Saturday, December 31, 2011

Goodbye Christmas

When the rain came crashing down on Christmas afternoon, gate crashing Christmas, we all scurried indoors taking with us the perishables, the things that could not stand a downpour, including the flowers that stood in a line in small bottles in the middle of the table.

We took in the last of the corn bread, the butter the open wine bottles the condiments but left out half empty wine glasses, the water pitchers, serviettes and the rest.

I visited my mother on Christmas day night and drove through more storms, scary in places where I had to slow down to sixty kilometres an hour in otherwise one hundred kilometre zones for fear of what might happen, but I got there, sobolened my mother’s legs and wished her a happy Christmas.

My mother was surprised that I had come thinking the storms would keep me away but I had been determined to get there after our Christmas day visitors, family and friends had gone.

I had done a basic clean up before I left to see my mother but could not get outside to do the outdoor table for the rain. I planned to leave it to the next day. But after I arrived home from my mother’s the rain had stopped, for a while at least, and I took out an empty tray determined to do as much as I could then and there.

I loaded the tray which I had set at one end of the table with glasses, a plate and a bowl, and the left over knives and forks. Before I took the tray inside I began to tip over the outdoor chairs which were filled with puddles and twigs and leaves and the like.

I did not see it coming. The chair closest to the head of the table had supported the tray on which I had placed all the glasses. I whipped it out and watched as the tray turned over and crashed onto the bricks.

It did not have far to fall but the result was spectacular, shattered glass spread over the bricks and into the flower beds nearby.

There was nothing to do for it, no one to whom I might complain. The rest of my tribe were sleeping, collapsed after Christmas festivities or out visiting friends, and so I cleaned it all up then and there. The dust pan soon became mud covered through the cracks between the bricks. Glass splinters everywhere.

It seemed a strange ending to Christmas and as I cleaned I wondered whether at the moment of the crash someone somewhere had died and someone somewhere else had been born. The crash had to mark something I thought. It could not be so random as to mean nothing.

This chook, a Christmas present from one daughter to my husband, looked on unblinking. It is made of metal and did not feel a thing.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The rebel in me

I pulled a muscle this morning somewhere near my heart and my left eye lid is twitching in that awful involuntary way, the way it does when I am over wrought.

Let me not complain too loudly of exhaustion, let me instead remark on a headline I read a couple of days ago. I did not have time or make time to read the article but the headline rang out to me in words to the effect, 'Why Christmas should only happen in winter', as if Christmas in the southern hemisphere in the heat and humidity is an aberration, at least that is how I read it.

A christmas tradition in our house, last years Christmas prawns on the barbeque:

The journalist may have written tongue in cheek but it annoyed me nevertheless.

Christmas is a human construction that began way back, presumably celebrated in places where it is cold in December and yet the nativity setting in Bethlehem has never struck me as particularly cold, at least not by day.

I cannot help myself, I keep rehearsing the days after Christmas, the days when I can settle into a constructive use of my time. Clean out my writing room and the spare room, sort out my tax for the year. Clear the decks in order to leave a space for writing.

For the past couple of weeks all eyes are directed towards Christmas and then in a blink it’s over for another year. Even now I feel pressure to go through the ritual of wishing everyone a happy Christmas, seasons greetings and all of those obligatory gestures, and yet inside something rails against this.

It’s not that I dislike Christmas. It’s not that I do not share in the customs. It’s more the sameness of it all, and yet it’s the sameness, the fact that most of us are busily launching ourselves into a state of frenzy in readiness for Christmas day that makes me want to rebel.

I have known people who refuse to participate. I imagine myself as one of them. I imagine myself into what it might be like during those several hours on Christmas day when the world, at least here in my part of suburban Melbourne, seems to come to a sort of standstill, especially throughout the prolonged lunch when people gather together every ten houses or so with others from their respective clans or friendship groups to celebrate in traditional and non-traditional ways. Here in Australia to be traditional - turkey plum pudding and the like - is to go against the temperature which begs for salads and cold cuts, but everyone, or nearly everyone is at it.

In my imagination I’m one of those who avoids Christmas, whether by choice or circumstance or through something imposed by others. What must it be like?

I wander through the streets alone, aimless. The shops are shut as if it were midnight. Even the twenty-four-hours-a-day supermarkets are closed. There's only a skeleton staff at hospitals and in places where systems must keep on grinding in spite of Christmas cheer.

It offers an odd pleasure this opportunity to stand outside and look in, bitter sweet in some ways, for as much as in my imagination I miss out on the joys of Christmas and there are many, I am also spared the horrors, the tensions, the conflict.

Despite the journalist’s quip that Christmas should only happen in winter, Christmas happens in spite of the physical world in which we live and it will go on or not according to the dictates of people, not the weather.

And in spite of the rebel in me, I wish you all the best of the season, including a happy Christmas, if that feels right for you.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A tear shaped bauble

My older brother untangles my hair with a comb circa 1962.

And then there was the day my father pulled down the Christmas tree. He was drunk as usual and in a fit of rage had ripped the tree out of its pot and threw it to the ground.

A tear shaped bauble, with its silver sprinkles encased in a gold centre, shattered on the carpet. Three other baubles broke in the fall that day, but it was this tear shaped beauty that mattered most to me.

My parents had brought it with them all the way from Holland. My mother had wrapped it in newspaper and cushioned it in a cardboard box alongside half a dozen other baubles, decorations that went back to the early days of their marriage.

These baubles had lasted at least another twenty years until now. I took care not to let the splinters catch on my skin.

This was the Christmas I remember when I could no longer hold to the idea that Christmas was special.

I suspect it happens for most of us in one way or another. There comes a time when our childhood pleasure at the excitement of events such as Christmas, and it need not be Christmas - it could be a birthday or some other celebration - somehow loses its lustre.

I read about Christopher Hitchen’s death on line yesterday and watched an interview conducted in 2010, some time after his diagnosis with oesophageal cancer.

Hitchen's hair was wispy thin across an otherwise bald head and his face had the puffy look of too much medication. But his eyes were sharp and his voice focussed. He talked about the fact of his dying and debated the notion of an after life. The notion of uncertainty.

I often rehearse my own death. What will it be like? assuming I get to know before hand that I am dying. Will I be like Christopher Hitchens, thoughtful and resigned, or will I panic?

These days I think more and more about the limitations of time, and the struggle I have to make the most of it. Make the most of it, I tell myself. Do not waste it.

I have this thing about waste at the moment. I cannot bear to waste anything, food, money, opportunities.

The other day I noticed a hat in the spare room, a short rimmed panama hat. The type that was fashionable for men and woman a couple of years ago. One of my daughters had desperately wanted this hat for Christmas and although it was expensive I had conceded in buying it for her, as it was Christmas.

I cringe when I realise I have not seen her wear this hat, not once. This is not to say she has never worn it. She may have worn it at times outside of my viewing, but it could not have been often. A brand new scarcely worn hat that now sits unused in the spare room and I ache all over again.

I hate to become one of those dreadful whingers but in recent weeks I have become just that.

My husband went off to the country this morning to buy the special Christmas hams he so enjoys at this time of year and I urged him not to buy too much. Last year we threw out left over ham because we had ordered too much and could not eat it all before it went off.

Christmas tends to be a time of excess in so many ways and for some reason this year I want to draw a line on the excess.

A cranky old woman, my daughters say, and perhaps they are right. A cranky old woman who suddenly recognises the passage of time, the finite nature of resources and she wants to scream, let's slow down.

Before the day my father pulled down the Christmas tree I thought of this time as a time of plenty. Every year since I have needed to balance the tension between my desire to celebrate and my need to hold back, to slow down, to resist the consumerist demands and at the same time, to join in the fun.

I am especially glad for my grandchildren, this year. They remind me of how simply delightful it can be to celebrate life, in generosity and good will. But behind the scenes for me there is still the spectre of the smashed and shattered bauble of my experience.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Have you no shame?

Yesterday afternoon one of my daughters dragged inside a potted olive tree from the back yard. We brushed it down to release the spiders and their cobwebs, and then rested the tree on a tray in the living room. This way we can keep watering it during the tree's enforced imprisonment inside over the next few weeks.

My daughter has since decorated it with a few Christmas baubles, not too many or the tree begins to look ugly, at least in my daughter’s view.

A minimalist olive tree to represent the flavour of Christmas.

Is it a feature of aging that I become more and more jaded each year by the demands of Christmas, the demands to celebrate, the demands to buy, the demands to close up the year with good will, when my emotional bucket is almost full?

I could see the same exhaustion in my mother’s eyes when I was young, whenever Christmas came around, that same sense of 'how will I ever keep up with the demands?' And yet my mother relished Christmas more than me, I suspect. She still does.

