Friday, December 31, 2010

Olive trees are like camels.

The power went off during the night and all the clocks have stopped, the ones that operate on mains power. There must have been a power surge, which is ironic given the fact that it’s New Years Eve.

Even during the holidays I like to know the time. I woke with a start to a blinking digital alarm that flashed 12.09 at me repeatedly and then went in search of the time. My wristwatch still works.

I had intended not to sleep too late in order to find space to write before my 10.30am appointment with the physiotherapist. Later today my husband and I also have our annual check up with the eye doctor.

My husband thinks he needs new glasses. He hopes he does because his lenses are scratched and he wants to justify replacing them. I think I’d be happy to keep my glasses as they are, but if I need new ones then I will go for it. I love to be able to see clearly.

A message just now on my mobile phone from my third daughter to let us know she is on her way home from Adelaide, or 'Radelaide' as she jokingly refers to the state next door to ours. She is leaving now.

I will worry subcutaneously all day long until I see her safe and sound at the end of the day. It is an eight-hour drive and she travels with her girl friend, the two of them share the driving. Long distance driving is always dangerous, but they made it there, as she messaged me two days ago, a good trip except for the locusts.

The locusts are out in plague proportions in various parts of the country because of the recent rains. The drought had kept them in check until now. It is terrifying for the farmers and can be dreadful for our crops.

I have finally begun work on my tax, another annual event, which I despise and next week I have my two yearly pap smear at the doctor’s. For me the Christmas holidays become a time for annual events, physical check ups, house cleaning and reconciling my accounts.

I put off these things until the end of the year and get straight into them the minute the last bauble is off the tree. I have already returned our Christmas decorations to their boxes till next year.

It is too early I know but the olive tree we keep in a pot and brought inside to decorate this year was beginning to look dry even though we watered it periodically during its confinement indoors.

To me olive trees are like camels, they go on and on without water, but I am not sure how a camel would fare indoors and I am sure olive trees need sunlight, not shadow twenty four hours a day.

My children are old enough now not to fuss too much when the last of the Christmas cheer disappears.

They are forward looking, the young. Already they are in New Years Eve mode. Not me and my husband.

We joked last night over dinner that it has been some ten years since we last went to a New Years Eve function and then at the millennium, and ten years again before that. When we were young we would not have been seen dead not going out for New Years Eve but these days we prefer to stay at home.

At midnight we will go out to the front of our house and stand in the middle of our street, which is normally busy with traffic, and look over the crest of the hill towards the city and the fireworks that go off in the distance.

Every New Years Eve our neighbours, a widow and her thirty five year old daughter who stays at home because she has chronic fatigue syndrome, come out onto the street and we greet one another, hugs all round for the New Year and we watch the fireworks and ooh and aah at their splendour until the last light fades over the horizon.

Then we retreat indoors again and start the climb into the next year, which is an odd number this year, 2011 and as I have said elsewhere, I do not like odd numbers. The year 2009 was a poxy one for me. I hope 2011 fares better.

I have been struck once more by the artificial highs and lows that erupt inside of me during my time in the blogosphere, the degree to which I can feel so captivated by events in the lives of my fellow bloggers that I am brought to tears in some instances or alternatively driven to states of annoyance or great laughter elsewhere.

The Internet is such a powerful medium for drawing us in. No wonder some people lose themselves in it. I imagine that the experience in blogdom is one step away from the experience that some people enjoy within second Life.

I had tried to go there once – for research purposes, I reasoned – but something scared me off, something of the virtual and limitless sense of space and ‘freedom’ it seemed to offer. I felt a bit like a potential addict walking into a gambling casino, terrified at the thought that I would soon become hooked and then I would no longer have time for anything.

I have my blogging tendencies under control by and large but any further forays into alternative realities and I fear I might never come out into the light again. I would be like our Christmas olive tree trapped indoors forever more. And that would be the end of me, I fear.

I would dry out and lose my leaves, my branches would crumble and I would become a wandering waif lost forevermore in the ethereal life that is the Internet.

Pardon the mixed metaphor. Trees do not wander.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

'Stop blogging about me.'

My older daughter still living at home is holding a dinner party today for a few of her friends. Early morning and she is frantic, trying to turn our normally cluttered kitchen living area into a tidy, well appointed room, elegant enough in which to receive her guests.

I am past trying, but to absorb some of my daughter's anxiety I oblige, as do the rest of us in this household, even as we tell her to calm down. One day she will hold her own dinner parties in her own place wherever that might be and I will be spared the shared load of preparing the house for visitors.

These days my husband and I do not hold dinners as often as we once did, ten-twenty years ago. Almost every weekend we had friends over for dinner, but in the last several years our socialising at home has dropped off to the occasional dinner with one or two select friends, otherwise we tend to go to restaurants when we want to have a special meal.

I could say I am too lazy, but it is more than that. I am past it, the effort involved. I have never enjoyed cooking as much as I might, though my husband still loves to cook and he cooks well, but even he with his culinary excitement restricts his efforts these days to weekend meals for our immediate family. It is strange how much things change over time, how something that once gave us the greatest of pleasure becomes a burden.

‘Stop blogging about me’, this same daughter says as she walks through my writing room in search of extra glasses for the dinner table. The glass I used last night and left behind in my writing room forms the sixth of a set and she plans to use the lot as ramekins.

It is probably a good thing that blogging did not exist when my children were little for I fear I would be among the first to cover the Internet with words about their antics.

Now that they are self possessed older folk they might well resent the idea that the rest of the world could read about their childhood idiosyncrasies as reported through the loving fingers of their mother.

Which brings me back to that thorny old issue: writing about other people, inside and outside of well placed literary disguise.

Did I tell you? My analyst wrote about me once in a book, an official book called The Geography of Meanings. Find me if you can. I will not identify the chapter because I will thereby identify my analyst. And that is a no no. She has told me she values her privacy.

She and I had something of an altercation many years ago when I wrote a paper on my analytic experience. I did not identify my analyst by name but she was convinced that others would recognise her.

Why not be recognised? I thought at the time. I had identified her lovingly as the analyst who had helped me to come to terms with the paradox of life. My university supervisor, a literary critic, considers that my analyst in this essay reads as another Marion Milner. Milner is the esteemed psychoanalyst, artist and writer, also known as Joanna Field, 'the pioneer of introspective journaling'.

In my analyst's essay in which I feature as a previous 'patient' in three separate locations, she describes me at one point as a ‘he’.

After I had read the essay, I put my perceived identity to the test and asked my husband to read it and see if he could find me. He did so instantly. For my own benefit, I highlighted the sections.

I say I do not mind being written about in this way. Although the descriptions are not flattening – a person who is rigid in her tendency to split between good and bad – I consider it a description of an aspect of me as I once existed, if at all, in our analytic exchanges, not the me who exists now.

I take offense though at the extent to which my analyst took me to task for writing about her. I have since dedicated an essay to the subject.

It seems one way I cope with my difficulties, I write about them, and even as I write about them, I imagine people lining the streets ready to fire bullets at me for writing about myself, about them or those near and dear to them.

We live in an age of self-exposure. We live in an age of the personal revelation. We read memoirs till they pour out of us and think nothing at learning the most intimate details of another person’s life.

Jacqueline Rose writes about the cult of celebrity as a ruthless tendency to take possession of another, to get our celebrities to be perfect and then try desperately to strip them bare.

We revel in their failures. We enjoy any shaming that can take place in the life of a celebrity. Perhaps in this sense, celebrities can be seen to be like parents, the ones we might begin our lives by putting up on pedestals, only to dash them off when we realise they have failed us.

But our parents are too close to us for us to want to share them. Their faults, after all might be seen to belong to us.

You know how it is? You can insult a loved one, but no one else is allowed to do so.

I feel the same tremulous fear in writing about my analyst, whose strength and help I value, and yet here I am speaking of her in public, however non-identified. I point out her hypocrisy in first criticising me for writing about her, and then later writing about me, however much in disguise, and I feel once again the shiver of guilt that comes from 'telling takes out of school'.

But the writer in me, refuses to concede to the moralist in me who tells me to shut up and stop blogging.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

No one was visiting her blog

The title here is the caption on a birthday card my daughter sent to me in November. She found it in a New York bookshop and had to buy it for me, she wrote. 'Though it doesn't look like you', she has the dark look I imagine you have when people don't visit your blog- ha ha!'

Seasons greetings to everyone.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The luck of the draw

My husband let out a heart wrenching cry this morning. I heard it down the corridor. A long loud lament.
‘What’s the matter’ I asked when I found him in his office in front of the computer.
‘The news,’ he said. ‘The news on the asylum seekers, the ones on Christmas Island. It’s unbearable.’

My husband reads the newspapers from top to toe, and then checks up on the ABC news online. I can scarcely bear to read beyond what I hear on the radio when I drive my car. One hundred asylum seekers from Iran in a rough boat crashed up against the rocky cliffs off Christmas Island.

I must not get into a rant on the politicisation of the plight of these people here, still I cannot understand why we are so reluctant to be more welcoming to these desperate people and why the paranoia of terrorism should so dominate the public psyche that people are left to perish on rocks – young men, old men, women, babies, children – because they have to sneak in to this country undetected or else they will be sent back to unknown horrors.

I sometimes wonder how any of us go on living in face of such tragedies, how any of us can continue on our way when disasters like this happen on our shores, not just on our shores but in our neighbourhood. Yet we do.

