Saturday, July 30, 2011

The shame of shitting

My seventeen year old slept overnight at school last night with a group of forty other senior school girls in a gesture of solidarity with the homeless. It was intended as a fund raiser but my daughter is a little sceptical about the value of such exercises when it comes to making a real difference to homelessness.

‘Better to join a soup kitchen,’ her boyfriend had suggested. I’m inclined to agree.

I bought my daughter a padded mat from Kathmandu to avoid sleeping on the bricks of the school’s breezeway and despite the fact that such a ‘mattress’ does not exactly emulate the plight of the homeless my daughter agreed to use it.

Now we have to figure out how to deflate this amazing piece of padding. It is self inflating and operates by opening and closing the nozzle. Every time I open the nozzle though I cannot be sure whether it is inflating or deflating.

Perhaps, as my husband says, we should read the instructions first.

I tend to by pass written instructions. I like to figure out things for myself and invariably as with this inflatable self inflating sleeping bag I find myself in trouble.

It’s a type of laziness I expect, the voice within that says 'let me at it'. I can figure it out, only to be stymied at the first obstacle.

I have been reading about shame these last few weeks, shame and the way it links to grief and death. Jeffrey Kauffman's series of essays on The shame of Death grief and trauma I had never thought of shame like this before, I had never considered that the essence of shame lies in our bodies and our vulnerabilities and how difficult we find it to accept the limitations of our bodies, especially when it comes to illness and death.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I hesitate to go through the process of having a colonoscopy. I even shudder to write the word. I expect you all know the procedure.

For some reason that I cannot fathom I have always held a morbid fear of getting bowel cancer. There is no history of bowel cancer in my family, not as far as I know.

I’m not sure how to put this. I wonder whether it has to do with that part of the body, the hidden part that ends in the anus and is so closely related to the toilet. I suspect part of my fear and my deep shame goes back to some childhood anxiety about bottoms and poos and all those secret bits of bodies that go on underneath.

When I was little I imagined that my soul which was meant to stay pure and white was located in my bottom close to my poo hole. I do not know where this idea came from but it has long stayed with me. The idea that centre of my soul on which all sins were marked as dark stains was located so close to the dirtiest part of me.

Maybe my adult fear of bowel cancer harks back to this. And perhaps for this reason I have long resisted the idea that I should endure a colonoscopy if only as a screening procedure to rule out any polyps or precancerous cells.

Shame and the body. If I put those two things together, the first thing I think about is the shame of shitting, then I think of the shame of sex and then I think of the shame of illness generally and finally I think of the shame of dirt, as in a dirty house and of getting things wrong in areas where I think I should get them right.

I’m not too ashamed of being unable to deflate the Kathmandu bed mat. I don’t expect that of myself, but there are areas where I do expect more of myself and it is in these areas where I suffer the most.

In an effort to break up the text and to illustrate some aspect of my earlier shame I include a picture here from my childhood, one that demonstrates the clutter in which we once lived. I'm the headless one on the bed.

And in this photo, I'm the one on the left with long fair hair. The girl facing the camera was a visitor. The other two are siblings. In black and white the room may not look quite so bad as I once imagined, the mess and the clutter that is, but in my memory it is.

And did you know that shame and pride are close cousins? Pride to cover over our shame. I think often about my mother’s pride and how much I have soaked it in.

These days I sit with my mother in her retirement village room and listen yet again as she boasts about her age.
‘I’m 91 years old. I don’t get sick, It’s amazing. Other people here, all the other people here are coughing and spluttering. So many have the flu, but me not a sniffle.’

‘That’s good’ I say. ‘But if you get so much as a sniffle, or a tickle in your throat you must tell the doctor straight away.’

It feels like a threat. My mother towards the end of her life refuses to recognise the possibility of her death any day now, and I’m not far behind reluctant to acknowledge the same about my own.

In my family we boast about our good health, our genes, our immunity.

