Eliza’s Doolittle’s transformation from a 'squashed cabbage leaf' to a 'work of art' is one of the twentieth century’s most enduring makeover stories. In Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw’s tale of manners, Eliza shifts class, sensibility, and self-awareness only to arrive at the realisation that it’s all smoke and mirrors with a touch of hypocrisy thrown in.
Eschewing a bonnet and embroidered gown in favour of knee pads, novelist Mary-Rose MacColl seeks a different kind of transformation and offers a suggested route to escape some of the invisible borders that hem us in, the ones made of expectation and perception.
I’m teaching myself to skateboard. Actually, my fourteen year old son is teaching me to skateboard. Most early mornings, we visit the local skatepark which has been recently refurbished in smooth, hurtful concrete. It’s next to a tennis court with a more kindly surface and fewer obstacles. I skate around and around the tennis court while my son does tricks in the skatepark. Every now and then, he looks over and gives me advice. So far, I’ve learned to avoid colliding with the fence and net most of the time.
After half an hour, we go home and have breakfast and my son goes to school and I go to my writing desk. If anyone comes past while I’m skateboarding – swimmers on their way to the pool, commuters on their way to the bus – I yell something like, 'I hear it’s good to learn new skills as you get old.' I laugh and try to show off how good I’m getting and then generally fall over. People laugh back and say something, mostly encouraging. No one has been rude yet, but it’s early days.
You might not immediately pick me for a skateboarder. I’m fifty five and a woman. I often say I was fifty before I stopped caring what people think of me but since I’m yelling at passers by to explain why I’m skateboarding, it’s clear I haven’t quite managed to shake off the prejudices of others. And perhaps we never do. Perhaps all of life we let our fears about what people will think of us determine who and what we are.
I think I’d score highly on a skateboarding aptitude test. I’m small, with a low centre of gravity. I’m strong and I have good balance. I love speed. It’s got me thinking about why I never took up skateboarding in childhood. Even now, there are very few young women at the skatepark among the dozens of young men. Is skateboarding something only boys like to do?
Gender is one of many constraints stopping us doing what we might want to do or be suited to in life. The changes we’re seeing under the rainbow banner in the present century are chipping away at gender, just as various rights movements in the twentieth century chipped away at race and class. Each new freedom, even if we don’t relate to it personally, makes us all more free.
Maybe we’re not as solid as we think we are anyway. I read that our body cells, the basic building blocks that make us who and what we are, are entirely replaced every seven years. If this were true, we could become whole new people many times over across our lives. We could transform. Yes yes, I know it’s more pseudo than science. While many cells die after just a few hours or days, our creaky old brain cells, the ones that determine consciousness, are with us for the long haul. We’re kind of stuck with ourselves. Psychologists, with their odd combination of numeracy and emotional intelligence, say we can really only change about five per cent of our basic personalities across our lives.
I don’t care. I want transformation to be possible. I write novels and my characters transform themselves in seven minutes, sometimes seven seconds of writing, which is often satisfying. It’s possible that all fiction is about transformation. A character starts here and ends there. The shape-shifter like Gandalf and Darth stay with us, along with the ones who gain something we want, Jane Eyre her independence, Holden Caulfield insight. We want that sure confidence that change is good. 'Bring on those new cells!' we say.
If I had a choice, I’d ask for a cell refund rather than a whole new kit. I’d go back to the cellular me at eight years of age. She couldn’t care less about other people’s expectations. All she needed was someone to think to put wheels under her feet, and she’d be there now in the skatepark, doing 540s out of the bowl.
When we let ourselves be constrained by what’s expected, we miss opportunities to be who we are. When we place those expectations on others, it can’t be anything but prejudice. Skateboarding is terrifying and exhilarating and it makes my brain light up in places I’m sure nothing else in my life does. It’s intuitive, and it’s proof of life.
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Mary-Rose MacColl’s international bestselling novel In Falling Snow was published to great acclaim in 2012. It was followed with Swimming Home which won The Courier-Mail 2016 People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year Award and will be published internationally in 2017. Mary-Rose's first novel, No Safe Place, was runner-up in the Australian Vogel literary award and her first non-fiction book, The Birth Wars, was a finalist in the 2009 Walkley Awards. In 2017, a true story from her life, For a Girl, will be published by Allen and Unwin. Mary-Rose lives in Brisbane, Australia with her husband and son. She is an ordinary swimmer learning to skateboard.