Sunday, July 21, 2013

Barbed wire through the brain

Driving home on Thursday I saw a double rainbow in the sky.  I took it as a good omen even though I knew it had nothing to do with me.  I’m sick to death of this dark and gloomy winter weather and appalled with myself for feeling so.  I should appreciate all the seasons but this winter has been too cold – and too long – for me.

I don’t know how people do it.  How they write books.  After a week at it I’m exhausted.  It is such an undertaking.  There are so many different strands to tie together and all the time the editorial voice in my head is abusing me up hill and dale for my pathetic attempts. 

I’ve heard there are people out there who love the process of revising their work.  I’ve heard there are those who might struggle to get words onto the page but once the words are there they love to spend hours polishing and refining them, dragging them into shape.  

And then there are others who might enjoy the first rush of words onto the page but thereafter they want nothing to do with those words again. 

While I sat in my friend’s room in North Melbourne trying to revise my first draft, I took time off occasionally to scour the books on her bookshelf.  Most of them dealt with the art and craft of writing. 

I picked up one on revision.  It was like running a piece of barbed wire through my brain.  The writer – I did not take in his name –  talked about the importance of revision as part of our struggle towards perfection. 

He acknowledged perfection is an impossibility, but he reckons the search for it is essential, to make the book as good as we can possibly make it. 

All the time I’m tempted to flush mine down the toilet, to give up my feeble efforts as a writer and take up knitting or some other less onerous activity.

Why do we do it? my writer friend asked me when I was telling her how miserable I had been feeling. 

I had hoped to write here of a joyous week locked away writing and revising to my heart’s content, instead I am left with a deep sense of dissatisfaction.  If only a double rainbow could offer more consolation.  

Sunday, July 14, 2013

In competition with death

This is it then.  The week I take my writing life seriously and spend everyday at a writing retreat on my own, full time, apart from an interruption on Tuesday when I will take a group of creative writing students for a morning workshop. 

The rest of the week I dedicate to my manuscript, to refining it, to pulling it apart, to dragging it together, to getting the overall view.  Without distraction.

 A friend has offered me her writing room on the other side of town. She recognises my need to escape the distractions of home.  I will write two floors up from Helen Garner and sense the presence of other artists, not just writers, who will egg me on.  But will that be enough?

Terrified is too strong a word. My dreams tell the story.  In one I decide to tidy up my writing room.  I look around and there are cobwebs as thick as veils.  I decide to cull my clothes and papers and then slip into a story of my younger self.  

I park my car near St Ignatius church in Richmond as I have decided to go to Mass each morning before I begin to write.  

I sit in the front pew, my habit since childhood.  I have two heavy bags filled who loose notes and my manuscript. I sit beside a woman dressed in her Sunday finest and a man weighed down with age.  The priest, a famous Australian Bob Maguire look-alike, begins his sermon and in my head the words form;
‘What am I doing here?’

I pick up my bags and leave the church to the shock and disgust of the woman beside me.  I look for my car but it has disappeared.  I lose precious writing time in search of it and before I know it I am into day two of my writing week. 

And here ends my memory of a dream that speaks to me about my anxiety over the forthcoming week.

Last night a cold sore erupted on my bottom lip.  Predictable I thought.  My anxiety attacks my lip in the form of this virus that rests there dormant most of the time.  I imagine a direct link between my brain, my mind and all its teeming fears and the virus in my lip, like a troll underneath a bridge waiting to pounce, the virus waits for when I am most vulnerable.  And so it is today.

There are these four precepts I have absorbed over the years in relation to the business of writing.

The one is ‘to show up’. 
The next is ‘to tell the truth’, not necessarily literally but certainly emotionally, if that makes sense. 
The third is ‘to pay attention to the sensory detail’.
And the final precept, ‘to remain unattached to the outcome’, to me is the hardest.  I think of it as permission to write badly, but even with this idea firmly in place it's hard to resist the demons in my head that insist on something better, something worthwhile. 

I visited my mother last night.  Her first words:  'I think I will live to one hundred.'  She is in competition with death. 

After several minutes of listening to my mother repeat herself again and again, the Ground Hog Day experience of a woman who is fast losing her memory, her short term memory, and knows it, she told me yet again how well she feels, how young she feels, though she knows she is old.  

And what can you expect of someone in her nineties, but that she will slow down.  Slow down and do only what she wants. 

‘That’s why I’m so happy,’ my mother said.  'Nothing worries me any more.  My body won’t let me do the things I used to do, but I don’t mind.  Why not live till I'm one hundred?’

That’s another six years,’ I told my mother by way of warning and reconciling myself to the thought of all those weekly visits down the freeway.

‘But I won’t be counting every minute,’ my mother said.  ‘Why should I?’

Whenever my mother tells me how free she is of anxiety, I am reminded of my own, as if we live in a parallel universe.  One carries all the optimism while the other shoulders its opposite.

Not that I am pessimistic, by no means no.  But I am still able bodied and as such I cannot declare with the same frivolity as my mother that I will only do as I please.