I must be stressed. The rash has come back, not as vehemently as last time during my holiday in the Grampians in September this year but I can see the raised bumps under the surface of my skin and I am beginning to itch again.

At least this time I have a solution in the form of a quick hit with cortisone and then slowly wean myself off the stuff, but if this rash should come back a third time then I suspect a visit to another doctor might be in order.

The trouble with writing autobiographically, one of the troubles at least, is that it can evoke shame. I start with a thought, but all too soon the inner voices say: Now hold on, wait a bit, what will so and so think about that? How will your daughters read this? And what about those others in your life who might reflect differently on what you write here.

Have you no shame?

I wrote a few words for an online colloquium on psychotherapy recently. ‘I hate to be abandoned,' the words popped into my head and down onto the page. I qualified them with more thoughtful and erudite comments about the nature of our universal fears of abandonment from infancy onwards and then sent them off.

All night long I cursed myself. I tossed and turned. I could not sleep for shame, for fear that certain of my colleagues, most of whom I do not know and will never know – it’s an international colloquium, rather like the blogosphere but seemingly with more at stake, professional reputations and the like – for fear of what others might think of this clearly dysfunctional human being.

Even as I believe others feel this way too.

Why do you do it? I asked myself and then answered my question. To stir things up. All those stuffy voices spouting theory.

Why can’t we write as human beings? Why can’t we write life as we experience it? Why must we always cover up our insecurities in abstract words that protect us and others from the rawness of it all?

‘You can’t say that,’ someone will say. ‘You can’t write that.' Recently I read a review in which Andrew Reimer talked about Joan Didion’s book, Blue Nights , a memoir on the death of her daughter.

I’ve yet to read Didion’s book but it’s next on my agenda. I look forward to it, especially after reading her gut wrenching The Year of Magical Thinking.

I want my gut to be wrenched apart by such honest and breathtaking writing, but Reimer reckons that such writing should not happen. He has ethical misgivings. 'The thought of her buffing and polishing these self-conscious works of literary art for public consumption, for us the readers or perhaps voyeurs, troubles me,' Reimer writes.

I do not share the man’s reasoning. Why ever not write about our grief?
Or does it make him feel ashamed on Didion’s behalf. The way our children might feel when we embarrass them in public or vice versa, when they embarrass us.

At the same time I suspect the tension inside between the wish to write and the fear that our imagined audience will disapprove might facilitate the writing. It's rather like the way in which our optimal anxiety before giving a talk enables us to present our talk in a lively and engaging way.

Oh, but it makes me feel sick in my stomach every time I worry about my imagined audience when the fog of shame descends.

All I want to do is to run away and hide, and a Christmas olive tree is too spindly and light of leaves to offer much by way of camouflage.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Guilt like a dead fish

My mother takes Nulax for her bowels. She keeps the Nulax on top of her fridge. A rectangular lump of compacted dried fruit that tastes like jam but is barely chewable.

‘I cannot think you need to take it,’ my mother says to me.
‘You are young. Your bowels are good. But mine, mine are stuck.’

Years later a kinesiologist looks into my eyes. His bright light beams and blinds me. ‘You have an excellent immune system,’ he says, ‘ but your bowels are sluggish.’

My mother again, I think. She always manages to get in somehow, inside my system. She slows me down.

How can I purge myself of this woman of the slow bowels and the turgid constitution?

There was a time when I was about fourteen when I decided to join the ranks of all those women who sat around at morning tea and talked about what went into their bodies and what they might do about getting it out.

My grandmother died of cancer, not of the bowel, as you might imagine, but of the stomach. Something got inside her, too, something she could never be rid of.

All the Nulax in the world could not relieve her of her guilt.

Guilt sat in her gut like a dead fish. It stank out her insides and eventually ate away at them until she died.

At seven I was formally introduced to the concept of guilt when I made my first Holy Communion.

And then when I was fourteen I, too, decided I needed to do something with it.

Each day I chewed a wad from the Nulax pack. The fig seeds stuck between my teeth. The apricot pith coated my tongue.

I chewed to moisten, but to swallow the stuff was like swallowing a cow.

I could not get rid of my guilt.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The human heart in conflict with itself

There is a corner in my study which reminds me of Africa. Perhaps it is the mock African mask one of my daughters made when she was young. She took a plaster cast of her face and attached sparkles and feathers.

My bookcase, too. From time to time I look at it. My books are like disassembled islands from across the world. There in the top left hand corner I have collected my dictionaries, the French, the German, the Latin and Dutch. The words in these books take me elsewhere.

When I wake in the morning and look out through my window I see into the side of an English country garden. The roses over the side fence cascade down to the overgrown arum lilies that populate my garden beds.

The rug in my writing room is Turkish, not an authentic artefact, an imitation, a copy. I could not bear to have an original in my room. All that expense, but I duplicate the image. All those gnarled fingers weaving threads through looms to create symbols of their culture.

I have a book in my bookshelf, bought at half price from a second hand booksellers, Honour the Shadow. It tells the story of death in photographs. Dead bodies dressed up as though still alive.

When I look at the photo of my mother’s dead baby, I see her white skin, her dark hair, the line of her eyelashes over her cheeks like the fringe of a shawl, almost moving but still.

She is there, this dead baby sister, in my album, along my bookshelf and whenever I see her image afresh I travel once more in my mind to her grave in Heilo in Holland. They buried here there in this tiny village where she died at five months of age, far from home. The war, no food. My mother travelled on foot to the outlying towns to get milk but she was too late.

Why not me? Why not the rest of us, her babies? Why not now?
Endless questions I write as I travel through the rooms of my house on my journey of exploration through the world of my memory and imagination.

Forgive me. I am not geographically bounded. I slip from one country to another. In the kitchen I travel to Mexico in my cookbooks and to South America. China is my Buddha and the lucky money chain that hangs above the glass cabinet. I bought it in Warburton and hung it there ten years ago . I touch the red webbing that forms the lanyard holding it in place and wish for luck, luck and wealth and prosperity.

We keep a stone Ganesha on the mantel piece for the same reason. A gift from a friend who travels through Asia, he bought the elephant god to encourage success. I stroke the sandstone back of this statue in honour of my journey, and for luck.

Luck is everywhere. It lies in the droppings of a small bird that lands on you by accident. Did you know that? A piece of bird mess is an auspicious sign. A misfortune that becomes a sign of success. Of all the places in the world, of all the people in the world on which the bird might leave its trace, it choses you. You are the chosen one.

You are such a Pollyanna, always playing the glad game. But I do not know who I am. I will not know until I die when I will become a finality. All will be concluded then and I can get to the end of my journeying.

They say as you get older you become less acquisitive. You give things away. My friends talk of getting rid of their books. Books take up too much space. Besides you can read them online, keep them on memory sticks, on e-books. No need for all that paper.

But I am not ready to give up my books yet.

The jigsaw puzzle of my world the world through which I travel in my mind is fractured, lop sided, in pieces. I cannot hold a thought together. The smell of musk that rises through the cracked paint work in my house calls forth the ghosts of another time, of other times, other journeys. And mine becomes ‘the human heart in conflict with itself’, on journeys too open ended to frame.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Can't you see the connection?

Torrential rain this morning, like a woman who cannot stop sobbing. My eyes are tired from the wakefulness of being on the alert till 3.30 am for the return of my youngest daughter who has finally finished her exams and spent the night on the town.

Now she is eighteen, now she is an adult, I must relinquish my authority over her. I can urge, cajole and encourage but I can no longer insist.

I have no more children now, my children are all adults. Not that they are in many ways in any less in need of my attention.

All week long I have wanted to write the story of my most recent visit to my mother. It comes to me now but I fear I cannot do justice to my sense of it, however hard I try.

These days my conversations with my mother have a repetitive feel. We have established a rhythm to my visits. On either a Saturday or a Sunday evening, I arrive just as she is finishing her dinner in the dining room. My mother sits at a table with another four women. They nod and smile at me when I walk in. They see me first.

My mother sits with her back to me and I tap on her shoulder so as not to startle her. Then I collect her walker from the car yard of other walkers lined up along the dining room walls and we make our way back to her room along the winding corridor with its burgundy and gold carpet.

My mother tries to keep up with me even as I slow my steps and tell her not to rush. At the last curve of the corridor before her room she takes the key from her pocket and hands it to me. I turn the lock and let us in. My mother flops onto her chair and sighs with the relief of one who is finally safe at home.

My mother loves this room she tells me again and again. She loves the roses which now cover every wall in the outside courtyard. She loves the way the sun rises over the raised garden beds. She loves the way this small courtyard has become her entrance to and escape from the outside world.

