Friday, December 31, 2010

Olive trees are like camels.

The power went off during the night and all the clocks have stopped, the ones that operate on mains power. There must have been a power surge, which is ironic given the fact that it’s New Years Eve.

Even during the holidays I like to know the time. I woke with a start to a blinking digital alarm that flashed 12.09 at me repeatedly and then went in search of the time. My wristwatch still works.

I had intended not to sleep too late in order to find space to write before my 10.30am appointment with the physiotherapist. Later today my husband and I also have our annual check up with the eye doctor.

My husband thinks he needs new glasses. He hopes he does because his lenses are scratched and he wants to justify replacing them. I think I’d be happy to keep my glasses as they are, but if I need new ones then I will go for it. I love to be able to see clearly.

A message just now on my mobile phone from my third daughter to let us know she is on her way home from Adelaide, or 'Radelaide' as she jokingly refers to the state next door to ours. She is leaving now.

I will worry subcutaneously all day long until I see her safe and sound at the end of the day. It is an eight-hour drive and she travels with her girl friend, the two of them share the driving. Long distance driving is always dangerous, but they made it there, as she messaged me two days ago, a good trip except for the locusts.

The locusts are out in plague proportions in various parts of the country because of the recent rains. The drought had kept them in check until now. It is terrifying for the farmers and can be dreadful for our crops.

I have finally begun work on my tax, another annual event, which I despise and next week I have my two yearly pap smear at the doctor’s. For me the Christmas holidays become a time for annual events, physical check ups, house cleaning and reconciling my accounts.

I put off these things until the end of the year and get straight into them the minute the last bauble is off the tree. I have already returned our Christmas decorations to their boxes till next year.

It is too early I know but the olive tree we keep in a pot and brought inside to decorate this year was beginning to look dry even though we watered it periodically during its confinement indoors.

To me olive trees are like camels, they go on and on without water, but I am not sure how a camel would fare indoors and I am sure olive trees need sunlight, not shadow twenty four hours a day.

My children are old enough now not to fuss too much when the last of the Christmas cheer disappears.

They are forward looking, the young. Already they are in New Years Eve mode. Not me and my husband.

We joked last night over dinner that it has been some ten years since we last went to a New Years Eve function and then at the millennium, and ten years again before that. When we were young we would not have been seen dead not going out for New Years Eve but these days we prefer to stay at home.

At midnight we will go out to the front of our house and stand in the middle of our street, which is normally busy with traffic, and look over the crest of the hill towards the city and the fireworks that go off in the distance.

Every New Years Eve our neighbours, a widow and her thirty five year old daughter who stays at home because she has chronic fatigue syndrome, come out onto the street and we greet one another, hugs all round for the New Year and we watch the fireworks and ooh and aah at their splendour until the last light fades over the horizon.

Then we retreat indoors again and start the climb into the next year, which is an odd number this year, 2011 and as I have said elsewhere, I do not like odd numbers. The year 2009 was a poxy one for me. I hope 2011 fares better.

I have been struck once more by the artificial highs and lows that erupt inside of me during my time in the blogosphere, the degree to which I can feel so captivated by events in the lives of my fellow bloggers that I am brought to tears in some instances or alternatively driven to states of annoyance or great laughter elsewhere.

The Internet is such a powerful medium for drawing us in. No wonder some people lose themselves in it. I imagine that the experience in blogdom is one step away from the experience that some people enjoy within second Life.

I had tried to go there once – for research purposes, I reasoned – but something scared me off, something of the virtual and limitless sense of space and ‘freedom’ it seemed to offer. I felt a bit like a potential addict walking into a gambling casino, terrified at the thought that I would soon become hooked and then I would no longer have time for anything.

I have my blogging tendencies under control by and large but any further forays into alternative realities and I fear I might never come out into the light again. I would be like our Christmas olive tree trapped indoors forever more. And that would be the end of me, I fear.

I would dry out and lose my leaves, my branches would crumble and I would become a wandering waif lost forevermore in the ethereal life that is the Internet.

Pardon the mixed metaphor. Trees do not wander.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

'Stop blogging about me.'

My older daughter still living at home is holding a dinner party today for a few of her friends. Early morning and she is frantic, trying to turn our normally cluttered kitchen living area into a tidy, well appointed room, elegant enough in which to receive her guests.

I am past trying, but to absorb some of my daughter's anxiety I oblige, as do the rest of us in this household, even as we tell her to calm down. One day she will hold her own dinner parties in her own place wherever that might be and I will be spared the shared load of preparing the house for visitors.

These days my husband and I do not hold dinners as often as we once did, ten-twenty years ago. Almost every weekend we had friends over for dinner, but in the last several years our socialising at home has dropped off to the occasional dinner with one or two select friends, otherwise we tend to go to restaurants when we want to have a special meal.

