Sunday, May 29, 2011

Too much like an open wound

I left the dog at City Pets yesterday for a hair trim.
‘Can you clip his nails, too, please,’ I asked the man.
‘Sure,’ he said. ‘It’s all part of the deal.’

The house without the dog was peaceful, no more yaps and whines. It gave me space to wash the fleas from the blankets, the fleas I could not see but only imagine, and to sweep out autumn leaves.

But I felt heavy in my heart. Heavy for my hatred of this dog.
No, not hatred. Hatred is too strong a word.

I shall offer instead a safe word: ambivalent.

I am ambivalent about the dog.

He is like an unplanned child, one I never wanted, and like any unplanned child, I must take care of him, but it goes against the grain and any care I offer him I give without love or affection.

Why is this so? you might ask.
What is wrong with you that you are unable to love and show affection to a dumb beast, an innocent beast such as this thin, brown eyed dog who looks upon you each morning with the hope that today you will be kind to him and show some interest.

I service the dog. I do not take an interest, I say, because I do not have the space, but perhaps it is more than that.

This dog – unplanned, unwanted child – burdens me with the unspeakable agony of my own vulnerability.

He is too unguarded by half. He is too innocent by half. Too much like an open wound.

He waits for attention and I cannot offer any without having to feel my own wounds and my own are now wide open, so I cover them with a thick bandage of intellect and reason and I leave them alone under layers of cynicism, dark, deep and filled with despair.

They fester there.

The dog can carry my pain for me.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


Jim Murdoch wrote a poem in response to my post, Clouds.

I have been on an online colloquium for the past two weeks discussing a paper on the issue of boundary violations among those who work psychoanalytically.

In many ways the topic skirts around one of the greatest taboos, that of incest. In his poem Jim explores his response to the experience.

Thanks, Jim, for giving me the okay to post this poem. As I've seen from the recent closed colloquium, incest is still one of the great unspeakables.

Back then she didn’t have the words;
it was all ‘stuff’ and ‘things’
but mostly blanks.

Now she knows all the proper words,
every euphemism
and dirty word.

The proper words don’t sound right though;
there was nothing proper
in what he did

just a lot of stuff with things and
stuffing things in places
without real names.

Nothing is real without its name.
Back then she learned the names
Pain, Guilt and Shame

because what happened then was real
but it only became
real when she said

its name out loud for the first time.

Jim Murdoch
Wednesday, 04 May 2011

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Her father's beads

Nursing my mother has become something of a preoccupation. Not so much to keep her alive as to make these last days comfortable. She is not in pain she tells me time and again, but her legs weep. I never knew this. I never knew that legs could ooze liquid as if they have become my mother’s eyes and she cries all the time through tiny holes and blisters in the skin around her swollen ankles.

It is a side effect of congestive cardiac failure the doctors say and there is not much they can do apart from reducing her fluid intake and trying to keep her fluid retention down. But my mother could not survive on a single litre of fluid a day.

I notice she does not even keep a tally on the number of drinks, cups of tea, juice and water she consumes and to my way of thinking why should she? It will not make a huge difference. This slow grinding down heart will only get worse.

Late on Friday night when I unpacked my mother’s bags after she had finally returned from hospital to her retirement village, I noticed a set of wooden rosary beads.
‘Do you want these nearby,’ I asked.
‘Put them there,’ she said and she pointed to the table beside her chair.
‘My father carved that crucifix out of wood,’ my mother said. ‘They were my father’s beads.’

Even to the end my mother has her father in mind. She was his favourite. He was hers. Strange then that my mother should marry a man such as my father, a man who could not/did not make her his favourite, or at least not in so far as I could ever see.

I have yet to work out the psychology behind my mother’s choice of husband, or should I say her husbands, for there were two.

The second husband puzzled me even more, but she was happy with him and although he seemed to me an uncouth, ocker sort of bloke who often put her down, he also treated her well to a degree, though not sufficient to cater for her well enough after their seventeen-year-old marriage ended in his death several years ago.

He left almost everything to his own children and very little for my mother after he died apart from the choice to live in his house for as long as she wanted before it was turned over to his two remaining children.

My mother refused to contest the will. She did not want to make trouble for anyone and so she eked out the last of her days on a pension and the good will of some of her children, leaving only the money she had invested in her room at the retirement village, which will be distributed between all her children on her death.

I have often been jealous of friends whose parents leave a huge monetary inheritance. I know I should be satisfied with my inheritance as it stands from both my parents, my education, my sense of myself, my capacities in most endeavours, but I cannot help but think what a wonderful help it would be to become suddenly rich as has happened to a few of my friends on the death of their respective parents.