When she is settled I go through the ritual of rubbing sorbolene cream into my mother’s legs and as I spread the smooth white stuff up and down her calves and into her toes, we chat, usually about family. She asks me yet again about my youngest daughter. Is she in her final year at school? The same question every week. She asks after her great grandchildren and wants me to remind her of their names yet again, and of how old they are.

Last Sunday after putting her slippers back onto her feet and removing the last traces of sorbolene from my hands I sat back on the couch to finish my cup of coffee, another ritual of my visits.

The conversation shifted onto one of my brothers, the one who will not speak to my mother any more. He does not want to see her. He is too angry. My mother still speaks to his wife on the phone. They had talked only that morning.

‘He goes just like his father’, my mother said, by which I understand that my brother too has a drinking problem. Just like his father.
‘I don’t understand why they go like this,’ my mother said.
‘Wasn’t he the baby born after the one you lost?' I asked.

I tried then to explain to my mother the notion that it can sometimes be difficult for children who are born after a dead baby. No matter how well intentioned their mothers might be, the mother who still grieves for her lost baby while carrying a live baby in her arms can sometimes convey some of that grief to the new baby, who has a hard time making sense of his mother’s emotional tone.

I did not want to give my mother a potted version of the psychology of replacement babies but I wanted to suggest to her that my brother, who is deeply troubled, is troubled not for simple reasons like imitating his father. Some of his difficulties might stem from his relationship with his mother. Not to blame her, but to encourage some empathy and understanding.

The conversation then slipped from my live brother to my dead sister, the one who died at five months of age during the Hunger winter of 1945.

‘I could not believe she was dead,’ my mother said. ‘I ran to my neighbours. I could not believe it and even later when I walked all the way back home to Haarlem with an empty pram, I could not believe she was gone.’ My mother folded her hands in her lap.

'But I did not have it so bad,’ she said. ‘There were others much worse off than me.’

My mother was on a roll and I did not want to interrupt the flow of her words.

‘There was a fourteen year old girl in our parish. Her father had made her pregnant. Can you imagine? Horrible. He had run off. He had run off because it was against the law. That poor girl. I thought of her and what happened to me seemed not so bad.’

My mother’s eyes stared ahead into space as if she were scrolling through a movie of her memories. I said nothing, but pennies were dropping.

‘I thought too about that girl’s mother,' my mother said. How could that mother live with herself?’

My mother asked this question but she did not seem to want an answer, or even a response.

I sat there dumbfounded, with one thought only:

That mother is you. That mother about whom you wonder is you. And that fourteen year old is your other daughter.

Can’t you see the connection?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

What did I forget?

I tried to spilt one cortisone tablet into two this morning in order to take in a reduced dosage but the tablet crushed into tiny pieces. I trust it’s not a omen, a bad omen for the day ahead.

The day ahead makes me breathless, so much to do that even now settling down to write seems excessive. I have no time. I must clean out the kitchen in readiness for my third daughter’s birthday party tomorrow. I must wrap presents in readiness for my youngest daughter’s birthday dinner tonight.

Two daughters turn significant ages in the space of a week, one an eighteen year old at the end of her school life, the other a twenty five year old about to be admitted to practice as a lawyer. Both girls bright and capable, both eager to celebrate and be celebrated and only last week it was my turn.

Birthdays roll along. They are such indicators of the passage of time.

Foul tasting stuff cortisone. I just swallowed the crushed cortisone tablet and had to wash it down with a great gulp of tea and even now the bitter taste lingers at the back of my tongue. It’s hard to be rid of it.

Every so often I think about my thesis and whether someone is reading it and what they might think of it. Whether someone is rolling their eyes in disgust or whether someone else is getting pleasure out of it.

It’s a strange waiting time, not so bad at the moment because it is early in the wait. I imagine in a month or two or maybe more I will start to get anxious with the thought that any day now I will hear the news. But from here it seems too far away.

The sun streams into my writing room so fiercely that I can barely see the screen. Dust motes collect on the glass and even as I wipe them away new ones take their place.

When I am unsettled like this, when the lure of activity comes over me like a rash, all I want to do is get up and about and do all the jobs I have listed in my mind. I do not want to sit here at the computer typing words onto a screen. I do not want to engage with my thoughts. I am on the run, a cortisone induced run perhaps, though I think that may be fanciful.

I have kept the dosage to a minimum merely trying to avoid a recurrence of the dreadful rash that overtook me several weeks ago and appeared to be making a return only a few days ago.

It seems to have settled again as I wean myself off the cortisone.

You need to reduce the dose of cortisone gradually the doctor told me, in order to trick your body into believing that it needs to start producing its own again, otherwise it might shut up shop believing the rush will come from elsewhere.

That’s very much a layman’s way of describing a physiological process and the ways in which the introduction of chemicals can fool your body into believing it need not do its own work.

The phone rings and it’s my mother. Her accent thick over the line.
‘I want to talk to you,’ she says. She sounds breathless. ‘What did I forget? Oh yes, I think I forgot your birthday. I’m sorry. I forget everything.’
‘That’s okay,’ I say. ‘Don’t worry.’
‘You’re so good to me and then I forget your birthday.’
I try again to reassure my mother, to let her know I understand. ‘It’s hard to remember one day from the next.’
‘I’m alright,’ my mother says but her voice sounds broken. It’s just that it comes back to me all of a sudden.’
The conversation ends here after I promise to visit the next day.
‘You’re busy, I know’ my mother says. Now it’s her turn to understand.

My mother when she was beginning to develop a memory circa 1919.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

A reminder of mortality

Only recently have I come to understand why in the Middle Ages, men - for it was then only men who wrote or transcribed books - kept a skull on the top of their desks.

It was a reminder of mortality.

This film reminds me of a state almost worse than mortality, a mind filled with holes. A body that functions without the assistance of a mind. A person devoid of memory.

I tried not to concern myself with the fact that my mother did not remember my birthday for the first time in my life.

She remembers many other things, including the identities of all her children, even if she now forgets our birthdays. I'm grateful for that.

Here is a happy birthday image, grandmother and grandson, taken on the day of my birthday to offset some of the pain of the following video clip, Julia.

To see this video, click on the Julia1926 website, wait a few seconds to download and continue to click each time you want to move on.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

To hell with sugar

Today is my birthday. I bought myself a new variety of yoghurt to start the day in a special way and it tastes too much like the yoghurt I do not like, thick and bitter, too authentic perhaps.

And so I will abandon my birthday yoghurt for the tried and true variety, good old Ski yoghurt, which one of my daughters insists is a bad choice because it has more sugar than other brands.

To hell with the sugar. I know what I like, and I suppose I can add, I like what I know.

I’m feeling narky this morning, which does not surprise me. Given my view that birthdays are special days, the only days on which you are entitled to matter, birthdays are also days of intense sensitivity.

I’m good at celebrating other people’s birthdays, but not so good at my own. I’m not as bad as one of my brothers who shuns almost all reference to his birthday and expects his kids to be likewise disinterested.

I figure if you make a fuss of your children’s birthdays, which we tend to do, then you have to allow them to make a fuss of yours.

To me birthdays have a quality of Christmas to the birthday person, Christmas or whatever other special religious event that marks a day when everyone is to be treated well.

Such days tend to raise our expectations. On ordinary days, on days other than our birthdays or Christmas, and I should speak for myself here, on my birthday, my expectations are heightened. I want it to be an especially good day.

Take my decision to spend extra money on this classy pot of yoghurt as a birthday treat and lo and behold it’s a disappointment. On an ordinary day I couldn’t care less, but on my birthday it’s not supposed to happen. It’s supposed to taste good and it does not.

It’s mango flavoured but I can’t find the mango. It has lumpy bits and I see now from the label that it was best eaten before yesterday.

See how narky I am. Nothing feels right and it’s not even nine o’clock on a Saturday morning.

Birthdays fuel narcissism. I must get off this topic and look to loftier thoughts, like the essay I’ve been working on about voyeurism and exhibitionism. It might be good to reflect here on what I’ve been trying to say.

An image here, as a diversion or distraction, one that relates to my theme, though at a tangent: a photo taken by my son-in-law in Berlin, it shows the back of my husband in an art gallery - a centre for creative voyeurism and exhibitionism - gazing at Elvis as a cowboy.

I consider blogging to be a somewhat voyeuristic and exhibitionistic act. The blogger exhibits herself, her wares, her work, her ideas and the reader becomes the voyeur.

These are not unusual occurrences in everyday life. Why attach such lofty and clinical sounding words as voyeurism and exhibitionism to such activities? What makes them different from the simple act of show and tell which we learn from our earliest days even at kindergarten?

One of my academic heroes, Paul John Eakin, uses the show and tell example, how we learn to tell our stories in childhood, as the beginnings of the autobiographical impulse.

