Saturday, December 29, 2012

A would-be feminist rant

Women over populate my life.  Four daughters, three sisters, and a professional life both in the world of psychology and of writing that these days is dominated by the presence of women.  It is the same wherever I go.  

The Melbourne Writers’ Festival.  Check out the audience: all those heads, the dyed or otherwise greying hair of women, mostly older women, though there are some young ones in between.  Maybe a quarter of them at most are men.  I do not know the statistics.  The ratio is much the same in psychotherapy circles, one man to every four women. 

I prefer a more balanced mix of gender, including the in between, the hybrids, the transgendered.  I tell myself I would prefer there were more men present, at the same time I am sensitive to the degree to which men tend to dominate conversations.  

Research suggests that from the beginning in early childhood at kindergarten and primary school, teachers spend more time addressing the boys. I risk a generalisation here but it seems to me from earliest days girls learn to communicate with words, whereas boys are more inclined towards action, including action words.

In September this year, the feminist activist, comedian and all round ‘nuisance’ woman, Catherine Deveny was on the panel of Q and A with the likes of Peter Jensen, the Anglican archbishop of Sydney.  Catherine Deveny gets bad press as a loud mouth.  She invites it to some extent because of some of the things she says, like her comment about Bindi Erwin and the hope that she ‘get laid’.  

A non-academic Germaine Greer of sorts, Deveny by and large is on the side of the underdog, on the side of women, but she too enjoys her friendships with men and what seems like a loving partnership with a man with whom she cares for two sons, though to her great pride the couple remain unmarried.  I befriended Deveny on Face Book because I enjoy her style; though I watch other peoples’ faces crumple at the mention of her name.

I mention Deveny here because of the battle over the number of words ascribed to her during this session of Q and A.  Several twitterers and bloggers considered her to have dominated the show.  She cut across the other panelists, people complained, when in fact she did no such thing. 

Chrys Stevenson analysed the data and found that as is typically the case the men used more words, and cut across people more often, while the two women on the panel spoke less.  Not to get into a battle between the sexes, I think about these issues here in my rambling disjointed and broken way of thinking – I am a woman after all – my father’s daughter, my husband’s wife.  I recognize the imbalance of power in my world where women are mainstream but men get the cream.  The cream of jobs, the cream of books reviewed, the cream of recognition.

Despite the prevalence of patriotism everywhere, including and for me especially during my childhood, somehow the men often seem to wind up worse off than the women who are downtrodden, though not in extreme cases.  Witness the plight of certain Muslim women, Indian women, women in deeply patriarchal societies where to speak out as a woman is to risk getting your head cut off, and not just metaphorically. 

When I first started to write again, many years ago after a destabilising event that left me demoralized, I could only seek solace in words on the page.  I realised then the degree to which writing has come to be dominated by what Ursula Le Guin has called ‘father tongue.’  Father tongue, the language of the academy, the so-called objective language that seeks distance; that resents uncertainty and demands closure.  This as distinct from mother tongue, the language of mothers and babies, mothers and children, the language that Le Guin argues is closest to poetry.  It flies on the wind.  It is repetitive and simple.  It thrives on doubt. 

Both languages are essential Le Guin argues but there is a danger when one presupposes superiority over the other, as evidenced in the hostile response to Deveny’s non-rational comments juxtaposed to the less virulent responses to the so-called objective and reasoned thoughts of her fellow mostly male panelists.  We need both mother tongue and father tongue to develop what Le Guin describes as native tongue but this is not easy in a world dominated by the patriarchal.

My sensitivity to such things derives from my life in a family top heavy with men and this time not only in notion, but also in fact.  There were eleven of us in my family, six males, five females.  My father at the head.  He ran the show.  He earned the money.  My mother obeyed.  

At least overtly she obeyed.  If ever she defied him it was a hidden defiance, one she undertook in stealth.  That was until she caught my father at my sister’s bedside and the look on his face told her he had over stepped the mark.  My sister was sitting in bed, the blankets pulled up to her chin, like a little bird, my mother said, while my father leered. 