Not so for my husband and me. We have been, as far as wealth is concerned, self made. We paid for our own wedding. We have worked hard to support ourselves throughout the years of our marriage and now at this stage I am not so confident that I have not repeated history, managed my affairs badly and will not leave a large legacy to our children, only debts that might consume whatever assets we have gained. I hope this does not happen.

I do not live to leave my children huge wealth but I’d like to think there might be more left over for them when we die than has been left for us, for both my husband and I. His parents were not much better off than my parents and they too had a large family of six.

There is something in this forward looking to my own death which relates I am sure to my mother's slow and steady decline into lifelessness, but as I drove back home last night from the retirement village after I had tucked my mother into her recliner chair where she now plans to sleep each night - she sleeps better there, as her heels do not rub - I thought I am grateful for this time, this time of nursing my mother, this time to make peace with her.

I have not always been such a faithful daughter.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Would you do me a favour?

My phone went off early this morning at 6.30 and I leapt out of bed in a panic thinking immediately of the worst, that something had happened to my mother.

Only once I reached the phone, answered it and it had stopped ringing did I realise I had set the alarm the night before and my mother was most likely okay, but even then I could not return to sleep.

I am living in a strange time, this hovering on the edge between life and death, my mother’s life and death, and wondering when it might happen. My husband is away and I am holding the fort or so it seems, which adds to the surreal tensions that envelope me everyday.

A few days ago I received a letter from an old friend, a woman whom I shall name Cate, who now lives in country Victoria. I did not recognise her name on the envelope at first because Cate now travels under the name of her third husband. But as I began to read her letter pennies began to drop into place.

She is sorry, Cate writes, to have lost contact with us, with my husband and me, but she had imagined at the time of her separation from her second husband that we were 'on his side'.

How strange I thought reading this and remembering back to that time. I did not enjoy Cate’s second husband at all, and I was not so much sad as surprised when they separated.

I have a soft spot for Cate. It was she who in a sense brought my husband and me together all those years ago.

I once worked alongside Cate in the days when I was a newly graduated social worker. One Saturday evening Cate held a dinner party – dinner parties were fashionable in those days – and through a long and complicated series of manoeuvres, my husband and I wound up together at the dinner table.

In a sense we have not been apart since. Though do not imagine it has always been a honeymoon but a productive union nevertheless, and Cate believes she was responsible for beginning it, as indeed in some ways she was.

I have not seen Cate now for some fifteen or maybe more years. We ran into her, shopping in Safeway, one Saturday afternoon. She seemed distant at the time and I remember wondering at her coyness in introducing us to her new man, J, whom she eventually married.

J, Cate writes, died two years ago, but not before she had nursed him for six years. She refers to him in her letter as ‘beloved J’, so presumably this third marriage was a successful one.

Cate needs our help, she writes in her letter. Could we do her a favour? She turns seventy soon and although she does not imagine she will die in the next little while, anything is possible. For long and complicated reasons, which she does not go into, Cate has lost touch with her children, all three of them, two daughters and a son, children who must by now be aged in their mid to late forties.

Could we please help? Cate asks. Could we 'discreetly' and 'sensitively' make contact with her children and let them know that she loves them and would like at least to have an address for them.

Cate's solicitor has told her there is no point in listing her children in her will if she has no contact address for any of them.

Cate would love to see her children, she writes, if they are willing, but she does not expect them to come running. She wants only to know how they are going and would hate for them to be left full regret after her death.

I rang a friend who might have known a contact address for at least one of these children but she too has lost touch and suggested I ring the first ex husband, a distant and mutual friend, who lives in Melbourne.

It gets sticky and tricky here. I am fearful of how Cate’s ex husband might respond were I to ring out of the blue and put in a request to him for a phone number for his children in order to enable them to resume contact with their estranged mother if they should wish.

‘I have not always been the best of mothers,’ Cate writes.

Which one of us has? I think.

This other friend who has also lost contact with Cate’s children and advises me to ask the first ex husband, warns me that Cate is ‘manipulative’.

I know the word well. It is a feature I have detected in myself. I inherited it from my mother, a state of mind that says you dare not ask for something directly, you can only safely work your way around to getting someone to give you something or do something for you, by stealth.

I try not to get into manipulations these days. To me the tendency to manipulate is the tendency of a weak person who lacks in confidence sufficient to cope with the consequences of a direct question, whether positive or negative.