‘You are too emotional,’ my brother said at our family reunion in Griffith, too easily distressed. I could not believe his words. Can’t he see: I’m not so distressed as he? My distress is on the surface, his is buried deep in his heart and body, caught there in the stent the surgeons put in to open up his artery; caught there in his blood pressure which rises almost visibly whenever he walks through the front door of his office at his work as accountant and panics.

Two members of my family work as accountants. My father was an accountant. My youngest sister and this brother both work as accountants, she with a major bank and he for an air-conditioning form.

When I was young accountancy was a profession of which my family were proud. When the nuns took the first roll call and filled out identifying details at the beginning of each year, she asked each of the class the question ‘What does your father do?’. I was proud to answer, ‘My father is an accountant’.

My father wore suits to work each day, dark suits, white shirts and black shoes. He traveled to the city. But he had wanted to become a chemist my brothers told me, years later. My father had wanted to experiment in chemistry. He wanted to invent things, develop new products. He could not do this in Australia and make a good enough income on which to raise his large family. Accountancy he could study at night. Accountancy was something he could move into little by little and make good money along the way.

So why were we so poor I wondered often when we were little. Why were we so poor, and others who lived in the houses around us in Camberwell and Deepdene, so rich.

Now I think the other way around, despite my anxieties about making ends meet, the fact that I am here and they, those asylum seekers are there, does not shift too easily. The luck of the draw you might say.

My analyst used to talk about the need to make the most of what you have. There are those who are offered a great deal throughout their lives who cannot do much with it and others who receive very little who achieve great things. It is not simply a matter of what you get, it is more about what you do with it.

I went to see a physiotherapist yesterday on the advice of my daughter’s boyfriend’s mother who advised me that my leg will only get back to normal if I work at it. She knows from experience. She broke her ankle some time ago.
‘It took me a year and they did dreadful things to me, but now I can even run again,’ she said.

I cannot run, the best I can get up to is a limping stride, and then it is more like an old lady hobble.

The physio, a young woman with dark hair and a gentle manner plunged me back into memories of my past when I was a social worker in a community care centre and worked alongside the physiotherapists and the occupational therapists and other so-called allied health professionals and doctors to deliver services to the local community.

I was one of them then, but not so now. There is a strange disjuncture between how I feel inside and how I am on the outside. It hits me once more. When I first began work as a social worker, my mother – then around my age now – said to me often,
‘I would not want to see someone your age. You lack experience’. I took offense. How could I ever catch up with her?

When I told the physio I did not understand why it takes so long for my leg to heal given that the surgeon said the bone is now completely healed, but it will take between eight months and a year to come back to normal, she went into a long and detailed physiology lesson about what happens when a bone breaks.

It is not just the bone that needs to heal, all the body’s nearby cousins – the tendons and muscles – need to recover. The blood supply to the area increases to help the process and in so doing contributes to the heat and pressure which cause the swelling that pops up around my ankle at the end of my more strenuous walking days. I must rest then.

We talked in detail about my idiosyncratic experience and the physio felt around my knee joint to get some idea of how matters fare. She dug her tiny fingers into the muscle that runs down the top of my thigh just above the knee joint. She wanted to loosen it, she said.

This muscle is too tight from non-use, and as a consequence, it is not working as hard as it should.

All day long my leg has ached. This is how it should be my daughters say when I complain that the physio has made things worse. This is how it should be when you use muscles that you have not used for some time. They ache.

If I keep using a rolling pin down the length of my thigh to loosen the muscle and if I keep up the exercises the physio has set, in time I will get stronger. In the meantime, my leg aches worse than it did before.

Healing can be a painful process, perhaps that is why I had avoided it. But I cannot avoid the news about the asylum seekers.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Writers are Vampires

Last night I read Jim Murdoch’s wonderful blog post about our 'better halves'. In it he lists a number of writers and the women who are, to use that old expression, ‘the wind beneath their wings’.

Life as the spouse of a writer is a tricky one, especially when both are writers. Jim capped his post off by telling us about his wife of fourteen years, also a writer, Carrie Berry.

Jim and I have communicated long and hard about the nature of the blogosphere and the autobiographical. Jim describes himself as a private man and suddenly there it is: he is telling us something more personal – which he does from time to time – and again, I am enthralled by the vagaries of this space, the blogosphere, in which we reveal so much about ourselves, even as we conceal so much as well.

I met a writer, Lucy Sussex, at LaTrobe last week and we talked about the business of fictionalising people from our lives in order to protect them and us from the sorts of upsets that occur when someone is seen to be portrayed unfairly,when we are forced through the written word to look at ourselves through someone else’s eyes, and we do not like what we see there.

Lucy Sussex describes writers as ‘vampires’. We suck the lifeblood out of people. We feed off others. I shudder to think this may be true.

In an essay ‘On hurting People’s Feelings’ Carolyn Wells Kraus writes about the nature of biography as an act of autobiography. She argues that ‘reducing a person’s story on a page, robs it of complexity’. Non-fiction, she argues ‘sucks the life of a person onto the page’ and distorts that life to the author’s own ends. Characters are slanted in the direction of the author’s obsessions.

‘The real problem,’ Kraus writes ‘is that you’re borrowing the peoples’ identities to tell your own story.’ Kraus quotes at length from her own writing and others to demonstrate the ways in which a writer’s bias influences the description of other characters. And so in telling the stories of others we inevitably tell our own stories.

‘There is no script,’ Kraus argues, ‘only improvisation. We fill in the outlines from the details. All we know of the world as writers is what we see – images, words, scenes. We supply the meaning, and we alter that meaning with every sleight of hand.’

I say of myself as an autobiographer – and I’ve heard this said of other writers, like Helen Garner – to some extent we get away with it because we write about ourselves with ‘unflinching honesty’. Certainly Garner writes the most embarrassing things about herself that some might consider highly self-critical. But I know all too well that we are selective about our self-criticisms when we write.

I will not write in my blog about the things that ‘really’ trouble me, the things of which I feel most ashamed. I might write about things that once caused me to feel shame but over time and often times through the writing itself I have overcome that shame. I will not pass on other shameful secrets that resonate for me here now.

I think of WikiLeaks and the great kafuffle in the world about all this ‘indecent exposure’. We are a puritanical lot, by and large, and full of contradictions. The things we will tolerate as opposed to the things that unsettle us.

I gather here in Australia, Julian Assange is considered something of a hero, a man in search of freedom of speech, a whistle blower extraordinaire; whereas in the US he is considered a dangerous force. Noam Chomsky who spoke on the radio here during the week does not see Assange negatively, but Chomsky reckons a good proportion of Americans do. And yet America is home to freedom of speech.

I doubt that there is such a thing as free speech. We might have the right to speak as we please in certain ‘democratic’ countries, but there are always consequences to whatever we say, and on top of that there are also the necessary restrictions on freedom of speech when the speaking out hurts others, such as in situations of racial vilification and the like. And then, how is there freedom for the writer who uses another person’s experience to colour their story, sometimes unwittingly?

I am working on a chapter in my thesis on shame. Shame links to the desire for revenge, through what Helen Block Lewis has described as ‘humiliation fury’, the fury we feel after we have had our noses rubbed into our vulnerability and are left reeling from the abuse, assaulted, belittled, and shamed.

The anonymity of the Internet might allow us to hide our shame and to hide from our shame, but oftentimes it reinforces the shame for me. The number of times I sit at the keyboard reading back over something I have posted and cringe at what I have put there is equaled only by the shame I feel on behalf of others whom I consider have written too explicitly, and yet I persist in taking off my psychological clothes, revealing these inner thoughts on line, even as I know that there are experiences that look one way to me, but will be read in a different way by others.

Others will critique my perspective in ways I had not anticipated. Again, I cringe at my own willingness to expose myself in this way and yet without the autobiographical how can we learn about ourselves through other people’s internal worlds, however constructed they may be.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

It's tough being human

The Zen master, Katagiri Roshi speaks throughout Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones. His presence makes me doubt the writer. She quotes him in and out.

Just as I read Roshi's name for about the fifth time half way through the book, I stop to do a Google search. Who is this man? Is he for real?

He is real of course, albeit dead. He died in 1990 at the less than ripe old age of sixth two and Natalie Goldberg could not believe it when he died.

Reading through some of her thoughts at his death, I find myself thinking about my own obsession with psychoanalysis. Goldberg is into Buddhism and shows total love and devotion to her Buddhist master. For him, she will do anything.

She will sit for hours chanting, bare feet on cold floorboards. For days, she will get up early, at 4.30am then work at prayer and reflection all day, with only a short lunch break until 10.30pm, all in the name of Buddhism - the serenity, the inner peace and calm that Buddhism offers.

I read the story and shudder, and then think twice about my own preparedness to do extraordinary things in the name of my obsession, psychoanalysis. To travel daily for years for my fifty minute session twenty plus kilometers from home and back at great expense.

I did this because I believed it was good for me. I believe it has been good for me, but at the same time, I wonder whether it might have been better for me had I not become so enthralled with the process, had I not fallen so helplessly in love with my analyst for all those years.

The Google site describes how Natalie Goldberg later felt betrayed by her father and her teacher Katagiri Roshi for being human. Roshi, Goldberg later discovered had breached boundaries with another student.

The child in us wants to believe we have perfect parents, or substitutes for them in other forms - religion, Buddhism, psychoanalysis - only to discover later, that our parents are flawed, as are we by association.

Idealisation shifts to denigration all too easily if we are not careful.

Ah but the comfort of these '-isms' is alluring when it's so tough being human.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Life of Picasso - a short story.