I spread the sorbolene cream over my mother’s legs and pull back once again at the stale smell that wafts over me whenever I take off her slippers. They are all she wears on her feet these days, special slippers, with Velcro strips that adhere together to make for easy wearing. She cannot otherwise get her slippers on and off. They smell of the vinegar of old age and dead skin.

She knows it, I suspect. My mother knows that her feet let off this sad stale smell but she says nothing.

I say nothing but spread the white smooth cream up and down her ankles and calves as if they are my own.

There’s a dark spot like a blood blister that I had not noticed before. I rub it with the tip of my finger. It’s smooth to touch.

‘I noticed that too, my mother says. It wasn’t there before.’
‘The mark of death,’ I want to say. ‘Your skin is breaking down.’

But no. ‘It’s probably just a blood blister,’ I say. ‘I get them all the time, ever since I had babies.’

‘Nothing to worry about then,’ my mother says.

‘Maybe mention it to the doctor next time you see him.’

All this emphasis on our bodies. All this effort to reduce our skin and bones into efficient machines that might go on forever, if only to keep out the cold and the shame.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Waiting for war

I have not been so cold since I was a child, or so it seems to me. The drought has broken in many parts of Australia and with it has come a resumption of past weather patterns, the winters of old.

I took out an old yellow lunch box that’s been hidden away in one of the drawers in my study and is full of negatives. I sent them off to be developed. Among the photos that came back I found some surprising treasures.

There is one photo of my father in Indonesia.
Elsewhere there is a photo of my mother in an evening dress. These are the parents I never knew, the parents who existed before I was born, the parents who had not yet travelled to Australia to make a new life with their children.

By 1947 - the calendar on the wall in the photo of my father dates the image - my parents had only two children, two sons and had already lost one daughter.

Elsewhere I have a small photograph wrapped in tissue paper. It has faded with age. The image of my father in the centre is difficult to discern. I use a magnifying glass. My father lounges on top of a bunk bed, a single blanket rolled at its end. He is propped up against the pillow and smokes a cigarette.

Like the photo above this picture was presumably taken by one of his fellow soldiers when my father was stationed in Java, Indonesia.

My mother has told me that only two weeks after Armistice in May 1945 my father was called up for retraining in the army. He then spent two months billeted in the South of Holland in Breda. He came home in June for the birth of his second son then spent another six weeks in Nijmegen in Holland with the expeditionary force preparing to travel to the Dutch East Indies as Indonesia was then called.

My father was caught up in a conflict not of his own making. For nearly three years my mother told me she lived alone while my father took part in what was described as a ‘police action’.

My mother missed the regimental balls she had enjoyed when my father was still an officer training in Holland. She missed his company. Worst of all, she said she hated the silence.

During my father’s absence when he was living on nothing but rice, my mother waited with her two young sons for months ‘in the dark’. There was no mail until the newspapers began to publish the lists of names of those killed in action.

One day, my mother said, my father had led a patrol in which his best sergeant was killed and several soldiers wounded. My father came home unscathed, at least in body. No shell shock. No obvious traumatic effects. Though who is to say?

As a child I pored over the photo albums. The photos of my parents’ life in Holland, the life they led before mine began. A life I could not fathom, especially the war years.

As I have written elsewhere, I spent the best part of my own childhood waiting for world war three or worse still invasion from Indonesia. A childhood fantasy perhaps that the people the Dutch had invaded all those hundreds of years ago would one day turn around and punish us. The fact that my father fought with the Dutch army that opposed Indonesia’s bid for independence has long sat heavily on my shoulders.

In the omnipotent way of small children in my fantasy I see the Indonesian army coming after me and mine for my father’s part in oppressing them. I know it is a fanciful notion and yet it has stayed with me, especially living in Australia so close to Indonesia.

I put it down to my childhood fear of war, which falls like a shadow across my imagination and looms ahead as a future threat.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

When pies were sixpence and we used to swim in dams

‘All retail’s fucked,’ my daughter said to me this morning when I mentioned the fact that the book store, Readers Feast, is closing down. Not just book stores it seems. People buy on line or they go to markets for their fruit and vegetables.

