Sunday, October 26, 2014

Naked on the page

Montaigne shocked everyone when he wrote about the size of his penis.  To his mind, it was small.  

Why, among the many thoughts I have encountered today, does this one stay with me?

 There are other images in my head, too: diamonds from the 1800s that are attached to springs so that when the wearer moves, they tremble, shimmer and dazzle the eye, diamonds en tremblant. 

I tried to have a conversation last night with one of my daughters about a trend that’s come to my attention whereby people post images of their so-called private bits to their lovers. 

It’s not that new, my daughter tells me.  It’s been around for ages.

Apparently, there is a new law that forbids the transmission of such images without a person’s consent. 

Jennifer Wilson, on her wonderful blog, No place for sheep, refers to revenge porn, the business of people taking it out on others by circulating compromising images or photos of the person against whom they want revenge.

A while ago I heard about a young woman in the armed forces who had sex with her boyfriend and unbeknown to her he had organised that the proceedings be videoed and circulated to his friends.  

What’s behind this, I ask myself.  Why do it?  And what is it like for the person so exposed? 

To have a photo of your labia online so that the entire world can see, or a shot of your penis, why so shocking? 

There’s the stuff of exhibitionism, the pleasure we get out of showing off our bodies and the sexual pleasure we get from being on display. 

Then, there’s the opposite: the peeping Tom effect.  The pleasure some might get out of looking, looking in preference to being involved, or being seen. 

I used to think of this as a masculine activity, the Peeping Tom, the flasher, but women can get in on the act, too. 

Women whose bodies have been put on display for centuries. 

When I was a little girl and asked my mother why the bronze Atlas holding a globe of the world on his shoulders in the framed print on the wall of her bedroom was naked, she told me, ‘The human body is beautiful’. 

I had trouble believing her then.  In a strange way I still have trouble.  Bodies can be beautiful but they’re also haunting and troubling and exciting and frightening and all these things rolled into one.  Anything to do with body bits, internal and external seems loaded.

The other day I talked to one of my sisters about prolapses.  In my mind’s eye the image that stays with me is the one that first popped in when I was little. 

One day my mother told me about a cousin in Holland who had suffered a prolapse on the dance floor.  This cannot be, I now know.  You do not suddenly suffer a prolapse.  I imagine they happen gradually, but when I was little I saw it happen on the dance floor.

My mother’s cousin’s insides slip out onto the polished wood floors like glistening red jewels en tremblant.  And my aunt is mortified.  She runs through the room to the toilets dragging her jewels behind her. 

I have since heard that a prolapse as described by my mother, the one that happened to her cousin, was of her cervix.  

This reminds me of other bodily malformations like hernias.  I’ve not seen one of these either.  

Again the idea that your insides slip out of their moorings and appear on the surface of your skin, like a burst bladder, reminds me of pregnancies, late term when it was easy to see the imprint of my baby’s foot on the surface of my skin, the round dome of her head. 

I have dreams where my skin is translucent and I can see inside my body to the unborn baby squashed inside.  And this can only take place when one is naked.  Naked on the page.

There is a YouTube series doing the rounds where a woman is interviewed and during conversation the camera stays on her as she speaks.  She perches on a stool, against a brick wall backdrop in a well lit room and as the interviewer proceeds through a series of questions about the woman and her life, her relationship to herself and her body, the interviewer asks her to take off items of clothing, one by one. 

By the end of the interview the woman sits in her underwear.  We do not see the interviewer. 

There is something strangely non-sexual about this disrobing.  Something that puts us in touch with the woman as a whole person, a woman with a body and mind, not just a sexualised body.  At least that’s how I experience it.  

A slow disrobing rather like entering into a meaningful essay where the writer gradually unfolds ideas, thoughts, images about himself/herself until in the end we are pared back to basics and somehow have much more than just a naked body, and not just any body. 

In the YouTube clip so far I have only seen naked women, and not all of them with ideal bodies. 

There are young bodies and old bodies and even physically disabled bodies.  I’ve yet to see a dark skinned body or a fat body or a hairy body or an amputated body but I imagine there is scope for these and many more. 

One essential ingredient is the capacity to be articulate in the English language in this instance and a preparedness to let it all show.    

And finally, I came across this quote from Anne Patchett: 

‘Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art ... I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. Every. Single. Time. .... This grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore is key. I can't write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.’