My daughter, Olivia, owned thirty-six toy frogs, all shapes, sizes and shades of green. They lined her bed, her bookshelf and chest of drawers. On the eve of her tenth birthday, still dressed in her frog-covered pyjamas, Olivia pleaded with me,
'I want a real frog now. One I can actually love and hold. These toys are boring.' She held up her finest frog, Sebastian. His front legs, made of emerald velvet and stuffed with sawdust, drooped. She shook him at me.
'I’ve checked out tree frogs on the Internet. I know what to do. It’s easy.'

I couldn’t disappoint her. I was like the old woman in the shoe. Four children, one husband, three surviving rabbits, two blue budgies, one guinea pig, and now a live green tree frog named Picasso. The back yard was littered with empty hutches, abandoned birdcages and cracked fish tanks. Along the fence between the rose bushes, rows of makeshift crosses each inscribed in a child’s handwriting marked our cemetery.

Olivia lifted Picasso from the resurrected fish tank that was now his home and sat him on the flat of her hand.
'He feels slimy!'
'Cover him with your other hand or he’ll jump.' I said. I hovered over the two of them ready for action.
'You don’t need to tell me what to do.' Olivia looked down on Picasso with a mother’s smile.

Picasso took a flying leap from her hand and landed at my feet. Olivia squealed.
'Grab him,' I said, 'before he jumps again.' But Olivia only whimpered. She held onto her hand like it’d been bitten.
'Yuk. He peed on me,' she said. 'It’s disgusting. I’m never touching that frog again, ever.'

I rescued Picasso from the floor. He was all-legs and the suction pads on the tip of his toes stuck to my hands as I tried to peel him from me. I picked off bits of fluff that clung to his body and put him back into the water bowl in his tank. I was careful to place him in the shallow end where he sat like a statue and soon fell asleep.

On this humid summer night, Olivia practised her cello and Picasso blew a bubble under his chin that went in and out like a bellows. Then he gave off a deep ‘wark-wark’ sound. It rumbled in unison to the scraping of the bow over the strings.

I lifted the lid of the cricket container to let four or five crickets slide into the tank.
'That’s revolting,' Olivia said, and zipped her cello into its case. She marched off upstairs.

The crickets edged out from under the cover of an egg carton and plunged into the tank. One managed to leap outside. It landed on the table. I grabbed for it but it sprung into a gigantic arc and landed on the floor. I bent to grab again but my hand came up empty as the lone cricket scuttled under the skirting board and out of reach.

Back in the tank Picasso noticed movement nearby. He sat very still and fixed his black eyes on the other intruders. Then in a sudden rush he slipped out his long pink tongue and dragged in a cricket whole.

Some months later the fine point at the end of Picasso’s spine began to jut out in a way it never had before. There were dark raised spots along his skin. He had lost his bright green sparkle and turned into the colour of the ocean on an overcast day. Picasso did not leap to swallow the crickets any more. He was too slow and getting thinner.

I made Olivia come with me when I took Picasso to the vet, one who specialised in reptiles and amphibians. The walls of his consulting room were covered in animal pictures and in the waiting room there was a large glass cage lined with carpet off-cuts. The fat scaly tail of a goanna poked out from behind a rock. The place stank of Sorbitol.

The vet was a young man with a gold stud in his left ear lobe. He picked up Picasso in his fine-gloved, well-washed hands and squeezed the frog’s stomach. He invited us to do the same. Olivia pulled back but I slid my fingers across the ridge of Picasso’s belly. It felt as moist and squishy as ever. I was too scared to push harder to feel whatever else might lie underneath.

'This frog has a severe case of gravel ingestion,' the vet told us. 'What sort of set up do you have for him at home?'

I felt accused and my explanation sounded limp even though I had followed all the instructions from the pet shop where we bought Picasso.
'Thought so,' the vet said. 'Too much gravel. Whenever this frog swallows a cricket he takes in a piece of gravel with it, and for some reason he hasn’t managed to pass any out.'
'Why did you have put in so much, Mum?' Olivia glared at me. 'I told you it was too much.'

The vet pushed once more onto the sides of Picasso’s belly in a way that made us both squirm.
'He’s got a gut full of stones. At least a third of his weight. A dose of laxatives might fix it. It’s all I can suggest. Caramel flavoured,' he said. 'Frogs love the taste.'

Picasso took it in. He had no choice. The vet had his mouth pried open with a metal stick and shoveled the stuff in; brown and gluey, like melted toffee.
'As long as he doesn’t vomit it back up,' the vet said, 'it might help shift the gravel. It’s his only hope.' He washed his hands for a second time. 'Put him in a separate container tonight, otherwise you won’t know whether he’s passed anything.'

I settled Picasso in the shoebox I’d brought him in.
'That box is no good,' the vet said, 'cardboard burns their skin. An ice-cream tub would be better. Always wet your hands first and leave them wet when handling your frog.' He rinsed his own hands under the tap yet again. 'Otherwise frogs are surprisingly strong.'

'We’ve had this one for ages,' I told him. I did not want him thinking I was a complete incompetent but now I wondered how long was it since I last cleaned out Picasso’s tank? Maybe it was my fault after all. Maybe I’d left him in his own mess for too long.

I remembered my goldfish Priscilla. I got her when I was Olivia’s age. She zipped about in her bowl for months until one day out of nowhere she produced a long line of what looked like eggs. Little jelly eyes that stuck to her rear end instead of dropping off the way fish poo normally does. Then her swim bladder went and she tipped over to one side. I poked at her and she righted herself again but a short time later there she was back on her side. My mother said she was done for.
I put her in some water in a glass jar, which I left overnight in the freezer. That way she could float into a coma, freeze to death and not feel a thing.
I still felt guilty.

'If he can get rid of the stones,' the vet said, 'Picasso’ll be okay. Otherwise we’ll have to put him down. It’s the kindest way.'

Later I checked Picasso. He had managed to escape from the yellow ice-cream tub but not before leaving behind a pile of pebbles. He was half submerged in the water bowl, like a crocodile. I put five meal worms, like thin orange witchety grubs, in the centre of a dish and propped it in front of him.

Meal worms from the pet shop came hidden in small plastic containers filled with sawdust. I kept the container in the fridge where the meal worms went into a sort of hibernation with the cold. When I picked them out one by one they wriggled to life under the warmth of my fingers then waggled their short legs.
Even warmed, the meal worms were sluggish but they moved enough to attract Picasso’s attention. He took in five at once. A gulp, a burp and they were gone.

It was the law of the jungle and it got to me. When I had first noticed Picasso’s weight loss I worried that his diet was off. The pet shop man suggested instead of only offering crickets, as an occasional treat, I should feed him a few pinkie mice. I bought three. They came home in a brown paper bag. I could scarcely look at them let alone leave them at the base of the tank for dinner. Hairless, pink and foetal, their eyes still sheathed in skin, they squirmed noiselessly among the gravel. They were gone the next time I looked.

Olivia pointed her finger at me. 'How could you do it? You’re a murderer.'
'I only did as the vet suggested. You needn’t try to make me feel guilty, I feel bad enough already.'

I always felt guilty when one of the animals got sick or died. Frogs, rabbits, guinea pigs. I should have kept them cleaner or warmer. I should have fed them different food. I should have offered a better life or at least taught Olivia how. At the same time a part of me wished them dead.

The night after our visit to the vet I fell into a restless sleep and dreamed of open mouths that swallowed baby mice whole. I woke in a flap.

Couldn’t keep anything alive. What sort of mother was I? The sheets on my side of the bed were soaked with sweat. I slid out from under them and tiptoed down stairs.

Picasso in his tank leaped Tarzan-like from one branch of the spider plant to the next. I opened the fridge door and doled out another dish of meal worms. They wriggled blindly on the saucer. Picasso eyed the white dish then plunged at it and onto it, swallowing five meal worms in one hit. He bulged slightly in the middle but sat upright on the plate.

I could just imagine those meal worms as they writhed about in Picasso’s belly, in among the gravel. My back ached, my eyes were blurred from lack of sleep but there was Picasso as green and shiny as a bright new day.

At breakfast Olivia walked past the frog tank reading her latest Pony Pals.
'Look at Picasso,' I said. 'How well he’s doing.'
'Oh,' she said. 'That’s good.' She gazed out through the kitchen window. 'Mum. I want my room painted pink. And can I have a horse?'

Saturday, November 20, 2010

My mother hums

We take the yellow bus to Camberwell. It smells of shoe polish. It smells of leather. I sit beside my mother near the front. Today it is just the two of us, my mother and me, and we are taking the bus to Camberwell to shop.

I want to complain about my mother's plans to buy my sister pantyhose. I am older than my sister and I am still in socks. Why should she have stockings before me?

But I do not want stockings. They are too grown up. Pantyhose are the new thing - stockings like tights that go all the way up to your waist. You pull them on like trousers and do not need to support them with a suspender belt.

How I hate suspender belts. I wear them in winter for school. Mine invariably loses the little bobbles that I poke through the hooks to keep the stockings in place. Once I lose the normal bobbles, I use three-penny bits but the coins are not attached except by the force of the stocking through the hook. They easily come adrift and I wind up with a threepenny bit hanging around my ankle underneath the stocking, which sags on the side where the coin has come loose.

Pantyhose belong to a new breed of women, modern women, not twelve year old girls like my sister, besides I should have them first. I am nearly two years older. But I do not ask for them and my sister nags. She nags and nags and drives my mother to buy them for her, even though we do not have enough money for such items.

My mother hums. She must be nervous. The bus turns the corners too fast and I slide across the seat right up against her. My mother's body is hard and soft at the same time. She has lost her stomach muscles, she tells me from having so many babies.