To me this is all about change – relentless, ruthless, inexorable change. Sometimes it excites me, other times it terrifies me.

One of my daughters is leaving home today, for good you might assume. She moves into a small apartment near the city with her boyfriend.

How different this is from my day when such an arrangement would have constituted an act of living in sin. Now it’s commonplace for couples to cohabitate well before marriage, and often times without marrying at all.

When I think back to the changes that have taken place throughout my relatively short life time my first thought lands on our shopping arrangements.

When I was a child in the early sixties we did all our shopping around the corner at the local shops. The grocer, Mr Brockhoff, owned the corner shop, where we bought flour, rice, soap, toilet paper, the sorts of things you buy at supermarkets today. Next door to him stood the butcher, then the greengrocer and milk bar. The chemist and newsagent were opposite on the other side of Canterbury Road along with a women’s clothes shop and another milk bar. There was a toy shop, which also sold books and there may have been the office of a lawyer or accountant as well – the composition of our local shopping centre.

Occasionally my mother took the bus to Camberwell to buy items that could not be found locally. To me a trip to Camberwell was like a trip to the city, up and down the Bourke Road hill the shops seemed as grand as I imagined were the shops of Europe.

Bourke Road is still a shopping precinct but few of the shops, few if any of the shops, in existence today were there fifty years ago.

‘When pies were sixpence and we used to swim in dams’ my husband jokes whenever someone complains about things not being the same as they once were. As if the past were preferable.

The biggest changes occur in families. One daughter leaves home and another who left home a long time ago has given birth to a beautiful son, a second son whose name is Art.

I resist the temptation to write about my children. They prefer to stay out of my ramblings, but I cannot resist a word or two that acknowledges this change in the composition of my family.

My mother loved having babies. It has always been the hall mark of her life. She measured her worth in the number of children she brought into the world.

And so we get into the habit of counting. My mother’s seventh great grandchild from among her twenty three grandchildren and her nine children.

She prides herself on the fact that none of her offspring or the offspring of her offspring are on drugs. I am not sure why drugs feature so heavily in my mother's imagination. In her mind it seems, drug addiction is the worst thing that could ever befall a person.

There are one or two or maybe even three in my extended family with significant alcohol problems, one or two with significant social problems, one or two or three or four or more whose marriages have fallen through or whose marriages are about to fall through or will one day collapse but my mother focuses on the absence of drug addiction among her progeny and that is proof enough both of how fortunate she is and a measure of her good enough parenting.

It is easy to boast about our children, to see ourselves reflected in their glories, to feel a load of pleasure in their achievements as if they are our own, and to avoid looking too closely underneath to know that our children also suffer.

I hate to hear my mother talk about her children’s achievements, including my own, because I know that none of these so-called achievements have been without effort and pain and struggle and yet when my mother talks about them it is as if she believes they reflet her goodness and nothing more, her goodness and our father’s stellar intellect, for that is the one thing my mother will lay claim to for our father – his intellect, as if her were a genius, which he was not.

It is a good thing that babies come together as the product of at least two sets of genes initially and further back the product of two sets of grandparents on both sides going back in multiples of four. It makes for each baby’s uniqueness.

Art means ‘little bear’. I think of our little Art and his big brother Leo, who at three and a half is still little, whose name, needless to say, means lion. The lion and the bear, even a little one. Magnificent animals and if they had been born girls would we elect to focus on such strong animal images from their names. I wonder.

I heard recently about a couple in America who are trying to bring up their child in a gender neutral environment and how their neighbours and the media have vilified them.

It puzzles me how this couple can manage to do this when gender is such an inescapable biological fact of life, and the influence of socio-cultural constructions and the like are equally powerful.

In the end I think I’m glad for gender but I wish sometimes we were not so polarised into masculine and feminine. I like to think of these gender types across a spectrum with fluidity between not one category and the other, as if on a continuous line or even a circle that moves around with varying degrees of masculinity and femininity and all the variable ways these two broad genders types can manifest themselves in between.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Writing for our lives

I've been meaning to mention a new forum for blogging and writing - in which ever order you prefer - by my friend and fellow writer, Christina Houen.