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Kippers and cake

On my fourteenth birthday I woke up in a strange bed in an even stranger room surrounded by cakes.  They lined the top of the wardrobe and sat cheek by jowl on the dressing table and across the chairs.  There was not a surface that did not hold at least two cakes and even in spaces on the floor Mrs K had stashed a plate filled with iced meringues. 
     My brother had driven me to Moe the night before so that I might be bridesmaid the next day when he and his already pregnant wife to be walked up the altar in the Newtown Catholic church to take their vows.  There was to be a reception in the church hall nearby.              
     It did not take me long to recognise that the cakes in this room were not in honour of my birthday but for the wedding.  Mrs K must have cooked for days. I climbed out of bed.  The floor was covered with a circular coiled rug whose ridges rubbed against my soles. I lifted the covering from one of the cakes. Surely no one would notice one missing flower.  
    One was not enough.  I looked around for more, from cake to cake, undressing each from its wrapper and scratching at the raised chunks of icing.  Then I flopped back onto the bed, guilty.  I wanted someone to find me?  It was my birthday.  I did not want to eat cake alone.
  Finally, I braved the outside corridor where Mrs K greeted me.  She waved a ten shilling note in front of her.
  “For you. Happy birthday.” 
 I took the money and thanked her.
  “Come now.  Breakfast.”  Mrs K led me down the hallway to the stink of fish.
  “We have kippers.”
I had never heard of kippers before but the smell told me I would hate to eat them, more so with a stomach full of icing.  I stared at my plate. 
  My brother arrived, clattering through the back door.  He took one look at my face, another at the plate and accused his mother-in-law to be,
     Mutti.  Don’t force her.”
Mrs K lifted my plate and passed it over to my brother.  He emptied it onto his and then reached for more.

As part of a course in beginning poetry, Earl Livings instructed us to rote learn a poem.  It's good for you, he said.  Poets do it all the time. 

 The poems I learned as a child, even as late as a fourteen year old, I can still remember with ease, but these days it's so much harder to rote learn.  

To commit Emily Dickinson's words to memory.  Words I enjoy reading but remembering them is almost impossible. 
'I cannot dance upon my toes/no man instructed me...'

How I wish I could have the rote learning capacity of my fourteen year old self, but not her predilection to cakes, her aversion to kippers and her timidity.  

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Amputated nipples

‘Speak for yourself.’

Do you ever have the urge to say these words when someone makes a universal pronouncement with which you disagree? 

I wanted to say it the other night to a man whom I met via friends, who had insisted that people in England were concerned that the face of England, its population, will be completely unrecognisable in twenty years time.  Completely taken over by foreigners, he wanted to say but did not, and not foreigners of Greek or European extraction, but mostly from the Middle East.  

You can guess the rest. 

I wanted to say, look at your self.  When your parents arrived in Australia some fifty years ago they would have suffered the same derision for being different, for coming from the Mediterranean.

Why’s it so terrible to be different? Why the pressure to be the same?

I feel the impulse run through me, too.

Take for instance, my latest preoccupation with the female body and why we women do things to ourselves to conform to some perfect ideal, even if it kills us.

In my tenth year of school I spent time as a boarder, which meant for months on end my body barely saw the light of day. 

We boarders dressed in almost darkness with a pitcher of water on our side table and a face cloth with which we swabbed down our more sensitive parts before covering ourselves from top to toe.

In those circumstances it mattered not to me that I could not shave my legs or my underarms, though I had started the practice a year earlier when, at fifteen, I decided to follow in my older sister’s footsteps and turn my legs into the supple, shining silk-like radiant things I had seen in the new advertisements directed at women in 'need of ' shavers for the fairer sex. 

At boarding school no one worried about shaving legs or underarms, until it came time for the school dance.  

My older sister who had left home by then and was studying at teacher’s training college picked me up after school one day and we travelled into the city to Adele Formal Hire where we were able to select a gown for me to wear.  It was in polka dot black chiffon over a satin lining.  The dress covered my legs to the ankles, but was sleeveless in a respectable manner.  The nuns would not tolerate anything less.  No visible cleavage, no plunging back lines, nothing suggestive of the female body underneath, only arms, legs and head visible. 