An ambulance screeches past. Its siren splits the air. My mother hums on as though she has not heard. I watch the driver’s neck. It has uneven black stubbly bits that run down and hide under his collar. The bus driver has fat stubby fingers that work the gears whenever we slow down to stop.

My mother looks ahead, still humming. Her nose juts out hooked. She is proud of it. Aquiline, she says, like an eagle. A sign of aristocracy. My mother is proud, but she sits hunched over in her old green coat with her handbag on her lap. She does not wear pantyhose. She wears stockings held up with her girdle. The girdle is pink, skin coloured. She wears it to hold in her stomach muscles on account of all those babies.

My mother is fat and frumpy and I am pleased about this. I would not want a mother who looks young and is pretty. Mothers should look like mothers.

My mother fiddles in her handbag for her compact. It opens with a puff of powder; sweet and tacky to smell like Lux Soap. My mother dabs the powder on her nose. She does not want her nose to shine. She squints into the compact’s tiny mirror and smears on a line of lipstick. Glossy and red.

My mother was very beautiful once. We have a photograph. In it she looks like a movie star. She gazes out from the photo with movie star eyes, with a wistful look, as if she is performing for a camera.

The top of the bus brushes against the branches of street trees as we turn corners. At Stanhope Street it stops for an old man who fumbles in his pocket for change and nearly falls over when the bus starts up again.
‘Pull the cord,’ my mother says. ‘We mustn’t miss our stop.’
I am taller than my mother. The cord like a skipping rope is taut till I pull on it. A loud buzz and the driver slows down. We walk towards the shops along an alleyway that leads to the train station.

My father will kill us all. The thought pops into my mind and I want to push it away but it will not go away. He will kill us all one by one. He will start with my mother move onto my sister and then it will be my turn. He will work through the girls and then start on the boys. I have not yet worked out how he will do it, but I know he will.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Iron Duke's Courtesan

I saw the orthopedic surgeon on Tuesday hopefully for the second last time. After a twenty-minute wait in the confines of his consulting room with nothing to do and read during which time I analysed yet again my inability to wait for anything unless I can occupy myself doing something else, the surgeon stuck his head from around the door.
‘How are you he said?’
‘I’m good.’ No niceties. I could not give up my annoyance too readily. But there was no point in telling him off for keeping me waiting for so long. This is the way the man works. The people who come to see him, although allocated an appointment, must generally first go for an x-ray. The receptionist recommends we allow at least an hour for x-rays as in x-ray people are assisted on a first come first served basis. You can wait a long time in x-ray or you can be lucky and hardly wait at all.

I operate on a fairly tight time frame in my work and home life, except perhaps for social events and find it difficult to tolerate this procedure, but I can see that it works for the surgeon. With him too, you can be lucky and be seen almost immediately or be unlucky and wait as I did on Tuesday for what feels like far too long.

As is his custom the surgeon looked at the x-ray first.
‘You can take off the brace from now on.’
How could I maintain any anger with such good news?
‘Take it off now,’ he said, ‘and we’ll have a look.’ At last, a chance for the laying on of hands.
I peeled the brace off awkwardly and as I hobbled towards the surgeon’s high bench to climb up I talked about my attachment to my brace.
‘You can wean yourself off it, if need be. You can wear the brace when you go out for walks. And you’ll need physio.’
I hopped up onto the bench with the aid of a footstool and sat with my legs in front.
'Stretch out your leg,' the surgeon said. ‘There. ' He pulled on my ankle. 'Stretch.’

I found it difficult to understand even his most basic instructions. I try every time to get it right but I cannot understand why when the surgeon says stretch, I am likely to bend my knee or turn to the left when he asks me turn to my right.

He put his fingers onto my hamstrings above the knee and pressed in, first on my good leg and then on the other.
‘Now you have a go,’ he said. I squeezed as he had done before me.
‘They feel the same to me.’
‘No way,’ he said. ‘This one’s not nearly as strong. Muscle wastage,’ he tapped on my knee. ‘The good one’s much stronger.’
‘I’m not good on bodies,’ I said, by way of apology. It seemed an odd thing to say, but how else could I explain my ignorance when it comes to things a surgeon or doctor would know instinctively. How the internals of a body feel, and whether or not things are in working order.

After I had replaced the brace and sat in the chair opposite his desk, the surgeon took up his favourite position against the windowed wall. He stood with hands behind his back, and asked to which doctor he might send a request for physiotherapy for me.
‘There must be heaps of physiotherapists to choose from in your part of the world.’

He asked then about how many hours I worked.
‘How can you spend all those hours listening to other people’s misery?’ he said. Bear in mind, this man’s wife is a psychiatrist.
‘It’s not all misery,’ I said.
I told him of my PhD in literature.
‘Oh that’s okay,’ he said. ‘That’s different. I have a cousin. She’s French. She’s written a biography of Casanova and a book about cleaning out her father’s house after he died. It’s a bad translation but it's interesting. She learned a great deal about her father.’

I told the surgeon my thesis topic, 'life writing and the desire for revenge'. His eyes lit up.
‘You’d have heard of the Iron Duke’s courtesan’.
No, I had not, I told him, daring once more to air my ignorance.

The surgeon then proceeded to tell me how all those monarchs of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had their own favourite courtesans and there was one in particular, a woman of some calibre who eventually wrote a memoir about her life with various dignitaries, including the Duke of Wellington.
‘He’s the one who coined the term, “Publish and be damned”,' the surgeon said. 'The Duke said it when they told him about the memoir. He wasn't going to be held to ransom.‘
‘He’s my hero,’ the surgeon went on. ‘The Duke of Wellington – what a man.’ He then listed the Duke’s achievements, none of which I took in, amazed as I was to be having this conversation about someone’s courtesan.
‘I want to see you in six weeks,’ the surgeon said finally. ‘In the meantime go to see a physio. Physios have compassion.’

I went home and took off the brace. No weaning necessary. I have not worn it since.

What shall I do with this brace? It stands like a strange and lonely skeleton against the wall in my spare room.

Make it into an art installation? Plant it in the garden? We cannot recycle it. The orthotics folk do not want it back, although I offered. We cannot re-use it for hygiene reasons. Besides it was individually tailored to suit my leg.

It has served me well.

I walk with a limp and must try hard to remind myself not to, whenever I revert to this old style of walking, as if I am still dragging a brace. I must remind myself that I can walk normally now, no need to limp. But my body has much unlearning to do. My body has been used to leaning these past several weeks once weight bearing and now I must learn to walk freely again.

Six to eight months the surgeon says before I can regain my old form, but already I can see that I have moved more into my usual state except for the tell tale limp, and a bit of swelling around my left ankle at the end of each day.

And as for the Iron Duke's courtesan, I could not resist Googling her. Writing can be one way of assuaging a desire for revenge, but I suspect there was more involved here. See for yourself.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

What is truth?

Here's a clip you might enjoy. It harks back to that thorny old issue, the truth in non-fiction. It's worth considering, if you haven't seen it before.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

A 'dysfunctional' family gathering

Yesterday we celebrated my birthday, another year older and all that. It was essentially an ordinary day – work to schedule and then in the evening a celebration. If not for the celebration and the occasional good wishes from people, including some in blogsville - thanks Kath, thanks Jim – it might have felt like any other day.

Birthdays are a big deal in my family. We celebrate them with gusto. The one day of the year when you really count. The one day of the year when you are entitled to feel special. The one day of the year when people are required to be kind to you, to avoid conflict, to make an effort for you, and so on and so forth.

My grandson gave me a portrait of his grandmother: black lines against a sea green wash. He included a wobbly line in the middle of one stick like projection to mark my broken leg. My grandson decorated the frame himself with sequins, coloured ice cream sticks, spare scraps of material and glitter.

It is a masterpiece and one I will treasure always. My first ever piece of his artwork. My grandson is three. Given that both his parents are artistic, I imagine he might inherit the art gene and the same tendency to create beautiful pieces from them. Though he may not. Inheritance is a mixed bag.

Last weekend my nine sisters and brothers proved this point when we came together for the first time in thirty-eight years. The reunion had not been easy to organise. It came about as the brainchild of my older sister, my youngest brother and me.

Other attempts in the past have failed. We three met some months ago with the thought that as we are all getting older it is high time we tried to make peace with one another and to sort through some of the unspoken issues from our past lives together.

Our birthdays span eighteen years and we stretch across Australia in four different states. Between us we have produced twenty-three grandchildren and seven great grandchildren, including one who did not make it, and an eighth child on the way.

We led different lives as children even when we were together. The four oldest were born in Holland before the real troubles set in (at least they were not evident then, though there were rumblings) with immigration from Holland to Australia, another five children and my father’s lapse into alcoholism and all that followed.

Over the years we became a fractured family. At my father’s funeral twenty-eight years ago, eight of us attended. One of my brothers was overseas at the time and he chose to stay away. My oldest brother wrote the eulogy and I well remember my 'unreasonable' anger with him for describing our father as a man I scarcely recognised.

My oldest brother’s father from his childhood was a far more coherent and decent man than the father of my childhood and yet at our father’s funeral the only man described to the attendant mourners was that of my oldest brother’s somewhat idealised view.

Such is the spread of experience.

At one time over this extraordinary weekend, some of us sat together in a small café in Griffith NSW - a country town chosen as an neutral midway point - and talked together about what it had been like for us. Some of us I say, including all four of the girls, and my youngest and oldest brothers.

We four younger ones were able to tell my oldest brother about how difficult life had been for us with a father who clearly preferred his sons to his daughters, who considered the girls to lack intelligence and who believed that women were good for three things – for housework, for making babies and for male sexual gratification, irrespective of age.