I climbed on top of my desk just now to resurrect a fallen series of pictures that one of my daughters once wrote about her life.  She was little when she wrote it and called it 'All about me'. 

I fear the post you have just read reads similarly, 'all about me' and the long held complaint directed against the autobiographical rises to the surface.  Narcissistic clap trap. 

I spend my life apologising for the things I write and then go into battle to defend them.  This will be my struggle during the next week.

Here then is a picture from the series my daughter produced 'All about me' taken years ago when she was just on three.  Someone had painted her face at the local school fete.  And thereby my daughter could change her identity into that of a cat for a few hours.

Oh that I could do likewise, change my identity, not into a cat, but into a serious writer, who succeeds in her task. 

Monday, July 08, 2013

Religion, sex and psychoanalysis

‘You gave up the church for psychoanalysis,’ my mother says, during one of our many arguments about my leaving the church.  ‘It’s just another form of religion but it has no moral core.’  She points her finger at me and waggles it.  ‘And that fellow who started it all.  Well, what can I say?’

My mother first warned me against Freud when I was at university doing an Arts degree and majoring in psychology. 

‘He had cancer of the jaw.’
‘From smoking,’ I said. 
‘No’, she told me, ‘much worse.’  Never once did she spell out what worse was.  I knew she was hinting at sexual peculiarities and perversion.  Little did my mother know, I gave up the church long before I began my analysis.

I was nineteen years old, home alone, cramming for my first year exams.  My philosophy lecturer had telephoned to tell me I’d failed the previous examination because I didn’t answer the question.  It was on the issue of ethics.  One of those exams where you’re told the question beforehand and sit for an hour under exam conditions to write the answer.  I thought I had it all worked out, even rote learned my response.  It was the first time I’d failed anything, apart from mental arithmetic in grade six, and that didn’t count.
If I tried hard in the next exam, my lecturer told me, I could still pass.
On the third day of swat vac, a friend telephoned.
‘Come down to my place,’ he said.  My friend was a failed dietetics student who worked in a city bookshop where we met.  We worked together during the university holidays.  He was downstairs in general fiction while I worked upstairs with the other casuals flogging second-hand textbooks.
‘It’s a glorious day,’ he said.  ‘We can spend it together here.’
‘But I’ve got to study.’
‘One day off can’t hurt.’
I walked to the train station in the crisp spring light.  The train rattled its way to Edithvale.  I could see the bay from my window, a strip of blue and silver.  Guilt hung heavily but I shrugged it off.
My friend lived with his parents in a pale green weatherboard halfway down a street that ran off the Nepean Highway.  All the houses in the street looked the same.  Long concrete driveways down one side, and in front, neat lawns of cropped couch grass, bordered by hydrangeas and ti-tree.
Inside, three porcelain ducks flew up one wall and a couple of round, stand-alone tables served as ashtrays, beside two his and hers Jason recliners that were propped in front of the television.  The place reeked of stale cigarettes.  His mother worked as a supervisor in the delicatessen at Safeway.  His father, a returned soldier who drank too much beer and spent most of his time at the RSL, grew orchids in a hot house attached to the back. 
My friend had taken the day off work while his parents were away.  He used to bet on the horses and by the time I arrived, the second race at Sandown had already run.  I could hear the drone of the race caller through the open window when I pressed the doorbell.
Although it was not a hot day, he answered the door in his shorts with no shirt.  He was stocky, with a round face and a delicious cherubic smile.  His boyishness belied the fact that he was several years older than me.  I melted at the sight of him.
‘I’ve won on two races,’ he said, as he ushered me down the hallway, ‘and I’m looking for a third.’
He led me to his bedroom, pulled off his shorts and climbed into bed.  I’d never seen a man naked before; I had to look away.  I sat on the bed’s edge, my hands in my lap and eyed my sandals.
‘Come on,’ he said, ‘ get in.’
‘I don’t think I should.’
He’d kissed me before, once or twice.  He’d held my hand when he took me to the Spring Racing Carnival at Caulfield.  I’d argued with my mother when he first asked me out.  He’d wanted to take me to Fellini’s Satyricon. 
‘You can’t see a film like that,’ my mother said.
‘But he’s going with a group of friends specifically to see that very film.  I can’t say no.’
‘If you can’t say no now, when will you ever be able to?’
I went to the film. 