I suspect women of my mother’s generation were more heavily into manipulation than today because before the advent of feminism and the beginnings of a deeper awareness of the rights of women, at least in western culture, they could only get what they wanted by stealth or feminine guile.

It would not have done for a woman of my mother’s generation to be to open with her desires. She would have needed to obscure them, perhaps even from herself.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Honesty is not a sworn statement

My father appeared in my dreams again last night. He sat at his usual place in the lounge room in Camberwell, behind the closed door, the one you entered from the corridor that led away from the kitchen. As usual he was drunk, but the action of the dream is lost to me now.

My mother’s eyes welled up in tears yesterday when I visited her in the hospital. She takes pleasure in talking about her children, her grandchildren and now her great grand children, the ninth of whom is yet to be born, my daughter’s baby in July.

'And none of you on drugs,' my mother said, as if this is our greatest achievement.

I have held onto the fantasy that my mother will leave this world around the time her next great grandchild is born. I have seen this often: birth coincides with death. My daughter’s grandfather, my father, died when she was ten days old. The cycle of life.

I am back into a concern about the nature of the written word, the way it can convey a depth of meaning and emotional truth that far outweigh the veracity of the events the words might seek to cover.

Does this make sense to you?

It is part of the autobiographical contract to write as honestly as we can, but honesty is not a sworn statement. It is an attempt to delve into the depths of a writer’s inner world and explore what might be happening there without too much judgment or second-guessing. At least it is so for me.

I have been reading Paul Williams The Fifth Principle, the story of one little boy’s beginnings in a world in which essentially he experiences himself as a no one, invisible. He takes this view on the basis of his mother’s absolute hatred of him.

It is strange to read about the inner workings of a man whose early life is marred by so much hatred. That this man is also a well-known psychoanalyst in Britain adds to the picture, but should it?

Williams qualifies his story in the preface. He writes about a child’s experience and again I suspect he does not want to be held to ransom or account for all he writes.

He writes that the book takes as its subject ‘aspects of the author’s life… [but] it would be misleading to consider the writing as the ‘autobiography or “the case history” of an individual’. And here Williams comes to the crux of that which I, too, struggle to say:

‘The author of the book, and the individual written about, are not the same person… the author has undertaken, on behalf of the subject, to provide a faithful, intelligible rendering of unintelligible events…’

In other words do not take to reading this story as concrete evidence of Williams’s actual, factual and total life. Our inner lives are far more complex.

It is the sorry lot of the autobiographer to have her writing treated as gospel. Readers can become preoccupied with the facts of the events and lose sight of the experience, and of the writing.

Did that really happen to you? What a terrible story. How can you write about it?

The exclamations have an unsettling effect, as if I must write defensively, write a preface like Williams, as if I must justify my words on the page. They might offend.

Years ago in a writing class, the teacher urged us in our work shopping to treat all writing as if it were a piece of fiction, regardless of its content.

Treat it as a fiction, whether it is or not, talk to the person who has written the piece as the writer and not as the central character. Talk to the writer separately from the narrator, that way we can talk about the quality of the writing.

We can talk about what the writer is hoping to communicate perhaps. We can talk about the places to which the writing takes us without getting bogged down in the external factors beyond the writing, as if they are facts that need to be documented for a police record.

Sometimes I feel like a criminal when I post my words onto this blog, as if more often than not I must justify what I have written here, and even more than that I must account for the very fact of posting my writings in this so-called public space, which can feel at times strangely intimate and at other times as if I am shouting out in the middle of a crowded market place and no one can hear.

I am not selling facts. I am offering experience, wrapped in emotion, for the price of thoughtfulness and goodwill.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011


The first time he visited our room it was dark. I could see the moon through the corner of the window blinking at me like a giant eye. Clouds scudded across its face leaving the room one moment lost in shadow, the next immersed in light.

The shadows came together and took bodily form, my father's silhouette against the window. He was leaning over my sister.

Her bed ran parallel to mine with a narrow passage between, now occupied by him.

I heaved across to face the wall. I tried to make it look as though I was turning in my sleep. I tried to make it look as though I was asleep. If he thought I was asleep, he might leave me alone.

I could hear the sound of blankets peeling back, the rustle of sheets, moans and murmurs. I could not bring myself to look, afraid of what I might see, afraid of what might be happening.

Then as suddenly as he had come, I heard the soft thud of my father’s bare feet across the room, the rattly turning of the door handle and he was gone.

The moon had gone by now, too, lost behind the clouds.

In the stillness I could hear my sister sobbing and I wondered what it would be like when my turn came around.