My father was a misogynist.

I can feel differently for him now. I can feel compassion for him now dead all these long twenty eight years but then even when he died, even after he had managed to stop drinking for the last five or so years of his life, I still felt my anger towards him, and my fear.

To be able to tell my oldest brother who looks exactly as my father looked when he lived – the same clipped grey beard, the same intense blue eyes, the same tall but stopped figure – was the closest I will ever come to talking to my father in person.

Despite the similarities however my oldest brother is different from his father. He has two children. And he has been ‘successful’ in his life. He has had the freedom to move from one career to the next, four in all he says, from his life as a lay missionary, and at one time a potential priest, from a senior public servant advising government on matters of policy, through his years as a PhD candidate and working for private enterprise through to today where he advises industry on best practice to enhance sustainability in such places as meat processing works, and as the farmer of cashmere goats. He has mellowed.

We have all mellowed or so it seemed to me over the course of the weekend, though the four in the middle are perhaps more troubled.

Two of my middle brothers are reluctant to speak. One articulates his rage, though he will tell you through gritted teeth that he is not angry. He wants to leave the past in the past.
‘Paint over it,’ he says. ‘If it reappears, paint over it again.’ The irony here is that this brother is an artist. Another brother who has been silent for many years and continues to remain silent, came to the reunion, as he said to me during the course of dinner, because it would have been ‘churlish’ not to come.

He cannot, he told me, give people what he imagines they want. I do not know what this is but I know that I for one want him to talk. But this brother is locked into his own world and experience. He dominates with his silence.

Silence is powerful. While the rest of us tend to be loud, opinionated, dominating leader types, this one brother sits in silence. Not that he is unsuccessful in his chosen career, as in teaching in computers, but there is a divide between his work and his personal experience such that no one can get to know him.

My immediately younger sister is another one who will argue that the past is in the past.
‘It is over and done,’ she says. ‘Let’s just have a good time.’ She socks away another glass of wine. My sister drinks too much, but by the size of her she does not eat. She is skin and bone.

I write these things and worry that I am telling tales out of school. No names mentioned. These are my siblings, or at least my version of them. We love one another, I dare say but some of us are also angry with one another, too, for all the hurts and misunderstandings.

The weekend moved in waves. First the light and simple small talk that is a feature of most initial comings together and then one of the few spouses who joined us, my first married sister-in-law, who claims to be the oldest one of all, stood to give a short speech, which she read from a scrap of paper.
‘You need to get together the nine of you,’ she said. ‘Find a room and talk. You owe it to yourselves. Your past experience as children has affected not only your spouses but also your children. You need to talk.’

I am grateful to my sister-in-law for speaking thus, though two of my siblings leaped up, those who want to bury the past in anger and my oldest brother who said to me later that he thought my sister-in-law had pushed it too far.
‘We need to move slowly,’ my oldest brother said. ‘We don’t want to alienate anyone.’ He is right.
‘But we cannot move too slowly,’ I said. ‘Soon one of us at least will be dead.’

After my sister-in-law’s speech and a few howls of protest from those who would prefer to squash their memories, I leaped to my feet.
‘You ignore the past at your peril, ‘ I said, quoting some famous historian I read somewhere whose words still resonate for me. ‘We need to talk about the secrets, about the incest. We need to talk now. Or at least to listen to one another to those of us who can speak.’

I cracked it at this point. I sobbed in despair that we might never get together and talk in the way I had imagined. I had not driven in a car with three of my Melbourne-based siblings for six hours from Melbourne to Griffith to share pleasantries. I wanted to have meaningful conversation.

Meaningful is a term that is open to interpretation. For me in the end we held meaningful conversations but not once did it happen in the company of the whole group, though we tried after the dinner to pitch up together with an extra bottle of wine in one of the rooms in the hotel in which my youngest sister slept.

But our silent member did not come to this gathering and others soon fell off along the way. A few of us die-hards, mostly from the Melbourne contingent, stayed talking till one am. Even so we shared breakfast together the nine of us and talked together in pockets.

I have heard that everyone agrees to meet again another day.

Maybe that is the best we can hope for, to come together again somewhere down the track, and hopefully not at a funeral, whether that of my mother who at ninety one is likely to be the first to go, or one or another from the rest of us.

I wrote a paper once in which I described aspects of my experience. The paper was on autobiography and narcissism. Some of my colleagues were outraged. How can you do this they said, too much self-disclosure. One person described my family of origin as ‘dysfunctional’.

I bridled at the term. Who or what is dysfunctional, if not a convenient term by which to denigrate people. If you saw my family of origin now with all our quirks and idiosyncrasies you would see a family of high achievers, not that high achievement rules out personal difficulties. All bar one of my siblings have married at least once and had children of their own, and these children, the adults among them, in their turn are also successful.

My family of origin includes two accountants, three teachers, four psychologists, one artist, five PhDs, two yet to complete, one celebrant, one environmental consultant, one IT expert who teaches at tertiary level, three artists to varying levels of exhibition, two of whom are commissioned to present their work, two published ‘creative’ writers, three other writers published in their technical fields, one highly successful business man, director of companies and wealthy in the extreme. Many of us share multiple roles. No one is unemployed.

Do I sound defensive against the charge – a dysfunctional family – perhaps, or proud? My parents, for all their difficulties, valued education, even for the lesser mortals, the girls. They recognised that in education lies advancement.

For this I shall always be grateful. For the rest I have mixed feelings, but we are not dysfunctional in that typical 'social work' use of the word, not a multi-problem family any more than any other family.

What is it that Tolstoy writes? ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Think of the starving Biafrans

In the early weeks while convalescing after my broken leg, a friend, Maria Tumarkin emailed a series of questions as part of her research into the nature of guilt and giving, topics dear to my heart.

When it comes to giving, I am a mass of contradictions. I come from a family of nine children and therefore the notion of give and take is central in my mind, especially the notion of sharing. But I can feel overwhelmed by the neediness of others.

My husband calls people who ask for money, ‘beggars’. He has a difficulty with them. Perhaps a consequence of his deprived childhood and the fantasy that those who beg are not trying to work as they might.

It is their ostensible lack of dignity that gets to me. To beg is to demean yourself, though many of these people are drug addicted or drunk. They have fallen low. My heart bleeds for me them, even as I avoid eye contact.

The local people who ask for money on the streets trouble me. Though when I traveled through Europe, the beggars there troubled me even more. I had the impulse to help them, though again I resisted it.

They are like a bottomless pit, and I fear I would fall to the bottom of that pit were I to start trying.

I met a woman in Paris outside the Louvre. She dressed innocuously in a floral skirt and blouse. In retrospect I think she may have been a gypsy. She thrust a gold ring at me and told me to keep it, that it must be mine she said, only a woman like you could own such a ring.

My husband tried to drag me away. Give it back to her, he said. The woman insisted she had no use for such things. I should keep it. Before I had the chance to give it back the woman was asking me for money for a coke.

I was generous to you, now it’s your turn, she seemed to say. The ring of course was not gold. I could tell simply by its weight in my hand. Even if it were, I felt tricked. I threw the ring back and fled.

Such begging disturbs me more than a direct request for money because it is a trick and I do not like to feel tricked into giving. I want it to be voluntary, to come out of my desire, not to have it squeezed out of me.

I have a particular concern for asylum seekers. If I had more time I would volunteer to work with this group. I identify with this group more strongly than with any other disadvantaged group, maybe even more so than the poor souls in Pakistan caught in the floods.

When I was little there was a metal statue on the teacher’s desk in the shape of a black man’s head and shoulders. He wore a straw hat and had a large open red painted mouth. There was a lever at the back of the collection box into which we kids were encouraged to put any spare pennies.

The fun of inserting the money was reward enough for giving the money up. I never had any spare pennies. If I did I would have used them on myself or my siblings. I felt too starved then to be generous to strangers.

Even so, these poor people on the other side of the world who did not have enough to eat troubled me. My relationship to them had been tarnished by my mother’s constant admonitions when we were children to ‘think of the starving Biafrans’. Think of them and do not complain about your own lot, was her message.

So my tendency has been to avoid thinking of these others, as if were I to think about them, I would cease to exist.

I also have a clear memory of a time when I was a child when things had gone badly in my family and my mother needed to ask the priest for financial assistance. He gave it in the form of a food hamper.

I hated the fact of that hamper more than I can say. I hate to be a charity case. It would have been better, had the priest involved himself more and given a different sort of help, one that offered more dignity to my family.

I consider that I am inconsistent in my response to those who are more needy than me. I am ashamed to say that I am not more generous to those beyond my ken.

On the other hand, I rationalise that were I to give all the time I would have nothing left for those who rely on me, my family, those with whom I work. I could all too easily become one who gets such a thrill out of giving that she gives it all away.

I work hard on curbing my tendencies to give. I know that giving to others can be built around ulterior motives. I distrust the Mother Teresa’s of this world. She took prostitutes off the streets and turned them into servants. Both to me are forms of subjugation, though one might look better than the other. Were these women given a real choice, they might not leave Mother Teresa so sanctified.

There is also the mistaken belief that giving is the only way to receive. If I look after you, you will look after me.

There may be something in this notion but taken to its extreme it is a dubious basis on which to give.

I trust giving that involves something on both sides, that of the giver and that of the receiver. Only then to me does it feel valid, though that said, I again wonder about circumstances where someone might give and another receive, and they neither know it, as with anonymous donors.

And what about the notion of corporate philanthropy as Maria Tumarkin mentions in her essay?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Out on Parole

Seven weeks ago, as you know, I broke my leg. When it happened, after it happened I found it hard to imagine that I might ever use my leg again. Once on crutches, I imagined myself forever on crutches.