I could say I am too lazy, but it is more than that. I am past it, the effort involved. I have never enjoyed cooking as much as I might, though my husband still loves to cook and he cooks well, but even he with his culinary excitement restricts his efforts these days to weekend meals for our immediate family. It is strange how much things change over time, how something that once gave us the greatest of pleasure becomes a burden.

‘Stop blogging about me’, this same daughter says as she walks through my writing room in search of extra glasses for the dinner table. The glass I used last night and left behind in my writing room forms the sixth of a set and she plans to use the lot as ramekins.

It is probably a good thing that blogging did not exist when my children were little for I fear I would be among the first to cover the Internet with words about their antics.

Now that they are self possessed older folk they might well resent the idea that the rest of the world could read about their childhood idiosyncrasies as reported through the loving fingers of their mother.

Which brings me back to that thorny old issue: writing about other people, inside and outside of well placed literary disguise.

Did I tell you? My analyst wrote about me once in a book, an official book called The Geography of Meanings. Find me if you can. I will not identify the chapter because I will thereby identify my analyst. And that is a no no. She has told me she values her privacy.

She and I had something of an altercation many years ago when I wrote a paper on my analytic experience. I did not identify my analyst by name but she was convinced that others would recognise her.

Why not be recognised? I thought at the time. I had identified her lovingly as the analyst who had helped me to come to terms with the paradox of life. My university supervisor, a literary critic, considers that my analyst in this essay reads as another Marion Milner. Milner is the esteemed psychoanalyst, artist and writer, also known as Joanna Field, 'the pioneer of introspective journaling'.

In my analyst's essay in which I feature as a previous 'patient' in three separate locations, she describes me at one point as a ‘he’.

After I had read the essay, I put my perceived identity to the test and asked my husband to read it and see if he could find me. He did so instantly. For my own benefit, I highlighted the sections.

I say I do not mind being written about in this way. Although the descriptions are not flattening – a person who is rigid in her tendency to split between good and bad – I consider it a description of an aspect of me as I once existed, if at all, in our analytic exchanges, not the me who exists now.

I take offense though at the extent to which my analyst took me to task for writing about her. I have since dedicated an essay to the subject.

It seems one way I cope with my difficulties, I write about them, and even as I write about them, I imagine people lining the streets ready to fire bullets at me for writing about myself, about them or those near and dear to them.

We live in an age of self-exposure. We live in an age of the personal revelation. We read memoirs till they pour out of us and think nothing at learning the most intimate details of another person’s life.

Jacqueline Rose writes about the cult of celebrity as a ruthless tendency to take possession of another, to get our celebrities to be perfect and then try desperately to strip them bare.

We revel in their failures. We enjoy any shaming that can take place in the life of a celebrity. Perhaps in this sense, celebrities can be seen to be like parents, the ones we might begin our lives by putting up on pedestals, only to dash them off when we realise they have failed us.

But our parents are too close to us for us to want to share them. Their faults, after all might be seen to belong to us.

You know how it is? You can insult a loved one, but no one else is allowed to do so.

I feel the same tremulous fear in writing about my analyst, whose strength and help I value, and yet here I am speaking of her in public, however non-identified. I point out her hypocrisy in first criticising me for writing about her, and then later writing about me, however much in disguise, and I feel once again the shiver of guilt that comes from 'telling takes out of school'.

But the writer in me, refuses to concede to the moralist in me who tells me to shut up and stop blogging.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

No one was visiting her blog

The title here is the caption on a birthday card my daughter sent to me in November. She found it in a New York bookshop and had to buy it for me, she wrote. 'Though it doesn't look like you', she has the dark look I imagine you have when people don't visit your blog- ha ha!'

Seasons greetings to everyone.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The luck of the draw

My husband let out a heart wrenching cry this morning. I heard it down the corridor. A long loud lament.
‘What’s the matter’ I asked when I found him in his office in front of the computer.
‘The news,’ he said. ‘The news on the asylum seekers, the ones on Christmas Island. It’s unbearable.’

My husband reads the newspapers from top to toe, and then checks up on the ABC news online. I can scarcely bear to read beyond what I hear on the radio when I drive my car. One hundred asylum seekers from Iran in a rough boat crashed up against the rocky cliffs off Christmas Island.

I must not get into a rant on the politicisation of the plight of these people here, still I cannot understand why we are so reluctant to be more welcoming to these desperate people and why the paranoia of terrorism should so dominate the public psyche that people are left to perish on rocks – young men, old men, women, babies, children – because they have to sneak in to this country undetected or else they will be sent back to unknown horrors.

I sometimes wonder how any of us go on living in face of such tragedies, how any of us can continue on our way when disasters like this happen on our shores, not just on our shores but in our neighbourhood. Yet we do.

