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?