Christina is a terrific writer and one of those wonderful souls who can combine depth of understanding with accessibility when it comes to explorations of the autobiographical.

Please visit her new writing forum Writing Lives where she invites us all into a conversation about writing, the type of writing that blogging encourages, the type of writing that recognises our human need to speak and be heard, the type of writing that offers an illusion of immortality in a world from which we will all one day disappear.

I don't mean this to sound grim, but I'm taken with Christina's quote from Foucault in a recent comment to me:

"Writing is the gesture of a dying man [or woman], and to write ‘is to be forced to march through enemy territory, in the very area where loss prevails….The writer is a dying man who is trying to speak.’ His, or her, desire is to survive beyond death through the attention of those who read the story."

So let's get writing.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

That fine line between optimism and denial.

Before he died, the story goes, my father told my mother he need not leave her much. She would find herself someone else to care for her soon enough. And so she did. My mother remarried within little more than a year after my father’s death.

My mother’s second husband also failed to leave her much when he died some sixteen years later, even so the staff at the retirement village where she has lived these past ten years see my mother as one of their favourites and they look after her well.

When I asked my mother how she thought she might get on with her new carer, a woman arranged through community health and part of my mother’s ‘care package’, she said she’d be fine.

‘I like people,’ my mother said. ‘I don’t have trouble with anyone.’
‘But not Auntie Nettie,’ I said. I did not give my mother time to protest. ‘Why don’t you like Auntie Nettie?’ I asked. ‘What went wrong?’
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘We had an argument once, about the war.’

My mother then told me the story of how one day she and Nettie fell into a discussion about the hardships of World War Two, this from the vantage point of their new lives in Australia during the 1960s.

‘It was very hard in Indonesia under the Japanese,’ my aunt told my mother.
‘It was harder in Holland,’ my mother said. ‘We were freezing and hungry. In Indonesia at least you could stay warm. There is nothing worse than being cold and hungry,’ my mother said. My aunt disagreed.

This is one of those arguments that does not bear consideration – two women fighting over who had it worse, when clearly both had it bad.

It reminds me of Tessa de Loos’ book, Twin Sisters, the story of two women born in Cologne, Germany, before the Second World War but separated as toddlers after their had mother died.

One stayed in Germany and was raised by relatives – a cruel harsh family in a land impoverished by war and hardship; the other grew up in Holland in the care of a loving Dutch family, also related as I recall.

Both women suffered, especially during the war. The book consists of a series of flashbacks to the separated twins’ experiences of growing up into young adulthood.

Each woman tells the other her story after they meet by chance in a spa retreat in Switzerland. In the beginning of the book they are by now in their seventies. The twin raised in Holland seems to me to have had the least traumatic experience, though again such comparisons are not helpful or necessarily accurate.

Resilience is not measured out in equal doses.

As dreadful as my mother’s war experience was, is it fair to compare it to that of my aunt whose father had owned a rubber plantation in Indonesia before the Japanese invasion? My aunt was interned in a prisoner war camp. I heard once that she saw her brother killed by the Japanese. He was hacked to death.

While I was growing up my aunt worked as a nurse, an efficient and well organised woman. She had six children and kept her house in good order. She married my mother’s younger brother, a generous man who tended to his family well.

My mother, on the other hand, had nine children and could not keep up with the demands of housework, nor did she have the support of a generous and loving husband.

Both women competed in some strange unspoken way, but I felt the pull of my mother’s hatred towards my aunt throughout my childhood. An otherwise seemingly loving and generous woman, my mother’s enmity towards her sister-in-law stood out like an exposed blade ready to cut at any minute.

Her mother had always said she was a ‘very happy baby’, my mother told me later after we had made yet another visit to her GP. She was looking yet again at her family photo from the late 1920s, the one she has propped on a low table beside the window. She gazes at the image and all the memories it evokes. The past has become more attractive with distance it seems.