‘Get out of here,’ my mother said to my father.  ‘If I ever see you with her again I’ll kill you.’  
Later she thought my father’s visits to my sister had stopped, but my mother could not bear to see, and my sister protected her by keeping my father’s further visits a secret.

I do not want to suggest that men are the bad guys here and women are the victims.  We are all in this together.  The other night at dinner after a day long writing workshop, four women and one man, we talked of travels overseas, and one woman, the youngest among us, talked of how she had been groped six times in India in less that six days until she finally saw red.  She ran after the man who had grabbed her breast, and yelled at him that he should not behave so while squeezing a bottle of water over his head.  She yelled at him all the way down the street and imagined-hoped, she said, that she had managed to shame him in front of friends and family.  

‘It happens all the time,’ she said. 

Not to me, I thought.  But then again I have not travelled through India, or Rome, or the Middle East where others have told me such extreme exploitation of women takes place.  And I am over fifty, the age they say when women disappear from view as sexual objects.

Alas, these unwarranted gropings do not just happen overseas.  I went to the most recent Reclaim the Night march in Sydney Road in Brunswick in October this year.  The march followed closely on the death of Jill Meagher.  This much publicized event took Melbourne by storm.  Jill Meagher was young, beautiful and talented.  She worked in the media.  She had a profile in her ordinary day-to-day life that drew people’s attention to her, but now she is dead and her alleged killer is in prison awaiting trial.

There was a storm of protest when Jill Meagher disappeared, mostly fueled by comments on social media and people’s rage which apparently made it easier for police to track down the alleged killer.  When I heard they had found him, not only did I feel relief, the man was off the streets at last, my daughters might be safe, especially the one who lives in Brunswick close by to where Jill Meagher was raped and murdered, I also felt sorry for the children of this man, boys or girls, what does it matter?  

How is it to live your life in the knowledge that your father is a sexual predator and a murderer?  I know something of what life is like with a father who sexually abuses his oldest daughter and moves in the direction of his younger daughters.  And it sucks.  It sucks because it makes you twitchy in relation to all things sexual.  And it makes you wary of relations with men.  Not that I haven’t had my share of them.  And I have been married for 35 years to a man who even as a successful lawyer and a man of many talents still struggles to find an identity in a world, his world dominated by women, his mother, his sisters, his wife and four daughters. 

He calls it girlie talk when we prattle away in whatever is of interest to us at the time, the price of the new Funkey shoes, the intricate details of my daughter’s recent birth of her son, the latest gossip about the girls at my youngest daughter’s school.  I am used to my husband’s disdain and often times will try to redirect the conversation to something that might feel more inclusive of him, but my daughters are less so inclined. 

It is not simply the gender divide.  The generation gap applies too.  My husband who had his formative years during the hippie loving seventies now and then comes out with schoolboy humour, lightweight sexual innuendo to my ears but to my daughters, his jokes are appalling.  He once argued with one daughter and in the heat of the moment referred to her as a tart.  She objected to the word.  She still does.  She considers it an affront to have a father who calls her a tart.  He used the term not to describe her appearance but more because he was angry about her behavior, too long on the telephone or some such thing. 

I argued with my daughter over her sensitivity to the word.  ‘Bitch would have been better,’ she said to us, ‘but not tart.  Tarts are prostitutes.’  My husband learns to hold his tongue. 

Language changes and with it words take on new meanings.  The politically correct extracts its toll and plays its part in the power imbalance between men and women. 

When I was young I thought my father ruled the house, but there came a time when my parents were around the age I am now, not long before my father died, when the tables turned.  My mother took up voluntary work with the church visiting impoverished families in the high-rise estates in Fitzroy.  My father by now had retired.  He did not like her going out while he was stuck at home alone.  He did not want her to learn to drive for fear she would never stay home.  Instead he drove her in and out of the city from Cheltenham every day in order that she should be near.