From earliest days we learn to give an account of ourselves. ' My name is Mary and I live in Balwyn with my mother and my three brothers, and our cat and dog...' 'My name's John and I live on a boat with my Dad...' There are of course multiple variations on the theme of who I am.

As we get older our stories develop in sophistication. We learn to get to the point quickly. We learn all sorts of techniques: how to hold back information to create tension, how to provide just the right amount of contextual material to add to the richness of our story, how to give a beginning, a middle and an end. We learn to present ourselves to the world and no one would call this exhibitionism.

So what makes the difference?

I think of the peeping Tom of my childhood, the man who looked in through my window one night after I had crawled into bed. I saw him there peering through the glass. I saw his face, an orb of white in the darkness, and I looked to his eyes but his eyes did not look into mine.

As soon as he had disappeared I bolted to the lounge room to tell my mother. My father was away with his work. My brothers ran down the lane way at the back of our house imagining that they were chasing a peeping Tom. They did not catch him.

To this day I do not know whether the man existed in reality or whether I had imagined him there. But I can still see his face in my memory, the white staring face of a man peering inside, keen to take something in with his eyes. Keen to look.

Voyeurism in psychoanalytic terms has something to do with a desire to get some sort of sexual pleasure without having to do the work of relationship, the scopophilic impulse, and then the exhibition side might be the thrill of tantalising another, using one’s own body to shock and disturb.

Think of the flasher here, the proverbial man in his trench coat on a dark night who waits for unsuspecting passers by, women usually, to flash his penis at them as if to say, here now look at this, see what I’ve got. And the women are meant to quake and shake.

Why is it that of these impulses to show off, these impulses to stare at, some are viewed as creative gestures and others as perversions? Perhaps it’s about degree, though motivation must surely come into it as well.

Why do we exhibit ourselves or peel open the pages of pornographic magazines?

When I was little I trawled through the pages of the art books my father kept at the top of his bookshelf. The sight of naked men and women thrilled me to such an extent that I felt I had to hide this activity from everyone. I stuffed the art book down my jumper and sneaked into my bed room. I pulled the blanket over my head and looked at the pictures by the light of a torch or through a chink in the blankets that let in the light of day.

I felt wicked, wicked beyond belief, both for doing this and, more particularly, for the way it made me feel. All hot and excited inside. The rape of Lucrece was my favourite, the naked woman dragged off a white horse by some man.

In those days I do not think I even knew the meaning of the word rape, but it sounded sexual and the thrill was there.

It disturbs me now to write about these things. My curiosity then, my curiosity now. No wonder these issues get under my skin. These unresolved questions from my childhood and beyond.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011


My mouth full of toothpaste, I look into the mirror, at my white pasted lips. The lips of the dead. There is one last job to do before bed. I check the email and there: his words on the machine: cold words, empty words, sterile without feeling.
‘Message received loud and clear,’ I want to write back. Press the return button, send my response, the same empty words, toxic in their simplicity.
But no, I think no. I consider. No, I say to myself, as I sit staring at the screen, wondering over and again, how can I undo this? There must be something more.
If I do not respond there will be another message and then I can explain myself. Ask him to explain himself. Then all will be revealed.
But silence is powerful, I tell myself. Silence will leave him guessing. My silence will ricochet back over him, echoing the hollow sound of rejection in his ears. And he will be left wondering, too.
Did she get the message?
Did she see the words?
On the machine?
Or are they lost?
In the ether?
Floating somewhere?

I can see his head in front of me. It stands high above the headrest five rows in front. He has been to the barber recently and his neck has the clean shaved look of new mown grass. I can see the line where his hair follicles and pink skin meet, a line in the sand. This is the distance I intend to keep between us.
He has not seen me. Of that I am sure. When he came onto the bus two or three stops after mine I had my own head stuck in my book, he would not have noticed me. I only noticed him by chance when I looked up from the pages and saw the back of his head, taller than the rest, and I knew at once, it must be him.
Why would I want to speak to him now, this man who has been so cruel? To give him credit he may not realise it, but he should, and given that he does not realise, then I do not want to speak to him again. I do not want us to walk side-by-side or to sit any closer than we are now, with five rows of seats and people between us.
I do not forgive easily. Why should I? Forgiveness demands something of the one who has caused you pain.
He does not even realise why I chose to sever connections. He severed them first, only he would not see it that way. He prefers a cosy distance or some movement closer from time to time, but always under his control. He makes up the rules, while I have to obey them. And they change. Let me tell you, those rules change, faster than I can keep up with. But I have had enough.
He blows his nose into his hanky. His head moves up and down like a rooster’s head, the tuft of his hair a cockscomb. Then I remember the feel of his hand around my waist, his fingers brush against my cheek, and I am left in a welter of desire all over again. But I must resist the pull.

I went out once with an electrician by the name of Kevin. Kevin was a good-looking young man with sandy coloured hair and a bright smile on his innocent face. A good Catholic lad, his parents had brought him up well: Mass on Sundays, observe the holy days and the sacraments, don’t eat meat on Good Fridays. But Kevin, like all the boys I met in those days, despite, his pious upbringing, was as corruptible as the next.
I fancied myself in those days as a femme fatale. Beware any man who came under my spell. I would ensnare him, draw him into my lair, steal his virginity from him, lure an erection from his otherwise limp body, and force him into a penetrating relationship he could not resist, until finally I would dump him.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Shift happens, or does it?

When I was a girl, my younger sister was a rebel. The third one of us girls to go to our convent school and following in the footsteps of two older goodie-two-shoes sisters, she might have thought it the only way to assert herself.

Every Friday afternoon the head nun wrote a list of Marks beside the names of certain girls on the main blackboard outside the concert hall. Marks gained, black marks given, against a girl’s name for things like application – when you failed to hand in homework; punctuality – if you were late for class; order – if you were messy in your work or dress; and finally, deportment – for rudeness. Deportment was the big no-no.

At the beginning of each week, each girl was given an imaginary shield. A shield consisted of ten points. The idea was to keep your shield for as long as possible. It was rather like the demerit system of points against a driver who breaks the road rules.

Here in Melbourne we can only lose ten points, I think, before we lose our driving licence, three points for speeding, three for driving while using a mobile phone, a certain number for not wearing a seat belt and so on.

At my school we lost one point each for punctuality, application or order, but five points for deportment. In my year nine class one girl once swore at a teacher and she lost her shield instantly. Double marks for deportment.

This particular year, the year my sister was in year nine, she and a girlfriend changed the wording on the black board from ‘Marks’ to ‘Remarks’.

Not such a heinous act I’d say. Even at the time, even in my most self righteous do-gooding days, I did not think it such a terrible crime, but the nuns did, at least the head nun did and once my sister and her friend were discovered as the culprits – you could not hide much in our small school – they were publicly shamed.

They lost their shields, double deportment plus the points they had already accrued for application and order.

This brings me to today.

These are the last days of my youngest daughter’s education. In Melbourne, we have a ritual called 'muck up day', the final day of school, a rite of passage.

Most schools celebrate in this way. The school leavers love it, the teachers shudder. A day when the year twelves, the school leavers run riot across the school. They throw flour, water bombs and put up banners, streamers, balloons. A celebration. They dress up and occasionally harass the younger students, but there are strict limits around such activities.

Schools tend to come down heavily on students who deface buildings, damage property or hurt people. Egg throwing at innocent passers-by in the streets before or after school is discouraged, though it still happens.

At my daughter’s school the girls are told to leave their blazers at home during the final week as a protection against excess laundry bills. The egg throwers are generally thought to be from other schools, not ours, no never. You see signs of smashed eggs on the footpaths and against buildings from time to time during this tumultuous time.

Muck up is the ritual that stands between the completion of their final school year and their exams which are yet to come, and between their so-called freedom after thirteen or fourteen years of school before they enter the next phase.

At my daughter’s school the teachers are fairly vigilant. They clamp down on any activity other than tame projects like dressing up, with threats that if the girls muck up badly they won’t be able to sit their exams at school. They will have to sit them at the dreaded Show Grounds.

Our girls dressed up for a Harry Potter day and divided the entire school into houses and then gave the younger students lollies. In my daughter’s view they were gentle but there have been years, one I remember from an older daughter's time, when each student walking in at the gate was told to hand over one of her shoes.

You can imagine by mid morning the pile of shoes, hundreds of identical shoes, except for size and condition, in the middle of the quadrangle. The hours spent retrieving individual shoes, many of them unnamed. But it was essentially harmless.

This year at Presentation night the week before last, the principle gave a talk on advances in technology, among other things. She told us about social networking and about the way the world has changed for our children. How different it is today and how it will continue to change in unprecedented ways.