‘You are too emotional,’ my brother said at our family reunion in Griffith, too easily distressed. I could not believe his words. Can’t he see: I’m not so distressed as he? My distress is on the surface, his is buried deep in his heart and body, caught there in the stent the surgeons put in to open up his artery; caught there in his blood pressure which rises almost visibly whenever he walks through the front door of his office at his work as accountant and panics.

Two members of my family work as accountants. My father was an accountant. My youngest sister and this brother both work as accountants, she with a major bank and he for an air-conditioning form.

When I was young accountancy was a profession of which my family were proud. When the nuns took the first roll call and filled out identifying details at the beginning of each year, she asked each of the class the question ‘What does your father do?’. I was proud to answer, ‘My father is an accountant’.

My father wore suits to work each day, dark suits, white shirts and black shoes. He traveled to the city. But he had wanted to become a chemist my brothers told me, years later. My father had wanted to experiment in chemistry. He wanted to invent things, develop new products. He could not do this in Australia and make a good enough income on which to raise his large family. Accountancy he could study at night. Accountancy was something he could move into little by little and make good money along the way.

So why were we so poor I wondered often when we were little. Why were we so poor, and others who lived in the houses around us in Camberwell and Deepdene, so rich.

Now I think the other way around, despite my anxieties about making ends meet, the fact that I am here and they, those asylum seekers are there, does not shift too easily. The luck of the draw you might say.

My analyst used to talk about the need to make the most of what you have. There are those who are offered a great deal throughout their lives who cannot do much with it and others who receive very little who achieve great things. It is not simply a matter of what you get, it is more about what you do with it.

I went to see a physiotherapist yesterday on the advice of my daughter’s boyfriend’s mother who advised me that my leg will only get back to normal if I work at it. She knows from experience. She broke her ankle some time ago.
‘It took me a year and they did dreadful things to me, but now I can even run again,’ she said.

I cannot run, the best I can get up to is a limping stride, and then it is more like an old lady hobble.

The physio, a young woman with dark hair and a gentle manner plunged me back into memories of my past when I was a social worker in a community care centre and worked alongside the physiotherapists and the occupational therapists and other so-called allied health professionals and doctors to deliver services to the local community.

I was one of them then, but not so now. There is a strange disjuncture between how I feel inside and how I am on the outside. It hits me once more. When I first began work as a social worker, my mother – then around my age now – said to me often,
‘I would not want to see someone your age. You lack experience’. I took offense. How could I ever catch up with her?

When I told the physio I did not understand why it takes so long for my leg to heal given that the surgeon said the bone is now completely healed, but it will take between eight months and a year to come back to normal, she went into a long and detailed physiology lesson about what happens when a bone breaks.

It is not just the bone that needs to heal, all the body’s nearby cousins – the tendons and muscles – need to recover. The blood supply to the area increases to help the process and in so doing contributes to the heat and pressure which cause the swelling that pops up around my ankle at the end of my more strenuous walking days. I must rest then.

We talked in detail about my idiosyncratic experience and the physio felt around my knee joint to get some idea of how matters fare. She dug her tiny fingers into the muscle that runs down the top of my thigh just above the knee joint. She wanted to loosen it, she said.

This muscle is too tight from non-use, and as a consequence, it is not working as hard as it should.

All day long my leg has ached. This is how it should be my daughters say when I complain that the physio has made things worse. This is how it should be when you use muscles that you have not used for some time. They ache.

If I keep using a rolling pin down the length of my thigh to loosen the muscle and if I keep up the exercises the physio has set, in time I will get stronger. In the meantime, my leg aches worse than it did before.

Healing can be a painful process, perhaps that is why I had avoided it. But I cannot avoid the news about the asylum seekers.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Writers are Vampires

Last night I read Jim Murdoch’s wonderful blog post about our 'better halves'. In it he lists a number of writers and the women who are, to use that old expression, ‘the wind beneath their wings’.

Life as the spouse of a writer is a tricky one, especially when both are writers. Jim capped his post off by telling us about his wife of fourteen years, also a writer, Carrie Berry.

Jim and I have communicated long and hard about the nature of the blogosphere and the autobiographical. Jim describes himself as a private man and suddenly there it is: he is telling us something more personal – which he does from time to time – and again, I am enthralled by the vagaries of this space, the blogosphere, in which we reveal so much about ourselves, even as we conceal so much as well.

I met a writer, Lucy Sussex, at LaTrobe last week and we talked about the business of fictionalising people from our lives in order to protect them and us from the sorts of upsets that occur when someone is seen to be portrayed unfairly,when we are forced through the written word to look at ourselves through someone else’s eyes, and we do not like what we see there.

Lucy Sussex describes writers as ‘vampires’. We suck the lifeblood out of people. We feed off others. I shudder to think this may be true.