The tables turned and my father, once the strong one became the helpless dependent one right up until his death.  And my mother grew stronger once he was gone. 

Monday, December 24, 2012

My hips are still agile

Christmas Eve and I’m well again.  At last.  Only a few days of ill health but enough to have me imagine I would never feel okay again, never my normal self.  Last week I copped a virus of some sort, presumably one I caught from my grandson after he had stayed with us.  I held myself together until the final day of my work and then collapsed. 

It’s always the way.  I’ve come to expect it: go on holidays and fall ill, mostly with a minor ailment but I tend to imagine it’ll be worse, as if I’m waiting for the final diagnosis that signifies my pending death. 

I’ve said this before, I’m sure.  When I was young I thought sixty would be a terrific age at which to die.  When I was young, a child at primary school, old age seemed such a foreign country.

Last night I visited my mother in her retirement village, the centre of that foreign country.  I arrived at the end of dinner and walked with her as she shuffled back from the dining room.  There was a bottleneck of people hunched over their walkers as we entered the corridor that leads back to her room, three old people staggering on the slight incline that leads from one part of the corridor to the next, my mother at the rear.  I looked down at my mother's legs visible under her skirt, at her angular though shapely ankles, on her unsteady feet.  And I shuddered.  

It was hot yesterday, and yet it had stayed cool in the nursing home as my mother proceeded to tell me while she manoeuvred her walking frame behind her fellow residents.  Her hips swayed from side to side as if without the frame she might totter to the ground. 

My hips are still agile.  I can walk without difficulty, though yesterday while I was shrugging off the last of the virus, still feeling queasy, I went with one of my daughters into the city for a dose of last minute Christmas shopping, and thought otherwise.
            ‘Why do you need to stand around like that?’ my daughter said to me after she came out of the change room where she had tried on a new dress, a potential Christmas present.  ‘Like you’re a person with special needs?’

I was not aware I had been standing around in such a way.  I imagine she expected me to look purposeful but by this time of the year after more than one such visit to David Jones's women’s clothes’ department – four daughters after all, two of whom have particular tastes in clothes – I found myself looking for a seat while I waited for said daughter to try things on. 

 I have noticed, in this department store at least, there are no seats available for the likes of me on which to sit.  There was a sort of cabinet in the Ted Baker section with a British flag painted on top – Ted Baker must be an English label, not one my daughters choose – so I sat on the edge of it.  None of the sales staff seemed to mind.  But my daughter found my sitting there troublesome.  

I did not find my mother’s gait troubled me yesterday, not at my age now, other than as a reminder of what is to come.  My daughter on the other hand is in her mid twenties still in that place where old age is foreign territory and not worth considering in terms of self yet.  

After my mother had reached her arm chair and flopped down into it, I sat on the flat seat of her walker nearby.  Proximity makes it easier for her to hear me.  

For the first time I noticed a bracelet on my mother's wrist, one I had not seen before.  She told me she had bought it in Holland.  It was silver with delicate incisions cut into the surface like lace.  I knew at once I wanted it. 

There is not much that my mother leaves behind that I desire other than her bracelets, this one and another, a gold bracelet, an heirloom left to her by a long dead aunt, also from Holland – a thick gold chained bracelet that is linked to a single guilder.  I would be happy to settle for one bracelet only, if I could choose, but how could I tell this to my mother? 

So far it has been easy to tell her that I’m okay about most things she leaves behind.  She can choose.   Though I once mentioned a particular preference for the crucifix on her mantlepiece, not for religious but for sentimental reasons, as in it revives memories of the time it sat on the mantelpiece throughout my childhood.  

The crucifix will no doubt go to one of my mother’s more religious children.  Sentiment is not a good enough reason to inherit a crucifix. 

Bracelets are different. We daughters might fight over them after our mother has gone.  Not that we would fight.  Not openly at least.  We never fight, not these days, not as we fought when we were young.  