She put up a youtube clip entitled ‘Shift happens’. You may have heard of it. A fascinating journey through societal and technological progress over recent years. Our principle had adapted the clip to reflect her concerns

At the words ‘shift happens’ the audience tittered. The principle seemed to give no sign of recognition. Needless to say, ‘shift happens’ is a play on the expression, ‘shit happens’.

This was on the Thursday night. The day before, two girls, allegedly on their own account, had spread yoghurt and sticky stuff around the toilets.

The ‘shit hit the fan’ and the year twelves were told their final year activities could not go ahead. In the end the principle modified her threat to a warning of behave or else...

On the morning of that final day, sometime over the weekend, though it might have happened on the Monday morning itself, someone, some unknown person or persons wrote the words ‘shit happens’ in bold graffiti paint on the windows of the concert hall. The words were as high as a person.

No one discovered the sign until the whole school was due to assemble for the year twelves’ final presentation to the entire school, which traditionally is a comedy presentation for the benefit of all year levels and is followed at 11.30 am by the Leavers Service where year twelves are each offered a testimonial and parents are also invited.

The principle when she discovered the graffiti hit the roof and threatened to cancel the morning. The girls were hysterical and rang their parents.

Staff managed to clean the windows, 'with strong chemicals', the principle said, though my husband reckons they probably only needed Windex. In any case, no damage was done except that of wounded pride, chiefly the principle’s pride. She saw the graffiti as a personal attack.

The point of this long ramble is the degree to which a few words out of place, my sister’s 'remarks' all those years ago, certain unknown persons' message that 'shit happens' can give rise to hysteria that borders on the stuff of wars.

Why are we so sensitive to the written word. And really, over fifty years, has that much changed?

Friday, October 21, 2011

My heart was in the right place

When I was young in my early twenties and first began to work in my then chosen career as a social worker, I resented my youthful appearance. I wanted to look older so that people might take me seriously.

‘I would never go to see someone as young as you,’ my mother said repeatedly. She was then not far from the age I am now, and I can understand her point of view better now than I did then.

Then I thought that my youth should not matter at all. Straight out of university and full of good ideas about what might be helpful for other people, I was determined to make my mark on the world.

From where I stand now, I can look back on this young woman and snigger, but I refuse to do so. My heart was in the right place. It still is for the most part, at least I like to think it is, but I have grown wiser, as most of us do with age, and now I know there’s more to a person than their age, despite an almost universal tendency to judge ourselves on the basis of age, among other obvious things, like beauty, race and gender.

Whenever I meet a person I size them up for age almost instantly. I size them up for age almost as soon as I size them up for aspects, such as kindness or cruelty. Is it the look in the eyes, that comes first perhaps, the curve of the mouth, the set of the jaw, subtle hints of how that person might be feeling towards me, and no accounting for how I might be feeling towards them?

I’m often less clear of the vibes I send out. I tend to think they are invisible and that only I know about my internal world, but I know I am wrong in this. At least to some extent.

We all give off vibes to one anther and they travel in both directions. ‘Projections’ is the technical term and of course it all goes back to Freud and his followers, as most of these terms do, though people often want to discount Freud’s work these days.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a strict Freudian, and there are many things Freud said that have long troubled me, like the suppression of the seduction theory, and his patronising attitudes towards women. But he was a man of his times, Sigmund Freud, and we must not judge the past by present standards, though I often wonder, how else are we to judge them?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

My mother: an anemone buried in the sand.

St Columbs church near the corner of Launder Street and Burwood Road looks like something from a BBC period drama. Dark grey flat rendered walls with an elaborate edging. A protestant church to be sure. It sits in the shade of Swinburne university, a lego block set of buildings put together as if by a three year old.

Is that why I felt uneasy going inside? I had been there once before many years earlier in my twenties for the funeral of the mother of a friend. I felt then as though I was sitting inside what I imagined to be a Quaker church, bare benches, no kneelers, stark white walls faded with age and minimal mosaic work on the high barred windows. The shape of a church but none of the trimmings of the Catholic churches of my youth.

It held nothing of the sanctity of a church to my mind, and seemed better suited as a meeting place.

I had decided to go alone. I had decided to arrive unannounced. I had decided to make myself enter this church where I would know no one.

I could be anonymous I thought then and see myself through the eyes of others: a middle aged woman, slight build, average height, broad Australian accent, educated perhaps, diffident perhaps, but someone without a visible past, without a history, someone whom people might puzzle about.

I knew that I too would be faced with the mystery of these people.

The woman who sat to my right did not turn to introduce herself to me as I had imagined she might. I had imagined from my childhood memories that people might greet one another like this, like the handshake or kiss of peace in Catholic churches, but then I remembered the anonymous bit.

Privacy is important. We were there on business. We were there to deal with the alcoholism of a parent, a friend or a relative. We were there to develop detachment.

‘Detachment’, that accursed word, my mother’s favourite and with it she once learned to leave the rest of us out of the equation.

She had needed to do so for her sanity. She had needed to remove herself from the life she then lead, to put herself, if only in her mind and imagination, into some other safe place, some place where my father could not reach her, some safe place where my father could not hurt or impact on her in way way. And in so doing she excluded the rest of us, her children.

My mother had needed to develop detachment in order to become more like her husband. Just like him, she could cut off her pain, he with alcohol, she with detachment, a cut off manner, an inward seeking, like an anemone buried in the sand.

You could not know the anemone was there until it raised its tendrils. Just the slightest touch to those tendrils and the anemone disappeared again. My mother’s eyes glazed over, like a shut down anemone.

As I looked around at the women in this strange protestant church I could see my mother’s eyes in them.

No wonder the woman who sat beside me, clutching her black handbag on her lap, tugging at the skirt she wore to better cover her knees, no wonder this woman did not turn to introduce herself to me. She had developed detachment, or so I imagined. But then it was possible that this might be her first visit to this place too.

She, like me, might have been a new person in this dank church.

I felt my feet flat on the floor and curled my toes inside my shoes to better connect with myself. The muscle on my right shoulder above my breast plate, the muscle that
I would imagine was my heart were it on the other side of my body, tore its painful way across my chest and, once again I thought, if I can get through this, I shall go to Pilates.

Friday, October 14, 2011

My mother is an alcoholic

I could not understand what we were doing there. These dark draughty halls that you entered though equally dark corridors, the windows covered with thick drapes that scarcely let in any light from the setting sun. We had arrived straight after school. No time to get out of our uniforms. No time to do anything but drop our bags and my sister had us back on the bus, onto the train and into the city.

‘Room 6A,’ my sister said over to herself as she led us though corridor after corridors checking at each door for the right number. I knew we must have found it when we came to a room whose door was open, wide open such that we could not even see the number and filled with people.

I say filled, half filled perhaps, people seated in chairs, mostly young people, and children my age, lined up in rows, each with their backs to us as we walked in behind them and took our places in the last few chairs still vacant.

I could not understand what I was doing there, the youngest of my four siblings to come along. I had not thought to ask my sister why we were there and what we had come for. We would be safe with her and my brothers sat on either side of me their knobbly knees white at each bend.

‘Welcome,’ a woman said to the room and people stopped their chatter and looked to her expectantly. ‘I see we have a few newcomers.’ All eyes turned to the back to look at us. They looked at us with inquisitive eyes, no smiles more curiosity as if to say, and what brings you here, what are you here for?

I would not have answered such a question if anyone had directed it to me. At that moment I could not understand what I was doing there.

‘We have quite a deal of business to get through tonight,’ the woman said. All eyes turned back to face her and we were left once again facing a montage of backs, hunched shoulders, cardigans draped over chairs, and the hush of expectation. ‘We might start with your stories. Damien, would you like to start?’

There was the scraping of a chair against the hard parquetry and a boy not much older than my older sister stood beside the woman in front and looked at us with a nervous expression on his face. He looked as though he had been caught unawares, as though he was wholly unprepared for this position which he had now taken up in front of us in the draughty room above the clocks at Flinders Street station, but he cleared his throat to speak.

My name is Damien,’ he said. ‘My mother is an alcoholic.’ Damien told us then about his life as one of three children, born to different fathers and each living each day with a mother who drank all day long and in between drinking she slept or ranted. ‘Sometimes she hits us,’ Damien said, ‘but it doesn’t bother me much any more. She’s not strong, and now I’m bigger I just push her away. But the two little ones get scared. And she used to hurt me bad when I was little. She used to make me cry.’

Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Mad Hatter's Tea Party

There is a pattern to today’s date when written in short hand form, 11 10 11, that appeals to me. Numerically challenged though I may be, I can still enjoy patterns among numbers, in fact when I see them as they apply to the day’s date it gives me a delicious feeling, as if it hints at the possibility that today will be a good day.

A good day for a four year old grandson’s birthday, a good day for standing in a park filled with friends, among indigenous plants and grasses, within the inner city, and soaking up the first of the sun as it makes its way out from behind the clouds of yesterday’s rain.