In an essay ‘On hurting People’s Feelings’ Carolyn Wells Kraus writes about the nature of biography as an act of autobiography. She argues that ‘reducing a person’s story on a page, robs it of complexity’. Non-fiction, she argues ‘sucks the life of a person onto the page’ and distorts that life to the author’s own ends. Characters are slanted in the direction of the author’s obsessions.

‘The real problem,’ Kraus writes ‘is that you’re borrowing the peoples’ identities to tell your own story.’ Kraus quotes at length from her own writing and others to demonstrate the ways in which a writer’s bias influences the description of other characters. And so in telling the stories of others we inevitably tell our own stories.

‘There is no script,’ Kraus argues, ‘only improvisation. We fill in the outlines from the details. All we know of the world as writers is what we see – images, words, scenes. We supply the meaning, and we alter that meaning with every sleight of hand.’

I say of myself as an autobiographer – and I’ve heard this said of other writers, like Helen Garner – to some extent we get away with it because we write about ourselves with ‘unflinching honesty’. Certainly Garner writes the most embarrassing things about herself that some might consider highly self-critical. But I know all too well that we are selective about our self-criticisms when we write.

I will not write in my blog about the things that ‘really’ trouble me, the things of which I feel most ashamed. I might write about things that once caused me to feel shame but over time and often times through the writing itself I have overcome that shame. I will not pass on other shameful secrets that resonate for me here now.

I think of WikiLeaks and the great kafuffle in the world about all this ‘indecent exposure’. We are a puritanical lot, by and large, and full of contradictions. The things we will tolerate as opposed to the things that unsettle us.

I gather here in Australia, Julian Assange is considered something of a hero, a man in search of freedom of speech, a whistle blower extraordinaire; whereas in the US he is considered a dangerous force. Noam Chomsky who spoke on the radio here during the week does not see Assange negatively, but Chomsky reckons a good proportion of Americans do. And yet America is home to freedom of speech.

I doubt that there is such a thing as free speech. We might have the right to speak as we please in certain ‘democratic’ countries, but there are always consequences to whatever we say, and on top of that there are also the necessary restrictions on freedom of speech when the speaking out hurts others, such as in situations of racial vilification and the like. And then, how is there freedom for the writer who uses another person’s experience to colour their story, sometimes unwittingly?

I am working on a chapter in my thesis on shame. Shame links to the desire for revenge, through what Helen Block Lewis has described as ‘humiliation fury’, the fury we feel after we have had our noses rubbed into our vulnerability and are left reeling from the abuse, assaulted, belittled, and shamed.

The anonymity of the Internet might allow us to hide our shame and to hide from our shame, but oftentimes it reinforces the shame for me. The number of times I sit at the keyboard reading back over something I have posted and cringe at what I have put there is equaled only by the shame I feel on behalf of others whom I consider have written too explicitly, and yet I persist in taking off my psychological clothes, revealing these inner thoughts on line, even as I know that there are experiences that look one way to me, but will be read in a different way by others.

Others will critique my perspective in ways I had not anticipated. Again, I cringe at my own willingness to expose myself in this way and yet without the autobiographical how can we learn about ourselves through other people’s internal worlds, however constructed they may be.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

It's tough being human

The Zen master, Katagiri Roshi speaks throughout Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones. His presence makes me doubt the writer. She quotes him in and out.

Just as I read Roshi's name for about the fifth time half way through the book, I stop to do a Google search. Who is this man? Is he for real?

He is real of course, albeit dead. He died in 1990 at the less than ripe old age of sixth two and Natalie Goldberg could not believe it when he died.

Reading through some of her thoughts at his death, I find myself thinking about my own obsession with psychoanalysis. Goldberg is into Buddhism and shows total love and devotion to her Buddhist master. For him, she will do anything.

She will sit for hours chanting, bare feet on cold floorboards. For days, she will get up early, at 4.30am then work at prayer and reflection all day, with only a short lunch break until 10.30pm, all in the name of Buddhism - the serenity, the inner peace and calm that Buddhism offers.

I read the story and shudder, and then think twice about my own preparedness to do extraordinary things in the name of my obsession, psychoanalysis. To travel daily for years for my fifty minute session twenty plus kilometers from home and back at great expense.

I did this because I believed it was good for me. I believe it has been good for me, but at the same time, I wonder whether it might have been better for me had I not become so enthralled with the process, had I not fallen so helplessly in love with my analyst for all those years.

The Google site describes how Natalie Goldberg later felt betrayed by her father and her teacher Katagiri Roshi for being human. Roshi, Goldberg later discovered had breached boundaries with another student.

The child in us wants to believe we have perfect parents, or substitutes for them in other forms - religion, Buddhism, psychoanalysis - only to discover later, that our parents are flawed, as are we by association.

Idealisation shifts to denigration all too easily if we are not careful.

Ah but the comfort of these '-isms' is alluring when it's so tough being human.