To speak of wanting something was forbidden from my earliest memories, only hinting would do.  But it is no longer in my style to hint. 

Next time I see my mother I will ask outright.  It’s not as hard as asking her other questions about the past whose answers she holds so close to her chest I fear she will never part with them. 

A bracelet is easy to give away even if to speak of it again is to signify death.  And then I imagine myself wearing my mother's bracelet.   I imagine my skin brush against the bracelet that my mother's skin now brushes against and feel a mixture of pleasure and of revulsion.  Such these days is my attitude towards death.  

And here for good cheer is the Lemon Myrtle my youngest daughter and I dragged in from our garden for this year’s Christmas tree.  My daughter decorated it with her nephew.  Together they basked in that lovely place where old age and death are almost unthinkable.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Not with this crowd

They arranged a dinner party for the Saturday night, a dinner at Rosie and Joe’s house, a dinner supposedly to celebrate the Cup Day weekend, but in my mind more a front for meeting me.

I had met the man who was to become my husband only three weeks earlier.  From the outset I knew he was part of a group of friends, close knit friends, friends who were so keen on each other, so much in each other’s pockets, that they met monthly to discuss the possibility of forming a commune together, in the country somewhere, close to the beach for easy escape, Wilson’s Prom, Kennett river, far enough out of Melbourne to avoid the nuclear holocaust they were convinced would happen any day soon.

My own life up to that point had been so nuclear that I had not considered escape possible but meeting this man who would one day become my husband made the thought of settling down a possibility, only not with this crowd, I reckoned. 

We sat down to pre-dinner snacks, a tapenade of sorts, olives, cabana sticks, chunks of tasty cheese on skewers and wine.

I had not eaten much all day. Hell bent on staying invisible I had tried to convince myself that food was unnecessary. 
 ‘You look lovely’, Verity said.  Verity, the matriarch of the bunch.  I could feel her eyes upon me the whole evening.  I could feel all of them sizing me up. 

Who was this woman who had come along and taken over their favourite friend, the group clown, the one who until now had managed to stay single, except for one disastrous episode with Fran a year before?  Fran who had once become so angry she smashed his entire pottery collection. 

They looked to me as if they were sizing me up as the next Fran, and I performed accordingly.

I did not mean to drink too much, but within an hour I was off to the toilet on wobbly legs, not to be sick but to catch my breath and next to the toilet was the bedroom with a double bed that called to me. 

I would just have a nap.  The wine made my head spin.  I needed to sleep.

I woke in darkness, confused as to my whereabouts and still drunk.

To this day I do not know what overcame me.  Thoughts of my father, himself a drunk. 
‘Go away,’ I called out to the night to some imaginary presence, my father, who hovered over my bed.

A baby started to cry.  I had woken the baby, Rosie’s baby, who shared her parent’s bedroom.

My husband to be came into the room.
‘What’s up with you?’ he said.
‘I’m scared,’ I said.
‘You’re drunk,’ he said.

Joe came in.  ‘Give her these.  They’ll help her to settle.’

I swallowed the two white pills with water and lost touch with the night.

In the morning I woke to a thumping head.  My husband to be and I were in the same bed.  We had taken over Rosie and Joe’s bedroom.  They’d moved with the baby into the spare room.  My husband to be refused to speak to me. 

We four sat in silence over a breakfast I could not eat. Rosie spooned mouthfulls of sludge into the baby’s mouth.  I wanted to get out of there. 

Still dressed in my long hippie dress of the night before, the dress Verity had so admired, I all but tripped over on my way out.  Rosie and Joe were kind.  They looked consolingly at my husband to be.

He did not speak to me in the car on our way home until we closed the front door of his share house behind us and creaked into his bedroom.
 ‘You’re going to have to apologise,’ he said.  ‘If you keep this up you’ll need therapy or we won’t make it.’

I telephoned Verity.
 ‘What are you talking about?’ she said.  ‘It was a lovely evening.’

I telephoned Monica.
 ‘That’s okay,’ she said.  ‘We all get carried away sometimes.’