Speaking of yesterday, I went to a workshop on creative dreaming. The contents of the workshop belong to the workshop but it’s safe for me to say I found the day ‘liberating’.

That’s what they say isn’t it? That something can be liberating. That something can free you from your earlier preconceptions, from previous assumptions about your world, from old stereotypes and leave you in a new place.

There were nine of us in this group, a telling number for me. Anytime I am in a group of nine I am back with my eight siblings, but this group to me was all the more remarkable because it consisted of six men and only three women, including one of the facilitators.

In honour of my new found and clumsy determination to break up the text with images, I include a photo my family of origin before my youngest brother is born, including my mother and minus my father, whom I imagine took the photo.

Usually the groups to which I belong in the literary and psychological world are dominated by women, with maybe one or two men, if you’re lucky.

I have not been in such a male dominated group for as many years as I can remember, perhaps not since I was young within my family where my five brothers and father outweighed we four girls and our then mouse-like mother.

My brothers, I suspect, would not consider that our mother is mouse like, though to me in those days she was.

In this workshop we explored the creative potential of shared dreams, dreams people brought into the room, mostly remembered from the night before, which they offered as a sort of oral space, against which others might bounce thoughts from their own dreams or other ideas, from music, from poetry, from memory, from the technological world, from whatever may have occurred to them.

After the morning's session we were left to our own devices with Texta colours and butcher paper and sequins and glue and magazines for cut outs and collages and scissors, of course, and one man brought his guitar with the help of which he composed a song, and another wrote a poem, and others drew images that on the surface of it may have seemed obscure, however arresting, but under our freewheeling, emotional and associative group eyes they all came to life as filled with meaning.

It was a day riddled with uncertainly, beyond the basic framework of group activity times. There were no rules, there was no demand that we intellectualise, that we interpret meanings, that we outsmart one another with our wit and cleverness.

It was not a therapy group. It was not a writing group. It was not a reading group. It was a group such as I have never been in before. Non-competitive, in so far as such is possible.

I come from a long history of 'sophisticated' therapeutic groups where from memory the tension is high and members often wait to pronounce judgement on one another’s crazy thoughts, feelings and behaviour.

Now that is probably not a fair reflection of good group work but it sticks in my memory.

I was once in a therapy group – this when I was still young – led by an esteemed psychoanalyst, which I have since likened to the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Such were the unwritten rules that governed our behaviour and the conduct of our leader who said nothing most of the time, not by way of introduction or departure – a traditional analytic approach in those days perhaps, but nevertheless one designed I think to leave him in a powerful position.

The analyst's occasional pronouncements were invariably directed at the group and I sensed that he saw himself as outside of the group. As if he were a puppet pulling invisible strings and we were the puppets, knowing little if anything about why we behaved as we did but behaving accordingly.

But yesterday’s experience was different, with two facilitators, a man and a woman, and both, to my mind, particularly the man, prepared to share their most heart-felt experiences in order to allow for what I can only describe as a creative dialogue that then led us into creative activity.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

I am a travel wowser.

The rash began as a series of red lumps on the lower half of my legs and because I woke to it on the first day of our holidays away my son in law who was spending some time away with us became convinced it was caused by bed bugs.

We spent only three nights away but for two of them from the onset of the rash I lay awake imagining the mites digging into my flesh. No one else was affected. In those first few days the rash seemed minor and I decided that as soon as I arrived home it would all clear up in the absence of those bugs. But it did not.

They say it is not uncommon to go on holidays and to get sick, as if your body, which has been driving you on for days, weeks and months decides at last now is the time to collapse.

I cannot say I am sick. I am well enough through it all but the rash has spread further up my legs and onto my arms, and even into the little nooks and crevasses of my body where it itches away and refuses to let me sleep.

Last Tuesday after our return I visited the chemist. Our regular chap is away on holidays and his fill-in thought the rash did not look like bites. He offered me antihistamine and a light steroid cream to help heal the itch.

Another day passed and the rash grew worse so after Googling one night and changing my diagnosis to folliculitis I took my self to the doctor. He agreed with that diagnosis and decided a dose of antibiotics should do the trick. He suspected that I’d had a virus somewhere down the track, certainly unbeknown to me, and these sorts of folliculitis things the doctor said can flare up when your immune system is compromised.

It’s possible, he said, that you had a tiny nick in your skin and the bacteria, which lives on the surface of your skin and gives you no trouble at all sneaks in and starts up a chain reaction.

Fine, antibiotics I thought that will put an end to it, but two days later and the rash was worsening, so back to the doctors and this time he suggested a whack of cortisone.

The dreaded cortisone. I have never been on cortisone - or prednisolone as it’s called here - before but the doctor insisted it’s okay to take it for short spells to block what he now considers most likely to be some sort of allergic reaction and probably a delayed response to that damn invisible virus.

My body feel like it is breaking down, at least my skin is, and the worst of it is the itchiness. I can wear trousers and conceal the spots and lumps and bumps. It’s cold at the moment, too, despite the advent of spring, so a cardigan is necessary at all times. I can hide these blemishes to outsiders, but not to me.

This itch is at its worst in the middle of the night. When I'm snuggled up in bed and heat up, the itch comes to life and moves from one part of my leg, to my arm, to my belly and back again. Always an itch somewhere.

I cannot then stop myself from clawing at my skin as the itch moves around, even when I know to scratch at a itch is not a good thing to do. There is always the danger of breaking the skin and making it worse.

But what can I do in the middle of the night? The doctor did not prescribe anything for topical relief because he said antibacterial or antibiotic ointments would probably not touch it, this inflammation is coming from inside.

Sorry to bore you with all this detail but it perplexes me. I know that it will pass. I hope that it will pass, but in the meantime in my own typical fashion I must analyse why now?

What is going on in my life just now to cause this sort of skin reaction?

Your skin is your greatest protection. It seals in your insides. I think of skin reactions as reflecting a troubled internal state.

It’s holidays, although they’re ending now. I am soon to submit my thesis but it’s under control. I will be sad to say goodbye to my thesis. It has been a loved companion these past seven years and of course there’s then the question of what will I do next? This troubles me, but only a little.

It’s not far from the first anniversary of breaking my leg. I’m about to have a routine colonoscopy, you know the sort we all dread. The last time my husband had one of those he wound up with a heart attack. That’s unlikely to happen again, or to me, but still it’s a fear.

Finally, I took on medical power of attorney for my mother last week, a responsibility I share with my older sister and for some strange reason it feels ominous.

My mother continues to survive. She turns 92 next week and I’m apprehensive about how long she can go one. Although, as the woman in charge of my mother’s retirement village says, she’s not palliative yet. She had been but she recovered.

I suppose these are enough reasons to be troubled. Though I am aware of these issues. There must be one hiding away deep in my unconscious of which I haven’t a clue. Worries do that you know, at least I believe they do, and they sneak out when you least expect them and can often express themselves through your body.

I have a tendency to interpret everything on psychological grounds and it does not suit me to put it all down to a purely physiological response. There has to be something more to it. Of course this notion does not sit so well with the notion that one day we will all die. It is inevitable. We will have to die of something and that something could take multiple forms.

Here I go again agonising over the mind body link, trying to put the old Cartesian spilt in place even when I know it does not exist. Our minds are our bodies. Our bodies are our minds and yet I still tend to think of them separately.

Beyond our bodies there’s the environment.

Last weekend in the tranquil Wartook Valley among the shining kangaroos my body let me down, at least my skin failed to hold me in. You’d think I’d grow from the experience. But every time I go away something goes wrong with my body. Invariably I get constipated. I get things like tinea or cold sores on my lip and now this: bed bugs or folliculitis, or an allergic reaction to a virus and that of course does not include the practical issues of possible plane crashes or car accidents.

In some ways I put it down to the experience of being born to migrants. I still sense my mother’s pain at having to leave her beloved homeland. I always imagined that she would have preferred to be elsewhere and it left me with the odd feeling that Australia, my home, was not good enough for her. I resolved over time then that I would stay put and now even short trips away unsettle me.

I am a travel wowser.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The nature of the crime

My oldest brother has written an extended essay, which he describes as a biography of our father, the details, the background to and arrival of our parents in Australia.

It is beautifully written and for me a pleasure to read however disturbing. The disturbing aspect for me relates as much to what my brother writes as to what he excludes.

I do not feel at liberty to write about this essay in detail yet, other than to reflect on Jim Murdoch’s comment that ‘the moment we start selecting we start fictionalising’. As well, I think of Paul Lisicky’s words, that for something ‘to shudder with mystery’ we need sometimes to hold something back. Lisicky uses the word ‘elision’.

