Saturday, August 28, 2010

The demons lie behind my tonsils

I do not enjoy my visits to the doctor, not simply because I fear there may be something so seriously wrong with my body that I will soon die, not because my body is a mystery to me and houses secrets I do not understand, but because I expect to be found guilty of criminal neglect.

The doctor will tell me that I eat too much of the wrong foods, that I drink too much wine, that I do not exercise enough. The doctor will tell me that although it is now over twenty-eight years since I last smoked a cigarette, it makes little difference. The damage is done.

The doctor will tell me when she pulls the Velcro tab off the blood pressure monitor that my blood pressure is up. She will frown knowingly and tut a while.
‘We'll try taking it again later,’ she will say and my heart will race in unison with my thoughts. I have inside of me a heart that is out of order, a heart that will not behave, a heart I cannot trust.

The doctor will look into my eyes with her bright pencil light. The doctor will look into my ears. She will probe my tongue with a spatula half way down my throat and I will gag.

The demons lie behind my tonsils in my voice box and if I am not careful the doctor will hear things I do not want her to hear.

Tell me doctor, what I must do to enter into a state of goodness, to enter into a state of bodily perfection?

The priest wears black. The doctor wears white. I dress in red.

The passion of my faulty heart crisp under the stethoscope as the doctor listens for the rattle in my chest.
‘Are you sure you don’t smoke?’

Does she know? Does the stethoscope know?

I smoke cigarettes in my dreams. I drag onto one cigarette after another and draw in the taste and smell, the flavour, my grandfather’s Amphora tobacco, my father’s Craven A filter tipped, full strength – the poisons of the past course through my lungs and the doctor sees it all.

‘What have you been doing to yourself?’ she will ask, as if she does not already know.

Your body is a temple. Treat it with respect. Do not ask of your body that which it cannot give. Stay pure in thought and deed.

One and a half litres of water a day, three twenty minute walks a week. Jog. Do not walk. Get your heart rate going. Get your pulse up. But here in the doctor’s surgery you must slow it down.

How can I hide. The doctor must not know.

This body, this temple, this soul polluted in thought, word and deed. My body, my sanctuary for the devil.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A private soliloquy

It comes as a shock when I hear my own voice echo back at me. I am lost in thought, and my thought turns to conversation though I am my only companion, at least I hope I am.

It is mortifying then to discover I am not alone. One of my daughters is within earshot.
‘What? What did you say? Oh mum, you're talking to yourself.’

Do you talk to yourself?

They say it is a form of madness. I think not. They say it is a sure sign of aging, a sign of solitude,

I do not live a life of solitude, though I am aging. Hopefully, I am not too much mad.

For me a private soliloquy is a practice conversation, rather like testing out how something sounds before saying it to another.

My mother often talked to herself. I overheard her private rants when I was a child. Kooky old thing, I thought.

It is an odd and eerie experience to overhear the conversation of someone nearby who does not realise you are there, and whose words are not meant for your ears, or any one else's. It is like peering through a keyhole into another person’s mind.

Over dinner last night my husband and I and a friend discussed a recent court case here, one in which the judge has ordered a devout Muslim woman to dispense with her burqa while she gives her testimony. A witness, it seems, must be visible.

Rather than get into the politics of this, the rights and wrongs of people’s freedom to dress as they will, I find myself wondering about what it is like to be dressed in a burqa with only your eyes exposed for visibility.

I begin to imagine it as a secret and safe place. From inside you can poke out your tongue and no one will know. You can raise a two fingered salute and no one can see. You can frown and grimace private insults directed towards the person who stands before you and he is none the wiser. Most body language it seems disappears under the burqa, apart from your stance.

Apparently someone on the radio who argued in support of this woman’s right to dress as she pleased - in an attempt to refute the notion that communication is a two way process, whereby you have to be able to see the other to hear them - commented on the fact that on radio you cannot see the presenter. The presenter too cannot see his audience. But all other people working together in radio land can.

Yesterday I visited the Tooronga Village shopping centre for the first time since it re-opened and there in the middle of the shopping complex outside the shining new Coles supermarket was a radio box in which the radio host and singer, Denis Walter, officiated.

He was holding a series of raffles which he drew regularly but you had to be on site to collect your prize. A woman in black stood in front of the glass booth, held a microphone and called out the name of each winner, 'first prize a S250.00 Coles voucher to Mollie Hines', or some such name and Mollie rushed up. Her face looked flushed as if she were embarrassed. There was a scatter of polite clapping from the small audience hoping to win, and the organiser plunged her hand into the barrel again. She had handed Mollie her check and pulled out the next winner of a Coles voucher this time for a lesser amount and so it went on.

I could not stay around to watch the fortunes of my ticket but I cast my eyes towards Denis Walter in his glass box, headphones on. He looked out into the shopping world. I wondered what it must be like. He was talking to himself, in the hope of reaching an imaginary audience. He could not hear us, but we could hear him through his microphone.

For a minute it felt obscene, as of it were a stolen moment. As if I should not see this man from the radio. I should only hear him speak.

We have senses, five of them, and a sixth for food measure, if we are lucky or not, as the case may be. The sixth sense is the one that rises above all others and gives access to secrets. The flush of someone’s cheeks. We can all read one another’s facial gestures, unconsciously. We are attuned to do so from birth.

What about the inscrutable people, those who wear their faces like a mask? Those who hide their feelings as distinct from those, like me, who tend to be like half open books. Half open, I stress, because half the book is closed. It may not appear so, but it is.

I keep asking myself why do I object to the presence of spouses at the family get together that we have organised for the night of 30 October. Why do I want it only to consist of the nine of us?

Is this a benign wish or do I have a sinister agenda, one based on the desire to get to certain of my sisters and my brothers in the absence of partners. Partners are from the present, siblings carry over from the past.