I became accustomed to planting only one leg on the ground. My right leg grew stronger, my left leg more useless. Every night as I took off the brace and washed down my leg, I examined it for signs of atrophy.

They were there all right. My left leg has shrunk, and is wasted. Although my calf has thinned down to almost half its size, my knee has stayed swollen much bigger than its companion on my right leg. My left leg has taken on the shape of a toffee apple on a stick - the stick my leg, the apple my knee.

All this is changing. Last Tuesday when I saw the surgeon he decided I might begin to bear weight on my broken leg.
‘Normally it’s eight weeks before you can be weight bearing,’ he said. ‘But you can begin early. For good behaviour’, he added. As if my confinement in a brace, on crutches has been a prison term and now I have been let out on parole. Parole, in so far as I am allowed to bear weight on my bung leg, but only half my weight. I am still under supervision. I am not yet free.
‘Get on the scales at home,’ the surgeon said. ‘Stand on them with your bad leg and bear down until you reach half your weight. That’s as much as I want you to use.’

I do not imagine that he intended that every step I take should be or could be measured so precisely and yet it worries me. I try hard to weigh down lightly on my left side. I trust my body to know how much my leg can bear. I trust my leg to tell me when it carries enough.

I cannot go around with scales measuring exactly, besides I do not think I could put full weight on my broken leg. My broken leg is still not its old self. It feels odd, no longer painful as it was when I first broke it. It has regained some of its firmness. I can walk with it, but I know that it cannot support me on its own.

My left leg holds a fragility I have not known before, as if the muscles attached to the bone and the nerve endings nearby have gathered together in support of my convalescent leg and they tell me loud and clear, go easy on this leg, take her slowly through her paces. She is out of practice, but more than that she has suffered trauma. She is not herself, not yet. She will need care and attention.

A few years ago at a conference in Germany I heard a woman present a paper on letter writing as therapy. She gave the example of a man who suffered from a chronic and painful shoulder condition that refused to ease up. His therapist suggested he write a letter to his shoulder.

‘Dear right shoulder
How could you do this to me? For thirty-five years I have relied on you to keep my clothes up, to help carry my load, to support my head, and now you have let me down….

At the following session after he had shared his letter, the therapist suggested the man write another letter, this time from his shoulder to himself.

Dear Body
You have taken me for granted for years. All of your life you have treated me as though I were made of granite, as though I could not be hurt in any way, as though I had no feelings. Let me assure you I have feelings. I hurt. I have been weighed down for far too long without a break, without recognition…

Should I write a letter to my leg? My left leg?

Dear Left leg
Why do you ache so? Even now after I have carried you in a brace, after I have let you off all duties, like a loose appendage there on the end of my hip and still you ache. When will you return to me?

And my left leg might write back.

Dear Elisabeth’s Body
After all you have put me through, all that rushing here and there, it is no wonder I gave up the ghost. That final fall was the last straw. You cannot imagine what it was like to have so much expected of me, to carry you around for all those years with only the help of my sister right leg, and still you expect me to hold you through a fall when you twist me so uncompromisingly. I had to snap. I had to stop. Enough is enough...

I have been reading lately about left brain/right brain development but for some reason I find it hard to sort out my right from my left. My impulse is to imagine that the right brain functions in support of language and logic and the left brain in support of the emotional life, the intuitive the so-called creative, only because the word ‘right’ to me suggests rigidity, order and logic, but it is the other way around.

The left brain directs the logical language development side of things and it is the right side of the brain on which we draw for all things emotional, and dare I say creative.

This is a narrow and limited division, as I understand. There is overlap and there are also interconnections that deny such simplistic division, but I am ever the divider in my efforts to make sense of things, especially when it comes to bodily matters, to the right and the left of it, of life.

Just now I hobbled to the kitchen to fetch another cup of tea without the aid of my crutches. It is hard work. I cling to bench tops, sideboards and walls, just to lighten the load on my aching left leg. It is a strange ache like a gnawing pain at the back of my gums when a tooth is about to burst into pain, as it often did when I was a child or the dull ache of my ears when again as a child they were blocked before they too erupted into spasms of pain.

It seems strange that the ache in my leg should remind me of child hood pain, as if pain for me belongs in childhood. Truth be known, I think I have not experienced much pain as an adult.

I pull myself up short. I have had four babies, all of them so-called natural births, without much by way of pain killers beyond gas and analgesics.

I have known pain, the worst imaginable, but as it seems for most women, it is a pain that I can scarcely remember, not the feel of it so much, just a vague memory.

They say women forget this pain more readily, otherwise they are unlikely to go back for more, babies that is. Maybe because the pain comes on fast and is gone almost immediately after the event it is not like the chronic pain you hear of when people are in pain all the time, every day pain that refuses to leave. How must that be I wonder?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Breasts, Brains and Cold Sores

Today is the sixth week since I broke my leg. It is fast becoming my leg again. I can bend it effortlessly though not as far back as I once could. I am not sure I could sit on it yet. I can bend well within a ninety degree angle, though not much further. I have enough movement in my knee to be able to drive my car again. An automatic. My healthy right leg does all the work.

It is still an ordeal of sorts to get into and out of the car but I can now do it unaided. I hobble to the front door, release one crutch and lean it there beside the car, I open the driver’s door, and then toss in my crutches over onto the passenger side. Finally I slide myself into the driver’s seat all the time careful not to twist my bung leg too much at an angle so as to disrupt the bone. Once behind the wheel, I am mobile again, an independent woman in her car.

I have almost stopped worrying that the bone might move. I think it is held in for good now, but still I must take care not to bear weight on my left leg yet, much less to fall or I might not so much displace the bone as fracture it all over again.

Someone told me – in the blogosphere as I recall – that you cannot break a bone in the exact same spot again, that the scar material of bones becomes fixed like the most rigid of concrete, while somewhere else I read that once broken, a bone is more vulnerable, that the fracture points of bones are far more brittle.

I do not know the truth of this. I do not understand the science. I rather enjoyed the idea that once broken, never broken again, like once bitten twice shy, once hurt, never open again, but this is not so perhaps. Points of vulnerability become even more vulnerable.

We have returned for a dose of bitter winter weather again this weekend, with much of the State of Victoria on flood alert. This after over ten years of drought. The dams have moved from being slightly over quarter full a little over a year ago to almost half full today.

Half filled dams are a bonus. I do not remember in my lifetime a moment when the dams were almost full. Half full is about as much as we dare hope for. But then again I rely on memory and my limited knowledge here.

I have only started to attend to the state of the dams in recent years. When I was young and felt more omnipotent than I do now I did not bother with concerns over the state of the land, though I can always remember a terrible fear during the bushfire season even as we did not live close to the bush.

Bush fires are a feature of every Australian’s consciousness. They begin early summer and erupt unpredictably one after another till the end of the hot weather. They are one of the reasons I could not bear to live in bushland.

To worry all summer long about the weather and those hot fire ban days, which arrive with increasing regularity in this country, would throw me out.

There are so many things over which I have no control, weather being one of them, I could not bear to be daily anxious about what the weather might bring during bushfire season.

When I was young, my other uncontrolled worry was the arrival of cold sores on my face. When I was young I might have copped a cold sore almost monthly. Someone explained to me early in the piece that once you have suffered with cold sores you have them for life.

Cold sores are caused by a virus which lives in your lip. Usually it sleeps there and gives you no trouble, but the minute something goes wrong for you, it flares up like a bushfire.

The cold sore virus is linked to my emotions, like the handle of a tap. Become upset by something and the handle turns. It can even be an upset of which my mind might not be aware, though not my body. My body knows more than my conscious mind, but my unconscious mind drives the other parts of my mind and body or so I believed as a ten year old trying to fight off the inevitable but uncertain arrival of cold sores.

They start as a tingle in your lip and turn into a watery blister that swells to what feels from the inside when you scrape it with your tongue to be the size of a cricket ball. In the mirror this blister stage looks nowhere as bad as the next stage after the blister bursts, usually a large blister or a series of little blisters clustered together.

When I was a chid there was an ointment my mother sometimes bought from the chemist called Stoxil. I was not the only one in my family who copped cold sores. The sooner you applied the Stoxil the more likely you were to beat the virus, or so the writing on the side of the Stoxil tube said. I never had the ointment on hand to test this theory out. My mother, if she bought it, bought it after the event.

Once a cold sore took hold on my lip it was there for up to ten days or more. After the blister burst it became a wide spreading and throbbing red welt that over stretched the edge of my lips and to my mind made me look even more ugly than I imagined myself to be when I was a child, uglier even than the ugliest child in my classroom.

In my family the theory followed that the oldest were the ugliest, growing more beautiful down the line. The youngest girl and boy were the most beautiful. To compensate for this, the reverse applied to brains.

The oldest were the smartest and the youngest were the dumbest. This put me, sixth in line, in the invidious position of having neither brains nor beauty, right here near the middle. I figured in my position, one below the middle, my cleverness won over my appearance if only by a muddling amount.

I was not smart at school, as Mother Mary John in grade six testified after I failed mental arithmetic.
‘I thought you were bad,’ she said, when she handed back my exercise book covered in crosses, ‘but not that bad.’

Mental arithmetic troubled me by its name, mental. Mental with its links to mind, and numbers and to cold sores.

There was a direct line from somewhere in my brain to the place in my lip where the cold sore virus lived. When I was thirteen, I worried about the line for weeks before I became bridesmaid at my second oldest brother’s wedding. I was in between dress sizes and the dressmaker my sister-in-law-to-be had appointed complained to her that people like me were the worst to make dresses for. We were neither child nor woman.