My brother has a tendency to write about the ‘we’ of it all, referring to us, his brothers and sisters, as though he is a spokesperson for us all, a dangerous thing to do, given that as a group of individuals we are unlikely to see things the way he does.

But he is the first born and as the first born I suspect he claims that privilege, especially in so far as he is writing about the early years of his own life and the experience of our parents even before any of the rest of us were born.

He can claim that privilege here, but beyond it he sets himself up for challenge.

He reckons that the piece is not yet fully edited yet and for this reason wants me to keep it to myself, namely not to share this knowledge with my siblings, but I suspect that he is as fearful, as I am fearful, of how our siblings might react to any of our writing that purports to chronicle family history.

We see things so differently from one another. My oldest brother is big on ‘facts’ and big on genealogy, whereas I prefer the minute detail that emerges from my memories. My brother occasionally offers the detail of his own memories but mostly he prefers to rely on ‘written evidence’, which he considers to be much more reliable as evidence about what ‘really’ happened.

And so there are these letters that our grandparents wrote from prison in which they make no reference to their alleged crimes and write only about basic necessities or the hope that their children are well.

But I know the nature of the crime. I have the person cards that the historian and researcher, Barbara van Balen, gathered for me from the archives in Amsterdam. The person cards detail exact times of imprisonment and the charge. My brother does not want to talk about the charge, at least not yet.

He does not want to look too closely at the incest that preceded even his birth. Our grandparents were imprisoned around the time our parents were married and around the time this brother first entered the world.

What a legacy.

Here is a photo of my grandparents and father when he was a baby, well before it all happened.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A sock in the Vegemite jar

I woke this morning to an ear worm in my head, an ear worm from the German ohrwurm, a song that keeps on repeating itself however much I might try to stop the soundtrack.

It’s faded now but I dare not repeat the words of this song here for fear it will return like a recurring night mare. It’s relentless.

I had fully intended to go to an Al-Anon meeting this week, a meeting devised for the children, friends and partners of alcoholics, not to deal with any present concerns of mine but to deal with the past.

It might seem a strange thing to do but I have started to write about my childhood memories of going to an Alateen meeting with several of my sisters and brothers but the memories are so vague and disjointed that to write about them would essentially be to make them up.

Wouldn’t it be better, I thought, to see what such a meeting is like today?

When I mentioned this idea to my daughters they were horrified. How would the other people at the meeting feel? My daughters’ misgivings sowed seeds of doubt into my own head. I might be seen as an intruder.

‘What are you going to say to them,' one of my daughters asked, 'when it comes to telling your story? Are you going to say my father, who's been dead now for almost thirty years, was an alcoholic?’

I had thought I might say just that but I could not say I’ve come here today because I want to write about this experience, embedded in the experience of my past. So for the moment I have shelved the idea.

I have another idea for a piece of writing percolating in the back of my mind, but this one I shall keep to myself for a while, in part because I will only know about it more fully when I write it, and partly because, as with the Al-Anon plan I described above, I fear too early exposure will ruin it.

Does this happen to you? You have an idea in your mind. It feels full, rich and ready to be explored. You feel excited and effervescent with the energy of it but as soon as you start putting it into place it collapses like a house of cards.

I am riddled with the disappointment of such failed ideas, like dreams that are with me first thing in the morning still pulsing with energy only to be gone completely by mid morning.

I wish I could say the same for my ear worm. It’s still echoing there in the back of my head and I refuse to invite it into the forefront because it will once again persecute me and not let me be.

I had thought I could write the words of my earworm here and sort of evacuate them onto the page, but that might then send the ear worm off into your head, such things can be contagious, though only the words written on the page might not have enough of an effect to send them over to you. No, you’d need the music as well. So be grateful you’re spared.

I visited a blog for the first time yesterday that I think is worth a mention here. I don’t usually mention other people’s blogs - there are so many wonderful blogs out - there but this one caught my attention because of the visual element, and also because, as I said in one of my comments to Richard at Eyelight about his post Do I know you?, he has done something similar to what I believe Tracy Emin tried to do in her exhibit all those years ago with her My Bed.

The exhibit caused quite a stir at the time as I recall. How could anyone call an unmade bed art? Only when I read a more detailed account of Tracy Emin’s exhibit in a paper that likened autobiography to the ‘rumpled bed’ did I realise the extent of this work as a piece of self-portraiture and something many of us bloggers today attempt to do with our descriptions of the bric-a-brac of our lives, our small snap shots and vivid details both of the past and present that in themselves are like rumpled beds - if I dare to use the bed you sleep in as an analogy for a life. The entire bedroom is perhaps better.

The other day I found a photograph of my mother in her bedroom some fifty years ago. In it my mother poses in front of her Queen Anne mirror which has long fascinated me. Sometimes when my parents were away, I stood in front of this dresser and folded the mirrored arms around me. When I looked either to my right or to my left, I could see my image repeated again and again, ever decreasing in size, on and on into infinity. I could see my back and my front multiplied, and when I turned to the side, I could see my many profiles.

My mother in the photograph is one thing and I will write about that in the fullness of time but it was the rest of the room that soon caught my eye: the unmade bed, the clothes piled high on the chairs on either side, the cluttered bench below the mirror.

Not to confuse you, here's a picture of my mother in our lounge room. Note the amazing wall paper. My mother in her bedroom is not yet ready for publication.

I tend to divide houses into three types: those which could feature in a copy of Vogue Living, those which are cluttered and lived in to the full, and finally those that are squalid. I imagine there are multiple variations in between.

My house today is of the cluttered variety and I see and remember from this photo that so too was my mother’s house, the house of my childhood, which I thought then bordered on the squalid. It was probably not so.

My brother tells a story of visiting a friend when he was still in primacy school. My brother did not want to take off his shoes for fear they might stick to the floor, and later, at breakfast he found a sock in the vegemite jar.

The sock in the Vegemite jar has come to represent in my family the epitome of squalor. We joke about it when things are grim in terms of the untidiness of our household.

When we can find a sock in the vegemite jar, we will know that we have sunk to a new low.

There’s a cat in the back ground clamouring to be let inside my daughter's bedroom where she is now trying to sleep and therefore refuses to get out of bed to let the cat in. My daughter is happy for the cat to join her, but not to have to get out of bed to let her in, so I must do so.

Otherwise, the echo of the cat’s caterwauling might hit off another echo, the ever present earworm, and my head will be so full that I won’t be able to proof read the reformatted draft of my thesis, which is my next task for today.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

My moment of glory

Yesterday, someone called Tracy Myers emailed to tell me that my blog has been selected as one of fifty personal memoir blogs that she rates among the best, at least for the moment.

Needless to say, I first checked the email out for spam. I should be more trustworthy perhaps but on the Internet we all know about those who play into our desire for recognition such that they flatter us mercilessly and offer all manner of reward just to get inside our computers in order to do untold damage there.

But it seems a genuine blog and I’ve since heard from others that it’s worth a visit, particularly if you’re interested in online memoir.

In honour of the occasion and to emphasize a point that I've been trying to make of late that autobiography also contains fictional elements, I shall post an image of myself:

The author without her head.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Have you ever been written about?

It’s the oddest sensation to find yourself in the pages of someone else’s story. My friend Carrie Tiffany – I mention her by name because she is a writer and has published a story and therefore presumably does not need to remain anonymous, as so many others do – has written a story in which she includes a brief description of a time we spent together several years ago now.

It’s a sympathetic portrait and there’s nothing in it to feel ashamed about. Carrie had mentioned it to me even as she was writing the story out of concern for my sensitivities. The vignette is merely a side tributary on the river of this wonderful story, which is well worth reading.

Many years ago when I discussed some of my concerns about writing about my siblings and how they might feel, my then writing teacher asked if I’d ever been written about. As if I could only judge the experience through my own experience.

It’s the oddest sensation. That’s me there on the page, the ‘Liz’ a peripheral character, who in Carrie's story spells her name with ‘z’ and not an ‘s’, that’s me, and yet it’s not me at all. I’ve been fictionalised.

It’s a me from the past, snap frozen in time, a tiny cameo of my husband and me, one winters day, I say winter because if it was written six months after my husband’s heart attack, then it must have been the wintertime, but it could just have easily happened in the summer.

I write about this experience here now because I am pondering the issue of finding yourself described in someone else’s pages and how unsettling this can be, however much we know it to be fictionalised. I’m also wondering about the degree to which all creative writing however much it is described as non-fiction and allegedly therefore based on the so-called truth is in fact a fiction.

The minor characters, Liz and Bob, in Carrie’s story are fictional characters however much based on real life characters. We know this and yet we tend to argue in polarities. Either it’s true – non-fiction, or it’s not – and therefore its fiction.

It can’t be both, and yet it is both.