 I telephoned Rosie and Joe.
 ‘You should have seen Monica the night she drank too much and fell asleep at the table.’

I had been accepted into the inner sanctum, perhaps, but there was a caveat.  I saw it in their eyes when next we met.  I saw the way they looked at my husband to be at the first commune planning meeting we attended together.

They wanted people in the commune with practical skills.  They wanted people in the commune who could cook, keep house, make babies.

They did not want people in the commune who got drunk, smashed pottery or woke babies. 

It became a choice then: me or the commune.  My husband to be needed to choose. 

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Open doors and apologies all round

My husband left the flame under the pan this morning after he had cooked up a batch of bacon and chorizo. When I walked into the kitchen to fetch my second cup of tea for the morning the place was grey with smoke.  He was reading the newspaper at the kitchen table and had not noticed until I pointed it out and then we discovered the overheating fry pan. 

Open doors and apologies all round.  The smoke has dispersed though the smell of burned fat remains.  It could have been worse.  It could have been kippers, another of my husband’s favourite weekend breakfasts, and one which leaves its traces in the air long after it’s been eaten.

I can’t get Varuna out of my mind.  The smell of the house, musty, the green of the garden and its warmth.  It can get cold in the Blue Mountains but I have only been there through the sultry heat of an early summer, when the weather is unpredictable in the form of heavy storms, early mists, higher temperatures and rising humidity.   

 Varuna, outside my window, and inside the Green Room.
‘Let my nerves be strained like wires between the city of no and the city of yes!’  Yevtushenko.
These are the words that someone had penned onto a scrap of paper in blue ink and pinned to the fridge in the kitchen at Varuna.  They have stayed with me as a reminder of the tension between writing and life.  

Yesterday my youngest daughter went for her driver’s license and passed.  It’s the end of an era for me.  Four daughters, all of whom can now drive a car, or at least are licensed to drive. 

To me it’s a major achievement largely because it took me so long to get mine.  I had left home by then but even if I were still at living at home I could no more imagine my father taking me out to practice driving than asking him to walk me up the aisle.  Neither of which I did. 

Instead I left learning to drive until I was in my early twenties and into my first proper job.  I paid for driving lessons from an instructor who took me out sometimes twice weekly in his turquoise Datson Z.  We drove through the streets of Caulfield. 

In those days I had broken up with my first long term boyfriend and shared a flat with my youngest sister in Narong Road.  My driving instructor may have had an islander background judging by his dark complexion and shock of wary hair.  He was kind and competent.

‘You’re phobic about driving,’ he said to me one day after months of seemingly getting nowhere.  I drove all right but I panicked whenever I needed to make a major change, for instance whenever I needed to go down the gears to slow down or to stop.

I failed my license twice as a result. The first time I could not bring myself to stop when a man with a wheelbarrow crossed the footpath of the exit to the driving school.  I nearly ran him over.  The instructor stopped the test immediately.  The second time round I failed because I completely stuffed up the parallel parking.  By rights I should have failed a third time because I could not master parallel parking but my final examiner took pity on me and let me through. 

I have not been able to parallel park since those days, but if there is a large enough space between cars I can now reverse into place without too many turns of the wheel.  I’m comfortable driving these days but I was such an anxious driver in my early years that I have worried about passing on these anxieties to my daughters.  It seems I have not succeeded.  They are all more confident behind the wheel than I ever was.  

I think I may be experiencing similar difficulties as I experienced learning to drive in relation to writing my book,  not writing it per se, but putting it together.

It is as if I have trouble getting the gears to work in harmony in order to master my story.  You might have noticed, a tendency to be all over the shop.  

Still, I tell myself, I will get there.  What other writer hasn’t struggled in such an endeavour?  Besides, I learned to drive in my twenty second year finally and I have been driving ever since, give or take a year when I first held my license, but was too scared to use it.  Now that's another story.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

You cannot shame the dead

And so I took the train through places whose names are familiar to me, through Blaxland, Westmead and Penrith, Emu Plains, Wentworth Falls to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. 