You could not see my legs, but after five months in boarding school, my underarms had sprouted a fine black layer of growth.  I  took to them with fingernail scissors during the three days each week when it was my turn to take a bath.   Boarders were rostered for separate bath times three times a week, and once a week hair washing on Saturday mornings, lined up at the basins.  

In the bathroom there was daylight or in the early evening an overhead light that enabled me to see my body, at least in bits.  There were no mirrors.  Mirrors were not allowed in the bathrooms, too likely to tempt the bodies that travelled through. 

One of the older nuns had told us that in her day, girls had to bathe in mid ankle length petticoats so that they could not see their naked bodies while bathing so as to resist temptation.  

The things women must do/did to resist, not only their own desires, but the desires of others. 

So my preoccupation at the moment with the nature of women’s bodies - how we preen them, how we attack them, how we strip them of excess, how we try to whittle them into an acceptable and universal shape, how we try to hide them, how we cover them to make them look the way we imagine others might want, the way we want ourselves  - hit me hard when I saw a YouTubeclip of women who had undergone mastectomies, nipplectomies or other forms of surgery that have left massive scars on their otherwise ordinary bodies. 

To see these images is confronting and most of all for me the thought that some of these women may have elected to have their nipples removed.  

Why would they do this?  For health reasons, in the case of cancer I can understand, but the other reasons, I’m at a loss to understand.  

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Disappearing sunflowers

My mother has been dead for six weeks now.  I think of her often.  How is she and has she found out for sure what she once believed and I long doubted, that there is a place out there somewhere where she can finally be at rest? 

It’s a curious confusion because although I operate on the belief that my mother is now no more, she lives on in my imagination and memory and in some strange way she grows bigger on re-remembering. 

One of my daughters intends to write a short biography of my mother as part of a university assignment.  She tells me she plans to write from the perspective of contested truths about my mother.  The differences between the ways my mother represented herself and the perspectives of others who knew her. 

My mother the saint, as distinct from my mother the manipulative scheming - I went to say ‘bitch’ but that seems too harsh by far.  Not my view, never my view.  Manipulative yes, but always as a function of my mother's impotence.  Her inability to ask directly out of a belief that she should somehow do without. 

I put up a picture of sunflowers on my Facebook page three weeks ago.  Glorious, upright, full faced sunflowers.  
They are now ready for the compost bin, sad and dishevelled, an embarrassment in a vase.
They put me in mind of my mother’s body before she died and the direction in which my own body now heads. 

I check my hands from time to time for signs of ageing, the tell tale liver spots, big brown freckles alongside the bulging veins on my otherwise pink fingers. 

The rings on my fingers remain the same.  They scarcely age, though the wedding ring I first wore nearly 37 years ago is beginning to thin out on one side. 

A friend, now in company with my mother out there somewhere, made this ring for me.  He cast it in gold and shaped the image of a man on one side reaching out one hand to a woman on the other.  The man is bigger than the woman.  His shoulders stand upright, the highest point of the ring’s texture, while the woman, who tends to sit on the inside of my hand, is much flatter. 

I wear my ring this way, with the man visible, the woman underneath, not consciously out of any symbolic view, but out of aesthetics and comfort.  If I try to put both figures on top and in full view they look indistinguishable and the bulky man rubs against the sides on my eternity ring on my middle finger, or if I push it against my little finger with the man it feels lumpy. 

I completed one of those inane tests you find on Facebook the other day, one which tells you after you have answered a series of multiple choice questions around your preferences, the type of person you should avoid. 

Turns out the person I should most avoid is a comedian.  The person who spends his time cracking jokes.  The person with whom I can never be serious. 

Like all these quizzes there’s a grain of truth here perhaps, though in such an absolute way as to render it almost meaningless.  

Still it set me thinking. 

I had thought the person I might most seek to avoid is a person like me, a person who talks a lot, who might tend to dominate a conversation, a person who wants to be seen and heard, unlike the woman on my wedding ring, who hides underneath and brushes up against the soft padding of my hand.

Sometimes she rubs against hard objects out there in the world, this woman who wears away into a thin semblance of herself.  This woman who disappears.  

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Alamein train

I sprayed my glasses with lens cleaner this morning to get a better perspective. I wiped them with the soft cloth one of my daughters gave me some time ago after her travels in Holland.  It imitates a Delft blau pattern of birds, flowers, leaves and squiggles, in blues, black and white.  