Do I see it as an opportunity to speak of times gone by without the censorship of the past? But censorship there will be. The presence of partners might reinforce this.

I cannot say all the things I want to say, many of which I have yet to articulate even to myself, but some of these thoughts are the thoughts I had as a child, when I could not speak as openly even to my closest siblings as I would have liked even then.

I am fearful at the same time that without spouses the others Who might have a chance to pass judgment on me for all my misdemeanors, especially my younger sister, the one 21 months younger than me, the one with whom I have most ardently competed throughout my childhood, she of greater beauty than I. She whom I once thought all the more desirable. Her teeth were not rotten like mine. She looked like our mother. I took after our father – his long narrow face, his height.

The years have changed all this. Now I too look more like my mother, her aquiline nose, her hooked profile.

If I wore a burqa none of this would be visible. If all nine of us came together and sat around under burqas, might we feel free to speak our minds, or would the event become one of silence, or worse still an event at which we talk out loud to ourselves in the belief that no one else is listening?

Nine soliloquies echo back in a room filled with black hooded bodies.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Through my most grievous fault

My impulse to ‘help’ others is deeply ingrained. It is an impulse so strong that I find myself holding the lift open for the next person who might still be metres away to the consternation of other people already in the lift who are keen to get off. My do-gooding can hold some people up as much as it might be helpful for others.

My husband hates it.
‘Stop social working,’ he says. ‘Stop being such a do-gooder.’

When I first met my husband and told him of my qualification then as a social worker he said with a twinkle in his eye: ‘Social workers are mawkish dabblers in the dirty washing of others’.

The saying has stuck, but please all you social workers, do not take offense. He meant it only as a joke, but we all know that jokes carry kernels of truthfulness.

Do-gooders are boring people. If I meet such a person in life I tend to dislike them. I see myself reflected there. It is an appalling trait masquerading as helpful.

My mother’s mother whom I met only once when she came to Australia to spend several months with her oldest daughter’s family now settled here, suffered from scruples, or so my mother has told me.

Scruples are the knotty bits at the end of ropes, thick stubby short ropes attached to a handle that the monks used in days gone by as a means of whipping themselves. They walked along the streets their backs bloodied and striped in raised welts from their self-flagellation.
‘Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.’ Through my fault. My own fault. Through my most grievous fault.

They had sinned. Sins of impurity, sins of selfishness, sins of lust and of greed and they must atone for these sins to a God whom in their minds derived some satisfaction from their bloody mortification.

My grandmother took herself to the priest for confession and although she did not use a scruple stick, she used her words.
‘Father I have sinned. You can never know how badly.’
‘In what way have you sinned my child?’
‘I cannot say, Father. I cannot find words to tell you how bad I have been, but God knows and how can he ever forgive me?’

The priest by now familiar with my grandmother’s litany of remorse tried to cut her short.
‘Say three Hail Marys. I absolve you now, in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost’.

My grandmother shuffled from the church after saying her prayers, went back to her home and her kitchen, her husband, her children and her sinfulness only to return later that day with the same complaint.
‘Father, you do not realise how bad I have been.’
The priest tried again, day after day, week after week, month after month, but to no avail.

On her trip to Australia my grandmother worried. She wore a summer dress with pencil thin straps over her shoulders. Too much flesh visible. But in the heat of Australia, my mother reasoned, many women dressed this way. For my grandmother, another sin for the priest back home.

When she returned to Holland, my grandmother took to her bed. She was 67 years old. The scruples had turned into cancerous knots in her belly and she died.

I think of her often when I consider this pressure in me to relieve myself of the burden of my existence. I have long ago relinquished any belief in such a cruel and heartless god as one who might demand relentless recompense, and yet the need to help goes on.

The monks who flagellated themselves in the eyes of the people and of their God were motivated by a desire to punish themselves. Helping others compulsively has similar overtones. For which reason we must set limits on such impulses and allow others to help us in turn. Turn the selfishness of selflessness into a shared exchange, a give and take.

Lesson learned?

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Your saliva is not you

We sit on stools in the new science block alongside pinewood benches where the copper taps, shaped like swans’ necks, slope into sinks below the bench line.

‘Take a glass, girls,’ Mrs Raj says. She has put out a line of tall glasses along each bench top, one per girl. Mrs Raj wears a red sari over a cropped bodice. I can see the line of her dark flesh between the waist of her sari and the edge of her top and I wonder two things: Why isn’t she cold and what do the nuns think?

‘I want you to spit into your glass,’ Mrs Raj says.
Murmurs bounce off the walls.

‘Spit into your glass, girls, as much saliva as you can get.’
We look at her face, the set of her jaw. I hesitate. My mouth is dry but I pucker up enough saliva to collect a series of tiny dams on the end of my tongue. I shoot them out from behind my lips.

‘Now set the glass in front of you and wait.’
The puddle in the bottom of my glass is thick and sticky. My stomach roils.

‘Now,’ the teacher says. ‘I want you to drink it back up. Do as I say, girls. It won’t hurt.’

The saliva is cold on my tongue, worse to swallow than cough syrup but I get it down.

‘Now can you see the difference between inside and outside?’ Mrs Raj’s voice does not falter against our bemused stares. ‘When the saliva is in your mouth, as it is every minute of every day, you don’t notice it. Your saliva is you.’ The red henna spot on Mrs Raj’s forehead jogs up and down as she speaks. ‘Spit it out and it becomes not you. Drink it back and it’s like something completely foreign to you, when only minutes ago it was you.’

Mrs Raj beams a smile that shows her straight teeth, white against the gleam of her skin. The red smudge on her forehead matches the redness of her lips and the faint blush in her cheeks.

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