If I had copped a cold sore on my brother’s wedding day, then not only would I be this hybrid creature who needed a bra that had so much padding inside the cups that my brothers laughed the first time they saw me lined up on the steps of the church before the wedding, I would also be ugly.

I recognised my brothers' sneers. They knew my body was fake. I knew my body was fake, but the dressmaker had insisted there would be no point in making a dress that fitted my exact size at the time. Within weeks my breasts might erupt just like a cold sore and, given that she had started to make the dress at least three months before the event, she needed to be sure she could accommodate all eruptions.

Breasts, brains and cold sores, they go together for me in an uneasy sequence. I could not control them. I could not control how much my brain might hold in of the times table I rote learned on weekends in readiness for Monday morning tests when we lined up in the class room and took turns to recite the tables one after the other.

My surname began with the letter ‘S’. I was always to the end of the line and the end of the line was where the hardest sums landed - the seven times eight type questions, which so often evaded me; the nine times six.

Even now I can feel a prickle in my lip as I remember how the impossible sum tripped the point in my brain that pulled the cord that sent the signal down to the virus in my lip and told it to wake up and get back to work.

To fail mental arithmetic not only showed up on my school report at the end of term, it showed up on my face and everyone could see, how dumb and ugly I was, even when my sister-in-law-to-be had dressed me up in a canary yellow silk ball gown that fell all the way to my feet and was topped off by two enormous bosoms that were not my own.

Eruptions came all to easily in those days. Perhaps it accounts today for why I make such terrible mistakes and can never quite manage to conceal them.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Dog Babies 2.

Last night I could not sleep for worrying what I might say to Jim from The Truth About Lies, given his lengthy and generous comment on my recent post, ‘Dog Babies’.

Jim has not said that I have cheated, rather I have created false expectations in this post. False expectations, because for the last several weeks I have written about my broken leg and then one day I decide to write a piece that is ‘semi-fictional’, and people cannot detect as much. They take it for gospel truth and when I go to pains to tell them they have it wrong, that they must not take it too seriously, then I am challenged.

What is it with the written word?

I do not want the facts alone to be judged. It is the writing I care about. I hope people judge my writing as a story, more than that they judge me, or the characters in my story. Nor do I want people to commiserate with me. I had rather they commiserate with my character who often times is me, but also represents an aspect of me, even with a broken leg.

But when readers read my narrator as pure me, how then can I respond, other than to say thankyou for their kind thoughts, when they fret for me?

I would prefer that readers view my writing as thoughts about ideas and events and writing, as well as about characters, and not so much about me as a person, more about me as a narrator. This seems reasonable given that we all know that the Internet represents us in certain ways, and that we are not always who we seem. We have multiple aspects to our identities.

I fear for the judgements about ‘my friend’, in this piece. My friend’s words are accurate in so far as my memory allows, but the issue is not one of my friend, it is my narrator self who should be judged and is that not something to ponder on?

My arguments seem thin. They have merit I hope, but even so, should I warn people before they read? - This you are about to take in is ‘autobiographical fiction’.

Why must we always warn people about the nature of what it is they are about to read? Are there not clues enough in the writing? If someone reads a piece of fiction and believes it to be true then so be it. Likewise, if someone reads a piece of nonfiction and believes it to be untrue, so what?

I am not talking newspaper reports here. And even then, if someone employs reportage-type techniques in their writing and weaves in a thread of fiction, can that not stand as well?

Cannot the writing be judged for itself? A piece of writing that must have some truth as in authenticity to be believed and to be considered plausible, but need not be ‘true’ as a statement of fact. And if it is not true as a statement of fact, is it necessary for people to feel affronted.

Or is it, as one of my supervisors has suggested recently: some readers might feel they have squandered their empathy on a narrator who no longer deserves it because she is faithless? She has not told the truth.

I describe myself as an autobiographer largely because I want people to recognise that in telling my story, I use details from my life, but at the same time I am a writer who actively constructs the story.

We all do this to some extent when we tell our stories. The story may in essence be ‘truthful’, but simultaneously the events and people described in it are selective.

The artistry lies in the details that we elect to include and those we omit. If we look from one perspective, we see one aspect of the event. From another it looks completely different.

When I write from my child self, my adult perspective jars, and vice versa, but both perspectives exist and many more besides. Similarly, if I write when I am feeling despondent, my writing takes on a different quality than were I to write at the height of great joy.

Most likely, if I were ebullient, I would not have the urge to write. My negative emotions most often cause me to want to write as a means of overcoming them.

And given that there are many times when I feel despondent, or angry, or jealous, or frustrated or sad, the writing comes more easily much of the time, but at the same time it reflects particular mind states that do not show the whole or the ‘truth’ of me, the person – as if any such ‘truth’ or whole person exists. They show far more about the truth of my narrative self.

So when people address their comments to me the person, as in the instance of 'Dog Babies', I feel I must relieve them in some way.

I do not want them to think of me, Elisabeth, in her unhappy state of life with an unhappy dog. I want them to float around in their minds, to resonate with or against the narrator, Elisabeth, and her unhappy dog.

We need to suspend judgement when we read, and with fiction it comes more easily it would seem than with non-fiction. I am sensitive to the notion of forewarning my readers that this then is a piece of ‘partial fiction’, which in itself is a construction.

I could say that everything I write is a construction. The amount of fictionalising might differ but I do not offer reportage, except perhaps in my comments and even then in my comments I do not speak the ‘absolute truth’.

I’ve written many an essay on the topics of truth in nonfiction and I am weary with it. I do not want the truth seekers to get me wrong, but let’s face it, we all of us construct scenarios in our writing, in our art, in our photography, in our poetry that reflect aspects of our lives, our personalities, our many selves, but these are aspects only.

We do not present the ‘truth’. There is no such thing, only a sense that masquerades as ‘truth’ and can make us feel on safer ground, but the ‘truth’ is we do not know this for fact. Maybe truthfulness is a better notion, but even then we enter shaky ground.

In the end, I opt for emotional truth. That to me is the essence.

Enough, enough, I say. I have written out my angst.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Dog Babies

We keep the dog corralled in a sheep pen arrangement in one corner of the kitchen near the cat door. It is a tough life even for a dog, I know it. A tough life for a dog who would love nothing more than to spend his time curled up on my lap, or have someone throw bits of wood for him to fetch.

The dog is a ghost from my past, the dog whose tan colour belies the black of his ancestor, Peta, the mongrel who came to visit when I was a child and stayed against my father’s wishes, a dog we named Peta with an ‘a’ hoping that our father would not notice – this dog was a girl.
To think my father might not notice the dog’s gender puzzles me still. Gender sticks out like dogs’ balls, as the saying goes.

But we were little and did not want to notice the way our mother had one baby after another and that the dog, Peta, might do likewise.

The dog in my kitchen, the dog in the corner, who represents my past, stinks today.
‘We’ll take him to the pet shop to get him washed,’ I tell my friend. ‘I’m sorry he smells so bad’.
‘What a bourgeois thing to do,’ she says.
I cringe. Bourgeois? Me? Never. But I cannot take a lump of the past, a dog this time with a tail – not like Peta whose tail was docked – into my bathroom, and wash away the fleas and the stink.

My friend has a dog, a streamlined grey whippet, whose ribs stick out on either side. My friend is a writer, the real McCoy. She has a book to her credit and another on the way, a book like babies.

Our dog will not help to make babies. Our dog is neutered, spayed.

I think the word spayed, and I think of the garden variety, the spade you dig into the ground.
When Peta was little I imagined the vet would take a spade and hit her in the middle somewhere deep inside where she kept her babies, hit her whack, while she was anaesthetised and crush the bits that make the babies, the eggs that girls have and the womb, the place where the eggs are held. The vet might smash the inside bits so that no more babies can be made.

'This dog is frustrated,' my friend says. 'He needs to get out more. He needs exercise.'
But I cannot walk the dog , not today, not with a broken leg.

My friend does not say it to my face, but I can hear her thoughts. They are written in the wrinkle lines on her forehead.
‘You are lazy. You do not deserve a dog. You are the one who stinks, a lazy negligent non-lover of dogs. I should get the RSPCA onto you.’

I show my friend to the door.

Peta flashes across the window of my memory, her insides restored, and all the babies who never were born follow close behind.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

The Company of Strangers

It is an almost perfect spring day, sunshine, cloudless blue sky and twenty two degrees Celsius ahead. Today I shall venture out into the world.

I realised yesterday that I have not been out of doors for over ten days. It is not as if I have felt isolated. The world comes in with the people who pass through this house, as well as through the Internet, through the telephone and through blogging.

This sedentary life becomes seductive. There is a cosiness to my place on the couch under the bay window, a safety in seclusion.

In my dreams I am mobile. In my dreams both my legs work. My unconscious may not yet have caught up with my physical state. In my dreams I drive cars, I carry babies, I run. But dreams as we know, are symbolic representations of states of mind that go on underneath, and that I can still walk in my dreams does not really mean my unconscious has not registered this event because there are so many other hints in my dreams - car accidents and falling - that I am sure I am working on getting over my leg, not just physically, but also in my psyche.

Eryl, has written a wonderful post on her tendency to write the word ‘love’ in reference to other people’s blog posts when in search of a suitable verb that honours her reading. Troubled by her use of clichĂ©, she wonders about the meaning of this. The all too easy throw away lines: I love your poem, I love your painting, I love this post, this blog, as if to say I want you to know I was here, but I cannot be bothered, or do not have the time to reflect longer and find a more meaningful word to offer. Elizabeth, on the other hand, has written about the trolls who periodically invade her blog and send her messages of hate.

