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 cliché, 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.