers unless she works on herself. She is also a writer, and you could say the same thing about them.

Last year, in 2020, just before the world fell to its knees, Laura’s debut novel was published. She had been excited to have her book among the people, to have an audience, to be admired and to have an accomplishment that everyone could hold and see. Laura thought she was innocent, despite her drive for recognition. She was wrong.

The year was hard. Laura cried, and raged, and felt such self-pity and anger and sadness and grief that, at times, she thought she might die. She has had to admit that she is powerless — over alcohol, over readers, over other writers and other people, over the way the world will jump and dive, whether she wants it to or not. She has had to try and approach the barrage of thoughts (What if they think I care too much? What if they think I don’t care at all? What if they think I think I deserve something? What if it’s not about deserving at all?) with love and acceptance, with detachment. Laura thought she was a pacifist, but really she is bloodthirsty and wild.

Laura is learning. As we can see, if we peer at her chest and see the heart there, Laura is still breathing, Laura’s heart is still beating. She has realised the only way is loving kindness, because she understands why she cried and raged and cursed and wallowed, and she wants to take care of herself.

Cherry Beach by Laura McPhee-Browne

It is difficult to let go of other people’s experiences, of their opinions, and the thoughts in their heads, the hearts in their chests. People mean a lot to Laura, but they also consume her. She is learning now, and trying now, to control less and trust more and it’s helping.

We are near Laura and can hear her thinking. It’s quiet, just a murmur inside her head, because she is tired. She is telling herself something, something small but important, something unequivocally true. There’s only me, she says to herself, and I am responsible for nothing but my own heart, my own beat. There’s only me, there’s only me, there’s only you.

In the 2021 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, Laura McPhee-Browne’s Cherry Beach won the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing and was shortlisted for the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction.

This story appears in Openbook winter 2021.