My mother has always had a tendency to look on the bright side, even when certain events demanded a more realistic perspective.

I wonder, is this how my mother attracts people to her, her optimism ,and is this also why she fell foul of my aunt, who tends towards a more realistic outlook and pessimism. My aunt has Alzheimer’s now, and is beyond my mother’s reach.

I am amazed at my mother’s determination to stay cheerful. The doctors have been playing a balancing game with her mediation, between her heart’s need for assistance and her kidneys’ needs for flushing.

Today her heart is winning but her kidneys are falling behind.

‘It’s like this,’ the GP told my mother when she asked him to explain what all the fuss was about.
‘As you get older your kidneys, like your heart, get tired and need to work harder. The blood tests tell us that your kidneys are working too hard.’ He leaned in closer to my mother’s good ear.

‘It’s like you’re travelling towards a cliff,’ he said. ‘While you’re travelling on solid ground you feel fine. You say, “My kidneys, there’s nothing wrong with my kidneys. What’s all the fuss about?”

Your kidney’s might seem fine, though you’ve noticed feeling dry. You’re still heading towards the cliff and we don’t know exactly where the cliff is. So we need to reduce your medication to give your kidneys a fighting chance.’

This explanation seemed to satisfy my mother . I figured she had heard the doctor. Earlier she had agreed to wear her hearing aid for this most recent visit. More often than not these days my mother does not bother. Perhaps not hearing bad news aids her optimism.

When we returned to my mother’s room, at her request I tried to explain the doctor’s concerns once more and again the explanation seemed to satisfy her, but beyond her difficulties with hearing, my mother is also becoming forgetful of the short term.

‘I’ll be back on Thursday,’ I said as I took up my handbag to leave.
‘When you can,’ she said, ‘when you can. Don’t stress too much.’ She smiled, her eyes pools of liquid blue, red rimmed around the edges.

‘I’m happy,’ my mother said. ‘I’m always happy. It’s the way I am. And I can’t understand how it is that other people are not.’

For all her forgetfulness, I suspect my mother’s parting comment was yet another dig at my unhappy aunt.

Saturday, July 02, 2011


All week long I have dreamed swirling vistas of my past lives set before me in intimate detail, none of which I can hold onto now.

How I hate the way dreams evade me in the morning after I launch into the day.
How I hate the way they slip away, those many and exciting scenes that flew through my mind in the night while I was oblivious, unearthed, without body, merely a visual apparatus in my head that scanned the many scenes my unconscious laid out before me.

Events of the day meld with past events, old characters and new flit in and out, but I cannot hold onto the narrative of these past lives.

If only I could I would write out my dreams all day long. I would write into these fantastical stories to try to find some essence of who I am, of what I see and what I think, rather than feel so bogged down with intellectual artifice as I have felt this morning while trying to write into my father’s grief.

My father’s grief was a visceral thing. He wore it in the wrinkles on his forehead and in the stoop of his back.

He had been a replacement baby. His brother born before him bore the same name but was still born, leven los. No one talked about these things in those days.

What did my paternal grandmother do with her grief at the loss of this her first baby? Within a year she had another, a son, my father, who became her oldest followed closely by three others, one boy and two girls.

In the next generation I was born several years after the conclusion of the second world war on the other side of the world from where that war had been fought, but the legacy of this war leaked into my childhood memories like a religion.

As a child I knew there had been a terrible event called 'the war', a time of starvation and of cruelty, a time in which men killed other men, and people starved, a time when work was scarce and people froze.

No firewood for fires. Some tore up their floor boards, or chopped down street trees to make fires in the cold winter nights, until even these sources of fuel ran out.

The war seemed always to exist in my imagination during winter time, never in summer, but it ran on for years and years.

The whole of my first seven years on this earth we could have been at war at the kitchen table in Greensborough first where we lived and later in Camberwell. I was always waiting for a third world war. I still am.

Speak of war and grief seeps in, whether you fought in it or watched from a afar. War has long tentacles that reach far into the future.