Much of this has to do with the nature of the Internet. Norman Holland has called it the Internet Regression, our tendencies, when locked away on our computers, to engage with the outside world in less well-defended ways than we might otherwise employ.

When I first started to blog I found myself anxious, frightened of what I might say in comments on other people’s blogs, and frightened of giving offence or of wording things in such a way as to be misinterpreted. There are no spaces for eye contact or for opportunities to scan the other person’s facial expression in the blogosphere. There are no opportunities for establishing through body language whether the person speaking is serious or joking, whether we must listen attentively or only lightly.

The only way we can understand the anger or the sadness the joy or the pain is through the words and images and words are clumsy beasts, while images are open to interpretation. Words and images do not always travel well from one person to another.

Lost in translation from the person through the computer and into and through the eyes and ears to the heart and mind of another. Norman Holland writes about Internet regression as a fact of life. There are three ‘symptoms’ to which he refers, the first is ‘flaming’, namely the typewritten rage that people can sometimes fly into ‘at some perceived slight or blunder’ akin to road rage. The second refers to a sort of sexual harassment, unwanted advances on line. Not only do men proposition women but women sometimes turn their unwanted advances on men. Finally, there is the extraordinary generosity that can blossom on line.

Holland ascribes these tendencies to the heightened vulnerability and openness we feel on line. The positives and the negatives of Internet life, in light of love and hate, generosity and aggression, stir up a type of disinhibition – a lack of restraint about social conventions. The computer, itself a machine is like a ‘phallic’ object that takes on addictive qualities. Our trust in our computer can lead to a certain confidence in opening up, a bit like the trust we might feel when driving around in our cars, safe and cocooned, shielded from the rest of the world.

The machine becomes our 'as if' partner, almost a sexual object. And we talk to it. When we write on our blogs we consider we are talking to our fellow bloggers. We love the sense of freedom the blogosphere offers, with its eradication of conventional status and the ostensible absence of class difference.

The ones most vulnerable are the ‘newbies’, the ones who first start to blog. Those who have blogged for some time acquire the stagger and arrogance of older siblings, and people refer to one another as friends or almost family.

There are no footnotes in the blogosphere. This is freedom. Also the blogosphere welcomes opinion pieces, the more personal the better. People talk about other people and their ideas all the time, but they are also free to offer their own opinions without apology, though often apologies take the form of a certain level of humility.

I often feel the need to qualify my statements, to recognise a multiplicity of views, but even the bigoted get a Guernsey in blogdom, simply because the nature of a blogger’s personality reveals itself over time through his/her posts and this is what we look for, information sure, aesthetic pleasure in art, photography, poetry and prose, but more than anything we look for signs of personality in our fellow bloggers. We look for someone with whom we can relate. We look for that spark of recognition, whether as far as commonalities or differences, something that resonates from which we might gather ideas. We/I look for connection.

Jodi Dean writes that there are three underlying assumptions about blogging, the first that speed is of the essence, and that everything happens without time to think and reflect; the second is that bloggers are narcissistic, self obsessed media junkies who cannot see anything from behind their noses; and the third is that bloggers believe they are pundits, and that they speak with authority to the whole world. She refutes all three.

Most bloggers know that their audience is limited. You can write openly and intimately and no one will read it. Or thousands might. You can never know. The minority of readers make comments and just because someone makes a comment does not mean that what you have written is remarkable, nor does the fact that no one has commented, signify that your post is not remarkable. It is a lottery. The more posts you posts, the more posts you read from others and leave traces of yourself in the form of comments and of the icon that shows you are a follower the more likely you are to attract followers and a readership.

Perhaps more than anything it is my access to the Internet and to blogging in particular that has caused me to feel that rather than staying cooped up alone in the house for hours on end, I have not been alone or in the company of strangers, rather I have enjoyed the company of many dear friends.

Yesterday, I began to worry that I might start to suffer from a vitamin D deficiency for lack of exposure to sunlight. I have resolved therefore to make it my business to go outside into the afternoon sunshine and soak up some of what’s missing.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Is this a sin?

I have jaywalked through my life, taking short cuts wherever possible. Three weeks ago I was stopped short. Three weeks ago I walked into a car driven by a young P plate driver who herself was in a hurry. We met in the middle. Her life has moved on, it seems, but mine has stopped, if only temporarily. I broke my leg. Up high under the kneecap, a crack along one side of the long bone, my tibia.

Is this a sin?

I grew up in the spirit of the Catholic Church in a religion that held sin to be a voluntary act that came in two forms – the venial and the mortal.

Venial sins were easy to tackle. Off to confession, confess and be free of your sins after a few prayers, as determined by a priest in black, who absolved you without question, that is as long as the venial sins were of a generic nature – sins of disobedience, lying, stealing and the like.

Serious sins, the mortal sins, tended to be the sexual ones, those of impure thought, and impure thoughts covered a broad spectrum. Murder, eating meat on Fridays, missing Mass on Sundays or failing to fast for at least three hours before taking Holy Communion were also mortal sins, but in a clear cut, black and white way.

The line between the venial and the mortal blurred however when it came to impure thoughts because venial sins happened more by accident, as if without proper intention, but impure thoughts, loaded with intentionality, carried more weight.

You should be able to eradicate such thoughts and if you entertained them, if you allowed them to flourish in your mind, then you were indeed a sinner.

I could not sleep last night. My husband snored. My foot was hot. I could not switch off my mind. I was restless. This sedentary life does not suit me. There is an absence of any sense that I have something to look forward to beyond the next ten days and the next trip to the surgeon. My life is bracketed by this broken leg.

My husband tells me he dreamed last night that I had been kidnapped and he had been terrified for himself and for me.
‘You have Stockholm Syndrome’ he said to me in his dream. Stockholm syndrome develops when someone becomes attached to her jailer and persecutor.

I thought of my leg, my attachment to this part of my body by which I am held ransom. I cannot escape. I am tied to it, as a child is tied to her mother’s apron strings.

We visited the surgeon again on Thursday, nine days after our last visit. We had booked an appointment for the Tuesday but his secretary rang to cancel. He had a funeral to attend.

I had looked forward to the visit all week. We went first to medical imaging for the mandatory x-ray of my leg then off to the private consulting suites to see the surgeon.

He is running late. An early morning meeting at the Alfred, his receptionist says. He is now caught up in traffic on his way back.

The surgeon appears. He looks at the x-ray.
‘Where are we now?’
I tell him three weeks on Saturday.
‘Right, then I’ll see you in another ten days.’
Ten days before he wants to see me again, and the surgeon has not so much as looked at my leg, not once. He has not laid his hands onto it in any way, shape or form. He looks only at the x ray of my leg that stands silhouetted against the bright light box on his consulting room wall. He looks at this dark shadow on the wall and pronounces that I am doing well.

He speaks into a Dictaphone, his mouth close the recorder,
‘Elisabeth H is doing well, the bone is holding.’ He turns to me. ‘Ten more days and then we can get your knee moving.’ He smiles.

Small signs of progress. I wonder that I even needed to attend for this visit. I could have stayed at home, organised the x ray from elsewhere and sent in the film in my place.

I am sensitive to my transference to this doctor. I want to engage with him beyond a peremptory chat about the bone in my leg.

Before we leave, the surgeon jokes about the brace and tells me that it makes me look like a ‘dominatrix’.

The surgeon is married to a psychiatrist, he tells me, after I tell him that I work as a psychologist. ‘What sort?’ he asks. I mention psychoanalysis and the surgeon jokes that I should see some of his colleagues. ‘Personality disorders,’ he says. Then as a final after thought he adds, ‘surgeons cannot afford to have too much insight. It interferes with their work.’

Psychologists used to present Rorschach ink blots to test for personality attributes, these days they offer photographs of typical family scenes, a kitchen table, people gathered around, and they then ask the interviewees to describe what they see. The same family can become a family riven by conflict, a family drowning in grief, a family of strangers.

The same family can be in equal parts happy, in equal parts sad. To one onlooker, the older male figure is malleable. To another, he is a despot.

We see what we see from behind our eyes, from within our minds and not so much the ‘facts’ of the picture, when we are given permission to imagine.

There is room then in our imaginings to see all manner of things that invariably arise from within our own experience. We can only imagine from our experience, however wild and woolly our imaginings, because we come with a past, and an unconscious that is fuelled by experiences that go back to infancy including, the primitive thought processes that existed then, within our pre-cognitive minds, before we could think, when we were a mass of sensations, a body without clear form, arms legs mouth, teeth, tongue and inside. Skin, hair nails, fingers, toes taste smell, sight of objects as yet undefined, wordless, reliant on another or others outside for our very survival.

This dependence, this at one time persecutory, and at other times bliss-filled state of infancy stays with us forever and can be triggered by images, tastes and smells and all manner of experience in later life, but later filtered through our conscious mind, our thinking mind, our ego, as Freud would have it. Filtered as well through our super egos, our consciences, often into states of guilt.

The surgeon fingers my brace. ‘It makes you look as though you’re into S and M.’

I had not entertained such a thought till then, and wondered about the surgeon’s self-confessed lack of insight. Jokes can be revealing.

Certainly, the process of recovery from a broken leg has its masochistic moments, though perhaps not of a sexual nature, unless we dig deeper and reflect on the helplessness of it all. A turn on for some perhaps, but not for me.

Now I should not reflect on this further or my sin of jaywalking will slide into one of impurity, and that will never do.