And here I intersperse a photo break, a poorly captured image of my husband and me on our wedding day, to add to Carrie's image of Liz and Bob well before any of this happened.

I enjoy featuring in Carrie’s story because it gives me a different perspective of myself. Is that how I look/looked to her then. She ascribes such kind motives to me. It’s true I had wanted to reassure her in some way about her heart, as I believe had my husband, but I think I am not as benign as Carrie’s Liz comes across.

Even the fact that I write about this now makes me wonder whether it’s not a sort of retaliation. You write about me and I’ll write about you. But now I write about a real person who is also a fictional character and quake inside because Carrie reads my blog.

I’m giving a talk in a couple of weeks on the topic of ‘Auto/biography’: an excess of fiction or in excess of it? As chance would have it, and chance/serendipity is such a wonderful companion, my copy of William Michaelian’s, A Listening Thing, arrived during the week.

I opened the first pages and found these wonderful words in his preface. ‘We can’t escape the fact that life is fiction, and fiction is life – a point upon which science and the practical mind are tragically confused. The practical mind says, ‘That which is imagined does not really exist’ and science which wears matching socks even on weekends, trots out any number of laws to support this bland assumption. But laws are yesterday’s news, placeholders until something even more sensible comes along. Then we laugh at the old laws, just as if an alien race had made them, a race comprised of beings not nearly as smart as we – while, thanks to laws and our adherence to them, and worship of them, we have forgotten more of value than we will ever know, which is to say an arrogant, universal thimbleful.’’

So William too writes about a fictional character, Stephen Monroe, who is also himself, the author and narrator, William Michaelian, but at the same time not himself.

If this stuff ties you up in knots I’m not surprised. I find myself twisting over myself in trying to find a way of describing something that seems so intangible.

Why does it make us flinch to be written about? According to Helen Garner, ‘it’s not so much the revelation of fact, as the feeling that somebody else is telling your story, and stating something without the justifying tone that you use yourself...You feel stripped and bare and you can’t say “Oh well that’s just me,” in that cosy way that one does.’

When someone writes about you, they use their own words, their own impressions. They look at you from the outside, whereas you can only see yourself from the inside. You can only imagine how you might come across.

When I read about myself on the page, it’s like looking into one of those distorted mirrors you find at a circus. There’s one in the children’s section at the Melbourne Museum. I went there during the week with my grandson and we looked at ourselves reflected there. Three mirrors flowed down the wall, the one flat, the other convex, and the third concave.

In the two distorted mirrors we saw ourselves, stunted and deformed, too tall in the neck, too short in the torso, and as we giggled and danced in front of our images, they became even more deformed.

We came back three times. To be able to contort our self image into so many odd shapes and sizes gave us great pleasure, the same pleasure I find when I or someone else uses my form and tries to shape me into something that is not quite how I see myself from the inside.

But even myself inside feels like that person in the mirror, too long here, too wide there, a leery grin here, eyes too big in my head there, a caricature of myself, whoever she is, in all her many manifestations.

I came into the kitchen just now, early morning and no one else is awake as yet, and found one of the cats chewing on the remains of what looked to be a mouse. I approached with the intention of retrieving the mouse. For some reason I do not enjoy the sight or sound of a cat munching on mice bones.

The cat let our a low growl. He wasn’t giving up his prey so easily. In the end I left him to it, but wondered why with full bowls of perfectly produced shop bought cat food, the stuff the cats generally prefer, the stuff that comes in tins from the supermarket, should this cat prefer his own caught mouse, disgusting bones and all?

I’m not a cat. I cannot say, but perhaps it’s the same as in the writing process. We land on something and cannot let it go. We gnaw away at it or it gnaws away at us and will not let us be.

Have you ever been written about? How was it for you? Disarming, disturbing, delightful? Or something else altogether? Anything’s possible.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Because I'm freezing

My youngest daughter is learning to drive. In these first few weeks she is having proper lessons with an RACV driving instructor before she is ready to go out and practice with her parents.
‘The instructor is so strict,’ she said to me the other day as I drove her to school. ‘I so much as creep off the white line a fraction and he orders me back.' She turns towards me. 'You don’t always stay on the white line.’

‘I know, ' I said. 'But it’s like learning the rules of grammar. You need to be meticulous when you first learn them and follow the rules to the letter. Only when you understand them can you deviate.’

Learning the rules of the road are more essential to the preservation of life than learning the rules of grammar but I suspect there is merit in first learning to do something – whatever it is – strictly, according to some set of rules and then using your intuition to know when to break them.

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the day I broke my leg last year, 4 September 2010. I must take care to avoid a repeat. Lightning, they say, never strikes in the same place twice. It’s unlikely I’ll break my leg again, but why, I wonder, is it such a time of anxiety?

Twenty years ago almost to the day, on 2 September 1991, the analysts gave me the sack from the psychoanalytic training. I do not write about this event in my blog as it seems too unacceptable to mention in such a public forum, besides it belongs to a part of my life I do not include here, my professional life. And yet it is an event that also sparked the writing of my thesis on the desire for revenge and so it is an essential brick in the wall of my story.

It’s funny how blogs represent only parts of our lives and other parts remain hidden from view. Mostly I hide the things of which I feel most deeply ashamed. Even as they peek out at me and beg to be included in my writing. Until I can move a little past the initial gut wrenching tug of shame I cannot speak about them. I must hide them from view. So it is with the analytic training.

Twenty years is a long time to feel so deeply about an unfortunate event and although I do not write in detail here about this experience, you can take my word for it, this rates for me as one of the worst experiences of my adult life.

Though of course, like so many traumatic experiences it has proved itself to be one of the most useful. It stimulated me to go back to writing, an activity I had abandoned once I hit adolescence, when I first decided on a career in the helping professions.

Here I shall include an image of my father circa 1964. I include it as a cryptic reference to my father who had an influence on the experiences to which I allude here and also to break up the text. I'm trying hard to respect people's abhorrence within the the blogosphere for reams of writing.

There are two stories that come to mind here. The first I heard on the TV series Ballykissangel, when the priest, Peter Clifford, first acknowledges his love for Assumpta Fitzgerald

There’s this baby polar bear swimming in the sea and he climbs out, runs across the ice to his mother and says, ‘Mum, are you sure I’m a polar bear?’ And his Mum says. ‘Don’t be daft. Of course I’m sure. You have white fur, you eat fish. You’re a polar bear. Now get back into the sea.’

But the little polar bear is not satisfied. He jumps out again and goes up to his father and says, ‘Dad, am I really a polar bear?’ And his father’s says ‘What are you talking about? Of course you’re a polar bear. You’ve got white fur, you eat fish, you’re a polar bear. Why do you ask?

And the baby bear says, ‘Because I’m freezing.’

This story has stayed with me, as a statement of the pain of not belonging, a fish out of water, to use an ill chosen cliché.

The second anecdote derives from a you tube I saw by chance recently on the nature of creativity through Hilary’s blog. To be truly creative the photographer, Andrew Zuckerman, argues you need ‘curiosity and rigour’. He uses the example of an experiment he’d heard about where researches used three groups of mice under three different sets of conditions.

The first mouse had everything it needed in the cage, and nothing was required of it to meet its needs. A sort of mouse heaven. The second mouse also had everything it needed, but in order to get to it, the second mouse had to go through a simple series of routine tasks. The third mouse had everything it needed but to get to it this mouse had to leave its cage and go through an elaborate series of contraptions including a high ledge along which it needed to walk suspended above a tub of water before this third mouse could get what it needed or wanted.

Then the researchers measured the brain development of the mice. They found the first mouse showed no dendritic growth at all. Nothing in its brain changed during the research period. The second mouse grew new dendrites, but it was the third mouse which not only grew more dendrites but also grew connections between them. The point being that to grow we need to face our fears and challenges.

The first story suggests a wish to get out of what to the baby polar bear felt like an overwhelming challenge, to belong where he felt he did not belong, whereas the second one urges us to press on regardless. There is an optimal level of challenges we must face. too much challenge and we buckle under, not enough and we atrophy.

Yesterday was the twentieth anniversary of the day on which I was dismissed from the psychoanalytic training and I did not even recognise it at the time, though I left my keys behind in the changing rooms of a clothes shop where I had tried on a shirt for size and I misplaced my credit card after I bought the shirt and could not find it later in the evening when I was out for dinner with my husband and went to pay for our meal.

I knew then, as we walked home from the restaurant and I had still not located my credit card that something was not quite right.

Not until now this morning, after I have relocated my credit card in another section of my wallet where I usually only put coins and notes not cards, do I realise how unsettled I am. And tomorrow – and this I remember in advance – is the second anniversary of my broken leg. All up a time of painful memories and anniversaries. I must take extra care today and tomorrow.