I need a fresh perspective. 

When I was ten I sat one day at the front gate of our house in Wentworth Avenue for long enough that the sun began to warm my skin. I sat still, hopeful no one might notice me.  

My older sister had issued house-cleaning instructions to me and my other sisters and brothers and I did not want to join them. 

I could have been clearing out lost objects from under my bed, or wiping over the dusty mantelpiece, instead I sat in the sun.  

Why must I work?  Why must I bother with the busy stuff of life when there was all this peace to be had at a gatepost in the early spring sunshine?

The others must have been busy enough not to notice my absence, or they, too, might have taken to hiding.  Only my older sister would be hard at it, cleaning and sweeping, mopping and dusting. 

Only my older sister cared about these things.  She still does.  Her house is immaculate while mine is a frenzy of clutter. 

In those days, our mother took the train from Alamein.  It stopped at all stations to Camberwell and only there joined the Lilydale line to the city.  

My mother was the only one in my family to take this train. Every Saturday when she was rostered to work she took the train to Alamein and from there she walked to Elgar Road and the children’s home where she worked.  

And every Saturday at the end of the day from five o’clock onwards my sister and I waited for our mother’s train to make the return trip to the city, stopping at all stations, including ours in East Camberwell, from which she would emerge. 

Train after train came and went and each time I heard the thrumming on the line that signified a train approaching, I peered ahead filled with expectation. 

 My sister and I watched after each train had stopped as doors opened and passengers alighted, hopeful that the silhouette of our mother might soon step onto the station and then we would be safe. 

But there were as many trains passed without my mother on board as the train that eventually carried her to us.

My sister and I, one on either side, then walked with our mother through the tunnel from the station that led up to the electricity output station, across past the scout hall and down through the park that eventually joined Canterbury Road and the final stretch home.

We did not tell our mother about our day at home with our father. We had learned to keep our minds focussed on the happy things, the good things, the joy of walking side by side with our mother at last, the smell of pink blossom from the trees outside the scout hall, the first sprinkling of spring rain. 

We held our hands over our heads and sped up our steps to keep from getting wet before we reached the shelter of the shops. 

I did not want to go home to my father, but I knew there was no other choice, no other way of living our lives other than the way we lived. 

By now his mood had dropped into one of darkness.  A tall angry man stuck in his chair, cemented there, as if frozen in time.  His comfort, the bottle at his side from which he took slurps, like a hobo in the movies. 

We did not greet him on our return but went straight for the kitchen where my mother took off her coat and filled the sink with water.  She dropped in a pile of potatoes and held each one in turn to scrub off the dirt with her fingernails, until her nails were black and each potato bare skin.  Then she left the potatoes on the sink to rinse before taking them to the chopping board for skinning and cutting. 

My father staggered into the kitchen from time to time and each time he grew louder and angrier.  He hectored my mother from the door but we said nothing.  

We were trained in the art of pretence.  We were skilled at behaving as though we were not there. 

Two small girls crouched under the kitchen table holding onto our dolls as if they were safety harnesses until our father left the room, only to wait again for his return. 

In time, my mother went into the lounge room to talk to my father who had called out for her so often she could no longer ignore him, however skilled she was in the art of invisibility.

We two girls sat under the table and addressed our dolls.  How bad they were.  How much they needed scolding.    

The potatoes boiled in their water till there was no water left to boil. 

'Autobiographers lead perilous lives'. We write our version of events and wait for others to attack in much the way my mother waited for my father in the kitchen.  We wait for someone to raise objections to what we have written.  To some, those most critical, the content of the writing is all that matters.  The content and the associations these readers make to their own lives. 

‘You have violated my privacy,’  they say.  You have spoken about people who do not want to be written about.

‘Tough,’ my daughter says when I complain of recent events.  ‘That’s what writers do.  They write about people.’ 

And those who read with an agenda, who seek to find traces of themselves in the words, or to find fault with the writer, do not read with open minds, but with a scorched earth policy that says:  you have exposed the family to ridicule.  You must be punished.

In totalitarian regimes, writers develop ways of communicating underground, ways in which the powers-that-be are unable to detect dissent. 

How else can we offer a fresh perspective in this perilous world?