It was a clumsy seduction in a tight single bed.  More than once I hit my head on the bedstead above.  It served as a bookshelf and held Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and a book on chess.  My friend stopped briefly to listen to the results of the third race and crowed when his horse won again.  Then he turned off the radio. 
Although God came into my mind, He didn’t stay for long.  I’d learned early not to touch myself or let anyone else touch me for that matter.  I had two holes below, or so I chose to believe, one for peeing, one for shitting, no more, no less.  I was content with that.  Then one day my sister told me about the third hole and its function, the making of babies.  She didn’t mention pleasure. 
I hadn’t felt any.
There was a line of blood on the sheet when it was over.  My friend stripped the bed and threw the sheet into the washing machine then offered me a cup of tea. 
The next Sunday, my mother and I sat in the front pew of the Church of Mary Immaculate.  Head bowed, I considered the possibility of taking communion.  I was in a state of mortal sin, for the first time in my life.  Any guilt I felt was outweighed by the pleasure of knowing I was now a woman. 
As much as I feared committing a sacrilege, I feared my mother more.  I lined up alongside her as the priest in white and gold tipped the host onto outstretched tongues.  I was convinced at the instant of contact between my tongue and the host I would shrivel up in a burst of flame.  When nothing happened, no heavenly voice spoke and my mother failed to notice the telltale blush on my cheeks, I decided it was all a hoax.  Same as when I was ten years old and they abolished the ban on eating meat on Fridays and stopped requiring three hours of fasting before communion.  How could it be, I pondered, that such well-established rules, sanctified by the Pope in Rome, could be so readily dropped?
I had wrestled with impure thoughts before.  It was never enough simply to admit to them.  In the dark of the confessional my cheeks burned whenever I tried.  The priest always wanted more detail and I could never find the words.  I gave up trying.
A month later my friend took a job in the pub at Tocumwal and I never saw him again. 

Ten years after that seduction, I entered analysis.  The consulting room was full of the scent of aromatic oil and Christmas lilies.  There was always a bunch of fresh flowers.  It reminded me of a church.  My analyst sat still and silent in her high-backed chair. 
When I was little, I saw a nun eating spaghetti.  I had knocked politely on the staff room door to leave a message for one of the teachers.  Through the corner of my eye I saw her, Sister Perpetua eating tinned spaghetti.  She forked the soft strands into her mouth.  Until that very moment I thought nuns did not eat nor did they use the toilet.  Under their habits I imagined clockwork bodies, fuelled by love of God.
Although she had a toilet in the back of her garden specifically for the benefit of her patients, I refused to use it.  My analyst lived some distance from my house and everyday I visited her, I allowed enough time to stop at the shopping centre near her consulting room to relieve myself.  I wanted to be nun-like too. 
I visited my analyst five times a week.  She lived in a double storey weatherboard perched on top of a hill three houses from the beach.  Her consulting room stood beside the house, a separate apartment with high windows shielded by trees.  Her sloping garden was carefully tended, in some places even restrained with neat beds and close-cropped bushes.  Freesias and jonquils fought for space in wild clumps across her lawn.  Elsewhere, like her, my analyst’s garden could surprise me.  It was wild and spontaneous like the crooked arms of the ti-tree and geraniums that entwined along her rocky front wall.
I spoke to my analyst from the couch and rarely looked directly at her.  Whenever I arrived at her consulting room, I kept my eyes to the ground as she ushered me in, to avoid her gaze, but I took note of her shoes.  They were brightly coloured to match her clothes. 
My analyst’s couch was like a bed, a single bed with a teal blue cover.  Lying there flat on my back with my eyes closed, I remembered the title of a book I’d read about an old woman’s last years confined to bed in a nursing home, This Bed My Centre.  My analyst’s couch became my centre.  Unlike the priest in the confessional whose interest felt prurient, my analyst’s interest was genuine.  I spoke; she listened.  She spoke and I listened and we learned from one another.
The last time I saw her, she took my hand when we came to say goodbye.  Before then we had only exchanged words.  Her own hands were large and tanned.  On her right fourth finger she wore a silver ring.  It held an oval stone, a lapis lazuli that matched the blue of the sea that rolled unceasingly near her house. 
When I walked away that final time, I took with me a sprig of geranium from her front fence.  I planted it down the side of my house.  It took root in that effortless way geraniums do.  Within a year it flowered.  Within another it was gone.  The builders ripped it out to make room for their equipment during renovations. 
After it was gone, nothing happened.  The sky did not fall down.  The earth did not crack.  There was nothing left for me to take up now.  No noble causes, no ideal ways of being, no firm system of beliefs.  No way of escape. 

‘I feel sorry for people like you,’ my mother says.  ‘It’s all me, me, me.  You just do as you please.’
I’ve learned to say nothing.  I sit and wait till the storm has passed.
‘When you want to live without any discipline at all, you’re not growing but heading for disaster.’  My mother is older now, grey haired and shrunken.  The book she is reading falls off her lap.  She struggles to get to her feet and reaches for her walking stick.
My baby is asleep in her carry basket.  She’s bundled up ready to leave. 
‘And what about her?’ my mother says, pointing down at the baby’s head.  ‘How will you teach her to lead a good life?’  She jabs her walking stick at the floor as she staggers behind me to the front door.
I click the carry basket into its position on the back seat of the car and kiss my mother goodbye. 
‘Without some form of religion, there can be no moral sense,’ my mother says.
I wind down the window.  ‘Don’t worry, Mum.  I’m sure we’ll all be okay in the end.’
‘How can you, without God?’
I release the hand brake, indicate and pull out into the street.  In the side rear view mirror I can see my mother, soon a dot on the horizon.  She’s still waving, still hoping I suppose, if she prays hard enough, her daughter can be saved.

‘Religion, sex and Psychoanalysis’, Psychotherapy in Australia, Vol. 14, No. 3, May 2008