Here in the Green room I have a view at the corner to east and south or north and west.  I cannot tell which because I am geographically challenged. 

I have come to Varuna to find my father, or some semblance of him in a deeper directionality than I have known to date. 

Within half an hour of my arrival a storm typical for this time of the year erupted. 

Unplug, for fear of storms.  The house sits on an iron stone, and therefore despite all the precautions in the world, the manager tells us, ‘It’s safest to unplug.’

A breeze dense with the smell of rain pushes against the curtains and washes away some of the musty smell of this house in which countless writers have penned their words. 

I look at the photo of my father as a boy, maybe six, maybe seven.  He sits on the floor cross-legged, one in a row of seven children who sit in the first row in front of the adults at what looks to be a wedding shot. 

My grandparents are there too, in the corner first row standing behind the seated adults, which include the wedding couple.  I guess they are a married couple because the woman in white carries a bouquet, but she has no veil. 

The photo could have been taken in Freud’s time though not in Vienna, but in Haarlem, Holland where my father lived for his entire childhood, and where my father met my mother and from where he took her to Australia before I was born. 

I do not know why there are tears behind my eyes when I look at these photos, something about my inability to make sense of these times and these people, especially of my father and my father’s father and his mother.  The mystery of these people. 

The boy who was once my father’s has lowered his head but he lifts his eyes towards the camera as if he mistrusts the person taking the photo and his arms are folded.  Some of the other children in the photo fold their arms as well.  A technique of the photographer in those days to keep the children still perhaps.

No one smiles as is the custom in these old photos, several are caught at that moment with eyes closed, including my paternal grandfather, the one who looks to me as though he could never be a relative of mine.  My grandmother on the other hand looks like me, the same long face, the angular chin. 

My great grandparents are in this photo, too.  They sit on the side of the bride and I can only assume that this photo was taken at the wedding of my father’s aunt.  Apart from my father, I knew none of these people unless I am to include my aunt Nell who might well be the baby in the photo seated on my great grandmother’s knee. 

Nell, I have met.  Nell who was named after my grandmother, Petronella and whom I by rights should have been named after but by the time I was born my mother tells me, my grandmother, Nell was ‘in disgrace’.

‘What did she do?’ I asked my mother, even as I have some idea of the answer.  I want my mother’s view. 

 But to ask my mother questions such as these plunges her into a fug of memory to which she does not want to return.  I can see it in her eyes.  That glazed look.  A look that says, ‘Must we go there again.  I can’t bear to think on it.  I only want to think about the good times.’ 

My mother is 93.  I should leave her in peace.  I should not trouble her about these things, but I cannot help myself. 

I worry at these thoughts like a dog at a bone.  I worry at these thoughts as if I am scratching at a wound whose scab is dry and ready to shear off but I know I should leave it scale off without help from me. And yet I persist.

‘We know she was imprisoned for embezzlement, but there was more to it than that.’

Your father had nothing to do with it, my mother says yet again as she has told me before.  An inspector came to our house.  An inspector with brass buttons on  his coat, brass buttons that my mother tells me were signs of his authority and he told my mother that she had nothing to worry about.  That my father had left home well before the events that led to his parents’ imprisonment took place. 

But what did they do?

‘Something sexual.  Something with the children.  The girls I think.  The boys, your father, they saw nothing.’

‘How can you be so sure,’ I say to my mother as I peel back another layer from her denial.  How can you be so sure given what he did to us? 

Even as I write this now I agonise over the name I might offer my older sister.  It is against the law to name the victims of incest in courts of law in the public domain.  It is all to do with protecting the innocence of the victims.  I have never understood this. 

How can the victims be held responsible for what was done to them as children and yet in concealing their names it is as if we blame them in some way?

 It comes down to shame. 

We are safe to name the dead, but not the living, for fear of shame.  You cannot shame the dead.